I grew up on a mix of progressive rock, hard rock, boogie, rhythm and blues, southern rock, and a lot of other styles. Every now and then I fall into the mood for a particular sound. I may spend hours looking for songs that match that sound worm in my memories.
I used to listen to these songs all day long and all night long. I recorded them off the radio on a Radio Shack Realistic tape recorder. You have no idea of how good those recorders were.
When I could paid for the more expensive Memorex MRX 3 tapes (the ones that had really high quality, not the cheap MRX 1 tapes with all the hiss). For years I had one of the best cassette collections in the world because I had ALL the great songs. And then people began stealing my tapes …
People love the song lists from “Guardians of the Galaxy” but if you didn’t live through that radio era you have no idea of just how much great music came and went.
Sure, we all love certain songs from the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and so on. If you want a soft rock love song ballad, you can easily reach for Johh Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland”, but if you want to immerse yourself in magic you have to go back to when every song made you stop and dream of places far away and beyond the reach of everyday life.
Here is a list of YouTube videos that recreate that feeling for me. This is a “late night” song list for anyone who needs to unwind from a stressful day. I can still remember when I first heard some of these songs. But I have many memories tied to these songs from other days as well.
Cross Country – In the Midnight Hour
I am pretty sure this song came out in early 1973, so it was probably recorded in late 1972. It’s a remake of a remake. “In the Midnight Hour” was covered by so many artists it was just one of those songs everyone was expected to do at some point. Wilson Pickett’s soulsy version is the best-known of all the covers (and I love his take on the song). But the group that took this song in a totally new direction was Cross Country. The group was founded by three former members of the Tokens, an old band that had once been really popular.
Don McLean – Vincent
Don McLean dominated the pop charts for about six weeks in late 1971 and early 1972 with “American Pie”, a song that just stayed in the number position on the top 40 charts for an unbelievable amount of time. Everyone played that song over and over again. And we argued endlessly about what the song’s crazy lyrics meant.
But when McLean’s record label released “Vincent” (from the “American Pie” album) a few months later jaws dropped around the world. McLean’s loving tribute to painter Vincent van Gogh introduced us to an amazing talent. It was one of my greatest regrets that McLean eventually faded from the pop charts to invest his time in country music.
We spent many nights listening to this song in the dark. All my friends practiced singing this song. If one person started singing it we’d all stop what we were doing and join in.
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Harry Nilsson covered this song in 1969 and it became a top hit for him because it was featured in the movie “Midnight Cowboy”. Radio stations around the country continued to play this song for years because it was such a great song. I remember listening to this song for the first time and waiting for it to come back on in a few hours. Imagine my disappointment when a local DJ told me it was an old song and could only be given limited airplay throughout the week.
Three Dog Night – Pieces of April
Three Dog Night was a cross between a pop band and a progressive band for several years. They hit the charts in 1968 with “One” but their best known hit in the early 70s was probably “Joy to the World”. Another early hit for them was “Liar”, which was written by Russ Ballard. Ballard was a member of the group Argent (named for keyboardist Rod Argent, who had played with the Zombies). Argent’s version of “Liar” was every bit as good as Three Dog Night’s, but Three Dog Night was a well-established group and their version charted best.
Sometime in 1972 Three Dog Night’s sound began to change. My (older) brother and his friends, who were all about progressive rock, southern rock, and the “higher” sounds stopped listening to and talking about Three Dog Night. They loved the old albums, especially “It Ain’t Easy” and “Naturally”, but once Three Dog Night committed to the full pop sound they were no longer worth listening to or discussing. The progressive rock stations dropped them.
“Pieces of April” was the one song from 1973’s “Seven Separate Fools” that I ever heard on a progressive rock station. I think some of the station’s hard core fans were surprised to hear the song there, because it was also given air time on the Easy Listening stations as well as the Top 40 stations. Easy Listening music often featured the big band and torch singers that were popular with people who were young in the late 1930s to late 1940s. The Rat Pack fans, you could say, although Frank Sinatra managed to stay relevant with many generations of music lovers.
I can’t imagine Sinatra doing this song but it definitely softened the mood for everyone who heard it.
Elton John – Tiny Dancer
There are three songs that define the early Elton John years for my pop radio experience: “Your Song”, “Tiny Dancer”, and “Rocket Man”. “Tiny Dancer” was the most well-known song from the “Madman Across the Water” album but the whole album was considered a masterpiece of legendary proportions. You would be hard put to find an album from the last 50 years that matches “Madman” for creativity, diversity, and depth of sound.
I would gladly include several other Elton songs in my most awesome list, including “Bennie and the Jets” (another great late night song), but this song was my absolute favorite because it always made me think of a certain girl. She was my “tiny dancer” and I hated moving away from her when my family decided it was time to leave town for greener pastures.
I believe this song received a lot of airplay across the spectrum: Easy Listening, Top 40, and Progressive Rock stations all loved it. A friend once told me he heard it on a country station, too, although I cannot confirm that. But the steel guitar sound would have been suitable enough for some country stations.
By the way, speaking of “Rocket Man”, the long album version is the only version you want to listen to.
The Chi-Lites – Have You Seen Her
There aren’t many songs about total heartbreak that I would put on my most awesome list, but you cannot ignore this song. We listened to it throughout 1971. It continued to receive airplay throughout 1972. This song often came on the radio early in the morning when we going to school, and we would hear it again in the afternoon when we were going home. It just never seemed to stop playing.
This video was recorded much more recently than the original song. The Chi-Lites could perform it so well live that you did not miss the studio version. Live versions of popular hit songs are often disappointing but this is one take that I could listen to for the rest of my life.
This is the saddest song I have ever fallen in love with. It’s not just a “sad” song, though. It’s a love song. You have to wonder what the poor guy did to lose the love of his life. The Chi-Lites had some great hits but they never surpassed the beauty of this song.
Paul Stookey – The Wedding Song
About half of all Americans have played this song at their weddings. I almost excluded the song from my list because everyone has played it to death. But the first time I heard this song my brother and I were listening to late night radio. I had never heard the song before and I thought it was just an incredible performance. Stookey had risen to fame as a member of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. He wrote the song in 1969 for his friend Peter Yarrow’s wedding. Peter convinced Paul to release the song on his solo album in 1971, and American wedding culture was changed forever.
This is a Christian song and one of the foundations of Contemporary Christian music (I have been told). It’s just a great song and I hope it graces many more weddings. May this song always bring you happy memories whether you share it with a love interest or not.
Eric Burdon and War – Spill the Wine
I never did drugs when I was growing up. Just about everyone else around me did. My older brother told me if he ever caught me doing drugs he’d kill me. We laugh about that threat now but at the time I took it seriously. Rick was the only person I was ever afraid of. I could never beat him in a fight. In fact, I don’t think he ever lost a fight although we both earned more than a few scars growing up (probably mostly my fault, too, because I never backed down from a fight even when I was outnumbered).
All the stoners loved this song but you really didn’t need to do drugs to get lost in the sound. The kids in the neighborhood sometimes held late night makeout sessions and this song was almost always included. I probably should not share these memories, but I heard this song on the radio on many hot summer days. When you couldn’t do anything else but lay there waiting for the heat to pass, you listened to the radio. And this song always made the day seem cooler.
There are some live versions of the song on the Internet. I almost used one of those videos here, but to fully appreciate the song you have to hear the girl talking in the background.
Free – All Right Now
Every one of my brother’s high school and bar bands covered this song. I think he played it when we visited him a few years ago and heard the band he was playing with on a boat. “All Right Now” was just a rock and roll song but it somehow grew on you. And there was an unwritten rule of progressive rock that this song could only be played at night.
So I heard this song all night long on the radio and all day long when my brother’s bands practiced. I’ve probably heard more live music than most people and I haven’t attended a concert in years. Sadly, this song has been co-opted by a certain Republican President (or so I read in the comments).
But, really, that’s okay. Everyone is allowed to love this song. Everyone who loves good rock and roll should love this song. Keep the good memories and let go of the bad ones.
The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
This is almost an anti-war song, of which there were many in the 1960s and 1970s. Although I was never pro-war in any way, I felt the anti-war songs didn’t have much lasting power. That was until I heard this song. Although it’s an “anti-revolution song” (composed for a rock opera titled “Lifehouse”), the lyrics resonate with the Vietnam War generation. While we were fighting communists in Southeast Asia we were fighting ourselves at home. There are many riots and both American and British music styles reflected the conflicts that were changing our mutually engaged cultures.
When I was 12 years old my father, who spent 27-1/2 years in the US Army, and I watched the evening news together. One evening they had footage of soldiers being carried out of battle toward helicopters. Dad was by this time working in the Civil Service. He was a physical therapist’s assistant and he worked with the soldiers who came back with the most serious wounds. Dad turned to me and said, “When you turn 18, if this war is still going on, I am sending you to Canada.”
That was the most shocking thing I ever heard from my Dad. I still remember exactly how I felt. I was kind of dreading the war because we often visited Dad at work and I saw the soldiers in the hospital. You don’t forget those kinds of memories. And, of course, so many of the veterans I met throughout those years spoke of friends they lost overseas. As a 12-year-old kid I didn’t know what to think of the war, but I knew I didn’t want to go fight over there. Still, I had six years (give or take) to reconcile myself to the possibility that I would have to go.
The Vietnam War lasted for about 30 years, from start to finish. The United States was not involved in the early part of the war. We began sending “advisers” to Vietnam in the late 1950s under President Eisenhower. Kennedy scaled up the assistance to South Vietnam, and Johnson turned it into a full-blown war. Although people at home supported the war for a number of years, when it became clear under Johnson that we had no plan for winning and that we were just going to keep sending soldiers over there to fight, people began to ask why we were there. Years later when I was in my 20s I asked my father why he was determined to send me and my brother away. He said he never believed in the war. He fought in World War II and the Korean War. He volunteered to serve in both wars. He felt the Vietnam War was just something totally different and he didn’t want his sons to go over there.
Well, the war ended, the draft ended, and I never had to face a hard choice. But every time I hear this song I think about those years growing up, watching the soldiers come and go, watching my Dad help the wounded soldiers learn how to become independent again. He and others like him helped many people through those years. I’ll say no more, except I’m proud of my Dad’s service to this country.
The Doors – Riders on the Storm
Many people consider this to be the definitive Doors song. It’s an incredible mix and falls into that category of music called “psychedelic rock”. We called it drug music. You would listen to this song over and over again at night, especially if you were driving through the rain. Radio stations loved to play this song late at night. A couple of my brother’s high school bands covered this song but they never really came close to matching the Doors’ intensity. Every artist brings their own feeling to a song, but you remember the Doors’ version best.
“Riders on the Storm” was the last song Jim Morrison recorded that was released as a single while he was still alive. He died about a week after the song’s release. Maybe for that reason this song from 1971 was played over and over again throughout the 70s.
Yes – South Side of the Sky
I’m not when I first heard Yes on the radio. I probably heard “Starship Troopers / All Good People” on the radio in 1971 and paid little attention to it. Yes was rarely featured on the top 40 stations and I didn’t always listen to progressive rock when I was younger. The first Yes song I truly fell in love with was “Roundabout”, which they released in 1972 with the “Fragile” album. And who could not be wowed by Roger Dean’s incredible artwork? “Fragile” was the first of several albums for which Roger Dean did the artwork, imagining an incredible world that just brought Yes’ songs to life in a visual style unlike anything I had seen before.
After persuading my parents to buy “Fragile” for me I wore out the album (along with McLean’s “American Pie” album) and I eventually went through two more copies on vinyl. To this day I hate vinyl records because the needles and the records never seem to last. Soon or later you end up hearing hiss and clicks and that just ruins the music for me. But through all those replays I finally realized that the best song on the album, for me, was “South Side of the Sky”. To many other people it seems to be the definitive “Classic Yes” song.
We call them “Classic Yes” but the Fragile lineup was relatively unique among Yes’ many iterations: Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and Bill Bruford comprised this version of Yes. Only Anderson, Squire, and Bruford remained of the original five Yes members. Howe had joined the band with their previous album, “The Yes Album”, and Rick Wakeman joined the group with “Fragile”. It was considered the best progressive rock album of 1972 by millions of fans (yes, there were other fan favorites but this was mine). Fans of Classic Yes argue the group never really topped this album, but if you’re counting “Classic Yes” albums you have to include “Close to the Edge”, “Tales from Topographic Oceans”, and “Relayer” (although Alan White took over drums halfway through that series and Patrick Moraz did the keyboards on “Relayer” after Rick Wakeman left the band).
The only thing better than a studio version of “South Side of the Sky” is a live version. They often (usually) paired the song with a vocal piece Jon Anderson composed called “We Have Heaven”. Here is one live version of both songs.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
I’ll admit I did not hear this song until many years later but it fit in so well with the driving songs I remembered from my youth that there is no way I can leave the song off this list. I literally heard this song in a car commercial. How crazy is that? I forget which car was being promoted, but the commercial followed four friends as they drove down the road on a starry night. They reached their destination, a party out in the middle of nowhere, and realized they just wanted to keep going. That is what road trips were like for me when I was a kid. As long as the stars were bright and the music was good I just wanted to keep going, off into the somewhere else.
We drove north to south and south to north many times while I was growing up. Shuttling between the Midwest, where my mother grew up, and the South (where I grew up) we preferred traveling at night when the roads were less crowded. My brother and I stayed up late to keep Mom company. I never really noticed until many years later but she taught us to love the music that was associated with our generation. Sure, she had her own favorite artists like Johnny Mathis and Rod McKuen, but she knew all the songs we loved, too. She often found the best radio stations late at night and just settled in for a long drive to some of the most memorable songs in history. I cannot possibly include them all here.
I wish I had heard this song when it first came out. Nick Drake was probably one of the most underappreciated musicians of his generation. He died in 1974 at the age of twenty-six. I wish he could have lived longer.
Marvin Gaye – Trouble Man
I do remember this song from my radio days. I never really liked the full album but fans of “Captain America: The Winter Solider” developed a new-found appreciation for this song and the album after Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie) recommended it to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). You hear part of the song at the end of the movie.
Marvin Gaye recorded so many great songs it’s hard to pick one, just one, to include in this list. But whether it was Mackie or the Russo brothers or someone else, whoever chose to mention that album in the movie made a brilliant recommendation. Even if (like me) you really only fall in love with this one song from the album, it’s a great choice for a Marvin Gaye song; far better than “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.
Led Zeppelin – Ramble On
There are a lot of great songs on Led Zeppelin’s second album but if I had to drive all night and listen to only one song, this would be the song. Of course, Tom Cruise re-immortalized the song when he featured it in the movie “Oblivion”. Yes, it really did sound that good when the song was released in 1969.
Like a few of the classics I included above, “Ramble On” was played on the radio for year after year, especially on progressive rock stations. But this was one of the top Zeppelin hits and it received a lot of airplay on top 40 stations, too. I would not be surprised if someone told me it was also featured on Easy Listening stations (although that might be a stretch of the imagination).
Tolkien fans adore this song because they believe the lyrics are a tribute to The Lord of the Rings. Much as I love that book, I don’t really care what the lyrics allude to. This is just a great, soft song.
Led Zeppelin – What Is and What Should Never Be
Okay, I never promised I wouldn’t include two songs by the same artist. So sue me. Led Zeppelin’s second album set a standard that has yet to be matched by any other progressive album. We spent whole years listening to this album in its entirety both on the radio and at home.
And So Many More …
I have spent hours listening to these songs as I write this blog post. These are totally rabbit chasing songs and if you listen to them you are bound to get lost in the woodwork as your imagination takes over. The memories come flooding back and I think of people I haven’t seen in decades.
When I want to listen to calming music these are the kinds of songs I listen to. They move the soul in unexpected ways. It was a gift of the artists who composed them that they could bring to life the dreams of the people who wrote the songs. This music made us feel like we were all sharing dreams. It’s hard to explain the feelings one experienced when these songs came on the radio.
Often it depended on who you were with, or what you were doing. You reacted to these songs as your soul needed you to. We lived in an age when people weren’t sure there would be a future because the USA and the Soviet Union were threatening each other with thousands of nuclear weapons. There were endless “bush wars” around the globe where either the US or the Soviets used puppet rulers and allies to fight the war they were both afraid to fight for real. We Americans lost our respect for the military that kept us safe, and we ran away from the illusions of an “American Dream” that was built on racism and brutal oppression of minorities. We struggled openly with “social issues”, thinking naively that past generations had never done that before us (they did).
The kids were cast adrift in a sea of politics. If you lived in a segregated community your public schools were forced to bus students across town to ensure that all the schools had a diverse mix of students. Busing was unpopular with a lot of kids, but I think the greatest objection was to the time it took to get to school. That was time out of our day despite the socializing that might occur on the bus.
My strongest memory of a school bus, though, is from Indiana during one hoary winter ride. The driver took us down a steep icy hill and all the kids fell silent because we were going so fast no one knew if we would make it to the bottom in one piece. That would have been a great time to listen to dreamy music. We could have closed our eyes and gotten lost in faraway places, forgotten loves, and dreams of the future.
But as long as you’re here it’s never too late to start. Happy rabbit chasing. I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.