Saturday, November 15, 2008

10 Great Songs from One Great Year


The decade that began with the turbulence of the Vietnam War ended with the growing rise of fundamentalist Islam. 53 American citizens were taken hostage by the Iranian Ayatollah when the Shah of Iran was exiled. All told, this was a very strange year for President Jimmy Carter. In March, the nuclear reactor at Three-Mile Island experiences a partial meltdown. In April, the President is attacked by a swamp rabbit, while fishing near his Plains, GA home. On the other hand, along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Carter signs the historic peace treaty between the two rival nations.

The year saw the worst airline disaster in American history as American Airlines 191, a Boeing DC-10, crashes soon after take-off, killing 271 people on board and two on the ground.

The year in sports belonged to the city of Pittsburgh, as the both the Steelers and the Pirates won the championship.

The year ended on a sad note as eleven fans were killed in a stampede at a Who concert in Cincinnati, Ohio. Festival seating was blamed and was soon outlawed in arenas across the country. And in harbingers to things to come, Chrysler Motors asks for $1 billion in order to avoid bankruptcy, Los Angeles passes it’s first homosexual rights bill and the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.

Driver’s Seat – Sniff’n the Tears

The song is not really about the joys of driving, according to the official Sniff'n The Tears website. Rather, it is about the fragmented, conflicting emotions that occur after the end of a relationship. The line "The news is blue. I'll never remember my time with you" points out the difficulty of imagining never being with the significant other again. The genesis of the song dates back to 1973 and a demo tape recorded for a French record label by singer/guitarist Paul Roberts for the band Ashes of Moon. However, that band broke up and, at the suggestion of drummer Luigi Salvoni, Roberts reformed it as Sniff 'n' the Tears with guitarists Laurence "Loz" Netto and Nick Dyche and bassist Nick South. They shopped the demo tape and signed with the small Chiswick label in 1977. One of the key decisions made during the recording of “Driver's Seat” was to start the song with Roberts' acoustic guitar and drums and gradually fade in other instruments. “Driver's Seat” reached #15 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 chart in the fall of 1979, and charted strongly throughout Europe. As a testament to the song's durability, it reappeared at #1 on the Dutch singles chart thirteen years later as a result of use of the song in a Volkswagen commercial.

Chuck E's In Love - Rickie Lee Jones

Born in Chicago, Jones grew up in a family she has described as "lower-middle-class-hillbilly-hipster." After moving around a lot as a child, her family finally settled in Venice, California, at the age of eighteen in 1973. She earned her living by waiting tables and playing at local clubs as she began to take her songwriting more seriously. During the mid-1970s, Jones met her long-time collaborator and one-time beau Sal Bernardi, as well as Tom Waits (who became her lover) and Chuck E. Weiss, who would inspire this folksy love song which struck the right cord in its time. It remains her biggest hit. While the follow up to “Chuck E’s in Love” also hit the top 40 (“Youngblood” reached no higher than #40), Jones continues to write and record and was last heard from on 1997’s The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, which debuted at #158 on the Billboard 200

You're Only Lonely - J. D. Souther

Souther was greatly influenced by fellow Texan Roy Orbison, whose sound he tried to emulate. Following his move to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, he met a young guitarist from Detroit named Glenn Frey. They bonded over their Detroit (although raised in Amarillo, Texas, he was born in Detroit) roots and a common love of country and R&B music. In short order, they began working together while sharing a small apartment in Los Angeles' Echo Park area (their downstairs neighbor was Jackson Browne with whom both Souther and Frey would collaborate on numerous projects). After collaborating with the Eagles (“New Kid in Town”, Best of My Love” and “Heartache Tonight”) writing songs for several of Linda Ronstadt's multi-platinum albums, Souther finally hit it big on his own with “You’re Only Lonely.” This song was just one of three chart singles for the singer-songwriter (“Her Town, Too”, with James Taylor in 1981 and “Go Ahead and Rain” in 1984). In addition to recording music, he also played several acting roles, including the character of John Dunaway in the (1989–1990) third season of the television drama “thirtysomething” and Ted in the film “Postcards from the Edge” (1990). On October 14, 2008, Souther released If the World Was You, his first new release in 25 years.

You Can’t Change That – Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio

Raydio was the vehicle for the start of Ray Parker Jr.’s meteoric rise to stardom. After scoring a big hit the previous year with “Jack & Jill,” Parker went back to same formula that had worked so well, with “You Can’t Change That.” Originally a sideman for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, Parker appeared briefly in the 1974 film "Uptown Saturday Night" as a guitar player. Parker also wrote songs and did session work for The Carpenters, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder (an association which prompted a permanent move to Los Angeles), Deniece Williams, Jean-Luc Ponty, Leon Haywood, Temptations, The Spinners, Boz Scaggs, Rhythm Heritage, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Honey Cone, Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross, before creating Raydio in 1978. The following year, the band changed their name to “Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio and they had three more top 40 hits with “Two Places at the Same Time” (#30), “That Old Song” (#21) and “A Woman Needs Love” (#4). Raydio broke up in 1981, while Parker continued with his solo career, scoring six Top 40 hits, including the hit single "The Other Woman" (# 4) in 1982 and "Ghostbusters," which went #1 in the summer of 1984. After a 15-year hiatus from recording, during which he moved back to Detroit to care for is ailing parents, get married and raise four children, Parker finally returned to the studio to release the album I’m Free, in 2006.

Lotta Love - Nicolette Larson

Born in Helena, Montana, Larson got her start singing with Hoyt Axton's band and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. She worked as a session vocalist for Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Neil Young, Christopher Cross, Little Feat, Mary Kay Place, The Dirt Band, The Beach Boys, Pure Prairie League, and The Doobie Brothers. “Lotta Love” was origianny wriiten and recorded by Neil Young on his 1978 LP Comes the Time. The song is best known for its cover version sung and released by Larson, which peaked at #8 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 chart in February 1979, as well as hitting #1 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart. Larson died on December 16, 1997 in Los Angeles as a result of complications arising from cerebral edema. She is survived by her husband, the drummer Russ Kunkel, and her daughter Elsie May Larson-Kunkel.

Cool Change - Little River Band

The Little River Band were the first Australian rock group to enjoy sustained commercial success in the United States. During their career the band have sold more than 25 million records and scored 13 American Top 40 hits. Led by lead singer Glenn Shorrock, Graeham Goble and Beeb Birtles, the group found immediate success in Australia, but individual members had greater ambitions and they disbanded. Eventually, the band came back together and reformed in order to crete a market for their music in the States. Fueled by a very successful Australian hit single "Curiosity Killed the Cat", the band began making promotional visits to the U.S. in 1976. This resulted in a U.S. hit single, "It's a Long Way There,” which broke into the Top 30 and galvanized the commitment of the band members. More concert performances in the US followed, and in 1977 "Help Is on Its Way" and "Happy Anniversary" both narrowly missed the US Top 10. From 1978 until 1981, Little River Band achieved six consecutive US Top 10 singles with "Reminiscing" (#3, their biggest hit), "Lady" (#10), "Lonesome Loser" (#6), "Cool Change" (#10), "The Night Owls" (#6) and "Take It Easy on Me" (#10). During their career the band has sold more than 25 million records and has scored 13 American Top 40 hits. In May 2001 the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), as part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, named "Cool Change" as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time. Although the Little River Band continues to work in the US and performs around 100 shows every year, the three original members are no longer a part of the band and are forbidden to perform using the band’s name and often appear together as Birtles Shorrock Goble: The Original Voices of Little River Band.

What A Fool Believes - Doobie Brothers

Kenny Loggins co-wrote this and put a version of it on his 1978 album Nightwatch. He finished his recording of it before the Doobies finished theirs, and his album was released 5 months earlier than Minute by Minute. While he was waiting for Loggins to arrive at his home, McDonald played some of the songs that were "in progress" and asked his sister Maureen which she thought was best. As Loggins was getting out of his car, he heard McDonald playing a fragment of this. According to Loggins, he heard about three-quarters of the verse's melody (no lyrics), but McDonald stopped at the bridge. Loggins' mind continued without a break... and the song's bridge was born. Then Loggins knocked on the door, introduced himself to McDonald, and demonstrated the bridge that he devised before the two of them could sit down. The lyrics were finished over the telephone the next day. This won Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The album won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. They were the only Grammys the band ever won. This was the band's second US #1, after "Black Water." The Doobie Brothers took on a different sound when they lost lead singer Tom Johnston due to illness in the mid-70s. Instead of the album Rock they were known for, they had more of a Soft Rock sound with Michael McDonald as lead singer.

The Logical Song – Supertramp

The lyrics are about how the innocence and wonder of childhood can quickly give way to worry and cynicism as children are taught to be responsible adults. It makes the point that logic can restrict creativity and passion. This featured the sound of a then-popular handheld electronic football game which predated Nintendo. The specific byte occurs near the end with the word "digital." The sound itself indicated a player had lost control of the football. Breakfast in America is the sixth album, and most popular album by the British band, scoring four hits singles – including “Take the Long Way Home,” “Goodbye Stranger,” “Breakfast in America” and “The Logical Song.” The band, formed in 1970 by Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, only found moderate success after Breakfast in America. However, they found relevance again recently with the remake of “Give a Little Bit” by the Goo-Goo Dolls and Gym Class Heroes sampling of “Breakfast in America.”

The Sad CafĂ© – Eagles

This song was written about The Troubadour, which is a music club in Los Angeles on Santa Monica Boulevard where many fledgling musicians would congregate. Don Henley and Glenn Frey met there and became friends, later began writing together and eventually recruited Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner to form a back up band for Linda Ronstadt. This band eventually became the Eagles. The line, "I don't know why fortune smiles on some and lets the rest go free" is a reference to how some people are lucky enough to get a break while other equally talented people don't and has always been one of the most resonating lines in rock history. This was the final track on The Long Run, which until the Eagles reformed in 1994 and released Hell Freezes Over, was their final album. It's a poignant song ending with a haunting sax solos.

Diary of Horace Wimp – Electric Light Orchestra

This is about a guy who has trouble finding a wife because he is shy and always late. Eventually he finds a girl and marries her. This was recorded at the Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany. Group leader Jeff Lynne sang the lead vocals, played lead and rhythm guitar, the piano and the synthesizer. The song was Beatlesque in nature and became a Top Ten hit in the UK. The lyrics omit the day Saturday this is because as explained by Jeff Lynne “The football match is played on a Saturday.” Discovery was the band's first No. 1 album in the UK, entering the chart at that position and staying there for five weeks. The LP contained five hit songs in "Shine a Little Love," "Don't Bring Me Down," "Last Train to London", "Confusion" and "The Diary of Horace Wimp", many of which were heavily influenced by disco (in fact, Richard Tandy came up with its well known nickname, “Disco Very”). The album itself was the first ever to generate four top-ten singles from a single LP in the UK and was eventually certified 2x platinum by the RIAA in 1997. Discovery is notable in that it was the first ELO album not to feature their resident string trio of Mik Kaminski, Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale, although they did make an appearance on the Discovery music videos that were created as a substitute for a live concert tour. Shortly afterwards, the members of the string section were deemed surplus to the band's requirements and dismissed (although Mik Kaminski did return for the Time Tour in 1981-82, and as a performer on the 1983 album Secret Messages.

Bonus Track

Spirits (Having Flown) – Bee Gees

Spirits Having Flown is the Bee Gees' thirteenth original album, released in 1979. It was the group's first album after the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The album sold 16 million copies worldwide. The album's first three tracks – “Too Much Heaven”, “Tragedy” and (Love You) Inside and Out” - went to number one in the US. The title track (which, unlike the album title, includes brackets) was also released as a single in the UK and a few other countries in December 1979. It reached No. 16 in the UK chart in January 1980, but its relatively low chart position and its somewhat limited release means that, although it is a well known track, it is often absent from Bee Gees Greatest Hits compilations. The exception is Bee Gees Greatest released in 1979 (for which the single was issued to promote). This compilation was reissued on CD in 2007. Since the Bee Gees were the quintessential disco band and since this was the very end of the disco era, I felt that the list would not be complete without acknowledging the Bee Gees incredible string of number one hits in the late 70’s. Ironically, “Spirits” (Having Flown) is the only non-disco song on the album and is the only one to stand the test of time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know what? I think "Spirits" is the best song on the list. Maybe its just cause it's new to me.