Tuesday, April 21, 2015

22 Ecology-Conscious Radio Hits of the Early '70s

The first official Earth Day (April 22, 1970) reflected a new environmental awareness taking cues from the Woodstock generation's urge to get "back to the land." This urge went mainstream in the form of environmental legislation, brisk-selling books like The Whole Earth Catalog, Future Shock, and The Late Great Planet Earth, and a booming health food industry, among other things. In pop music, ecological issues became an identifying feature. No era's top selling singles before or since would reference pollution quite so frequently.

The following list includes the biggest singles from the era that show a distinct sense of ecological concern. To make the list, the songs had to have appeared somewhere between 1 and 130 on Billboard's pop singles chart at any point from 1970 to 1974 and contain at least one line expressing concern for the air, the water, or the land. Not included here are any of the numerous songs that merely celebrate country life or any ecologically-oriented non-charting album tracks, however well-known. All of the titles are ordered according to the date of their first appearance in Billboard. This is because it's common for any one of these to be written about as "the first," but no, the subject was a happening thing back then.

1. Pacific Gas and Electric – “Are You Ready” (#14, 5/30/70): Pollution gets listed as one of the social ills Jesus can help fix. ("If you breathe air you'll die/ Perhaps you wonder the reason why.")

2. (Take your pick) The Neighborhood – “Big Yellow Taxi” (#29, 6/20/70); Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi” (#67, 7/25/70): The Neighborhood's vocal-troupe version of Joni Mitchell's song about paved-over parking lots, tree museums and DDT charted a week earlier than her own more natural-sounding record. It also charted much higher. 

3. The Guess Who – “Hand Me Down World” (#17, 7/18/70): The environmentalism is implicit here ("Anybody see the sky weeping tears for the ocean?"). The Canadian group's follow up hit, "Share the Land," had a made-to-order Earth Day title, but the lyrics focused instead on communal hand-holding.

4. Three Dog Night – “Out in the Country” (#15, 8/29/70): This one stands apart from other frolics in the hay by painting a grim picture in the chorus: "Before the breathin' air is gone/ Before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time/ Out where the rivers like to run/ I stand alone and take back something worth remembering."  

5. Blue Mink – “Our World” (#64, 9/26/70): Blue Mink was a British vocal group featuring songwriter Roger Cook, and their only US hit referenced "people trying not to choke...breathing the smoke," black clouds and "troubled waters,"

6. The Kinks – “Apeman” (#45, 1/2/71): Typically cheeky, Ray Davies takes the nature movement to the extreme, lauding the lifesyle of primates. ("I look out my window but I can't see the sky/ 'Cause the air pollution is a-fogging up my eyes.")

7. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – “Solution for Pollution” (#96, 1/23/71): Wherein a solution isn't offered, just yearned for. ("The first thing I saw this morning was polluted skies/ Some people walking around with tears in their eyes.")

8. R. Dean Taylor – “Ain’t It a Sad Thing” (#66, 2/14/71): The "Indiana Wants Me" singer-songwriter offers up one of pop's catchiest whistle choruses. ("Cities eating up the land/ Progress eating up the planet")

9. Spirit – “Nature’s Way” (#111, 3/20/71): Spirit's final charting single, although not especially detailed, was reportedly prompted by an environmental conversation between band member Randy California and a friend.

10. Brewer and Shipley – “Tarkio Road” (#55, 5/15/71): In their hazy way, the "One Toke Over the Line" duo zeroes in on 1916 as industrial Year One in Crete, Nebraska. ("Fifty-five years of pollution/ Everybody knows how the puzzle was laid/ But can anyone recall the solution.")

11. Marvin Gaye – “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (#4, 7/3/71): The ultimate ecology record is this one, from top to bottom.

12. Ten Years After – “I’d Love to Change the World” (#40, 9/25/71): Alvin Lee's repeating guitar riff is both unsettling and seductive - one of rock's greats. The opening lyrics sound like Axl Rose source material ("Everywhere is freaks and hairies, dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity"). Pollution makes the grievance list in verse three.

13. The Staple Singers – “Respect Yourself” (#12, 10/16/71): This take-responsibility proclamation was a highlight of the Staple Singers' classic early seventies output. ("Keep talkin' 'bout the president/ Won't stop air pollution/ Put your hand on your mouth when you cough/ That'll help the solution.")

14. Lighthouse – “Take It Slow (Out in the Country)” (#64, 12/11/71): Like with Three Dog Night's "Out in the Country," the jazz-rock army Lighthouse's "Take It Slow" made air quality a case in point:  "Trying to find fresh air to breathe/ Just can't be done."

15. The Stylistics – “People Make the World Go Round” (#25, 6/3/72): The pulsing intro and menacing strings make for a musical approximation of urban smog. This is one of producer Thom Bell's many masterworks. ("Buses on strike want a raise in fare/ So they can help pollute the air.")

16. Tom Rush – “Mother Earth” (#111, 6/3/72): Although the folksinger Rush is known for more than his pop chart appearances, this is one of his very few. ("Though I treat her carelessly, Mother Earth provides for me.")

17. Albert Hammond – “Down by the River” (#91, 7/22/72): This is not one of the handful of charting cover versions of Neil Young's murder tune. It's Hammond's hand-clapping report on how he swam in a contaminated country river and had to go to the doctor.  

18. The Osmonds – “Crazy Horses” (#14, 10/21/72): The Osmond brothers' hardest rocking track depicts air quality in Book of Revelation horses-of-the-apocalypse terms. ("There's a message floating in the air...There they go, what a show, smoking up the sky... If they keep on moving then it's all our fault.")

19. John Denver - "Rocky Mountain High"  (#9, 11/25/72): John Denver turned early seventies nature-consciousness into a career, but his "Rocky Mountain High" is his only chart hit from the era to express outright concern: "Now his life his full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear/ Of some simple thing he cannot comprehend/ Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more/ More people, more scars upon the land."

20. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” (#8, 11/10/73): Wonder's urban-struggle mini-epic from his Innervisons LP features more gasping and hacking: "He's almost dead from breathing on air pollution."

21. Hall and Oates - "She's Gone" (#60, 2/9/74; #7, 7/24/76): Although it went Top Ten as a reissue in '76, "She's Gone," in which the duo sings of taking heartbroken refuge in the city to let the "carbon and monoxide choke" their "thoughts away," first charted in '74, 

22. Prelude – “After the Gold Rush” (#22, 10/5/74): Neil Young's own 1970 recording of this song, with the line "look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s," is the classic version, but this lovely acapella curio from Britain is the one that charted.

Have I forgotten any?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

God Rock Sunday: Wolfman Jack's "Jesus Crusade"

This headline appeared in the Nov. 27, 1971 issue of Billboard (p. 20), and Nat Freedland's article included the following:

"Wolfman Jack, the raspy-voiced veteran of 16 years in Mexican border super-transmitter radio, is shipping a public service Jesus Rock half-hour show free to any radio station that requests it. Wolfman Jack's 'Jesus Crusade' is already set for 50 major markets and begins broadcasting in December.

" 'The show features music like George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" and Ocean doing "Put Your Hand in the Hand," ' notes Wolfman, 'all the religious-oriented rock songs that have made the charts.' Interspersed with the music will be Jack telling Bible stories in his own inimitable manner. In addition, Wolfman will answer mailed-in questions from his listeners as part of regular conversations with non-denominational Protestant Minister Joe Racculia.

"The show's audience will be encouraged to think of itself as members of a Jesus Christ Fan Club. 'I know this sounds hokey,' says Jack. 'But I feel that the traditional organized religious approach is obviously not reaching the kids and all I want to do is pass on the message in a way they can relate to. Like, when I'm asked if the Bible says it's forbidden to smoke grass, I'll say it's not forbidden, but the Bible says, 'Do not endanger the House of God,' which means the human body.

" 'In recent months I have been brought closer to the Lord and what I want most to do now is bring young people to Jesus. I've certainly made enough money from the other things I do so that I don't have to do this for the money...'

"...A Wolfman Jack Bible Stories album has been completed with back-up music by jazz pianist Victor Feldman and will probably be offered via the Jesus Rock show in a few months, at a lower price than if it was released through a major label."

Nothing is mentioned about any of this in Wolfman Jack's Have Mercy autobiography. I also haven't had any luck finding any other evidence about the show's existence (or the album's), save for another brief mention of it on page 21 of the April 15, 1972 Billboard. Strange.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Four versions of "Rings": Who's on the Stereo?

"Rings" was a #17 for Cymarron, a soft rock trio who'd later team up with Bread's Jimmy Griffin in the '90s as the Remingtons. Written by pro songwriters Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey (not the British cult rocker), the song's lyrics toyed with telephones, doorbells, and wedding bands, and it seemed to indicate that success in romantic relationships correlated with the comfort level of one's living room. Four versions of this song charted in Billboard in the early seventies, each of which altered the original line, "I've got James Taylor on the stereo," with a different artist in JT's place.

Cymarron - "Rings" (1971, Billboard #17)
Who's on the stereo? James Taylor.

Tompall and the Glaser Brothers - "Rings" (1971, Billboard country #7)
Who's on the stereo? Merle Haggard.

Lobo - "Rings" (1974, Billboard #43)
Who's on the stereo? The Allman Brothers.

Reuben Howell - "Rings" (1974, Billboard #86)
Who's on the stereo? Jim Croce.

Reuben Howell (a Motown label Caucasian) and Lobo, by the way, both entered Billboard's Hot 100 on July 20, 1974, with versions that bypassed the poignant flat-VII ("laugh and sing") that appeared in the choruses of Cymarron's version. Why they both surfaced with similar renditions exactly three years after the song's first flurry of success isn't clear to me in spite of some digging. There's a story here, I'm sure. (Leo Kottke did a version of the song in 1983, expertly inserting Mel Blanc as the "on the stereo" artist but also bypassing the flat-VII.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: Last Tango in Paris (1973)


Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris depicted a steamy affair between two hopelessly damaged souls: an American widower (played by Marlon Brando in one of his quintessential performances) and a young French married girl who remain nameless to each other. At once a clear manifestation of post-sixties sexual freedom and its very seventies psychic complications, the bilingual film knocked critics off their theater seats and gave mere thrill seekers nightmares. What lingered in most moviegoers' heads, though, was the moaning trumpet in Gato Barberi's theme music. Many instrumentalists got busy with personalized arrangements of the song, with only Herb Alpert and Tonight Show trumpeter Doc Severinsen checking in with chart listings. Has anyone noticed how Jack Elliott's theme music for the Charlie's Angels TV show (1976-81) evokes the Last Tango theme, trumpet and all, perhaps to subconsciously heighten its sexual edge?

Herb Alpert and the TJB - "Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard #77)
Doc Severinsen - "The Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard # 106)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Singer-Songwriters and the "No Fault Divorce" Law

James Cushing, quoted in Harvey Kubernik's Turn Up the Radio!: Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 (p. 232): "People say that the singer-songwriter genre happened because people were recovering from the sixties, but I think there's another reason - California adopted the 'no fault divorce' law in July 1970, and then the rest of the country followed suit. Before that time, it was really hard to get a divorce. You had to prove so many things, hire lawyers to get photographs, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Prior to 1970, the California Supreme Court ruled that, from now on, there will be exactly two reasons for divorce: incurable insanity or irreconcilable differences.

"This new law had enormous impact on everyone - the people who made the music, who listed to the music, who sold the music, their secretaries, their lawyers, and the listeners with their radios. All of a sudden, none of them had to worry about hiring a divorce detective. Now, if you got sick and tired of your spouse, you could get divorced right away. So it seemed that everybody got divorced.

"From an observer's viewpoint, divorce can be very liberating for both parties, but, according to psychologists, it's the equivalent of a death in the family, in terms of persona trauma. So everybody's newly liberated, but traumatized. In light of this situation, James Taylor singing 'You've Got a Friend' sounds really good. But Jim Morrison singing 'Break on Through' does not sound as good, because you've just broken on through to the other side of the conventional life, and now that you've broken on through, you're stuck with the fact that it's broken, and you broke it. I hope you like it broken, That's what you wanted. Oh, but you feel a strange nostalgia for the unbroken? You've got a friend."

James Taylor - "You've Got a Friend" (1971, Billboard #1)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: Black Caesar (1973), Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and Hell Up in Harlem (1974)

Black Caesar tends to get mentioned as one of the blaxploitation flim genre's better moments. Loosely based on the 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar, it tells the story of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), who climbs the organized crime ladder and becomes the scourge of New York City's corrupt lawmakers. James Brown's soundtrack gives the movie added muscle, with his "Down and Out in New York City" smoldering as theme music and his "Mama's Dead" sounding like he's in the studio shedding real tears.

According to the film's director Larry Cohen in Reflections on Blaxploitation (p. 56), the Godfather of Soul had a habit of ignoring directors' time specifications for each cue, saddling them with extra editing work. He had done the same thing with his music for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and when Cohen requested to use a Brown soundtrack for the Black Caesar sequel (Hell Up in Harlem), American International rejected it, opting instead for Motown's Edwin Starr. (Starr's own "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem" didn't turn out so bad, and the film sequence his "Big Papa" accompanies is kind of a scream). Brown released the rejected music on his Payback album, which was aptly named because its title track hit #1 on Billboard's R&B charts, while Starr's song only managed #110 on the pop charts and was shut out of the R&B listings. Also, the Payback album served as the score for Guy Ritchie's popular Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels twenty-four years later.

Here's a crucial bit of information one must know before viewing Black Caesar today: The ending on the DVD is different from how audiences experienced it in theaters in 1973. It contains a minute's worth of footage that was lopped off by Cohen after the first screenings. When you watch it on DVD, Tommy Gibbs staggers back to his old neighborhood, where a gang of black street thugs jumps him and presumably kills him. This is more in keeping with the comeuppance all gangsters received in thirties cinema and makes for a stronger, more poignant ending.

Test audiences were outraged by this original ending, though, and when it was trimmed to show Gibbs careening across a busy downtown sidewalk before credits rolled, peace was restored and the film became a big hit. When DVD and VHS versions came out in the early '80s, however, they used the original negative, so, according to Cohen, "there are two versions of the movie - the home video version and the theatrical cut" (pp. 51-52). Therefore, if you watch the critically unadmired Hell Up in Harlem immediately after Black Caesar, you scratch your head, wondering why the sequel starts with him at the crosswalk and never shows him getting the shaft at the old 'hood.

And by the way, if you're hoping to experience the James Brown soundtrack in action for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973) (a sequel to 1972's Slaughter, both starring the unrelated Jim Brown), DVD versions with the original soundtrack, including the chart hit "Sexy Sexy Sexy," are pretty much impossible to find. They've all got a faux blaxploitation dummy score for some reason. More punishment for Soul Brother Number One for not following the original cue instructions?

James Brown - "Down and Out in New York City" (1973, Billboard #50, R&B #13)
James Brown - "Mama's Dead" (1973, did not chart)
James Brown - "Sexy Sexy Sexy" (1973, Billboard #50, R&B #6)
Edwin Starr - "Hell Up in Harlem" (1974, Billboard #110)
Edwin Starr - "Big Papa" (1974, did not chart)
James Brown - "The Payback, Pt. 1" (1974, Billboard #26, R&B #1)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfman Jack on the Charts

Wolfman Jack (born Bob Smith) created such a perfect radio persona that it's hard to imagine him not being around before he started howling from XERF, a 250,000 watt "border blaster" in Ciudad Acuña (near Del Rio, Texas) in 1963. Later in the sixties, the Wolfman's moon-bark and growling jive talk filled American midnight skies thanks to two additional airwave monsters, the Tijuana stations XERB and XEG. He was the hallucinating night driver's companion, the insomniac's blessing and curse, and the juvie's secret accomplice. (He remembers the '50s DJs he cut his fangs on as being "a lot cooler than even the toughest hood in the toughest street gang around.") It all sounds a bit mythical, but George Lucas was one listener who experienced the Wolfman's radio hoodoo and made it quasi mythical by featuring it as a crucial aspect of American Graffiti (1973), the ultimate manifestation of the early seventies nostalgia boom.

For me, what makes Wolfman Jack special among radio legends is that he was a true "personality DJ" fueled by music. Usually the personality jocks are inconvenienced by music while the music wonks tend not to sweat the manner of delivery. It was Wolfman Jack's passion for R&B 45's he discovered in the '50s, most of them oldies by the time he became a household name, that fueled his character and made him so addictive to listeners. This passion is all over his 1995 memoir Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal (written with Byron Laursen), and it's one reason why the book, published only a single month before his death, is such a pleasurable showbiz memoir. Other reasons are its voice, which anyone familiar with him would recognize as his (hats off to Laursen, who transcribed personal interviews), along with remarkable stories like the one where he explains how he joined forces with XERF. That's a tale of shadowy border intrigue, greenbacks in burlap sacks, and gun slinging bandidos worthy of a rock 'n' roll corrido or two.

The post-American Graffiti Wolfman Jack, of course, was a multimedia experience. In addition to ongoing radio work, he was the Midnight Special host from 1973 to 1981, a regular presence on TV commercials ("Clearasil's the triple threat!"), and the guest star/host of many a sitcom, drama, and variety show. All of this activity makes me think about the stuff the Wolfman didn't do. How would his involvement in Happy Days have reshaped the show had his staff not turned down the show's invitation? Or how might his ambitious road show I Saw Radio - featuring tributes to vintage rock 'n' roll, archived clips from classic DJs, and an elaborate set including a massive radio dial - have flourished had it not literally gone up in flames, thanks to some Union thugs? (His recounting of a confrontation between said thugs, the show's road crew, and some Detroit theater security who turned out to be "three of the wimpiest rent-a-cops this side of a Don Knotts film festival" is another story that sticks in my head.)  To his credit, whatever the media situation Wolfman Jack did find himself prowling through, his rock 'n' roll pedigree was always the clear reason why.

Here are a handful of Wolfman Jack-oriented singles that got airplay in the early to mid-'70s and charted in Billboard:

Wolfman Jack - "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man" (1972, #106): This racial equality offering appeared on Wolfman Jack's self-titled solo album, which was his first proper one (pictured above). It featured compositions by Richard Monda, who had already been writing songs for another wolfman and his monster friends on the Groovie Goolies cartoon. As Daddy Dewdrop, Monda took his song "Chick-A-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)", with its Wolfman Jack-influenced lead vocal, to #6 in 1971.

The Guess Who - "Clap for the Wolfman" (1974, #6): Canada got a real case of Wolfman fever in the mid-'70s and this might have had to do with his 1973 stints on WNEW and WNBC in New York City.  He credits this hit single and the Guess Who (who took him out on the road) for getting him out of what he describes as a self-destructive situation in the Big Apple.

Ray Stevens - "Moonlight Special" (1974, #73): A pretty funny parody featuring "The Sheepdog" introducing acts like "Mildred Queen and the Dips" (Gladys Knight and the Pips), "Agnes Stupor" (Alice Cooper), and "J. Joe Harry Lee Jimmy Bimmy" (Jerry Lee Lewis). This was Stevens' followup single for his chart-topping "The Streak."

Todd Rundgren - "Wolfman Jack (featuring Wolfman Jack)" (1974, #105): On Rundgren's 1972 Something/Anything? album, this song (which doubles up as a terrific Motown tribute), appears without the Wolfman's voice anywhere. The 1974 single release of "Wolfman Jack," though, rectified the situation.

Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta - "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" (1974, #9): This Denver group was simply called "Sugarloaf" when they hit #3 with "Green Eyed Lady" in 1970. With this single, they were officially "Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta," since Corbetta had been working as a solo artist for another label before getting back together with the old gang. "Don't Call Us" razzes on CBS Records, who had recently rejected the band, and includes the dialtones to the label's private number. Also featured: winks to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder along with an imitation of the Wolfman.

The Stampeders - "Hit the Road Jack" (1975, #40): More Canadian love for the Wolfman, this time from the Calgary trio who scored a #8 hit in 1971 with "Sweet City Woman." Lacking in Ray Charles buoyancy, the single's still fun with contributions from Wolfman Jack himself. In 1976 and 1977 he would host a TV variety series called The Wolfman Jack Show, which was filmed in Vancouver and syndicated to the US.

Wings - "Listen to What the Man Said" (1975, #1): Although the radio version of this Paul McCartney smash often didn't include it, the Venus and Mars album version starts out with a spoken Wolfman Jack intro: "Heh, heh, very good to see you down in New Orleans, heh, heh, yeah, yeah..."

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)" (1976, #29): This Sha Na Na-style '50s tribute band (also from Colorado, like Sugarloaf) appeared in American Graffiti as the prom combo and contributed the only freshly-recorded material to the movie's soundtrack album. An eventual team up with Wolfman Jack, then, seemed natural, even if it ended up sounding more like something from Happy Days' shark-jumping era. (Certain pressings of this single, for some reason, omitted his spoken interludes.)

Late '70s Bonus:
Tammy Wynette - "(I'd Like to See Jesus) On the Midnight Special" (1978, country #26): The chorus goes, "I'd like to Jesus on the Midnight Special, I'd like to see the Wolfman bring him on." Wolfman Jack's response: "...To my knowledge, the Son of God never made a personal appearance for us [on the Midnight Special]. But practically everybody else in show business eventually did" (Have Mercy, p. 263).