Friday, October 29, 2004

Top Five: 1966 Mix Tape

Looking back, the top five songs from the Billboard chart during this week in 1966 wouldn't be a bad start for a '60s mix tape, really.

1. "96 Tears"/? and the Mysterians. This record is now recognized as an important ancestor of punk rock, but it started life as a poem called "Too Many Teardrops," which was eventually set to music (that eerie, Morse-code organ) and recorded in the living room of the band's manager. Back in those days, one hardworking person could get a record on the radio, which is precisely what Question Mark did--he went from station to station in Michigan to get them to play it. When one of the big stations in Detroit picked it up, so did a national record company, and the song was on its way to legendary status.

2. "Last Train to Clarksville"/Monkees. This song, inspired by the Beatles' "Paperback Writer," hit the charts the same week The Monkees TV show was first shown on NBC (the same week Star Trek also premiered). For something intended to be disposable entertainment, it's incredibly well-made. You'd have to put this and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" high on the list of '60s artifacts that get no respect.

3. "Reach Out I'll Be There"/Four Tops. "Black Dylan," Phil Spector is said to have called this. When I was standing in the control room at Motown's Detroit headquarters, now the Motown Museum, what gave me the deepest chill was the thought that this record was recorded there.

4. "Poor Side of Town"/Johnny Rivers. I heard Johnny Rivers singing a version of "Secret Agent Man" on a Walmart TV ad the other day, and it made me want to go and get out some of his other stuff to wash away the memory of the Walmart jingle. This was the biggest hit of Rivers' career, so it's a good place to start.

5. "Walk Away Renee"/Left Banke. The Left Banke's thing was pop music influenced by light classical, which seemed like a good idea only in a brief window of time after the British Invasion and before Sgt. Pepper made it possible for rock music to be classical on its own. Later on in the '60s and early 1970s, rock/classical fusions would get heavy and pompous, but "Walk Away Renee" was definitely not.

After those five, you could flesh out the mix tape with songs from Revolver, which was riding the album charts the same week along with the Monkees' and Mamas and the Papas' debut albums and Supremes A-Go-Go (but only "You Can't Hurry Love"). Also high on the album charts: the soundtrack from Doctor Zhivago and What Now My Love by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I'm guessing nobody owned them all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

History Lesson: There Is a Rose in Spanish Harlem

October 27, 1975: Bruce Springsteen appears simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek as "Born to Run" blasts from radios. Springsteen is said to have walked around for two days after he wrote it wondering who he stole it from; critic Greil Marcus coined the best description when he called it "a '57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records."

October 27, 1970: Jesus Christ Superstar is released on LP. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice deliver a lecture on the album at a church in New York City--a scene that would be repeated in countless churches across the land as people tried to figure out, in true 60s fashion, whether this music was blasphemous, or whether the kids had something worthwhile to say.

October 27, 1960: Ex-Drifters singer Ben E. King records his first two singles, "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me." That's a full, rich day.

Birthdays Today: Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots is 37. I mention this only because "Stone Temple Pilots" was, and remains, the coolest band name of the 1990s. Simon LeBon of Duran Duran is 46. With much fanfare, the first video-driven megastars returned earlier this fall with a new album and tour. Whether they'll be as big now that they're not quite so pretty remains to be seen.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1999: "Mambo Number 5"/Lou Bega.
Gee, I hope he invested the money.
1974: "Then Came You"/Dionne Warwick and the Spinners. One of the slowest climbers ever to Number One. It took three months to ascend the summit, and then stayed only a week.
1970: "I'll Be There"/Jackson Five. Another example of the difference between album versions and single versions. The album version is the one you hear everywhere now, but the single version, which was the one that spent five weeks at Number One, has a dreamy quality the album version lacks.
1962: "Monster Mash"/Bobby "Boris" Pickett. This Halloween novelty resurfaced in 1973 and made the Top Ten--in the middle of the summer, which tells you a lot about the 1970s. (Pickett has rerecorded a parody of it this year, as an anti-Bush, pro-environment message for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and Campaign to Protect America's Lands; thanks to Willie for the link.)
1929: "Tiptoe Through the Tulips"/Nick Lucas. Another artifact of the ukulele music craze of the late 20s. This is the same song Tiny Tim made famous in the 1960s, but I'm guessing you don't really need to hear either one right now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Captain Fantastic

Twenty-nine years ago tonight, Elton John played the second of two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles--the first rock concerts held there since the Beatles in 1966, and the wrapup of an enormously successful American tour. (Several photos from the shows are featured in the packaging of his Greatest Hits Volume 2 album.) The Dodger Stadium dates represent Elton’s cultural peak. His opaque masterpiece, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, had come out that spring; he’d appeared in the movie version of Tommy as the Pinball Wizard that summer; the tour and the hits kept coming that fall.

When Chicago’s legendary Top 40 blowtorch, WLS, counted down its top 89 hits of 1975 on December 31, it was an Elton-free night until very late, which didn’t surprise me. I was listening to the countdown with two of my best friends that New Year’s Eve. (It was our last one without driver’s licenses.) I was keeping track of the list, and had been confidently predicting all night that Elton’s "Philadelphia Freedom" would be Number One. So "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was at Number 10. I could see it. "Bad Blood" at 9, "Island Girl" at 7, so far, so good. I was shocked when "Philadelphia Freedom" landed at Number 5. When "Pinball Wizard" (which had never been officially released as a single) was Number Two, the pump was primed for outrage. "'Love Will Keep Us Together’ is Number One? Are you kidding me?" Five of the year's top 10 songs, but no Number One?

We didn't know it then, but Elton's era was beginning to pass. The album Rock of the Westies had slipped from the Number One slot in late November, never to return, and the single that followed "Island Girl," the double-sided "I Feel Like a Bullet" and "Grow Some Funk of Your Own," would fail to reach the heights Elton had scaled for the last four years. The biggest hit of his career, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," was still to come in the summer of '76 (without a hit album), but a year later, people were already wondering whatever happened to Elton John.

Parenthetical Note: If you want one more indication of Elton John's staggering popularity in 1975, consider this. Since Billboard revised its album chart methodology in the early 90s, it's nothing for an artist to debut at Number One. It happens all the time now, but was almost unheard of in earlier years. It had never happened before 1975, when both Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies entered the charts at Number One. A year later, Stevie Wonder did it with Songs in the Key of Life, but until the chart methodology was changed, nobody else ever managed it.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Something in the Air That Night

Everybody's got one: a single season in which you would live forever, if you could. The fall of 1976 is mine. I had a car ('74 AMC Hornet, robin's-egg blue), I had a girl (you know who you are), and the music was spectacular. Now it's possible that it was the car and the girl that made the music seem spectacular--after all, we're in a realm here that defies dispassionate analysis, and if you've ever been there, I think you know what I mean. So here's just one possible soundtrack for this week in 1976:

"If You Leave Me Now"/Chicago. Chicago's first Number One song, a lovely, grownup mood, which Peter Cetera quite nearly blows with an astoundingly stupid ad lib right at the fade: "Whoo, mama, I just got to have your lovin', hey." Dude, shut up.

"Still the One"/Orleans. Next to the Raspberries' "Go All the Way," quite possibly the best record with which to start your radio show. Great intro, great finish, and impossible not to sing along with, so don't forget to turn the microphone off. From the album Waking and Dreaming, which has, in retrospect, one of the gayest album covers of all time.

"Lowdown"/Boz Scaggs. "Turn on that old lovelight/turn a maybe to a yes." From Silk Degrees, one of the essential albums of the 1970s. October 1976 might have represented the pinnacle of white-boy soul, thanks to Boz and . . .

"She's Gone"/Hall and Oates. Their greatest hit, and if you notice, beneficiary of one of the oddest edits ever. On the 45 version, the first two lines of the first verse are spliced to the last two lines of the second verse. Get the long version. though. Hall and Oates never again did anything remotely like it.

"I Only Want to Be With You"/Bay City Rollers. A surprisingly good update of the 1964 Dusty Springfield original. Yes, it's incredibly overblown--the instrumental break in the middle sounds like the 101 Strings on a caffeine high, with the French horns blowing the hardest. Nevertheless, It's the great bubblegum record the Rollers were always destined to make and renders the rest of their catalog unnecessary.

"Devil Woman"/Cliff Richard. It was Halloween season, after all, with lots of mysteries in the air. A superstar in England since the 1950s, Richard barely moved the needle in the United States until he recorded this, and followed it with the even-better "We Don't Talk Anymore," and "Dreaming."

"Fernando"/Abba. This record is completely absurd, really, because it seems to be about the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and from the Mexican point of view at that, which seems rather odd coming from a bunch of Swedes--but try and resist the refrain: "There was something in the air that night . . ."

"Did You Boogie"/Flash Cadillac. Raise your hand if you remember this at all, which was straight out of the Happy Days-driven '50s nostalgia boom of the time. The original 45 features a rap by Wolfman Jack that wasn't heard on the radio version: "Sometimes I get to thinkin' there's just not enough love and romance in our lives today. So that's why I like to reminisce, and relive that first feeling of love, and do it all over again."

"With Your Love"/Jefferson Starship. "Don't know what's happened to me since I met you." The middle period of the Starship's career, post-Airplane and pre-just-plain-Starship, produced some of the 70s' best records: this one, and "Miracles," and "Play on Love," and "Runaway."

"Say You Love Me"/Fleetwood Mac. Another great radio record, with an intro that grabs you from the first microsecond and a fade that's positively intoxicating: "Fallin', fallin', fallin'." (I was already hot for Christine McVie by this time, and I still am.)

The radio was always on in those days. And in a way, it's been on for me ever since, always playing this stuff and the rest of it from the other Octobers I've been remembering of late. I'm not a good enough writer to tell it, really, so maybe this is all too opaque to you. (You can't say I didn't warn you that sometimes on this blog, I'll be the only one who gets it.) Maybe you had to be there.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Chewin' on Cheese

I have been waxing lyrical lately about how great the radio sounded in Octobers gone by, but at the same time, I have been ignoring the painful-but-true fact that while "Miracles" and "Jazzman" sounded great, each of them was frequently segued out of, or into, some of the most egregious dreck of the 1970s, which rode the charts at the very same time. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here's the flip side of those glorious Octobers.

"Steppin' Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)"/Tony Orlando and Dawn.
Chart peak: Number 7. In which Orlando channels Fred Astaire doing a top-hat-and-tails tap-dance number. Despite its awfulness, this record does not make you want to pull off your own arm and use it to beat yourself to death. That would be Dawn's hit earlier in 1974, "Who's in the Strawberry Patch With Sally?"

"My Melody of Love"/Bobby Vinton. Chart peak: Number 3. Proof positive of the broad demographic appeal of Top 40 in the 1970s. It's hard to imagine anybody under the age of 40 buying this record back then. Or anyone under the age of 70 now. Remembering that a station could once play this back to back with "Sweet Home Alabama" without breaking any format rules leaves me kind of woozy.

"Feelings"/Morris Albert.
Chart peak: Number 6. DJs often made a big deal about how many countries this song had been Number One in. Which only proved that pop sludge can be international and multicultural. Remember the episode of The Gong Show where every contestant sang this, and every one got gonged?

"Run Joey Run"/David Geddes. Chart peak: Number 4. In which Julie's father discovers that Julie and Joey had been making the Beast With Two Backs and resolves to cap Joey for it, only to have Julie take the bullet to save Joey's life. Gains extra awfulness points for its offkey angel chorus and Geddes' manly, Michael Boltonesque performance.

"Rocky"/Austin Roberts. Chart peak: Number 9. For a song in which the heroine dies in the end, this is pretty upbeat. Gains extra awfulness points because the song is titled after the singer and not the dead heroine, whose given name is never mentioned.

"Muskrat Love"/Captain and Tennille.
Chart peak: Number 4. Possibly the most reviled single of all time. Gains extra awfulness points for the muskrat sound effects, and for the way Toni sings the words "chewin' on cheese." Once, when I had to play this on the radio, I jumped on the fadeout and said, "All right, you little rodents, get out of here--and take the muskrats with you."

"Disco Duck"/Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots. Chart peak: Number One. You remember it as awful, but if you go back and listen to it again--and I did this week, so you don't have to--it's truly shocking how awful it is. It's not funny; it's not even especially clever; and it went platinum.

And there you have it: some of the most craptacular music of all time, and every one a Top-Ten hit. Because in the 1970s, we couldn't help ourselves.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Top 5: Just Can't Stop It

As I wrote earlier this week, I am all about the month of October. It's the weather and the football and the metaphorical, philosophical underpinnings of the season--the indescribable peak of beauty that nature brings itself to just before the whole thing turns brown and dies. So that's probably why the music I was listening to in various Octobers of the 1970s has stayed with me more vividly than the music from most other seasons. Monday, I wrote about 1974; today, it's five records on the charts this week 29 years ago that sum up how the autumn of 1975 sounded, and felt.

"Miracles"/Jefferson Starship. Light-years removed from the shrill Jefferson Airplane of the 1960s, "Miracles" is an elegant, erotic love song that vibrates with sensuality. Dave Marsh noted it as one of the best songs ever to sneak by the censors, thanks to the lines, "I got a taste of the real world (just a drop of it)/When I went down on you (oh never stop it)."

"Lyin' Eyes"/Eagles. In 1980, I heard Glenn Frey say from the stage that he couldn't imagine getting tired of this song. I thought then, "Me neither," and while his opinion might have changed in the intervening 24 years, mine hasn't.

"It Only Takes a Minute"/Tavares. An excellent radio record with an introduction that's s fun to talk over. (I still do it whenever I'm in the car and this comes on, and I haven't done a DJ show in seven years). You want the long version of this, with the last verse: "For what I've got in mind girl/Give me 60 seconds, no more."

"They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)"/Spinners. One of the last gasps of great Philadelphia soul, a wonder of musical construction, impossible not to sing along with. This is, in fact, my favorite song of all time.

"Who Loves You"/Four Seasons. One of the great forgotten hits of the 1970s, this features an amazing disco break in the middle that sounds like it was dropped in from some other record by mistake. And the vocal bridge coming out of the break, with all the "baby-baby"'s and "doot-doot-doo"'s before the refrain comes back in again ("Come to me/baby you'll see") is one of the most thrilling Top 40 moments ever.

And five more:
Bad Blood/Neil Sedaka and Elton John
Ballroom Blitz/Sweet
Dance With Me/Orleans
Heat Wave/Linda Ronstadt
Lady Blue/Leon Russell

Thursday, October 14, 2004

History Lesson: Forever Autumn

October 14, 1977: Bing Crosby dies on a golf course in Spain. He was no longer a significant hitmaker by the time the rock era began, but his impact on recorded music was unmistakable. He was a creature of the microphone--his soft crooning couldn't reach the back of a hall without one, and when he burst on the scene in the late 1920s, he helped usher out the era of overpowering shouters like Al Jolson. Only Elvis Presley matched the multimedia dominance of Crosby, and on the record charts, everyone else eats Bing's dust. He had over 300 charted singles under his own name, and many more in combination with other artists.

October 14, 1972: A harmonic convergence of great R&B records--the Spinners' "I'll Be Around" goes to Number One on the R&B chart; "If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes makes its chart debut; "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by the Temptations is released. I have said it for years--those who denigrate the 1970s as a pale, soulless, silly decade can only do so by ignoring the tremendous vitality of R&B music, at least during the first half of the decade. The era's best music was shaped by three great producers, each of whom did their best work with the three groups I've mentioned here: Thom Bell with the Spinners, Gamble and Huff with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Norman Whitfield with the Temptations.

October 14, 1964: Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts marries Shirley Arnold. In their heyday, the Stones led the world in debauchery and excess, but Watts was not known to have partaken in much of it. He shunned the willing groupies that his bandmates bedded by the hundreds, and is still married to Shirley today--which makes it the most amazing marriage rock and roll has ever seen.

Birthday Today: Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues is 58. Hayward's solo career never amounted to much, except for one glorious moment in 1978, with a song he recorded for an overblown musical version of War of the Worlds called "Forever Autumn." It missed the American charts altogether but was a substantial hit in England, and has since appeared in the States on the 1998 Moody Blues collection Anthology. It's beautiful, and perfect for the emotional subtext of this time of year, all about what it's like to try and hold onto something that's already gone.

Number Ones on This Date:
1994: "All I Wanna Do"/Sheryl Crow. A pretty weird record, really, and not representative of the rest of Sheryl Crow's work at all. I was out of radio by this time and not really listening to much AC or Top 40 at the time, but even I got sick of hearing this one.
1984: "I Just Called to Say I Love You"/Stevie Wonder. A fine record, although miles removed from his Motown classics. Best remembered now for being part of a hilarious scene in the movie High Fidelity, where record-store clerk Barry goes off on a customer who wants to buy it for his daughter: "God. Do you even know your daughter? There's no way she likes that song. Is she in a coma?"
1977: "Star Wars/Cantina Band"/Meco. Yes, it's a disco version of music from Star Wars, notable only because October 14, 1977, would be the last day until Christmas Eve 1977 that the Number One song on the Hot 100 would not be "You Light Up My Life."
1966: "Reach Out I'll Be There"/Four Tops. Turn on almost any oldies station and you'll hear this song, but it will be the tepid album mix Motown has propagated time and again through its own anthologies and the ones to which it licensed the song. But put on the original single version (found on Motown's Hitsville USA boxed set) and you will hear the fearsome thing Phil Spector called "black Dylan." Motown may have billed itself as "the Sound of Young America," but this was in no wise kids music.
1923: "Yes, We Have No Bananas"/Billy Jones. This phrase is imprinted in the DNA of people my age (at least I think it is), but almost nobody knows where it came from. It came from this song, and yes, the catchphrase swept the country in 1923.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Top 5: Not Even Past

The deeper we get into October, the more I retreat into my Top 40 past. The reasons are in the very first post on this blog last summer: "[T]he record charts became the calendar of my life, and . . . down to this very day, certain songs transform me into the person I was when they were hits so long ago." Sometimes I think the autumn me was the best of me in those years--although honesty compels me to report that it was often the worst of me, too. Nevertheless, the ability we all possess to ignore the bad and cherish the good in us makes it possible to remember these seasons with a lot of fondness.

Take October 1974, for instance. It's the fall of my freshman year in high school. I am trying to play saxophone in the band, I am equipment manager of the football team (and obsessed with the game, despite my inability to actually play it), and I am no doubt well on the way to becoming the insufferable geek I would be until I was maybe 26 years old. That fall, I would discover FM Top 40 in the form of an automated station from Madison, whose minimalist, jock-free approach sounded radically different to me, raised as I was on jock-driven Classic Top 40 radio. Now the only fading radio wave I had to listen through was the one with the Badger football games on Saturdays. Here are five tunes I still associate with the first days of that new station:

"Can't Get Enough"/Bad Company. Along with Skynryd's "Sweet Home Alabama," this was as hard-rockin' as the Top 40 got that fall.

"You Little Trustmaker"/Tymes. A great full-tilt love song, complete with the sort of "dooby-dooby-dooby"'s that were largely obsolete in pop music by this time.

"Jazzman"/Carole King. A sound far different than her other singles, thanks to Tom Scott's saxophone--one of the many sax players in the world who was better than I was.

"Carefree Highway"/Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot's big, warm voice says "autumn" to me, and it started with this record.

"Overnight Sensation"/Raspberries. A record more ambitious than any they--and all but a few other groups--ever attempted. It was never going to be a monster hit, but anybody who noticed it then hasn't forgotten it yet.

I could have picked five or ten more, but I'd better stop here, because as William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." Otherwise I could go on for hours. And I will, but later.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Top 5: My Time

I have been on the road lately, and haven't always had easy web access for posting to this blog, although I see the post I put together yesterday that I thought had been lost in a computer crash actually made it onto the blog, so that's good news. I have been listening to plenty of music with my travels, and here are five of the best CDs from the trip:

Rumours (Expanded Edition)/Fleetwood Mac. You might think Rumours has pretty much lost its ability to surprise after nearly 28 years, but you'd be wrong. The remastered version of the original album sounds far better than earlier versions, and I noticed some touches here and there I'd never heard before. The accompanying disc of alternate versions, most of which use the vocal tracks heard on the official takes, is nothing spectacular, although there is a longer version of "You Make Lovin' Fun" with more of that classic riff, a breathtaking instrumental version of "Never Going Back Again" under its original title, "Brushes," and a full-group version of "Songbird," which appears on the original album with Christine solo on piano. (Rumours is one of three classic Mac albums reissued earlier this year in expanded editions, along with Tusk and the white Fleetwood Mac album.)

About Time/Steve Winwood, 2003. This is one of the best new albums I've heard in years. Winwood relies more heavily than ever on the organ (as opposed to the other electronic keyboards that dominate his other solo albums), and as a result, some of the grooves are pretty deep. Essential tracks: "Different Light," "Why Can't We Live Together" (a remake of the 1972 Timmy Thomas original). About Time made for a nice double-play alongside . . .

Closer to It/Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, 1973. Auger isn't the soulful singer Winwood is, but this is one damn funky record, too, a great merger of jazz and rock, heavy on the electric piano. Essential tracks: "Happiness Is Just Around the Bend," "Compared to What."

Sports/Huey Lewis and the News, 1983. I hadn't listened to this in years, and it's starting to sound a little bit dated. Nobody really needs to hear "I Want a New Drug" or "If This Is It" again, and even "The Heart of Rock and Roll" (recently crowned by VH1 as one of the "most awesomely bad records" ever) is starting to sound like a parent's idea of what kids think is cool, but the fun the group is having on the record remains audible. Essential tracks: "Heart and Soul," "You Crack Me Up."

My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology/Boz Scaggs, 1997. I had owned Silk Degrees for years when this came out, and I wanted it for stuff of similar vintage like "Breakdown Dead Ahead" and "Hard Times." But I was completely blown away by the stuff from both earlier and later years that I'd never heard before. The end result is that my copy of My Time has been rendered mostly superfluous because I've since picked up the original albums. Essential tracks: Damn, how can I pick? How about "Sierra" from Some Change, and "Loan Me a Dime," because some people think it's one of the greatest records ever made?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

History Lesson: One Day in Your Life

Any given day can be filled with historic events, but some time has to pass before we recognize it as such. October 7, 1978, was one of those days. The Los Angeles Dodgers advanced to the World Series that night, and after the game was over, we turned on the radio.
Bob Seger's "Hollywood Nights" peaked at Number 12 on the singles chart. It's the quintessential Bob Seger record--a smart lyric about making your way in a world that wants to steal your money and break your heart, delivered with Seger's trademark crunch. All-time classic lines: "She had been born with a face that would let her get her way/He saw that face and he lost all control."

Boston's "Don't Look Back" peaked at Number 4. We would have been surprised to know that it would be their last major hit for eight years, until "Amanda" in 1986.

The Rolling Stones performed "Beast of Burden" and "Respectable" on Saturday Night Live. This was the night Mick grossed out America by licking Ron Wood's cheek in mid-solo.

Toto's first single, "Hold the Line," was released. Can you think of an artist that sold more records and got less love than Toto? "Hold the Line" became a radio hit because it sounded like it should be one--perfect for both Top 40 and album-rock formats.

John Mellencamp celebrated his 27th birthday. It would be the last time he celebrated a birthday without having it mentioned on lists of notable birthdays, because by the time he would turn 28, the album Nothin' Matters and What If It Did would be out, and the single "I Need a Lover" would be on its way up the charts.