Saturday, May 21, 2016

Superhits 1979, Part 1

Okay, I’m just going to look at 1979 now rather than waiting for the 40th anniversary.  This was one of my favorite years in music, so I might actually finish this one.

The Bee Gees, “Too Much Heaven,” #1, 1/6/1979
Complain all you want about disco, but these guys were primarily balladeers – they had notched 13 top 40 hits in the United States before their first dance tune, “Jive Talkin’,” hit the charts in 1975.  This marked the seventh #1 for the group in the States, the third ballad, and the first ballad that wasn’t a rhetorical question (“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “How Deep Is Your Love”).  Plenty of overdubs (nine layers of three-part harmony, although Barry has his voice on the track more than Maurice or Robin), and Chicago’s horn section (Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walter Parazadier) buried in the mix.  (The Bee Gees tended to bring in a lot of big-name help – the only #1 single Stephen Stills ever played on in all his years in the music business was “You Should Be Dancin’.”)  This would be the first #1 hit of the year, although Chic’s “Le Freak,” which had already alternated at #1 twice with “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” would knock it off after that.  The Gibbs would continue to perform the song in later years in concert, but losing the falsetto in the process.

Billy Joel, “My Life,” #3, 1/6/1979
First and biggest hit off Joel’s 52nd Street, this tied “Just the Way You Are” for the highest-charting single of Joel’s career to that point (although both would be topped in subsequent years).  A cheerful, don’t –fuck-with-me song (Joel would have several of these in his career) that served as the theme for the 1980-1982 sitcom Bosom Buddies.  Two more notes:  like “Too Much Heaven,” this also has members of Chicago participating (Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus contributed backing vocals; both 52nd Street and Chicago’s concurrent Hot Streets were produced by Phil Ramone), and the guy who “closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the West Coast” is apparently standup comic Richard Lewis. Weird video, though – it starts with another 52nd Street song, “Stiletto.”  Stay with it.

Dr. Hook, “Sharing the Night Together,” #6, 1/6/1979
Somehow, Dr. Hook managed to chalk up eight top 15 pop hits between  1972 and 1980 without ever managing to push an album beyond #41.  This may have been part of the downside of the group:  they weren’t songwriters (humorist Shel Silverstein wrote most of their early songs when they were known as Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show; a variety of songwriters handled the later songs – this one was penned by  Ava Aldridge and Eddie Struzick), so they were pretty much at the mercy of their producers.  In any case, at this point they’d found a niche as a soft-rock alternative to disco by this point.  One of three chart hits from the 1978 LP Pleasure and Pain.

Dan Hartman, “Instant Replay,” #29, 1/6/1979
A classic of the disco years and hugely catchy, this would be the first chart hit (making #1 on the disco charts) for Hartman, who previously had played bass and sang for the Edgar Winter Group (that’s him singing on “Free Ride”), but could play several instruments, and wrote and produced much of his work.  Hartman started out with his own Pennsylvania-based band in the 1960s and also played with Edgar Winter’s brother, Johnny, before striking out on his own.  The video is notable for featuring future Kiss guitarist Vinnie Vincent on guitar, future Hall & Oates/Saturday Night Live guitarist G.E. Smith on bass, and Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels - talk about a bunch of hams.

Livingston Taylor, “I Will Be in Love With You,” #30, 1/6/1979
I have a soft spot for Livingston Taylor.  In 1992, my wife and I saw him at the Festival of the Eno, a long-running annual event in Durham, NC.  Taylor was performing when a very small little girl wandered by the stage alone, obviously separated from her parents.  He brought her up on stage and sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her (with the audience chiming in) until her parents got her.  Cool guy.  Anyway, this was his biggest solo hit, from his first album on Epic Records, Three-Way Mirror.  It’s now out of print and unavailable for download (I’d love to hear Sony’s explanation as to why that is), although it is available on disc as part of a Razor & Tie anthology, Carolina Day: The Livingston Taylor Collection.  Oddly, I can’t find the original on video anywhere, so this duet will have to suffce.

Rick James, “Mary Jane,” #41, 1/6/1979
Here’s the flip side of the Livingston Taylor coin, I suppose.  James’ song, the second chart single from his double platinum album Come Get It! celebrates two of what apparently were his primary interests:  women and drugs (don’t tell me the name Mary Jane is a coincidence).  James’ Motown career took a long time; he originally signed with the label as part of a multiracial band called The Mynah Byrds, which featured Neil Young (yes, that Neil Young) on guitar.  It turned out that James was AWOL from the Navy (it also turned out he was underage when he signed up for the Navy), so he spent a year in prison, and the Motown contract dried up after one single.  After knocking around as a singer-songwriter and band leader for over a decade, he got a second chance and took full advantage – Come Get It! was his first of nine albums with the label.

Eddie Money, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” #72, 1/6/1979
Lackadaisical but passable version of the Miracles 1962 hit, which was later recorded by The Beatles for their first album (albeit without the “’ve” in the first word of the title).  Kind of a strange choice for a single – Money had already generated two top 20 singles with his eponymous album, which had been out for nearly a year, and had a second album, Life for the Taking, already just about in the can (it would be released in February), but I’m sure Columbia Records knew what they were doing.  Anyway, this one’s kind of hard to find other than on the original album – Money has lots of hits sets, but the only one this appears on is the two-disk The Essential Eddie Money (as opposed to the one-disk The Essential Eddie Money, where it didn’t make the grade).

John Davis, “Ain’t That Enough for You,” #89, 1/6/1979
It will be if you listen to the nine-minute version of this song like I’ve got.  John Davis was a member of the studio band MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) that provided backup on a bunch of Philadelphia International hits in the 1970s, including their own hit “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).”  Striking off on his own, John Davis & His Monster Band released three albums on SAM/Columbia between 1978 and 1981, but this was their one chart hit, both in the States and the United Kingdom.  A recent interview indicated Davis lives in Ohio with his family.

Toto, “Hold the Line,” #5, 1/13/1979
Toto kind of gets a bum rap – many people knock their music because, well, they’re studio musicians.  So what?  They were good studio musicians (well, they still are; they’re touring later this year).  Okay, they probably could have used a little better songcraft (David Paich wrote two classics with Boz Scaggs, “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” but none of the songs on their first album quite hit those highs).  Nevertheless, this is a catchy singalong tune, which is probably what they were going for.  First hit off their debut album, and their biggest until “Rosanna” came along.

Bob Seger, “We’ve Got Tonite,” #13, 1/13/1979
Bob Seger’s one of my favorite artists – and this may be the one song of his I can’t stand.  It’s almost as if he was trying to write a female-friendly version of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” – with the intention of hitting every demographic for his album Stranger in Town (this was the third single from that album).  Drenched with strings, it just goes against what Seger had spent years trying to accomplish.  It pains me to think this song was played at proms all over the country.  (Additional negative points for misspelling “Tonight” – is the male protagonist so horny he can’t be bothered to use all seven characters? – and for the Kenny Rogers/Sheena Easton remake, which is equally lousy.) If you’re going for a great Seger love ballad, try “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” instead.

Queen, “Bicycle Race/Fat Bottomed Girls,” #24, 1/13/1979
Queen tried the double-A side thing again after the success of “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” and it didn’t quite work so well – possibly because playing “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a stadium full of sports fans probably wouldn’t work quite as well.  Still, “Bicycle Race” is a fun listen today, full of pop culture references from the second half of the 1970s.  And, yes, there was a charming poster available for those who purchased the album Jazz containing the themes from both of these songs.  Don’t Google it at work.

Boston, “A Man I’ll Never Be,” #31, 1/13/1979
Second single from their 1978 album Don’t Look Back, and although Tom Scholz doesn’t love this album (he and Epic Records were in litigation over it for years; his claim was the label released it before it was complete), this song had been part of their set list for awhile before its release.  This was their first hit ballad, and although it’s been surpassed by their 1986 hit “Amanda,” it’s a pretty good song – and doesn’t get a whole lot of airplay today.

Gene Simmons, “Radioactive,” #47, 1/13/1979
Kiss famously released solo albums by each of the individual members in October 1978, and while they all shipped platinum (e.g. over 1,000,000 copies of each album were manufactured and released), they didn’t sell particularly well at the time (they are available for download today).  Simmons’ one solo hit features Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on guitar, and among the backing singers on the song are Bob Seger (can’t recognize him) and “Kate” Sagal – who would be much better known in subsequent years as actress Katey Sagal (Married… With Children, Sons of Anarchy).

Kenny Loggins, “Easy Driver,” #60, 1/13/1979
Second and final chart hit from Loggins’ 1978 solo album Nightwatch, and something of a an indicator of where his solo hits would head – this sounds more like “I’m Alright” than anything he’d released up to this point.  I guess it’s supposed to be about a car – or is it about a woman?  In any case, not many people care anymore – the only time this song was included in a Loggins hits compilation was the now-out-of-print The Essential Kenny Loggins 3.0 (it didn’t rate the regular version, which is still around today).

Player, “Silver Lining,” #62, 1/13/1979
This is what happens when bands pigeonholed as middle of the road release a rocker.  This was the second single from their album Danger Zone on RCA.  The band apparently was having issues with direction by this point – lead singer and guitarist Peter Beckett would leave following the tour supporting the album – and the following few years saw a label change from RSO Records to Casablanca, and no more top 40 hits.  The good news for fans is Beckett and bass player Ron Moss – who spent 25 years on the CBS soap The Bold and The Beautiful – are back  together as Player, and will be touring this summer.

Stephen Bishop, “Animal House,” #73, 1/13/1979
Unfortunately for Bishop, he was on ABC Records in 1978, whose decision-making skills weren’t the best at this point.  The label was on the verge of being sold to MCA Records, and would go out of business in March (although there were still releases under the ABC logo until June).  Anyway, even though ABC had just released the album Bish in the fall of 1978 (which yielded a top 40 hit in “Everybody Needs Love”), the label decided to release this soundtrack song instead of a second song from his album.  While there was a certain amount of logic there – Animal House was a gigantic hit in theaters (and Bishop had a minor role in the movie) – the film was released in late July of 1978, and was probably mostly out of theaters by the end of that year.  Plus the song itself doesn’t sound like typical Bishop (it’s a ‘50s-style rocker, and Bishop sings completely in falsetto).  Anyway, the song didn’t score big, and the subsequent Bish single “Looking for the Right One” (which was most similar to Bishop’s biggest hit to that point, 1977’s “On and On”) didn’t chart at all – bringing his career momentum to a halt.  I’m sure some record executive has an explanation for this somewhere.

Ted Nugent, “Need You Bad,” #84, 1/13/1979
Since I don’t have anything good to say about Ted Nugent, you’ll get nothing but the facts here.  Lead single from Nugent’s 1978 album Weekend Warriors on Epic Records, which made #24 and hit platinum.  Next.

Linda Ronstadt, “Ooh Baby Baby,” #7, 1/20/1979
For reasons unknown, Ronstadt’s “Back in the U.S.A.” was her lowest-charting lead single from an album in five years, but this remake of the old Smokey Robinson & The Miracles hit did considerably better.  It’s from a different perspective than most of Ronstadt’s songs – “I did you wrong” are the first words she sings – and the song certainly sounded different than most of what was around at that point, although it wasn’t the only Motown remake (see the Eddie Money entry above).  For fun, let’s have a look at Smokey and Linda duetting on the song from the Motown 25 special.

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