Issue #53: Games People Play by Joe South
February 20, 2017
Released In 1969
Released By Capitol Records
I spend an awfully long time thinking about Joe South. Where did those melodies come from? How did he create this flawless blend of country and soul and ’60s pop? If his brother hadn’t killed himself in 1971, would he have kept putting records out until his death in 2012? How much music did the world miss out on, exactly?
I will likely never get answers to these questions, as South had been dead for a few years by the time I first heard his “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home?” in the intro of the brilliant William Tyler’s podcast It’s All True. It sounded so familiar to me, but I didn’t know the song. I did intimately know Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” which South wrote, from my obsession with the late-night Country Classics infomercial in the late 1990s. From these two tracks, I knew exactly the kind of artist South was and ordered some LPs on eBay, because I didn’t want to wait to find them in the bins.
I cannot think of a record that gives me as many chills as Games People Play. South had a rare talent for writing piercing melodies which were complemented by his creative instrumentation. I have several copies of this LP (they have different covers/track listings, OK?) which I keep in rooms where PJ and I have record players. It has become one of our go-to crowd-pleasers for all situations.
Every song on GPP is perfect (totally serious here) and then there’s “Hearts Desire,” which is perfect times a thousand. I have written here many times about my love of melodies and hooks that rattle me (I call them “chest-clutching”), and the chorus of this sub-three minute song gets me every fucking time. The last minute of “Birds Of A Feather,” where everything breaks down, is torture for me, because I’m tapping my fingers, waiting for “Hearts Desire” to start.
These are a few of my favorite Joe South things: how “These Are Not My People” has become my head-anthem when I am in an uncomfortable situation; the “party” introduction of “Party People;” the way the backing vocals drift off in a Rolling Stones-esque way in “Hole In Your Soul;” South’s earnest pleading in “Untie Me;” the catchy riff in the beginning of “Concrete Jungle;” and the fact that each song just feels like a mini country-soul symphony.
When I make my selection for Off Your Radar, I want to pick something I think my fellow writers will enjoy (I recently listened to one record I was considering that I loved in high school — it did not age well and I cannot imagine anyone actually liking it), but also something that will resonate in a contemporary way. A few weeks ago, I was listening to “Games People Play” in headphones at work and these lyrics really struck me: “Whoa the games people play now / Every night and every day now / Never meaning what they say now / Never saying what they mean / And they wile away the hours / In their ivory towers.” I immediately pictured 45, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway chugging champagne and laughing at Americans for being such suckers. In light of the recent executive order, a protest song against bigotry and hatred could speak exactly to the writers and readers of this newsletter, maybe as much as Games People Play has spoken to me.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
A modern troubadour travelling from background to forefront with little regard to genre or sound.
For the second week in a row, OYR has startled me by presenting a great singer from days gone by who has somehow completely escaped my notice. The title track to Joe South’s Games People Play won the Grammy for Song Of The Year in 1970, so you’d think I’d have run across it at some point, but it was completely unfamiliar to me. On first listen, though, I found myself wondering why no one had told me about this guy before. It seemed from a brief glance at his Wikipedia page that he’d been a Nashville songwriter, but I could hear a much funkier, more soulful structure and delivery lurking just under the surface throughout this album. It felt like an R&B singer stepped into a Nashville studio, which loaded him down with the sort of schmaltzy string-soaked productions that dominated mainstream country of the era — the same stuff all the outlaw country guys were rebelling against less than a decade later. Instead of sinking under the weight of all those string arrangements, though, South finds a way to harness them to his advantage. On songs like “Party People” and “I Knew You When,” South creates the same sort of vibe that dominates bluesy laments like The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” or The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Meanwhile, he channels ’68 Comeback-era Elvis on “Concrete Jungle” and early Neil Diamond on “Hole In Your Soul.” Perhaps the most fascinating song here for a true garage-rocker/metalhead like me is “Hush,” a song I knew from the version by Deep Purple (a classic-rock staple when I was growing up, one I always cranked when it came on). My first thought upon hearing it was “whoa, he’s covering Deep Purple.” But no — they were covering him! South wrote this song, and while his version may not be as heavy as the Deep Purple version I know and love, it has a slightly peppier tempo and still manages to hit just as hard. South is the sort of artist you might expect to sink under the weight of all the overtly pop production moves that were brought to bear on his records. Instead, though, he uses them to rise higher. It just goes to show that you can’t keep a good singer down.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Effective songwriting is an inexact science. We know this because there are many styles that work, and even more that don’t. We know that some like, say, Neil Young can weave an engaging tale that makes you think twice about some old man taking a walk down by some river. Thankfully, the metaphorically challenged can turn to an artist like Joe South, telling stories just as captivating, but with a much more literal approach. Many of the songs on Games People Play take their cues from traditional country music, and blues — both genres known for their brass-tax approach to songwriting. Take “Concrete Jungle” for example — winner for best “blue-collar” love song, non-country. Sure, the title is a metaphor for the working man’s office, but after that it’s really quite simple. It’s a story of a man with a lover that’s able to wash all his frustration away once the clock strikes five. All he wants to do is finish his shift so he can get back to his boo-jank. The bells and whistles on this album are in the production. Games People Play is an album caught in the musical sweet spot of the late sixties/early seventies, incorporating the “wall of sound” approach popularized by producers like Jerry Wexler and others. That’s why we end up with string sections and sitars on the same tracks. Oddly enough, these same principles that I’ve discussed here could easily substitute for why I love some of my favorite hardcore rap records. And you can’t tell me Joe South isn’t kind of a cool rap name.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
I had to stop Games People Play about 35 seconds after I started it. The title track felt… uncanny. It was like how you’d stop a conversation and squint really hard because you were just about to remember which other movie you’d seen an actor in. Then it hit me: Matthew E. White’s “Will You Love Me,” which functions beautifully both as its own song and as a collection of references (Jimmy Cliff and Martin Luther King Jr. are also quoted), borrows its verse melody from this album’s title track. (It’s no accident — thanks to Aquarium Drunkard’s wonderful Lagniappe Sessions series, you can hear White cover the song here.) Whether he knows it or not, White has been my unofficial music teacher for the past half dozen years, and after listening to the rest of Games People Play, I can absolutely see why White would draw inspiration from Joe South’s work. His is the kind of durable writing that could be performed in a zillion different ways — with or without electric sitar. I can absolutely hear Roy Orbison crooning his way through “Hearts Desire,” and bonus track “It Got Away” has all the stately melodrama of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” White’s not the only one who’s been struck by “Games People Play” — the list of people who have covered it is long and illustrious, including Ike & Tina Turner, Waylon Jennings, Bettye LaVette, Johnnie Taylor, James Taylor… the list goes on and on. For me, Games People Play ended up being a meditation on the idea that well written music never dies. It echoes infinitely, giving the gift of inspiration to anyone who truly appreciates it.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Spirited performance that emphasizes the power of the song’s protest.
This bonkers album started making sense to me only by the third or fourth listen. I had dimly remembered Games People Play, which was part of the wallpaper of my childhood, but I wasn’t expecting the manic Memphian blue-eyed soul stew I heard when I pressed play on Spotify. It made me feel a little crazy, to be honest, but now I’m totally into it. In a way it reminds me of some latter-day T. Rex material where you have an artist who feels just so awful about himself that he’s gotta dump every sound that makes him feel better into a blender and turn it up to 11. It also sounds a bit like Vegas-era Elvis — he actually covered “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” another South song, to titanic effect. South is more emotionally connected, however. When your voice is good but not an Elvis voice, you have to put something else into it to distinguish yourself, which Joe South absolutely does on every song here. He’s not afraid to admit there’s a hole in his soul and tell you all about it (“Hole In Your Soul“). If Elvis was more willing to sing about his emptiness instead of trying to fill it up with peanut butter and banana sandwiches, he might have had the Memphis Mafia take South for a ride and then re-record his vocals over South’s tracks. Fortunately, that never happened and we have this brilliant album.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Joe South’s music is a wonderful mix of country and R&B that perfectly bridges the psychedelic sounds of the ’60s to the soulful ’70s. I can hear some glam rock like T-Rex on some tracks, but at the same time it wouldn’t be a stretch for Elvis to sing many of these songs. In fact, Joe South has successfully been covered by everyone from The Osmonds to Deep Purple. If for some reason his songwriting doesn’t do it for you, perhaps his opening guitar lick on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools” or his session work on Blonde On Blonde and Sounds Of Silence will change your mind. Not many people can go from a novelty hit like “The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor” to winning a Grammy for Song of the Year that influences a whole generation of performers.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
God, I have so much to do. Lesson plans for the correctional facility where I teach high school… grading and writing a midterm for the college classes I teach at night… writing this and another article, both due in two days. Three day weekend, sure, but a working one, and all I can think of are deadlines, ideas swirling for these kids or those kid-adults and should I make chili this weekend, how long is too long before I change our sheets, and sleep? But it’s six o’clock, I’ve worked all day, and now is a time for wine, to see my partner, to stop. Put on Joe South’s Games People Play while you smoke, pretend to be working a bit so the guilt doesn’t override the attempt to slow down for a minute. “Games People Play,” the title track, okay… I know this music, that lazy watery guitar open chorusing so many drunken Alabama nights, the feeling of being profound while drunk on light beer amidst the tall pines. My mind starts writing in between the threads of conversation with my partner, the texts from my friends about celebrating our other friend’s birthday, and I think I have it down until “Party People” starts. What is this, this loose-hipped easy jazzy bass line, people coughing, glasses clinking? Track after track, I’m redefining easy listening, drinking in these Motown-inspired, early rock celebrations voiced by a smoother, happier Elvis sound, swaying on the porch, forgetting this is work. Pulling out the bobby pins who try valiantly to restrain my waves, shaking out the braids I tied them up in this morning, I smile, enjoying the warmth of a fading Friday sun. At least one thing on my list will be easy.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
This album is a classic. I hadn’t heard it before this week, with a couple of possible exceptions. For instance, I’ve heard two other versions of “Hush” and was delighted to know it was penned by Mr. South, yet it feels like something that I’ve listened to every May since I was able to drive a car. There’s something about certain music from the ’60s that straddles the line between rock and country and folk better than any music before or since. You know what? I’m going to say something that might be kind of controversial. I feel like the latter-day Elvis comparisons are all too easy, but I’d take Joe South over The King any day of the week. Hell, I’d take “Party People” over almost anything by Elvis that you could serve up. What particularly attracts me to this album is a quality that is there for almost all of my favorite albums: The perfect synergy between cleverly written songs and songs that feel true. There are rhymes in “Party People” that give me that special thrill that only a well-executed rhyme can give me. The kind of rhyme that is surprising and also inevitable. Another part that really tickled me was the reprise of the “Games People Play” melody in “Birds Of A Feather.” I absolutely love when that happens on an album. It gives it a cohesion that makes it a great album, as opposed to a group of great songs. Many of the albums we review in this newsletter become near and dear to my heart, but this one is special, because it feels like it already was near and dear to my heart, even before i listened to it!
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Representing the freedom & creativity of the ’60s, South boldly pushed country & folk past their humble roots.
Even if you don’t realize it, everybody knows who Joe South is. A simple search through his incredible songwriting credentials will make anyone realize that he probably wrote one of their favorite songs. For me, it was the song “Hush” that I quickly recalled as being present in just about every trailer for a thriller or horror movie in the nineties. Outside of the familiarity, the thing that really drew me in was the production. Everything sounds extravagant and reminds me of a time when it seemed like you could get these sort of songs on tape through analog recording stations. The title track feels even more relevant now than ever. It dabbles in social constructs and misgivings that South had regarding the ways in which intolerance festers it’s way into our day to day lives in ways that are truly unfortunate. It’s no wonder that the song would be covered and paid tribute to by a number of performers for years and years to come after its 1968 release. Treasures like South are wonderful delights in realizing how many behind the scenes players have existed for generations. In the case of Joe South, it’s especially magical to know that he received awards for “Games People Play” for it might be one of his crowning achievements to say the least.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Games People Play was a hard one not to start and stop to do research when I heard things that stood out in my mind but I went from front to back before searching for validation and that was the right choice. Throughout the course of this album, songs by artists of similar style — jangly, poppy, those that included the sitar, etc. — kept popping into my head and I would make a note to check on them after. When the last song finished, it was tough not thinking of the album as a bit disjointed; almost assembled like a compilation, rather than a coherent, flowing record. The title track feels very reminiscent of popular ’60s folk rock sounds, with aforementioned sitar standing out immediately. “Birds Of A Feather” starts out giving off a lighter, Beach Boys pop style vibe with its initial, snappy, nine note guitar intro, then bolstered by chord heavy piano, legato strings, and a switching in of female backing vocals. (This being the seventh track of 12, I will say the call back to the hook from “Games People Play” was a lovely touch.) Then, with “Hearts Desire,” this uptempo rock n’ roll cut employs a rhythm and overall performance that projects a distinctly Elvis-minded vibe with its musical character. Beyond that, one of the non-South songs that kept cycling in my ear with “Leanin’ On You,” was B.J. Thomas’s version of “Hooked On A Feeling.” The two aren’t cookie cutter copies of each other by any means, but looking at the year of that song’s release (1968), and looking at Beach Boys’ career timeline (the Brian Wilson era was close to the release of South’s record between 1961 and 1966), and knowing in the ’60s, Elvis was right in the swing of his career, Joe South seems to like jumping around a lot with his song styles. This made listening through a bit confusing at times but on the other hand, having such interest in variety tends to make one more marketable. Coincidentally, I came away from Games People Play with a liking for several tracks. I just liked them all for very different, independent reasons, rather than their total interconnectedness.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
The music boom of the ’60s was incredible. It’s a fact everyone must agree to, whether you like modern trap music or ’50s crooners. But if you go back and listen to records from back then, specifically ones that exist outside the canon of “greatest records,” you’ll find that it was a pretty weird time for albums. For every genuinely fleshed out album like Pet Sounds, the public received a dozen or two records that offered up a spliced up discography with little regard for sequence or concept. Most would be panic rush-jobs developed after a song caught fire, with the studio and producers constructing an album around that one song which meant that thirty to forty minutes of the album’s runtime would be a complete afterthought. If getting time in the studio was an issue, it wasn’t a problem — they would just use tracks from past releases to fill out the tracklist, knowing most people wouldn’t notice, and hoping those who did wouldn’t really care. Games People Play was one of these albums. It was rushed to build on the success of the astounding title track, cannibalized a few tracks that had appeared on South’s first record Introspect, and even stole back a few of the songs he had essentially given away, notably “Hush.” But what’s great about this record is that it doesn’t suffer one bit because of any of this. The end result is not top-heavy like most records were back then. There’s little-to-no filler throughout. Most would even make the case that the hit song isn’t even among the record’s three best songs. These rushed conditions mostly yielded dud records, but here, they gave Joe South the chance to… just be Joe South. You get folk, country, psychedelic, R&B, and even Top 40, some all in one song (“Games People Play,” “Untie Me“). While it may come off disjointed at times due to all the styles at play, that just seems nitpicky considering the record as a whole delivers in so many exceptionally great ways and has plenty of sensational recordings like “Party People” and “Hearts Desire.” Context isn’t needed to enjoy this record or even rate it as a lost classic; factor it in though and Games People Play isn’t just a lost classic, it’s a monumental achievement by an ingenious musician with timeless talent.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
Chosen By Drew Necci