Love and Death on AT40

My curmudgeonly post of yesterday about never going to the movies nearly came around and bit me three hours after it went up. I had time to kill late in the day before meeting The Mrs. for dinner at a spot we like, and I had to walk by a movie theater to get there. If The King’s Speech had been playing at 3:30 instead of 4:30, I probably would have bought a ticket.

We’ve become so atomized as a culture, each of us a member of several little tribes, many of them remarkably insular, that there are practically no cultural events left that we all take part in together. And so, even though The King’s Speech won Best Picture, only a tiny fraction of the population will ever see it, and its impact on whatever’s left of our common culture will be extremely limited.

I was thinking about this even before yesterday, while listening to this past weekend’s vintage American Top 40 broadcast, which counted down the chart from February 27, 1971. The show contained three different versions of the theme from the movie Love Story—a vocal by Andy Williams, the original soundtrack version by Francis Lai, and the Henry Mancini version—and a fourth recording, by Tony Bennett, was bubbling under the Hot 100. And later, Love Story would inspire yet another hit single: “Love Means (You Never Have to Say You’re Sorry)” by the Sounds of Sunshine, which would squeeze into the Top 40 in July.

That’s decent evidence that Love Story, about the doomed love of Oliver and Jenny (Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw), resonated within the culture of 40 years ago to a degree we just don’t see anymore. And never mind now—we never saw it to that degree again in the 1970s. Can you think of another movie that produced so many different hit versions of its theme? Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind each had two, original soundtrack versions by John Williams and disco versions by Meco. Perhaps there were others with more than one, but four?

Another oddity about the February 27, 1971, countdown: Right there alongside all of the romantic toonage from Love Story was one of history’s most bizarre hit singles: “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock, the lugubrious, minor-key, overly long tale of how it feels to die in an airplane crash, or a traffic accident, or some damn thing. Somebody who was there back then would have to tell me how it was that this record got onto mass-appeal Top 40 in the first place, and how it managed to do so well: ARSA shows “D.O.A.” reaching Number One in Tulsa, Kansas City, Phoenix, and San Diego, and going Top Ten in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I can understand why people might have bought it—there is no accounting for taste—but what I can’t grasp is how programmers of that day decided to play something that seems so uncommercial, right alongside the Partridge Family, Dawn, Three Dog Night, and the Osmonds.

Programming Note: Starting tomorrow, I’ll be writing Rock Flashback posts for six days a week. If you want to keep up with them, the best way is to follow WNEW on Twitter, since the new WNEW site doesn’t have an RSS feed yet. I’ll do my best to tweet the posts too, so check “Real Stupid in Real Time” at the right for those updates, or follow me on Twitter. I hope that the amount of work I’ll be doing over there won’t interfere with the regular goings-on at this blog, but we’ll see.

11 thoughts on “Love and Death on AT40

  1. I had been flirting with the idea of blogging about “D.O.A.” myself. I can understand why people want music that is tasteless or transgressive, but what’s strange about this particular record is how unpleasant it is. It’s slow and draggy and tuneless and the lyrics speak only of pain, and don’t do an especially good job of it.

  2. I’ve written about the “D.O.A.” paradox once or twice — I’d go do the search but I’m on The Man’s time right now.

    What Tom said: “D.O.A.” is a profoundly unpleasant, gauche, heavy-handed record; and it lacks any kind of strong or memorable melody to make up for its lyrical shortcomings.
    I have no idea why even the horror-movie geeks in the crowd — you know, the people who dig shock and gore — would want to hear it on a repeated basis.
    (As I say a lot on my blog, I like to imagine Top 40 records woven into the lives of everyday teenagers. You think anyone ever played this at a school dance?)

    I know Bloodrock was managed by Terry Knight and was Grand Funk’s regular opening act in that period. Maybe that helped them in some fashion.
    Not that GFR fans were big singles buyers; I’m grasping at straws here.

  3. There was one other movie that almost did it…

    The “Rocky” theme (“Gonna Fly Now”) managed to get four different versions into the Hot 100: Bill Conti’s #1 score, Maynard Ferguson’s jazz-infused Top 40 hit and two that didn’t get too far into the Hot 100…a quickly-recorded song by Current and an opportune cover by Rhythm Heritage.

    That’s an awful lot of running up those City Hall steps in Philadelphia.

  4. Steve E

    I was still listening exclusively to KHJ in SoCal in early 1971, and the station did NOT play “D.O.A.” It wasn’t even a “hitbound,” much less make the Boss 30. So Casey’s show was the only place I heard it.

    Might be interesting to write a piece about the most unlikely Top 40 hits of the ’60s and ’70s. Not records that were necessarily bad, just the ones that you’d never have predicted they could have charted so high because they are so unlike what was being played at the time.

  5. porky

    our recently departed “boomer classics” station played “Timothy” by the Buoys in a fairly regular, automated (obviously) rotation. That’s the kind of song you may chuckle at upon hearing maybe once a year but not numerous times every month.

    To those who haven’t heard the record it’s about cannibalism. Written by Rupert Holmes.

  6. Thought-provoking post, Jim. Movies have been targeted to “young people” for the past few decades; and though I still see more than my fair share of them, I know they’re not trying to reach the 60+ demo. King’s Speech is well worth the time for you to take the Mrs. to, on a “date night” or whatever. It tells an interesting story in an interesting way.

  7. There’s a joker in the deck, jb, because it’s not often remembered as a movie theme. “Unchained Melody” began its life as the theme to a 1955 prison film. Joel Whitburn lists ten versions that made the Hot 100: Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, Roy Hamilton and June Valli in 1955; Vito & the Salutations (1963), the Righteous Brothers (1965 and two versions in 1990) the Sweet Inspirations (1968) and Heart (1981). Of those, the Baxter, Hibbler, Hamilton and first Righteous Brothers version made the Top Ten. The RIghteous Brothers’ re-released original and their remake went to Nos. 13 and 19 respectively in 1990. Whitburn also lists three other versions: Gerry Granahan bubbled under with UM in 1961, and the covers by Elvis Presley (1977) and LeAnn Rimes (1996) are recognized as classic versions that did not chart. (They made the Top Ten Country chart, as did a 1991 cover of UM by Ronnie McDowell.)

  8. Yah Shure

    The cast Of ‘Glee’ alone could probably place a half dozen versions of “Love Song from’The King’s Speech'” on next week’s Hot 100.

  9. Re: The “Rocky” versions — I always preferred Maynard Ferguson’s version to Bill Conti’s original. I was really pleased to find an extended play single of the Ferguson version about a decade ago.

  10. I’d have to beg to differ about “D.O.A.”‘s melody- it does have a memorable one, if nothing else because it’s so repetitious. And as to why it was so popular, I think there was a little, no, a lot of morbid curiosity about the SHOCKING, DRUG CRAZED WORLD OF HIPPIES! as well as the sort of fascination with sad tales of doomed love songs a la “Last Kiss”. Kind of a tabloid mentality in effect. It’s never easy to predict what will catch on with people, but something about the whole horror-movie melody and lurid subject matter piqued interest, for sure.

    I was 11 in 1971, and was already deeply into music. My next door neighbor Russ Butler, who was about four-five years older than me, listened to a lot of cool music like Led Zep, Alice Cooper, Elton John, the Doors, and Grand Funk Railroad… and Bloodrock. After listening to the 2 album a dozen times at his house, much to his relief, I’m sure, I begged my parents for the five bucks to buy it. I was afraid they might give me grief about “D.O.A.”, but I guess they didn’t listen closely so I didn’t hear anything from them about it. So, as a result, I have a nostalgic soft spot for that album…it’s kinda thud-and-blunder in its often clumsy mix of blues, rock, and pop, but I like its organic Grand Funk Lite sound and it takes me back to days long gone.

    I wrote a bit about it several years ago…

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