Saturday, January 14, 2017

Billboard Top Ten January 13, 1973

We are currently embroiled in the biggest political scandal since Watergate. Richard Nixon's inauguration after being re-elected by a landslide in November was overshadowed by the Washington Post's stories about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and potential cover-up. Similarly, Donald Trump will be taking office under suspicion that his campaign colluded with Russia. I wanted to do another top ten list, and figured this week forty four years ago was appropriate. Now, on with the countdown!

10. The Four Tops, "The Keeper Of The Castle"

By this point in the 1970s the Tops were far away from their Motown heyday, but still managing some hits. Their Holland-Dozier-Holland produced sound practically defined Motown, and they pushed a bunch of great pop songs off the assembly line as efficiently as Ford and Chevrolet. When Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, echoing corporate America's growing abandonment of that city, the Tops stayed, and were picked up by ABC records. The wah-wah guitar intro was reminiscent of a blaxploitation movie of the time, but the lyrics are part of a genre you could call "patriarchal soul." Levi Stubbs sings not as the wounded lover as he once did, but as a solid family man. Their other big hit of the time, "Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got" sounded a similar theme.

9. Elton John, "Crocodile Rock"

1972-1973 saw a huge nostalgia wave for original rock and roll (as opposed to rock.) Chuck Berry and Elvis would both be back on the charts, with "My Ding-a-Ling" and "Burning Love," respectively. 1973 was also the year that American Graffiti came out. Coming right at the end of the war in Vietnam and as the protest movements of the 1960s were fading, it reflected the usual fatuous longing for a supposedly innocent time that was anything but. "Crocodile Rock" is maybe the best of the nostalgia songs because it is self-aware, commenting on the silliness and simplicity of fifties music.

8. Curtis Mayfield, "Superfly"

Blaxploitation cinema created a lot of great soundtrack music, but Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for Superfly was the best, in my opinion. He acts as a kind of Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the main character's drug dealing ways, neither celebrating or condemning someone who's "just trying to get over." The music just exudes cool, and Mayfield's falsetto was never used to greater effect.

7. Johnny Rivers, "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu"

Here's yet another nostalgia song, this one from perhaps the most significant hitmaker of the 1960s to be forgotten today. Rivers was known as "the king of the covers," which probably hurt his reputation as artists were more and more expected to perform original material. This song at least is copying the spirit of old rock and roll rather than trying to imitate its sound. A rollicking good time.

6. Loggins and Messina, "Your Mama Don't Dance"

And here we with yet another rock and roll nostalgia tune. This time was just sick with duos (Seals and Croft, Zager and Evans, etc.) but Loggins and Messina were the most paradoxical. Messina was of the past, Loggins the future. Messina had been in seminal sixties band Buffalo Springfield and in country rockers Poco, while Loggins would go on to pioneer yacht rock then later rule the world of 80s movie soundtracks. This song sounds like none of that, with a pronounced backbeat and yakety sax. It sounds like something a roadhouse band might jam on, but it's a little too self-consciously nostalgic to really work.

5. Donna Fargo, "Funny Face"

In the 1970s country music began crossing over to the pop charts. Fargo's got twang in her voice and there are faint echoes of the honky tonk in the piano. Later on, the slide guitar sidles right on in. As a country song it's pretty mediocre, but maybe that's why it was able to cross over so easily. A harbinger of bad things to come.

4. Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Clair"

This twee singer from across the pond was never as popular stateside as in the Commonwealth. The song is evidently dedicated to a little girl, but at least it's not creepy. The bounce is reminiscent of the Beatles, but the accompaniment is not all that interesting. O'Sullivan does at least give it his usual sheen of resigned melancholy. I miss the depressing undertones pop music used to have before it all became about partying.

3. Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs Jones"

This has got to be, without a doubt, the best song about adultery ever to make the top ten. Paul has such a tenderness in his voice, the emotion just drips out of the grooves of this record. I've always found his spiraling lead into the chorus to be one of the most beautiful things on oldies radio. The backing music has that impeccably lush yet not overdone quality that Philadelphia International made a trademark in the 1970s. Reflecting the sexual revolution, the listener feels sympathy with the singer's anguish, and the cuckolded husband does not make an appearance.

2. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"

This is probably my favorite Stevie Wonder hit, and it comes from my favorite Stevie Wonder album, Talking Book. Its mood of darkness and warning fits so well for the age of Watergate. It's easy to forget that darkness, however, since this song is so wonderfully funky. Wonder has the groove absolutely locked in, and the horns are disarmingly tight and sound like a million dollars. The mood of confusion he describes also fit with the slow demise of the sixties social movements and counterculture, when many of its members drifted into communes and cults. Today I take this song as a warning against that kind of drift.

1. Carly Simon, "You're So Vain"

Well, this is just about the perfect #1 for a countdown list inspired by the impending ascension of Cheeto Mussolini. This is surely one of the best kiss-offs to hit the top ten, both due to the mystery of who its subject could be and due to the arch putdown of the hook: "you probably think this song is about you." It certainly fit with the growth of women's liberation movements in the early 1970s, as Simon is showing a former lover just how much his male arrogance underestimated her abilities. I've always liked this song because I always like hearing an asshole get his due. Here's hoping the next four years is full of that.

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