Friday, January 14, 2005

Friday Top 5: Dividing Line

Numbers on the calendar are often just numbers, and not necessarily boundaries. For example, "the Sixties," capital-T, capital-S, are often said to have begun culturally with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and to have ended with the Vietnam accords in 1973. Musical decades can be similarly hard to pin down. If the musical 60s began with the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, perhaps they ended with the premiere of The Partridge Family in 1970, but there could just as easily be other dates for which you could plausibly argue. This is art, not science.

So when we talk about "Someday We'll Be Together" by the Supremes as the last Number One song of the 1960s (12/27/69 through 1/2/70) and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by B. J. Thomas as the first Number One song of the 1970s (1/3/70 through 1/30/70), we should keep in mind that we're really treating a number--January 1, 1970--as if it were a boundary. It's not necessarily the best boundary we could choose between the 60s and the 70s. Still, if you look at the Top Five from this early January week in 1970, you can see how we seem to have been straddling a dividing line between eras.

5. "Whole Lotta Love"/Led Zeppelin. By the end of the 1970s, Zeppelin would be considered the polar opposite of a singles band, but nobody knew that in January 1970. And it's not entirely accurate: The band actually charted 10 singles between 1969 and 1979. This was the only one to make the Top Ten. ("Stairway to Heaven" was never released as a single, although it was pressed on 45s for radio station use.)

4. "I Want You Back"/Jackson Five. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Jackson Five were not the vanguard of Motown's second generation of superstars--they were the entire second generation of superstars. Think about it--Stevie, Marvin, Diana, Smokey, the Temps were all present at the creation, more or less, and remained the label's flagship artists through the 1970s. But how many major stars did Motown break after its 60s heyday? Apart from the Jackson Five, who belong in the pantheon with Motown's legends, I can think of only the Commodores and Boyz II Men, who don't.

3. "Leavin' on a Jet Plane"/Peter, Paul and Mary. Not just a last gasp of the 1960s, but a last gasp of the early 60s. PP&M got quaint in a hurry once the British Invasion hit, and they resented it--their 1967 hit "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" was essentially sung through clenched teeth, because they didn't dig rock and roll music at all. There's nothing rock and roll about "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," but it is one of the great singalong records.

2. "Someday We'll Be Together"/Diana Ross and the Supremes. Actually, this record works just fine as The Last Number One Song of the 60s, given the generational identity of the people who grew up in that decade. Soon it will be 1970, and we'll be scattering to the four winds like we were a graduating class, but someday we'll be together again. Looking back from our vantage point, it works well as a symbol, too, of the mistaken idea that the 60s were more "real" than the "plastic" 1970s--when in fact "the Supremes" on this record were not the real Supremes, but an in-studio creation featuring three background singers, one of them male.

1. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"/B. J. Thomas. Burt Bacharach and Hal David had been recording tasteful tunes with low brass for several years (the tasteful Dionne Warwick recorded a bunch of them), but "Raindrops" works just fine as the First Number One Song of the 70s by its very tastefulness. It doesn't rock, it's pretty bland--a characteristic it would share with plenty of the 250-or-so other songs to hold the Number One slot during the decade.

The dividing line analogy holds further down the chart, too, with CCR bumping up against Bobby Sherman and the Beatles adjacent to Three Dog Night.


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