Welcome back to the second installment of The Number Nines:
A glimpse of great music that never quite got the buzz it deserved.
Here are my next four picks, representing some of the most exciting new sounds of the high ‘70s.
At first, it’s only an unearthly whistle and a toe-tapping sleigh bell rhythm. Then we hear the galloping, floridly electronic bassline.
And then, just as the fourth measure ends, the corn begins to pop.
For two and a half glorious minutes, the shadowy Hot Butter sinks its teeth into the “Popcorn” hook, symphonically layering unearthly Moog melodies and adding in percussive touches every so often:
A shaker, a triangle, offbeat drum hits. The end result is every bit as exciting as standing on a stool for the first time to watch popcorn kernels pop in the pot.
By novelty-instrumental standards, the journey of “Popcorn” is surprisingly long, but so is its cultural shadow.
The song was originally written in 1968 by the experimental German-American composer Gershon Kingsley. A man who loved his Moog so much, he recorded the song for a truly strange half-cover album called Music to Moog By.
He set up the “First Moog Quartet.”
And later wrote the PBS synth fanfare:
Kingsley rearranged “Popcorn” for a Quartet album in 1972.
But bandmate Stan Free covered it that same year with his own short-lived band, and that version unexpectedly took off worldwide.
As the first primarily electronic song to make the top 10, “Popcorn” must have sounded completely alien on pop radio.
But it granted Moogs the visibility needed for synthesizers to colonize the charts, unexpectedly providing the building blocks for several generations of electronic dance music.
Also: it rules:
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
The album What’s Going On is a shameful omission in the history of Hot 100 number-ones. It sent three singles into the top-ten – more than any album by a male solo artist until then – but its artistic achievements are even more undeniable.
A product of Gaye’s dismay at the social conditions in America and his brother’s letters from Vietnam, I think What’s Going On works as impossibly well as it does because it uses the free-form language of psychedelic soul to capture his wide-ranging personal ruminations on society and make them universal.
The first two singles are gorgeous, perfectly bittersweet accounts of injustice and environmental ruin.
But both are grounded in hope for a better future.
“Inner City Blues” has none of that.
It’s dark, bluesy, and brimming with frustration at the status quo.
In his unearthly falsetto, Marvin unveils the bleakness of life in the inner city one devastating line at a time – from the lack of government spending, to police brutality, to an autobiographical line about tax struggles – adding in the “make me wanna holler” to highlight how untenable and frightening the situation is.
The music underneath is a rich, driving swirl underpinned by a beautifully murmuring bongo line from Bobbye Hall.
A pioneering female percussionist with an utterly astonishing resume of session credits.
Nowadays, the Vietnam War is over, civil rights heroes of the ‘60s are universally-acknowledged legends, and most Americans are at least aware of ecological issues.
But I think “Inner City Blues” remains undimmed to this day because it lays bare issues in urban communities that still make us wanna holler.
I never met the man, but I’m not sure if Marvin Gaye would be too proud of just how much his song still matters.
Whatever your thoughts on a song I might have heard in a hundred contexts before I graduated high school: there’s no way to deny its staying power.
My favourite story is that of my friend, who was inspired to take up opera after discovering this song at age five.
That’s part of the power of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Everybody has some kind of history with it.
Nobody’s history with the song was longer than Freddie Mercury’s: having spent seven years writing it and never bothering to reveal what inspired him. But the most striking thing about the whole song is that it makes sense as one.
The a capella intro, the ballad, the operatic number, the hard rock section, and the reflective coda are produced so cleanly that each section flows beautifully into the next.
The song sounds like the three weeks it took to fully record. (Freddie, Brian and Roger would devote 10 to 12 hours a day to recording their mind-blowing vocals.)
But “Bohemian Rhapsody” might be just as impactful as a pop product. One that established the modern standard of releasing a music video for a big single release. Their video was appropriately overblown and unforgettable, and probably helped the song stand out commercially in the vast realm of British prog-rock.
Favourable comparisons to “Good Vibrations”, not least from Brian Wilson himself, probably helped.
Even America finally let Queen into its top-10 heart – but only barely.
At least until the song climbed back up to #2 in 1992 through a Wayne’s World boost – that I chose to ignore so that I could write about this song. It was the song that inspired this list.
And it’s probably the most monumental of them all.
After growing up in Seattle dreaming of becoming a rocker, Ann Wilson answered an ad from a local band seeking a singer.
And her life became as dramatic as the music she’d later create. Lead guitarist Roger Fisher offered her the job immediately, only for his brother Mike – the band’s manager – to dodge the draft to Vancouver, forcing Heart to follow him.
But she was following her heart, too – by then, Ann Wilson had fallen dizzily, passionately in love with Mike Fisher.
Her mother wasn’t pleased with these changes, although the record does not reveal whether she tried to understand, triiiied to understand, tried, tried, tried to understaaand her daughter’s decision.
Anyway, Heart eventually picked up steam, and eventually had an album deal with an indie label. Thinking back on her whirlwind romance with Mike Fisher, she and Nancy wrote a funky, chugging, awesomely horny wailer that the label loved, complete with cool solos on both lead guitar and Minimoog.
The marketing strategy for “Magic Man” was ridiculous. After hilariously sending it to Canadian radio stations because it qualified as Can-Con, it earned further airplay after the band opened for “Tonight’s The Night”-era Rod Stewart.
The Wilsons have said that their radio publicist bribed DJs with drugs and prostitutes’ phone numbers for airplay. Then, of course, there was the label’s tabloidy, wildly misogynistic Rolling Stone ad.
Ann and Nancy were rightly furious, and promptly declared war on their label.
But the song stuck. Heart kicked off a much-loved run as the first high-profile female-fronted classic-rock band.
And none of it would have happened without the chart success of “Magic Man”.
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