Friday, December 31, 2004

Rock This Town

When I was a kid, the meaning of New Year's Eve evolved over time. At first, it was simply my father's birthday. Then, it became a football night, prelude to the even bigger football day of January 1. Then came 1970, when I discovered the New Year's Eve countdown on the radio.

I grew up in a town too small to have its own rock-and-roll station, so I was weaned on Chicago's legendary Top-40 blowtorch, WLS. Each year, "the Big 89" would countdown the top 89 hits of the year, based on their weekly survey of the Chicago market. The list did not usually parallel the national top-hits list--on only a handful of occasions was the WLS Number One for the year the same as the one on the Billboard chart, for example. So it was in the era before a shrinking pool of risk-averse consultants came to program more and more stations, and before corporate consolidation made every station sound like every other one.

If you were into music much at all, the New Year's Eve countdown was an event, even if it was just a good soundtrack for whatever party you were at. No matter what station you listened to, the routine was usually the same. The countdown usually started at 6:00, and after reaching Number One at midnight (with a pause for "Auld Lang Syne" by Guy Lombardo, and in the early '80s, Dan Fogelberg's "Same Auld Lang Syne"), the station would usually turn around and do it again. WLS added its own wrinkle--the "time sweep," a montage of clips from every Number One song on its weekly chart from 1960 through the end of the year just completed, which the station would play at the stroke of midnight. (The 1984 time sweep is here, and it's amazing.)

I went back into the archives and dug up the WLS Big 89 countdown lists from 1967, when the countdown began, through 1986, the last year the station did it. A brief summary of each year follows. In addition to simply listing the Number Ones, I've also included the Number 89s, just for kicks.

1: "Ode to Billie Joe"/Bobbie Gentry
89: "Silence Is Golden"/Tremeloes
Weirdest entry: "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" by the Royal Guardsmen at Number 7.

1: "Hey Jude"-"Revolution"/Beatles
89: "I Need Love"/Third Booth
Comment: I never heard of Third Booth either; they were a Chicago-area garage band.

1: "Sugar Sugar"/Archies
89: "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'"/Crazy Elephant
Comment: Truly, 1969 was bubble gum's finest hour. Four years ago, streamed this countdown in its entirety, with all the music, newscasts, and commercials intact, along with the godlike DJs of the classic era. Nothing I've ever found on the Internet gave me more joy, and it's become one of the most requested airchecks at Reelradio. You might want to drop over to Reelradio during the New Year's weekend to see whether they're running it again, or if they're featuring a different countdown from another place and time.

1: "Bridge Over Troubled Water"/Simon and Garfunkel
89: "The Wonder of You"/Elvis Presley
Comment: The times, they were a-changing, and this chart shows it.

1: "Joy to the World"/Three Dog Night
89: "L.A. Goodbye"/Ides of March
Comment: Four songs by the Osmonds among the top 22, two by the brothers and two by Donny. The 60s were well and truly over.

1: "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"/Roberta Flack
89: "Play Me"/Neil Diamond
Weirdest segue: "Puppy Love" by Donny Osmond (#45) into "If Loving You Is Wrong" by Luther Ingram (#44). Talk about your two sides of love.

1: "You're So Vain"/Carly Simon
89: "Roll Over Beethoven"/Electric Light Orchestra
Comment: ELO was pretty progressive for AM radio in 1973.

1: "Seasons in the Sun"/Terry Jacks
89: "Stop and Smell the Roses"/Mac Davis
Weirdest entry: "One Tin Soldier" by Coven at Number 4; it had been more successful nationally in 1971, but the early 1974 re-release was a monster in Chicago.

1: "Love Will Keep Us Together"/Captain and Tennille
89: "Old Days"/Chicago
Comment: As I wrote last October, despite his failure to land the top spot on the countdown, Elton John owned 1975.

1: "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"/Elton John and Kiki Dee
89: "Over My Head"/Fleetwood Mac
Best segue: "Theme from S.W.A.T" by Rhythm Heritage (#41) into "Get Up and Boogie" by Silver Convention (#40).

1: "You Light Up My Life"/Debby Boone
89: "You Make Loving Fun"/Fleetwood Mac
Weirdest entry: "Come Sail Away" by Styx at Number 26; because its chart run overlapped two different years, it would also be the Number 52 song of 1978. While there may have been other records to place in two different years off the same chart run, I can't think of one off the top of my head. Had this song's chart run been entirely confined to either 1977 or 1978, it would likely have been the Number One song of the year, because WLS played the hell out of it.

1: "Stayin' Alive"/Bee Gees
89: "Hollywood Nights"/Bob Seger
Weirdest entry: "One Nation Under a Groove" by Funkadelic at Number 72.

1: "My Sharona"/The Knack
89: "Head Games"/Foreigner
Weirdest segue: "Head Games" into "You Decorated My Life" by Kenny Rogers (#88).

1: "Lost in Love"/Air Supply
89: "Whip It"/Devo
Weirdest entry: either "Games Without Frontiers" by Peter Gabriel (#87) or "Stay in Time" by Off Broadway (#11). The inclusion of both signaled WLS's shift to a more album-oriented format.

1: "Start Me Up"/Rolling Stones
89: "The Party's Over"/Journey
Comment: This Big 89 chart rocks harder overall than any other. WLS aficionados will tell you that the early 80s was a late golden age for the station, when the music was continually surprising and the jocks--Larry Lujack, Brant Miller, Tommy Edwards, Jeff Davis, John Landecker--were legendary.

1: "Hard to Say I'm Sorry"/Chicago
89: "Crazy"/John Hall Band
Weirdest entry: "Loved by You" by the Kind at Number 71. Didn't make the Billboard Hot 100.

1: "Every Breath You Take"/Police
89: "Rock This Town"/Stray Cats
Weirdest entry: "What About Me" by Moving Pictures at Number 9.

1: "Let's Go Crazy"/Prince
89: "She Bop"/Cyndi Lauper
Most surprising entry: either "Go Insane" by Lindsey Buckingham (#76) or "Had A Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy)" by Roger Hodgson (#88).

1: "Sussudio"/Phil Collins
89: "Relax"/Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Comment: I've heard it said that 1984 was the best year for Top 40 in the 1980s. I'd pick 1985. There are precious few dogs on this chart.

1: "Sweet Freedom"/Michael McDonald
89: "Wild Wild Life"/Talking Heads
Comment: One song by Genesis and two by Mike and the Mechanics in the top four. And "Sweet Freedom" was the most unexpected and off-the-wall Number One since "You're So Vain." WLS abandoned the Big 89 countdowns after 1986, and by late summer of 1989, its 29-year run as a pop music station had ended with a switch to all-talk.

I won't be listening to a countdown tonight (unless Reelradio has something like the WLS 1969 countdown playing), but somewhere back in time I'll always be the kid with the pencil, trying to guess what song is coming next. Happy New Year to one and all, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Countdown

I was a sports fan--the kind of kid who kept statistics while watching games on TV--before I was a music and radio fan. So once I discovered music and radio, it was only natural that I would become a chart freak. A record chart is like the weekly baseball stat sheet I used to pore over in the Sunday paper--who's up, who's down, who's hot, who's not. The yearend chart is something extra-special, and the yearend radio countdown of the top songs quickly became an important event in my life.

My first introduction to the concept came in 1970, when I stumbled across the Big 89 of 1970 on WLS from Chicago. By the next year, I am pretty sure I was listening when they counted down the Big 89 of 1971, although I don't remember precisely. If I was listening that year, I almost certainly began the tradition of keeping track of the songs as they were played, just like scoring a baseball game at home. By 1972, I was definitely scoring at home, and wouldn't miss a year until 1977, when going to a party on New Year's Eve became more important than the countdown. Yet even then, we would often have somebody's countdown on the radio while the party went on.

It wasn't until 1981 that I actually hosted a yearend countdown on the radio, at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, but it would be almost 10 years before I did it again. By then, I was at a tiny station in a different Iowa town, and I did the countdown not on New Year's Eve proper, but during my afternoon show on December 31. In fact, the last radio show I ever did as a full-timer in the biz was the 1993 yearend countdown, before I got sacked on the first working day of 1994 and decided my radio career was over.

Coming on Friday: Number Ones--and Number 89s--from the Big 89 countdowns, 1967-1986.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas Wonders

On Christmas Eve, The Mrs. and I were in a small town in Michigan, celebrating with her brother and his family. As night fell, I took charge of the music in the family room and tried to find a radio station to provide background for dinner and the gift exchange. Now, I had in mind what I wanted--something like the music heard in the last scene of A Christmas Story, when Mother and the Old Man are watching the snow fall outside the living room window on Christmas Night after Ralphie and Randy have gone to bed. Or maybe, by some weird atmospheric phenomenon, the very Christmas 1970 broadcast I wrote about before we left for Michigan. (Who knows--maybe it's been floating in the ether, waiting for the right set of ears to pick it up.) But it's a radio desert up there, and the pickings were slim. I soon stopped on a station that was playing Nat King Cole and called it good enough.

Except it wasn't. This particular station resolutely refused to give up the pounding between-records hype so common on pop and country stations nowadays, and I don't believe they played more than two records in a row without stopping for sponsor greetings. And the music itself was a schizophrenic mix of classic recordings and Christmas cash-ins by contemporary artists, featuring a few staggeringly inappropriate choices. By all that is holy, I swear that it's wrong to play "Funky New Year" by the Eagles on Christmas Eve.

We lived with it for a while until my sister-in-law couldn't stand it anymore. "Let's put on some CDs," she said. The record that pushed her over the edge was a song by the Beach Boys called "Santa's Beard"--and if she hadn't reacted to it first, I would have. I wrote about this tune several years ago (in a piece not available online). It's so astoundingly bad that it simply cannot be described, and in fact, it may be the single worst thing recorded, not just for Christmas but for any other reason, since Edison invented the phonograph. (If you think you can stand it, you can hear "Santa's Beard" by clicking this link and scrolling down to find the title; then right-click the title, save it to your computer, and listen.)

The repeated failures of critical taste on the part of record producers, anthologizers, and radio programmers that have allowed "Santa's Beard" to survive 40 years after it should have been strangled in its crib are a wonder to contemplate. Whoever said no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public wasn't talking about Christmas music, but he could have been. After all, one of the top Christmas singles of all time is "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs.

If we had stuck with that Michigan station a while longer, I'm sure they would have played it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Gift

A few months ago, I put up a post here called "Why Time Begins in September," in which I briefly explained how I was first seduced by radio and the music on it. But that is not the whole story. The next chapter, just as important, happened three months later. In 1995, I wrote a memoir about it.
It is Christmas Eve, 1970. I have just recently discovered rock and roll, as dispensed by Chicago's WLS, the 50-thousand-watt flamethrower upon which many midwestern kids were weaned in those days before the wide usage of FM, in towns too small to have a rocker of their own. The number one song in America is Smokey Robinson's epic "Tears of A Clown," to be displaced in a couple of days by George Harrison's epic "My Sweet Lord" (there are giants in the earth in these days).

Elsewhere in that week's top ten are "I Think I Love You" by the Partridge Family and "Knock Three Times" by Dawn. Later this evening I will receive both of those records from my parents for Christmas, along with Neil Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie," a threesome guaranteed to shape a ten year old's taste in a particular way--certainly in a different way than Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," "Let's Work Together" by Canned Heat, and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid"--also on the chart that same week--might have done.

I am utterly captivated by what I hear on the radio. I listen constantly, not just to the music but to the personalities who play it on the air. . . . In short, what is signified by that dial becomes my own personal universe, and the best toy I've ever discovered. I cannot discount the stirrings of a child's typical desire to assert his independence from his parents, either. What makes my radio universe even better is precisely that it is not what my parents listen to. They're fond of polkas and country music and our clunky hometown station. Rock and roll is my own music, in my own medium, a medium exciting, and so different from theirs.

So it's Christmas Eve, a day of interminable waiting. . . . I turn on my radio, but what I hear is different: Smokey and George Harrison and the Partridge Family are gone. The on-air personalities are gone. I hear instead a voice, which says: "It's three o'clock. . . Christmas Eve afternoon." The voice goes on to describe the typical goings-on of families assembling, dinners on the stove--in short, the very thing going on at the other end of the hallway from my bedroom. The voice talks about the spirit of Christmas, family, home, and concludes by saying, "and it is in this spirit that WLS presents our Holiday Festival of Music." He (it was always a male voice in those days) speaks those final words in a way sounds as if they must be capitalized.

The words are followed by music--Christmas music, but like no Christmas music I've ever heard before. Not the Christmas music of my parents' universe--the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--but Christmas music from my universe. There's an exuberant "Frosty the Snowman" sung by girls and a bright song in a strange language, featuring an odd repeated phrase that sounds to my 10-year-old self like "police tommyrot." There's a song I've never heard before, one that grabs my attention with a jolt, a distinctive voice singing "so this is Christmas/and what have you done?" There's another, quieter song, about kids who know that Santa is on his way with lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh. I particularly like that one, because it sounds like truth to me--I have started to doubt the existence of St. Nick, but I am not willing to bet against him on Christmas Eve. There are hymns I recognize from church and many, many other songs that are utterly new to me. Interspersed among it all is the voice, with Christmas wishes and holiday greetings. . . .
"Frosty the Snowman" was the one by the Ronettes; the song in the strange language was "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano. The one that jolted me is John Lennon's "Happy Xmas," which didn't come out until 1971, so I couldn't have heard it on that particular night, but I'm not sure it matters, really.

Later than evening, after the cows were milked, dinner was eaten, church attended, gifts opened, cookies sampled, torn wrapping paper picked up, and grandparents sent on their way back home, it was time to go to bed, and to begin the wait for Christmas morning. But before Santa arrived, I got something else that would end up being far more important than any gift he could have brought.
If there is a single moment that sealed my love affair with the radio, and made me choose it as the career I wanted, it may be the period of a few minutes shortly before 11:00 on Christmas Eve, 1970. My brother and I share a bedroom, across the hall from my parents' room. The walls are yellow, the ceiling brown, with a bright overhead light fixture right in the middle. My bed is on the north wall (left-hand side as you come into the room), my brother's on the south. Between the beds, up against the east wall, is a low toy chest. On top of it is my radio, a green plastic single band Westinghouse. [Editor's Note: with tubes, even.]

As my brother and I lie in our beds waiting for our parents to turn out the overhead light--so we can begin the interminable night, with fitful sleeping, in anticipation of the loot the morning would bring--the radio plays that incredible Christmas music: "And every mother's child is gonna spy/to see if reindeer really know how to fly." The voice comes on with more holiday wishes, and I am overwhelmed with what I can only describe as a kind of one-ness with the radio. At that moment, I begin to want to be the voice, although I couldn't have precisely articulated the thought at the time. As magical as it was to be a listener, at that moment something inside of me began to believe that to be on the other end of the transmission would be more magical still.

I don't remember if I fell asleep that night with the radio on, but it doesn't matter. In a way, I fell asleep with the radio inside of me. Such is the legacy of that Christmas Eve, 25 years ago.
It's been eight years now since I was on the other end of the transmission on Christmas Eve, and every year I miss it a little. I guess it's not surprising, given that you never forget your first love.

This blog will be on hiatus until after Christmas. I hope your celebration is merry, and that wherever you are, there's at least one good radio station to listen to.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas Tree Toppers

One of the major traditions of British pop music is the annual national guessing game over what will be the Number One single on Christmas Day. British bookies even take bets on it--but not this year, because it's been a foregone conclusion for months (officially confirmed this week) that Band Aid 20's new version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" would grab the honor. This isn't the second time that song has topped the British charts on Christmas Day--it's the third; in addition to the 1984 original, there was a new version in 1989. The Beatles, Queen, Cliff Richard, Whitney Houston, and the Spice Girls have topped the British charts more than once on Christmas (Queen twice with "Bohemian Rhapsody"). Often the Christmas Number One is a novelty song, like the Bob the Builder TV theme song in 2000. In 2001, a duet between Robbie Williams (an absolute superstar over there who hasn't made a ripple in the States) and Nicole Kidman was Number One. I can't decide if that's a novelty record or not.

In Britain, the Christmas Number One has been a Christmas-themed song on eight or nine occasions, depending on which chart you consult, since the British record industry began publishing charts in 1952. Going back to 1890, the beginning of recording history in the U.S., the American charts have been topped by a Christmas-themed song only seven times, and only twice on Christmas Day itself. In 1948, Spike Jones' "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," was Number One, and in 1958, there was "The Chipmunk Song." Jimmy Boyd's putrid 1952 novelty, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," hit the top on the chart dated December 27, 1952. As for Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," it had three different runs at the top, at Christmas of 1942, 1945, and 1946, but never held the top spot on 12/25 itself. The seventh Christmas record to reach Number One is a bit of a ringer--Vaughn Monroe's recording of "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow," which is not directly about Christmas but has come to be considered a Christmas song, was a hit at Christmas 1946, but didn't reach Number One until January 1947.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Top 5: Betcha Wonder How I Knew

All-time marks for chart dominance by a single record company don't mean what they used to, now that two major conglomerates control most of the music released in the United States. Not so back in the day. And so it was that beginning this week in 1968, Motown accomplished the greatest feat of chart domination until the conglomeration era, by nailing down the top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100 with three different performers. Here's the Top Five from this week in December 1968, starting with the non-Motown stuff:

5. "Who's Making Love"/Johnnie Taylor. A fine example of the sort of rough-hewn Southern soul that often topped the charts between about 1964 and about 1972. Taylor scored a lot of hits on the R&B charts during this period, but his biggest pop hit came afterward--in 1976, with the first 45 ever certified platinum, "Disco Lady," which is far better than its title.

4. "Abraham, Martin and John"/Dion.
The sort of record that could only have happened in the 1960s, before our cynicism about idealism went terminal. And one of the prettiest songs you'll ever hear.

3. "For Once in My Life"/Stevie Wonder. Stevie wrote dozens of songs that became hits, but this one had a life beyond its chart run. It may be the Stevie song most covered by other artists. Either that or "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."

2. "Love Child"/Supremes. Many Motown artists released records that we'd have called "socially relevant" beginning around 1968. This was the first for the Supremes, and their first big hit not produced by Holland/Dozier/Holland.

1. "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"/Marvin Gaye. In his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh picked it as number one, noting that it's both more ambitious and utterly unlike anything else Motown ever attempted. "'Grapevine' would top the charts for seven weeks, making it the biggest Motown hit of all time, at least until "Endless Love" slurped down the pike in 1981.

Motown's domination of the top three slots on the chart would continue for a month, as "For Once in My Life" dropped out and the Supremes/Temptations' collaboration "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" moved in. And if you're tempted to quibble, I know the Beatles had the top five slots during a single week in 1964. This is about domination by more than one artist from a label. I know also that that RSO Records had four of the top five during a single week of March 1978, but only the top two slots were held by RSO product (the Bee Gees' "Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive"). So there.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Last Waltz

While channel-surfing last night, I came across The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film of The Band's final concert at Winterland in San Francisco in 1976. This is one of the greatest concert films ever made, featuring a godlike lineup of guest stars (Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Bob Dylan) and some insanely great music. Morrison provides a raucous "Caravan"; Muddy moves the Earth with "Mannish Boy"; The Band's own hits, such as "The Shape I'm In" and "Ophelia," rock extraordinarily hard; and the grand finale of the show, "I Shall Be Released," defines what people mean by the phrase "ragged glory."

But there was another thing about the film: the number of unexpectedly powerful emotional moments. Take for example "Evangeline," featuring a luminous Emmylou Harris, shot not at the concert but on a soundstage, in which Rick Danko saws away on a fiddle, Levon Helm plucks uncertainly at a mandolin, a dignified Garth Hudson plays the accordion, Richard Manuel flails away on drums with a demented smile on his face, and the always-elegant Robbie Robertson seems to preside over it all. If all six of them had been costumed as medieval troubadours or hobos on a train, either would have worked--they tapped into a vein of musical timelessness I could have watched for hours. The Band essentially invented the genre we call roots music, that spot where rock, traditional country, and blues meet, and while not everybody on the bill works that space, they all contribute to its existence. (It occurs to me that we need that genre, where real people have real experiences and relate them honestly, even more in 2004 than we did in the 70s.)

But the most powerful moment of the movie for me is one that couldn't have been apparent when the film was released in 1978. Bob Dylan takes the stage, long hair falling from beneath a peach-colored hat, looking impossibly young and vital--and then he begins to sing "Forever Young." And suddenly it hits me: What I like most about this film is that the people in it are, for its two-hour running time, back in their prime--that they really are forever young--and those of us watching can steal a couple of hours at that same Fountain of Youth. For two hours, nothing that would happen in the 80s and 90s has happened yet--the corporate co-opting of hit songs for commercial purposes, the skillful marketing of plastic idols, all the ways in which popular music becomes noisier and hollower--not to mention whatever personal losses and setbacks we would suffer in the interim. We are, once again, all possibility. Even though The Last Waltz marked the end for The Band, Robbie Robertson wouldn't call it that, saying he considered it the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning. And what's that, if not an acknowledgement of possibilities to come?

Monday, December 13, 2004

All of the Other Reindeer

Last week I wrote about "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "The Little Drummer Boy" and suggested that all versions except the original hit recordings should be avoided. But there's another song that's just the opposite--nearly every cover version of it is better than the original. I am referring to Gene Autry's 1949 hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Autry was famous for playing a singing cowboy in movies--and he must have been one hell of an actor, because he's an awful singer, honking out the story of Rudolph in a rural twang that belies the fact that he was one of the richest actors in Hollywood. But because it's hard to imagine the holiday season without the song, here are five better versions of "Rudolph":

The one by Burl Ives from the TV special. You watch the show for an hour and you know this song is coming, and when it does, the feeling of release is exquisite. You realize that, yeah, Rudolph needed backstory.

The one by the Temptations. Almost all of Motown's major artists made Christmas records in the late 60s and early 70s. They're kinda streaky--even the best of them, the ones by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, have a couple of cringe-inducing tunes. The Temptations Christmas Card was the first Christmas album I ever bought, and "Rudolph" is probably its highlight.

The one by Mannheim Steamroller. The Steamroller's Christmas albums are staggeringly popular, albeit schizophrenic: carols are reworked into elegant Elizabethan tableaux, lush candlelight ballads, and amped-up halftime show numbers. Their version of "Rudolph," from 1995's Christmas in the Aire, is charmingly modernized. Your grandmother would hate it, but you'll think it's just fine.

The one by the Crystals. From 1963's legendary A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector. Gains charm points because the girls insist on referring to more than one reindeer as "reindeers."

The one by Chuck Berry. Actually, this is a ringer. Berry's song is "Run Rudolph Run," a rock classic that's been anthologized endlessly and covered by everybody. Contains one of the all-time great throwaway lines: "Run run Rudolph/Randolph ain't too far behind." What?

While it was Autry who had the major hit in '49, Rudolph the character had been around for 10 years by then, as an advertising icon for Montgomery Ward. But it was songwriter Johnny Marks who immortalized the character in song, and Autry's recording became not just a Christmas perennial, but one of the top-selling recotds of all time. Neverthless, feh. If you know of any other worthwhile "Rudolphs," I trust you'll let me know.

Revisionist History: I'd like to revise my universal condemnation of "The Little Drummer Boy" a bit to say all other vocal versions save Harry Simeone's should be avoided. Avoid vocals because it's impossible to avoid sounding like an idiot singing "rum-pa-pum-pum," unless you are Bing Crosby, so his version of the song with David Bowie is thereby acceptable (even if Bowie does sound like an idiot singing "rum-pa-pum-pum"). Seek out the following instrumentals, which I have heard since my original post: One is by Daryl Stueurmer, erstwhile Phil Collins and Genesis guitarist, whose version (on the 1988 anthology A GRP Christmas Collection) cuts loose from the familiar melody into a great improvised guitar solo. The other is by another guitarist, Kenny Burrell, whose 1966 album Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas is about as cool as Christmas music can get, and whose version of "The Little Drummer Boy" from that album actually swings.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

History Lesson: Whispering

December 8, 1980: The first Associated Press bulletin is four words long: "John Lennon shot dead." My radio station, at college, is off the air due to transmitter trouble. In addition to keeping me from programming a Lennon tribute, it also keeps me from doing a 24-hour radio stunt I had intended to do in conjunction with a charity telethon run by the campus TV station.

December 8, 1975: Bob Dylan holds a benefit for imprisoned boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter in New York. Carter manages to call Madison Square Garden from jail while the concert is going on. Dylan's song "Hurricane" sits at Number 69 on the Billboard chart; it will squeak into the Top 40 early in January.

December 8, 1943: Jim Morrison is born. I don't share the opinion of some fans that Morrison is a gifted poet who was the equal of some literary figures who flamed out early, such as the poets Shelley and Rimbaud. Neither do I believe that the Doors are one of rock's great capital-A artists. What they were is one hell of a singles band--but as long as there are adolescent boys, "The End" will always be popular.

Other Birthdays Today: Sinead O'Connor is 38. "Nothing Compares 2 U" collected an astounding number of awards when it hit in 1990 (and still does, in various historical rankings of popular songs). Nevertheless, it was the moment I realized that pop music had passed me by. I didn't hear the hook. Neil Innes is 60. Innes was part of the Bonzo Dog Band in the 60s (Paul McCartney produced their lone chart hit, "I'm the Urban Spaceman.") In the 70s, he collaborated with the Monty Python team, writing songs and appearing in TV episodes and movies.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1974: "Kung Fu Fighting"/Carl Douglas.
It was the 70s. We couldn't help ourselves.

1969: "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)"/Steam. Recorded as a joke, intended to be a B-side so bad that no DJ would mistake it for the A-side. Apparently, the reason Steam didn't have a better career is that they were lousy judges of their own material.

1963: "Dominique"/The Singing Nun. More evidence why the British Invasion had to happen.

1957: "You Send Me"/Sam Cooke. The first secular hit for an accomplished gospel singer. Cooke was one of the earliest performers to realize that the real money in the music biz is in controlling your own copyrights. He formed his own publishing company and record label, but his career was cut short when he was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1964.

1920: "Whispering"/Paul Whiteman. The first record to sell a million copies and as such, one of the most important recordings of all time. Whiteman, a white bandleader, billed himself as "the King of Jazz"--although he wasn't, not really. He did help popularize the form, and a 20th-century pop-music pattern was established: white performers adopting black styles and feeding them back to the white audience, thus making the market "safe" for the black performers who innovated the form in the first place.

Monday, December 06, 2004

It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

Last week, the Edison Research Group released preliminary results of a survey asking women aged 30 to 49 about their favorite Christmas songs on the radio. Before we get to the survey results themselves, let's answer another question: Why women 30-49? In one way or another, most radio station programmers are trying to reach women. A station attracting primarily male listeners is going to have a harder time attracting advertisers than one attracting primarily female listeners, unless maybe the station is doing sports talk or hard rock. It's presumed that in any given market, there are probably slightly more women than men; women tend to be more active listeners to music radio then men. Female listeners are why classic rock stations stop their momentum dead to play "We've Got Tonite" by Bob Seger; female listeners are why Bob and Tom and Howard Stern are never heard on adult contemporary stations.

Because women aged 30-49 tend to make up the largest female segment of the audience, their musical preferences are of great interest to radio stations 365 days a year, so it's no wonder somebody finally asked them about Christmas music. The favorite songs on the list are pretty predictable. Edison hasn't released the full list yet (and may not, at least not to people unwilling to pay for it), but USA Today reported the top 10 last week, and I'll repeat it here, with my usual high-quality commentary.

1. "The Christmas Song"/Nat King Cole. Yeah, OK. This is Number One on my personal list, too. It sets the quintessential holiday mood better than any other record. The Mrs. and I used to put it on our answering machine every year, and the holiday season doesn't officially begin at our house until The Ceremonial Nat Crank. Trivia question: This song has a parenthetical title. What is it? Answer to come.

2. "A Holly Jolly Christmas"/Burl Ives. From the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this provides serious nostalgia for everybody in the demographic Edison surveyed. It always makes me think of the old Norelco commercials with Santa riding an electric razor downhill like it was a sleigh, done in the same stop-motion animation style as the Rudolph special.

3. "O Holy Night"/Celine Dion. This is the newest song on the list, and since it came out after I left radio, I've managed to avoid it. This is one of the loveliest of Christmas carols, though--Aaron Neville does a magnificent version of it on Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas, which came out in 1993. The Edison survey picked Eric Cartman's South Park version as the least-favorite holiday song, although its inclusion in the survey sounds like a ringer to me.

4. "Jingle Bell Rock"/Bobby Helms. The endurance of this song for 47 years is a bit hard to figure, although it goes down well on both AC and country formats, and two generations of airplay momentum is not to be trifled with.

5. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"/John Lennon. A multi-format monster, and an eternal novelty, given that Lennon is really the last person you'd expect to sing about Christmas.

6. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"/Johnny Mathis. I usually associate Mathis with "Sleigh Ride," and this with Perry Como, but that's just me. Both Mathis and Como are definitely in the pantheon of artists who get their peak airplay during December. (Andy Williams, too, and if I had to bet on what was Number 11 on Edison's survey, I'd pick "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.")

7. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"/Brenda Lee. Another AC/country crossover a la Bobby Helms, but beware--all other versions are to be avoided, except maybe Amy Grant's, which is OK.

8. "The Little Drummer Boy"/Harry Simeone Chorale. What was it about the 1950s that made choral cheese so popular? This original recording is fine, but all versions by other artists are to be avoided like ancient fruitcake.

9. "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!"/Dean Martin. If you need to experience Dean's lounge-lizard persona in a ski-lodge setting, this will do it. "Let it Snow," like "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland," "Happy Holiday," and a few others, is not specifically a Christmas song--and so one year, my radio station got the idea of continuing to play such generic winter songs for a few days after Christmas. The phones blew out--with grateful listeners. Many radio stations dump Christmas music entirely by mid-afternoon on December 25. We discovered that not everybody is ready to let it go so soon, particularly when Christmas falls on a weekend and family celebrations may occur on the 26th or 27th.

10. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"/Carpenters. Again, not the song I associate with them--that would be "Merry Christmas Darling," although both songs are from the Carps' Christmas Portrait album, which is better than you might expect. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a Judy Garland song to me, with its original World War II lyrics: "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" and "Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."

Last year, I wrote extensively about my personal holiday favorites, which you can read here. Somewhere I have a snarky bit about the worst holiday music you hear on the radio this time of year. I'll have to dig that up, too.

Trivia Answer: You'd probably bet the house that the parenthetical title of Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" is "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"--and you would lose your house. It's actually "Merry Christmas to You."

Friday, December 03, 2004

Friday History Top Five Lesson-Type Thing

Today, we present the love child of History Lesson and Friday Top 5--a countdown of the Top 5 Historical Events That Took Place on December 3:

5. December 3, 1968: "Love Child" by the Supremes completes its first week at Number One. (Sorry--it was too good a coincidence to pass up.)

4. December 3, 1954: Steve Forbert is born. Forbert's first two albums, the folky Alive on Arrival and the slicker Jackrabbit Slim promised more than the rest of his career could deliver, although he's recorded steadily ever since. "Romeo's Tune," from Jackrabbit, may have been the first great single of the 1980s.

3. December 3, 1971: "Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around/But some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground." The Montreaux Casino fire, immortalized by Deep Purple in "Smoke on the Water," takes place. (An old post of mine about the song is here.)

2. December 3, 1979: Eleven concertgoers are trampled in a pre-concert rush at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati before a show by the Who. The event has a profound impact on concertgoers everywhere, first of all by putting a dagger into the practice of festival seating. The impact had legs. The next summer, a bunch of us were heading into Alpine Valley Music Theater near Milwaukee when a pre-concert crush got a bit intense. Somebody yelled, "Remember the Who," and the crush relaxed almost instantly.

1. December 3, 1968: Elvis Presley's famous "comeback" special is broadcast, known then as "Singer Presents Elvis." It starts with Presley in black leather looking straight into the camera and singing, "If you're lookin' for trouble/You've come to the right place," thus announcing instantly the brief Renaissance of Rockin' Elvis. The year 1969 would be his most successful on the charts since his 1962 heyday.

Other Number One Songs on This Date:
1978: "You Don't Bring Me Flowers"/Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand.
The story goes that some DJ noticed that the solo recordings of this song by each artist were in the same key, so he edited them together, and then Streisand and Diamond decided to record the thing for real. I don't know if it's true or not.

1975: "Fly Robin Fly"/Silver Convention. Another of my guilty pleasures. There's something about that bass line and those strings. Sue me.

1969: "Come Together"-"Something"/The Beatles. The greatest two-sided hit of all time, and it did only a week at Number One.

1964: "Leader of the Pack"/Shangri-Las. Classic girl group death song, which would be dethroned at the top in a few days by Lorne Greene (the star of Bonanza) and his spoken-word western number called "Ringo." I am convinced people bought it because they thought it had something to do with the Beatles.

1945: "It's Been a Long, Long Time"/Harry James. World War II continued to permeate the culture in late '45 on a scale we can scarcely imagine, even though the war had been over for a few months. This classic song of reunion after a long separation will spend five weeks altogether at Number One--three by this James recording and two by the version that knocks James from the top, by Bing Crosby with Les Brown's orchestra.