Rock and rollers have always killed the Gershwin signature tune “Summertime.”
Sam Cooke killed it. Janis Joplin absolutely killed it. Billy Preston killed it.
Every one of them got more out of it than any pre-rock pop singer I’ve heard.
Glenn Frey and the Eagles went even further and wrote “Lyin’ Eyes,” (a better song) about the same girl.
But until this week, I never realized that the version which perhaps went the furthest didn’t even use the words. I can’t really convey what it was like to hear it drifting in from the other room, backing up “Hip Hug-Her” on Time is Tight, the super-fine box set Stax’s reissue label put out on Booker T and the MGs a generation back. Suffice it to say the Memphis boys conceded nothing to either Tin Pan Alley or Charlie Parker and from now on it will always be one of those records I reference spiritually when I catch myself wondering what all the dread and beauty felt like, just before the fall.
From ’66…And you can imagine it matching the mood at anything from a backyard barbecue to a flag-draped funeral.
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.
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.
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.
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.)]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Heartache Tonight” as rendered by Olivia Newton-John (it was her TV special and kudos to her for giving the competition that much freedom to shine), Toni Tennille, Tina Turner, Linda “Peaches” Greene, Karen Carpenter and a cast of thousands.
….Or “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” nearly half a decade early. And on a song that never sounded like any fun at all when it was done by anyone not saddled with early-eighties TV production norms, regrettable hair-styles, Elton John imitating Dan Aykroyd, and semi-awkward line-dancing.
Forget what it looks like. It’s a great sound and any meaning male vocalist(s) could have ever given it is completely subverted. If somebody put it on CD, I’d listen all day long. Give me your celebrity female vocalists, yearning to breathe free:
In the days when harmony ruled, there was apparently a legal requirement that any harmony group aspiring to royalty have a resident asshole. In the Everlys, it was Don. In Simon & Garfunkel, it was Simon. In the Beach Boys, it was Mike Love. In the Beatles, it was John Lennon. In the Byrds it was David Crosby.
By most accounts, the Eagles, arriving late and assigned by history to close down the party, doubled down. In Glenn Frey and Don Henley, they offered two holes for the price of one. In a western, they’d have been the outliers, the surly cowpokes who would do the right thing or the wrong thing or simply ride away, depending on what was in it for them.
Like somebody from the actual west, I suppose.
It’s possible this is precisely what allowed them to embody some weird contradictions and, having aimed squarely for the middle of the road, where they dug a permanent groove in the asphalt right where the yellow stripe was supposed to be, elicit far stranger and more disruptive responses than most bands who craved disruption for its own sake.
Crosby repeatedly professed to find them boring, which, given the projects he’s proudly participated in since he left the Byrds, took more than mere chutzpah. Robert Christgau professed to find them misogynistic, which, given his life-long devotion to the Rolling Stones (not really waved away, I think, by his recently arrived at suspicion that Mick and Keith really aren’t the nicest people…and, get this, may never have been!), is a real knee-slapper. I’m guessing they would have both enjoyed having a beer with the weekend softball warrior I once heard saying he didn’t want his wife to drive if she was “just gonna play that goddam Eagles crap.”
Or maybe not.
On the occasion of Frey’s death, one website, reliably standing in for the rest, declared the Eagles “about as polarizing as any band in rock history,” before also declaring, de rigeuer, their personal indifference.
So it goes. So it’s gone for forty years.
From the interviews I heard on television last night, it seems Frey was the hard-driving perfectionist in a band that was often criticized, not without some justification, for prizing perfection above all else. If that kept the Eagles from being, say, the Byrds–imposed a certain set of limitations that meant there were few of the surprises that preclude indifference–then I guess he’ll have something to answer for at the next stage.
But that’s just one way of looking at it.
I can’t pretend the Eagles were ever my favorite band (happens the Byrds were/are, and have been since the first moment I heard them, which was also the first moment I realized indifference could be banished in such matters, and, coming in the spring of 1978, was long after I’d not only heard but absorbed the Eagles).
Like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, though, it seems like most of flak Frey’s band caught was really for appealing to the wrong people.
And, in my experience, mostly those people were/are women.
Also like a lot of artists I’ve championed here, I’ll take them, and their “misguided” fans, over most of those representing the alternative.
And while the half-dozen to a dozen of their records that I really love might be somewhat, or even completely, different than the same number the next casual Eagles fan you meet feels the same way about, I don’t gainsay anyone who loves it all. I lived through the seventies. Believe me, anyone who could pursue perfection to a useful end in that chaotic moment had real value, even if some fools were bound to mistake it for “boredom” or worse.
Glenn Frey was a solid guitar player, a first class singer/songwriter, and a harmony singer extraordinaire, never more sublime than when he was breath-to-breath between screaming matches with his asshole buddy Don Henley. And if their best records really were oh-so-perfect, nobody ever doubted it was the kind of perfection that only rests on the other side of hardcore professionalism. That means different things to different people, but all it ever meant in the suburbs and trailer parks where copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits became as ubiquitous as Budweiser and the Bible was that it was bought and paid for the hard way.