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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Smoke from a Distant Fire," a polished, way-too-catchy master class in figurative lyrics

Perhaps my favorite 70s one-hit wonder has a great narrative build which really pays off in its latter half.

Today’s post is about another one of those songs that managed to get into my head without having heard it in multiple months. Musical recall is strange like that — when we hear a song enough times, it becomes part of our unconscious memory, to the point where it can rise from the depths of our bank of memory and into our auditory cortex without us even thinking about the tune.

I don’t know what it is about the song in question that makes me keep hearing it. It isn’t a song I actively seek out, but I do still thoroughly enjoy hearing it when it pops up on 70s radio or a playlist — as does my father. I could (and will) say a lot more, but for now I’ll cut to the chase: the song is "Smoke from a Distant Fire," by the one-hit wonder Sanford-Townsend Band. It’s a streamlined 70s pop rock tune with a healthy dose of blue-eyed soul, a reflection of the Alabama-based band’s roots and their time spent recording their self-titled debut album at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

The first word that comes to mind when I hear "Smoke from a Distant Fire" is "clean." Every instrument and harmony can be heard so clearly, from the late Jerry Rightmer's bass all the way up to Ed Sanford and John Townsend's keyboards. The solo lines from Otis Hale on saxophone and Roger Johnson on lead guitar cut through with even greater clarity and brightness, the latter quality especially ringing true for the saxophone. While such uniform clarity across the track may sometimes lead to the elements sounding separate, legendary producer Jerry Wexler utilized the organs to provide the connective tissue that unite the various instruments into a coherent whole. The vocals also do similar work, on top of their role in relaying the song's message.

As for the lyrical backdrop, it's a somewhat common one: the narrator is talking to his unfaithful ex-partner, saying how he should have seen her wavering affections and ultimate infidelity coming from a mile away. The song's title comes from how John Townsend describes his narrator's partner's affections for someone else: her "eyes have a mist from the smoke of a distant fire" (yes, it's slightly altered from the title, likely because it's more grammatically correct). It's a unique and fantastic metaphor — it builds off of the longstanding tradition of figures of speech regarding love to involve flames, while also turning it on its head by emphasizing the aspects of smoke as a signal across a significant distance. In seeing the mist in his ex's eyes, the narrator could fill in the rest: she had "pulled the rug right out from under [his] life" with mist that he saw and felt as "rain on the fire in [his] soul." The mist- and smoke-related metaphor providing the lyrical connection throughout the song elevates the rest of the lyrics with it.

To me, the second half of "Smoke from a Distant Fire" is what makes it so memorable. The sudden harmonic change and full-band chord hits at the bridge are the first real changes to the song since the introduction, and they springboard into an emotional narrative climax in which the narrator tells his now-ex to go. Ed Sanford backing vocals briefly taking the spotlight with "Don't let the screen door hit you" before Townsend completes the line with the high-pitched "on your way out" is a great bit of contrast that further refreshes the song before the bridge ends on a glorious slice of extended vocal harmony on "Don't you drown when your dreamboat runs onto the ground."

Where can the final verse go with the narrator's grief already having peaked? Well, it can focus on his ex's new flame — if that's how she really feels. Based on how he's been treated, he wonders if her newfound 'love' is true, or if she's "just makin' time / By filling his glass with [her] fast-flowing bittersweet lime." The second line has always stood out to me for some reason, maybe just because it's a cool combination of words. Continuing with the song's figurative tradition, the bittersweetness turns into an "aftertaste" as the narrator predicts the new man will befall the same fate he does, infidelity, mist and all. He's clearly feeling the effects of the lime's bitter aftertaste himself, and his parting shot hits right at the song's core.

As the track concludes with a growing of title-line vocal harmonies and one final instrumental flourish, it feels so satisfyingly complete. Sanford, Townsend did what they set out to do with "Smoke from a Distant Fire," and Wexler and co-producer Barry Beckett did what they set out to do with the song, and they didn't go overboard with any final flourishes. Rather, they let the pieces they had meticulously put together more than speak for themselves, with their metaphorical lyrics leading the way.


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