Archive for the ‘1984’ Category

‘You Ain’t Never Caught A Rabbit . . .’

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

At last, we come to the end of this particular line: Today, we look at the final six selections in my Ultimate Jukebox, the last six of the 228 records I’d have set to play in my living room, if – as I wrote much earlier this year – my living room were part malt shop, part beer joint, part crash pad and part heaven.

If I were fool enough to start this project all over again, I’m sure that the list of songs would be very different. I imagine that about half of the records that showed up here would show up here again. The others? Well, over the past nine months, I’ve frequently heard a record on the radio or during random play on the RealPlayer and wondered why I didn’t choose it for the UJ. I didn’t keep track of those moments, but had I done so, I estimate that they were frequent enough to replace half of the tunes I put into the UJ.

One constraint I might ignore on a second go-round is length. I set a limit of 7:30 for a record, knowing that a 45 could handle that much, and I hit that limit with Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park.” (I came close, relatively, with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and Buddy Miles “Down by the River” and maybe a few others that don’t come to mind right now.) If I were to do the project over, I’d ignore that limit and include longer pieces.

Some of the worthy longer pieces that come immediately to mind are the Side One suite on Shawn Phillips’ Second Contribution, the Allman Brothers Band’s performance of “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East, Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks, “Beginnings” by Chicago from Chicago Transit Authority, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Leon Russell’s take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” from The Concert for Bangla Desh and Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me A Dime” from his self-titled album. I suppose those and a few others might show up in a complementary project. We’ll see.

When I wrote the second installment of this project, I mentioned Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” as the final two records trimmed to get to 228. And I said that one of the selections set for this final installment was there on probation, as it were: If something else along the way seemed more compelling or more deserving, there was one record that I would pull out of the list to make room.

Well, as good as a lot of the records I thought about along the way might have been – and “Baker Street” came to mind several times – that final record has come off probation and remains in the Ultimate Jukebox:

While Willie Mae Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” – written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – was recorded in 1952, it was the next year when the record did its damage on the air and in the charts: “Hound Dog,” according to All-Music Guide, held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart for seven weeks in 1953.

Thornton’s version was the first recorded of the oft-covered song, with the session taking place at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles on August 13, 1952, according to Wikipedia. The session was in fact produced by Leiber and Stoller themselves “because their work had sometimes been misrepresented, and on this one they knew how they wanted the drums to sound.”

Wikipedia notes that Johnny Otis was supposed to produce the session, but Leiber and Stoller wanted Otis on drums. Evidently in exchange, Otis received a writing credit on all six of the 1953 pressings, Wikipedia says. The first release was on a 10-inch 78 rpm record, according to Wikipedia, but there’s no indication when the 45 rpm releases first came out.

And although I’ve included a player for the song above, I could not resist offering this video – I think it’s from 1965 – of Big Mama Thornton performing “Hound Dog” with a band that includes guitar legend Buddy Guy.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 38
“Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton, Peacock 1612 [1952]
“Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” by Stevie Wonder, Tamla 54188 [1969]
“Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” by Elton John from Honky Château [1972]
“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, Big Tree 16069 [1976]
“Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” by Fire Inc. from the soundtrack to Streets of Fire [1984]
“Come to My Window” by Melissa Etheridge, Island 858028 [1994]

In one of the last posts before I decided to put together the Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote about the mournful and beautiful “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and its impact on me no matter when or where I hear it. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, not only in its lyrics but in its arrangement, with its decidedly old-school chorus in the introduction and choruses (a description borrowed from a comment left by jb, the proprietor of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’). Wonder makes the unlikely combination work, as he has done so many times through his career. And whenever it comes on the radio or the player, if there’s not a twinge of regret for all the things left behind, well, you’re at the wrong blog.

One of the amazing things to me about the early Elton John – from say 1970 through 1976 – was his ability to take the frequently opaque lyrics of Bernie Taupin and craft songs around them that made them sound cryptically wise or at least reasonable. I mean, after hundreds of listenings, I’m still not sure what the lyrics to “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” mean:

And now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew
But now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City

Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you
I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you

While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light

Wikipedia says that the lyrics were inspired partly by Ben E. King’s recording of “Spanish Harlem” and partly by Taupin’s having heard a gun go off near his hotel during his first visit to New York City. Okay. In any case, they sound good, and John crafted around them one of his better melodies. Add the production of Gus Dudgeon, and you have an album track that hangs around, sounding better every time it pops up in the player.

Paul Evans of the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide didn’t much care for England Dan & John Ford Coley. He called “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” “ingratiating, smug and coy” and labeled the duo’s body of work as “truly repellent,” capping his review off by saying that they “sound like oafish bores [not “boars,” sorry] breaking their backs to be ‘sensitive.’” Well, okay. I’ll acknowledge that “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” isn’t going to be on everyone’s good list. But I don’t hear those flaws when I hear “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” which was the duo’s biggest hit (two weeks at No. 2 and one week atop the Adult Contemporary chart). I hear the summer of 1976, which was a reasonably good season. I was taking some post-graduate courses at St. Cloud State, I had a steady girlfriend whom I saw most weekends, I had friends for evenings downtown or at one of our homes: Life was good. Along the way, I occasionally heard “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” coming through the speakers at home, in the car and – early in the morning before the place got too noisy – in the snack bar at Atwood Center. And the record has become a reminder of a pretty good summer, and that’s good enough for me.

A while back, I came across the movie Streets of Fire as I walked the remote up the channels. As I almost always do when that happens, I watched the rest of the movie. And I made a note at Facebook about it, calling it a bad movie. I was corrected by my blogging pal Jeff, who keeps house at AM, then FM. He called it a guilty pleasure, and I guess that’s a better label. Either way, I do like the movie, and I still love the soundtrack, especially the two Jim Steinman epics that open and close the movie. “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” is the closer, with the studio group Fire Inc. providing the backing and lead vocals coming from Holly Sherwood with other vocals from Laurie Sargent, Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer, according to Wikipedia. One notable name on the roster of Fire Inc. is that of Roy Bittan, piano player for the E Street Band. “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” spent five weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 80.

When I started this project, I devised a way to split the 228 records I had selected into random groups of six, and each week, I listed that week’s six songs chronologically. Back in Week One, the first song listed was The Mamas & The Papas’ “Look Through My Window.” This week, the last song listed – the last entry in this project – is Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window,” a record that went to No. 25 in 1994. I guess that confluence is fitting, as what I’ve tried to do in these thirty-eight weeks is provide a window into the music that moves me and in doing so, a window into me as I’ve been shaped by music over the years. As I thought might happen, I’ve probably learned as much about myself as has anyone else who’s read my words and listened to the tunes offered here over the past eight-plus months. The mystery of how some songs attach themselves to our lives is one I’ll be exploring for the rest of my days. I doubt I’ll ever completely know how some songs – “Cherish” and “We” come to mind in my case – become major pillars of our internal lives and how others like “Come To My Window” – a good record to me, but nothing more than that – are perhaps the equivalent of artwork hung on the internal walls supported by those other, more vital records. In the end, I doubt I’ll find a perfect answer, and I suppose it might be better if all that remains a mystery. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop listening.

Eighties Music Hasn’t Changed, So I Must Have

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

As happens to – I think – every music lover during one era or another, while I was living through the first years of the 1980s, I didn’t have much use for the music of the times. That’s not news to those who’ve been reading this blog for a while; I’ve written before about how I felt about the music of the 1980s at the time that decade was unspooling.

What interests me now, though, is how I’ve come to appreciate more of that music these days than I ever thought I would. I grant that I’m still not accustomed to tunes from those years showing up in the playlists of the Twin Cities oldies station I listen to, but that’s a simple matter of disbelief at the march of time; it’s not an aesthetic comment on the music that’s new to that playlist.

There’s no doubt, though, that I quit listening regularly to pop music during several stretches of the 1980s, and that was especially true during the first few years of that decade. As I more and more disliked what I heard when I listened to Top 40 and other popular radio formats, my radio at home was frequently tuned to a jazz station, and I dabbled in country music at the time, too. I also listened to a lot of classical music, and I dug into the Big Band music of my parents’ youth. None of those satisfied me in the end, and I was a musical nomad for a while.

The funny thing is, I look at the records that were hits in the 1980s – either the lists of No. 1 songs week by week or the list of the biggest hits of the decade – and they don’t seem so awful now. Some of them, in fact, seem pretty palatable. There’s still a lot of piffle, but when wasn’t there piffle? The Sixties and Seventies each had their shares of bad singles rising to the top, and some of those bad singles – “bad” in the aesthetic sense – are among the records I still enjoy from those formative years of mine. (“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is a prime example: It’s at the same time an awful song and a great record if you were a listener then; but it’s not necessarily what I would want the aliens from Altair to hear first as they approached our blue planet. What would my choice be? I have no idea this morning.)

One thing is certain: The music I dissed between twenty and thirty years ago hasn’t changed. So if I like more of that music today than I did then, the change must have come from me. And, having thought about this at least a little, I think my reaction to the tunes of the time was more than anything else a reaction to the times. Politically, culturally, a lot of things changed in the years just before and just after 1980, with the changes adding up to one of those shifts in the zeitgeist that take place in our culture every twenty or thirty years or so.

And since one of the things that pop culture does well is to reflect that zeitgeist back to us through the mass media (though they become less mass year by year, a topic we might explore here another day), the music I was listening to and finding wanting was showing me – imperfectly, to be sure – the larger culture surrounding pop culture. I didn’t like what I saw, and in the first instance of old-fogyism that I can recall in my life – certainly not my last – I gave a “hrmmph” and turned my back on almost all pop music to find a more comforting current form of musical sustenance. I never did find it, which isn’t a surprise, as what I was looking for was 1970 or 1975 or something very much like that. And those years and their times were gone.

I think this is not a unique tale. Though the details – and the specific times – may differ, I think the first adult instance of noticing the world changing greatly around us is a universal experience. Sometimes we swim as hard as we can against the current, and sometimes we float and bob along. Some of us, I suppose, have boats and ride through the changes without much effort at all, and some very few of us – to stretch the metaphor to its elastic capacity – sit on the shore and watch the river flow and thus never move away from, oh, 1972 or whenever.

That last reaction – inaction, if you will – was never an option. Even though I felt more comfortable with those earlier times, and as much as I love memoir and memory, I still – as a reporter, as a writer, as a reader, as a person – had to be in the present. So I eventually made my peace with the fact that the times had shifted. Some of that peace was easier found when I went to graduate school; a university environment encourages exploration and acceptance of new ideas, and I found that to be true in the lesser matters of pop culture as well as the larger matters of social policy and all the other things that make the world run.

And being drawn back to pop culture and pop music — I still didn’t like everything I heard, but I was at least listening again – brought me to one of the best records included in this long project of the Ultimate Jukebox. I imagine that if I took the agonizing time to rank all 228 songs in the UJ – and I won’t do that; I have better things to invest my hours in – this record by the Cars from the late summer and early autumn of 1984 would fall securely in my Top Twenty, if not higher.

“Drive” was written and performed by the late Benjamin Orr of the Cars, and it spent the last two weeks of September and the first week of October 1984 at No. 3. It was also No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart for three weeks.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 36
“Down in the Alley” by Elvis Presley from Spinout [1966]
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” by the Beatles from The Beatles [1968]
“Fishin’ Blues” by Taj Mahal from De Ole Folks at Home [1969]
“Eight Miles High” by Leo Kottke from Mudlark [1971]
“Lady Marmalade” by LaBelle, Epic 50048 [1975]
“Drive” by the Cars from Heartbeat City [1984]

The various movie soundtracks that Elvis Presley found himself entangled in during the 1960s weren’t often well-received when they came out, and they’re not often highly regarded today. Some Elvis fanatics – and I am not one of those – might find more in those releases than others, but generally, there aren’t many great Presley performances among those albums. There are, however, a couple of tracks from the soundtrack to Spinout that grab my ears. The first – and I’ve gone back and forth over the years on its value – is his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” I’ve finally settled on the view that it’s a good performance. But as good as the Dylan cover is, Presley’s take on “Down In The Alley” is the best track on the Spinout album. The tune was originally written and recorded by the Clovers in the mid-1950s, and I assume the record made some dent in the R&B chart, but I don’t know for certain. (I’m also uncertain about the year the Clovers’ version was released; I’ve seen both 1956 and 1957 at various sources.) The only release from Spinout that I can find on the Billboard Hot 100 is the title tune to the movie, which peaked at No. 40 in November of 1966, but from where I listen, “Down In The Alley” should have been a hit.

When listing my favorite singles for a post a couple of years ago – and I think all but one of those I listed have found their way into this project; a Rolling Stones track that I listed in that post as an honorable mention did not make the cut – I said that if the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” had ever been released as a single, there would be no doubt about my favorite single of all time. I’m not sure that’s honestly the case – it would be tough to knock “Cherish” out of the top spot – but “Back in the U.S.S.R.” would be in the top five, I think. (The other three? “We” by Shawn Phillips, “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers and “Long, Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt.) And hearing the song live at a Paul McCartney concert in 2002 remains one of the highlights of my musical life. (As for the video I’ve linked to, it’s labeled as a 1970s promo video. I have my doubts about that; for what it matters, a lot of the visuals seem to have been shot in the Netherlands. The other interesting thing about the video is that the audio is a different mix than is on the album, with a slightly different introduction, for one. And the song ends on its own. What I mean is that the sound of the airplane takes the record to its fade out without the opening guitar part to “Dear Prudence” overlapping. I’d never heard that before. Anyone out there know anything about any of it?)

I tend to forget that I saw Taj Mahal in concert once. He performed a Sunday afternoon show in St. Cloud’s new municipal arena in the spring of 1972, I think. (It might have been a year later.) The place was crowded, hot and uncomfortable. I knew very little of the man’s music at the time; in fact, I think “Fishin’ Blues” was the only song I recognized all afternoon. I know a bit more about the man and his music now, having collected several of his LPs and CDs. But he remains an enigma to me, maybe because he moves from place to place musically, always exploring and never settling down to one genre although All-Music Guide notes that “while he dabbled in many different genres, he never strayed too far from his laid-back country blues foundation.” As much as I’ve dug into the man’s work, I may need to dig more. Beyond that, one thing comes to mind: “Fishin’ Blues” was written by early 20th century songster Henry Thomas (a fact that Taj Mahal has always acknowledged; the writing credits on De Ole Folks At Home list Thomas and a J. Williams, whose identity is a mystery to me). Thus, “Fishin’ Blues” is the second song in the Ultimate Jukebox that came at least partly from Thomas’ pen. As I mentioned a while back, the flute riff that opens Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country” is pretty much the same as the quills riff that opened Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues.”

Leo Kottke once likened his voice to the sound of “geese farts on a muggy day.” Never having heard the latter, I can only guess that he was wrong, as I like Kottke’s voice. I especially like it on his cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” on his Mudlark album. Along with his brilliant guitar work, Kottke’s vocal brings something to the surreal song that the Byrds’ swirling psychedelic single doesn’t deliver. On the other hand, my preference for Kottke’s version simply might stem from the fact that when my sister brought Mudlark home, it was probably the first time I’d ever heard the song. And I still prefer the cover to the admittedly brilliant original.

So what do we get from LaBelle’s No 1 hit? Beyond, that is, a lesson in French that college boys of all generations since 1975 have hoped to be able to put to use? We get a sly and funky piece of R&B that sounds as good today as it did thirty-five years ago when it spent a week at No. 1 on both the Top 40 and the R&B charts. “Lady Marmalade” still slinks, bumps, grinds and rocks.

‘Pain! Burning In My Heart . . .’

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

I wonder how likely this story is in today’s music and radio world:

Some local kids decide to form a band, and through hard work, a love of music and a little bit of radio luck, the band records some songs, has one or two of them pressed on a 45 (or burned on a CD these days, I guess) and the music finds its way onto the air and to the top of the local Top 40 stations’ playlists.

It reads like the concept for a B-list movie, one that’s not truly awful but is nevertheless utterly predictable, its script packed to the gills with rough and ready clichés and with clueless lines like the earnest “Our record’s too good not to make it!” or the cynical “Freakin’ radio weasels! They say our freakin’ sound is out of date!”

But during the years I was a radio listener – the late 1960s and early 1970s, in case you haven’t been paying attention – stories like that (although perhaps without the radio weasels) happened frequently, from the largest markets on the coasts to the smaller markets in the Midwest and South. In my exploration of Blogworld, I often come across stories of still-beloved bands that had local hits with 45s and/or albums. My pal Jeff at AM, Then FM wrote just this week about the upsurge of “fierce Wisconsin nostalgia” for an early Seventies band named Clicker, a wave of nostalgia that it seems he had a hand in creating with earlier posts.

In Minnesota, several local bands during the early rock era reached the local charts, delighting their cadres of fans in the Upper Midwest. One of those bands, the Trashmen, hit the national stage and saw their immortal record “Surfin’ Bird” spend two weeks at No. 4 on the Billboard chart as January turned into February in 1964.

Another one of those local records played a part – how large, I’m not sure – in completing my metamorphosis to committed Top 40 listener. I’ve mentioned before that it was during the last half of August 1969 when I really began to listen to Top 40 radio. Finding myself hanging around with St. Cloud Tech’s football team during the two weeks of summer practice, I realized that the radio – likely tuned to KDWB in the Twin Cities – was providing a pretty good soundtrack for my life, at least for that portion of it spent on the sidelines of a football field and in the locker room across the way.

There were a lot of good records on the air. According to the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, the Top Ten on KDWB for this week in 1969 was:

“Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones
“It’s Getting Better” by Mama Cass
“A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash
“Pain” by the Mystics
“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond
“Hurt So Bad” by the Lettermen
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers & the First Edition
“Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan
“Put A Little Love In Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon        
“Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White

Of those ten, and there are some great ones in there, the one that matters here this morning is “Pain,” the No. 4 record from forty-one years ago this week. The Mystics were a Twin Cities group (originally called Michael’s Mystics), and the single was released on the Metromedia label. According to ARSA, “Pain” had been the No. 1 single on KDWB for the preceding week, and the same was true at WDGY, the Twin Cities’ other main Top 40 station of the time.

And when “Pain” came on the air, there was something about it that made it stand out even in the elite company of hits from the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and the rest. The hard-charging horn-laced introduction is what grabbed me, I think. The tale told by the lyric is okay, but I think it was the horns. I don’t know who to thank for the arrangement; the credit on the 45 reads only “A Path Production.” But almost every time “Pain” came on the radio that late summer and early fall, I’d stop what I was doing and just listen. It remained one of my favorite songs long after it fell down the charts and its airplay ended.

Not that I did anything about it. If I’d been thinking at all, I would have headed out to Woolworth’s or Kresge’s or Musicland and gotten myself a copy of the record. I didn’t.

But I was enamored enough of the record to pop for a ticket to a high school dance a couple weeks into the school year. The ticket cost all of fifty cents, I imagine. I had no plans of getting on the dance floor, nor did my pal Mike, who went with me. We’d be content to hang along the gym wall in the old Central School, listening to the tunes and watching the girls on the dance floor. We were there for one reason only: The band for the dance was the Mystics, and we wanted to hear “Pain.” And, of course, about two hours into the three-hour dance, the Mystics obliged. Satisfied, Mike and I made our ways home.

It was, I think, the first time I’d heard a radio hit played live by the original band. And that memory is sweet.

It was years before I ever heard the song again; in fact, after a while, it would be years before I even though about “Pain” again. You know how life goes: Things happen and more things happen, and some of the things you thought you’d never forget end up pushed to the back on the shelves of memory, gathering dust until someday for some reason, something pushes one of those things to the front of the shelf, where it seems shiny and new again.

It was the mid-1990s, so call it twenty-five years since I’d heard the Mystics’ single. One of the guys who played in the band at Jake’s had played, if I recall correctly, in another well-known Twin Cities band, Danny’s Reasons. During a break one night, he was telling tales, and he mentioned the Mystics.

“The Mystics?” I asked. “The guys who released ‘Pain’?” The very ones, Larry said. I hadn’t thought about “Pain” for years. The conversation wandered on as I made a mental note to check the singles bins at Cheapo’s every once in a while. And a couple of weeks later, when I saw a poster for a record show at no more than eight blocks from my home, I made a note to head out on Saturday and see what I could find.

Well, I found a copy of “Pain.” In its original Metromedia sleeve. For something like $100. The fellow obligingly pulled the 45 from the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I listened to the record for the first time in about twenty-five years, looked at the price tag on the plastic sleeve and shook my head. “Not this time,” I told the fellow regretfully.

From then on, I’d check for the record sporadically at the places where I bought my LPs. After I moved further south and east in Minneapolis in 1999, I had new places to check. No luck. And once the Texas Gal and I moved to St. Cloud in 2002, well, there were really no places to check except on-line stores. I took a look this morning.

There is one copy of “Pain” offered for sale through Music Stack.com. It’s priced at $46.92. One copy of the 45 was priced at $75 at the Global E-commerce Mega-Market (GEMM) but was evidently sold this morning. Prices like those have been pretty consistent over the past eight years, when there’s been a copy of the record on the market.

But I don’t need those copies. On a January Saturday in 2003, the Texas Gal and I made one of our occasional trips to the small town of Pierz to stock up on bacon at Thielen Meats. On the way back, we came through the very small town of Royalton, on U.S. Highway 10 about twenty miles north of St. Cloud. An antique shop was doing business in what appeared to be an old bank building, so we pulled over and went in.

I’m not sure what the Texas Gal looked at, but in the second room I entered, I found a tall rotating rack filled with 45s carefully put into paper and then plastic sleeves. I began digging. And about midway down the second side, I did a double-take: “Pain” by the Mystics. Eyebrows raised, I looked for the price, and I did another double-take: two dollars.

Needless to say, the record came home with me. And a few years later, when the Texas Gal gave me a USB turntable for Christmas, “Pain” was the first record I pulled from the shelves to convert to an mp3. It still sounds as good as it did coming out of the speakers on an August day forty-one years ago this week.

(The record shown and used in the video is the original release, according to reader Yah Shure, not a later release, as I originally stated. My copy of the record is Metromedia 130, and the record is credited to simply “The Mystics.” It’s worth noting that the Grass Roots also recorded “Pain,” releasing it as an album track on their 1969 LP Lovin’ Things. They did a good job, but they’re not the Mystics, you know.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 31
“Pain” by the Mystics, Metromedia 130 [1969]
“Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You)” by Lulu from New Routes [1970]
“Sky High” by Jigsaw, Chelsea 3022 [1975]
“We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, Cotillion 44251 [1979]
“More Than This” by Roxy Music from Avalon [1982]
“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, Geffen 29141 [1984]

Sometime in February 1970, I was home from school for a day, and I had the radio on as I was sitting up in bed sniffling or coughing or whatever I was doing. I stopped dead still, however, when I heard the quiet introduction to Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You).” I listened, entranced, as she took the song from that quiet start to unexpected places. I knew Lulu from “To Sir With Love,” which went to No. 1 in 1967, but this sounded like a different singer, one dealing with much more than a schoolgirl crush. From crayons to perfume, indeed. Lulu’s warm and intimate performance took the record to No. 22 in that late winter.  Add to that performance the fact that I was just beginning to know what it was like to be a fool for someone, and you have all you need to make a song a favorite for life.

Lulu – “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You)”

There are no emotional connections, no tales of hearing my life in the music, with Jigsaw’s “Sky High.” It’s just one of those records that has always been fun to listen to. The heartbreak content of the lyrics, to tell the truth, doesn’t seem to work, mostly because the guys from Jigsaw – the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits says the quartet came from England while All-Music Guide says the band was founded in Brisbane, Australia, in 1966 – seem to be having too much fun singing about their love being blown sky high to be grieving too much about it. And it is fun, from the opening twanging – what instrument makes that sound? – through the swirling strings and punchy horns of the introduction onward. “Sky High” spent two weeks at No. 3 in December of 1975.

Speaking of fun, from the instant I hear the drum figure and quick piano runs of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” there’s a smile on my face. The disco proclamation of kinship spent two weeks at No. 2 during June of 1979, brightening the summer and providing that season’s Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team with an anthem. With their athletic skills thus supplemented, the Pirates – led by thirty-nine-year-old Willie (Pops) Stargell – won baseball’s World Series that fall, winning the final three games to defeat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. And seeing the Orioles lose – just like the effervescent vocals and sly beat of “We Are Family” – is always a reason to smile.

I love album covers. Not to the extent that I have any framed and displayed on the walls of the study, although I do have a large poster of the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the wall. But I’ve enjoyed over the years the art of good album covers, and I’ve also enjoyed over time the utterly inept work put into bad album covers. But only once have I ever bought an album based only on the look of the cover. It was the summer of 1989. I’d returned to Minnesota after my generally unhappy time on the Dakota prairie, and I was celebrating my return by touring Minneapolis-area record shops. In a shop in the suburb of Richfield, I came across a cover illustration so arresting that I bought the album without having the slightest idea what I would hear.

The record was Avalon, the 1982 effort by Roxy Music. All I knew of Roxy Music at the time was that the group was British. I had no awareness of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera or any of the other members of the group over the years; I didn’t know about Siren, Manifesto, Country Life, or any of the other albums. I was clueless. But the cover to Avalon fascinated me. I took the record home and, luckily, I liked it, especially “More Than This” and the title tune. In later years, I explored the rest of Roxy Music’s catalog, and I found the earlier albums well done but a little brittle and fussy, not nearly as warm and inviting as Avalon. It’s fine when tracks from those earlier albums pop up at random. But I don’t go looking for them. Avalon I do, especially that shimmering title tune and “More Than This,” which was a No. 6 hit in Britain (No. 103 here in the U.S.).

It was almost winter – the second week of December 1984 – when Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” entered the Top 40. Even in the relatively mild winter of mid-Missouri, the wind whistled around the corners of the house, making winter seem harder. To me, that matched the sonic dish that Henley had served, and I had the sense that he was singing about things much more fundamental than the passing of one warm season:

Out on the road today,
I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac.

A voice inside my head said ‘Don’t look back.
‘You can never look back.’

The final verses – I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun . . . I can tell you, my love for you will still be strong – are more traditional for making a pledge of fealty. But what sticks with me from the record – which went to No. 5 during the second week of February 1985 – is that warning, one I ignore frequently but with greater misgivings as the days race by: ‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.”

(Sequence of Mystics’ name and of record’s release have been corrected since post was first published; thanks for the info, Yah Shure.)