Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dirges for dead teens

"Tell Laura I Love Her," by Ray Peterson (1961)
Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh

The dead teenager genre was one of the go-to themes in the early years of rock. In tragedy after three-minute tragedy, singers told us of One True Loves who died young. By the way, this genre should be distinguished from simple thrill-seeking recklessness, i.e. those punks in "Dead Man's Curve," driving too fast on dangerous roads. No, the dead teenager genre was littered with victims. They died tragically because of poor driving conditions ("Last Kiss"), poor driving period ("Don't Worry Baby"), suicide ("Patches"), and the broken hearts, oh the broken hearts, behind the senseless acts.

A broken heart brings us to "Tell Laura I Love Her," Ray Peterson's story of Tommy, a boy determined to get the money to buy his girl a wedding ring. Possibly incapable of holding a job, trapped in a world without lottery tickets, Tommy has no choice but to do what any of us would do in his situation. He enters a small-town auto race.

In all the genre, three moments ring out with the hysteric sincerity found only in the teen soul:

• The singer of the Shangri-Las crying, "Lookoutlookoutlookoutlookout" as that candy store-haunting bad boy Jimmy slides his bike in "Leader of the Pack;"

• "Teen Angel's" narrator howling "They buried you today;"

• Peterson's chorus on "Tell Laura I Love Her." It's quite a feat of sustained emotion—he has to sing it three or four times, the last from beyond the grave.

In Britain, the record company cited the song's "tastelessness" and destroyed its copies of "Tell Laura I Love Her." But America likes its tragedy, especially when its sappy, and Peterson's oldies radio staple followed the even more painful-not-in-a-good-way "Teen Angel" into the Top Ten. In the future, dead teenager balladeer Dickie Lee added it as a deep cut to whatever LP included his hit "Patches." Those had to be cheery recording sessions.

Peterson went on to start his own label and scored another big hit with the Phil Spector production "Corrina, Corrina." On his way out of fame, he recorded "The Wonder of You," best remembered as big-selling Elvis schlock, before taking his four-octave voice first to the nightclubs and then to church as a minister.

Monday, November 12, 2012

45s: Audit rock with America

"You Can Do Magic," by America (1982)
Written by Russ Ballard

The saga of audit rock continues.

After a successful run that ended with "Sister Golden Hair" in 1975, America spent years releasing songs that never escaped bubbling under status on the charts despite the presence of super-producer George Martin. Already on the wane with the public, the band took another hit when founding member Dan Peek left in 1977 to get both clean and Jesus. With their brand of folk rock deluged by disco, New Wave, and all the other trends of the time, radio listeners safely assumed they were done hearing America's brand of adulterated Harvest-era Neil Young.

It looked like an early retirement, to say the least. Because members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley had scored with "A Horse with No Name" at age nineteen, their big-time career seemed over before they could even die due to the Age 27 Death Curse.

As the Eighties arrived and their thirtieth birthdays approached, Beckley and Bunnell did what a lot of faltering acts did at that time: enlisted a member of Toto and a bunch of other old pros to write them better songs and provide in-studio heft. Timothy B. Schmit, Christopher Cross, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, and most notably Argent member Russ Ballard pitched in to bring America back to Americans.

"You Can Do Magic" did away with the folky sensibility and center-stage harmonies that gave America what charms the band possessed. No matter. Pedestrian ruled the pop world in 1982, and "You Can Do Magic" walked on two feet with a vengeance. It was a crap song. But by pairing a has-been familiar name with generic pop played by pros, "You Can Do Magic" fulfilled the audit rock formula and, of course, hit big.

I have no idea if Beckley and Bunnell had spent the previous decade being fleeced by their management and/or the record company. Okay, the record company for sure. Record companies fleeced everyone. Anyway, their return to the Top Ten provided the funds (if needed) to dig out lost royalties and in general uncover all the usual accounting crimes we attribute to the non-musicians then running the record industry.

No magic show is complete without a disappearing act, alas. America's comeback, like that of the Hollies and others, proved short lived. Ballard hijacked their next album and left Beckley and Bunnell little more than the vocal parts. Disillusioned, they turned to synths and drum machines, co-wrote songs with the sublime (Jimmy Webb) and the ridiculous (Bill "Will Robinson" Mumy), and soon found themselves with plenty of time to plan their many hits compilations.