Tuesday, August 15, 2017

40 Years On and the Death of Elvis

It's difficult not to write about 1967, the endless AM10s, the stellar debuts, the Human Be-in, Haight-Ashbury; and one would think, with disco battling it out with punk, that 1977 would be a rock-less year – how wrong you’d be. 1977 was the year of Rumours, News of the World, The Ramones and Aja; Kraftwerk, Bowie's Low, Talking Head’s '77 and Billy Joel's The Stranger; so yeah, pretty stellar. The singles of the year were equally impressive:

"We Will Rock You": It's almost impossible to listen to "We Will Rock You" without its "We Are the Champions" chaser. But the lead cut is the better song, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping monster that's rocked arenas and stadiums ever since. It's all voices and percussion until about 35 seconds from the end of the song, when Brian May uncorks one of his all-time best solos.

"Dreams": '77 was pretty much Fleetwood Mac's year. After struggling for years to get noticed in the U.S., the British blues band picked up a pair of L.A. singer-songwriters in 1975 and became one of the biggest groups on the planet. Rumours is their masterpiece, a breakup album centered on the members' infidelities; "Dreams" is Stevie Nicks' greatest contribution to it, but don't forget the LP also sported "The Chain," "Go Your Own Way" and "Don't Stop."

"Hotel California": The Eagles tried their hands at a concept album before — the wild-west mythology of 1973's Desperado, but with "Hotel California" they tackled a subject near and dear to their hearts: late-'70s L.A. debauchery. The entire Hotel California album sinks under the weight of too much sex and drugs, but the record's title track and centerpiece is the summation of all the paranoia, fear and soul-draining excess. By far the most sinister cut on our list of the Top 10 Songs of 1977, and one of the great singles of all time.

"Heroes": While Robert Fripp's star-reaching solos are obviously noteworthy, this isn't like Brian Eno's "Baby's On Fire" where Fripp is the main attraction and the artist on the billing is the secondary hero. David Bowie's vocal shredding creates tension and channels triumph in the face of inevitable defeat; hearing him sing "And we kissed as if nothing could fall" the way he does can make a man believe that a kiss could bring a world to its knees. But like Wouldn't It Be Nice / God Only Knows, this is a case of a single packaging two of the album's best into one of the best packages: "V-2 Schneider" is aces, condensing Kraftwerk into 3 minutes and adding in a funky bass-line and metal-on-metal drum-rolls to the mix; the saxophone and synths make for one of the most colorful worlds available in the "Berlin Trilogy."

"Watching the Detectives": In the summer of 1977, Elvis Costello was still an aspiring songwriter when he took the Clash's debut back to his London flat and "listened to it for 36 hours straight. And I wrote 'Watching the Detectives.'" Still, he maintained, "I was never part of any punk-rock thing. I couldn't afford to go to nightclubs at night. I had a wife and kid, and I had to go to work." Alongside "Alison," this pair made for a stunning, rule-changing debut.

"Virgina Plain": That's Eno, of course, with the massive sounding synths making way for Ferry's leery, leering vocal and enigmatic lyric, one of my all time faves. The other major players in the band, Manzanera on guitar, MacKay on sax and Paul Thompson all get to make themselves heard, but it's Eno that Ferry returns to for the climactic, ascending bridge before the final verse leading to the surprise ending where Bryan finally gets around to telling us the name of the song.

"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant": While never released as a single, Billy Joel’s entry is one of those story songs like "Stan" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," like Harry Chapin's "Taxi" or Dan Fogelberg's "Auld Lang Syne." The song tells the tale of high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie. It's a familiar story of a couple that couldn't survive the pressures of the real world, but Joel makes it very vivid by describing their "deep pile carpets" and their "couple of paintings from Sears." They were the kind of people everybody knew.

For years, fans wondered which Italian restaurant he was singing about, and he recently revealed it as Fontana di Trevi in New York. A waiter there said, "A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rosé instead?" It set off a spark in Billy's mind. 

And so our connections bring us back (again) to 1977, most specifically because tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. While Elvis has eluded me in my musical psyche over the years, as most of the 50s has (sans Sinatra and the jazz scene - indeed my exposure to Elvis is through Viva Las Vegas; which is fabulous, btw), I had the great fortune last month to visit Sun Studios in Memphis with my son. More on that later, for now I leave with the morning confession. On August 16, 1977 I fell asleep on a hot L.A. afternoon. I dreamt that Elvis was dead. When I awoke an hour later, in a sweat and with the TV on, Elvis was indeed. I cannot help but feel slightly responsible.