Transistor Heaven 2: February Made Me Shiver

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“A long long time ago, I can still remember how that music made me smile.” I know, right? What I have more trouble recalling is whether or not I had one of my several boyhood paper routes (as described in Part One) during that winter when Don McLean’s middlebrow magnum opus “American Pie” topped the charts. The pensive introduction to this 8-minte rock-history metaphor recalls his own days as a newspaper slinger, especially the heartbroken morning when the news told of the plane-crash deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. “The Day the Music Died” was February 3rd, 1959, a day after my first birthday. Exactly thirteen years later on Feb. 4th, it was me side-arming the papers into snowbanks (presumably, anyway) and digging the tunes on my beloved WMEX in Boston. Thing is, like paper routes, classic pop music for me seemed to largely exist in some vaguely-defined eternal summer, with only a minority of favorite songs associated with cold weather. Even songs released in October or March became mentally backdated or fast-tracked into a heat wave. Or that is how it seems as I look back down the “foggy ruins of time” with apologies to the so-called Jester. Despite this meteorological-based selective memory, here were the songs counting down on the great 1510 on the 13th anniversary of that terrible crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

“Without You” Harry Nilsson. This plainitive and despondent big ballad was catnip to those young ones carrying a classroom crush into 1972. Nilsson’s versatile vocal abilities were perfect for this Badfinger song featuring hushed verses and an anguished wail of a chorus. Unfortunately, the specter of untimely death looms over this as well. Badfinger co-writers Pete Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide over the next decade and the hard-living Nilsson died in 1994 at age 52.


Speaking of 1994, that was the year Pariah Carey tried to ruin this song for everyone.

“Let’s Stay Together” Al Green. Some sweet soul cajoling by the Reverend and another one destined for a long shelf live on classic-hits radio. “Hurting Each Other” the Carpenters. Another hit arriving right on schedule for the brother-sister team with the honeyed contralto of future pop martyr Karen sounding particularly sad. “Heart of Gold” Neil Young. The only national #1 hit for Neil but Top 40 success seemed an ill-fit for the Laurel Canyon maverick and he was soon releasing the astringent concert LP “Time Fades Away” and recording material that would later end up on the junkie polemic “Tonight’s the Night.” “My World” the Bee Gees. Not to worry, guys. Disco is only a few years up the road. “Precious and Few” Climax. I LOVE this song. There, I said it. Sure it’s sappy and sounds like it was made five years before but it did the trick for those of us who didn’t want to quite give up their association with the Association, whose sound this recalls. “Everything I Own” Bread. And I’m doubling down on this one. Bread had a hit song about every three months from the summer of 1970 to early 1973, tapping the market for us young teens with budding romantic longings, though the tone struck by David Gates and Co. was always more adult-seeming than that. “Drowning in a Sea of Love” Joe Simon. Right behind Bread at #8 was a smoldering chunk of primo early 70s R&B that no one will feel shy about admitting to liking.

“Softly Whispering I Love You” English Congregation. Every so often, Transistor Heaven takes a side trip to hell. “Sweet Seasons” Carole King. Her mega-successful “Tapestry” album practically defined 1971 and was just cooling off when this first single off the follow-up took hold. It was an appealing, mid-tempo number that nudged listeners’ expectations towards springtime, not a bad mission for a winter hit. “Mother and Child Reunion” Paul Simon. Jumping up ten spots this week, the first of many Top 40 hits for Simon sans Garfunkel and definitely a winter song since the first time I heard it was driving thru the snow with my old man. “Clean up Woman” Betty Wright. Another in this era’s long line of great hits by lesser known woman soul singers, a list that would also include Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”, Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”

“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” New Seekers. Come back, English Congregation, all is forgiven. This vacuous sub-kindergarten sing-along paved the way for corporate takeover of the peace-and-love ethos. At least the pie-in-the-sky lyrics were minutely tolerable in its original form, but when a diabetes-peddling company called Coca-Cola hired a gang of Stepford Youth to sing the revised words from an idyllic hilltop, you knew the Sixties were over for real. #13 in the charts and #666 in the boardroom. “Never Been to Spain” 3 Dog Night. The hits keep on coming for these Top 40 titans, with another quirky Hoyt Axton tune (“Joy to the World” was the first) and one notable for confusing Oklahoma with heaven. “The Witchqueen of New Orleans” Redbone. This danceable Cajun-influenced rocker from the Native American band was their first hit, followed two years later by the perennial “Come and Get Your Love” revived last year by its prominent place in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack. “Rock and Roll Lullaby” B.J. Thomas. Some would think that the terms “rock and roll” and “lullaby” are a bit on the mutually exclusive side, but it seems on YouTube many boomers love this now as parents. Who am I to hate on it?

“Lonesome Mary” Chiliwack. I remember a WMEX DJ quipping that this trio came from so far up in Canada that their drummer was a grizzly bear. Ba-boom. Actually this band was from relatively civilized Vancouver (hello there, Canuck fans!) and singer-guitarist Bill Henderson is still going strong. Chiliwack wouldn’t hit the U.S. Top 40 until their more New Wavey incarnation in the early 80s but I absolutely loved this early power-trio outing that hit at least as high as #10 in Boston.

“Changes” David Bowie. My radio introduction to the wonderful world of rock’s great chameleon as the earlier “Space Oddity” only became a hit with its 1973 re-release. An awakening to adult concerns was no doubt part of this single’s appeal, reminding us that “pretty soon now you’re going to get older.” But what a trip it would be tracing time with Bowie thru the years starting now. “Bang a Gong” T. Rex. Marc Bolan’s group seemed to be coming up thru the ranks right along with his friend David Bowie, though this radio staple would be their only big stateside hit before Bolan’s tragic death in a 1977 car crash. “Down By the Lazy River” the Osmonds. Pass.

“Handbags and Gladrags” Rod Stewart. This bittersweet ballad written by Mike d’Abo was first heard on Rod’s first solo album, released exactly two years previous, but it seems it was pressed into service as a single in the lull between his monster LP “Every Picture Tells a Story” and the follow-up to hit the stores in the upcoming summer. A definite winter song this one, as an old man casts a cold eye on the trendy ways of his school-skipping granddaughter.

“American Pie” Don McLean. After three months on the local survey, Donnie’s anthem slipped thirteen places, out of the Top Ten to #22. Its impact was still pervasive. (8th grade English teacher: “That part ’I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news,’ that’s about Janis Joplin.” Class: “We know that!!”) “Stay With Me” the Faces. Here’s Rod again, with his old mates and a raucous stomp about a lady of easy virtue, well loved by us boys in that 8th grade class. “Ring the Living Bell” Melanie. I had completely forgotten this one from the Woodstock poster girl and when I looked it up all I could find was 5-minute LP version, which was about three minutes too long for me. “We’ve Got to Get It on Again” Adrisi Brothers. The pride of Winthrop, Mass. (the flyover town next to Boston’s Logan Airport) and another Association association, as these guys wrote “Never My Love” once cited by BMI as the second most played songs ever, with over 7 million airings, just ahead of “Yesterday.” “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” Bobby Womack. The classic slow-burner by the recently passed-on R&B legend. I loved when it was slow dance time on Soul Train.

“Two by Two” Steve Martin. A great but nearly forgotten single by the former Left Banke lead singer. “A Horse with No Name” America. According to Randy Newman, a song “about a kid who thinks he’s taken LSD”. More on the greatest of all folk-rock army brat trios in the third and final Transistor Heaven installment this summer. “Glory Bound” the Grassroots. The second-to-last national Top 40 hit for these guys, who were still mining their classic sound amid a sea change that was less favorable to pure pop bands and more so to singer-songwriters or heavier groups. “Vahevella” Loggins and Messina. At first you would think this is more a summer song, but a sailing tour of the Caribbean had just the right touch of February escapism.

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The pick of the litter for the hitbounds this week has to be “Caroline Goodbye” by former (and future) Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone. As in Part One, the Top 15 albums show a pretty good smattering of classics. Interestingly, at #4 (and hot on the heels of the “American Pie” LP) was “Jamming With Edwards” (sic), the ramshackle jam album featuring Mick, Charlie and Bill from the Stones as well as Ry Cooder and Nicky Hopkins. Jagger has admitted the record was cobbled together one morning while waiting for Keith Richards to get out of bed. Elsewhere, there seems to be a Christmas season hangover, with double-album best-of offerings from both the Stones and Bob Dylan and the 3-LP “Bangla Desh” box set from George Harrison and friends. Not to be out done, Chicago upped the ante with a four-disc live set. Ah, but those were bigger times.

Now if you’ll excuse, I have another new snowfall to shovel, “bad news on the doorstep” of another kind.

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