Saturday, August 16, 2008

Are You Ready for Summer to End?

If you live in Australia, New Zealand or Patagonia, your winter is still doing its thing. For most of the Northern Hemisphere, these are the Dog Days of summer. But I live in Minnesota. I haven’t used the air conditioner in three weeks, and I can’t keep my window open at night. The lows for the next ten nights are expected to range from 54 F to 63 F (12 C to 17 C). Is summer over here? Not really. Not until Wednesday, when teacher workshops begin at my school for the full faculty. I even have things to do today (Saturday) for that inevitable event.

But the title of this post doesn’t refer to my dismay at the demise of Summer 2008. It merely recognizes that this is my last post for the caithiseach-vinyl year that relates to the music of the summer of 1970. I mentioned two posts ago (plus the Vinyl Record Day post) that music at night, on WLS in Chicago, got me through that rough summer. I thought I would wait until today to state that I have never witnessed a conglomeration of listenable tunes to match what I heard in 1970. The hits cascaded onto the charts all year long.

Out of curiosity, I recently took a census of my compressed Top 40 music files, sorted by year. I wanted to see where I was most deficient. With just one song each, 1891 and 1893 are going to need some boosting. 1966 and 1967 are looking good at 233 and 234 tunes, respectively. Those numbers show how the charts have changed, because I own all of the hits of 2006 and 2007, and they come in at 156 and 167.

I figured that, in some cases, the totals would give me an idea of how much I liked the year’s music. I was right; before some concentrated buying this week, I owned just 22 hits from 2004. I am up to 43 now. 2001 had made it into my collection just 19 times, but I’m up to 55 there.

Sure enough, the year that I worked hardest to collect has been 1970. The census tallied 237 songs owned out of 254 (including charting B sides, give or take one). I get the impression I should dig hard and finish off that year as well.

I have always had the indefinable belief that 1970 produced the largest body of quality hit songs of any calendar year. Go ahead and debate me; you’re likely to (and welcome to) say “But what about ____ from 19XX? Huh? What about that?” Often a milieu—the songs they played when you were in love, or graduating from high school—makes a period’s music resonate forever. But 1970? The year I turned 10? Sure, my mom died, and I needed something to hold onto, but I’ve had more fun in other years, and the music doesn’t compare. I had my first requited love interest in July 1977, and when I looked at the charts, apart from a few songs that meant something then, the Top 40 wasn’t that solid. But 1970 . . . wow.

The Guess Who: “No Time.” Brook Benton: “Rainy Night in Georgia.” CCR: “Travelin’ Band”/“Who’ll Stop the Rain.” Simon & Garfunkel: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Cecelia.” Edison Lighthouse: “Love Grows.” John Lennon: “Instant Karma!” Norman Greenbaum: “Spirit in the Sky.”

I’ll stop there, on March 7, and just tell you that the year kept getting better. I’ll also share a theological discussion from Good Fellow Camp, summer 1970:

Louie and caithiseach: “Bob, last year you didn’t cuss. Why do you cuss so much?”
Bob: “I dunno. I like to.”
Louie and caithiseach: “You’ll go to hell for cussing.”
Bob: “No I won’t! The guy who sang ‘Spirit in the Sky’ cusses.”
Louie and caithiseach: “You don’t know that for sure, and even if he does, singing that song doesn’t mean he’ll go to heaven for sure.”
Bob: “Oh, shit.”

Ah, 1970. The #1 hits while I was visiting Aunt Eileen (and Uncle Jim, and cousins Bob and Jim) were “The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5, “Mama Told Me (Not to Come) by Three Dog Night, and “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by that girl drummer and her brother. WLS played them a lot, but there was a bunch of other great stuff as well, including the Jeff Barry offerings I discussed in previous posts. So, how do I limit this final roundup? By isolating the songs I replayed in my mind most between 1970 and 1987, when I started buying CD reissues.

By doing that, I can get at a few singles I would have bought if I had been at home. There are some really spectacular songs that I probably would have left in the store, like “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & War and “War” by Edwin Starr. But there were two songs that would not leave my mind, didn’t show up on oldies radio, and actually enticed me to purchase them as 45s before I got them on CD.

One song was “Tighter, Tighter” by Alive and Kicking (Roulette 7078). Tommy James, whose songs I had always liked, co-wrote the song and involved himself in the production. I didn’t know that then, but I’ll allow myself to be impressed that I noticed something about the song that worked for me. He wrote the song with Robert King, who also co-wrote “Draggin’ the Line” and “Early in the Morning” with Tommy.

Pepe Cardona and Sandy Toder sang the leads on “Tighter, Tighter,” and the organ player, Bruce Sudano, joined Brooklyn Dreams and married Donna Summer. If I carried out these degrees of separation as far as possible, I would be here until January, and I don’t know if I’ll still be blogging then. (You get to decide.)

The other song was “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric (Columbia 45158). When Bob and I played our “Name That Tune” game at night, Bob came up with the idea of calling them PG&E so we could spit out the name faster. This was one rockin’ band, with an incredible guitar solo and amazing lead vocals by Charles Allen, who died in 1990. The gospel-sounding backing vocals came from the Blackberries. Allen wrote the song with John Hill; these two also have a writing credit for a version of the folk song “Stack-O-Lee.” Lloyd Price took it to #1 in 1959 as “Stagger Lee.” The PG&E version, slow and bluesy, was used in the 2007 Quentin Tarrantino film Death Proof.

Each act was a One-Hit Wonder in Top 40 terms, but Alive and Kicking reached #69 (as the more hip-soundin’ Alive ‘N Kickin’) with “Just Let It Come” later in 1970. (What an innuendo-laden sequence that was.) Allen’s bunch reached #93 with “Father Come on Home” (dang) in 1970, and #97 with “Thank God for You Baby” (as PG&E) in 1972.

“Tighter, Tighter” reached the Top 40 on July 4, 1970 and peaked at #7. “Are You Ready?” climbed aboard on June 20 and reached just #14. I heard both of them a lot, though the WLS charts show that “Tighter, Tighter” peaked higher and faster than it did nationally, despite its later start, and “Are You Ready?” fell a bit short of its national peak and dropped more quickly.

If you take “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me,” “The Love You Save,” “Close to You,” and these two songs, you have a lot of my nighttime rotation in July/August, 1970. Sure, there are better songs out there, but as one microcosm in the music universe, they hold up pretty well.

Shifting gears a bit, here’s something for the musicians and songwriters out there. I made a discovery one day that would never have happened if I didn’t own “Are You Ready?” on vinyl, or even if all vinyl played at the same speed.

I tossed the single on the turntable, which was set by accident to 33. I listened for a bit, and I decided that the slowed-down guitar of “Are You Ready?” made for a great slow bluesy underpinning. The part is not unique, but played at that tempo, it offers musical options you might not associate with it at full speed. So, apart from the two hits, I’ll post the slow groove for the heck of it.

I won’t be going back to the summer of 1970 this year, but next time, I’ll inspect a couple of other summer songs from later years at Good Fellow Camp. See you Wednesday!

Alive and Kicking, Tighter, Tighter

Pacific Gas & Electric, Are You Ready?

Are You Ready? guitar part

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