Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

On Monday September 5, 1977, NBC premiered James at 15, a TV movie about 15-year-old James Hunter (Lance Kerwin), whose life is upended when his family moves from Oregon to Boston in the middle of the school year. After a few days at his new high school, where fitting in proves difficult, he hits the road in hopes of reuniting with the girl he left behind, Lacey (Melissa Sue Anderson); and, along the way, he falls in with an art student (Kate Jackson) who teaches him the ways of the road (aka hitch hiking). It did well in the ratings – topped them, in fact – and, as a result, was turned into a TV series that debuted at the end of October.

For its era, both the TV movie and series were unusually frank. It was no Born Innocent, mind you, yet delved into the gradients of teenage life with as much honesty as the network censors would allow. (That interference caused the creator/showrunner, novelist Dan Wakefield, to resign midway through the season.) The series also broke stereotypes with James’ friends, who include aspiring anthropologist-psychologist Marlene (Susan Myers), whose dad is a working-class joe, and capitalist-in-the-making Sly (David Hubbard), a black kid whose straitlaced parents are into classical music. James and the supporting characters aren’t caricatures, in other words, but the kind of kids one might pass in the era’s high-school corridors. Likewise, James’ parents (Linden Chiles, Lynn Carlin) and sisters (Deirdre Berthrong, Kim Richards) come across as variants of the real thing.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. Some episodes veer into ABC Afterschool Special territory, teaching the (presumably) younger viewers life lessons from afar. One early episode, for example, finds James trying to woo a girl (Teri Nunn, who later found fame with the pop group Berlin) with a “bad” reputation only to discover she’s far from promiscuous. Another finds his best friend from Oregon visiting Boston in order to see cancer specialists; he dies, of course. Another possible love interest leads him to consider joining a cult. And, late in the season, he befriends a girl (Rosanna Arquette) who’s an alcoholic. Other stories venture into the “ick” territory, such as his older sister’s involvement with one of her college professors or his uncle “gifting” him with a prostitute for his 16th birthday (James declines, as he’s late for a date with a Swedish exchange student). Along the way, brief Walter Mitty-esque interludes punctuate the stories, but are far more annoying than humorous. 

Technically speaking, James – who celebrated his 16th birthday in February 1978, making his birth year 1962 – was a late addition to the Baby Boom generation. A “generation,” for those unsure of what one entails, is defined as people born during a specific stretch of years, though social scientists often quibble about when each begins and/or ends. Individual generations experience the same cultural and societal touchstones and/or upheavals; and those shared references, in turn, result in something akin to a hive-like mindset that plays out in pop culture, politics and societal shifts. In the case of the Baby Boomers, the years range from 1946 (some experts say ’43) to 1964; they experienced the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War and Woodstock, among other events. Generation X (1965-80), aka my generation, came next; I tend to think of us more as Generation Jan, however, as – like Jan Brady – we’re the middle child forever overshadowed by our older and younger siblings, the aforementioned Boomers and Millennials (1981-2000), most of whom came of age in the years following 9/11, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars raged.  

Which is to say, teenage James has more in common with first-wave Gen Xers like myself than first- or second-wave boomers, as the defining events of the 1960s would have been beyond his ken. That’s where “micro-generations” come in – subsets that bridge two generations. The ill-named Generation Jones (1954-65) and Xennials (late 1970s to early ‘80s) are two examples. James may have seen news reports on the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Woodstock as a little kid, but the more mundane matters of childhood would have been foremost on his mind. Watergate, the Bicentennial and Bad News Bears would have all penetrated his consciousness, on the other hand, simply because he was older.

For any late-stage Boomer or first-wave Xer, James at 15/16 (it updated its title on his birthday) is worth watching, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It recalls, via its sensational yet soft-scrubbed stories, a time when kids dressed as we dressed, talked as we talked, and acted like we acted (though the lack of video-arcade scenes is a strike against it). That it’s yet to be officially released on DVD means second-hand recordings uploaded to YouTube or purchased via the bootleg market will have to do. So be it.

On December 11, 1974, Neil Young entered a Nashville studio with new songs in mind. Fellow travelers Ben Keith (pedal steel) and Tim Drummond (bass) were on hand, as was the Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and, presumably, kindred spirit Emmylou Harris (though she may have overdubbed her harmonies later). After a few days, the sessions – with drummer Karl T. Himmel taking over for Helm after three songs – relocated to Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch and then to L.A. Soon enough, after resurrecting two songs recorded over the summer, a new album was born…but, until now, never released.

It’s a story most older fans know, of course, as Neil told it in a 1975 interview with Cameron Crowe: At the last minute, he shelved the ready-to-roll Homegrown and released instead “the most liquid album” he ever made, Tonight’s the Night: “I had a playback party for Homegrown for me and about 10 friends. We were out of our minds. We all listened to the album and Tonight’s the Night happened to be on the same reel. So we listened to that too, just for laughs. No comparison.”

“A lot of people would probably say that [Homegrown] is better,” he went on to explain. “I know the first time I listened back on Tonight’s the Night it was the most out-of-tune thing I’d ever heard. Everyone’s off-key. I couldn’t hack it. But by listening to those two albums back to back at the party, I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown. I took Tonight’s the Night because of its overall strength in performance and feeling. The theme may be a little depressing, but the general feeling is much more elevating than Homegrown.” 

He also says, “I’m sure parts of Homegrown will surface on other albums of mine. There’s some beautiful stuff that Emmylou Harris sings harmony on. I don’t know. That record might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album. It was the darker side to Harvest. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady. It was a little too personal…it scared me.”

Forty-five years later, on the Neil Young Archives, he expanded on why he left the album locked away: “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.”

“Separate Ways” leads off the album and finds him ruminating on his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. He’s sad it’s over, but doesn’t wish away what they had: “We go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharing our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…”

“Vacancy,” recorded a month later at the Broken Arrow Ranch, finds him in a less forgiving mood – he casts his lover as a pod person, just about: “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there/You poison me with that long vacant stare/You dress like her and she walks in your words/You frown at me and then you smile at her…”

“Star of Bethlehem,” which was eventually released on American Stars & Bars, circles round to the top, thematically speaking: “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone/All you have is memories of happiness lingering on…”

In between, surprisingly, not all songs excavate love gone wrong. The title track – known to many via American Stars ’n Bars, celebrates homegrown dope; “Florida” does too, in that it’s stoned patter that hopes for profundity but comes across as pablum; “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” recorded on New Year’s Eve, is a bluesy jam; and the delicate “Little Wing” is absolutely gorgeous.

Through the years, some tracks – some re-cut, others not – surfaced on other albums – “Homegrown” and “Star of Bethlehem” on American Stars ’n Bars, “Love Is a Rose” on Decade, “Little Wing” on Hawks & Doves, and “White Line” on Ragged Glory. Recorded during the same sessions, “The Old Homestead” wound up on Hawks & Doves while “Deep Forbidden Lake” landed on Decade; and, recorded the same day as “Love Is a Rose,” the CSN-laden “Through My Sails” closed Zuma.

Listening to Homegrown, one thing is obvious: It’s no match for the ache and gravitas that is Tonight’s the Night. That’s not a knock, mind you; few albums are. But it’s also not as great as some critics – who’ve obviously gone mad after months of lockdown – seem to think. Rolling Stone calls it an “unearthed masterpiece” in a track-by-track analysis while Variety dubs it “one of the best albums from his 1970s golden era.” It’s neither. Rolling Stone’s main review by Angie Martoccio gets a little closer to the truth, though the four-and-a-half stars it’s awarded is one star too many. To my ears, it’s a solid set that – aside from “Florida” – is quite a treat, though it is sometimes bleak due to the heartache that fuels the songs.  

If it had been released in place of Tonight’s the Night, would much have changed? TTN was more of an artistic than commercial success, after all, peaking at only No. 25 on the Billboard charts. While Homegrown – which features a friendlier, Harvest-like sound – isn’t an artistic equal to TTN, my hunch is it would have done better when it comes to sales, as some tracks are more radio-friendly, but doubt it would have done much to change the arc of Neil’s career.

That said, Homegrown’s all right with me… it’s Neil. It’s new (mostly). Some may be disappointed at first, due to the hype that preceded its release, but to those I’d say give it a few listens. The potency creeps up on you.

Most music fans know (or should know) the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips. For those few who don’t: in 1952, at age 7, she appeared on (and won) Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour

…aka the American Idol of its day. Not long thereafter, she joined her brother Merald (aka “Bubba”), sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest in a music group dubbed the Pips after a cousin whose nickname was “Pip.” As the years pushed toward 1960, Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by Edward Patten and Langston George; and the group toured with, and opened for, such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. They also released their first single in 1958, “Whistle My Love,” which went nowhere fast; and, as Gladys Knight and the Pips, released the Johnny Otis-penned “Every Beat of My Heart,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. 

There were actually two versions of “Every Beat” – the one for Atlanta Huntom/Vee Jay that hit the top 10 and a re-recorded version for the Fury label that reached No. 45; Fury also released the group’s first full-length platter, Letter Full of Tears, in 1962. A string of near-hits followed and, in 1966, Gladys, Merald, William and Edward signed with Motown, where they’d remain until 1972. 

There’s far more to unpack, including a tumultuous personal life, but for the purposes of this piece I’ll skip everything save this: Gladys and the Pips were not seen as a top-tier act by Motown, which was home to such established hitmakers as the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Marvin Gaye. Add to that this: She was allegedly viewed as a threat by Diana Ross, who supposedly had Gladys and the guys dumped from their opening slot on a 1968 Supremes tour because they were too good (i.e. better than Diana and gals).

There were a slew of songs in that spell that could and should have been hits, but weren’t; and others that they would have done wonders with if given a chance. Yet, their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded after the Miracles and Marvin Gaye renditions but released first, reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1967; they also scored top 10 pop singles with “If I Were Your Woman” (No. 9 in 1970) and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (No. 2 in 1972); in the same timeframe, however, they scored 11 R&B top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. I.e., with a better marketing push, a song like the funky “Friendship Train” could have topped the pop charts.

As a result, with their contract up, Gladys and the Pips went shopping for a new home – and found one in Buddah Records, a small label that was home to an odd mix of bubblegum acts and soul music. As Ron Weisner, who was with Buddah at the time (and later served as Gladys’ manager) recounts in his memoir Listen Out Loud, they didn’t have as much to offer as other labels except for one thing: enthusiasm. So, for a lower advance than she might have gotten elsewhere, Gladys and the Pips signed the dotted line…

… and Imagination, one of the greatest albums of the early ‘70s, resulted. Because Buddah didn’t have in-house writers or producers, there was a freedom about the endeavor – and it’s heard in the album’s grooves. It merges soul, gospel and country, as evidenced by “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which began life as “Midnight Plane to Houston”) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – songs that circulate and percolate through the soul like few others.

There’s more to the album than those two tracks, however. “Storms of Troubled Times” – which, like “Midnight Train” and “Best Thing” was written by country singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly – is another highlight. Gladys’ vocals are cushioned by the Pips’ perfect harmonies.

When the world, when the world
Falls down around your shoulders
And you need a hand that’s strong and kind
Reach out for mine, reach out for mine
And I will lead you through the storms of troubled times

“Where Peaceful Waters Flow” is thematically similar to “Storms” and is no less stirring. Although she didn’t write the lyrics, it doesn’t much matter. When she sings, the words flow from her soul into ours.  

One surprising track is “I Can See Clearly Now,” an evocative cover of the Johnny Nash tune that features the Pips upfront. In fact, the only weak cut on the nine-song album is the last one, “Window Raisin’ Granny”; to my ears, it’s a so-so rewrite (by Gladys and the three Pips) of Bill Withers’ “Granny’s Hands.” Yet, even it has something to offer – a sterling vocal.

In the charts, Imagination did well – No. 9 on Billboard’s pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts – but could (and should) have done even better. 

My favorite song from the set may well be “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – and though I love the studio version, this rendition from a 1974 TV appearance (which I’ve spotlighted before) remains my favorite despite the lousy video quality…

… for a few reasons, but primarily because it reminds me of when Diane and I saw Gladys at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., in the early 1990s. Though much of the specifics of the concert have long been lost to time, the passion she invested in each song lingers still. She was a dynamic stage presence.

Incidentally, at that point, I only knew Gladys (with and without the Pips) from various greatest-hits collections and anthologies. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to explore her specific albums, including this one, which quickly became my favorite. That said, there are other LPs that folks who only know the hits should check out, including If I Were Your Woman (which, aside from the classic title track, includes a great version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) and Standing Ovation. I’ll be spotlighting a few of them in the weeks and months ahead.

Released in June 1979, Back to the Egg was lambasted by rock critics the world over. In Rolling Stone, for instance, well-respected scribe Timothy White called it “[a] veritable slide show of dead-end flights of fancy and yesterday’s dross” and claimed it “doesn’t contain one cut that’s the least bit fleshed out or brought to any logical conclusion.” Sales-wise, it was something of a disappointment, too. Although it did go platinum in the U.S. and gold in the U.K., it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as anticipated.

Yet it remains a favorite of many Wings connoisseurs, myself included, due to the spiky sound Paul McCartney often found with the latest (and last) iteration of his band, which now included guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holley. Co-produced with Chris Thomas, whose credits included records by Chris Spedding, the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Badfinger, Back to the Egg features a mix of new wave, power pop and old-fashioned rock, with lots of Macca’s patented whimsy sprinkled throughout.

But, first, let me set the stage: I joined the Wings Fun Club at some point in early 1979, and not long thereafter received the first all-color edition of its Club Sandwich newsletter, which alerted me that Paul and Wings were recording a new album. After learning that, I stopped in the Hatboro Music Shop just about every day to see if it was out…until the proprietor (and future Hatboro mayor) Joe Celano finally explained to me that new releases only came out on Tuesdays. By the time of its release, June 8th, I was bouncing off the walls as only 13-year-old me could.

The Club Sandwich trumpeting Back to the Egg, which is pictured up top, arrived a week or two before the album itself was released, though I could be wrong. It went in-depth into the recording, with Laurence delving into the guitar side of the songs and this article expanding upon the overall process:

I immediately heard it as an approximation of the radio experience – and still do, though that wasn’t McCartney’s intent. Listening to it is akin to twisting the radio dial in search of that sound, whatever that sound may be, and coming across an array of infectious tunes. There was rock, pop, new wave, disco-light and even some psychedelia, plus a true Beatles-like “happening”: a who’s who of rock’s (primarily) old guard in an orchestral-like setting for the “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.”

Replicating the radio experience wasn’t the concept, however. It was meant to convey the experiences of a band on the road, but that concept cracks shortly after Back to the Egg begins. The “Reception” is said to be the band listening to the radio on the way to a venue; “Getting Closer” signals, uh, getting closer to the venue; and “We’re Open Tonight” – the working title for the album – is the arrival.

“Spin It On,” thus, is the concert’s start.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch. The only thing that connects the songs to the concept are the titles, as – aside from “We’re Open Tonight” – the lyrics are about matters of the heart; and the concept further deflates by the time the LP is flipped from Side A to Side B, which includes not one, but two medleys. In a metaphoric sense, then, the band’s van got stuck in a ditch before it reached the venue. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fine album. A good album. I loved it as a kid and still like it, now, though I think it would have worked better if they’d ironed out the kinks and embraced an “Around the Dial” theme instead of a band on the run from town to town.

The guitar-driven “Getting Closer” features a catchy chorus, but is lyrically slight. The concise “Spin It On,” on the other hand, is one of McCartney’s top rockers – as are the Grammy Award-winning “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.” And “Old Siam Sir” is a psychedelic delight with some tasty guitar licks. One can almost smell the smoke and see the black light swirling from the speakers.

“To You” is another tasty little rocker. And one of the medleys, “Winter Rose/Love Awake,” tugs at the heart in its first half and then flowers into bloom in the second in an easy, engaging manner. (In retrospect, they should have been separate tracks.)

Denny Laine’s “Again and Again and Again” is another highlight. 

In some respects, at least to my ears, Back to the Egg uses the same basic template Linda Ronstadt used for her 1980 Mad Love album – an old-guard artist embracing the new wave…though not really. At the end of the day, it’s McCartney and cohorts cranking out some good tunes. Is it his or their best? No. But it’s a fun set, nonetheless, and features one of the coolest LP covers of all time.

I should add that it will be a no-brainer purchase if or when it’s released in deluxe form. (It was said to be slated for the end of 2019, but put on hold for reasons unknown.) The band filmed umpteen promotional videos, some of which are on YouTube, which would make for a cool bonus DVD, especially if the TV special that arose from the “Rockestra” sessions is included. Also, soon after the album’s release, the band hit the road for a U.K. tour that culminated with their appearance at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea on December 29th, 1979. Although this version of Wings didn’t quite reach the heights of the Wings Over the World-era band, the shows were solid. (Various bootlegs and the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea LP are proof of that.) A concert could be included, in other words.

The Back to the Egg track listing: