(Pictured: Paul plays live in California while “Silly Love Songs” sits at #1.)
Forty years ago this week, “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings hit #1 on the Hot 100. I asked my Facebook friends for their unfiltered impressions of the song, and here’s some of what they said:
—“Passable dreck. Until you square it with the knowledge it’s from the same person who wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ‘Maybe I’m Amazed,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Lady Madonna,’ etc., etc., etc. Then it becomes unlistenable dreck.”
—“Stupid song that only got airplay because it was Paul McCartney.”
—“Not then, not now.”
—“In a word, sappy.”
—“A man in love with his wife taking a simple song premise and turning it into a six-minute trademark Macca pop epic. Not a personal favorite, but I appreciate it. As an occasional bass player, I can say this does have a fun bass line to bop along to.”
—“It’s a fine pop song with a great arrangement. The part where it picks up again after slowing down is fabulous. The lyrics aren’t exactly ‘Gimme Some Truth’ though, and McCartney sounds a bit constipated.”
—“I still enjoy it.”
—“Hated it when it was on the radio. Just detested it. I still don’t like it much, but I appreciate the craft more now than I did back then.”
—“I’ve come back around to a lot of his 70s stuff I didn’t like the first time out. Not this one, though.”
—“Superb bass line. Otherwise, good work from someone who had done far better. The Beatles were a tough act to follow.”
—“I’ve always thought that might have been one of those thrown-off songs. Catchy but senseless.”
Another friend said, “I could do without the sound of the milking machine at the beginning.” (It’s never been clear to me precisely what that sound is, but “milking machine” is a good guess.) Although it seems sensible to start the record with the thump of McCartney’s bass, the milking machine creates a feeling of expectation, like the overture before the show begins. Therefore, all versions of “Silly Love Songs” without that noise are inferior. (Another comment: “The full LP version: glorious, if a bit much. The single version: not as good.“) When Wings played the song on the Wings Over America tour in 1976, it started with the recorded noise.
That Paul McCartney’s songcraft is brilliant is something that’s just true, like the sun rising in the east every morning. The contrast between the milking machine and the opening bass thump is an example of that craft. Songcraft is often expressed best in little moments: where the horns come in at the end of the bridge, for one; the breakdown in the middle (“How / Can I tell / You about / My loved one”); and after the breakdown when the horns return (“the part where it picks up again after slowing down”)—each one is evidence of a creator with a sure grasp on what sounds pretty great. And listen to the string arrangement. (Did you remember that there was a string arrangement?)
One friend says that “Silly Love Songs” is “Paul getting back at his critics by giving them exactly what they’ve criticized him for—silly, sappy love songs.” Another friend reminds us that it was John Lennon who famously criticized McCartney’s lightweight solo output. And that makes “Silly Love Songs” the greatest burn in the history of burning. Damn right my songs are silly—and I’m going to buy a few thousand more acres of Scotland with the money the world pays me for them.
The comments quoted above are not the only ones I got; among my friends, positive and negative opinions seem about equally divided. Probably more divided than they were across America 40 years ago this week, however. By the time “Silly Love Songs” topped the Hot 100, it had already hit #1 in Tulsa, Tucson, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C. It would reach the top in many other cities across the country by the end of June. “Silly Love Songs” would be #1 in Billboard for the week of May 22, spend the next two weeks at #2 behind Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” and then ascend to the summit for four more weeks, knocked out for the week of July 10 by “Afternoon Delight.” It would be Billboard‘s #1 single for all of 1976, as it was at WFIL in Philadelphia, WHB in Kansas City, WYSL in Buffalo, and KOLA in San Bernardino, California. Millions of people couldn’t get enough of it, and it’s one of the songs I most closely identify with my favorite year.
(Pictured: Bryan Adams hangs out backstage, circa 1985.)
Here’s a chart from CILQ, an album-rock station in Toronto, dated May 18, 1985. There are some pretty familiar albums listed, and they contain songs that haven’t been off the radio since 1985: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Summer of ’69,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Boys of Summer.” And there’s also the stuff on the flip:
(Pictured: Prince takes a bow after playing the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.)
After Prince died last month, I wrote a post about him that never got out of the drafts folder, because the day after his death was not the time to be critical of any aspect of his work. I’m not sure a month later is the right time, either, but one paragraph of that post seems worthy of the light of day.
From “Soft and Wet” on forward, you’d have a hard time finding an artist more consistently sexual/sensual than Prince. Michael Jackson sang about matters physical even though it was hard to imagine him even speaking to a woman, let alone bedding one. In the 80s, at least, Madonna was as much about teasing as she was about actually getting it on. Prince, on the other hand, often sounded like he’d just extricated himself from a partner (or two, or three) and hurried out of the sack to make the session. Sometimes, his viewpoint was pubescent: “Sugar Walls,” which he wrote and produced for Sheena Easton, is built on a metaphor that’s only sexy if you’re 12 years old; “U Got the Look,” a duet he cut with Easton, contains the lines “If love is good / Let’s get to rammin'”; Rolling Stone‘s obituary notes that he wanted Vanity, one of his protegés, to call herself “Vagina.” His “Darling Nikki” bears a great deal of responsibility for the Parents Music Resource Center and the parental advisory stickering of albums.
I’m not a prude—not by a long shot—but the sexual content of Prince’s records seemed pandering to me, at least to the person I was in the 80s. It seemed to me then that his focus on sex was a cheap way of getting noticed, and that he was capable of better. But I understand now what a significant aspect of his artistic vision it was. Certain artists in more recent times have tried going the same way—Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, for example—but Prince got there first. And probably best.
Plausibly Related: I have not mentioned it here or on Twitter, although I did post a note on Facebook when it happened: my father-in-law died on April 12. (Today would have been his 80th birthday.) Hal had been in failing health for two or three years, and in a nursing home on Cape Cod for about a year. The Mrs. had just visited him during the first weekend in April, and he went into the hospital for the last time a few days after that. We were on the Cape a couple of weekends ago for a memorial service; at some point this summer, there will be a service in western Iowa, where he will be buried next to Ann’s mother, who died in 1992.
I have written about my father’s collection of polka 45s and my mother’s talents as a piano player. But Ann’s parents didn’t seem to be into music all that much. I never saw a record collection in any of their houses; Ann says they had only a few Christmas albums. When she and her siblings were growing up, her parents listened mostly to classical music or easy listening on the radio, but strictly as background. They weren’t consciously putting on Mozart, or anything like that.
After Hal remarried, he seems to have gotten into music a bit more, most likely influenced by his new spouse. A couple of years ago, as he was divesting himself of possessions he didn’t need or want to keep, we inherited a box of CDs that contained some jazz and several terrific Time-Life easy-listening compilations—Henry Mancini, Mantovani, Roger Williams, and so on. The box also contained Robert Palmer’s 1992 album Ridin’ High, a album of jazz and pop standards.
There is one rock ‘n’ roll story that involves Hal. He had a sister who lived in the Seattle area, and after one visit there, he told us about a friend of his sister’s he had met. The friend said her daughters played in a band.
“I think you might know who they are,” Hal said. “The Wilson sisters.”
We thought about it for a second. “You mean Heart?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
(Pictured: Potsie, Ralph, Richie, and the Fonz discuss vital issues of the day.)
Forty years ago this week, I was finishing up my sophomore year in high school by locking down my class schedule for the fall. For the first time, we were permitted to schedule classes ourselves instead of taking what they told us to take when they told us to take it. The baseball team, of which I was equipment manager, won one game and lost two. John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” was the new #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 dated May 8th, while the previous week’s #1, “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, plunged to #9. “Silly Love Songs” by Wings and Silver Convention’s “Get Up and Boogie” were new in the Top 10. The hottest record in the Top 40 was the Rolling Stones’ double-sided hit, “Fool to Cry” and “Hot Stuff,” which leaped from #46 to #20.
What’s at the top of that May 8th chart is the soundtrack of my life, and it plays in my head without the need for any other hardware. Down at the bottom, however, the going gets weird. That stuff is on the flip.
(Pictured: a streaker intruded on the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, because of course he did.)
Here’s more about my 1976 daybook, rebooted from a series of posts that originally appeared in 2009.
The majority of the notes in the book are the birthdays of famous people and weird holidays, which must have seemed important to me back then, although I can fathom no reason for them now except chronic geekitude. I occasionally took a break from the trivia to note the scores of games I was interested in, or involved in. I occasionally noted news items, the weather, days off from school for snow, or the word “HOT” in all caps (as on July 10, when it was 104 degrees in Madison). On July 17, I noted the start of the Summer Olympics in Montreal, and Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s in gymnastics on the 19th and the 21st. On the 20th, I noted the Viking I landing on Mars.
But details of my day-to-day life are maddeningly sketchy. On Thursday February 5, I wrote “Make yourself do it!,” which undoubtedly involved asking somebody for a date. (This I did not do. Suffering in unrequited silence was how I rolled back then.) On Sunday the 8th, we celebrated my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary with an open house in the church basement. Somewhere I have a photo of myself manning the guest book that afternoon, 70s resplendent in a loud plaid sport coat and bright red polyester pants. On March 1, the day after my 16th birthday, I stayed home from school with a cold.
On Thursday, March 4, I wrote, “lights out 11:30AM.” This was the beginning of the fabled ice storm of 1976, one of the most powerful winter storms ever to bash my part of Wisconsin. The electricity would stay out until Sunday March 7, when I wrote “lights on after 76:19 with none.” A note on the Saturday of that weekend says, “Appointment at WEKZ 8-830AM.” I presume I got there despite the weather—it was the first in the series of Saturday morning hang-outs at the station which I hoped would result in a job. On April 14 I would write, headline fashion, “WEKZ Wants Me During the Summer,” but it turned out that they didn’t. They never officially offered me a job, and when I stopped hanging out at the station for free, they decided I wasn’t interested anymore, which is crazy, because I was obsessed with radio. That’s why Monday, March 15, had been a noteworthy day: “CFL Switches to Easy Listening: Where Can We Go to Rock and Roll?” I was listening that afternoon during one of the most extraordinary radio format changes in history.
Later in March, my closest friend got his driver’s license, and we went “cruising” (our word) that night. On Tuesday April 6, I wrote: “Got class ring & report card (eesh),” which refers to a C+ in plane geometry and a D+ in chemistry. Bad grades didn’t get me grounded, however. That weekend, there was a basketball marathon at our high school—teams signed up to play for an hour at a time, and games ran from noon Friday through midnight Sunday. A bunch of us went to the local drive-in theater on Friday night and then played games at midnight and 5AM. I had never stayed up all night before.
The next week, on April 13th, 1976, I got my driver’s license. Then April rolled on and turned to May: Getting a copy of Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief (April 17), my cousin’s confirmation (April 25), going to see The Exorcist at the drive-in (May 2). I was equipment manager of my high-school baseball team that spring; the season ended on Tuesday May 25, the same day I bought a compilation album called Silver Bullets. On May 29, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I wrote, “Bought ’72 Hornet.” I didn’t actually buy it—my parents did—but it was going to be mine. I have always remembered the car as a ’74. Did I get it wrong there, or have I had it wrong ever since?
In the next installment: The height of summer comes—and goes, without actually achieving any height.