A few more words about the AM radio hits of roughly 1975-81… the advent of sulfuric-powered irony had already made many of those songs cliché by the time Judd Apatow put them in every movie (Afternoon Delight in particular), especially since the Yacht Rock videos had given the genre a brilliant name. Before that, in 1994-95, the brilliant-before-his-time Sam Pratt had a whole issue of his zine Ersatz dedicated to the topic. Go back farther, however, and you get to 1992, when Jon “Noj” Gray, Matt McMichaels and I put together an acoustic cover band playing nothing but those particular songs we liked.
Bizarrely, we were a huge hit, despite not trying very hard. Sure, we practiced a lot, but it was pretty effortless – I remember the day I got the idea, I went downstairs in the Purple House to talk to the guys, and they said, “we were just about to come upstairs to pitch the same idea.” A couple of sorority chicks had already forged a duo called “She Says” and were playing Paul Simon covers, and we were determined to blow ’em out of Chapel Hill’s waters.
We knew the social chairman at most of the fraternities, despite being a year or two out of school, and they hired us early and often. Eventually, a frat at NC State got wind, and invited us on their pledge formal, which was an all-night booze cruise up the Chesapeake Bay. I had a flu-induced temperature of 103 and was hallucinating while playing Haulin’ Oats and Kenny Loggins, but the entire boat began to chant “DAMN GOOD BAND! DAMN GOOD BAND!” (Noj, please verify)
A partial playlist from the top of my head: “Things We Do For Love”, “Private Eyes”, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”, “Dance With Me”, “You Are The Woman”, “Moonlight Feels Right”, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, “I’m Alright”, “Wishing You Were Here”, “Sharing the Night Together” and we even threw in “Take On Me”, “Careless Whisper” and “Come On Eileen” (with me on violin) for the chicks needing an ’80s fix. Matt and Jon did a great duet of Never Going Back Again, I sang the Beatles’ No Reply, and there was some bizarre medley that contained Matthew Sweet’s I’ve Been Waiting.
This was about ten minutes before the Internet happened, so just finding these songs (and therefore lyrics) became an odyssey in itself. It took me three months to track down I Love You by the Climax Blues Band – I finally found it on a 45 single at a consignment shop in Durham. A bunch of songs came from the 8-track carts at WCHL in Chapel Hill, where I was the “movie reviewer” by day, song-dubbing thief by night.
One thing lost in all the wink/nudge and nostalgia is how good those bands were, and how complicated those pop songs could be. The three of us were able to pull them off because we were pretty fucking good at our instruments and sang 3-part harmonies in tune, but if you look at the Ambrosia video Joanna linked to, it’s frequently 4-part harmonies (even the drummer is belting it out) and the chord changes are mesmerizing. Just try and do what this bassist is doing, even without the “Joanie from Happy Days” hairstyle:
More than that, I think many of these songs are more punk than what came after, just for their utter lack of restraint. I give to you, as a public service, the video for “Baby Come Back” by Player. I defy you to find anything more “dick in the dirt” than the dramatic pause at 2:45…
Not to mention the amphibious dual keyboarding, featured both in this song and in “Video Killed the Radio Star”:
As Noj said one night about “Moonlight Feels Right”, the singer chuckles lasciviously not just after the first verse, but after all of them:
dig the marimba solo AND the marimba soloist uniform
It was an era that wasn’t afraid to use what could only be semicolons:
“I like feeling like I do
And I see in your eyes that you’re liking it; I’m liking it too…”
– Dr. Hook, “Sharing the Night Together”
“You can run but you cannot hide; this is widely known…”
– James Taylor, “Shower the People”
“We could go walkin’ through a windy park
Take a drive along the beach
Or stay at home and watch TV; you see, it really doesn’t matter much to me…
– England Dan and John Ford Coley, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”
Needless to say, our little cover band (called, originally, “Purple House”) made thousands of dollars over the course of a year – which, adjusted for inflation, was a lot of bourbon and cokes. I got a new amplifier for my violin and Joanna sold me a leather jacket at Barree Station on Franklin Street. And then we sorta stopped doing it, because it was all feeling a little too easy, and we wanted to be writing our own songs.
But I’m still proud of the fact that we seduced our little micro-generation, the specific group of college kids born between 1968 and 1973, by doing conjuring up the songs that would crackle out of one speaker in the middle of our mom’s dashboard. Sometimes I’ll hear “Dance With Me” on the speakers at a grocery store, and remember that I got to spend the night with a hot KD from Georgia because she dug the lilting bassline.