Tuesday, April 30, 2013

#10 - A Word of Solace (Ten at Fifty)

"When you wake up early in the morning
Feelin' sad like so many of us do
Hum a little soul
Make life your goal
And surely something's got to come to you"
"It's Alright", The Impressions, 1963

A precursor of the Temptations' "The Way You Do the Things You Do", the relaxed, finger-poppin' "It's Alright" was one of the first top ten hits to broaden the appeal of the Southern Black Gospel sound, which Sam Cooke exemplified in songs like "There's Not a Friend Like Jesus" when he was with the Soul Stirrers, but was already diverging from with the more bluesy "Chain Gang" a couple of years earlier.

It was longish for its time, flirting with the three-minute mark sometimes considered a deal-breaker by labels. And it had more lyrics than any of the other top ten songs of that year. The Impressions had broken into the top ten a year earlier with another Curtis Mayfield creation "Gypsy Woman", which bore little relationship to either that gospel sound or "Superfly". But what "It's Alright" did have in common was enough appeal to push it beyond the R&B charts and into the mainstream, and it represented the charting apex for the group. It was one of two songs in the top ten which propelled artists formerly thus pigeonholed into the mainstream.

(Sixties icon Steve Winwood staged a comeback in 1987 with his upbeat, but decidedly non-disco "Roll With It", which as it happens was another song of reassurance. It was at position number ten for that year.)

"Upon the hill across the blue lake,
That's where I had my first heartbreak.
I still remember how it all changed.
My father said,
'Don't you worry, don't you worry, child.'"
"Don't you worry, child", Swedish House Mafia, 2013

If you type just the two letter "sw" into a browser at google.com today, it's a fair bet that the first match presented to you in the popup list will be Swedish House Mafia, a deejay trio of a short but prosperous life span. They are the only current top ten entry that no longer exists, having disbanded about three years into their history, just about the time I took my "top ten snapshot" early last month. They had pretty much one speed, the 130 beats per second well-known to ravers and American Idol fans, and they seem to have little difficulty keeping their hands free. Their videos are predominantly fleeting shots of the audience and long shots of the venue, and it's hard to imagine a show in daylight. (... but here's one...)

An unfortunate association they have is with violence at a concert in Ireland. The Irish Times reported, "... Saturday’s show by “rave” act Swedish House Mafia was characterised by suspected drug overdoses and multiple incidents of stabbings. The contrast between two nights of feel-good, all-in-it-together sentiment with the drugs-and-violence mayhem of Saturday’s show was striking."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten at Fifty

In 1963, the Beatles were huge in the UK, but close to unknown in the U.S. – but that would change in a month. You wouldn’t know that by looking at Google Images for the sole search term “1963”, where a significant percentage of the images are of them; you also would not guess that the equally represented Bob Dylan was also close to unknown, although it was in that year that Peter, Paul, and Mary made a hit of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. More indicative of the style of the time are images of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Kennedy, Koufax, and Miss Kitty. The mood was mellower, with Little Richard’s frenzy at least partly replaced by the likes of the ultra-smooth Fleetwoods doing “Mr. Blue”, and the stage was perfectly set for the jangly production values of the Fab Four, although some of that sound had already surfaced in the Chantay’s “Pipeline”.

So it seemed to me that it would be a good time to look back 50 years, when I was a resident of Sonora, CA, a sleepy gold country town with as much a taste for Johnny Cash as The Ventures, and figure out what interesting things can be learned from the path from there to now, as seen through the strange lens of popular music. I’ve decided, in my geeky way, to employ a statistical approach, among other things, to compare the most popular songs then and now. And I’m inclined to take an occasional look at the midpoint in 1987, since that snapshot also represents an era in interesting ways.

I decided that my snapshot would not quite match between Billboard's idea of the top now and then. First, even though the British Invasion had not yet occurred, there was plenty of volatility in music in 1963, and there was already a well-established trend of more repetition and less production in the summertime, so it seemed like it would be hard to pick a particular week or month then to focus on as the analogous time to the early April week I picked for this year, so I elected instead to compare the 1963 year's top ten to the songs that floated to the top a couple of weeks ago.

And really, is it any wonder that it's a Bieber, and not a Wonder, who represents teen-idol-dom this year? Even if we'll see another Justin in my 2013 countdown, there's something timeless about the profiles of those elected to personify something like "Teen America", and even in the information era, the clustering of performer obsession retains its essential nature.

Next week we kick off at the number ten position, with a look at The Impressions and Swedish House Mafia.