Saturday, September 3, 2016

No one should feel "shame" for being fortunate enough to remember when pop music was actually "good"

Chicago is a “big” city, isn’t it? There must be a few hundred thousand Baby Boomer types who still enjoy listening to the music of their youth. But Jim Wyman, a radio announcer and blogger in Chicago, tells us that no radio station in the city plays music from the Sixties and early Seventies anymore. So it shouldn’t be surprising that not a single radio station in Seattle has “oldies” on its playlist. The only current radio station that even plays Seventies music at all is 95.7 “The Jet,” and we are talking very late Seventies and mostly Eighties music. 

Another music blogger, Keith Phillips, wrote that the absence of  genre and era-eclecticism on the radio means losing “something that’s appealing about the oldies format, namely the way it lumps together a diverse array of music that climbed that charts from the age of Elvis through the era of Watergate, and the way that diversity revealed something about our pop past…The (top-40) format also offered a fuller spectrum of musical styles than any other station, playing doo-wop next to British Invasion cuts next to classic soul. Sure, it tended not stray from the biggest hits of the era it covered, but it still doubled as Pop Music 101 for a young fan like me.”

When I was young, my favorite radio program was Casey Kasem’s Sunday morning American Top-40 countdown. I didn’t like every song I heard, but the 1970s was a time when dozens of great songs were juggling for chart position and radio play every week, with hit songs falling off the charts only to be replaced by more great songs—quite different than today, when you hear the same dozen “songs” over and over again for a whole year. And I do mean songs, when true artists prided themselves on writing tunes that were actually tight and tuneful confections. Even then, many so-called music critics and self-important “album artists” derided the pop market, but in my opinion they were just making excuses for themselves; it is hard work to write melody-driven songs that are not too derivative. Music and instrumental proficiency was particularly important during the Seventies,’ and heavily-orchestrated production worked hand-in-hand with effective use of the natural voice—meaning singers who could carry a tune without electronic alteration.

Songs with a lyrical structure that flowed with the melody allowed a singer to use their voice to convey an emotional tone as well as be an “instrument” in its own right. I recently rediscovered a lost gem in the Mac Davis-penned “Something’s Burning,” as sung by Kenny Rogers when he fronted The First Edition in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The song begins with a softly strumming acoustic guitar and the sound of a heart beating, followed by a subtle, slow-burning invocation of barely restrained desire, and then awaking the listeners from a quiet reverie by launching into successive crescendos, building to a fiery climax driven by frenetic drum-beating (Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” is also a song that employs the slow-burn effectively).  The point  here is that the human voice in a musical context is put to best use when it is used to compliment and propel a musical and lyrical template that adequately conveys and arouses an emotional (and usually highly personal) response in the listener. Too often today “singers” use their voices like circus contortionists trying to add “substance” to a soulless, tuneless song, only to sound ridiculous in the effort.

Although 1976 comes in a close second as my favorite musical year, 1974 was the year that I feel the top-40 reached its peak in eclecticism and variety. 1974 was the year of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, and there was a great deal of pessimism about the state of country; garden seed sales skyrocketed as many people of excessive paranoia were convinced that economic and societal disaster was right around the corner, and they needed to grow their own crops and stockpile it in the basement in preparation for the coming Armageddon (I am recalling this from up close and personal memories). 

Yet you would never have sensed this pessimism from the music scene. Some so-called critics claim that 1974 was one of the worst years in pop music, but I think this just a lot of nit-picking of songs that were perhaps more fit for Las Vegas lounges, but I prefer to think they contributed to the variety. A total of 37 songs occupied the number one position during the calendar year, more than any other year; rather than indicating that there were a lot of “bad” songs without staying power, this was more representative of the sheer volume of great songs that year. When I say “great,” I don’t mean that in the sense of “classics”—hardly that—but that anyone who was a true connoisseur of “pop” was presented with an incredibly varied pallet from which to choose from. 

Comedy/novelty songs were big that year (“The Streak,” “Energy Crisis ’74,” “Kung Fu Fighting,” Jim Stafford’s three top-forty entries among them), but it was also the year of the peak chart success of the “Philly” soul sound; eleven songs by black artists that year hit number one on Billboard’s pop chart. There were “story” songs that topped the charts (“The Night Chicago Died,” “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”), the spoken-word editorial “Americans” set to “America the Beautiful,” two foreign-language songs that hit the top-10 (Mocedades’ “Eres Tu” and Bobby Vinton’s “My Melody of Love”). Even “The Lord’s Prayer” was set to a rock beat, while Countrypolitan crooner Charlie Rich continued his two-year run on the pop charts, and Scott Joplin’s ragtime composition “The Entertainer”—first performed in 1902—was used in the film “The Sting” and was a top-3 hit that year. Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” was a song that took me a long time to warm-up to, but its eccentricities in the end complimented the year’s musical texture. And anyone who believes that radio listeners then had "tender" ears would have to explain the three-month chart run of Fancy's X-rated cover of "Wild Thing," sung--or rather "breathed"--by a former Penthouse Pet; their follow-up hit with a different singer, "Touch Me," was hardly less "suggestive."

I have 300 carefully-chosen  songs on my mp3 player spanning four decades, and 22 are from 1974 alone: The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker, ”Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell,” Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme,” John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Eres Tu,” Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” MFSB’s “TSOP,” The Hues’ Corporation’s “Rock Your Baby,” George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love,” Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently,” Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing,” Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” Olivia Newton John’s “Let Me Be There,” First Class’ “Beach Baby,” Lamont Dozier’s “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.” Critics may look at this list and scoff, but I feel no shame in being blessed with the ability to appreciate and enjoy a wide variety of musical styles, while others are condemned to their limited pickings.

The 25-54 demographic that radio programmer are aiming for deride the “old” music and say its time is done and good riddance. Time for the “new.” Except the purveyors of new “music” could learn a thing or two about songwriting and singing from the past masters. The remarkable thing is that “traditional” song structure changed little in Western culture over the past, say, two thousand years. Yet today there has been a dramatic and disturbing shift away  from “traditional” music and proficiency with musical instruments and using the human voice as a vehicle to convey melody and emotion; just compare the sweet Philly Soul sound of the Seventies to the rap/hip-hop of today; one can only despair at that total absence of any sense of musical growth or evolution, where any faker with an “attitude” can be become a “star.” The over-use of AutoTune has allowed people who can’t carry a tune with their natural voices to become computerized sound-machines. Worse, songwriting is a dying art (if Taylor Swift is supposed to be a “great” songwriter), and when was the last time you heard an instrumental “break” in a “song”? You won’t because you have to be proficient at cord or key changes, and one is hard pressed to name a single capable guitar or piano “god” who isn’t under 60 years of age. It’s all done on computers nowadays; that’s supposed to be good, like not having the stamina or patience to read a good book?

I won’t apologize for having had the privileged of living at a time when popular music was a medium which gave the listener hope for a world as they wished it to be. Today’s “music” scene is lifeless and without purpose at best, and at worst preying on the listener’s worst instincts.


  1. Taylor Swift is not a great songwriter. She is a good songwriter. Do not be a passive listener. Listen only what you like.

  2. I don't even think she is a "good" songwriter. I've already posted about the difference between pretend songwriters like Swift and those with true talent.