They say there’s always magic in the air

I’ve always been fascinated by magic tricks, magicians and magic shows. It’s a tradition that’s been around for centuries. Unlike some folks, I’m not interested in finding out how a magic trick works. I might say, “How’d he do that?”, but I don’t really want to know. For me, that spoils the fun of it. It shatters the illusion that makes it so entertaining in the first place.

When we say “there’s magic in the air” or “it was a magical day,” we’re buying into the idea that something truly special is present, something unknown, or unknowable, something mystical, supernatural, otherworldly. It’s exciting to contemplate!

It’s a great topic for songwriters too. I found a couple dozen songs with magic in the title in the classic rock realm, and I’ve selected 15 to examine more closely. My Spotify playlist at the end includes these 15 selections plus another eight as “honorable mentions.”

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“Do You Believe in Magic,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1965

Singer-songwriter John Sebastian and his band made a dramatic debut in mid-1965 with this effervescent tune about the seemingly magical power of music to bring happiness to those who make it as well as to those who listen to it. It reached #9 on US charts and became something of an anthem for the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll community: “It’s magic if the music is groovy, it makes you feel happy like an old-time movie, /I’ll tell you about the magic, it’ll free your soul, but it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll, /If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose, if it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues, /Just go and listen, and it’ll start with a smile that won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try…”

“Magic,” The Cars, 1984

The Cars’ chief songwriter Ric Ocasek wrote this fun tune about how relationships can sometimes survive and thrive if they have just a touch of something undefinable, something…well, magical: “Uh oh, it’s magic when I’m with you, uh oh, it’s magic, just a little bit of magic pulls me through, /Uh oh, it’s magic, just a little magic inside of you…” The song, the second of five Top 40 singles from the group’s “Heartbeat City” LP, reached #12 in 1984. The band released a popular music video for “Magic” as well, featuring a cast of comically eccentric characters gathered around a swimming pool marveling at Ocasek, who seemed to be walking on the surface of the water. When some tried to walk on water, they fell in, but Ocasek remains standing and dry because…it’s magic!

“Magic Man,” Heart, 1976

When Ann and Nancy Wilson co-wrote this early hit for their band Heart, Ann explained it was autobiographical in nature. At the time, she was mesmerized by her new boyfriend and his alluring ways, referring to him as a “magic man” with strong charms: “I could not run away, it seemed we’d seen each other in a dream, /It seemed like he knew me, he looked right through me…” She said her mother was concerned, but Ann replied, “Try try try to understand, he’s a magic man, mama, aww yeah, he got the magic hands…” “Magic Man” was Heart’s first Top Ten hit, peaking at #9 in 1976. The album version was more than two minutes longer than the edited single, thanks to lengthy guitar and synthesizer solos.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” The Police, 1981

Sting wrote this tune back in 1976 before The Police had formed, and made a demo of it by himself. Several years later, as the band was recording their fourth LP, “Ghosts in the Machine,” Sting resurrected this song “even though it seemed a bit soft for the band at first, but still, it sounded like a No. 1 song to me.” The trio tried recording it anew with a different arrangement more like typical Police material, but in the end, they used Sting’s demo and grafted new drums and guitar parts on top, as well as a new piano track by Jean Roussel. The song, which reached #3 in the US in 1981, explores the feelings of a shy man hesitant to approach the woman he admires: “Every time that I come near her, I just lose my nerve as I’ve done from the start, /Every little thing she does is magic, everything she do just turns me on…”

“Magic Dance,” David Bowie, 1986

For “Labyrinth,” the 1986 musical fantasy film by Jim Henson (in which Bowie starred as Jareth, king of the goblins), Bowie wrote and recorded five songs, the best of which was “Magic Dance,” sometimes called “Dance Magic.” It’s a crazy-fun uptempo tune that was used in a scene where Jareth and his goblins try to entertain a crying baby. Critics have called it “one of Bowie’s most playful and underrated songs” that “has the ability to reinvigorate a dying party nearly 40 years later.” The lyrics overtly refer to magic spells but retain a lighthearted touch: “What kind of magic spell to use?, /Slime and snails or puppy dogs’ tails, thunder or lightning, something frightening, /Then baby said, dance magic dance, put that baby spell on me, jump magic jump…”

“Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf, 1968

This may come as a surprise to many who have regarded this classic rock song as a stoner anthem, but Steppenwolf singer-lyricist John Kay claims that’s not the case. He said he was merely writing about his brand new high-quality stereo system (“Close your eyes, girl, look inside, girl, let the sound take you away…”) and how the music could magically transport him and his new wife as if they were on Aladdin’s magic carpet: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp,
and so I wished that I could stay… Well, you don’t know what we can find, why don’t you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride…”
Thanks to an undeniably catchy riff and strong vocals, “Magic Carpet Ride” reached #3 and proved to be a worthy follow-up to Steppenwolf’s iconic debut, “Born To Be Wild.”

“Spanish Castle Magic,” Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967

Hendrix grew up in Seattle, and one of the things he enjoyed doing during his high school years in the late ’50s was driving out to a roadhouse an hour south of the city, where he could sneak in under age to watch great live music. The place he recalled fondly was called The Spanish Castle, and he ended up writing about it (somewhat cryptically) in “Spanish Castle Magic,” a track that appeared on his second album with The Experience, “Axis: Bold As Love,” released in late 1967. “It’s very far away, it takes about half a day to get there, if we travel by my dragonfly, /No it’s not in Spain, but all the same, you know, it’s a groovy name, /Hang on my darling, yeah, hang on if you want to go, /It puts everything else on the shelf, with just a little bit of Spanish castle magic, yeah baby…”

“This Magic Moment,” Jay and The Americans, 1968

Lyricist Doc Pomus and pianist Mort Shulman were songwriting collaborators on two dozen Top 40 hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including The Drifters’ #1 smash “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Dion & The Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love,” and “Surrender,” “Little Sister” and “Viva Las Vegas” for Elvis Presley. Another hit for The Drifters was “This Magic Moment,” which charted even higher when recorded in 1968 by Jay and The Americans, reaching #6. The song’s lyric does a fine job of describing the special feeling when you experience a first kiss with someone: “Sweeter than wine, softer than the summer night, /Everything I want I have, whenever I hold you tight, /This magic moment while your lips are close to mine will last forever, forever ’til the end of time…”

“Magic Bus,” The Who, 1968

Pete Townshend wrote this madcap rocker in 1965 but cut only a demo of it. The Who would perform it live occasionally, but they didn’t record it until 1968 when they released it as a single, reaching #25 in the US. Townshend wrote it as a lark about a fellow who traveled by bus every day to visit his girlfriend, which sparked the idea that he ought to buy the bus so he could drive himself. Negotiations ensued until the bus driver gave in. So there wasn’t much that was magical about the bus, but it’s still a fun little track from one of Britain’s best-ever bands: “I don’t care how much I pay, /Too much, Magic Bus, I wanna drive my bus to my baby each day, /Too much, Magic Bus, /I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it, /You can’t have it!…Every day you’ll see the dust, as I drive my baby in my Magic Bus…”

“Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” Santana, 1970

Peter Green, blues guitarist/singer/songwriter who founded Fleetwood Mac back in 1968, wrote “Black Magic Woman” as a blues tune fashioned after the Otis Rush song “All Your Love.” It became modestly popular in the UK and was often featured in live performances even after Green left the group. In 1970, Carlos Santana and his band recorded a cover of the song as a blues/rock/jazz thing with congas, timbales and other Latin-based percussion, plus organ and piano, giving a voodoo feel to it. That version reached #4 in the US, propelling Santana’s second LP, “Abraxas,” to #1 in early 1971. The lyrics already gave Green’s song a black magic vibe: “Got your spell on me, baby, yes you got your spell on me, baby, turning my heart into stone, /I need you so bad, magic woman, I can’t leave you alone…”

“Magic,” Bruce Springsteen, 2007

Critics hailed The Boss’s LP “Magic” as high-energy rock in the tradition of Springsteen’s early albums with The E Street Band, and yet lyrically, there was a liberal dose of societal concern and melancholy, from “Your Own Worst Enemy” and “Radio Nowhere” to “Long Walk Home” and “Last to Die.” The title track offers examples of how magic tricks (illusion) are, like political maneuvering, just shiny diversions from the uncomfortable truth (reality): “Trust none of what you hear, and less of what you see, /This is what will be… /I got a shiny saw blade, all I need’s a volunteer, /I’ll cut you in half while you’re smilin’ ear to ear, /And the freedom that you sought’s drifting like a ghost amongst the trees, /This is what will be…”

“Little Miss Magic,” Jimmy Buffett, 1981

As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, party animal Buffett mellowed a bit and, with his second wife, had two daughters. For their first, named Savannah, he wrote the gentle, whimsical ballad “Little Miss Magic,” which appears as the final track on his 1981 LP “Coconut Telegraph.” He observes how his young daughter stares at things and might someday go on to do wondrous things. As any parent can tell you, babies are indeed magical, and Buffett wholeheartedly agrees: “Sometimes I catch her dreaming and wonder where that little mind meanders, /Is she down along the shore or strolling cross the broad Savannahs? /I see a little more of me every day, I catch a little more moustache turning grey, /Your mother is the only other woman for me, Little Miss Magic, what you gonna be?…”

“Puff, the Magic Dragon,” Peter, Paul & Mary, 1962

Based on a 1958 poem by Peter Yarrow’s college roommate, “Puff” was written by Yarrow in 1962 and became a #2 song on US charts in 1963. When overreachers claimed the song was about smoking weed, Yarrow said, “Oh, come on, people. It’s a children’s story about a boy and his friend the dragon. It’s about the loss of innocence when we grow up and move on from childhood concerns.” He added that Puff was a magic dragon to the boy because “to a young boy, everything is magical, especially dragons.” “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah-Lee, /Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail, Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail…”

“I Was Made to Love Magic,” Nick Drake, 1969

Extremely talented but severely introverted, Drake released three albums in his short life and recorded additional tracks that were released posthumously, including this one called “I Was Made to Love Magic,” or more familiarly, just “Magic.” It had been intended for his debut LP in 1969 but was left off and later re-recorded twice with different orchestral string sections, finally seeing release on a 1987 compilation. His crippling depression that ultimately contributed to his death at only 26 was evident in the lyrics to several of his sad songs including “Magic”: “I was born to love no one, no one to love me, /Only the wind in the long green grass, the frost in a broken tree, /I was made to love magic, all its wonder to know, /But you all lost that magic many many years ago…”

“That Old Black Magic,” Sammy Davis Jr., 1955

“The Wizard of Oz” songwriter Harold Arlen teamed up with the great Johnny Mercer to write “That Old Black Magic” in 1942 for a flimsy musical wartime morale booster called “Star Spangled Rhythm.” The movie was nothing much, but the musical score and the Arlen/Mercer song were nominated for Oscars that year. It went on to become a standard, sung by numerous stars over the years like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Rydell and, more recently, Rod Stewart. To my ears, the best arrangement was by Sammy Davis Jr., who had a #16 hit in 1955. Here’s a sample of the lyrics: “That old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well, /Icy fingers up and down my spine, that same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine…”

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Honorable mentions:

Magical Mystery Tour,” The Beatles, 1967; “Magic Time,” Van Morrison, 2007; “Strange Magic,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975; “You Can Do Magic,” America, 1981; “If It’s Magic,” Stevie Wonder, 1976; “Magic Woman Touch,” The Hollies, 1973; “Magic,” Pilot, 1975; “Me Wise Magic,” Van Halen, 1996; “Games of Magic,” Bread, 1972.

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You know the groove’s still there

Most of the posts and playlists I put together here at Hack’s Back Pages have themes. Songs about autumn… Cringeworthy songs… Great ex-Beatles tunes… Songs with female names as the title… Songs for April Fool’s Day…

Some groupings, however, are seemingly random — strange mixes of genres, tempos, year of release, lyrics topics. That’s because these are what I call “lost classics.” Typically, the only thing they have in common is that they’re great songs that you maybe heard once before, or maybe a few times, but you haven’t heard in ages or have forgotten about. Or perhaps you’ve never heard some of these songs at all.

In any case, you’re just going to have to trust me. I think my track record for selecting dusted-off gems is pretty good, and I’ll wager that after hearing this playlist of a dozen songs from the ’70s (and a couple from the ’80s), you’ll come away with at least three or four “new” songs that hit your sweet spot. That’s the fun of lost classics — exciting discoveries of long-neglected musical jewels!

The Spotify playlist is at the end for you to access as you read more about the tracks. Enjoy!

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“People Gotta Move,” Gino Vannelli, 1974

I remember going to an audio store in 1974 to buy new speakers, and when the sales guy dropped the needle on an album to test the sound of various brands of speakers, the record he chose to use was “Powerful People,” a new album by a Canadian singer named Gino Vannelli. The track was “People Gotta Move,” an infectious, keyboard-driven tune that knocked me off my feet (and eventually reached #22 on US charts that year). In addition to new speakers, I also bought Vannelli’s LP and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. Four years later, his “Brother to Brother” LP reached #3 on the US charts, thanks to the #4 hit “I Just Wanna Stop,” but I still prefer the sound and excitement of his early work. Crank this one up LOUD!

“Without Love,” Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, 1977

I’d become a major Bruce Springsteen fan in the summer of ’75, playing his first three LPs incessantly and bowled over when I saw him in concert at a Cleveland theater. While in college at Syracuse the following year, I began hearing great things about a New Jersey cohort of Springsteen named “Southside” Johnny Lyon, so when he came to campus to play a small club with his rollicking R&B band The Asbury Jukes, I eagerly attended, and have loved this group ever since. Their second LP, 1977’s “This Time It’s For Real,” is full of irresistible dance tracks, many written by Steve Van Zandt and Springsteen, but my favorite is “Without Love” by songwriter Carolyn Franklin, younger sister of Aretha Franklin. Southside Johnny and his horn section are in top form on this slab of vintage soul.

“Lucretia MacEvil”/”Lucretia’s Reprise,” Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1970

I was among the millions who loved BS&T’s 1969 album with its original use of horns and jazz arrangements in a rock format, and singer David Clayton-Thomas’s gutsy vocals on big hits like “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” I played the hell out of this LP, which also included sharp interpretations of Traffic’s “Smiling Phases” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” The follow-up album, “3,” turned out to be a big disappointment, but it included “Hi-De-Ho,” a stirring gospel track by Carole King, and Clayton-Thomas’s own “Lucretia MacEvil,” a modest hit at #29. The group tacked on a nifty jazz-horns coda entitled “Lucretia’s Reprise” that extends the song’s groove an extra three minutes.

“Dissatisfied,” Fleetwood Mac, 1973

First, there was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, founded in London in 1967 as a blues band led by Green’s superb guitar. In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Fleetwood Mac was a super-platinum group pumping out multiple hit pop singles, led by guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks. In between those two versions, in the 1970-1975 period, there was a more eclectic period featuring the diverse songs of two guitarists (Brit Danny Kirwan and American Bob Welch), and the marvelous Christine McVie, whose singing and songwriting have been the most consistently superior of them all. On the otherwise ho-hum 1973 LP “Penguin,” she serves up the catchy pop rock of “Dissatisfied,” which resembles her later successes like “You Make Loving Fun” and “Little Lies.”

“Throwing Stones,” Grateful Dead, 1987

The late great Jerry Garcia got most of the accolades as the musical epicenter of this venerable band, and deservedly so, but I have always been equally fond of the singing and songwriting of bandmate Bob Weir. That’s his voice you hear on classics like “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia” and “One More Saturday Night,” and his stellar contributions to the group’s superb 1987 comeback studio album “In the Dark” are arguably that record’s finest moments. There’s Weir’s compelling rocker “Hell in a Bucket,” and there’s the relentless beat and social commentary behind “Throwing Stones”: “And the politicians throwing stones, so the kids, they dance, they shake their bones, /’Cause it’s all too clear we’re on our own, singing ashes, ashes, all fall down…”

“Wastin’ Away,” Gerry Rafferty, 1980

The smooth voice and beautifully constructed songs of Gerry Rafferty seemed to come out of nowhere in the summer of 1978, particularly the majestic hit “Baker Street” with its killer sax riff. Actually, Rafferty may have sounded vaguely familiar because he was the singer in the band Stealers Wheel, who had a 1973 hit with “Stuck in the Middle With You.” He followed up his #1 LP “City to City” with “Night Owl” (1979) and “Snakes and Ladders” (1980) and more sporadic releases in subsequent years, but because he had an aversion to performing and touring, the albums didn’t get the promotion they needed, and his chart success dwindled. Such a shame, because a fine track like “Wastin’ Away” from “Snakes and Ladders” could’ve been a hit.

“Sit Yourself Down,” Stephen Stills, 1970

From his Buffalo Springfield days (“For What It’s Worth,” “Bluebird,” “Rock and Roll Woman”) through his Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young period (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping,” “Carry On”), Stephen Stills became known as a terrific songwriter, not to mention guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. The egos of CSN&Y were too big and stubborn to allow the group to last long, but that didn’t stop the individual members from proceeding with solo careers and/or other groups. Stills came out of the gate with the strong “Stephen Stills” LP and its single, “Love the One You’re With,” in late 1970, and it was packed with fine tunes and top-flight musicians. You might recall “Sit Yourself Down,” which features Crosby, Nash, Rita Coolidge and Cass Elliot on background vocals.

“Carolina Day,” Livingston Taylor, 1970

James Taylor’s younger brother shares a similar singing/songwriting talent and was able to secure his own recording contract at age 20, not long after “Sweet Baby James” was released in mid-1970. Livingston was pretty prolific, releasing six albums in ten years (inching into the Top 40 twice with singles but never with LPs), and he continued recording new songs periodically in the ’80s, 90s and 2000s. The debut LP “Livingston Taylor” showed a strong vocal resemblance to James, and the ten original songs by Liv were strong, but the album’s production sounded a bit amateurish. The upbeat debut single “Carolina Day,” which had “hit” written all over it, curiously stiffed at #93. Its lyrics reference his siblings and their growing-up-in-Carolina experiences.

“Nature’s Way,” Spirit, 1970

Emanating out of the rustic Topanga Canyon area of Malibu, California, in 1968, Spirit was a rock/jazz/blues band that had some modest chart success but was more a proud FM underground favorite. Their first two albums flirted with the US Top 25, thanks to the minor hit singles “Fresh Garbage” and “I Got a Line on You.” For their fifth album, they came up with a quasi-concept LP, “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” which used literary themes to examine the fragility of life and complexity of the human experience. The sardonic “Mr. Skin” became a dance favorite upon its re-release as a single in 1973, but the track from “Dr. Sardonicus” that became a signature song for Spirit was the ecologically prescient “Nature’s Way,” an acoustic song by guitarist Randy California.

“Easy Now,” Eric Clapton, 1970

During his days with The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith, Clapton concentrated almost exclusively on electric blues guitar, shying away from the microphone except perhaps to add a harmony. He deferred to Keith Relf, Mayall, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood, respectively, because he had no confidence in his singing voice. Then Clapton befriended Delaney Bramlett, with whom he collaborated on tour with Delaney and Bonnie’s band and, more important, on writing songs together. Bramlett wisely pushed Clapton to make his first solo album and to do all the lead vocals, and the result was the 1970 LP “Eric Clapton,” which features the guitarist’s lovely voice, and includes classics like “After Midnight,” “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power” and the acoustic guitar-based love song “Easy Now.”

“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” Karla Bonoff, 1977

A close-knit fraternity of songwriter musicians based in Los Angeles played and sang on each other’s songs throughout the mid-late 1970s, and one of the most talented singer-songwriters of the bunch was Karla Bonoff. She won plenty of acclaim for the excellent tunes in her portfolio recorded by others — “All My Life,” “Isn’t It Always Love,” “Home,” “Wild Heart of the Young” and “Lose Again” — but never had much chart success herself, which is a crying shame. Her four LPs between 1977 and 1988 are all beautifully recoded keepers in my vinyl collection. Linda Ronstadt cast such a long shadow with her versions of Bonoff’s songs, especially the gorgeous “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” but I maintain that Bonoff’s rendition is the better of the two. Listen and decide for yourself.

“Summer Soft,” Stevie Wonder, 1976

From 1972-1977, it seemed that Wonder could do wrong. “Innervisions” (1973), “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” (1974) and “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976) all won Album of the Year Grammy awards, not to mention a string of Top 10 singles in the same time perioda. In particular, “Songs in the Key of Life” is a monumental double LP that offers an amazing smorgasbord of musical genres and lyrical explorations, with Wonder in firm command of his songwriting gift. The funky stomp “I Wish” and Wonder’s Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” got the lion’s share of attention, but there are equally worthy tracks to savor, like “As,” “Another Star,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Ngiculela (I Am Singing),” “If It’s Magic,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and the melodic, heartbreaking “Summer Soft.”

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