Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Help Me

In Cusp, the Karen and Mark select “Help Me” from the tabletop jukebox at their diner hangout. Joni Mitchell’s eloquent lyrics describe the cusp of a new relationship or, perhaps, just a fling. After all, as she says in the last lines, “We love our lovin’/But not like we love our freedom.” For critical teenager Karen, the song’s lyrics outshine its performance:

Around noon on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, Mark and I sit at the Mamaroneck Inn, nursing coffees and waiting for Craig to arrive. We select Joni Mitchell’s ‘Help Me’ from the tableside jukebox even though I’ve always felt her voice seems a little screechy on some of the high notes.”

The song, from the magnificent Court and Spark, had risen to number 7 on the pop charts the previous year, and would end up being Mitchell’s highest-charting single. Melding pop, jazz and folk, the song features Tom Scott’s L.A. Express and was produced by Mitchell.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Forever Came Today

When it was released by Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1968, Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Forever Came Today" was the first Supremes single not to make the Top 25 on the pop charts. In fact, it rose only as high as number 28, the worst showing since "Nothing But Heartaches" had stalled at number 11 three years earlier. The difference is that "Heartaches," also by HDH, is a so-so song, rhyming arm/charm and keep/week to a repetitive theme. "Forever" offers a complex melody and triumphant "everlasting love that I've been forever dreaming of."
In 1975, the Jackson 5, then in their final days with Motown, released a disco version of "Forever Came Today" with lead vocals by Michael and Jermaine Jackson. While it rose only to 60 on the pop charts, it was a number 1 dance hit. 

In Cusp, Karen and Mark exit the Sting to the sounds of the then-current Jackson 5 version of “Forever Came Today.” Former rock aficionado Karen, who has been learning all about the Supremes from their most dedicated and knowledgeable fan, thinks, "It’s a remake of a Diana Ross and the Supremes song. The fact that I know this concerns me. What is happening to my life?"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Love Rollercoaster

Love can be a roller coaster, making the concept of a "Love Rollercoaster" a natural. The song, by '70s R&B/funk group Ohio Players, entered the chart Thanksgiving week in 1975, rising to number 1 in January 1976.
In Cusp, "Love Rollercoaster" plays as Karen and Mark decide to leave the Sting after being abandoned by Craig, their hot and in demand gay friend. Karen is still adjusting to being in a gay environment for the first time in her life:

"We finish our drinks and head for the door. The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” is blasting. I hate that song. Pockets of guys are making out, drinking and talking, although I must admit it’s the making out that catches my eye. I feel like I’ve entered an alternate universe where everything is off. I’m used to not being noticed, but never at this level." 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were influenced by the Ohio Players and paid tribute to them in their cover version, which appeared in the movie Beavis and Butthead Do America.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Baby Face

"Baby Face" by the Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps hit the charts Christmas week 1975. In Cusp, Karen describes it as "an overly caffeinated disco version" of a classic. The song was written by Harry Akst and Benny Davis and was a number one hit in 1926 for Jan Garber. It has also been recorded by Al Jolson, Little Richard, Bobby Darin, Paul McCartney and many others.

This version rose to number 14 on the pop charts and number 1 on the Club Play chart that was the precursor to the Disco chart.

Wing and a Prayer was not a band so much as a group of studio musicians and vocalists fashioned by producer Harold Wheeler. Wheeler is now the musical director of "Dancing with the Stars." You've come a long way, baby (face)!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Find My Way

"I must leave you, try to find my way...I think I'll be much better by myself." 

Cameo lead singer and co-producer Larry Blackmon wasn't even 20 yet when the band's version of "Find My Way" came out in 1975. The song didn't make the pop charts, but received extensive club play when it first came out and three years later when it was included on the Thank God It's Friday soundtrack.  

In Cusp, Craig has just introduced Karen and Mark to their first gay club, the Sting. Karen is having a hard time grasping the concept and Craig explains: 

"'This is what Westchester really is. It’s not just doctors and housewives and SATs and getting into Ivy League colleges. It’s closet cases and guys who are happy to finally be who they are.'

"'Guys who like other guys.' It feel like he’s lying, despite the supporting evidence dancing and laughing and brushing the hair out of each other’s eyes to the strains of Cameo’s 'Find My Way.'”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I Love Music

In Cusp, "I Love Music" is the third song in the Bus Stop dance sequence from Mark and Karen's first visit to the Sting on Thanksgiving 1975. The tune, by the O’Jays, entered the charts that month, peaking at number 5 pop but spending eight weeks atop the Hot Dance Club Play chart, from November 1975 into January 1976. Like the band's previous hit, "For the Love of Money," "I Love Music" still feels fresh today.
The song opens with a bongo solo, played by O'Jays fan Bill Cosby. The lyrics are about, well, loving music, "the healing force of the world."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I’ll Always Love My Mama

The Intruders' "I’ll Always Love My Mama" is from 1973, but the Philly Sound was so big two years later that this song was brought back. I remember it being played in clubs as part of medleys also featuring MFSB, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays and more.

The song barely squeaked into the top 40, rising to number 36 in 1973, although that number doesn't accurately reflect the band's enormous influence on the Philly Sound. It came out on Philadelphia International Records, produced and co-written (with two others) by label heads Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

In Cusp, the song follows the Fatback Band's "Do the Bus Stop" on the dance floor at the Sting, where Karen and Mark are struggling to learn the eponymous line dance:

"Everybody does it all in a row, like male Rockettes (plus one female). The steps are basic, even for a distracted klutz like me, and before long Craig is leading the entire dance floor—dozens of men in open-necked shirts and gold chains, plus a few like Mark in suit jackets. I feel like I’m in a movie, but not a good one."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: (Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop

Just as "The Twist" was both a song and a dance craze, multiple disco songs were tied to specific dances: the Hustle and its many iterations, and a series of line dances including the Bus Stop and the Electric Slide. The Fatback Band's "(Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop" didn't make the Top 40 when it was released in 1975, but it's credited with updating line dancing for the disco era. In fact, the band's "Spanish Hustle" appears on the B side of a special disco release of the "Bus Stop."

In Cusp, Craig teaches the Bus Stop to Mark and Karen. "On the dance floor, it’s way too loud for real conversation, so I just give in and try to get my thoughts together while Craig teaches us the step. He yells over the music that the Hustle is passé and the Bus Stop is the hot new thing. I place my purse on the floor where I can keep an eye on it and try to focus."

Fun fact: Besides disco line dances, The Fatback Band is also credited with the first hip hop single release, "Kim Tim III," which came out about six months before "Rapper's Delight," the Sugarhill Gang song credited with launching the rap/hip hop genre.

Curious about the Bus Stop's steps? Well, they're pretty basic. You can get an idea here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Dreaming a Dream

"Dreaming a Dream" by the Crown Heights Affair, released in 1975, could be the missing link between soul and disco. Soulful, funky, unbelievably fun to dance to -- this one has it all. Of all the songs in Cusp, it may be the one that most takes me back to the '70s since it has received such minimal exposure since. 
The song never made top 40, rising only as high as number 43. However, it was number 1 on the disco chart (then called the  Hot Dance Club Play chart) in July 1975, the month when The Cusp of Everything opens. In the book, it plays at the Sting, the gay disco in Yonkers where Mark and Karen meet Craig on Thanksgiving later that year.

The club version of the song was the synth-heavy instrumental, but there was also a version with vocals. The song was also remixed and released as a 12-inch disco single in 1977.

Crown Heights Affair went on to have other hits, performing on the bill with disco artists during that genre's heyday. But in my opinion they've never achieved the recognition they should have.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Who Loves You

The 4 Seasons hadn't had a hit in more than seven years when "Who Loves You" entered the pop charts toward the end of September 1975. Yet the song stayed ensconced there the rest of the year, rising to number 3. And as soon as it fell off, it was replaced by an even bigger hit, "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" - more about that one later!

With "Who Loves You," the 4 Seasons had followed leader Frankie Valli back into the spotlight after his own seven-year hiatus. (Valli had three charting hits during 1975, including one profiled earlier.) Producer Bob Gaudio cleverly rode the swelling disco wave, giving a pop classic a disco beat and even releasing a longer version that received club play. Gaudio composed the song and co-wrote the lyrics with his wife.
In Cusp, the song plays in the kitchen during Thanksgiving preparations: "Infuriated, Mom opens the oven door to check the turkey and bangs it closed just as Dad walks in the kitchen door to the mellow and ironic strains of 'Who Loves You' by the 4 Seasons."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: You Haven’t Done Nothin’

It's not just a song, it's an indictment of a teen daughter trying to get out of helping with Thanksgiving dinner. 

The title of Chapter 10, "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" comes from Stevie Wonder's 1974 album Fulfillingness' First Finale. Karen is listening to the record repeatedly, soaking up as much Stevie as she can - and trying to drown out the preparations in the kitchen below. Dinner will bring her estranged parents together for the first time in more than a year, and she is emphatically not looking forward to it. Being a self-absorbed teen, she has no problem sharing her opinion with her mother, who is desperately seeking some help as the clock ticks down.

The song, featuring the Jackson 5 singing background, was a number 1 pop hit. It's a powerful anti-Nixon statement ("We are sick and tired of hearing your song/Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong"). Just to reinforce the message, the single's B side was "Big Brother" from 1972's Talking Book,  also a slam against politicians ("I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me 'round election time").

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G, Op. 32 No. 5

The only reference to classical music in Cusp relates to a Vladimir Horowitz concert at Carnegie Hall attended by Karen and her mother.  

"It was like we had a time-out from who we really are. Sure, we ate dinner at a hot dog stand and sat in five-dollar seats in the nosebleed section, but it still felt special. I’m not a big classical music buff, but you’d have to be deaf or unconscious not to realize there’s something other-worldly about Vladimir Horowitz."

In the link, Horowitz plays Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G, Op. 32 No. 5, a piece played at his November 16, 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. The recording dates to 1986, just three years before his death at age 86.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)

Art Garfunkel's version of "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" opens his dreamlike album Breakaway. Released in late 1975, the album featured the first new Simon & Garfunkel collaboration in five years, "My Little Town," which also appeared on Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years. "My Little Town" received near-constant radio airplay at the end of 1975/beginning of 1976.

Less ubiquitous was this song, which was not released as a single. I love the Stevie Wonder version, the final cut on Talking Book, and rarely consider remakes of his works worthy. However, I think Garfunkel does the song justice. The Richard Perry-produced material is a little overwrought, but not incongruously so given the subject matter.

The song was written by Wonder with then-sister-in-law and occasional songwriting collaborator Yvonne Wright (sister of the late Syreeta).

In Cusp the song plays on the car radio as Karen and Mark leave Playland Beach after spending all night there talking. Like many songs, she hears it as a message. "It makes me want to cry but doesn’t seem to affect Mark at all." Sadly, it takes more than just believing for love to last forever.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Nights in White Satin

Growing up, there were lots of singles in my house but very few albums. When I got old enough to start buying my own records at the tail end of the '60s, I needed to play catch-up. For example, my first Beatles album was the then-current Abbey Road, but of course no record collection would be complete without Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and so on. 

And so it was with the Moody Blues. I was a fan throughout my college years and ultimately owned five or six of their albums. All had been out for years by the time I bought them, since the band was on hiatus in the mid-'70s. My oldest Moody Blues album was their second, 1967's Days of Future Passed, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra and featuring the classic "Nights in White Satin.

"Nights in White Satin" was released as a single in 1967 but did not enter the pop charts until almost five years later, when it rose to number 2. By the time it appears in Cusp, it is three years after that. Karen and Mark, their friendship deepening, talk in front of his house under an oak tree. To lyrics like "Just what you want to be, you'll be in the end," they imagine their future - and how much larger that tree will have grown. The Moody Blues, and being with a kindred spirit, can inspire such philosophical ruminations. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: No Time

The Guess Who's chart success roughly parallels that of the Grass Roots; each band had 14 hits in the 1960s and '70s with a shifting line-up of players. 
At the time of "No Time," 1970, Burton Cummings was Guess Who's lead singer and founding member Randy Bachman was lead guitarist. Besides this one, the two co-wrote numerous hits, including "These Eyes."Two months after "No Time" hit number 5 Bachman/Cummings, along with two other songwriters, had their first number 1 hit, "American Woman." And then the collaborators went their separate ways, with Bachman leaving the band to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

In Cusp, Karen says, "I know when songs came out and where I was when I first heard them. 'I'd Wait a Million Years' by the Grass Roots? 1969, driving to my piano lesson. 'No Time' by the Guess Who? 1970, part of an annoying conversation with Josh Steinberg on the school bus, who turned it into an Abbott and Costello routine by asking me “Guess who does this song?”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I'd Wait a Million Years

Listening to it now it sounds manic and desperate, but when I was a pre-teen I couldn't get enough of the Grass Roots' "I'd Wait a Million Years." "I'd swim the deepest sea and climb the highest hill just to have you near me." How romantic! How dramatic! What a great counterpoint to the oh so jaded "Is That All There Is?"

My mother bought the single, but ultimately came to regret it because I played this song with the arm on the stereo lifted so it would repeat infinitely. In the slope-floored den on Prince Willow Lane that now exists only in my mind, it is playing still.

Written by Gary Zekley and Mitch Bottler, the song went to number 15 in 1969, one of a string of late '60s/early '70s Grass Roots hits.

Just thought I'd mention that the current incarnation of the Grass Roots is on this summer's "Happy Together" tour with, among others, the Turtles and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Nathan Jones

From the 1971 album Touch comes "Nathan Jones," one of my favorite Supremes songs. The subject starts out as a downer (girlfriend's been dumped, boyfriend's been gone too long), but the tune is upbeat because time has healed any wounds. She's changed the locks and "there's no room in my heart for you no more." It's not exactly "I Will Survive," but shares that later hit's theme.
This might be the most democratic of all Supremes songs: all three members sing lead - at the same time, no less - and all three sing "oohs." Production is by Frank Wilson, who also produced "Stoned Love." The Funk Brothers' instrumentation manages to sound both '70s-fresh and '60s-variety-show classic. It went to 16 on the pop charts.

The group was still actively recording and releasing records for Motown during the period of The Cusp of Everything (1975-76), although they were to disband in 1977. "Nathan Jones" is one of Mark's lessons in Karen's Supremes indoctrination in Chapter 9.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Stoned Love

From Chapter 9: The J. Geils Band invented "the college of musical knowledge," and in Cusp Mark teaches the advanced class on Supremes. You may not think this is what Peter Wolf had in mind, but consider this: J. Geils used to perform "Where Did Our Love Go" in concert.  

Speaking of "Where Did Our Love Go," I hear unmistakable echoes of it in the the Funk Brothers' instrumentation of "Stoned Love." Oh, those hand claps! The song (originally titled "Stone Love") is the second of four '70s Supremes singles featuring Jean Terrell. It was the only one from the 1970 album New Ways but Love Stays and it hit number 7 on the pop chart, the Supremes' last top 10 single.

"Stoned Love" was produced and co-written by Frank Wilson, who made significant contributions to Motown and pop history. His only (potential) Motown single, "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)," was pulled pre-release and fewer than five copies are known to exist. One sold at auction in 2009 for more than £25,000. If you want to hear it for free - or buy it for much, much less than £25,000 - it's available on Spotify, iTunes and Amazon.