Northern Light

When you’ve lived with the record charts as long as I have, looking at any given chart is like attending a reunion of old friends. There aren’t very many strangers, and you know your way around. Take the Cash Box chart dated May 17, 1975, 35 years ago today. It’s got lots of familiar faces on it. Not until Number 34, “I Want to Be Free” by the Ohio Players, do I find something I don’t recognize right away.

At a reunion, you sometimes reconnect with somebody you didn’t know very well in the past, and you find you want to know them better now. Like Number 86: “Minnesota” by Northern Light. This is a song I remember hearing, briefly, in the late spring of 1975, but I swiftly forgot about it, and although it’s surfaced in memory a few times since then, I’ve never sought it out until recently. It’s what the Beach Boys might have sounded like if they’d been from Fergus Falls or Eden Prairie. As it turns out, the group’s David Sandler, who co-wrote the song with Spence Peterson, worked with Beach Boy Brian Wilson on a project with the duo American Spring, in the early 1970s.

In 2007, on the Twin Cities radio show Crap From the Past, Sandler explained the recording process involved in making “Minnesota.” Northern Light wasn’t a band at that point—in the studio it was Sandler, Peterson, and other players rounded up especially for the session. But the level of craft involved was Beach Boys-esque in its technical inventiveness. Sandler also talked about the do-it-yourself promotion of the record; it turns out that my radio colleague John Sebastian, then at KDWB in Minneapolis, was instrumental in getting it on the air.

“Minnesota” isn’t the only Northern Light song I’ve had tucked away in some dusty corner of my head for over 30 years. “Think Snow” was released in 1977, although it didn’t chart anywhere I can find, except maybe in the Twin Cities. It came about when Sandler dreamed he had written a song called “Think Snow.” When he awoke, he went to his piano in the middle of the night to recapture it. The song’s genesis makes perfect sense—“Think Snow” has an otherworldly feel I couldn’t place until I heard where it came from.

Northern Light didn’t make an album until the 90s. “Minnesota” and “Think Snow” didn’t appear on CD until the 2005 album 49th Parallel. But whether you hear them in digital form or on 35-year-old vinyl, they’re perfect 70s AM-radio pop, hooky and bright and inviting and above all, singable.  I have listened to both of them over and over again the last few days, and I dig ’em every time.

Lots of record people and radio programmers have made big reputations and big money out of a presumed knack for picking the hits. But it’s an inexact science that owes as much to luck as to anything else. The history of popular music is full of performers who sounded every bit as good or better than those who were all over the radio, but who enjoyed only fleeting moments of local fame. And we all cherish a few records by such acts: the ones that were perfect, not just in their construction and execution, but in their historical moment, records so good that they make us wonder about the existence of alternate universes. Maybe somewhere there’s a world where Northern Light was one of the reigning pop groups of the late 1970s, and “Minnesota” was a Number-One single.

And by the way, Minnesotans: How come it ain’t your state song?

(H/t to reader Yah Shure for the tip to the radio show and additional assistance with the research for this post.)