Monday, November 11, 2019

Radio Romance: Helen Reddy : "Angie Baby"

It is easy enough to state that this song was a transatlantic hit (#1 in late '74 and here #2 on Radio Luxembourg in February '75); it is also easy enough to state that the songwriter, Alan O'Day, worked on the lyrics for some time, even showing them to his therapist* to get his/her advice on them.

But what is the song about?  No one, even O'Day and Reddy, who you would think would know, don't.  This is actually rather refreshing, as how many songs actually seem to be flattened or reduced by having their meaning/origin explained?  It almost even takes away some of the power - the listener's power - in understanding and interpreting a song.  So my version of this song may not be yours, but here goes...

A girl loves music, loves it so much and thus it takes over her life.  Is she touched, a little crazy in the head?  For some reason she doesn't go to school but gets to stay at home, in her room** listening to her radio all day.  She whirls around with one song, one fantastic partner, after another. She is, as Sister Sledge will later attest, Lost In Music.  Whether she knows this or not isn't stated, but Reddy's voice is always present to hint, to insinuate, to make the case for Angie that she is a "special lady" and not one to be messed with. 

A girl's attachment to music is a strong thing.  The power of music matches her own power, which can be so great and yet so ephemeral, but always is there, and the radio becomes a means of possessing this power in a way, of having means to escape even if you are shut-in at home, it seems in the song for Angie's own good. 

But there's a boy, a ne'er-do-well, who wants Angie and looks in on her and sees only her body, of course.  He doesn't know about her "really nice place to go" but perhaps knows she's a bit "touched."  This boy wants and gets into her room, only to find himself, his very soul, spun around and somehow disappearing into the radio, never to be seen again.  The radio keeps him - he's not dead, exactly, but he can never escape.  She has a lover; she has her radio; she has her land of make-believe...or is it? 

Even here I can say that the radio, that music itself, somehow defends and protects Angie, that she who is so utterly devoted has her just reward, and that the confusing, fuzzy and emotionally and psychologically profound reactions a girl has to music are all here.  The way a guitar and drums and voice can hit your nerves, all your nerves, so that you become altered, even liberated, by what happens to you when you hear them.  The effect is instantaneous and all those radio stations who didn't need any encouragement to play this song (radio stations love songs which mention radios, after all) maybe didn't get the whole subversive sexual undertow here, or maybe they very much did. 

A girl and her radio; a radio romance.

Next up:  it's the Valentine's Day massacre.

*Hardly anything more 70s than doing this, though how much popular culture - through books, music, movies - was about young women who were deemed "odd" or "weird" or flat-out "crazy" in this decade has no doubt been written about, but also sort of written off.  The male/masculine version of the 70s has become the default understanding of the decade, with only a few women accepted as part of that male world, and this goes for all media, really.  I know this is a super-obvious point, but it always bears making.

** How much would I have loved to stay in my room say circa November 1981 and listen to the radio all day? A lot....

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Very Strange Vibration: Gloria Gaynor: "Never Can Say Goodbye"

There are few moments better than the one where confusion and doubt are conquered, even eliminated.  We are in disco when this particular and precise emotion happens to make sense, as disco is about that joy, a joy that magnetic and crushing and inexplicable, an energy that cannot be denied.  That it comes in with Max Roach-inspired drumming, swirling strings and an I’ve-lived-this-and-we-can-share-it vocal from Gloria Gaynor (who sounds as caught up in the song as anyone) is just as well.  We are far from the laid-back pleasures of "Rock Your Baby" or the get-down Miami horn blasts of KC & the Sunshine Band here.  Gaynor is singing to be heard, and that this is a Jackson 5 song seems to make no impression on her whatsoever.  She is making this her own.
What those who bought this en masse may or may have not known was that “Never Can Say Goodbye” was the middle of a trilogy from her album of the time – a “mix” really – by Tom Moulton*, which starts with “Honey Bee” and ends with “Reach Out I’ll Be There.**”  This mix was the first to appear on an album – let’s just pause to ponder this – and capitalized on Moulton’s ability as a mixer to really get into the songs – not in a complicated way, just in a way that was supposed to elongate the song, and have Gaynor’s voice in your head *even when she wasn’t audibly there*. Dancing in your head? That the very male world of disco (I have been reading Peter Shapiro’s book on it and early discos were definitely male territory, with disco becoming a more female-friendly phenomenon later on) should have a woman taking on Levi Stubbs’ aria of a song and making it sound like the veritable audio version of the last helicopter out of Vietnam is, to say the least, quite something. 
The power of the song is to worry away in the verses and then dismiss these worries in the chorus with a rising "I love you ssssooooooooooo" that has in it right there a real vulnerability/strength moment which disco (when it wasn't just exhorting you the listener to dance, which it often did) does so well.  Can you stop?  Is stopping on the dancefloor possible?  Tom Moulton didn't want you to stop, and put this together with oh say Eddie Kendricks' "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" and it won't stop.
Next:  A radio, a woman, a man. 

 *Tom Moulton is the first person to use a 12" single to do the pressing of a song, giving the song more space to breathe, sound better and of course have more time to let the song be itself. That he found this out by accident is charming. 
**We are not done with Motown yet and in a few entries the topic of jazz will appear, with Motown popping up unexpectedly.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Right Time: John Holt: "Help Me Make It Through The Night"

One of the contributing factors towards 1975 being the amazing year it was has to be the general openness of the charts.  The old stalwarts of pop and rock were still around, but new things, new permutations of things, abounded in the early 70s.  In short, anything went, and amidst the joy/chaos there were more than a few songs that showed vulnerability and a slight sense of loneliness and even tiredness.  Country and reggae were old friends, and here they sound just right together.

By early 1975 the high that Trojan Records had been riding was coming to an end, but label star John Holt was wise/lucky enough to have a hit album 1000 Volts of Holt (the cover screams early 70s, right down to the paisley/plaid combination which Holt pulls off because star power) come out before the financially-struggling Trojan collapsed altogether in May, bought out by Saga Records. (This could be, as is suggested in Bass Culture, that the English kids who dug reggae c. 1971 were no longer interested in it, it being passé.)

“Help Me Make It Through The Night” was released in late 1974 and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart as a crossover reggae/lovers rock hit that was solid musically and sung with warmth and ease by Holt.  That it was so sophisticated was due to the English producer  Tony Ashfield, who had been involved in Jamaican music for some time and had worked with Holt on a previous album, The Further You Look.  That was 1972 though, and while it was a big hit in Jamaica it wasn’t elsewhere – hence Ashfield and Holt decided to do another album, one with proven songs like this one, which had already been a hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips as well as others, including a reggae version by Duke Parker.  The song suited his voice and modest mien* and its devil-may-care-desperate lyrics somehow work in with the longing in his voice.  I wonder if this song would have made it to number one had all the shops it sold in – not just Boots or Woolworths – were counted?
In the meantime, Ashfield and Holt split over differences, Holt continuing to record in Jamaica both in the lovers rock style and doing more political songs.  This song marks a moment when someone who is a worldwide star finally gets his due, and had things been different...
Next up:  Music, non-stop!



*Holt turned down a certain song which author Max Romeo eventually had to record himself.   Ahem.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Remembering the Forgotten: Ralph McTell: "Streets of London"

We have now arrived at the end of 1974; we are about to enter the then to-some scary area known as 1975.  A time of big decisions and already there's a sense that whatever will become of this decade will be worked out now.  The Nixon era has already ended and the Vietnam War is drawing to a close.  In the UK there’s the growing sense of unease coupled with two events that are responses to that unease.  This unease continues to this day and in fact its crushing and terrible logic is attempting to be worked out even as I write this.  There is hope however; there is always hope....
"Streets of London" is the sort of song that sticks; McTell is not singing of any general sense of loneliness but about specific people and to a specific person - a friend of his who was a heroin addict.  It is the realistic loneliness that stands quite opposite to the song which kept it at #2, Mud's "Lonely This Christmas."  It is a gentle, near classical song with a touch of folk; country blues, even.  The power of it is the musical simplicity which acts as a welcoming warm hug of a frame around the four people depicted, all of them alone, all desolate.
McTell's voice is warm too, familiar, as opposed to the (at this point) recently departed Nick Drake, who was more unworldly and yes, seductive.  McTell is taking the listener by the hand into the streets of London, starting at the Surrey Street Market in Croydon (where he was raised), ending on the Thames by the Seaman's Mission with a veteran (WWI? WWII?) who has been cast aside, just as the bag lady and the T.S. Eliot/Beckettian figure who does nothing but drink tea all night to pass the time.  These are all people who are alive but whom society does not want to recognize, who are yesterday's news. The addict is gently shown those who are lost, in darkness, wandering and sadly friendless.  I would like to think that some heard this song and it opened their hearts, or as McTell wanted to do, changed their minds.  Not through preaching but through the powerful examples that especially at Christmastime are a reminder to look out for others and to be more considerate.  That is the real meaning of the season as it happens.
That it took three times, three different recordings, to make this song a hit shows how sometimes a song just has to appear at the right time (and in the right way) to make its impact.  It has become a standard folk song (recorded first in '69, produced by Gus Dudgeon) so much so that punk (ah yes punk - we'll get to that in enough time) band the Anti-Nowhere League did their own cover, with altered lyrics (mais oui) "Let me grab you by the hair and drag you through the streets of London, I'll show you something that'll really make you sick" was heartily approved of by McTell himself. The song is McTell's main legacy, one he has accepted as his gift to the world, even as he continues to write and record albums to this day.  Can the world change because of a song?  Can it have an impact beyond itself? The answer is, as always, with the listener.
Next up:  Lord have mercy!

Monday, August 5, 2019

You've Come A Long Way: "Rock Me Gently" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet"

Now then, where was I?....

You may or indeed may not know that I have had a long break from this blog as my husband was diagnosed and tested and then finally operated on last year.  It was a big and rarely-done operation and was, thank goodness, a success.  I spent a lot of last year either at work, shopping or in the process of visiting him in hospital, which I did nearly daily until I knew he was okay physically and mentally.  2018 was a hot summer; a summer of record; but I was blanked out by the end of the day, able eventually to listen to music (impossible at first), eat dinner, rest.  And then phone early the next morning to see how he was overnight, and it would then all start over again.

Now however, he is back at work, and my brave (possibly), unheralded and amazingly unrivalled blog can continue.  If you are new here – hello!  I hope you like it and have time to catch up with what I have written already.  And if you have read it before, you know how it goes...

It just so happens that I left off at a place very few people want to be stranded in – The Fog.  Or, if you are a psychogeographer, the liminal period.  Late 1974 was confusing and contentious - the Glam Slam era was virtually over, and disco had yet to really catch on.  Naturally it was a time (as ever) when record companies wanted hits, they wanted something catchy and oh well who cared what the lyrics were about as long it had a decent chorus and some good hooks.  The sexual revolution?  Who upstairs approved of that though?

Leave it to the Canadians, as always, to inadvertently push things forward.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the prairie kings of HRS, were working on Not Fragile and someone from the company came along to see if there were any obvious singles from the album.  Nope.  Well what else do you have, guys?  They had a song they only used to play to warm up which no one saw as being anything great or even okay – it was just a crappy song to them.  The company man knew it would be a hit though, so “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” was duly recorded, deliberate stuttering put in by Randy as a tribute to his brother.  And so it was a hit, this song about a naive young man who has fallen in love with a more experienced woman, and hooee is he having fun.  The stuttering works as a way of showing his shock, his pleasure – and the simplicity of the cowbell-rockin’ song does too.  That it’s a song about a sexually assertive woman and a man most happy and even greedy (“I took what I could get” he says, after “any love is good love” which actually gives the song a risqué element beyond mere greed) is very quietly revolutionary.   He is not resentful or bitter or neurotic about being the one who has things to learn – quite the opposite.  This isn’t “Summer The First Time” – the implication, as much as BTO can be bothered, is that they are equals, save for this one thing. Listen to the bass and you will see how sexy and knowing the song is, without being tiresome.
Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” is a similar song, though it was very much intended to be a single, one that Kim had to finance and release on his own label as no one else was interested in it.  It was a gamble so desperate that on the b-side there was no time for another song, just the instrumental part of the a-side.  That both were hits (the b-side got airplay on US R&B stations) shows how gambles can indeed pay off sometimes.

Kim – and I’ve had a lot of time to consider this – sounds a lot more experienced than the prairie-boy narrator from BTO.  He wears linen and good cologne; he knows about art and music and yet is not a boring hipster.  He is a together dude and thus when he comes across a woman he loves and she wants...something he’s a bit unfamiliar with, he can be generous and gracious.  He knows about liberated women, the sexual revolution, and he’s perfectly fine with it, as long as it’s a gentle one.  Polite.  Thoughtful.  Sends flowers.  That kind of revolution!  Which was happening now that the 70s was busy putting the 60s ideology into actual practice. The lyric “Don’t you know that I have never been loved like this before” is sung in a way that it could be just that, or you could hear a little smile in it, implying....whatever you think it means. 
Both of these songs went to #2 here in the UK, and #1 in the US; there is a sweetness and humility and generosity in these songs that are sexy, a counterpoint in the UK at least to the usual idea of this era being something scary and most certainly macho.  
Now then, I should note that I have skipped some songs as I didn't really *feel* the need to write about them - "Wombling Merry Christmas" being one, "Far Far Away" by Slade being another and there's a Rollers song in there too - and of course "Killer Queen" by Queen I wrote about over at Then Play Long.  This is so I can better focus on the wonders of 1975, which I will be doing as usual but with the addition of the odd album or two* when needed to give a greater context to what was an exciting time musically (unlike some people who were just bored by music at the time).  Those of you who know what 1975 meant in UK terms will be waiting for June; in some ways we are living in the opposite of that time, when the UK said yes.
Up next:  a hunky folksinger takes you on a tour.
*Not in a TPL sort of way, but more as a sidebar, as such.