2019-03-29 09:17:47 UTC
George Harrison - "My Sweet Lord"
Tony Orlando & Dawn - "Knock Three Times"
HIT #1: January 23, 1971
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
A guy develops an infatuation with the girl who lives in the apartment downstairs. He doesn't know her. Maybe he's never even talked to her. But he decides that he has to do something about it. So he leaves her a note, dangling it on a string outside her window. He tells her to knock on the ceiling three times if she wants to meet him in the hallway. If she doesn't, he says, she should knock twice on the pipe. That's his big idea.
You probably have questions. I know I do. A goofy pop song is not supposed to leave you considering the logistical implications of a guy's half-baked plan to get laid. What, for instance, does he do if she doesn't answer at all? Is he going to send more notes? What happens if he's not home when she knocks on either the ceiling or the pipe? What happens if she knocks three times on the pipe, or twice on the ceiling? What if she knocks four times? And, more importantly, why doesn't he just talk to her, like a sane person? If he really must send her a note, why doesn't he slide it under her door? Why doesn't he ask her to write a note back? This guy really hasn't thought his plan out very well.
L. Russell Brown, one of the two songwriters behind "Knock Three Times," grew up in a Newark housing project. There was one phone in his building, so when someone in his family got a call, his downstairs neighbors would bang on a radiator - an annoyance, I'm sure, but at least a workable plan. Brown and his songwriting partner Irwin Levine made that into a song, and they turned it into a horny guy's lament that didn't make any sense at all.
Tony Orlando was another New Jersey guy. He'd started out singing doo-wop as a teenager in the late '50s, and he scored a couple of minor hits in the early '60s. From there, he became a Brill Building songwriter and, eventually, a record executive. He signed Barry Manilow and co-wrote a few songs with him. Orlando didn't really have any plans to become a full-time singer again, but two producers that he knew had recorded a song called "Candida" with a singer named Frankie Paris. Their boss didn't like Paris' vocal, so they got Orlando to come in and overdub it. Orlando couldn't use his name, since he was working for a different label, so he decided to release the song under the pseudonym Dawn. "Candida" was a hit, peaking at #3. (It's a 4.) So Tony Orlando became a singer again, and Dawn became an actual recording outfit.
In an effort to capitalize on the success of "Candida," Orlando and his producer buddies had to slap together an album as quickly as possible, and "Knock Three Times" was part of that effort. It blew up even bigger. Orlando recorded "Knock Three Times" with the backup singers Toni Wine and Linda November, but when Dawn became a touring group, Orlando brought in Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, two backup singers who'd worked for Motown and Stax and who Orlando had gotten to know from working with Manilow. Dawn eventually became Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando, and then Tony Orlando And Dawn, and that's the version that eventually got a mid-'70s variety show on CBS. Hopkins went on to become a pretty successful TV actress throughout the '80s and '90s; she was, for instance, the Winslow kids' aunt Rachel on Family Matters.
Anyway, "Knock Three Times" fucking sucks. There's a vague Latin lilt to the beat that's nice enough, and there are some nebulously flamenco-y guitars in there that I don't hate, but there's also a whole lot of horn-based orchestral frippery, which serves to make an already-cheesy song even cheesier. The hook - where the song stops and we hear the sound that's supposed to be someone banging on a ceiling or a pipe - is memorable, but it's also maddening. Orlando sings it with unctuous lounge-lizard dickishness. If there's anything even vaguely sympathetic about this creep sending his neighbor needily cutesy proto-sexts, Orlando knocks that right out of the song just by dripping smarm all over it.
But there's nothing sympathetic about it anyway! From what I've seen, it never turns out well when apartment neighbors hook up with each other. It's just a bad idea. So here we have a song where a guy uses one bad idea to try to accomplish another. Best case scenario: The girl is bored or lonely enough to go along with it, and then they hook up a few times, and then one of them gets pissed off and jealous when the other one finally gets into a more serious relationship. Worst case: This girl wants nothing to do with him, and now, on top of whatever problems she's already got in her life, she has to deal with the fact that this upstairs neighbor she doesn't know is out here dangling "Wanna fuck?" notes outside her window. In both situations, things are going to get awkward every time these two run into each other in the lobby.
And that's not even getting into how weird it is when Orlando sings, "I can hear your music playing / I can feel her body swaying." How can he feel her body swaying? He can't feel her body swaying. That doesn't even make sense. Shut the fuck up, Tony Orlando.
Bonus Tony O. because we won't get there:
Tony Orlando & Dawn - "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree"
HIT #1: April 21, 1973
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
It could've been a Ringo Starr song. When Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown - the same songwriting pair responsible for Tony Orlando & Dawn's mind-boggling piece of shit "Knock Three Times" - wrote "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree," their first idea was to give the song to the ex-Beatles drummer. This did not turn out well. Here's how Brown remembers the pitch, in a decades-later interview:
"We first played it for Ringo Starr. The people who listened for Ringo Starr put their hands on the guitar and said I should be ashamed of showing songs like this to people. It's ridiculous, about a ribbon in a tree. We should be ashamed of ourselves. It could ruin us, and to never show this song to anybody again."
Now: It's not like Ringo Starr had some wonderful, dazzling solo career. He did get to #1 a couple of times as a solo artist - we'll get to them - so he probably outperformed whatever expectations the world had for him. (The world, by and large, does not have great expectations for former drummers, even for former drummers of iconic bands.) But I've never heard anyone loudly debating their favorite Ringo Starr solo album. "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree" was a tremendously successful song - Billboard's #1 for the entire year of 1973. It would've probably been huge with Ringo Starr singing, too. And yet that Apple Records A&R guy did Ringo Starr a favor. Because "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" is ridiculous. Those guys should be ashamed for showing that song to people. Fuck this song, and fuck them for writing it.
Levine and Brown spent less than 15 minutes writing "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree," and they based it on a half-page Reader's Digest article. The article told a story about a Union soldier during the Civil War. He'd been taken prisoner in the South, and when the war ended, he was getting ready to return home. Before that soldier returned home, he wrote his wife a letter, saying that he'd been away for years and he understood if she wanted to start a new life without him. So he'd ride the stagecoach home, and if she wanted to see him again, she should tie a yellow handkerchief around the oak tree in the middle of town. When he got back, the oak tree was covered in yellow handkerchiefs. This story had apparently been passed down, in different forms, for generations. Pete Hamill, who'd written the Reader's Digest article, based it on a version of the story' he'd once heard it in a New York bar. (Magazine editors must've been taking some weird pitches back then.)
That's a classic tearjerker of a story, complete with melodramatic happy ending, but it does not make for a good song. Part of it is the total lack of specificity. Brown and Levine updated the song, making the narrator get off a bus instead of a stagecoach. But they couched the entire thing in meaningless blandness: "I'm coming home / I've done my time / Now I've got to know what is and isn't mine." (That's another thing: This guy talks about his wife like she's some shit he left in the back of his garage.) When the song reaches its big ending - "Now the whole damned bus is cheering, and I can't believe I see / A hundred yellow ribbons 'round the ole oak tree" - it gets there before doing anything to build up the fear and uncertainty in its narrator's soul. It's unearned catharsis.
But the real problem isn't the writing; it's the performance. Tony Orlando was not the guy to sell a song about a joyous reunion after years of tumultuous separation. He drips insincerity all over it, audibly grinning like a pageant host. As a singer, Orlando was never able to convey anything beyond general lounge-lizard confidence. That's the opposite of how this song is supposed to play. He doesn't sound like he's tying himself up in knots on this bus. He sounds like the guy at the party telling off-color jokes, utterly convinced of the charm that he doesn't actually have.
And the production does Orlando no favors. It's a funkless galumph of a song, a half-speed polka. Its guitar sounds like a ukulele. Its bass sounds like a tuba. Its xylophone sounds like a kindergartener attempting to learn the instrument. Its drums sound like the footfalls of a half-drunk elephant. The harmonica somehow manages to whine, and I don't even know how they made it do that. It's an utter disaster of '70s pop halfassery, a Vegas-showroom catastrophe.
But timing is everything. "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree" had the good fortune to hit the marketplace just as troops were returning home from the Vietnam War. Those veterans were not treated especially well. They are still not treated especially well. And yet a song like this allowed for perfectly sanctimonious and perfunctory our boys are home celebrations. The image of the yellow ribbon persisted, taking forms like the support-our-troops car magnets that were everywhere in the early years of the Iraq war. Tony Orlando sang the song at Donald Trump's inauguration, and that says it all, doesn't it? Ringo Starr wouldn't have done that shit.