A pop music journeyman gets his critical due with this live release, captured at the height of his commercial, if not critical, success.
The history of pop music tends to be written largely by those who spend the most time thinking and writing about it. And since public and critical opinions rarely overlap, those who find the vast majority of public favor tend be left behind as these less invested listeners move on to the next big thing. Critics and pop culture analysts, on the other hand, remain behind, analyzing the detritus and sifting through the wreckage to find anything worth salvaging. Because of this, hundreds of artists once immensely popular find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history, glossed over by those pop music revisionists who manage to amplify musical microcosms to absurd proportions while those that had the largest immediate impact tend to warrant little more than passing mention.
By it’s very nature, pop music is an ephemeral, passing trend, almost solely the product of its very specific time and place and lacking in any lasting impact. Because of this, the majority of listeners move on with each passing year, latching onto the flavor of the month and leaving behind those whose sell-by date has since expired. Even with massive, charting hits, countless artists are stamped with either the dreaded one-hit wonder or whatever-happened-to? tags. All that’s left are those revered by the critics, artists whose post-career impact far outweighed that garnered while actively recording and performing.
In a sense, then, no one really wins. Those who tend to sell the most are quickly forgotten, while many of those who sell the least find themselves lionized by a handful of critics well after it would have done them any financial good. A quick look at the 100 most popular artists of 1978 (according to Billboard) shows none of the colossal impact punk was said to have had when it broke the year before. Instead, the brothers Gibb, the "Piano Man" himself and Barry Manilow dominate the list, along with a who’s who of contemporary classic rock staples, all groups punk and its various offshoots had purportedly set out to destroy.
Among those on the list is Andrew Gold. An immensely talented multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter, Gold, who passed away in 2011, was arguably at the top of his game when he recorded this live set at the Roxy in 1978. Having started out with the group Bryndle, he moved on to play a pivotal role in Linda Ronstadt’s breakout recordings, leading her backing band through 1977. Having already embarked on a solo career, 1977 proved to be a momentous year for Gold. His single “Lonely Boy” off of What’s Wrong With This Picture? reached number seven on the Billboard charts (the album itself stalled at number 95).
Writing in his Consumer Guide, Robert Christgau flippantly indicated all the single was good for was illuminating,“the source of L.A. weltschmerz [to be] siblings.” He gave both Picture and its follow up, All This and Heaven Too a C-, referring to Gold as “Barry Manilow in a flannel shirt". But it was on the latter album that Gold released a song that, for modern listeners, would become his calling card, “Thank You for Being a Friend".
Best known in its cover version performed over the opening credits of The Golden Girls, Gold’s live version here sounds more like a lightweight Randy Newman with only slightly less cynicism. Performed as part of the final set on the last night of his 1978 tour, the song was greeted, like most everything else on the newly-released The Late Show Live 1978, with rousing applause. Granted Gold was performing to a hometown crowd and, given his credits, no doubt a number of industry admirers.
But what comes through most when listening to these recordings nearly 40 years later is how much fun the Gold and the band were having, enjoying the success afforded them and delivering a triumphant homecoming performance to wrap up their months long tour. While not everything here has necessarily aged well (“That’s Why I Love You” sounds like a middling bar band original and “Endless Flight” feels like just that), the performances are strong enough and raw enough to carry the electricity of the evening.
Where many studio pros would favor an airless precision in the groups’ performance, Gold allows the songs to take shape in the moment, lending them a raggedly amiability that helps transcend some of the clunkier moments. Throughout, Gold’s stage banter is loose and very much of its time (check the reference to the “Saturday Night Live” that one of the band members reminds the audience they are all currently missing) adding a further level of contextualization to both the songs and the reception they receive.
By this time, Gold had released three albums and played the majority of the instruments on Linda Ronstadt’s number one single, “You’re No Good". Where a contemporary audience might only know the aforementioned “…Friend” or “Lonely Boy", here the material is fresh in the minds of the listeners who helped made Gold one of the most popular artists of that year.
Opening with a blazing, country rock-tinged “I’m a Gambler", the band proves themselves no worse for wear as the reach the end of the tour. While they soon resort to slightly more low-key territory, it’s not without its charms. “Oh Urania (Take Me Away)", while no “Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft", may well be one of the best songs about wishing to be abducted and taken away. It’s an odd choice to follow “…Friend", but it helps illustrate Gold as one who doesn’t take himself too seriously and is enjoying the spotlight afforded him.
Closing the show with “Lonely Boy", the group is met with riotous applause, dragged back to the stage for not one, but three encores that include the Beatles’ “Doctor Robert” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven". The latter is sloppy bar rock at its finest and a fitting finale to a not necessarily essential, but no less enjoyable live recording of one of pop music’s faded lights.