Monday, November 22, 2010

Gold Digging, part 6: Mellow Hits

Your eyes are not fooling you, dear reader, after over a year and a half long delay from my last A.M Gold digging exploration, I have finally come around to concluding what really should have been a week-long six-part series about some 70s compilation CDs I randomly bought. For those of you who are unfamiliar or have just plain forgotten, you can brush up at the archives. For those of you who've been eagerly waiting all these months upon months with bated breath and hopeful eyes, I am horrified beyond words. This disc is the third and final disc from the three CD box set entitled "Radio Hits '69-'74". I've noted in the review of the last CD that, even with the seemingly straightforward premise of creating a compilation of songs that were popular on the radio between the years 1969 and 1974, Time Life managed to include two songs released post-1974; you will notice as you make your way through this breakdown that it wasn't an isolated incident. As for the title of the disc itself, it's something called "Mellow Hits"; I'm not sure how much of a nuanced difference it is from the previous CD "Easy Hits".

It's the final countdown!:

1. "Sky High" - Jigsaw (1975) #3
There are at least two things that are completely wrong about the inclusion of "Sky High" on this CD. The obvious first error is that it doesn't qualify has a 1969-1974 radio hit since it was released in 1975. The second more subtle yet more egregious mistake is that there is no way any listener is going to qualify the song as anything close to "mellow". In a tight, just under three minute, package, the song soars higher and higher with a funky immediacy; euphorically rising with each successive chorus, but never quite leveling off. I also always thought it kind of sounded like a weird pop rock Bond theme and, as it turned out, the song itself was originally written for a 70s Hong Kong action thriller (with George Lazenby no less!). Given all that, it's hardly the kind of tune one would sit back in his basement beanbag and mellow out to. Terrible categorization aside, the song itself is an all time A.M. Gold classic; one of those amazing, totally unique hit songs that turns their artists into one hit wonders since they can never replicate the sound.

2. "Hitchin' a Ride" - Vanity Fare (1969) #5
"Hitchin' a Ride" will always remind me of the nostalgic 1995 coming of age movie "Now and Then", a movie I watched an inordinate amount of times in middle school, which then, oddly enough, makes me nostalgic for the 90s. It's quite weird considering how it's one of those classic songs that lazy movie and television producers often use to immediately signal that it's the 60s. Additionally there already is another "Hitchin' a Ride" from the 90s that really should make me nostalgic for the decade. Wild. As for the song itself, it's another great pop tune: fun, light, with an excellent use of flute (really more pop artists today should utilize the flute; reclaim it back from all those pretentious prog rockers who sucked all the fun out of it over the decades). It's almost impossible not to feel a little happier after listening to the song.

3. "The Night Chicago Died" - Paper Lace (1974) #1
I briefly mentioned "The Night Chicago Died" when I wrote about Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' cover of the Paper Lace song "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" on disc 3; basically about the endearingly egregious inaccuracy of the song with regards to Chicago gangland history. In addition to the historical inaccuracy, the story is overblown and borderline nonsensical and the upbeat tone is in absurd contrast with the supposedly dire subject matter of the song, however all these elements work to make this a standout ridiculous story song in what was the greatest decade for ridiculous story songs ever. To change all these unique parts of the song would be to ruin it. Who would want to listen to a slow, somber dirge that accurately recounts how Al Capone was quietly arrested for income tax evasion? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

4. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" - Jim Croce (1973) #1
One cannot talk about "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" without also mentioning Jim Croce's earlier 1972 hit "You Don't Mess Around With Jim". Depending on who you're asking, "Leroy Brown" is at best a spiritual sequel to "Jim" and at worst a lazy, inferior, clone. Lyrically they're essentially the same song: a story about the titular, supposed, badass, who eventually gets his ass kicked by some new stranger that's an even bigger badass (I guess the lesson is that there is always someone better than you so don't get to high on yourself?). Earlier this year, friend of the blog Andrew U. wrote the most definitive statement thus far on which was the superior song and I was cited as an authority. While "Jim" narrowly edged "Leroy Brown" as the better song, I still stand by my roughly paraphrased quote:
"Uh, I guess Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. It's a little bit's got the piano...You Don't Mess Around with Jim, eh, it's a little more stripped, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown was my first love. They're basically the exact same song, though."
5. "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" - Dawn featuring Tony Orlando (1973) #1
Here's a weird observation. For the group's first #1 hit "Knock Three Times" (included in Gold Digging, part 2) in 1971, they were credited as "Tony Orlando and Dawn". By the time of their second #1 hit, the above titled song, they were now credited as "Dawn featuring Tony Orlando" and by their last #1 "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" the group was back to "Tony Orlando and Dawn". I wonder what happened during that middle period where Tony got relegated to mere feature player status? Maybe it was like "Careless Whisper" where it was clearly a George Michael solo song but was credited as "Wham! featuring George Michael". Alas, I didn't catch the Tony Orlando "Behind the Music" back in the day. Like I mentioned when I wrote about, Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together", both that song and this have that unique quality of overt cheesiness and never sounding modern or cool even in their own periods. Oddly though, it's that unique anachronistic sound that also sort of makes the song kinda timeless. It's so unambiguously hokey and lacking in irony that it almost comes around to cool. And as long as there are veterans returning home from war or prisoners getting paroled, this gem will continue to live on.

6. "Without You" - Nilsson (1972) #1
Few songs reach the soaring peaks of gravitas and bombast as Nilsson's cover of Badfinger's "Without You". Given what a totally eccentric, weirdo, pop genius Harry Nilsson was, I wonder if he was being totally sincere in his over the top heartbreak or just cleverly pulling the listener's chain. Either way it is one of my all time favorite songs to karaoke, albeit a little hard on the vocal chords if sung towards the end of the night. My one minor complaint is that for such an epic sounding operatic number it really should be longer; by the time the song clocks out at just about quarter after three minutes I'm left wondering: it's over already? Song with this sort of Jim Steinman-esque grandness to them really should have a baseline of at least four minutes and work from there. Then again Nilsson was never much for fixed conventions.

7. "Light My Fire" - Jose Feliciano (1968) #3
Way back when I first found out that Jose Feliciano, writer and performer of my all-time favorite Christmas song "Feliz Navidad", had other hit songs and a prolific multi-decade long career, it was a bit of a surprise. I had always assumed that nearly all holiday song writers existed in a genre vacuum and, for the most part, were strictly one hit wonders (seriously how many other Elmo & Patsy hits can you name?). Felicicano's "Light My Fire" is a solid enough cover. It's definitely not one of those exemplary covers that overwhelm the popularity of the original, but it's also not just a lazy retread either, it contributes something as well. It's interesting to note that Felicano's version went to #3 just a year after the Doors went to #1. I think more up and coming artists should learn from this; forget covering old tunes, take the most current popular chart topper and immediately capitalize on its current fame by knocking out a cover of it as soon as possible. It still has to be sort of good but at least you have the benefit of the current wave of popularity.

8. "Shannon" - Henry Gross (1976) #6
The urban legend about the Barry Manilow song "Mandy" was that its overly romantic, heartfelt lyrics were actually about the songwriter's dog rather than a woman named Mandy, the story turned out to be was false. "Shannon" by Henry Gross, however, is apparently totally about a dog. In fact, it's not just any dog, it's about the death of Beach Boy Carl Wilson's Irish Setter. It's hard to tell through Gross's falsetto delivery of the chorus ("Shannon is gone I hope she's drifting out to sea") but when actually reading the lyrics, it does seem more obvious that the titular "Shannon" was a dog. It also makes me question the methods the family possibly used to dispose of poor Shannon; did they just dump her in the ocean? Dog or woman, the song still has a wonderful baroque melancholy to it that pulls off that difficult trick of being sad yet still pop. Also, Time Life, don't think I forget that this song is 2 years past 1974, pretty weak.

9. "One Less Bell to Answer" - The 5th Dimension (1970) #2
I have always considered this song to be the sad sequel to The 5th Dimension's "Wedding Bell Blues" (reviewed all the way back in Gold Digging, part 1). It would appear that commitment-phobic "Bill" from "Wedding Bell Blues" has rejected the singer's ultimatum to marry her and has left their home leaving the singer in the titular situation of having "one less bell to answer". It's actually quite depressing to think that the endless love and exuberance of the former song has given way to the daily crying and remorse of the latter, but then again I've always been a consummate pessimist. Despite the different tones, both songs are excellent and lead vocalist Marilyn McCoo really knocks it out of the park here.

10. "Everybody Plays the Fool" - The Main Ingredient (1972) #3
If you can't feel the slightest bit happier and positive about the state of your life after hearing this song, you must really be in some seriously dire straits. The whole song exudes an infectious air of "we've all been there before, let's dust ourselves off an look forward to tomorrow" positivity from the comforting lyrics to the perky flutes (once again, behold the power of the flute!). It goes along the same poppy "keep your head up" route as Billy Joel's "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" but while Joel's song was almost explicitly anti-suicide, this has a more implied approach. I always wondered what kinds of songs prevented more suicides: deliriously upbeat songs that expounded the pros of life or relentlessly dark and emotionally raw songs that sought to provide catharsis. I think it could go either way.

11. "In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)" - Zager and Evans (1969) #1
I could probably write a lengthy blog post alone on "In the Year 2525". In an era of weird and unusual hit songs, I don't think it gets any weirder or more unusual than this insane and poorly reasoned vision of the future. The whole song reads like almost intentionally awful amateur science fiction, journeying through 1010 year intervals (except for a brief stop in 7510 and 8510; I guess they didn't have enough lines that rhymed with five) of increasingly bizarre and awkwardly assembled rhyming couplets about man's increasing dehumanization; all through the contrastingly un-sci-fi medium of folk guitar and horns. Whatever attempts at deep questions of the future of mankind and its place in the universe are lost in the sublime ridiculousness. The whole thing really isn't for everybody, in fact, I know people who consider this song, hands down, their least favorite song of all time. For me, the mess sort of works. I like its earnest, albeit kinda awful, attempt at something different. It's an original.

12. "Oh Happy Day" - The Edwin Hawkins Singers (1969) #4
I initially thought this was weird choice for a closer, going with a hit R&B Gospel arrangement of an 18th century hymn; but in retrospect religious pop music was unusually popular in the A.M. Gold era. Although these 6 CDs didn't have too many on them, I've learned from my overall A.M. Gold listening experiences that there were a shocking number of nonsecular chart hits (one of these days I may do an entire post about "The Lord's Prayer" by Sister Janet Mead; a funky rock version of the Lord's Prayer that went to #4 in 1974 and which I couldn't get out of my head for days). Overall, I don't have much of a strong opinion about "Oh Happy Day", it's uplifting and well sung but really most gospel songs start to blend together for me. I do always find the sound of a gospel choir to be pleasing though (Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" would be nothing without the New Jersey Mass Choir).

Well, with that our long national nightmare is over. As for the CD overall, despite that fact I found almost none of the songs to fit into Time Life's ill defined concept of "Mellow Hits", song quality wise it was probably the strongest of all six CDs I've listened to (the best for last; it oddly worked out that way). On the flip side of that however is the fact that there weren't too many real discoveries here compared to the other CDs. Most of the songs were songs that I knew and enjoyed prior, but I can't really fault them for that. So in conclusion, I just want to say that I'm as surprised as you are that I actually managed to finish out the string; a year and a half long hiatus is liable to make anyone pessimistic. Interestingly in the time between the last CD and this one, I actually procured the entirety Rhino Record's Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series; that's 25 discs worth of 70s AM classics. Maybe I'll start on that if I need something to do for the next 50 years.

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