Calling America

(With this post, we’re going on vacation, and I have resolved that I’m not going to blog while we’re gone. There will be a new robo-post here on Friday July 11, and my regular features will continue to run on their regular days at WNEW.com, but there’ll be nothing else here until at least Tuesday July 15. In the interim, visit some of the other music blogs listed at the right, and go nuts.)

When I was a kid, we used to watch the July 4 fireworks in my hometown from the grounds of the teachers’ college my mother had attended. My brother and I would spread out blankets and wait, playing grabass with each other, or with kids we knew who’d come to watch in the same place. One year, the school planted some trees near our prime viewing spot. I can still hear my mother’s voice from that first year: “Be careful of those little trees! Don’t knock them down!” We must not have hurt them, because they’re upwards of 30 feet high now, so there’ll be no watching of fireworks from our old spot tonight.

To observe the holiday, I made up a list of songs and bands featuring the names of American places, then put the thing on shuffle to see what came out.

“Midnight Train to Georgia”/Joan Osborne. I’d never paid attention to Joan Osborne until I saw her a few years back in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in which she brought the house down with a cover of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” That’s one of the tracks on Breakfast in Bed, a 2007 album of soul covers and originals, along with this respectable version of the Gladys Knight classic.

“Life Saver”/Chicago. There are more famous cuts on Chicago VII (“I’ve Been Searchin’ So Long,” “Wishing You Were Here,” “Call on Me,” “Happy Man”), but none better than this, on which Chicago proves again how much a horn section can rock.

“American Dream”/Lucinda Williams. Welcome to the America a lot of our neighbors are experiencing this year. It ain’t right.

“In New Orleans”/Banana Splits. More prefabricated pop from the kiddie-show characters, all about how you can find whatever you want in the Crescent City: “Long legged ladies, yeah we got ’em/Hotter than Hades, yeah we got ’em” and later, “good love and good wine, yeah we got ’em.” Saturday morning TV in the 60s was awesome.

“A Man I’ll Never Be”/Boston. In which the band tries another power ballad and mostly succeeds. The gigantic layered guitar solos on the record are either pure 70s excess or pure 70s glory—I can’t decide—but I’m pretty sure Brad Delp never sang better.

“Calling America”/Electric Light Orchestra. In 1986, after a seven-year string of beat-heavy records and the abominations from the Xanadu soundtrack, this sounded like a return to mid-70s form for ELO. It turned out to be their last American hit. It was on the album Balance of Power, their last album of new material until Zoom in 2001.

“Daisy Jane”/America. During the mid 70s, America hooked up with producer George Martin, whose work included Hearts, the album this is taken from. In recent years, Gerry Beckley’s picked up an annoying habit of pinching his voice up into his nose, which might be an attempt to reach the high notes, but apart from that, this 2005 performance from the PBS series Soundstage sounds great.

“Mainline Florida”/Eric Clapton. An underappreciated classic that closes 461 Ocean Boulevard, Clapton’s first album after beating a heroin addiction that kept him in his house for nearly two years, released in 1974. I confess I failed to hear most of Clapton’s charms back in those days, but I definitely hear them now.

“L.A. Jazz Song”/Booker T and the MGs. A song by an interracial band from an album called Melting Pot. What’s more American than that? And what sounds better than Booker T’s soaring B3? On this tune, maybe Al Jackson’s drums.

“It Never Rains in Southern California”/Albert Hammond. One of the greatest radio records ever. Here’s Hammond lip-synching it, after an introduction by an MC with a Schwarzenegger accent, on a TV broadcast that has what look like Japanese characters on the screen. It’s a big ol’ world, ain’t it?

(I tried to embed the video, but it won’t work, so go here to see it.)

And now, The Mrs. and I are going off to see one of the places mentioned in this post. Back in a while.

“L.A. Jazz Song”/Booker T and the MGs (buy it here)
“In New Orleans”/Banana Splits (c’mon, download it—you won’t be sorry) (out of print)

4 thoughts on “Calling America

  1. Funny what seemingly small things root in our memories – “Be careful of those little trees.”

    I absolutely loved (and still do) “It Never Rains In Southern California.” Even at the age of four or five, California was some magical land to me.

    Have a restful, safe vacation.

  2. Let me add to the above. “Never Rains ..” continues today to be in my top 40 (maybe even top 20) of favorite singles – ever. “I’m underloved / I’m underfed / I wanna go hooooome!”

    Nostalgia aside, it’s a great piece of pop – period!

    Have a great time away from the keyboard. If you can.

  3. I just have to say I agree with you about Chicago’s Lifesaver and Boston’s A Man I’ll Never Be.

    That first half of Chicago VII with the more jazz related material is pretty solid. I also really enjoy Terry Kath’s guitar work on Aire and Devil Sweet.

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