American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/5/81: REO Speedwagon, “In Your Letter”

Even at the beginning of my senior year in HS, I was buying only the occasional LP—maybe I had around a dozen by then. One, likely purchased sometime early in the summer of 1981, was REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity. I liked it pretty well; it definitely got quite a few spins on my dad’s turntable in our basement back then. While in college, I picked up You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish and Wheels Are Turnin’, but it’s fair to say that Hi Infidelity is still the REO album I know best overall.

A quick check at setlist.fm tells me that the Speedwagon played Champaign once while I was at UIUC, in November 1987. I didn’t go, and I don’t really recall any swelling sense of love for the hometown heroes during my time there, either. Nonetheless, I tip my hat to them for working hard and making good.

As I’ve done with other albums from my teen years that I owned, I’m taking a crack at ranking Hi Infidelity’s tracks.

10. “I Wish You Were There”
I get that rock bands need to do the ballad thing (though that’s frequently not my thing), and I guess this one isn’t terrible? It didn’t do much for me back in 1981, either, though.

9. “Don’t Let Him Go”
Third single, got to #24 the first two weeks of August. I seem to remember a school dance early that fall (DJ’ed by students) where this one got played—it cleared the floor. I’m just hoping I wasn’t the one responsible for that…

8. “Shakin’ It Loose”
How many times did I listen to this album after I graduated from HS, though? Very, very few. I’ll confess now that the names of the last three songs on side two didn’t trigger any music in my head prior to playing them earlier today. That said, I like this one fine—nice piano solo from Neal Doughty, for sure—but it’s still pretty close to filler.

7. “Someone Tonight”
Bassist Bruce Hall wrote it and sang lead. The sentiment behind the lyric is, um, uninspiring. Nonetheless, it’s a decent little rocker with good harmonies.

6. “In Your Letter”
This week’s #28 song, heading toward a peak of #20. I’m surprising myself a little by placing it as high as this, given that it didn’t exactly groove me in real time; I’m coming around to admiring it for channeling the pop of years past.

5. “Keep on Loving You”
On the other hand, maybe this one’s the victim of hearing it too much over the decades. It made #1 on my own chart for two weeks at the end of February (see, I can like rock ballads). Full credit for the “missin’/listen/hissin’” rhyme in verse one.

4. “Take It on the Run”
One of three songs—along with “I Love You” and “Sweetheart”—that became instant favorites in April and dominated my charts in May (got to #5 on the Hot 100, three weeks at #2 for me). This one may be the reason I bought the album. I remember it getting played over PAs at track meets that spring.

3. “Tough Guys”
Does Gary Richrath’s screaming guitar sound add to the song or not? I’m torn. This one has more fun writing (great second verse, and I’m a fan of “she’s gonna call your bluff, guys”). I’ll also cop to approval of the Little Rascals intro.

2. “Out of Season”
Another pop-rock gem. I was listening to WEBN, the AOR station in Cincinnati, quite a bit at this point, and I have to believe they were playing all of the top 3 in this list that summer. Classic song structure, but so well-executed.

1. “Follow My Heart”
First heard this by flipping over my “Keep On Loving You” 45, and liked it immediately. The urgency was palpable to a 17-year-old, not that I had any reason to relate to Kevin Cronin’s dilemma. It’s the cut from Hi Infidelity I would pick to take with me if made to choose just one, so that puts it at the top of the list. (It was the third song in the mixtape series that kicked off this blog, too.)

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/5/77: Al Stewart, “Year of the Cat”

It’s time to complete the trilogy I started almost a year ago in which I take a look back at three of the first LPs in my collection, attempting to order their tracks in some semblance of personal preference. First it was Silk Degrees, then A New World Record. Now, it’s Al Stewart’s first experience with big success, Year of the Cat.

Stewart had been kicking around for about ten years by this point, slowly gaining a following, perhaps more in the U.S. than the UK. Year of the Cat was his seventh album, and the second (of three) to be produced by Alan Parsons. Everything came together: an impeccable array of instrumentation ranging from Spanish guitar through violin, harmonica, and piano to saxophone, as well as a dazzling landscape of topics transformed into thoughtful, well-constructed poetry. The public was buying, as it climbed to #5 on the Billboard album chart. Still surprisingly fresh-sounding, coming on almost forty-five years later. Let’s take a look, why don’t we? I’ll include one of my favorite lyrics from each song.

9. “Midas Shadow”
The one song on the album that I might not miss if it weren’t there. It’s hardly bad–I’m generally a sucker for rhymes across verses–but it doesn’t stick with me afterward. Memorable line: “Conquistador in search of gold, for all the jackdaw reasons.”

8. “Sand in Your Shoes”
Perkier-sounding than the subject matter seems to dictate. I assume the title, which comes not from the lyrics, sums up how the rejected suitor feels about his former love. Memorable line: “And you lay there by the Do Not signs, and shamed them with your spark.”

7. “On the Border”
Basically impossible to separate the next four: ask another day, and I’d sort them some other way. The only of Stewart’s charting singles not to make the Top 40–it fell two spots shy in May of 1977–and also the only not to feature scorching sax work. Memorable line: “No one notices the customs slip away.”

6. “One Stage Before”
This one is much more about the music than the words for me, particularly the synthesizer rhythm underpinning it all. Simply mesmerizing, and a nice meditation on becoming one with performers of the past to boot. Memorable line: “Although we may not meet still you know me well.”

5. “Lord Grenville”
I wonder now what I thought about this album the first time I put it on the turntable of my father’s stereo. I can see being captivated by this sweeping opening number about sailors on the run, even while not understanding its references. History Lesson #1: Sir Richard Grenville was a 16th-century explorer/sailor who bravely/foolishly met his match going against the Spanish Armada. Memorable line: “I never thought that we would come to find ourselves upon these rocks again.”

4. “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It”
Stewart does an amazing job throughout, matching sounds and making it all feel so natural. Memorable line: “Well I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage of all that I wanted from life.”

3. “Broadway Hotel”
The B-side to the 45 for “Year of the Cat.” I flipped over many of the early singles I bought when playing DJ on my little turntable, and “Broadway Hotel” was among the best I discovered that way (I dearly love the violin solo and the piano/guitar on the outro). It’s possible that it’s what pushed me to take a chance on the album. Memorable line: “And a door sign keeps the world away behind the shades of your silent day.”

2. “Flying Sorcery”
It took over a decade to really appreciate this one. Year of the Cat was in the first wave of albums I re-purchased on CD, in the spring of 1988; listening one time in our apartment on Elm St. I was suddenly and permanently charmed by the narrator’s affection for his female pilot friend. History Lesson #2: Amy Johnson’s story is amazing, if you don’t know it. Memorable line: “Just call me if you ever need repairs.” Gets me every time.

1. “Year of the Cat”
Hardly a surprise. It was #20 on this show, steaming toward a #8 peak. Its trip up and down the chart was relatively quick, so it wound up only at #98 on AT40‘s year-end rankings for 1977. Memorable line: So many, but we’ll go with “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.”

American Top 40 PastBlast, 10/15/77: Electric Light Orchestra, “Telephone Line”

Several months ago, when going through the songs on Silk Degrees, I noted that Year of the Cat and A New World Record had come into my possession at roughly the same time (the last quarter of 77) and speculated that perhaps I’d take a closer look at those two LPs someday. It appears the Electric Light Orchestra’s time has arrived. 

ELO was definitely in the running for my favorite band between 76 and 80—I guess that really started with “Strange Magic” and solidified as the singles from ANWR were released. The album was part of my haul at Christmas; I’ve never really stopped listening to it, and it’s on the short list for my top ten all-time albums. There isn’t a bad track, so ranking its songs is difficult and is going to result in slighting some great tunes. Nonetheless, let’s give it a try. (As I’ve noted before, this kind of exercise isn’t original with me–full credit goes to Jim Bartlett.)

9. “Above the Clouds.” The shortest song on the album, and I guess I’d say there’s less going on in it than the others. I don’t fly often, but when it’s daylight and I have a window seat, the lines, “The only thing you can see/Is the view above the clouds,” are sure to be running through my head.

8.“Mission (A World Record).” Just your average tale about an extraterrestrial sent to observe us Earthlings who winds up having an existential crisis. It’s one I wish I were able to rate higher.

7. “Do Ya.” One of the famed forty-four songs that were on the mix tape series that kicked off this blog. It gets knocked down a bit here because it’s less orchestral and so sounds a little out of place relative to the other tracks. 

6. “Shangri-La.” I just don’t know enough about the history of rock to play ‘spot the influence’ very well, but we’re all aware that Jeff Lynne mined musical nuggets from the 50s and 60s with abandon, particularly the Beatles. The album’s closer, a meditation on love gone wrong, name-checks “Hey Jude,” and that quiet section before the final swell maybe makes me think just a little of the fadeout/return trick the Fab Four did on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Helter Skelter.”

5. “Tightrope.” We can tell we’re in for a great ride from the get-go of Side 1, Song 1: the long, slow string intro, the change in point of view as verse shifts to chorus, the answered cry for help. Plus, we get the magically-metered, syncopated “The city streets are full of people going nowhere making time.”

4. “So Fine.” I had a big crush on a girl in my church youth group for a big chunk of 79 and 80. My family lived in the next county over from Erlanger, and she and I went to different high schools. In December 79, our boys’ basketball teams faced off in my school’s gym. She was a member of their flag corps; they did a halftime routine to this song that night. Kudos to the coach for her excellent taste!

That’s not why I like “So Fine” so much–that’d be its energy, the buildup throughout the instrumental interlude, and that soaring chorus–but apparently there are some things you don’t forget.

3. “Telephone Line.” I can see the case for “Telephone Line” being the best song on ANWR. It’s certainly another great, dramatic piece. I think I just got a little burned out on it toward the end of its run and never fully recovered.

It’s at #18 on this show, having topped out at #7. “Don’t Bring Me Down” peaked higher, but based on the length of time on the Hot 100, it’s reasonable to say that “Telephone Line” was ELO’s biggest hit. A friend up the street from me owned the translucent green 45—I was thinking that we had a purple copy of the “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” single, but if so, I haven’t seen it in a long time.

2. “Livin’ Thing.” One of the 45s I played over and again during that frigid winter of 77, and still one of my fave AT40 songs from that period. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle,” the B-side, was quite good as well. 

1. “Rockaria!” A near-perfect distillation of what Lynne appears to want to do on this record: create a contemporary-sounding integration of the elements of classical music and early rock ‘n’ roll. Great storytelling, too, wherein our heroine does that very thing. I loved this dearly from the first time I heard it. 

My father collected a lot of classical music on vinyl in the 60s and 70s, and at least some of it was opera, though I didn’t have the impression he was an ardent fan. Following his death, I took a few hundred slabs of vinyl to the Cincinnati Public Library for them to sell (someone had the opportunity to get some nice stuff, I know).  I kept a few of his albums for myself, mostly to serve as a small reminder of what he’d assembled; one was a 3-LP recording of Carmen.

It seems to me that “Rockaria!” (which I pronounced “Rock-a-REE-ah” back in the day) would have been right up Dad’s alley. Alas, I can’t recall him ever commenting on it. But it’s alright.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/16/77: Boz Scaggs, “Lido Shuffle”

The first LP I ever bought was a joint effort with my sister. It was April 76, and Amy and I were all about the Captain and Tennille. “Love Will Keep Us Together” probably had been my fave song of 75, and I was now digging on “Lonely Night (Angel Face).” So one day we gave up a big chunk of our savings at Sid’s Elsmere Drugs for a copy of Song of Joy. I haven’t listened to it in years—Amy wound up with it, I assume—and only a couple of the songs beyond the singles would ring a bell today.

It’d be well over a year before there were any albums added to my collection—the money that wasn’t going for baseball cards was being spent on 45s. The next three to come on board were all simply amazing, though. I received A New World Record for Christmas in 77, but sometime in the late fall I’d splurged and bought two others on my own: Year of the Cat and Silk Degrees (I think The Stranger was next; I really can’t complain about getting maximum bang for my buck back then.)

I may do a turn with those ELO, Al Stewart, and Billy Joel albums someday, but today I’m going to take a shot at ranking the tracks on the one from Boz, a la Jim Bartlett’s Re-Listening Project.

Silk Degrees was Scaggs’s 7th solo album, his fourth on Columbia. Collaborating with David Paich, who plays keyboards and wrote or co-wrote six of the ten songs on offer, looks now to be the key decision that helped push Boz over the top. The vocals are stellar, and there’s incredible session work from everyone, including Paich’s future Toto bandmates David Hungate (bass) and Jeff Porcaro (drums). It boggles my mind that Porcaro was just 21 when this was recorded.

The album cover is iconic now, but the photo on the inside sleeve has always had me wondering: why is there a red carpet leading out to a palm tree?

Let it all begin…

10. “Harbor Lights.” I’m not in the least opposed to Boz doing a ballad (see #5), but I’ve never really felt the love for “Harbor Lights.” That pepped-up jazzy section at the end is a bit of a cipher, too.

9. “What Can I Say.” The opening track and third single released; it made #42 as 76 turned into 77. It’s fine, but there are two, maybe three others I’d have considered as a single ahead of it. It feels like I’m a little out on a limb here, ranking this so low.

8. “Jump Street.” True confession: I’m not a rock critic, though I seem to play one occasionally in this space. I’m not a lifelong Scaggs fan who knows a bunch of his catalog; I’m just a guy who enjoyed many of the singles and album cuts I heard on the radio when I was in my teens and was lucky enough to buy Silk Degrees at a formative time. So I can’t tell you anything about how the blues or R&B or Steve Miller impacted Boz’s work over the years. The blues-rocker “Jump Street” was not one of my favorites back in the day, but it’s growing on me now, especially when I get the chance to shout “Look out, fool!”

7. “Love Me Tomorrow.” Here’s where we get to the songs I really liked from the beginning. Porcaro’s work stands out on this slinky tune about a love affair at its end.

6. “It’s Over.” The first single, and not an unreasonable choice at all for that honor. Was #38 on the first chart I wrote down, 6/5/76. Not surprisingly, 12-year-old me didn’t get Boz’s last name right from listening to Casey that evening.

BozScaggs60576

Sometime later I corrected it, clearly, but it looks like maybe I wrote down ‘Gangs’ originally.

What strikes me about the song now is its relatively unconventional vocal opening: the first four lines are sung only by the backup singers (okay, it’s Boz, with Maxine Green). It’s a very solid piece.

5. “We’re All Alone.” My Joel Whitburn book informs me that this was the B-side to both “What Can I Say” and “Lido Shuffle.” (“Harbor Lights” was the flip to the first two singles.) Because I’d purchased the 45 for “Lido” when it was a hit, I was already quite familiar with “We’re All Alone” by the time Rita Coolidge hit the Top 10 with her (inferior) cover in the fall. I was a total doofus at school dances, but if I hadn’t been, it would have been a tough choice between this and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” for best Boz slow-dance song (not that either ever got played at any dance I attended, anyway).

4. “What Do You Want the Girl to Do.” At first I thought there was a clear order to these ten songs, but as I got closer to publishing, further reflection led to revisions—only the top 3 and last one have stayed in their original spots (I wound up swapping this with “We’re All Alone”).

Silk Degrees was the third album in a row Boz included at least one Allen Toussaint song. Even when I was 13 and 14, this track stood out. The line, “Can’t you see you’re breaking the child in two,” has been known to pop into my head at random moments over the years.

3. “Lowdown.” I’m not sure I can add anything new about “Lowdown.” I do know I haven’t gotten tired of hearing it yet. Deserved to be his biggest hit; it’s probably single-handedly responsible for Silk Degrees getting its Grammy nominations. Still, it’s a touch surprising this is the only time Scaggs made the Top 10.

2. “Georgia.” Story of a man separated, for crimes unspecified, from his love. Is it a kind of “Indiana Wants Me” situation? Is Georgia underage? I don’t know, but despite any potential skeeviness, I would have loved to find out how it would have fared as a single. The chorus is fantastic, but even that’s transcended by the last thirty seconds on the way to fade-out. I still hear it surprisingly often over the PA at grocery and department stores (this happens with #4 as well, though less frequently).

1. “Lido Shuffle.” My homeroom teacher in 7th grade was Mr. Gayle, who also taught English. Seats were assigned alphabetically column-wise in a snake-like fashion (front to back one column, then back to front the next), starting at the door. I wound up in the front seat in the 4th column, right in front of Mr. Gayle’s desk. As the school year proceeded, he and I shared more and more often our opinions on the popular hits of the day. I lobbied for “The Things We Do for Love,” but he hated it (I’m sure things went the other direction on other songs, too). We both agreed on the epic-ness of “Lido Shuffle,” however.

There are any number of tunes vying for the title of “greatest song ever to peak at #11 on the Hot 100,” but I’d nominate “Lido Shuffle” for consideration, at least in the 70s division (it’s #17 on this show). Driving beat and a fun sing-along chorus—thankfully, the building Moog solo at the end has managed to avoid sounding dated. Back in the day I ranked this as my second favorite song of 77 (behind “Year of the Cat”); I’d be hard-pressed to place anything above it still, though “Go Your Own Way” has been gaining ground over the years.

Ranking Songs on Albums: REM, “Automatic for the People”

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the release of REM’s last great album, the somber Automatic for the People.  A week ago, the band celebrated by setting out upon us a three-disk Deluxe Edition–could be on my Christmas list!  In honor, here’s my ranking of its twelve tunes (with more than just a nod to jb, who’s done this sort of thing for great late 70s albums such as Rumours, Some Girls, and Hotel California).

#12.  “Sweetness Follows.”  Truth be told, the bottom four are pretty easy for me.  The worst is hardly bad, but I’ve never taken time to get much into this one.

#11.  “Star Me Kitten.”  Its atmosphere is definitely of a piece with the rest of the album.  It just hasn’t grabbed me like many of the others.

#10.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”  Not a whole, whole lot going on here, but I do hear an ode to the Crescent City.

#9.  “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” A stronger tune than I thought upon first listen back in the day.  I don’t know all that much about Montgomery Clift—his career was derailed by a car accident and he died pretty young—but Michael Stipe clearly found him a sympathetic character.

#8.  “Drive.”  Now the rankings get harder, with some of the prominent tunes popping up.  This, the first track and lead single, is an obvious paean to the early 74 hit “Rock On,” by David Essex.  It’s done in such a way, though, that it sets in place an almost funereal tone for the whole album.

#7.  “Man on the Moon.”  Maybe the most well-known song on Automatic, even if it’s in part because its title was lent as the name of the subsequent Andy Kaufman biopic. Lots of good name-checking going on.

#6.  “Ignoreland.”  Righteous anger and social commentary galore from Stipe and company here.  This is the one to crank.

#5.   “Find the River.”  On the other end of the spectrum is the closing song.  Beautiful, introspective work about searching out one’s path.  It took some time for it to stand out and move its way up the list.

#4.  “Try Not to Breathe.”  Moving piece on death and dying. It’s one I’ve liked from the beginning.

#3.  “Everybody Hurts.”  This is almost certainly the most important song on the album, though not my favorite.  I had moved back to KY after six years in IL several weeks before Automatic came out.  Soon after, my dissertation advisor predicted in an email that this would be REM’s first #1 song.  Didn’t work out that way, but it’s an incredibly affecting work.  The video only enhances its power.  Probably should be #2 on the list, but…

#2.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” …I’ve got to go with the fun, sing-along piece here instead.  I love that they used a take where Stipe’s voice catches, holding back laughter right after singing, “…and a reading from Dr. Suess.”  Still, I honestly hear/feel more than a tinge of sorrow on this one, too.

#1.  “Nightswimming.” Love the piano line, love the oboe, love the strings, love the vulnerability, love the longing for times past.  Grade A+ stuff.  In my REM All-Time Top 5, for sure. Let’s give it a whirl.