Did the full bloom Jesus Revolution of 1971 make to the American Top 40? See for yourself as our intrepid writer examines the May 8, 1971 listings song by song. "Hang on for copious theological critique and unabashed opining of a musical, and maybe a little political, nature... "
Were I a betting man, I'd wager a sizable chunk of my changer on that fact that Casey Kasem neither nor before the weekend of May 8, 1971 uttered that any of the songs entering the weekly tally of the American Top 40 ("AT 40") radio show he developed and hosted for most of the 1970's and '80's "are about Jesus Christ."
It wouldn't be until another six weeks that Time would declare from a Peter Max-alike-looking cover that THE JESUS REVOLUTION was in full bloom (Look took a peep at the movement that February), but the cultural reverberations of countless hippies coming to conversions both true-and false, alas-were being felt in various manifestations, not least among them pop radio. Since I'm an avid listener to the weekend syndicated '70's and '80's reruns of AT40, Kasem's qualifier for two of the aforementioned week's six debuts into the top two-fifths of Billboard's Hot 100 perked my ears and my penchant for chart geekery. Here follows an examination of what sound to me like all the allusions to the Almighty, especially in the second Person of the Godhead, in this curiously momentous countdown. Hang on for copious theological critique and unabashed opining of a musical, and maybe a little political, nature...
#38 "(For God's Sake) Give More Power To The People" The Chi-Lites
The African-American male r&b vocal quartet as it existed popularly from the mid '40's to the early '90's parallels the same group format in soul gospel (and it's not popular as it once was in that genre, either). The Chi-Lites' first pop top 40 entry invokes the Lord for apparent political power, and should it be shocking that their lyrics seem to implicitly advocate for the kinds of reforms made under President Lyndon Johnson's mid-1960's Great Society measures ("An' if they gonna throw it away/might as well give some to me") from one side while excoriating it from the other ("They know we're not satisfied, so we begin to holler/They give us a promise an' throw in a few more dollars"). "(For God's Sake) Give More Power To The People" may act as a reflection once removed of the black church acting as a political base for its parishoners, from the sadly Communist-infiltrated civil rights movement starting a decade or so prior to its striving to recover the spirit of entrepreneurship that Great Society legislation went a long way in decimating. Musically, The 'Lites sound to be picking up and streamlining the psychedelic soul temporarily ceded by The Temptations, currently in the 40 with the soon-to-be-#1 "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," between far trippier singles including "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." And though Jehovah is titularly relegated to a subtitle here, it's contemporaneously helpful in case anyone would confuse this with John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band's at least equally political "Power To The People" currently at #11.
#37 "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley" C Company featuring Terry Nelson
Were the Vietnam War a product of the current and past decade instead of the '60'as and '70's, "The Ballad of Lt. Calley"'s hagiographic treatment of the man who commandeered the May Lai massacre would be considered a pop culture of the alt right. This odd little ode takes "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" for a melodic template, adds some plinky banjo and earnestness to spare to exalt a soldier who was the face of a most unfortunate turning point in one of the nation's most divisive conflicts. That the credited group is named for that lieutenant's battalion unit acts as a doubling down on an approval of Calley's actions. If memory serves, Kasem in another AT 40 episode later in the '70's called this one of the most controversial records to ever hit the 40's when answered a listener letter about contentious hits, also mentioning that its sales far exceeded any radio play it received (it's also in the lower 40's in this week's country list). Today, it's a historical curio you'd do well to not waste your breath requesting on your local oldies station.
#36 "Woodstock" Matthews Southern Comfort
I've discussed with one of my editors whether the "child of God" mentioned in this Joni Mitchell-penned salute to the late '60's upstate New York music festival that made a worthwhile documentary is a Jesus hippie or a more univeralist, mystical figure. According to one blurb about the song in its entry on the Songfacts website, Mitchell's mention of the character was inspired by Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Considering the number's evolutionist chorus ("We are billion year-old carbon"), let's say Mitchell was confused and/or deceived at the time and hope the Holy Spirit sets her right by the time she meets her Maker. This version by the recently reunited band led by one-time Fairport Convention and future "Shake It" singer Ian Matthews has a spectral, country rock ambiance that contrasts well to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's more robust, folkier rendition of the year prior; either is fine by me.
#28 "I Don't Know How To Love Him" Helen Reddy
Here's the first of those two debuts Casey lauded with the Lord's name. Helen Reddy, who would top the chart next year with the feminist anthem "I Am Woman," makes her first chart appearance with the second charting version of this song from the week's #1 album, the original various artists concept album iteration of Jesus Christ Superstar ("JCS "). Preceding Reddy earlier in '71 were country family group The Kimberlys making a medley from the songs alongside "Everything's Alright" from the same production that peaked at #99 pop-wise. Not long after Reddy's impressive 19-notch jump this week, Yvonne Elliman's recording from the actual album would follow her into the 40. Reddy's snide comment about God being a She in her Grammy acceptance speech for "Woman" is evidenced her disregard for holy writ at the time. But here she does a sincerely respectable job of what Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice gave their Mary Magdalene characterization to sing about her uncertainty in how to show her dedication to the Nazarene who blessed her more than she may have then known. Webber and Rice were more on point in this portion of JCS than they were in leaving Him in the tomb at the end of the stage and cinema adaptations.
#27 "Superstar" Murray Head With The Trinidad Singers
As it would happen, Superstar's voice of Jesus' betrayer lands one spot higher than that of one of His disciples. The lyrics Murray Head are given posit Judas Iscariot singing from the perspective of 20th century hindsight, cracking wise about first century Israel's lack of mass communication and whether Mohamed's and Buddha's claims of spiritual enlightenment hold any water. It's snarky as Judas may have been-until his fatal bout of regret, anyway-and bombastic aurally as the idea of rock opera itself, of which JSC was a pioneering project. Go figure that Head's only other hit would come 14 years later from Chess, Rice's collaboration with ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. "One Night In Bangkok" found Head pioneering once more, this time as a white guy rapping, and again, as here, it's ridiculously catchy.
#20 "One Toke Over The Line" Brewer & Shipley
One two-word turn of phrase, and bingo! A one-hit wonder that sounds like an outlier of the spiritual zeitgeist. If the song's Songsfacts entry is to be believed and an explanation Kasem read from Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley on another week's episode in "One Toke Over The Line"'s chart run is to be doubted, it is about puffing/toking from a brick of hashish one time more than recommended by the person who gave it to the duo. And the exclamation of "sweet Jesus" as an expression inspirational to "Toke"'s composition was more expletive than devotional invocation of Him named therein. Those caveats aside, there are couplets here that could be mistaken for cryptic conversion testimony. Far as that description goes, it's not quite in the same league as Tommy James' "Crystal Blue Persuasion" nor Lifehouse's "Hanging By A Moment," but these Kansas City folkies lone biggie has its modicum of charm, however bound by pharmakeia in its origin.
#8 "Bridge Over Troubled Water" Aretha Franklin
At least a few of the many renditions of Simon & Garfunkel's #1 pop single for all of 1970, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," featured on albums listed in Ken Scott's massive guidebook to early Christianny rock, The Archivist, were likely released by the time Kasem announced the #6 peak of soul queen Aretha Franklin's remake. Taken from her Live At Filmore West concert album, it's not stylistically far from her 1972 return to the gospel music of her church upbringing, Amazing Grace. Good thing, that. Her "walk out on me" ad lib toward the song's end brings to mind, whether she meant it this way or not, the apostles being urged to join their Lord on some water; here's guessing that's not a, ahem, bridge, crossed by many of the performers covered in Scott's book, regardless how they may have gussied up Paul Simon's lyrics to make them explicitly about Jesus. For Franklin, this may have just been another night's work as a adept interpreter, with another gold record certification and Best Female R&B Performance Grammy trophy for the bother.
#6 "What's Going On" Marvin Gaye
It may be a bit of a stretch to include this #2 pop smash from Tamla./Motown's once and future reliable lover man crooner, but it's not much of one, really. The loss of Marvin Gaye's occasional duet partner, Tammi Terrell, to brain cancer the year before, compounded by the shambolic state of his marriage to his label boss' older sister and feeling the turmoil of the era's sociopolitical maelstroms led him to rebuff the romantic repertoire on which he'd made his name. Following fellow Motowners Stevie Wonder's and The Temptations' example, he sought to make music that spoke to issues of graver concern that winning females' affection. What's Going On, with its title track alluding to 'Nam and the long-haired youth protesting U.S, involvement there, was the masterpiece result. If singles can ever be thought of as whole units with A- and B-sides offering complementary narratives, the inclusion of "God Is Love" provides an answer to its flip side's agonizing, however nebulous its explication of the Gospel. Songs like these seemed to have helped, however temporarily, mend Gaye's fractious relationship with his preacher. Shamefully, that's the same transvestite dad who would fatally shoot his relationally and psycho-chemically troubled son 13 years later. Fortunately, Marvin left yearningly lovely moments such as these, hopefully indicative of a right, if seemingly strained, relationship with Who is always going on.
#3 "Put Your Hand In The Hand" Ocean
Oh, dear. here we have Jesus hippie's ploitation of the dorkiest sort, doctrinally suspect as Norman Greenbaum's hit Jesus revolution spoof, "Spirit in the Sky" the previous year to boot. Ocean's fellow Canadian, country/adult contemporary songstress Anne Murray, recorded "Put Your Hand in the Hand (in the Man from Galilee)" in 1970 with a more sensible couplet in its second verse than this multi-culti, co-ed sextet's substitution of "My mama taught me how to pray before I reached the age of seven/She said, 'There'll come a time when there'll probably be room in heaven." Uh, probably?! Match that to a piano-led sub-insipid, folksy arrangement and singing that weds blandness to cutesiness, and it's about enough to make one question why He didn't allow legitimately movement-associated acts with major label connections, such as Second Chapter of Acts and Larry Norman, to have even a fluke hit a quarter as big. And this steaming pile peaked a notch higher than this week's position. At least those who care about such things can revel in the irony of Ocean's day in the sun coming from the same imprint as that which gave Brewer & Shipley theirs, named for a Hindu sex manual (Kama Sutra) with a cartoon of Adam and Eve sizing up an apple in Eden on the label, distributed by a company named for a misspelled false prophet (Buddah). What made it to vinyl under that hilarious aegis in this case isn't anywhere near as funny.
#1 "Joy To The World" Three Dog Night
Call it half a hunch about which I could be mistaken, but why else would Hoyt Axton, a heavy boozer and and vehicular speed demon with multiples divorces at the time, write a song about a wine-imbibing bullfrog and schtupping a lot of ladies, not to mention rainbow riding-unless that's a reference to schtupping, too-cribbing the title of a Resurrection Sunday/Christmas hymn for it, were it not for Jesus' vibe in the air? OK, Songfacts reports that he originally wrote it for a TV special that never got made, but the vibe could explain why it topped the chart for a month and a half. OK, that and its trifecta of silliness, libidiousness and humongous hooks had to have also abetted the cause. This "Joy To The World" specifically and Three Dog Night half-decade of mega-success generally may be prime examples of why so many people think so little of so much '70's pop, but this still sounds to me like a nonsensical segue from the decade's brief cultural mania for the King of kings.
Bonus Top 40 Jesus Hippie'sploitation! #1: "God, Love and Rock & Roll" Teegarden & Van Winkle (1970, #22 peak)
The duo of David Teegardeen and Skip "Van Winkle" Knape' (beardy and/or sleepy, he?) made their lone appearance in the 40 with an ear worm catchy and simplistic as a praise & worship chorus at word-faith/signs & wonders/new apostolic reformation service. Apart from a mystifying line about stilling fires, this could pass muster with some churches' music directors concerned with melodically robust congregational fare regardless the lack of scriptural substance. "God, Love and Rock & Roll" is a possibly guilty pleasure, tough to forget as it is goofy.
Bonus Top 40 Jesus Hippie'sploitation #2: "Hallelujah" Sweathog (1971, #33 peak)
A vague testimony of a changed life punctuated by a biblical word of praise set to a danceable rock/r&b hybrid that borders on a type of proto-disco gave this SoCal band with a penchant for shapely human backsides and produce resembling same on their long-players' covers their only 45 to be front and-back announced by Casey. Other song titles on their two Columbia albums lend the impression that the band whose name may have inspired the gang of remedial ed. students Gabe Kaplan's character attempted to teach on Welcome Back, Kotter were more than Jesusmania bandwagon jumpers, if not legitimate saints (yes, the butts issue has me wondering). That may be worth exploring some day, but not wanting to go on a YouTube rabbit trail and wanting to afford the postage & handling for multiple Ebay and Discogs orders will keep me from doing that just yet.
-Jamie Lee Rake