We’re back after a brief pause for the holiday season, and we’ve got a couple of stone classics for you. We’ve also got a few songs that would probably sound better if you were stoned. Not that we condone such behavior, mind you. This is a family-friendly site after all.
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#6: Mason Williams, “Classical Gas” – #2 U.S.; written while Williams was head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
David Medsker– Can’t hear “Classical Gas” without thinking of Lisa Simpson.
Dave Lifton – Another big “meh” for me. I don’t hate it, but it’s one of those songs your elementary school music teacher would play to try to introduce you to classical music. The problem is that it’s really not classical. It’s a fairly uninventive chord progression fingerpicked with a couple of quasi-Baroque suspensions, orchestrated. If you want a much better fusion of classical guitar and pop, Steve Howe did it much better with “Mood For A Day.”
Dunphy – (“Another big “meh” for me. I don’t hate it, but it’s one of those songs your elementary school music teacher would play to try to introduce you to classical music.”)
In my book, that would have made your music teacher cool. We got “Music Box Dancer” and (more sphincter-shrivelingly) the “Theme From Greatest American Hero” every day for the entire school year.
Jon Cummings – Mason Williams was, by all accounts (particularly his own), a real “renaissance man” — folkie, composer, stand-up comic, comedy writer, even music-video innovator. (He made a “video” for “Classical Gas,” featuring images of more than 2,000 works of art, that played on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. While working with the SmoBros, he hired the young Steve Martin as a writer and even paid him out of his own pocket. All of these fun facts are offered as a way to get around the fact that I have nothing much to say about “Classical Gas.” It’s one of those instrumentals that gets released and either becomes a hit or not, a propos of nothing. This one became a hit. It’s snappy. I prefer “Love Is Blue.”
Dw. Dunphy – Love, love, love the Classical Gas (even posted a piece about it in early November to attest to the ardor). That is also something that seems to have died, probably around the ’80s with “Axel F” and “Theme from Miami Vice,” being the opportunity for an instrumental to be a hit. If there is any clear indicator that pop music is far too regimented and stale, it is that it has to have singing to be remotely considered now, even a bouncy, crowd-pleasing tune. We won’t even begin to converse about the oversinging aspect.
I assume we’ll not be hearing one of Williams’ other accomplishments in this series, “How ‘Bout Them Moose Goosers?” with the immortal line “Goosin’ them huge moose, goosin’ them tiny, Goosin them medlin’ moose in they hiney.”
#7: Merrilee Rush and The Turnabouts, “Angel of the Morning” – #7 U.S., #55 U.K.; reportedly this was offered to Connie Francis first, who turned it down. Juice Newton’s 1981 cover hit #4.
Cummings – Sorry, Merrilee, but for me this will always be Juice’s song. I actually prefer several notes the way Merrilee sang them, as opposed to the melodic changes Juice made in the verses. But Merrilee just isn’t that strong a singer, and the cracks in her voice, for me, make her sound sheepish in a way that detracts from the song’s feminist message. Besides, every time she swallows the word “iyn-jell” I imagine she’s trying to hold a sip of water in her mouth while she’s singing.
Dunphy – This is what a Righteous Brothers song would sound like if it was sung by a woman about messing around and getting left behind in the morning. We can dress it up all kinds of ways but this song is about a one-night stand and, maybe, is the best signpost of the change in social attitudes in the series so far. It has been introduced very subtly though. Rush’s version is extremely easy on the ear and I like the frailty in her voice, but as Jon said, Juice Newton wound up owning the tune (much as she did “Break It To Me Gently”).
What the heck ever happened to Juice Newton, anyway?
Medsker – Juice Newton was the first concert I ever went to. She did a free show at an amphitheater in Chautaqua in the summer of 1982. She put on a good show, actually.
Cummings – I saw Juice at the Lakeside Amusement Park in Salem, VA, that same summer. Free concert … but of course we had to pay admission to ride the Shooting Star beforehand…
Dunphy – “…Every time she swallows the word ‘iyn-jell,'” I think, “Iyn-jehh! Iyyyyyyuunhh-jehh!”
Brian Boone – Of all of the ill-fated ’80s Newton flavors — Apple, Grape, Strawberry — the worst was Juice.
Dunphy – Soooo, what you’re saying is, you didn’t actually mind eating Sir Isaac?
Boone – He calls me angel.
Lifton – I don’t care if it’s this or Juice, I’ve never liked this song. A classic example of why lyrics and poetry are not the same thing.
#8: The Temptations, “I Wish It Would Rain” – #4 U.S., the group’s fifth Top 10 single in a row.
Cummings – Crikeys. I was gonna write this off as standard-issue Temps, with nothing in particular either to recommend it or dismiss it — but then I checked out the song’s Wiki entry and saw that the lyricist, Motown staffer Roger Penzabine, wrote it from a personal perspective so painful (his wife was cheating on him) that he killed himself a week after the single was released. So, here’s to ya, Roger. But I like the Faces’ cover (from 1973) better.
Dunphy – As Popdose’s resident angel of death, I should have known the backstory of how this song came to be. This is just to say that before I found out the tragic conclusion of the songwriter, I always thought the tune was wildly melodramatic. Surely even in your worst moments, you’re not this intensely upset.
Lifton – My favorite Temptations ballad, even ahead of “My Girl,” although the fact that it’s played less often might have something to do with it. David Ruffin brings the church that Motown so often smoothed over, with the other four Temps offering moral support. I didn’t know the story about this, either, but it doesn’t give me added appreciation for this, because that’s impossible.
#9: Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” – #8 U.S., #34 U.K.; an Ashford & Simpson composition.
Cummings – I’m an “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” man myself, but one must give props to Marvin & Tammi whenever one gets the opportunity. My favorite thing about this song is the way that the two of them seem to be singing entirely different melodies on the verses — as though Ashford & Simpson handed them a lead sheet, Tammi shyly said, “Nice melody,” and Marvin said, “I’m going to sing whatever I want.” And it works! It always did.
Dunphy – I always loved them as a duo, and even though it is apparently on record that Gaye and Terrell were never a couple, maybe they should have been. They sound like they’re in love.
With that in mind, let me drag out this smelly old, dead horse carcass and whip on it a couple times more. The worst thing that ever happened to “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” is that it became a hit, because it then would be used for commercials decade after decade, watering down the innocence of the songs intent and delivery, making it the jingle for thousands of pieces of crap and hundreds of (now-bankrupt) department stores.
I didn’t mind Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” being used to hawk ketchup, but the use of this song in a commercial context gets my hackles up. See them hackles? They’re up, man.
Lifton – Their version of “You’re All I Need To Get By” is my all-time favorite love song, and this comes awfully close to it. The way the bridge climbs, with them singing in unison, only to separate on “No touch can do half as much” is as gorgeous as it gets. I wish the chorus (another example of Motown starting on the chorus) had a little bit more lyrically than a repetition of the title, but they get a pass because the rest of it is so remarkable.
#10: Dionne Warwick, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” – #10 U.S., #8 U.K.; written by you-know-who.
Medsker – I know that many view Burt and Dionne as one of those once-in-a-lifetime pairings, but I never felt much warmth in Warwick’s voice. She’s technically sound, and doesn’t fuss with the melody, but she doesn’t make me want to fall in love, nor does she break my heart. Also, the lyric is both silly and cynical. I guess I’ll give them points for the cynical, since that was pretty cutting edge at the time.
Cummings – I have never been able to get past my very first reaction to reading about the existence of this song, when I was a little kid (and the song was already a few years old): “There’s ACTUALLY a song called ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’?” (That disbelief may, in fact, be the root of my long-held — and widely discussed in this series — distaste for the whole Bacharach/David/Warwick triumverate.) This song is spry, and has some nice bits — I really like the line “And all the stars that never were are parkin’ cars and pumpin’ gas.” But for me Warwick, with all the refinement and lack of down-home authenticity in her voice, wasn’t “born and raised in San Jose” any more than she was a rural Kentuckian sending a “Message to Michael” several weeks back. And as someone who lives right on the way from L.A. to San Jose, I can tell you a couple things, Dionne. Number one, it’s not that difficult — get on the 101 North and don’t get off for about six hours. Number two, I don’t want to hear about all your friends … especially not your psychic friends.
Dunphy – The least consequential of Warwick’s hits, that “whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa” hook is annoying, but I’m not convinced it is the song so much as the delivery. If you got rid of those “whoas” and switched up the bouncy, sixties pop sound for a Tex Mex flavor, I think there would be no qualms about it. I can hear either Los Lobos or Calexico in my head doing a vastly improved rendition, heretical though that may be.
Lifton – God, this song is tough to sing (although it has nothing on “Promises, Promises”). There’s no place to breathe in the verse, and the modulation on the “L.A. is a great big freeway” bridge is tricky as all get-out. The lyric is easy to mock, but as Jon points out (surprisingly), there’s some nice detail in there. And as much as I appreciate this one, as a “getting out of L.A” song, it’s not nearly as effective as “Midnight Train To Georgia.”
Dunphy – Agreed. “Midnight Train To Georgia” trumps it. I suspect that song will be coming up soon. This column could use some Pips.