Friday, May 5, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot


 I was a country fan; I'd barely even heard the name Gordon Lightfoot before 1974. I'd heard some of his songs, but I didn't know they were his. Then in '74 I was working my first office job and our little three-desk closet contained, besides three people, an AM radio. For eight hours that radio yelped out the pop hits of the day. A lot of them were just dumb ~ The Streak, Seasons In The Sun, (You're) Having My Baby (one of the worst singles of all time). But there were a few standouts, none more than Sundown. I fell in love with the voice; I fell in love with the song.

Even many years later, when I wrote a song about that first work experience, I referenced Sundown:

As Lightfoot sings, he offers his dire warning

Tells me that I'd better take care

Sometimes we're drawn to voices that are different; an unfamiliar accent, perhaps, suggesting a far-off land. But often we cling to voices that sound like home. Lightfoot was Canadian and I grew up not far from the border, so the way he pronounced words was familiar. Someone told me once, "I can tell you're from North Dakota, because you sound Canadian." A weird juxtaposition, but regions don't simply break in two at some imaginary line. Thus, Gordon's voice warmed me, like listening to my dad speak.

Growing up with country music, I was familiar with songs like this:

And this:

I had no clue who wrote them and I didn't actually care. Teenagers can be rather cavalier. I only cared whether I liked the song or not. Later, it all made sense. Gordon Lightfoot, aside from being a master lyricist, wrote songs that had a haunting air, a keening loneliness. Lots of rain and whispering winds. Even living in Los Angeles, far away from Orillia, Ontario, he brought the ghosts with him. Melancholy rests in the bones of those borne of the cold prairie. Ian Tyson, also from Canada, shared that disposition. Just listen to Four Strong Winds.

More than a lyricist and a composer, though, Lightfoot was a painter ~ a painter of stories, scenes, settings:

There is a technique that songwriters use, a simple one, to capture a mood. Lightfoot used it a lot ~ minor chords. I like minor chords because they convey sadness, despair. When one is a lyrical genius, a minor chord melody provides the glacé. Notice that Cotton Jenny, one of his few upbeat compositions, was written in the key of G major. 

As much as I treasure Sundown, there is another of Lightfoot's compositions that kicks me in the gut every time I hear it. When my kids were little, we vacationed many summers in Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. The town itself is old, rather threadbare, unless one motors up the big hill, far away from the water, to the staid residential neighborhoods with their split levels and three-wheelers parked in driveways. We preferred to keep to Highway 61, with its quaint fish cafes and road pullouts where one could breathe in the roaring waves and watch ominous clouds gather and screeching seagulls glide below them. 

The harbor in Duluth is called Canal Park, where the iron ore ships maneuver through the channel on their mission to take on a new load or drop one off. The ships are magnificent, all rusty red and black and invariably emblazoned with the shipping owner's name. Across the harbor stretches the Aerial Lift Bridge, which must be raised in order for the ships to slip past. At Canal Park, one is immersed in history, heightened by a stroll through the maritime museum plopped down right beside the harbor and stuffed with ancient black and white photos alongside a giant steam engine and replica crew cabins. Every time, every single time I stepped inside the museum, a certain song wedged itself in my brain and didn't let go until we waved goodbye to Duluth in our rear view mirror.

It's an epic poem. Just read the lyrics.


The legend lives on from the Chippewa on downOf the big lake they called Gitche GumeeSuperior, they said, never gives up her deadWhen the gales of November come early


Some say Lightfoot considered this his masterpiece. It was. 


I got to see Gordon Lightfoot in concert in 2001 at an old historic theater in downtown Minneapolis. He was in his sixties then and his performance was legendary. He wasn't the virile young man of Sundown; he was seasoned and not the least bit melancholy. Writers can write mournful songs but that doesn't make them hopelessly depressed. As much as a painter isn't his painting, a songwriter isn't his song.

I think it was all just the prairie winds.


Rest in peace, Gordon Lightfoot. Thank you for more than I can ever say.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Reviewing The Top Ten Country Hits From This Week In 1975


Predictably, 1975 in country music was not a year for the history books. Scanning the Top Forty for the week of April 19 reminds me why I mostly gave up on country all together. I don't even recognize most of the charting singles. 

But was it worse than the country of today? That's what I'm here to find out.

Fortuitously, I'm not going to review the entire Top Forty; only the top ten. To do so, I have to teleport back to twenty-year-old me and review the singles as if I'm hearing them for the first time on the radio.

Three other simple rules apply:

  • I am required to listen to the entire track before offering my critique.
  • As I noted above, I am limiting myself to the Top Ten only. Believe me, even ten quickly become tedious.
  • If I can't find a music video ("What's a music video?" I ask in 1975) I will use a video of the recorded song.
 My Source

 I'm ready if you are. 


#10 ~ She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles) ~ Gary Stewart

Immediately, I like the singer. He's got a southern country soul sound going on, and isn't afraid to use his vocal range. And he sounds nothing like any of the other artists currently on radio. The song itself is well-written. I like how the writer rhymes "doubles" with "troubles" and ties it all together in a tale about the man's pain, watching his woman betray him. And this Gary Stewart fella really sells it. This is an artist I'll be watching. He's got a future.



#9 ~  Have You Never Been Mellow ~ Olivia Newton-John

Am I looking at the country chart? I've enjoyed a couple of the singer's prior hits, but those were at least nominally country. This? It's not even good pop. Although Olivia is cute and could do well in, say, a movie musical. I don't review pop songs, so I'm only going to rate this as it relates to country.



#8 ~ (You Make Me Want To Be A) Mother ~ Tammy Wynette 

This is quite formulaic, sort of like I Don't Wanna Play House ~ very similar melody and cadence, complete with the Billy Sherrill signature background oohs and ahhs ~ but unlike the former song, it's oh, so bad. Perhaps Tammy is going back to the well, trying to recapture past glory, but wow, this was a bad choice. I'm not even sure what the song is saying. She's been trying out men and has now found one she'd like to procreate with? That's kind of...icky. I hope I don't have bad dreams about this track.



#7 ~ The Best Way I Know How ~ Mel Tillis

I hope it's not Pig Robbins doing the
noodly piano on this, because I really like Pig Robbins. Jerry Chestnut is a master songwriter, having penned songs like Another Place, Another Time, A Good Year For The Roses, and It's Four In The Morning. This, though? Did Mel fish this out of Jerry's garbage? Why didn't he just record one of his own phenomenal songs? I'm tempted to blame the horrible production, but let's face it ~ this song is beneath both Jerry Chestnut and Mel Tillis.


#6 ~ (Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song ~ B.J. Thomas

I've loved B.J. Thomas's voice since Eyes Of A New York Woman. It's like warm honey. And unlike other pop pretenders, when B.J. decided to go country, he went country. One cannot deny the catchiness of this single. I have a feeling this one might define 1975.



#5 ~ Still Thinkin' 'Bout You ~ Billy Crash Craddock 


This isn't completely horrible. Just mostly. The first verse sounds like a song one could get into, but then the background soul singers come in, and then suddenly the listener realizes the song has no chorus ~ it's semi-written. I don't even want to know who wrote it, because it'll probably be a songwriter I like and I'll be crestfallen. And don't try to sucker us in with the fiddles. It's too little, too late. I'm only going to bump this up a notch because it starts out okay.



#4 ~ Roll On Big Mama ~ Joe Stampley


The song is okay if you like this sort of thing. This seems to be about a guy singing to his truck, which he's named "Big Mama". I don't know many truck drivers, but I don't see them singing paeans to their trucks. I could be wrong. The singer is a barely competent bar band vocalist, but apparently a lot of people like him. Maybe he has a winning personality.
#3 ~ Roses And Love Songs ~ Ray Price


I'm a big fan of Ray Price's earlier work; not so much his "For The Good Times" phase, but there is no denying his way with a line. He remade himself into a stylist after his honky tonk days, though I suspect this isn't really where his heart lies. This track lands in the sweet spot of Perry Como-like pop-country. It's not to my taste, but Price delivers it well. The song itself is cliche; like patting the "little woman" on the head, and in 1975 it may resonate with my mom (I doubt it), but not with me. I have to work, not stay home and bake cookies, so obviously I must have some skills other than sobbing over love songs. Dated message aside, the sound of this isn't grating, and the singer is a legend.


#2 ~ Blanket On The Ground ~ Billie Jo Spears

Spears seems like a nice person. Her voice kind of reminds me of Melba Montgomery, and both got signed to major record deals despite mediocre talent. Spears' first hit, Mister Walker, It's All Over, was kind of a cousin to Harper Valley PTA, and in fact, she recorded Harper before Jeannie C. Riley did. Mister Walker was a bit more interesting than this one, but was delivered by a singer who didn't have the attitude to sell it. And that's the trouble with this song. The singer's personality doesn't match the song's message. But who am I to say? This single is a hit, after all. The song itself, while maybe trying to be edgy, is actually milquetoast. I wouldn't change the station if it came on the radio, but my mind would definitely wander.



#1 ~ Always Wanting You ~ Merle Haggard

Just when I was wondering whatever happened to Merle Haggard, here comes this.

From the outset, the flamenco-like guitar and the low notes on the Telecaster immediately raise this track to another level. Then Merle's ambrosia voice along with, I'm assuming, Bonnie Owens' harmony, enters the room and is immediately intimate and warming. Haggard is truly a master songwriter. Amateur writers would do well to dissect his songs and try to discern how it's done. (Good luck there.)

It seems that Haggard has grown more introspective since his "fugitive" days (which were awesome, by the way) and this song fits his gracefully growing older persona. 


And there you have it ~ three timeless tracks and seven forgettable ones. Par for the country course. Actually, above par. How many weeks in history have three A's in the top ten?











Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Reviewing The Top Ten Country Hits From This Week In 1992


I maintain that music of a certain era was never as great as we like to remember it, nor was it as bad as we sometimes claim. Exceptional tracks were (are?) released every single year, and real dogs also inexplicably become hits. The truth is, though, the vast majority of single releases are mediocre; forgettable. How could it be otherwise? The sheer number of releases guarantees that most will rate a C at best. It's the law of averages ~ and perhaps the dearth of skilled writers and/or artists and producers who are really, really bad at picking songs.

I don't know anything about today's country hits except that every one I've sampled (with one or two exceptions) is really, really bad. They're bad because of bad writing, questionable production, the fact that they're not actually country, and the artists themselves are dull.

But were yesteryear's hits that much better? That's what we're about to find out.

To review the top ten, I transport myself back to that particular year and review each single as a first-time listener. I listen to the entire track before critiquing. 

Additional notes:

  • I stick with the Top Ten only, because this is exercise is more time-consuming than one might imagine.
  • I do my best to find music videos. If all else fails, I use a video of the recorded song.

My source 

Okay, here we gooooooooo...... 

#10 ~ Neon Moon ~ Brooks and Dunn


The only performance video available on YouTube is a rendition that doesn't capture the magic of this song. Immediately, I am struck by the ringing steel guitar, which signals "here's a country song". Then the vocalist steps in. The mark of a true country singer is that catch in the voice. This guy, Ronnie, has it. As the song moves along, it only gets better. A true classic song paints a picture. I'm seeing this guy sitting in a dim-lit corner nursing a beer as happy couples two-step across the dance floor. His lament is pure heartbreak. He might even be wiping away a tear for the girl he lost. The singer, Dunn, knows how to build drama. The way his voice rises at the start of the final chorus signals his anguish. This one sounds like a timeless classic.



#9 ~  Papa Loved Mama ~ Garth Brooks

Hmmm. Well, this isn't exactly relatable, but good to know that mama loved men, I guess. Points awarded for the high energy. This will probably go over big in concert. The musicians are phenomenal. This is one of those songs that crams as many words into a line as humanly possible ~ kind of a sore spot with me ~ but it works here because it's simply a performance song. I definitely wouldn't buy it and would probably get sick of hearing it after about three plays. But one must give the artist props for selling it and selling it hard. 



#8 ~ Is There Life Out There ~ Reba McEntire

It's difficult to absorb the song with all the clatter going on in this video. It's like a mini-series. (Oh, that's Huey Lewis!) I think the song is an excuse to put on a little play, which honestly detracts from my ability to review it. Plus it's another one of those (yawn) female empowerment songs. As a listener, I don't like being played, so I'm just going to dismiss this one.



#7 ~ Past The Point Of Rescue ~ Hal Ketchum

This track grabs the listener's attention immediately. I like the use of minor chords, which is unusual in country music. And I like the high violin scrape that signals the start of the song. Good use of the Telecaster as well. Clearly this is a songwriter who isn't afraid to stray from the trodden path. He's a journeyman in the way he tells a story and the way he wraps it neatly inside a moody melody. I like it.



#6 ~ Today's Lonely Fool ~ Tracy Lawrence

Lawrence is a singer who folds neatly into stone country, not so much into overly-produced tracks like this (and I hate recitations). This single is utterly forgettable, and the storyline is trite. Points for the singer, although he's seriously miscast in this song. I hope he didn't write it, and I hope his producer talked him into (reluctantly) recording it.


#5 ~ Some Kind Of Trouble ~ Tanya Tucker


I'm a big fan of Tanya Tucker and I like her sassy songs. This track, however, isn't pleasing to the ear, perhaps because the melody is too one-note. If the songwriter had worked on this one a bit more, he or she might have come up with a better representation of the lyrics, such as they are. I would not buy this; I could hardly bear to listen to it once.



#4 ~ She Is His Only Need ~ Wynonna Judd


The chorus saves this, although the track is pretty forgettable and barely country. I guess Wynonna is trying to branch out from her Judds legacy, and she's certainly fallen far from that tree. In listening to this, I keep asking myself what the point of it is. 



#3 ~ The Tips Of My Fingers ~ Steve Wariner

Wariner does a good job on this, although I'm not sure what the point is of redoing a classic country hit. Maybe he just really really likes the song. Props for being a good singer, though. Other than that, this offers nothing new.



#2 ~ Take Your Memory With You ~ Vince Gill

I like this. It's true classic country, and so unlike the ballads Gill is famous for. It's kind of in the vein of an old Ray Price song. That said, it doesn't offer anything new, and was basically written by rote. What amateur songwriter hasn't written a song like this? (I have.) For nostalgia's sake and for the fact that Vince Gill is a really good singer:



#1 ~ There Ain't Nothin' Wrong With The Radio ~ Aaron Tippin

Aaron Tippin is an acquired taste, and this track is another of those paint-by-number songs. But it went to number one, so what do I know? There's a market for banal ditties performed with attitude. I don't hate this as much as I despise other songs reviewed here, but nor do I like it ~ at all.



All in all, not a good week in country music, but there's one A+ and there's nowhere higher to go, unless you want to topple off a mountain.

And Hal Ketchum is damn good, too. I've got my eye on that artist.






Tuesday, March 14, 2023

I Rarely Promote, But Look At This!


(click on the album cover to hear our music)

I'm not just a blogger. Or a self-published author. Oh, no. I have a whole other career as a songwriter and singer. I don't promote our band on this blog, other than links (over there in the right margin) to our Spotify music and to our YouTube videos. The truth is, I'm a terrible self-promoter. I have no links in my Twitter bio (none, nada, zero). I've considered it, but people on Twitter can be a**holes and my psyche doesn't need the abuse. I've paid for exactly one ad ($20.00) for exactly one of my novellas, and I honestly don't know if it made one iota of a difference in sales. We have an online music magazine (again, check over there on the right), but with no one (meaning me) pushing it, it's gotten no hits that I know of.

But I can't help but brag a little today. I was bored, looking for an album to stream on Spotify, when I spotted our album, "Life Is A Dream" in my library. Trust me, we're used to getting zero plays. It doesn't even hurt my feelings anymore. We're an indie band, among millions of indie bands, and who wants to take a chance on some unknown gaggle of hobos? I personally wouldn't. Just sayin'. 

Granted, I like our songs, well, because I wrote about half of them, but also because I watched them being birthed by my husband-producer. And frankly, they're good.

Nonetheless, I've heard them too many times. It's like re-reading one of my fiction works, which I am forced to do countless times during the editing process. I get to the point where, yes, I can still appreciate the lines and the flow, but I want to fling myself off a bridge if I have to read it one more time. And I think, nobody's going to like it ~ it's tired; it's predictable ~ as if they, too, had read it a thousand times before.

So I wasn't paying attention to the screen when I pulled up our album, but when I happened to glance again, I saw something strange. 

My song, "Ghost Town" currently has 5,299 plays! And another of mine, "Prayed For It To Rain", has 4,553! How is that even possible? We should be rich! 😉 Sadly, we're just as poor as we were yesterday. What's weirder is that the other fourteen songs on the album have zero plays, even though my husband's tracks are better. Maybe Spotify listeners are searching out female vocalists, although my other six songs (including my favorite) are apparent duds, too. 

But, hey! Why dwell on the bad news?

I admit to being flabbergasted. Maybe if I refresh my screen, I'll find that it was all a mirage. 

But today I feel kind of good.


Saturday, January 28, 2023

1965 ~ An Obsession Begins

In 1964 at age nine, I had no disposable income. It could be that my mom figured I had no use for money of my own, and she was probably right. After all, every Sunday morning after Mass my mom and dad would drop my brother and me off at the Knick Knackery, and they'd give me a quarter with which to buy one comic book and one candy bar (I assume my brother, who was sixteen, had his own damn money). I usually went with a Caspar comic and a Three Musketeers bar. But as far as shopping for "needs", my mom presumed I had none. 

Once I turned ten, Mom's presumptions were proven wrong, I needed records.I was sick to death of spinning my older sisters' crappy Bobby Rydell and Ricky Nelson 45's, and all my brother bought were albums, which I didn't dare touch anyway, for fear of my life. What I needed were today's top hits, in particular Beatles hits. The Beatles had become everything to me the year before. None of us in fourth grade had even seen the guys' faces, but their voices were all over the radio air waves. I stood out on the sidewalk in front of Valley Elementary after school one day and engaged in a spirited debate with Debbie Lealos over which Beatle was the best singer. I insisted it was Paul, but having never seen the band in the flesh, I'd confused Paul with John. I'd conveniently combined the cutest guy in the pictures with the one with the best voice. Nine-year-old girls are superficial that way.

When Ed Sullivan announced on his show that The Beatles would be appearing the following Sunday night, it was the most earth-shattering news my friends and I had ever heard in our less than one decade of life. My parents always watched The Ed Sullivan Show, which was actually awful. The spasmodic Sullivan invariably showcased some opera singer and a guy who balanced plates on a stick and a Spanish man who conversed with the linen-gloved puppets on his hands. Every once in a while a doo-wop group like Dion and The Belmonts showed up and faithfully lip-synched to their latest hit. The studio audience was comprised of women in sequined gowns and bow-tied dandies.

But this particular Sunday night, February 9, 1964, I staked out my spot directly in front of our TV screen sometime around 6:00, my hand hovering near the dial to guard against anyone even considering changing the channel. My mom and dad were bewildered by all the fuss, but since Ed's show was their regular go-to program, they simply shrugged. Mom finished washing the supper dishes and Dad stepped out on the porch for a smoke. At seven they each settled into their chairs in the living room and I fidgeted through the opening acts, some family of acrobats and a guy doing Kirk Douglas impressions. 

Then at last:

Music fans can wax poetic about their favorite concert; you know, the one showcasing their all-time favorite artist. They can reminisce about the first time they heard Led Zeppelin on the radio. But very few ever experienced something completely new, the rumbling of a musical earthquake.

I did.

And I was nine

Nothing was ever the same again.

Thus, by the time I turned ten I sorely needed money to buy Beatles singles. I proposed the idea of an allowance to my mom. Twenty-five cents a week for dusting the furniture and straightening up around the house. She guessed that would be okay. Four weeks of minimal effort and I could traipse over the bridge to Popplers Music and pick out one precious '45.  

When those four weeks rounded the corner, though, I found that my decision was more difficult than I'd envisioned. There were so many pop hits I really, really liked.

Two that I bought with my lackadaisical earnings:

California Girls ~ The Beach Boys

I loved - loved! that track. I even wrote my own alternate version, called "English Boys" I spun the grooves off that single, dancing the jerk in front of the big upstairs dresser mirror with a hairbrush microphone, warbling my substitute lyrics.

I Can't Help Myself ~ The Four Tops

And my big brother helped me fill in the gaps. He forked over money to buy me singles I wouldn't have bought on my own, like this one that had a sleeve with three women posing in elegant jewel gowns:

My brother also bought me a few albums. Birthdays and Christmas were a guarantee of something new to add to my collection of -- count 'em -- three LP's. He is the one who bought me If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears by The Mama's And The Papas, and also Heart Full Of Soul by The Yardbirds, one of his few selections that missed the mark. I didn't like it. I liked maybe one song on the entire album, but I never told him that. 

My main treasure trove of musical listening, however, was sneaking into my brother's room when he was away and pilfering a few of his many, many albums. I knew it was a fraught excursion, but I couldn't help myself. My brother owned anyone who was anyone. He had all The Beatles LP's and he had Bob Dylan and Johnny Rivers' Live At The Whisky A Go Go. All I owned was an orange oblong phonograph with a clamp-on lid, unlike the sophisticated stereo system of my brother's, but I was extremely careful to only drop my needle on the bands and not cause any inadvertent bumps or jostles. Then, when I was done, I'd slip the album back into its curated slot on my brother's bookshelf and he was none the wiser.

There was one singular album my brother owned in 1965 that became my obsession ~ Help! I filched that LP approximately 5,000 (okay, maybe 50) times. Anytime I saw, through my upstairs window, my brother zoom out of the yard in his blue Ford Fairlane, I'd watch for a bit to make sure he didn't inexplicably come back; then I'd pad into his room and pinch the album out from its space and sit on my bed with my record player and spin the grooves out of it ~ over and over ~ until it was time to cast a watchful eye out the window again.

There was simply something about that album ~ to my ten-year-old ears, it was perfect. I even created a musical featuring all its songs. I never actually put pen to paper, but I certainly had the song order set in my mind. Help! was my obsession. 

1965 was also the year that Shindig! became my must-see. Shindig! (apparently everything ended in an exclamation point back then) aired every Wednesday night on the ABC network, and it featured essentially every act that had a hit record. Even The Beatles made an appearance. The Righteous Brothers were regular performers, but if one wanted to see any hit of the day live, here it was. One or two-hit wonders like Freddie And The Dreamers, Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, and The Honeycombs, along with multiple hitmakers like The Animals, The Turtles, Sonny and Cher, and The Lovin' Spoonful all showed up. The problem for me was, my weekly accordion lesson was on Wednesday night. I already resented having those stupid lessons foisted on me, and now my frustration was multiplied. I couldn't miss Shindig! (!) My mom, however, always managed to get us home in the nick of time. I waved off supper and instead parked myself in front of the TV. Mom wasn't normally accommodating, but she sometimes allowed me to chew my pork chop and boiled potatoes on a TV tray in the living room, with all the lamps switched off, the better to view the magnificent black and white of this wondrous show.

In December, four months after Help! first appeared on my horizon, The Beatles released their sixth album, Rubber Soul. Of course my brother bought it, and of course I "borrowed" it. Was there no end to the awesomeness of these guys? While Help! would always claim a special place in my heart, Rubber Soul was pretty good! I loved almost every track, except for the one named after me, which was embarrassingly bad. I lost count of the number of adult strangers who, upon learning my name, spouted the clever line, "Oh, like MEE-chelle, my belle?" On the other hand, Norwegian Wood, You Won't See Me, and In My Life were astoundingly good. 

In 1965 I finally felt in control of my own musical tastes. I could buy a 45 every four weeks, sometimes sooner if my uncle flipped me a quarter for no discernible reason. I had a treasure trove of magnificent albums only a few footsteps away ~ I just had to be stealthy enough to snag them. 

And music felt brand-new; thrilling. Even tracks I now wonder how I ever favored felt at the time like shooting stars.

From Billboard's Top 100 hits of the year, these still hold up:

  • California Girls ~ The Beach Boys
  • I Can't Help Myself ~ The Four Tops
  • Ticket To Ride ~ The Beatles
  • Back In My Arms Again ~ The Supremes
  • Help Me, Rhonda ~ The Beach Boys
  • Do You Believe In Magic ~ The Lovin' Spoonful
  • Like A Rolling Stone ~ Bob Dylan
  • Baby, The Rain Must Fall ~ Glenn Yarbrough

Of course, who could know at ten? But in hindsight,1965 birthed my proclivity for writing my own lyrics and for big-picture thinking. Shoot, it beat trying to master math. Fourth grade was a trial I'd had to endure, and thus '65's sunburned summer was ripe for musical abandon. The dream world was always superior to real life anyway. 

What better to nurture a dream than a tumble of newborn, succulent music?





Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Were The Seventies Really Cheesy...Or Were We?

To anyone who wasn't around in the nineteen seventies, the pop hits of the day most likely sound cringeworthy. It's like my dad trying to describe the majesty of a tube radio to me. "Oh, for God's sake, Dad, get with the times!" How naive!

In hindsight, however, the old days were actually kind of good. I give my dad props for The Big Band era -- I love listening to the Glenn Miller Orchestra -- not every day, mind you, but I'm humble enough to admit those recordings were sublime.

Of course, the seventies were an entirely different vibe. I don't know what happened to music then; maybe it was a backlash against the seminal sixties decade of timeless songs. Maybe the seventies had no choice but to go a different way, to distinguish themselves.

When I think back to that time, I see myself as a young woman navigating the unknown. I, frankly, knew next to nothing about life, and every day was a brand new experience. I, a newly married woman in 1974, was pitifully poor, but I didn't know it. We lived in a mortgaged mobile home, the first ever home I could call my own. I shopped for decorating essentials at Woolworth's and at a bargain warehouse called Tempo. If I was ever forced to put a purchase on a credit card, my balance never exceeded a hundred dollars. But mostly I just paid in cash -- yes, actual paper money -- though sometimes I would fill out a check and hand it over to the cashier, who demanded two forms of ID.

As for musical sustenance, my main source of music was AM radio. I had a portable radio at my bedside, I had one in the kitchen, and most importantly, I had AM in the car. I don't think my '74 Chevy Vega even had a FM option. Besides, AM was where it was happenin'. My mom and dad had upgraded their musical experience, so they bequeathed their console stereo/radio/eight-track player to me, and that plank of pine dominated my living room. I rarely invested in albums unless they were K-Tel compilations advertised on TV. Of course, I still had my old collection of LP's and singles, but the few new albums I remember purchasing at the time were The Eagles Greatest Hits and Emmylou Harris's Elite Hotel.  

But those albums were for days off or weekends. During the week, it was all AM radio, all the time. And yes, there were plenty of cheesy songs. Some were so awful they inspired ridicule; like Havin' My Baby or You Light Up My Life or Muskrat Love. But there was also Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Dave Loggins' Please Come To Boston. And everything ABBA. 

And there were lots and lots of one-hit wonders. The seventies ruled the one-hit realm. It was a time of feeling one's way as an artist. Maybe something would hit; maybe it wouldn't; and if it didn't, you'd go back to your day job at the Tastee Freez. I'm willing to bet that the original members of Paper Lace are swirling up soft-serve cones right now. And Blue Swede's players are traversing the Norwegian fjords in their kayaks. Andy Kim could be a successful Hollywood hairdresser, for all I know.

Seventies radio was a pure arbiter of what was good, what was putrid, and what was so cheesy it attached itself to your brain.


                                                         Starland Vocal Band


Barry Manilow


The Captain and Tenille
Terry Jacks

Many of these singles weren't necessarily bad, taken in context. Right now today I can open up Spotify and spin practically any song that strikes my mood. But in the pre-digital days of the seventies, if you weren't flush with disposable income, your radio and your TV were your sources of musical entertainment. The decade was big on variety shows -- Donny and Marie, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Tony Orlando and Dawn, even Dean Martin and Jim Nabors (seventies network television pretty much reeked). And all the shows needed musical guests. So, whoever had the hottest Top 40 single at the time showed up over and over. That's how we learned what these artist looked like. The Captain and Tenille were so pervasive, even they eventually were awarded with a show of their own.

And with the networks' delicate sensibilities, only "safe" artists were allowed to appear. Thus, we saw The Carpenters, balladeers like Jim Croce and the benign songstress Roberta Flack. Old-even-then Paul Anka. If we wanted to catch anyone people our age actually liked, well, we had The Midnight Special. That's where Elton popped up, along with Gordon Lightfoot (although no one could actually call him "dangerous"), Grand Funk Railroad, The Guess Who.

That was it. Except for the radio.

There isn't an artist anywhere who hasn't been influenced by those surrounding him. In the sixties Brian Wilson was in a de facto competition with The Beatles. Even Bob Dylan's early songs were influenced by Woody Guthrie. Who were seventies artists surrounded by? Other seventies acts. So we had a few categories of hits:

Junior High Girls

  • Playground In My Mind ~ Clint Holmes
  • Seasons In The Sun ~ Terry Jacks
  • Me And You And A Dog Named Boo ~ Lobo

Junior High Boys

  • Smokin' In The Boy's Room ~ Brownsville Station
  • Takin' Care Of Business ~ Bachman-Turner Overdrive
  • Kung Fu Fighting ~ Carl Douglas

Young Single Women

  • Please Come To Boston ~ Dave Loggins
  • I'd Really Love To See You Tonight ~ England Dan and John Ford Coley
  • Star Baby ~ The Guess Who

Young Single Men

  • The Loco-Motion ~ Grand Funk Railroad
  • The Joker ~ Steve Miller Band
  • I Shot The Sheriff ~ Eric Clapton

Middle-Aged Couples

  • After The Lovin' ~ Engelbert Humperdinck
  • Midnight At The Oasis ~ Maria Muldaur
  • Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree ~ Tony Orlando and Dawn

People With Zero Musical Taste

  • You Light Up My Life ~ Debby Boone
  • (You're) Havin' My Baby ~ Paul Anka
  • Muskrat Love ~ The Captain and Tenille

Disco Pseudo-Hipsters

  • Le Freak ~ Chic
  • I Love The Night Life ~ Alicia Bridges
  • Love's Theme ~ The Love Unlimited Orchestra

25-Year-Old Guys

  • Radar Love ~ Golden Earring
  • Black Water ~ The Doobie Brothers
  • Smoke On The Water ~ Deep Purple

25-Year-Old Women

  • It's A Heartache ~ Bonnie Tyler
  • Midnight Blue ~ Melissa Manchester
  • Get Closer ~ Seals and Crofts

Those With Excellent Musical Taste

  • Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ~ Elton John
  • Fooled Around And Fell In Love ~ Elvin Bishop
  • Sister Golden Hair ~ America
  • Stuck In The Middle With You ~ Stealer's Wheel
  • Sundown ~ Gordon Lightfoot
  • Please Come To Boston ~ Dave Loggins (cross-referenced with Young Single Women)
  • Star Baby ~ The Guess Who (cross-referenced with Young Single Women)
  • I'll Have To Say I Love You In A Song ~ Jim Croce
  • Without You ~ Nilssen
  • Rock The Boat ~ Hues Corporation
  • How Can You Mend A Broken Heart ~ The Bee Gees
  • Waterloo ~ ABBA
  • You're Only Lonely ~ JD Souther
  • Drift Away ~ Dobie Gray
The 1970's offered something for everyone. It was probably the most schizophrenic decade in popular music.
Maybe that's why I rather like it.