If only you would listen

In his first big hit, “The Sound of Silence,” Paul Simon, one of our wisest and most articulate lyricists, famously wrote, “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…”

There’s an important distinction between hearing something and really listening. Hearing may be accidental or involuntary and require no effort. Listening requires intentional focus that often takes sustained concentration.

It’s a sad truth about the human race. As a rule, we’re not good listeners. We’re distracted by other things, other thoughts. Sometimes our egos get in the way, so we’re thinking more about what we’re going to say next instead of focusing on what is being said to us.

As my mother once taught me, “Listening is very important.  You miss a lot if you don’t listen.  Show interest in what others have to say. Listen to your children, and your friends, and your heart. Listen, even if you’re tired, and you’re angry, and you’d like not to, because you will hear things you may never hear any other time.”

When it comes to music, I’ve found that you’ll get much more out of it if you give it your full attention and really listen, especially to the words, perhaps with headphones or earbuds.

The lesson about being a good listener hasn’t been lost on the lyricists of popular song through the years. I have scoured the vaults and selected 15 classic tunes about listening from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and I have written a little about each one. As always, there is a Spotify playlist at the end that allows you to, well, listen to the songs as you read along.

Thanks for reading and listening!

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“Listen to the Music,” The Doobie Brothers, 1972

Tom Johnston was a talented, inventive guitarist who wrote and sang most of The Doobie Brothers’ early singles, and recalls how their first big hit came to be. “The chord structure of it made me think of something positive. It occurred to me that if the leaders of the world got together, sat down and just listened to music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian, but it made for a fun song that’s still popular 50 years later.” It appeared on their “Toulouse Street” album and reached #11 on the U.S. Top 40 in 1972.

“Listen,” Chicago, 1969

As the “rock band with horns” that first called themselves Chicago Transit Authority were still playing Chicago area clubs, they were just grateful for the chance to perform. Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm wrote a riveting rocker about how they were convinced people would like their music if they just took the time to hear it: “If it’s good, you can tell us all, /Or you can smile, that’s all right, my friend, /It could be so nice, you know, if only you would listen…” It’s the shortest, punchiest track on Chicago’s debut LP.

“Listen For the Laugh,” Bruce Cockburn, 1994

Cockburn has been a huge star in Canada for decades, but his only chart appearance in the US was 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which reached #21 and earned him a slot on “Saturday Night Live” that year. “Listen for the Laugh,” which came 15 years later, was one of the more philosophical songs he started writing at that point in his career: “It’s not the laughter of a child with toys, it’s not the laughter of the president’s boys, /It’s not the laughter of the media king, this laughter doesn’t sell you anything, /It’s the wind in the wings of a diving dove, you better listen for the laugh of love, /Whatever else you might be thinking of, you better listen for the laugh of love…”

“Listen To Me,” Buddy Holly, 1958

After a debut album as a member of The Crickets, Buddy Holly emerged as the star, with the next record issued under his name, with The Crickets as supporting musicians. On that album, chock full of radio hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” and “Rave On,” one of the deep tracks was “Listen to Me,” which could have arguably been a single in its own right. Holly co-wrote it with his producer, Norman Petty, who owned a studio in small-town New Mexico where most of Holly’s songs were cut: “Listen to me, hear what I say, our hearts can be nearer each day, /Hold me darling, listen closely to me…”

“Listen to Your Heart,” Roxette, 1988

Per Gessle, the guitarist from the Swedish duo Roxette (with Marie Fredriksson on vocals and keyboards), described “Listen to Your Heart”  as “The big bad ballad.” He went on, “This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it.” The lyrics were inspired by a close friend who was “in emotional turmoil, stuck between an old relationship and a new love. A year later, I called him up in the middle of the night and told him, ‘Hey, you’re number one in the States.'” “Listen to your heart when he’s calling for you, /Listen to your heart, there’s nothing else you can do, /I don’t know where you’re going and I don’t know why, /But listen to your heart before you tell him goodbye…”

“Lisa, Listen to Me,” Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1971

David Clayton-Thomas, lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears in their commercial heyday, co-wrote this song for the group’s “BS&T; 4” LP in 1971. The lyrics hint at something traumatic that happened to “Lisa” in the past, but she is now in a safer place and can speak freely. The fact that Clayton-Thomas had experienced some parental abuse gives the song more compassion and credibility. The narrator implores her to listen, to share her thoughts and know that he will be a caring listener: “He said, ‘Lisa, listen to me, don’t you know where you belong? /Darling, Lisa, you can tell me, you’ve been silent for too long…”

“Stop and Listen,” Chuck Berry, 1961

Berry had been one of the true pioneers and stars of early rock and roll, but by the time his album “New Juke Box Hits” was recorded and released in 1961, he was in the midst of legal difficulties, which led to a prison term in 1962. The adverse publicity from these legal problems affected record sales, which is a shame, because people missed out on several deep tracks. The slow blues tune “Stop and Listen,” which has a wonderful groove to it, I only recently discovered, in which Berry warns against jumping into a relationship: “Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Because if you fall in love, it may break your heart…”

“Listen to Her Heart,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1978

Although it peaked at a disappointing #59 upon release in 1978, “Listen to Her Heart” is now considered one of Tom Petty’s best songs. He wrote it at a time when another man had been hitting on his then-wife, and he felt the need to tell him, “Buddy, you don’t even know her.” He played it often in concert during his long career: “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine, /Keep thinkin’ that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is okay, /She’s gonna listen to her heart, it’s gonna tell her what to do, /Well, she might need a lot of lovin’, but she don’t need you…”

“Listen to What the Man Said,” Paul McCartney and Wings, 1975

Author Vincent Benitez, who wrote at length about McCartney’s solo years, said “‘The Man’ in this tune is not explicitly identified, but many interpret it to be God. McCartney is advising us to stick with the basics of life, which to him means love.” Wings recorded the track in New Orleans for their “Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight” album, with Tom Scott providing a masterful solo on sax. “Listen to What the Man Said” is “another fine example of buoyant, optimistic McCartney pop,” said Benitez. “Love is fine, for all we know, /For all we know, our love will grow, /That’s what the man said, /So won’t you listen to what the man said?…”

“Listen,” Al Green, 1972/1989

Throughout the 1970s, Al Green recorded for Hi Records, a small Memphis record label that specialized in gospel-influenced Southern soul. During Green’s commercial peak when he had three Top Ten albums (1972-1973), many extra songs were recorded but set aside for various reasons. Several of those were unearthed in 1989 and compiled on “South Lauderdale Avenue,” a collection of previously unreleased tracks by Green and others on that label. The best is “Listen,” which could have easily been a hit for him.

“Listen Like Thieves,” INXS, 1985

In this catchy track, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence asks us not to believe everything we read and hear. Band member Andrew Farriss said, “I love that phrase, ‘listen like thieves.’ Thieves have to listen closely lest they be discovered committing a crime. I think Michael’s lyric was saying that discerning the truth takes vigilance. The media haven’t been great watchdogs when it comes to news and politics. To get the real story, we need to listen like thieves.”

“Listen To Me,” The Hollies, 1968

This song was the final Hollies track in which Graham Nash participated before leaving to join forces with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Nash had wanted to move beyond the usual sunny Hollies fare but the rest of the band disagreed. Written by songwriter Tony Hazzard, “Listen to Me” reached #11 in their native UK but went nowhere in the US. Its lyrics ask that we listen as “I’ll sing a song to change your mind” and help us be more optimistic: “Listen to me and very soon I think you’ll find /Somebody wants to help you, somebody seems to care, /And very soon you’ve forgotten that you didn’t care about love…”

“Listen to the Band,” The Monkees, 1969

Written by Michael Nesmith and recorded in Nashville, “Listen to the Band” was released as the B-side of a single with “Someday Man,” a Paul Williams song sung by usual Monkees lead singer Davy Jones. DJs preferred the country music vibe of Nesmith’s tune, but The Monkees were on their last legs at that point (Peter Tork had left), and the song never made it past #63 on the U.S. charts. The song suggests focusing on the band performing instead of getting caught up in a lost lover: “Weren’t they good? They made me happy, I think I can make it alone, /Oh mercy, woman plays a song and no one listens, I need help, I’m falling again, /Play the drum a little bit louder, tell them they can live without her if they only listen to the band…”

“Listen To Me Baby,” Smokey Joe Baugh, 1955

This early rocker is credited to Baugh, but it’s basically the Big Joe Turner classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with new words and a slightly altered melody. Baugh was on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, and Phillips figured Baugh’s distinctive, raspy voice would appeal to black audiences even though he (like label mate Elvis Presley) was white. Baugh made dozens of recordings for Sun but they were never issued, mostly because Baugh and Phillips never got along.

“Listen,” Tears for Fears, 1985

Ian Stanley, who served as a member of Tears for Fears for the group’s first three albums, was given chief songwriting credit for “Listen,” the mostly instrumental closing track on the multiplatinum “Songs From the Big Chair” album. It has a spooky, otherworldly vibe dominated by guitar and keyboards, and a brief lyric that implores us to simply “listen…soothe my feeling…now I feel it…” Stanley left the group during production of “The Seeds of Love” in 1989 but went on to produce numerous other artists in the 1990s and beyond, including The Pretenders, The Human League and Tori Amos.

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Criminally overlooked albums of the Seventies

Regular readers of this blog know I love to shine a light on “lost classics” — excellent songs from little-known or less-than-great albums, or neglected deep tracks from commercially and critically successful LPs.

It has always been a labor of love for me to scour the vaults looking for the tunes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s we heard a few times and forgot all about, or tracks we never heard in the first place. What a joy it is for a music lover like me to discover “new” music from the old days!

The Seventies in particular was an extraordinarily fertile period for great music. In my search for lost classic songs, it has been my pleasure to come across some “lost classic albums” — LPs that barely made the Billboard Top 200 album charts when they were released, but are, in my opinion, consistently strong musical collections that should have been widely praised and purchased. I have gathered 12 lost classic albums of the 1970s that almost certainly flew under your radar at the time but are very worthy of your attention today.

The Spotify playlist at the end offers five tracks from each of these dozen records, but I encourage you to dive deeper into these albums if you like what you hear.

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“Off the Shelf,” Batdorf and Rodney, 1971

The singer-songwriter era of the early ’70s brought us some beautiful music and introspective lyrics from the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens and others, but the most criminally overlooked artists of that period, in my opinion, were John Batdorf and Mark Rodney.  Their virtuoso acoustic guitars, great vocals, Batdorf’s superb songs and pristine production values were all in abundance on their amazing debut album, “Off the Shelf,” as well as the follow-up, “Batdorf and Rodney,” and, to a lesser degree, their final effort, “Life is You” (1975).  Tunes like “Oh My Surprise,” “You Are the One,” “Where Were You and I,” “Let Me Go,” “One Day” and especially the effervescent “Can You See Him” all deserve a place among the highest-regarded songs of the genre.  Batdorf continues to release quality new music (four albums since 2006) as a solo artist, but I keep returning to “Off the Shelf.” A phenomenal record.

“Lazarus,” Lazarus, 1971

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary discovered this trio of musicians (Billie Hughes, Carl Keesee and Gary Dye) from Texas, got them a recording contract and hired them as his warm-up act in 1971.  Their self-titled debut album has some of the most stunning harmonies and melodies I’ve ever heard — “Blessed,” “Warmth Of Your Eyes,” “Listening House,” “Eastward,” “Rivers” and “Whatever Happened.”  They later toured behind label mate Todd Rundgren to promote their second album, “A Fool’s Paradise,” but sadly, they never caught on with the buying public.  In the ’80s, singer-songwriter Hughes developed a strong following in Japan and Europe, where he found success writing for film and TV.  His song “Welcome to the Edge” was nominated for an Emmy for its role as theme song for the soap opera “Santa Barbara” in 1991.  He died in 1998 at age 50.

“The House on the Hill,” Audience, 1971

Howard Werth and Keith Gemmell were the chief musical talents behind Audience, a British art rock band that was well received by critics but never achieved chart success in the U.K. nor the U.S.  They played in support of Led Zeppelin in 1971, and were paired with Elton John’s first producer Gus Dudgeon in making what I consider to be their finest of four albums, “The House on the Hill.”  Werth’s voice is admittedly an acquired taste, but his electric classical guitar stylings and Gemmell’s impressive playing on electronically altered sax and flute resulted in several outstanding original recordings, including “Indian Summer,” “Raviole,” “Jackdaw,” “Nancy,” “You’re Not Smiling” and the 7-minute title track.  This is a superlative album well worth seeking out.

“Songs For a Tailor,” Jack Bruce, 1969

For three years (1966-1968), Jack Bruce was one of the hottest musicians in the world, playing bass and handling lead vocals for Cream, the British power trio that also featured a young Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker.  Cream broke up in 1968, and Clapton went on to more success in Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos and a lengthy solo career.  Baker moved to South Africa and was only marginally involved in music afterwards.  Bruce continued playing in various jazz bands and jazz-rock trios throughout the ’70s and ’80s that involved the likes of Leslie West and Robin Trower, and their output was average at best.  However, Bruce’s first solo album, 1969’s “Songs For a Tailor,” is a bonafide gem, with stellar playing and excellent songs like “The Clearout,” “Theme From an Imaginary Western,” “Ticket to Waterfalls,” “Weird of Hemirston” and “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune.”

“Howlin’ Wind,” Graham Parker, 1976

Growing up in London in the Sixties, Parker was influenced by Beatles pop, pub rock and Motown soul, and all those influences showed up when Parker and his band, The Rumour, released their high-energy debut LP, “Howlin’ Wind,” in 1976. Although he’s mentioned in the same breath as fellow Brit New Wave pioneers Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Parker didn’t reach the chart heights of either of them. In fact, he never found much fame in the U.S., but if you give “Howlin’ Wind” a listen, you’ll hear shades of the R&B stylings of Van Morrison and the melodic, heartfelt rock of Bruce Springsteen in his songs, especially “Soul Shoes,” “White Honey” and “Between You and Me.” This LP and its strong follow-up the same year, “Heat Treatment,” are perfect party albums that you probably missed when they came out, but it’s never too late to become a convert. Check him out.

“Emitt Rhodes,” Emitt Rhodes, 1970

This multi-talented multi-instrumentalist is a classic example of a musician who got royally screwed by the industry.  Emitt Rhodes had been a member of two fledgling Sixties bands, The Palace Guard and Merry-Go-Round, and after they disbanded, Rhodes continued writing and recording songs to fulfill their contract with A&M Records, but they chose not to release his songs.  Instead, he invested in recording equipment and set up a home studio in his parents’ garage, playing all the instruments and singing and producing his own album.  He got a contract with ABC/Dunhill, and the album reached #29 on the charts in 1971, and was a big hit with critics as well.  “Fresh as a Daisy,” “Somebody Made for Me,” “Long Time No See,” “Lullabye” and “With My Face on the Floor” all have irresistible Beatlesque hooks and vocals that recall Paul McCartney.  A&M then released his earlier work, which confused buyers, and ABC demanded he release a new album every six months, a grueling pace that he found impossible to meet.  Discouraged, he soon quit the business but built a career as a producer/engineer.  The “Emitt Rhodes” LP is a hidden treasure.

“Ahead Rings Out,” Blodwyn Pig, 1969

Original Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams was a blues purist and didn’t enjoy life on the road, so he and Tull frontman Ian Anderson had a falling out over Anderson’s non-blues songs and a punishing tour schedule.  Abrahams left and formed Blodwyn Pig, who released two albums before folding.  Their first, “Aheads Rings Out,” released in the waning days of 1969, offers the explosive “See My Way” and several excellent blues tracks like “It’s Only Love,” “Dear Jill” and “Summer Day.”  Although the album got little attention in the U.S., it reached #9 in England, rivaling Tull’s concurrent “Stand Up” LP that year.

“No Other,” Gene Clark, 1974

With high-profile musicians like Roger McGuinn and David Crosby around, it’s not surprising that Gene Clark was sometimes the overlooked jewel of The Byrds’ lineup. Clark served as frontman and one of the lead singers, writing or co-writing some of their finest tracks (“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “She Don’t Care About Time,” “Eight Miles High”), but his stage fright and fear of flying led to his premature departure. He signed with Geffen Records in 1973 as a solo artist, but his remarkable tour-de-force LP “No Other” got the cold shoulder from David Geffen, who refused to promote it, and it consequently tanked on the charts, which devastated Clark. The album has undergone a dramatic reappraisal in recent years; AllMusic’s Thom Jurek calls it “a sprawling, ambitious work that seamlessly melds country, folk, jazz-inflected-gospel, urban blues, and breezy L.A. rock in a song cycle that reflects the mid-’70s better than anything from the time.” I confess the album went under my radar at the time, but I’ve since become a huge fan. So much great music to absorb here!

“Blows Against the Empire,” Paul Kantner, 1970

Singer/guitarist Kantner has been the mainstay in every phase of the great San Francisco band — Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship.  He fancied himself something of a countercultural revolutionary, and was obsessed with science fiction, so he combined those two interests and came up with a song cycle about hijacking a starship and starting a new world on some distant planet, since Earth appeared doomed to him.  Kantner’s solo concept album “Blows Against the Empire” was a bit silly lyrically, perhaps, but the music was excellent, thanks to the participation of several key musicians:   Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jack Casady, David Freiberg and Harvey Brooks.  Songs like “Let’s Go Together,” “A Child is Coming,” “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” and “Starship” are as good as anything on earlier Airplane albums and later Starship LPs.

“Kongos,” John Kongos, 1972

Born in South Africa, John Kongos had some modest success there in the Sixties with a number of groups before moving to England in 1969.  He enjoyed two Top Five hits there in 1971 — “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” and “Tokoloshe Man” — but they never reached the Top 40 in the US, and the album they came from, “Kongos,” reached #30 in the UK but failed to crack the Top 200 album list here.  Too bad — the songs are engaging and beautifully produced, recalling early Elton John at times, particularly “I Would Have Had a Good Time,” “Gold,” “Tomorrow I’ll Go” and “He’s Gonna Step on You Again.”  This one might be tough to find but well worth the effort.

“Sunburst Finish,” Be-Bop Deluxe, 1976

One of Britain’s better progressive rock/art rock bands that never made much impact here in the U.S. was Be-Bop Deluxe.  Despite their name, they didn’t traffic in bebop music, preferring blues-based British rock not unlike David Bowie.  Three of their seven albums reached the Top 20 in the U.K., but none did better than #60 in the U.S.  Singer/songwriter Bill Nelson had a knack for great song riffs and quirky science-fiction lyrics, and it all came together nicely on their 1976 LP, “Sunburst Finish,” which includes great tracks like “Ships in the Night,” “Fair Exchange,” “Crying to the Sky,” “Sleep That Burns” and “Life in the Air Age.” If you’re a fan of Ziggy-era Bowie, you’ll enjoy this LP for sure.

“What If,” Dixie Dregs, 1978

Although their albums failed to chart, The Dixie Dregs have had an appreciative following from their founding in the early ’70s up to the present day. Led by guitar virtuoso Steve Morse, the group focuses almost exclusively on instrumental tracks that are so eclectic as to almost defy categorization. One critic tried, calling them “a cross between The Allman Brothers and Mahavishnu Orchestra,” which correctly pinpoints their leanings toward Southern rock and jazz fusion. And yet, there are elements of country and bluegrass here as well. You’ve got to hear it to believe it. The Allmans’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell brought the group to the attention of Capricorn Records, who released “Free Fall,” “What If” and “Night of the Living Dregs” in the late ’70s. “What If” is their most artistically proficient, and it’s an album I played often when the rest of the world had fallen for disco fever.

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