I love music. I surround myself with music all the time – unless I am in an obvious non-musical situation like teaching a class or sitting in a funeral service I have my earbuds in and my Walkman jamming. You’d think that with all that love and interest I would be a competent guitarist or pianist but that unfortunately is not the case. As progressive as my parents were they still have some very firm conviction regarding gender roles, and music was definitely not something for boys. I could sing in church and be part of the high school chorus but there was no money in the budget for lessons or instruments for yours truly.
I bear no grudge over that issue. Both my parents were dealt a tough hand of cards in the game of life and they played them very well. I am a competent vocalist and was a passable journeyman bagpiper until my asthma put a stop to that. Now I play with the pennywhistle but as Lori says the instrument I play best is the stereo.1 I’m good at selecting and organizing music and can set a perfect mood for a particular time, situation or occasion. Granted I do have specific tastes in music, so I’d never make a good DJ, but I can pick the right song for the right time.
My freakishly sharp memory also means that I remember when a particular song was popular and what was going on my life and the world at that time…though there is one condition I have to apply to that claim. Back in the day before digital formats and downloads music moved at the pace of the mail. Record companies would send songs out on 45 rpm demo records, usually at the slower but more economical 4th class rate.2 . That meant music got to different areas of the country at different times so Alaskans got new releases anywhere from a month to six weeks after most of the lower 48 . For example, KENI 550AM started playing “Cherish” by the Association in late September of 1966 but an erstwhile suitor in California sent a copy to my older sister Robin in late August.
…all of which means that sometimes the memory I have of times connected with the debut of a specific song may vary a bit from the official Billboard date.
“Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & WAR will always be the archetypical midsummer 1970 song, first heard during a camping trip on the banks of the Little Susitna River before the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks was completed. I had been following Mr. Burdon’s vocals since he arrived with the Animals in the second wave of the British Invasion five years earlier – I liked “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life” but it wasn’t until the band became Eric Burdon & The Animals that I found some real favorites. “Help Me Girl” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” are particular favorites but to most listeners “San Francisco Nights” and ‘When I Was Young” are the real gems of that period.
During an early interview Burdon was asked if the Animals played an English version of soul music to which he replied that they played an “Animals type of soul”. Between that comment and his deep, powerful bluesy voice it was obvious that R&B was the direction he was headed and when he ended up fronting the funk rock band WAR it seemed to be a good fit.
“Spill the Wine” was their first single and was inspired by someone actually spilling wine on a studio mixing board. It was long (4:51) for a Top 40 release and a bit surreal with a woman speaking Spanish in the background and a syncopated flute solo floating over the top of a rhythmic funk. Until the advent of the Internet I was totally baffled by the lyrics, which seemed as if someone mashed together summer landscapes, Hollywood productions, Scandinavian mythology, cheap muscatel and lots of girls. Lots and lots of girls. At seventeen it hurt my brain to think too deeply about symbolism so I focused mostly the parts about sunshine and lots of girls.
It was a nice laid-back song for dancing but that didn’t happen very often. Most of the dances I went to at that time featured live bands and none of them had the depth and variety of instruments to do “Spill the Wine” with justice. It did pop up at sock-hops with record players and was usually a hit – I have many pleasant memories of dreamily dancing to its low-key but definitely funk-driven beat. While it wasn’t a mega-favorite for me like songs in the progressive rock (Moody Blues) or guitar/vocal harmony (CSN&Y)3 categories it is a bedrock selection of every 1970 playlist I’ve ever compiled and still brings on a very relaxed and happy state of mind.
- Or given our changing times: CD Player, MP3 player or streaming music files
- Now called media mail.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young