Top 40 Smash Taps: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

The Pointer Sisters had enjoyed five Top 40 singles by the time Bonnie, the second youngest of the group, left to pursue a solo career, in 1977. As these things often go, the remaining siblings wound up scoring their biggest hit to date the following year, with a version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire”, which became their first Top 10 hit, peaking at #2 (as high as they ever got on the chart, and a spot they reached on one other occasion). Bonnie went on to have a couple of Top 40 hits on her own, both with covers of familiar tracks from the Motown catalog, perhaps facilitated by her marriage to Jeffrey Bowen, a high-powered producer at the label. The first, reaching #11, was a version of “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” originally made famous by the Elgins. Bonnie’s second and final Top 40 entry could get no higher than that #40 marker. This time Bonnie was working with a song that was even more famous, covering the Four Tops’ 1965 chart-topper “Sugar Pie (Honey Bunch).” The latter song came from Bonnie’s self-titled 1979 album, her last for Motown. There was a little more music in her future, but a lot more trouble.

Previously…
“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, 34 and 33


34. Paul Westerberg, Eventually

Officially, Eventually was the sophomore solo effort from former (and, improbably, future) Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg. (I actually consider All Shook Down, the final album credited to the Replacements, to be Westerberg’s solo bow, but I’m letting that go for today’s purposes.) It was also the first indication that things weren’t necessarily going to go swimmingly for the flannel-clad Twin Cities troubadour in his solo career, at least from a critical acclaim standpoint. He was regularly and rightly cited as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriters of his generation throughout his tenure with The Mats, and expectations were high that he’d continue one in that vein when releasing music under his own name. I still maintain that Westerberg made about as good of a start imaginable with his first solo single, even if he’s since disavowed the song. And 14 Songs was similarly a promising start. By Eventually, it already seemed he was starting to run out of things to say, or maybe that his escape from the tension of a band, especially one that was fairly dysfunctional in even its best moments, was slackening his creativity. I remember one of my fellow DJs at the commercial station where I worked at the time asking me what I thought of “Love Untold,” the album’s lead single, his tone clearly indicating that he found it disappointing at best. I meekly answered something about liking the lyrical detail of “Checks his sleeve for his ace,” but that was all I had. There are other songs I like well enough on the album, but it was clearly flat beer, and not just when compared against the greatness that came before it. It was drab and unmemorable on its own merits.


33. Various Artists, Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks

Perhaps the only thing surprising about this tribute album is that no one thought to make it earlier. As I’ve mentioned previously, college radio deejays are uniquely susceptible to covers–nostalgia for a cultural past they very may not have personally experienced simultaneously one of the most adorable and most irritating affections of the American twentysomething–and for those who were in their undergraduate years during the mid-nineties the ditties of Schoolhouse Rock! were foundational. The educational bumpers deployed in between cartoons on ABC’s Saturday mornings were the nursery rhymes of Generation X, so it only made sense to corral a bunch of college rock bands to cover them. Thus, the likes of Pavement, Ween, Moby, Blind Melon and–best of the lot–Skee-Lo (“What’s up, cat?”) took their turns in the studio to offer up fresh interpretations of songs written by Bob Dorough and others on the original Schoolhouse Rocks! team. The results may be the definition of inessential, but it’s hard to deny that the whole endeavor is terrifically fun.

Previously…
An Introduction
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm
–88 and 87: No Code and Unplugged
–86 and 85: Greatest Hits Live and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts
–84 and 83: To the Faithful Departed and God’s Good Urges
–82 and 81: Billy Breathes and Sweet F.A.
–80 and 79: The Process and Test for Echo
–78 and 77: Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds and Breathe
–76 and 75: Bob Mould and Walking Wounded
–74 and 73: It’s Martini Time and Trainspotting soundtrack
–72 and 71: Aloha Via Satellite and Fever In Fever Out
–70 and 69: Hi My Name is Jonny and One Mississippi
–68 and 67: Everything Sucks and The Aeroplane Flies High
–66 and 65: First Band on the Moon and Razorblade Suitcase
–64 and 63: Comic Book Whore and Peachfuzz
–62 and 61: All Change and Rude Awakening
–60 and 59: 12 Golden Country Greats and Songs in the Key of X
–58 and 57: Brain Candy soundtrack and Pinkerton
–56 and 55: Sublime and Count the Days
–54 and 53: Wild Mood Swings and The Cult of Ray
–52 and 51: Bringing Down the Horse and Crash
–50 and 49: No Talking, Just Head and New Adventures in Hi-Fi
–48 and 47: Lay It Down and Pogue Mahone
–46 and 45: I’m with Stupid and XTORT
–44 and 43: Tango and …finally
–42 and 41: Good Weird Feeling and Mint 400
–40 and 39: Happy Nowhere and Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly)
–38 and 37: Turn the Radio Off and Electriclarryland
–36 and 35: Naughty Little Doggie and In Blue Cave

Spectrum Check

I actively tried to avoid the film I reviewed this week at Spectrum Culture. It’s not because I thought it would be bad, but instead I was worried it would be good, which would make it disheartening and grueling. Sure enough, the new documentary about the few remaining physicians who provide late-term abortions kept reminding me or the sorry state of reproductive rights in the country. The film is solid. It’s the oppressive, anti-empathetic, woman-hating culture that’s a mess.

I also spared a few sentences for our latest Monthly Mixtape, extolling the virtues of a song of the excellent new Janelle Monae album. The official video I passed along to include in the feature is dandy, but the recent performance on The Late Show is even better. As David Letterman said in her introduction, “Get ready and get ready again!”

One for Friday: Gandalf, “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone”

By the time I was paying attention, the Middle Earth adventures of J.R.R. Tolkien had fully crossed over into the province of nerd culture. It was exclusively for fans of sci-fi and fantasy, including those budding poindexters who sat alone reading it on the back of the bus carrying them to middle school (that would be me). By now, over a billion dollars in box office has shifted the material into the greater public consciousness and broader respectability, even if referencing a certain overt devotion to the fictional worlds Tolkien created remains a handy way to, say, establish a television character’s nerdy bonafides. Since the stories have long had the veneer of garrulous geekdom, I find it amusing and charming that Tolkien’s creation was once used by bruising rock ‘n’ roll bands to signal that they were cool and deep. Led Zeppelin famously trafficked in Tolkien references and Jack Bruce made sure to draw from the Middle Earth mythos when he released his first solo album after Cream. These are impressive appropriations to be sure, but they lack the bold announcement of fealty to the source material that comes from actually naming a band after a central figure in the stories.

Gandalf was a U.S. psychedelic rock band whose first and only album, a self-titled effort, was released by Capitol Records in 1967. While there are all sorts of releases from that stretch of rock history that can make claims on injust obscurity, Gandalf has long been know as one of the rarest albums pressed on the Capitol label, apparently fetching major bank from collectors who stumble upon pristine vinyl copies. Even the CD reissues that came out in the late nineteen-nineties and then again right around the time of Peter Jackson’s initial Lord of the Rings film releases seem to be exceedingly rare, with sellers asking around eighty bucks for them. And I, somewhat uncharacteristically, have one of those CD rereleases.

The now defunct British label See For Miles records came out with a reissue of Gandalf in 1997, precisely the time when I was pouring through Mojo magazine acquainting myself with what I thought of as the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. Reading the review of Gandalf made it nearly irresistible to me, and I made a point of ordering it from my favorite record store. It’s not a dazzling record, but it does scratch the itch that I occasionally get for heavy sixties music, but with songs that I haven’t been bludgeoned with repeatedly by classic rock radio over the years. The album is largely covers–perhaps representative of a band that got hauled into the studio a little too quickly–but the few originals are among the true highlights, including “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone.” Maybe not wizardly, but highly worthy.

Listen or download –> Gandalf, “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone”

(Disclaimer: Gandalf seems to be available as a digital purchase, but who knows if any of the money earned from that goes into the pockets of anyone other than music industry bigwigs. That certainly seems to be the case with most online sales. Hell, Capitol Records–or the conglomerate that now owns it–is probably still mailing out statements to the Gandalf guys explaining how much they still owe on the advance the label was kind enough to bestow on them forty-plus years ago. My point is this: I post this song in this space at this time with the belief and understanding that doing so impedes no fair commerce involving those who most deserve to get paid for this music, including your humble record-seller and the original artist. That presented, I will gladly and promptly remove the song if I’m requested to do so by any person or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

That Championship Season — The Office, Season Two

officelogo

When the U.S. version of The Office stumbled to the finish line this past spring, the consensus was that the show never should have tried to outlast Steve Carell’s interest in playing Dunder Mifflin Scranton brand manager Michael Scott. On the basis of the show’s final stretch–especially the dismal last season that completely misjudged audience curiosity in the fictional backstory behind the documentary conceit–that’s a qualitative assessment that’s almost inarguable. Thinking back on the nine seasons of the show, though, it’s clear that The Office peaked early, even though it has a somewhat notorious reputation as a slow starter. The Office was a consistently amusing program for the bulk of the time that Carell was the star, but it was only truly great in its second season.

And the second season was especially early in its run, considering that the first season was more of an extended tryout, only six episodes long. Even with that, the pilot was little more than a overly faithful adaptation of the first episode of the original British series, which was created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The near-total abdication of establishing a unique voice was so evident in that first episodes that it practically has a patina of flop sweat on it. Even as it got better (and it did, quickly), it also got darker, even meaner. It’s a wonder NBC renewed it.

When it returned for the second season, the show was markedly better. Amazingly, it achieved this without drastic changes. There were no significant casting shuffles and the core creative team remained the same (aside from the necessary credit for Gervais and Merchant on the pilot, there were five credited writers across the first six episodes, and they accounted for six of the first seven episodes of season two). Indeed, the most noticeable alteration was a more becoming hairline for Carell. And yet everything was calibrated just a bit, just enough. Elements that were overly harsh a few months earlier were now ruefully funny, and the occasional glimpses of outright hostility were largely replaced by strained affection. Vitally, the office itself now seemed like a fairly enjoyable place to peek on it, without compromising the show’s main mission of depicting the inherent miseries of cubicle life. If Michael Scott was going to be an inept manager, who slipped away in the middle of the day to shop for condos (under the auspices of attending an important meeting), it would be an opportunity for play and camaraderie among those left behind. The bad decisions of the boss, previously stirring nothing but misery and embarrassment, were now occasionally a sneaky blessing.

officemedals

Maybe more importantly, the producers needed to deal with something that Gervais and Merchant, taking advantage of the British television model of short runs, never really needed to fret about: demonstrating how this bad boss keeps his position. For me, there’s no more critical episode in the run of The Office than “The Client,” because it establishes that Michael Scott, exasperating as he may be, is actually pretty good as his job. When he and his direct supervisor, Jan Levinson (Melora Hardin), take a prospective client out to a business dinner at Chili’s, Michael’s various squirrelly antics are the same as those that cause disruption in the workplace. In this setting, however, they’re a virtue, eventually winning over the client, who opts to give his business to Dunder Mifflin, even though they’re going to be more expensive. Every business book lesson on respectability that Jan wanted to adhere to was wrong in the real world of dealing with decision-makers who finally want to buy from people they like. On some level, Michael knows this, knows that prompting a happy sing-along of the baby back ribs jingle is going to be a more effective way of closing the deal than earnestly setting forth the virtues of the product and company. This is also significant as the episode that throws the first match on the oily rag pile that is the Michael-Jan relationship, but it’s the establishment of Michael as more innately skillful than Gervais’s David Brent ever was that is pivotal to the storytelling success of the whole series.

office chilis

There’s a simpler way to determine the best season of a comedy, of course: answering the question of which one was the most consistently funny or even had the highest peaks in that respect. A strong contention can be made for season two, filled with episodes that ingeniously play of the characters’ various neuroses and needs, especially those attached to Michael like rabid barnacles. In this area, writer-actor Mindy Kaling can claim to be a mighty MVP contender for the season by virtue of penning season opener “The Dundees” and late-season winner “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” but it’s the hilarious “The Injury,” arguably the comic pinnacle of the entire season, that’s the strongest argument in her favor. Beginning with the absurdity of Michael burning his foot on a Foreman Grill he keeps in his bedroom to prepare morning bacon, the episode builds beautifully from there. By the time Dwight Schrute is yelling, “You can’t fire me, I don’t work in this van!” the show is at the rarest of heights.

officeinjury

The second season of The Office is the beneficiary of the normal strengths of a show early in its run, one that still has the freshness of discovery. All of the different character pairings haven’t yet been exhausted and its easy enough to built in conflict and complication without needing to tread into overly convoluted dramatic territory. A salesman can still pine for the engaged receptionist in a poignantly secret love without a whole lot of extra obstacles being dragged out of the writers’ room to be set between them. To the show’s credit, the romance of Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) was one of the strengths through most of the run, at least until the creators unwisely tried to turn it into some weird drama of dismay in the final season, complete with a threatened interloper into the relationship from the documentary crew. It was at its most endearing and heart-rendering in the second season, in large part because it could follow that familiar and satisfying will-they-or-won’t-they trajectory that has be the standard sitcom arc since Sam Malone watched Diane Chambers walk into his Boston bar. There’s a reason it’s been used over and over again: when it works properly, it gives a sitcom a welcome emotional core that grounds the comedy. The Jim and Pam dynamic worked like few others, in part because it was more determinedly real than most, most notably in the season two finale when Jim finally confessed his affection to Pam in scenes that disregarded any supposed needs for jokes in favor of letting it play out with a crushing hesitancy, awkwardness and honesty.

officekiss

The Office stayed fairly strong following season two, but little flaws started cropping up right away. The following season would deserve a demerit simply for the sin of introducing Ed Helms’s Andy Bernard, a character that grew increasing tiresome over the remaining run of the season until he became completely unbearable. But the other cast addition picked up from Jim’s season three transfer Stamford, Rashida Jones as a new love interest for Jim, was problematic in a different way, as the writers had almost no conception as to how to make her interesting. The show that had deftly given vivid inner lives to the characters around the fringes of the office was ineffective at expanding its scope further, which would become abundantly clear in later seasons when Andy Bernard grew more prominent and the entirely unsuccessful attempt to fill the void left by Carell’s season seven departure. Coupled with occasional issues involving both Michael and Dwight coming off as too buffoonish, the show gradually became a victim of its own success. Even the extra seasons past the point when they should have turned the copier off for good are attributable to that specific problem.

None of those issues crop up in season two. Across these episodes, as the show’s popularity was just starting to swell, it’s a series that’s hungry, inquisitive and adventurous, committed to its storytelling without feeling obligated, either to serve fans or to prolong the run. It’s clear that the slippery ice of the earliest episodes instilled in the entire creative team a conviction to get their footing right when they came back to work on the second season that must have seemed like a gift. If that was the goal, they achieved it. And then some.

Previously…
An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — 8 1/2

#13 — 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
I have an aversion to dreamlike story structures, or even dream sequences in films, largely because they are often done so poorly. Never mind the frequency with which they’re little more than a fake-out, structured to set a character bolting upright in bed over whatever wicked turn just glimpsed in dreamland, an supposedly unnerving headspace depicted with essentially the same tone and approach as every other part of the film, all the better to deke the viewer. The real problem is that the depiction usually doesn’t resemble a dream all that much, instead cohering to a writer or director’s bumbling imagination, usually leading to crazy imagery that doesn’t add up to anything. Though he didn’t invent the notion of cinematic dream sequences or narratives steeped in dream logic, it can be argued that Federico Fellini made it look equally easy enough and profound enough to encourage all his directorial descendants to feel empowered to try it out themselves. The problem is simple: there was only one Fellini.

Actually, there’s sort of a second Fellini, and that’s the one that shows up inside his films, thinly disguised representations of the director himself as he works out his various anxieties onscreen. In the masterful 8 1/2, it’s Guido Anselmi, a famed Italian director played with casually engrossing charisma by Marcello Mastroianni. Guido is a man unmoored, struck by a profound block to his creativity that leaves him mining his own memories and fantasies with such vigor that they shuffle in to stand alongside his reality, taking the tangible world into a waltz of benignly surreal madness. This could all be little more than visual tomfoolery, which would have reasonably been enough to convey the unbalanced state of a visual artist. Instead, Fellini brings in the discombobulating elements with great care. Every bit of it carries weight, conveys something about the central character or his perceptions of the greater world that has set him reeling. The entire film is purposeful enough to make it seem as though it’s actually sprung directly from its creator’s subconscious.

Perhaps the sense of greater control, greater intent to the fanciful stretches is attributable to the immaculate craft brought to every level of film. Mastroianni is wonderful, staying true to the reality of his role while consistently finding creative ways around a line or a moment, in a manner fully in keeping with the film’s slanting sanity. There is Gianni Di Venanzo’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and the bright, slippery music of Nino Rota. Of course, the most striking contribution comes from Fellini himself, walking the highest of wires as he creates a sort of cinematic poetry that finds meaning in cadence, tone and shifting energy. It’s a film that isn’t gripping in any sort of conventional way, and indeed it doesn’t make an evident attempt to hold the viewer as it plays out. Instead, its odd, embedded power is in growing in stature and impact as it transfers from experience to memory, as if Fellini has found a way to sprinkle his personal shifting thoughts, emotions and memories into those of the people who take in his work. 8 1/2 seems most at home in the softening reality of recollection. That is a movie magic act that I truly believe only Fellini could have ever performed.