Monday, August 30, 2004

Father's Day

When I was in college, the big Top 40 station most people listened to at my school was D93 from Dubuque. After I started working there part-time, I learned something about the place that surprised me: Because the station was entirely automated with no live announcers, not even in the morning, its personality was largely an extension of its program director's personality. It had all of his strengths and weaknesses in the same approximate proportions. I'd never known a station like that before, and it seemed a little odd.

By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I'd come in with the station's new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of '84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station's program director.

What to call the new station caused some brief consternation. WKAI-FM was at 100.1, and originally, the sales manager and I wanted to call it 100-K-FM. However, the operations manager vetoed the idea on the grounds that we had only 3,000 watts of power, and 100-K-FM made it sound like we had 100,000. The objection made sense to him (although not to me), and thus we ended up with our second choice, K100--in the end, a better one.

I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. (Once I came back from vacation to find he had cleaned my desk. I couldn't find a damn thing for weeks.) He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his hometown as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism--and that I was the kid with the spray paint.

For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn't, because I thought it cluttered the station's sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, "What about blind people?"

We never really understood one another.

(When I had arrived at the stations a few months before, I was astounded to learn how he had modified the time-announce to announce both time and temperature. In one studio there was a stack of tape cartridges on which he had recorded various temperatures, one degree each, from 20 below to 102 above. Whenever we noticed that the temperature had changed, we were to put the correct cartridge in the temperature slot so it could play on the air. It sounded clunky and I sneered at it, but years later I realized how damned ingenious it was.)

Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn't really shop around--we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music--lighter during the day, on the assumption that we'd be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) In the early morning hours of format-change day--September 1, 1984--in the wee hours of the morning after the station signed off, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we'd mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and (probably, although I don't remember for certain) the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station's computer wiz. We polished off most of a case of beer there in the middle of the night, watching the reels of tape turn, eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon.

I had recorded a series of promos showcasing the strongest current cuts in our new Top 40 library ("What's Love Got to Do With It," "Ghostbusters," "When Doves Cry," Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite," and so on) to play during our final morning with the old format. Each one said, "seven hours to K100," "six hours to K100," and so on. Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format--"Candida" by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording in our sound-effects library of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of "Candida." I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into "The Heart of Rock and Roll" by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin'. While "The Heart of Rock and Roll" was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that "Rock and Roll Fantasy" by Bad Company and "I Love Rock and Roll" by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with "10-9-8" by Face to Face--not exactly one of the strong current hits I'd been plugging--and another Huey Lewis tune, "If This Is It." Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn't occur to us then.) After that it was "Sexy Girl" by Glenn Frey, Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With," and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with "low 12.9 percent financing available." Then it was "When Doves Cry," and that's where my tape of the changeover ends.

The biggest problem we had the first day was that we had to carry a University of Illinois football game on the station that night. Illinois games usually ran on our AM station, but because it was a night game we had to move it to the FM. I pitched an unholy fit about this when I first heard about it in August, but there was nothing I could do. So we ran it--but from that day on, whenever we had a sports broadcast, we promised the audience they'd get an uninterrupted hour of music just as soon as it was over. We called it "Rockback."

Over the next two years, lo and behold, the station would become an extension of my personality. I was the primary voice; I did almost all of the remotes; when we added a live morning show, I hosted it. I tweaked the music mix to fit my perception of the market's taste; our promos were filtered through my sense of what was funny or cool. And I am guessing some of my part-time help marveled at how odd it was that a radio station could take on its program director's personality.

Right before Christmas 1986, I announced I was leaving K100 for a larger market. My last show was on December 23. When we returned to Macomb after spending Christmas with the in-laws, I was surprised to find that the management had spent the holiday period erasing as many vestiges of my personality as possible. Same music, utterly different formatics. Christ, I thought, let the body get cold, at least. I thought I'd left on good terms, and I'd worked hard to make sure things would go smoothly after I left. The lesson, of course, is that no one is indispensable. I wasn't ready for how much it hurt to learn it.

If you go to K100's website today, you'll see that the station dates its existence from the summer of 1966. Well, that's when WKAI-FM went on the air, but its identity as K100 was born 20 years ago this week. And it was my baby.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Spanish Eddie Cashed It In

I see where Laura Branigan died this past week. Between 1982 and 1984, she scored five straight Top 20 hits, the biggest of which was "Gloria." "Self Control" and "Solitaire" both made the Top 10. The other two to make the Top 20 were "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," written with (and later demolished on record by) Michael Bolton and "The Lucky One." (I liked "Spanish Eddie," too, but it wasn't a smash.)

It wasn't obvious from listening to Branigan's records that she was a unique talent. Sometimes, a hit record is a matter of timing, and that may have been what helped make her a star. By 1982, many of the big-name artists of the 1970s had run out of steam. MTV was just beginning to make inroads and create stars--the "second British invasion" led by video-friendly groups such as Culture Club and Duran Duran was still a year away. "Gloria," although it's starting to sound pretty dated now, was a fresh sound in 1982, which was a pretty grim time for the Top 40. Of the 25 songs to peak at Numbers One, Two, or Three that year, a bare half-dozen seem worth listening to now, let alone memorable. For example, nobody needs to hear "Ebony and Ivory" again, or Lionel Richie's "Truly." And do you remember "Heart Attack" by Olivia Newton-John or "Don't Talk to Strangers" by Rick Springfield? Didn't think so. So for Laura Branigan, being in the right place at the right time led to a couple years of chart success, and what sounds like a decent career after the hits stopped.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Top 5: Send Before Midnight Tomorrow

Volume 16 of the That's What I Call Music compilation series will hit Number One on the next Billboard album chart. The mass consolidation of the record industry into essentially two giant conglomerates has made such star-studded compilations more star-studded and lucrative than ever before. Back in the day, we had to depend on K-Tel.

TV ads for the latest K-Tel compilation were a staple of after-school TV in the 70s and early 80s, and always ended with an address to send for the album. Just as today's infomercials exhort you to "call in the next 30 minutes," K-Tel asked you to "send before midnight tomorrow." While I rarely hustled to the mailbox, I bought my share in record stores, and here are five noteworthy examples from among the 28 K-Tel compilations you'll find in my record collection.

Bright Side of Music (1973). This was, I believe, the first album I ever bought after switching over from 45s, and it summarizes the main problems with mid 70's K-Tel releases. First, a liberal sprinkling of hits that either just scraped into the charts, such as "Boogie Woogie Man" by Paul Davis (which made it to #68), or didn't, like "It's Lonely Out There" by the Sweet. And second, edited versions that border on brutality--K-Tel was famous for hacking off intros almost entirely and indiscriminately chopping out verses. On this album, they took out at least half of "Bell Bottom Blues." (Ronco, which also released compilation albums, preferred to fade records early, sometimes in ways that made no sense.)

Dynamite (1974). Seriously essential 70s trash on this one: "The Night Chicago Died," "Seasons in the Sun," and the DeFranco Family version of "Save the Last Dance for Me," which does not suck. I bought--hell, I buy, because I picked up a couple earlier this summer in an antique store--I buy most of my K-Tel albums used, but this one I bought new and paid full price--$4.99.

Disco Mania (1975). OK, I am admitting right here in front of the whole damn Internet that I bought a record called Disco Mania. And why not? It features one of the greatest disco records of all time, "Doctor's Orders" by Carol Douglas, along with the Blackbyrds' "Walkin' in Rhythm." Plus it's got Styx, BTO, and Kiss to take some of the curse off.

Right On (1976). Possibly the strongest K-Tel collection in my library--all killer and little filler. Apart from a couple stray hits from three years before (Elton John's "Daniel" and "The Cisco Kid" by War), this disc has lots of the best stuff from My Favorite Year--Thin Lizzy, ELO, the Manhattans, and Firefall, to name four. Gets extra points for the heavily made-up blonde in the navel-baring denim shirt on the cover.

Starlite (1983). Sometime around 1978 or 1979, K-Tel decided that it was better to compile 12 or 14 fairly solid cuts at something approximating their full length than it was to edit the hell out of 20 songs, some obscure at best. Starlite is a fine sampler of the lighter side of early 80s Top 40: "Only the Lonely" by the Motels, "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson, and the best singalong song of 1982, "A Penny for Your Thoughts" by Tavares.

K-Tel lives on at K-Tel, a website managed by Lisa the K-Tel Chick, who has track listings, album covers, TV commercial clips and lots more on her site--and who was recently invited to K-Tel HQ in Winnipeg, where she got to tiptoe through every K-Tel album ever made. I'm tellin' ya, if I wasn't already married . . . .

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

History Lesson: Stuck in Your Head

August 25, 1986: Paul Simon's album Graceland is released. Few albums have sparked the sort of critical acclaim this album did, and here's the proof. In 1986, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The next year, the single release of the title song won the Grammy for Record of the Year. But does anybody listen to it anymore? Essential track: "Graceland."

August 25, 1976: Boston's debut album is released. There's a plausible argument that in terms of radio play, this is one of the most popular albums of all time. Every single cut got significant airplay--Led Zeppelin's Four Symbols (the one with "Stairway to Heaven") is the only other album I can think of on which radio programmers went all the way. Essential track: I used to be a radio programmer, so I gotta say "all of them."

Birthdays today: Elvis Costello is 50, and Gene Simmons of Kiss is 55. I've had little use for both of these guys over the years. Costello's nasal atonality turned me off from the moment I first heard it, although I'm told his music is a lot better than it sounds. Simmons, meanwhile, has made more money with less talent and charm than nearly anyone you could name.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1996: "The Macarena" by Los Del Rio. Just into its third week at the top, it would be dethroned the next week by Donna Lewis' "I Love You Always Forever." Has there ever been more potent a pair of get-stuck-in-your-head tunes atop the charts at the same time?

1979: "My Sharona" by the Knack. Remember how it felt when a crunchy-loud rock song ascended to Number One after a full year of disco thumpers and adult-contemporary weepers? Not since "Miss You" by the Stones a year before had something remotely rockin' topped the charts--and "Miss You" itself broke a 14-month drought for rock at the top stretching back to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and "Hotel California" in the early summer of '77.

1973: "Brother Louie" by Stories. Speaking of crunchy-loud rock songs--this is one of the most ferocious singles to top the charts in the 1970s, featuring Ian Lloyd's strangled screech of a vocal, a relentless beat, and a chill-inducing call-and-response between the lead guitar and the strings toward the end. For maximum sonic power, listen on an AM radio.

1969: "Honky Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones. In which the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band is.

1950: "Goodnight Irene" by Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers. Possibly the first instance in which a record by a black performer (the folk/blues singer Lead Belly) was covered by white artists. The folk boom of the late 50s and early 60s, parodied by Christopher Guest and company in the 2003 movie A Mighty Wind, began with the Weavers, who were blacklisted in the early 50s for alleged Communist ties, but resurfaced in 1955. Pete Seeger was the most famous Weaver, although Woody Guthrie was briefly a member of the group's immediate predecessor, the Almanac Singers, during the 40s.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Friday Top 5: Thunder Road

Earlier this month, Boz Scaggs released a new live best-of collection on CD and DVD. Live albums are product more often than they're great art. Most of the time, they're a perfunctory reworking of familiar material, designed to fulfill a contract but rarely fulfilling otherwise. They're aimed primarily at rabid fans, and we know who we are: people who want everything we can lay our hands on. There's nothing wrong with that in a free-will universe. It isn't like anybody was forced at gunpoint to lay out $14.98 for Eagles Live in 1981, even if it did turn out to be as utterly pointless as any record made since Edison invented the phonograph.

Sometimes, however, live albums work out OK. Forthwith, in no particular order, are five live recordings that are neither perfunctory nor pointless.

Live 1975-1985 by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. On rare occasions, live albums can serve as valuable documents of an established artist's career. This sprawling album (five vinyl discs, originally) captures the true flavor of Springsteen's legendary live shows. Essential track: "Thunder Road."

Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Joe Cocker. Here's a rare example of a group fulfilling a deal and producing great music while doing it. Cocker was obligated to go on tour, so with the help of Leon Russell, he threw together a band. Dave Marsh calls this the only big-band rock album that works. Essential track: "Cry Me a River."

At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. Everyone who's ever gone to a concert and sneaked a look at their wristwatch as a song stretched into a second quarter-hour might not be surprised that the Allmans stretch "Whipping Post" to 22 minutes and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" to 13. What will surprise you is that despite their length, these cuts represent anything but wretched excess. Like jazz players who are really locked in, the band takes as long as they need to, but no longer. Essential tracks: both of the above.

Running on Empty by Jackson Browne. Recorded on stage, backstage, in hotel rooms, and on the bus, this record documents what it's really like on the road. It's boredom and loneliness a lot more often than it's groupies and partying until dawn. Essential track: "You Love the Thunder."

"I Saw Her Standing There" by Elton John and John Lennon. Not an album, just a happy incident where tapes were rolling at a fortunate moment. The story goes that Elton bet Lennon that "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" would make it to Number One in the States. On November 28, 1974, with the song at the top of the chart, Lennon paid up, joining Elton on stage in New York, to rip through, among others, "I Saw Her Standing There," which quite nearly stomps the original. Elton never rocked harder. After that night, Lennon never appeared on stage again.

So how's the new Boz? Members of Boz's mailing list had the chance to hear full length versions of "Lowdown," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," "Jojo" and "Lido Shuffle" online, and I was well-satisfied by all four tracks. Overall, the track selection is impressive, with hits you'd expect and album tracks you wouldn't, like "It All Went Down the Drain," "Runnin' Blue," and "Loan Me a Dime." In the end, though, you gotta remember that I'm a fan. You'll have to decide about Greatest Hits Live for yourself. You can hear samples of "Lowdown," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," and "Slow Dancer" by clicking the link above.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

History Lesson: Under the Apple Tree

August 17, 1977: FTD breaks all records for flower deliveries, as fans send bouquets to Graceland after Elvis Presley's death. Although celebrity deaths have a standard pattern now, the culture didn't quite know how to react to Elvis 27 years ago. Network TV news reported it with a tone of, "We're showing you this but we don't quite understand it," and People magazine didn't even put Elvis on its cover that week, which it now calls the greatest mistake the magazine ever made.

August 17, 1970: Christine McVie joins Fleetwood Mac. Her cool, cerebral presence was the sexiest thing about Fleetwood Mac during their glory years, Stevie Nicks notwithstanding. They're carrying on without her, but as I said after watching their live Boston show during the recent PBS pledge drive, "That's a good band, but it's not Fleetwood Mac."

Birthday Today: Belinda Carlisle is 46. The Go-Gos were a bunch of L.A. teenagers who wanted to be in a band, and never mind that they couldn't play or sing. Essential tracks: "Head Over Heels" and "Turn to You," although "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat" were bigger hits.

Number Ones on This Date:
1999: "All Star" by Smash Mouth. I never heard this on the radio, but it has been inescapable since, in commercials and on TV. It was also the first record my nephew, then seven, ever owned. Will he still love it in 35 years, as I love the first records I ever owned? I wonder.

1974: "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace. If you are a 70s geek, you know this is an essential record. It is not based on a true story, although millions believe it is. It's simply a well-told story--the kind of thing that's sucked us in since we were cave people around campfires.

1964: "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin. Deano dethroned "A Hard Day's Night" from the top spot, proving that the kids hadn't taken over the world yet. But Deano would be dethroned himself by the Supremes and "Where Did Our Love Go," proving that it wouldn't be long.

1956: "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" by Elvis. This did 11 weeks at the top, making it the Number One single of the rock era, until Billboard revised its chart methodology in 1991, thus paving the way for longer runs at the top by the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and N'Sync. Which proves that numbers ain't all.

1944: "GI Jive" by Louis Jordan. World War II infiltrated popular culture to an extent we simply can't grasp today, even though we're supposedly at war, too. Several war-related songs hit Number One between 1942 and 1945. There was "A Hot Time in the Town of Berlin" by the Andrews Sisters, released just after D-Day in 1944, and 1943's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" by Kay Kyser--which Toby Keith must not know, or he'd have covered it by now. You can trace the trajectory of the war experience by some of the songs. One of the big hits of 1942, the war's first full year, was "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" by Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters, a bouncy number that doesn't acknowledge what the boy-gone-off-to-war is facing. But 1944's "I'll Be Seeing You," recorded most famously by Bing Crosby, is another matter altogether. Two years into the war, the sacrifices sometimes asked of people were well known. Most of us can't hear this song the way people heard it then--about parting with someone and not knowing if you'll ever see that someone again.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Friday Top 5: Off By One

As I'll be out of town tomorrow, you get your Friday Top 5 on Thursday this week, so I'll make it worth your while with six mighty one-hit wonders--performers who found the right formula and turned maybe 12 weeks of concentrated fame into an enduring bit of history, but never repeated the feat. This week, I've been listening to lots of tunes from 1969, and I'm surprised at the number of really great one-shot records from that summer. The artists who made them may have returned to the obscurity from whence they came, but the records are still alive.

Israelites/Desmond Dekker and the Aces: Eric Clapton may have made it to Number One with a diluted reggae record (his version of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff"), but Desmond Dekker, one of the biggest stars in Jamaica throughout the 1960s, took the real thing into the Top 10. This record has one of the most riveting openings you'll hear: "Get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir/So that every mouth can be fed," acapella and at half time. In 1969, few Americans had heard anything remotely like it.

Color Him Father/The Winstons: You may debate whether they're truly a one-hit wonder, if you remember their recording of "Love of the Common People." For purposes of this discussion, we don't. The Winstons were experienced road musicians who'd played at Motown and for the likes of Otis Redding and the Impressions before making their own deal. "Color Him Father" is a touching story of a step-family that's found true happiness, which is told through the kind of gorgeous pop/soul arrangement unique to a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. It's just about perfect, which might explain why the Winstons could never hit again.

My Pledge of Love/Joe Jeffrey Group: You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to find a group with a shorter lifespan than the Winstons, who lasted but one year. Clearly, we're at about 1AM with Joe Jeffrey, who charted at the same time the Winstons did with another perfect pop/soul tune, and then vanished without a trace.

In the Year 2525/Zager and Evans: It's a pet theory of mine that the Top 40 was ridden with doom in the last months of 1969. You could argue that the twin spirits of pessimism and fatalism first found their way into the zeitgeist thanks to this, which did six weeks at Number One from mid July through August. Be honest: When you were a kid and heard this for the first time, had you ever thought that far into the future before?

Good Old Rock and Roll/Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys: The main reason this is worth remembering (apart from the euphonious name of the group) is because Jimi Hendrix produced it. This medley of early rock and/ roll tunes is 1969's entry in our culture's continuous rolling nostalgia boom. It didn't start with VH1's five-years-too-soon series I Love the 90s--and it didn't start with Cat Mother, either. It began, in the rock era at least, with the doo-wop revival of 1962 and 1963, with people pining for a bygone era no more than five years past.

Polk Salad Annie/Tony Joe White: Here's some genuine down-home swamp rock, right down to Grandma getting eaten by alligators, punctuated by well-placed grunts. (It's a lot better than that description makes it sound.) White had a couple of other hits in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 after this, but we'll call him a one-hit wonder anyhow since this is the only record of his that anyone remembers. Although he did write the lovely "Rainy Night in Georgia," memorably recorded by Brook Benton in 1970.

I wasn't listening to the radio yet in 1969--not to my own station and my own music, anyhow--so I've discovered these records as oldies rather than currents, as we say in the radio biz. It occurs to me that although The Sixties, capital-T, capital-S, were reaching their peak as a cultural phenomenon that summer--Woodstock was 35 years ago next week--the pop music scene had already moved on. Overall, summer 1969 sounds a lot more like the 70s to me than it does the 60s.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

History Lesson: More Popular Than Jesus

August 11, 1962: Booker T and the MGs release "Green Onions," one of the greatest grooves in soul history. The more you listen to the MGs, either on their own records or backing other musicians at Stax Records in Memphis, the more amazing it is how economical they were. They never wasted a note or a lick, proving that oftentimes what you don't say speaks as loudly as what you do say.

August 11, 1966: John Lennon apologizes on TV for saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. With Bible Belt cities canceling concerts and the record company's stock falling, Lennon has no choice. This does not change the fact that he was right, and still is.

August 11, 1973: Following up their Number One hit from the spring, "Frankenstein," the Edgar Winter Group releases "Free Ride." Turn on an oldies station and you'll hear the tepid album versions of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" or the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," when you should be hearing the remixed, kicked-up 45 versions that were the actual radio hits. If you have a choice, you definitely want the 45 version of "Free Ride," which makes the album version sound like a pale copy.

Birthday today: Joe Jackson is 50. His debut single, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" was one of the signature tunes from the summer of '79. At a moment in time when anyone new and English was considered a punk rocker, Jackson seemed to fit the mold--not with safety pins through his nose or anything, but definitely young, loud, and snotty. But he'd grown up a jazz fan and had a substantial musical education, and after his first two punkish albums, he immediately started moving into other forms of music. He made headlines in the mid 80s by announcing he wouldn't make videos anymore, and in recent years has scored movies and released semi-classical albums. Essential track: "Steppin' Out," from 1982's Night and Day.

Number One Songs on August 11:
10 years ago: "Stay" by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories (More memorable as a video than as a record, because Lisa Loeb was to unattractive black-rimmed eyeglasses what Madonna was to bustiers.)
25 years ago: "Bad Girls" by Donna Summer (In which the joys of prostitution are proclaimed to all. There are no words for how much I hated this record in 1979.)
50 years ago: "Sh-Boom" by the Crew Cuts (The safe-for-white-people version of the R&B original by the Chords, which is one of the foundations of early rock and roll.)
75 years ago: "Singin' in the Rain" by Ukulele Ike (This guy, real name Cliff Edwards, was responsible for a nationwide craze for ukulele music during the 1920s. Only slightly less offensive than hip-hop.)
114 years ago: "Semper Fidelis" by the U.S. Marine Band (The first record to be considered Number One, written by John Philip Sousa especially for then-president Chester Arthur; Sousa conducted the U.S. Marine band on this recording, making him the first American recording star.)

Monday, August 09, 2004

No Longer Live or Local

I haven't said anything about the late Rick James here yet, mostly because I don't have much to add. James was always more famous for his legal troubles than for his music, although "Super Freak" (which hit the Top 40 23 years ago this week) will probably endure. It wasn't his first hit, though. That came in the summer of 1978 with the excellent "You and I," featuring his backup singers delivering these immortal lines:
Some people might say I'm infatuated with you
I don't care 'cause they really don't know
They'll never see or hear the things I do
So far as I'm concerned they all can go to hell
The best bit of James trivia is, of course, that he was in a band with Neil Young for a while. Now that's super freaky.

Also, a friend sends me notice that the Chicago Radio Hall of Fame will induct a new class this fall, including Chicago radio legend Larry Lujack, Detroit radio legend Dick Purtan, and Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays. The irony of Mays, whose corporation has done its best to render the DJ extinct, being inducted at the same time as Lujack and Purtan, two giants of the trade, is painful. As the radio joke has it, what's the difference between your local McDonalds and Clear Channel? The voice on the microphone at McDonalds is live and local.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Friday Top 5: At the Speed of Sound

No season of the '70s had better music than the summer of 1976, and no music is more evocative to me of its time than the hits of that summer. But instead of counting down the Top 5 singles, as we normally do on this feature, today I've got the Top 5 albums on the Billboard chart from this week in 1976.

Number 5: Spitfire by Jefferson Starship. The newly refitted Starship was coming off its biggest hit ever, the 1975 album Red Octopus, which was Number One for a month. So another album pegged to Marty Balin's love songs seemed like a good move, although it measured up neither commercially nor critically. Spitfire did spawn one excellent single, though--the Marty Balin love song "With Your Love," which was climbing the charts itself on this date in '76.

Number 4: Chicago X. The whole numbering-of-albums thing seemed like a good idea at the time, although now it makes them hard to differentiate. (Some people--not me--will say that since all of their albums sounded alike, it doesn't matter if they get confused.) Chicago X was the one with the band's first Number One single, "If You Leave Me Now," and the largely forgotten but equally fine "Another Rainy Day in New York City," which was actually the album's lead single.

Number 3: Wings at the Speed of Sound by Paul McCartney and Wings. In 1976, Wings toured the United States (a tour documented on Wings Over America, which would come out at the end of the year). The band recorded Wings at the Speed of Sound pretty quickly before going out, so it's a little thin, although four of its songs were featured on the Wings Over America tour. One of them, "Silly Love Songs," was McCartney's biggest solo hit up to that time.

Number 2: Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton. I heard somebody joking that a copy of this album was issued to every teenager in America in 1976, and because that's not far from the truth, there's not much left to say about it, except to note that in early August, the single "Baby I Love Your Way" was climbing the charts. Talk about records evocative of their times: Even in the dead of winter, "Baby I Love Your Way" takes me to hot August nights, fading AM radio waves, and fireflies out my window.

Number 1: Breezin' by George Benson. Of all the longshots to make Number One in the 1970s, this might have been the longest. Although the mid 70s was the height of the jazz-rock fusion era, Benson's album is closer to straight jazz than fusion. His vocal on "This Masquerade" launched Benson's second career as a soft R&B heartthrob through the late 70s and early 80s. "Breezin'" was the last jazz album to make it to Number One. (Sorry, Kenny G doesn't count, although some people think Norah Jones does.)

Other major hit albums that summer were by Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Queen, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac. It was good to have a record player back then. Or did you have 8-tracks?

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Crystal Blue Persuaded

I love the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I love the concept and the respectful historical rigor with which the Hall treats the music. I love that it's located in Cleveland and not in New York or Los Angeles. The problem with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that its primary criterion for induction seems to be longevity. So artists like ZZ Top, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, and Earth Wind and Fire get in mostly because they enjoyed at least 25 years of reasonably steady commercial success. Never mind that nobody can quite identify the precise nature of their lasting contribution to the art form, or that the number of other artists each of them has actually influenced can be counted on the fingers of one hand. You can argue that the enshrinement of AC/DC and the Bee Gees on the same pedestal alongside such obvious immortals as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, and Buddy Holly diminishes the accomplishments of the immortals. Perhaps, as baseball guru Bill James once said of the Baseball Hall of Fame, not everybody should get a plaque--some people deserve statues. (Be very afraid--Britney Spears will be eligible for induction in 2025.)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is also biased toward the serious. Every last inductee is somebody at whom serious scholarship has been directed, and while they may have made music that was at times silly or joyful, in the end, Hall induction stamps them as Serious People. "Yeah, everyone thought it was just kids' music, but dammit, we were Serious about it." And while hit singles are just fine, hit singles alone won't get you in, because hit singles don't demonstrate your Seriousness as effectively as hit albums do.

Couldn't we have a wing of the Hall for those artists who made brilliant singles, records woven into the fabric of the lives of the people who heard them, but who didn't make albums Serious enough to get on WNEW, or another of the legendary album-rock radio stations of the 1970s, whose playlists often seem to parallel the yearly induction lists? If we ever got one, the first person I'd nominate for induction is Tommy James.

Tommy James and the Shondells were considered one of the quintessential bubblegum acts of the 1960s. That we easily call them an "act" instead of a "band" or a "group" tips you that they are not Serious. It can also be hard to take a "Shondell" seriously--although why a Shondell should be less serious than, say, a "Kink," I'm not sure. And their early stuff was pretty sticky: "Hanky Panky," and "I Think We're Alone Now," to name two. But if you listen chronologically to what James was doing, it's easy to hear how he evolves. With the release of "Mony Mony" in 1968, James was actually rockin' (and his "Mony Mony" still completely stomps Billy Idol's more famous 1980s remake). And in 1969, his biggest year, he scored three straight top-10 hits that are pure hypnotic psychedelia: "Crimson and Clover," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." These are records you can get lost in, the kind of thing you'd keep listening to if it were jammed on for 45 minutes, Grateful Dead or Phish-style. They were records you could get stoned to--but 13-year-olds could also fall in love to 'em, thus rendering them not really Serious. I have actually heard "Draggin' the Line," the signature single of the summer of 1971, on classic-rock radio in recent years, but it's the exception that proves the rule.

Are you gonna tell me that the guy who made "Mony Mony," "Crimson and Clover," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and "Draggin' the Line" isn't at least as worthy of pop immortality as Prince or Rod Stewart? No sale.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

History Lesson

August 3, 1963: Allan Sherman releases "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." Sherman was the Weird Al Yankovic of his day, recording parodies of popular songs and writing funny lyrics to famous classical melodies. "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" is his most famous song, and within three weeks, the song would rise to Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, trailing only Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips." On the same day, the Beatles made their final appearance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

August 3, 1971: Paul McCartney announces the formation of Wings. Wings doesn't get much love, but how could they? Would you want to compete against the Beatles, even if you were one of 'em? Few hitmakers were more reliable in the 1970s, so here are the top 5 Wings hits, according to Billboard:
1. "Silly Love Songs," 1976
2. "My Love," 1973
3. "Coming Up," 1980
4. "With a Little Luck," 1978
5. "Band on the Run," 1974
August 3, 1974: Guitarist Jeff Baxter quits Steely Dan and joins the Doobie Brothers. Thus begins the metamorphosis of the Doobies from goodtime biker band to smooth jazz urban sophisticates. It's not entirely Michael McDonald's doing.

Birthday today: Tony Bennett is 78. His brief ascension to MTV icon in the mid 90s was one of the weirder celebrity transitions in history, but why shouldn't a new generation discover some of the world's greatest makeout music? Essential album: Together Again, with pianist Bill Evans.

Number one songs on August 3: A brief perusal of the list shows that many chart-topping tunes on August 3 have been pretty dire (John Denver, Donna Summer, the Carpenters, etc.) Forthwith, five songs number one on this date that didn't suck:
1975: "One of These Nights" by the Eagles
1971: "You've Got a Friend" by James Taylor
1967: "Light My Fire" by the Doors
1965: "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones
1964: "A Hard Day's Night" by the Beatles
Number one song 100 years ago today: "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" by Billy Murray. Murray was the Elvis of the pre-1920 pioneer era, scoring 169 hits between 1903 and 1927, including the most popular recordings of "Give My Regards to Broadway," "In My Merry Oldsmobile," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." (In the pioneer era, several competing versions of songs were often released on records at the same time.) With the St. Louis World's Fair in full swing during the summer of 1904, the long-ago equivalent of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors' Bureau couldn't have been happier.