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Why I love "Smoke From A Distant Fire"


marvin

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I'm a music junkie. If I'm not listening to music or playing music, well then I definitely have a song running through my brain. All the time. Music is a passion that is best explained in the lyrics of the song "Drift Away", and especially the lyrics in the bridge:

"And when my mind is free, you know a melody can move me.

And when I'm feelin' blue, the guitar's comin' through to soothe me

Thanks for the joy that you've given me, I want you to know I believe in your song

Rhythm and rhyme and harmony, you help me along, you're making me strong"

Well, that's me, and that says where I'm coming from! Music is an integral part of my inner being. It's in my DNA. If there was a way that I could instantly capture some of the sounds and melodies I hear in my brain, I'd probably have written a few hundred more songs. In any case, while I'm pretty passionate about my musical tastes and the relevance of the music I like, I'm not one to say that my musical preferences are better than yours...even though they really are wink I've spent most of my youth and all of my adult life reading about music, writing about music, playing music, and as some of my friends would say, analyzing it too much. I should probably add a caveat here, and that is, my musical genre of choice is Pop Music. While I can appreciate other styles, it's Pop Music that matters the most to me. The more jangly, the more melodic the song, the more likely I am to listen.

So what's my definition of Pop music? Well let's just say that I place a band like ABBA, whose songs in my opinion, personify ear candy, much higher on the Pop-O-Meter than another Pop band like Big Star - a band that critics revered. Even though you could say that they both fall under the same category, I just didn't get Big Star. Their songs just didn't resonate with me. Mind you I did like their "September Gurls", but that was just one out of a catalogue of songs that didn't do a thing for me. So my point is, if you know for instance, ABBA's "Ring Ring" or "Go All the Way" by Raspberries - two songs with infectious melodies - well then you know what I'm talking about when I call a song 'ear candy.' It's all about an addictive melody that sticks to your brain, thank you.

Which brings me to the gist of this essay. There are some songs that I hold in such high esteem, some people just can't grasp why. When I mention one of these songs (e.g. "Ring Ring") to some people, they wonder what I've been drinking. So my case and point is, "Smoke From A Distant Fire" by the Sanford-Townsend Band. In my opinion this song is pretty close to Pop perfection. Huh? What? I know some of you have probably got a puzzled look on your face right now, and I imagine that you are scratching your head on this one. You're wondering just what I've been drinking, right?

Of course I'm certain that there are a handful who do recognize the song by its title. Then there are others who though they might not know the title, would probably recognize the song after they heard it. Either way, and regardless of popular opinion, "Smoke" is one of those magical songs for me. It is one of those songs that I think, is worthy of this analysis. At the risk of over-stating things, there are so many accolades I could throw here, but they still wouldn't be enough, and wouldn't do the song justice. (Insert reader wisecrack commentary here wink ) And just to set the record straight, no, I have NOT been drinking.

"Smoke", in a manner of speaking, came from seemingly nowhere, by a band that also came from seemingly nowhere. At the time of the recording, the S-F band were basically studio musicians who had yet to release their own record. While music historians will forever anoint them as 'one hit wonders' (which I guess in reality they were), in my opinion, if you're going to have only one hit, it might as well be with a memorable tune. For me, "Smoke From A Distant Fire" was certainly memorable.

From start to finish, it is a well-constructed song, so let me try to break it down and explain why I think it deserves the five stars that I give it. The intro of the song is where it literally all starts for me. From the majestic crescendo of drums, guitars and horns, it's as if there was an attempt at reaching a boiling point of musical melodrama right away. If that was the goal, it's still just a tease. The listener is left wanting and waiting for the unexpected, and there is a suspicion that the pot is still not quite at the point where it is percolating. There definitely is much more to come. And all this is happening BEFORE the singer even starts the first verse!

Much of the musical drama in the song is built around the lyrics. This is essential not only in helping to drive home the message, but it also helps make that important connection to the music. When we finally get to the opening line of the song, the singer immediately lets us know where he is going, and that this isn't going to be a fun ride:

"You left me here on your way to paradise. You pulled the rug right out from under my life."

As if this wasn't clear enough proof, this line from the second verse validates things even more:

"If things are the same then explain why your kiss is so cold."

Slowly the instrumentation builds to heighten the tension, and the vitriol continues. As we approach the musical middle eight, we're hit with this:

"This lying, and cryin's upsettin' and getting nowhere. It don't stack up, so slack up and pack up, I just don't care."

And then the point is driven home:

"Don't let the screen door hit you, on your way out."

Ouch! It's pretty obvious that the only place that this ride is headed is off the rails, and our narrator is not going to hold back any animosity. Yes lyric-wise, it's a song filled with much bitterness, and while this obviously rings clear, it also seems as if the message and some of the words are still kept in the background because the music is powerful, uplifting and sounds so compelling.

So with that segue in mind, at this point let's talk about the musicianship on the song. This is, in my opinion, what really defines "Smoke", and a few words devoted to the musicians is appropriate.

As mentioned earlier, the musicians are basically 'no name', and without searching through the internet, I have no idea who was in this band. Other than someone named Sanford and someone named Townsend, that is. The fact that the musicians are not well-known certainly does not lessen their abilities and the individual talents that they bring to this song.

During the verses, the instrumentation is kept to a minimum, and for the most part is carried by electric piano, bass guitar, and drums. These instruments, in nimble fashion, offer up a subtle groove, gently supporting the singer's robust delivery. The build-up is slow and gradual, until it reaches that final musical explosion - the last line of each chorus, and then the powerful bridge. On casual listen, the playing appears to be simple. But if you take a closer listen, you get a real sense of the intricate chord structures, and the fact that there is strength in the simplicity.

In reality, it's not all that simple after all. You realize that this all acts as a perfect counter-balance to those bitter, salt-in-the-wounds lyrics. What a great combination of lyrics and music!

So that's my (somewhat) brief analysis. We all listen to music differently. Some of us just enjoy a song for its face value. Others will try to decipher lyrics and meaning. While still others will try to analyze the song and its individual components. Sometimes I will fall into one of these categories, but many times I will fall into all three. Whether the song is "Smoke" or "Ring Ring", every song can bring different qualities to the table, and you can appreciate music without analyzing it. So go to iTunes or YouTube, whichever music source you use, or go here:

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Marvin,

I really enjoyed reading your take on "Smoke." You deal with your topic with such reverence; I feel that way about music I really love too.

I can't image anyone listening to radio in the mid 70s missing this great hit (I looked it up; it peaked at #9 on Billboard and #1 CashBox in 1977). My husband played sax in high school and I remember him loving this. The lead singer had a great voice! Too bad we didn't hear more from them.

I agree with John that it has a Van Morrison feel and I noticed a few comments on Youtube about that.

Musically uplifting song with great "shove off" lyrics..esp about the "screen door.." classic. Bring us more great reflections, Marvin..

cool Jean

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Marvin,

I really enjoyed reading your take on "Smoke." You deal with your topic with such reverence; I feel that way about music I really love too.

I can't image anyone listening to radio in the mid 70s missing this great hit (I looked it up; it peaked at #9 on Billboard and #1 CashBox in 1977). My husband played sax in high school and I remember him loving this. The lead singer had a great voice! Too bad we didn't hear more from them.

I agree with John that it has a Van Morrison feel and I noticed a few comments on Youtube about that.

Musically uplifting song with great "shove off" lyrics..esp about the "screen door.." classic. Bring us more great reflections, Marvin..

cool Jean

Thanks, Jean. Speaking of 'reflections' (and the long-time members here will know EXACTLY what I'm alluding to), my next essay is going to be about Raspberries and why they SHOULD matter to EVERYONE.

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