Posts Tagged ‘Abba’

Autumn 1975: Learning New Skills

August 24, 2011

Originally posted October 22, 2008

Pondering the autumn of 1975 – a season that seems more brilliant in memory the further it recedes in time – I realized that I expanded what educators call my “skill set” in those months.

Part of that expansion of abilities came from both my last quarter of college coursework before graduation and from my most frequent activity during my spare time, and part came on a wet October Saturday that I spent at home with my parents.

That wet Saturday provided an interesting learning opportunity, yet it left me with skills I’ve had no chance to use. For years, while my grandparents lived on their farm, our family would spend some time on the farm in August, with one of the late-summer chores being the butchering of a good number of chickens to freeze and store for the winter. The price my family paid Grandpa for the chicken was reasonable to him and far less than we would have paid at the butcher shop or at Carl’s Market up on East St. Germain.

After Grandpa and Grandma moved off the farm in 1972, we bought chicken in the store like everyone else. But for some reason in October 1975, Mom and Dad decided that they wanted some fresh chicken to freeze and store for the winter. So early one Saturday, Dad went off to a farm somewhere northeast of St. Cloud and came home with about a dozen chickens, headless and with their feathers removed. (A good thing, that last; from my experiences on the farm, I know well that pulling feathers from a butchered chicken is difficult and messy.) And for most of the rest of the day, Mom, Dad and I stood around the kitchen table, knives in hand, and cleaned chickens, something I’d never done before.

I needn’t go into gory detail. It was messy, of course, and by the time we got through cleaning and cutting up the final chicken, I was pretty good at it. I figure if I had to do it again, I could. But I’ve never had the need since, a fact for which I am grateful.

The other skill that I strengthened that autumn – in class and during my spare time – was writing. Among my classes that fall quarter was one in the history of the documentary film. We spent hours watching documentary films – from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece, Nanook of the North – considered by most historians as the first true documentary – through 1971’s The Selling of the Pentagon, a television effort by CBS News. Some of the films were art; I think of Rain, a 1920s film by Joris Ivens (and the fact that these titles and names come back to me unbidden makes me realize again how important that class was to me) that detailed an everyday rainstorm in his hometown of Amsterdam, Holland. Some of them were something darker: The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Congress of the German Nazi Party at Nuremberg and was – viewed with knowledge of the tragedy and horror that ensued – a chilling, powerful and dark piece of work.

Not only did we watch films, but we wrote about them. Each student was required during the quarter to submit a certain number – eight, maybe? – of brief critiques of the films we were seeing and one longer critique. The short papers were required to be two to three typed pages, double-spaced, and the longer paper, about ten pages. Not yet being skilled at composing my work at the typewriter, I wrote – actually printed – my critiques on notebook paper. And as I pondered and assessed the films we were seeing, I realized that, although writing was work, it was work I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to move words around into forms and orders that were mine alone.

I remember the first time I realized that: I was writing a critique of Rain, the brief film shot in 1920s Amsterdam, and I was assessing the pacing of the film. I wrote that the film moved through the streets “with a calm urgency, like the rain.” I paused and looked at my words on paper, especially that “calm urgency.” Something about the way those words looked, sounded and read together gripped me tightly. And it was something I had done! I’m sure other writers before – many others – had found that combination of those two words and gone ahead from there. But for the moment, that set of two words was mine.

That was the moment that I began to think of myself as a writer.

And writing took up much of my free time from then on: I wrote short stories, and screenplays. My lyrics – which I’d dabbled in since 1970 – became more focused and more planned. I continued to work on a memoir of a railroad jaunt through northern Scandinavia that I’d shared with a madcap Australian – a manuscript that has rested, ignored (justifiably, I’m sure), in my files for more than thirty years now.

A writer is always learning to write. Every time he or she takes pen or pencil to paper or lays his or her fingers on the keyboard, a writer is learning something. The lesson may not be obvious; the learning is not conscious. But a writer who is serious about his or her craft comes away from every session with his or her skills honed more, even if it’s just a tiny bit. In those days in the autumn of 1975, I was learning a great deal about writing – and about thinking, for one cannot write clearly without thinking clearly – every time I sat down at a table, whether that was in my room or the basement rec room at home, in a coffee shop or restaurant around town, or in my favorite haunt, the snack bar in the basement of St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center.

I’ve never cleaned a chicken since that rainy Saturday. But I’ve written almost every day since I discovered that “calm urgency” one evening in the autumn of 1975.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1975, Vol. 4
“Fire On The Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band, Capricorn 0244 (No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of October 18, 1975)

“My Little Town” by Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia 10230 (No. 81)

“Gone At Last” by Paul Simon & Phoebe Snow, Columbia 10197

“Fight The Power” by the Isley Brothers from The Heat Is On (“Fight The Power, Pt. 1,” T-Neck 2256, was at No. 58)

“That’s The Way Of The World” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia 10172 (No. 50)

“Island Girl” by Elton John, MCA 40461 (No. 36)

“Sky High” by Jigsaw, Chelsea 3022 (No. 31)

“SOS” by Abba, Atlantic 3265 (No. 24)

“Lady Blue” by Leon Russell, Shelter 40378 (No. 19)

“Fame” by David Bowie, RCA Victor 10320 (No. 12)

“They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)” by the Spinners, Atlantic 3284 (No. 9)

“Dance With Me” by Orleans, Asylum 45261 (No. 6)

“Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka, Rocket 40460 (No. 1)

A few notes:

The Marshall Tucker Band was far more country-oriented than most of their brethren who recorded for the Capricorn label. “Fire On The Mountain,” which features Charlie Daniels on fiddle, would not be out of place on today’s country radio. Of course, a lot of what passes for country music these days would not have been out of place on rock and pop radio in 1975. Brooks & Dunn, for instance, often sound – instrumentally, at least – like the Rolling Stones gone off to Nashville. Anyway, more than thirty years on, the Marshall Tucker Band is still good listening.

I remember sitting at The Table in Atwood Center sometime during the autumn of 1975 and hearing the first low piano notes of “My Little Town” coming from the jukebox. I liked Paul Simon’s solo work, but it somehow sounded so right to hear his voice blend once more with Art Garfunkel’s (whose solo work was far less accomplished than Simon’s). And I think the song itself is one of Simon’s ignored masterpieces both musically and in the lyrics that detail the stifling atmospheres many of us perceive in our own hometowns as we grow.

I don’t have the Isley’s “Fight the Power, Part 1,” which went as high as No. 4, nor do I recall hearing it that autumn. But the album track from which Part 1 was pulled is too funky and, well, too good in its call to action to leave it out. I imagine the word “bulls**t” was bleeped on the radio.

A few of these singles, to this day, say “autumn of 1975” to me more than do the others. Among the most evocative – taking me back to sunny days on campus at a time when I was probably happier and more secure, both personally and in school, than I had ever been – are Earth, Wind & Fire’s “The Way Of The World” and Orleans’ “Dance With Me.” I love a lot of the rest of EW&F’s catalog, too, but “The Way Of The World” is my favorite. I guess “Dance With Me” is my favorite track by Orleans, too, but then, it has to be: It’s the only one I ever listen to.

Two of the other records here also take me back to a specific place on one specific evening that November: A pal of mine and I hit a series of drinking emporiums one Friday evening and wound up at a place called The Bucket, which was located in a spot that I believe placed it outside of the city limits of both St. Cloud and the nearby small town of Sartell. It was a rough place, and it had recently added to its attractions the diversion of young women disrobing while they danced on a small stage. Hey, we were twenty-two, okay? Anyway, among the songs one of the entertainers selected from the jukebox to accompany her efforts were David Bowie’s “Fame” and Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood.” Thankfully, they don’t pop up often, but when they do, those two tunes put me for just a moment in a Stearns County strip joint.

A Baker’s Dozen of caithiseach’s Favorites

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 24, 2008

(Our guest poster today is caithiseach, who generally hangs his hat at The Great Vinyl Meltdown.)

It must have been the frozen custard cake. We were eating it when whiteray asked me what my favorite single was. I thought for far too long, then I gave him an answer. A day later, with the custard still in his system, he invited me to guest-blog this Baker’s Dozen of my favorite singles. I could not pass up the opportunity to write in this blog, the first music blog I ever read, and the inspiration for my own blog, which deals with quirky old 45s I collected when I was a kid.

Today I have been set a different task: to write about songs that you probably know. I had made my job somewhat easier by adding a marker to the digital filenames of my favorite Hot 100 hits. So I sorted out the favorites, some 400 of them. Then, in order not to think too much or too long, I culled any song I thought might be one of my thirteen favorites. I may have missed some really good songs that I didn’t mark, and surely I am skipping some superb singles that I don’t own or have not digitized, but I used the Force and let it tell me what to do with the material at hand.

One thing I looked for was songs that truly were singles. Crisp story lines, nicely rounded finishes, no sense that the song was hacked out of a larger work, the way a Pink Floyd single would be. I see an artistry in a perfect single that matches the magic of an excellent short story. It’s satisfying in itself, not incomplete and co-dependent like a chapter in a novel. As Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said, I know a real single when I hear one.

By accident I pulled out exactly forty finalists, which suits my way of thinking about music – in terms of countdowns. When I was ten, I started counting down my ten favorite hits, playing them in my mind when I mowed the lawn each Saturday. That short music chart had as much fluidity as a Billboard chart, but it also had a consistency that reflected the amount of thought I put into it. I remember such momentous decisions as replacing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at No.1 with “The Love You Save.”

Today’s Top Thirteen doesn’t have a lot in common with my final lawn-mowing Top Ten, because I stopped mowing the family lawn around 1982, when I graduated from college. But several songs from that era slipped into the forty candidates for this Baker’s Dozen, and I’m pleased that I still like the songs I enjoyed in my teen years. It would be awful to have outgrown myself completely.

I also started doing the DJ countdown thing on my record player when I was about eight. With just one turntable, that made for a lot of chatter between songs. That’s what you’ll get here; I’m going to explain my choices, rather than give valuable information about the artists, as whiteray does. And I’ll go bottom to top, so here goes:

13. “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond [Bang 578, 1970]

As much as I like other early Diamond hits, this song about betrayal and the response to it stuck with me as a clean discussion of the topic, with no self-pity to muck it up. The delicious Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich production, with the acoustic guitar accented by somber horns, meshed perfectly with the message.

12. “Shattered Glass” by Laura Branigan [Atlantic 89245, 1987]

This cut climbed only to No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. What puts it here is ninety percent appreciation and ten percent desire to share a song you probably have never heard. I was rolling into Bloomington, Indiana after a very long drive, and I got stuck at a very long light at two a.m. This song, new to me then, came on the radio, and I cranked it to stay awake. My car was rocking on its springs already when Laura hit the climax notes of the chorus. The tsunami of sound left my brain unable to process all of the sound in real time. If you play this song loudly enough, her voice at that point will leave an impression on you that will never fade.

11. “No Matter What” by Badfinger [Apple 1822, 1970]

The story of Pete Ham and Tom Evans is tragic, and their band’s output was inconsistent, but they worked magic several times, most notably here. I am a sucker for songs that go silent abruptly and use a drumbeat to pull the music back in. I love the guitar work. I don’t tire of listening to Pete Ham singing. It’s a song about hanging in there. I wish people had hounded these two guys less relentlessly.

10. “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons [Warner/Curb 8168, 1976]

Three of my forty finalists were on the same chart in March-April 1976, and two of them are in the final thirteen. This song’s bass line has whiteray’s blessing as perhaps the best bass line ever, and that is what drew me to the song in the first place. An amazing piano part carries the song into the second vocal phrase, where the bass kicks in, and Gerri Polci’s turn as lead vocalist gives welcome respite from Frankie Valli. Apart from the message that not learning a lover’s name is an okay thing, the song chronicles a wondrous event without getting tacky. And you should fiddle with your graphic equalizer and isolate that bass line. Mmmmm.

9. “Lucky Lips” by Ruth Brown [Atlantic 1125, 1957]

The year of 1957 was very good for me, musically. I wasn’t born yet, but Pérez Prado recorded “Why Wait” then (had it been an A side, it would be No. 2 here), and Ruth Brown gave us this bright shuffle that rolls along like a diesel engine with a hundred cars behind it. Any song that starts with a long, growly sax note gets my vote, and this one boasts the “No Matter What” silence as well. It would be a good song with anyone else singing it, but no one could put joy into a vocal the way Ruth Brown did.

8. “No One Is to Blame” by Howard Jones [Elektra 69549, 1986]

Almost an answer to No. 4 below, now that I think about it, I found this song heartbreaking at a time when I was heartbroken. Singing about the unattainable, Jones doesn’t get all of the words right, says I, but the melody, his soulful delivery, the percussion – it works for me in inexplicable ways.

7. “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies [Calendar 1008, 1969]

We’re getting to writhe-on-the-floor-in-ecstasy territory now, at least in the case of the upbeat songs. I blogged about this song, which was my one source of joy in 1969, a year that beat me to a pulp. I admire Jeff Barry beyond words, and if you forget the reasons why this song is so gentle, you’ll be able to appreciate the genius he injected into every beat.

6. “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones [London 910, 1969]

Charting simultaneously with “Sugar, Sugar,” this song gave my appreciation of music new range. Until then, I was too young for the Stones, but I figured them out here. The recurrent caithiseach theme of a horn section helps to reel me in, but I also love suspended fourths in any song, and the unified vision the guitars give to the subject matter round it all out. I always think about this being Brian Jones’ last work, and it tears me up.

5. “Misty” by Johnny Mathis [Columbia 41483, 1959]

The song is amazingly evocative poetry, and this arrangement, with artfully understated vocals, is the only version anyone needs to hear. Even so, I didn’t become familiar with “Misty” until 1984, when I waited table at the Raging Bull, a fine-dining establishment in Merrillville, Indiana, that provided music by pianist-singer Tony Liggins. He turned me on to the song, then I found the Mathis version on a Time-Life CD of 1959 hits. From there, the recording crept into my mind to the point that, after a bit of meditation, it wound up at No. 5 here.

4. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez [A&M 1737, 1975]

As much as I enjoy her singing tunes by The Band, and as much as I could enjoy her singing almost any song, Joan accomplished something here that almost defies description, so forgive me if I fail you: She should be as bitter as Alanis Morrissette in these lyrics, but she is so graceful with her condemnation of Dylan that she soars above the situation and avoids sounding like a bitch. Start there, and add a chord progression that is as memorable (and inspired) as what Hoagy Carmichael came up with for “Stardust.” But “Stardust” does not have the eerie, haunting resonance of this song, of course. I don’t know how she could use any major chords in this song, but she chose exactly the right ones, at the right moments. I would crawl to where she is to thank her for the song, if I thought I could get past her bodyguards.

3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen [Elektra 45297, 1976]

I can explain this one. Freddie Mercury trusted his audience to be able to handle big words and big sounds. I enjoyed his work when he was alive, and I ache to have him back now that he’s gone. As a polar opposite to its fellow 1976 chart hit “December, 1963,” this song provided gravity without being maudlin or unlistenable in its pomposity. I think the song must have been a lot of fun to write and record, and I have always found it fun to listen to. My big problem with it came when my sister borrowed my single and scratched it in such a way that you could hear the entire song except for the gong, which is where it skipped. Thanks, Lisa.

2. “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA [Atlantic 3457, 1978]

In 1977-78, on Friday nights I watched Midnight Special. About two a.m., a truck would drop off Saturday newspapers for me to deliver. If I felt like it, I delivered the papers after the show rather than get up four hours later to do my job. Apart from almost getting shot once, it worked out fine. And one morning, I delivered my seventy-five papers with one song stuck in my head. Wolfman Jack had just played a string of ABBA promo clips, and he ended with their “new single,” which was three months away from its U.S. release. I had never heard an intro like the one to “Take a Chance on Me”: an a cappella female lead with male chant underpinning? Then the synth comes in, and finally the song explodes. A sweet message of at-some-point-to-be-requited love, the song is boundlessly cheery but not cloying. Another time, I was sitting in a disco in Salzburg, Austria, drinking expensive imported beer (Budweiser, their only beverage). The dance floor was empty. The DJ tossed on this song, the locals screamed, and before the chant started, there were a hundred couples grinding away. As they say, two hundred Austrians can’t be wrong.

1. “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals [Philles 106, 1962]

The vocalists are actually Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Phil Spector needed a Crystals record, and they weren’t available, and a voice is just a musical instrument, right? Well, I don’t think so. Gene Pitney’s composition captured the tug-of-war between leather-clad surly teens and frightened parents, with a girl’s arms as the rope, as succinctly as could be done. The girl’s choice is clear, which makes the song scarier for “adults” and an anthem for teens who want to push the envelope. Spector recorded some of his other songs very well, but this one includes a wistful piano, hot horns, a tasteful sax solo – and Darlene Love. She appeals to me more than any other Spector girl singer, and she took control of this song to a degree the actual Crystals might not have attained. From the time I became well-aware of this song, around 1970, it has ranged from first to third on my list of favorites. It’s time I admitted to myself that I don’t think any juxtaposition of lyrics, melody, vocals and arrangement tops this one.

Thanks, whiteray, for giving me this chance to think about the concept, and for the space to publish it. Thanks to you for reading what I wrote.

Some of the other songs I considered were:

“Theme from A Summer Place” by Percy Faith

“What’s a Matter Baby (Is It Hurting You)” by Timi Yuro

“Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph

“Washington Square” by the Village Stompers

“Java” by Al Hirt

“Downtown” by Petula Clark

“Bus Stop” by the Hollies

“Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat

“Cecelia” by Simon & Garfunkel

“The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5

“Be My Baby” by Andy Kim

“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon

“The World Is a Ghetto” by War

“ I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” by ABBA

“ Just Between You and Me” by April Wine

“Rosanna” by Toto

“Hello” by Lionel Richie

“Cherry Bomb” by John Cougar Mellencamp

First Steps Into The Adult World

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 22, 2008

It was about late August in 1977 when I finally quit going to college and entered – however tentatively – the adult world. A recession the year before had made it tough for that year’s college grads – of which I was one – to find jobs, so I’d remained in school, doing some graduate work in 1976 and then, in 1977, adding a print journalism minor to my undergraduate degree in mass communications/television.

By the end of the summer, I had that minor finished, having taken a couple of courses in print reporting, editing and layout and a couple of writing workshops. I’d also spent six months as the arts editor for St. Cloud State’s University Chronicle, the student newspaper, corralling reporters to write about everything from theater productions to ceramics festivals; I wrote a lot of movie reviews and had a grand time with all of it.

I was renting a small mobile home from Murl, next to the one where he and his wife lived. I sat at my kitchen table many evenings that July and August, writing letters to newspapers that might need a reporter and listening to WJON, where my college classmate, Jim, usually took the evening shift. I chatted with him occasionally and frequently won the station’s trivia contests.

As the summer drew to a close, two things became clear. First, I’d likely have to find another place to live. Murl, faced with an unexpected vacancy in the spring, had rented me the mobile home at a discount rate for five months. Come September, the rate would revert to the norm, and that would be beyond my means unless I found a job at one of the small newspapers in the area. Second, the state of the economy combined with my lack of experience meant that the odds of finding a newspaper job – whether near St. Cloud or elsewhere – were slender at best. One day in August, my girlfriend of the time and I drove to a small town north of Eau Claire, Wisconsin – about 150 miles away – where I interviewed to be the editor of the local newspaper.

The publisher expressed reservations throughout the interview about my inexperience, while I tried to reassure him that I could handle whatever came my way. I was torn as we drove back to St. Cloud: I needed a job, but did I want to live in a town where four of the five businesses on the main street had displays in their windows of Green Bay Packers souvenirs? It was a question I didn’t have to ponder long. A few days later, the publisher called me and told me that he’d “found a real writer.”

(Even though I likely wasn’t prepared for that job at the time, his dismissal rankled. In the spring of 1983, while I was at the Monticello paper en route to graduate school, I saw in the Minneapolis paper that the same publisher was once again seeking an editor for his paper. I was tempted to send my resume, complete with the list of ten or so state and national reporting awards I’d won, and apply for the job. If it were offered, I thought darkly, I’d decline, telling him I’d decided to write for a real newspaper. I didn’t apply.)

Not quite despairing but concerned, I went one August day to the local offices of a federal program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which acted – among other things – as a bridge between workers and jobs. Perhaps the center’s listings had some job for which I was qualified. My intake interviewer turned out to be a fellow who had bought a car from one of my roommates while I was living in the cold house on the north side. He recalled that my training was in communications, and forty-five minutes after walking into St. Cloud’s CETA office, I was the office’s public relations manager.

The job didn’t pay a lot, something a little better than minimum wage, if I recall correctly. But it was an income, and with the right living circumstances, I could make it work. As it was, my girlfriend also needed new quarters, and her mother owned a cabin on a lake about fifteen miles southeast of St. Cloud. It was rustic: no heat and limited hot water, but we were young, and it was still summertime. So she and I and the two cats we shared moved out to the lake at the end of August for a two-month stay.

Here’s some of the music I recall hearing late that summer and during our two-month sojourn at the lake:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1977, Vol. 3
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle, United Artists 1016 (No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of August 20, 1977)

“Heaven on the 7th Floor” by Paul Nicholas, RSO 878 (No. 79)

“It’s Sad To Belong” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, Big Tree 16088 (No. 74)

“Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Lifesong 45022 (No. 63)

“Angel in Your Arms” by Hot, Big Tree 16085 (No. 61)

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” by Abba, Atlantic 3387 (No. 57)

“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Bill Conti, United Artists 940 (No. 54)

“Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, Epic 50370 (No. 51)

“Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson, A&M 1949 (No. 23)

“Give A Little Bit” by Supertramp, A&M 1938 (No. 17)

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band, Warner Bros. 8370 (No. 15)

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, A&M 1920 (No. 6)

“Easy” by the Commodores, Motown 1418 (No. 5)

A few notes:

The Crystal Gayle song was inescapable as the summer faded and autumn moved in. It entered the Top 40 in late September and spent three weeks at No. 2 later that autumn. I swear we heard it every evening as we drove home from our jobs in St. Cloud to the cabin.

“Ariel” was Dean Friedman’s only Top 40 hit ever, and it has to be one of the more odd records to crack the charts in 1977. (I’d say “ever,” but there are lots of odd singles out there.) The strained voice, the ramble-on-until-he-has-to-take-a-breath lyrics, the geeky background singers: it’s one of those records your either like or hate. Enough people liked it that it went to No. 26. It’s still got some charm for me, and Friedman got the details right about post-hippie, pre-disco America, from the peasant blouse to the Legion Hall.

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” was Abba’s eighth Top 40 single, and I wondered if the act was getting stale. To me, the great Abba singles were “SOS” in 1975 and “Dancing Queen” from earlier in 1977. But “Knowing Me, Knowing You” grew on me as the season moved on. It was pretty good radio fare, and it stayed in the Top 40 for ten weeks, reaching No. 14.

During the spring and summer of 1977, I filled a lot of space in the university newspaper’s arts section praising the movie Rocky, especially its soundtrack, no doubt boring my readers along the way. I’m not sure these days how highly I would rate the movie (I may ponder that some day and write about it here), but I still think that Bill Conti’s soundtrack – especially “Gonna Fly Now” – was a gem, one of the great soundtracks of the decade and maybe all time. Conti’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for one week in July 1977. Oddly enough, we didn’t hear it all that often in Minnesota; the local stations seemed to prefer Maynard Ferguson’s propulsive cover of “Gonna Fly Now,” which went only to No. 28 in Billboard.

The Brothers Johnson “Strawberry Letter 23” – a cover of Shuggie Otis’ 1971 single – was a piece of smooth-edged funk that sounded like nothing else coming out of a radio speaker that late summer and early autumn. The record peaked at No. 5 on the Top 40 but reached No. 1 for a week on the R&B chart. The guitar solo is by Lee Ritenour.

I’ve posted “Smoke From A Distant Fire” here before, but it’s good enough to repeat it. One of the great one-hit wonders, it popped up on the car radio the other day, and it held its place as one of the few records that I let play, sitting in the parked car until the record is over and only then going about my business. It peaked at No. 9 that fall.

As always, bitrates will vary.

(It’s entirely possible that some of these selections are album tracks instead of single edits. If so, my apologies.)

Coming Attraction
This is just another reminder to stop by here Sunday when caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown fills us in on his thirteen favorite singles. It’s a good list with some good listening.

‘The X-Rays . . . Look Odd’

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 30, 2008

Someone whose name I never knew saved my life thirty-four years ago this week.

I’d returned to St. Cloud from my academic year in Denmark on May 21, and by May 28, I was coughing every five minutes, feeling weak and winded. For a couple nights, I slept sitting up because every time I lay on my back, I started coughing uncontrollably. I’d started smoking during my last weeks in Denmark and had continued when I came home; thinking the cigarettes were the culprits, I laid them aside. But I continued to cough, and I felt weaker every day.

Finally, my mother took me to our family doctor. He tapped my chest, listened to my lungs and all that, and he sent me to the local hospital for some X-rays. At the hospital, when the X-rays had been shot, the technician asked me to wait there until he was sure they came out all right. I sat there with Mom, reading magazines and coughing. At length, the technician came out. He said, “The X-rays are all right, but they look odd. I’d like you to stay here until I can have a doctor look at them.”

And that almost certainly saved my life.

A doctor on call looked at the X-rays and had me admitted to the hospital. For half an hour or so, I went through tests – one of which determined how long I could exhale, in other words, lung capacity. I had blood drawn for lab work. About three hours or so after Mom and I walked in, I was sitting up in a bed – reading the morning paper, I think – waiting to find out what was going on.

And a doctor, a nurse and two orderlies – all with grim faces – came literally running into my room, the orderlies hauling an oxygen tank. The doctor watched as the nurse threaded a plastic tube through my nose and down into my breathing passage. She connected it to the tank and one of the orderlies turned the valve, sending oxygen into my lungs. The doctor said that no one knew why, but my lungs had – over the past week – filled with fluid to an alarming degree. I was drowning.

The doctors who cared for me in the next week gave some information to my parents that they did not share with me. From what I learned later, as I understand it (and I’ve never done much digging), the amount of oxygen, or O2, present in the blood is measured so that a normal level is somewhere around 100. When one’s O2 level drops to 50, some very bad things can occur. When it drops to 35, things get much worse. And – again, as I understand it from many years ago – when it drops to 25, one does not have much of a future. I have been told that my O2 level as I went through those tests that afternoon was 32.

That explains the grim faces on the doctor, the nurse and the orderlies.

That evening, I was moved to a room with an oxygen tank built into the walls and was given one of those oxygen masks with the nozzles that fit into one’s nose, which was much more comfortable. The internist assigned to my case told my parents and me that he was going to put me on Prednisone, a steroid. Over the course of a week, that cleared the fluid in my lungs, and doctors determined that there had been no permanent damage. I was very lucky. But the doctors never figured out why my lungs had filled; they called it an allergic reaction of unknown origin.

So I went home breathing and whole. My doctors, being understandably cautious, recommended that my activities be limited for at least the first six weeks of summer. I negotiated with them the right to walk every morning to the neighborhood grocery store a block away to buy a newspaper. And for the first half of the summer of 1974, that was just about all I was allowed to do. Oh, I imagine my folks took me out to dinner, and I know friends stopped by. But I was strongly discouraged from leaving the house on my own for anything other than that brief morning walk.

That was difficult enough for a man of twenty who was beginning to feel much better. But worse yet, I continued to take the Prednisone through the summer, and the drug had an effect on me similar to what I imagine low-grade speed would. I could sleep no more than six to seven hours a night, and when I was awake, I wanted to go, go, go. Those six weeks got long, and it was a major relief in July when I was allowed to leave home every weekday and work four to five hours at St. Cloud State’s Learning Resources Center.

Luckily, I had things to read – nearly nine months’ worth of Sports Illustrated and Time, which my dad had set aside for me while I was in Denmark – and I had music: Records in the rec room in the basement; the piano in the dining room; my guitar, which I played as I sat in our front yard overlooking the street; and radio, which was on as background most of the rest of the time, especially in the evenings, when I read late into the night.

Here’s some of what I heard that summer, thirteen songs pulled from the Billboard Top 100 for June 1, 1974:

A Selected Baker’s Dozen from 1974
“Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, Epic single 11115 (No. 98 as of June 1, 1974)

“Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, T.K. single 1004 (No. 93)

“Keep on Smilin’” by Wet Willie, Capricorn single 0043 (No. 81)

“Waterloo” by Abba, Atlantic single 3035 (No. 76)

“Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, RCA single 0232 (No. 71)

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan, ABC single 11439 (No. 55)

“Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury single 73457 (No. 50)

“If You Wanna Get To Heaven” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A&M single 1515 (No. 45)

“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia single 46007 (No. 33)

“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, Virgin single 55100 (No. 25)

“Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” by the Main Ingredient, RCA single 0205 (No. 24)

“Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, MCA single 40198 (No. 21)

“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum single 11034 (No. 8 )

A few notes:

When I do a Baker’s Dozen, I usually let the RealPlayer select the songs randomly, so I always hear at least a snippet of each song. Today, I selected the songs from the Billboard list, so I heard bits of only a few. “Please Come To Boston” was not one of those I heard this morning, but I find as I think about it that it rings more clearly in my head than almost any other song on this list, throwing – as it were – echoes around the canyon. Was it that good a song? Or was it just pervasive? It peaked at No. 5 that summer, Loggins’ only hit, and it was, I guess, a not-bad chip from the singer-songwriter block. But in the end, more pervasive than good.

I wrote a few weeks ago that Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The same is true with “Keep On Smilin’.” There wasn’t much southern about it, at least not what a listener would expect of a Capricorn release. But it was fun, it moved along nicely, and it had a good vocal and a good hook.

“Rock the Boat” is another one of those songs whose lyrics roll through my head without hesitation whenever I stop to think about it. The song reached No. 1 that summer, another example of the value of a good hook.

“Tubular Bells” began as an LP with two long compositions, one on each side. The single came about when an edit of Oldfield’s composition was selected for use as the theme to the movie The Exorcist, which came out in 1973. The single was released after the film’s success and eventually made its way to No. 7.

I tend to think that “Help Me” is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.

One day in July, having received approval from my doctors, my folks let me drive to the local mall on my own. There wasn’t a lot to do there, although I imagine I checked out the paperbacks at the drug stores and then looked through LPs at Musicland and Woolworth’s. But to be out on my own again was liberating, and I sat on one of the benches in the mall, sipping a soft drink, just watching that bit of the world. As I did, I heard from the sound system of a nearby store “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And for more than thirty years, that song has been to me the sound of freedom and relief.

A Baker’s Dozen On Atlantic

April 23, 2011

Originally posted June 25, 2007

I had an album ripped and ready to go this morning, but as I was researching it, I learned that it is no longer out of print; it’s been re-released on CD. That’s a boundary I try to keep, not posting entire albums that are in print, so I ditched the rip I had planned.

Then I sat there and looked at the pile of albums I have in my “To Rip” pile. I sneezed a few times, as there is some kind of pollen roaming around right now that does not like me. I looked at my list of household chores waiting for me. And I decided I’d move my Baker’s Dozen from Wednesday to today and let Wednesday worry about itself when we get there.

So, without any back story or anything else, here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while: A random Baker’s Dozen of singles on the Atlantic label. If I had more energy, I’d write about the Atlantic label, but I really don’t think I need to go into detail about the influence and importance of the label to American popular music. If you’re unfamiliar with the label and its history, there are any number of useful anthologies available with pretty good liner notes. (A note: In my filing system, if I have an entire album in the RealPlayer, then all songs from that album are listed under the album name, even those that were released as singles. So some favorites won’t have a chance to pop up.)

So let’s see what we get:

“It Tears Me Up” by Percy Sledge, Atlantic 2358, 1966

“Mama Told Me Not To Come” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic 2909, 1972

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert John, Atlantic 2846, 1972

“Since I Met You, Baby” by Ivory Joe Hunter, Atlantic 1111, 1956

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, Atlantic 1055, 1955

“I Don’t Care Anymore” by Phil Collins, Atlantic 89877, 1983

“Love Won’t Let Me Wait” by Major Harris, Atlantic 3248, 1975

“Too Weak To Fight” by Clarence Carter, Atlantic 2569, 1969

“You’ll Never Change” by Bettye LaVette, Atlantic 2198, 1962

“Drown In My Own Tears” by Ray Charles, Atlantic 1085, 1956

“A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2493, 1968

“Dancing Queen” by ABBA, Atlantic 3372, 1977

“See Saw” by Aretha Frankilin, Atlantic 2574, 1968

A few notes on the songs:

One surprise here is Wilson Pickett’s version of “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” the Randy Newman tune that Three Dog Night took to No. 1 in 1970, two years before Pickett recorded it. It seems an odd choice for Pickett, but keep in mind that he also recorded “Hey Jude” not long after the Beatles released it and nailed it.

Robert John’s version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” pales when compared to the Tokens’ 1961 version, which was itself a revision of a recording by the early folk group the Weavers. The Weavers, in turn, had gotten the song from a recording by African Artist Miriam Makeba. The song’s origins, according to Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul, date to the 1930s, and the chain from Makeba to Robert John is a modern version of the way folk music used to evolve from region to region and from era to era.

“Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” the Major Harris tune with its racy-for-the-times cooing and moaning ran here a while back in a Baker’s Dozen from 1975. But it’s too much fun not to run it again.

I won’t say it was the first time I ever heard the recording, but the first time I really paid any attention to Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You, Baby” was when I heard it in the soundtrack to the 1987 movie The Big Town. Set in a mythical late 1950s, the movie – starring Matt Dillon and Diane Lane – is a noir-ish tale of a young gambler come to the big city with all its perils. The soundtrack, which featured Bobby Darin, Johnny Cash, the Drifters, Little Willie John and a few others Fifties artists, was superb.

ABBA’s music is often derided as “just pop.” Well, it may be pop, but it’s great pop, and there are few moments in 1970s music as recognizable as the gorgeous piano glissando that kicks off “Dancing Queen”!