THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

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As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

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(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

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Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

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And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

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Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

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(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

REMEMBERING THE MAESTRO (Memory Lane: 1976, 2000)

For me, 1976 was the year.

I started listening to the radio, I started buying records (45s anyway), I started wondering what I had possibly missed. If what I was hearing every day was so overwhelming what had the past yielded?

Soon after, I started tracking backwards, searching.

Soon after that, tracking backwards became about the only thing worth doing. The present began to yield less and less. The future held no promise.

But there was a sweet spot, right there in the first half of 1976 (such a terrible year, I was later told, over and over, that it made punk necessary) when I couldn’t keep up with what went by, hour after hour, right there on Top 40 radio beaming out of southern Alabama.

I certainly didn’t have the money to buy more than a tiny fraction of what I loved.

So, for that brief little window of time, I stored musical memories. Songs I heard a handful of times played in my head, sometimes for years, until I could track them down on records. I might write about some of those songs later–I’m sure the whole “Diamonds in the Shade” concept sprang from that experience, the moment when I realized great things could come and go on the radio without leaving an impact on seemingly anyone but me.

I learned not to talk about it. People worried enough about me as it was. But I kept them in my head.

I kept looking.

As the years went by, and I tracked down literally every single one of those records: Kiki Dee’s “Once A Fool,” Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You,” and “L.O.D.,” Marmalade’s “Walking a Tightrope,” and oh so many more, I had a variety of deja vu experiences. Some were as great as I remembered, some almost so, some not at all.

But, whatever the final outcome, I always had one advantage aiding musical memory: I actually had a name attached to the records.

It helps. Believe me.

There was one record on that list which did not come attached with a name.

It didn’t come attached with a name because, the only time I heard it, the dee-jay didn’t say who it was by.

I didn’t worry too much at first. I remembered a line. I would recognize the song the next time it came on. Dee-jays usually gave out names with songs back then (almost the last moment when they did so). I would catch it later.

And there would be a later, because there was no way that song wasn’t going to be a hit! It was catchy and it didn’t quite sound like anything else. In those days (again, almost the last days when this was so) that was the way of hit-making. Make it catchy. Make it not quite like anything else.

I never heard the song on the radio again. I never heard anybody say who it was by.

So, as the years went by, I only had that single line, playing in my head. Thirteen words and a snatch of melody.

“You see the trouble with me,” the line went, “I can’t do nothin’ without my baby.”

Yeah, that was it. That was all of it.

You try setting out after a song based on that.

It wasn’t the words that were not quite like anything else. The words were exactly like everything else. And you can’t look up much based on a bit of sound pressed to your brain stem. Not in this world.

I accepted that those thirteen words may or may not have formed part of the record’s title. Over time, I somehow convinced myself they didn’t, maybe because looking under the “Y” (in case it started with “You See”), “T” (in case it started with “The Trouble”) and “I” (in case it started with “I Can’t”) sections of literally hundreds of alphabetized 45 bins across a good portion of the United States didn’t yield a single bite.

Eventually, I gave up. The CD revolution came along. The few on my “mystery list from ’76” that I hadn’t tracked down on 45 became available on disc. A beach music collection here, a bubble gum collection there. Turned out there were more fellow obsessives out there than I thought. Almost every one of those records had fans who had ended up working for small reissue labels catering to their fellow wanderers.

The world moved on. That melody would still come in my head now and again, but it happened less and less. To be honest, there came a moment when I didn’t bother looking anymore. I didn’t exactly give up hope–I just lost faith in my ability to make a discovery happen.

I might hear it again some day, I might not. Nothing unusual in that. Everybody who chases sounds has had some sort of similar experience. Sometimes it ends happily, sometimes it doesn’t end at all (which is the definition of “unhappily” when you are chasing sounds).

That was the state of my little buried memory in the Year of Our Lord, 2000 A.D. when I purchased a greatest hits package by an artist who had, in fact, been far more famous than any of the others I chased. Had, in fact, had a solid three-year run of smashes going back when I started listening to the radio in December of 1975.

I’m guessing that was why the dee-jay felt no need to identify his new release, back in the first few month’s of 1976. Surely, anybody who was listening to the Top 40 in those days didn’t need to be told who this guy was.

Probably they didn’t. Unless they had only started listening to the radio a few months before. Then they might need a little help.

Of course, even so, the dee-jay could hardly be blamed. There was no way to know that particular record was going to break the singer’s string of nine straight top ten R&B hits, and fail to reach the American pop chart at all (as each of the previous nine had done, with most reaching the top ten). There was no way to know that the singer’s incredible hot streak (hot by any standard, incredibly hot for a three-hundred-pound black man who sold himself as a Love God) was going to end with that record– a record that was capable of sticking deep enough in the mind of a teenage white boy that, a quarter of a century later, when he heard the first chords of the lost sound (chords he did not remember until that very moment) coming through the speakers on the other side of the house (whence he was folding towels whilst listening to the new stack of CDs), he started running towards the sound, laughing maniacally, shouting “That’ s it! That’s it!” long before Barry White sang “You see the trouble with me, I can’t do nothin’ without my baby!”

History takes strange turns. These days, I can look on the internet and see that “You See the Trouble With Me” was a hit all over Europe, #2 in the UK, even #14 on the American R&B chart. I can also see that it failed to make the Hot 100 on the U.S. pop chart.

I’ve got a sort of running theme in my head which this blog allows me to indulge. It concerns the search for “where it all went wrong.”

Barry White actually went on to have a few more big hits, even a couple of big pop hits.

But in the “where it all went wrong” debate, you could do worse than start right here with this record going nowhere. Because it still doesn’t make one bit of sense.

And if you’re wondering whether Barry himself knew the record’s value (this if from 1990)…

Barry White’s still waiting for his first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nomination. Just in case you think nothing ever really went wrong to begin with.