Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mellow 70s Gold

I used to have music on at work all the time, with a boombox on my desk, but it’s been years since I’ve had anything like this. The high point of this was at a job in the early 90s where I had a more isolated nook in the office, and would listen to Howard Stern first thing in the morning, often laughing uncontrollably when he got on one of those jags about his demented family life. Back then, I was buying 2-4 CDs a week as the golden days of that media format were just starting. I’d usually sample them at work.

Well, last month I got a sweet pair of speakers for the laptop that also service the shelf-style CD player I have. (The amount of stereo equipment I have now has fallen almost to zero; I use the computer constantly, or plug in my iPod to a small charger/speaker dock that works nicely. I use the CD player about as much as I buy CDs, which is to say once a month, at most.) I had a crappy pair of laptop speakers I got for $20 at Staples that I had been using, decided to drag them into work and load up my hard drive with a selection of MP3s.

I was pretty careful about this. Avoid hard rock. Song with profanity. Any sort of jarring music. While such constraints might seem cruel to a heavy metal fan, I gather most people in a workplace wouldn’t like being exposed to metal, or hiphop, or any other kind of loudly annoying pop music. The truth is I could still put thousands of MP3s on there with ease, the only issue being how to narrow down to what I want to hear on a regular basis.

It occurred to me after I was done, and throwing in more offbeat stuff like celtic, blues, reggae and deep country (which most people don’t “get” in New York), that much of what I would be listening to could be replicated by a good easy listening station. Granted, one with deep catalog and good taste, with a reach from the 1940s through now, but still, easy listening for the most part. It came out a lot like what I hear in the supermarket every Saturday morning, and I’ve already mentioned how enjoyable I find their sound system, on which I’ll hear anything from Otis Redding to the Flaming Lips to ABBA. That’s the kind of musical reach I like.

What also struck me was how much 70s pop I have on there, and how much I enjoy hearing that music now. Sorry, but when I hear “I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family, I don’t groan. I think, “Shit, what a great pop song.” It’s a good thing, while working in an office, to have myself emotionally pulled out of my space for a few seconds or minutes to recall memories and feelings associated with various songs.

Last Friday, we had one of those freak March snow squalls in the morning, flakes the size of silver dollars that fell for about 15 minutes and amounted to nothing. I was at my work desk, looking out the window, and playing “Still the Same” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. When I first got that 45, I recall the exact same weather occurring as I hung my teenage head out my bedroom window and watched those freakishly large snowflakes fall in late March, the song’s melancholy vibe matching the feeling of watching snow fall too late in the season. Move it from rural Pennsylvania in the 70s to New York in the 00s, and that felt like the only difference. Of course, the spell was broken moments later by a squawking, deeply annoying, asshole coworker on the phone, but that’s work.

Below are a few songs that I’ve heard come up on the media player shuffle at work, and some of the thoughts/emotions they’ve inspired.

“Love Will Keep Us Together” by The Captain & Tennille.
This was among the first singles I bought – must have been 11 at the time. Man, I loved that song, would listen to Top 40 radio for hours just so I could hear it. Nearly bought the album, too, which would have been a mistake. A few years ago, when I was piecing together a large “Mellow 70s” collection of MP3s, I nearly bought a box set of all their albums, simply because it could be had for about $20. A good friend talked me down from that dangerous ledge, and I settled on a singles collection, which had plenty of filler.

I always think of Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in tandem with this one, sort of polar opposites in every possible way. And I’ll go on record – the Captain & Tennille song is much better. Don’t care how “cool” Joy Division was as a band. The Captain & Tennille were about as uncool as you could get in the 70s. Doesn’t matter. A good song is a good song. Last time I checked, the Captain & Tennille are still together (always wondered if he had sex with the captain hat on), so they weren’t bullshit artists. The lead singer of Joy Division killed himself in 1980. Guess he wasn’t a bullshit artist either. Sooner or later, you stop gravitating towards “love will tear us apart” people – I had a full dose of them through my 20s. That take on the world doesn’t age well – it doesn’t age at all, more in a “emotionally stunted” way than in a “timeless” way. I surely don’t play “Love Will Keep Us Together” day and night, but I own a copy, and when it comes up on the iPod, I dig it. That was me at 11, and I won’t deny it.

After playing this song at work, I completely lost my network connection – to the web, to the filing system, to Outlook. When the I.T. guy asked me why I thought this happened, I told him it was because I played a Captain & Tennille song on my media player. He agreed that this was just as good a reason as any.

Supertramp. Not just one song – about a dozen songs I’ve pulled from their 70s albums. The world needs another Supertramp, which is to say an under-rated pop band that crosses a lot of lines in terms of its audience. Bands like this – also think Fleetwood Mac – dominated the 70s, simply because they were good, with all sorts of subtle influences and a basic pop sense that worked. Pop music started dying when bands like this disappeared into the 80s, and nothing replaced them. What is “The Logical Song”? It’s a bit of a samba, a hippie tract, some Beatlish guitar thrown in, clarinet and sax solos, lyrics that appealed just as much to lost high-school kids as they did to aging hippies entrenched in their much more sedate adult lives.

Back in 1978, when I saw the Superman movie featuring Christopher Reeves, a nice moment occurred when Clark Kent was walking to the newspaper office building in midtown Manhattan in the summer, and a snatch of “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp played as he walked inside. What a perfect moment. You watch documentaries on the 70s New York music scene now, you get the impression the entire city was an out-of-control cesspool. It wasn’t. You watch movies filmed in NYC around that time, and it’s clear most of it was business as usual, which is something to keep in mind with how things are today. Now that I’ve lived here long enough, I’ve had plenty of those “Give a Little Bit” moments in the summer. Can’t say enough good things about this band – their music has aged well, and I thought it was good in the first place.

“Nights on Broadway” by The Bee Gees.
Disco started out pretty good. I can’t even recall if this sort of soul music was even called disco before Saturday Night Fever. I’m sure the term was kicked around in the mid-70s and solidified into a movement, that become a cultural phenomenon with the release of that movie. But my favorite disco – a type of music I mostly hated at the time (and still hate for the most part, although I easily have a few dozen outright disco songs in my 70s soul collection) – is just the kind The Bee Gees were doing with songs like “Nights on Broadway” and “Jive Talking.” “Jive Talking” is simply one of the best singles of the 70s – consider it disco’s “God Save the Queen.”

“Nights on Broadway” is a strange song for me because growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the song presented a fantasy of New York City life – smoky rooms filled with strangers. It sounded like a very elegant, romantic version of city life – “Love’s Theme” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra/Barry White was much the same (before it became the unofficial theme for late-night network movies and golfing highlights). That’s how the city sounded to me, my version of it, totally removed from any vestiges of city life. After having lived in New York for a long time … I don’t know what the fuck “Nights on Broadway” is on about. I’ve spent many a night on Broadway. Went home with lighter pockets on an early-morning subway train filled with stinking bums, puked in the toilet at 4:30 to get some sleep. Still, I want to believe in the romance of a song like “Nights on Broadway” – sort of like how Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” doesn’t appear to be about anything, just a jumble of clichés and bad lyrics, but the music’s so good that you forgive it. The Bee Gees sure as hell don’t need my forgiveness – these guys were great before and after this song, in radically different ways. And for the record, days on Broadway usually find me walking in the street to avoid all the asshole tourists jamming up the sidewalks.

“Love on the Rocks” by Neil Diamond. File this one along with “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer.
A sappy ballad that I can’t avoid loving. In Neil Diamond’s case, man, there it is, love on the rocks, like a wrecked ship or a mixed drink. Aint no surprise. On the rocks, amigo, on the rocks. Suddenly you find you’re out there, walking in a storm. Words of wisdom from a passionate Jew with chest hair to burn. As opposed to a nebbish white Brit with an afro singing “When I Need You.” My friend Jose said that this was the one song when played on ghetto boom boxes in his project that would break down the hard guys hanging out around the handball courts. I don’t know what it is about 70s ballads, but they worked and are even more distinctive now. Ballads became too heavy and slick from the 80s onwards – not saying they weren’t in the 70s. But the melodies and production just seemed more smooth, less bombastic. When “Love on the Rocks” kicks in, it’s a tasteful orchestra arrangement and the drums that do so. Compared to the wailing divas of the 80s and after, Neil Diamond sounds absolutely subtle in comparison. And he was a major cheeseball. But one with talent, and maybe that’s the rub. You can laugh at someone like Leo Sayer, but try writing one hit the way he wrote a handful. It can’t be that easy.

These are the mellow kind of songs featured in commercials touting soft-rock stations. I should hate these songs. I do hate a lot of them. But if you strip some of these songs down to just a vocal and guitar or piano arrangement, you’ll find sound songwriting, sometimes even brilliant. I recall Patti Smith unironically covering Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” on a kid’s program in the late 70s. Hate to say it, but it became clear that Debby Boone was a much better singer. Still, hats off to Patti Smith for copping to the slightly embarrassing realization that sometimes Top 40 fluff is popular for good reason – because the song is good. Do you think “Reminiscing” by The Little River Band is a shitty song? According to May Pang in her book about her time with John Lennon, it was one of his favorite songs. For good reason … it’s a fucking good song!

"What a Fool Believes" by The Doobie Brothers.
This is one of the wisest songs ever written. It’s about a guy who deludes himself into believing a past relationship with a woman means anything to her now, and realizes it doesn’t, and may never have. What a fool believes, he sees. The wise man has the power to reason away; what seems to be is always better than nothing. Jesus Christ, how many times have I lived out these words – too many. Punk rockers would have laughed their asses off at The Doobie Brothers in the 70s. While they were writing songs about being bored and hating everything, here you had a guy, probably in his late 20s, going through all sorts of weird shit with women, and he’s smart enough, through his coke haze, to realize he’s a fucking idiot and mislead, always has been, maybe always will be. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is. So the guy had too much talent to play three chords badly on an electric guitar. His salt-and-pepper hair and full beard designated him as a full-blown adult. As did his boozy, mellow growl of a singing voice. A guy named Skunk with sideburns and a pony tail was his band’s guitarist. But make no mistake – the message of “What a Fool Believes,” regardless of the bouncy keyboard arrangement, is profound. Many times I have played this song and longed for that sort of clarity in expressing age old truths.

Another of the wisest songs ever written: “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. Simply stated, you got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table; there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done. The mysteries of life are contained, if not answered, in this song. Kenny Rogers is a dick? His chicken places are terrible? Your neighbor, uncle, and boss at work look like him? Could be true. But you write a song this good, and I’ll kiss your ass.

I may have picked these songs because they’re not going to get anyone too upset at work, and you could surely hear them in the supermarket or dentist’s office, but that’s how life works, sometimes a song like this comes on when you’re idling at the computer, or waiting in the lobby, and you think, “Shit, this song is great, and I’m not even stoned.” We all have these weird, unexpected touchstone songs in our lives. No shame in liking them. Just figured I’d try to do the impossible and explain why in certain cases.


Andy S. said...

Among the artists/songs you mention, the only one I endorse is Supertramp. I still have two or three of their pre-Breakfast mid-70s albums, and I don't consider them guilty pleasures. I have one example of a 70s artist that I do consider a guilty pleasure: The Carpenters. I love Karen Carpenter's voice. It's just one of those things.

William S. Repsher said...

Aside from some ill-advised covers, like "Please Mr. Postman," The Carpenters basically defined the 70s ballad -- I'd say along with Harry Nillson. Most of what came afterwards in terms of "big" ballads sprung directly from the songs they performed in the early 70s. You'll find very few people out there who can't acknowledge how influential/good The Carpenters were.