Unplayed Classics

You never hear them anymore—certain tracks from the late 1970s that HAD A CERTAIN “ATMOSPHERE” of the moment.

Classic FM stations are too busy playing pre-programmed blocks of Zep or Mac to squeeze some of these just-as-deserving-of-airtime songs in.  Similarly, “oldies” stations seem to think the genre stops at huge chunks of Motown followed by Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” (not his best song, I might add—that would be a toss-up between “Only the Lonely” or “In Dreams”), with maybe a Heart song tossed in toForgotten Records/Forgotten PlayerCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2017 really “mix things up”.

While the majority of Top 40 today has a certain “sameness” to it, the mid to late 1970s was a mish-mash of styles, tempos, and subject matter.  

A look at the charts from any year in the late Seventies reveals diversity in music not heard on today’s airwaves.  Songs such as the insipid dreck of “Afternoon Delight” (by one-hit wonders, The Starland Vocal Band) cozied up to Wild Cherry’s raucous “Play that Funky Music” and the plaintive “Take it to the Limit” by the Eagles, all in 1976.

So, let’s take a trip back in time and listen to some of these overlooked gems (in no particular order).  Everyone knows the rules: hands and arms inside at all times, you must be THIS tall to come along, and I won’t hear any back talk.  [Insert cheesy time travel graphic here . . .]

Goin' Back in TimeCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2011

Let’s rock, kids!

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8. Starz-"Cherry Baby"

(highest US chart position: #33, spring 1977)

Here’s an interesting mathematical problem to consider. 

What happens when you combine members of a one-hit wonder band [Looking Glass, of 1972’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”] with a member of another one-hit wonder band (Stories, of 1973’s miscegenation hit “Brother Louie”)?

You get yet a third one-hit wonder band, Starz.

Starz, like nearly all one-hit wonder acts, didn’t mean to have only one hit, of course.  Things just worked out that way.  Much like their New Wave’y counterparts, Canada’s The Kings, greatness was never meant to be for Starz.Rex Smith is the GinchiestCredit: fair use base image; modification by author (2018)

With a stage persona looking like a hybrid of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Queen’s legendary Freddie Mercury of the same period, front man, Michael Lee Smith, manages to pull off some very fine vocal histrionics.  The song rocks with ringing guitars, lyrics lusting/pining for a girl, and a thumping beat.  It clearly set the tone for much of the hair metal that would follow in the early 1980s (and bands such as Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe have cited Starz as inspirations).

Fun fact #1: Michael Lee Smith is the brother of Rex Smith, the tween heartthrob actor and the singer of 1979’s hit, “You Take My Breath Away”.

Fun fact #2: In today’s image conscious music world of style over substance there would be no way Michael Lee Smith would ever have gotten a recording contract until he’d had several thousand dollars’ worth of dental work to fix his snaggle toofs and that chipped upper incisor.

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7. Frank Mills-"Music Box Dancer"

(highest US chart position: #3, May 1979)

This track goes toward the weirdness of Seventies’ music.

Straight instrumentals were staples of the early rock ’n’ roll era (The Surfaris’ “Wipeout”, The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run”, and The Tornados’ “Telstar” to name a few).  In the 1960s we had Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass racking up multiple hit singles with catchy instrumental fare.  Even into the early 1970s instrumentals still found a place on radio (the quirky “Popcorn” by Hot Butter from 1972, itself a cover of an earlier 1969 version recorded by Gershon Kingsley).

There was also “Frankenstein” by The Edgar Winter Group (1972) and “Joy” by Apollo 100 (also 1972, a modern re-working of Bach’s “Jesu, Ode to Man’s Desiring”). These songs as well as dozens of others (“The Hustle”, “The Entertainer”, and more) garnered airplay and sold in large numbers.

By the late 1970s, though, instrumental singles seemed to be on the wane.  This is why Canadian pianist Frank Mills’ “Music Box Dancer” came as such a surprise (and breath of fresh air).  On the tail-end of the tin-whistling and whooping of disco this up-tempo melody seemed to be everywhere.  Was it easy listening or rock? It seemed to be both.  Regardless, this song (originally recorded by Mills in 1974, but not released as a single in the US until January 1979) was fresh with its lilting piano runs and steady backbeat. It was a success worldwide as well.

Mills would never repeat this success.  But this tune, released several years after its creation still deserves a listen.

Fun fact #1:  “Music Box Dancer” was the B-side of an easy listening single when it was released in Canada.  One copy was inadvertently sent to a rock radio station and the confused DJ, after giving the A-side a spin and realizing what was on it wasn’t for his audience, flipped it over and played the “throwaway”.  He liked it enough, and featured it on air.  The rest is history.

Fun fact #2:  Apparently there are some dropped musical notes in the introduction to the main melody in the third iteration.  This error was left in the recording as Mills didn’t have the money to do another studio take.   [And don’t worry; I can’t hear the mistake, either.]

Fun fact #3:  Like most instrumentals “Music Box Dancer” has lyrics.  This is so the composers can get both lyrics and arranging royalties for the tune even if the lyrics are never used.  [The main title theme for the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969), for example, has lyrics.  They are horrible, but they exist.]   

6. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers-"I Need to Know"

(highest US chart position: #41, 1978)

Tom Petty (d: October 2, 2017, accidental drug overdose) was never what anyone would consider an innovator.  With the exception of the unusual “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985) and “Jammin’ Me” (1987) the majority of his output stayed firmly entrenched in the realm of straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.  Petty sold millions of records and had many hit singles. His career spanned several decades, and he left a fairly impressive discography behind.

It is “I Need to Know”, however, that is among his more underappreciated tunes.  This is probably the closest he ever came to embracing the nascent New Wave sound, still in its larval stage in 1978.

The other reasons I personally like this track is because of the vocal take—the panicked feel of it—and I can also soooo hear in my head how much better it would have been had it been covered by Elvis Costello & The Attractions circa 1978.

5. J. D. Souther-"You're Only Lonely"

(highest US chart position: #7, 1979)

J.D. (Jerome David) Souther has never hidden his hero-worship of rock icon, Roy Orbison.  This song is a perfect paean to Orbison’s style, and it actually presages much of the overall sound on Orbison’s last full-length studio effort, Mystery Girl (completed in November 1988 and released posthumously in January 1989—Orbison died less than a month after finishing the album).

Souther has a fairly impressive CV, having worked with heavy hitters The Eagles, Stevie Nicks, and his idol, Roy Orbison. He’s also worked with some lightweights, such as Linda Ronstadt.

His successes seem to lie more in the realm of background: composer, musician, arranger, helping hand. He’s not seen the kind of fame his talents might have allowed for whatever reasons.

This song is still a piece of great pop Americana, however.

4. John Paul Young-"Love Is in the Air"

(highest US chart position: #7, summer 1978)

Disco was in its death throes starting in about 1978.  With punk barking at the heels of the mainstream, the beginnings of rap and hip-hop at the Sugar Hill record label in New York City, and New Wave gearing up to dominate the sound of the early Eighties the clubby dance music sounded tired.

But even a dying form can sputter out a last gasp of greatness.  The airy (no pun intended) feeling of John Paul Young’s “Love Is in the Air” is just such a good record, coming as it does near the end of disco’s reign.

Young is Scottish by birth but his family moved to Australia when he was eleven. He knocked around in rock bands starting in the late 1960s, enjoying a modicum of success locally.

This song, though, had been brought to Young as a response to trends developing in Europe.  He’d already had a minor hit in Germany with a previous single and needed a follow-up. German music was evolving to embrace what we would call techno today, with the likes of German techno-pioneers, Kraftwerk, making danceable electronica.  

In Young’s words:

 “We actually did ‘Love Is in the Air’ because we needed something for the German market.  [A previous song] became a hit in the clubs over there and then on the charts, so we needed a follow-up.  I’d been to Germany and heard the music.  It was electronic mania, all clicks and electronic buzzes.  So [the writers] gave it the treatment.”

The resulting record is smooth.  And danceable.  And listenable!

The original studio album track clocks in at over five minutes.  The truncated single version doesn’t lose much in the edit, so enjoy!

3. Charlie Dore-"Pilot of the Airwaves"

(highest US chart position: #13, 1979)

The radio deejay sometimes can come in for hero worship in song.

One of the more bizarre takes on the subject was “Clap for the Wolfman” (1974, by Canada’s The Guess Who, peaked at #6 in the US).  The track actually featured guest “vocals” by Wolfman Jack (, Robert Weston Smith, d: 1995) the disc jockey the song is about.

But for sheer adulation nothing beats “Pilot of the Airwaves” by the British musician and singer/songwriter, Charlie Dore.  [In addition to co-writing Sheena Easton’s hit, “Strut”, from 1984, she’s also written for Celine Dion, Tina Turner, and others.]

The character in the song’s worshipping is arm’s length, though: the record relates how she has a request in for a deejay to play a particular song, but even if he doesn’t play it, she’s okay with that because he’s her disembodied buddy!

The track opens with Charlie and her group singing an a capella chorus at a slower tempo, and then the instrumentation kicks in.  She sings about listening all night to the radio, and not going out and socializing much.

Charlie sings as if the deejay will always be part of her landscape.  The sad irony here is that this was likely one of the last “hero worship” songs in its true sense about radio deejays since, on August 1, 1981, a then-unknown cable channel began an experiment in music broadcasting when, without fanfare, it went live with this (at the time) two-year-old song:

The era of the radio deejay was over.

The time of “visual” music consumption, and the vee-jay (video jockey), had begun. 

MTV was on the air.

2. Ian Gomm-"Hold On"

(highest US chart position: #18, 1979)

Ian Gomm had played in the early 1970s with one of Britain’s most influential pub-rock acts, Brinsley Schwarz. 

And that band spread its wings mightily over the years with individual members having successful solo careers, many other artists covering their material (most notably, Elvis Costello with “(What’s so Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”), and the raucous, but carefully crafted, songs of the group influencing other budding musicians in years to come.

Gomm himself had moderate success as a soloist, but this offering remains his only true hit to date. The song is intelligently well written and executed.  It unfolds with reverbed and delayed vocals, background horns, and subtle bass work.  It is a gorgeous gem that describes lost love without bludgeoning the listener, using being unanchored as a metaphor.  And with that, the tune sails along nicely.  

1. Nick Lowe-"Cruel to be Kind"

(highest US chart position: #12, 1979)

Nick Lowe is another Brinsley Schwarz alumnus whose solo endeavors have been moderately successful.  He also has served as a studio producer for many well known artists from Elvis Costello to The Pretenders.

Along with Gomm, Lowe tended to mine his Brinsley Schwarz days for material and “feel”, and this song is no exception.  It was a track he’d written during those earlier days, reworked and re-recorded, though sounding very much like the earliest Brinsley Schwarz pressing of the song.

According to Lowe:

“I wrote that when I was with a band, Brinsley Schwarz, that I was with from the early ’70s to about the mid-’70s.  . . . We recorded it on a demo, it never came out, and when I signed to Columbia Records the A & R man there at the time suggested I record it again. And I didn’t think it would do anything, but he kind of bullied me into it.”

The original was meant for a Brinsley Schwarz album that was recorded but never released.

For comparison purposes, here’s the original demo from a few years earlier:

Nick’s solo cover of the song he co-wrote with Ian Gomm, slowed down just a tad and with a fatter sound is every bit as good, if not better.

Closing Arguments
Revisiting these, and other forgotten songs of the past, helps us remember just how varied our musical palette once was—not much chish-chash in rinky-dink time throughout most of the Seventies.  It is worth scrubbing the old cerebellum with a dusty “oldie” every now and then, if for no other reason, as a reminder of just how good things used to be!

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