10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!
9) The RascalsAnthology: 1965-1972 (1992)
This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.
I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.
6-8) WarAll Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)
No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…
5) Cyndi LauperShe’s So Unusual (1983)
As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.
Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.
More coming…eventually…I promise.
4) The Four TopsAnthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)
The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”
But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!
Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.
3) The StylisticsThe Stylistics (1971)
Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.
Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.
Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.
1) Al GreenGreen is Blues (1969)
Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.
**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.
“Part Time Love” Elton John (1978) US #21 UK #15 Recommended source: A Single Man
I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).
I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”
“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.
Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.
As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.
“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.
“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.
All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.
I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.
I haven’t had a new category in a while. I can’t find enough excuses to highlight records I think are great but weren’t big hits in their time. I’m not sure if anything is truly “obscure” anymore, but I’ll pick things that didn’t make the Top Ten anyway. First up is the Spinners’ “We’ll Have It Made.”
A little background: the Spinners had hung around the scene for a decade by 1970. They had reached the Top 40 a couple of times, had a little success in R&B, without being quite quite able to break out.
Motown, their then-current label, teamed them up with a struggling Stevie Wonder (he was in a commercial slump and being strongly considered for contract termination)**. Wonder wrote and produced “It’s a Shame,” on the group and it became both a big hit and one of the era’s most important records, reviving his career, giving him a strong negotiating point with Motown which played a role in their renewing his contract and spring-boarding the change from a fine run of hits, on the order of the Marvelettes or Junior Walker, into an era-defining legend.
“We’ll Have It Made,” also written and produced by Stevie, was the followup to “It’s A Shame.” To my ears, it’s an even greater record–and a key precursor to the sounds he would pursue himself in the decade to come. But, because it didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor, it was the Spinners who became expendable at Motown. The label let them go, Atlantic picked them up. Soon they were paired with Thom Bell. The rest is seventies’ soul history.
If this had been more popular?
Like a lot of things that gleam out of the shadows–and a lot of things that will appear under this category–this is the sound of what might have been.
(**Sharp-eyed friend of the blog, Neal Umphred, rightly pointed out that Stevie was actually enjoying a nice run of hits. My bad for sloppy research. Wonder had actually let his own contract expire and was in negotiations with Motown concerning his future with the label. It all worked out and it’s fair to conclude that “It’s a Shame” played a role in giving Wonder a stronger position, which, of course, he ultimately exploited to the fullest. But I definitely should have been both clearer and more thorough.)
Ross MacDonald once had Lew Archer say that as a man gets older, the women he’s interested in should get older too. For what it’s worth, the women in this little survey–the women of my own generation or the one right before it–have remained the women I’m interested in. Purely spiritually of course.
The early eighties, especially, were a breakout period for women in rock and roll that was unlike anything seen since the early-mid sixties. I’m sure the fact that music has been steadily shoved back to the sidelines in the generations since, assuring that such things happen no more, is purely coincidental.
I mention all this because it turned out well over half the records in this last installment were made by the women I’ve grown older with. Beyond that, I’ll let any obvious themes emerge on their own. This was fun.
Blue Angel (1980)
The lead singer was a superstar in waiting. As one of rock’s last visionaries, she was ready here, her vocal style fully formed. The world would catch up a few years later. Through some combination of experience and nature Cyndi Lauper was already able to sing, “I’ll take it like a man,” and make the mighty Gene Pitney sound like a four-year-old, which, believe me, he wasn’t.
Pick to Click: “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (Television performance. Later on, she recorded another version for her first greatest hits package which actually got past this…but she’s the only one who could have.)
Warren Zevon Stand In the Fire (1980)
Zevon rarely caught the reckless abandon of his lyrics in the studio. He captured it in spades here and sustained it for an album-long assault. He sounded like nothing so much as man who was raging against the dying of the light, like he already knew the ripped-and-torn seventies would be the last decade anyone ever missed.
Well, anyone who wasn’t part of the conspiracy anyway.
Everything anyone would ever need to know about the eighties in a sleazy album cover, a catchy title and a single genius line. The rest sounds real good to me, but, really, who cares what the rest sounds like?
Pick to Click: “Take It On the Run” (For those who may have forgotten, that’s the one that begins “Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.” Welcome to Hell.)
Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (1980) and Imitation Life (1981)
At the time, pretty much everything written about Lane (L.A. born show-biz kid who became the leader of a Boston based punk band which ended up sounding fashionably New Wave on their albums) mentioned that she was an Evangelical or “born again” Christian. I only mention it here because nobody seemed to ever draw the logical conclusion about the black hole in her voice. Weird how the illuminati tend to forget (or is it ignore?) that a belief in God contains an inherent belief in the Devil.
Strictly on the formal side, there is an awful lot of what the Go-Go’s and, especially, the Bangles, got up to directly after.
If you want to know how good they had to be to make it, you could start by considering how good she had to be to not quite make it.
Her major label debut and there’s some gloss on the basic concept, but she cut through it effortlessly. The commercial push was behind a duet with Rex Smith on the indestructible “Everlasting Love” which scraped the Top 40 and generated one of the great Devil’s Island videos.
But some idiot or other failed to see the potential in her greatest vocal and it was left for Pat Benetar to scoop and score with a just-fine version that wasn’t half as good. Two years later Sweet was out of the music business, yet another might-have-been. This was the best of her.
On their way to cracking the code that had kept every female band from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to the Runaways safely on the fringes, they made the rest of the New Wave bands sound like they weren’t trying. That was no particular shame on the New Wave, because the dirty little secret was that they made pretty much every pre-New Wave band sound like they weren’t trying either.
This took nine months to climb to number one on the Billboard Album Chart, at which point the general word was that we could expect a wave of highly successful all female bands.
Hence the flood. One of a wave of mega-million sellers that made up rock and roll’s last gasp as a force that defined something more than itself. All of the others (Thriller, Born In the U.S.A., Purple Rain, Eliminator, Scarecrow, 1984, et al) were by well established acts who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since.
Every one of them sure sounded like the present in 1984 and that’s exactly what they sound like now.
Despite a production style that’s as dated as any, Lauper still sounds like she’s singing about a future in which she would be the only one left standing. The future that is now.
It’s 2015 and there are individual cuts here and there on those other albums that sound great. This is the only one I still listen to at all…and I listen to it obsessively.
Pick to Click: “Money Changes Everything” (The album’s fifth hit single and probably the most radical recording to ever hit the Top 40 even before you take into consideration when it was released.)
The Bangles All Over the Place (1984)
Honestly, I thought they sounded a little cold around the heart at the time. I was wrong. They were just coolly taking the world’s measure. As perfect a folk rock record as anyone’s ever made, up to and including Dylan and the Byrds.
I mean, the rest of their career, at least as much as I’ve been able to keep up, suggests they’re archivists on some level, but this sounded like a deep well from the gut to me in its day and I’ve never stopped drinking from it. I forget it for a while, sure. But every time I pick it back up it sounds new again. I don’t need all my fingers and toes to count the albums I can say the same for. The album Donald Trump’s Republican rivals would be playing at every campaign stop if they had any brains (and, no, I have no idea if we should be glad that they don’t…I’m a pox on all their houses sort from way back).
Revolt that had no chance whatsoever of coming into style. I bought it nearly thirty years ago and listened to it once, transfixed. I swear I’ll listen to it again some day. When I’m old enough to fully accept that it either is or isn’t what I hope it is.
Pick to Click? Er, no.
The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)
Revolt going out of style. Those ugly, blocked lines separating them were more real than symbolic. They saved my life and then broke up. Can’t forgive, can’t forget. May write about it some day. Stay tuned.
A weird and compelling amalgamation of Brian Wilson’s brain, circa 1966, transmuted through Thom Bell’s melodic sensibility, circa 1973, and Daryl Hall’s larynx, circa 1977. Or something like that. This album could be an appropriate soundtrack for a teleconference on euthanasia, a street revolution, or a CIA sponsored convention on “Torture in the Third World, Effective or No?” Honestly, I don’t listen to it very often. But when I do, my mind ranges very far afield and I invariably end up with a slow, dreamy smile on my face which I’m convinced enhances my enigmatic appeal immensely.
I think it’s pretty obvious by now I like Power Pop a little more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does. This isn’t one of those acts who are worthy of Hall consideration, of course, but it just goes to show how thin the line is, because it’s easy to imagine this perfect little album being a springboard to a lot more than one hit single. It’s also easy to imagine it never being even that. Mysteries of life I guess.
Backlash was inevitable. She was too…something. The nasty comments about her audacity in covering the by-then sainted and martyred Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” obscured what she did with it, which was explode it from the inside, cast it into the future (This future, did I mention? The one where the wars never actually end? The one only the visionaries could see?) and segue it into “Iko, Iko.” That’s supposed to be what albums are for, especially if it sells seven million worldwide and all. Instead she got endless grief and a broken career which is now often deemed that of a mild underachiever because she only sold fifty million records.
Terence Trent D’Arby Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)
Sweep and scope like nobody’s business. Star in the making. Took a few years off. Made another album. Walked away. Never walked back. Maybe said all he had to say. Sure sign things were falling apart. Guy like this having no more to say.
There was a moment there when it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be a major star. It didn’t happen, but this was a hip hop apotheosis and Madonna supposedly spent a whole lot of time obsessively breaking down a certain single…May as well close the eighties, and the series, with that particular mystery dance.
Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.
Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines. That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.
To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)
So without further adieu:
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)
Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc. and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.
The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)
Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.
Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)
Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)
Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.
Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.
Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.
Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)
Raspberries Starting Over (1974)
Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?
Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)
Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.
Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.
Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.
Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.
Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions will take place this weekend. There’s been some predictable kerfluffle about Ringo Starr’s second induction (this time in the “Musical Excellence” category, this in addition, of course, to his induction with the Beatles). You can look it up on the net if you’re interested but it’s basically just politics as usual (something about the deal finally going down when Paul McCartney agreed to do the induction if it happened and then making cheeky comments about the simplicity of it all after it did happen…meaning who knows what really happened.)
This is not actually about that. Ringo’s not the first insider to benefit from his connections at the Hall nor will be be the last (or, I suspect, least deserving). It’s a human institution after all.
But we shouldn’t forget that plenty of others are more deserving. Plenty who haven’t been inducted once…which really ought to finally, at long last, become a major criteria in the Hall’s very human future.
So, in the spirit of improvement and striving ever upward and onward, I’ll post my top ten (of many) picks for future recognition in the Musical Excellence category with a list of their basic credentials and an understood “Visionary Spirit” implied next to each name (I didn’t include Glen Campbell since I already got into that recently and holding it to ten is strain enough as it is):
Thom Bell (Producer, Writer, Arranger):
The greatest record man of the 1970s. Would be extra nice if he were inducted with his frequent songwriting partner Linda Creed, if only because there’s no way she’ll get in otherwise.
Pick to Click:
Leslie Kong (Producer, Entrepreneur, Talent Scout, Trailblazer):
There are other great and deserving Jamaican producers. But, whenever the local music broke off the island in the age of its transcendence, it was Kong’s beautiful records–“The Israelites,” “Long Shot Kick The Bucket,” “Vietnam,” significant portions of The Harder They Come soundtrack–forever leading the way.
Pick to Click:
Jackie DeShannon (Singer, Songwriter, Scenester):
With Sharon Sheeley, half of the first successful all-female songwriting team in the history of American music. On her own, the spiritual godmother of “folk rock” and “singer-songwriter” and relentless behind-the-scenes promoter of both Bob Dylan and the Byrds long before it was cool…even behind the scenes. A member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame who was, against all odds and all sense, an even greater singer.
Pick to Click:
Joe South (Singer, Songwriter, Producer, Sideman par excellence):
Worthy for his studio session work alone and writer of as many standards as say, the already inducted Laura Nyro (more than the already inducted Leonard Cohen…I could go on). Beyond that, he made records on his own that embodied the best spirit of a great, turbulent age like little else.
Pick to Click:
Jack Nitzsche (Writer, Arranger, Producer, Sideman, Cynosure of Cool):
One way or another he was in the marrow of career-making and/or groundbreaking records made by practically everybody: Phil Spector, the Wrecking Crew, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Monkees, Neil Young. Oh yeah, he was also the musical supervisor for The T.A.M.I. Show, which ought to be enough to punch his ticket if he had spent the rest of his life at the beach.
Pick to Click:
Al Kooper (Writer, Producer, Sideman, Raconteur):
This category could have basically been invented for Kooper and frankly, I don’t know what they’re waiting for…Oh, that’s right…McCartney was gabbing with Springsteen and they got to talking about Ringo and one thing led to another and…Oh well, Kooper should be in if he never did anything but play the organ on this little number…
In the 1950s alone, he produced “Tutti Frutti” for Little Richard and “You Send Me” for Sam Cooke (pictured with Blackwell above). He did more–lot’s more. But, really isn’t that enough?
Pick to Click:
Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams (Writer, Producer, Singer, Mastermind, Keeper of the Cosmos’ Most Closely Guarded Secrets):
I mean, Lou Reed is being inducted (for the second time) this year for being…interesting. Well, that and being dead. But believe me, alive or dead, he ain’t nearly as interesting as the man who, in his own inimitable words, sang about “sex, niggers, love, rednecks, war, peace, dead flies, home wreckers, Sly Stone, my daughters, politics, revolution and blood transfusions (just to name a few).” Then again, neither was anybody else.
Pick to Click:
Chips Moman (Writer, Producer, Entrepreneur):
He ran the studio with the best name: American. Where Wilson Pickett came to do a ballad. Where Dusty Springfield came when she came to Memphis. Where Elvis came when he came back to Memphis. Where, for a few years, the world came. Believe me, whatever that little studio’s faults, if the world still had such a place, we’d all be a lot better off.
Pick to Click:
Willie Mitchell (Writer, Producer, Band Leader, Sideman, Entrepreneur, Hit-Maker):
The spirit of Hi Records (home of Al Green, O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles in the last truly powerful moment of southern soul’s grip on the national spirit) during its reign of glory.
Pick to Click:
There’s a nice, appropriate way to end a list could be a lot longer.
Suffice it to say there’s a lot of work left to do before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is everything it should be. Hope they get started soon, I’d like to live to see it.
This year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot was released recently. I’ll have a post on all the nominees and who I voted for in the fan ballots later. First I wanted to concentrate on the acts that are the year’s two most deserving by a wide margin (not that either is being treated that way in either the press or the fan polls–wrong color), who also played a big role in the category I recently started here.
I don’t know if War was the greatest American band of the seventies–I’d call it a close run between them and Lynyrd Skynyrd–and, depending on how one defines “the Seventies” (do Creedence or Sly and the Family Stone belong?) or “American” (does Fleetwood Mac belong?), there are other contenders. But they were certainly the most Cosmic–the same way the Byrds were the most Cosmic band of the Sixties.
Cosmic as in “boundless” or “limitless.”
Or just far-reaching.
Put another way, they were the perfect band for Cosmic times. Especially Cosmic times that were beginning to close down and leave us with the set of boundaries and limits within which we now live.
They’re just buzzwords now. A big, mixed up stew of psychic jolts barely detectable from each other.
Vietnam. Watergate. Woodstock. Altamont. Manson Family. Summer of Love. Love Generation. Weatherman. SDS. Kent State. Days of Rage.
Assassination. Riot. War (the socio-political concept, not the military one that involves the truly bloody and costly task of taking and holding ground and certainly not the Cosmic band).
It’s all in the past now. Part of the times.
Except “the times” still have a hand around our throat. Our ignoring it hasn’t made it go away–just led us here, to the place of lost opportunity.
The Rising was meant to warn us, to keep us off the wrong track.
War was The Rising’s strongest voice.
For a half-decade plus–from backing Eric Burdon on 1970’s “Spill the Wine” (a far more subversive record than just about anybody has ever cared to admit–probably because it arrived at the only moment when a white man fantasizing about an orgy in the Hall of the Mountain Kings while the African Kings [albeit with a Danish harmonica player] of L.A.’s Chicano East Side laid down the funk and Miss Puerto Rico whispered sweet nothings in his ear, going #3 Billboard, seemed not all that far-fetched) on through “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World is a Ghetto” and “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Along the way, they had the best-selling album of 1973–a phenomenon (now mostly forgotten, along with the rest of The Rising) I wrote about here, plus a string of Go-rilla-sized radio hits that crossed every conceivable barrier (which I wrote about here).
So why aren’t War in the Hall already?
Well, I can only speculate–few voters or nominating committee members ever explain themselves, which is their right. But, if I had to guess, I’d say the obvious reason is the lack of a convenient hook: no charismatic leader like Sly Stone or George Clinton to attract the attention of the Radical Chic combo (black revolutionaries, white luminaries) that tends to excite intellectual discourse; no easily defined style (I read the phrase “Latin funk” a lot…er…okay); a complete misunderstanding of rock and roll history that allows those sitting in judgment to think War was “just another funk band,” ignoring how their unique style was forged from L.A. doo-wop and garage bands, late-sixties neo-soul and West Coast jazz, with respect for, but relatively little deference to, James Brown or Sly Stone (a process of assimilation which is best defined on Rhino’s great, little noted, three-volume collection Brown Eyed Soul which I can’t recommend too highly).
The greatest sin of all then.
No easy answers.
Or, to use a throwback cliche–prophets are often without honor in their own land.
More precisely and emphatically than anyone working in the seventies–in rock and roll or elsewhere–War were the prophets of the backlash present.
Hello “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and “The World Is a Ghetto,” and “I hear you’re working for the C.I.A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” Hey White America…you didn’t listen then, how’s it feel to join us, here at the precipice of the long fall defined by the new buzzwords? Decline. Collapse. Credit Default. Drone Warfare. Air Strikes. Government Shutdown. Or, the best description of the American prison system–even better than the New Jim Crow–Gulag?
Should have listened I guess.
Probably still should….
War were West Coast–East L.A. and universal. Old Testament prophets informed by a wary version of New Testament grace.
Spinners were East Coast, Philly by way of Detroit (a long apprenticeship at Motown that ended when their great, Stevie Wonder-produced breakout hit “It’s A Shame” was followed by an even greater Stevie Wonder-produced wonder called “We’ll Have it Made” which failed to cement their success).
They weren’t prophets themselves, but they served one. His name was Thom Bell and, as arranger, producer and (most often with his great partner, Linda Creed) songwriter, he operated under the guise of a Romantic Poet.
Though he had hits with a lot of artists, Bell had three principal vehicles during The Rising. Spinners (there was properly no “the” in their prime period), were the pinnacle of a crescendo that rose from the Del-fonics (very fine) and the Stylistics (truly great, but, due to their reliance on Russell Thompkin’s Jr., ultimately held within limits which Spinners, with three great leads and the kind of harmonies that come only from years of finishing each others breaths, easily transcended).
Bell had a vision that seemed apolitical. It seemed that way even on something as direct as “Ghetto Child.” It seemed that way then, and, if you don’t pay the extra-close attention which those glorious arrangements and heart-stopping vocals can so easily deflect, it might seem that way now.
Don’t be fooled. Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade where that distinction meant anything. They were also the vehicle where Bell (with and without Creed) invested the best of himself.
What we want Bell and Spinners essentially said, over and over, is to belong.
If War were already counting the loss (even as they hoped for the best), Bell’s Spinners were exploring a promise that would never quite be kept…on the assumption that, even if it wasn’t, it would be worth articulating.
One of the other acts on this year’s ballot is N.W.A., the gangsta rap pioneers who eventually sprang from the Compton streets War long before warned were slipping away. I didn’t vote for N.W.A. this time around (though I think they are worthy and will get in at some point).
Put simply, the rejection of the visions War and Spinners offered during The Rising–our inability to hear and heed the warning they sometimes implied and sometimes stated openly–made N. W.A. inevitable, necessary, cathartic and nowhere near effective.
The legal barriers once confronted by the Civil Rights movement are down. They were down in 1970, when War and Spinners had their first big Pop hits.
The walls that divide the “modern” acts on this year’s ballot (indie acts like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails along with N.W.A.–page still white, ink still black, still no gettin’ together) from each other are still standing.
Higher than ever.
Really, really should have listened….Really, really still should.
Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).
Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.
There is certainly some validity to that.
But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.
That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.
Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.
But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).
Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).
Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.
To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.
As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.
The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).
According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.
“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”
What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”
What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.
* * * *
For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.
The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.
As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).
As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)
Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).
Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.
Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).
Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.
And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.
Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.
We shouldn’t really be surprised.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.
I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.
If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.
* * * *
So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?
Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–
…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”
or, better yet…
“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”
Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.
But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”
Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.
In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.
Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.
And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.
That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.
His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.
Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”
It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.
“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.
A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.
Ours did not.
After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.
But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.
What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.
It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.
Don’t throw this away.
Don’t throw US away.
In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.
It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.
And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us:
“The singer is the star: my job is to create the music.”
Thom Bell (Spinners’ producer and the greatest record man of the 1970s. Also possibly the wisest.)
One of the principal themes of this blog has been the promotion of the idea–or, if you will, the obvious but too often neglected truth–that rock and roll was principally a singer’s music. The rock division of the crit-illuminati who sprang up in the late sixties and whose members have dominated the conversation ever since has generally been willing to promote writers, producers, instrumentalists and even session players at the expense of singers (unless, of course, the singers can qualify on one of the other counts, in which case they become true “creators” and therefore, cool again).
Part of this is understandable. In the collaborative, often “assembly line” nature of music making, singers have often been easily (if lazily) relegated to the similarly maligned and misunderstood role of actors in the movie business. They’re out front. They’re obvious. They’re most likely to be noticed and/or adored by the uncritical masses. And, hey, aren’t they really just breathing in time or something?
Now, there’s nobody walking the earth, today or ever, who appreciates the other kinds of genius that found their voices in rock and roll–James Jamerson and Hal Blaine very specifically included–than yours truly.
But without the singers none of us would have ever had the chance to celebrate the rest.
Singers sell the records. Singers set the styles.
And singers move the mountains.
I doubt any singer got less credit for moving more mountains than Bobby Smith, the principal lead of an aggregation variously called The Detroit Spinners, The Spinners and just….Spinners, for more than five decades.
Even within his own group he was often seen as taking second place to the more heavily publicized Philippe Wynne (a co-equal genius who nonetheless often received credit for Smith’s vocals even in the liner notes of the group’s actual albums) and Jonathan Edwards (a powerhouse of the group’s last really popular period).
The others were great singers and dynamic showmen. But it was Smith who took the majority of leads on the group’s great hits, Smith who produced more of their defining moments than anyone else and Smith who held the center in the seventies, when Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade when the human voice still trumped the machines and that distinction actually meant something.
Time came for Bobby Smith on March 16. Well, for his body anyway.
“Then Came You”
Writers: Sherman Marshall, Philip Pugh
Artist: Dionne Warwicke and Spinners
Why punk led me not into temptation even though I was an appropriately angst-ridden child of the seventies: Long Theory
At the recording sessions for “Then Came You,” which took place on March 26, 1974, at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, Dionne Warwick voiced her displeasure with the proceedings to producer Thom Bell. Whether her problem was with the song, the manner of recording it or life in general has varied over the years depending on who does the telling. What everyone agrees on is that Bell bet Warwick a dollar that the record would reach number one. Then they each took half of a torn dollar bill and promised whoever lost the bet would mail their half to the other.
Warwick mailed her half of the dollar bill to Thom Bell shortly after October 26, 1974, which was the date “Then Came You” became the first number one pop hit for both her and Spinners.
About midway between those momentous occasions, my family moved from Central Florida to North Florida so that my father–already an ordained minister–could attend a bible college with an eye toward entering the ministry full time.
This turned out to be more than a little like moving from Southern California to Southern Alabama.
Momentous enough for me in other words.
I was a week late for the start of the ninth grade so any chance that my arrival would pass blessedly under the radar was doomed from the start. If you were ever in the ninth grade, you probably know what I mean. If you were ever the new kid in the ninth grade and arrived a week after school started–in the middle of second period–you definitely know what I mean.
It turned out in the long run that I took a liking to this part of the state and have lived here ever since. But during that first week the only thing that connected me to home–or any recognizable reality–was Sunday School.
Oh, I don’t mean my new church’s Sunday School looked or sounded or felt anything like my old church’s Sunday School.
Far from it.
For one thing, that first Sunday, there was no teacher. The regular was out sick that week. There was no replacement. Let’s just say that leaving the high schoolers to fend for themselves was not the way they did things where I came from!
No, the only thing that was really familiar was the girls’ skirts. Five girls, five skirts. Three minis–evidently the rough average for high school girls in Baptist Sunday Schools all over the state in 1974. So there was at least one thing that truly bound us together as a people in those halcyon days just before the latest aftershock of the enduring Fundamentalist-Enlightenment divide–which, along with the various issues troubling the rest of Western Civilization, had been rumbling underneath us for a decade or more–arrived to once more split us apart.
I wasn’t too worried about the history or future of Evangelical Protestantism that day. I was the new kid, a lone thirteen-year-old boy thrown into a teacherless room with five improbably attractive girls who, unlike the several improbably attractive girls who had attended my old church, I had not known my entire life.
Unless you’re a born Romeo–which I was about as far away from being as humanly possible–then the only thing your thirteen-year-old self is really thinking about in a situation like that is how to survive long enough for the golf balls to dissolve in your throat and the squirrels to lay down in your stomach so you can relearn the noble art of breathing.
You don’t care much about storing memories.
You do store them. And maybe–just maybe–a day or a week or thirty years later you’re even glad that you did.
But in the heady brew of the moment you don’t think about such things. So I was rather proud of myself for sufficiently overcoming the shock to my various systems–cultural, societal, hormonal–to glean some intelligence for later recall, and therefore discover I was just cognizant enough to conduct at least a pale imitation of what an actual Romeo would have called research.
Along with the five skirts and three minis, the overall picture shaped up thusly:
A long, folding table, which for most of the next hour-that-seemed-like-ten had one set of forearms and an assortment of open purses and closed bibles on it.
I swear I did not drop anything that forced me to duck under the table. I can’t swear I didn’t think about it, only that I didn’t do it. I did not sink to perversion my first day in the new Sunday School.
I kept those forearms squarely in place.
Above the table then…
A senior, a junior, two sophomores and an eighth-grader.
Three blondes and two brunettes.
Two preacher’s daughters (sisters).
One visitor (guest of the preacher’s older daughter).
Three shag haircuts (one frosted–I tell you friend, it was a Golden Age, the likes of which we will not see again before the Last Days).
And one girl–the frosted-shag sophomore visitor wearing one of the minis–singing the chorus to “Then Came You” under her breath from time to time during the occasional awkward silences that are bound to occur when there’s a new boy and no teacher.
Good reconnaissance that.
Of course, it got me nowhere.
In those days I rarely listened to the radio. I didn’t know who sang “Then Came You”–had no clue it was a collaboration between the era’s greatest record man (producer-arranger Thom Bell), its greatest vocal group and one of the century’s most transcendent popular singers (born Dionne Warrick, by then so long famous as Dionne Warwick–the spelling variation supplied by a printing error on her first hit’s record label in 1962–that even I had heard of her, she added the extra “e” from 1971 to 1975 for reasons known only to her before reverting, for reasons also known only to her, to “Warwick”).
There was a lot more I didn’t know.
No way I knew what Thom Bell evidently knew–that, however she was spelling her name that year, if you wanted to pair a vocal group with Dionne Warwick in full flight, you’d better have at least two genuinely great lead singers on hand and one of them better be as close to a co-equal genius as Philippe Wynne.
I didn’t know that the record the sophomore in the mini-skirt kept singing and humming to herself was a work of genius, the pinnacle of Bell’s signature blend of the rhythmic and the harmonic, the grand statement and the incisive gesture, the conservatory and the street.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as symphonic intimacy, or that it could sometimes be heard on the radio.
I didn’t know “Sigma Sound” was a euphemism for a temple.
I didn’t know that America’s ever-derided “other”–blacks, women, immigrants, hillbillies–were on the verge of snatching back the rock and roll revolution that had been slid out from beneath them a decade earlier by something called the British Invasion. (Or, more properly, by white, suburban America’s specific and desperate embrace of the Beatles–an embrace that basically stretched from the average ten-year-old’s Dansette to the nether regions of academia and said, with one mighty voice, “please, please rescue us from these…other people“–and has distorted the way rock history is written and received ever since. And, no, that doesn’t mean the Beatles and the other great British acts weren’t all that. This stuff is never uncomplicated.) I didn’t know that, this time around–with only, say, Elton John and the Bee Gees to ride to the rescue–white, suburban America would eventually decide to pick up its marbles and go home.
There at the very first moment in the nation’s history when it seemed just barely possible for the foundational demons to be finally laid to rest, I blessedly did not know the lengths to which we-the-people would go to re-divide ourselves–nor did I understand the extent of the means available to the empire’s handlers to help us along the path to perdition because, as a faithful product of the public school system, I did not even suspect the empire’s existence.
Ignorance was bliss.
I didn’t know all those glorious sounds coming out of the radio in the mid-seventies, of which “Then Came You” was an absolute peak, were already driving the two white-boy demographics most likely to treat each other as dog and cat–punks and hard-hats–so crazy that for one dark, fleeting moment they would reach solidarity and agree that, at the very least, disco sucked.
“How did I live without you?” indeed.
I didn’t know that there would be a day when I actually did know such things.
There was a world of things, in other words–besides how to talk to long-legged, shag-haired sophomores in short skirts–that I didn’t know at the end of August in 1974.
But it didn’t surprise me later–when my family’s move to a distant land three hundred physical miles and a psychic galaxy from what I called home led me to seek increasing levels of solace in the bosom of Top 40 radio–to discover that “Then Came You, ” however encountered, was my idea of spiritual music.
This discovery was not exactly uncomplicated.
The next time I saw the long-legged sophomore (did I mention that she, like every other girl in my new Sunday School, was improbably attractive?–that I had moved to the actual south and that the actual south wasn’t lying when it bragged about its women?)–was a couple of days later. She was wearing a peasant blouse and blue jeans by then and she was walking in the middle of a crowd that was headed one direction in my new high school’s hallway while I was in the middle of a crowd that was moving in the other.
Just as she came opposite me, her face lit up and she said “Oh, hey!” to someone. A few crucial seconds later, after she had been swept out the door making a vaguely disgusted noise that I was just socially sophisticated enough to know was the standard civilized response to rudeness, I realized she had been talking to me.
Talk about improbable.
Look, I prefer to think I wasn’t the reason she never came back to Sunday School. I certainly never blamed her for not speaking to me again (not that there were many opportunities).
Tell the truth, I never got to know much about her, then or later.
I do know she stayed friends with the preacher’s older daughter.
I know that much because the preacher’s older daughter moved away about a year and a half later–by which time she was dating my nephew. It was pretty serious–as to both dating and general social linkage between our families. Her stoner brother stayed behind with us when the family moved away (he stayed until it became obvious that staying behind had not been the answer to his problems–I don’t know how it stands these days but, back then, the overlap between preacher’s sons and stoner brothers was substantial). She sent back actual tear-stained letters which I’m pretty sure my nephew was not supposed to be sharing with the likes of me and I know he was not supposed to be sharing with his grandmother.
The letters stopped. The stoner brother moved out. My nephew stopped getting letters–or at least stopped sharing them–and got married to someone else (all this within about a year or so–so I guess really not all that eventually, though time certainly seemed to move slower then).
The long-legged sophomore may or may not have become a junior. I never saw her at school after a certain point. She saw me once at a baseball game. I was fifteen then, the last year I played. I was sitting in the dugout during an exhibition game for a summer league I never actually played in because my family had to go back south for the summer to earn the money to stay in bible school another year. She came over and asked her cousin (who had gone out to meet her behind the dugout–if there was a signal I didn’t see it) who I was.
I heard that much.
I heard him tell her my name.
“Is he any good?” she said.
He assured her I was. (He was batting third, I was hitting cleanup.)
She made a noise that seemed to express both surprise and disappointment. Maybe even a little disbelief.
Then she turned around and left.
Never saw her again.
Never had that chance to explain that I had always assumed was bound to come some day in such a small town.
Where I had come from, I routinely passed people in the hallways at school who I had known my entire life without anybody even thinking about speaking to anybody. There was no rule about it. That’s just the way it was.
With me and with everybody else.
So it might as well have been a rule.
There were might-as-well-have-been-rules in the new place, too, but it took me a long time to get used to them. I’m not even sure I had really fully absorbed them nearly two years later, sitting there in that dugout, feeling like a heel all over again.
Funny the things that you learn from. Little, hidden mistakes mostly.
I think the reason I always regretted the misunderstanding so deeply, though, was rooted in that Sunday morning.
In her choice of music to hum–a choice she had no doubt long forgotten by then.
You see, when the storms came–in the world at large, in my church, in my country, in my own mixed-up head–and some sort of stance had to be taken internally even if I never announced it to the world, I was like everybody else.
Subject to my experiences.
On the surface, I should have been easy pickings for the coming punk bohemian ethos. Brother did I have the deep-seated self-loathing for it.
But I kept noticing that if they really meant what they said, these new messiahs, then they really were rejecting everything. That without that extremism, there was no there there.
And I kept thinking that if rejecting everything included, among many, many other good things, Dionne Warwick and Thom Bell and Spinners and Sigma Sound and girls who said “hey” to people they had only met once, then it wasn’t for me.
Oh, I know none of that was included, officially. Who didn’t think Philly Soul was cool? Who didn’t think Thom Bell was cool (he wasn’t really “disco” after all–just a bridge to it)? For that matter, who didn’t think girls who said “hey” were cool?
Problem was–and is–that ducked the issue.
Either Johnny Rotten meant what he said–or he didn’t. Either nothing mattered…or some things did.
And either way, I knew I was rejected too.
Mind you, none of that kept me from having my feet lifted off the ground by the Clash’s first album. I was made wary, not stupid.
It just meant I kept a weather eye, even on them.
Looking back, that was the right approach for me.
Other people had their lives saved by embracing punk and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anybody their taste, let alone their life. I certainly never saw punk as the enemy.
But I stayed alive by keeping it at arm’s length.
“Then Came You” wasn’t the whole reason for the stiff-arm–there were Sunday mornings and watching my parents become missionaries when they were pushing sixty and learning that stoner brothers needed prayer just like everybody else and finding out I really could adapt to small town life and not making the major leagues (or even my high school team) and realizing that the possibilities for a new Great Awakening that had once seemed so imminent had not only died on the vine but been perverted into the bitterest fruit imaginable and smashing rulers to the beat of “Death or Glory” and four or five thousand other life lessons that I didn’t know were saving me until they did–but it was part of the reason.
And it was probably somewhere very near the core.
Quite possibly even the one irreducible moment that can’t be changed without changing everything else.
I lean towards the Enlightenment myself.
Never was much of a strict Calvinist.
But if somebody gave me the chance to do it all over again and said the only thing different would be that the long-legged sophomore in Sunday School would be humming some other tune….I wouldn’t take them up on it.