Monday, May 10, 2004

Here There Be Dragons

Inaugurating a week-long series on endearingly crummy pop songs of the 1970s. For all the conventional wisdom that the Seventies were the Beginning of the End for Pop (wisdom usually mouthed by our bitter Boomer elders, because everything was so much cooler [read: they were themselves still young and sexy] in their precious Sixties), there's a slapdash quality to the charts of the day that gives the enterprise a certain bracing charm. It's remarkable to think that some of these unlikely songs were ever radio hits.

First case in point...

The Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" has a resurgent ubiquity, thanks to a US clothing retailer's ad campaign. When I heard the song on the radio a few months ago, not having heard it in about twenty years, I was struck by what an odd-sounding record this is.

It manages to give the overall impression of standard 1970s studio-hack pop, but listen closely: it's all keyboards. There are bits that sound like guitars amid the throbbing pianos, but they're synthesizers. The bass a buzzy MiniMoog. (The drums, courtesy of legendary sessionman Hal Blaine, are real enough, but their pattern is so basic that it may as well be a Rhythm Ace.)

The surface slickness is all down to Toni Tennille's voice, which owes a lot to pre-rock pop. She's a Southern Belle-ter of the Dinah Shore school, and her pipes lend the whole operation an air of class. But the music surrounding her has the funky, homemade goodness of two people goofing around in the studio—which was exactly the case. (Of course, they had the A-list of pro songwriters—in this case Neil Sedaka—feeding them material, so there's that.)

Weirdly, "Love Will Keep Us Together" starts to sound like proto-electronica, and the Captain and Tennille start to look like a blueprint for the electro-duos that followed: the "Captain," Daryl Dragon (who had been a member of the Beach Boys touring band), was the taciturn musical mastermind—when the duo had their own TV show in the 70s, Dragon's shtick was that he never spoke and rarely changed expression—conducting the proceedings from behind immense racks of keyboards, and was known as a control freak in the studio. Toni Tennille, though herself a fine pianist, was the very picture of the extroverted frontperson, all gleaming teeth and big, brassy voice.

You can draw a straight line from "Muskrat Love" to Suicide to Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys to Fischerspooner. Such are the strange secret histories of pop.

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