Friday, September 4, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Reviewing Alan J. Pakula's The Sterile Cuckoo in late 1969, Roger Ebert complained about its reliance on the "Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude," a then-fashionable movie device depicting "lovers floating over the countryside" to the sound of the "hit single on the sound track." For Ebert, The Sterile Cuckoo's three such scenes interfered with its "rhythm" and wrongfully presented lead characters Pookie (Liza Minelli) and Jerry (Wendell Burton) as "conventional lovers." 

It depends on the angle you approach it from, I guess. I'd be OK if those three scenes were all the movie contained, because before I ever actually viewed The Sterile Cuckoo, the Sandpipers' lovely "Come Saturday Morning" (which climbed to #17 in 1970 and became an easy listening staple) drew me into it. The song features unambiguous lyrics by Dory Previn about a weekend-oriented relationship, a wistful melody by Fred Karlin, and the most sublime musical arrangement (courtesy of Nick DeCaro) the Sandpipers, a vocal trio from LA, would ever take part in. It's the song itself that gives those soft focus scenes an appropriately bittersweet context, and in his criticism, Ebert's tin ear is showing.

I try to imagine the movie without those scenes, and all that's left is novelist John Nichols's not-so-inspiring story of two awkward college freshmen, Liza Minnelli's irritating chatter, and Burton's wishy-washiness. Those musical scenes really do help sustain the film and improve the odds of viewers sticking around past the mid-way point, at least. And in the present-day era, where pre-existing pop songs routinely pass for soundtrack filler, I honor films like The Sterile Cuckoo for commissioning songwriters to provide unique, story-enhancing material.   

(Coincidence: The Sandpipers also performed the title track to the satirical film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which Roger Ebert co-wrote. This number appeared on the group's 1970 album Come Saturday Morning, named after the very hit single that accompanied The Sterile Cuckoo interludes Ebert disdained.)

The Sandpipers - "Come Saturday Morning" (1969)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Below the Top 40: Brook Benton - "Shoes" (1970)

Slinky, forgotten single recorded with Memphis studio aces the Dixie Flyers and released shortly after the smooth crooner's career-defining "Rainy Night in Georgia." This has to be listened to all the way to the fadeout, where harps sprinkle haunted, lovesick stardust. (Reached #67 in Billboard.)

Brook Benton and the Dixie Flyers - "Shoes" (1970)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Lynn Anderson's early '70s pop chart streak

Lynn Anderson, who passed away on July 30, was an early 70s radio VIP. Although her country chart presence stretched between 1967 and 1988, her streak of ten crossover pop hits happened precisely between the years 1970 and 1975.

"Rose Garden" was her biggie, rising up to #3. Written and first recorded by Joe South, the song had also been tried out by Freddie Weller, Billy Joe Royal, and Dobie Gray - all chart flops - before Anderson made it her own. Here's the Lynn Anderson quote about the song that pops up most: "I believe that 'Rose Garden' was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam Years," she said. "The message in the song [was] that... if you just take hold of life and go ahead, you can make something out of nothing."

Maybe, but the song was really a post-"Stand By Your Man" early '70s feminist anthem right up there with "I Am Woman," "One's on the Way," and "The Pill."  I'm pretty sure that the message more than a few women heard when "Rose Garden" hit the airwaves was "make your own damn dinner." Before she recorded her version of it, it had been earmarked wrongly as a man song because it mentions diamond rings and has an implied focus on bringing home the bacon, but it only resonated once its Scarlett O'Hara-like "I beg your pardon" refrain was voiced by a woman. Anderson probably knew this but wasn't about to use the F word (Feminism) in the country press.

Below is a list of all of Lynn Anderson's ten pop crossover hits. None of the other nine made it past #63. Should she have embraced the feminist angle more aggressively? Her follow up to "Rose Garden," an ode to independence called "I'm Alright" (see more info about this below) hinted that she might have been considering it, but maybe the relatively low pop chart (and country chart) showing caused her to back pedal.  (The dates indicate when each song entered Billboard's Hot 100 or Bubbling Under chart.)

"Rose Garden" (11/28/70, #3, country #1). Writer: Joe South. LP: Rose Garden.

"I’m Alright" (12/5/70, #112, country #20).  Writer: Bill Anderson. LP: At Home with Lynn. Country singer/songwriter Bill Anderson (no relation to Lynn) wrote this and she released it on her 1969 At Home with Lynn album on the Chart label. After she switched to Columbia and had her big hit with "Rose Garden" in 1970, Chart got busy reissuing albums and singles to capitalize. "I'm Alright" was a suitable choice for an immediate follow up - like "Rose Garden," it was written from a man's perspective but had a much more potent, self-empowering effect when sung by a woman.

"You’re My Man" (5/15/71, #63, country #1). Writers: Glenn Sutton. LP: You're My Man

"How Can I Unlove You" (8/21/71, #63, country #1). Writer: Joe South. LP: How Can I Unlove You.

"Cry" (1/29/72, #71, country #3). Writer: Churchill Kohlmann. LP: Cry. This was a cover of the 1951 Johnnie Ray hit.

"Listen to a Country Song" (7/1/72, #107, country #4). Writers: Alan Garth and Jim Messina. LP: Listen to a Country Song.

"Fool Me" (11/18/72, #101, country #4). Writer: Joe South. LP: Listen to a Country Song.

"Keep Me in Mind" (3/3/73, #104, country #1). Writers: George Richy and Glenn Sutton. LP: Keep Me in Mind.

"Top of the World" (6/30/73, #74, country #2). Writers: Richard Carpenter, John Bettis. LP: Top of the World. Other contemporary pop hits Anderson covered on her early seventies albums included "Knock Three Times," "Joy to the World," "When You Say Love," "We've Got to Get It On Again," "I Believe in Music," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," and "Killing Me Softly with His Song," among others.

"What a Man My Man Is" (1/4/75, #93, country #1). Writer: Glen Sutton. LP: What a Man My Man Is. This was Anderson's final country #1.

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); Joni Mitchell - “Big Yellow Taxi” (live version) (#24, 12/28/74): 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. Joni's 1974 live band version - less familiar today than her original - managed to chart highest.

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. But 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 suggested 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 mental scars. 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 and heightens 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)