Swinging To The Sounds Of The ’70s

October 26, 2011

During several years as the head buyer for a very large record store, I had a few dozen label reps wooing me on a regular basis.

As they were giving me stuff, I was receptive to being wooed and I got along quite well with all of them except for the one we’d dubbed Dodgeball. He went behind my back to get an order for some long-forgetten band called Space Monkeys.

(no one needs 300 copies of Space Monkeys – not in 1997, not now, not ever)

One rep who I always got a kick out of was Lenny, who walked with a limp and resembled Kenny Rogers.

As much as those details alone made him compelling – had The Gambler been shot? – I liked Lenny because he’d worked in the music industry for decades and could spin a yarn.

He had little interest in the grunge and alternative rock that was dominating the musical landscape at the time and he’d often ask me how old I was.

He’d bob his head like some bird that might eventually end up as part of a meal at a Kenny Rogers Roasters.

“You know, you’ll eventually end up listening to country music.”

I suppose that he was telling me that I’d outgrow the greasy kids stuff.

This migration toward country music hasn’t occurred, but I have come to realize that there’s something about the music of the ’70s that makes for a good morning commute.

I was two as the decade began and twelve as it concluded. Music was just beginning to be of interest to me in the period after disco had crashed and burned.

The music of ’70s is familiar to me, but much of it’s not overly so. Even big hits of the decade are songs I’ve probably heard less than some of the minor hits of the ’80s when I was listening to the radio obsessively.

And though the ’70s – like the ’80s – have certainly been unfairly maligned, hearing Hot Chocolate’s Every 1s A Winner, 10cc’s The Things We Do For Love, Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown, and The Knack’s Good Girls Don’t (as I did on the commute one morning this past week) works well enough for me.

And, to add some detail to the sometimes fuzzy memories I have of the music of the ’70s, 7 Inches Of 70s Pop and 70s Music Mayhem – two wonderful sites devoted solely to the decade – are frequent destinations.

Here are four mostly random hits from the ’70s…

Jim Croce – You Don’t Mess Around With Jim
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection (1998)

I remember my dad quoting the advice given in You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, so I might have heard the song when it became Croce’s first hit in late summer of ’72. It’s a rollicking number much in the vein of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which would be an even bigger hit the following spring.

At one record store where I worked, five or six of us had a bookie named Stick Daddy.

I never met Stick Daddy, but Jim Croce probably did.

Lobo – Me And You And A Dog Named Boo
from Have A Nice Decade: The 70s Pop Culture Box (1998)

Though I was a toddler in 1971, I do remember hearing Lobo’s Me And You And A Dog Named Boo on the radio at the time. I imagine the fact that the singer had a dog appealed to me.

(my brother and I had to make do with a hamster and hamsters, if no one has ever told you, don’t fetch).

But I dig the breezy song which I can’t help thinking would have made a most excellent theme song to a Saturday morning kids show.

Looking Glass – Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)
from Have A Nice Decade: The 70s Pop Culture Box (1998)

Brandy is perfect, a song that is always welcome when it pops up on the iPod’s shuffle (or in the supermarket, for that matter). It seems that it would be ripe to be covered, but, then again, perhaps its nautical themes and tale of those residing at a port in a harbor town wouldn’t resonate with today’s pop audience.

Boston – More Than A Feeling
from Boston (1976)

For some reason, even though it was apparently a hit in the winter months, I think of More Than A Feeling as a summer song. Although I’m not rabid about the song, it does conjure up a good vibe for me and I’ve never quite understood the venom reserved for Boston.

Also, I find it amusing that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was influenced by the song.

Jim Croce And Model Plane Dogfights In Basement Skies

September 18, 2010

This morning, I headed out to run errands and, as often is the case, Paloma had left the station tuned to the adult alternative station. One of the DJs hosts a flashback show on Saturday mornings, so I left it on to see if the year being highlighted hooked me.

Jim Croce’s Operator was playing.

The song by the late singer took me back to childhood – small memories both good and bad, and one that I’d truly forgotten.

Jim Croce died in a post-concert plane crash on September 20, 1973 as he was finally achieving widespread fame and success. I wasn’t even in grade school, yet Bad, Bad Leroy Brown had been one of the first singles I owned and I recall his songs on the radio, especially in the wake of his death.

As Operator played, my mind conjured up the memory of a cold, dark winter morning not long after Croce’s death. It was my birthday, but, early that morning, my father received a phone call with the news that a co-worker and one of his closest friends – like Croce, named Jim – had been killed in a car accident.

I remember accompanying my father on several occasions to visit his friend’s widow and how empty the house seemed, how it seemed provide no shelter from the howl of the wind during those December days, and how there seemed to be no light, nothing but shadows in black and white.

Then, my mind remembered the model planes, something of which I had not thought in twenty-five years or more and something so vague in my immediate recollection I briefly considered that the memory was not real at all.

But it was.

I couldn’t pick the face of my father’s friend from a line-up of people I have barely known, but the model planes came into clearer focus as Jim Croce sang on the radio.

The planes – scale-replicas of World War II aircraft -had been given to my father by his friend’s widow and were hung by wires from the ceiling of the basement where my brother and I played as children.

Of course, we were children and the planes – hanging just beyond our reach, frozen in imaginary dogfights near the laundry room – were irresistible to us and, as often happens when children lay their hands on fragile items, the results were predictably disastrous.

The planes were subjected to small-scale carnage no less damaging than their real-life counterparts might have experienced over the skies of Europe decades earlier.

No lives were lost and all my brother and I received was some relatively minor punishment. To us, at that age, they were just mere toys and their destruction was was just another day’s work as kids. We didn’t – and couldn’t – understand that their value was far greater than the other items that had met their demise at our small hands.

Operator ended and the DJ began to babble about weather and traffic and such. Soon, he was touting the opening of a local pizza joint as though having some commerce-inspired fit of Tourettes Syndrome sans the profanity.

Someone has something for sale – something his listeners need to buy.

All I could think as I opted for the iPod and searched for another Jim Croce song was that not everything is for sale, not everything can be bought, and not everything lost is always lost for good.

Listening to Jim Croce is like the sweater that I pull out often as the weather gets colder (the one for which Paloma would happily host a retirement party should I remove it from heavy rotation). Here are four songs from the late, great singer…

Jim Croce – You Don’t Mess Around With Jim
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I remember my dad quoting the advice given in You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, so I might have heard the song when it became Croce’s first hit in late summer of ’72. It’s a rollicking number much in the vein of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which would be an even bigger hit the following spring.

At one record store where I worked, five or six of us had a bookie named Stick Daddy.

I never met Stick Daddy, but Jim Croce probably did.

Jim Croce – Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

Even though Bad, Bad Leroy Brown was such an important song in my childhood and even though the guy did some wonderful upbeat stuff, when I think of Jim Croce, I think of the more somber songs.

(which, given the circumstances of his death, is not surprising)

There’s too much humor in the songs of Jim Croce, though, to think he was some melancholic singer/songwriter. Maybe I think of the more somber songs because of the brilliance of tracks like Operator.

Jim Croce – Time In A Bottle
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

Inspired by the birth of his son (and future musician) A.J., Time In A Bottle became a posthumous number one hit for Croce in late ’73 when his death gave the song an added measure of poignancy.

I’ve heard the song so many times that, when I hear it, I don’t always hear it. But, truly listening to it again, it’s undeniably lovely.

Jim Croce – I Got A Name
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I Got A Name was the title track from the album that Croce had just completed before his death and would be one of three hits – with I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song and Workin’ At The Car Wash Blues – from the record.

There’s just something about I Got A Name that I’ve always loved. The melody is engaging, the vibe is determined, and, in an economical three minutes and change, the song never fails to leave me feeling that everything is going to work out.

Four Singles

August 24, 2010

Unlike a lot of music bloggers whom I read, I have no fond memories of going to buy 45s with money earned mowing the lawn.

Many of these bloggers are capable of recounting with remarkable precision the details and circumstances of the first single they ever bought.

I can’t.

I can tell you that the first album I purchased (on cassette) was Christopher Cross’ debut.

And my first live show was seeing a band on a tour that would be infamously remembered and still discussed almost three decades later.

Sure, like most kids, I mowed acres of lawn, but I never bought more than a handful of 45s.

For one thing, I eased into a relationship with music, taking a good eighteen months or so from the point where I was turning on the radio to the point where music was beginning to consume the bulk of my budget.

Also, I had a tape recorder and would rudimentarily tape the songs I wanted from the radio onto crude mix tapes.

The sound quality was charmingly primitive but – as I was taking my time committing to the relationship – it didn’t matter. When I finally went all in, it was with full-length albums on cassette.

So, I mostly missed the experience of the 45.

However, just because I didn’t buy 45s doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any of my own. As a young kid, my mom would purchase a single for me now and again when a certain song would catch my fancy.

I sifted through the contents of my head and – more or less – retrieved the first singles that I ever owned. Though a couple were on radio in late 1972, all of them were on the charts during the first half of 1973…

King Harvest – Dancing In The Moonlight
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

It was sometime in autumn of 1972 when I started hearing Dancing In The Moonlight on the radio. The song still changes the atomosphere for me to a crisp October day as it might have been when I was four and would heard the song on the car radio.

I’m not exactly sure what it was about the song. It is ridiculously catchy and it made me suspicious that I was missing some happening communal event that occurred well after my bedtime. I pictured Max and the Wild Things from Where The Wild Things Are having their rumpus under the full moon as the song would play.

And it’s still groovy beyond belief. Is it possible to not be put in a better headspace listening to this song?

In fact, I nominate Dancing In The Moonlight as our global anthem.

Albert Hammond – It Never Rains In Southern California
from It Never Rains In Southern California

I doubt that I really considered the dire straits in which the protagonist of It Never Rains In Southern California found himself at the time. Again, I was four years old.

I did like sunshine, though and – as it was the dead of a Midwestern winter – the idea of a place where it was always sunny and warm sounded positively magical.

John Denver – Rocky Mountain High
from John Denver’s Greatest Hits

I seem to recall that Rocky Mountain High also served as a title for one of John Denver’s television specials at the time. I also seem to recall negotiating a cease-bedtime treaty to watch.

There he was – granny glasses, floppy hat – traipsing around in the mountains communing with nature, animals, granola-munching girls in bell-bottomed jeans with long, straight hair…

I was impressed with his style.

Jim Croce – Bad, Bad Leroy Brown
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I was also impressed with the style of one Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, especially after seeing the cartoon that accompanied the song on Sonny & Cher.

So, two of the first, male role models I had – aside from my father and grandfather – would have been John Denver and a cartoon version of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

(and things didn’t end well for either of them)

Jim Croce is another artist that I keep intending to explore further than the dozen or so songs I know. Even if I don’t get around to doing so, both he and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown will forever occupy a special place in my heart.