Top 5: Easy Listening

The other day I was fooling around with some data from Billboard‘s adult contemporary charts. Billboard first published the chart in July 1961, and for much of that time, it was known as the Easy Listening chart. Today it’s called “Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks”—and now that we’re in the Soundscan era, records tend to stay on it forever. For example, “Breakeven” by the Script and “Hey Soul Sister” by Train are at Numbers Three and Four this week, in their 51st and 61st week on the chart respectively. But we’re not concerning ourselves with the new millennium here. Let’s grab five records that hit the top of the chart in mid-March during bygone years.

“Got a Hold on Me”/Christine McVie (1984, four weeks at Number One). I am a big Christine fan, as you may know, but her late-period solo stuff has never done much for me. (Her early solo record, on the other hand—The Legendary Christine Perfect Album—is one I keep returning to again and again.) “Got a Hold on Me” was a great radio song, although some critics have written that her performances can seem passionless. This video won’t disabuse anybody of that notion.

“Give It All You Got”/Chuck Mangione (1980, three weeks). This was ABC’s theme music for the 1980 Winter Olympics, which had just got done consuming most of the media oxygen as winter turned to spring that year. We were hungry for diversion then, tired of the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran—which was about to get worse with the failed rescue attempt in April. (I can still remember my roommate coming back to the dorm with a look on his face I’d never seen before: “They tried to get ’em out, but they couldn’t,” he said.)

“I’ve Been This Way Before”/Neil Diamond (1975, one week). Sometimes a record could top the AC chart (known as Easy Listening in the 1970s) without getting much traction on the pop charts. This was one of them. “I’ve Been This Way Before” spent but a single week in the Top 40 and seven weeks on the Hot 100.

“Danny’s Song”/Anne Murray (1973, two weeks). Murray was huge on this chart throughout the 1970s, of course. For what it’s worth, I have always thought her covers of Loggins and Messina’s songs (this one and “A Love Song”) were better suited to a female singer than they were to Kenny Loggins. Here’s a live performance of “Danny’s Song” from The Midnight Special:

“You Gave Me a Mountain”/Frankie Laine (1969, two weeks). The Easy Listening chart was born, of course, in response to the noisy kids’ music that had taken over the pop charts by 1961. And while pop hits did top the chart in the 60s, so did people like Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, Jack Jones, Al Martino, the Ray Conniff Singers, Perry Como, Ed Ames—and even 50s crooner Frankie Laine as late as 1969. “You Gave Me a Mountain” is a bombastic weeper written by Marty Robbins, which bears an amazing resemblance to his “My Woman My Woman My Wife.”

But  in the spring of 1969, the reign of the crooners was soon to be ended. Blood Sweat and Tears would top the chart with “Spinning Wheel” in August, and they were displaced by by Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” The Adult Contemporary chart was friendlier to the kids’ music after that. The Beatles would manage their lone AC Number One in 1970 with “Let It Be.” It wasn’t a clean break, though. Tom Jones and Perry Como had chart-toppers in 1970; Andy Williams and Engelbert Humperdinck would hit the top in 1971. By 1972, however, the list of adult-contemporary Number One songs looks like a subset of the Hot 100.

Recommended Reading: At Popdose, 20 versions of “Into the Mystic,” some superlative. Get there before Van Morrison finds out they’re up.

Magnificent Gibberish

One day last week I wrote here about moments of transcendence, albums or songs or even parts of songs that lift us from where we are to somewhere else entirely—goosebump moments, repeat-button moments, etc. I am unable to say precisely what makes one of these moments, only that I know them when I hear them. Sometimes it’s a single note or line of music, the sound of a particular instrument, or a certain turn of phrase. The phenomenon doesn’t have to make sense. And neither do the things that cause them.

As a practicing wordsmith, I’m also a lyrics freak, and several of my favorite goosebump moments (why didn’t I think of that phrase to describe them in my original post?) are induced by lyric lines. But several of my favorite lyric lines are gibberish. Now, there’s sometimes a thin line between gibberish and poetry (what does “buying a stairway to heaven” really mean?), but even accounting for poetic invention, some lines, and even entire songs, defy attempts to attach meaning to them.

Ever since I first heard it in the summer of 1976 (oh, Christ, here he goes again), I’ve been a fan of Neil Diamond’s “If You Know What I Mean.” I love the way Diamond sings it like a man who’s midway through a double scotch and has the rest of the bottle close at hand, and I love the reverb that’s slathered over it like mustard on a hot dog. “If You Know What I Mean” sounds like it’s about something important, but what?

And the radio played like a carnival tune
As we lay in our bed in the other room
And we gave it away for the sake of the dream
In a penny arcade
If you know what I mean

Diamond has said, apparently, that the song about the loss of innocent dreams (“Here’s to the songs we used to sing/Here’s to the times we used to know”), and if anybody can identify with that, it’s me. But still, as impressive as “If You Know What I Mean” sounds to me, it also seems pretty opaque.

Another favorite set of lines comes from “Run for Home” by the British group Lindisfarne, which barely sneaked into the Top 40 late in 1978. This is another topic with which I can identify, and I’ve dug this song since I first heard it—particularly the last verse.

I’ve traveled the land
Made mistakes out of hand
Seen the faces in the places misunderstand
I’ve been ’round the world
Seen the pretty boys and girls
Heard the noise that destroys and commands

“The noise that destroys and commands.” Damn, that’s cool. Got no idea what it’s supposed to mean, but I like the way it sounds.

I was on the road the other day when “Love and Loneliness” by the Motors came on the box. It’s a remarkable record,  a grandiose production featuring a squeaky synthesized string sound and a guitar riff lifted directly from “Born to Run.” But its most direct ancestor is not “Born to Run” as much as it is “Sugar Baby Love” by the Rubettes. And the lyric of “Love and Loneliness,” which, amidst the rush and fury of the record’s production, seems as though it simply must be filled with meaning and portent, is actually magnificent nonsense:

Now loneliness is there despite the love we make
And loneliness knows where to find the friends we make
And the place we live is just a new street number on an old address
Called love and loneliness

But just as “If You Know What I Mean” becomes a bit more lucid in spots, so does “Love and Loneliness.”

I sometimes wonder how you see us now
I’d read your mind if I had the chance
I don’t know if I’d ever find our love in there
Or just old photographs

OK, that’s a nice bit of writing right there, but every time I hear the song, half of me wonders what the hell it’s supposed to be about, even as the other half of me is cranking up the volume and stomping on the accelerator pedal.

Please share your favorite bits of magnificent gibberish in the comments.