Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gold Digging, part 3: Top 40 Treasures

We officially enter the halfway mark as we wrap up the third and final disc of my first A.M. Gold box set. We've heard both "radio gems" and "pop classics", but Time-Life now enters unprecedented levels of non-specificity with "Top 40 Treasures"; thus opening the door to essentially every possible song that was a hit in the 60s and 70s. At least we can gleam from the ambiguous title that there won't be any non-top 40 hits (although that's not much of a shocker given that they have yet to include any songs that charted outside of the top ten).

All that glitters is gold!:

1. "I Can Help" - Billy Swan (1974) #1
This was one of those Country/Pop crossover hits that were surprisingly frequent in the 70s, and which made up a significant chunk of the A.M. Gold genre. It's a happy little A.M. pop nugget, nothing remarkably good or bad about it. I'll leave it on if it comes on the radio, but I won't crank it up. Also, am I the only one who construes the "it would sure do me good to do you good" to be dirtier than it should be?

2. "Jackie Blue" - Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1975) #3
Now here's a true A.M. Gold classic! A strange, country flavored, funk-light, smooth jam with a classically cool delivery. It's a wholly unique single that can only really be classified as a product of the diverse A.M. Gold era. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, in addition to having one of the most awesome band names ever, has one of the most distinct sounds of any band from the the period. While their technical label may have been "Southern Rock", songs like "Jackie Blue" gave them a unique, almost prog-rock edge. One of the better descriptions, given by wikipedia, is a "countrified Steely Dan".

3. "Green-Eyed Lady" - Sugarloaf (1970) #3
Here's another pop rock pillar of the A.M. Gold canon. The CD actually had the 3 plus minute radio edit of the song. It really should be enjoyed in its original 7 minute plus version. Any song with prominent jazz organs should be a minimum six minutes long (will someone please direct me to the "Walking on the Sun" 12 inch mix?). The length really sets it apart from most of its A.M. Gold contemporaries but once again that unique sound can only be categorized as pure gold.

4. "Sooner or Later" - The Grass Roots (1970) #9
I consider "Sooner or Later" to be one of the best, straight forward pop love songs of all time. There are no subtle innuendos or elaborate metaphors to muddy up the message. The whole effort is simplicity itself, with about 75% of the tune being the chorus hammering home the hypnotic mantra of capitulating to the inevitable power of love. I'm surprised this song never became a staple of generic romantic comedy soundtracks or trailers along the lines of Natalie Cole's "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)". It really sums up the entire premise of all romantic comedies that despite all efforts to resist, everyone falls in love in the end. It's a perfect capper of a song to play while they roll the end credits.

5. "Black and White" - Three Dog Night (1972) #1
You definitely can't have an A.M. Gold compilation without some Three Dog Night. I consider them to be the most successful pure A.M. Gold band of all time. Looking over their discography, I am surprised at how varied and successful they really were. "Black and White", their preachy public appeal for racial tolerance is just as relevant today as it was in 1972. Regarding the context of the song, I always wondered if they had the backup cred of actually being an integrated band. Any footage I've seen of them seem to show about a dozen people in the background and it's not far fetched to assume at least one of these guys was black thus fulfilling the unifying dreams of the song.

6. "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song" - B.J. Thomas (1975) #1
It's another mid-70's crossover country pop number one. I must admit, not really a fan of the song. The whole thing just sounds so unmemorably generic that I wonder how it ever managed to become such a big crossover single. I also hate the unnecessarily long winded title with the confusing parentheses. My favorite B.J. Thomas song will forever always his duet with Jennifer Warnes for the theme to "Growing Pains".

7. "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" - Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974) #1
It's really interesting that, while this version and the Paper Lace version are not all that different, in America the Bo Donaldson version that went to number #1 while the Paper Lace single went nowhere and in the UK the the Paper Lace version went to #1 while the other faltered. Frankly I support the Bo Donaldson version out of outright patriotism. What right did a British band like Paper Lace have in recording pop songs co-opting events in American history? We've never had bands here writing about the Battle of Hastings or the signing of the Magna Carta. "The Night Chicago Died" was a wildly inaccurate (albeit endlessly entertaining) mess of a pop history song that made "The Battle of New Orleans" sound like a thoroughly researched historical lecture.

8. "The Entertainer" - Marvin Hamlisch (1974) #3
Nothing demonstrates the unparalleled variety of the A.M. Gold genre then the hit version of "The Entertainer" by "rock superstar" Marvin Hamlisch (although only the second person, along with Richard Rogers, to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and a Pulizter). The 70s was that sort of insane time when an adaptation of a turn of the century ragtime instrumental used in a movie would rocket up the charts to number 3. It's definitely one of the more interesting and unexplainable chart successes of the decade. I wonder if we'll be saying the same thing thirty years down the line when we try to explain "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" to our children.

9. "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" - Jim Croce (1972) #8
I would categorize this more along the lines of the 70's singer/songwriter realm rather than straight ahead A.M. Gold catagory. It's a just a bit too stripped down and folksy to be up there with the more lavishly produced pop records. With that being said, this song will always be the distant second to the ruckus, toe tapping joy of "Bad Bad Leroy Brown". Did anyone else notice that thematically the two songs are totally identical? They're both about titular bad asses from the wrong side of the tracks that learn a lesson by getting brutally beaten up by unexpected upstarts they push too far. Sort of a weird theme to coincidentally repeat if you ask me.

10. "Drift Away" - Dobie Gray (1973) #5
I hate, hate, hate this song. It's definitely up there as one of my all time least favorite songs. While I hate the Dobie Gray version, I really hate the Uncle Kracker version (a cover that somehow manages to provide absolutely no new take on the original whatsoever and exists merely to bring the song back to prominence). It's boring, it's slow, I don't care for the singing and the offensively stupid chorus ("I wanna get lost in your rock n' roll"? Barf!). I would consider it a little bit more tolerable if the chorus actually was "feed me the Beach Boys, and free my soul" which I misinterpreted it to be growing up.

11. "Little Green Apples" - O.C. Smith (1968) #2
This is one of those songs that a whole bunch of artists have covered, and O.C. Smith's version is considered the definitive one, but I really like the Roger Miller version. The Smith version's got a nice, smooth soul quality to it, but Miller's sparse recording just aches with a surprising display genuine heartfelt emotion that I never thought he was capable of. Also, the whimsical, yet clever lyrics seems to much more like a Roger Miller penned song than any other. Sorry, O.C., you'll always be, alas, a distant second.

12. "Hair" - The Cowsills (1969) #2
It's not really a song I would consider A.M. Gold. It would be a better fit in the show tunes category or 60's rock. I do concede it to be, hands down, the all time greatest song about hair ever written. They really get into all the details (or perhaps "hairy details"?): types of hair, conditions of hair, styles of hair, etc. They certainly don't mess around. This ode to the coif must be the bane of every bald music fan though. Overall, a good song, but a really unexpected and random choice to close out the CD (but then again that is sort of Time-Life's policy).

On the whole "Top 40 Treasures" really lived up to its extremely broad title. This was by far the most unexpected collection of tracks yet. As I've noted, some of the tracks may not even be considered true A.M. Gold songs. With the horrible exception of "Drift Away", every other song was okay to classic. Now that we've got the first box in the bag, we'll be looking ahead to the mysterious treasures hidden within my other three CD A.M. Gold box. What digitally remastered joys and horrors lies ahead, only time (Life) will tell.

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