Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Top 40 Entry 1/8/72: Three Dog Night - "Never Been to Spain"

Three Dog Night—“Never Been to Spain.”Dunhill 4299; Top 40 debut: 1/8/72. Peak date: 2/12/72. Written by Hoyt Axton. Produced by Richard Podolor. B-side: “Peace of Mind.” LP: Harmony. Charts: Billboard Hot 100 (#5), easy listening (#18).

Oklahoma songwriter Hoyt Axton’s fried nursery rhymes were a natural fit for early ‘70s AM radio. It’s possible that no one would have known this if Three Dog Night (always crafty song pickers) hadn’t taken a chance with his “Joy to the World,” which ended up seeping deeply into the era’s singalong culture. Axton’s bluesy “Never Been to Spain,” the group’s twelfth Top 40 hit, had a similar appeal abeit in the form of a slow boil. It took three full verses for all three throats to start wailing together and for the church of what-does-it-matter’s revival meeting to get into full swing.

Like the most memorable of the era’s hits, “Never Been to Spain” made people want to join hands and sing away their troubles. Popular taste for such fare made for a blurred boundary between the adult and youth markets and generated an influx of borderline novelty songs, a situation songwriters like Jim “Spiders and Snakes” Stafford and Loudon “Dead Skunk” Wainwright III were watching closely. It also cultivated a taste for stage-friendly “show band” rock, the kind all ages could enjoy, and which Three Dog Night did better than just about anyone. Rock critics tended to chafe at the mega-successful outfit’s finesse. Robert Christgau called them the “Kings of Oversing,” a criticism that would have raised Engelbert Humperdinck’s eyebrows, and comes off today as something of an oversling, shall we say, amid our digitally-enhanced emoting.

“Never Been to Spain” appeared as the opening track for their Harmony LP, and it called on Cory Wells to do lead duties for the trio of similar-sounding singers. The album tends to hold a fond place in TDN fans’ hearts for its variety and structural integrity, with standout tracks such as Moby Grape’s “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” and Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City.” The 45, a bookend job, showcased the Harmony album’s opener on side A (“Never Been to Spain”) and closer (“Peace of Mind”) on side B.

About the B side: Former New Christy Minstrel Nick Woods had composed “Peace of Mind,” and Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson both recorded striking versions of it in 1968. In contrast to those, Three Dog Night gave it a spare and reverent rendering with only Jimmy Greenspoon’s piano and Chuck Negron’s voice. It also tacked on an introductory Negron recitation of a poem called “Mistakes and Illusions” written by his wife Paula, who received credit on the album packaging but none on the 45 label. In short order this recording would serve as an elegy for Woods, who died of an accidental drug overdose at the home of his friend, the arranger and producer Kirby Johnson, on February 17, 1972, at the age of 33. (Source: San Diego Union, Feb 23, 1972, B-3)

As for subject matter, “Never Been to Spain” catalogs places the singer has never been, including Spain and England (whose Beatles he kinda likes). The last verse focuses on songwriter Axton’s home state of Oklahoma, which he at first seems to equate with heaven. He actually played some football at Oklahoma State University, where the marching band now blasts “Never Been to Spain” during the 4th quarter. If you listen to Axton’s original 1971 recording of the song, though, you’ll hear him sing “from Oklahoma, born in a coma,” a somewhat less glowing declaration that mostly brings the concussive football connection into sharper focus. (Three Dog Night changed it to “Oklahoma, not Arizona.”) The group would bring one more single (“Family of Man”) from Harmony into the Top 40 before pumping out a new album in March 1972. (The image above is what the picture sleeve looked like in Spain.)

Side A: "Never Been to Spain"

Side B: "Peace of Mind"

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Top 40 Entry 1/1/72: Elton John - "Levon"

Elton John — “Levon”. Uni 55314. Top 40 debut: 1/1/72. Peak date: 2/5/72. Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Produced by Gus Dudgeon. B-side: “Goodbye.” LP: Madman Across the Water. Charts: Billboard Hot 100 (#24).

The Elton John we saw before us at the end of 1971 was a complex case: An explosive live performer devoid of leading man looks; a demonstrative pianist whose pop chart track record showcased reflective ballads; a musical purveyor of earth-toned frontier Americana while dressing up for gigs in tights, gold lamé and battery-powered accessories. Those are just a few of his contradictions, and there’s more, but all of them only strengthened the popular appetite for him.

The fruitful collaboration between John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin kept consumers well fed. The music poured out, filling up three studio albums, a soundtrack LP, numerous non-album tracks, and a live album all between 1969 and 1971. The Madman Across the Water album, with its title implication, blue denim cover and the antique photos in the gatefold booklet, kept the Americana vibe alive, as did “Levon,” its leadoff single. It was a song about a war vet, son of one Alvin Tostig, who kept the lucrative family balloon business going, and whose quirkily named son Jesus, a rocket man at heart, fantasized about breaking free and flying to Venus.

Although lyricist Bernie Taupin told Rolling Stone magazine that he’d only intended to tell the story of a “guy who wants to get away from his father’s hold over him,” he was underselling the richness of meaning in the symbols he chose. “War wounds” evoked Vietnam and so much more, “Jesus” tapped into one of pop music’s favorite preoccupations of the day, and the balloons signified the escapism and whimsey of childhood, another of the era's topical biggies. So yes, there was a generation gap meaning at heart, but one rife with the metaphorical tools of independent interpretation. (Taupin and John had previously treated that dad theme in a number called “In My Old Man’s Shoes,” the UK B-side for “Your Song.”)

My favorite personal reading of "Levon" involves the transformative nature of Jesus as a concept, His flexibility as an icon in different parties’ hands. This gets fuel from the lyrical bit about the New York Times declaring “God is dead,” because many listeners, in fact, from the standpoint of the early seventies Jesus revival, remembered the provocative 1966 Time magazine cover asking, “Is God dead?” People can get a tad testy about this sort of thing, which is certainly why Taupin attempted to clear the air.

As for the song title, Taupin surely latched on to the contemporary Americanism of The Band’s southern-drawled singer-vocalist Levon Helm. His given name was memorable enough (or perhaps he was just so vain) that he thought the song was about him. One word in “Levon” glares, though, and that’s John’s first-syllable British emphasis in “garage,” but only because it disclosed his non-American pedigree, which no one really begrudged. Listen to Mary McCready’s 1974 version of the song, though (one that John had declared to be better than his own), and you’ll hear her singing that word like a proper American. Come to think of it, perhaps the two songwriters didn’t realize that naming your kid “Jesus,” as in hay-SOOS, was more of a Mexican-American thing, and maybe John misappropriated that one too.

Musically, “Levon” surged with additional invitations to give it meaning, namely Elton John’s elegaic piano and the movie magic orchestration by Paul Buckmaster. The Madman Across the Water album, in fact, laid those solemn cinematics thick by leading off with “Tiny Dancer” and following right up with “Levon.” These were two sister songs that stirred one’s soul in similar ways. “Tiny Dancer,” dedicated to Bernie Taupin’s girlfriend Maxine Feibelman, likely fell short of the top 40 (peaking at #41) as the follow-up 45 due to its perceived over-familiarity. Both songs would enjoy long lives, though, as FM album rock staples, with "Tiny Dancer" racking up bonuses for its singalong sequence in Almost Famous (2000). In his autobiography, John explains why so few of his future albums swelled with the strings of Paul Buckmaster: He washed his hands of rock’s favorite arranger when he spilled an inkpot on a stack of notations just before the Madman sessions were to begin. “An expensive mistake,” writes Sir Elton.

The Madman Across the Water album is notable for two more things worth mentioning here: 1) It contained a song called “All the Nasties,” in which concerns about the artist in question's sexuality get assessed out in the open; and 2) so distinct was the album chart position discrepancy between the UK (#41) and the US (#8), that Elton John decided to base himself in the US—and to focus his efforts there—for good. “Levon” was the surging singer-songwriter’s third Top 40 hit, after “Your Song” (#8) and “Friends” (#34). “Rocket Man” was next, so the way from here was up.

Side A: "Levon"

Side B: "Goodbye"

Top 40 Entry 1/1/72: The Partridge Family —“It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)”

The Partridge Family Featuring Shirley Jones Starring David Cassidy —“It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)”. Bell 45160. Top 40 debut: 1/1/72. Peak date: 1/29/72. Written by Tony Romeo. Produced by Wes Farrell. B-side: “One Night Stand.” LP: Shopping Bag. Charts: Billboard Hot 100 (#24), Easy Listening (#2).

Strangely enough, the Partridge Family’s “It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)” came and went—peaking in late January ‘72—before its supporting album ever reached stores in March. It was in March, too, when the episode featuring the TV family’s single finally aired (“The Partridge Papers,” about sister Laurie’s stolen diary). It seems like a better synchronized push might have helped it.

What’s significant about this song, though, is that it peaked at #20 on the pop charts, but climbed to #2 on the easy listening charts. This was their most lopsided and therefore most revealing teenage vs. adult audience ratio yet. In spite of David Cassidy and company's so-called bubblegum appeal, the music, in sound and sales tactics, never wavered from targeting the buying power of the mom and dad demographic. None of their music really raged with the kind of adolescent libido that even the Osmonds could summon, and the chart performance of “It’s One of Those Nights” puts this reality into sharp focus. You always wondered why only adults seemed to attend their TV supper club music segments, right?

Partridge staff writer Tony Romeo gets sole credit for “It’s One of Those Nights,” which tapdanced around the essential chord structure of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid” (#1, 1966—itself a descendant of “Tea for Two”), from the pantheon of grandparent-friendly hits. Keeping with their tradition of the concept package, the supporting Shopping Bag album—the group’s fourth—included an actual plastic tote decorated with the album cover’s blue, yellow, and bubblegum-pink swirls, along wth the duotone faces of each member.

Also consistent with their recorded products, Shopping Bag’s full billing appeared on labels as “The Partridge Family Starring Shirley Jones Featuring David Cassidy,” and featured the production of future Tina Sinatra hubby Wes Farrell. Along with “It’s One of Those Nights,” the album included one more glaring template song in “Hello Hello,” which nabbed its title, various hooks, and arrangement ideas from Sopwith Camel, whose original “Hello Hello” reached #26 in 1967.

Shopping Bag offered up just one additional single for Hot 100 consideration a few months later, Irwin Levine and Russell Brown’s “Am I Losing You,” which stopped short at #59. Low memorability was as much to blame as was competition from David Cassidy’s second solo album. The still-viable TV group would be back in the Top 40 one more time before the year of ‘72 was over, though, with their version of Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” from a new album.

The "One Night Stand" b-side came from their previous album, The Partridge Family Sound Magazine, but didn't show up on an episode until March '73 ("Diary of a Mad Millionaire," featuring John "Gomez Addams" Astin as an eccentric, Howard Hughes type). The song's lyrics emphasized the traveling band aspect of the title phrase more than the bedroom one.

Side A: "It's One of Those Nights (Yes Love)"

Side B: "One Night Stand"

Top 40 Entry 1/1/72: Carly Simon - "Anticipation"

Carly Simon — “Anticipation” (#13). Elektra 45759. Top 40 debut: 1/1/72. Peak date: 2/12/72. Written by Carly Simon. Produced by Paul Samwell-Smith. B-side: “The Garden.” LP: Anticipation. Charts: Billboard Hot 100 (#13), Easy Listening (#3).

Carly Simon’s debut single (“That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, #10 in 1971), a quiet ballad with a big, Bacharach-style chorus, broke new ground for pop songs by looking at relationships from a psychoanalytical perspective. Fittingly, its sophisticated musical roadmap also offered rewards to those listeners with grown-up attention spans. The record practically demanded, on its own, the creation of a radio format to be known as “adult contemporary." Simon’s next single, “Anticipation,” which led off her second album, gave it its title, and did almost as well, peaking at #13. It followed the lead of "That's the Way" by reinforcing her reputation as pop music’s star reporter in the trenches of modern romance. She had lots of material, and you can read about it in her Boys in the Trees (2015) memoir.

Here’s one tidbit: “Anticipation” came from a date night with Cat Stevens, with whom she’d often shared the stage and also a producer in former Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith. She had cooked dinner, but because the Teaser and the Firecat album icon took his time getting there, she at least got a song written while she waited. Such a well-crafted result, which became one of the quintessential radio hits for the singer-songwriter era, says as much about her creative skills as it does about right place/right time factors. (Stevens would sing background vocals on the album’s “Julie Through the Glass.”) The radio heyday of “Anticipation” coincided with Simon winning the Best New Artist Grammy for 1971, a ceremony that also handed Carole King the Record of the Year (“It’s Too Late”) and Song of the Year (“You’ve Got a Friend”). A golden age for women singer songwriters was evidently underway.

“Anticipation,” though—and this is not in Simon’s memoir—would become best known as a Heinz ketchup TV commercial theme from 1973 well into the eighties. In the present day, hit songs rent themselves out for commercial usage as standard practice. In the sixties and seventies, it tended to go the other way around, with popular commercial themes turning into jingle singles for radio. Simon’s record, then, anticipated a whole new era in pop music marketing.

The only other single from the Anticipation album, “Legend in Your Own Time,” missed the Top 40, peaking at #50. That song was almost universally understood, especially in light of her next big hit “You’re So Vain,” as a takedown of some male subject in a “legend in your own mind” kind of way. Her memoir, though, makes clear that she wrote it, with tenderness to boot, about future husband James Taylor, whom she had met when they were much younger and whose mother, apparently, didn’t have a music career in mind for her boy. He would become a legend, then, according to his own timetable.

Side A: "Anticipation"

Side B: "The Garden"

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Top 40 Entry 1/1/72: "Once You Understand" (1971) - Think

"Once You Understand" (1971) - Think * Written and produced by Lou Stallman and Bobby Susser * 45: "Once You Understand" / "Gather" * LP: Encounter * Label: Laurie * Charts: Billboard (Hot 100, #23 in 1972; #53 in 1974)

Even before Nixon officially declared war on drugs in the summer of 1971, nervous record industry voices were sounding off with self-policing CYA initiatives in the pages of Billboard and other trades. Mike Curb at MGM, for one, took attention-getting steps, sending anti-drug promo materials to record stores and dropping eighteen “hard drug” artists from the label. Pop culture reflected parental anxiety in films on teen addiction such as Joe (1970) and The People Next Door (1970) and the best-selling book Go Ask Alice (1971), while a single by Bloodrock called "D.O.A." (also 1971) managed to crack the Top 40 by leading listeners through a dreary musical O.D.

Those who remember “Once You Understand,” a topical novelty record by Think, tend to place it in the hysteria-mongering camp, but it actually attempted to strike a balance by censuring parents, who were the likeliest hysterics. It's a generation gap record, part of the lineage of Victor Lundberg's "Letter to My Teenage Son" (1967). Producers Lou Stallman and Bobby Susser (an early Tico and Triumphs-era cohort of Paul Simon) were the names behind the Think alias, crafting a series of exchanges between exasperated teenagers and their reactionary, hard-nosed folks. Dad tells son to get a haircut or live somewhere else. Mom tells daughter to get home by ten or to not come home at all. Mom tells daughter not to mix with kids from the wrong neighborhood. Dad tells son there’s more to life than playing guitar in a band. Behind all this, a growing chorus of voices repeat the simplistic, Coke commercial-worthy refrain of “things get a little easier once you understand.”

In sound and effect, it feels like a Jesus-rock singalong and a mantra, two forms very much in vogue. Eventually the chorus stops, and an officer tells the father that his son has died of a drug overdose. A lone voice then concludes the refrain behind the father’s sobs. KQV Pittsburgh and WIXY Cleveland are two stations credited with breaking the single, but its window-rattling popularity and frankness spooked enough stations elsewhere to blacklist it, thereby preventing it from climbing higher than #23. In 1974, the Big Tree label would re-release it and watch it take another ride up the charts to #54, proving that it still had work to be done and thoughtless parents to agitate.

Stallman and Susser’s accompanying Think album is a timepiece called Encounter, worth giving a listen for its unscripted field recordings of parents and teenagers (the last one focusing excusively on drugs) that appear between compostions with simple arrangements and positive messages. Come to think of it, it's the music that's most curio-esque. The spoken recordings actually lead one to wonder if parent-teenager relations have changed at all since then. A soul version of “Once You Understand” appeared in 1972 on the Spectrum label by Lily Fields and the Family and it provides a notable perspective shift, with music that really cooks and parent-teenager banter coming off as far more slice-of-life. The ending is also less severe, with the kid merely winding up at the police station.

Biz Markie sampled the chorus of Fields' “Once You Understand” for his 1989 “Things Get a Little Easier,” while a London duo called 4hero got good mileage out of the officer’s utterance (in the Think version) of “Mr. Kirk?” and the parent’s “Yes?” for their “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare." And you thought it was a Star Trek tribute. (A close listening of the source indicates that the parent’s name is actually “Mr. Cook.”) Stallman and Susser would go on to work with educational and children’s recordings.

Side A: "Once You Understand"

Side B: "Gather"