Wednesday, August 31, 2005

History Lesson: Pickin' Flowers Up on Choctaw Ridge

August 31, 1976: A judge finds that George Harrison unconsciously plagiarized the Chiffons' song "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." Money Harrison earned from the song was assigned to the estate of songwriter Ronnie Mack. While the suit was in court, Harrison was recording the album Thirty Three and 1/3. "This Song," the first hit from the album, contains the line, "This song ain't black or white and as far as I know/Don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so . . . ."

August 31, 1969:
Bob Dylan, backed by the Band, appears at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK. (Thirty-six years later, Dylan is about to become a hot pop-culture property once again, with a PBS documentary, two new CDs, and two books, including a self-penned memoir, due in the next month.)

August 31, 1955: In what must have been the first incident of its kind, a London man is fined three pounds for telling his neighbors, "I will drive you mad," and then playing Bill Haley's recording of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" at full volume for 2 1/2 hours. All of us lived near at least one of his heirs in the dorm, I'm sure.

Birthday Today: Van Morrison is 60. I bought "Domino" on a 45 in 1971, but didn't rediscover Morrison until one afternoon over 30 years later, on the North Shore of Lake Superior, where my wife and I were seeking refuge in the wake of September 11. The stereo in a little antique store was playing a CD so good that I had to ask the proprietor what it was. It turned out to be Van's 1999 release Back on Top, which was the first of many Van albums I have acquired in the intervening years. I find myself listening more often to his later albums than to the early classics--there's something about the mileage he's put on that lends a depth to his work that I find missing in some of the earlier stuff. But you still have to own His Band and the Street Choir and Moondance, of course.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1984: "Ghostbusters"/Ray Parker Jr.
Speaking of plagiarism suits, Huey Lewis and the News sued Parker over this song, claiming it had been lifted from "I Want a New Drug." Oddly enough, Lewis and the News had turned down an invitation to write a song for the movie Ghostbusters.

1972: "Brandy"/Looking Glass.
This is a perfect 70s radio record--there's nothing you could do to improve it unless you made it last longer. Looking Glass made two perfect radio records, actually, although substantially fewer people remember the second one. In the fall of 1973, Looking Glass would take "Jimmy Loves Mary Ann" to Number 33--and why it got only that far is a mystery to me.

1970: "War"/Edwin Starr. The lyrics are angry, but no more than the music. The whole band sounds pissed, and Starr most of all. Time for a remake.

1967: "Ode to Billie Joe"/Bobbie Gentry.
Perhaps the greatest mystery any songwriter ever concocted. In 1976, Robby Benson starred in a movie (directed by Max Baer, fresh off playing Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) that tried to solve the song's mysteries, including why Billie Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge--but nobody remembers the answers. That's neither Robby's nor Jethro's fault. The unanswered questions will always be more compelling.

1952: "Half as Much"/Rosemary Clooney.
In the 1950s, R&B records were routinely covered by white artists, who sanded off the rough edges and made them more acceptable to white audiences. The same thing happened to legendary country singer Hank Williams, whose rural honk was far more than mainstream radio stations and record buyers were willing to handle. Clooney's "Half as Much" was the second Williams cover to reach Number One--Tony Bennett had done it with "Cold Cold Heart" in November 1951. (And yes, she was related to George Clooney. He was her nephew. She died in 2002.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Your Hit Parade

I'll be damned if I know why, but today I found myself flashing on the short-lived 1974 TV revival of Your Hit Parade. So I set out to do a bit of research about it, and was astounded to find that it was broadcast for the final time 31 years ago today.

Your Hit Parade started on radio in 1935 and had a couple of runs on TV in the 1950s. It featured a company of singers performing tunes old and new. The 1974 version was a summer replacement series, and if it's remembered at all, it's probably because it featured game-show uber-host Chuck Woolery as one of its singers. The format of the 1974 revival didn't change much from the old-school version--Woolery and the other singers (Kelly Garrett and Sheralee) performed splashy variety-show numbers featuring songs from the 1940s and 50s that had been popular in the same week each show was broadcast. The show also featured performances of current hit songs, and so America actually got to see Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods perform--or, to be more precise, lip-sync--"Billy Don't Be a Hero." Not all of the featured performers were legitimate hitmakers, though. Does anybody remember ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta? I thought not.

Like other summer replacement series, the 1974 version of Your Hit Parade was scheduled to run only a few weeks, and afterward, it disappeared into the mists of history. It will stay lost, too, because variety shows are notoriously hard to clear for rebroadcast years later--and there are few people who'd want to watch Your Hit Parade again anyhow. But no matter how misty history gets, there will always be a few of us who can peer through the fog. Even if there's no reason why we should be able to.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

"Dear Program Director . . ."

Every week I get an e-mail newsletter for freelance writers. Last week's edition contained what the list manager called "the world's worst book proposals." You might find it hard to believe that anybody would send such sloppy nonsense when making a serious inquiry about starting a business relationship. I don't, because I have seen things just as bad, and occasionally worse.

When I was a radio station program director, I was continually amazed at the number of packages I would receive from job-seekers that were filled with typos. I got letters and resumes corrected with ink or pencil. I got xeroxes of xeroxes of xeroxes. I got letters and resumes resumes typed on lined notebook paper and on paper pulled from spiral notebooks, fringed edge and all. I got letters and resumes containing employment histories with gaps of several years, or containing the names of references but no contact information for them.

The content of the cover letters was often questionble, too. Sometimes the letters were barely literate, and more than one was subliterate. Some candidates were as unsubtle as used-car salesmen, promising on-air work that would raise my ratings beyond the stratosphere and commercial production work that would make me six inches taller and more handsome. (This sort of pitch often came from people who were looking for their first job out of college.) And like the resumes, these letters were occasionally handwritten, hand-corrected, and/or obviously xeroxed, generic letters with my name filled in after the salutation, or, even worse, with the generic salutation "Dear Program Director."

But the people who took time to craft their cover letters could make an equally bad impression by pushing a good idea a little too far. People generally expect DJs to be a little bent, which gives us wide latitude for behavior. This often extends to cover letters, which are often a bit more flippant than they would be for other job applications in the working world. Letting a bit of your on-air personality show in the cover letter can help get the recipient's attention, and make him want to listen to your aircheck tape. But it can backfire.

So anyway, I was hanging out in my boss' office one slow afternoon when he asked me if I wanted to see the applications that came in from other candidates for the job I eventually got. In the stack was the following letter, which read as follows, in its entirety:
On [such and such a date], I was fucked without the benefit of foreplay by my now-former employer. Hire me and I'll deliver the female demographic.
Wrong in so many ways, yes, but strangely beautiful, too, for its economy of language, and for its bottomless impropriety. I'd like to think it created another ex-DJ-turned-used-car salesman, but I fear that somewhere, some other program director got that letter and thought, "Hey, that's just the kind of guy I'm looking for."

Friday, August 26, 2005

Top 5: What Are You, Deaf?

The last week of August always brings to mind (and who the hell knows why) one of the most memorable concerts I ever attended--although it's memorable in a negative way.

In 1978, the Electric Light Orchestra was touring on the double album Out of the Blue with a stage shaped like a spaceship, which would open to reveal the group inside. The only place in Wisconsin big enough to house the stage was the Dane County Coliseum here in Madison--and my friends and I were thrilled to snag tickets. A band called Trickster opened for them, and we should have taken it as an omen when the guys behind us were laughing between numbers, saying that they sounded like a nuclear accident. When ELO took the stage, it got worse. I have no idea what they played that night, because we couldn't hear them. Each song was a roar of unidentifiable and undifferentiated noise--jets taking off would have been as musical, and certainly no more painful. We actually considered going to ask the sound guy if he could turn it the hell down. My ears were still ringing three days later, when I went off to college for my freshman year.

I'm either fairly lucky as a concertgoer, or fairly undiscriminating, because I can recall very few concerts from which I walked away disappointed. ELO in 1978 was surely one of them. Another was earlier this summer, when we saw James Taylor at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee during Summerfest. Despite an all-star backing band featuring veteran session players Steve Gadd and Lou Marini, despite a list of songs that Taylor's reputation is built on, I just couldn't get into it. It seemed forced and passionless--like Taylor was role-playing a rock star and the audience was role-playing an enraptured crowd. I was bored silly. Mine was definitely a minority opinion, not just of the 22,000 people in the arena but in the group I was with--but I found myself counting songs in the second set, looking at my watch, and wishing he'd just get done already.

But that's a rarity. Nope, the good shows have far outnumbered the bad ones. And now, because it's Friday, here's a list of five other memorable concerts I've attended.

Billy Joel, Madison, March 1979. On the last night of his 52nd Street tour, Joel and the band left it all on the stage. The show ended with him playing "She's Got a Way" solo on the piano, leaning into the spotlight, taking off his necktie, and saying, "Good night, Wisconsin . . . don't take no shit from anybody." The place went up for grabs.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Madison, September 1980.
Half concert, half religious experience. Given that Marley would be dead within months, and given his legendary stature today, it's the concert I am most grateful to have seen.

Paul McCartney, Ames, Iowa, July 1990.
My only football-stadium concert experience, but another quasi-religious one. I observed at the time that having seen McCartney sing "Yesterday," I could now die a happy man.

Chicago and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Moline, Illinois, circa 1996. The latter-day incarnation of Chicago is basically Survivor with a better back catalog, but on this tour they were playing the whole "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon," the suite of songs that includes "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World," for the first time in 20 years. CSN sounded OK, too--I'd never imagined Stephen Stills as a monster guitar player, but on this night he was. That Graham Nash encouraged the audience to sing along on the line "four dead in Ohio" seemed a little creepy, though.

Steely Dan, Milwaukee, June 2000. My favorite band, and in the expensive seats, too. At intermission, The Mrs. went over to find my brother and his Mrs., who were sitting in another part of the arena. My brother spotted a college friend on the stage, who turned out to be handling the lights for the show. So the three of them got to go backstage, while I'm sitting on the other side of the arena waiting. What a dumbass.

Your concert tales are encouraged. Click "comments."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Jim Dandy"

If you grew up in the 1970s, you probably knew at least one person who was deeply into Black Oak Arkansas. He was generally a guy with stringy hair down to his scrotum whose passions in life besides Black Oak were a shitbox car he called a hot rod and a skanky girl from the next town over who wore too much makeup and smoked a lot.

Black Oak Arkansas never made it to the southern-rock big leagues, but they sold a fair amount of records in the first half of the 1970s, the most famous of which was the single "Jim Dandy" in 1974. It was inevitable that they'd record the song, an R&B tune originally recorded by Lavern Baker in the 1950s, because the group's lead singer was known as Jim "Dandy" Mangrum. The record is allegedly a duet with female singer Ruby Starr, although all she does is yell "Go Jim Dandy" while Mangrum honks his way through the song with all the charm of a runaway livestock truck. Still, it was pretty unusual to hear something that rocked so hard on the radio in early 1974--another sign that the Top 40 was coming off the bottom it scraped during the dismal last half of 1973.

If you can name another song by Black Oak, it's probably "Lord Have Mercy on My Soul," from their debut album. Fairly early in my career as a wedding-reception DJ, I was doing a party at which a highly intoxicated guest kept badgering me to play it. Any wedding DJ will tell you that the best way to deal with drunks is to ignore them, because they usually can't outlast you. This guy could really hold his liquor, though, and he persisted for several hours, so I finally gave in.

It didn't just clear the dance floor, it cleared the whole damn party. Forgive me; I was new.

(Atco 6948, chart peak #25, February 16, 1974)

Monday, August 22, 2005

What's Old Is What's New

You may have noticed that Doonesbury featured a funny series of strips last week (starting here) in which rock musician Jimmy Thudpucker was plugging his new album of standards. Next to recording a Christmas album, making an album of standards is widely seen as a give-up move--a sign that an artist is no longer serious about following a muse, and is content merely to cash in.

Well, sometimes such albums are give-up moves and sometimes they aren't.

The first major artist to make a major splash with an album of standards was Linda Ronstadt, who made three such albums in the 1980s with orchestra leader and arranger Nelson Riddle. For Ronstadt, however, this was less a give-up move than it was another phase in her chameleon period. In the late 70s and 1980s, she went from '50s rocker to new-wave chick to big-band chanteuse to singing in Spanish, and onward after that into irrelevance. The albums themselves, What's New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons, were beautifully made, however, thanks mostly to Riddle's considerable artistry.

Not so Rod Stewart's three Great American Songbook albums. They can't be described as homage or tribute, because Stewart doesn't seem to respect the songs at all. Plus, it would be hard to name a singer whose voice is less suited to such songs than Stewart's. He'd have been better off tackling old blues numbers--but that wouldn't have sold nearly so well to his current demographic, which seems to be aging women who haven't been hot since the '80s. Which makes these albums the crassest form of commercial exploitation, but it's worked--each is among the biggest sellers of Stewart's career.

Boz Scaggs recorded an album of standards in 2003, But Beautiful. Unlike Stewart, who put a glossy pop sheen on the songs, Scaggs recorded with a small, free-swinging jazz combo, so the album has a smoky, late-night feel. His voice isn't particularly suited to the songs, either, but the overall atmosphere of the album makes that lapse somewhat forgivable.

Carly Simon's Moonlight Serenade, released earlier this summer and currently at Number 35 on the Billboard album chart, is actually her third straight album of standards. (Her 1981 album, Torch, was also made up of standards, and actually predated Ronstadt's What's New by a couple of years.) This one I haven't heard at all, but the reviews I've read have been largely positive.

I don't mind people recording standards, really. Some of those songs really are timeless, and they deserve to be heard for as long as people want to listen--as long as the people recording them do justice to them. Cannibals like Stewart (and it pains me to call him that, because I'm a fan) don't add anything to the music, and they do nothing to illuminate its history. Conversely, the best contemporary albums of standards, like those by Scaggs and Simon, prove the enduring value of the songs, updating them without being disrespectful to them. In addition, such albums can actually entice listeners into exploring the back catalog from which those songs originally come, and that's a good thing.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Top 5: Believe it or Not

The date was August 19, 1981. American fighter planes shot down two Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sidra, and Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. That night, Charlie's Angels was broadcast for the last time on its original network run. In sports, a new record for running the mile was set. When your favorite radio station got done with the news and went back to music, the Top 5 that follows contains some of what they were playing. It's a fine bit of evidence for why the Second British Invasion had to happen. In truth, it was already underway--MTV had signed on about three weeks earlier.

5. "Elvira"/Oak Ridge Boys. In 1981, I was working at a country radio station, and this record blew out the phones from the moment we began playing it. I can think of only a handful of other records that generated a similar listener response. Of course, it's the sort of thing guaranteed to make DJs ill after only a handful of plays. Records that blow out the phones generally do.

4. "Jessie's Girl"/Rick Springfield. Probably the most memorable record of the whole summer. "Jessie's Girl" had already done a couple of weeks at Number One by this time, helped by Springfield's role on General Hospital. MTV would help keep Springfield's career alive for the next four years, even though he never made another record remotely as good as this one.

3. "I Don't Need You"/Kenny Rogers. The superstar collaboration between Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie resulted in some of the blandest records imaginable--but at least Richie, as producer, curbed Rogers' tendency to phone it in. After a string of slapdash records in the late 70s (hugely popular though they were), Richie brought Rogers better material and then made him actually sing it. The hits were big on the pop and AC charts; Rogers' country fans weren't as pleased with them.

2. "Theme from 'Greatest American Hero' (Believe it or Not)"/Joey Scarbury. History will note that between about 1976 and 1982, TV theme songs became major radio hits at a rate unparalleled at any other time. Joey Scarbury's was one of the last. It's best remembered now for being sung by George Costanza on his answering machine in an episode of Seinfeld.

1. "Endless Love"/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. This song was recorded in Reno, Nevada, between 3:30 and 5:00 one morning--a place and time at which lots of declarations of endless love have been made, later to be broken. Not this one. Nine weeks at Number One made it the biggest hit in Motown history up to that time, even if what's really endless about it is the four minutes and 26 seconds it takes to play.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

History Lesson: Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em

August 16, 1977: Elvis Presley dies at Graceland. Probably the most significant pop-culture death since Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s, Presley's demise sets a template for future celebrity deaths that still holds today. (On this day, I am a surly 17-year-old who has been dragged against his will on his last family vacation, and we are somewhere in the Dakotas listening to a baseball game on the radio when the announcers report the news.)

August 16, 1969: The Jackson Five opens for the Supremes at the Los Angeles Forum. The group's first hit, "I Want You Back," is still about three months away. Michael, age 10, is not yet weird.

August 16, 1962: The Beatles replace Pete Best with Ringo Starr. In 1965, Best sued for libel after Ringo implied in a magazine interiew that Best had been fired for using drugs. The suit was settled out of court.

August 16, 1938: Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues singers, dies in Greenwood, Mississippi. Legend has it that was poisoned by the jealous husband of a lover and died as a result. He was poisoned, but he died of pneumonia shortly after recovering. Johnson recorded only 29 songs in two sessions (November 1936 and June 1937), but their influence continues to be felt in blues and rock today.

Birthday Today:
Madonna is 47. When she appeared on American Bandstand in 1984, Dick Clark asked what her goals were. "To rule the world," she said. For about 10 years, she came pretty close. Essential tracks: "Borderline," "Like a Virgin," "Express Yourself," "True Blue."

Number One Songs on This Date:
1996: "The Macarena"/Los Del Rio.
Now that you've finally gotten it out of your head, here I am putting it in again.

1992: "End of the Road"/Boyz II Men.
During its chart run, this broke Elvis' 36-year old mark for consecutive weeks at Number One, staying atop the charts for 13 weeks. The new record was broken not long after, when Whitney Houston's godawful yodeling on "I Will Always Love You" stayed Number One for 14 weeks. Boyz II Men reclaimed the record in 1996, when "One Sweet Day" (with Mariah Carey) was Number One for 16 weeks.

1966: "Summer in the City"/Lovin' Spoonful.
Starting with this, 1966 saw a run of nine straight Number One songs that have all endured as oldies radio staples: "Sunshine Superman," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Cherish," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "96 Tears," "Last Train to Clarksville," "Poor Side of Town," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Giants in the earth.

1963: "Fingertips (Part 2)"/Little Stevie Wonder.
Yes, it's the record that launched one of the most storied careers in popular music. And yes, it's awful--a sloppy live recording that wouldn't be notable at all if it hadn't launched one of the most storied careers in popular music.

1947: "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)"/Tex Williams and his Western Caravan.
A fine example of western swing, and an anti-smoking song recorded by a guy who, as the song says, "smoked 'em all my life." Williams died at age 68 in 1985. Of lung cancer.

Monday, August 15, 2005

I'm Your Boogie Man, Honestly

A few years ago, TV Guide published a special issue featuring the 50 most memorable TV characters of all time. Inexplicably, they omitted Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H. When called on the error by readers, the editors had no other explanation than to say "we blew it" and publish a 51st character profile featuring Hawkeye.

So to reader Dave P. and the rest of you: When I assembled a list of disco records that do not suck and omitted KC and the Sunshine Band, I blew it. I can't imagine how I missed them, as they're one of my favorite guilty pleasures. That I made such a howling error just a week or two shy of the 30th anniversary of their first Number One song only compounds the error. So here's a brief list of five KC records that do not suck, in not-sucking order.

5. "Please Don't Go" (1980)
4. "Boogie Shoes" (1978)
3. "That's the Way (I Like It) (1975)
2. "Get Down Tonight" (1975)
1. "Keep It Comin' Love" (1977)

Critics of KC complain about the way he repeats himself, over and over--yet performers with higher critical reputations do the same thing. For example, Van Morrison believes that if you repeat yourself enough while singing, the words become a sort of mantra and the experience of singing takes on a deeper spiritual dimension. While nobody would go looking for deep spiritual dimensions in KC and the Sunshine Band, repetition usually works for them, too. When they find a groove they stay in it, and repetition makes it deeper. Just listen to the long version of any of the top three tunes on this list.

In addition, even white men who claim they can't dance can dance to KC.

When KC and the Sunshine Band scored three Number Ones in a single year, "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like It), and "(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty" between the fall of '75 and the fall of '76, they became the first act since the Beatles in 1964 to do it. That's good company.

Damn, how did I forget them?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Disco Inferno

Making a list of disco songs that do not suck is something I've been thinking about for a while. It took finishing Peter Shapiro's book on disco to get me off the dime. Shapiro believes that the best disco never made it to the radio, and what made it to the radio was often drained of disco's passion and/or artistry. Nevertheless, I'm picking from what I heard on the radio, and here we go (in chronological order).

"The Love I Lost"/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
I never really thought of this as a disco record--mostly because what Teddy Pendergrass is doing with the vocal is more gospel testifyin' than disco crooning. In Shapiro's opinion, "The Love I Lost" is one of the most important early examples of the form. And he's right--it's got the gliding orchestra, the chugging bass line, and the hard-working high-hat cymbal. And its full-length version runs over six minutes, gloriously extending the groove. (Chart peak: #7, December 8, 1973)

"Love's Theme"/Love Unlimited Orchestra.
According to Shapiro, this was the first song to reach Number One on the pop charts thanks in part to its exposure in discos. I wish I had the precise quote Shapiro uses to describe it--on the one hand, he says, it's elegant and sophisticated, but on the other, it's as drenched in funk as Ron Jeremy's basement. (#1, February 9, 1974)

"Rock Your Baby"/George McCrae. If you wanted to pick a spot where disco began to make inroads into the Top 40 and neither of the two previous records suited you, this would work. "Rock Your Baby" sounds cheap and cheesy (dig that drum machine) and McCrae isn't a very good singer--but similar limitations didn't stop a lot of disco records from becoming enormous hits. (#1, July 13, 1974)

"Never Can Say Goodbye"/Gloria Gaynor.
One of the first major pop hits that sounded like disco as we remember it now--a big flashy orchestra chugging at a hundred miles an hour with a diva soaring above it. And another cymbal player working his ass off. (#9, January 25, 1975)

"Doctor's Orders"/Carol Douglas.
My favorite disco record, and maybe my guiltiest guilty pleasure. The medical metaphor is cute without being too forced, and Douglas is a charming singer. The rhythm guitarist, whoever he is, deserves some kind of award--and when the record changes key for the last refrain, it's nirvana. (#11, February 8, 1975)

"Disco Queen"/Hot Chocolate. No happy-happy-everybody-dance vibe here. It's more like, "You will dance, or else." Hot Chocolate's signature noise, that ominous, low guitar buzz, runs all through it; the horns could demolish entire buildings; and the drummer damn well means business, too. (#28, July 19, 1975)

"Fly Robin Fly"/Silver Convention. This record gets its unique sound from the soloing string section, but the part was originally intended to be played by horns. According to Shapiro, there was a shortage of competent horn players in Germany at the time "Fly Robin Fly" was recorded. Thus, the producers used string players from the Munich Philharmonic instead. (#1, November 29, 1975)

"Disco Lady"/Johnnie Taylor. Controversial in its time for "shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it around." (It's kind of cute what passed for controversial back in the Paleozoic Era.) But if you stripped off the lyrics entirely, you'd be left with one of the most gorgeous instrumental tracks of any era, disco or otherwise. Plus it's got one of the all-time great intros for DJs to talk over. (#1, April 3, 1976)

"Whispering-Cherchez La Femme"/Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Shapiro devotes a great deal of space to the work of August Darnell, the man behind Dr. Buzzard and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as an example of the artistic possibilities of disco. This is surely one of the most elegant and intelligent disco records ever made, both instrumentally and lyrically. (#27, January 29, 1977)

"Stayin' Alive"/Bee Gees. Shapiro disposes of the Bee Gees with a handful of dismissive comments, which is quite an omission for a history of disco. Although Saturday Night Fever was the most potent expression of disco in the marketplace, let's not equate "commercial" with "crap" in this case. Debate whether it's real disco if you must--but do not debate, at least not with me, whether "Stayin' Alive" is one of the most exciting records of the 1970s, and possibly of all time. There's no question about it. (#1, February 4, 1978)

Some observations about this list:
I notice that I've got only one record from the period in which disco ruled the radio--the era between the release of Saturday Night Fever in December 1977 and the ascension of the Knack's "My Sharona" to Number One in August 1979. By the time disco reached the mainstream radio listener and record buyer, it rarely ventured beyond a few specific cliches, none of which were all that interesting to me, repeated over and over. That was also the period in which I graduated from high school and went off to college, so the way I listened to music and what music represented to me was changing, as was the music I was listening to.

According to Joel Whitburn's Pop Singles Annual 1955-1986, there were 10 songs making the Hot 100 whose titles began with the word "disco." (I'd have guessed more.) The earliest was "Disco Queen" in 1975. "Disco Lady" and Rick Dees' "Disco Duck" both went to Number One. The only other tunes to make the Top 20 were "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps (which nearly made my Top 10 list above) and "Disco Nights" by GQ, which was yet another of those cliche-recycling cookie-cutter disco records that clogged the charts in 1979.

Your suggestions for disco records that do not suck (or, if it's more your style, disco records that could take the chrome off a tailpipe) are welcome in the Comments section.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Turn the Beat Around

I've just finished reading Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Peter Shapiro. The book examines disco as an art form born of a particular context--primarily the economic, racial, and sexual world of New York City in the 1970s--but also locates it within the broader spectrum of black pop. It's the kind of book I'd love to write if I had the attention span for it.

It occurs to me, however, that there's still room to discuss the history of disco as it appeared to people not located in New York City. Shapiro disparages the latecomers to the party, such as those of us out here in the Midwest, as terminally uncool wannabes who were following a trend we could never understand--but that's not really our fault. While disco may have made sense in a particular way to New Yorkers, who lived each day in the economic, racial, and sexual context that made disco possible, those of us out here in the Midwest couldn't help but understand it differently.

Shapiro makes clear that disco can't be understood without an understanding of the growing liberation of gays and lesbians in the early 1970s. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 represented the Rosa Parks moment for gays. After that, the gay pride or gay liberation movement snowballed--and disco was its musical expression, just as surely as gospel and soul were musical expressions of the civil rights movement.

But what if you lived in a place--as many Midwesterners did--where there was no gay community to be liberated, and/or few gays at all? Then you were left to understand the disco "movement" in other ways that made sense to you. In my case, it was as an extension of the black pop music I was already familiar with. I was not an especially vocal disco hater. I tolerated it, although I found a lot of it fairly boring. I sometimes wished that other forms of black pop, which I'd been enjoying since I was 10 or 11, would find their way back onto the radio. Other people understood disco through the lens of celebrity. Disco was important because famous people were seen in disco clubs, and many people who perceived it as a pastime of the rich and famous wanted to emulate it. Still more people experienced disco as yet another fad that started off cool on the coasts and ended up cliched in the Midwest, by rushing to disco clubs and adopting disco styles long after the heat of both was starting to cool in disco's birthplace. That's not our fault out here either--that's just the way it is, and not just with disco.

During my last couple of years in high school, my friends and I DJed some postgame dances. Being teenage boys, we didn't play much disco at the first few shows we did. Toward the end, in the spring of 1978, we started getting more requests for disco tunes. (As I recall, I was happier to oblige them than some of my friends were.) For us, DJing was a matter of playing one record after the other. While we had a rudimentary sense of flow (we knew not to play play "Cat Scratch Fever" right after "You Light Up My Life"), the idea of mixing records of similar tempos into a seamless flow, which Shapiro considers an absolutely essential characteristic of disco as an art form, never occurred to us.

In the spring of 1979, I became a more vocal disco-hater. The music director of my college radio station was one of only a handful of African-American students on campus, yet he elected to take the station in an urban contemporary direction. While he avoided programming a great deal of straight disco, what he did program was more than enough, and so a lot of the jocks were eager to rebel. I can still remember the afternoon I played 15 minutes of crunchy rock and roll and back-announced it by saying, "Let's see 'em play THAT at Studio 54." The crack brought the music director racing into the studio to lecture me on my attitude, and to imply that I was some kind of racist.

During the summer of 1979, between my freshman and sophomore years, I was on the air (at my paying radio gig in Dubuque) on Disco Demolition Night, the famous riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Given my growing animosity toward disco, the whole thing seemed kind of funny to me. Later that summer, when the Knack's "My Sharona" came roaring out of nowhere, it was like water to the parched. My college-radio friends and I were glad to see rock and roll make a comeback. That fall, the music director didn't come back to school, so our college station swiftly abandoned its urban-leaning format for album rock. For me, disco returned to the place from whence it had come--a black style on the radio, not one I especially enjoyed, but one I could tolerate if I had to.

So: Regardless of your own experience with disco, you'd probably find Turn the Beat Around a worthwhile read, if you enjoy cultural history.

Lots of people have made their peace with disco since the 1970s--some because you can be branded as either anti-gay or racist if you criticize disco too harshly. I've made my peace with it because, like everything else we were listening to back then, some of it sounds pretty good now. (And some of it doesn't.) Coming later this week, if I get around to it, a list of disco records that do not suck.

Monday, August 08, 2005

History Lesson: Famous for 15 Minutes

August 8, 2002: Reports in Britain indicate that pop songs are preferred to hymns at funerals. The most popular songs include Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" and Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," either of which would be enough to make me glad I was dead.

August 8, 1981: MTV broadcasts the first concert ever televised live in stereo. The headliner: REO Speedwagon. REO thus reaches the point furthest removed from the small-town Midwestern bars they played throughout much of the 1970s, including one in my hometown.

August 8, 1970: Janis Joplin buys a headstone for her idol, blues singer Bessie Smith, who died in 1937. On the same day, "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young peaks at Number 14, just three months after the Kent State shootings.

August 8, 1969:
The cover photo for the Beatles' Abbey Road is shot outside Abbey Road Studios. Six photos are taken in about 10 minutes. The one picked for the cover contains several bits of evidence that Paul is dead.

Birthdays Today: Rikki Rockett, co-founder of Poison, is 44. One of the great made-up rock-star names of all time, and guaranteed to snag more babes than his birth name, Richard Ream.

Airrion Love of the Stylistics is 56. The Stylistics' distinctive sound was thanks mostly to the falsetto of Russell Thompkins Jr., but Love got his moment in the spotlight on "You Make Me Feel Brand New."

Andy Warhol would be 78, had he not died in 1987. Warhol managed the Velvet Underground and, as the founder of the Pop Art movement, designed album covers and the Rolling Stones' lips logo. He also famously said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes--and he wasn't exaggerating by much.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1990: "Vision of Love"/Mariah Carey.
A spectacular voice and a unique song added up to one of the most impressive debut singles ever. We didn't know at the time that Carey would spend the rest of her career narcissistically showing off her range on the blandest songs imaginable, and developing as obnoxious a diva personality as any female artist has ever had. Sometime in the fairly near future Carey will surpass Elvis Presley as the artist with the most weeks at Number One on the Hot 100. Rock is dead.

1978: "Miss You"/Rolling Stones. Their eighth Number One single in America, and the last one to date.

1976: "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"/Elton John and Kiki Dee.
Elton's biggest hit would spend a month at Number One. We didn't know it at the time, but he was already beginning to slip from his perch as the world's most popular artist.

1963: "So Much in Love"/Tymes. In the early 1960s, there was a brief flurry of nostalgia for the street-corner doo-wop of the 1950s. (The first oldies radio stations were born about this time.) "So Much in Love" was the most successful manifestation of that flurry on the pop charts.

1954: "Sh-Boom"/Crew Cuts. The Crew Cuts specialized in safe-for-white-people versions of R&B hits, most notably this one (originally done by the Chords, whose version is considered one of the first rock-and-roll records) and "Earth Angel."

Friday, August 05, 2005

Top 5: Taking Care of Business

Thirty-one years ago this week, we were watching the final act of the Nixon drama. I was spending the week with my grandparents, glued to the TV and devouring the newspaper, fully conscious even at age 14 that the resignation was something Americans would remember forever.

The Mrs. tells of being at summer camp and seeing counselors clustered around transistor radios listening for news. And when the news was over, the music came back on. Here are five hits from that week's playlists.

"The Air That I Breathe"/Hollies. In which the singer is so completely satisfied that he can't even think of anything to wish for. A clearly post-coital love song--not that I would have known what "post-coital" meant in 1974.

"Hang on in There Baby"/Johnny Bristol.
A clearly mid-coital love song, far more explicit than "The Air That I Breathe," sufficient to make my 14-year-old self all twitchy every time it came on the radio.

"(You're) Having My Baby"/Paul Anka.
Also post-coital, by several months. Angered feminists because of the possessiveness implied by the pronoun "my." Angered others on purely aesthetic grounds. In all, one of the most reviled records of all time.

"Rock Me Gently"/Andy Kim.
In which one of the uncrowned kings of bubblegum takes one last ride up the charts. A perfect summer record that would reach Number One at the end of September.

"Taking Care of Business"/Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
There was something in the wiring of a 14-year-old boy that made him--me--know for sure that this record was going to be around for a long time. Thirty-one years later, it hasn't left yet.

To hear how Top 40 radio sounded that week, click here for an aircheck from Dr. Don Rose of San Francisco's KFRC, recorded on the morning of Nixon's resignation day. (Be sure to stick around for the newscast.) Rose's schtick is pretty cheesy--yes, that's a slide whistle and cowbell he's using--but it was the '70s, after all.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Forgotten 45: "Don't Expect Me to Be Your Friend"

Lobo, real name Roland Kent Lavoie, always struck me as Wally Cox with a guitar. In his songs, he got plenty of girls, but it wasn't by being assertive. On "Don't Expect Me to Be Your Friend," he was meekly in love with a girl who saw him only as a friend and couldn't imagine him any other way.
You always act so happy when I see you
You smile that way, you take my hand, and then
Introduce me to your latest lover
That's when I feel the walls start crashin' in
The situation was enough to make even a mild-mannered guy sound a little bitter: "I love you too much to ever start liking you, so don't expect me to be your friend."

Despite his ubiquitous presence on the radio during the first half of the 1970s, Lobo only visited the Top 20 on two other occasions--"Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" in the spring of 1971 and "I'd Love You to Want Me" in the fall of 1972. ("I'd Love You to Want Me," his biggest hit, is a shimmering romantic classic that ought to be better remembered than it is.) It was more typical for Lobo's records to stall somewhere between Number 20 and Number 30, which happened four different times. And two of his most memorable records, "I'm the Only One" and "Rings," didn't make the Top 40 at all.

(Big Tree 158, chart peak #8, February 17, 1973)

Monday, August 01, 2005

History Lesson: Meet Your Destiny

August 1, 1971: George Harrison presents the Concert for Bangla Desh at Madison Square Garden in New York. Guests include Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, and Ravi Shankar. On the same day, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour premieres on CBS. You can look it up--in the 1970s, after a musical act got a network TV show, their ability to score hits largely disappeared. It happened to Sonny and Cher, to Tony Orlando and Dawn, to Roy Clark after signing to host Hee Haw, to the Captain and Tennille. It even happened to the Starland Vocal Band, who landed a short-lived TV show in the summer of 1977, although their hits had dried up already by then.

August 1, 1960: Aretha Franklin records her first sides for Columbia Records. The standard interpretation of her five Columbia years is that the label wasted Aretha's talent by making her record show tunes with orchestra backing in an attempt to turn her into an entertainer in the Judy Garland mold. (One of the songs recorded on her first session was "Over the Rainbow.") Here and there, however, flashes of her later style were audible--although she didn't meet her destiny until she met producer Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals in 1966.

Birthdays Today:
Robert Cray is 52. Strong Persuader was his biggest hit in the United States, but he's been turning out consistently good albums ever since. No need to shave before hearing him play--his licks are sharp enough to do it for you.

Tommy Bolin would be 54 today, had he not overdosed on heroin in 1976. Bolin was briefly a member of Deep Purple and the James Gang, and recorded a legendary solo album, Private Eyes, shortly before his death. The album features "Bustin' Out for Rosey" and "Post Toastee," both college-radio favorites back in my college-radio days. Bolin was a native of that noted rock-and-roll hotbed, Sioux City, Iowa.

Jerry Garcia would be 63 today, had he not died of being Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1988: "Roll With It"/Steve Winwood.
In one of the last spasms of good taste by American record buyers, this actually ended up as the Number One song for the entire year 1988. It's easily the ass-kickin'est of Winwood's solo hits.

1987: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"/U2. Even though I was playing elevator music on the radio in 1987, I went out and bought The Joshua Tree, more in an attempt to assure myself that I was still cool than for the music itself. This tune rewarded the investment.

1975: "The Hustle"/Van McCoy. You did it. Admit it.

1964: "A Hard Day's Night"/Beatles. There's lots to recommend this as their greatest single ever--the perfectly in-character wordplay of the title, for one thing, and that magnificent opening chord, which is the single most exciting moment in rock history, and so complex that musicologists actually argue over its structure.

1903: "Come Down, Ma Ev'ning Star"/Henry Burr. Burr was the top ballad singer of the pioneer era of recording (1890-1930), with 116 hits under his own name and dozens more with other singers and major groups of the era. "Come Down, Ma Ev'ning Star" was his first major hit, recorded when he was 18 years old. In all, he's believed to have appeared on over 12,000 different recordings--more than any other performer in history.