Monday, January 31, 2005

Another Birthday Day

Lots of rock and roll birthdays today. Here's the list:

John Lydon, better known to the world as Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, is 49 today. I wrote briefly about the Pistols and punk rock last fall; their abortive 1978 tour of America, buried with Lydon's famous epitaph, "Ever had the feeling that you've been cheated?" was one of the most phenomenal bad hypes of the 1970s.

Phil Collins, Phil Manzanera, and Harry Casey are all 54 today, and a more diverse trio you couldn't imagine. Collins, a onetime child actor who appeared briefly in A Hard Day's Night, answered a newspaper ad to land the drummer gig with Genesis. His term as the band's lead vocalist corresponded with its most successful stretch during the first half of the 80s. Collins also launched a staggeringly successful solo career that lasted into the 90s before slipping into the purgatory that comes when you write songs for a Disney movie. (See also Elton John.) Manzanera was best known for playing guitar in Roxy Music, a band far more successful in England than over here, where their only significant hits were "Love Is the Drug" in 1976 and "Dance Away" in 1979. (I also dug "Virginia Plain," from earlier in the 1970s.) Casey is best known as "K.C.," as in K.C. and the Sunshine Band, purveyors of brain-dead guilty pleasure since 1975.

Terry Kath of Chicago would be only 59 were it not for his self-inflicted, Johnny-Ace style death in 1978.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1981: "The Tide Is High"/Blondie.
Nowhere more popular than on the campus of the University of Alabama.

1970: "I Want You Back"/Jackson Five. Their first hit. What a difference 35 years would make.

1964: "There! I've Said It Again"/Bobby Vinton. The last of an old world. January 31, 1964 would be the last day of this record's four-week run at Number One. On February 1, it would be dethroned by "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

1958: "At the Hop"/Danny and the Juniors. One of the fastest and most furious of the early rock classics. Worth listening to again this week, what with the Happy Days reunion on TV Thursday night.

1951: "The Tennessee Waltz"/Patti Page.
One of the most popular records of all time, this did 13 weeks at Number One, and the odds are good that even if you can't remember the tune as you read this, you'd know it if I played it for you.

This blog is now going on hiatus for a couple of weeks. I shall return. Eventually. I hope.

Friday, January 28, 2005


One of the things I love about the old-school Top 40 era is the whiplash-inducing variety of music radio stations were likely to play. In the early 80s, I once worked at a place where it was possible to go from Frank Sinatra to AC/DC to Kool and the Gang to Willie Nelson without breaking format rules: "New York New York," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Celebration," and "Always on My Mind" were all part of the rotation, and in different categories, so they could theoretically come up in sequence. The Billboard chart from this week in 1974 is similarly able to make you need a neck brace. To give you the full effect, we need to do the whole Top 10, and not just the customary Friday Five.

10. "Americans"/Byron MacGregor. The famous spoken-word catalog of American virtues, declaimed by the longtime Detroit radio news anchor to patriotic accompaniment. Originally written and recorded by a Canadian broadcaster, the catalog resurfaced in the wake of September 11 as if it were brand new, and probably will again the next time Americans get to feeling down on themselves.

9. "Time in a Bottle"/Jim Croce.
I am mildly surprised this song never became like "Yesterday," which is one of the most oft-covered pop songs of all time. This had the same classic feel back in the day.

8. "Let Me Be There"/Olivia Newton-John. In which Olivia, whose only previous hit had been a breathy cover of Bob Dylan's "If Not for You," began her ascent to superstardom. She would win the CMA's Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1974, to much country consternation.

7. "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"/Brownsville Station. Which would make a deeply weird segue into or out of nearly everything else in this week's Top Ten.

6. "Love's Theme"/Love Unlimited Orchestra. Dave Marsh says that MFSB's "TSOP," which would top the charts in April 1974, is what disco sounded like when it was still in the test tube, waiting to be unleashed. I think Marsh missed by three months. Orchestra leader Barry White was probably the only man on Earth who could take a group this big and make it sound both sexy and soulful.

5. "The Joker"/Steve Miller Band. A stoner classic, but a complete momentum-killer on the radio, then and now. Nevertheless, a sign that the Top 40 had come off the bottom it scraped late in 1973 and that mass taste was starting to improve.

4. "I've Got to Use My Imagination"/Gladys Knight and the Pips. Not since their early hit version of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" had Gladys and the Pips got this far down.

3. "The Way We Were"/Barbra Streisand. If it hadn't existed, we would have had to invent it--the classic movie and song about nostalgia for lost love. The 45 version that got radio play has a different vocal than the album version, which is the one you are most likely to hear now, whenever you hear it.

2. "Show and Tell"/Al Wilson. Al channels Johnny Mathis here, on yet another huge hit originally intended as a B-side. A song called "Queen of the Ghetto" was supposed to be the hit.

1. "You're Sixteen"/Ringo Starr. The Beatles broke up in 1970, but Starr's 1973 album Ringo was as close as we had come to a reunion, with John, Paul, and George all contributing, and Paul providing the mighty kazoo solo here.

Honorable mention goes "Until You Come Back to Me" by Aretha Franklin at Number 11, perhaps the most gorgeous record she ever made; "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder at Number 12, one of the most ferocious grooves ever recorded, and because this list is all about contrasts, "Are You Lonesome Tonight" by Donny Osmond at Number 16.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Players Take You for a Ride

Twenty-nine years ago this week, the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster" was climbing the charts on its way to Number One, and when I heard it again the other day I was reminded of an enduring urban legend about the record--that it contains the scream of a woman being murdered.

There is, in fact, a scream. You can hear it during the instrumental break between the first and second verses. There are several versions purporting to explain how the scream got there: that the song was being recorded in a hotel room and the murder happened next door, or that the murder happened in the studio, or (most grotesque of all) the screamer was the honey-covered model on the Ohio Players' album Honey, only, dude, it wasn't honey, it was superglue, and when she came to the studio to complain, they like totally pulled it off her and her skin came with it and that's why she's screaming.

The tale was featured in the movie Urban Legend a few years ago, which gave it staying power for the new millennium. But it isn't a true story. Although the group members kept quiet about it for years after the story began to circulate, the source of the scream was just one of them trying out an extra-high screech. The indispensable has the real story, and an audio clip.

There's no need to invent a wild tale to account for the scream on the record, really. The song's about riding a rollercoaster, right? And what do people do on rollercoasters?

Dude, they die!

Sunday, January 23, 2005


January 23, 1997: Richard Berry, author of "Louie Louie," dies in Los Angeles. The FBI spent hundreds of man-hours trying to figure out whether the Kingsmen's 1963 version of Berry's greatest hit was obscene. The answer: No, just badly miked.

January 23, 1986: The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Members include Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, disc jockey Alan Freed, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, and Elvis Presley. (Note the absence of the Beatles, who had not yet achieved the required 25 years since their first recording.) Now that the Hall is inducting the likes of ZZ Top and the Bee Gees, the original inductees should get statues out front.

January 23, 1978: Terry Kath of Chicago kills himself playing Russian Roulette with a gun he didn't know was loaded. Chicago was never the same after that, without Kath's knowing growl of a voice.

Birthdays Today: Robin Zander of Cheap Trick is 52. I hated the first couple of albums by this band, up until Dream Police, which turned out to be an album lots of hardcore fans hated. Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers and Danny Federici of the E-Street Band are both 55. Nice double-bill, if we could swing it.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1994: "All for Love"/Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting.
Apparently anybody who walked by the studio that day got to be on the record.

1993: "I Will Always Love You"/Whitney Houston. The biggest hit of her career, one of the biggest hits of all time, yet one of the most obnoxious records ever recorded. Being from Wisconsin, I can understand her compulsion to yodel, however.

1971: "Knock Three Times"/Dawn. A record about which I am completely irrational, and maybe my guiltiest pleasure of all.

1965: "Downtown"/Petula Clark. Thanks to this, the British Invasion finally reached the radio station your mom and dad listened to.

1936: "The Music Goes Round and Round"/Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven. Four different versions of this song were on the charts at the same time early in 1936, but this is the only one anybody remembers. One of the major early hits of the Swing Era.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Friday Top 5: Vegemite Sandwich

In January 1983, change was afoot. My girlfriend had just moved into my apartment in Dubuque, Iowa, which tends to make a young bachelor adjust his lifestyle. Not only that, the Top 40 landscape of the early 1980s, a place where Anne Murray could still make the pop charts, was being swiftly transformed by MTV and the Second British Invasion. It was all just starting to accelerate during this week in 1983. Here's the Top Five:

5. "Sexual Healing"/Marvin Gaye. Gaye's first significant hit in almost five years didn't get much airplay in Dubuque--apparently only non-sexual healing was encouraged in what was then a strongly Catholic town. Some people consider this to be one of the great romantic slow jams, but to me it's just boorish. Waking up your lover because you want to get it on? Dude, take a shower and leave the girl alone.

4. "Maneater"/Hall and Oates. This had closed out 1982 at Number One, was the biggest hit of H&O's career, and falls smack in the middle of their streak of 12 Top-Ten hits in 13 releases between 1981 and 1984. Weirdly light on funk, though, despite the heavy bass line. "Maneater" was also H&O's first foray into video--if you don't count a rare, almost homemade clip that accompanied the original release of "She's Gone" in 1973.

3. "Dirty Laundry"/Don Henley. There was nothing subtle about Henley's satire of TV news, including that organ-from-hell and Joe Walsh's guitar solo. Still topically accurate after 22 years, however.

2. "The Girl Is Mine"/Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.
The first of two major hit collaborations between Jackson and McCartney, this was from Thriller, although it would have been a better fit on either of McCartney's early-80s albums, Tug of War or Pipes of Peace, just as "Say Say Say" would have fit better on Thriller. Big news when it was released, and utterly forgotten in the blizzard of Thriller hits to come.

1. "Down Under"/Men at Work. This record was as laden with obvious hooks as any record ever recorded, from the little drum and flute bit in the intro to the weird lyrics that were fun to sing along with, even if you didn't quite know what they meant. Those lyrics introduced Vegemite and the verb "to chunder" to the world beyond Australia, and this record represented the height of the Men's blazingly short career.

Elsewhere on the charts that week, various famous MTV kids were getting into position to conquer the world--Duran Duran, Culture Club, the Stray Cats. But Bob Seger and Toto were there, too, and still making records without videos. Not for long, though.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of Death

Last night I was reading a review of the latest album by a group called And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Dead. (I am guessing that if you go to a concert by this band, the T-shirts are all size XL in order to get the name of the band on them.) And it got me to thinking about great/stupid band names I have known. I am not talking about well-known groups, particularly--some of the best names have become so familiar that we can't appreciate them anymore. For example, "Beatles" is one of the greatest musical puns ever coined, but who notices that now?

The bubblegum era gave birth to many great/stupid names, from the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the 1910 Fruitgum Company to the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus.) Groups with rock pretensions, such as Chocolate Watchband and Lothar and the Hand People made records, too, but didn't sell so many. (Somewhere, I believe I have a single by Lothar and the Hand People.) About the same time, according to the Book of Rock Lists, there was a group called Detroit Edison White Light Company. This was not the group's original name, however. They were first going to be known as Charging Tyrannosaurus of Despair, until the drummer announced he didn't want anything to do with despair.

One reliable way to create a weird group name is to be Someone and the Something Outrageous or Catchy. For instance, one band that plays frequently around my town is called Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smokin' Altar Boys. Other representative examples of the same include Biff Hitler and the Violent Mood Swings, Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid Kids, and Big Dick and the Extenders. (My favorite band name of all time is one of these: The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities.)

"Big Dick and the Extenders" is an example of a contemporary phenomenon--the risque/tasteless/obscene band name. You wouldn't have seen these much before the 1990s. Such names often give you a clue to a particular group's genre, depending on how risque/tasteless/obscene the name is. For instance, Buster Hymen and the Penetrators would likely be a blues band, whereas Fuck Me Suck Me Call Me Helen is more likely to be punk. The Well Hungarians may be a polka band; Well Strung, on the other hand, is almost certainly bluegrass.

Punks occasionally get carried away with their punkiness. The Do I Look Like I Give a Fucks are a bit too literal, while Electric Vomit is an example of punkers trying way too hard. Other bands from the Almost Certainly Punk File: Sucking Chest Wound, Immaculate Infection, and Grim Skunk.

Some contemporary band names take their names from celebrities: Barbara's Bush, for example, or Drew Barrymore's Dealer, or the Fat Chick from Wilson Phillips, or Kathleen Turner Overdrive. The latter represents a nice segue into the band name that plays on somebody else's band name, such as John Cougar Concentration Camp, REO Speed Dealer, or Earthpig and Fire.

Some names, like And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Dead, go on just a bit too long. Other examples include Gee That's A Large Beetle I Wonder If It's Poisonous, The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac, and Nearly Died Laughing While Shaving My Butt. Better to make your point and get out in a hurry, like Lawnsmell, Schlong, or the Shit--three more for the Almost Certainly Punk file.

Many, many more examples are available at The Canonical List of Weird Band Names, an obsessive labor of love if ever there was one. Feel free to contribute your own favorites by clicking "Comments."

Friday, January 14, 2005

Friday Top 5: Dividing Line

Numbers on the calendar are often just numbers, and not necessarily boundaries. For example, "the Sixties," capital-T, capital-S, are often said to have begun culturally with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and to have ended with the Vietnam accords in 1973. Musical decades can be similarly hard to pin down. If the musical 60s began with the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, perhaps they ended with the premiere of The Partridge Family in 1970, but there could just as easily be other dates for which you could plausibly argue. This is art, not science.

So when we talk about "Someday We'll Be Together" by the Supremes as the last Number One song of the 1960s (12/27/69 through 1/2/70) and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by B. J. Thomas as the first Number One song of the 1970s (1/3/70 through 1/30/70), we should keep in mind that we're really treating a number--January 1, 1970--as if it were a boundary. It's not necessarily the best boundary we could choose between the 60s and the 70s. Still, if you look at the Top Five from this early January week in 1970, you can see how we seem to have been straddling a dividing line between eras.

5. "Whole Lotta Love"/Led Zeppelin. By the end of the 1970s, Zeppelin would be considered the polar opposite of a singles band, but nobody knew that in January 1970. And it's not entirely accurate: The band actually charted 10 singles between 1969 and 1979. This was the only one to make the Top Ten. ("Stairway to Heaven" was never released as a single, although it was pressed on 45s for radio station use.)

4. "I Want You Back"/Jackson Five. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Jackson Five were not the vanguard of Motown's second generation of superstars--they were the entire second generation of superstars. Think about it--Stevie, Marvin, Diana, Smokey, the Temps were all present at the creation, more or less, and remained the label's flagship artists through the 1970s. But how many major stars did Motown break after its 60s heyday? Apart from the Jackson Five, who belong in the pantheon with Motown's legends, I can think of only the Commodores and Boyz II Men, who don't.

3. "Leavin' on a Jet Plane"/Peter, Paul and Mary. Not just a last gasp of the 1960s, but a last gasp of the early 60s. PP&M got quaint in a hurry once the British Invasion hit, and they resented it--their 1967 hit "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" was essentially sung through clenched teeth, because they didn't dig rock and roll music at all. There's nothing rock and roll about "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," but it is one of the great singalong records.

2. "Someday We'll Be Together"/Diana Ross and the Supremes. Actually, this record works just fine as The Last Number One Song of the 60s, given the generational identity of the people who grew up in that decade. Soon it will be 1970, and we'll be scattering to the four winds like we were a graduating class, but someday we'll be together again. Looking back from our vantage point, it works well as a symbol, too, of the mistaken idea that the 60s were more "real" than the "plastic" 1970s--when in fact "the Supremes" on this record were not the real Supremes, but an in-studio creation featuring three background singers, one of them male.

1. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"/B. J. Thomas. Burt Bacharach and Hal David had been recording tasteful tunes with low brass for several years (the tasteful Dionne Warwick recorded a bunch of them), but "Raindrops" works just fine as the First Number One Song of the 70s by its very tastefulness. It doesn't rock, it's pretty bland--a characteristic it would share with plenty of the 250-or-so other songs to hold the Number One slot during the decade.

The dividing line analogy holds further down the chart, too, with CCR bumping up against Bobby Sherman and the Beatles adjacent to Three Dog Night.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine

I've been reading John A. Jackson's A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul this week. It's mostly the history of the hit machine at Philadelphia International Records, piloted by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but it's also the story of independent producer Thom Bell, a childhood friend of Gamble's, and of the singers, musicians, engineers, and record executives who made music in Philadelphia from the 60s to the 80s.

Gamble and Huff's music combined the slickness of the Motown production line with the down-home grit of Stax; Bell, meanwhile, made the prettiest R&B of all time. I loved it all from the moment I started hearing it in the early 1970s. So here are the Top 10 Philly soul hits, according to Billboard.

10. "I'll Be Around"/Spinners, 1972. A Bell production and the first monster hit for the Spinners, who had hung around Motown in the 60s waiting for the right moment. Turns out they were in the wrong city.

9. "If You Don't Know Me By Now"/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, 1972. Some of the most beautiful music ever played by Gamble and Huff's house band, MFSB, and great soul shouting by Teddy Pendergrass. In 1989, Simply Red--a group I like a lot--took this song to Number One. As good as he is, singer Mick Hucknall couldn't get within a million miles of Teddy's anguish.

8. "When Will I See You Again"/Three Degrees, 1974.
Actually the third single from an album that was fading, this got a boost from the Three Degrees' appearance on MFSB's "TSOP" earlier in the year. If the close harmonies on this record don't make you shiver, check your pulse.

7. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine"/Lou Rawls, 1976. Rawls isn't usually mentioned in the pantheon of Philly soul artists, but this was a smash. It was the first big hit featuring the reformulated MFSB, after many of the original members left Gamble and Huff for better opportunities. It also marked a brief renaissance for Rawls, who isn't on many lists of great singers, but should be.

6. "The Rubberband Man"/Spinners, 1976. The last Spinners hit to feature vocalist Phillippe Wynne, and the last major Philly hit co-written by Bell and longtime collaborator Linda Creed. Still fun to listen to after all this time.

5. "You Make Me Feel Brand New"/Stylistics, 1974. Another Bell/Creed collaboration, which Bell nearly rejected because of the line "God bless you, you make me feel brand new." Creed talked him into it, and the result was one of the Stylistics' most glorious records.

4. "Love Train"/O'Jays, 1973. This song topped the charts at almost the precise moment when the leftover 60s dream of universal brotherhood began to crumble. The break before the final refrain--"Let's ride, let's ride, get up, get on board"--might be the single most exhilarating moment in Philly soul history.

3. "Then Came You"/Dionne Warwick and the Spinners, 1974. No Philly soul record stayed on the charts longer than this one (25 weeks), or took longer to reach Number One. Warwick gets top billing, but in the last minute or two, Wynne steals the record from her.

2. "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)"/MFSB featuring the Three Degrees, 1974. Before "TSOP" was released as a single, I used to watch Soul Train just to hear it, because it was the show's theme song. The Three Degrees don't add much more than "let's get it on, it's time to get down," but the relative dearth of vocals doesn't keep "TSOP" from being the definitive Philly soul record.

1. "Me and Mrs. Jones"/Billy Paul, 1972. This was Gamble and Huff's first Number One single, and Paul may have become their greatest star--had his career not been derailed when the producers inexplicably decided to release "Am I Black Enough for You" as his second single. Few radio stations with predominantly white audiences would go near it, and it didn't do especially well on the R&B charts, either.

(During the week of December 16, 1972, "Me and Mrs. Jones" topped the Hot 100 while "If You Don't Know Me By Now" was Number Three. That's why I love the 1970s.)

Honorable Mentions: "You Are Everything" by the Stylistics, the first Philly soul record I ever bought; "They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)" by the Spinners, which is my favorite song of all time; "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays, which is the deepest groove Gamble and Huff ever plowed; and "The Love I Lost" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the long version of which contains one of the greatest examples of soul testifyin' you'll ever hear. And then there's "Rockin' Roll Baby," "One of a Kind (Love Affair)," "Break Up to Make Up," "Back Stabbers" . . . .

Monday, January 10, 2005

Birthday Day

January 10 is a date rich with rock and roll birthdays, and away we go.

Pat Benatar is 53. I never had much use for Benatar's tough rock chick bit back in the day, and her stuff hasn't worn well at all in the 20 years or so since her last meaningful hit. Essential track: "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and nothing else is close.

Donald Fagen is 57. After the demise of Steely Dan, Fagen released only two or three tracks in 13 years, but has recorded two solo albums since 1994, plus two more with the reformulated Dan. His cynicism must have mellowed a bit in the intervening years, if only because he'll record what sounds like a love song now and then. Representative love song: "The Things I Miss the Most" from the Dan's Everything Must Go. Essential track (solo records only): "Snowbound," from Kamakiriad.

Rod Stewart is 60. Few things in recorded music are finer than old Rod Stewart records. They're a British version of American roots music, sort of, blues-based and mostly acoustic. But that was never where Rod's bliss lay, not really. He clearly relished the rock-star flourishes he could indulge with Faces, and his success in the 1970s allowed him to adopt the lifestyle of an international playboy, with grave consequences for his music. In recent years, he's recorded three albums of standards, which are dire enough to make you nostalgic for "Do You Think I'm Sexy." Essential album: Every Picture Tells a Story. (An essay I wrote in 2000 for a friend, "The Rod Stewart Hater's Guide to Rod Stewart," is here.)

Jim Croce would have been 62 today, had he not gotten onto a doomed airplane in September 1973. One of the more interesting what-ifs in pop music regards Croce. What would have become of him? The way he liked to create colorful characters in his songs leads me to believe he would have branched out into fiction after a while, a la Jimmy Buffett. Given his wife's success as a restauranteur, he may have emulated Buffett in that way too. "Thyme in a Bottle," maybe. (Don't laugh: that's already the title of a cookbook Mrs. Croce has published.) Essential track: "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way."

Jerry Wexler is 88. As one of the founding fathers of Atlantic Records, Wexler is responsible for bringing some of the 20th century's most important artists to prominence--Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, to name just two. A brief 1999 biographical sketch of Wexler is here. Essential album: For an overview of Atlantic during its most influential years, there's the massive anthology Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Friday Top Five: Primo Stash

Memory is not history. Things are never as neat and clean as we sometimes remember them. In reality, they were always messier--and even if you remember a particular period as messy, chances are it was even messier than you remember. So I present the following Top Five with a disclaimer: There was undoubtedly a great deal of garbage on the radio during the first week of January 1966--but at the top of the charts, it was all primo.

5. Over and Over/Dave Clark Five. This had spent Christmas week of 1965 at Number One, and was the biggest hit the DC5 ever had. Even in 1966, it must have seemed a little bit retro, and its chart success represents as good a point as any for marking the close of the first British Invasion.

4. Turn! Turn! Turn!/Byrds. This, too, had done time at Number One in December 1965 (and was Number 3 for the whole year, behind only "Satisfaction" and "Yesterday"--speaking of primo). I am convinced that 500 years from now, people will still want to hear these ancient words and those gloriously ringing guitars.

3. I Got You (I Feel Good)/James Brown. This tune has been so frequently anthologized, and it's been so frequently used and abused in movies and commercials, that it's hard for us to hear it as it was back in the day. Dave Marsh can still hear it, though: "James sings the song as if God had called him to earth for the primary purpose of personifying sexual ecstasy."

2. We Can Work It Out/Beatles. Beatles tunes credited to Lennon/McCartney were often written by one or the other. This one, however, was a true collaboration. Paul wrote the optimistic part ("we can work it out") and John wrote the more impatient bridge ("there's no time for fussing and fighting). True to their personalities, too.

1. The Sounds of Silence/Simon and Garfunkel. This is a reworked version of a song that appeared on S&G's Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. Producer Tom Wilson added electric guitar, bass, and drums, which turned a simple, folkish tune into a highly dramatic record. The resulting hit was sufficient to get Garfunkel to drop back out of Columbia University grad school, and to bring Simon home from England as a star. Neither one of them had known what Wilson was up to until after the record became a hit.

Well, OK. There was "The Men in My Little Girl's Life" by Mike Douglas and "When Liking Turns to Loving" by Ronnie Dove. But elsewhere in the Hot 100 you had the Beach Boys, Kinks, Miracles, "Five O'Clock World, "Day Tripper," "Uptight" by Stevie Wonder, and the list goes on. Not a bad way to start a year.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Our Friendly, Knowledgeable Staff is Waiting to Serve You

Writing commercials on the radio is a thankless task, particularly in small markets, where the amount of money a client has to spend is often inversely proportional to the amount of trouble they're going to give you. Somebody with $100 to spend is going to drive you crazy with rewrites, whereas somebody spending $1000 is far less likely to care. (One of the stations I worked at sometimes sold ad packages for less than $20. You can scarcely imagine how much suffering we sometimes went through on those.)

Clients always say they want unique and different spots, but they don't, really. What they often want is a spot that sounds exactly like other spots they have heard. Fortunately, a small station with just one or two people writing the bulk of the copy can easily comply with that request. The Mrs., an erstwhile radio copywriter herself, once told a group of eager young broadcasting students that a typical class assignment--write one 30-second spot before next week--is, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Write 14 different Valentine's Day commercials for 14 different florists, all of whom are advertising approximately the same thing, and do it in a single afternoon, she told them, and then you'll be getting close to the real copywriter's experience. Under those circumstances, writing spots that sound like other spots isn't an occupational hazard--it's unavoidable.

Still, a good copywriter will persevere. I once wrote what I thought was an especially good spot for a paint and wallpaper store. It was unique and different, all right: high concept, two voices, funny, the kind of thing that's intended to make people remember the sponsor's name. Everybody at the store thought it was the best radio ad they'd ever heard--except for the store's owner, who kept sending it back to be revised. After two or three rounds of revision--each one of which increased my level of exasperation--I sat down at my typewriter and hammered out a laundry list of items and prices, and for good measure stuffed in every radio advertising cliche I could think of. Once-in-a-lifetime event, prices slashed, save like never before, see So-and-So Decorating for all your decorating needs, repeated the phone number two or three times--everything you learn not to do after you've written commercials for a while.

The store owner pronounced it the best ad he'd ever heard.

But if I'd only had Dan O'Day's Bad Commercial Generator, I could have saved myself lots of time and trouble. Go there now, fill in a few blanks--and feel my pain.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Busted Jukebox

Forty-five years ago this winter, the careers of several disc jockeys, including Alan Freed, were collapsing thanks to the payola scandals. The federal government went after disc jockeys who had accepted money or other favors from record companies and promoters in exchange for airplay. For 35 years afterward, payola was supposedly eliminated--even though any radio people could still get "benefits," everything from cash to drugs to sex, in exchange for services rendered to promoters of records or concerts. Beginning in the late 90s, payola became an acceptable part of the radio biz again. Major radio chains were paid by independent record promoters in exchange for playing records pushed by the promoters. At some stations, it was like a jukebox, almost--promoters paid for a fixed number of plays per week, and bought additional plays as desired.

The modern payola system has largely collapsed over the last several months, however, thanks to the intervention of New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. Salon's Eric Boehlert reports, however, that this may not have the positive effects you might logically expect. It probably won't open up radio station playlists to artists and record labels who weren't served by the payola system. Instead, it's likely to make radio stations even less adventurous than they are now--if such a thing is possible. For all its faults, the payola system helped get a number of new artists on the air to begin with. Without it, new artists, who already have a nearly impossible time getting on bigtime radio stations, will find the going even tougher.

A Man, a Phone, a Plan: How many song titles can you name that contain phone numbers? I can think of a few:
Beechwood 4-5789 (the Marvelettes)
634-5789 (lots of people, including Wilson Pickett and Bon Jovi)
Lonesome 7-7203 (Hawkshaw Hawkins)
Echo Valley 2-6809 (a Partridge Family album cut)
867-5309 (Tommy Tutone)
The last one is the most famous, and last month a guy took it upon himself to call 867-5309 in every area code, just to see what he'd get. The results are here.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Sugar in Your Bowl, and Other Vices

Our current guardians of virtue would have you believe that before those damn hippie kids screwed everything up in the 1960s, American pop culture was largely benign. But there's never been a time when nothing unfit for either your grandma or your eight-year-old niece ever crept into public consciousness. As far back as the 1920s, Cliff Edwards, a bona fide star known as Ukulele Ike, recorded such tunes as "I'm a Bear in a Lady's Boudoir" and "I'm Going to Give it to Mary With Love." Edwards and other white artists recorded such material with a wink and a nudge, as euphemistic as Seinfeld's "master of your domain." In the blues and R&B fields, performers were often far more blunt. Songs dealing with a lot more than mere sexual innuendo were common, as was a more rough-and-tough style.

Certain songs from the genre sometimes known as "dirty blues" are better known by title than by any specific performance, such as "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion," and "If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It." A performer such as Bo Carter could make a career out of records like "My Pencil Won't Write No More," "Banana in Your Fruit Basket," and "Please Warm My Weiner." Women too, such as Lil Johnson with "Press My Button, Ring My Bell," Julia Lee, with "King Size Papa" and "My Man Stands Out," and Lucille Bogan with "Shave 'Em Dry," (In a genre all about envelope-pushing, "Shave 'Em Dry" was considered too far out for a long time--it remained unreleased for over 30 years, until the 1970s.)

Better-known blues and R&B artists also recorded material we'd rate as PG or R, like Bessie Smith's "I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl" or Alberta Hunter's "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark." Wynonie Harris recorded "Keep On Churnin' (Til the Butter Comes)", Dinah Washington waxed "Big Long Slidin' Thing," and Memphis Slim once recorded a song called "If You See Kay." Most such records were underground hits--the musical equivalent of Playboy magazines under the mattress--but a few reached a mass audience: "Sixty Minute Man" by the Dominoes, for example, and "Work With Me Annie" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters."

Outside the blues and R&B fields, if you dig into your father's or grandfather's vinyl albums, you might find some nightclub recordings by Rusty Warren or Ruth Wallis. They were more suggestive than obscene, and what made them seem so risque was Warren and Wallis' frequent use of the word "boobs." (Warren's most famous tune is probably "Bounce Your Boobies," which occasionally surfaces on the Dr. Demento radio show). They sound fairly tame now, but they were hot stuff for adults only in the 1950s and early 60s.

If a listener's taste ran to songs about homosexuality, they were out there, too--like "Sissy Man Blues" ("I woke up this morning with my business in my hand/If you can't bring me a woman/Bring me a sissy man") or "It's Tight Like That" (co-written by a pianist known as Georgia Tom, real name Thomas A. Dorsey, who in later years practically invented modern gospel). Drugs? How about Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher"--what could she be mooching, I wonder?--or the fairly well-known novelty "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine"?

Yep, wherever there have been human beings and live microphones, sooner or later there have been songs sold in plain brown wrappers. You can explore a whole bunch of compilations featuring this kind of thing here. A fabulous essay on "dirty blues" is here.