Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gold Digging, part 1: Radio Gems

You can call me Yukon Cornelius because I love gold...A.M. Gold to be specific. Now whether "A.M. Gold" is the official nomenclature for the genre or it's just a made up title for the Time-Life series; all I know is it's one of my all time favorite genres of music. For those not really familiar with the term, the definition of A.M. Gold is pretty broad and ambiguous as it covers multiple decades and a wide variety of musical styles. The simplest way to describe it is mainstream, radio friendly, pop music from the sixties and seventies. However, despite this description you wouldn't really count the Beatles, or Motown, or hard rock, or most songs of the classic rock canon as A.M. Gold. While the framework for identifying an A.M. Gold song may be confusing, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of obscenity (you'd be surprised how many times I paraphrase it in everyday life): "I'll know it when I hear it."

A true A.M. Gold single has a unique feeling all its own. In the 60s and 70s, men were men and pop was pop. The recording industry was at the peak of its success and pop music was manufactured with the scale and efficiency of an assembly line. Straight pop artists knew their role and were unabashedly creating the most mainstream, conventional, melodic, satisfyingly accessible music ever made under four minutes. There seemed to be an understood dichotomy. One one hand, album based music was king and you had "artists" creating ten minute long epics, ambitious concept albums, and expanding the boundaries of popular music. The success of the record industry allowed for a level of unparalleled freedom and artistic autonomy that is impossible in today's desperate hit driven marketplace. On the other side you had A.M. Gold artist with their business like approach to crafting straight ahead hits, long before the term "sell out" entered the musical vernacular. They weren't interested in making a statement or in many cases even looking cool (in fact, I can't imagine many of these artists being thought of as cool even in their prime). They just were looking to make music that appealed to the most people. To listen to a A.M. Gold is to listen to pop in its purest form.

Having given my little rant about my love of A.M. Gold, imagine my wonderful surprise when I recently came across not one but two box sets of random Time-Life A.M. Gold compilations in the deep clearance bin at my local FYE! When the dust settled, I found myself with six cds worth of classic gold for around eight dollars.

After the gold rush...

I've been steadily making my way through the collection by listening to them in the optimum environment: from my portable cd player via cassette adapter in the car while driving. As I make it through each cd, I will give my individual commentary on the track listings. So as the first of my running six part series I present: AM Gold - Radio Gems*

*One thing you'll notice with future posts is that, as the case with all Time-Life CD compilations, the titles of the individual CDs are all completely generic and have no relevance in describing what type of songs are on the CD. The track list for each CD is totally random and any song could be mixed around any of the other five CDs.

1. "Brother Louie" - Stories (1973) #1
It took me my second listening to realize the song was all about interracial romance. Not really the best song to kick off the CD but then again there is little rhyme or reason assigned to the ordering. It was a okay song, but it didn't really do much for me, the singer had a poor man's Rod Stewart thing going. For a number one hit, I could not recall having heard this song before.

2. "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" - Looking Glass (1972) #1
Now here's a song, I'm all too familiar with; one of the finest examples of A.M.Gold. What's not to love? The smooth, polished, light rock sound; the harmonies; compelling narrative; all pure gold. This song is the standard by which all A.M. Gold rock tunes should be judged against. Looking Glass also fills out one of the unofficial criteria for being a classic 70s A.M. Gold band and that's being uniformly ugly.

3. "These Eyes" - The Guess Who (1969) #6
I think the Guess Who are a criminally underrated band. Most people associate them with their biggest hit, the fairly uncompelling, "American Woman"; but they have one of the most diverse group of hits of any band I know (and all while overcoming their Canadian handicap). I still find it hard to believe that the same band who did "American Woman" also did "These Eyes" and "Undun". "These Eyes" is another slice of smooth rock, best enjoyed while night driving. Also, I think it was a bizarre yet strangely inspired choice to be featured in "Superbad".

4. "Sara Smile" - Hall and Oates (1976) #4
While 95% of the material on a "Hits" compilation is made up of either one hit wonders or mostly forgotten former hit artists, the other 5% is made up of one randomly selected hit from the singles collection of a immensely successful artist with numerous hits to their name. In this case, the good people at Time-Life decided to include this early Hall and Oates among the others. No complaints here, it's definitely one of my top 5 Hall and Oates song. I've always preferred their pre-80s synthesizer, straight up blue eyed soul material.

5. "Afternoon Delight" - Starland Vocal Band (1976) #1
What else can I say about this definitive ode to boning in the daytime. It's filthy, it's lurid, it's wrong, it's diabolically catchy. Did people just not get what the song was about? I mean the metaphors were pretty weak. The song was so popular that they gave the Starland Vocal Band their own short lived variety show, which sort of puts "Afternoon Delight" in the category of 70s songs that become TV shows or movies (a category that is much larger than you'd think).

6. "One Toke Over the Line" - Brewer and Shipley (1971) #10
I found myself surprisingly enjoying this crunchy piece of folk rock. The gospel-like chorus really gets into your head. As my friend Andrew U. pointed out in conversation, a great percentage of pop songs from the early 70s era either fell into songs about God, songs about drugs, or both. I'm pretty sure this one's about both. Apparently the covering artists on the conservative "Lawrence Welk Show" though it was about God.

7. "Put Your Hand in the Hand" - Ocean (1971) #2
This is a song that definitely fits into the "songs about God" part of the early 70s rock dichotomy. Overall, the song is fairly tolerable. It just seems to sound like a watered down version "One Toke Over the Line". Nothing beats gospel inspired pop rock to give you a momentary sense of life affirmation though.

8. "Brand New Key" - Melanie (1971) #1
The 1971 hit parade continues. For me, "Brand New Key" will always remind me of Heather Graham's Rollergirl in "Boogie Nights", a defining moment of my teenage sexual development. As for the song itself, I find it to be infinitely cute and sexy but held back by the somewhat irritating voice of Melanie. I think there are some cute, twee voiced pop sirens that can really go to town with a cover. Lisa Loeb if you're reading this, get to work!

9. "Seasons in the Sun" - Terry Jacks (1974) #1
I used to not be a fan of this song on account of the annoying chorus. After giving it a closer listen, I still don't really like the chorus, but I found myself enjoying the overlooked verses. I knew the song had a melancholy subject matter in contrast to the sound, but these lyrics are really fascinatingly in their casual moroseness, like a Smiths song. In spite of the chorus, the songs back on my approved list.

10. "Wildfire" - Michael Martin Murphey (1975) #3
As it turned out the experience I had with "Wildfire" was the exact opposite of "Seasons in the Sun". I came into the song with a positive attitude towards "Wildfire" based mainly on my recollection of the chorus, but a detailed listening to the verses made be realize how ridiculous this song was. It's literally about a ghost horse named "Wildfire" that I guess haunts the plains of Nebraska. Now every time I hear it the image I get in my head is of a psychedelic Lisa Frank poster. According to the wikipedia article, David Letterman shared my baffling view of the song in 2007 and actually ended up inviting Murphey on the show to perform. So in contrast to the previous song, "Wildfire" is now on my unapproved list.

11. "Wedding Bell Blues" - The 5th Dimension (1969) #1
Until just recently, my perception of the 5th Dimension was entirely based on "Age of Aquarious/Let the Sunshine In". I assumed they were just this ridiculous, psychedelic, R&B outfit in the vein of Earth, Wind, and Fire or Sly and the Family Stone. I also assumed they were strict one hit wonders. Apparently none of this is the case. They are a pretty straight ahead suit and dress R&B group with a considerable collection of top 40 hits that span over a decade. As for the song, I really enjoyed it. I found it quite charming and sweet. It's also the perfect song for anyone who wants to get a guy named Bill to marry them.

12. "Everybody's Talkin'" - Harry Nilsson (1969) #6
I noted earlier the diverse sounds of The Guess Who, but that is nothing compared to Harry Nilsson, an artist that truly defies strict categorization. If you want to hear one of the most fascinating pop albums of all time, you've got to get yourself a copy of "Nilsson Schmilsson", every song is stylistically independent of the other. As for "Everybody's Talkin"", it's my second favorite Nilsson song (I still can't resist the gravitas of "Without You"). I have yet to see "Midnight Cowboy" but, on the surface, the light, breezy tone seems fairly at odds with the dark subject matter of the movie.

So my overall impression was generally favorable. It was a pretty diverse collection of late 60s, early 70s fair, a little folky in the middle. It was a fine introduction into collection. There were plenty of number ones hits and nothing out of the top 10, so I guess the album fulfilled its broad promise of "Radio Gems", whatever that may mean.


  1. Not only are The 5th Dimension not a one-hit wonder, they are among the remarkable company of Simon & Garfunkel, Eric Clapton, Norah Jones and Henry Mancini for the only two-time Record of the Year Grammy winners, for "Aquarius" and the similarly ageless classic "Up, Up and Away."

    Also, clearly you missed the scene in Guess Who where Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac are listening to "Brother Louie" in the car and there is tension.

  2. That must have been comic gold!