Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gold Digging, part 5: Easy Hits

It's time to break free of my recent posting doldrums with the fifth and penultimate edition of my exciting journey through the shimmering gilded excesses of late 60s-early 70s mainstream A.M. music radio. We're making our way into the second disk of the second three CD set "Radio Hits 69-74", taking in the shimmering bounties of the height of the A.M. Gold era (I guess you might also call it "The Golden Age"?). The uselessly ambiguous title to today's CD is "Easy Hits", which would seem to indicate that the track listing would veer more towards the lighter sounds of 70's soft rock (or maybe promiscuous music that always puts out?). However, given Time-Life's track record thus far of total inconsistency between the content and titles of their CD collections, I wouldn't be surprised if they threw in a show tune or a some wacky novelty hit.

On to the next golden dozen!:

1. "Venus" - Shocking Blue (1969) #1
It's just one of those pop music quirks of fate. Had I heard the Shocking blue version of "Venus" before the Bananarama version growing up, I'd probably consider it superior. From a strict genre to genre comparison, I would usually prefer a 60s organ heavy, psedo-psychedelic rock single over a polished 80s synth laden, girl group dance track. I still enjoy both songs, however Bananarama has already staked its squatters rights claim in my mind so basically every time I hear the Shocking Blue version I just think of it as a lo-fi cover of the later "original" song. Unfortunately, in addition, I also think about women's razors.

2. "She's a Lady" - Tom Jones (1971) #2
I never really considered the booming, sweaty, hairy-chested, crooning of Mr. Tom Jones as really A.M. Gold. It's definitely not what I'd call "easy hits". This is "the Voice" we're talking about here, every hit he throws out is a larger than life, ridiculously over the top, sexy, power bomb; nothings easy about it except his persona. With that said "She's a Lady" is definitely top form Jones, as soon as that funky guitar kicks in you know the song's getting down to business. The song is also fascinating in that it somehow manages to be both overtly male chauvinistic while also kind being of complementary and respectful towards females. I once had a debate at a karaoke function with a girl who thought the song was in praise of a strong independent lady while I though it was more about a more submissive lady who knew her place. That's just the kind of complicated stuff, Jones throws on you.

3. "Stuck in the Middle With You" - Stealers Wheel (1972) #6
Apparently Steven Wright was wrong when he mentioned the chart history of "Stuck in the Middle With You" in the famous scene from "Reservoir Dogs". According to wikipedia, the song was actually released in 1972 and topped out at #6 in 1973 not #5 in April of 1974 as he mention. However, for me it's still a "Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite". A lot of things come together to make this an A.M. Gold classic: the funky bass foundation, the country fried slide guitar, Gerry Rafferty's laid back delivery, the cowbell; but most of all it's the sweet background clapping. For me a quality clapping section is one of those subtle touches that elevates good songs into the rarefied air of great songs. This is a great song.

4. "Alone Again (Naturally)" - Gilbert O'Sullivan (1972) #1
The signature tune from Mr. Fun himself, Gilbert O'Sullivan. This song is always in the conversation for the most depressing pop hit of all time. In a little over three and a half minutes the singer: contemplates suicide, recalls being abandoned by his bride on his wedding day, sadly recalls his past joy, feels abandoned by God, considers how the world is full of heartbreak, recalls crying at his father's death, remembers his mother's deep despair over her husband's sudden death, and then crying at her eventual death, all the whole realizing he is truly alone in the world. It's overwrought and depressing but it's still so undeniably catchy. The song's unlikely success in spite of it's terminal uncoolness is sort of a microcosm of the entirety of Gilbert O'Sullivan's shockingly successful career.

5. "Moonlight Feels Right" - Starbuck (1976) #3
I just want to mention that this song was relased in 1976, which should technically not be included in a CD set entitled "Radio Hits '69-'74"! Apparently Time-Life has hit a new level of negligence concerning their title and track selections. Errors aside, I have to admit I've become somewhat obsessed with this song recently; definitely one of the most interesting A.M. Gold songs I've heard thus far. It has all the dated conventions of a vintage hit, but there are elements of the song: the subtle smarmy vocals (allmusic describes it as "the missing link between Barry Manilow and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus"), lush wall to wall electronic synth, random marimba, that could make for a passable indie disco/indie dance/synthpop single. It's not out of the realm of plausibility to imagine MGMT or Of Montreal doing an updated cover.

6. "The Candy Man" - Sammy Davis Jr. (1972) #1
One of the more idiosyncratic number one hits of the 70s (a decade known for idiosyncratic hits). I can't imagine how this record even came to be. Who at the record label thought that matching an outdated old crooner with a song from a children's musical would somehow lead to a number one hit? I'm sure true Sammy Davis Jr. purists find this song and the fact that it was the biggest hit of his long and distinguished career to be a terrible embarrassment along the lines of Chuck Berry's only #1 hit being "My Ding-A-Ling". I'm still a fan though. The guy's a consummate entertainer and I can listen him read a phone book with that unique voice. Totally part of my top tier of Sammy Davis Jr songs along with the theme from "Baretta".

7. "Love Will Keep Us Together" - Captain & Tennille (1975) #1
While the original Neil Sedaka version of this song came out in 1974, this more famous cover came out in 1975 thus once again violating the '69-'74 hit parameters. Sloppy job, Time-Life, sloppy job. Aside from the goofiness of the group itself, the song somehow manages a quirky otherworldly sound that avoids any edge or credibility or general coolness. I feel like it sounded cheesy and outdated from the first week it came out. The only other comparable songs I can think of that manage to stay in that bubble of datedness from the start are all the old Tony Orlando and Dawn hits. Of course for me I find none of these qualities to be a negative. In all its unabashed hokiness and seemingly shallow sentimentality, for me it still somehow manages to be one of the clearest, unconditional declarations of love in pop music history.

8. "Heartbeat, It's a Lovebeat" - Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family (1973) #3
It's another song from "Reservoir Dogs" referenced by K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70's. This is one of my all time favorite A.M. Gold tunes. For one shinning moment in time in 1973, little Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family broke free of their ultimate lot as a third rate poor man's Canadian Osmonds and created a record on par with anything the Jackson 5 ever did. I just love the slow, suspenseful build up, the harmonizing vocals from the older less talented siblings, and then the obscenely catchy chorus. It also has the most important element of all great family pop groups: a cute little lead singer singing passionately about a love that he probably has no idea about.

9. "The Morning After" - Maureen McGovern (1973) #1
The CD abruptly changes gears by bringing the light, poppy love momentum we've built up to a screeching halt with this slow love ballad. If the track arrangers were paying any attention to flow and continuity this really should have been placed around the end. It's obviously a monster of a closer, a powerful block of overblown, soaring vocals befitting the over the top disaster movie that it was written for. While the music is sufficiently bombastic for my tastes, I think Maureen McGovern's holding back on the gravitas. In the hands of someone with the proper chops, like a Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, it can really do some damage. Also would someone out there in the wilds of the Internet please do me a favor and ironically apply it to the totally pessimistic ending of the anti-nuke made or TV movie "The Day After"?

10. "Beach Baby" - The First Class (1974) #4
The genre of bubblegum pop, which I consider to be essentially a kissing cousin of the more traditional A.M. Gold pop, died out roughly in the early 1970s. As with the decline of all genres, it was blamed on the rise other other rival derivative genres, the loss of its target audience, the changing of styles and sensibilities, etc. I think the real reason it died is because after "Beach Baby" was released the entire genre as whole realized that it had obtained perfection and that it would be a hopeless exercise in futility to carry on (I'm pretty sure the entire original 1910 Fruitgum Company committed ritual suicide). "Beach Baby" is a pure masterpiece. Its production reaches a level of dense musical complexity with soaring horns, layered vocals unheard of for a bubblegum tune. In a genre known for 2 minute singles, it ran a grand 5 minutes (you could probably fit like 3-4 Archies songs in there) with an epic sprawling narrative that nostalgically looked back on and defined the genre as a whole. I can only imagine that when Tony Burrows wrapped up recording of "Beach Baby" and saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more world to conquer.

11. "In the Summertime" - Mungo Jerry (1970) #3
For me the season of summer doesn't start until I randomly hear "In the Summertime" on TV or the radio (and believe me broadcasters always find a reason to play the song). Now here's a song that sounds like no other, a song that sounds more apt being played on a player piano in a wild west saloon then on 70s A.M. radio. It's unique, jug blowing, old timey sound combined with its descriptive laid back lyrics of summer laziness and mischief (criminal vehicular homicide if you follow the "have a drink have a drive" advice) creates a timeless song that is quintessentially summer. It's almost like a popular Christmas carol in its connection to a season and its immediate ability to evoke all that is great with it. A hundred years from now, while humanity desperate scours the expanded seas to find mythical dry land, they'll still be listening to the breezy sounds of Mungo Jerry on their massive makeshift barges.

12. "Love (Can Make You Happy)" - Mercy (1969) #2
This is sort of a disappointing ending to what turned out to be a really solid collection thus far. The whole thing sort of comes off as obvious and hollow. If you're going to take on the Herculean task of trying to sum up the infinite complexities of human love into a three minute pop song, you either have to scale it back and focus on one element (like a kiss or their eyes or lust) or just go for broke and try to cheese it up as much you can (see the selected works of Barry Manilow). Mercy sort of takes an unsatisfying middle ground with a "love is nice" approach. It's a pleasant sounding tune, but it's not going to get any emotions out of this listener with the exception of apathy.

As for the CD as a whole, I really enjoyed most of it. It's probably the most consistent CD I've listened to thus far. The only real knock against it was that it turned out to be a bit too conservative for me. While it contained some of my all time personal favorite tracks, the other side of that was that I was familiar with most of the songs prior. So in terms of finding new nuggets, the pickings were a little slim. Of course that's no fault of Time-Life. What is the fault of Time-Life is categorizing a CD as "Easy Hits" when a majority of the songs aren't really easy hits. Five down, only one more to go. What treasures still await on the final disk?

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't matter which you've heard first, the Bananarama version is just better.