Monday, November 19, 2018

Superhits 1978, Part 4

More songs from 1978.

Foreigner, “Long, Long Way From Home,” #20, 2/19/78
I didn’t realize for years this had been a single; I thought it was a popular album cut. (WNBC must not have played it much.) Third single from their eponymous debut album, with autobiographical lyrics courtesy of Lou Gramm (who had moved to New York City from his home town of Rochester, NY, when Foreigner formed). Gramm had joined the band after his first group, Black Sheep, folded following a car accident (the band’s equipment was destroyed in the accident, which led to a domino effect of Capitol Records not advancing them money for new instruments, Kiss dropping them from the tour because they had nothing to play, and Capitol dropping them from the label because they couldn’t tour – but they owed the label another album first). Anyway, it obviously got better for Gramm from there.

Odyssey, “Native New Yorker,” #21, 2/19/78
Not truly a disco thumper although it’s lumped in with the era, this frothy song was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell (who wrote “Working My Way Back to You” and “Let’s Hang On!” for The Four Seasons in the 1960s). Appropriately, the song was recorded by Frankie Valli for his 1977 album Lady Put the Light Out, but it wasn’t released as a single. Odyssey – which began as The Lopez Sisters a few years before – picked up the song, tightened and brightened the arrangement, brought in some great players – Richard Tee (who played with Paul Simon for years and led the band Stuff) on keyboards, Michael Brecker of The Brecker Brothers on sax, while Jim Bonneford (later Kool & The Gang’s producer) was one of the engineers. Recorded at House of Music, not in New York City, but on Pleasant Valley Way (the street immortalized in “Pleasant Valley Sunday”) in West Orange, NJ. This is one I would happily put on a best-of from 1978.

Con Funk Shun, “Ffun,” #23, 2/19/78
This, not so much, although it’s not bad (a funk number lumped into the disco pile by most record stores). This would be both their biggest pop and R&B hit (going to #1 on the latter chart), but they’re no one-hit wonder – eight of their songs made top 10 R&B up through 1986. They’re still touring (one show next month in Memphis and two in Japan), so if you’re in the area, check them out (and I’m sure you’ll have ffun at the show).

Meco, “Theme From Close Encounters,” #25, 2/19/78
Lightning did not strike twice. Meco’s followup to “Star Wars/Cantina Band,” which had hit #1 the previous year, had a similar disco backbeat, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind did not permeate all sections of the pop culture zeitgeist the way the George Lucas movie did. Still, it’s fun to hear that creepy “Goodbye… goodbye” at the record’s end.

Wet Willie, “Street Corner Serenade,” #30, 2/19/78
First single for the band with Epic Records after five studio albums and two live albums with Capricorn (the Allman Brothers’ label), and… well, the single charted higher than anything they’d done since their only top 10 hit, “Keep On Smilin’.” Unfortunately for the band, this song about the creation of a four-part harmony group never really caught on with AOR stations, so it’s almost unheard today. Epic Records probably had a hand in this, as both this song’s parent album Manorisms and their final album, 1979’s Which One’s Willie?, are hard to come by and are totally unavailable for download – by contrast, all of their Capricorn records are pretty easy to find. (Of course, I still have my copy of Dixie Rock, which I got for 50 cents back in 1981 – too bad I got rid of The Wetter The Better somewhere along the line.)

War, “Galaxy,” #39, 2/19/78
Sometimes record label switches aren’t helpful. War had been very successful after their breakup with Eric Burdon, knocking out ten pop top 40 hits between 1971 and 1976, including five top 10s. During that time the band was on United Artists Records (their releases with Burdon had been on MGM, which dropped the act anyway in a fit of anti-drug paranoia – long story). But either radio and record stores got sick of War or MCA dropped the ball – this would be their only top 40 hit the rest of the way (and it barely made top 40). Constant membership changes probably didn’t help (there’s now only one original member of the band War, whereas four of the originals are now with The Lowrider Band).

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, “Breakdown,” #40, 2/19/78
It’s always interesting to see how songs develop with the public after they drop off the charts – “Breakdown” probably gets more radio play today than the previous four songs combined. Give Shelter Records, Petty’s label at the time (ABC distributed their records, with both labels being bought out by MCA in 1979) – the song was released on his first album, which was issued in December of 1976 (“Breakdown” was released previously as a single but went nowhere). For live performances in the band’s later years, Petty would stay quiet during the first chorus, letting the audience carry the vocals.

Stillwater, “Mind Bender,” #46, 2/19/78
Gimmicky song that made use of the talk box, an attachment that allowed electric instruments (primarily guitars) to sound more like electronic vocals. Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh made extensive use of the gizmo in the mid-1970s (check Frampton Comes Alive or some of Walsh’s solo work of the era to see what I mean), and this band built a whole song around it – “Mind Bender” is the singer’s electric guitar that can talk. As use of the talk box faded away, so did this song. Stillwater released two albums in the late 1970s, and was briefly in the headlines in 2000 when the film Almost Famous reused the name Stillwater for its own fictitious band (the original Stillwater granted permission for this).

The Andrea True Connection, “What’s Your Name, What’s Your Number,” #56, 2/19/78
Give credit to Andrea True – “More, More, More” wasn’t her only hit. Unfortunately, this final chart hit for True and her band (which at that point included future Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick) wasn’t nearly as catchy as “More, More, More,” and didn’t show off True’s limited vocal range to best effect. It did make the top 10 on the disco chart, as well as #34 in the United Kingdom. True would release a rock album, War Machine, in 1980, but that would (along with vocal cord problems) finish her music career. True later worked as a psychic reader and drug counselor before her death from heart failure in 2008.

Ted Nugent, “Home Bound,” #70, 2/19/78
It’s another Ted Nugent song. Next.

Pockets, “Come Go With Me,” #84, 2/19/78
It’s a shame this one missed – it’s a pretty good R&B/dance tune. Pockets was a nine-man band out of Baltimore, that was fortunate enough to meet up with ex-Baltimore Colt John Mackey – who lived next door to Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White. White wound up coproducing their first album, Come Go With Us, as well as cowriting this single. Three album releases on Columbia yielded diminishing returns, however, and that was that. A reformed version of the band with three of the original members would tour the United Kingdom in 2016 and 2017.

Pablo Cruise, “Never Had a Love,” #87, 2/19/78
Usually A&M Records was smarter than this. “Never Had a Love” is a pretty, albeit meandering, midtempo tune that didn’t really sound like a single – but the band had already released the two most radio-ready songs from their A Place in the Sun album – “Whatcha Gonna Do?” (which became a top ten hit in the summer of 1977) and the title track (which narrowly missed the top 40 in the fall). So releasing this, off an album that had already been around for a full year, while the band was already in the studio to make the followup album Worlds Away, didn’t seem to make much sense. (For what it’s worth, Pablo Cruise always seemed like a summertime band to me, which the chart placements of “Whatcha Gonna Do?” and “Love Will Find a Way” bore out.)

Eloise Laws, “1,000 Laughs,” #91, 2/19/78
Laws’ two pop chart hits, both minor, came in 1978. She had released a few singles and an album, Ain’t It Good Feeling Good, on the Holland-Dozier-Holland label Invictus the previous year, but the famed Motown writers’ label folded shortly thereafter, and Laws signed with ABC Records (which would get bought out itself by MCA a year later), releasing the album Eloise. Laws is part of a musical family – her brothers are jazz flutist Hubert Laws and jazz saxophonist Ronnie Laws, and her sister Debra would chart with her own album Very Special in 1991.

Brick, “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody,” #92, 2/19/78
The last of their pop chart hits, “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody” made it to #7 on the R&B charts. Brick, a five-piece band from Atlanta, continued hitting on the R&B charts until 1982, racking up a dozen hits there overall. They’re still around (although the personnel have changed, lead guitarist Regi Harris has been with the group since its beginning in 1976), and will be playing Funk Fest in Pittsburgh on December 15.

Chic, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” #6, 2/26/78
First of Chic’s great hits, this one borrowed “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah” from the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (although the phrase had been used in jazz music as far back as the 1920s). This was Norma Jean Wright’s one big hit singing lead (her solo career would eventually force her to sever ties with the band, although the plan in the beginning was for her to record solo and with Chic concurrently). Luther Vandross is a backing singer on this one, which is from their first album, Chic.

John Williams, “Theme From Close Encounters of The Third Kind,” #13, 2/26/78
Biggest pop hit for composer/conductor Williams, but I’m not sure he had much to do with this – and this gets filed under “I didn’t know that” for me. I always thought this was a truncated version of the main theme; it turns out the hit was a disco treatment of the five-note theme we’re all familiar with, which was included in the soundtrack LP as a seven-inch single and also released separately. (Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to be available for download today.) Now I’ve got to fix my Superhits CD for this entry…

Le Pamplemousse, “Le Spank,” #58, 2/26/78
I don’t writes them, I just reports them. I have very little information on this one, other than the cowriters were W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder – the same two people who were responsible for El Coco’s “Cocomotion,” found in the third entry of the 1978 Superhits series. Unavailable for download, although there are YouTube “videos” available of the song (for those who remember – I’m not one of them).

Andy Gibb, “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” #1, 3/5/78
Second single from Gibb’s debut album, Flowing Rivers – and if there’s a good reason who RSO Records waited what appears to be over six months after releasing his first single, the #1 “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” to bring this one out, I’d sure like to hear it. Cowritten by Gibb with his brother, Bee Gee Barry Gibb (although Andy later noted Barry did almost all of the work), this features Joe Walsh on guitar. The song replaced The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” at the top of the Billboard chart, and was subsequently knocked off by The Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” – so the Brothers Gibb pretty much had a stranglehold on the charts at that point.

Dan Hill, “Sometimes When We Touch,” #6, 3/5/78
Overly melodramatic ballad that made me switch the radio station every time I heard it – I suspect I didn’t want others to be happy in love. Turns out the circumstances behind the song weren’t like that at all: in a 2017 interview for ABS-CBN News Channel in the Philippines (better known as ANC), Hill revealed he wrote the song for an unrequited love – who didn’t change her mind after she heard it. (Fortunately for Hill, he’s been happily married since 1982.)  Barry Mann wrote the music, which was a change from his usual songwriting partner, wife Cynthia Weil. Hill had been charting regularly in his native Canada for several years before this song hit, but this was his first American top 40 hit.

B.J. Thomas, “Everybody Loves a Rain Song,” #43, 3/5/78
Not everybody, apparently. 23rd pop chart hit for Thomas (who had been charting as far back as 1966 with B.J. Thomas & The Triumphs), this one made it to #2 on the Easy Listening chart. This would be Thomas’ last major pop entry for several years – after a near-death experience following a drug overdose in 1975, Thomas became a born-again Christian and began recording primarily Christian music for several years. While he would be a regular presence on the Christian singles charts and notched the occasional Adult Contemporary hit, his next pop hit wouldn’t come until 1983.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Superhits 1978, Part 3

The Bee Gees, “Staying Alive,” #1, 2/5/78
And here come the Bee Gees songs. In fairness, we’re starting out with the best of the bunch, and a seminal song of the era that’s still played regularly on oldies stations to this day. Not everybody loves it – 40 years after The Bee Gees hit their zenith, and there are still people who can’t say their name with snarling – but if you want to pick out a song that will fill a dance floor, this is right up there. And it just may have kept some people alive, at that: NPR reported in 2010 the song’s 103 beats per minute (which keeps it far away from the disco standard of 126, by the way) is nearly the same as the recommended chest compression rate of 100 per minute – so EMTs have been taught to keep the song in their head when they perform emergency duties. 

Queen, “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” #4, 2/5/78
Another classic, but for entirely different reasons. Freddie Mercury wrote “We Are the Champions” with the idea of composing a song for use at football (soccer) matches, and it’s stuck. The pounding “We Will Rock You” made for a nice double A-side, with many stations simply putting the two songs back to back (at just over 5 minutes, it was a little longer than the average single song, but not ridiculously long – “Staying Alive,” for example, clocked in only about fifteen seconds shorter by itself). This would be Queen’s last top 10 hit in America using their ”classic” sound; after that they had “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (minimalist rockabilly) and “Another One Bites the Dust” (Chic-inspired funk).  Not so in the UK, where they kept hitting for years after Freddie Mercury’s death.

Electric Light Orchestra, “Turn to Stone,” #13, 2/5/78
First of four chart singles from the double album Out of the Blue, and arguably ELO at its peak. Easy to dance to, but still appealing to rock fans (unlike, say, “Shine a Little Love,” the lead single off the 1979 album Discovery). Although none of the singles hit the top 10 in the United States, Out of the Blue made it to #4 and went quadruple platinum. (In fairness, the RIAA counts each sale of a double album as two since there’s two LPs inside, so that skews it a bit.) Out of the Blue was my first ELO purchase in 1979 (for the astonishing price of $3.99 at Korvettes; that was quite something for a double LP that hadn’t been remaindered), later on I found out ELO sued their distributors for releasing defective copies at discount prices. For what it’s worth, my copy’s fine.

Bill Withers, “Lovely Day,” #30, 2/5/78
The last of Bill Withers’ hits (excluding the Grover Washington Jr. song “Just the Two of Us,” for which he supplied lead vocals but didn’t get a credit on the sleeve), this song has had more covers and samples than I could possibly list – everything from a remake off The Bodyguard soundtrack to Luther Vandross to LL Cool J. But I love the original – this guy can really hold a note.

Donna Summer, “I Love You,” #37, 2/5/78
Clever title for a song, eh? First single from her Once Upon a Time album (released just before her total chart dominance from the summer of ’78 through early spring of 1980, where there was a total of one week without a Summer song in the top 40), and not a big hit. Still a fun song to dance to (especially when paired with “Rumour Has It,” which I believe it was on a 12-inch disco disk), and a bit of an oddity lyrically: in the fourth verse, was the lyric written that way (repeating part of the third verse and not rhyming), or did Summer just blow the lyric and no one said “We have to do a retake”? This sort of stuff bothers the crap out of me. The sound quality of this video isn't great, but it's cool to see a Tonight Show clip.

George Duke, “Reach for It, “ #54, 2/5/78
Late ‘70s funk from a guy who’s played with everyone from Frank Zappa to Jean-Luc Ponty. Ironically, for a song that features the chant “Dance!” over and over again (the only other lyrics are a spoken-word intro and the beginning and a quasi-rap at the end – almost two years before the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” broke), this isn’t a very danceable tune.

Heart, “Crazy on You,” #62, 2/5/78
You would have thought this was a bigger hit, given it’s been a staple of classic rock stations since the early 1980s. (And deservedly so.) The Wilson sisters’ message, born in the post-Vietnam era, was that the couple in question should just forget all their other issues for one night and boink. (Nancy Wilson added the rapid-fire guitar parts were inspired by The Moody Blues’ “Question.”) “Crazy on You” was actually the first single off their debut album with Mushroom Records in 1976, Dreamboat Annie, and reached #35 at that time (the followup, “Magic Man,” would really launch their careers. Two years later, Heart had bailed for Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic/Columbia, after Mushroom unveiled a particularly repugnant advertising campaign that would lead the unknowing to believe the Wilson sisters were lovers, and Mushroom scraped up whatever they could to make more money off their one-album wonder. First up was an album of demos and whatever else was lying around, Magazine, which the band sued to have recalled (the band then rerecorded, remixed, and re-released it a year later). The second was this song’s rerelease. Mushroom Records (also home to late ‘70s Canadian bands such as Doucette and Chilliwack, as well as ex-Fairport Convention member Ian Matthews) went out of business in 1980; the two Heart albums are still in print with Capitol Records today. The video is from the 1970s show The Midnight Special, which NBC aired on Friday nights after Johnny Carson.

Gary Wright, “Touch and Gone,” #73, 2/5/78
Yikes. Maybe you can have too many synthesizers on one record. Third consecutive flop single from Wright, after he’d had back-to-back #2 hits in 1976 with “Dream Weaver” and “Our Love Is Alive.”

Earth, Wind, and Fire, “Serpentine Fire,” #13, 2/12/78
EWF was on such a hot streak during the late ‘70s; 13 Hot 100 hits, all but one of which made the top 40, and six top 10s – nearly all of which will still make you smile when they come on the radio. “Serpentine Fire,” the lead single for All ‘n All, conked out at #13, but it’s still a good one, and it’s easily recognizable and danceable despite the slightly jittery rhythm.

Neil Diamond, “Desiree,” #16, 2/12/78
Another “boy becomes a man” song, this time courtesy of Mr. Diamond, who you’d think would have covered this territory before. Diamond’s singles track record had been spotty after leaving Uni Records for Columbia in 1973 – only “Longfellow Serenade” made the top 10 during those five years – so this was actually one of his bigger hits before the Barbra Streisand duet later in 1978.

The Commodores, “Too Hot ta Trot,” #22, 2/12/78
Knockoff of their own “Brick House” hit that had gone top 5 three months before; this is the one studio track from Commodores Live!, and it probably goosed up the sales a bit, it’s nothing special – although it does provide a break on greatest hits sets between Lionel Richie ballads.

Johnny Rivers, “Curious Mind (Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um),” #41, 2/12/78
30th (and, to date, last) chart single for Rivers. Geez, this guy was around forever – he first started hitting the charts around the same time as The Beatles. Most of his chart hits were covers, ranging from Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and of course this one was one as well (Major Lance did the original, written by Curtis Mayfield of The Impressions). Not the best arrangement ever, but still a decent song.

El Coco, “Cocomotion,” #44, 2/12/78
Nearly wordless disco concoction that won’t make you miss the genre. Studio band led by W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder. They had a few more Hot 100 hits under different names over the course of the year, so you’ll see them again soon, whether you want to or not.

Firefall, “So Long,” #48, 2/12/78
They sound awfully chipper considering the relationship is ending, but that’s just the way the band is. Seventh Hot 100 hit from a group made up of remnants from such bands as The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Jo Jo Gunne, and an inspiration for – well, when Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and Chris Hillman (three-fifths of The Byrds) got back together as a trio, Firefall’s producers were brought in to helm their debut album.

Kiss, “Shout It Out Loud” [live], #54, 2/12/78
I’m sure there was a logical reason for Kiss to release this as a single less than two years after the studio version hit #31 on the Hot 100, but I have no idea what it is.  It’s a really good song, no doubt – but when you release a double album with five new studio tracks, why make a live track that fans already know and that will confuse some radio stations the leadoff single?  (Casablanca would rectify this somewhat by making “Rocket Ride,” one of the studio tracks, the second single.)

Prism, “Take Me to the Kaptin,” #59, 2/12/78
No, that’s not a typo.   This was Prism’s second chart hit, after “Spaceship Superstar” made #82 in 1977 with “Spaceship Superstar.”  Both songs are on Prism’s eponymous first album, which would be the one to get if it was still in print.  Prism’s membership history is a little strange – by the time the band “broke up” in 1983, there wasn’t a single member from the 1977 group left, and the name Prism was used primarily by a solo artist and his backing band – and Capitol Records has made some of their better albums unavailable as a result.

Cerrone, “Supernature,” #70, 2/12/78
This French disco master (full name Marc Cerrone) has his fans, but I swear I don’t know what they see in him. I guess it’s good for dancers who are more interested in monotonous beats rather than hooks and catchy melodies; I’m not one of those people.  From his album of the same name (also known as Cerrone III). He’s still releasing albums in France, but hasn’t had a release here in the U.S. since sometime in the early 1980s.

Billy Joel, “Just the Way You Are,” #3, 2/19/78
The song that made Billy Joel famous. Up until this point, Joel had released four albums and was experiencing diminishing returns (none of the singles from 1976’s Turnstiles charted at all), and his biggest hit, 1973’s “Piano Man,” only made it to #25. But this song, which apparently was a contender to be dropped from the album (producer Phil Ramone claimed it had to stay because there wasn’t much other material available, and Joel has said both Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, who were recording in the same studio, insisted it should stay), became the lead single and radio grabbed hold. It would be first of Joel’s 27 top 40 singles between 1977 and 1994.  Written for Joel’s first ex-wife (as he might note, as opposed to his second ex-wife or his third ex-wife), which was a reason he didn’t perform the song much in concert for many years.

Santa Esmeralda, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” #15, 2/19/78
This song has had a long, interesting history.  It was originally written by songwriter Horace Ott after a fight with his girlfriend, Gloria Caldwell. (Don’t worry, kids; they’ve been married for over 50 years.) Nina Simone originally released it on her album Broadway-Blues-Ballads in 1964, but The Animals took it up to #3 as a blues classic the following year. Santa Esmeralda was a disco group formed in France, where this song was recorded in 1977. Casablanca Records, which was cornering the disco market at the time, picked it up for international distribution, and it became a major hit for the second time.