Sunday, July 31, 2005

Back in Time

In the early 1990s, the Guess Who played a summer festival in a town where I was working, and I was supposed to introduce them from the stage. So when somebody from the festival took me backstage toward a balding man with glasses who was busily working over a clipboard, I figured it was the road manager, who would give me my instructions. Turns out it was bassist Jim Kale, the last remaining original member of the band--who was also apparently the road manager. Such is life on the road, 20 years after your last significant hit.

There are lots of groups soldiering on like this, usually playing outdoor shows in the summertime, keeping their names alive and making what they can as working musicians--but you need to understand what you're getting when you buy your ticket. For example, a group calling itself the Drifters is still touring, but its current members are several generations removed from the original lineup. They're going to sing "Up on the Roof" and "Under the Boardwalk," but they're not going to sound much like you remember 'em. The early-90s Guess Who met this issue head on, with somebody (Kale?) making speeches from the stage to the effect that the Guess Who isn't about one voice, it's about the songs. (I am not sure anybody was much persuaded by this, even though they mentioned it several times.)

In the end, however, the group's makeup isn't all that big an issue. Shows like these are often found at county fairs or summer festivals, so you paid maybe $6 or $8 to get in, you're outside on a beautiful night, you've had a corn dog and maybe a beer or two, and you've already gotten your money's worth just walking around all afternoon. Anything you get from the group is a bonus. What's rare is to pay maybe $6 or $8 to get in, be outside on a beautiful night, have a corn dog and maybe a beer or two--and get to listen to a group that's still in its original incarnation, and that sounds just as good as ever. Which is what happened to me and The Mrs. and our pal Shark Friday night when we caught Huey Lewis and the News at the Dubuque County Fair.

Huey Lewis and the News still features four of its original six members--Lewis, guitarist/saxophone player Johnny Colla, drummer Bill Gibson, and keyboard player Sean Hopper. Friday night, it was actually five of six, as original guitarist Chris Hayes filled in for Stef Burns. (Original bassist Mario Cipollina left in 1995.) They still sound as tight and polished as ever, and they seemed to be having as much fun now as they did the last time The Mrs. and I saw them, one week shy of 20 years ago. Highlights: "The Power of Love," "Heart and Soul," and "Doing It All for My Baby." Surprises: "Back in Time," the other song from Back to the Future, and both "Alright" songs, the acapella one done originally by the Impressions, and the one from Four Chords and Several Years Ago, done originally by J.J. Jackson. Omission: "Stuck With You," their biggest hit, and "Jacob's Ladder," which also went to Number One.

Shark says that Huey Lewis and the News were the right band at the right time, and he's correct. At a moment when the Top 40 was populated with wimpy AC and country crossovers and MTV-driven groups who looked better than they sounded, the News came along with good songs, great hooks, and a frontman who was plenty videogenic himself. Although they'd had a couple of hits in 1982, they broke huge in late 1983 with Sports, which spawned five hit singles over the next year. Of all the artists who had their first hit singles at about the same time, only Billy Idol, Culture Club, and Def Leppard had similar success. Only Def Leppard has shown similar staying power with mostly the same lineup.

It's not that hard for a band to celebrate its 25th anniversary anymore. It's rare for a band to last that long mostly intact. And it's great to be a fan who gets to enjoy the ride again after all those years.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Top 40 of Summer '76: Misty Blue

And so here we are, the final installment of the 40 most memorable records from my favorite summer, 1976. (40-31 here, 30-21 here, 20-11 here.)

This is not a list of the 40 most-critically praised records of the summer, or the 40 biggest sellers--it's a list of the records best able, 29 years later, to bring back the way it felt to listen to the radio during that summer. And so we've got to acknowledge that some of those records were, taken strictly on aesthetic grounds, lame. Many of them are nowhere to be found on any respectable oldies-radio playlist today. That's fine with me, because this list is all about the time travel. Even a fairly stupid record can still take you back, if you really want to go.

10. "More, More, More"/Andrea True Connection.
The story goes that True was an ex-porn star, and this tune makes you believe it. She can't sing all that well, but she does a terrific come-on. The sweatiest record of the summer. (Chart peak: #4, July 17)

9. "Shop Around"/The Captain and Tennille. It is a tribute to Smokey Robinson's talent as a songwriter that this song survived the C&T treatment. The best record they ever made, and second place isn't close. (#4, July 10)

8. "Shannon"/Henry Gross. Not quite a one-hit wonder, but close enough. A fake Beach Boys record about the death of the family dog--which you could still do without irony in the 1970s. (#6, June 5)

7. "Misty Blue"/Dorothy Moore.
Proof of the old saying that there's a thin line between pain and pleasure. Compare the pain in Moore's voice as she sings "Oh I can't, oh I can't, oh I can't forget you/My whole world turns misty blue" with the pleasure it brings you to hear her sing it. Southern soul's last great gasp. (#3, June 12)

6. "Love Is Alive"/Gary Wright. One of the summer's best hot-night-driving-around records, with a great intro for radio guys to talk over. I picked up Wright's Dream Weaver album in a two-dollar CD bin a few weeks ago--and it's better than I thought it would be. (#2, July 31)

5. "Baby I Love Your Way"/Peter Frampton. The single most powerful time-travel moment from the summer of '76 comes when the electric piano player takes his solo, and fireflies light up the August night. I can see them even in the dead of winter. (#12, August 28)

4. "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"/Elvin Bishop. Mighty elegant stuff for a guy who claims an alter-ego named Pigboy Crabshaw. Get the long version for more of the intro, a longer guitar solo by Bishop, and more of that beautifully arranged vocal on the fade. (#3, May 22)

3. "Get Closer"/Seals and Crofts. One of the best love-me-or-leave-me records you'll ever hear. Gains extra points for spicing up S&C's near-terminal whiteness with a vocal line from Honey Cone's Carolyn Willis. It can only be a trick of memory, I guess, that this record, which didn't do much for me during its original chart run, has become one of that summer's most powerful time-travel triggers now. (#6, July 24)

2. "Afternoon Delight"/Starland Vocal Band. This record ranks where it does partly because it was inescapable during the summer of 1976--you would have to have been living in Antarctica to miss it. In addition, it entered the Top 40 the week after Memorial Day and fell out the week after Labor Day, so it became inseparable from every other experience of that summer. Especially if you had the Top 40 on for 16 or 18 hours a day. (#1, July 10)

1. "Moonlight Feels Right"/Starbuck.
Never mind that the big instrumental solo is on a xylophone. (Play that funky music, white boy.) The lyrics were a cut above the typical moon-June stuff, however ("I'll play the radio on southern stations/cuz southern belles are hell at night"), so it's fun to sing along with. On this record, Starbuck sounded as suave and cool as I wished I could be. "Moonlight Feels Right" is all about the anything-can-happen romance of summertime, and it captured perfectly the weightless, escapist spirit of that summer's Top 40. In addition, it reached its peak of popularity during the same week the summer reached its height--and so it deserves to top this list. (#3, July 31)

In the end, maybe the appeal of "Moonlight Feels Right" (and other songs on this list) is indescribable, at least in the terms I'd like to be able to convey. I warned you when this blog began that sometimes, it was going to be so personal that only I would get it. Maybe this is one of those times. But if you happen to hear the quintessential song from your quintessential summer in the next few weeks, before summer turns to autumn, listen hard and try to remember how it felt to be you, then. You may find that your own time portal is coming within reach. I'll be looking for mine.

Monday, July 25, 2005

History Lesson: No Turning Back

July 25, 1999: The 30th anniversary Woodstock festival ends with riots, 120 people hurt, three dead, and scores made sick by polluted drinking water. If the Sixties weren't already dead, Woodstock III killed them.

July 25, 1969: Neil Young joins Crosby, Stills, and Nash on stage for the first time at the Fillmore East in New York City. A little more than three weeks later, CSNY would appear at the original Woodstock featival.

July 25, 1965: Bob Dylan goes electric. He plays the Newport Folk Festival, not with a guitar over his shoulder and a harmonica around his neck, but with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band fully plugged in behind him. He's booed off the stage, but there's no turning back.

July 25, 1960:
Comedian Bob Newhart's debut album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, hits Number One. The album was recorded in front of a live audience at the first live gig Newhart ever performed. Warner Brothers had signed him on the strength of some radio bits he had recorded with a partner in Chicago during the late 1950s.

Birthdays Today:
Manny Charlton of Nazareth is 64. The thought of a 64-year-old guy playing lead guitar on "Hair of the Dog" is why Pete Townshend sang "Hope I die before I get old."

Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman would be 57, had he not passed away in 1984. Goodman is best known for writing "City of New Orleans," "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," "The Dutchman," and "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." Goodman died only days before his beloved Cubs clinched their first pennant in 39 years.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1992: "This Used to Be My Playground"/Madonna.
From the baseball movie A League of Their Own. Part of the long tradition of playing a song over the closing credits of a film that doesn't appear anywhere else in the film and has no connection to the film's story, on the assumption that DJs who need something to say about the record will plug the film's title. Rather like I just did.

1987: "Shakedown"/Bob Seger. His only Number One single, thanks mostly to its inclusion in the soundtrack album from Beverly Hills Cop II. It appeared at the very last moment in which Seger still mattered to the Top 40 audience.

1971: "Indian Reservation"/The Raiders.
The biggest hit they ever had, and it features neither Paul Revere nor Mark Lindsey. It's sung by Freddy Weller, known mostly as a country singer, who fronted the band for a few years around the turn of the 1970s.

1955: "Rock Around the Clock"/Bill Haley and His Comets. Not the first rock-and-roll record ever made, but the first one to make Number One.

1897: "The Stars and Stripes Forever"/Sousa's Band. The most famous march ever written. Although John Philip Sousa's name is on the recording, he didn't like what he called "canned music." So Sousa turned the baton over to trombone player Arthur Pryor on recording dates.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Top 40 of Summer '76: Strange Magic

On with the countdown of the 40 most memorable records from the summer of 1976. (Numbers 40 through 31 are here; 30 through 21 here.) Now, where were we?

20. "Strange Magic"/Electric Light Orchestra. Those first few notes are the sound of heat rising and haze shimmering over the fields I could see no matter which window of the house I looked out of, on those humid days and nights full of all the possibility that comes with being 16, no matter who you are. (Chart peak: #14, May 22)

19. "Young Hearts Run Free"/Candi Staton. 1976 was the summer when Southern soul gasped out its last breaths before being drowned in disco, and this record is a link between one form and the other. One of the great DJ-talkover introductions of all time, too. (#20, August 21)

18. "Love Hangover"/Diana Ross. The Fifth Dimension actually released this first, but Diana's version blew theirs away. Ross spends most of this record improvising a sweaty vamp over a salacious disco arrangement--quite an achievement for one of the least spontaneous performers of all time. (#1, May 29)

17. "Kiss and Say Goodbye"/Manhattans.
Released in two versions: long, with the spoken opening ("This has got to be the saddest day of my life") for R&B stations, and short, without the spoken opening, for white pop stations. When you hear people say "They don't make 'em like that any more," this is what they mean. (#1, July 24)

16. "Silly Love Songs"/Paul McCartney and Wings.
In which Paul owns up to his taste for cotton candy, long after everybody already knew he had it. He wasn't the only one who liked 'em silly, as five weeks at Number One in two separate runs indicates. (#1, May 22)

15. "I'll Be Good to You"/Brothers Johnson.
I rooted for this record to make it to Number One like you root for your favorite team to win the championship, and was crushed when it stalled short of the top. Those synthesizer noises were once state of the art, and those backup singers deserve a prize for doing a lot with very little. The best groove of the summer. (#3, July 10)

14. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine"/Lou Rawls. A declaration of romantic certainty, the kind of thing I always hoped I would be cool enough to say sometime. I never was. Still aren't. (#2, September 4)

13. "Fool to Cry"/Rolling Stones.
Lots of Stones records grab you from the first microsecond--think "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction." This, too, but with a somber electric piano. Keith must have been at the bar. (#10, June 5)

12. "Rock and Roll Music"/Beach Boys.
History will note that the summer of '76 was the first time since 1967 that the Beach Boys and Beatles both put a record into the top 10 at the same time. This was retro, yes--but then again, it was exactly how we felt every time we turned the radio on that summer. (#5, August 14)

11. "Happy Days"/Pratt and McClain. All about being a teenager in the 1950s--and the 1970s, too. (#5, June 5)

Next Friday: We close out the countdown and the month of July with the top ten. When you see who's on it, I will have some 'splaining to do.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"

It's hard to figure out why Danny O'Keefe didn't become a major star. He came along at the one of the most fertile periods in history for singer/songwriters, and less promising performers made it bigger than he did. In addition, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" is one of those literate, confessional, coffeehouse tunes that were adored by literate, confessional, coffeehouse people back in the day. The words are sad enough ("Got my pills to ease the pain/Can't find a thing to ease the rain") but that little bit of harmonica and the record's generally languid pace really makes you feel the weight Good Time Charlie is carrying in his heart.

One day several years ago, on a rainy morning, I was driving to a job I hated when this song came on. It made me want to get out of the car and stand there in the rain, looking up into the sky until I drowned.

But in a good way.

(Signpost 70006, chart peak #9, November 4, 1972)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Diamond Days

In rural Wisconsin, the annual county fair is still a big deal. Some of them have gone on for upwards of 150 years. The one in my hometown opens this Wednesday, and traces its origins back to 1857.

When I was a kid, I belonged to 4H. In 4H you take on one or more projects that you are supposed to work on for the whole year in order to have them ready to exhibit at the county fair in the summer. I had lots of different projects over the years. One year, for example, I was the only boy to take part in the County Foods Revue. I was better in the kitchen than I was at a more stereotypical boy project like woodworking, and even then I believed that a man has got to know his limitations. So it was me--and maybe 40 or 50 girls. (Alas, even with those odds, I couldn't get a date.) But my main project was known as "dairy." Because I was growing up on a dairy farm, it was a natural--you were supposed to raise, train, and groom an animal, then exhibit it in the show ring. That's what you were supposed to do, at any rate. My enthusiasm for the idea of it was far greater than my dedication to the execution of it, and as a result, I often found myself dragging a less-than-tame animal around the show ring for several horrific minutes before being mercifully dispatched with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst you could do.

The good thing about it was that the show was usually on Thursday morning. Once you got through that, you had the rest of fair week, until late Sunday afternoon, to hang out in the 4H barns. In contrast to the hell of the show ring, this was glorious. From around age 11 to age 15, next to Christmas, it was the highlight of my year.

Looking back, I can't really explain why. Your primary job while hanging out, after all, was to carry manure from the stalls to the pile outside, and you would inevitably be carrying a forkful when some cute girl happened by. However, you were as much on display as the animals themselves, and I never minded getting attention, even a tiny bit of it. (I am pretty sure I occasionally lounged on a hay bale with a piece of straw in my mouth, Huck Finn-style.) And I did get to spend a lot of time with my best friend, who was also in 4H. (The last year I was in 4H, we actually got to stay overnight in the barns, which was a tremendous adventure.) In short, you'd spend the week living on hot dogs and Pepsi and trying to dodge your parents, who inevitably wanted you to come home and work in the fields or something. When you were 12 or 13 years old in the 1970s, perhaps that was enough to make you feel like you were on vacation in a different world--an exotic vacation you wouldn't forget.

And (big surprise) the radio was on from the moment you got there in the morning until the moment you left for the night. We'd flip back and forth between Chicago's AM powerhouses, WLS and WCFL, and there's a handful of songs from mid-summers in the 1970s that I will forever associate with those long, slow days: "Diamond Girl" and "Smoke on the Water" from '73, "Keep On Smilin'," "I Shot the Sheriff," and "Radar Love" from '74, and "Listen to What the Man Said" and "One of These Nights" from '75.

There's no really good story here, as you've probably determined already. It's just another instance in which music on the radio shapes memories of another significant experience from back in the day . . . which is what this blog is all about.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Top 40 of Summer '76: Got to Get You Into My Life

On with the countdown of the 40 most memorable records from your blogger's favorite summer, the summer of 1976. (Last week's list, 40 through 31, is here.)

30. "You Should Be Dancing"/Bee Gees. It's rarely noted, but the Bee Gees' band was mighty good, and they rarely sounded better than on this record, which was a warning to the world that the eventual kings of disco were going to be three white guys from Australia. (Chart peak: #1, September 4)

29. "Get Up and Boogie"/Silver Convention.
Just as many words in the lyric as "Fly Robin Fly"--six--but not nearly as charming. Nevertheless, the cold opening shout of "That's right!" got your attention every time the radio played it. (#2, June 12)

28. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)"/Parliament.
An extremely deep groove by the standards of this weightless summer, and to a white boy from Wisconsin, about as exotic as R&B ever got. (#15, July 31)

27. "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel"/Tavares. Precisely the opposite of "Give Up the Funk," this is a heap of cotton candy--but lots of people adore cotton candy. (#15, September 4)

26. "The Boys Are Back in Town"/Thin Lizzy. Precisely the opposite of nearly everything on this list. It's got one of the great opening riffs you'll ever hear, and a great lyric about the cameraderie of guys out looking for either fun or trouble, and it didn't matter which came first. (#12, July 24)

25. "If You Know What I Mean"/Neil Diamond. This record sounds just great. There's dramatic music crashing all over the place as Diamond croaks out portentiously philosophical lyrics in a voice roughened by whiskey and smokes. What the hell it means, I have no idea. (#11, August 7)

24. "Rhiannon"/Fleetwood Mac. Nearly everybody in the Mac gets their moment in the spotlight on this--Lindsey's ghostly guitar, Mick's thundering drums, John McVie's bottomless bass, and Stevie's mysterious wail. Evidence that while Rumours was bigger, Fleetwood Mac was their true masterwork. (#11, June 5)

23. "Let Her In"/John Travolta. There was no way we were escaping this, not in the biggest year ever for TV stars making records, especially not after Travolta became the biggest TV star of all. The record sounds like they worked on it all day and finally decided it wasn't going to get any better, so they might as well all go home. (#10, July 24)

22. "This Masquerade"/George Benson.
This summer had everything--including a jazz album going to Number One for the first time in ages. (Breezin' was more fusion than straight jazz even then, however, and is right out of smooth-jazz purgatory now.) As for "This Masquerade," in the summer of 1976 it had been a long time since anything so elegant had become a significant hit. (#10, August 28)

21. "Got to Get You Into My Life"/Beatles. One of the best-sounding radio records of the summer because those horns could blast through anything. This was the first single from the Rock and Roll Music rerelease package, and you might think its success proved how much the summer of 1976 needed some really good music. I say its success proved how damn good "Got to Get You Into My Life" was (and is), and that Capitol missed the boat by not releasing it 10 years earlier. (#7, July 24)

Coming next Friday: Numbers 20 through 11. It won't be R&B nirvana, but it'll be close.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hey, You're That Guy!

Waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store this afternoon, I noticed that the guy in front of me was Matt Lepay, play-by-play voice of Wisconsin Badgers football and basketball. Since I didn't hear him do anything other than thank the cashier, I probably wouldn't have been able to identify him by voice alone. His face is familiar, however--Lepay used to be a TV sportscaster up here, he still hosts a Badger sports show on cable, and he does a few TV commercials too.

To somebody like Lepay, getting recognized in public is probably no big deal, but to smaller fish in the broadcasting pond, it can be a treat. My first radio job was at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. Some of our listeners claimed they hadn't touched their tuners since the 1940s, and we believed them. Once you became a part of that family, you were public property. And so it was that one night, The Mrs. and I were having dinner in a little restaurant in Dubuque, the kind of place where you paid for dinner at the bar register. I asked the bartender if she'd take a personal check, and she said yes. A barfly two stools down spoke up: "If it's no good, we know where to find him." "And where would that be?" I asked. He said, "You work at the radio station, right?"

(That's not as good a story as the old radio friend of mine who got a check cashed at a small-town bar in northern Wisconsin with no identification other than the sound of his voice.)

Shortly after The Mrs. became The Mrs., she wrote a check at a store in Dubuque, then apologized to the clerk for the low check number, saying she had just changed her name and gotten new checks. The woman behind her in line had clearly peeked over my wife's shoulder and gotten her name, because she piped up with, "Oh, you must be Jim's wife! It sounds like you had such a lovely honeymoon!" (I'm not sure it's true anymore, what with most jocks being limited to talking in 15-second bits, but back in the day, the wives of radio guys tended to suffer from chronic low-level paranoia regarding what their husbands were saying about them on the air.)

A corollary to this is that listeners inevitably form a mental picture of you based on the sound of your voice. (Even radio people themselves do this. Not long ago, I had occasion to actually see a local radio reporter I'd heard on the air for several years, and was surprised to find that rather than being the large black woman I expected, she was actually a petite white woman.) So when a jock goes out to broadcast from a store or some community event, listeners are often quite interested in matching a face to a voice. Once in Dubuque, a woman who had to be 80 walked up to me, put her face in mine, and croaked, "Are you Don Hess?" (Don was the station's morning host.) When she determined I wasn't, she didn't want anything more to do with me. Several years later in another town, I was doing an appearance when a listener came up and began to visit with me. "Which one are you?" he finally asked. When I told him, he said, "I know you. I thought you'd be shorter."

Because people feel as though they know you, they can occasionally be rude without meaning to be. One afternoon at the local summer festival, a listener came up to me and began to visit. At one point he asked, "How much money do you make?" Rather than answering, I asked him, "How much do you think I make?" He thought it over for a bit. "Oh, 30 or 40 thousand a year?" I just laughed, and that was answer enough. At the time, I was making less than half that. Half of the low end.

I have fewer stories of this sort from later in my career. I'm pretty sure I wasn't getting recognized any less, but it just didn't impress me as much. Even now, it still happens, however, albeit in a backward way. Now and again I'll be talking with someone and mention that I used to be in radio, and they'll inevitably say, "I'm not surprised; you have that radio voice."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

History Lesson: And I Cannot Lie

July 13, 1985: Live Aid is held in London and Philadelphia. I don't realize how big it's going to be until that day, and I spend much of that Saturday afternoon at my radio station running reports from the venues. That night, the Mrs. and I set up a second TV set in our crummy little one-bedroom apartment so we can watch the live MTV broadcast on cable and the rebroadcast highlights of the day on ABC. Best moment: the Led Zeppelin reunion. Worst moment: MTV letting the VJs sing along on "We Are the World."

July 13, 1973:
The Everly Brothers break up on stage in California, mid-show, as Don says "The Everly Brothers died ten years ago" and Phil smashes his guitar and walks off. Like many musical divorces, this one isn't permanent. The boys reform in 1983 and return to the road; in 1984, they record EB84, featuring Paul McCartney's lovely "On the Wings of a Nightingale."

July 13, 1969: It's reported that over 100 radio stations have banned the Beatles' "The Ballad of John and Yoko" because of the line, "Christ you know it ain't easy." It goes to Number 8 in America anyhow.

July 13, 1963: The Rolling Stones play their first gig outside of London, opening for the Hollies in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire.

Birthdays Today: Roger McGuinn of the Byrds is 63. Born Jim, changed it to Roger for religious reasons. (I have no idea.) It was his jangly guitar that made the Byrds the Byrds. Cheech Marin is 59. Cheech and Tommy Chong might have been the biggest rock stars in the country for a brief moment in late 1973 and early 1974, when their "hard rock comedy" was more compelling than a lot of the music being released.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1991: "Baby Got Back"/Sir Mix-a-Lott.
The first time, it's shocking. The second time, it's kind of funny. The third time and beyond, it's offensive. The moment at which American popular music jumped the shark.

1989: "Good Thing"/Fine Young Cannibals. Three straight Number-One songs, each with a single week at the top: "Good Thing," the Simply Red cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "Express Yourself" by Madonna. Not a bad musical summer. Of course there was also Milli Vanilli, Richard Marx, and New Kids on the Block, so everything's relative.

1974: "Rock Your Baby"/George McCrae. It dethroned "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation from the top spot, so I think we can safely say the disco era began sometime in July 1974.

1962: "The Stripper"/David Rose. Oh, those lascivious trombones.

1937: "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down"/Russ Morgan.
Five different versions of this charted in the summer of 1937; Morgan and Shep Fields would reach the top, Eddy Duchin would get to Number 2 at about the same time. You know this tune, by the way. It's the theme song from the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

(Late correction: "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" is actually the theme song to the Looney Tunes series; some of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, especially the oft-repeated ones from the 1950s, used another theme. If we can't be historically accurate when we're discussing cartoons, then what the hell's the use?)

(PS: Still looking for answers to the question of why we listen to our old records. How come we don't throw them away like old magazines? What do we get from them that's enough to keep us hauling them around all our lives? If you've got an opinion, click Comments or e-mail me.)

Monday, July 11, 2005

No Cake, No Gift, One Question

It's one year today since this blog first appeared, and to celebrate the anniversary, I have a question: Why do we continue to listen to our old records, and/or attend concerts by the people who recorded them?

I'm thinking about this myself at the moment, and may have more to say about it later, but I hate to think alone. So how would you answer that question? Use the Comments link here, or send a private e-mail to the address on the right side of this page.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Top 40 of Summer '76: Today's the Day

As I explained yesterday, this is the first installment of the 40 most memorable records from my favorite summer--1976. And away we go.

40. "Silver Star"/Four Seasons.
Raise your hand if you remember this. (I didn't think so.) The last single in the Seasons' great mid-70s comeback streak, and every bit the equal of "Who Loves You" and "December 1963." (Chart peak: #38, July 10)

39. "Last Child"/Aerosmith. One thing you can say about the summer of 1976--it didn't really rock, at least not in the loud guitar sense. I can think of only two other memorable records that rocked as hard as this (and we'll discuss them later on in the countdown). (Chart peak: #21, August 7)

38. "I'm Easy"/Keith Carradine. There are two versions of this that get played on the radio now, when anybody bothers to play it--the soundtrack version from the movie Nashville, which was the actual hit version, and the slightly different title song from Carradine's album. Carradine's a pure one-hit wonder who never charted again. (Chart peak: #17, August 10)

37. "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again"/Eric Carmen.
Carmen was McCartneyesque in the sense that while he was with his bandmates (in Carmen's case, the Raspberries), their tougher sensibilities kept his schmaltzy side in check--and when he went solo, it was often schmaltz run amok. (Chart peak: #11, July 4)

36. "Crazy on You"/Heart. Here's another of the summer's three legitimate rock singles, a relatively minor hit in its time but never off the radio since. Probably the purest rock and roll record this band ever made. Well, maybe not counting "Barracuda," but that's the next summer. (Chart peak: #35, June 5)

35. "Another Rainy Day in New York City"/Chicago.
One of the first times I ever heard this, it happened to be raining--and as a result, few records capture the feeling of a rainstorm for me better than this. (Chart peak: #32, August 10)

34. "Today's the Day"/America. Their first big single after their multi-million selling History: America's Greatest Hits, and as a result, a record that's largely forgotten now. Too bad. (Chart peak: #23, July 10)

33. "Love Really Hurts Without You"/Billy Ocean.
Betcha didn't know he had a hit before "Caribbean Queen." This is one of the really glorious unknown records of all time, a singalong classic that starts out at top speed, and then seems to accelerate. (Chart peak: #22, May 22)

32. "Love in the Shadows"/Neil Sedaka. Sedaka's mid-70s comeback produced some spectacularly annoying records, and there's a reasonable argument that this is one of them. (Chart peak: #16, May 29)

31. "You're My Best Friend"/Queen. In which Queen meets a Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound, and the Wall wins. Sounded better on the radio (and still does) than almost everything else that summer. (Chart peak: #16, July 31)

Coming next Friday: Numbers 30 through 21. We got disco and John Travolta, although not at the same time.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Good Vibrations

A few weeks ago I counted down my top five most memorable summers, and I said then that the one summer I will remember after I've forgotten all the others is the summer of 1976. I hope everyone has at least one summer in their lives that affects them that way--one that remains vividly alive in memory and is easily brought back by a song or a place or maybe just the angle of the light at a particular time of day. The summer of 1976 is so vivid for me that sometimes I feel as though the doorway that could take me back there must be terribly close by, if only I had the wit to find it.

Why that summer is The One, I can't quite say. It was the first one after I got my driver's license, and that newfound degree of freedom is unforgettable for anyone. But on the other hand, my summer job was working on the family farm. That spring, my local radio station had enticed me with the promise that they might hire me for the summer. Ultimately they didn't, for reasons that weren't revealed to me until years later, so I ended up back on the farm--and I hated it. It was one of the last summers I played organized softball (if not the very last). I made up in enthusiasm what I lacked in talent, and the whole week seemed to build toward those Friday night games. But on the other hand, I wasn't dating anybody that summer--despite being glib as hell with everyone else, the thought of trying to arrange a date with a girl reduced me to tongue-tied celibacy.

It doesn't add up. The summer of 1976 shouldn't have been any more golden than any other summer had been. But there was clearly something different going on that year. I like to think I knew it while it was happening, but maybe that part was just melodrama. After all, there's no one more melodramatic than a 16-year-old, and I was, at that age, more self-dramatizing than most.

In the end, I think it was probably the music--although you might not think so at first. After all, by 1976, the lightweight ethos of the 1970s was at high tide--every week the charts contained several good reasons why the coming punk rock explosion of 1977 would be necessary. Disco was beginning to percolate, getting ready to conquer the world. But the Beatles and the Beach Boys both scored top-10 hits that summer, and a note-for-note remake by Todd Rundgren of "Good Vibrations" got some airplay, too, so the Sixties weren't at all distant. Soul music, breathing its last, got a few licks in before the darkness fell. And some of the all-time classic one-hit wonders enjoyed their season of glory.

So here's the thing: I have assembled a list of the Top 40 records of that summer--not by chart position, but in rough rank order of the degree to which they bring the summer back. Starting tomorrow, and for the next three Fridays, I'll count down that list here. Tomorrow you'll get numbers 40 through 31--then it'll be ten a week until the last Friday in July, the height of summer, when we'll reach the top and when, if we're lucky, we'll finally find that doorway.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

History Lesson: Cultural Insignificance

July 5, 1978: At EMI Records' pressing plant, production of the new Rolling Stones album, Some Girls, is temporarily halted after complaints from some of the people pictured on the cover without their permission. What's inside the package will cause controversy, too, as some consider the lyrics of the title song offensive to blacks.

July 5, 1969: The Stones give a free concert in London's Hyde Park, paying tribute to the recently deceased Brian Jones and welcoming new guitarist Mick Taylor. The concert's success causes the Stones to start planning a similar event for the States later in the year--which turned out to be the disaster at Altamont.

July 5, 1954: Unknowns Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black are jamming at Sun Records when Sam Phillips hears something he likes, and asks them to do it again while he gets it on tape. The result is "That's All Right," which would be Presley's first release on Sun.

Birthdays Today: Marc Cohn is 46. His eponymous debut album (the one with "Walking in Memphis" on it) is superb, and it won him the Best New Artist Grammy for 1991. He's continued to record, but the last time anybody noticed what he was doing was when he married ABC-TV newscaster Elizabeth Vargas.

Huey Lewis is 55. It's been 20 years since Huey Lewis and the News recorded the last great summer record, "The Power of Love." The Mrs. and I saw the group that summer--and this summer, they're on tour again, playing county fairs, hotels, and casinos. But they're still playing--and you always got the feeling with those guys that playing was what mattered. The hits were nice, but even without 'em, they'd always want to play.

Robbie Robertson of the Band is either 62 or 63, depending on which source you check. The Band is one of those groups I was not intellectually equipped to get when I was younger. Once you know a little about the tributaries that feed the stream of American popular music, the Band's place in history becomes a lot clearer.

Number One Songs on This Date:
2004: "The Reason"/Hoobastank.
If Hoobastank isn't the worst name any successful band ever had, I'm not sure what is.

1997: "Say You'll Be There"/Spice Girls.
Which had knocked "Mmm-Bop" by Hanson from the top spot a few weeks earlier. If there are any performers of recent vintage who have faded into deeper cultural insignificance than the Spice Girls and Hanson, I'm not sure who they'd be.

1985: "Heaven"/Bryan Adams.
The sort of raspy-voiced power ballad radio stations and their listeners were powerless to resist at that moment in history. Fit right in with the gazillion movie-soundtrack hits that made the charts that summer.

1972: "Song Sung Blue"/Neil Diamond.
Which had dethroned "The Candy Man" by Sammy Davis Jr. from the top spot a few days earlier. I love the music of the 1970s, but I can't always explain it.

1952: "Delicado"/Percy Faith.
I've been reading a fascinating book this week: Joseph Lanza's Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong. Lanza observes that before Percy Faith became the king of swelling strings in the 1960s, he'd been going in a far different direction, as indicated by this harpsichord-driven slice of Latin-tinged pop.