Hi again, everyone! Thanks for all the fantastic comments on the all-Michael Jackson edition of CHART ATTACK! Did you notice that Motown jumped all over his death and released Michael Jackson: The Stripped Mixes? And it’s scary to think that this is only the tip of the iceberg. But that’s all I’m going to say about it — I’m all MJ’d out and I imagine you are, too — so this week, let’s go back a full 35 years and see what was at the top of the charts for the week ending July 20, 1974!
10. If You Love Me (Let Me Know) — Olivia Newton-JohnÃ‚Â Amazon
9. The Air That I Breathe — The Hollies Amazon iTunes
8. You Won’t See Me — Anne MurrayÃ‚Â Amazon iTunes
7. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number — Steely Dan Amazon iTunes
6. Rock the Boat — The Hues Corporation Amazon iTunes
5. On and On — Gladys Knight & the Pips Amazon iTunes
4. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me — Elton John Amazon iTunes
3. Rock and Roll Heaven — The Righteous BrothersÃ‚Â Amazon
2. Annie’s Song — John Denver Amazon iTunes
1. Rock Your Baby — George McCrae Amazon iTunes
10. If You Love Me (Let Me Know) — Olivia Newton-John
This song is a pretty simple pop-twinged country tune (it peaked at #2 on the Country chart and remains her highest charting song there), and is a fine vehicle for ONJ’s beautiful voice. However, the choruses feature a backing vocal by what can only be described as a drunk bullfrog. There are a number of voices joining in behind Olivia on the chorus, but this guy is just way lower (and louder in the mix) than the others, and it sounds odd. I mean, clearly it was done to achieve a certain feel, but I just can’t get behind it. What I can get behind, though, is any clip of Olivia Newton-John, ever, because she is SO DAMN CUTE.
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9. The Air That I Breathe — The Hollies
I really love this song. For me, it’ll always be one of those songs that just transcends time and genre. That being said, it’s a cover fave for many “light” artists: Barry Manilow, k.d. lang, Air Supply, Judy Collins…the list goes on. The Hollies version is actually a cover itself; it was co-written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood and recorded by Hammond in 1972. Phil Everly covered it in 1973, and in 1974 the Hollies had, by far, the greatest success with it, reaching #6. It wound up being the last of their numerous top 10 hits. I like Hammond’s original version, and I’m also partial to a cover by Semisonic; those links will take you to the excellent Coverville podcast where I heard both for the first time.
I was thinking about including a clip of the Hollies performing the song, but then I’d be turning down a perfectly good opportunity to look at Olivia Newton-John again. So here’s her cover.
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8. You Won’t See Me — Anne Murray
Aw, crap. Who the hell asked for this? Did the Beatles split affect us so much that we just allowed any cover to reach the Top 10? When Paul sang it, he had irritation in his voice; I don’t know if Anne Murray has ever sounded irritated in her whole life. She gets rid of the awesome “ooh la la la” backing vocals, and confuses the listener by featuring a somewhat funky fade-in, creating a vibe that is completely eliminated by the time she starts to sing. And yet, according to the liner notes of her greatest hits album, Lennon apparently told Murray that her cover was his favorite Beatles cover. Like, ever. If this is true, then clearly John had a soft spot for Captain & Tennille, because this track sounds like it was ripped right off of them. In fact, I’m unconvinced that this isn’t actually a C&T track with Murray singing over it.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…check out those shoulder pads!
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7. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number — Steely Dan (download)
Although it’s one of the more popular (read: overplayed) Steely Dan songs, I’ve always liked “Rikki.” It’s one of their least complicated songs from a musical perspective, yet still quite pretty, especially the chords over the guitar solo. I’m almost willing to forget that Donald Fagen always sounds like a pedophile when he sings. The meaning behind this song has oft been debated (I love the discussion over at Songfacts, where they can’t figure out if it’s about a joint, a gay relationship, or about Rikki Lee Jones), but it’s generally assumed that it’s about Rikki Ducornet, the wife of one of Fagen’s professors at Bard.
The strange opening notes — the ones that take up the first 20 seconds of the song — are apparently created by an instrument called a flopanda, played by Victor Feldman. I had always assumed they were created by a farting cartoon whale. And the main keyboard riff that properly opens the song comes directly from “Song For My Father,” a jazz tune by Horace Silver. Reaching #4, this song became Steely Dan’s highest appearance on the Billboard singles chart.
6. Rock the Boat — The Hues Corporation
Stupid “Rock the Boat.” When the Big Mouth Billy Bass “toy” (for lack of a better word) came out, my dad had to have it immediately. The one he bought sang “Rock the Boat,” and he’d press the goddamn button whenever anybody came over, leaving me with this awful song in my head for hours on end. The chorus is admittedly pretty good, and certainly catchy, but clearly the rest of the song was an afterthought — someone panicking and trying to think of as many nautical references as possible. There’s the “voyage of love,” the “rush of the wind,” the “rolling sea,” a “cargo full of love and devotion,” and “a ship full of seamen.”
Okay, I may have made one of those up.
The Hues Corporation was named after Howard Hughes. The group’s founder, Wally Holmes, thought it’d be funny to take a group of black singers and name them “The Children of Howard Hughes,” but knew he’d get sued to pieces if he did so. “Rock the Boat” was originally supposed to feature member Ann Kelly singing the lead vocal, but according to Hughes, “Girl singers weren’t happening then.” (Except for, y’know, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Helen Reddy and Cher, who had some of the biggest hits of 1973, the year this was recorded.) So lead vocals were handled by Fleming Williams, who left the group after recording the song. The single was released in early 1974 and initially was, by all accounts, a flop — saved only by the discotheques of NYC, who played the hell out of the song. Before they knew it, the Hues Corporation had their first and only #1 hit, which some consider the first popular disco song. Yes, it hit #1. I’m disappointed too.
5. On and On — Gladys Knight & the Pips (download)
Speaking of disappointment: No, it’s not a Stephen Bishop cover. What a shame. Actually, this song starts off as quite a little slab o’ funk. I’m groovin’ my ass off pretty much up to the point where the Pips start singing; their specific brand of call-and-response just doesn’t seem to work when it comes to funk. But it actually gets worse for me at around 1:15 where we run into lyrics like:
Havin’ tons of fun
since our love begun
Huggin’ and-a lovin’, on and on
gettin’ with the kissin’, on and on
Chills I feel whenever you’re near
Stickin’ like glue, I keep-a lovin’ you
These are not only awkward rhymes, they’re completely inappropriate for funk. There is no “huggin'” in funk. There can be kissin’, rubbin’, lickin’, lovin’, touchin’, and, of course, squeezin’. But there cannot — cannot — be huggin’. Also, nobody in a sexy, funk song has “tons of fun.” It just doesn’t happen. I’m not even going to touch the stupid “stickin’ like glue” line. Funk needs to be effortless; you Pips just tried too hard.
“On and On” was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, included on the soundtrack to the movie Claudine, and peaked here at #5.
4. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me — Elton John (download)
I’m glad I took the time go back and re-listen to this song for this week’s post. Like so many of Elton’s hits — this one, “Your Song,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man” — it’s just been played to death on the radio, and I have a hard time even listening to it all the way through at this point.
This time, though, I decided to focus on the backing vocals. And I wound up falling in love with this song all over again. The backing vocalists are Toni Tennille, Bruce Johnston and, most notably, Carl Wilson, doing sublime work. Listen to how tight those vocals are: how they slide up perfectly together, how Carl effectively eliminates the need for horns near the end of the chorus (though the horns in this song are fantastic as well), and how beautiful he sounds echoing Elton’s “don’t let the sun.” I just love it. I’m also going to take a moment and be thankful that Elton didn’t invite Mike Love into the studio. Can you imagine? “Elton, this song is okay, but I think it’d be a lot more groovy if you added a little ‘don’t let the sun ba da ba doobie dow dow’ in there.” And then, to an interviewer: “…And that’s how I came to co-write Elton John’s biggest hit.” God, everything in this world makes me hate Mike Love a little more.
It’s not just the backing vocals. It’s that beautiful opening piano riff, the aforementioned horns, the strings, the fact that Elton takes a full two minutes to build to the chorus, and his genuine vocal.Ã‚Â Yet as beautiful and majestic as this song is, Elton hated recording it. Straight from Songfacts:
Elton was not satisfied with any of his vocal takes, and the producer Gus Dudgeon had fits trying to mix all the voices and instruments that went into this. In Philip Norman’s book Sir Elton: The Definitive Biography, Dudgeon said, “When Elton recorded this track, he was in a filthy mood. On some takes, he’d scream it, on others he’d mumble it, or he’d just stand there, staring at the control room. Eventually, he flung off his headphones and said, “Okay, let’s hear what we got.” When Gus played it for him, Elton said, “That’s a load of ******* crap. You can send it to Engelbert Humperdinck, and if he doesn’t like it, you can give it to Lulu as a demo.”
“Sun” peaked at #2 on July 27th, but it had greater success in early 1992, when it reached #1 as a duet between Elton and George Michael. And as you might expect, I love this version. Like the original, it reached its saturation point long ago, courtesy of the Lite-FM radio stations, but it’s really quite good. Though he has a habit of unnecessary vocal embellishments, George Michael remains a fantastic interpreter of works by a number of artists, most notably Elton (this one and “Tonight” from Two Rooms), Stevie Wonder (many songs, but I love his “They Won’t Go When I Go”) and Queen (admit it, his “Somebody To Love” was the only cover worthy of Freddie Mercury at that whole tribute concert). If I have the confusing Wikipedia details right, the audio of the live version was recorded at Wembley Stadium in March of 1991, parts of the video were shot in California, where George was rehearsing in an airport hangar, and the full video performance was shot in Chicago that October. After watching the video a million times, I fully believe that the audience knew the performance was being recorded, but had no idea that his special guest star was going to show up. Full-on geek admission: I get chills every time he introduces Elton.
3. Rock and Roll Heaven — The Righteous Brothers
Three years before he scored a #1 with the freakin’ awesome “Undercover Angel,” Alan O’Day found significant success as a songwriter, courtesy of “Angie Baby” (a #1 hit for Helen Reddy) and this song, which he co-wrote with Johnny Stevenson. It served as a comeback for the Righteous Brothers, who hadn’t recorded or performed together since 1967. This song isn’t so much my cup of tea, as it’s pretty much a laundry list of artists who had died prior to 1974, complete with references to their lyrics (“Janis took a piece of our hearts/And Otis brought us to the dock of the bay”), but what’s interesting about it is that you could pretty much re-write it forever and ever. The version on the Righteous Brothers’ Reunion album, released in 1991, lists a slew of other artists who had died since the mid ’70s. I don’t know if Alan did the re-write, but I totally just left a message on his answering machine (what? We bonded back during Mellowmas!) to find out, so I’ll let you know. If he calls me back, I’m going to try and convince him to do another re-write mentioning Joe Strummer, Tupac, and Left Eye.
UPDATE: Alan called me back and let me know that he had nothing to do with the ’91 remake: “I had nothing to do with it. I was not consulted. Hell, I’m just the writer!” He believes that Bill Medley might have re-written it. He also let me know that the first version of the song was actually recorded by Stevenson and Climax, and that the Righteous Brothers’ producers changed the first verse to put in “new dead people” before it was recorded. Thanks, Alan!
2. Annie’s Song — John Denver (download)
John Denver was no fool (we’ll forget, for a brief moment, about “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”): after scoring big hits with “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” he knew that the quickest way to a hit was to continue writing about nature. (The public had not yet responded with a resounding “WE GET IT!”) “Annie’s Song” mentions a night in the forest, the mountains in springtime, a walk in the rain, a storm in the desert, a sleepy blue ocean, and a ship full of seamen.
Though she’s not mentioned in the song, “Annie” was Ann Martell, his wife at the time. They had just resolved their marriage after a brief separation, and Denver was inspired to write the song while traveling 10 minutes on a ski lift in Aspen. “The chords were there, the melody was there…it was all there,” he said. “Sometimes when I write a song, I feel like I have nothing to do with it; I just happen to be the guy with pen in hand when it came floating by. This is one of those songs.” I love that quote. And it’s a nice, romantic story overall, and the song proclaiming their love eventually reached #1. Of course, they wound up divorcing in the early ’80s and then he died in a plane crash.
I like this song. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Denver’s genuine earnestness gets me every single time. I like to sing it loudly, in public, to my wife, to try and embarrass her. It gets awkward right around the “let me die in your arms” line. That’s kind of weird, don’t you think?
“Annie’s Song” was famously referenced on the track “Farewell to John Denver” from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album. After being threatened with a lawsuit, it was removed from the album, although reinstated with later pressings. I have no idea why he was offended:
1. Rock Your Baby — George McCrae
I thought I was perplexed over “Rock the Boat” reaching #1 — this song immediately followed it to the top of the charts, actually, which should have been a warning to everyone in the music industry that disco was about to ruin everyone’s lives.
“Rock Your Baby” was written by Henry Wayne Casey, aka “KC” from KC and the Sunshine Band, and Richard Finch, aka “one of the other guys” from KC and the Sunshine Band. They intended to use the song with their own band, but the vocals were too high for KC to sing. No word on why they didn’t just lower the key, since they had written it themselves, but no matter. They submitted the demo to the record label, where they were employed as song writers; “Rock Your Baby” became McCrae’s song merely because he happened to be in the studio at the time the instrumental track was being played.
The song stayed at #1 for two weeks, was named the #1 Single of the Year by Rolling Stone, and earned McCrae a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocalist. This all leads me to wonder: what the hell is the big deal about this stupid song? I read that it only cost $15 to record and was done in about an hour, and I believe every word: the backing track sounds like it’s right out of Daryl Dragon’s Casio keyboard. It’s also tremendously boring. I was planning on pointing out that the song never changes chords, but on my fourth listen, I realized that it does change chords. It changes chords several times. I just never noticed on the first three listens because I immediately tuned the whole thing out.
I’d like to close this week out on a positive note, so here’s a fantastic video of McCrae performing the song. Can anybody get me this suit? Or the necklace? Or the mustache?
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And that brings us to the end of another chart! Thanks for reading, and see you back soon for another edition of CHART ATTACK!