Friday, November 10, 2006

Heart of Darkness

Here's a bunch of tunes on your radio this week in 1969, all of which have the same thing in common. If I listen to all of these songs in a row--and I've done it--I'm left feeling uneasy. They all hint at the dark side of the 60s, a darkness that would break over Altamont in December 1969, and in other places in 1970: Kent State and Jackson State in April, Sterling Hall in August--Vietnam every day--and on and on. These records are, to me, the sound of the happy dream of the 1960s as it started to die: even the uptempo ones, even the ones that sound happy on the surface, even the bubblegum. They're taken from the WLS chart dated November 10, 1969.

1. "Come Together"-"Something"/The Beatles. (peak)
That's maximum value for your 95 cents right there, although the darkness manifests itself in the first second of side A: On "Come Together," John Lennon is heard to say, "Shoot me."

3. "Baby It's You"/Smith. (climbing)
Damn, does this record ever rock. But there's something ominous about that thumping bass line and Hammond B3 organ, too. (Pay no attention to the pastoral images on the YouTube video, which have nothing to do with the song.)

5. "Eli's Coming"/Three Dog Night. (climbing) A few weeks back I wrote about Aaron Sorkin's use of pop songs to punctuate episodes of his various TV series. "Eli's Coming" is the single greatest example, from the single greatest episode of Sports Night (which may be the single greatest entertainment program in the history of television, but that's another post entirely). One of the characters discusses how he first heard the ominous "Eli's Coming" as a kid, and associated it with the feeling that something bad was about to happen--and before the episode is over, something does.

7. "And When I Die"/Blood Sweat and Tears. (climbing)
Now here's a lyric guaranteed to make many people feel uneasy: "I'm not scared of dyin' and I don't really care/If it's peace you find in dyin', well then let the time be near." It used to bother me too, although now, worrying about death seems like a waste of time. But nevertheless . . . .

13. "Smile a Little Smile for Me"/Flying Machine. (climbing)
Do not confuse this Flying Machine with a group James Taylor formed in the 1960s; this Flying Machine belongs to Tony Macaulay, the British songwriter/producer responsible for (among others) "Build Me Up Buttercup," "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again," and "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"--in other words, a freakin' bubblegum genius who ought to have a statue erected somewhere in his honor. But "Smile a Little Smile for Me" leaves you with the feeling that no matter how hard he tries, Tony won't be able to get Rose Marie to smile. Maybe because she feels the darkness closing in.

14. "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)"/Steam. (climbing) This record was made as a joke, an intended B-side that was supposed to be so bad that no one would mistake it for a hit--which makes it a bit like a dead man walking. And if you listen for it, the drums and vibes sound a bit like a skeleton dancing, or something. Kiss him goodbye, if you dare.

17. "Ball of Fire"/Tommy James and the Shondells. (falling)
Another great, trippy Tommy James record. (Let this man into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, dammit.) James sings about how the "ball of fire in the sky/keeps watchin' over you and I," and although it's supposed to feel peaceful and secure, it feels a little spooky to me.

22. "Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday"/Stevie Wonder. (climbing)
One of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs, this record is atypical for Motown, starting off with an old-school mixed chorus and featuring some shiveringly beautiful string flourishes--and a powerful sense of loss.

29. "Hot Fun in the Summertime"/Sly and the Family Stone. (falling) You could stack this and "Everyday People" against any two singles from any other group--even the Beatles--and Sly would come out pretty well. But given that this song was a hit in September and October, after summertime was over, it too carries a sense of loss with it.

Extra: "Cherry Hill Park"/Billy Joe Royal. (off the chart) I'm throwing this in as a ringer--it did a single week on the WLS chart dated November 3 and then dropped off--but like all of the other records on this list, there's darkness, or at least mystery, at its heart. We're supposed to think only that Mary Hill is a girl of easy virtue there on the merry-go-round in Cherry Hill Park, but the song's minor key hints that she's up to something else entirely.

(Buy "Cherry Hill Park," "Baby It's You," "Smile a Little Smile for Me," "Na Na Hey Hey," and other Top 40 landmarks here.)


At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanskf for clarifying the Flying machine thing. And what a great list.

You get exra points for citing WLS, my hometown station at the time (and competition for WCFL). BTW, in 1982 I was walking through a street market in Brussels and heard the 1960s WLS jingle; a shop was playing a tape made off the radio years earlier. Talk about having your life pass in front of your eyes.


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