It’s only words, and words are all I have

Some of my readers tell me they don’t much like my lyrics quizzes because they don’t do well. “I can’t recognize them, and if I do, I can’t tell you the song or even which band it is,” moaned one friend who I had presumed would be pretty good at it.

Well, hey, you know what? That’s okay. Everyone has things they’re good at doing, and things they’re not so good at doing. Me, I have a t-shirt that says, “80% of my brain is song lyrics.” I doubt that’s literally true, but it sure seems like it some days!

For this post, I think most people will score better than usual. I have selected lyrics from well-known songs of the Sixties. For those of us who are now in our 60s, these songs were at the top of the charts when we were pre-teens and teenagers. For you younger readers, these songs are still played all the time, so the odds are good you’ll recognize many of them.

Grab a pencil and paper, jot down the answers if and when they come to you, and then scroll down to see how you did, and learn a little bit of back story about each one.

I’ve put a Spotify list at the end so you can hear these songs yet again!

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1 “Who’s tripping down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody she sees? /Who’s reaching out to capture a moment?…”

2 “We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when? /I know a beach where, baby, it never ends, /When you’ve made your mind up forever to be mine…”

3 “Well, since she put me down, I’ve been out doin’ in my head, /I come in late at night, and in the morning I just lay in bed…”

4 “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few, /I’ll be writing more in a week or two, /I can make it longer if you like the style…”

5 “Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax, /And your father’s still perfecting ways of making sealing wax…”

6 “What a field day for the heat, a thousand people in the street, /Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say, “Hooray for our side”…

7 “Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings of the bluebird as she sings, /The six o’clock alarm would never ring…”

8 “If that’s the way it must be, OK, /I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late, /There’ll be tomorrow night, but wait, /What do I see? /Is she walking back to me?…”

9 “Can’t you see that I am not afraid? /What was that promise that you made? /Why won’t you tell me what she said?…”

10 “Fee, fee, fi, fi, fo-fo, fum, /look at Molly now, here she comes, /Wearin’ her wig hat and shades to match, she’s got high-heel shoes and an alligator hat…”

11 “I hear hurricanes a-blowing, I know the end is coming soon, /I fear rivers overflowing, I hear the voice of rage and ruin…”

12 “But at night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl, /Come on, come on and dance all night, despite the heat, it’ll be all right…”

13 “Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, /No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions…”

14 “Up every morning just to keep a job, I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob, /Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain while another day goes down the drain…”

15 “Did you find a directing sign on the straight and narrow highway? /Would you mind a reflecting sign? /Just let it shine within your mind…”

16 “Listen to me, baby, you gotta understand, you’re old enough to know the makings of a man, /Listen to me, baby, it’s hard to settle down, am I asking too much for you to stick around?…”

17 “I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain, /And if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain…”

18 “The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries, the silver saxophones say I should refuse you…”

19 “How can you tell me how much you miss me when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me? That rich guy you’ve been seein’ must have put you down…”

20 “But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity, /Like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me…”

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ANSWERS:

1 “Windy,” The Association, 1967

Ruthann Friedman was a struggling singer-songwriter from New York who relocated to the West Coast and met songwriter Van Dyke Parks. He introduced her to The Association, an L.A.-based vocal group that had already enjoyed three Top Ten hits in “Along Comes Mary,” and “Cherish” and “Never My Love.” They chose to record her song “Windy” in early 1967, which made it to #1 in June 1967, helping to give the group the opening slot at the Monterey Pop Festival that month.

2 “Sunshine Superman,” Donovan, 1965

Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan Leitch wrote and recorded “Sunshine Superman” in late 1965 as an early example of psychedelic folk pop, and when it was released in the US in June 1966, it made its way to #1 within six weeks. It wasn’t released in his native UK until early 1967. Donovan would find continued success through the remainder of the ’60s with hits like “Season of the Witch,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis.”

3 “Help Me, Rhonda,” The Beach Boys, 1965

Brian Wilson, the gifted composer/arranger of nearly all the songs in The Beach Boys’ early ’60s catalog, wrote dozens of tunes about teenage angst and situations every high school kid could understand, like loneliness (“In My Room”), driving around (“Fun, Fun Fun”) and young love (“Don’t Worry Baby”). In the #1 hit “Help Me, Rhonda,” he tries something unusual: He has his narrator turn to a female friend to console him as he copes with a romantic break-up with another girl.

4 “Paperback Writer,” The Beatles, 1966

After years of writing traditional romantic song lyrics, Paul McCartney took to creating fictional characters (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Lovely Rita”) to star in the pop songs he was writing for The Beatles to record. For the 1966 #1 single “Paperback Writer,” he conjured up a struggling novelist who writes to a publisher because “I need a break” in order to become a successful writer. This was the first Beatles tune to feature the bass guitar in a much more prominent way in the arrangements.

5 “19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones, 1965

The success of the band’s iconic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” had led to grueling tours and record-company demands for follow-up singles for the rest of 1965, which frazzled and annoyed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had only just begun their songwriting partnership. First came the defiant “Get Off Of My Cloud,” and then Jagger wrote the title and words for the next hit after concluding, “I swear I’m gonna have my 19th nervous breakdown of the week!” Released in February 1966, “19th Nervous Breakdown” reached #2 in April of that year.

6 “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1966

Stephen Stills was on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood the night a protest over curfew enforcement escalated into a riot with multiple arrests and injuries. He was shaken by the experience and wrote this song about it. When his group, Buffalo Springfield, recorded it in late 1966, he offered it to the record label as an extra track for their debut LP, which leaned more toward country rock. “Here’s one more song, for what it’s worth,” he said, and they mistakenly thought that was his intended title for it. The song became a counterculture anthem, reaching #9 on the charts in the spring of 1967.

7 “Daydream Believer,” The Monkees, 1967

Singer-songwriter John Stewart had been a member of the Kingston Trio and would later have a brief period of solo-artist fame with “Gold” in 1979. One night in 1967, he was angry at himself for spending the whole day doing nothing but daydreaming, so he took that thought and wrote “Daydream Believer,” which was first rejected by pop groups We Five and Spanky & Our Gang, but perked up the ears of The Monkees. They eagerly recorded it that summer, and by December, it had become the group’s third #1, and fifth of six Top Five songs in their 1966-1968 heyday.

8 “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison, 1964

In July 1964, Orbison and his songwriting partner Bill Dees were working on songs when Orbison’s wife, Claudette, interrupted to say she was going out. When Orbison asked her if she had enough cash, Dees said, “A pretty woman doesn’t need cash.” Afterwards, the duo took that idea and ran with it, coming up with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which would become Orbison’s biggest hit, arriving at #1 in August, right in the middle of the summer of Beatlemania in the US.

9 “Touch Me,” The Doors, 1968

Horns? Strings? In a song by The Doors?! Many of the group’s fans balked at the notion, but thanks to a killer performance in December 1968 on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” complete with horns and strings, Jim Morrison and the band took this catchy tune to #3 on the charts in early 1969. The song was originally titled “Hit Me,” as in what a blackjack player says to the dealer, but Morrison was concerned this might lead to physical assaults from fans. I was always entranced by the amazing sax solo by Curtis Amy in the song’s closing 40 seconds.

10 “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, 1966

A soul artist named Fred “Shorty” Long wrote and recorded “Devil in a Blue Dress” in 1964 but it failed to chart. Singer Mitch Ryder got his hands on it in 1966 and threw it together with his own arrangement of Little Richard’s 1956 classic “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and the resulting medley was a #4 hit single in October 1966. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made this medley an integral part of their performances throughout the late ’70s.

11 “Bad Moon Rising,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

Early on in songwriter John Fogerty’s amazing hot streak of hit singles for his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, he happened to be watching the film “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” where a hurricane of apocalyptic force was due to arrive. He turned that viewing experience into a song about literal or metaphorical dread and doom and how going outside “is bound to take your life.” The tune peaked at #2 in June 1969.

12 “Summer in the City,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966

John Sebastian grew up in a New York City apartment, where he was all too familiar with the irritating noises of honking horns and jackhammers, and the oppressive summer heat. He and his brother Mark collaborated on putting all of that to music, and Sebastian’s band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, had a chart-topping hit with it in the summer of ’66, their fifth of seven Top Ten singles and sole #1 hit. Its use of sound effects to create sounds of the city was considered groundbreaking at the time.

13 “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

When the members of The 5th Dimension went to see a performance of the Broadway musical “Hair” one night in 1968, they immediately contacted their producer, gushing about wanting to record the song “Aquarius.” The producer felt it was more of a song fragment, not long enough to be a single, so he decided to add the repeated phrase “Let the Sunshine In” from another “Hair” number called “The Flesh Failures.” The resulting medley reached #1 in May 1969, a big success for songwriters James Rado (music) and Gerome Ragni (lyrics).

14 “Five O’Clock World,” The Vogues, 1965

Country songwriter Allen Reynolds came up with this relatable tune about the drudgery of the work week, and a few country artists took a crack at it, but without much success. Then in October 1965, The Vogues, a Pennsylvania-based vocal group, recorded it in a rock arrangement that included sharp cries of “Hey!” throughout, and by January 1966, it reached #4 on the US charts. In 1996, this track was used as the theme song for TV’s “The Drew Carey Show.”

15 “Spinning Wheel,” Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1969

Ambitious musician Al Kooper assembled rock and jazz musicians to form Blood, Sweat and Tears, the first “rock band with horns.” The band chafed at Kooper’s dictatorial ways and ousted him, bringing in Canadian singer David Clayton-Thomas for their Grammy-winning second album, which yielded three huge hits: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die” and Clayton-Thomas’s song “Spinning Wheel,” which all reached #2 in 1969.

16 “Lightning Strikes,” Lou Christie, 1966

When he was just 15, Pittsburgh native Lou Christie (born Lugee Sacco) befriended Twyla Herbert, a classically trained songwriter 20 years his senior, and she ended up becoming his songwriting partner for 30 years. Their biggest moment came in late 1965 when they collaborated on “Lightnin’ Strikes,” with lyrics about a guy who tells a girl he wants to settle down (someday) but is still unable to resist other girls when the lightning strikes. Christie’s recording reached #1 in February 1966.

17 “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1968

While driving across the prairies one afternoon, award-winning songwriter Jimmy Webb spied a telephone lineman working alone atop a pole in the distance. “I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? An ordinary guy, working on a railroad or on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street,” said Webb. “I thought, there’s this great soul, this great aching, this great loneliness.” The song, as recorded by Glen Campbell in late 1968, struck a nerve, reaching #3 on the US pop charts and #1 on country charts in February 1969.

18 “I Want You,” Bob Dylan, 1966

Dylan has been a prolific songwriter for most of his six decades in the recording business, but never as bursting with creativity as he was in 1965-1967. He had enough quality material in March 1966 to decide to issue a double album, entitled “Blonde on Blonde.” The final song recorded for that LP was this marvelous track, which alternated between the busy, wordy verses and the simple “I want you, I want you so bad” of the chorus. The tune reached #20 on US pop charts in July 1966.

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19 “Poor Side of Town,” Johnny Rivers, 1966

Rivers, a resident of Beverly Hills at the time, readily admitted he wasn’t writing from personal experience when he came up with this tune about a guy from the other side of the tracks who is thrilled to get his girlfriend back after she’d been dumped by a much wealthier man. “Poor Side of Town,” along with Billy Joe Royal’s “Down in the Boondocks” and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” broke new ground in pop songs about white collar/blue collar relationships. This Rivers tune reached #1 in November 1966.

20 “Homeward Bound,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966

Following the 1964 flop of “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.,” his first album with school chum Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon headed for London to try his hand at “busking” for spare change in the city’s subways. He had fallen in love with a girl before leaving New York and was missing her terribly, and one night while waiting for the next train, he wrote about his loneliness in the poignant song “Homeward Bound.” Once “The Sound of Silence” became a surprise hit in late 1965, Columbia Records rush-released a new recording of “Homeward Bound” as the follow-up single, which reached #5 in March 1966.

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You need a “new” song

Here we go again. Everything new.

New Year’s resolutions. Turning over a new leaf. New beginnings. New goals.

When it comes to music, I’ve become a firm advocate of the practice of listening to new artists with new albums full of new songs. But seeing as this is a blog about rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I only rarely write about new artists here. The closest I get, I suppose, is when a vintage artist like Robert Plant or Paul McCartney releases something new that I want to spotlight.

In this post, just for fun, I draw attention to rock songs with “new” in the title. Some of these will be new to you, no doubt, while others are probably old familiar friends. As is customary, I have included a Spotify playlist at the end. I hope you enjoy these tunes as you dive into another new year!

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“New,” Paul McCartney, 2013

The diversity of styles and sounds on McCartney’s 2013 LP “New” is due in part to him using four different producers. Mark Hanson, who has worked with artists like Adele, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars, oversaw production of the horn-rich title track, which has what The Daily Telegraph referred to as a “jaunty, Beatlesque stomp.” Said McCartney about the song’s lyrics: “It’s a love song but it’s saying, ‘Don’t look at me, I haven’t got any answers.’ It says, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know how it’s all happening, but it’s good and I love you.'” A sampling: “You came along and made my life a song, one lucky day, you came along, /Just in time, while I was searching for a rhyme, you came along, then we were new…”

“New Train,” John Prine, 1995

The late great Prine may be getting increased attention posthumously since his passing in 2020, but upon its release in 1995, “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings” was just another in a string of hugely underrated and neglected gems in his wonderful catalog. Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein produced this LP, and some say he over-produced it, as evidenced by the sound on the leadoff track, “New Train,” with its upfront drums-bass-keyboards mix, but to me, it sounds right for the optimism expressed in the lyrics: “I’ll be leaving on a new train, far away from this world of pain, /The friends that greet me will be simple and plain when I step down from that new train…”

“New Frontier,” Donald Fagen, 1982

When Steely Dan went on hiatus in 1981 to give Walter Becker a chance to recover from health issues, Fagen went ahead with “The Nightfly,” a solo project that presented a cycle of songs about the late ’50s/early ’60s when he was growing up in New Jersey. The tracks include “The Nightfly,” about a DJ on a late-night jazz station; “I.G.Y.,” about the “International Geophysical Year” of 1957; and “New Frontier,” the Kennedy campaign slogan of hope in a time of Cold War realities in 1960: “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing and stay together all night long, /And when I really get to know you, we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn, /Confess your passion, your secret fear, prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier…”

“I’m New,” Stevie Wonder, 1995

From 1972 to 1987, Wonder released a series of acclaimed masterpieces that routinely reached the Top Five on US album charts. He seemed to take a break in the early ’90s, but it turned out he had written nearly four dozen songs and was merely taking his time developing and recording them. The resultant LP, “Conversation Peace,” arrived in 1995, full of typically melodious, effervescent music that didn’t bend to the times as much as reinvent his patented style. Take “I’m New,” a gorgeous tune that explores the idea of a person whose life had been devoid of love until fate intervened: “I’m new, new like the fresh morning dew, new like a work of art that’s finally through, /I’m new, new like a first flight of a dove, so safe and secure with your love, I’m new…”

“You Make Me Feel Brand New,” The Stylistics, 1974

Thom Bell is the multi-talented writer/arranger/producer who played a key role in the success of the Philadelphia soul vocal groups like the Spinners, the Delfonics, the O’Jays and the Stylistics. Bell and lyricist Linda Creed collaborated on numerous top R&B hits, both ballads and uptempo numbers. The Stylistics, led by tenor Airrion Love and falsetto king Russell Thompkins, scored a half-dozen Top 20 hits with Bell/Creed tunes in the early ’70s, none bigger than their #2 smash “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” a heartfelt song of devotion: “Only you cared when I needed a friend, believed in me through thick and thin, /This song is for you, filled with gratitude and love, /God bless you, you make me feel brand new…”

“Brand New Day,” Van Morrison, 1970

As he was composing the songs for his brilliant “Moondance” LP, Morrison said he was inspired to write “Brand New Day” after hearing The Band’s “The Weight” on the radio. “I looked up at the sky and the sun started to shine,” he said, “and all of a sudden the song just came through my head. It’s the song on the ‘Moondance’ album that worked best to my ear, and the one which I felt most in touch with.” Critic John Tobler said the song had “a celebratory air, bordering on spiritual joy.”: “Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light, and it comes from the sky above, /Makes me feel so free, makes me feel like me, and lights my life with love, /And it seems like, and it feels like, and it seems like, yes it feels like a brand new day…”

“New Tune,” James Taylor, 1972

One of Taylor’s most overlooked albums, and a favorite of mine, is “One Man Dog,” coming on the heels of his hugely successful “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” LPs. It offers 18 tracks, some of them less than a minute long, in a sort of suite that holds together as a charming entity rather than as individual songs. There are exceptions, however — “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is a jazzy stand-alone that did well as a single, and “One Man Parade” is a great album opener. I’ve always been fond of “New Tune,” a brief, wistful piece of unfinished business that marries Taylor’s guitar and voice with Carole King’s delicate piano and some gentle bongos.

“New Morning,” Bob Dylan, 1970

Beginning in 1968, Dylan had begun to chafe against the “leader of a generation” moniker that critics had saddled him with, and he withdrew to a simpler, more rural lifestyle with family in upstate New York. His 1970 LP “New Morning” is full of songs reflecting Dylan’s more relaxed approach. The Guardian‘s Geoffrey Cannon described the title track as “a marvelous song, pointing to all our best hopes” in its celebration of the simple pleasures of nature and the senses: “Can’t you feel that sun a-shining, groundhog running by the country stream, /This must be the day when all of my dreams come true, /So happy just to be alive underneath the sky of blue on this new morning, new morning, on this new morning with you…”

“Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day,” Jethro Tull, 1974

Following two dense, complicated albums each comprised of 45-minute compositions (“Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play”), Tull leader Ian Anderson opted to write “War Child,” an album of more upbeat, radio-friendly tunes that retained the key elements of the band’s sound: wailing flute, crunching electric guitar, sprightly acoustic guitar and Anderson’s spirited vocals and clever lyrics. “Skating Away” speaks with optimism about facing a new world where, in the early ’70s, it was predicted cooler climates would prevail. Although later proven incorrect, it nonetheless reinforces our need to adapt to new challenges: “And as you cross the wilderness, spinning in your emptiness, you feel you have to pray, /Looking for a sign that the Universal Mind has written you into the Passion Play, /Skating away on the thin ice of the New Day…”

“New Kid in Town,” John David Souther, 2011

J.D. Souther, an occasional collaborator with Glenn Frey and Don Henley in the ’70s, had written the chorus to “New Kid in Town” in 1974 but didn’t know what to do with it. When Frey and Henley were working on material for the “Hotel California” sessions in 1976, Souther brought them the unfinished tune and they completed it together, making it about “the fleeing, fickle nature of romance, and of fame,” said Henley: “There’s talk on the street, it’s there to remind you… /They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along, /Where you’ve been lately? There’s a new kid in town, /Everybody loves him, don’t they? Now he’s holding her, and you’re still around…” It was another #1 hit for The Eagles, and 35 years later, Souther recorded his own pretty rendition that I’ve featured here instead of the familiar Eagles version.

“New Faces,” The Rolling Stones, 1994

It wasn’t all that unusual for the Stones to throw in an acoustic ballad when recording a new album, but it was a surprise when we heard a harpsichord dominate the arrangement of “New Faces” on their 1994 LP “Voodoo Lounge.” It had been nearly 30 years since songs like 1966’s “Lady Jane” and 1967’s “Dandelion” had featured Brian Jones on harpsichord giving the tracks an almost regal flavor. This tune’s lyrics focus on a woman who is falling for a new guy who is not who he seems: “There’s a new guy in town, he’s been dragging around, /He’s the figure of youth and his eyes are so blue… /And his skin is so fair and it shines like his hair as he stands so aloof with an indolent air, and an insolent stare that just shutters the truth…”

“New World,” Robert Plant, 2017

I really admire Plant’s perseverance as a recording artist in the 40+ years since the demise of Led Zeppelin. He may have resisted calls to reunite and tour with his former bandmates except for a couple of isolated instances, but he has moved forward admirably with more than a dozen albums, trying new sounds and new collaborations (Alison Krauss?!). On his 2017 LP “Carry Fire,” Plant again teamed up with the Sensational Space Shifters as his backing band, and “New World” is one of the better tracks: “With songs, we praise a happy landing on yet another virgin shore, /Escape the old world, embrace the new world, /Out here, the immigrant takes all…”

“New Horizons,” The Moody Blues, 1972

During The Moodies’ 1967-1973 period of mind-bending albums and songs, they developed a reputation among fans for almost guru-like wisdom, which began to feel like an albatross at times. On the band’s “Seventh Sojourn” album in 1972, John Lodge responded with a song that admonished his fans, “I’m just a singer in a rock and roll band.” Still, this was always an egalitarian group, with each member contributing songs, and guitarist/singer Justin Hayward’s “New Horizons” continued his penchant for philosophical lyrics: “Well, I’ve had dreams enough for one, and I got love enough for three, /I have my hopes to comfort me, I got my new horizons out to sea…”

“New Killer Star,” David Bowie, 2003

On this 2003 LP, Bowie had said he remained typically obtuse in his lyrics, but noted, “I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening politically in the songs that I’m writing, and there was some nod, in a very abstract way, toward the wrongs that are being made at the moment.” On the opening track, “New Killer Star” (a poke at the way the President pronounced “nuclear”), he was referring to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East in response to 9/11: “See the great white scar over Battery Park, then a flare glides over, but I won’t look at that scar, /Oh, my nuclear baby, we’ll discover a star, /Oh, my idiot trance, all my idiot questions, /Like the stars in your eyes, let’s face the music and dance…”

“Brand New Day,” Sting, 1999

Since leaving The Police in 1984, Sting churned out one consistently strong album after another for 20 years, with each LP demonstrating maturity and an increasing degree of sophistication in songwriting. He has also chosen some of the world’s greatest musicians to appear on various tracks, including Brandford Marsalis, Annie Lennox, Mark Knopfler, David Sancious, Wayne Jackson, Cheb Mami and, on the title track of his “Brand New Day” album, the great Stevie Wonder on harmonica. “Why don’t we turn the clock to zero, honey, I’ll sell the stock, we’ll spend all the money, /We’re starting up a brand new day, /Turn the clock to zero, boss, the river’s wide, we’ll swim across, /We started up a brand new day…”

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