Heaven Help Us All

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(Pictured: the Temptations on stage.)

I griped last spring about how when you turn on the radio in this era of political turmoil and rampant disease, the music you hear is totally escapist. It’s not true that no artist has anything to say about current reality, only that the records you hear most often on pop and country radio do not. In our heads, we compare today’s hits to those of 50 years ago, “War” and “Ohio” and “Fortunate Son,” and we think that all pop music was politically aware and had something to say. But back in 2012, I wrote this:

[I]t’s worth remembering that even at the height of the 1960s, when the personal became political and many people read revolution into every act, many stars avoided saying anything. Even the Beatles, avatars of the counterculture, didn’t sing against the war in Vietnam—their message was, well, foggy enough not to offend anybody: “all you need is love.” (John Lennon would eventually take a clear stand, but it was more generally anti-war than it was specifically anti-Vietnam.) Neither did the Beatles sing about injustice, poverty, racism, sexism, or any other -ism.

At Motown, the Temptations began engaging with the real world once Norman Whitfield moved into the producer’s chair on records including “Runaway Child” and “Ball of Confusion.” Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Heaven Help Us All” is one of the most powerful and wide-ranging political statements ever to hit the Top 40. Each of the three big singles from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On forced listeners to confront a different critical issue: the legitimacy of young voices (“What’s Going On”), the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and economic inequality (“Inner City Blues”). It’s interesting to note that the Temps and Stevie kept singing about political issues well into the 1970s, long after most white artists had given it up.…

I’d correct that paragraph to say that the Supremes’ “Love Child,” produced by a team of Motown staffers called the Clan, beat “Runaway Child” to the radio by a couple of months at the end of 1968. Also, I might have better described “Heaven Help Us All” as a “social statement.” Moving on:

By the middle of the 1970s, however, there was precious little political content in radio pop. I remember reading one commentator who suggested that the lightweight goofiness of the Top 40 circa 1975 was a reaction to the politics of the previous decade, Vietnam to Watergate—that people wanted to escape when they turned on the radio, and there’s definitely something to that idea. It would be another decade before the real world intruded on the radio in any significant way, with Band Aid and Live Aid and USA for Africa, and they were qualitatively different from the political pop of the late 60s and early 70s. The issues involved were held at arm’s length—practically nobody listening to those songs knew a starving person in Africa, but in years before, millions knew people affected by the war in Vietnam, people suffering in urban poverty, people oppressed by racism.

It’s true that in the late 70s, the first wave of punk rock addressed Britain’s reality after several years of economic and social crisis, but it had a relatively small number of rabid American fans. Moving further on:

As the Me Decade turned ever more inward, it would occasionally produce music that inadvertently commented on the wider world. In 1978, Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg recorded “The Power of Gold.” Its lyric was intended as a personal zinger—but it can also be read as an indictment of a whole society and our individual responses to it. And that indictment is even more potent now than it was [42] years ago.

You’re a creature of habit
You run like a rabbit
Scared of a fear you can’t name

And also:

The women are lovely
The wine is superb
But there’s something about the song that disturbs you

We’re busted: we know that the way we live and perhaps even the way we think are unsupportable, but to acknowledge it directly would be admitting that we’re interested in changing it. And although we give lip service to change, we are in no wise ready to make the necessary sacrifices that would result in change.

We’re more used to sacrifice than we used to be, but is it enough? Millions of us masking up, staying home, and washing our hands hasn’t been enough to stop the virus. Is voting for new leadership to stop the political rot enough? What is still required of us? What else must we do?

Magic Man and Other Tales

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(Pictured: Nancy and Ann Wilson on stage with Heart in 2019).

Here a story I didn’t have room for last month when I was writing about Charles Manson’s musical connections, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with various players on the Laurel Canyon scene. In his book Creepy Crawling, author Jeffrey Melnick deals with the rumor that Heart’s 1976 hit “Magic Man” is about Manson, and that any money the song earned was turned over to him. It’s easy to understand how people might leap to that conclusion, considering that the song is about a charismatic man with seemingly hypnotic power attempting to win over a young woman whose mother prefers that she come home.

The “Magic Man” tale isn’t true (and the rumor was persistent enough that Ann and Nancy Wilson debunked it in their 2013 memoir Kicking and Dreaming), but 1976 provided fertile soil for Manson-related rumors. Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 account of the Tate-La Bianca case, Helter Skelter, had just been turned into a highly rated TV miniseries. Manson’s renewed presence in popular culture made him especially potent as what Melnick calls a “culture-generator.”

Manson wasn’t the only culture-generator in the middle of the 1970s. Melnick mentions that a lot of people believe that Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” is about Patty Hearst.

Since there’s space left today, here’s some recent recommended reading from the last couple of weeks:

Continue reading “Magic Man and Other Tales”

Rolling Home

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(Pictured: Grace Slick, 1975)

As is customary around here after discussing an American Top 40 show, let’s see what else we can see on the Hot 100 during the week of January 10, 1976.

42. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles. Most people never take anything to the limit, ever. Considering Randy Meisner is singing about how he’s going to take it to the limit one more time, implying that he’s done it before (whatever “it” is), no wonder he sounds so weary.

49. “Play on Love”/Jefferson Starship. Grace Slick sings the hell out of “Play on Love” and I’ve always liked that, but I wish the arrangement behind her had more going on, on the order of “Miracles” or “Runaway.”

51. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
52. “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)”/Bee Gees
59. “The Homecoming”/Hagood Hardy
61. “Break Away”/Art Garfunkel
62. “Back to the Island”/Leon Russell
The challenge for me in writing this post is finding new things to say about records I like instead of repeating things I have said before.

54. “Love or Leave”/Spinners. From the album Pick of the Litter, released in the summer of 1975, which contains the magnificent “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play).”

58. “Feelings”/Morris Albert. This record had peaked at #6 back in the fall, but here it is moving up again, from #64, in its 30th week on the Hot 100.

67. “Don’t Cry Joni”/Conway Twitty. A few years ago, we noted that Conway Twitty had 40 #1 country singles, the second-most of all time, but never became cool on the level of George Jones, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. Incredibly sappy records like “Don’t Cry Joni” probably didn’t help.

(Digression: “Don’t Cry Joni” tells a fairly predictable story—young girl falls for older boy and asks him to wait for her til she’s grown, he says he’s too old for her and moves away but realizes years later he’s in love with her, he moves back home, and he finds out that she didn’t wait. Even a predictable story can be made enjoyable if the author is just as careful about what he leaves out as what he puts in. The last verse of “Don’t Cry Joni” makes it clear where the story will end, but the last line is the lyricist saying to the audience, “I don’t think you’re smart enough to get this unless I smack you upside the head with it.” My instantaneous reaction at the moment I heard it: “oh for chrissakes.”)

71. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Here it comes, in its second week on the Hot 100.

73. “This Old Man”/Purple Reign
95. “The Little Drummer Boy”/Moonlion
Friends, that’s a disco version of a nursery rhyme and a disco version of a Christmas song. “This Old Man” peaked a week earlier at #48 and was now in its eighth week on the Hot 100. We’ve mentioned “The Little Drummer Boy” at this website previously. (It’s not terrible.) Disco adaptations of already-familiar tunes were thick on the ground during disco’s formative years; although the phenomenon never disappeared completely, it became less prevalent as disco grew in popularity.

74. “Free Ride”/Tavares. Here’s a cover of the Edgar Winter hit from 1973 that’s not as different from the original as you’d expect.

77. “Fire on the Mountain”/Marshall Tucker Band. This country-rock classic had peaked at #37 on the Hot 100 and spent three weeks in the Top 40, but was heard on American Top 40 only once, on the show dated December 20, 1977. The other two weeks of its run corresponded with the 1975 yearend countdown shows.

(Further digression: surely there must have been a few songs during the AT40 era that made the Top 40 for a single week but were never heard on the show because they charted during a week when Casey was doing a special countdown of some sort. Would anybody with a better work ethic than mine like to research that?)

81. “Dream On”/Aerosmith. “Dream On” had run the Hot 100 for nine weeks between October and December 1973, getting as high as #59. Now here it is again, in its first week back.

90. “This Old Heart of Mine”/Rod Stewart. The album Atlantic Crossing was Stewart’s first without Ron Wood, Ian McLagan, and the rest of Faces, but Rod rounded up some decent players: members of Booker T and the MG’s, the Memphis Horns, and the Swampers. The album didn’t contain any big American hits, although “Sailing” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” were #1 in the UK, and this made #4. If you think you remember hearing “This Old Heart of Mine” on the radio, you might: Rod recut it for the 1990 Storyteller box set with Ronald Isley and released it (a far-better version) as a single.

Let’s Do It Again

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(Pictured: Paul Simon on stage in December 1975.)

Several years ago, I referred to the week of January 10, 1976, as “one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s”. I discovered that I have in my archives the American Top 40 show from that week, which I have somehow never written about. So here we go.

40. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
39. “Golden Years”/David Bowie
38. “Theme From S.W.A.T.“/Rhythm Heritage
37. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
36. “Squeeze Box”/The Who
“One of the half-dozen most weeks of the 70s”. QED. I could quit right now.

35. “Let’s Live Together”/Road Apples. Casey says this band is from Beloit, Wisconsin, which is about an hour south on I-90 from Madison, although there’s not a single citation on the Internet that confirms it. By 1976, they were based in Cambridge, Massachsetts, and a popular local act: “Let’s Live Together” hit #1 in Boston, Providence, and Pawtucket. (Bakersfield, California, too.) It’s technically a debut on American Top 40, but this is its third week in the top 40 of the Hot 100. Twelve songs entered the 40 over the two holiday weeks on which Casey did his year-end show.)

Casey answers several letters in the first hour of the show. One about the soundtrack with the longest run on the album chart reveals that the four longest-running soundtracks were all from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Questions about whether there has ever been a week in which all of the Top 10 were by female artists, and another about whether there has ever been a week with no debuts within the Top 40, are disposed of with a single word: no.

Over the course of the show, Casey welcomes 10 new stations to the AT40 family. By the end of 1976, the show would be on over 350 stations coast to coast and around the world.

29. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention
24. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
21. “Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac
18. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
17. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
13. “Singasong”/Earth Wind and Fire
6. “Fox on the Run”/Sweet
One of these is the best song on the show. My fondness for “Fly Robin Fly” and “Winners and Losers” borders on the irrational. With “Over My Head,” Fleetwood Mac started a chart run that would keep them somewhere in the Hot 100 for most of the next two years. “Evil Woman” and “Singasong” (one word, as it was styled on some early copies) still get radio play today. “50 Ways” was up from #34 the week before and would hit #1, in one of the great cosmic jokes, during Valentine’s week. And it occurs to me that nothing else sounds quite like “Fox on the Run.”

19. “Let’s Do It Again”/Staple Singers
5. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers
These songs each hit #1 while Casey was doing the top 100 of 1975, on December 27 and January 3. (I wrote about that show in 2014: part 1 here, part 2 here.) He quotes reports in the Soviet press saying that the Rollers’ music “is designed, like all drugs, to stupefy people,” and that Rollermania is “more hysterical, more maniacal” than that inspired by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The Rollers’ manager responded by threatening to have the band march on Moscow. Well played, sir.

16. “Fly Away”/John Denver
15. “Rock and Roll All Nite”/KISS
A massive train wreck, without a commercial break or even a jingle between them.

12. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”/Glen Campbell. Casey reminds us that for 1975, Campbell had the #1 song of the year on the country chart and #2 on the pop chart, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” “Country Boy” peaked at #11 pop and #3 country during its chart run and was Billboard‘s #100 hit of 1976, but I’m betting that if there’s one song in the top half of this Top 40 that you don’t know, this is it.

4. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
3. “Theme From Mahogany“/Diana Ross
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
These were all in the same spot as the previous week. “Love Rollercoaster” was in its third week at #4. It would stay #4 for one more week before going to #3 and then to #1 on January 31.

1. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. With so little chart action at the top over the holidays, seeing “Convoy” vault from #6 to #1 is another indication of just how hot a record it was as 1976 began. I’ve written about it a lot over the years as a example of textbook storytelling technique, but here, it locks down the basic premise of this post: that the week of January 10, 1976, was as purely 1970s as the 1970s ever got. Oddball records and timeless classics, superstars and one-shots, they’re all here.

(Note to patrons: a new Sidepiece, with commentary on Wednesday’s events in Washington, went out yesterday. Check your spam filter. To receive future editions, sign up here.)

And That’s All Right With Me

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(Pictured: if you see this van a-rockin’, you know what not to do.)

I got this post ready to go on One-Hit Wonder Day last September then ended up not running it for some reason. So here it is today. 

If we had some kind of tournament for the most quintessentially 70s songs—those that most effectively capture the essence of the times, in the way they sound and the things they say—wouldn’t Sammy Johns’ lone big hit, “Chevy Van,” have to be in the semifinals?

The song is sung by a guy driving one of those vans, and if you remember the 70s, you know the kind I mean: elaborately painted on the outside and big enough to live in on the inside, or at least big enough to sleep in, or not sleep in, when necessary.

I gave a girl a ride in my wagon
She crawled in and took control
She was tired cuz her mind was a-draggin’
I said “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll”

What a perfectly 70s line: “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.” It’s quite lovely, actually—dream of something utterly out of this world and time, something simple and unthreatening, purely pleasurable and fun. It’s obvious he’s not suggesting she dream of Black Sabbath or Emerson Lake and Palmer, but rather of something that rocks easy, like “Chevy Van” itself.

There is no doubt that Sammy is checking her out, the moonlight on her hair, her angel’s face, her long and tanned legs. Because this is the 1970s, however, she’s not entirely down with being objectified: “Better keep your eyes on the road, son / Better slow this vehicle down.” Yet at the same time, she really does need a lift to the next town, and she’s willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants: “She’s gonna love me in my Chevy van and that’s all right with me.”

And because this is the 70s, we turn discreetly away from the scene and listen to a gentle wah-wah against a wall of acoustic guitars before Sammy fast-forwards to the end of the story.

I put her out in a town that was so small
You could roll a rock from end to end
A dirt road main street, she walked off in bare feet
It’s a shame I won’t be passing through again 

Then Sammy sings the refrain one last time, slightly altered, in which we learn that what was going to happen has just happened: “We made love in my Chevy van / And that’s all right with me.”

An easy-rockin’ song of the road about a casual sexual encounter in the back of a van with a beautiful, nameless, barefoot hitchhiker? It doesn’t get more 70s than that.

“Chevy Van” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of January 25, 1975, and hit the big chart the next week. It peaked at #5 in Billboard and Cash Box during the week of May 3 but plunged swiftly off both charts, gone by June. Its chart run roughly coincides with the time when I was involved with my first serious girlfriend. We could imagine what Sammy and the stranger were doing in there, but what it had to do with us—how we might contrive to get to that point—wasn’t entirely clear. I had no van—no driver’s license yet—and certainly no line as smooth as “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.”

Sammy Johns had charted one Hot 100 single before “Chevy Van” and would chart one more afterward. In their wake, he lived a rock star’s life—broke and in rehab by the end of the 70s. By the 80s, he was back writing songs, however, many of which were country hits, including the #1 single “Common Man,” recorded by John Conlee in 1983. The refrain of “Common Man” includes the lines “I’m a common man / Drive a common van.”

“I’ve had it since the 70s,” the Common Man might also say. “You shoulda seen it then.”

(This post was rebooted from one appearing shortly after Sammy Johns died, on January 4, 2013.)

January 1, 1981: Another One Bites the Dust

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(Pictured: Georgia running back Herschel Walker carries the ball against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1981.)

January 1, 1981, was a Thursday. Stories in the morning papers include the death of media theorist Marshall McLuhan yesterday. Also dying this week were singer/songwriter Tim Hardin (of a heroin overdose) and J. W. Milam, who had been acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges in the 1955 Emmett Till case. After the acquittal, Milam and an accomplice admitted the crime in a 1956 Look magazine story. Today, negotiations continue in hopes of freeing the Americans held hostage in Iran since November 1979. Algerian diplomats will take the latest American proposals to Iran tonight; meanwhile, a British envoy says that the release of British hostages held in Iran is imminent. The federal minimum wage increases from $3.10 to $3.35 an hour. It had been raised 60 cents in 1979 and 20 cents in 1980. Outgoing president Jimmy Carter continues to recover from a broken collarbone suffered last weekend while cross-country skiing at Camp David. Despite the break, the Carters attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of press secretary Jody Powell last night, returning to the White House a little before 1:00 this morning. The president is up at 6 and in the Oval Office by 7:30; later in the morning, the Carters fly to Atlanta and then New Orleans, where they attend this afternoon’s Sugar Bowl game between Georgia and Notre Dame. They return to Washington via Atlanta and are back in the White House by 9PM.

In the Sugar Bowl, Georgia completes an undefeated season and is expected to be voted college football’s national champion after defeating Notre Dame 17-10. Second-ranked Florida State, its title hopes extinguished after the Georgia win this afternoon, loses the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma tonight, 18-17. Elsewhere today, Michigan wins the Rose Bowl 23-16 over Washington and Alabama blows out Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, 30-2. The last of the season’s 15 bowl games will be played tomorrow when Miami (Florida) plays Virginia Tech in Atlanta at the Peach Bowl. Four NFL divisional playoff games are scheduled for this weekend. On Saturday, Minnesota plays at Philadelphia and Buffalo is at San Diego; on Sunday, Oakland is at Cleveland and Dallas plays at Atlanta.

Around the country, radio stations have been counting down the top hits of 1980. At WLS in Chicago, the #1 song of the year is “Lost in Love” by Air Supply. At WABC in New York and CKLW in Detroit, it’s “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. At KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. is #1 for the year. At WFIL in Philadelphia, it’s “Lady” by Kenny Rogers, at WHLM in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, it’s Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” and at KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, it’s “Call Me” by Blondie. “Call Me” is also American Top 40‘s #1 song of 1980; the second part of the annual Top 100 countdown will air around the country this coming weekend. Cash Box has “Call Me” at #2 for the year; its #1 song is “Another One Bites the Dust.” Cash Box and Billboard both name Pink Floyd’s The Wall as the year’s #1 album. On their regular weekly charts dated last Saturday, both Billboard and Cash Box have”(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon at #1 for the first week, knocking “Lady” from the top spot.

Perspective From the Present: The 1981 federal minimum wage of $3.35 is equivalent to between $9 and $10 per hour today, depending on which calculator you use. It would not be raised again until 1990. Georgia was named the consensus #1 team in college football, in those days before a formal playoff system existed. “Starting Over” would eventually spend five weeks at #1 in both Billboard and Cash Box.

For several years running in the late 70s and 1980s, my group of hometown friends known as the Crew would see in the new year at one guy’s family cottage, on Yellowstone Lake in rural Wisconsin. I am pretty sure that’s where I was when 1981 arrived. Guests tended to come and go as they pleased to these affairs; it was not unusual for people to roll in after midnight ready to party just as most everyone else was ready to go to sleep. One year—and we might as well say it was when 1980 turned into 1981—some of us arrived at mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve and, thanks to one of those New Year’s snowstorms we always seemed to get back then, didn’t leave until after dark on January 1.