Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smooth songs of summer 2017 edition

Bill Danoff was in on the creation of three beautifully crafted pop songs—absolutely perfect little gems that couldn't be improved on. On the one hand, that's a lot fewer than George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney or the Gibb brothers. On the other hand, it's more than a lot of much more respected pop stars ever managed.

The three songs in question are "Take Me Home, Country Roads". "Boulder to Birmingham" and this huge hit from 1976.

Starland Vocal Band is an odd name. Okay, odd band names aren't exactly rare but I do wonder how they came up with this one. "Starland" gives off a Dorothy Stratten vibe. And "vocal"? Bands with vocals aren't rare. That said, the vocal harmonies on this recording are one heck of a lot harder to duplicate than they are to enjoy.

It wasn't just a huge hit. In 1976, the song penetrated the popular consciousness in a way that very few songs do. It did so because it caused sexual scandal. That's bound to puzzle anyone under the age of fifty. In preparing this, I scanned the Wikipedia page on the subject and was surprised to find that the lyrics are treated as "somewhat controversial" even today. That is followed by a somewhat perplexed quote from Danoff, "I didn't want to write an all-out sex song ... I just wanted to write something that was fun and hinted at sex." And that's pretty much all there is to the song. Why did it cause such excitement?

in his memoir The Best Times, John Dos Passos relays a story about how Don Alfonso of Spain woke up one morning to see a plane piloted by Ramon Franco flying over the palace. No bombs were dropped but Don Alfonso suddenly realized that it was all over for the Bourbons, burned a pile of state papers in his office and told his wife he was fleeing to France, which he promptly did, leaving her to follow with the children a few days later. And, as Dos Passos wraps up the story, "The people of Madrid woke up the next morning to find themselves, to their great surprise, a republic." Perhaps that story is a little too perfect but I think we can say that this song had exactly that effect on those who thought the sexual revolution could be reversed.

As I've said before, the people who first wrote about the sexual revolution described it as something that had already happened by 1960. It might be better to describe it as a  fait accompli, that is to say as something that was too late to stop. No matter what you've been told to the contrary, your grandparents probably didn't wait for marriage. And by 1960 (if not by 1945), most sex was carried out in pursuit of pleasure without pregnancy. That was the fait accompli part. It was as if the whole world woke up one day to discover that a widespread rebellion against the sexual establishment had been launched and most of the country was in the hands of the rebels and there was widespread grassroots support for them. The establishment, however, still controlled the capital, the newspapers, the television stations and the airports. People were hesitant to speak in support of the rebels because the coup still looked reversible.

The thing that would have felt like a stake being driven into the hearts of those in the sexual Ancien Regime was the sense that, to use a current expression, afternoon sex had been normalized. People had had sex in the afternoon before. Married people had done it when they found themselves alone in the house and cheating spouses had done it to avoid being detected. No doubt, teenagers did it also to avoid getting caught. But these were all cases of settling for the afternoon because the nighttime wasn't available. Sex was, as Saint Paul described it, a deed of the nighttime. It was something that even people who had social sanction to do did not just secretly but shamefully. By, to use an anachronistic expression by 1976 standards, normalizing afternoon sex, Afternoon Delight made the last holdouts realize the battle was over.

People like my mother, a strict Catholic, still thought of sex as a chivalrous domain in 1976. She could see that certain scoundrels might have sex with someone's wife in a suburban home while her husband was at work and the children were at school. She could also see that a married man in the city might meet his lover at a downtown hotel for a nooner. For all I know, she may have taken part in such activities herself. But she saw such sex as something that should be and could be controlled, like weeds in the garden, it could never be eliminated but it could be minimized. She thought she could further count on the shame of afternoon sex limiting it to certain hard cases. That a mild-mannered pop song about afternoon sex could hit number one and hold it for two solid weeks, put paid to that notion. It was over.

To understand why, you need to know that everything my mother, and women like her, tried to control about her children's behaviour was based on the assumption that the danger lay chiefly at night. If a boy took her one of her daughters out, he was expected to bring her home early. My mother saw the overwhelming danger as something that happened after dinner, after the movie or after dancing. She thought a couple heading out in the afternoon represented no threat. That they might not go to lunch or an afternoon movie or for a walk in the park but straight over to his house when his parents were out or his friends house and have sofa on the sofa in the family room wasn't even imaginable. When it suddenly was, the game was over. I was 17 years old the year this was a hit. My mother still tried to control what I did or didn't do. She barely even tried for my three younger siblings.

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