April 28 – Heart Of Glass, Record Of Platinum

Was it one of disco’s last stands, or the new wave crashing onshore for the first time? Could have been either, or maybe both, but either way Blondie found a way to be cool by trying to be “uncool”. “Heart of Glass” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1979.

Blondie came out of the New York City punk scene in the mid-’70s but found their first glimmer of success across the sea in Britain, where their first two albums sold decently and the song “Denis” had been a gold-selling, #2 hit the year before. Success at home however, had eluded them. So Chrysalis Records decided it was time to bring in a “name” producer to help them with their third album, which ended up being Parallel Lines. Chapman, ironically, had also probably had more success in the UK than U.S. through working with acts like Sweet and Suzi Quatro, but was a well-respected presence in music on both continents. What he found when he turned up at the New York studio didn’t please him. They were “a classic New York underground band…they didn’t give a f***…they didn’t want to work too hard.” He saw potential there, but also a bunch of rather lazy, irritable musicians. So “I went in there like Adolf Hitler, and said (or screamed perhaps) ‘You’re going to make a great record and that means you’re going to start playing better!’”

That they did, grudgingly, and quickly put down eight or nine tracks. But they needed more so they played an early demo of this one for him. At the time they nicknamed it “The Disco Song.” They sometimes played it in their set, because as Debbie Harry put it “it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco. We did it because we wanted to be uncool.” By then, the song was about four years old and she says “we’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never worked.” Chapman however “liked it. Thought it was interesting, and started to pull it into focus.” Interestingly, she’d said prior to the album’s release that she really liked the work of European producer Giorgio Moroder, then best-known for working with Donna Summer. “It’s commercial, but it’s good,” she said, “that’s the kind of stuff I want to do.” Which “Heart of Glass” not only turned out a little like, but in time got Moroder’s attention. He worked with Debbie the following year on the hit “Call Me.” 

One of the ways he did that was by getting drummer Clem Burke to use a Roland drum machine for it. It became the one of the first huge hit singles to do so. Eventually, they made some five different versions or remixes of it, with most versions of the album having a full-length 5:50” take on it (which also was the 12” single) and the American 7” single being whittled to 3:22”.

Parallel Lines came out late in ’78, to little initial interest at home, although it did get some notice in Britain again, where “Hanging on the Telephone” had hit the top 10. “Heart of Glass” seemed almost an afterthought, being the fourth song chosen to be put out as a single. Turns out, fourth time was the charm. As Pitchfork put it “after two albums of middling success, a reinvention was in order. ‘Heart of Glass’ came just in time.” They add “by melding disco’s then commerciality with (Harry’s) stunning image and big city cool, ‘Heart of Glass’ propelled Blondie from cult status to household name.”

That it did, though not without a little hesitation. The lyrics (at times Harry’s ascribed to no one in particular, just a general feeling of relationships being tiring but at other times says was inspired by a stalker Chris Stein saved her from) refer to love as a “pain in the ass”…which was rather racy language for mainstream radio in the ’70s. Some radio stations balked at playing it at first, others beeped out the three-letter “four letter word.” Obviously enough played it though; the song hit #1 in not only the U.S., but the UK, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and other lands including New Zealand where it ended up the year’s biggest single (in Canada, it came in at #2 for the year). It earned them platinum singles in Canada and the UK (where they’d not have another one until 20 years later with “Maria”) and a gold one in the States.

If one looks at it as a disco single, there’s nothing surprising about its status. It replaced another disco hit, “Knock on Wood” by Amii Stewart at the top, and followed a string of disco hits at #1 including “I Will Survive”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Tragedy.” However, if one considers it a “new wave” or post-punk song, it was breaking new ground – the first such song to top U.S. charts. Making one lean towards the latter is the surprising fact that it wasn’t a dance hit in North America… it only rose to #58 on Billboard‘s Dance Music charts.

Disco, new wave or pop, no matter what you term it, “Heart of Glass” was a shining example of late-’70s hit music at its best. It’s actually risen on Rolling Stone‘s all-time best of charts, being ranked at #138 in last year’s rankings, up by about a hundred spots since the last time they tried to compile such a list. Pitchfork, meanwhile consider it the 18th greatest song of the ’70s (they had David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” as #1 in case you were wondering.) Meaning, they found a pretty cool way to be uncool!

January 24 – Diamond A National Gem

Happy birthday to a performer who really is a “living legend.” Billboard‘s 25th most-successful artist of all-time, an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame plus a lifetime award winner from the Grammys and a career that spanned almost 60 years – Neil Diamond is musical gem, and he’s 81 today.

Granted, he’s not a singer now considered edgy or ground-breaking, although he might have been that when young. Nonetheless, not only has he put out 32 studio albums of his own, plus two film soundtracks and had 25 top 20 singles in “America” – to name-check one of his trademark songs – but he’s penned songs made into hits from acts as diverse as Elvis Presley to UB40. Not many resumes in music equal that.

Diamond was born and mainly raised in New York City, being a classmate of Barbra Streisand no less. He began writing poetry as a youth and found it helped him impress girls, always a winning incentive to young artists! When he turned 16, he was given a guitar, learned to play it a bit and happened to see Pete Seeger in concert. It planted the seeds in his head that grew into an unquenchable desire for a career in music. So much so that he quite university (where he was studying medicine but attending on a fencing scholarship!) to write songs for a living. Initially, he did OK, in terms of popularity, selling a song a week often in the early-’60s. But in the Big Apple, and as an unknown, that barely paid his bills. He signed briefly to Columbia Records, and recorded a few well-reviewed but flop singles with his school buddy Jack Packer. They quickly dropped him, and he went back to writing full-time in the famous Brill Building, with increasing success. One thing that made him unusual was that he mostly wrote entire songs by himself. Many of the best writers of the day worked in pairs (like Carole King and Gerry Goffin) with one doing mostly lyrics and the other the composing. Before long The Monkees did his “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit You, A Little Bit Me” and he was off and running.

Lulu and Deep Purple were soon covering his tunes and he was recording himself again, this time with a division of MCA. Although good as a songwriter, obviously, he says “I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside yourself.” “Solitary Man” was the first one he recorded himself that charted at all (although surprisingly, it peaked at #21 in the U.S. in its best, second run up the charts) so he says it’s always been a personal favorite. Another is 1980’s “America,” from the Jazz Singer, a soundtrack to a movie he starred in. “It’s the story of my grandparents. It’s my gift to them,” he explains, “it’s very real to me.” It gained import through the years when it was used in the 100th Anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty, played at Vietnam veteran’s assemblies and taken on as an unofficial “anthem” for New York after the 9-11 attacks. And of course, we can’t forget “Sweet Caroline,” a song Boston and its Red Sox have made their own. As the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame put it, “his ability to put words to the human experience explains his commercial success, his fans of all stripes and his timelessness.”

Along the way, he was highly successful through the ’70s, and he re-signed to Columbia for a then-record million dollars an album, minimum. The label boss Clive Davis said “he was handsome, he moved well on stage and a real sense of drama. It was all there – real star quality.” Apparently so, as he quickly scored over a dozen hits including #1 singles “Song Sung Blue” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a duet with his old schoolmate Barbra, following his first “Cracklin’ Rosie”). Although sales dipped some in the ’80s after his 5X platinum The Jazz Singer, he had established himself as one of the top stage draws, both in Las Vegas and on the road. In 1986, for example, Billboard listed him as the top solo concert draw, despite not having a major hit since 1982.

Sadly, Diamond essentially retired in 2018 because of worsening Parkinson’s Disease. The same year the Grammys awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.

October 15 – New York Sire-d A New Sound

The shape and sound of music for decades to come was altered on this day back in 1975. Like many big things however, very few paid attention to it at the time. It was the day The Ramones signed their first record contract, with the somewhat avant garde Sire Records label.

Things had happened quickly for The Ramones, but it was hardly effortless (even if it may have sounded it!). They’d only formed the year before when school friends Doug Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman, Thomas Erdeleyi and John Cummings started a garage rock band. This was a good thing, because, well, none of them were very good. Cummings would soon after run into Paul Simonon at a concert and asked the now-famous bassist if he was in a band. Simonon said yes, but “we call ourselves the Clash but we’re not good enough.” Cummings responded “wait til you see us, we stink! We’re lousy”, encouraging the other to just go out and play. By the way, by that time Cummings had become Johnny Ramone – all of the lads decided to pick new names using the “Ramone” family name.

Good or not, The Ramones worked hard. They quickly became regulars at both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, both in New York City, and had played 74 shows at the latter in 1974 alone. The shows were no Rolling Stones or Zep shows of course. The Ramones typical set was no more than 20 minutes of hard, fast driving rock. Journalist Legs McNeil remembers “these guys were all wearing leather jackets…it was just this wall of sound….this was something completely new.”

The people at Sire thought so too. Co-founder Richard Goettehrer says of them, “I really saw something fresh happening. We’d been bombarded by disco and progressive bands, but to me, this almost felt like a rebirth and return to the beginnings of rock & roll.”

So they signed up the proto-punks and sent them to the studio early the next year to record their debut LP in one week, at a cost of around $6000. Although it was far from a hit (it failed to hit the US top 100 and took a couple of decades to sell to gold status), it was ground-breaking and influential. As The Ramones continued to record through the ’70s and ’80s, their following grew, although they never hit superstar status based on sales…“Pet Sematary”, from a Stephen King movie was arguably their biggest hit, getting to #4 on the Alternative chart. However, through influence it’s a different story.

Sire was probably the only significant label at the point who would’ve had interest in them. Goettehrer (who’d been a successful songwriter in the ’60s, penning tunes including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Hang on Sloopy”) had founded the company with an idea of bringing underground British acts to North American attention -something they’d do very well in the ’80s with artists like Depeche Mode, the Smiths and Madness being theirs over here, no matter who they had signed with in Britain – but quickly also developed a reputation for looking for unusual, cutting edge bands on this side of the ocean. That was especially true in New York City, where they found not only the Ramones but Talking Heads, and briefly Blondie.

Bands from Pearl Jam and Nirvana to Motorhead and Green Day now point to the Ramones as a significant influence, which made them a shoo-in to make the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. They note they “revitalized rock and roll” with their “back to basics (approach): simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs…no makeup, no light shows, no nonsense.”

August 15 – Concert Idea So Nice, Simon Tried It Twice

82 degrees and sunny – a nice day to spend in the park, and thousands of New Yorkers did just that 30 years ago to see a hometown hero perform. Paul Simon held his Concert in the Park on this day in 1991. The free concert was reminiscent of the one he and Art Garfunkel had played ten years earlier, to a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands and enthusiastic reviews.

This time though, there’d be no Garfunkel. As the snubbed singer told the New York Times “dejectedly” the day before, “he hadn’t been asked to perform,” adding “my guess is would hurt his sense of stature.” Simon wouldn’t be alone on stage of course. While he played his guitar and sang, he was joined by a talented backing band consisting mostly of World Music stars, many of whom he’d used on his Graceland album, such as South African guitarist Ray Phiri and Brazilian drummer Cyro Baptista. No small surprise, as he was finishing up his tour for 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints, a World Music-influenced effort following his massively successful, African-sounding Graceland.

Once again, Simon managed to offer the concert for free (for people there; it was broadcast live on HBO for those who couldn’t attend) and drew a happy and large crowd, although how large is a matter of great debate. Like some politicians of late, Simon might have fudged the numbers upwards and claimed 600 000 people were there. Some critical journalists said only about 50 000 people could fit into the area of the park he used. Based on aerial photos, the truth was probably somewhere in between. No matter the exact tally, it was a huge crowd and Simon didn’t disappoint.

He played for nearly two hours, running through a set combining a number of songs on his recent album with many of his older hits and finishing with some of his best-loved Simon & Garfunkel ones. Starting with the little-known “The Obvious Child” he went into Graceland‘s “The Boy in the Bubble” before hitting his gold record chest for ones like “Kodachrome,” “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”, “Graceland” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” before finishing up strong with “America,” “The Boxer”, “Cecilia” and “The Sounds of Silence.” Although he did change up a tune or two (like the “Africanized version” of ‘Cecilia’”, as allmusic describe it), the tunes were well-accepted and the crowd pleased. As the L.A. Times put it, “it was clear from the audience’s reaction to the music of Simon’s celebrated Graceland period that Ladysmith Black Mombaza would have caused a bigger stir than Simon’s old partner.”

As good as the crowd reaction was, the aftermath wasn’t the commercial success the singer had hoped for. He put it out as the double-album Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park, on LP, cassette and CD as well as a video version on VHS and laserdisc. However, unlike the concert a decade earlier which became quite a hit as an album, this one peaked at just #74 on the album chart and the single, “Still Crazy After All These Years” was ignored entirely. So poorly did it do at the checkout that the label never bothered to re-release it on DVD, although curiously PBS recently did that themselves, offering it as a “reward” for donors.

Despite its poor showing sales-wise, it was regarded as a quite good listen. Allmusic gave it 4-stars, saying it was an “enjoyable and surprisingly cohesive career summation” and Simon’s biographer Chris Charlesworth declared it was “the album to have if you want only one Paul Simon album.” Which, we guess might be one more album of his than Art Garfunkel wants!

July 29 – Billy ‘Bridge’d Gaps Between Sounds

On this day in 1986, one of the most popular artists of the previous decade put out his last really great album… to date. Billy Joel put out his tenth studio album, The Bridge, 35 years ago.

Joel had been on a great roll at that point. It seemed like the last of many singles off his 1983’s An Innocent Man were starting to fade from radio when he put out a wildly successful (as in 23X platinum) Greatest Hits package which included another new hit (“You’re Only Human”) the year before. The Bridge kept the momentum, more or less.

Billy was at that time newly married to Christie Brinkley and had just become a father, and the maturity in his life showed through on the album which was undeniably eclectic. Rolling Stone considered it the final part of a trilogy “with 1982’s outwards-looking Nylon Curtain and 1983’s backwards-looking An Innocent Man” this one presenting “a modest yet moving portrait of a mature man.” Ergo, two of the most endearing tracks on it deal with coming to terms with who one is (“Big Man on Mulberry Street”) and with the modern world (“Modern Woman” noting that “rock and roll used to be for kicks nowadays it’s politics” and wondering at how the lady of the house may now be the breadwinner , a shock for “an old fashioned guy” etc.)

The album veered musically from pop sub-genre to sub-genre, from the slow lounge music of his piano duet with Ray Charles, “Baby Grand”, to neo-big band jazz with his “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and the big, bold ballads he’d always excelled at (“This is the Time”) to more new wave-influenced sounds than we were used to from Billy, such as “Running on Ice” (apparently musically-inspired by The Police whom Joel was a big fan of at that point.)

Fans approved…by and large. Although it peaked at just #7 at home and #10 in Canada (doing best in Australia, where it was a #2 hit), it’s long run on the charts let it sell double platinum in both North American countries and be in the four million sales worldwide level. Not quite the mass appeal of An Innocent Man or his big ’70s releases but still a pretty significant success. Interestingly, it was one of the last albums Columbia put out on 8-track. We surmise this had little to do with its million-seller status!

The singles “Modern Woman” and “A Matter of Trust” both were top 10s in the U.S., and “This is the Time” gave him his 20th top 20 hit.

At the time, Rolling Stone considered it “much more appealing” than his brasher, youthful work. Even Robert Christagau gave him a nod, noting Billy was every bit “Ray Charles co-equal on ‘Baby Grand.’”

Although Joel would put out two more pop/rock studio albums and score a bigger hit single three years later with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, The Bridge was the last time he worked with his usual producer Phil Ramone and generally be seen as the last truly significant album. However, he has of course stayed busy, dabbling in classical music and having a sort of residency at Madison Square Gardens (where he sold out shows monthly for more than five years until the pandemic intervened, though he has a new run scheduled for there beginning again this December) … and recently he hinted he might just get back to the studio once again. Perhaps in time, we’ll see the ’86 album as “the bridge” between halves of his career.

July 3 – ‘Gloria’ Made Laura A Star

Today we remember a lady allmusic declare was “a one woman hit factory at the dawn of the MTV era.” Laura Branigan was born this day in 1952, near New York City.

Laura was apparently destined to be a star at a young age. She went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – which boasted the likes of Kirk Douglas and Grace Kelly among its alumni – around the same time Kate Jackson and Kim Cattrall did. Although acting appealed to Laura (she’d later get small guest spots on TV shows like Chips and Knight Rider) music was her first love. She joined a band called Meadow at school as their singer, and while that didn’t go anywhere, it did get her enough attention to become a backup singer for Leonard Cohen on an international tour in ’76. That in turn led her to be signed to Atlantic Records by the decade’s end.

Much like Sheryl Crow a decade or so later, Laura’s first album with them couldn’t find a “sound” and was eventually scrapped before hitting the shelves. The next effort though went far better! The 1982, self-titled album mixed upbeat pop ditties and slower, romantic ballads and became the first of three-straight to go gold or platinum at home. It was driven by the huge hit “Gloria”, a song which had been a European hit in Italian for Umberto Tozzi three years earlier. The powerful Branigan anthem hit #1 in Canada and Australia, and #2 in the U.S., earning her platinum records in all three and quickly making her a household name. The song spent 22 weeks in the top 40, the longest run for any song in the decade. Oddly, it had a second-life among sports fans when St. Louis Blues fans picked it as their theme song during that team’s 2019 Stanley Cup-winning season. It has no direct tie-in to hockey nor St. Louis, but the story goes that five Blues were watching a football game in a bar when some drunk kept yelling “Play Gloria!”. Eventually the DJ did and the bar went wild, and the players thought “hey – we could use that kind of energy in our arena!” They got the stadium sound crew to play it in breaks and sure enough, the fans loved it!

Her success continued through much of the ’80s with four more U.S. top 20 singles, including “Self Control” which hit #1 in Canada and a number of European countries. Laura wrote some of her own songs, but her hits tended to be other people’s, often ones written by Diane Warren (“Solitaire” among others) or Michael Bolton (including “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” and “I Found Someone”, later a hit by Cher.). By 1990, her domestic popularity had waned although she was still popular in Europe, however she took some time off from music to tend to her husband who battled cancer for years. He had passed away and she was working on a comeback in the early 2000’s, working on new music and briefly appearing on New York stages as Janis Joplin in a musical called Love, Janis. If that pairing seems a little odd to you, it did to her too! She was soon replaced, which she said left her “sort of relieved. My voice isn’t anything like Janis Joplin’s and there were 19 of her songs in the show.”

Sadly, Laura died of an aneurysm in 2004 at age 52.

June 21 – A Spoonful Of Music For The Day

Philadelphia, 90 and partly cloudy today, Las Vegas 109. Even Portland up in the misty northwest is going to be 97 degrees… that’s right, it’s summer! Today is the first official day of summer, so in honor of that and the toasty temperatures coast to coast, we’re going to look at one of rock’s great summer songs – “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The 1966 song became their first #1 hit in the States, although they’d gotten to #2 twice before, with “Daydream” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?”. Not bad going for a band who’d only been in existence about two years!

The Lovin’ Spoonful were a New York City band which was essentially an offshoot of the Mugwumps, a popular folk-ish band of the early-’60s. When Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty quit to join the Mamas and the Papas, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky left as well, to form this new band. They quickly signed to Kama Sutra Records and began recording in earnest – “Summer in the City” was from Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, their fourth album in under two years. It was a wildly divergent album, referred to by allmusic as a “loose collection of disparate songs.” Not that was a bad thing, as the Beatles showed around then. In fact, to the Kinks’ Dave Davies, these guys were even better. He termed them “above and beyond the Beatles…integrating lots of different elements (like) blues, country, folk music, and a bit of rock.”

This one definitely fell in the “rock” camp, with its swirling organs and keyboards, edgy guitar riffs and sounds of the city – a VW car horn, a jackhammer, etc – added in. Those in themselves made the song unique at the time. No other pop hit had included such piped in extraneous sounds of the city.

The song contrasts the sweltering days (‘back of my neck getting dirt and gritty”, “doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city”) with the cooler, fun nights (“at night it’s a different world”, “dance all night”). While most Lovin’ Spoonful songs were written by John Sebastian, who plays both organ and guitars on this as well as sings the lead, this one had a little help from bassist Steve Boone, and a lot from John’s younger brother Mark. Mark wrote a poem when he was 15 that served as the base for the song. “He had this great chorus and release was so big!” John says. “I had to create some kind of tension at the front end to make it bigger.” He succeeded!

The song was their only gold single at home, and became their second #1 hit in Canada, while even overseas it made the top 10 in the UK and New Zealand. It lives on on classic rock radio, and in the media. It’s been used in TV shows like The Simpsons and movies like Die Hard, With a Vengeance.

John and Zal both left the Lovin’ Spoonful by 1968, and it broke up in 1969, although they have reformed several times since, although recent incarnations have only had Boone and Jon Butler from the originals.

May 30 – Maybe Debbie Was A Sunday Girl More Than A Saturday Night One

Although New York City had a major, burgeoning new music scene in the late-’70s, arguably nowhere was more amenable to the various new sounds emerging at that time than Britain. Another example of that was 40 years ago, when on this day in 1979, Blondie hit #1 on the UK singles chart with “Sunday Girl.” Although it came a month after they first hit the top at home, with “Heart of Glass”, the upbeat sounding single was already their second chart-topper of the year in the UK and third top 5 single off the most popular album of the year there, Parallel Lines.

Blondie were New York to the bone, being regulars at the legendary CBGB club which the Ramones made famous, and like the Ramones, they were initially labeled as a “punk” act. Blondie’s core has always been photogenic singer Deborah Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, a romantic couple at the time who’d been in the band The Stilletoes together. They left that band in 1974 and formed Blondie. Their 1976 debut didn’t make much of an impact, but their second, Plastic Letters had caught on over the sea in the UK, where it sold to platinum levels and generated two top 10 singles, “Denis” and “I’m Always Touched By Your Presence Dear”.

For their third album, Chrysalis Records wanted a slightly more radio-friendly sound and they brought in a new producer, Mike Chapman. Chapman had been an influential hit-maker in Britain, most notably working with The Sweet and Suzi Quatro. Outside of drummer Clem Burke, no one in the band was excited about the change at first. Chapman didn’t adore the band and said “musically, Blondie were hopelessly horrible when we first began rehearsing.” He said Burke had no timing on the drums, Stein was too stoned to play guitar well much of the time and Jimmy Destri wrote better than he played keyboards. Chapman ranted and railed and drove them to play better because “you are going to make a great record.”

That they did. Parallel Lines mixed new wave, disco, rock riffs and blended it up into an exciting new sound that appealed to all sorts of listeners. Allmusic would later grade it a perfect 5-stars, clearly their “best album”, which they considered a “pure pop” one. “Heart of Glass” was a worldwide smash (and their first #1 hit in the UK and North America) and when all was said and done, the album was Britain’s biggest-seller of ’79, spending 4 weeks atop the charts, hit #6 in their native States and went 4X platinum in Canada. It was full of strong tracks, and the singles released were slightly different in some countries, besides “Heart of Glass” which was a hit everywhere. In Britain, “Sunday Girl” was the fourth single, after “Picture This”, “Heart of Glass” and “Hanging on the Telephone.”

The song with Debbie displaying a good chunk of her vocal range was written by Chris Stein, apparently originally inspired not by a couple of girls gossiping about boys but by Harry’s cat, called Sunday. Although it wasn’t put out as a single in the U.S., it made #5 in Australia and New Zealand and #6 in Canada. Interestingly, Harry also did a French-language version for release in parts of Europe and Chapman remixed the song later to incorporate a French verse in an otherwise English song.

February 14 – Simon Presented The Opposing Viewpoint To Day

For every action, there’s an inverse reaction, it’s said. So fittingly – at least to fit that rule – on this Valentine’s Day in 1976, there was sort of an “inverse” song on top. Paul Simon‘s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” was back at #1 for the second of a three week run on top. Amazingly, it’s Simon’s only solo #1 song yet in the U.S.

The timing might have been coincidental, but I imagine a lot of singles and unhappy halves in couples were feeling the song more than ever at the season of hearts and roses. It was the second single off Simon’s 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, his first #1 album without Art Garfunkel by his side. If the song came across as a bit callous and cynical about love… well, no wonder. Simon wrote the record while going through a divorce from his first wife, Peggy.

“I woke up early one morning in my apartment on Central Park and the opening words just popped into my head,” he said, adding “it’s basically a nonsense song.” His brother says Paul developed the words to teach his three year old son how to rhyme. He wanted a sparse sounding record so he built it around the subtle and sublime drumming from Steve Gadd. Gadd was an in demand session drummer who’d just done the disco hit “The Hustle” with Van McCoy and would soon after go on to work with Steely Dan. Simon might have been losing a wife, but was never alone it would seem. He had help from much of the Big Apple’s finest studio musicians including guitarist Hugh McCracken ( a veteran of records by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, the Left Banke and Paul McCartney) and on organ, Kenneth Ascher, a regular on John Lennon’s records of the era. To keep him, and his voice company were backing singers Valerie Simpson, Patti Austin and Phoebe Snow, with whom he’d collaborated on the album’s first single, “Gone at Last.”

We don’t know if “Stan” or “Roy” took his musical advice and went their own ways, but we do know the song started a sort of party game with people offering their own rhyming advice on how to ditch one’s partner, and was a popular hit worldwide…although nowhere more so than in his cynical or bored homeland. The song got to #7 in Canada, #2 in France and #23 in Britain. In the U.S. it scored him a gold single and ended up among the Bicentennial Year’s top 10 songs.

Valentines take heart though. While “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a big hit, the year’s top single was one with the opposite sentiment – “Silly Love Songs” by McCartney and wings.

February 7 – Big Apple Figured Ol’Blue Eyes Saved Best for Last

Today, something a bit different. We look at a hit by an artist more likely to have been an idol of your parents – grandparents even – than most of you dear readers. But this day in 1985 should have been a pretty big one for Frank Sinatra. The “Chairman of the Board” had his iconic song “New York, New York” named the Official Song of New York City by then-mayor Ed Koch.

It might be surprising, but the song that seems the definition of “timeless” actually only dates back to the disco-era. And it’s not “really” Frank’s song. It actually was written by the Hollywood songwriting duo of Kander & Ebb, and appeared first in the 1977 movie of the same name. Liza Minnelli sang that version, which also surprisingly didn’t garner a lot of attention. Her take on it hit the top 40 in Italy, but failed to make the charts at all in North America, and were ignored by the Academy Awards. Hoboken Frank loved the tune, and the city, and decided to record it in 1980 – over 30 years after he’d had another Big Apple hit, “Autumn in New York.”

Now Frank Sinatra by this time might have attained the stature of a national hero or icon, but was also definitely “yesterday’s news.” He’d scored an astonishing 162 top 40 hit songs in his career…but 149 of those had come before 1960. His iconic theme song “My Way” had only crawled up to #27 on the charts in the late-’60s. So chances of him having a new,significant hit in the age between disco and new wave were scarce, to say the least. But his belted-out ode to his beloved city and perseverance (“if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”) got up to #32 in the U.S. and ripped into the British top 10, hitting #4 there. It was his 163rd, and last top 40 hit at home. He’d later re-record the song with one of the few crooners to match his longevity and appeal, Tony Bennett.

Now, “New York New York” (actually “the theme from New York, New York” to be exact) was instantly loved by the eight million or so residents of that great city. That only increased when the mayor named it the “official song”. The New York Yankees adopted the song, playing it at the conclusion of every game. Originally they played Frank only after wins, and had Liza belt it out after a loss, but Liza-with-a-”Z” complained vehemently about that and the Bronx Bombers decided to just use Sinatra’s version. (For what it’s worth, they did get Liza to sing it in person at the first New York baseball game after 9/11). Fittingly, it was also played Ed Koch’s funeral.

Continue reading “February 7 – Big Apple Figured Ol’Blue Eyes Saved Best for Last”