Muskrat Love by Captain & Tennille (A&M, 1976)

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Daryl “Captain” Dragon recently passed away. As a duo with Toni Tennille, they racked up 9 Top 40 songs between 1975-1980, of them 7 were Top Ten hits, 2 were #1. They created smiley upbeat keyboard-driven pop songs and some mellow key-party ballads during a cynically and uncertain economic post-Watergate economy. But the song that they are remembered most for is Muskrat Love. It didn’t have to be that way. Many feel that this song is a crime against humanity. If you were alive in 1976 then you are implicit in this crime. Let’s list the other suspects:

Willis Alan Ramsey – This song was written and recorded by Ramsey in 1972, under its original title Muskrat Candlelight. I don’t definitively know what inspired him to write this, but I assume he was high as shit watching a Deputy Dawg cartoon marathon and just happened to have a guitar in his hand. Take a listen:

OK not bad for a post-hippie singer-songwriter campfire jingle-jangle about a couple of freaky water rodents, probably a backlash from of all those Jesus is Love mu-mu wearing wannabes Willis encountered at those Dallas, Texas open mic nights. He has had his songs covered by Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffet and Widespread Panic to name a few and he’s still going today so the song could have stayed quiet with him as an album track and all would have been fine. That takes me to my next suspects:

America – These guys were on a roll with a string of hits – A Horse With No Name, I Need You, Ventura Highway. They must have been getting pretty cocky with their success because they heard Willis’ song and thought, “Hey that’s good. But it’s missing some that Beckley-Peek-Bunnell three-part harmony magic.” (spoiler alert – it wasn’t) Retitled Muskrat Love, America released it as the first single from their album, Hat Trick and it tanked. They should have seen this as divine intervention.

In order to save their career, they had to bring in the guy who produced Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road. Had America not recorded this at all, the following suspect would have never heard it playing on the radio:

Toni Tennille – I’m not going to pick on Toni too much. She was a fine singer and the only honorary “Beach Girl” in the Beach Boys. She just had a momentary lapse of reason when she heard this and said to her partner Daryl, “We should add this into our nightclub setlist.” This was in 1973, so it’s her fault for not picking from the other classics and standards already written from the past decades. I guess I can understand that as they climbed the ladder to pop stardom they wanted something in their act to stick out. But someone should have stopped this, such as:

The Crowd at the Smokehouse Restaurant in Encino, CA – This was where Toni & Daryl perfected their nightclub act. I don’t know what C&T’s live version of Muskrat sounded like, but for anyone who clapped after they performed it, you are all enablers. This was their cry for help and you ignored it. Which brings me to:

Daryl Dragon – At any time, he could have said “Fuck this. I’m not recording this shit.”  throwing an E-Mu synth at the wall to emphasize his point. Or maybe Toni had a Svengali-like hold on him where if she touched him on the shoulder, it rendered him speechless.

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It’s also possible that he couldn’t take it anymore – the idiotic vanilla variety show, the stupid itchy captain’s hat, the bulldogs shitting everywhere – and he just snapped and said, ” You wanna get crazy? Let’s get crazy. How about I take my Mini-Moog and make it sound like the muskrats are bangin’ in a storm drain? Then we’ll press the 45s so that sound loops over and over as the record fades but the sound never ends. HAHAHAHAHA!” [cue lightning strike]

Again it could have been just forgotten as an album cut. They had already released 2 hit singles. Why not just leave it alone? Which leads to me to my final subject:

Herb Alpert – This is all his fault. He had the winning touchdown in his hands and dropped it, so to speak. He had a chance to change the song’s trajectory forever, so direct your ire at him.

Thinking that Muskrat Candlelight had a good melody but some dumb ass lyrics, Herb wrote new words to the song, changed the title to Sun Down and had his wife Lani Hall record and release it.

Why was this not a hit? It was on A&M Records. Herb, that’s your label. Whatever happened to payola? No need to grow a conscience now. Finish the job. Don’t you think we all wish we could go back in time and disrupt the night that got Hitler’s mom got pregnant with him?

Ok maybe it’s not the same thing, but I’m also not letting Herb off the hook, because which record label allowed C&T to release Muskrat as the 3rd single from Song Of Joy, hmm? That’s right. A&M Records. You had the power to stop it again Herb, but you let it happen. We all just bought the Pet Rock. You knew we were vulnerable. How could you?

I like to imagine a world without Muskrat Love.  Everything would be different. Maybe Captain & Tennille would have taken more risks in the 80s and had some New Wave-styled hits and Metropolis-inspired videos on MTV. Maybe Kurt Cobain asks Daryl to produce In Utero and he sits in with Kurt and a newly reunited Nirvana on the album’s 20th anniversary tour. Maybe they discover a musician named Richard Hall and change his name to Moby, who in turn inducts them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the ‘Godparents’ of modern EDM, followed by a 7-minute electronic version of Love Will Keep us Together with Daft Punk and Sheryl Crow, Daryl’s 3rd wife. The polar ice caps stop melting and CO2 emissions are at their lowest recorded levels. No one has ever heard of Columbine High School outside of Colorado and this post ceases to exist because I’m too busy curing cancer. That’s the world I want to live in.

Bonus: In 1975 Neil Sedaka hits #1 with Laughter in the Rain on Rocket Records, owned by Elton John who sings backup on Neil Sedaka‘s Bad Blood which is replaced at #1 by Island Girl from Elton John whose #2 song Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me featured backing vocals from Toni Tennille, who with the Captain hit #1 with Love Will Keep Us Together while I’m Not In Love was in the Top 10 by 10cc, who played on the original recording of Love Will Keep Us Together by Neil Sedaka.

OK here it is if you wanna hear it:

 

 

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Breakdown By Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Shelter, 1978)

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Tom Petty is a rock and roll legend. That should not be understated. He is considered the leader of the heartland rock movement and an American icon. Their blue-collar stick-it-to-the-man punk energy may have mellowed over time, but his lyrics and attitude have always been straight forward, getting right to the heart of their intention. Tom & the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible.

Interestingly the first people to embrace him were not the US; they were the British. TPH had 2 Top 40 hits in the UK (Anything That’s Rock N Roll, American Girl)  before having any success in their native homeland. Of course once they had some fortunes Stateside, they began to break out in a big way. And it all started with their first failed single which refused to die – Breakdown.

Breakdown was the first single released from The Heartbreakers self-titled debut in late 1976. It had a simmering mysterious quality to it due partly to Benmont Tench’s soulful keyboards and Mike Campbell’s melancholy downwards lick on the guitar over a steady, taking-my-time drum beat. Building up with Tom’s lo-fi verses crescendoing into a snarling chorus with label mate, Phil Seymour on back up vocals. Then it drops back down to a more confidently sung verse, like Ali going back to his corner before another round. Tom hits the chorus hard again before slithering away like a snake that finished his meal with ‘go ahead and give it to me’ seemingly a dare to his partner. And who doesn’t dig that fake intro? But…

It flopped. So did the subsequent 2 singles they released, even as they garnered status overseas. But as the band kept touring in the UK and in the US, Shelter Records decided to re-release the 45 in the Fall of 1977. The song’s chart run on the Hot 100 was a testament to Tom’s never say die energy, so let me lay it out for you.

November 5th, 1977 – The song debuts on the Hot 100 at #90, one spot below (Love Is) Thicker Than Water by Andy Gibb and one spot above Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Santa Esmeralda, both of which would peak higher than Breakdown. The #1 song was You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone. We needed Tom more than ever!

November 12th, 1977 – Breakdown jumps 10 spots to #80. Runaround Sue by Leif Garrett debuts at #79. It, too, would peak higher.

November 19th, 1977 – Breakdown jumps another 10 places to #70. Leif jumps 20 spots. Also I Honestly Love You by Olivia Newton-John, a former #1 from 1974 has been re-released and sits at #63.

November 26th, 1977 – Happy Thanksgiving. But not for Tom who only moves 5 notches to #65 as the song loses its bullet. Meanwhile, future Wilbury, Jeff Lynne, leapfrogs Tom with the new ELO single Turn To Stone, now at #63, up 18 spots.

Now, this is where stuff gets real…

December 3rd, 1977 – Breakdown falls 35 spots to #100. What the hell happened? How did radio and those who held an interest in the song just give up? Leif Garrett not only enters the Top 40 but sits on top of Tom with another former hit, Surfin’ USA at #99. That’s right, folks. On this day we preferred two Leif Garrett cover songs to our American icon – Tom Petty.

So let’s recap: In early December 1977, The British love Tom Petty. The US loves Leif Garrett. That’s not a world I ever want to live in again.

Now that the song was on its way off the charts, it would be very difficult for it to ever become a Top 40 hit or just a well-known single. Remember this was the label’s second attempt to have a hit with this song. Maybe Tom and the band won’t even get a chance at a 2nd album. Would Shelter or ABC records drop them?

Thankfully they never had to go down that road. Through word of mouth and constant touring, miraculously the song rebounded. [I’m imagining a lot of cool parents or hip uncles and aunts buying the single or album for their kids/nephews during that Christmas.] And over the next 11 weeks, within the time span of 2 different Bee Gees #1 songs, it moved up 60 spots to finally hit #40 and Casey Kasem called the band’s name on February 18, 1978, its 16th week on the chart. It eventually became the only Top 40 song for the band in the 70s, even though they released 3 albums during that decade. [Don’t Do Me Like That peaked in February 1980 at #10.] Tom and Breakdown did not back down and it was the first of 16 Top 40 hits for him, with and without his band.

Success never comes easy. Careers like Tom’s don’t happen overnight. You gotta want it. And you gotta get lucky. Even though this would be the first of many struggles for Tom in the music industry, Tom wanted it. Tom got lucky. And as music fans, we should all be appreciative of that world because we are all better for it.

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero by Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods (ABC, 1974)

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The Vietnam War and our troops were on everybody’s minds during the early 70s. Even though we had started to withdraw troops in ’71, it felt like the war was never going to end. That anxiety was kicked back up when in early ’74, the Paris Accord was rejected and the war was restarted by the Viet Cong to regain the territory it had previously lost. No one knew what to expect. Would we have to send troops back?

Protests to the war had been happening since the late ’60s and musicians were a big part of the movement voicing their displeasure to our involvement in Vietnam, from Barry McGuire’s Eve Of Destruction and Country Joe & the Fish’s Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die rag at Woodstock to War by Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. Protest songs had become so mainstream in the 70s that in 1974, they even came from an unlikely source – a 7 piece band from Cincinnati, OH who had previously toured with the Osmonds: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.

If you get this song and The Night Chicago Died mixed up, don’t worry,  you’re not going crazy. The songs were both on the charts at the same time and had a very similar feel. Both were recorded by the group Paper Lace and written by the same two songwriters, Mitch Murray and Pete Callander. This song obviously hit a nerve around the world as the Paper Lace version hit #1 in Britain and Australia and Bo’s hit #1 here, where it spend 2 weeks at the top in June 1974 and in Canada.

Now, this is the part where I break this song down. Because even though this was released during our Vietnam troop occupation, there’s no way these guys are talking about modern war. (Remember these are the songwriters who said Daddy was a cop on the east side of Chicago – that’s right, he patrolled Lake Michigan)

Let’s break out the fifes and figure out what’s going on:

The marching band came down along Main Street
The soldier blues fell in behind.
I looked across and there I saw Billy
Waiting to go and join the line.

Ok so we hit upon one key to the success of this song. The singer is an impartial third party, so he’s not giving his opinion whether he’s for or against the war (even though the chorus suggests otherwise). The soldier blues probably refers to the armies in the civil war who would march through town and folks would just join them rather than the good old days of being drafted.

And with her head upon his shoulder
His young and lovely fiancée.
From where I stood I saw she was cryin’
And through her tears I heard her say,

We’ll assume he knows they’re getting married somehow. But how is he close enough to see her cry and hear her speak? Wasn’t he across the street a few words ago? Feels like Bo might be getting ready to make some moves.

“Billy, don’t be a hero. Don’t be a fool with your life
Billy, don’t be a hero. Come back and make me your wife”

I don’t know if this was real or I dreamed it: there’s a scene on the Muppet Show and Billy Joel is the guest star. He dressed up like a sub sandwich and Kermit tries to keep him out of a sketch by saying, “Billy don’t be a hero.” Anyone?

And as he started to go, she said, “Billy keep your head low.
Billy, don’t be a hero. Come back to me”

Keep your head low? That’s awful advice, for any war. Do bullets only travel upwards? Can someone not bomb a trench?

The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside.
The battle ragin’ all around.
The sergeant cried, “We’ve gotta hang on, boys.
We gotta hold this piece of ground.”

Wow, that’s a soft commander…but so inspirational. Hey you guys, we’re down 3 points with two minutes to go. Hang on boys. Hang on. I didn’t know John Wooten was in the Army.

“I need a volunteer to ride out and bring us back some extra men”

A volunteer? Did they draw straws? One potato two potato? And if you need extra men, why are you sending someone out? Now you’re down another guy. Always bring extra men. The dip always runs out at this dude’s party before all the guests arrive.

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Definitely not Billy’s sergeant

And Billy’s hand was up in a moment forgetting all the words she said.

Maybe there’s a reason he ‘forgot’ those words like he was feeling trapped by his poor advice giving future wife, who told him he could work in her dad’s paint store for the rest of his life. Or he was thinking about a $5 footlong…..

I heard his fiancée got a letter that told how Billy died that day.
The letter said that he was a hero.
She should be proud he died that way.
I heard she threw the letter away.

A letter? That’s all she gets? No body?  How does she know he really died? You get a letter and go, Oh well, Guess he’s dead. I’d toss that bullshit in the garbage too.

Wait a minute. Oh my God, I just figured it out. It’s the back story of Mad Men. Don Draper is based on this song. Billy just Dick Whitman’d his fiancee. Now it all makes sense. And that makes the singer, Pete Campbell.

I guess the song I need to break down next is I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing….

 

New York Groove by Ace Frehley (Casablanca, 1979)

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I heard this song the other day and I remembered a dream I had in the Spring of 2003 that I was in New York getting ready to tape my first HBO special as a comedian. I walk out on stage to welcome the crowd and I can hear “I’m back, back in the New York grooooove…” playing behind me pumping up the crowd. What a great moment!. It’s amazing that after all these years that dream of mine is still as vivid as ever. Mind you I am not a comedian. I’ve never even approached telling jokes at an open mike night nor do I want to. I guess this song lends itself to some big comeback stage soundtrack (though who’s we’ve yet to know).

The song comes from one of the biggest shameless cash grabs from a record label that was famous for them. Kiss was one of the first successful groups on the Casablanca Records label and by 1978 the company knew that they had very little time to take every last dollar from a Kiss fan before they realized they were essentially buying the same album over and over again. (They had already released 6 studio albums in 4 years, including a reissue of their first 3, 2 live albums and a greatest hits collection) So they decided to not just put out another single or double album. They were going to release a quadruple album, disguised as 4 single albums, one for each of the band’s respective egos. All four were for certified platinum, but don’t let that fool you; they were not hits. Casablanca refused any buybacks of the LPs, so who knows where those extra albums are buried. Also the fans woke up and started to realize that the music was stinking worse than the inside of one of Paul’s mile-high platform boots after a 2-hour show. Only one album of the four yielded a hit and it was Ace’s. Boy, I bet that pissed Gene Simmons off.

New York Groove was written by former Argent guitarist Russ Ballard, who had left that band in 1974 to become a successful songwriter in the 70s & 80s. Besides this song, he was responsible for many Top 40 hits including the only US Top 40 hits for the ladies in ABBA – Frida’s I Know There’s Something Going On and Agnetha’s Can’t Shake Loose, but also a comeback hit for Santana in 1981, the Journey sound-a-like, Winning. (Poor Russ was never able to score a solo hit of his own.)

Groove had already been a UK Top 10 in 1975 for the glam rock band, Hello. Space Ace probably figured that if anyone wearing make-up should sing that song, it should be him, especially since he was from New York, the Bronx specifically. And he rode this little stomper up to its peak of #13 in February of 1979. When Kiss went ‘disco’ later that Summer and stunned their fans, the reality was that there wasn’t too far a leap from this track to I Was Made For Lovin’ You.

Postscript: Casablanca was closed within 4 years of this ‘peak’, but by that time Ace had moved on Frehley’s Comet and the Kiss make-up had come off.  But many times since then, the band all got together to fill their coffers and boost their 401Ks, doing what they do best, bilking rocking the dollars out of their fans’ pockets.

 

Walking In Rhythm by The Blackbyrds (Fantasy, 1975)

The BlackByrds were a 5 piece band formed by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd at Howard University in Washington DC who hand-picked music majors as an experiment of sorts to see how they could learn to play and support themselves and learn about the music industry. As their teacher, mentor and producer, Byrd guided the band through 6 successful LPs between 1974 – 1977 on the Fantasy label. George Duke produced their final LP Better Days in 1980. Their soulful jazz fusion sound has been sampled countless times in addition to being very influential to the early 80s Brit-funk movement.

Their biggest single, Walking In Rhythm, was released in early 1975. Written by their guitarist Barney Perry, it was a Top 10 pop, soul and adult contemporary hit as well as a #23 on the UK charts.

And damn if it’s not the cheeriest thing you are gonna hear today? It even has a little ‘ham n eggs’ flute solo in the middle. (What other decade is gonna give you that?) The song has a simple message – a guy is trying to get home to his ‘baby’ – that’s it. The timing of this release couldn’t have been better as most of our Vietnam troops were finally coming back to the States. How many of those soldiers heard a song like this, clutched it to their heart and role it until their long Stateside hug.

I have always had visions on hearing this song standing in the garden room of a house with huge windows as the morning sunlight shines through. Then stepping into a backyard with a freshly cut lawn smelling the sweet magnolia as it’s in bloom. That actually happened as a kid or I dreamed it.

Another thing – what is this singer walking in rhythm to? I guess ‘his song’, but what song? What if it was Angie Baby or Billy Don’t Be A Hero? Would it matter? Ask a Blackbyrd and find out…

 

Runaway by Jefferson Starship (Grunt, 1978)

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The entity of airplanes and starships gets a lot of undeserved flack in the annals of pop rock. The fact of the matter is they had a 22-year career hitting the Top 40 amid name changes, personnel changes, and music changes. Who could have predicted that they would have 3 #1 hits in the late 80’s? (Say what you want about We Built This City, I think Sara is a fine song) Having a career like that means that they must have had a knack for understanding and embracing the ever-evolving pop landscape, knowing what their audience wanted and of course being extremely lucky.

Runaway, their 2nd single from the LP Earth, was their 4th Top 40 hit of the late 70s, a glossy yet mellow shot of AOR pop, that became their stock in trade – smoothly loping along a George Harrison-esque guitar lick with a beat for easy nodding. Yes, for those that traded in their tabs for Js, Jefferson Starship had you covered. Man, I dug this song as a kid.

But here’s the problem with AM radio. I have always heard/remembered the lyrics a certain way and I just recently found out I was wrong. I always heard the first line as:

You don’t know how much I miss you
But I love you like a son

Well, when coupled with :

I’d like to put my arms around you and run run run runaway

It felt like a guy getting close to someone who needed a father figure. It could be a boy’s uncle who’s dad is away at war. I guess it also is a little creepy, especially if its a stranger talking to some kid.

I read that the lines are actually:

You don’t know how much I love you
but I love you like the sun
I’d like to put my arms around you
and we could run run run, runaway

That doesn’t seem as interesting to me. I love you like the sun? Who are you, George Hamilton? I started wondering what made me hear it that way. What was going on in my life at that time? Was I looking for a different dad or one that would ‘love me like a son.’? Then again I always thought Marty said he was ‘sittin’, munchin on a flower‘ rather than just watchin all the flowers. Still do. Can’t hear it any other way. So what do I know?

The song was written by someone named N. Q. Dewey. I can’t find anything else written or recorded by this guy and he doesn’t get special thanks on Earth’s liner notes, so I wonder if this a pseudonym. Maybe it was the zodiac killer. JS was from San Fran…

Any time this comes on the radio, I crank it up, praying for the longer album version. And by the time Marty repeats the first verse with that ache in his voice, I realize that I want to be this guy’s kid and runaway wherever. Maybe I’ll change my name to Jefferson…

Livin’ It Up (Friday Night) By Bell & James (A&M, 1979)

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Countless songs have been written about how much it sucks to work. Musicians know this subject all too well. From Sixteen Tons to Five O’Clock World, almost everyone can relate to that feeling of hating their job and waiting for the moment they can do a Fred Flintstone slide down a dinosaur’s back. The times usually dictate what the solution is. In Tennessee Ernie Ford’s downtrodden classic, the main character just gives up. The Vogues sing of the time of day where everything magical happens and the day really begins. The rise of disco and bar culture in the late 70s gave songwriters the idea of escapism. Don’t give up, give in. And rather than ‘fight the man’, live it up.

Casey James & Leroy Bell were songwriters in the mid-70s that rode this concept onto the charts in 1979. They were songwriters in the mid-70s for Philadelphia International. How did they get that cushy job? Didn’t hurt that Leroy’s uncle was producer Thom Bell. But they also wrote some catchy songs in the Philly soul vein. A few were recorded by the soul-curious Elton John in 1977, who eventually had a Top 10 hit with one them, Mama Can’t Buy You Love, in 1979. Bell & James, like many songwriting duos of the late 70s, got a recording contract from A&M records and began writing a mood ring adorned middle finger to the man.

Livin’ It Up (Friday Night) reached #15 in 1979 and went Top 10 Soul as well. It had all the fancy trimmings of a 1979 pop disco hit – slow-building intro to give you time to get on the floor, just enough funk to move you without having to learn any new steps and lyrics that talk about how repressed you are during the day, so that you need a release when Friday night comes along. Just pray the boss doesn’t ask you to work on the weekend.

But a deeper look at the lyrics tells me that maybe this guy is fighting the man after all, albeit in a passive aggressive, way.

Up in the morning at six o’clock
Head for the city
Turn on the music, the radio
Nobody’s hurrying

That’s pretty damn early to get up. Are you a baker? How far away do you work from your job?

Day after day
Slaving away
Punching the time
I’m late again
Sneak in the back way

This is starting to sound like the plot from Office Space. This song should have been on the soundtrack.

I count the hours, minutes too
So glad it’s Friday
Jump in my ride
It’s Friday night

I know I should be on the side of the worker. But it sounds like this dude needs to get fired.

Only on a Friday
Never on a Sunday
Never on a Monday

Wait. What happened to Saturday? Can’t party on Saturday? Are you a cantor at Sunday mass? Knock all this Catholic shit off and get your groove on.

Same situation every day
Some kind of voodoo
Same complications
Stand in the way
Nowhere to run to

Does this guy really think his boss has a doll of him in his office that he sticks pins in every day?

My mind is dreaming
I’m somewhere else
Can’t seem to shake it
I miss the feeling of having fun
No way to fake it

Hey, do you know the difference between prison and your job? You can quit your job. Maybe he should be more appreciative of what he has. Especially since he got his job via nepotism.

OK, I’m being harsh. Jump in your ride and turn it up at 5:00 next Friday on your way to the club with your friends. Slaving away is just another day away.

Just A Song Before I Go By Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic, 1977)

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When Crosby, Stills and Nash took the stage at Woodstock in August of 1969, would anyone have guessed that it would be 8 more years before trio recorded an album together? Sure they released the landmark, Deja Vu in early 1970, but that was with Neil Young touring them into a quartet. And any time you add Neil to a drink, it’s stronger and darker. Besides CSN won the new artist Grammy in 1969, not CSNY. People wanted to sway and smile to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, not be filled with fear and paranoia with Ohio.

All kidding aside, CSN was in a great position to conquer the folk-rock world and instead splintered in many subsets – Crosby-Nash, Stills-Young, Stills, Manassas. And David Crosby was embarked on a drug-fueled lifestyle that would only come to light in the early 80s. These guys just needed to get together before it was too late and chill. Which is what they did in 1977 with the CSN LP and its lead-off track, Just A Song Before I Go. They even posed on a boat for the album cover, just to let you it was smooth sailing from here on out (of course, it was anything, but).

This 45, written by Graham Nash, has to be one of the saddest to ever hit the Top 10. It makes Along Again (Naturally) come off like Disco Duck. I always found it to be a heartbreaking song and thankfully it ends just after 2 minutes, even though they pack a lot in that 2 minutes –  a couple of choruses, verse and 2 guitar solos.

Maybe hearing it connects me to something deeper in my life, someone who left who didn’t come back, either physically or emotionally. I still have this image of hearing the song as a backdrop to an early morning, when it’s cold and still dark out, but you’re trying to get ready for the day in spite of wanting to stay and keep warm.

I think the reason why it became CSN’s biggest hit, outside of fans welcoming them back, is the fact that we all leave or get left by someone or something at some point in our lives. And regardless of which party feels the hurt more, it’s never easy to say goodbye, but truly the pain is in the fear of permanence that goodbye represents. After 35 years of living with this song, I’ve only recently found out why it was written – a dare. Graham had some time to kill before he went to the airport and back on tour, so he sat down at the piano and quickly wrote about the next hour of his life at that point, literally. Graham’s packed his suitcase, gonna be taken to the airport, go through security and fly United (the friendly skies, I assume. Of course if he’s travelling twice the speed of sound, maybe he booked his ticket on Yeager Air)

I listened to it again with this knowledge and it still has this melancholy sadness that hits me deeply. Maybe Graham had tons of emotions that he needed to write down and record. Maybe he was saying farewell to happiness or so long to a friend. Maybe he was writing about what happened in 1970 when the group fell apart. All I know is that he needed Stills & Crosby back with him so that he could say goodbye once again.

Mr. Jaws by Dickie Goodman (Cash, 1975)

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The nostalgia for the 50s that became popular once again in the early to mid-70s brought us many cultural phenomena during that decade: sock hops, Happy Days, Grease, American Graffiti, even Wolfman Jack. A curious by-product of this retro look at a simpler time was created by a man named Dickie Goodman. In 1956, he created the first cut-in record when he released with Bill Buchanan (as Buchanan & Goodman), The Flying Saucer Part 1 & 2. It hit #3 and was the biggest hit of his career. He would only hit the Top 10 once more, almost 20 years later, with Mr. Jaws. But what is exactly is a cut-in record?

A cut-in record or break-in, as some call it, was a technique created by some fooling by Dickie & Bill and was an early precursor to sampling, albeit in a roundabout way. Dickie’s cut-in record records had a simple formula. One person would be a reporter, such as a TV anchor or on-the-scene broadcaster. They would ask the person with whom they were speaking a question, in which the response would be a piece of a popular song. The subject would always be something very current as would the song response. Flying saucers and the promise of space travel were a big curiosity in the 50s. Jaws, the movie, was an unprecedented Summer blockbuster in 1975, so much so that even the John Williams duh-nuh duh-nuh duh-nuh theme made the Top 40.

Back then, media backlash or spoof wasn’t nearly as instantaneous as it is now. Outside of Saturday Night Live, which debuted in late 1975, all you had was a novelty artist like Ray Stevens or Dickie Goodman. Jaws became so popular so fast, it was only a matter of time. (SNL eventually got their chance too, with the classic Candygram sketch).

If you never heard this 45 before, you may not understand why it’s so funny. I thought it was hilarious, the first time I heard on the Dr. Demento show. I would sit around with my friends huddled by a little tape recorder playing and rewinding the song over and over anticipating each song response as if it were the funniest punchline in the world. Dickie interviews Mr. Jaws, Brody, Hooper and Capt Quint and finishes up with the shark who eats finally eats Dickie and pulls him underwater.

They don’t make songs like this anymore for 2 big reasons. The first being that in the early 80s, radio stations began broadcasting ‘morning zoos’ which pump up out a few parody pieces a day, quicker, funnier and sometimes racier. The second reason has to do with sampling itself. Damn those artists who wanted publishing and songwriting credits for using pieces of their material in someone else’s. What was once an aural collage became thievery, with precedents set in the legal system (look up Biz Markie V. Gilbert O’Sullivan or Beastie Boys V. Jimmy Castor) Which makes a record like this, ‘written’ by Dickie Goodman a rarity in itself.

SPOILER ALERT – Here’s a list of the records that Dickie samples, none of which received a dime for the over 1 million sales of this 45:

Theme From ‘Jaws’ by John Williams
Dynomite by Bazuka [which was a sample of sorts of Jimmie Walker]
Please Mr. Please by Olivia Newton-John
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) by James Taylor
Why Can’t We Be Friends by War
Get Down Tonight by KC and the Sunshine Band
The Hustle by Van McCoy
Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille
Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell
One Of These Nights by Eagles
Jive Talkin’ by Bee Gees
I’m Not in Love by 10cc
Midnight Blue by Melissa Manchester

Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando (Bell, 1973)

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Tony Orlando & Dawn. You say the name and it just reeks of avocado shag and Love’s Baby Soft. But what always struck me was the fact that this anonymous studio concoction, whose members weren’t even fully formed until after their first few hits, became such a visual presence and representation of the 70s. In fact, Tony Orlando & Dawn wasn’t even used until after seven Top 40 hits and two #1 song were racked up, including their biggest, Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. They actually had as many hits with their iconic name than without. I don’t think Tony Orlando minds at all because without this weird run of luck, he would have just been a guy who had a Top 20 hit called Bless You, way back in 1961.

All of this was luck and timing, for the artists, writers, producers, anyone who made a living off of this record. The history before this song hit #1 for 4 weeks in 1973 is amazing, but its impact afterwards is truly astonishing. It propelled the group in having 7 more Top 40 hits, 3 of them Top 10s, one of which hit #1 (He Don’t Love You). It gave America a visual to match the songs when they were given their own variety show, which ran from 1974-1976. Tony had his own theatre in Branson called the Yellow Ribbon Theatre and while some may roll their eyes at it, it nevertheless kept Tony performing through the 90s & 00s. You may even recognize Telma Hopkins, one half of Dawn, as Steve Urkel’s Aunt Rachel or from the other various TV roles she landed from the 80s’ Bosom Buddies & Gimme A Break to the current version of Are We There Yet.

The song itself may have brought on the 20’s/40’s revival of musical styles, which the group expanded on with their next album, Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies (see, still clinging to the Dawn name, even after a mega-smash). It’s the kinda song you’d imagine you’d hear in Shakey’s Pizza or during a carousel ride. The Great Gatsby movie was only a year away and platform shoes, a 40’s throwback, were becoming more mainstream fashion. When you hear that organ and banjo intro, you either want to dance the Lindy or jam metal rods in your ears. What are you gonna do? Irvin Levine & L. Russell Brown wrote a catchy tune. And they had already had some Dawn hits, Knock Three Times & Candida. Irvin also co-wrote This Diamond Ring with Al Kooper, a hit with Gary & the Playboys in 1965.

The meaning and origin of the lyrics have taken on a life of their own. Supposedly inspired by a true story from a New York Post article about a convict riding a bus home from prison awaiting a yellow handkerchief on his arrival, this was also been widely disputed. In fact the songwriters were sued by the author of that newspaper story until they proved that they got the idea from additional sources in the military. The significance of a yellow ribbon has its origins date back to the Civil War. A woman would wear a yellow ribbon in her hair in honor of husband or ‘sweetheart’ who’d be off to war. In this song, a guy is getting released from a 3-year prison stint. He writes his lover ahead of time to let her know and ask if she still wants him. Rather than await an answer, he asks her to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree. I’ll assume she knows which one. That’s pretty much the song. And during a time of military strife in Vietnam, I wonder how many soldiers coming home, facing the scorn of many for their duty served, heard the song and asked the same request. It’s a simple of song of redemption and forgiveness, such by a guy who only 3 years before used an alias on a song which hit the Top 10, because he was afraid of what folks might think.

Hearing this song as a kid appealed to me because of its childlike musicality and it’s sing-song nature, even though the lyrics are better fully understood by adults. But the part near the end which slows down and the whole damn bus is cheering cause the guy can’t believe that not only did he get one yellow ribbon, he got 99 more….damn that still gets me. I have no idea why. But if gets a hardened soul like me, it makes sense why it got 2 million others that year. And why the yellow ribbon symbol was used during the Iran Hostage crisis, during the Gulf War and for suicide awareness as well as a symbol used around the world.

Oh, I forgot the best part. Tony was about to give up the music business after the hits starting drying up in 1972. But he decided to give it one final try with a song he wasn’t that thrilled about recording – a song which 40 years later continues to have a global impact.