Young, Beautiful, Talented, and Stoned

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(Pictured: Carly Simon and James Taylor, 1973.)

On Monday, I wrote about how pop music, at least as it was heard on the radio via the American Top 40 show from May 4, 1974, was retreating from the innovation and ferment of the previous decade, citing the incredible blandness of many of the most popular songs, and the fact that certain significant artists and styles of the earlier period were ceasing to be as popular. In this post, there’s evidence that the thesis in my earlier post could be completely full of it.

40. “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”/Staple Singers
35. “Mighty Mighty”/Earth Wind and Fire
32. “For the Love of Money”/O’Jays
27. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”/Stevie Wonder
19. “My Mistake”/Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye
17. “You Make Me Feel Brand New”/Stylistics
5. “Dancing Machine”/Jackson Five
4. “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
Sure, Aretha Franklin and James Brown were coming down from the peaks they had reached in the 60s and early 70s, but there was a whole raft of stars who were either 60s mainstays doing fine, emergent stars in the 70s at a peak, or future hitmakers on the way up. In defense of my original thesis, I will say that in 1974, some of these acts were not especially long for the charts. For example, Philly soul would cease to be as powerful a force as disco rose, and Michael Jackson would swallow his brothers whole not too long after.

38. “Thanks for Saving My Life”/Billy Paul
23. “Help Me”/Joni Mitchell
2. “T.S.O.P.”/MFSB

And there were still innovators at work in this period. Joni Mitchell hired jazz musicians for her band because they were the only ones capable of keeping up with her explorations. Billy Paul came up as a jazz singer, which explains the way he sings ahead of, behind, and all around the swingin’ band backing him on “Thanks for Saving My Life.” That band, MFSB, made up of Philadelphia session players, had jazz chops to burn. (Listen to the sax solo on “T.S.O.P.”) Outsiders and outside styles continued to influence pop just as they had in years before.

33. “Mockingbird”/Carly Simon and James Taylor
31. “A Very Special Love Song”/Charlie Rich
21. “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”/Carpenters
One might consider these to be emblematic of the bland, adult-contemporary direction of Top 40 music as 1974 unfolded. Charlie Rich had taken that same sensibility to the top of the country charts: Casey mentions that in a recent week, Rich held the top three positions on the country album chart. (Of all his hits in the 1973-1974 period, “A Very Special Love Song,” which had been to #11 on the Hot 100 in April, might be the best of the bunch.) I did not lump the Carpenters with the previous post’s examples of records dull enough to stop time, even as it sounds exactly right alongside of them. That’s because by 1974, the Carpenters’ record-making craft was so accomplished—seriously, they were approaching McCartney levels by this time—that I’m impressed by it even when it’s in the service of a song that’s not especially memorable.

As for Carly and James, leave it to nerds such as we to consider where  “Mockingbird” fits on a creative spectrum or within the course of history. In 1974, they had hit the quinella of being young, beautiful, talented, stoned (just JT), and in love, so good for them.

29. “Let It Ride”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive

22. “Band on the Run”/Paul McCartney and Wings
3. “Bennie and the Jets”/Elton John
1. “The Locomotion”/Grand Funk

Here are more stars who were either just starting a run of success (BTO) or in the middle of one. But they also represent the only real rock music on this chart. Does “Bennie and the Jets” even count? I am almost convinced that “The Locomotion” is more akin to the novelty cheese of “The Streak,” which would knock “The Locomotion” from the #1 position during the week of May 18, 1974, and stay in the Top Five until July.

While there are some specific exceptions, in general I find the radio pop from first half of 1974 hard to love. It gets better as the year goes along, but I can never be sure that doesn’t have as much to do with the pleasant associations I have with the music as it does with the music itself. If I’m onto anything here, it’s the idea that there was a degree of qualitative retreat going on in that year, moving in a direction that would necessitate new innovations—disco, new wave, MTV, take your pick—in not too many years after.

8 thoughts on “Young, Beautiful, Talented, and Stoned

  1. mikehagerty

    There’s something to be said, during the doldrums of pop music (see “Guy Zapolean’s theory of music cycles”) for just dumping white pop and playing nothing but rock and R&B. It’s how KFRC, San Francisco made it through 1980-82.

    Odd note—a couple of weeks ago, in the car, Spotify treated me to Billy Paul’s “Thanks For Saving My Life”. I’d added it when I was Music Director at KSLY, San Luis Obispo and I’m not at all sure I’ve heard it more than twice since 1974. And now, here it is again.

  2. mackdaddyg

    Coincidentally, I heard “My Mistake” for the first time (that I’m aware of) just last week on the radio. It now gets pulled up on YouTube practically every day. As a matter of fact, it was (and is) playing as I read your post. A true delight.

    1. Wesley

      Agreed. “My Mistake” is one of my favorite songs of 1974, and the others listed with it hold up marvelously well. But the fact that it stalled at #19 while The Streak went to #1 is indicative of how barren the music scene was in early 1974, as jb indicates here.

  3. I was interested in what you were going to say about “The Loco-Motion.”
    I wouldn’t count that *or* “Bennie and the Jets” as straight-ahead rock; I think they both verge on novelty.
    For that matter, “Band on the Run” could easily soundtrack one of those escape scenes where Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne run in place but look like they’re going somewhere.

  4. From time to time I think about the Carpenters and try to reason out why their popularity began waning in 1976 and collapsed soon after. Did the ground just move under them too much? Did they evolve in directions that suited the public less? Were Karen’s issues starting to surface? These posts seem to offer support for the first of these–maybe they got swamped as ‘innovations’ arose in the late 70s. But I hear a little something different beginning with “Please Mr. Postman”–they’d recorded lots of other people’s songs, of course, but this was a cover of a previous big hit, and the arrangement is just bigger, too. Was it a bit of a move away from their earlier sound? Could they see the writing on the wall? Am I out in left field on this? I think I’d be interested in reading a biography of Karen.

    1. mikehagerty

      Wm.

      There actually are Karen Carpenter biographies out there. Randy L. Schmidt’s “Little Girl Blue”, published in 2010, is considered to be the definitive one.

      As for waning popularity, they were an act going against the tide from day one.

      Richard Carpenter has complained in interviews about how their album covers were hopelessly unhip and reinforced ugly rumors of a too-close relationship and how their management, independent of A&M, worked them to death on the concert and TV circuit—reinforcing the “squeaky-clean” image, making independent adult relationships difficult and leading to drug problems for him and, he believes Karen’s anorexia was kicked into high gear by the knowledge that the public was going to see her pretty much every day.

      And somehow, they still managed to put records into the top ten in six consecutive years. Apart from a B-side to a #2 hit (“Bless the Beasts and Children”, the flip of “Superstar”), the four records that didn’t go top ten were near misses (“It’s Going To Take Some Time” peaked at #12, “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” at #11 and “Solitaire” at #17).

      In fact, if “A Kind Of Hush” had peaked at #10 instead of #12, it would have been seven consecutive years with at least one top ten record.

      As for “Please Mr. Postman”, that was actually a return to a sound that had worked the year before on the “Oldies Medley” side of the “Now and Then” album. It worked. Got ’em back to #1 after “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” (a then two-year-old LP cut issued as a single because they’d been on the road too much to record anything new) peaked at #11.

      It also rode on a wave of “new oldies” releases in 1974 (Grand Funk’s “The Loco-Motion”, Ringo Starr’s “You’re Sixteen”, Carly Simon and James Taylor’s “Mockingbird”, Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” and pretty much everything from that other brother-sister act, Donny and Marie Osmond.

      Times changed. It was a miracle the Carpenters had the hits they had when they had them, if you look at what was happening in the rest of pop music. By 1976-’77, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Steve Miller Band and Boston were taking over the charts. The Carpenters were done. They got about five more years out of new singles on adult contemporary radio and that was it. And Karen died the year after that.

      1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Mike, and for reminding me of the context of the times surrounding “Please Mr. Postman.” I was just six when “Close to You” hit, so I don’t think I have the perspective necessary to see how unlikely their success was.

    2. mikehagerty

      Wm. Don’t know if you’ll see this after a few days have elapsed…but I just read that there’s a new Carpenters bio—this one with the participation of Richard Carpenter—about to be released. Not an endorsement—just thought you might be interested:

      https://papress.com/pages/carpenters

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