My 12-year-old son has discovered the radio. I was wondering when and if it would happen--do the kids even listen to the radio anymore?--but it did, thanks to middle school and, specifically, to his bus driver, who plays Movin' 92.5: All the Hits!, whose website confirms that they really do play the same songs every hour. I can pin down more or less to the month when the same thing happened to me, because starting in early 1978, when Player's "Baby Come Back" was #1, all the hits were imprinted on my mind like Konrad Lorenz on a baby goose.
My wife, who imprinted instead on Phil Collins and Chicago 17, has a technical term for many of those hits: "car-sickness music." Fair enough. Intellectually I understand what she's saying, but emotionally, well, depriving me of bearded men singing about one-night stands in quavering tenor backed with strings would be like cutting out my heart. And so rather than curse my heritage, I've embraced it and want to find its nature. How better than by choosing my late '70s soft rock favorites?
"Favorites" in this case is a complicated term. What makes a good soft rock hit? (I'm going to keep calling them "hits" instead of "songs," by the way, because the whole point of songs like these was to be hits.) Does "good" even matter? There are songs on the list below that I love, and others I think are terrible, but the line between them is so blurry (perhaps because it's wet with tears) that even I sometimes can't tell the difference between them. And here I guess is where I should cite Sontag on camp or Carl Wilson's recent hip-revisionist take on Celine Dion, but all I really will say in terms of a theory of cheese is this: in that line between good and bad is where all the pleasure and drama lies.
What I'm trying to do with this list is cook down a cultural phenomenon to its essence. Let's begin by saying that the "late '70s soft rock" I have in mind is a narrow microgenre of what Billboard at some point in the '70s (actually, 1979) went from calling Easy Listening to Adult Contemporary; it's even a subgenre of what the kids these days are calling, brilliantly, Yacht Rock, which is really more of an early-'80s, Toto kind of thing. Perhaps it can be best defined by what it is not. It's not James Taylor (too folksy), not Steely Dan (too sophisticated), not Boz Scaggs (too funky), not Barry Manilow (too brassy), not the Bee Gees (too disco), not even 10cc (too ironic). "Love Will Keep Us Together" is too peppy, though "the Captain" certainly caught the Bert Convy mood of the moment; "You Light Up My Life" is, of course, too sickly sweet. And the Carpenters, you ask, the great, reclaimed avatars of Easy Listening? As much as I wanted to find a place for "Rainy Days and Mondays" or "We've Only Just Begun" on the list below, they are missing something crucial: she's just not trying to make it with anyone.
So what's left, when we've simmered all the impurities away? Ideally, the late '70s soft rock hit features strings, light jazzy guitar, or non-funky saxophone, or all three. Ideally it concerns a single man with a beard, mustache, and/or chest hair revealed by an under-buttoned shirt suggesting to a lady that they spend the night together, or confessing an overwhelming level of sensitivity in the implicit hopes of ... spending the night together. Ideally it's painfully earnest and a little bit debauched, all at the same time. Ideally there's a breeze blowing, and it's summertime. Ideally it's the only top 10 hit by a former session musician who later went on to write TV theme songs.
The true ideal is always unreachable, of course--although #1 comes pretty close!--but between them these ten hits share a family resemblance that would satisfy Wittgenstein, in his mellower moods. With a nod to Kasey Kasem, I'll be breaking with traditional Firmament format by counting them down all the way to #1:
10. "Thunder Island," Jay Ferguson (1978). Starting from the bottom of the list means we begin with the outliers. But what could be wrong with Jay Ferguson's big hit? Look at the album cover alone: the mustache, the hair, the shirt, the cacti, the sandals!!! And the song? It's summer, the winds are growing wild, and he's making love with his lady, out on Thunder Island. Check, check, and check. The only problem: the music, which rocks just a little too hard for perfection, and ends up nearly in Eddie Money territory. Fabulously fun fact: Ferguson's post-hit career highlight? Writing the ingratiating and non-bombastic theme to the US version of The Office.
9. "We're All Alone," Rita Coolidge (1977). It's fitting that on this list of sensitive men on the make, the only lady is singing a dude's song, written and first recorded by Boz Scaggs on his smash LP, Silk Degrees. But after hearing Rita--who after all was married to one of the great beards of the '70s, Kris Kristofferson--you really can't go back. Key elements: crying, wind, and just the two of you, all alone. Peak moment: the subtle drum buildup to the third time through "Close the window, calm the light..." Fun fact: this is the second time in a month I've mentioned Rita Coolidge (Rita Coolidge!) on EphEff. All is right with the world.
8. "How Much I Feel," Ambrosia (1978). Ambrosia: the food of the gods (with or without mandarin oranges and mini marshmallows), and perhaps the perfect band name for the soft-rock era. I've always conflated them with their alphabetical neighbors among late-'70s hitmakers, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and the two bands' hits, "Biggest Part of Me," "So Into You," "Imaginary Lover," and this one, get mixed up in my mind too. ARS's "So Into You" might actually be a better fit lyrically, but it has a little too much Southern boogie, while "How Much I Feel" goes down like a pina colada with an extra spoonful of coconut cream. Fun "fact": Did Ambrosia hint at their prog-pop leanings (they were frequent collaborators with Alan Parsons) by containing within their name the future moniker of the '80s prog supergroup, Asia?
7. "Lonely Boy," Andrew Gold (1977). Another outlier of sorts, which musically is closer to "Thunder Island" (and Gold is a dead ringer for Ferguson in their videos!) and lyrically makes no mention of summer breezes or making love. But for me it stands in the pantheon for two reasons: for the delicious instrumental break just after the bridge, at 2:37 in the Midnight Special clip below, and as an exemplar of the microsubgenre of embarrassingly sensitive confessions (see #3 below). When I started hearing this song again after 25 years I had a vague memory that it contained some sort of portentious drama of betrayal in its story of a boy growing up in 1951, 1953, and 1969, so I listened more closely: what exactly happened to him that made him so lonely and bitter? The answer: his parents betrayed him by ... having another kid. Really. That's all. It's the sort of TMI confession you might have heard when the third bottle of chardonnay was empty and the jacuzzi timer had run out and the guy in there with you was getting a little weepy and edging a little closer to your side of the tub. Fun fact: Gold was the son of legendary movie voice dubber (e.g. West Side Story and My Fair Lady) Marni Nixon, and later contributed the theme song to Mad About You.
6. "Sentimental Lady," Bob Welch (1977). Now we're getting to the heart of it. For most purposes I'll take Welch's "Ebony Eyes" over this one, but for genre purity, there is no substitute for the one Maya Rudolph and Chris Rock apparently called "the whitest song ever" in The Grown-ups. "Sentimental gentle wind / Blowing through my life again": hey, might that wind be scented with jasmine? And oh, that album cover, which declares, "Aren't the '70s great, when a Buck Henry-on-smack-looking fella like me can have a girl sticking her tongue in my ear!" Fun fact: as every pop scholar knows, Welch originally recorded "Sentimental Lady" when he was in Fleetwood Mac in 1972 (and you can hear Christine McVie backing him on this version), but he wasn't among the seemingly dozens of former members included when Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
5. "Make It with You," Bread (1970). This one caught me by surprise: I missed it in my first round of scouting, probably because it came out years before the soft-rock peak, but it just popped into my head while I was wallowing in the rest of all this whipped topping. And it makes me wonder: have I found the ur-text of late '70s soft rock? And perhaps its founding moment, when at the end of the first verse David Gates spells out the sensitive seducer's game plan, moving from "climbing on rainbows" to getting it on: "And if you're wondering what this all is leading to / I want to make it with you"? If there's an earlier pioneer of the soft rock spirit, please let me know. And as further evidence that this 1970 #1 hit remained right on target in the late '70s, here's a 1977 performance, again from The Midnight Special:
4. "Summer Breeze," Seals and Crofts (1972). The other founding soft-rock hit, of course, is this one, whose jasmine breezes are so familiar and essential they require no explanation or justification (except to my wife, who finds this one as unbearable as the rest). Fun fact: Jim Seals, appropriately, was the older brother of the late "England Dan" Seals, who you'll be seeing a few entries further down.
3. "Sometimes When We Touch," Dan Hill (1978). Here it is, the anthem of oversharing. And yes, sometimes the honesty really is too much. But whether it's either Stockholm Syndrome or the insidious beauty of kitsch, the more time I spend immersed in Dan Hill's world the more I discover my inner Manny Pacquiao, and lines like "I want to hold you till the fear in me subsides" take on a kind of mad genius. In excess is truth? (And anyone who can climax their ballad on the word "subsides" earns my awe.) Fun fact: Hill is the brother of novelist Lawrence Hill, who had his own moment in the Canadian sun two decades after Dan's when his novel The Book of Negroes (more timidly titled Someone Knows My Name in the States) became a prizewinning bestseller. Also, for fascinating insight on the afterlife of a one-hit wonder (which Hill would insist he's not!), see his long article on the subject from MacLean's.
2. "I Go Crazy," Paul Davis (1977). This is sort of the underdog twin to "Sometimes When We Touch"--if you can call a hit that spent 40 weeks in the Top 40 an underdog--with an overwrought anguish that makes you want to give the late Mr. Davis a hug, or, more likely, turn the other way in awkward silence. I've included the live clip below (introduced by Ricky Nelson!) to give you a sense of Davis's weird, mournful-man-o'-the-mountain vibe, which came as a bit of a surprise to me after only knowing his clear tenor from the hit. But the live version, faithful as it is, just doesn't get across the crystalline melancholy of the single, a sorry-we-broke-up song (like #8) in which the singer is so far gone he has given up all hope of ever making it with you again. He just wants you to know how sad he is.
1. "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight," England Dan and John Ford Coley (1976). If you've read this far and you know this hit, you might already have an idea of why it stands at the top: aside from its impeccably efficient songcraft (it's the shortest cut on the list, and almost every time I play it I hit repeat because I'm left wanting more), it's like the cathartic booty-call summation (and redemption!) of all the themes we've seen so far. It combines the sorry-we-broke-up story of #8 and #2 (how did I not notice until now that its first line--"Hello, yeah, it's been a while" is just a word switch away from the opener of "I Go Crazy," "Hello girl, it's been a while"? ED&JFC, of course, got there first) with the let's-get-together come on of #9 and #6 ("I'd really love to see you tonight"), backed by the folk-hook pedigree of #4 ("there's a warm wind blowing" here too, and--*sigh*--it's "blowing the stars around." That's pretty.). And then at the bridge there's the perspective of a mature work of art, which acknowledges the limits to human happiness: "We've both played that game before / Say I love you, then say goodbye." And the high point of it all, and therefore the high point of the entire soft-rock genre? That catch in England Dan's voice when he makes his modest, ultimate plea: "Stay at home and watch TV / You see it really doesn't matter much to me." Ah, screw irony, and screw all y'all. I'm just going to say it: "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" is the "Waterloo Sunset" of the late '70s. I love this song.
Mmmm, that's beautiful. Now, play it once more and then it's time to put on the Pretenders first record and move on with our lives.