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"

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