That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
If asked to pick a song that best encapsulates the swinging ’70s in all its shag-carpeted, Pet Rock’d, earth-shoed glory, you’d be hard pressed to find a better specimen than the Captain & Tennille’s 1975 #1 hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Infectious, bouncy, and supremely sticky, sounding like both a commercial jingle and the kind of thing a Disney World in-house performing arts ensemble would include in the love-themed portion of their act (see the legendarily tacky incredible-ness of “Up With People,” or even better, The Simpsons‘ reimagined take “Hooray For Everything“), it was POP with a capitol P and Proud of it. “Love Will Keep Us Together” was the musical embodiment of everything the Captain & Tennille seemed to be about, a mission statement if you will, a song so aligned with their whole persona, so custom fit to their sugary weirdness, that even 45+ years later it’s still hard to believe it was a freakin’ cover.
When it came to the pop charts in the ’70s, age literally was just a number. You didn’t have to be a hot young thing in your early twenties (or younger) to score a massive hit. It was surprisingly common for songs performed by artists 35 and up to be rubbing shoulders with the songs by the “kids.” Not only did radio embrace the “ageless” approach, but all the afternoon talk shows and nighttime variety hours on TV were complicit with the notion. It was downright normal to see people your parents’ (occasionally even grandparents’) age, with sideburns and unbuttoned shirts, performing their latest frothy radio-friendly single on prime-time network television. And it was not uncommon for these songs to hit the heights in the illustrious pop top 40. All of which is to say, it was a great time to be Neil Sedaka.
Neil began his career as part of the songwriting stable at the legendary Brill Building in NYC in the late ’50s along with Gerry Goffin and Carole King. He was also a fledgling pop star himself, scoring a solid handful of hits during the first half of the’60s, the best known being evergreen goofballs “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” and “Calendar Girl”(composed with writing partner Howard Greenfield). Alas, doom was on the horizon for all the teen sweethearts of the early ’60s pop universe with their pastel sweaters and corny love songs. Yup, once the British Invasion hit the U.S. airwaves, TV screens and actual shores, all the saccharine artists and tunes that had been so dominant at the start of the decade were straight-up done for. To say the Beatles made nearly everything that had come before them sound and look ridiculously antique and wildly unhip would be a gargantuan understatement. Neil’s undeniable songwriting skills were still keeping him active (penning songs for The Monkees, amongst others), but in the wake of Beatlemania, like most of his previously successful early ’60s peers, he was instantly persona non grata in terms of being an actual pop star…so much so that by 1966, RCA, his label at the time, dropped him.
But Neil persevered. By the late ’60s he’d begun hitting the live circuit again, specifically within the UK and Australia, whose audiences seemed especially receptive to his charms. His efforts earned him a loyal following in both countries, and this cult popularity led to albums and songs being released exclusively in those territories to capitalize.
It was in 1972 that the official rebirth of Neil Sedaka-Pop Star began. He recorded two albums within the walls of Strawberry Studios, with a pre-fame 10cc as his backing band. The second album, 1973’s UK-only release The Tra-La Days Are Over, featured a song called “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
According to Neil, “Love Will Keep Us Together” (a co-write with Howard Greenfield) was inspired by the singing styles of the Al Green, The Supremes, and The Beach Boys, specifically their 1968 single “Do It Again” (and unmistakably so–check it out here). Though the song was released as a single in France with no success, it was for all intents and purposes a deep cut, sitting unassumingly on side two and watching as two of its roommates from The Tra-La Days Are Over got released as singles and landed themselves in the UK Top 40.
The original Sedaka version of “Love Will Keep Us Together” is a sweet piano pounding cheese-fest, buoyant, melodic and resolutely upbeat…from a musical standpoint, that is. The lyrics themselves are another story. Featuring ominous nuggets like “You belong to me now, ain’t gonna set you free now” and “Young and beautiful, but someday your looks will be gone,” “Love…” is a pretty cynical affair, both a desperate plea about not succumbing to temptation and a resolutely assertive finger wag about behaving. What’s most striking about Neil’s version is how simple and straightforward the performance and production were, how bare-bones and downright demo-ish it sounded. It was a nice melodic song to be sure…but it was about to become rainbow unicorn magical.
Daryl “The Captain” Dragon and Toni Tennille first met in 1972, when the former was hired to play keyboards for a musical Tennille had co-created. Once that project had run its course, keyboard wizard Dragon moved on to become part of The Beach Boys’ touring band. He soon convinced the band to take Tennille on board as an additional key player and singer. It became clear as they worked together that the two had an innate musical chemistry (and a personal one too, but that came a bit later) and so between Beach Boys tours the two decided to work on their own project together and began performing around LA under the moniker Captain & Tennille.
(Sidenote: Their rise to fame is described most humorously in Toni Tennille’s eminently readable 2016 memoir, which is also home to a cornucopia of genuinely bizarre and revealing anecdotes and thus Rock ‘n Roll recommended. Here’s a teaser: Grapefruit…that’s all I’m saying, you’ll have to read it for yourself.)
Anyway, word of mouth spread about how good they were, crowds grew and invariably record companies started sniffing around at their shows. This led to their being signed by A & M Records, and in 1974 they entered to the studio to record their debut album. The LP featured not only Toni’s lush and fabulous pop confession-confection (and future Top 10 hit) “The Way That I Want To Touch You,” it also marked the first recorded appearance of the gloriously schlocky “I Write The Songs,” written by their old Beach Boy colleague Bruce Johnston and later made famous by Barry Manilow. But the duo and Kip Cohen, their A & R man, still felt something was missing. As Toni effervescently explained in the liner notes of the C & T Songs Of Joy box set back in 2007 :
We were looking for an up-tempo tune to balance our new (debut) album which was a bit ballad-heavy. Kip played a few cuts from the Neil Sedaka album The Tra-La Days Are Over, which had only been released in England. The minute Daryl and I heard “Love Will Keep Us Together,” we knew it was the tune we had been looking for, we couldn’t get in the studio fast enough!
Remember the threadbare tree in the legendary A Charlie Brown Christmas? The tree had a sweet and sad charm, but it didn’t come to life and achieve its maximum potential until the gang stepped in and fattened it up with a mountain of garish and shiny decorations. Well, C & T’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” is basically the sonic equivalent of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The transformation of the sweet, beach-bound Sedaka version into the full, fleshed-out keyboard covered piece of candy that is the Captain & Tennille version is, frankly, astounding. Produced and arranged by Captain Daryl Dragon himself and featuring the legendary Hal Blaine on drums, C & T’s “Love…” is fulsome, eccentric, and unrelentingly clever. From its kicked-up tempo, to its kitchen sink of keyboard effects, to Tennille’s honeyed and soulful vocal performance (as well as the memorable harmonizing from her 3 sisters on background vocals), it’s a dizzying piece of pop music art (even now, decades later, the bridge still sounds crazy bananas). They even acknowledge the songs original source with Toni singing the line “Sedaka is back” in the coda.
With their super-sized and sugar packed version, C & T took “Love Will Keep Us Together” away from Neil Sedaka forever, simple as that, and it truly became their song, never to return again. The song was # 1 on the Billboard Pop Chart for 4 weeks beginning in late June of 1975, and it went on to become the year’s bestselling single. And Neil Sedaka himself loved the C&T version, declaring it to be “a perfect pop record.”
The cherry on the cake came when the song won the coveted “Record Of The Year” award at the 1976 Grammys, beating out Eagles “Lyin’Eyes” and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” amongst others. Of course, as is often the case with songs this ubiquitous and popular, not everybody had love for “Love…” The award was presented by Stevie Wonder and Joan Baez…but Joan was not feeling the Recording Academy’s choice. She exhibited a particularly pained expression upon Stevie’s announcement of C & T as the winners. Toni Tennille later recollected that Baez “looked at us like we came out from under a rock” (check it out here). Nothing like a bit of piercing and vintage old school shade to spice things up.
As for Neil Sedaka, by 1975, he literally was back, scoring a series of Top 10 singles including “Laughter In The Rain,” “Bad Blood,” and a balladic remake of his 1962 hit “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” He subsequently became a fixture on the aforementioned TV variety shows, his perpetually grinning face and perky Pooh-bear persona instantly ensuring his place as a popular guest choice. Turn on the TV any Friday or Saturday night in the mid-’70s and there inevitably was Neil, cheerily banging on his piano, shirt collars as wide as an eagle’s wings, the absolute living embodiment of the word “exuberant.” And of course it was only the beginning for the Captain & Tennille, who over the latter half of the ’70s racked up an another handful of Top 10 hits as well as several Gold albums, and whose popularity was so immense that they were rewarded with their own, what else, prime time variety show.
No matter how you ultimately feel about “Love Will Keep Us Together,” at its core it’s still a ridiculously inventive and impressive piece of pop music. At this very moment somewhere in the world, someone is listening to it, basking in its perky, pleading, pissed-off sunshine, misinterpreting its lyrics, singing along to it badly and absolutely loving it. If that’s not enough to convince you of its worth, maybe the fact that it inspired another genuinely magnificent and seminal song will. The title of Joy Division’s 1980 post-punk masterpiece “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was meant as an ironic reference to “Love Will Keep Us Together,” a bit of dark humor from the pen of singer/lyricist Ian Curtis. Harrowing and revealing, the song remains the definitive musical artifact of Joy Division’s career and Curtis’s legacy, so much so that its title is engraved on his tombstone. And it was recorded in Strawberry Studios…the same place where in 1973 Neil Sedaka created “Love Will Keep Us Together.”