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 60’s 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 whats 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 suggest 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 ol 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 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, thats 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 guest 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….

 
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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 buy backs 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 won.)

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 its 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 into a backyard with a freshly cut lawn smelling the sweet magnolia as its 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 flak in the annals of pop rock, The fact of the matter is that they had a 22 year career hitting the Top 40 amid name changes, personnel changes, 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 had a knack for changing with the times, knowing what their audience wanted and being extremely lucky.

Runaway,their 2nd single from the LP Earth, was their 4th Top hit of the late 70s, a glossy yet mellow shot of AOR pop, that became their stock in trade. So smooth, 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 the lyrics a certain way that I just recently found out were 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 away at war. I guess it also be a little creepy, especially if its a stranger talking to some kid.

So when 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

It kinda feels boring to me. I love you like the sun? Who are you, George Hamilton? Then I start to think, 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 was ‘sittin munchin on a flower’ rather than just watchin all the flowers. Still do. Can’t hear it any other way. 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.

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 everyday?

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, Manassass. 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 traveling 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 the 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 elses. 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 it’s 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 it’s 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.

Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill (20th Century, 1978)

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Blame it on Alan Alda. The poster man-child for all things sensitive embodied the soft introspective and liberal kindness that the media pushed on males to become during the 70s. Alda’s squint and smirk stayed with us throughout the decade via the TV show, M*A*S*H and, after decades of bottled up feelings, became the go-to guy for the ‘new’ man. Some guys took this soul searching to hilarious new depths, but not many traveled in a emotional diving bell like Dan Hill and his Top 3 hit, Sometimes When We Touch, from his 3rd LP, Longer Fuse (good one, Dan)

Dan Hill is Canadian, which is French for either polite or passive, I can’t remember which. And even if Dan wanted to convey a feeling of warmth and intimacy, it feels like he wrote this song in a remote cabin somewhere on the Manitoba tundra, miles from civilization. Or maybe he was in a large Shining-like hotel, typing ‘subsides’ over and over on an old typewriter, until he went nuts. He may want you to think he’s a sensitive soul but instead he comes off like a guy with a lot of restraining orders against him. How does anyone take these lyrics seriously?

You ask me if I love you
And I choke on my reply

Yikes! That’s not a good sign. Of course, I (cough, cough), love, er, ummm, you…or something…what?

I’d rather hurt you honestly
Than mislead you with a lie

Here’s some of that sensative crap coming out. See he’s a good guy cause he’s being honest even if he’s crushing your soul in the process. Don’t get mad, the truth hurts. And yeah, I need you out of my house at the end of the week.

And who am I to judge you on what you say or do?
I’m only just beginning to see the real you

Is this a back-handed compliment? Is he saying that everything was cool until he found out who you really were? Buy hey if that’s your thing to be a total bitch all the time, that’s your trip, man. That’s a YP, not a MP.

And sometimes when we touch
The honesty’s too much
And I have to close my eyes and hide

Uh, wait. I thought you wanted honesty here. And now you’re saying it’s too much? And you wanna make like an ostrich?

I wanna hold you til I die
Til we both break down and cry
I wanna hold you til the fear in me subsides

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This guy would like to hold you til he dies…ladies, the line forms to the left.

Ok, this is where Mr. Crazy shows up. Hold you til I die? I thought he was breaking up with her and now he’s getting all Single White Female on her. And who doesn’t want a boyfriend that’s so clingy that you have an emotional breakdown?

Romance and all its strategy leaves me battling with my pride.
But through the insecurity, some tenderness survives

Basically, he’s saying that he doesn’t want to work at a relationship, is he not? And even if he is a dick to her, she still loves him. Or maybe he’s saying something else? It’s vague, in a very non-cryptic, lazy way.

I’m just another writer still trapped within my truth

No, you’re not.

A hesitant prize fighter still trapped within my youth

When looking for an adjective that describes winning boxers, hesitant would not be on the list. Nor would childlike. Except for Mike Tyson.

At times I’d like to break you and drive you to your knees
At times I’d like to break through and hold you endlessly

Now there’s some brutal honesty. Dan admits he wants to smack his girl around. And then when he calms down, or has what he calls, a breakthrough, then hold you and never let go. Ladies, are you getting excited yet?

At times I understand you
And I know how hard you’ve tried
I’ve watched while love commands you
And I’ve watched love pass you by

Doesn’t this sound condescending to you? It should be to the girl that’s he’s breaking up with.? Or to the girl that he’s letting know that he wants to keep an open relationship with.

At times I think we’re drifters
Still searching for a friend
A brother or a sister
But then the passion flares again

Ok I get the ‘wanting’ companionship part. But comparing looking for a sister or a brother to ‘passion flaring’ is beyond creepy.

So to recap, Dan’s not in love with you. Dan doesn’t really want a commitment. And Dan wants you to respect that. But Dan doesn’t want you to go anywhere or be with anyone else. Or Dan is gonna get mad. Real mad.

We had this 45 in our house, which explains a lot of what I had to overcome in the relationship arena. Think about all kids born in late 78/early 79 whose parents had this gem on the hi-fi while they got busy. Now that honesty is way way too much.

Black Betty by Ram Jam (Epic, 1977)

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Imagine you had an older brother and/or sister growing up in the early 70s or maybe you truly did. It’s 1973 and you’re 12-year-old self is riding around with them in their shiny black Firebird with Led Zeppelin’s Houses of The Holy 8 track in the dash, the V8 motor struggling to overcome Jimmy Page’s guitar crunches during The Ocean. You sit back and think, ‘man when I can drive, I’m gonna burn rubber and crank some tunes’.

Flash forward to 1977. You got a brand spanking new driver’s license, your parent’s beat-up Dodge Dart and an empty 8-track player just waiting to be abused. You drive to your local mall, run into Record World and look for the hottest band with the hottest song. As you walk through the parking lot unwrapping your latest purchase, you push that clunky piece of plastic into the player, start the engine and take off down the street to the clanging of a gong a four on the floor bass drum, screeching guitar chords and “whoah-oh black betty, bam-a-lam, whoah-oh, black betty, bam-a-lam…”. Not exactly Dancing Days, but hey you can call Ram Jam you’re very own. Who’s Ram Jam, you ask? Exactly my point. I’m not even sure if Ram Jam knows who Ram Jam is, what a Black Betty is or why I need to even write about them in the first place, but I will.

Ram Jam was a band formed out of necessity rather than a struggling band trying to make it. Guitarist Bill Bartlett, who egged us on to watch him play his Green Tambourine in 1968 as a member of the Lemon Pipers, had formed a new band with 2 other former band members called Starstruck, not be confused with Starbuck. Between personnel changes and a lack of momentum to get a recording contract, Bill decided to play around with the Leadbelly song, Black Betty. He thought a one-minute long would be a good remake especially if you added some hard rock guitars to a disco drum beat. Not thinking much more about it, he recorded it with his band mates and released it locally. It was actually a nice regional hit around Ohio and Jim was pleased.

That’s when Jerry Kasenetz & Jeff Katz, pop producers who were considered the purveyors of the Bubblegum sound of the late 60s, picked up on it. They invited Jim to New York, tweaked it a bit and re-released it nationally on the Epic Records label. Not only did it become a surprise Top 20 hit in the US, peaking at #18 on Labor Day weekend 1977, it was a bigger hit in England and Australia where it climbed into the Top 10. So the guts in Starstruck should have been ecstatic, right? Only if we’re not talking about the record industry, who decided the Ram Jam should be Bill Bartlett and a stable of New York musicians. I call it the Alan Dennison effect.

Maybe they thought the playing on the track was sub par. They may have a point as the recording is stiffer than a starched Arrow shirt at the North Pole. Listen to that drum solo. This guy makes Carmine Appice come off like Steve Gadd. He can barely keep up with everyone. And the 45 edit doesn’t do him any favors, since they cut out the little honkytonk jam section and left in the licks that wouldn’t cut it in an 8th-grade battle of the bands. But I digress….

The song, while definitely inane, probably benefited from the controversy of the lyrics, which were openly boycotted by the NAACP, even though they were written more than 40 years earlier. This song was originally made popular in the 30’s being sung by convicts in State prison farms. It may have been lost altogether had not John & Alan Lomax recorded a version in the field a prison in Sugar Land, Texas. Leadbelly recorded his version in 1939 and was credited from there on and out as the songwriter. Many have debated what or who Black Betty was: a musket, whiskey, a slave whip or even a motorcycle. When sung by Ram Jam, it could’ve been anything from a prostitute to heroin. Nowadays it’s just used to artificially pump up the crowd at sporting events. Except for that one dude way down in Alabam’, windows down, Dodge Dart kickin’ out gravel down a dusty country road til it can’t bam-a-lam no more.