Wonder and Confusion

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(Pictured: Bette Midler onstage in the 70s.)

A long time ago I wrote about our fascination with round numbers, and how 50 appeals to us in a way that 49 and 51 do not. So it was predictable that I would choose to listen this week to the American Top 40 show from March 24, 1973. Here’s some of what I heard.

40. “Daisy a Day”/Jud Strunk
39. “A Letter to Myself”/Chi-Lites
38. “One Less Set of Footsteps”/Jim Croce
37. “Good Morning Heartache”/Diana Ross
36. “Cook With Honey”/Judy Collins
35. “Hello Hurray”/Alice Cooper
34. “Master of Eyes”/Aretha Franklin
33. “Give Me Your Love”/Barbara Mason
This show gets off to a dreadful start. Jim Croce and Diana Ross are fine, I guess, but I found myself profoundly annoyed by “A Letter to Myself” and especially “Cook With Honey.” The meandering spoken intro to the former had me saying out loud, “get on with it for chrissakes.” The latter is either a sexual metaphor that doesn’t land or straight-up hippie twaddle, and to hell with it.

32. “Little Willy”/The Sweet
31. “Kissing My Love”/Bill Withers

30. “Peaceful”/Helen Reddy
29. “The Twelfth of Never”/Donny Osmond
28. “Rocky Mountain High”/John Denver

27. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John
This sequence improved my mood significantly. I will always fanboy for “The Twelfth of Never,” which debuts at #29 from #55 the week before. To wrap up the first hour, Casey back-announces “Crocodile Rock” by saying, “After nine weeks in the Top 10, it falls to #13,” which is actually the previous week’s note on the song.

26. “The Cisco Kid”/War
8. “Danny’s Song”/Anne Murray
5. “Last Song”/Edward Bear
One of the things old music can do is to vividly remind us of times, places, and people. These songs do the best job of it on this show. For as long as it takes them to play, I am just past my 13th birthday again, with all of the wonder and confusion that implies.

25. “Do You Wanna Dance”/Bette Midler. Like Neil Sedaka’s 1976 torch-song reinvention of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” Midler’s sexy remake of “Do You Wanna Dance” turns it into the song it always should have been.

20. “Space Oddity”/David Bowie
19. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando and Dawn
This juxtaposition is awesome. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” up 10 places this week, would become the #1 song for all of 1973, and a major artifact of the Weird 70s.

16. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”/Vicki Lawrence. Casey tells how songwriter Bobby Russell offered “The Night the Lights Went Out” to Cher but it ended up with its demo singer, “Mrs. Bobby Russell,” TV star Vicki Lawrence. That’s fairly well-known trivia now, but it would have been news when the song was in its third week on American Top 40.

Casey includes some other interesting bits in this show. A listener asks which song dropped out of the Top 40 from the highest position. It was “Crimson and Clover,” which fell from #18 clean off the Hot 100 early in 1970. Another notes that Roberta Flack was the most recent female solo act to hit #1 with back-to-back single releases (“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly”) and wondered who was the last male solo act to do it. It was Bobby Vinton with “Blue Velvet” and “There! I’ve Said It Again” in 1963.

14. “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”/Spinners
13. “Call Me”/Al Green
10. “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got”/Four Tops
9. “Break Up to Make Up”/Stylistics
3. “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”/Deodato
2. “Killing Me Softly”/Roberta Flack
1. “Love Train”/O’Jays
Any one of these could be the best record on the show, but it’s probably “Break Up to Make Up,” unless it’s “Love Train.”

For a brief period, the AT40 staff tried to predict what the next week’s #1 song would be. Last week, they expected “Killing Me Softly” to hang on for a fifth week this week, but it did not. This week, they expect “Love Train” to hold on next week—but “Killing Me Softly” will return for another week.

Looking back, I still remember 1973 with a certain degree of wonder and confusion, and I have tried to conclude just what it is about that year and me. But in his new memoir Life’s Work, David Milch writes: “[P]eople try to allegorize experience so that we think we are tending toward some ultimate destination. Probably the biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing, a conclusion of something that never concludes.”

Milch might say that my ongoing wonder and confusion over 1973, and never resolving it, tells me something more important about my whole life than anything else I could learn.

What Would You Say

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(Pictured: Hurricane Smith, unlikely singing star and later, a breeder of horses.)

Norman “Hurricane” Smith was first a recording engineer, best known to history for his work on the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul, and later producer of Pink Floyd’s early material, including the single “See Emily Play.” But he was not of their generation—he was pushing 40 when the Beatles came up—and so when he began recording himself at the age of 48, his work reflected a different taste. In the winter of 1972, the deeply odd “Don’t Let It Die” went to #2 in the UK, but a much bigger hit was to come.

“Oh Babe What Would You Say” hit #4 in the UK in the summer of 1972. It hopped the Atlantic and landed at two of America’s most influential radio stations, CKLW in Detroit and WFIL in Philadelphia, at the end of October. It was mostly an East Coast hit for a while, not getting much action farther west until December. For example, it’s a top-five hit at WRKO and WMEX in Boston before it ever charts in Chicago, at WCFL in mid-December. It doesn’t appear on a WLS chart until the second full week of January. By the end of January, it’s in the Top 10 in dozens of cities, and it spends the weeks of January 20 and 27 at #2 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, behind Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It records its first local #1 at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, during the week of February 5, and it goes #1 at KXOK in St. Louis for the week of February 17, 1973. In the same week, it hits #1 in Cash Box and peaks at #3 on the Hot 100. Also in February, Julie Andrews performs it with a giant blue Muppet on a TV special, and Smith himself sings it on The Tonight Show. But every record runs its course sooner or later, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is gone from most charts by the end of March. For all of 1973, its highest local ranking is #8 at KRUX in Phoenix and WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina. On Billboard‘s 1973 Top 100, it’s #57; in Cash Box, it’s #31.

Although I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45. (I am continually baffled by the buying choices of the younger me.) And I wish knew whether “Oh Babe” got much radio play after 1973. I don’t remember hearing it a lot, although there’s no reason it would have made any greater impression on me than anything else from the winter of 1973, if I heard it in the few years following.  It would occasionally resurface: Peggy Lee occasionally sang it in her nightclub act, and comedienne Kaye Ballard did it, with the same giant blue Muppet that had duetted with Julie Andrews, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. (The Muppet Show debuted on Disney Plus last week, so you can’t say this website isn’t topical every so often, if only by accident.)

It wasn’t long, however, before “Oh Babe” took a place among the largely forgotten hits of the past, at least for most people. In the early 80s, when I started sneaking records home from my radio job to record them to cassette, “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was one of the first ones I grabbed. And when it appeared on Rhino’s Have a Nice Day 70s anthology in 1989, that volume was one of the first ones I grabbed.

The sax player on “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is a guy named Frank Hardcastle, who had served with Smith in the Royal Air Force. The dude had chops: the solo in the middle sounds like it’s improvised. It’s the hook of that horn as much as Smith’s old-timey vocal that made the song into a hit. It’s easy to visualize Smith and Hardcastle in the 1940s, young men sitting in some club, eyeing the local girls, and listening to a band that honks like they would on a future day.

In the winter of 1973, not-quite-13-year-old me hears “Oh Babe” without a clue about how it refers to the bygone time when its musicians were young. Instead, I think about a particular pretty girl and imagine saying to her, “Have I a hope or half a chance to even ask if could I dance with you?”

I have neither.

If you’d like to hear “Oh Babe,” I recommend this clever version of it, which features the moment not-quite-13-year-old me dreamed of, at about one minute in.

(Note to Patrons: The comments on Wednesday’s post were far more interesting than what I wrote originally, and I thank all who participated.)

The Only War

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(Pictured: Alice Cooper and friend on stage in Roanoke, Virginia, on March 10, 1973.)

While doing a bit of research the other day, I found myself poking around the edition of Billboard dated February 17, 1973, as one does. Here’ some of what’s inside:

—Willis “Bill” Wardlow has been named associate publisher of Billboard. Over the next several years, Wardlow would be responsible for occasionally jiggering the Billboard charts to reward or punish record labels, and to do favors for industry friends. As we learned a few years ago, his manipulations led to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” spending only 12 hours at #1.

—A full-page ad plugs Alice Cooper’s upcoming American tour and the band’s new single, “Hello Hurray.” The tour opens in Rochester, New York, on March 5, and it will be grueling, with 52 shows in 90 days. Between April 25 and May 5, the band will play 10 shows across the South in 11 days. The last date is set for June 3 in New York City.

—A review of Bruce Springsteen’s recent show at Max’s Kansas City in New York suggests that while Springsteen is not yet Bob Dylan’s 70s heir, he “shows definite signs of acquiring the mantel.” Other reviews cover separate Las Vegas shows by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and the Supremes, a triple-bill of Al Green, the Spinners, and the Sylvers at the Forum in Los Angeles, Lou Reed at Alice Tully Hall in New York, and the opening night of a weeklong stand at the Bitter End in New York by jazz/funk player Roy Ayers and his group Ubiquity. Ayers’ show is opened by “a promising black comedian, Jimmy (sic) Walker, a man with an undeniably racy sense of humor.” Is it the same Jimmie Walker who will be in the cast of the TV sitcom Good Times a year in the future? Probably.

—A full-page ad with the heading “Grand Opening” features a cartoon woman with blonde hair, pursed red lips, and high heels, wearing a nightgown through which her nipples are clearly visible. Her hands are at her waist, seemingly ready to untie the gown. Below the tie are the words “lift up.” There is no other text on the page. Whoever scanned the issue for World Radio History has also scanned what looks to be a lifted flap: underneath are the covers for two albums. One I cannot identify, since the title isn’t legible; the other is Under the Skunk by Laurie Kaye Cohen. A similar ad appears on another page with the “Grand Opening” headline reversed and the women seen from the back, with another flap that can be lifted. Under that flap is a shot of the woman’s underwear; appearing below are the words “pull down.” Whether anything is under that, I can’t tell; there’s no corresponding scan. Even by the standards of 1973, the whole thing is astoundingly offensive—but Billboard likely collected a fortune for it, considering how elaborate it was. The Cohen album was released on the Playboy label; if they’re the ones who placed the ad, it explains a lot.

—A full-page ad from Brunswick pushes a coin-operated air hockey table that’s about the same size as a standard pool table, calling it “the fastest profit maker you’ve ever seen.” This point is illustrated by a bikini-clad woman sitting on the table, hiding her seductive smile behind a fan of obviously fake paper money.

—On the Easy Listening chart, “Dueling Banjos,” billed only to Deliverance Soundtrack, is the new #1 song. “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” by Lobo is at #2 after two weeks at #1. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack is already at #6 in only its third week on the chart. On Hot Soul Singles, “Love Train” by the O’Jays is the new #1, replacing “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” by the Spinners. Also in the Top 10 are Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. On the Hot 100, “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John holds at #1. “Killing Me Softly” and “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver are new in the Top 10. The biggest move in the Top 40 is made by Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” up 11 spots to #19, although “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato debuts within the Top 40 at #25 from #50 the week before. The new #1 album is The World Is a Ghetto by War, dropping Carly Simon’s No Secrets to #2. A full-page ad celebrating War’s rise to the top contains the line, “Let Us Pray From Now On, We Are The Only War.”

Keep on Truckin’

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(Pictured: Stevie Wonder, with Grover on Sesame Street, 1973.)

Because AT40 did a Christmas countdown in 1973, its year-end countdown, on the weekend of December 29, covered the year’s Top 40 instead of the Top 80, as in 1972. Here’s some of what was on it:

39. “Love Train”/O’Jays
31. “Dancing in the Moonlight”/King Harvest
29. “Superstition”/Stevie Wonder
27. “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu”/Johnny Rivers
23. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”/Stevie Wonder
15. “Brother Louie”/Stories
11. “Me and Mrs. Jones”/Billy Paul
Is one of these the best record on the show? Probably. Is it by Stevie Wonder, the only act to have two songs on the list? Possibly, unless it’s something else.

38. “Angie”/Rolling Stones
35. “Clair”/Gilbert O’Sullivan
21. “Midnight Train to Georgia”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
17. “Keep on Truckin'”/Eddie Kendricks
Back at the top of the show, Casey noted that the year-end calculation is for a 52-week period ending December 8, 1973. Throughout the show, when songs were still on the charts at the cut-off date, he mentions that they’d rank higher if they weren’t. He also explains that “Clair,” which debuted in October 1972 and peaked that December, did well enough during the survey period to make the 1973 list.

32. “Loves Me Like a Rock”/Paul Simon
25. “We’re an American Band”/Grand Funk
19. “Frankenstein”/Edgar Winter Group
14. “Playground in My Mind”/Clint Holmes

I bought my first albums in 1973, but I was still buying singles too, including these. I’m not sure I have ever admitted here that 13-year-old me bought “Playground in My Mind” (and “Clair” too), or whether I should admit it now.

30. “Wildflower”/Skylark. Many of the songs on the show have been edited, snipping a verse here or a chorus there. “Wildflower” loses all but half a verse and two choruses and runs less than two minutes. (At the same time, at #19, we hear the whole five minutes of “Frankenstein,” which strikes me weird.) Sometimes the edits are from the original shows and sometimes they’re for the modern repeats. It’s sometimes necessary to cut one or two minutes from some hours to accommodate today’s commercial load.

28. “Funny Face”/Donna Fargo. Casey introduces this with an odd remark: “I have a song now that was wrote by an English teacher, and her students used to put her on about the good English she learned them.” As a joke, it’s a lead balloon. I can’t imagine that it’s a slam on Fargo’s country-star twang.

Casey ends the first and second hours of the show by suggesting that listeners phone a friend and tell ’em to tune in.

22. “Little Willy “/The Sweet. Casey calls this British bubblegum in the tradition of “Sugar Sugar.” I’ll allow it.

16. “Delta Dawn”/Helen Reddy
13. “Half Breed”/Cher
Sean Ross’s columns at RadioInsight.com about “lost” hits—big records in their time that get little or no airplay now—are music-nerd heaven. These two are among Sean’s 100 most-lost hits of the early 70s. “Delta Dawn” still sounds really good to me, but “Half Breed” not so much. I’m surprised that a few radio stations are still playing it, considering its stereotypes—the tom-toms and “Indian chant” backing vocals— and the racial slur “squaw” in the lyrics.

6. “My Love”/Paul McCartney and Wings. Casey says that all four Beatles placed songs in the Top 40 at some point in 1973, but only Paul makes the Top 40 of the year. Three hit #1: George’s “Give Me Love,” from early summer, is the only #1 song completely within the survey period that did not make the year-end chart, while Ringo’s “Photograph” was #1 for a week at the end of November and would have been hurt by the cut-off date.

4. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack
2. “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
When I wrote about the 1972 year-end countdown, I mentioned Joel Whitburn’s method of accounting in his Pop Annual series, which ranks all of the #1s ahead of all the #2s, and so on. By that method, “Killing Me Softly,” with five weeks at #1, is the top song of 1973. “Why Me,” which is here for its 38 weeks on the Hot 100 despite never making it above #16 in any given week, ranks #127.

1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. I haven’t got anything to add beyond what I wrote a couple of years ago, when I called this song “an artifact of the weird 70s, when it scratched some sort of itch we couldn’t have described at the time.”

Today, the year 1973 feels like a transitional year for Top 40 music, from the 60s hangover of the early 70s to the goofy and escapist middle part of the decade, just as 1973 itself marked a broader American transition, economically and politically. Its music sounds better than I remember.

[jingle out]

Roll It

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(Pictured: Linda, Paul, and Denny Laine at work in the studio, 1973.)

This post has appeared here before, I think, or parts of it. Since it has been 45 years this week since Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run spent its first of four non-consecutive weeks at #1, I’m going to bring it back, or out, or whatever, for another installment in our ongoing series, The Re-Listening Project. This time we’ll start ranking the tracks at the top instead of counting them down.

1.  “Band on the Run.” Nobody ever lists the opening of “Band on the Run” among the all-time great guitar riffs, but they should. It sounds great on the radio off a jingle, in a song-to-song transition, or as a segue. When you put in the CD or play the album, there’s that second of two of anticipation before the riff comes knifing out of your speakers, and that’s pretty great, too. (Both Paul and Denny Laine are credited as guitarists on the album, but I don’t know who played it.) The transition to the middle section (“If I ever get out of here”) and “Well the rain exploded with a mighty crash / As we fell into the sun” are further proof that Paul is better at crafting songs than everybody else who crafts songs.

2.  “Jet.” Like “Band on the Run,” “Jet” has a radio-ready opening riff that sounded hotter than hell, especially on AM radio. The song itself is surely more about sound than sense, because the lyrics don’t make any. Over the years, Paul has offered several different explanations for what it’s supposed to be about, none of which seem especially convincing.

3.  “Bluebird.” One of the loveliest songs Paul ever wrote, no matter which band he was in.

4.  “Helen Wheels.” In the UK, this was a non-album single in 1973 and didn’t appear on Band on the Run at all. It was in the middle of Side 2 on the original vinyl release in the States, although on the 1993 and 1999 CD reissues, it was moved to the end to reflect its status as a UK bonus track. On the 2010 Archive Edition, it’s exiled to a second disc of extras. And it makes three of Paul’s greatest riffs on the same album.

5.  “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.” This was never released as a single (except as the B-side of “Band on the Run”), but classic-rock stations played it far more often than anything else on the record except for the title song. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Paul never played it in concert until 2011.

6.  “Mrs. Vandebilt.” That rolling, thumping bass and “ho . . . hey ho.”

7.  “Let Me Roll It.” In his original 1974 review of Band on the Run, Jon Landau calls this “a parody of and tribute to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band style.” I suppose one can hear it that way.

8.  “Mamunia.” Imagine being so talented that you can knock off something this good for a middle-of-Side-2 filler spot.

9. “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” This is OK, I guess, although the bits that reprise “Jet” don’t do much for me. On the 1976 Wings Over America tour, the band performed it as a medley with Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” and there’s something about that juxtaposition that makes “Picasso’s Last Words” work better. Maybe it’s that there’s simply less of it.

10.  “No Words.” I listen to Band on the Run a couple of times a year, and whenever “No Words” comes on, it’s like I’ve never heard it before. It makes no impression whatsoever.

The reason I chose to list from top to bottom instead of bottom to top, countdown-style, is that my ranking of the album tracks is basically the track listing, except “Helen Wheels” and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” get moved up and “Picasso’s Last Words” and “No Words” are flipped.

Band on the Run was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys awarded in 1975, part of a group that also included Elton John’s Caribou, Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Back Home Again by John Denver, and the eventual winner, Fulfillingness’ First Finale by Stevie Wonder. It was the first of four Album of the Year nominations Paul would receive as a solo artist. Band on the Run remains his best-selling and best-reviewed album, and if any of Paul’s 1970s albums is going to endure for a hundred years, it will probably be the one.

You Prob’ly Think This Song Is About You

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(Pictured: Carly Simon.)

For this final post of 2018, here are the top 10 songs of 1973—the year I turned 13—as listed by KSTT in Davenport, Iowa.

10. “Touch Me in the Morning”/Diana Ross. A classmate of mine died last week. We were close in grade school, but by the time we were 13, we’d drifted apart. It’s a pattern many of us repeat all our lives. Some friendships we deliberately break; others just stop. A few crumble in slow motion; like Diana Ross in “Touch Me in the Morning,” we know it’s over, or soon will be, but we resolve to hang on to it just a little bit longer.

9. “Playground in My Mind”/Clint Holmes. I had a “girlfriend” in kindergarten. I lost track of her when we moved to different schools, but our town had only one junior high, so when we got to seventh grade, there she was again. We went on a single date at some point that year. As we talked, it came out that she had no memory of me from kindergarten. We never went out again.

8. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”/Vicki Lawrence. My seventh-grade English teacher required us to keep a journal in which we could write anything, as long as we wrote two pages a week. I wrote stories almost exclusively. Even though I no longer have the journals, I’m pretty sure they were pretty terrible. As an adult writer, I admire “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” although it didn’t make sense to me at first. I was never sure exactly who was dead or who committed adultery with who.

7. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon. Teachers liked me, administrators like me, most other kids liked me, their parents liked me, and I knew it. So I was not lacking in self-esteem, and it made me an insufferable ass as years went by. If there is one fault I have worked to eradicate in adulthood, it’s to rid myself of that level of ego. But I have two blogs in which I talk about myself constantly, so there’s still work to do, apparently.

6. “Will It Go Round in Circles”/Billy Preston. My only contact with black people came through listening to soul music and watching black athletes, with one exception. One summer (1969?), an inner-city kid from Milwaukee spent a week on the farm through some program our church was sponsoring. It was not an exchange program; we did not get to spend a week in the ‘hood, however enlightening it might have been to do so. And however racist it might have been that we didn’t.

5. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John. Me, earlier this year, upon re-listening to this song: “Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.”

4. “My Love”/Paul McCartney and Wings. I don’t hate this record, although we’re all supposed to.

3. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack. All I remember of the ed psych I took is that adolescents often perceive themselves as actors on a stage with everyone watching, and often the part one plays is not one’s true self. That’s what made certain friends so important: you could drop the mask with them and let them see right through you, in all your dark despair.

2. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”/Jim Croce. Maybe I’ve repressed memories of the worst of it, but I don’t remember being bullied in any significant way when I was a kid. A handful of socially prominent jocks used to lord their position and their prowess over those of us who possessed neither. My main defense mechanism was my smart mouth and a willingness to make jokes with it, and a lot of the time, it worked.

1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. “I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time / And I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine.” At the end of this year in which I hoped to figure out why my 1973 seems jumbled and confused, I’m right back where I started: the year was jumbled and confused because that’s what it is to be 13 years old, dealing with a world that is bigger and more complicated than you ever suspected, making up your life as you live it, day by day.

(Please visit One Day in Your Life today for a new post, and for a programming announcement.)