Listen to this track by post-Beatles Paul McCartney songwriting vehicle and bona fide top forty behemoth Wings. It’s “Silly Love Songs” a smash single that appeared on the band’s 1976 LP Wings At The Speed of Sound. The song proved its own thesis by spending five non-consecutive weeks on the number one spot of the Billboard 100. It would be McCartney’s twenty-seventh number one song, helping to place him in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s most successful songwriter by 1979.
By this time, McCartney and Wings were on an upswing with a number of hits behind them and with many in front as well before the band ended in 1981. However even during this peak period where chart action was concerned, the songwriter was not without his critics. Even his former songwriting partner John Lennon had levelled an opinion that McCartney had gone soft, writing lightweight, crowd-pleasing love songs rather than turning his talents to more substantial subjects. This song was a self-aware reaction to that. Crowd-pleasing? What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Having said that, there’s something else going on in this song that I think a lot of rock fans had complained about where McCartney was concerned by 1976; that it just doesn’t rock in the way that, say, “Helter Skelter” or Back In The USSR” does. I think there’s plenty to unpack there that reveals something about McCartney the writer, and maybe something about his audience, too. Read more
Listen to this track by self-professed old-school singer-songwriter and AM radio fan from way back Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Radio”, the first single off of his 2017 record The Last Rider.
The album was the first record cut with his long-time touring band playing all the parts in an expectedly musically simpatico manner. This includes drummer and singer Don Kerr, with whom Sexsmith also produced the record on the shores of Lake Ontario at The Bathhouse in Kingston, Ontario. This is a bona-fide homegrown album in many respects, then.
Maybe that’s why the album sounds so warm and contented with Bill Withers meets Gordon Lightfoot meets The Kinks textures a-plenty. Sexsmith is known for those kinds of textures and moods through out his incredibly consistent discography. Yet on many of his releases this decade, some of his disdain for recent industry trends and his frustrations with the increasingly complicated game of putting out music in the way he wants to has definitely seeped into his optimism-under-pressure songwriting worldview.
Representing some of that soft-spoken ire is this song, “Radio”. On the surface, this song really does seem of the “things just ain’t what they used to be” variety that finds the narrator scratching his head as the clowns take over the circus and as the show becomes run of the mill. Yet here beneath what seems to be a complaint about the state of the world, there’s greater dimension to be found. Read more
Listen to this track by rock n’ roll and pop powerhouse Pat Benatar. It’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, a gargantuan hit single as taken from her breakthrough 1980 record Crimes Of Passion, her second and biggest selling album to date.
The song was a top ten hit in on the US charts, and scored similar success around the world, being a hard rock song with a pop aftertaste while never sounding corporatized or manufactured a la the profusion of corporate rock at the time. The album was huge, scoring a number two placement on the charts, only bettered chartwise by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. She even got a Grammy for best female rock vocal performance of the year in 1981 .
One thing that stands out to me past the lyrical surface of the song, and past the mainstream success the song had, there is an important subtext to be found here that goes well beyond the material as it was written. Read more
Listen to this track by soulful R&B crossover hitmakers The Spinners, sometimes known as The Detroit Spinners. It’s “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”, a hit single from their 1975 album Pick Of The Litter. The song was a hit on the pop and the R&B charts that year, with lots of AM radio play during the short time between the end of the classic soul era and the dawn of disco.
The Spinners came out of Detroit in the days before Motown was founded, and just before rock ‘n’ roll had united a common audience all over the country and the world. They had formed on the cusp of a new musical era, when all manner of gospel-based singing groups began to explore the idea of creating a secular version of church vocal music, later to be known as soul.
But, it would be the seventies in which they would make their biggest mark as a group by delivering the coveted crossover hit, and by exemplifying a new style of soul music altogether.
Listen to this track by Irish new wave chart-botherers The Boomtown Rats. It’s the 1979 smash-hit song “I Don’t Like Mondays” as taken from the album The Fine Art of Surfacing. After a series of singles that made an impact on the UK and Irish charts, this is the song that gave them international attention.
The inspiration for this song was international as well. The news story arrived by way of a Telex machine (that machine making an appearance in this song, of course) while head writer Bob Geldof sat in the offices of an Atlanta college radio station waiting to be interviewed. This was basically the source for news before text messages, smart phones, and the Internet, for you young’uns! The story concerned a sixteen year old girl who shot up a school ground in a middle-class neighbourhood, killing two people, wounding eight children, and one police officer. Her excuse upon her capture? “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The song was written in short order, and was on the set list within a month of the incident. But, I think this song covers thematic ground that certainly goes past what originally inspired it. Read more
Here’s a clip of 60s and 70s go-to keyboard dude Billy Preston with his 1973 smash single “Will It Go Around in Circles”, the studio version of which as taken from his 1972 Music is My Life album. You can find this more easily on the recent compilation Ultimate Collection.
This is a song from my childhood, all over the radio just as my memories were beginning to form in earnest. My family had taken a trip somewhere, and I remember reading a Tom & Jerry annual (kind of like a hardcover graphic novel, but for kiddies), sitting by an enclosed pool and hearing this tune coming out of an AM radio. I’ve always loved it; a super funky groove, piles of bluesy keyboards, and an exuberant vocal from Preston. Who knew the guy could be that talented an organist/pianist, and be able to sing too?
Preston started playing in public from the age of ten in church, often for visiting gospel acts. He recorded on Veejay records by the 1960s as a sessioner, was a regular on the TV showShindig, and of course was a touring musician with a number of notable R&B, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll figures of the time.
His role as a sideman brought him to Britain on package tours, which is where he met with the British rock musicians, some with whom he would continue a career as a highly sought-after sideman by the next decade. Billy Preston’s contributions to the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions alone made the guy a legend, effortlessly incorporating his keyboard lines into songs like “Get Back”, which is arguably the defining element to that song.
Besides his contributions to the work of others, his solo career in the early 70s promoted his talents to an even further degree. With hits like “Outa-Space”, “Nothing From Nothing”, and his songwriting efforts in penning “You Are So Beautiful” with Bruce Fisher (made famous by Joe Cocker’s version) Preston’s name is now firmly established on the rock and R&B landscape for good. He was the first musical guest on the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, his solo artist chops beginning to make waves and set him apart from other prominent session players.
In 1980, he had another hit with the song “With You I’m Born Again”, which showed his talents as a smooth soul singer, dueting with Syreeta Wright – it’s kind of a guilty pleasure of mine. It was his last big hit, even though he continued to perform and record into the 80s, 90s, and more recently in 2006 with producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette) onI Believe to My Soul, which also featured Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, and Irma Thomas. It would be his last project. Billy Preston died that same year, age 59.
It’s hard not to name drop when writing about Billy Preston, as I’ve showed pretty well here. But, one of Preston’s traits, and his legacy, is that he managed to touch the careers of so many musicians from so many corners of the pop music universe.
Here’s a clip of 60s and 70s supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash with a live rendition of the Graham Nash-penned “Just a Song Before I Go” as taken from the group’s 1977 album CSN. It was an AM radio hit for them, scoring #7 on the Billboard charts that year.
This song is about having to leave for the road, a pretty big rock sub genre. Yet this one is less self-pitying than most, and focuses not so much on the rock star who leaves, but rather on the loved ones who are left to wait for them. As such, there’s a boatload of pathos to be found here. This is the expression of someone who is driven to hit the road, yet is tied to home too, with the opposing forces of both stretching his relationships and his sense of identity too to the breaking point. Travelling twice the speed of sound, it’s easy to get burned. Nash wasn’t talking about the Concorde here.
By 1977, these guys had been touring for over ten years with this band, and in many others too. Nash was an original member of the Hollies. Crosby had been a member of the Byrds. And Stills, most busily of all had been a founding member of Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, a solo artists, and a member of the short lived band Manassas.
CSN (and sometimes Y) was only one stop on their busy schedules, with this record following up 1970’s Deja Vu, arguably their biggest record. Yet, they were active in between those years too, with solo albums, tours, duos, and other side projects. You could say that their careers had made them something of itinerant troubadours, rootless, and by the time the decade had passed, perhaps wondering what it all meant. It is of no surprise to me at all that this song was a top ten hit for them. They lived every word by the time CSN came out.
Yet, 1977 was late in the day for these guys who were so much a part of the cultural framework of the 60s. This would be a bold move to release a record in this transitional period of popular music history, with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors vying for the attention of the mainstream pop-rock fan, and with disco, new wave, and punk making inroads as well. Yet this was the last wholly successful record these guys would put out that didn’t mine the retro vein. It would be their last gasp as a mainstream commercial band.
Their follow-up in 1982 in Daylight Again would make up the numbers, but it didn’t rely strictly on the principle three members. It was a record which relied on session players and guests to bolster it. In this sense, the title of “Just a Song Before I Go” on the album which preceded it has a number of levels of meaning to recommend it. In some ways, much like the Band’s The Last Waltz, this song was a poignant goodbye to 60s idealism with which each member is forever associated.
Listen to this track of jazz-rock pseuds Steely Dan their 1975 song “Black Friday” from the album Katy Lied. The song was a single from that record (along with another, “Bad Sneakers”) that was a part of a new approach to making music after the group as it stood had disbanded. The “band” was replaced in favour of singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen’s and bassist-guitarist Walter Becker’s preference to become a studio-bound unit, employing crack west coast session musicians to play a good chunk of the parts.
I’m being a bit cheeky here of course with the whole “Black Friday” thing. In addition to this song, Black Friday as a popular term of course refers to one of the busiest shopping days on the American calendar, with a single day’s sales putting sellers ‘into the black’. Well, that’s the theory. Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving, and a sort of kick off to the Christmas shopping season too. Our Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, in line with the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada, so we tend to space out the chaos a little more.
Anyway, I’m not sure there’s ever been a song in rock history about a chaotic shopping day. But this one by the ‘Dan is also refers to economics and greed, documenting another Black Friday – this one in 1869, when the private investors manipulated the price of gold was manipulated in a bid to corner the market by buying it up in large quantities. The US government found out and flooded the market with supply, driving down the costs and curbing the return. Of course, this being Steely Dan, we can also infer that the song isn’t so much about the events of that particular day, so much is it is about human greed in any era, and the tenuous illusion of a free market too.
The song is one of the group’s best known hits, although only reaching #37 on the Billboard 100 at the time. During this aforementioned phase in the timeline of the band, Steely Dan had become two bands in the minds of fans. The first was the dual-guitar touring jazz rock combo. The other being Becker & Fagen as musical directors using sessioners to create a sound solely meant for studio albums.
Nineteen Seventy-Five’s Katy Lied and 1976’s the Royal Scam were in-between albums, when Becker & Fagen began to strip away the “band-ness” of Steely Dan. The emphasis of gritty and dominant rock guitars on these albums would soon be replaced in favour of more pristine, jazzy textures that brought the horns and keyboards more to the forefront to supplement the still-sterling guitar-work for which the band is known. This approach would pay off nicely with a record which many would consider to be their masterpiece – 1977’s Aja.
By the early 1990s and after a very long hiatus as a live act and recording entity, the Steely Dan name was again a going concern. That’s when they resumed as a touring unit. And luckily, they’d begun to marry their love of horn-and-keyboard smooth jazz with the edgy guitar rock of their pre-1976 incarnation. It gained them a Grammy with their then-new record Two Against Nature in 2000.
[Update: Some new written material was added to this post replacing the old on September 7, 2017. This had mostly to do with the original clip on YouTube which The Man removed, making the opening of the post kind of pointless. You understand. Also, on September 3, 2017, Walter Becker passed away. RIP, Walter. Thanks for your sardonic grooves.]
Listen to this track by Rockford Illinois power pop gurus Cheap Trick with one of their singular achievements: the live and definitive version of “I Want You To Want Me”, which appeared on the 1979 release Cheap Trick At Budokan, actually recorded in the spring of ’78. Maybe this is an obvious one for me to talk about. But, it’s obvious for a reason – it is sonic perfection. The real question is why it took me this long!
Listen: this is the greatest live rock track ever recorded by anyone.
You’ve got vocalist/rhythm guitarist Robin Zander’s teen idol croon, gonzo lead guitarist Rick Nielson’s short-and-perfect fills and kick ass get-in-get-on-with-it-get-out eight bar guitar solos, and rhythm section Bun E. Carlos’ drumming and bassist Tom Petersson’s meat and potatoes rock stomp. If you don’t like this, you must hate rock ‘n’ roll.
By the mid-1970s, and after touring relentlessly as an opening act for the biggest acts of the day, Cheap Trick had made a big mark in Japan where the band came to be beloved on a Beatlemania scale before recording this live record.
Everything about this track, this performance, is great including the sound of the audience, mostly made of up gaggles of crazed Japanese girls, who virtually become a part of the band on this song with their “yeah! yeah! yeah!” call-and-response participation. There isn’t enough of that in today’s pop music, kids. Or maybe there is and I haven’t heard it. But, you can feel the enthusiasm coming from this track, recorded as it was thirty years ago!
The show and the live album was something of a tribute to the ‘Trick’s Japanese fan base. And with its release, they shot into the North American market with a platinum album and a hit record in this song too. Their cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” would follow on its heels, and their next album Dream Police pushed their momentum along as well.
Although they would never gain the heights of Aerosmith or U2 in the rock world, they certainly kept a dedicated fanbase, and had enormous influence on the grunge scene by the late 80s and early 90s. The chunky power chords, economic riffs, and inventive melodies that the ‘Trick employed were highly valued by writers like Kurt Cobain. Of Nirvana, Cobain told the press: “We sound just like Cheap Trick, only the guitars are louder…”.
Here’s a clip of former Spencer Davis-Traffic-Blind Faith über-muso Steve (formerly Stevie) Winwood with his 1980 solo hit, “While You See A Chance” from his equally high-profile Arc of a Diver album. This record, his second, was breakthrough for him as a solo artist, and the catalyst to a very successful run of singles and albums during the rest of the 80s.
The song peaked at #7 on the hot 100 Billboard charts that year while the album hit #3 on the top 200 This was a true solo record, with Winwood playing all of the instruments as well as producing engineering, and mixing. What a show off, huh? Still, this was the guy who fronted the Spencer Davis group when he was too young to get into some of the clubs they played. Styles may change, but the drive remains.
The 1980s were not kind to many of the artists of the 60s and 70s. It seems that many of them caught a dose of artistic mid-life crisis, trying to be relevant rather than trying to make great records. It was a common problem all around for that decade, but it was magnified by ten when it came to Bowie, the Stones, Neil Young, Dylan, and many others. Where he doesn’t win the crown from Paul Simon, who certainly is the boldest exception to the rule when it comes to a 60s artist putting out a career-defining record in the 1980s, Winwood managed to write a great album that stands as an equal to his previous body of work.
It’s arguable whether or not he was able to sustain that level of quality through the decade (although not arguable that he did well in shifting units), but I think despite appearances in beer commercials and a general softening around the edges by the end of the 80s, ‘While You See a Chance” and Arc of a Diver are great examples of a 60s and 70s artist who made the transition to the world of 80s radio without sounding like he was trying too hard.
Some of the other artists I mentioned earlier would also get back their respective mojos by the end of the 80s. The Stones’ would put out a respectable showing with the Steel Wheels album. Bob Dylan would work with Daniel Lanois on his lush and poignant Oh Mercy album. But, Winwood was on it out of the box.
Winwood continues to write and to perform, with his latest recordNine Lives harkening back more than ever to his Traffic days rather than his late 80s and 90s adult contemporary style.