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The story behind Joni Mitchell's only US top 10 hit

Joni Mitchell was hitting a commercial peak in 1974. Having established herself as one of the most prominent late additions to the New York folk scene of the 1960s, Mitchell began to shift her sound as she trekked west to California, becoming one of the most prominent artists of the Laurel Canyon community along with names like Carole King and James Taylor.

While the acoustic guitar was still an essential element to her music, Mitchell began to incorporate piano ballads, jazz chord changes, and even pop melodies into her style. With other artists making hits out of her songs, including Judy Collins’ take on ‘Both Sides Now’ and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s version of ‘Woodstock’, Mitchell was gaining a reputation as one of the hottest rising songwriters in America.

The exposure given to 1971’s Blue landed Mitchell her first top 20 LP on the Billboard Album charts, and she continued her ascent with 1972’s For the Roses, which gave her a new peak at number 11 on the album charts and landed Mitchell her first top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, ‘You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio’.

Mitchell knew she was hitting a new commercial high but was worried that career ambitions were going to hinder her creative output. As such, she was willing to ignore calls from her label Geffen Records to strike while the iron was hot and decided to take a full year to perfect her next album. That meant bringing in members of The L.A. Express while infusing the talents of some of the day’s best entertainers, including The Band’s Robbie Robertson, former flame Graham Nash and his bandmate David Crosby, and even a brief interlude from comedy duo Cheech and Chong.

To her surprise, the world waited for Court and Spark and welcomed it with praise and high sales. The material on the album was the furthest Mitchell had taken her music from her folk origins: ‘Car on a Hill’ and ‘Trouble Child’ showed a more modern pop arrangement, while the title track and ‘Down to You’ became two of Mitchell’s most epic piano ballads. ‘Free Man in Paris’ and ‘Just Like This Train’ proved that there was still some folk left in her, but ‘Raised on Robbery’ was Mitchell’s first real dalliance with rock and roll, while ‘Twisted’ represented the ongoing fascination with jazz that was soon to take over her sound.

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But if there was a perfect nexus between her acoustic past, pop present, and jazzy future, it was in the album’s second track ‘Help Me’. Containing the tricky chord changes and surprising time signature changes of jazz, the song also had one of Mitchell’s most obvious pop hooks that she had ever put to tape. She was still in her long flowing dresses while strumming acoustic guitars, but ‘Help Me’ was a clear sign that Mitchell could be a mainstream star.

Just before the album’s release in January of 1974, Geffen released ‘Raised on Robbery’ as the album’s first single. The up-tempo rocker was an obvious choice for a lead single, but it wasn’t representative of Mitchell’s style or the album as a whole and stalled on the middle rungs of the Hot 100. When Court and Spark was released, it became clear that ‘Help Me’ was the album’s stand out track, and Geffen dutifully released it as a single.

‘Help Me’ proved the staying power for Court and Spark, having been released after the album already achieved Gold status in the US. In June of that year, ‘Help Me’ reached its peak at number seven on the Hot 100, the highest position any of Mitchell’s singles would reach. Joni Mitchell was now a full-fledged pop star, whether she was ready for it or not. Her bewilderment at her own success caused her to write the song ‘Love or Money’, which focused on the myriad of artists who shared club dates, record labels, and managers with Mitchell but never achieved the same level of success that she did. The song was played during the tour in support of Court and Spark, but its only appearance came as the final song of Mitchell’s live album Miles of Aisles.

Mitchell soon began to grow tired of pop music and sought to reinvent her own style. Both folk and pop would now take a back seat to jazz and world music, two fascinations that were relatively unpopular with mainstream audiences. The initial demos of what would eventually become her next album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was more closely connected to her folk roots, but Mitchell decided to change the arrangements to challenge both her listeners and herself.

Even though she had forged a close personal friendship with label boss David Geffen (who provided the inspiration for ‘Free Man in Paris’), Geffen Records were somewhat confounded by Mitchell’s choice to change her music so drastically. Due to Mitchell once again taking her time in the studio, the label decided to release a live version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi‘ from Miles of Aisles as a single. The full band rock arrangement peaked at number 24, and despite being a disappointment after the high sales of ‘Help Me’ the song confirmed that there was still significant interest in Mitchell as a solo artist.

After the pop-friendly sounds of ‘Help Me’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, the dense and at times radically experimental nature of The Hissing of Summer Lawns proved to be more confounding. The album’s most mainstream-friendly song, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’, was released as a single, but it topped out at number 66, one spot below where ‘Raised on Robbery’ peaked two years earlier. Mitchell was content with her brief spell as a pop singles artist, preferring to delve deeper into jazz and world music on mid to late ’70s albums like Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, but for a brief moment it appeared as if Joni Mitchell was going to be fully enticed by the glitz and glamour that Court and Spark consciously commented on from a distance.

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