I’ve been spelunking again recently, and I have some wonderful finds to share!
Exploring caves for rare hieroglyphics isn’t unlike digging through old albums from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and discovering (or re-discovering) some really great tracks to enjoy. I marvel at the seemingly endless supply of appealing musical grooves to be found that were criminally ignored or neglected at the time. I really enjoy what I see as my mission: Weeding through the inconsequential and truly awful to identify the damn good stuff, and then shine a light on them here so we can all get off on them.
Naturally, you may not take to some of these selections. Maybe you won’t like any of them (but I doubt that). That’s the beauty of art — so subjective, open to interpretation, and there for the taking or leaving. I hope you like, even love, these tunes. If not, well, there’s always the next edition of “Lost Classics“…
“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” James Taylor, 1976
The great Bobby Womack co-wrote this smooth tune with his stepdaughter Linda and took it to #1 on the R&B charts in 1972 (though it stiffed at #60 on the pop charts). Taylor, who had a habit of reworking R&B songs like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” did a really nice job with Womack’s song on his seventh album, “In the Pocket,” which peaked at #16 in 1976. Although “Woman’s Gotta Have It” wasn’t released as a single, I think it should have been. The lush strings and arrangement by co-producers Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker made the track one of the highlights of this relatively overlooked Taylor album.
“Don’t Change,” Hall and Oates, 1977
Probably the most popular of the “blue-eyed soul” practitioners of the mid-’70s, Daryl Hall and John Oates emerged from Philadelphia in 1972 with a deep appreciation of soul music with rock and roll flavorings. Hall’s amazing multi-octave voice and Oates’ guitar playing were at the heart of their success, but their songwriting was impressive as well. From the early classics like “She’s Gone” and “Rich Girl” up through the early ’80s string of hits (“Kiss on My List,” “I Can’t Go For That,” “Maneater”), the twosome earned their status as rock’s most successful duo ever. Their 1977 LP “Beauty on a Back Street” was a failed experiment, eschewing the R&B grooves for harder rock, but the leadoff track, “Don’t Change,” deserves your attention.
“Trapped Again,” Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, 1978
This rough-and-tumble bar band, led by the indefatigable Johnny Lyon, came from the same Jersey Shore dives where Bruce Springsteen cut his teeth. Indeed, Lyon and E Street Band guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt were close associates, with Van Zandt producing and writing many of the songs for the Jukes’ first three LPs. Critics have labeled their third album, “Hearts of Stone,” as “the best Springsteen album never recorded” because The Boss and Van Zandt wrote most of it. It’s a fine LP that should’ve been their breakthrough, but it just wasn’t to be. One of the better tracks is “Trapped Again,” co-written by Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyon, which features the band’s trademark powerful horn section and Lyon’s gruff pipes.
“Shake It to the Right,” Sanford and Townsend, 1977
Ed Sanford and John Townsend were talented songwriters and session musicians out of Alabama who relocated to Los Angeles in 1976 and won a publishing and recording deal at Warner Brothers. They wrote songs with and for Kenny Loggins, and their debut LP featured a likable Top Ten hit of their own with 1977’s “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” They toured behind Fleetwood Mac, Marshall Tucker Band and Heart, but they never duplicated the success of the first single, which earned them the dubious distinction of “One-Hit Wonders.” Too bad — that first album had some strong follow-up candidates, like “In For the Night” and the exuberant “Shake It to the Right.”
“Ain’t That a Bitch,” Johnny “Guitar” Watson, 1976
Watson was a cult favorite on the blues circuit in the ’50s and ’60s, both as a guitarist and a singer, mentioned in the same breath with other greats like Buddy Guy and B. B. King. In the ’70s, he chose to revamp his persona and pursue the urban-funk genre, complete with flashy attire and jewelry. Although he was denied success on pop charts, he enjoyed a half-dozen Top 40 R&B hits, most notably “A Real Mother For Ya,” “Superman Lover,” “I Don’t Want to Be a Loner Ranger” and my favorite, “Ain’t That a Bitch,” which showcases Watson’s half-spoken, half-sung delivery with wit and panache.
“Son of a New York Gun,” Gino Vannelli, 1974
Born and raised in an Italian family in Montreal, Canada, Vannelli and his brother Joe both had musical ambitions from an early age, singing and playing in high school bands. The brothers moved to Los Angeles and signed with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records when Gino was just 17. With Joe handling keyboards, arrangements and production and Gino writing songs and singing, they turned heads in the jazz-pop arena in 1974 with the “Powerful People” album and US #22 hit “People Gotta Move.” There’s a lot of fine stuff on this LP, including the jaw-dropping “Son of a New York Gun.” Vannelli went on to have bigger hits in 1978-1981 with “I Just Wanna Stop” and “Living Inside Myself.”
“Century’s End,” Donald Fagen, 1988
Fagen, of course, is one half of the brilliantly talented duo behind Steely Dan, who have one of the best album catalogs of the 1970s. Following the 1980 release of The Dan’s seventh LP, “Gaucho,” Fagen’s partner Walter Becker took several years off to re-examine his life and recover from drug addiction. Fagen proceeded on his own with his debut solo LP, “The Nightfly,” a natural extension of the Steely Dan sound that reached #11 on the charts. The rest of the ’80s found Fagen choosing a more relaxed pace as well, occasionally contributing to soundtracks. His compelling song “Century’s End,” which wouldn’t have been out of place on “The Nightfly,” wound up on the “Bright Lights, Big City” film soundtrack in 1988.
“The Gold Bug,” The Alan Parsons Project, 1980
Parsons made a name for himself as engineer/producer at Abbey Road Studio, where he was involved with The Beatles’ swan song album and Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, “Dark Side of the Moon.” He then teamed up with singer/songwriter Eric Woolfson in 1976 to form The Alan Parsons Project, which would bring together a broad array of instrumental and vocal talent to perform the songs Parsons and Woolfson co-wrote. Described as “progressive-art pop-rock,” APP enjoyed increasing popularity in the US in 1977-1984, with Top 40 singles like “Damned If I Do,” “Games People Play,” “Time” and “Eye in the Sky.” Each LP included one instrumental track, and I’ve always found “The Gold Bug” from 1980’s “Turn of a Friendly Card” to be tantalizing, with a sexy sax taking the melody line.
“Criminal World,” David Bowie, 1983
Although “Let’s Dance” is seen as a typically abrupt about-face for Bowie toward more commercial music following the darker “Berlin Trilogy” albums of the late ’70s, it was actually a natural progression from the balanced approach he achieved with 1980’s “Scary Monsters” LP. Still, Bowie brought in a different producer (the funky hitmaker Niles Rodgers) and an all-new group of studio musicians. The biggest surprise was the introduction of then-unknown guitar wunderkind Stevie Ray Vaughan to the proceedings. Bowie had seen Vaughan at a 1982 music festival and was drawn to his playing. “The solo he laid down on ‘Criminal World’ is the best I’ve heard in ages,” Bowie said at the time.
“Tongue Like a Knife,” Squeeze, 1982
In England, the songwriting team of Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford was hailed as “the heirs to Lennon and McCartney” when their band Squeeze pumped out album after album of wonderful, quirky pop songs in their initial phase (1978-1982). Lots of variety among their hits — traditionally melodic (“Labelled for Love,” “Up the Junction”), new-wavy (“Cool for Cats”), unnervingly compelling (“Another Nail in My Heart”) and their biggest single in the US, the undeniably tempting “Tempted,” featuring Paul Carrack on guest lead vocal. On the excellent 1982 LP “Sweets From a Stranger,” exotic tracks like “Tongue Like a Knife” show a more sophisticated edge to their songwriting.
“Tore Down a la Rimbaud,” Van Morrison, 1985
Following his prolific 1969-1974 period, Morrison took a few years off to rejuvenate the creative juices. During that time, he became aware of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a mid-1800s boy wonder who was first published at age 15 and quit for good at 25. “Ironically, that sorta got me writing again,” he recalls, and it did cure his writer’s block and allowed him to resume his swift pace of releasing new material, but it still took him another eight years to finally finish and record “Tore Down a la Rimbaud.” It’s one of Van the Man’s best efforts, a marvelous piece full of horns and gospel vocals.
“Club at the End of the Street,” Elton John, 1989
Personal life issues made The Eighties difficult for John, and it showed up in his recorded output. Nearly every album still had at least one big hit single, but there was way too much filler as well. His albums were no longer #1 on the US charts — more like #17, or #48, or even #91 (his worst-ever LP “Leather Jackets”). His outlook improved in 1988 when he resumed working with long-time lyrics partner Bernie Taupin, and the result was the surprisingly strong “Sleeping With the Past.” Not only did it feature the stunning #1 ballad “Sacrifice,” the song list included the glorious “Healing Hands,” the beautiful “Whispers” and the catchy “Club at the End of the Street,” which recalls early Sixties soul.