(Pictured: ABBA on The Midnight Special, 1976.)
The other night, the gods of shuffle cranked out the following songs for me, all in a row:
“Rose of Cimarron”/Poco. The title track from the band’s 1976 album, beautifully sung by Paul Cotton and Timothy B. Schmit. I don’t especially care for the slow instrumental outro, but the five minutes before we get to that are something to have on hand when the space aliens arrive and ask why they shouldn’t vaporize the lot of us.
“Prisoner of Your Love”/Player. In January 1978, Player’s “Baby Come Back” hit #1 and became one of the founding documents of yacht rock. That summer, “This Time I’m in It for Love,” which is even more yacht-rockier than “Baby Come Back,” hit #10. In the fall of 1978, “Prisoner of Your Love” was their third single, making #27. It’s far different from the other two, with an instrumental hook for the ages, and is best heard in its full-length album version, which has more of what you came in the door for.
“Taurus”/Dennis Coffey. I can’t say it better than I did a couple of years ago: “Coffey rocks like crazy on “Taurus,” as if he were trying to hold off the Great Mellowing of the 70s all by himself. Dude is on fire.”
“Sleeping With the Television On”/Billy Joel. This is the great lost Billy Joel single, and I am now in my 38th year—since the release of Glass Houses in 1980—of trying to turn it into a hit. My quest was vindicated in 2015 when Vulture ranked 121 Billy Joel songs from worst to first and placed it at #4.
“Cherry Hill Park”/Billy Joe Royal. “In the daytime Mary Hill was a teaser / But come the nighttime she was such a pleaser.” It’s left to the imagination why all the boys got eager eyes watching her on the merry-go-round, or precisely why she was such a thrill after dark. “Cherry Hill Park” proves once again that the best storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
“Bang-a-Boomerang”/ABBA. Atlantic, ABBA’s North American label, released Greatest Hits in September 1976, at a time when ABBA had scored only four hits on the American chart: “Waterloo,” “S.O.S.,” “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” and “Mamma Mia.” Their then-current single, “Fernando” also appeared on the album, but the rest of it—nine other songs—were mostly unknown over here. One of them, “Bang-a-Boomerang,” has a rather convoluted history. In 1974. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had given it to another act on their record label, who recorded it in Swedish and saw it become a modest hit in Sweden. In 1975, ABBA cut their own version in English with the same backing track their labelmates had used. It was released a single in France with “S.O.S.” on the B-side and was not an especially big hit there or anywhere else, but it ended up on the Greatest Hits album just the same.
Several of the nine songs that were new to American listeners in 1976 are pretty damn good: “Dance (While the Music Still Goes On),” “Ring Ring,” and “Another Town, Another Train” among them. But “Bang-a-Boomerang” is the best of them, and not just that: it’s the perfect ABBA record. “Dancing Queen” usually gets that title, and deservedly so. While “Bang-a-Boomerang” wasn’t the hit “Dancing Queen” was, it contains everything that’s great about ABBA in three minutes just as “Dancing Queen” does. And while “Dancing Queen” is one of the most joyful records ever made, “Bang-a-Boomerang” might be even more so. Listen to the bridge and the final reprise starting at about the 2:25 mark in the video with “And if you’re warm and tender / I kiss you return to sender / Please surrender” and tell me that moment is not every bit as spectacular as the last “you can dance / you can jam” in “Dancing Queen.”
(Pictured: the Rubettes—John Richardson, Tony Thorpe, Mick Clarke, and Alan Williams—in 1976.)
Over the years, we have occasionally mentioned the Rubettes, who, in the middle of the glam-rock era, were one of the most popular groups in Britain. The awesomely cheesy and insanely great “Sugar Baby Love” was a #1 single in the UK in May 1974, followed by “Tonight,” “Juke Box Jive,” “I Can Do It,” and “Foe-Dee-Oh-Dee,” all of which made the UK Top 20 during the next year-and-a-half. Only “Sugar Baby Love” charted in the States, and only for a moment, spending two weeks in the Billboard Top 40 during September 1974, reaching #37.
The Rubettes started as a creation of producer Wayne Bickerton, who in 1973 assembled a bunch of studio cats to make a demo of some songs he had written with Tony Waddington, a childhood friend. (Bickerton and Waddington had also been bandmates of erstwhile Beatle Pete Best in the mid 60s.) Polydor Records liked the sound of them and wanted to release one as a single, but told Bickerton he would need to have an actual band to promote the record on TV and on the road. The lead singer on the demos was under contract to another label, so he couldn’t join, but three of the other studio musicians were willing; they rounded up three of their mates, and the Rubettes were launched, their name intended to conjure up the sound of 50s American rock ‘n’ roll.
After a couple of years, the band shrunk to five members, and eventually four. Although the hits began to thin out at the end of 1975, the Rubettes remained a popular concert draw, especially in France, into the early 80s. (Rubette Alan Williams told a reporter in 2015 that Paul McCartney told him of sitting down with a French interviewer whose first two questions were, “Are you Paul McCartney?” and “Do you know the Rubettes?”)
In 1976, the newly four-piece Rubettes decided to change their sound, as Williams says “the glam thing” was mostly at the behest of Bickerton and Waddington. The single “Under One Roof” was intended to be different—not only its sound but its subject matter. “Under One Roof” is the story of a neglected teenage boy who runs away from home, is taken in by a man, and falls in love with him, only to be murdered by his own father.
“Under One Roof” ran up against resistance almost immediately. The BBC pop-music station wouldn’t play it because of its subject matter, which Williams and his bandmates found frustrating because the same station didn’t blink at Rod Stewart’s similarly themed “The Killing of Georgie.” Rubette John Richardson remembered that the band was booked to play their new single on Top of the Pops, only to have the billing canceled when producers got wind of the song’s theme. While some singles managed to climb high on the charts without BBC exposure, “Under One Roof” wasn’t one of them. It stalled at #40 late in 1976.
My laptop music stash includes a Rubettes compilation, which I own entirely because I dug “Sugar Baby Love” the handful of times I heard it over the years. One recent afternoon, “Under One Roof” came up on shuffle, and it cut through the clutter of the day like few records have lately. It’s a compelling story with a beautiful melody, sensitively sung. As is usually the case with Rubettes records, it’s extremely well made. If you can listen to the end without feeling a surge of emotion, I don’t know what to say to you.
“Under One Roof” is worth hearing 40 years later not just as a historical curiosity. For the last few years, we have bent the arc of history toward justice, with gays and lesbians no longer singled out for discrimination—but we are governed now by bigots eager to return us to more backward times. “Under One Roof” is a reminder of just how much ignorance and cruelty can cost.
I can’t remember when I first heard of Chuck Berry. I dimly knew of him before “My Ding-a-Ling” hit the radio in 1972, and I suspect I knew he was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s it. As the 50s pop culture nostalgia wave crested in the middle of the 1970s, he would have been just another member of the gallery—and I choose the word gallery deliberately instead of pantheon, because they were just guys to me then—the people whose music invoked the vibe of an era I wasn’t old enough to remember.
It would be a few years before I learned more about Chuck Berry, and it’s likely that my education came from a syndicated radio show. At my first paying radio job, it was my responsibility to play the tapes of Sunday at the Memories, hosted by longtime Colorado jock Ray Durkee. Although the show spanned many decades, Durkee loved the 50s the most, and the first historical context I had for Chuck Berry probably came from him.
Since then, I’ve learned that it’s hard to overstate Chuck Berry’s place not just in music history, but in history, period. Charles Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, tweeted Saturday night that Berry was “the primary author of the Declaration of Independence,” which is a superb metaphor for what Berry did. His music was liberation on 45: in his songs, kids didn’t have to be dutiful students and couples didn’t have to keep one foot on the floor. Like Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration, Chuck Berry told us that the course is ours to chart; we don’t have to answer to oppressors just because they say we do, or because we’ve answered to them up til now. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that any teenager who ever rebelled against a parent, a teacher, a cop—any authority figure—is one of Chuck’s children.
A lot of the memorializing of Berry mentions his jail time, his tax troubles, his insistence on being paid in cash, and his quirky performing style in recent years (performing in medley form, rarely a whole song, baffling the pickup bands who backed him as they tried to keep up). But all of that is trivia, and it doesn’t erode Chuck Berry’s place on rock ‘n’ roll’s Mt. Rushmore.
Scientists think that the faces on Mt. Rushmore will be there eons from now. Chuck Berry’s influence might last about as long. Last summer, Chuck Klosterman published But What If We’re Wrong?, in which he tried to imagine which certainties of today might eventually be proven wrong, just as the certainties of 500 and 300 and 100 years have been proven wrong. As part of the thought experiment, he asked which single artist will stand for rock ‘n’ roll a century or two from now, just as John Philip Sousa stands for the entire genre of martial music from 100 years ago. Klosterman settled on Chuck Berry.
And there’s this: On April 22, 1978, Saturday Night Live broadcast the single greatest episode in its history. The last sketch of the night featured Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Jane Curtin as psychics predicting tomorrow’s headlines. Martin’s character predicted that a message from extraterrestrials would appear on the cover of the next week’s Time magazine, sent after they intercepted the famous Voyager Golden Record, which had been launched into space the previous August. Among other artifacts, the record contained audio samples of human culture, including “Johnny B. Goode.” “It may be just four simple words,” Martin says of the message, “but it is the first positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.” And then he holds up the cover, which reads, “Send more Chuck Berry.”
They know. As we should.
I don’t do a lot of obituary posts at this blog because other people do them better than I do. Professor O’Kelly knocked out a beauty on Saturday night, for example. This piece from The Guardian, although it’s Anglo-centric and some of the references will be lost on Americans, is really good on Berry’s revolutionary role. Stephen T. Erlewine says that Berry was the sound of 20th century America. And you should read Peter Guralnick’s memories of Berry because you should read everything Peter Guralnick writes.
(Pictured: the Irish Rovers, circa 1968.)
One St. Patrick’s Day, my boss took me out for dinner at a bar owned by his wife’s family, and I got loaded on green beer. (I don’t recommend it.) Another year, the station’s jocks were scheduled to walk in our town’s St. Pat’s parade, dressed in green-trimmed tuxedos and handing out green-tinted carnations. However, a strong thunderstorm rolled through just as the parade was lining up. We got caught in it, trying to take refuge at one point under the overhanging back end of the nearby Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. (I don’t recommend that, either.) Although the parade went on after a delay, it went on without the four of us, who had gone back to the station to wring out our rented suits.
I don’t have any other St. Patrick’s Day memories, and the most Irish thing about me is all the Van Morrison records I own. But I’m not writing about Van today.
(Pictured: Donald Fagen, whose enormous eyeglasses date this photo to the late 80s.)
When Donald Fagen released The Nightfly in the fall of 1982, it seemed to fit on the continuum with Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho, with the same producer and a lot of the same musicians. But the album actually revealed itself to be something far different. It’s warmer—the songs welcome you into their world rather than holding you at a distance from it. It’s more personal: in the liner notes, Fagen wrote, “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” And The Nightfly has an easy, casual swing missing from Aja and Gaucho.
Listen to the whole thing here while I rank the songs.
8. “Green Flower Street.” This is a perfectly fine song in this spot because something has to rank at the bottom.
7. “Ruby Baby.” As one of the Dukes of September, Fagen has performed lots of covers, many quite surprising. This and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Pretzel Logic are the only covers he or Steely Dan ever put on an official release. (Late edit: if you want to count the bonus tracks on the reissue of Morph the Cat, there are others. I can go either way.)
6. “The Nightfly.” Fagen has written that as a boy, he was transfixed by New York radio personality Jean Shepherd, and “The Nightfly” indicates how much time young Don spent listening to late-night radio and/or imagining himself on it.
5. “I.G.Y.” This is Fagen’s lone Top 40 hit, which hit #26 on November 27, 1982, and stayed there for three weeks. It lasted 14 weeks on the Hot 100 in all. When I started thinking about ranking these tracks, I was sure “I.G.Y.” would be close to the top, but as I listened to the album I kept hearing songs that are better.
4. “Maxine.” In which a young couple struggles to remain together long enough to reach the bright future they imagine for themselves. Apparently, happily ever after isn’t as easy as it looks.
3. “The Goodbye Look.” This breezy Caribbean idyll hides a darker tale: an American tourist on holiday decides to hire a boat and get off the island rather than attending “a small reception just for me” at which there will clearly be trouble. There’s no credit for a marimba player; that sound comes from a synthesizer in the hands of veteran player Greg Phillinganes.
2. “New Frontier.” The setting: a party in a home-built fallout shelter circa 1961. One of the young partygoers tries to impress a girl with his hip bona-fides (name-dropping Tuesday Weld, the limbo, and Dave Brubeck), but he can’t hide that his sophisticated pretense is intended solely to get over on her: “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing / And stay together all night long . . . Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” “New Frontier” is Fagen’s deepest groove ever, thanks to pianist Michael Omartian, bassist Marcus Miller, lead guitarist Larry Carlton, , and drummer Ed Greene.
1. “Walk Between Raindrops.” A song uncharacteristic of the Donald Fagen we thought we knew in ’82. Its bright-n-bubbly organ puts a listener in mind of Walter Wanderley, or Jimmy McGriff with his lightest touch. The song is pure Tin Pan Alley, quite a switch coming from the writer of so many songs about shady characters with dark motives. And when the band members chime in together with “ohhhh, Miami!,” Fagen puts his pop-music heart right out on his sleeve.
Not ranked on this list are three songs that appeared on the super-deluxe 2007 reissue of The Nightfly: Fagen’s two movie soundtrack contributions, “True Companion” and “Century’s End” (recorded for Heavy Metal and Bright Lights Big City respectively) and a live version of “Green Flower Street” from Live at the Beacon, the 1991 album by Fagen’s all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue. “True Companion” (1981) doesn’t do much for five minutes, although fans of the Steely Dan vibe might find those five very pleasant minutes nevertheless. “Century’s End” (1988) has more going on, although it’s a better sonic fit with Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad.
Fagen has released two other solo albums besides The Nightfly and Kamakiriad: Morph the Cat (2006) and Sunken Condos (2012). All are worth your time . . . but The Nightfly is the best of the bunch.
(Pictured: the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, 1967.)
As we make our way through the 50th anniversary of 1967, looking back at the Billboard Hot 100 week by week is a mind-blowing experience: so many songs that remain imprinted on our DNA, so many acts that define what pop and rock music means to us, all appearing in what was then real time. The chart dated March 11, 1967, is almost too much to take in: “Ruby Tuesday,” “Kind of a Drag,” “Penny Lane,” “Happy Together,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “The Beat Goes On,” “I’m a Believer,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and others. You know them all. Some notes follow:
—There’s remarkable volatility on the chart, at least by pre-Soundscan standards. “Penny Lane” jumps from #36 to #5 and “Strawberry Fields Forever” enters the Top 40 at #16 from #45 the week before. “Happy Together” leaps to #8 from #21, and “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Mamas and the Papas hits #10 from #26.
—Amidst the rock classics, middle-of-the-road pop continues to make a stand as Ed Ames’ “My Cup Runneth Over” moves into the Top 10. It’s a love song of remarkable power and poignancy, as we’ve noted before. Also among the Top 60 this week: Frankie Laine, Tom Jones (with the classic “Green Green Grass of Home”), Al Martino, Jack Jones, and Petula Clark.
—The Royal Guardsmen had spent four weeks at #2 in January with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. ” They had sent a copy of the record to Charles Schulz hoping to get his blessing. According to group member Barry Winslow, Schulz’s lawyers suggested the record be renamed “Squeaky vs. the Black Knight.” Eventually, the Guardsmen got official permission to use the Snoopy character, in exchange for “a pretty healthy chunk of money.” Fifty years ago this week, “Return of the Red Baron” blasts into the Top 40 on its way to #15. Two more Snoopy-themed hits will follow. At the end of 1967, “Snoopy’s Christmas” will become one of the most successful holiday novelties ever. “Snoopy for President” will stall at #85 in the summer of ’68.
—“I Never Loved a Man” by Aretha Franklin is in its second week on the chart, moving from #80 to #52. It was the only song finished during Aretha’s January session at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals—which dissolved into chaos thanks to a racially charged dispute between Franklin’s husband/manager and some of the session musicians.
—The chart is studded with other classic soul performances: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” by Wilson Pickett, “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” by Sam and Dave, the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas, Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street.” Also appearing: Jerry Butler, Freddie Scott, Solomon Burke, James Brown, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, and Bo Diddley.
—Heads tuned to psychedelic rock can dig “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet,” and “It’s a Happening Thing” by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy this week. There are also plenty of pop songs sprinkled with trippy fairy dust: among them “Happy Together,” “Pretty Ballerina,” “98.6,” “Mairzy Doats” by the Innocence, and “That Acapulco Gold” by the Rainy Daze, whose chemical inspiration is right in the title.
—Besides “Kind of a Drag” at #2, the Buckinghams also score with “Laudy Miss Claudy” (badly misspelled by Billboard) at #98 and “Don’t You Care” at #100. “Kind of a Drag” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” were released on the Buckinghams’ original label, Chicago-based USA. “Don’t You Care” was the first release after the Buckinghams’ new deal with producer James William Guercio and Columbia Records, and it would blow “Clawdy” away, getting to #6 while “Clawdy” made only #41—although the fact that “Don’t You Care” is miles better had something to do with it too.
—Let’s find a reason to mention “Western Union” by the Five Americans (#58) and the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (#61).
We have occasionally noted the phenomenon of a great chart loaded with classic hits that ends up topped by a song that is neither great nor classic. The week of March 11, 1967, is one of those. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” would be the weakest #1 song in the Supremes catalog if it wasn’t for “The Happening” later in 1967. But the songs behind it are so insanely great that it doesn’t matter.