I love coffee, I love tea

Dolly Parton got it right regarding what I do the moment my feet hit the floor each morning when she sang, “Well, I tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition…”

The drink that got its start in Eastern Africa before migrating to the equatorial countries of the Americas is a crucial elixir many of us sip each day to get our personal engines running. For more than a century now, half of all coffee produced worldwide each year is consumed in the US. From the 10-cent cup of coffee of the 1950s to the $5+ concoctions at Starbucks today, we are happy to pay the price for that morning jolt.

In England, tea is the preferred beverage, due in part to its history of importation from India (a British colony for many decades) and its affordability. Tea is an integral part of the culture, a fact not lost on the songwriters of Great Britain.

Musicians from both countries have been writing and recording songs about coffee and tea since The Jazz Age. I have assembled 15 of the best ones, with another ten honorable mentions, and all are included on my Spotify playlist at the end. The styles and tempos are all over the map, so they might not be “your cup of tea” if you are like me and “take your coffee with a dash of silence.” But it’s a fun set I hope you enjoy at some point in your day.

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“Black Coffee,” k.d. lang, 1988

In 1948, lyricist Paul Francis Webster (who went on win Oscars for “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and “The Shadow of Your Smile”) collaborated with jazz composer/arranger Joe “Sonny” Burke to write this bluesy torch song that finds salvation in a steaming cup of coffee when you’re up all night waiting to hear from your loved one. “Black Coffee” was recorded by some big names of that era, notably Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, and many more artists in the years since. I’m partial to k.d. lang’s 1988 recording from her “Shadowland” LP. “I’m feeling mighty lonesome, I haven’t slept a wink, /I walk the floor and watch the door, and in between I drink black coffee, /Love’s a hand-me-down brew…”

“Second Cup of Coffee,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1972

Lightfoot is a national hero in his native Canada, still performing occasionally at age 83. In the U.S., he first hit the charts with “If You Could Read My Mind” in 1970, followed a few years later with the #1 song and album “Sundown.” In between, a couple of fine LPs curiously didn’t attract much attention, one being “Don Quixote” with its stunning love song “Beautiful.” Also on that album was “Second Cup of Coffee,” in which he hopes the caffeine he’s drinking to soothe his broken heart will stave off any impulse for harder stuff later on: “I’m on my second cup of coffee, and I still can’t face the day, /I’m thinking of the lady who got lost along the way, /And if I don’t stop this trembling hand from reaching for the phone, /I’ll be reachin’ for the bottle, Lord, before this day is done…”

“Afternoons and Coffeespoons,” Crash Test Dummies, 1993

The Dummies, led by the instantly identifiable bass/baritone vocals of Brad Roberts, was one of the biggest Canadian bands of the 1990s, and had some su stantial success in tea U.S. with the #3 single “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm.” Another fan favorite from the same album was “Afternoons and Coffeespoons,” inspired by T.S. Eliot’s landmark 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Roberts calls it “a song about being afraid of getting old, which is a reflection of my very neurotic character”: “Woah, afternoons will be measured out, measured out, measured with coffeespoons and T.S. Eliot…”

“Black Coffee in Bed,” Squeeze, 1982

British band Squeeze were one of the best to emerge from the New Wave era, with several hit singles and albums in England. U.S. audiences were more selective but did embrace some of their work, notably the 1981 hit “Tempted,” which reached #8, and the sublime 1982 follow-up “Black Coffee in Bed,” which peaked at #26, and includes backing vocals by Elvis Costello and Paul Young. Another look at lost love, but this time seen as more of a relief: “Oh, from lips without passion to the lips with a kiss, there’s nothing of your love that I’ll ever miss, /The stain on my notebook remains all that’s left, of the memory of late nights and coffee in bed…”

“One More Cup of Coffee,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Dylan wrote some of the best kiss-off songs of all time — “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Positively 4th Street” come immediately to mind — but he has many other lesser-known breakup songs throughout his voluminous catalog. Buried on his #1 LP “Desire” in 1976 (highlighted by the hit “Hurricane”) is “One More Cup of Coffee,” on which he croaks out a duet with Emmylou Harris: “I don’t sense affection, no gratitude or love, /Your loyalty is not to me but to the stars above, /One more cup of coffee for the road, one more cup of coffee ‘fore I go…”

“Coffee and TV,” Blur, 1999

British rock band Blur found only modest chart success in the U.S., but in their native UK, they were, along with Oasis, the chief purveyors of “Britpop,” scoring five consecutive #1 albums and a dozen Top Ten singles in the late 1990s. From their LP “13” in 1999, there’s a song with lyrics by guitarist Graham Coxon in which he describes his battles with alcoholism, using television and many pots of coffee to stave off his cravings and darker impulses: “So give me coffee and TV, easily, /I’ve seen so much, I’m goin’ blind, and I’m brain-dead virtually, /Sociability is hard enough for me, take me away from this big bad world…”

“You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” Nat King Cole Trio, 1950

The team of Ray Henderson (music) and Buddy DeSylva (lyrics) wrote this infectious little tune back in 1928 for their Broadway musical, “Hold Everything!” Early recordings included those by Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting, and later The Ray Conniff Singers and the Les Brown Orchestra put it on vinyl as well, but the best version, to my ears, was by the incomparable Nat King Cole and his King Cole Trio. The lyrics praise the woman he loves as crucial to his well being: “You’re the cream in my coffee, you’re the salt in my stew, /you’ll always be my necessity, I’d be lost without you…”

Black Coffee,” Ike and Tina Turner, 1972

In 1972 Ike & Tina Turner, still a functioning duo riding high on their scorching cover of “Proud Mary” from the previous year, released the funk rock classic “Feel Good,” comprised almost entirely of Tina Turner originals, including a stomper called “Black Coffee.” In her song, SHE is the Black Coffee — “My skin is brown, but my mind is black” — and she spits it out with sass and fire, with Ike’s raging guitar behind her. Brit rockers Humble Pie put out a fine cover version on their “Eat It” double album the following year. “Black coffee is my name, black coffee is not a thing, /Black coffee, freshly ground and fully packed, /Hot black coffee, is where it’s at…”

Cigarettes and Coffee,” Otis Redding, 1966

Steve Cropper, guitarist with Stax Records’ house band Booker T and the MGs, considers this “a hidden gem” in the Redding portfolio. Written by singer Jerry Butler in 1961, “Cigarettes and Coffee” went nowhere at first, but when Redding used Cropper and the rest of the MGs in Stax Records’ Memphis studio to record his version in 1966, it became a featured track on his LP “The Soul Album” that year. The narrator is simply thrilled to be with his love at 3 am: “I would love to have another drink of coffee now, and please, darling, help me smoke this one more cigarette now, /I don’t want no cream and sugar, ’cause I’ve got you, now darling…”

“Starfish and Coffee,” Prince, 1987

As a wildly eccentric, boldly artistic guy, Prince could certainly relate to a story about another wildly eccentric, boldly artistic person. Prince’s occasional collaborator Susanne Melvoin told him about a real girl she knew from 6th grade named Cynthia Rose who did quirky things like draw hearts on walls and happily shout out what she had for breakfast. Naturally, Prince turned it into a funky pop song, found on his “Sign ‘o the Times” album in 1987: “If you asked her what she had for breakfast, this is what she’d say, /’Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam, /Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine, and a side order of ham…”

“Coffee Song,” Osisiba, 1976

Flying under the radio of most American listeners was the music of Osisiba, a lively, inventive band of West African and Caribbean musicians who came together in England in 1970 and made more than a dozen albums of what became known as “world music,” blending rock, Latin, jazz, soul, reggae, calypso and pop. On their 1976 LP “Ojah Awake,” you’ll find their take on a 1946 novelty tune called “The Coffee Song.” First recorded by Frank Sinatra and later by The Andrews Sisters, Sam Cooke and Stan Ridgway, the tune adopts a humorous stance on Brazil’s abundant surplus of coffee: “Way down among Brazilians, coffee beans grow by the billions, /So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill, they’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil…”

“Espresso (All Jacked Up),” Todd Rundgren, 1995

From the beginning, Rundgren has been a non-conformist, often choosing experimental directions and methods of recording and releasing new music. In the ’90s, he pioneered the concept of interactive CDs, giving listeners the freedom to play producer with his tracks. From his 1995 release, “The Individualist,” he came up with this ode to coffee drinks and how they keep him going when out on tour: “Gimme one more hot espresso, have another cappuccino, /Fire me up a caffè latte, make it one with lots of chocolate in the middle of it, /Hot espresso, I’m all jacked up!…”

A couple of mugs from our kitchen collection

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“English Tea,” Paul McCartney, 2005

McCartney has proudly defended his love for “that whole fruity way of talking that the English do, very endearing, I love it.” For this slight little song from his “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” album in 2006, he was amused to observe how people in England used to talk about merely “a cuppa tea,” always the same, but now there are different types, and you must be more specific and ask for English tea, with formal mannerisms like in a drawing room stage play: “Would you care to sit with me for a cup of English tea, very twee, very me, /What a pleasure it would be, chatting so delightfully, any Sunday morning…”

“Tea in the Sahara,” The Police, 1983

From their spectacular fifth and final album, “Synchronicity,” The Police recorded a marvelous, moody treatment of this song Sting wrote, based on a poetic novel by Paul Bowles called “The Sheltering Sky.” In the book, three women wait for a prince who vowed to return to have tea in the desert with them, but he never comes back. In his song, Sting has the women waiting year after year, withering in the heat “with their cups full of sand”: “My sisters and I have one wish before we die, /And it may sound strange, as if our minds are deranged, /Please don’t ask us why, beneath the sheltering sky, /We have this strange obsession, you have the means in your possession, /We want our tea in the Sahara with you…”

“Have a Cuppa Tea,” The Kinks, 1971

There are few British rock bands more decidedly English than The Kinks, thanks to songwriter Ray Davies and his penchant for lyrics that describe English people, places and practices. Think “Waterloo Sunset” or “Victoria.” On their commercially unsuccessful but critically praised “Muswell Hillbillies” album in 1971, one of the best tracks is “Have a Cuppa Tea,” with lyrics that humorously celebrate the British custom of drinking tea and the civility that comes with it, delivered in a tongue-in-cheek fashion:  “Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time, /You get tea when it’s raining, tea when it’s snowing, tea when the weather’s fine, /You get tea as a mid-day stimulant, you get tea with your afternoon tea, /For any old ailment or disease, for Christ sake, have a cuppa tea…”

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Honorable mention:

Cup of Coffee,” Johnny Cash, 1966; “Coffee Blues,” Mississippi John Hurt, 1963; “One Cup of Coffee,” Bob Marley, 1976; “Coffee Club,” Spandau Ballet, 1982; “Tea for One,” Led Zeppelin, 1976; “Another Pot o’ Tea,” Anne Murray, 1974; “Afternoon Tea,” The Kinks, 1967; “Everything Stops for Tea,” Long John Baldry, 1972; “Tea for the Tillerman,” Cat Stevens, 1970.

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I’m in pieces, bits and pieces

Some of classic rock’s tales aren’t quite long enough to warrant full treatment, but they’re still worthy of attention. So I’ve gathered up a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I’ve thrown them into the pot for a mixed bag of short stories I hope you enjoy:

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A classic rock self-fulfilling prophecy

They were just a ragtag band of misfits, essentially a bar band from Jersey that, against all odds, made a dream come true.

They were called Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, named partly because of Ray Sawyer, one of their singers, who had lost an eye in a car accident and always wore an eye patch. They played a lively brand of country, rock and folk that was alternately funny and serious, and their improvisational performances were full of suggestive lyrics and partial nudity. They were making it up as they went along.

They ambushed Clive Davis in his Columbia Records office one day in 1971 and danced on his desk as they auditioned their songs for him, and they must’ve caught Davis in a vulnerable mood because they were just playful enough in their anarchic presentation to win a contract.

Their manager/producer helped cement a relationship between the band and poet/author/songwriter/playwright Shel Silverstein, who wrote the children’s book “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and also wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. Silverstein’s first effort for Dr. Hook was a bittersweet ditty called “Sylvia’s Mother,” which proved to be an unlikely hit in early 1972. He proceeded to write them a whole batch of whimsical, bawdy songs like “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Get My Rocks Off” and “If I’d Only Come and Gone” for their second album, “Sloppy Seconds.”

That album also included a clever parody of the rock and roll lifestyle called “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” which claimed that, even if a band had all the groupies and pills and friends that money could buy, their biggest goal would be “the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.” It was released as a single in late 1972 and did decent business on the charts, but it wasn’t until Dr. Hook’s manager barnstormed the offices of Rolling Stone and sold editor Jann Wenner on the plan to make the song a reality that it reached #6 in the spring of 1973.

Truth be told, the magazine was only five years old at the time, and Wenner’s notoriously huge ego wanted the fame and cachet of being regarded as a savvy businessman. He saw how the song lyrics and title helped give his counterculture publication a jumpstart toward a more mainstream audience. He sent a veteran writer on tour with Dr. Hook for a couple weeks and came up with a cover story on the band (though, by all rights, they hadn’t achieved enough to really deserve it).

In the end, Dr. Hook never got their photo on the cover, but the March 28th, 1973, issue featured a caricature of the band and the words, “What’s-Their-Names Made the Cover.” As far as the band was concerned, they had indeed made it.

The coveted cover spawned by Dr. Hook’s song

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Let me stand next to your fire

In March of 1967, a still-unknown trio called The Jimi Hendrix Experience was set to perform at a London club on a bill that included Cat Stevens, The Walker Brothers and Englebert Humperdinck. While the band waited to perform, Hendrix and his manager Chas Chandler were discussing ways to increase the band’s media exposure. A local journalist named Keith Altham was also there, and he suggested they needed to do something more dramatic than The Who’s penchant for smashing their instruments. Altham thought for a moment, then said, “Well, it’s a pity you can’t set fire to your guitar.”

Chandler’s eyes lit up, and he asked the road manager to find some lighter fluid. The group gave a torrid 45-minute performance, which concluded with Hendrix lighting his Fender Stratocaster on fire. The stunt worked, giving Hendrix more attention than he bargained for, and he repeated it three months later at the Monterey Pop Festival in California with film cameras capturing it for posterity.

After the London show, press agent Tony Garland gathered the charred remains of the guitar and took them to his parents’ home and stored them in their garage, where they remained for nearly 40 years.

One day in 2006, Garland’s nephew was combing through boxes in that garage when he found the seared Strat and, knowing that his uncle had once worked for Hendrix, did a little research. Sure enough, he had a rock and roll heirloom on his hands, and it was auctioned off later that year for $575,000.

Jimi Hendrix’s first char-grilled guitar

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“Really Cheap Pine”

Much has been written about the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and how they wrote “nose to nose” in the early days but were composing songs virtually solo in The Beatles’ last two or three years. In 1965, for their groundbreaking masterpiece LP “Rubber Soul,” they were still merging ideas for melodies, lyrics and arrangements, and one of their finest efforts, “Norwegian Wood,” came from that period.

McCartney has published his recollections about the origins of songs from The Beatles’ catalog, and here’s what he had to say about this one: “John came in one morning, and he had this first stanza, which was brilliant: ‘I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.’ That was all he had, no title, no nothing, but we both could tell where this one was going to go based on that opening line. And it pretty much wrote itself. Once you’ve got the great idea, they do tend to write themselves, assuming you know how to write songs.

‘It’s him trying to get laid, it’s about an affair, but he wanted to be more cryptic about it because of Cynthia, you know. So I picked up the story at the second verse. John said in that Playboy interview he did just before he died that he hadn’t the faintest idea where the title came from. But I do. A friend of ours had just had his room done out in wood. A lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine. Really cheap pine. But that’s not as good a title. “Isn’t it fine, Really Cheap Pine”…

Anyway, the girl decides she doesn’t want to do it, and she makes him sleep in the bath. In the last verse, I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She had led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath’. We thought the guy would want to have revenge of some kind. ‘I lit a fire’ could have meant to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the decor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t. It meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it at that, and ended it there.”

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It’s not always about romance

Writing lyrics about one thing when you mean something else is a favorite ploy of rock songwriters. Two of the biggest hits Daryl Hall and John Oates ever charted offer two examples of this technique.

In 1981, they released “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” which appears to be about one half of a romantic couple telling the other half that there are some things they refuse to do: “You’ve got the body, now you want my soul, /Don’t even think about it, say ‘no go,’ /I’ll do anything that you want me to do, /Yeah, I’ll do almost anything that you want me to, /But I can’t go for that, no, no can do…”

Oates explained, “In reality, that song is about the music business. It’s about not wanting to be pushed around by record labels, managers and agents, and being told what to do, and wanting to stay true to yourself creatively. But we thought it would be a good move to universalize the topic of the song, making it into something everyone could relate to and ascribe personal meaning to in their own way. So we kept the words less specific, and it worked out well.”

The same sort of thing happened the following year as Hall was working on a song about New York City in the ’80s and how it could be a tough place that put people through the wringer. Said Oates, “But we started thinking that there are a ton of listeners who’ve never lived in New York or even been there, and maybe couldn’t relate to that. So we made it about not a city but a manipulative woman. People can identify with that kind of experience, I think. So it became ‘Maneater'”: “I wouldn’t if I were you, I know what she can do, /She’s deadly, man, and she could really rip your world apart, /Mind over matter, ooh, the beauty is there, but a beast is in the heart, /Oh-oh, here she comes, watch out boy, she’ll chew you up, /Oh-oh, here she comes, she’s a maneater…”

“The most heart-melting love song ever penned”

It seems a safe bet that there have been more songs written about love than any other topic, so it’s an almost impossible task to select the best ones, or to designate one as the finest of them all.

In 1966, Brian Wilson was collaborating with lyricist Tony Asher on a new batch of songs slated to comprise The Beach Boys next LP, “Pet Sounds.” Wilson had been riding high for the past five years writing most of the group’s hits, from “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby” through “California Girls” and “I Get Around.” He developed a healthy if grudging respect for the songs of The Beatles when they first appeared on U.S. charts in early 1964. By late 1965, though, his confidence faltered when he heard their album “Rubber Soul,” which knocked him off his feet. “Those songs were so wonderful,” Wilson recalled, “and I felt that I really had to up my game if we were still going to be able to stay up with them.”

Wilson sat at the piano, working his way through melodies and chord progressions, landing on some that didn’t seem like the pop music he’d been writing but still intrigued him. Asher said, “I was there with Brian, and I came up with what I felt was a grabber of a first line: ‘I may not always love you.’ Brian argued against it, but I really liked that twist, and I defended it by writing the next couple of lines as, ‘But long as there are stars above you, you’ll never need to doubt it.

Asher continued, “Then there was a disagreement about using ‘God’ in not only the words but the title. We had lengthy conversations about that, because unless you were Kate Smith singing ‘God Bless America,’ no one thought you could say ‘God’ in a pop song.  Brian said, ‘We’ll just never get any air play.’ But some people told him it was “an opportunity to be really far out because it would cause some controversy, which he didn’t mind at all. So we kept it in.”

The song, of course, is “God Only Knows,” which has been described by Paul McCartney as “the greatest song ever written” and by multiple Grammy-winning songwriter Jimmy Webb as “my favorite song of all time.” Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees has said, “When I first heard it, it blew the top of my head off. My first thought was, ‘Oh dear, I’m wasting my time, how can I ever compete with that?'”

It’s been recorded by literally hundreds of artists from Andy Williams to David Bowie, from Manhattan Transfer to Michael BublĂ©, and in 2014, a special recording of it was made involving Wilson and such luminaries as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Chrissie Hynde, Pharrell Williams, Chris Martin and Lorde. There’s an astonishing version by a guy named Nicholas Wells that features his multi-tracked voice doing all the harmonies that’ll send chills up your spine. The Beach Boys original recording of it has also been used in many film soundtracks like “Love Actually” and “Boogie Nights.”

Even so, Wilson, who had the most amazing ear and musical sense, was right about one thing: It didn’t get much air play, at least not at first. It stalled at #39 on the U.S. charts upon first release, although it went to #2 in England, where perhaps the use of “God” in a pop song wasn’t such a problem.

Tony Asher (left) and Brian Wilson

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Life’s tragic twists

Irony can be humorous — like when a truck carrying old discarded tires has a blowout — but it can also be mighty cruel. That’s the sad case with singer-songwriter Jim Croce.

Croce was in bands and coffeehouse trios and in a men’s chorus in college at Villanova University in Philadelphia, and cut an album, “Facets,” in a Delaware studio at age 23 for $500. He married his wife Ingrid, also a singer, in 1966 and performed with her as a duo, doing covers of popular songs, mostly in small clubs on the East Coast college circuit. They recorded an album for Capitol Records, “Jim and Ingrid Croce,” in 1969, comprised of a dozen songs they had written. Neither of these recordings made them much money, and even the pay they received for gigs wasn’t covering the rent. They became disillusioned with the music business, and moved to a farm in Pennsylvania.

Croce took to working various odd jobs — truck driver, welder, construction work, teaching guitar lessons — but he couldn’t shake his desire to keep writing songs, often with lyrics about his experiences at those jobs (case in point: “Working at the Car Wash Blues,” eventually recorded in 1973). This continued for another two years or so, as he and Ingrid struggled to make ends meet, but once she found out she was expecting, Croce became more focused on making music his profession.

Ingrid, A.J. and Jim Croce

In 1972, a demo tape he shopped around was turned down by three dozen labels, but his perseverance paid off when RCA Records signed him to a three-record deal. His first single, the upbeat, whimsical “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” from the debut album of the same name, made its way up the charts, and reached #8 in September 1972. The more downbeat, poignant “Operator” followed, peaking at #17 in December, and things looked promising. He made appearances on “American Bandstand,” “The Tonight Show,” “Dick Cavett” and “Midnight Special,” as another original song about a rough-and-tumble sort, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” spent two weeks as the nation’s #1 song in July of 1973.

His next album and its title song, “I Got a Name,” poised for release on September 21, seemed to say it all. Croce was on a roll and had finally established himself as a successful singer-songwriter. But all the touring required to support his records wore him down, and he missed his wife and young son A.J. In a letter to Ingrid dated September 17, Croce told her he had decided once the current tour ended to quit music and stick to writing short stories and movie scripts as a career and withdraw from public life.

But fate intervened, and on September 20, Croce and four others, heading from one gig to another, were killed when their twin-engine plane crashed during takeoff in Louisiana.

“I Got a Name” was released the next day as planned and reached #10, and “Time in a Bottle,” released a few months later, was a posthumous #1 hit, but Croce never got to enjoy their success.

This photo of A.J. Croce holding his dad’s hat
appeared on the inside sleeve of Croce’s “Greatest
Hits” collection in 1974

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