Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Top 5: In the Long Run

Memorial Day weekend marks the official beginning of summer. Of course, the summer solstice doesn't occur for nearly a month yet, but summer is more a state of mind than a set of calendar dates anyhow. It's never been my favorite season--autumn won that popularity contest a long time ago--but I've had some memorable ones nevertheless. Before I take off for an extended weekend, here's a list of my Top 5 Most Memorable Summers.

5. 1981. My first summer living away from home. I was on the air nearly every day, either at the campus radio station or at my paying radio job in Dubuque. My roommates and I grilled out nearly every night, and drank ourselves stupid on a fairly regular basis. Said process was made easier by the fact that we had a dorm-sized fridge full of beer next to the couch in the living room, so there was no need even to get up. Songs that bring it back: "The Stroke" by Billy Squier, "This Little Girl" by Gary U.S. Bonds, and "I Love You" by the Climax Blues Band.

4. 1974.
Just before Memorial Day, we had a fire in our house that rendered the upper floor, where my bedroom was, uninhabitable for several months. So that was the summer I hung out in the basement of our house. One thing that didn't change was that the radio was always on. Songs that bring it back: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" by Steely Dan, "Radar Love" by Golden Earring, and "The Air That I Breathe" by the Hollies.

3. 1971.
My last summer as a full-time child (before I had to start working on the farm to earn my allowance), and my first after discovering the radio. I was playing Little League baseball and learning to play the saxophone (both badly), and had already decided that I wanted to be a radio guy. Songs that bring it back: "Here Comes That Rainy-Day Feeling Again" by the Fortunes, "Want Ads" by Honey Cone, and "Draggin' the Line" by Tommy James.

2. 1986. I was doing a Top 40 morning show in Macomb, Illinois, by this time. It seemed like the station was doing a live remote from someplace nearly every weekend, and I became a minor local celebrity. On a personal level, The Mrs. and I were rattling around in a big old rented house--and I had already made a decision that turned out to be a fateful one for my radio career. I'd started taking the phone off the hook when I got home in the afternoon. Up until then, I'd always made myself available to the radio station 24/7--but not anymore. I never looked at my career the same way after that. Songs that bring it back: "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys; "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood; "No One Is to Blame" by Howard Jones.

1. 1976. Everybody has one summer that they will remember after they've forgotten all the others. This year is mine. I had my driver's license and my first car (1974 AMC Hornet, robin's egg blue), and the independence both bring. It was the last summer I worked on the farm--by the next year, I was old enough to get a job in town, so I got the hell out and never looked back. There is no girl to associate with this summer--she would show up later in 1976--just the car, and softball games, and a radio that was on from sunup until far after sundown. Songs that bring it back: "Baby I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton, "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy, "Get Closer" by Seals and Crofts.

Honorable Mentions:
1980, for reasons mentioned in an earlier post--and because we saw the Eagles that year, touring on The Long Run, with a giant full moon rising over the outdoor stage at Alpine Valley Music Theater near Milwaukee. And 1999, because it would be kind of sad to think I hadn't had a memorable summer in nearly 20 years.

I don't expect much from my summers nowadays--I think maybe that's something you can only credibly do when you're young, and I'm not especially young anymore. But anything is possible--and because that was always the best thing about summers back in the day, maybe I'll be surprised by 2005.

I will be spending the first weekend of this summer on a lake in Michigan (but not Lake Michigan), far away from cell phones, cable TV, and Internet access, so posts will return here no sooner than Wednesday, June 1. In the interim, weigh in with tales of your favorite summers by clicking "Comments."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Top 5: It's Still Rock and Roll to Me

Jumping off from Wednesday night's post, here are five of the tunes we played the hell out of on classic rock WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, during the summer of 1980:

1. "Coming Up"/Paul McCartney. An odd little single, not released on a McCartney album until the 1990s, and one of his biggest solo hits, although you don't hear it much anymore.

2. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"/Billy Joel. The second single from Glass Houses, an album I hated with a great deal of vehemence in 1980. I felt there wasn't a single tune on it (except maybe "Sleeping with the Television On") that compared favorably with anything on either The Stranger or 52nd Street.

3. "Emotional Rescue"/Rolling Stones. Great excitement around WXXQ the day this album came in. Then we dropped the needle on this, and thought Mick and the boys had lost their minds.

4. "Against the Wind"/Bob Seger. The Against the Wind album isn't as good as either Night Moves or Stranger in Town, but this might be Seger's prettiest song.

5. "Rough Boys"/Pete Townshend. Yes, the inexplicable "Let My Love Open the Door" was a big single that summer, but this is the cut from Empty Glass that got album rock airplay, and we played it to death. But does anyone play it anymore?

Honorable Mentions: "Walks Like a Lady" by Journey, "Misunderstanding" and "Turn It on Again" by Genesis, and something by Cheap Trick called "Everything Works If You Let It." Freeport was just up the road from Cheap Trick's hometown, Rockford, Illinois, which may have to be explanation enough for why we devoted airtime to so minor a hit.

But that summer at that station was more about classic rock oldies than current hits, anyhow. It wasn't unusual to play "Stairway to Heaven" or "Aqualung" twice in a six-hour shift. The PD told us that as a new station, we'd have lots of listener sampling going on, so we needed to sound our best as often as possible. Maybe that was true--but it still didn't make up for "Everything Works If You Let It."

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Turn It On Again

It's 25 years this week since Mount St. Helens blew in Washington State, which happened the same week I started my favorite summer radio gig, at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois.

During the 1970s, Freeport, a town of 20,000 or so about 20 miles south of my Wisconsin hometown, had not one but two extremely good Top 40 stations, although their glory days were not in direct competition with one another. During the middle part of the decade, WACI was the powerhouse, with live jocks in all dayparts. By the end of the decade, WFRL was the better of the two, an AM/FM simulcast with an extremely strong jock lineup--one of them ended up on the air in Detroit and Chicago and eventually went into consulting.

By the summer of 1980, WFRL had separated its AM and FM. The FM, now called WXXQ, had remained a rocker, although it had struggled through a couple of different guises. By 1980, the owner had decided to try a fairly tight classic rock format. My old friend Shark (a regular reader and commenter on this blog) was already working part-time there, and one night that spring I got a breathless phone call from him telling me to stay right where I was, because any minute now I was going to get a call from the PD, who was looking for jocks for the new format. A couple of hours later, the PD did indeed call, and we set up an interview. Just as it took him two hours to call me the first time, the PD was also two hours late for my interview (which happened to occur on the same weekend the woman who is now The Mrs. met my parents for the first time). That I would get the job, however, was pretty much a foregone conclusion. And a couple of weeks later, I became the night guy at WXXQ.

It was a pretty sweet gig for a 20-year-old college kid. I was on the air Sunday through Friday nights from six to midnight, so I had Saturday nights to party with my friends at home. I was paid the princely sum of $135 a week, but I was living at home, so my only expenses were gasoline and beer. And we pretty much rocked all the time--many were the times I'd say, "We'll roll five hours commercial-free right after this message."

The studios were located on the 12th floor of a bank building, one of the tallest buildings for miles around, which added to the cachet of the place. We watched the fireworks from three northern Illinois towns on the Fourth of July, but my favorite story involving the building comes from the night Shark, who was doing mornings on the station and had nothing better to do a lot of evenings, came up to hang out with me. He was a maniac air-guitarist, an exhibitionist of the first degree, and put on an extremely acrobatic performance one night to "Borrowed Time" by Styx. Just after he finished, the phone rang. "Hey," the listener said. "When are you gonna do that again?" Well, the whole streetside wall was glass, after all.

In addition to being a sweet gig for a rock-and-radio obsessed college kid who didn't need very much money, it was also one of the most agreeable jobs I ever would ever have. The office was already closed by the time I got to work, and after the AM signed off at sundown, I had the place to myself--just me and the AP wire machine and a black-and-white TV set in the newsroom in case the Cubs game was on TV.

(The AM was an adult-contemporary station, and not a bad one, although the PD decided to staff the short evening shift, 6PM to sunset, with a rotation of two high-school girls who had been recommended to him by a speech teacher. They proved to be utterly hopeless. One night during a severe weather alert, I went into the AM studio to find one of them just sitting there, frozen, with dead air and no clue about what to do next. It wasn't long before Shark recruited another college friend, Ron, to come to Freeport and take over the AM evening shifts. Ron also moved in with Shark, and that meant more than one post-midnight pizza and beer gathering after I got off the air.)

I got to interview Ray Sawyer and Dennis Locorriere from Dr. Hook that summer, as part of the publicity for their appearance at one of the county fairs. (I still have the tape, but I'm afraid to listen to it.) The last broadcasts I did on the station were remotes from another of the county fairs in the region, in late August just before school started again. At the time, I didn't really consider quitting school and keeping the job--I had one semester to go as program director of my college radio station, and was pretty focused on building a career. (A few months later, however, I regretted it, and even made a call back to the PD about getting my job back, but I couldn't pull the trigger on leaving school.) Given what my radio career became, I would probably have done just as well without the radio/TV degree I eventually got--although the degree, such as it was, paved the way for the additional education I got in my 30s when I decided to get the hell out of radio for good and all, so it wasn't a total loss.

When I think about that summer now, I don't necessarily remember being on the air right away. What I remember first is signing the station off at midnight, and if there was no production to do (and there rarely was), being down in the parking lot by 12:05 and on my way home. In my mind's eye, I can still drive Illinois 26 through that steamy midwestern summer, across the state line and back to the house I had grown up in. (In the fall to come, I'd move to an off-campus apartment at college and never again live full-time at home.) Many were the nights I'd stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and wake up at noon to start another day--another day in the life of a rock jock, the only life I'd ever seriously wanted to have.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Forget Your Troubles, Come on, Get Stupid

Pure stupid happiness is not an emotion I indulge in much. I'm a congenital pessimist--nothing is so bad that it can't get worse, and nothing is so good that it couldn't go craptacular without warning--and I'm probably a bit too self-aware to surrender completely to joy. Yet I went over the edge the other night, thanks to 25 All-Time Greatest Bubblegum Hits: The Ultimate Collection, a compilation on Varese Sarabande Records, released in 2000. This thing provides the purest rock and roll sugar high available under current law, and I can't remember the last time listening to a CD made me feel so goddamn happy.

The disc is loaded with bubblegum standards like "Yummy Yummy Yummy," "I'm a Believer," "I Think We're Alone Now," and the "Stairway to Heaven" of bubblegum music, "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies. It's got Bobby Sherman ("Easy Come, Easy Go") and Tommy Roe (the vaguely obscene "Jam Up Jelly Tight"). It's also got some lesser-known gems that are undeservedly forgotten, like "Every Beat of My Heart" by Josie and the Pussycats. In some alternate universe, this bit of gorgeous girl-group gum was Number One for weeks and weeks in 1970. Also from the world of Saturday morning TV, the disc has the Banana Splits "Wait Till Tomorrow," in which the Splits go all Donovan on yo' ass.

Bubblegum was supposed to be disposable kids' music, but the best of it was too well-made to be disposed of. "Tracy" by the Cuff Links and "My Baby Loves Lovin'" by White Plains have deserved 35 years of oldies-radio play. And gum is encoded in some of the oddest places. Listen to "Jennifer Tomkins" by Street People and see if its hook doesn't remind you of rap-style wordplay. Listen to "Captain Groovy and His Bubblegum Army" by the group of the same name--the shouted command "join!" could just as easily be a command by the Kiss Army.

The bubblegum era produced its own self-referential records, like "Bubble Gum Music" by the Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. of Philadelphia, which name-checks several gum stars (and slams the Grateful Dead). It even had its own all-star, We-Are-The-World type recording: the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus, made up of everybody under contract to Buddah Records at the time, recorded "Quick Joey Small (Run Joey Run)," which has nothing to do with the 1975 David Geddes record "Run Joey Run" and which, in addition to being completely demented, completely rocks. As does "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes," by Edison Lighthouse--the only bubblegum record that sounds better the louder you play it.

That bubblegum music can inspire pure stupid happiness in a balding fat man in his mid 40s who knows he should know better might be bubblegum's greatest achievement.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Top 5: It's Not for Me to Say

Earlier this week I admitted to liking 60s MOR--and I suppose I ought to explain myself further. MOR means "middle of the road," which is a fairly archaic expression nowadays. MOR was the adult contemporary of the 60s and 70s--not kids' music, but not Serious music (classical or jazz), either. It's not quite analogous to today's adult contemporary, which is essentially a rock format. MOR back in the day was aggressively, intentionally non-rock.

That's why the MOR era seems to begin in the mid 1960s, after the Beatles conquered the world, and after it became clear that kids' music could no longer be ghettoized or ignored by radio stations and record companies. When it ends is a more difficult date to fix. Maybe the early 80s, about the time mass-appeal, full-service radio started to die--oftentimes these stations, with a heavy commitment to local news, sports, and talk, would play music on their off-hours, and that music was inevitably MOR.

But even if we say that the golden era started in the mid 60s, we find that lots of definitive MOR records were recorded well before that. Take Johnny Mathis tunes like "It's Not for Me to Say" and "Chances Are." Both were recorded in the late 50s, yet both are considered to be MOR standards. (And just to complicate matters, they were also substantial pop hits in their day.) The format reached back into the 50s for records by the likes of Rosemary Clooney and pianist Roger Williams, and incorporated tunes by early rockers such as Bobby Darin ("Beyond the Sea") and the Platters ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.") By the 1970s, country could be MOR, too. Country stars like Crystal Gayle, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, and Glen Campbell scored substantial MOR hits. Plus, when we get to the 1970s, we've got to make room for the Captain and Tennille and Tony Orlando and Dawn.

As a radio format, however, MOR's core music came from the 1960s. I think we can safely consider two specific types of music as prototypical MOR. Movie music is one. Warious Henry Mancini hits, like "A Time for Us" and "Moon River," for example, approach the center of the target. The sound--lush, rich, stringy, and not a drum kit for miles around--is definitive. (MOR or not, however, "A Time for Us" made Number One on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1969.) The Ray Conniff Singers, whose recording of "Somewhere My Love" from the movie Doctor Zhivago was a Top 10 hit in 1966, are also a classic MOR act. Another MOR prototype might be music by artists who were big in Vegas and the nightclub circuit without scoring lots of hit singles: Jerry Vale, Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Robert Goulet. Even though their profiles were higher than mere nightclub singers, you'd have to put Sammy Davis Jr. and Andy Williams on the prototype list, too. And even Sinatra.

Yeah, it's a male-dominated format, oddly enough--although maybe it's not so odd if you imagine MOR, rightly or wrongly, as the music with which millions of stay-at-home American women spent their days during the 1960s. There were individual MOR hits by female singers, but precious few female singers made a career in MOR. Barbra Streisand, maybe, but her success transcended the genre. Lani Hall, who provided lead vocals with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, may have come the closest to making a career on MOR alone--and yet, Brasil 66's two biggest hits both went Top 10 pop, too.

So, with all those qualifications in place, here are five solid records from MOR's core--all of them placed on the Hot 100 and got pop airplay, but they're remembered today as strictly MOR. Each one of them is tasteful enough not to offend your grandmother.

"The Look of Love"/Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, #4, 1968.
Put this alongside their version of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" and you've got the uncrowned kings of 60s MOR.

"Last Date"/Floyd Cramer, #2, 1960.
You have probably heard this song even if you can't hum the tune, especially if you can remember the days when music stations had to hit a network news feed at a precise time every hour. Using an instrumental to "take us up to newstime" is a DJ technique as old as time itself.

"It Must Be Him"/Vikki Carr, #3, 1967. In which a woman tries to liberate herself from memories of the man who broke her heart, only to be reduced to loudly begging God for help every time the phone rings. Has become downright hilarious as the years go by.

"More"/Kai Winding, #8, 1963. The theme from a controversial Italian documentary film, Mondo Cane, that is now considered one of the precursors of reality TV. Sounded kind of futuristic in 1963.

"When I Fall in Love"/Lettermen, #7, 1962.
Let this one record stand for the Lettermen's entire body of work, which was barbershop harmony for the post-industrial age. Lush and rich and not an ounce of sweat in any of it, but romantic in its way nevertheless.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

House of Many Tunes

The Mrs. and I went to an estate sale last weekend. We don't do this a lot, but she wanted to go, so we did. The estate owner apparently spent the last few years of her life sitting at home buying things off the TV. There was a table full of jewelry from QVC, much of it in the original boxes, and, most interesting to me, a motherlode of as-seen-on-TV Time-Life CD sets. I snagged nine volumes of Singers and Songwriters and The Folk Years, four volumes of something called Lifetime of Romance, featuring MOR from the late 50s through the early 80s, and an astounding eight volumes of Classic Love Songs of Rock 'n' Roll, with which I could run a completely respectable oldies radio station. All of these are double disc sets, all still sealed, and I got them--17 sets--for $8.50. That's not a misprint: That's eight dollars and fifty cents, and criminal negligence on the part of the company running the estate sale. The list price for the sets combined is around $400.

So anyway, my ongoing CD storage problem has multiplied itself by a lot. I've got most of the stuff on Singers and Songwriters (The Mrs. will take 'em to her office), but the other series fill out my library beyond its already ridiculous level of comprehensiveness. It's not just trophy hunting, either--these discs will find their way into my CD player plenty in years to come because I actually like this stuff. I listened to a lot of 50s and 60s oldies during my early radio days, pushing buttons for a prerecorded weekend oldies show. I learned to dig 60s MOR during my days as a big-band jock, and as program director of a station running a satellite MOR format. So come to my house, and you're likely to hear damn near anything, really. Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell" is playing at the moment.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Top 5: I Can't Get No . . .

Forty years ago this week (sources vary on whether the exact date was yesterday or today), in a hotel room in Florida, Keith Richards was playing around with a fuzztone guitar when he came up with a riff he couldn't get out of his head. He played it for Mick Jagger, and in a little while the two of them worked out a song called "Satisfaction." Keith later claimed the riff was inspired by Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," and that he imagined it being played by a horn section. The band did its first takes of the song on May 10 at the legendary Chess studios in Chicago, and finished it in Los Angeles the next day. Keith didn't think it was strong enough to be the A side of a single, but two months later, the song would reach Number One in America, and it would end up the top song of 1965.

(Even today, you don't usually hear "Satisfaction" in stereo--the version most familiar to everybody is in mono. A stereo version exists, but it lacks the down-and-dirty punch of the mono version--and "Satisfaction" without being down and dirty is not "Satisfaction" at all.)

We frequently stand in awe around here of the giants who walked the earth in days of yore, and of the fact that you could turn on your radio during some weeks of the 1960s and 1970s and find the regular current rotation stuffed with records people will still be listening to in 100 years. So it was during the week of July 10, 1965, when "Satisfaction" first ruled the world.

2. "I Can't Help Myself"/Four Tops. Like Richards with "Satisfaction," Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs wasn't happy with "I Can't Help Myself," and wanted to recut it the next day. But the Tops weren't booked for studio time the next day, and the Motown assembly line needed the record to be done, so it was, and it worked out OK.

3. "Mr. Tambourine Man"/Byrds. These Byrds sang, but the only Byrd to play on the record was Jim (soon to become Roger) McGuinn--but what he plays is the 12-string electric guitar that gave the Byrds their signature sound.

4. "Wonderful World"/Herman's Hermits. Well, not everything can last forever. 'Erman's version of the Sam Cooke tune was quickly overshadowed by "I'm Henry VIII I Am," which would dethrone "Satisfaction" atop the charts in August.

5. "Wooly Bully"/Sam the Sham. While nobody would put Sam in the pantheon with the Stones, Four Tops, or Byrds, "Wooly Bully" is one of those records with which a wedding-reception DJ can't go wrong. It's a fine example of the interesting little sub-genre of organ-heavy Texas rock. Well, maybe not a genre, but some good records featuring Sam the Sham and the Sir Douglas Quintet, anyhow.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Show That Never Ends Ends After All

The year is 1974. I am 14, and have the hots for a girl who is into Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, so I, in an attempt to get her to notice me, try getting into Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as well--because it seems easier than actually speaking to her. As a ploy to get a date, the whole thing worked about as well as you might expect, and I didn't get into the music either.

A couple of years later, after I have moved on from the girl, I start listening to ELP again and this time, I become a fan. The first concert I ever go to by myself (as opposed to being chaperoned by my parents) is an ELP date on the Works tour in 1977--the one with the full orchestra, although said orchestra keeps shedding members as the tour runs lower and lower on money. (Ticket price: $8.50.) A year later, ELP comes around again, this time just the three of them, and they play a magnificent show of prog-rock excess that runs over three hours. I do not actually buy any ELP records, however--not at first. I have 8-tracks. Homemade 8-tracks, taped from albums, although I would eventually buy the albums themselves.

Just as the 8-track is the quintesssential symbol of fossilized high tech, I think maybe Emerson, Lake, and Palmer are the quintessential fossilized 70s musical act. The other day, I listened to an ELP compilation cassette I whipped up a few years back, and it occurs to me that there are few other groups with a major reputation back in the day whose music seems so ridiculously over-the-top today. Those titles! "Karn Evil 9"; "Tarkus"; "The Three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos"; and the unintentionally funny "The Endless Enigma (Parts 1 and 2)." Those science-fiction song cycles that take up the whole side of an album! ("Karn Evil 9" and "Tarkus" again.) Those classical adaptations! Those flatulent synthesizers! ("Lucky Man" and, yet again, "Tarkus.") Those drum solos! It's as if a mad scientist brewed up the very thing likely to attract a teenager of literary bent whose favorite TV show is The Twilight Zone and who wishes he had stuck with his piano lessons. Every once in a while, what they were doing resulted in music you wouldn't mind hearing again years later: "From the Beginning," "Hoedown," their Aaron Copland adaptation that's done at a tempo approaching the speed of light, and their version of the Peter Gunn theme, which remains the greatest concert-opening number I've ever heard anyone perform. More often than not, however, their audible striving to create not just music but Great Art caused Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's reach to exceed their grasp. There were lots of us who didn't mind, though. ELP sold records in staggering amounts, and toured the world for a full year on Brain Salad Surgery--a tour chronicled on the three-disc live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends.

Their arty pretensions eventually cost them their perch in the pantheon. Feeling constrained by the group structure, but realizing solo albums probably wouldn't sell like a group effort, ELP spent the better part of two years making their very own White Album, the two-disc 1977 release Works Volume 1, in which each member got a side. Emerson's was a straight classical piano concerto; Lake's consisted of four overblown love songs and a King Crimson outtake, all with full orchestra backing; Palmer's was almost entirely pointless. The fourth side was the only one that worked, and just barely--"Fanfare for the Common Man" became a staple of their live shows, and "Pirates" fit the familiar epic mode. And no synthesizer pyrotechnics anywhere.

After that, the bus ride to obscurity took only about a year: In early 1978, Works Volume 2 had its moments--marking the first American appearance of "I Believe in Father Christmas" and including a relatively straight version of the jazz number "Show Me the Way to Go Home," which my friends and I used to close the postgame DJ shows we did during our senior year of high school. In late 1978 came Love Beach, which had the form of an ELP album--classical adaptation, sidelong suite, and various interesting electronic noises--but also included a heaping helping of we-don't-care, which was clearly audible. After that came the breakup, the reformulated lineup (Emerson, Lake, and Powell), the endless repackaging of the library, and finally, the reunion. I have to confess that when, in the mid 1990s, the original lineup appeared in the town where I was living, I thought about going, but didn't.

Lesson: Some things you were into in high school will always seem cool. Some things will not.