(Pictured: “Bernie, what does this mean here, ‘I saw it as you flew between my reason’?”)
I do not love Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player the way I do other albums from Elton John’s classic 1972-1977 period. Nevertheless, it found its way into the car CD player recently, so here’s a ranking of the tracks. If you haven’t heard it for a while, it’s here.
13. “Jack Rabbit.” This was one of two songs on the B-side of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and is a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of the album. It’s a country song that runs 1:50, but there’s even less to it than that.
12. “Texan Love Song.” Elton sings as a patriotic Texas redneck who hates communism, “fairies,” rock ‘n’ roll, and everything else brought to America by “out-of-town guys.” Despite an attempt at a drawl and an ostentatious mandolin, Elton still comes off as the exact sort of long-haired English dandy the Texan would shoot from his porch.
11. “Midnight Creeper.” According to Wikipedia, Elton was going for a Rolling Stones-ish sound on this. News flash: Wikipedia is wrong.
10. “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again).” Also on the “Saturday Night’s Alright” B-side, and as crankable as the A-side. Also a reissue bonus track.
9. “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” Big and cinematic and like nothing else Elton had done to this point. It’s easy to imagine it appearing on any of his next three albums, but not on his previous three.
8. “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol.” This feels a bit like a companion piece to Honky Chateau‘s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” in which the bored teenager of the latter song bought a guitar instead of committing suicide and found a calling in life.
7. “Teacher I Need You.” I keep thinking as I listen to this album that I like Elton’s performances and the production on this album more than I like the songs he’s singing. He and the band sound great, but the songs at the bottom of this list just kind of disappear right after I hear them.
6. “Blues for Baby and Me.” Spoiler: of the top six songs in my rankings, four of them are ballads.
5. “Crocodile Rock.” Nobody really needs to hear this song again, but if you manage to forget being sick of it, you can’t deny how incredibly hooky it is. Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.
4. “Elderberry Wine.” This was the B-side of “Crocodile Rock,” which is pretty good value for your 95 cents right there. Although it’s got a bit of Bernie Taupin’s reflexive misogyny (the singer is nostalgic for the woman who used to wait on him hand and foot), it also rocks like crazy.
3. “Skyline Pigeon.” This first appeared on Empty Sky with Elton accompanying himself on harpsichord and organ. This full-band version, with Elton in much better voice than he’d been in 1969, was cut during the Don’t Shoot Me sessions but remained unreleased until 1988, when it turned up on a UK compilation, and in the States on the Rare Masters box set in 1992. (By that time, it had become famous through its association with young AIDS victim Ryan White, whom Elton befriended, and at whose 1990 funeral he performed the song.) Why it was shelved in 1973 I can’t imagine, as it’s a near-textbook example of the radio-friendly Elton sound the world couldn’t get enough of in the mid 70s. In some alternate universe, it was a #1 single for weeks and weeks.
2. “High Flying Bird.” This is the last track on the original album, which means Don’t Shoot Me is book-ended by two of Elton’s most beautiful ballads. As so often happens, Bernie’s lyric is largely gibberish, but as so often also happens, Elton rescues it with a hook-laden melody and then sings the hell out of it.
1. ” Daniel.” This opens the album, with Elton on electric piano and Mellotron instead of acoustic piano, giving it a feel that is unique in his catalog. When he reprises the first verse right at the end (“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane”), the sadness at the heart of the song is fully revealed, in the kind of goosebump moment that is one of the reasons we love music.
(Pictured: Senators listen to testimony during the Watergate hearings, 1973.)
The break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel happened in June 1972. But if you were transported back to, say, September of ’72, and you went looking for news about it in your local paper, you’d probably wonder where it was. The scandal was a local DC story for a long time—in fact, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reputations were eventually made by their coverage of the scandal, saw their stories appear only in the Metro section of the Washington Post for months on end. To Mr. and Mrs. Average American, the scandal story was swamped by other news, including the ’72 campaign, Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection, and the ongoing struggle to end the Vietnam War.
The scandal metastasized between January and April 1973. (Not for nothing would White House counsel John Dean call it “a cancer on the presidency.”) First came the trial of the Watergate burglars and the admission by one of them that he had been pressured to perjure himself by higher officials; then the revelation that the FBI believed Dean had lied to them. With the scandal on the cover of Time magazine, on April 30, 1973, came the firing of Dean and the forced resignations of Nixon’s two top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. (Attorney general Richard Kleindienst also quit that day.) Two weeks later, Senate hearings into the scandal began. Throughout the summer and fall of 1973, what former attorney general John Mitchell called “the White House horrors” came out day by day, unspooling into the winter and spring of 1974, and to Nixon’s bitter end that summer.
Radio stations carried news on the hour and we watched network TV news every night after supper, so 13-year-old me knew all about those horrors, about executive privilege and the 18-minute gap, “expletive deleted” and “unindicted co-conspirator.” After the televised Senate hearings began, we watched them in social studies class. The hearings were historic, and I presume that our teachers believed we seventh-graders could become part of history by watching.
But no American, age 13 or any other age, was completely consumed by a sense of history unfolding. We all had our own lives to lead. Sunday, April 29, 1973, was my mother’s birthday, so there was probably some sort of family celebration, maybe dinner at a restaurant after church. If we got home in time, I certainly would have turned on the baseball game, to watch the first-place Cubs run their record to 12-and-8 with a 2-0 win over San Diego at Wrigley Field. Rick Monday’s lead-off home run in the first inning was all pitcher Rick Reuschel needed.
On the school bus 45 years ago today, I would have passed the time listening to the radio. Besides the songs I’ve already written about this month, WLS was playing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and “Drift Away,” and they haven’t really been off the radio in 45 years. “Peaceful” by Helen Reddy is better than you remember. The new Elton John record, “Daniel,” would quickly become a favorite of mine. But the song that most reliably takes me back to that spring is none of those: weirdly enough, Anne Murray’s version of “Danny’s Song” is the one that always puts me on the bus, watching the farms of Clarno and Cadiz Townships wake up after winter, and thinking about the concerns of the day, not just in my seventh-grade world but in the wider world I was becoming a part of.
We assume that kids today grow up faster than we did. But in the spring of 1973, Americans of all ages were growing up fast. We were learning that what we’d always assumed about our leaders wasn’t necessarily true—that holding high office was no guarantee of virtuous behavior, and that if the United States was going to remain a country of laws and not of men, it was necessary to take action to ensure that it would be. Forty-five springs later, the lessons still resonate.
(Pictured: Edgar Winter, performing on ABC’s late-night music show, In Concert.)
Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten two posts out of a single edition of American Top 40. So that makes this post a record-breaker of a sort: a third one from the show dated April 21, 1973. Having discussed the first hour as well as the song at #1, here are a few noteworthy bits from elsewhere.
When Dick Clark guest-hosted in March 1972, it was he who suggested that instead of recording the show live in real time, Casey’s bits could be scripted in advance and tracked all at once, with the engineers piecing the show together later. I suspect, however, that the 4/21/73 show was done in real time, and here’s why: over the introduction to “Hallelujah Day” by the Jackson Five (#31), Casey wanted to list the 4 #1 singles the Jackson Five had to date. He mentioned “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” and “I’ll Be There,” but in a peculiarly halting way not at all characteristic of his smooth style.
The reason was that he was trying to think of the fourth title, and he couldn’t remember it.
There is a particular feeling when you, the jock, get into a bit and it starts to go haywire. I’ve experienced it more times than I care to remember. With the song intro starting to run out, Casey was considering two questions at once: A) “what’s the goddamn fourth song?” and B) “how can I salvage this if I don’t think of it?” He eventually opted for B, saying “There’s a fourth song I can’t remember! Here’s ‘Hallelujah Day.'”
(Casey came out of “Hallelujah Day” by mentioning that the song he couldn’t remember was “The Love You Save.” In his defense, that’s the one everybody forgets.)
Back to back at #27 and #26 are two songs that couldn’t be more different, but which both suffer from the same thing: overzealous production. “Out of the Question” by Gilbert O’Sullivan is a little gimmicky simply as a song. Then producer Gordon Mills adds various musical accents and flourishes that sound OK for a minute-and-a-half, but by the end, the record is simply trying too hard. “Funky Worm,” the self-produced first hit by the Ohio Players, hits a pretty good groove, especially with what was then a groundbreaking ARP synthesizer line, but renders itself unlistenable with a speeded-up “worm” voice yammering all the way through it.
The highest-debuting song of the week is Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” at #25, coming in from #41 on the Hot 100 the week before. WLS had charted it for the first time in the same week, so it wouldn’t have been long before I went out and bought the 45. It had been a while since I’d heard the edit, which cuts the 4:44 album version to 3:28, and it improves quite a bit on the original.
The week’s #24 hit, “Daisy a Day” by Jud Strunk, created yet another train wreck on a show that’s full of them. Strunk’s gentle, sentimental tale about a couple’s love that survives the death of one of them made #14 on the Hot 100 in a 16-week run (although WLS only charted it for two weeks), and #4 on Easy Listening. Strunk was a multimedia star, having been a regular during the last season of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which aired its last original episode in March. The wreck is redoubled with #23, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato. This is the third time I’ve heard it on old AT40s this year, and every time, it’s been shortened, either by the engineers in 1973 or today.
Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” checking in at #22, joins “Frankenstein” and “Hocus Pocus” (#39) as the hardest-rockin’ records on this chart. The #1 album in the nation during this week was rockin’ too: Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, which makes quite a contrast with the Dawn/Vicki Lawrence/Carpenters threesome topping the singles chart.
Up at #20 is “Wildflower” by Skylark, which Casey introduces by name-checking its producer, Eirik the Norwegian. (Although Casey didn’t explain, that’s Eirik Wangberg, who got his nickname from Paul McCartney after doing some engineering on the album Ram.) I wrote earlier this year about my growing interest in girls during the spring I turned 13, and how I was less interested in physical action than in simply making some pretty girl happy. The girl in “Wildflower” clearly needed a man like me, because “she’s faced the hardest times you could imagine / And many times her eyes fought back the tears.” Thirteen-year-old me promised himself that he would never do anything to make her cry. But that free and gentle flower was not growing wild in any field I knew of.
We have passed several musical milestones from 1973 already this year, including the releases of Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy. Let other bloggers write about those. I will stick to subjects I am uniquely qualified to explore: Forty-five years ago this week, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Dawn had made a big splash with “Candida,” which hit #3 in the fall of 1970, and “Knock Three Times,” which went to #1 in January 1971. Their next three singles peaked at #25, #33, and #39 nationally, and the three after that didn’t crack the Top 40 at all. So when “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” landed at radio stations in the winter of 1973, there was no reason to think that it was going to be a monster, but a monster it turned out to be.
The song first shows up at ARSA on a survey from Detroit Top 40 giant CKLW on January 30, 1973. It cracked the Hot 100 on February 17 and picked up radio station adds in bunches throughout the last half of February. On March 17, it crashed into the Top 40, going from #48 to #29 the same week that it scored its first #1, at WCOL in Columbus, Ohio. Its climb up the Hot 100 was steady, going 29-19-13 and cracking the Top 10 at #6 on April 7. It would go to #3 the next week and #1 on April 21, 1973, taking out “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence. By then, it had hit #1 in literally dozens of cities across North America. It would top the Hot 100 for four weeks, and during that time it would rack up more local #1s. Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” dethroned it on May 19, but it wouldn’t start losing chart momentum until the end of June. WQAM in Miami actually charted it until February 1974.
Why was “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” such a massive hit? For one thing, people love a story well told, and it was surely that. Songwriters L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine, who wrote several of Dawn’s most famous songs, took a Civil War legend about a prisoner of war returning home and transposed it to the story of a guy getting out of jail. (It might have resonated just as strongly had they kept the POW angle, given the return of those imprisoned in Vietnam during early 1973.) Maybe it offered an escape from the news of the day: the Watergate scandal exploded into public consciousness during the record’s run up the chart. But it also was an irresistably bouncy record at a time of year when that kind of thing sounds great, and Tony Orlando delivers an ingratiating performance. It was a polarizing record, however—some people simply ate it up, while others found it too cheesy to bear and/or grew sick to death of its endless repetition on the radio. But it ended up the #1 song of the year in at least 10 cities, and on Billboard‘s year-end singles chart as well.
After “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” Dawn doubled down on novelties (most famously “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” and “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch With Sally” from the album Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies). The group got a four-episode CBS variety show in the summer of ’74 and a regular slot that December. Their show was reasonably successful for a couple of seasons before going off in late 1976. Although they’d hit #1 one more time, with a well-done cover of “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” in the spring of 1975, the hits slowed to a trickle during the TV years; Dawn’s last Hot 100 hit came early in 1977.
“Tie a Yellow Ribbon” remained part of American culture after its chart run, gaining new resonance during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, and again during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. (The Gulf War inspired a new Dawn recording called “With Every Yellow Ribbon,” which had precious little to do with its semi-namesake.) But today, the significance of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” is mostly as an artifact of the weird 1970s, when it scratched some sort of itch we couldn’t have described at the time.
It was an itch I didn’t suffer, by the way; although “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” were important records in my life and I was still buying 45s in the spring of 1973, I never considered buying “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” It seemed to be on the radio every five minutes anyhow, and that was enough for me.
(Pictured: Neil Diamond onstage in 1972.)
One thing I am learning from this series of posts on 1973 is that the music is better than I remember. I’m not saying that 1973 is going to supplant 1976 or 1971 as one of my favorite musical years, but it’s better than I remember.
Take for example the American Top 40 show from April 21, 1973. It starts with “A Letter to Myself,” a gorgeous soul record by the Chi-Lites that sounds like a second take of their 1971 hit “Have You Seen Her.” It creates a big ol’ train wreck with #39, the rockin’ good “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, in its first week on the chart. Also sounding really good in the first hour: “Step by Step” by Joe Simon at #37. How it failed to become a smash on the order of “Drowning in the Sea of Love” or “Power of Love” I can’t imagine. Elton John’s “Daniel” is in its first week on at #35, creating another train wreck with #34, “Oh La De Da” by the Staple Singers, a straight-up soul/gospel shouter. (Listeners in 1973 got a commercial break between the two, but listeners to the recent 2018 repeat did not.)
At #38 is Carly Simon’s “The Right Thing to Do,” which Casey introduces as being by “Mrs. James Taylor.” (The two had gotten married the previous November.) This caused a kerfuffle on an AT40 Facebook group I read, as several listeners who hadn’t been paying close attention wondered why Casey had introduced the record as being by James Taylor.
Digression: Facebook fan groups can be marvelous sources of information; in a well-moderated group, members collectively know everything there is to know, and it makes the group worthwhile. But less well-moderated groups can become tedious. I recently bailed on a WKRP in Cincinnati group that had never been especially great, but which got downright stupid once MeTV started repeating the shows. Ill-informed viewers started besieging the group with questions that 10 seconds on Google could answer. What was worse was the flame war that erupted when MeTV chose not to air the episode “Les on a Ledge,” in which Les Nessman contemplates suicide because he fears people think he’s homosexual, and Johnny tells Herb that Jennifer is transgender. Some readers could understand how the episode would play differently 40 years later and that it would indeed be offensive now, but others were quick to call them politically correct libtard snowflake pussies who need to grow up.
As if Facebook needs more of that kind of thing. I’m out.
To return to the topic: Casey shared an interesting bit of trivia in the first hour. Up until this week, he tells us, only one artist has ever taken two songs into the Top 40 twice: Chubby Checker, who did it with “The Twist” (which famously went to #1 on two separate chart runs, in 1960 and 1962) and “Let’s Twist Again.” Each record ran the chart, “became a dead record for a while,” as Casey put it, and then returned to the Top 40. Then Casey says that a second artist has done the deed this week: Neil Diamond. He made the Top 40 with “Solitary Man” in 1966 and again in 1970, and now with “Cherry Cherry,” which charted in 1966 and re-enters the Top 40 this week at #36.
This achievement may be a little less than it appears, however. In the case of “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again,” it was the exact same record making two runs up the chart. First off, it’s arguable whether the version of “Solitary Man” that hit in 1970 was the same one that hit in 1966. I tried figuring it out 10 years ago, and even with the help of the inestimable Yah Shure, I can’t say. As Yah Shure noted, three different versions of “Solitary Man” were released on the Bang label over the years. If the 1970 hit was a remix of the 1966 version, I guess that counts. But the version of “Cherry Cherry” that charted on April 21, 1973, is definitely not the same one that spent nine weeks in the Top 40 in 1966. It’s the one from the live album Hot August Night, and was even labeled as such on the 45: “Cherry Cherry From Hot August Night.” It was listed that way in Billboard, too.
So it’s the same song, if not the same record. Technically, Neil Diamond equalled Chubby Checker’s achievement. As a practical matter, I’m not quite so sure.
I’ll probably have more to say about this edition of American Top 40 in a future post. And this Friday, I’ll discuss a different milestone from the chart dated April 21, 1973.
(Pictured: Marilyn McCoo fronts the Fifth Dimension, 1972.)
The American Top 40 show from March 3, 1973, was a recent weekend repeat. Since I am doing an ongoing series this year about 1973 (basic theme: “just what was it about that year, anyhow?”), here are some notes:
40. “Soul Song”/Joe Stampley. For a handful of years in the middle of the 1970s, Joe Stampley was a fixture on the country charts. He’d hit #1 on the country chart three times between 1973 and 1976, most famously with “Roll on Big Mama” in 1975. “Soul Song” had gone to #1 in January and would manage to squeak to #37 on the Hot 100. His country twang, which is not all that soulful, made for a big ol’ train wreck with the next song in the countdown.
39. “Good Morning Heartache”/Diana Ross. A torchy, jazzy number from Lady Sings the Blues, in which Miss Ross gets her Billie Holiday on.
37. “Living Together, Growing Together”/Fifth Dimension. This marks a historic moment: the final Top 40 week in the career of the Fifth Dimension, a group responsible for a number of straight-up classics over the preceding six years, including “Up Up and Away,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Aquarius,” along with the less-classic-but-still-mighty-good “One Less Bell to Answer” and “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.” The Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Living Together, Growing Together” is not a classic; it’s bland inspirational cheese that makes the Johnny Mann Singers sound like James Brown. (See below.)
32. “Give Me Your Love”/Barbara Mason. It doesn’t happen often, but I occasionally hear a song on these AT40 repeats that I can’t recall hearing before. “Give Me Your Love” is one of them. It would eventually peak at #31, Mason’s biggest hit since “Yes I’m Ready” in 1965. If it wasn’t remixed or re-released in the disco era, it should have been; the ingredients are in the test tube.
27. “I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)/James Brown. One of the all-time-great Casey introductions: “Here’s a man whose music is as recognizable as Lawrence Welk. A-one, two, three”—after which the JBs come in on the fourth beat and the joint starts jammin’.
25. “Why Can’t We Live Together”/Timmy Thomas. In 2003, Steve Winwood covered “Why Can’t We Live Together” on his album About Time, and it’s fabulous.
22. “Break Up to Make Up”/Stylistics. The highest-debuting song on the 40 this week, zooming in from #42 the week before, another ridiculously beautiful Thom Bell production.
16. “Jambalaya”/Blue Ridge Rangers and 14. “Do It Again”/Steely Dan. In what universe does something as sonically and lyrically obtuse as “Do It Again” belong in the same quarter-hour of radio with a Louisiana hoo-rah sung in John Fogerty’s screechy twang? And it’s not just that they clash with each other. Each record sounds out of place compared to most of what surrounds them (see also #8, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato, and #2, “Dueling Banjos,” by Weissberg and Mandel). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but still.
15. “Oh Babe What Would You Say”/Hurricane Smith. This show is from the week I turned 13. I had already noticed the interesting ways in which certain girls were becoming curvy and/or bumpy, and the physical processes that happen to 13-year-old boys were beginning to happen to me. But I was not like some of my male classmates, who were obsessed with girls at the grossest and most physical levels, and who talked about it all the time. I probably engaged in those conversations with the guys sometimes, even though I couldn’t really imagine the physical part of love happening to me just then. Like Hurricane Smith, what I wanted for the most part was simply the opportunity to make some pretty girl happy. But I kept that to myself.
10. “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend”/Lobo and 3. “Last Song”/Edward Bear. Enough with the songs about unrequited love already.
1 “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack. Casey says that Roberta Flack is the first female artist to hit #1 with back-to-back releases since Connie Francis and Brenda Lee in 1960, which is a pretty good piece of trivia.
During the previous week’s show, Casey and the AT40 staff predicted that “Killing Me Softly” would hold at #1 this week. They make the same prediction this week, and they will be right again. The song will eventually spend six weeks at #1, and it will be over three years—not until Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” at the end of 1976—before another record stays at the top as long.