I greet you from the road, and a nondescript town in east-central Wisconsin that might as well remain nameless. I’m at the beginning of my longest trip in quite a while—I’ll be away from home for seven out of 10 nights all told. (This is night number two.) As I’ve written repeatedly over the last couple of years, these trips run not so much on gasoline, but on music, caffeine, and baked goods. Especially music. Fire could be shooting out the back of my car and I’d be fine with it, but if something happened to the stereo system, that would be a crisis.
This Top 5 is a couple of hours early for Friday, because I have to hit the road again at dark-oh-30 tomorrow and will be gone all day. It consists of five cool tunes that have already lightened the load and brightened the way.
“Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)”/Al Green. Perhaps the greatest of all Al Green singles. Willie Mitchell’s arrangement is so sweet that Al is moved to chuckle during the introduction. Me, too, every time I hear it.
“Tryin’ to Love Two”/William Bell. An unjustly forgotten figure of Southern soul, Bell needed until the spring of 1977, years after the golden age of soul was over, to score a major hit. At that moment, disco was beginning to sweep all before it, and this record has more urban gloss than Southern grit, but the storyline in the lyric—”I got a woman at home sweet as can be/Woman on the outside, crazy ’bout me”—is classic soul.
“1900 Yesterday”/Liz Damon’s Orient Express. On your radio this week in 1971, “1900 Yesterday” has developed quite a following online, and inspired this 2001 Liz Damon homage, which tells you far more about her than you probably wanted to know. That “1900 Yesterday” ever became a hit in the first place, albeit a modest one, is a wonder. Even in 1971, it sounded a little bit dated, like it belonged with the lounge-pop records of the mid 60s. It continues to attract a cult following for several reasons. Take the enigma of that title—just what does it mean, “1900 Yesterday”?—and the vaguely exotic artist name. If “Liz Damon’s Orient Express” were a nightclub, none of us would be cool enough to get in. But the most amazing thing about this haunting, ethereal song might be this: 36 years later, it still manages to sound both dated and timeless.
“Thomas the Rhymer”/Steeleye Span. An only-in-England concept—erstwhile rock musicians who adopted traditional folk styles and eschewed drums entirely for the first several years of their existence as a band. Their electrification in the early 1970s was as controversial in the English folk community as Bob Dylan’s had been in the States years before, but it kicked off a period of tremendous success for the Span. They remained an acquired taste in the States, though—I learned about them sometime in the mid 70s when I picked up a Warner Brothers music sampler that featured, among other things, “Thomas the Rhymer.” Maddy Pryor’s vocal rings out the traditional lyric like a peasant maiden singing at the wheel while she’s spinning flax, but that guitar riff in the middle is pure rock-and-roll crunch.
“Rapture Riders”/Blondie vs. the Doors. I am officially agnostic on the question of whether remixing is truly an art form, but I’ll cop to having several mashups in my laptop music stash, including a whacked-out combination of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and an amateurish-but-intriguing cross between “Paperback Writer” and “Daydream Believer.” “Rapture Riders” is one of the most famous mashups, created several years ago by producer/remixer Mark Vidler and mating Blondie’s “Rapture” with the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” Unlike most mashups, which are technically in violation of copyright, “Rapture Riders” got an official release in 2005, and Vidler got the blessing from Debbie Harry herself.
Next stop: Indiana. More from there, eventually.