It’s time for us to take a second look

Times change. Tastes change. Social mores change. What was once taboo is now OK. What was once considered harmless is now objectionable.

Have you watched TV lately? Have you heard some of today’s Top Ten hits? Wow. Dialog and lyrics, and the subjects they explore now, go places nobody dreamed of 40, 50 years ago. From “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Cardi B’s “WAP,” we’re clearly in radically new territory here.

These days, too, everyone seems so damn touchy, so quick to find offense. There’s also this phenomenon that some call “cancel culture,” where something that’s been around a long time is now seen in a new light, and someone wants something physically removed or digitally deleted. Is it justified? Is it overkill? Well, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

It’s my view that pop/rock song lyrics that condone or even celebrate violence, racism and misogyny should be held up to a bright light and exposed for what they are. You can make a case that today’s lyrics, especially in the hip-hop genre, are WAY beyond what most people find acceptable, but if you go back to tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there are some pretty glaring examples from that time of songs that cry out for re-examination.

I’ve selected 15 songs — hit singles and album tracks — from decades ago that, on second look, leave me speechless as to how they were ever given the green light. You might not agree with me, but for what it’s worth, I’m suggesting a reassessment is in order.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can give these tracks a fresh listen.

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“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” The Crystals, 1962

The sad irony behind this apparent endorsement of violent relationships is that it was co-written by Carole King, who later endured repeated physical abuse by her third husband, Rick Evers, during their marriage in the late 1970s. King wrote it back in 1962 with her first husband and songwriting collaborator Gerry Goffin after their babysitter, “Little” Eva Boyd, told them she’d been beaten by her boyfriend for seeing another guy. The song was recorded and released by The Crystals as their third single, but it never charted because of a backlash from listeners and radio stations. King has often said she wished she had never had anything to do with the song.

“This Girl is a Woman Now,” Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, 1969

Puckett teamed up with a songwriter/producer named Jerry Fuller, who seemed to write only about girls he couldn’t have. Fuller’s songs ended up as hit singles for Puckett — “Young Girl,” “Woman, Woman,” “Lady Willpower,” “Over You,” “Don’t Give In to Him” — but they had an undeniable creepiness factor that bordered on obsession. Perhaps most egregious was “This Girl is a Woman Now,” in which the narrator boasts about deflowering a young virgin. Songwriters Victor Millrose and Alan Bernstein were responsible for this overreach: “Our hearts told us we were right, and on that sweet and velvet night, a child had died, a woman had been born, /This girl is a woman now, and she’s learning how to give…”

“Cruisin’ and Boozin’,” Sammy Hagar, 1977

Let’s talk about drunk driving, shall we? Innocent people die every day at the hands of people who get behind the wheel while hammered, or even drink while they’re driving. (I confess I used to be one of them.) Do we need songs that condone this destructive behavior? Classic rock artists didn’t make it a dominant theme, but still, there are examples like Hagar, never one of my favorites, who wrote a drunk driving anthem called “Cruisin’ and Boozin.'” It wasn’t a hit, but the lyrics clearly celebrate what is both illegal and stupidly dangerous: “We got JD in the back seat, we drink nothin’ but the best, /Pump a buck in the gas tank, oh, we’ll drink up the rest, yeah, we’ll drink up the rest, /Cruisin’ and boozin’, trying to have a good time…”

“All in the Name Of,” Motley Crüe, 1988

The dudes in glam heavy metal band Motley Crüe — Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil and Mick Mars — were known for, and brazenly promoted, their image as druggy sex fiends, so perhaps it’s silly to call them on the carpet for over-the-line lyrics. The thing is, most of their material was arguably within most people’s idea of acceptable, but there’s at least one track that goes too far: “All In the Name Of” from their 1987 LP “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Sorry, but there’s no way Sixx and Neil can justify lyrics like these: “Says to me, ‘Daddy,
can I have some candy? /Wanna be your nasty anytime you want, /You know you can have me’… /She’s only fifteen, she’s the reason, the reason that I can’t sleep, /You say illegal, I say legal’s never been my scene, /I try like hell, but I’m out of control, all in the name of rock and roll…”

“A Man Needs a Maid,” Neil Young, 1972

It’s hard not to interpret the lyrics to this tune from Young’s #1 album “Harvest” as pretty chauvinistic. He has tried to defend it over the years by saying he has always struggled with personal relationships and that maybe he’d be better off living alone and just hiring someone to cook and clean. Well, if she remains an employee, I suppose that’s acceptable, but he ends the song by asking “When will I see you again?” which can be interpreted as carrying on a romantic relationship with her as well. It all sounds a bit too misogynistic for my tastes: “I was thinking that maybe I’d get a maid, find a place nearby for her to stay, /Just someone to keep my house clean, fix my meals and go away, /A maid, a man needs a maid…”

“Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry, 1958

When rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, most song lyrics were geared toward the intended audience — teenagers, and their school woes, their first loves, their cars, their dreams. Berry, one of the chief architects of the new genre, wrote some beauties (“Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode”). One of his biggest, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” appears sketchy now for a couple of reasons. He was already 32 when he wrote it, and not long afterwards, he was arrested and convicted for sex with an underage girl, which makes lines like these seem disturbing: “Sweet little sixteen, she’s got the grown-up blues, /Tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes, /Oh, but tomorrow morning, she’ll have to change her trend and be sweet sixteen, and back in class again…”

“Illegal Alien,” Genesis, 1983

The members of Genesis have protested that “Illegal Alien” is a sympathetic satire of the plight of the undocumented immigrant’s challenges, but under closer examination, that just doesn’t wash. The speedy Gonzales-type accent Phil Collins uses as he sings, the litany of disrespectful Mexican stereotypes found in the lyrics (even a line about “I’ve got a sister who’d be willing to oblige“), and the cheesy costumes worn by the band in the accompanying music video all combine to create a racist portrayal of the immigrants in question. Critics called the lyrics “misguided” and “confusing and confused” and described the video as “seemingly well-intentioned” but ultimately “a train wreck.”

“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles, 1965

To their fans, John, Paul, George and Ringo could do no wrong. We wouldn’t learn until much later about Lennon’s traumatic childhood and emotional issues regarding anger management and abandonment. He apparently hit his first wife Cynthia more than once, and his second wife Yoko as well, before coming to terms with it through intensive therapy. In his song “Run For Your Life” from the group’s 1965 “Rubber Soul” LP, Lennon’s narrator warned his woman not to make eyes at anyone else or she might meet a violent end: “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I’ve said, /Baby, I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead, /You better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand, little girl, /Catch you with another man, that’s the end of little girl…”

“Every Breath You Take,” The Police, 1983

Interestingly, Sting fully acknowledges that the lyrics to this massively popular song (#1 in a dozen countries in 1983) are sinister and passively intimidating. “It’s clearly about an obsessed former lover who is jealously stalking his ex,” he said, adding that he was disconcerted by how many people regard it as a love song. “One couple told me, ‘Oh, we love that song! Its was the main song played at our wedding.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, good luck.’ It’s not a love song, it’s quite the opposite.” The dark theme is undeniable: “Oh can’t you see you belong to me? How my poor heart aches with every step you take, /Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you…”

“Ahab the Arab,” Ray Stevens, 1962

I can hear some people scoffing at this choice, saying, “Oh come on, it’s a novelty song, a parody done for laughs, and it was friggin’ 1962!” That’s all true, and overall, it didn’t present a derogatory image of Arabs (although all the stereotypes are present). Still, the way Stevens imitated Arabic speech was pretty condescending, and even the title pronounced Arab as “Ay-Rab,” which is the way ignorant Americans pronounce it when they don’t think much of people from that part of the world. It’s interesting to note that Stevens took this track to #5 in 1962, one of his most successful singles in a decades-long career. I don’t know if he still performs it in concert, but perhaps he ought to consider retiring it now.

“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” Steely Dan, 1975

The captivating, compelling music that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created for the Steely Dan catalog is often accessible, sunny pop, but if you delve into the lyrics, you’ll find serial killers, outlaws, drug dealers and even pedophiles. In this track from their 1975 LP “Katy Lied,” they sing of a creepy dude named Mr. LaPage, who evidently invites neighborhood teens into his house to…watch porn movies? Expose himself? It’s not crystal clear, but there’s no question there’s some creepy shit going on. Did they go over the line with this one? Maybe: “Kids if you want some fun, Mr. LaPage is your man, /He’s always laughing, having fun, showing his films in the den, /Come on, come on, soon you will be eighteen, I think you know what I mean, /Don’t tell your mama, your daddy or mama, they’ll never know where you been…”

“Johnny Are You Queer,” Josie Cotton, 1981

This notorious tune, written by Bobby and Larson Paine, was intended for two audiences: young women who had dated guys who turned out to be gay, and interestingly, the gay community, who appreciated the punk-rock attempt to win back the ironic use of the word “queer” from the bigots and homophobes. The Go-Go’s sang it live, but it was a new talent named Josie Cotton, managed by the Laine brothers, who made a record of it in 1981. The song never did much on the US charts because the radio stations were afraid of it or disapproved, but the gay clubs loved it and it went Top Ten in Canada. The evangelicals went ballistic, and the haters laughed and held it up to derision, posing the question menacingly to gays: “Oh, why are you so weird, boy? Johnny, are you queer, boy?…”

“Hot Child in the City,” Nick Gilder, 1978

Gilder, a native of Vancouver, Canada, had been in the glam rock band Sweeney Todd but went solo in 1977 and scored a Juno Award (like a Canadian Grammy) for “Hot Child in the City,” which also reached #1 in the US. Said Gilder, “I’d seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their horrible home environment drove them to run away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurt to see that, so I tried writing a pop song from the perspective of a customer.” Gee, thanks, Nick — not sure we needed this: “So young to be loose and on her own, /Young boys, they all want to take her home, /She goes downtown, the boys all stop and stare, /When she goes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care, /Hot child in the city, hot child in the city, runnin’ wild and lookin’ pretty…”

“Used to Love Her,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1988

A hard rock band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, aiming to follow in the footsteps of The Stones and Zeppelin, offered lyrics that painted themselves as bad boys, capable of anything. Well, fine, I guess, but yikes, surely there are limits. I thought I’d found their most offensive lyrics in “One in a Million,” when they railed against “immigrants and faggots…starting some mini-Iran or spreading some fucking disease…” But then I found another one called “Used to Love Her” that’s totally beyond the pale: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her, /I knew I’d miss her, so I had to keep her, /She’s buried right in my back yard… She bitched so much, she drove me nuts, and now I am happier this way…” Both tracks appear on their “G N’ R Lies” LP, which reached #2 and sold five million US copies.

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

It’s one thing for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to push the envelope of what a pop song might be about by focusing on interracial sex, S&M, oral sex and hard drug use. We can at least assume (or pretend) that everything is between consenting adults. But I submit that slavery and rape never were and never will be appropriate subject matter for the Top 40, let alone the #1 song in the country for multiple weeks. How did this one get by? Simple — Jagger blurred his pronunciation so most listeners really didn’t know the words. Bet you never actually read the lyrics before: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, /Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight…”

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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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