The pop music of every era risks being locked in time. That is the bargain of pop music—to be of the moment it risks being only of the moment. Not all of it, of course. The Beatles almost refuse to age; from the ‘70s, Stevie Wonder and classic Earth, Wind and Fire still sound good; from the Reagan era, “Born in the USA” and “Billie Jean” still move (if in different ways); and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hasn’t gone pansy on us yet. But from those same decades—Herman’s Hermits, the Captain and Tennille, Wang Chung, the Spice Girls: each forever frozen in their cultural context.
Still, does a lack of timelessness make a piece of pop music bad? Probably not. Boz Scaggs’s Silk Degrees—remastered and reissued on Columbia Legacy with three live bonus tracks—would seem to be a case in point. In 1975, when he went into an L.A. Studio to record what would be his signature disc, Boz Scaggs was a competent chameleon of a pop artist—a little rock, a little blues, a bunch of blue-eyed soul. Getting hooked up with drummer Jeff Porcaro, pianist David Paitch, and bassist David Hungate, however, would give Scaggs a claim on his cultural moment. The rhythm section was young, slick, and on top of the sound of the mid-‘70s—already veterans of Steely Dan sessions and soon to form the band Toto.
What Scaggs and Toto wrought may not be timeless—it may even fail to be great—but it deserves our admiration even after all these years. Silk Degrees is signature ‘70s stuff: part sophisticated pre-punk pop, part disco, part singer-songwriter quirk. Like so many “rock” hits of the latter part of this decade, the album is precise and clean—played by fantastic musicians who would be equally at home in a Broadway orchestra or a bar band. There are hip saxophone solos, slick jazz-cat chord changes, complex arrangements, soul background singers. Tasteful strings swell behind the thumping bass lines. A horn section sounding an awful lot like the band Chicago punches up the proceedings. You might hate the sound of it all, but—in 1976, anyway—people loved it.
Silk Degrees contained several legitimate hit songs. The most infectious was “Lowdown”, a disco workout with an immediately recognizable pop ‘n’ slap bassline and a falsetto vocal from Scaggs. The little flute/horn lick over the groove is gold, and when Scaggs floats over it all, anchored by the soul singers, you can’t really deny it. Silk Degrees went nowhere until a Cleveland DJ discovered the track, with its hip key change and feature guitar solo. But that was the only hit to trade on the disco trend. “Lido Shuffle” is a story-song that starts like an old-fashioned rocker, then goes into a high-70s burst of melody on the chorus, with the band stopping dramatically before a Porcoro fill brings back the second chorus. Is it “cheesy” (as today’s teens would surely say)? You bet. But with the synth and horns tracking Scaggs’s “Oh, oh-ay-oh!” and the super-clean production surging through every chorus, you can see why radio listeners forgave it.
Maybe the best tune on the disc is the third hit song, “We’re All Alone”. This is a genuinely pretty piano ballad with a killer chorus (“Close the window / Calm the light / And it will be alright / No need to bother now / Let it out, let it all begin / Learn how to pretend”) that rises on the strength of its melody. Hearing it again now makes you realize that the times certainly have changed. Scaggs’s vocal is flat-out idiosyncratic, the kind of singing that just would never be tolerated in the American Idol era. Scaggs sings somewhere between his straight voice and his falsetto, sounding enough like Kermit the Frog to suggest the ‘70s in a whole different way. (You know when you drink a milk shake and you get that little mucus film in your throat for a second? Yeah, that’s it. Just imagine what Simon Cowell would say.) But this is precisely what makes the track so great—it’s a little sugary and a little weird at the same time. And it’s a quality tune.
Quite a few of the tracks on Silk Degrees present styles that the older Scaggs was obviously comfortable with and had not given up on. “Jump Street” is a fairly conventional garage rock workout, with barrelhouse piano leading off and straight rock guitar dominating, and Scaggs delivering a soul-rock vocal that contains several shouts and yelps that could almost be Little Richard. “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” and “It’s Over” are radical contrasts—Brill Building-style midtempo pop songs that could be out-takes from a Broadway musical, with Scaggs relaxed before the large band of horns/strings and background vocals and very conventional playing. “Love Me Tomorrow” is, I swear it, a faux-reggae groove; more Paul Simon than The Police and pretty hip for all that. “Georgia” is a remarkably clever piano-pop tune that cops the first two notes and several snatches of lyrics from the classic “Georgia on My Mind”. Somewhere between the kind of thing that Billy Joel was doing at the time (“New York State of Mind”) and Burt Bacharach, the tune succeeds as the kind of MOR pop the ‘70s was great at.
The bonus live tracks are a musical footnote here, though they do underline something about the era. They sound exactly like the album tracks. “What Can I Say”, “Jump Street”, and “It’s Over” are reprised by very nearly the same musicians—guys who were more than capable of reproducing their beat-perfect originals on bandstands all over the world. You can hear them now—where else?—at the Greek Theatre in L.A. in August of ‘76. The whole package is uber-L.A. and uber-‘70s—the unthreatening groove, the sunny harmonies, the white-guy soulfulness, the wondrous sound of a time when things were somehow less dangerous and ominous all-around.
A footnote: Where is Boz Scaggs today? He’s playing like mad, with dates in Reno, Sacramento, Saratoga, and elsewhere this summer. He produced a largely “unplugged” disc of hits in 2005, and he still plays the strong songs from Silk Degrees—often with the same talented sidemen. For a guy born in Texas who started out playing with his buddy Steve Miller (yeah, that Steve Miller), Scaggs has had a solid career. We were thankful for Silk Degrees in 1976, and maybe we still should be today.
// Notes from the Road
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