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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2001/06/19
by Mike Gruenberg

Does One Song Make the Album?

Last month, I wrote about the desirability of the music consumer to have more knowledge of the songs contained in an album before the purchase is made. I stated that Napster gave us a perfect opportunity to preview the songs before we bought the album. My hypothesis was that in return for listening and downloading, the consumer could be charged a reasonable monthly fee for the privilege of the preview on Napster. As I wrote the column, I thought about all the times that I bought albums only to find that there truly was only one good song contained in the entire collection. Naturally, this begs the question, Does one great song amidst a sea of mediocrity warrant the purchase of the entire album? Below is a small, but representative list of albums that I have bought that had but one great song.
In the late 60s, the City of New York along with Rheingold Beer Co. underwrote the cost of rock concerts in Central Park. For a few dollars, you could see the most popular rock acts of the day. I was a frequent attendee. Among my most memorable concerts was seeing Mitch Ryder the Detroit Wheels. Mitchs throaty interpretations of r & b tunes and the musicianship of the Detroit Wheels made it a memorable concert. Many years later, after the breakup of the group, Mitch surfaced as the lead singer for a group simply called Detroit (Paramount # 6010). The art deco cover of the album was enough to buy the album. Sadly, it was probably the only reason for purchase except for the groups interpretation of a Lou Reed tune simply titled, Rock & Roll. This is six minutes and ten seconds of pure, raw rock at its best. Definitely worth the purchase!
The granddaddy of all one hit wonders has to be the Iron Butterfly with their hit In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Atco # 33-250). The extended, seventeen-minute plus time it took for this song to complete ranks as one of the top psychedelic song of its time. The drum solo alone is over two minutes. It got an enormous amount of radio play and was on the charts for years. The album actually was on the best seller chart for 140 weeks, with 81 of those weeks in the Top 10. Anyone who grew up in the 60s who was a devotee of rock music would be straying from the truth if they told you they always heard In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida without some form of drug or alcohol. The album side with this song on it is worth the price of the album.
As many of you know, I am partial to horn groups. Not only was I regular attendee to the Rheingold Central Park concerts, but I also enjoyed going to the Fillmore East quite often to see my favorite horn groups. I was most interested to see groups like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Electric Flag, etc. One group that I somehow never managed to see was called the Ides of March. They recorded a song called Vehicle, which was as good as, if not better than any songs done by the aforementioned artists (Warner Brothers # 1863). The horn section is crisp, the vocals are right on target and the guitar work is flawless. During the bridge of the song, the guitar solo travels from the right speaker to the left one and back again. (Very cool) The only trouble was the other groups kept on coming out with new and better material while the Ides couldnt even top this song. I bought their album based on this one song. The song is approximately three minutes; the album lasts approximately forty minutes, which mathematically speaking means that approximately 97% of this album truly sucks. The rest is so bad, it makes your hair hurt. Find this tune in a 60s type compilation album and save a few bucks.
When the Mamas & Papas broke up, the late John Phillips released a solo album (Dunhill # 50077). He used the same incredible musicians that played on not only the Mamas & Papas albums, but on virtually every hit record to come from the West Coast in those years. To combine the genius of Phillips and people like Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on keyboards & Joe Osborne on bass seemed like a winner. The FM stations were playing a tune from this album called Mississippi. As you know, I feel that Paul McCartney is the greatest bass player ever, but Osbornes playing on this tune should be the example of excellence aspired to by all bass guitar players. As in the Ides of March, one song does not make up for the rest. I guess John had one great song left in him and Mississippi sure was it.
In 1969, the FM stations were playing a song by the late songwriter; David Ackles called Subway to the Country. This tune appeared on Elektra records LP # 74060. The album contained a 45 with this tune as an additional bonus for the purchaser. Subway to the Country is a brilliant song. In it, Ackles talks about the problems of being a parent without the financial means to take his kids out to the country. My favorite line in the song is New York City is a town too big for children, where there is so much dirt they think that snow is gray. I guess the reason the record company included the 45 was that they knew that once you got past this song, you couldnt listen to the rest. If you can, find the 45 and forget the album.
In my opinion, the purchase of an album is a combination that takes into account a number of cerebral and sensory functions. We obviously are drawn to the artist due to whatever songs we have heard that person perform. However, we look at the album art, the supporting musical cast and maybe even the producer as well as the artist. All told, one can argue that buying music is a multi-dimensional process. We use cerebral thoughts, artistic taste and sometimes just a hunch when we buy our music. I enjoy the entire experience of looking, choosing, buying and listening.
Im sure that all of you music collectors can relate to the subject matter contained in this column. Im certain that there are selected albums in your collection that can be added to this list. Please feel free to send me your candidates for One Song Albums and whether you think that one song warranted the purchase.

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