Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Forgotten 45: "In Thee"

Blue Oyster Cult came riding out of the expanse of 70s wilderness where prog rock met heavy metal--all the proof you need is that there's supposed to be an umlaut over the "o," and that some of the group's highest-profile fans were science-fiction authors. But when they broke into Top 40 consciousness in 1976, it was with the lush and spooky single "Don't Fear the Reaper." It featured a crankin' guitar solo to keep the band's metalhead credentials intact, although that solo was edited out of the 45 version. No further hit singles followed. ("Godzilla" became an album rock hit in 1977, although it was probably too much for the Top 40 in a year of Debby Boone and "Torn Between Two Lovers.") So for their 1979 release, Mirrors, BOC toned down the sci/fi and metalhead excesses. On "In Thee," they almost turned into the Byrds by accident: jangling acoustic guitars and earnest-sounding vocal harmonies that add up to a kind of seeker-on-the-road vibe straight out of 60s folk-rock. It didn't end up being a smash or anything, but it represents one of the odder stylistic departures of the 1970s. Of course, the year was 1979, so we can be grateful it wasn't a disco tune.

(Columbia 11055, chart peak #74, September 29, 1979)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Top 5: Maximum Rock and Roll

Just like Casey Kasem used to say: "Five hits to Number One and we're countin' em down." Here's the Top 5 from this week in 1971.

5. "It Don't Come Easy"/Ringo Starr.
Let's give it up to Ringo--for the first half of the 1970s, he was every bit the equal of his former Beatle mates on the solo charts. "It Don't Come Easy" was the first of seven straight Top 10 hits for Ringo--a made-for-AM production that sounded hotter than almost everything else on the radio in the summer of '71.

4. "Brown Sugar"/Rolling Stones.
Several years ago, Rolling Stone published a list of the top singles of all time. (I seem to recall reading somewhere that Stone publisher Jann Wenner had tweaked the list to favor a few personal acquaintances. I'm not saying that's why Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" placed at Number 54, ahead of "All Along the Watchtower," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, but there's clearly a difference of informed opinion there.) That list, which had "Satisfaction" at Number One, inspired me to make my own. I don't have a copy, but I remember that "Brown Sugar" was Number One. It's three minutes and 50 seconds of maximum rock and roll.

3. "Want Ads"/Honey Cone.
With which the former Motown team of Holland/Dozier/Holland entered the 1970s in full possession of their creative skills. It's what you'd get if you ran one part gritty Southern soul and one part girl-group bubblegum through the Motown production machine.

2. "Rainy Days and Mondays"/Carpenters.
Not just another pillowy soft and shallow love song--between the lines there's some complicated adult emotion going on. Later in the 1970s, a jock on Chicago's WIND used the song as inspiration for a contest, in which he gave away a dozen roses to a listener on every rainy day and every Monday. Years later, after a few more stops up and down the dial, he gave up the major market life and retired to a Wisconsin golf course--but missed radio, and ended up working at the little station in my hometown, where he still is today.

1. "It's Too Late"/"I Feel the Earth Move"/Carole King.
It's forgotten today that 1971 was the high-water mark of the two-sided hit single, a phenomenon that began around 1968 and was over by the end of 1971. I am guessing record companies hated 'em, because they would have preferred selling two singles to one, but for record buyers, they were a bonus. Who wouldn't want to double their money at 95 cents a single? This kicked off the chart run of Tapestry, which was Number One for nearly four months in 1971 and lingered on the album charts for most of the rest of the decade.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

You're on the Monitor Beacon

Given the monotonous mishmash American radio has become in the past 10 years or so, it's hard to imagine very many aspects of it capturing the imagination of listeners in such a way that they might feel nostalgic about it years from now.

Fifty years ago this month, Monitor premiered on NBC. Monitor came along at a moment when many people believed radio might die out entirely in the face of television. TV had taken away the long-form comedy and drama programs that were staples of radio--nearly 40 percent of network radio programs migrated to television during the medium's formative years--and nobody was quite sure what might replace them. So Monitor was an attempt to reinvent the medium--and media history geeks won't be surprised to hear it came from the mind of Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who developed both Today and Tonight for NBC-TV, and who may have been one of the last national media executives who didn't treat cultural and public affairs programming like bad-tasting medicine he was forced to take.

Monitor was a weekend variety service, a mix of music, news, sports, comedy, and features intended to be self-contained. In the early years, a station could fill most of its weekend hours with Monitor and nothing else if it chose, although the number of hours Monitor was offered varied quite a bit over the years. In the early years, its hosts were a who's-who of NBC greats--David Brinkley, Dave Garroway, Frank Blair, and others. During the 1960s, its most popular host was probably Gene Rayburn, known to most as the host of TV's Match Game. Veteran game-show host Bill Cullen also hosted Monitor segments in the 1960s. In the 70s, my first exposure to Don Imus (before he became a crabby talk-radio pundit, he was a theater-of-the-mind genius) came on Monitor, where Wolfman Jack and Robert W. Morgan were also hosts. As radio formats fragmented and FM use rose, Monitor's time passed. It signed off for the last time, after 19 1/2 years on the air, in late January 1975.

In a way, Monitor was an early example of the packaged program formats that have proliferated across the dial today. People in a faraway studio made the decisions about what to air, and local stations merely consumed it. So what's different about Monitor, and why is it worth remembering 30 years after its demise, if today's formats won't be? For one thing, Monitor was the opposite of many of today's formats, which are designed to be consumed passively, as background. Monitor assumed a level of active listener engagement that's rare today outside of talk formats and public radio. And where today's formats are narrowly targeted to include a particular sliver of the available audience and exclude the rest, Monitor was mass appeal. It assumed the existence of an electronic public square where many different kinds of people congregated, and therefore, it owed something to everyone who might happen by.

Another way in which Monitor differed significantly from today's packaged formats is that in most cases, there was always somebody sitting in the local studio to play the local commercials and handle the local newscasts. (Today, many radio stations are unstaffed, with all programming operated by computer.) One old radio guy of my acquaintance claimed that when he didn't feel like doing his own weekend show, he would simply turn up Monitor and go to the studio next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.

I'm convinced it's more than coincidence that in the 1970s, as the radio audience slivered into niches where other people and their interests need never intrude on a listener's private world, that interest in public issues began to erode. Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of radio stations in this country whose idea of transcendently important news is the latest on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and who couldn't tell you the difference between John Bolton and Michael Bolton if you spotted them four clues. In the end, Monitor remains important because of its small-d democracy--and the way it lived up to Pat Weaver's belief a well-rounded radio diet was good for people, right up to its final minutes on the air.

There's literally hours of reading and listening fun at the Monitor Tribute Pages, including the famous Monitor Beacon, the network's sonic signature. If you remember Monitor at all, you'll enjoy it. If you don't, treat yourself to a taste of the old school

New at the Daily Aneurysm: You Don't Like This Car?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Zing Boom Tar-Rar-Rel

June 15, 1996: Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald dies at age 78. She defined what it is to be a female jazz singer, using her voice like an instrument, over a career that spanned almost 60 years.

June 15, 1992: Bruce Springsteen opens his first-ever tour without the E Street Band in support of the albums Human Touch and Lucky Town.

June 15, 1988:
A photographer snaps a picture of Springsteen and backup singer Patti Scialfa sharing an intimate moment backstage, thus confirming rumors of their involvement. Always an original, the Boss--he married the trophy wife first (model/actresss Julianne Philliips) and then married the regular girl and had a family.

June 15, 1968:
Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery dies at age 45. Created a unique style by playing without a pick. Key albums: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960) and Smokin' at the Half Note (with the Wynton Kelly Trio, originally released in 1966, newly released earlier this year with extra material).

June 15, 1965: Bob Dylan records "Like a Rolling Stone," his first electric record. Organist Al Kooper is praised for his unusual style on the record, but admits it's because he could barely play and was just trying to keep up.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1990: "Hold On"/Wilson Phillips.
Given their pedigree, they were never not going to be successful. Their biggest failing may have been that they didn't realize it.

1978: "You're the One That I Want"/John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Dumb but irresistable, even with Travolta's yodeling.

1974: "Billy Don't Be a Hero"/Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.
Dumb but irresistable, even with that cheesy martial flute.

1961: "Running Scared"/Roy Orbison. In which he seems to be building to a high note he can't possibly reach, only to nail it in spectacular fashion. His most mindblowing, chill-inducing vocal performance, ever.

1939: "Beer Barrel Polka"/Will Glahe. The unofficial state song of Wisconsin.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Off the Wall, Bad, and Dangerous, Clearly Not Invincible, but Occasionally a Thriller

Many news stories today suggest that Michael Jackson's career has been irreparably tainted by his child molestation trial, even though he was acquitted. Gee, you think? Fact is, Jackson's reign as the King of Pop is not just over, it's ancient history. He hasn't occupied anything like a high rung of the music world since the early 1990s.

It's surprising to note just how small Jackson's discography really is. If you ignore his four Motown solo albums from the 1970s, all relatively minor, and once you remove the compilations, remix albums, and various other cash-in attempts from the list, you're left with five albums in 22 years to represent his reign: Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982), Bad (1987), Dangerous (1992), and Invincible (2001)--and you can likely discount Invincible, which could barely be heard above the building accusations of scandal and sank almost without a trace. Off the Wall was massively successful and groundbreaking, although I was able to ignore it at the time since I was doing album rock radio in college and spinning country on the weekends. By the time Thriller arrived, however, no sentient being could ignore it. Seven of its nine tracks were released as singles--in an era when a maximum of three single releases from a single album was more common--and they all made the Top Ten. Plus, Jackson kicked down the doors at MTV after the channel was resistant, and everybody remembers him moonwalking his way through the Motown 25 TV special. At that point, beings on other planets had heard of him.

Thriller's longevity (and the Jackson family concert tour it spawned) made a new album unnecessary for a while--so Michael took five years before he got around to it. Not that the delay between albums harmed him at all. The best indication of Jackson's massive popularity and cultural reach may have come in 1987 when the radio station I worked for added the first single from Bad, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." We were an elevator-music station.

By 1992, the Jackson phenomenon was starting to hollow out--the video for "Black or White," the first single from Dangerous, debuted on network TV, but the buzz the morning after was about the weird window-smashing, crotch-grabbing coda that was later edited out of the video entirely. (Lost in the controversy was the fact that "Black or White" was Jackson's most convincing rock song next to "Beat It.") Later singles from Dangerous, like "Heal the World" and "Will You Be There" were treacly sludge, and when Jackson crowned himself "King of Pop" around this time, the gesture seemed several years late, and an attempt to corral a horse that had already escaped the barn.

I can't tell you where Jackson ranks among the great performers of the age, or even if he belongs among them. Maybe it's because dance music doesn't seem as inherently serious as what the Beatles or Dylan or the Stones or REM or U2 do, but that can't be it entirely. Seriousness, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, isn't necessarily the only thing that counts when assessing credentials for immortality. Maybe it's because the Jackson Five's 1970 hit "I'll Be There" overshadows, at least for me, everything almost Michael did on his own, except "Billie Jean."

I wonder about "I'll Be There" sometimes. Does Jackson ever hear it, or think about it? And if so, how does it make him feel?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Top 5: Life's Been Good to Me So Far

When I was listing my Top 5 Most Memorable Summers a couple of weeks ago, the summer of 1978 got no love at all, but it probably should have received at least an honorable mention. That was the summer after I graduated from high school, which was a most interesting experience for the half-assed teenage philosopher I was by that time. Graduation was the first profoundly life-altering milestone I could see coming before it arrived, and so I examined and re-examined and re-re-examined my every thought and feeling about it, until it was like an orange peel picked absolutely clean. At the time, I was astounded by the fact that Paul McCartney's "With a Little Luck" topped the Hot 100 that week--it seemed like more than coincidence then (and still does now, truth to tell).

I had my first paying DJ job that summer, spinning tunes one night a week for the 13-and-under set at the local roller rink. It was kind of frustrating--my customary audience of pre-teen girls really didn't want to hear the kind of music I liked ("Use Ta Be My Girl" by the O'Jays springs to mind), while the owner of the place kept recommending obscure singles from the 1960s that even I didn't know. I soon began to consider the whole thing as a chore rather than an opportunity. One week the total attendance for the night was four people. It got so bad that I would simply track a disco album and go off to play pinball in the game room.

Disappointing though that job was, it wasn't my primary job of the summer. To avoid having to work on the family farm, I had taken a job as a cashier at a gas station out by the new highway. I had gas-station experience already (a few months as a pump jockey at a station run by a friend's father), but I wouldn't have to use much of it at this place. It was a self-service station--a relatively new concept in Wisconsin in 1978--so all I had to do was sit inside and collect the money. This station didn't sell anything but gasoline--no cans of oil, no bags of chips, no packs of smokes--so apart from collecting money, all I had to do was keep the windshield washer things full, swab the bathrooms, and remember to lock the door when I left.

There was one other distinguishing characteristic about the place. It had been built by the new highway in anticipation of the new highway actually being open by the summer of 1978, which it was not. As a result, we had practically no customer traffic at all, because the only people who came anywhere close to us had missed several detour signs and were hopelessly lost. As a result, I spent the summer in an air-conditioned booth listening to the radio and reading, without being bothered much at all. Because I had lucked into the least strenuous paying job of all time (and because the house I grew up in wasn't air-conditioned), I worked every single day all summer--something like 67 days in a row from June to August. The shifts were short and we closed at 9:00, which left plenty of time to hang out with friends in the evenings.

If I wasn't listening to my beloved Cubs stumbling through another game, the radio was generally on WFRL from Freeport, Illinois, then in its glory days. I knew that I would be going off to study radio and TV at college in the fall, and I learned a lot from WFRL's jocks that summer: Chris O'Brian, Neal Ross, Harv Blain, Jeff Janssen, and Jim Douglas. (Chris and Jim are still soldiering on in the Freeport area, all these years later.) And here are the Top 5 songs they were playing that bring back the summer of 1978.

"Life's Been Good"/Joe Walsh.
Probably the Number One song of the summer, at least at WFRL, and much beloved by my friends and me. Now I think it's one of those rare tunes that's probably better in its 45RPM edit than in its full-length album version. (Chart peak: #12, August 12)

"Baker Street"/Gerry Rafferty.
Another of those "what the hell is this?" moments the first time I heard it. An absolute miracle of a record--hard to believe mortal, fallible humanity could create something so fine. (Chart peak: #2, for six consecutive weeks behind Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing," fer chrissakes, beginning June 24)

"Every Kinda People"/Robert Palmer.
Excellent white-boy R&B that made me a huge fan. I went back and bought most of his albums over the next couple of years, and preferred the earlier stuff to his later, more rock-oriented material. Double Fun, the album from whence this came, is still the best one. (Chart peak: #16, June 24)

"Only the Good Die Young"/Billy Joel. Let's just say the subject matter hit fairly close to home, and we'll leave it at that. (Chart peak: #24, July 8)

"The Groove Line"/Heatwave. The title of their first hit, "Boogie Nights," instantly pigeonholed them as a disco group. I beg to differ. Even though "The Groove Line" works just fine on the dance floor, it's a rock record. Really. (Chart peak: #7, July 15)

The gas station is long gone now (but the highway is finished). The roller rink is still owned by the same guy who owned it then, as far as I know. WFRL still exists, only on the AM band, playing a nostalgia format the last I heard. And I'm still playing those tunes and others from the summer of 1978, on my stereo and in my head.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Mix and Match

A couple of weeks ago, the online magazine Salon featured an article about Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore of the group Sonic Youth, and about mix tapes in general. As Moore says, mix tapes, "whether compilations of avant-punk or classic rock standards, have a common purpose: to communicate an emotion or idea--to a new friend, a potential lover, or even to oneself." Show me the kind of mix tapes a person makes, and I'll tell you the kind of person he or she is.

As I may have mentioned here before, I am a mix-tape maker of long standing, going back to my first car with my first tape player. (8-tracks, baby.) I actually have a copy of the first mix tape I ever made with an audience in mind, which was called "Oldies to the Max Volume 4," in tribute to a college friend of mine, who made the first three volumes. The tape was recorded sometime around 1980, and despite its name, none of the songs on it were especially old back then--"The Letter" by the Box Tops is the oldest. But the tape was aimed at a college audience, mostly broadcasting majors, who listened primarily to AOR at the time, and was intended to jolt them with stuff they'd grown up with but hadn't heard for a while. (For the most part, it did.)

I wouldn't pick all of the same songs now, but what impresses me about the tape is the flow of it. Flow is a critical component of a mix tape, as Moore observes, and I'm pretty proud of the job I did in this representative sequence from somewhere in the middle:
"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You"/Sugarloaf
"Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu"/Johnny Rivers
"Black Betty"/Ram Jam
"Me and Bobby McGee"/Janis Joplin
"Bad Moon Rising"/CCR
Excellent match of tempos and styles there, I think--and good segues too, especially from Ram Jam to Janis to CCR. That's important, because unlike most mix tapes, this one was created in a radio-station production studio with two turntables, so the music was continuous. (And on reel-to-reel tape, originally.) My roommates and I prided ourselves on having the best party music in our circle of friends, and "Oldies to the Max Volume 4" was my attempt to live up to that reputation.

The single greatest mix/party tape of all time, however, was another tape produced by the same guy who created the original Oldies to the Max tapes--the Top 43 album cuts of the 1970s (actually up through 1977), compiled by the industry magazine Radio and Records. It's pretty much the list you'd expect: "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird," "Layla," "Born to Run," "Roundabout," etc.--but it was segued, so the music was continuous, and it was in countdown format. Thus the music kept getting better, so nobody would leave. We put it on about 9:00 one night, and except for one brief pause to change reels, it ran until after 2AM. That night, the silence following "and she's buying a stairway to heaven" seemed even more profound than it usually does, and the house cleared out within a few minutes afterward--because what could possibly have followed it?

Most of my mix tapes have been made by myself for myself--car tapes, to make my record collection portable on the road, in the years before I got a CD player in the car. (My primary musical companion in the car from day to day is still the tape deck--the CD changer in the trunk is used primarily for long-distance travel.) One of my favorites, which I don't have anymore, was called "Crunch Volume One," and was meant to be played while driving on the interstate: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger's "Hollywood Nights," etc. Although it's also a car tape, "Drive All Night Volume One" is stylistically opposite. More so than any other tape I've ever made, it's meant to accompany a particular state of mind--those rainy nights on the road a long way from home, when you start thinking about who you are, where you've been, and what you've learned (and not just on the trip you're currently making). So it's got introspective stuff on it, like the Eagles' "The Sad Cafe," Al Stewart's "Time Passages," and Joni Mitchell's "Carey."

I've had a CD burner for a couple of years, but since less than half of the music in my library is on CD, it hasn't been all that useful for mix-making. And besides, I tend to believe that the time and craft involved in mix-tape creation--physically manipulating the source materials, actually sitting there while the thing records in real time, and figuring out how to make the most of your C-90 or C-120 cassette, is part of the experience. I recently bought a CD player with a recording deck, thinking I could repackage mix tapes as mix CDs and dub vinyl albums to CD, but I'm finding, strangely, that recording on CDs is less satisfying than recording on analog tape. I haven't figured out why quite yet. True, I'm a bit of a Luddite, and I was an old-school guy even in old-school days. Yet I've been able to embrace other forms of new technology, so I think I'm likely to come around eventually. I just haven't, not yet.

(Earlier this year, Salon featured a debate over whether CD burners were killing the art of the mix, or helping it. You be the judge.)

Also in Salon:
If you read my other blog now and then, you may know that I'm a big fan of Salon. Earlier this week, Stephanie Zacharek reviewed a new book called Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro. What makes this book intriguing is that it's about more than just Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever--Shapiro examines the cultural forces that gave rise both to disco and to the backlash against it. If you're a child of the 1970s, disco, like it or not, is part of your legacy--and if you're younger, disco paved the way for a lot of what you're listening to today, and what you're experiencing in the broader world of popular culture, too.

(Salon is a subscriber-supported website, but you can get access to Zacharek's review and the other articles I've linked to in this post by watching a 15-second ad--so click already.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Still Jacked

Apparently WCBS-FM's flip to "jack" Friday afternoon was signaled by more than just a one-liner, as many media outlets reported. MP3Airchecks.com has the montage the station used to make the flip here. (Scroll down.)

Monday, June 06, 2005

Don't Know Jack

The world of radio was shocked over the weekend to hear that WCBS-FM in New York, the highest-rated oldies station in the country, dumped the format Friday afternoon in favor of the we-play-anything "jack" format. CBS-FM had been doing oldies for 30 years (practically since oldies were currents) and was still one of the top-rated stations in New York, but Infinity Broadcasting decided that the "jack" format would fill a need in the market, and in an instant, the old CBS-FM was dead. (Infinity also flipped Chicago's WJMK to "jack" on Friday after 21 years playing oldies, even though there's been a we-play-anything station in Chicago since last fall.)

Radio being what it is, somebody in New York will pick up the likes of Bruce Morrow, Norm N. Nite, Harry Harrison, and the other on-air gods who've made their home on CBS-FM for many years. (The same is true in Chicago, where Dick Biondi and Fred Winston were among those displaced on JMK.) They're likely to end up on lower-powered, lower-profile stations, however--and some of them are likely to retire. And it seems possible that this switch might be the canary in the coal mine signaling the coming death of oldies radio.

One of the reasons given for the CBS-FM and JMK switches is that ad-agency media buyers in their mid-20s have trouble comprehending oldies music and are therefore resistant to directing ad buys toward those stations--which is the same obstacle that contributed to the demise of beautiful music radio in the late 80s. When you consider that the people who were teenagers when Elvis exploded are in their 60s now, it won't be long before oldies confronts the same demographic crunch that beautiful music encountered in the 1990s. There's reason to doubt that oldies will die out as quickly as beautiful music did, though. The core artists in the oldies format--the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and so on--have a far greater cultural reach than Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield, and the Hollyridge Strings, and they'll remain relevant in a way the giants of beautiful music did not. But as the boomers, the navel-gazingest generation in history, start dying off, how viable will radio stations that celebrate rock's past remain? Will today's iPod generation be interested in a similar type of radio playing Eminem and Green Day 30 years from now?

(That's a question worth asking about the jack format right now, by the way. Given that its eclectic mix is often compared to an iPod in shuffle mode, will people listen to it, and to the commercials it will include, if they already have an iPod?)

The big wheel rolls. The old must give way to the new. We all know it. Nevertheless, Infinity's decision to suddenly flip still-successful WCBS-FM without so much as a whisper of warning, and to replace it with "jack," a fad of the moment whose staying power is completely unknown, seems like an especially egregious example of disrespect for the old. The station and its jocks--and its hundreds of thousands of listeners--deserved better.

The Day the Music Died:
The CBS-FM format change was rather low-key--Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" faded out, followed by a one-line promo that said, "There's lots of songs in the world. Why don't we play what we want?", followed by "Fight for Your Right" by the Beastie Boys. Stations seeking to make a splash with a new format often take a higher-profile approach. For example, it's fairly common to signal a flip by playing the same song over and over for a whole weekend, but there are other ways to do it. Ten years ago, I worked part-time at a soft adult-contemporary station that flipped to classic rock. The weekend before the flip, we got a memo from the program director with a instructions for new formatics--a new identifier for the station, new rules for commercial breaks, modified music playlist, and a lot more. The station was still playing soft AC, but it sounded a lot different. On Monday morning, however, the program director was fired and the station played "Another One Bites the Dust" for two hours straight before unveiling the classic rock format. (We were never sure of the reason for one weekend of new formatics, unless it was to provide a subtle warning to listeners that change was afoot. But if the warning was so subtle that the jocks and the PD didn't get it, what chance did the listeners have?)

The most famous format flip of all time was probably the one made by WCFL in Chicago in 1976, in which the station went from Top 40 to beautiful music. Unlike many flips, this one was announced in advance, and resulted in the unprecedented spectacle of the station airing ads for its competitors, in which they urged listeners to move over after the change. The station also held Chicago's top jock, Larry Lujack, to his contract, which meant that he would spend several months playing Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield, and the Hollyridge Strings. A short aircheck is here, which features Lujack reminding listeners that a promotion in which listeners could win a Kiss concert for their school was still going on. The afternoon before, Lujack had hosted CFL's final Top 40 show, before the station played two hours of rolling ocean waves to kick off the new format. You can hear Lujack's final Address to the Nation here. I was listening that day. (Also worth a listen is midday jock Bob Dearborn's last hour on WCFL. He's as complete a pro as ever sat behind a microphone.)

Friday, June 03, 2005

Top 5: Another Giants-in-the-Earth Edition

Now THIS would make one hell of a mix tape--the Top 5 on the Billboard chart on this date in 1966.

5. "Rainy Day Women #12 and #35"/Bob Dylan. Only "Like a Rolling Stone" was a bigger single for Dylan, and not by much. "Rainy Day Women" is, of course, atypical Dylan, noisy and obnoxious--but the refrain "everybody must get stoned" made it a smash and means it will be around forever.

4. "Paint It Black"/Rolling Stones. They'd been mostly young, loud, and snotty up to this point, but this was the first of their singles to display the darkness beneath, a force the Stones would repeatedly tap for the next several years.

3. "Monday Monday"/Mamas and the Papas. Another one of those records that's been a part of our lives for so long that it's easy to forget that it's not a force of nature or something. Radio stations jumped on it before it was released as a single, and it sold 150,000 copies on its first day of single release. Everybody liked it--except for three-quarters of the group and its producer, who had to be talked into recording it. So much for judging your own material.

2. "A Groovy Kind of Love"/The Mindbenders. The British Invasion's momentum was largely spent by 1966, but not so much that there wasn't an appetite for one more Invasion classic. Phil Collins' 1988 cover went to Number One and sounded pretty good at the time, but up against the original, it isn't even close.

1. "When a Man Loves a Woman"/Percy Sledge. The second-greatest wedding processional of all time, but clearly the coolest. Another magnificent soul record from Muscle Shoals, Alabama--Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, and crew. Even if they do go hideously out of tune right before the fade.

Also on the charts early that summer: "Good Lovin'" by the Rascals, "Soul and Inspiration" by the Righteous Brothers, and "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles. If that's any indication, your mix tape should be a C-120.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Notes on Retro

NBC-TV has gone retro this week, with an Eagles concert last night and a summer series premiering tonight called Hit Me Baby One More Time, a concert/competition featuring various musical celebrities, mostly from the 1980s. It's an interesting premise (based, as so many of these things are, on a series first produced in the UK), and will feature artists who were fairly major for a while--tonight, for example, Loverboy--and those who were footnotes--tonight, for example, Cece Peniston. Promised in coming weeks are Tommy Tutone, the Knack, Vanilla Ice, and others--not that these are the biggest or the best on the bill, but they're the ones I can remember. (The site linked above is not about to reveal any more than the bare minimum, and you might want to mute your speakers before going there.)

We're going retro here in Madison later this summer, too. It was announced this week that Alice Cooper and Cheap Trick will share a bill here over Labor Day weekend, out at the Alliant Energy Center, the venue formerly known as the Dane County Coliseum. Although it was most famous as a hockey arena, the Coliseum is also remembered as a concert venue by anybody who grew up around here. I saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer there twice, Billy Joel, Electric Light Orchestra, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and I'm sure there must have been others. (I actually attended one of the very first shows in the building when it was new, when the circus came to town in 1968.) It was a barn even in its day, and it's definitely retro now--the interior corridors are a hideous shade of yellow that nobody would choose today, the upholstered seats are showing the effects of 35-plus years of butts, and the general ambiance is rundown. It still hosts concerts on a regular basis, however--Green Day was here not long ago, and Neil Diamond is coming in this summer. So are the monster trucks and the rodeo.

Forgotten 45:
Although Wham's hits were generally either brain-dead or sugary and sometimes both, "Everything She Wants" was something else again. It's about what happens when it's time to pay for the decisions you made while you were partying, and the bitterness that can come from the realization that what seemed like a good idea at the time might not be so good months or years down the line. But because you can still dance to the synths and the rhythm track, lots of people missed that part. (Columbia 04840, chart peak #1, May 25, 1985)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Eli's Coming

I have argued for quite a while that one of the failings of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that it privileges Seriousness over frivolity, only tangentially acknowledging that rock and roll, which was born as kid stuff and gained a great deal of its early identity from not being Serious music, is supposed to be fun. It seems to me that if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wants to honor the whole spectrum of rock worth listening to, then it needs to make room for ephemera--artists who epitomized the spirit of fun that rock was born with. It should also honor achievements above and beyond the call of craftsmanship--especially if it's going to induct such minimally talented musicians as AC/DC.

I have argued elsewhere that Tommy James should be in the Hall, based on the fun quotient and craftsmanship obvious in "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crimson and Clover." And I am about to argue here that Three Dog Night should make it, too. Add it up: 18 straight Top 20 hits between 1969 and 1974 and three Number Ones, including "Joy to the World," one of a handful of 70s singles without which it's impossible to understand the decade at all. If the Hall intends to honor people whose primary contribution to the art form is selling lots of records (as their recent inductee lists have seemed to indicate), how much more evidence do they want? Half a dozen Top Ten albums? Oops, TDN's got that on their resume, too.

TDN didn't write their biggest hits, which works against their Seriousness, but if you don't write, you should at least have the good sense to record good tunes, which they did: Nilsson ("One"), Laura Nyro ("Eli's Coming"), Russ Ballard ("Liar"), Randy Newman ("Mama Told Me Not to Come"), Paul Williams ("An Old-Fashioned Love Song"), Hoyt Axton ("Joy to the World" and "Never Been to Spain") and Dave Loggins ("Pieces of April" and "Til the World Ends"). Also working against TDN's Seriousness is the fact that they are not remembered as a self-contained group. The three lead vocalists who originally founded the group, Cory Wells, Danny Hutton, and Chuck Negron, are well-remembered, but the musicians in the band are not: guitarist Mike Allsup, keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon, bassist Joe Schermie, and drummer Floyd Sneed. Together, the seven of them sold more concert tickets than anyone else between 1969 and 1974 (a time when the Rolling Stones mounted two major American tours), and released a string of massively successful albums.

And on the scale of pure 45RPM pleasure, who ranks higher? "Easy to be Hard," from the musical Hair, is one of their most gorgeous performances, and "Celebrate," "Shambala," "Black and White," or "An Old Fashioned Love Song" are about as hooky as the 70s got. And let's not forget that they had some straight rock credibility, too, with a single like "Liar" and the album Cyan, one of the most-awaited releases of 1973. Most of TDN's biggest hits were produced by Richard Podolor, who probably belongs in the Hall himself.

Just as I said of Tommy James: Are you going to tell me Three Dog Night isn't at least as deserving of immortality as Prince or Rod Stewart? No sale.