Friday, July 30, 2004

Friday Top 5: Let it What?

The summer of 1982 was the first one I spent in the full-time working world, as opposed to being a student and having great chunks of the summer off. And while I was playing country records by day (Number One on the country chart on this date in 1982--"Take Me Down" by Alabama), I was listening to the Top 40 the rest of the time, like always. Here’s the Top 5 on the Billboard chart 22 years ago today:

Number 5: "Let it Whip" by the Dazz Band. I don’t remember this at all, although I’d probably recognize it if you played it and told me what it was. Clearly, the Dazz Band was not big in Dubuque.

Number 4: "Hold Me" by Fleetwood Mac. Mirage was Fleetwood Mac’s last great album, and although "Gypsy" is a better tune, "Hold Me" is full of Lindsey Buckingham’s trademark quirks, and sounded like nothing else on the radio, before or since.

Number 3: "Hurts So Good" by John Cougar. And he was still "Cougar" at this point, having been given the name by a manager against his will while he was still a struggling performer in the late 1970s. (He would start shedding it with his next album.) Rarely has a performer been so miscast. For the first three or four years of his career, he was packaged as a snarling city punk, but by the mid 1980s, he became a heartland poet out of the Springsteen mold. And he’s mainstream enough now to have been invited to the Democratic Convention earlier this week.

Number 2: "Rosanna" by Toto. How many million copies of Toto 4 do you suppose are like mine--collecting dust on the CD shelf, never getting played? I can’t remember the last time I put it in, or felt like putting it in. But if you’re only going to have one Toto tune, "Rosanna" is a pretty good one to pick. Unless it's "99." Or "Stranger in Town."

Number 1: "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. This started a streak of hits for Survivor, a Chicago band with no real Chicago identity in their music, but with a radio-friendly sound that fit the needs of both Top 40 and album rock stations in the mid 1980s. Essential tune: 1985’s "High on You"--provided you can't get your hands on the utterly gorgeous 1971 hit "L.A. Goodbye" by the Ides of March, which was the band from whence came Survivor.

In the summer of 1982, I lived in the crappiest apartment I ever had--a furnished one-bedroom walkup in an old building, with three floor-to-ceiling windows facing the south and no air conditioning, so I was lucky if it got down to the low 80s in the place at night. Plus I had an infestation of enormous, multi-legged centipedes, and bats roosted under the overhang down at street level. Jeez, I'd rather remember the Dazz Band.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Taxicab Confessions

Picking the worst records of all time requires a ground rule. It's easy to bash pathetic sludge ("Rock Me Amadeus," say, or anything by David Geddes), but it's more interesting to take on records with major critical reputations, records that were major hits, or records people like to fawn over. And I heard one of 'em when I was driving around with the radio on last Saturday.

People used to call me on my radio shows and ask for Harry Chapin's "Taxi," and some of them spoke of it with the kind of reverence usually reserved for Great Art--which "Taxi" is not. When you really listen to it, there's much less than initially meets the ear.

"It was rainin' hard in Frisco/I needed one more fare to make my night" is an arresting couplet with which to open a story. And for the first verse, you're actually interested in what's going on. Certainly it would be possible for a big-city cabbie to pick up his first love one night. It might be interesting to eavesdrop on the conversation. And you might expect a talented songwriter to find some universal truth in the experience. You feel this potential as you listen, and "Taxi"'s biggest hook is the time it takes for all of this to unfold. What you don't notice right away is that Chapin is doing nothing with the setup except stringing it out.

And then "She hand me 20 dollars for a two-fifty fare and said 'Harry, keep the change.'" This is supposed to the emotional climax of the song. It is instead the point at which I throw up my hands. Is she flinging her wealth in the face of a mere cabbie? Is she guilty over leaving him? Or was he really that good in the back seat all those years ago? We're intended to fill in the blank ourselves, but none of these alternatives, or any of the others I've been able to think of over the years, seems sufficiently interesting to merit all the buildup. And when Chapin caps the song off with a stupid early-70s drug reference about driving his cab while stoned, I'm ready to turn him in to the taxi commission.

So give me "W.O.L.D" or even "30,000 Pounds of Bananas." You can keep "Taxi."

(Elektra Records #45770, chart peak #24, June 3, 1972)

Friday, July 23, 2004

Friday Top 5: Days Gone Down

Twenty-five years ago, in late July 1979, I was finishing a month of summer school at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, between my freshman and sophomore years. I spent the rest of my time working at either the campus radio station or at my paying radio gig at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa.

I had snagged the job at KDTH in April, a scant three months after I sat down behind a live microphone for the first time, so I was as green as an Iowa cornfield. Like everybody who started in radio back in those days, I did a lot of button pushing at first, for the taped programs that filled up the station’s off-peak hours. By summer I was pulling two six-hour shifts each weekend, some of those hours involving actual DJ shows, and it was pretty good experience. Or it would have been, had I been getting any guidance from the people who ran the place. Fact is, I was learning by trial and error, and it involved more error than it should have. So on those occasions when I was asked to fill in on a weekday afternoon, or a Saturday morning--or any shift other than my comfortable Saturday and Sunday night shifts, when nobody cared what I did--I felt tremendous pressure. I supposed that nobody was going to tell me what to do unless I asked (since nobody much told me what to do normally) and that caused me to ask what some of my colleagues perceived as too many questions. (The station’s news director, for example, routinely chewed me out for this very offense; he seemed to dislike me so much that I was pretty sure if Skylab fell on Dubuque that summer, he would blame me.)

So anyway: When I listen to tunes from the summer of 1979, many of which I was playing on my radio shows by then, and when they do what old tunes commonly do--transform me briefly to the person I was when they were new--I become inexperienced, naive, fumbling, insecure, and stressed out--not a person I’d much like to remember. Nevertheless, there are some tunes from that summer I still like to hear now and then, and here are five of 'em:

"You Can’t Change That"/Raydio: One of the few R&B records that summer that wasn’t either a disco thumper or a bland ballad. Ray Parker Jr. would go on to greater success in the 1980s, but his two 70s hits, this one and 1978’s "Jack and Jill," would earn him noteworthy status in my pantheon even without "Ghostbusters" and "The Other Woman."

"Days Gone Down"/Gerry Rafferty: Imagine doing the best work you could possibly do on your first attempt--hitting .400 your first season in the majors or winning Best Actor in your first movie--and then imagine having to live up to that standard for the rest of your career. I have named this conundrum "the Gerry Rafferty Syndrome." If he made records for a hundred years, he was never going to surpass 1978’s "Baker Street"—but "Days Gone Down" is a respectable attempt.

"Mama Can’t Buy You Love"/Elton John: By 1979, Elton John had slipped from the peak, and it was only going to get worse, with the godawful disco album Victim of Love. But he also collaborated with Philly soul producer Thom Bell on this, and it became his biggest Top 40 hit in three years. Several tracks with Bell were released on an EP called The Thom Bell Sessions, which Philly phreaks should seek out--it’s like something from an alternate universe in which Elton sang lead with the Spinners.

"Heart of the Night"/Poco: This band has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine—the early '70s edition that recorded the excellent "Good Feelin’ to Know," the late 70s edition that made the not-very-country-at-all album Under the Gun, and the revived late '80s edition whose sole moment of glory was "Call It Love." "Heart of the Night" is a lovely country-rock tune that was probably a year too early--had it come along in the Urban Cowboy summer of 1980, it might have been even bigger. (It was a particular favorite of mine in 1979 because it clocks in at 4:49--plenty of time for me to put it on at KDTH and run next door to take care of the room-sized automation machine that ran the FM sister station, D93.)

"Let’s Go"/Cars: One way to remember 1979 is to recall us drowning in a sea of disco. The top 5 singles 25 years ago this week were all disco tunes, although the Knack's "My Sharona" also made its debut in the Top 40, and seemed at the time like a thunderbolt from the gods designed to save rock and roll from the disco plague--so rock was by no means dead. In fact, several standards of the classic rock canon first appeared in 1979 and were spawning hits that summer: Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, the first Dire Straits album, the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute, Pieces of Eight by Styx, and the Cars’ Candy-O. "Let’s Go," the lead single from Candy-O, is a great radio tune, perfect for drivin’ around with the windows down.

As the summer of 1979 faded into fall, I would go back to college, meet the woman who would become my wife, and become program director of my college radio station, in that order. And the next 25 years would pass in a blink, and here we are.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Greatest Love Song Ever Written

Some love songs help us remember a moment ("our song")--first date, first dance, the one that was playing when we looked into someone's eyes in a way we've never forgotten. Others capture how we feel in a way that we, not being songwriters, are incapable of doing. And some are about a way we would like to feel but don't, or don't anymore. So we're all suckers for a love song.

When you're a teenager, your taste in love songs isn't particularly discerning, because your taste in love isn't particularly discerning. You're hot for somebody, somebody's hot for you, and if a song gets at that feeling, even if it's no more sophisticated than rhyming "endless love" with "stars above" and "moon" with "June," it'll do. It's only when you get a little older that you require more from your love songs--perhaps a recognition that love is intractably bound up with sadness and nostalgia and loss, and that those emotions aren't necessarily distinct from love, but that they can be a part of it.

I was thinking about all of that on my way back from the bagel shop this morning, listening to what might be the greatest adult love song of all time. "The Dutchman" was written by Michael Scott, but the recording I know is by Steve Goodman, the Chicago singer-songwriter famous for "City of New Orleans," "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" (also known as "The Perfect Country and Western Song"), and Jimmy Buffett's "Banana Republics." "The Dutchman" is as lovely a thing as you'll ever hear, and while the words on the page are pretty enough, you really need to hear Goodman's performance, on the 1973 album Somebody Else's Troubles.
When Amsterdam is golden in the summer
Margaret brings him breakfast
She believes him
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow
He's mad as he could be
But Margaret only sees that sometimes
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes
Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee
Long ago I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me
You are not capable of that when you're 16. Some people never evolve enough to become capable of seeing their unborn children in another's eyes, or resolving to hold another's memories for safekeeping. But when you get it, you get it. And you realize that all those moon/June love songs you dug when you were 16 are talking about something utterly different.

(Buddah Records 99626 [1999 rerelease]; original release 1973; did not chart)

Monday, July 19, 2004

Fickle Finger of Fate: The Man in Black, the Doctor, and Baby Blue

As a writing exercise tonight, I picked up Joel Whitburn's Pop Singles Annual: 1955-1986, opened it to a page at random, and pointed.

First I landed on an entry from 1970, showing all the records that peaked at number 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year. The best of that lot is "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" by Johnny Cash, which may have barely missed the pop Top 40 but was a smash on the country charts, spending a couple of weeks at number one. It's a Kris Kristofferson tune full of boozy regret over time wasted and opportunity lost. My list of great Johnny Cash records is lengthy, but "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" is at the top. I've been listening to it for almost 34 years and I still haven't found its emotional bottom yet.

Coincidentally, my next random point also landed on a number-46 entry, this one from 1977, and the best of those was "Walk Right In" by Dr. Hook. This is the same "Walk Right In" that went to number one for the Rooftop Singers in 1963--another reason why the British Invasion had to happen. (And as we noted last Friday, by 1977, a lot of reasons why punk had to happen were rising to even higher positions on the charts.) During the summer of 1980, in my position as night guy at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, I got to interview the two primary members of Dr. Hook, Ray Sawyer (the guy with the eye patch) and Dennis Locorriere (the lead singer on most of the group's hits). Somewhere in my audio archives, there's a tape of the interview, which I lack the courage to listen to.

Finally, the fickle finger of fate pointed to songs peaking at number 14 in 1972, and by far the best of those was Badfinger's "Baby Blue." This tune is on my Desert Island Tape (which itself is a topic for another time), and continued Badfinger's streak of note-perfect records that included "No Matter What" and the transcendently beautiful "Day After Day." The version of "Baby Blue" you want is the 45 mix--the album version lacks the drum fills that give the single its kick. Both versions are on the CD reissue of Straight Up, the Badfinger album to have if you're only having one.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Friday Top 5: Muzak in Hell

On Fridays back in my radio days, I used to count down a top 5 from the Billboard charts on some date from the 1970s. And because it's Friday, and because this blog is intended in part to keep me from jonesing for radio too much, here's the top 5 from this date in 1977--put it all together and you've got the muzak in Hell.
Number 5: "I'm in You" by Peter Frampton. How do you follow Frampton Comes Alive, one of the biggest blockbuster albums of all time? You don't. "I'm in You" is a thoroughly average, completely nice, 1970s love song, but one utterly lacking the glittering magic of Frampton's hit from exactly one year before, "Baby I Love Your Way." Still, given what's coming, it's likely the only song in the top 5 anybody needs to hear again.
Number 4: "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" by Andy Gibb. This hasn't aged well, but 27 years ago, we couldn't get enough of it. It spent four solid months in the top 10, including two different runs at number one, and stalled at number 10 for three straight weeks on its way down. (For all that, it wasn't Gibb's biggest hit--that would come a year later with "Shadow Dancing.") Yet now, it sounds like the living embodiment of "wimpy." Then, too, maybe.
Number 3: "Undercover Angel" by Alan O'Day. Some folks would argue that this is another good argument for why punk rock had to happen. But some of us were more worried that Alan would either go blind or grow hair on his palms.
Number 2: "Looks Like We Made It" by Barry Manilow. Christ, Andy Gibb and Barry Manilow in the same top 5? For what it's worth, this is a pretty adult love song--two lovers meet years later and wonder if they'll be able to resist one another. It ain't exactly "I met her on a Monday and my heart stood still." That would be . . .
Number 1: "Da Doo Ron Ron" by Shaun Cassidy. The reason I dealt with this top 5 at all is because I happen to think this record is not as bad as you'd think. Cassidy's bubblegummy performance is the only way a male singer would be likely to approach the tone of breathless infatuation of the Crystals' original. (You decide whether that's a good idea or not.) Plus, it's a decent updating of Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound to the state of the art in 1977. And finally, there's just something about summer that lends itself to dumb, happy pop music. Which this was. And is.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Go All the Way

When I load up the CD player at home, I usually try to achieve harmony of a sort. If I were to put in a couple of Miles Davis discs, for example, I would not also put in Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and if I were to put in Bachman-Turner Overdrive, I would not also put in Willie Nelson. But tonight, I failed to achieve harmony, and thus we segued rather abruptly from Nat King Cole's mellow late-40s jazz into the Raspberries' "Go All the Way." But as the Raspberries Capitol Collectors Series disc continued to play, I was damn glad I'd put it in, Nat notwithstanding.
The Raspberries are a classic example of a band that should have been bigger than they were. (Maybe they were just unlucky.) "Go All the Way" is 70s power pop at its sweaty adolescent best, the greatest of all possible records with which to start your radio show, and one of three Raspberries singles comprising the Great Horndog Trilogy (along with "Tonight" and "Ecstasy").  "Go All the Way" was their only top 10 hit but by no means their only great record. "I Want to Be With You" and "Let's Pretend" followed "Go All the Way" onto the charts in early 1973. (Hearing them now, I know I was desperately in love with somebody that winter and spring because I can still feel some of that adolescent rush. Damned if I can remember who caused it.) "Tonight" and "Ecstasy" followed, but failed to make much of a dent in the zeitgeist, even though they rock almost as hard as "Go All the Way." The band went through personnel changes after that, but survived to record their greatest lost classic, 1974's "Driving Around," which missed the top 100 entirely that summer, despite being a far more authentic summertime groove than, say, "Beach Baby" by First Class, which was a monster hit the same year. Go figure.
The Raspberries' last hurrah was the self-referential "Overnight Sensation," which scraped into the top 20 that fall. It's about a songwriter dreaming of writing a hit record, and you actually hear the song played as it would sound through a transistor radio. (The group originally wanted to call it "Hit Record," but the record company thought that was a bit much.) The group's most famous member, Eric Carmen, launched a solo career after that, and if people thought the Raspberries were Beatlesque, Carmen was definitely McCartney-esque, in that his solo work was missing the more acidic impulses of his Raspberries collaborators and resulted in overblown mush like "All By Myself," "Hungry Eyes," and "Make Me Lose Control." But before becoming a Michael Boltonesque romantic, Eric Carmen was a member of the Horniest Band Ever, and just like the rush I feel for the girl I can't remember, nobody's taking that away from me.
(Capitol Records 3348, chart peak #5, October 7, 1972)

Burning Love

Elvis is back in the building today.
Salon's Charles Taylor reviews the DVD release of Presley's December 1968 "comeback" special today. This was a great moment in rock history--first because, as I wrote several years ago, it marked Presley's own attempt to resurrect Rockin' Elvis, the 50s persona that joined the Army, never came back, and was quickly replaced by Movie Elvis. It's a great moment second because it represented a small assertion of independence from Colonel Tom Parker. Parker, in his classic do-the-minimum-because-people-will-buy-it mode, wanted Elvis to sing some Christmas songs on a bare stage, and he opposed the inclusion of the song Elvis chose for the finale, "If I Can Dream," fearing its brotherhood message might offend some of the customers. Thankfully, Parker lost both battles. (The more you read about Presley's life, the more you realize that blame for the cheapness and triviality that characterized so much of his work must be laid at Parker's door.) And it's a great moment third because it signaled a brief renaissance in Elvis' career--not long after, he'd start making records in Memphis again, and some of them would be among the best of his career. The one Elvis record I would keep if I could only keep one comes out of this period: "Suspicious Minds."
In his review, Taylor notes that Elvis is "impossibly beautiful." I remember sitting in a darkened theater at the visitor's center across from Graceland, watching a short biographical film of Elvis. Midway through, a brief clip from one of his early black-and-white movies came on, a head shot, filling the screen. Instantly, I thought, "My God, that's the most beautiful man I've ever seen"--which was a surprising-enough revelation to have, and never mind what came next: the realization that I'd had it, a powerful, visceral reaction to the physical attractiveness of another man.  The net effect was to squash me back into my chair like I was in an airplane pulling multiple G's .
But just so you don't start wondering about me, let me point to the current cover of Vogue, which features a three-generation Presley photo on the cover: Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and Lisa Marie's daughter Riley Keough. Yowsah. That smoldering look has made it down to another generation. Book it, Riley: Damn few people can say Grandma looks that good.
(RCA Records #74-0769, chart peak #2, October 28, 1972)

Sunday, July 11, 2004

What's Going On?

I could try to tell you how it is I came to have so many records, tapes, CDs, and books about music in my house. I could tell you how I discovered Classic Top 40 radio at age 10, and how I became a DJ because I couldn't imagine anything better than playing that music every day. I could tell you how the record charts became the calendar of my life, and how down to this very day, certain songs transform me into the person I was when they were hits so long ago. I could even tell you how long it took me to come up with a title for this blog that captures all of that.

But the fact is, I've tried to tell all that before, in scattered chapters for a book that now lies moldering on my hard drive, and I could never get it across--not so it felt on the page like it felt in real life. And now I'm pretty sure I'll never write that book. This blog is intended to stand in its place.

In the past several weeks, I have found myself devoting more space than usual on my other blog, the Daily Aneurysm, to musical topics, from a Ray Charles obit to the history of the Starland Vocal Band, and I've been surprised by how invigorating it is to write about that stuff, and how much fun those pieces were to write. But they don't really fit on a blog whose primary purpose is to analyze and comment on current events. So I have created what you're reading now: "The Hits Just Keep On Comin'," a blog dedicated to music, radio, and the way it all comes together.

I was about to say that if the Daily Aneurysm is the front page, then this blog is the entertainment section, except it's not. Perhaps it's a history book. We'll do a lot of looking back (and listening) in this space. Some of what we get into will likely be so personal that I'll be the only one who could conceivably be interested in it. But I suspect that some of what we get into here will interest you too, whether you're a regular Aneurysm reader or you discover this blog independent of the other one.

(Marvin Gaye, Tamla Records #54207, chart peak #2, April 10, 1971)