Monday, October 31, 2005

Top 5: Hey Stupid, You Forgot "Witchy Woman"

So it's Halloween, which has become in the last 15 years or so the second-biggest holiday of the year, next to Christmas. In some places--like the public schools, for example--it's bigger than Christmas. With religious references making Christmas a potential political minefield, it's become a thoroughly secularized "winter holiday" lacking a hook. Halloween, meanwhile, has got hooks aplenty. And while I wait for the neighborhood trick-or-treaters to arrive (and they'd better, or I'll have to eat this giant bowl of candy myself), here's a list of five Halloween horrors from our Top 40 past.

"Captain Howdy"/Simon Stokes. From the summer of 1974, here's a record so obscure I can remember only a fragment of the hook, and Google doesn't help much. I've figured out that it's apparently not the same song recorded by Twisted Sister, and for which Dee Snider takes a writing credit. Trivia question: Who was Captain Howdy? Answer below.

"Kashmir"/Led Zeppelin. The lyrics have nothing to do with Halloween, but in what pit of sonic hell did Zeppelin find the edgy, menacing sound of this record? says it's the drums stomping in 2/4 time while the musical theme plays against it in 3/4 time. Whatever it is, it's damn creepy. I've known some DJs who were reluctant to play it late at night if they were alone in the building.

"Monster Mash"/Bobby "Boris" Pickett. The happy comic-book version of Halloween, which reached Number One at Halloween of 1962. Parrot Records tried rereleasing it in 1970, but it went nowhere. In 1973, they tried again, and this time, a new generation of 13-year-old 45-buyers (of which I was one) pushed it back into the Top 10. In the middle of the summer. Which tells you a lot about the 1970s.

"Tubular Bells"/Mike Oldfield. As used in The Exorcist, this record is a perfect fit. Somber and hypnotic bells explode into chaotically distorted guitar and bass and then return, sounding somehow far more ominous than before. But it's only a small slice of the entire Tubular Bells album, and you really ought to hear it in its natural habitat: a kaleidoscope of musical sounds and textures that foreshadows new age music, but is far more interesting.

"Sympathy for the Devil"/Rolling Stones. What makes this record particularly terrifying is the story of the line "I shouted out 'who killed the Kennedys?'" It was written as "who killed John Kennedy," but the recording session took place the morning after Robert F. Kennedy was shot, so Mick made a change on the fly--before RFK actually died. (The Stones' Hot Rocks 1964-1971 was one of the first albums I ever bought--I was 13--and this song was new to me then. For years after, I wondered if I would be going to Hell just for listening to it. Well, I'm older and wiser now, and I know today that the answer is: Yes.)

Trivia answer: In The Exorcist, "Captain Howdy" was how little Regan referred to the voice inside her that turned out to be Old Scratch. Very scary, and appropriate viewing for Halloween night. Not for me, however. I'm an It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown man myself.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Notes from Everywhere

Item: Jazz saxophone legend John Coltrane, who died in 1967, has two of the top three albums on the current contemporary jazz chart.

Comment: Wow. I'm a Coltrane fan, especially of his work with Miles Davis, but also of albums such as Giant Steps and Blue Train. One of the albums, from a date with pianist Thelonious Monk, is from that approximate vintage, 1957. The other is a bit later, from 1965, and the point at which, in the name of spiritual exploration, Coltrane started pushing the edge of the avant-garde, cutting loose from traditional conceptions of meter and melody into the anything-goes world of free jazz. He could go there, but it's hard for me to follow, at least right now. The last time I listened to his masterpiece from that period, A Love Supreme, I felt like I was starting to get it--but I don't think it's ever going to be an album I'll put on for fireside listening.

Item: My local convenience store's piped-in music is still more progressive than 90 percent of the radio stations in this town.

Comment: I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how weird it is to walk into my local convenience store and hear smokin' blues tunes by the likes of Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Last weekend, when I realized they were playing Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," I had to ask the manager where they were getting the music. It's a satellite channel, which I already knew, and he was a little hazy on where it came from, whether it was something from Sirius or XM, or was programmed by the convenience-store company itself. (He did say the store had chosen it by employee demand instead of the elevator music channel they had originally been assigned.) Earlier this week when I stopped in, they were playing "Carey" by Joni Mitchell, from her legendary Blue album. "Carey" is a particular favorite of mine, with the most arresting opening lines you're ever likely to hear: "The wind is in from Africa/last night I couldn't sleep."

Item: It's Friday, and time for another Random 10. In the interest of space, we'll skip the annotations this week.
"All That Innocence"/Patty Larkin/Red = Luck.

"The First Cut Is the Deepest"/Rod Stewart/Storyteller: the Complete Anthology.

"I'm Gonna Make You Mine"/Lou Christie/Classic Rock 1969: Shakin' All Over.

"A Quitter Never Wins"/Tinsley Ellis/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection.

"Already Gone"/Eagles/On the Border.

"Every Picture Tells a Story"/Rod Stewart/Storyteller: the Complete Anthology.

"It Ain't No Fun to Me"/Al Green/Let's Stay Together.

"Almost Cut My Hair"/Crosby Stills and Nash/CSN (box set).

"Might Have to Cry"/Boz Scaggs/My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology.

"Abaddon's Bolero"/Emerson Lake and Palmer/Trilogy.
What, no jazz tunes on the list? Not even one by Coltrane?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

History Lesson: A String of Pearls

October 25, 1991: Concert promoter Bill Graham dies in a helicopter crash. Graham sparked the San Francisco music scene by founding the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966, and the Fillmore East in New York in 1968. After closing the Fillmores in 1971, he operated San Francisco's Winterland, and helped organize the Live Aid concerts in 1985. The extent of his influence is best described this way: can you name another famous concert promoter?

October 25, 1974: Al Green is attacked by an ex-girlfriend, who sneaks into his apartment, finds a pot of boiling-hot grits on the stove, and dumps it on him while he's in the shower. She then finds a gun in his bedroom and commits suicide. The attack sparks Green's religious awakening.

October 25, 1964: The Rolling Stones spark an audience riot while appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan promises the band "will never be back on our show," although three years later, they would be.

Birthdays Today:
Jon Anderson and Taffy Danoff are both 61. Apart from that, they've got little in common. Anderson was the lead singer of Yes; Danoff was a member of the Starland Vocal Band.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1985: "Take on Me"/a-ha.
Better remembered now as a groundbreaking video--that morphing of pencil drawings into live action and vice versa--but a pretty good song, too.

1973: "My Ding-a-Ling"/Chuck Berry. "Maybelline." "Rock and Roll Music." "Sweet Little Sixteen." "Johnny B. Goode." Yet this is Berry's only Number One record. There is no God.

1964: "Do Wah Diddy Diddy"/Manfred Mann.
Manfred Mann became the third British act, after the Beatles and Peter and Gordon, to top the American charts in 1964. After this song dropped out of the top spot, American acts would top the charts for the next nine weeks--but only until a new Beatles record came out.

1961: "Runaround Sue"/Dion. One of those essential records that makes you wish you had a nickel for each time it's been played on oldies radio. Dion probably wishes that, too.

1942: "(I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo"/Glenn Miller Orchestra. A good rule when listening to Miller today is to stick to the instrumentals, like "In the Mood," "A String of Pearls," and "Tuxedo Junction." Most of the Miller Orchestra's vocals, featuring the likes of Tex Beneke, the Modernaires, and Marian Hutton, sound extremely cheesy and badly dated. In other words, like "(I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Top 5: Time Passages

While I fondly recall several Octobers from the 1970s, there's one that's not all that pleasant to remember--1978. It was my first semester at college, and I was having a hell of a time--dorm problems, girl problems, general being-away-from-home-for-the-first-time problems. For a long time after, it was a season I preferred to forget. Nevertheless, there are some songs from that season that I still enjoy hearing, even though I usually try to separate them from what was going on in my life at the time. Here are five:

"Reminiscing"/Little River Band.
There's never been another record that sounded like this, not even during the big-band era it celebrates, and certainly not since. But even people far too young to relate to the 1940s could latch onto one of "Reminiscing"'s multiple hooks and dig it over and over again.

"Whenever I Call You Friend"/Kenny Loggins.
A Top-40 summit meeting, 70s style, with Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester joining Loggins on the record that jump-started his solo career.

"Right Down the Line"/Gerry Rafferty.
Rafferty had already built his monument, "Baker Street," and anything else was destined to pale in comparison. This doesn't pale much.

"Time Passages"/Al Stewart.
This song was a particular favorite of mine that fall, and it was no surprise that I would seize on a song about traveling back in time, especially given that the present I was living through at that moment felt like a waking nightmare. "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight," indeed.

"Who Are You"/The Who. On the radio the week Keith Moon died, in early September. His death was the lead story that night on my campus TV station's evening newscast, where I was anchoring sports. I was in my third week at school at the time. (Why the station relied on utterly green talent at the beginning of the school year is a mystery.) It took only one week for me to decide that I had no business being in front of a TV camera. It felt a lot safer behind the microphone. I'd finally get there in December.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Friday Random 10: In the Mood

The Friday Random 10 has recently appeared over at the Daily Aneurysm (here, here, here, and here), but after a few weeks, it's clear to me that it really belongs here. So it shall be, with the former Friday Top 5 moving to some other day of the week. And off we go.

You know those radio stations that claim "we play anything"? No they don't. I, however, really do play anything. This may be the most schizophrenic Random 10 yet--rockin' raveups, bedroom music, psychedelic bubblegum, and classic jazz.

"I Feel Lucky"/Mary Chapin Carpenter/Party Doll and Other Favorites.
MCC never really fit the country pigeonhole; she was always more of a folkie. "I Feel Lucky," however, is a rock record, complete with a Roy Orbison-style purr.

"But Beautiful"/Bill Evans Trio featuring Stan Getz/But Beautiful.
The musical equivalent of candlelight, satin sheets, strawberries dipped in chocolate, etc. If you can't get your sweetie into the sack with this, you'll never do it.

"Oh Babe What Would You Say"/Hurricane Smith/Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day, Vol. 10.
One of my favorite 70s oddities, 50 percent English music hall and 50 percent Rudy Vallee wearing a raccoon coat and singing through a megaphone.

"Flying Home"/Gary Burton/For Hamp, Red, Bags, and Cal. Burton is one of the most famous contemporary vibraphone players, and on this album, he pays tribute to four other jazz giants known for good vibes. "Flying Home" was the signature song of Lionel Hampton, the best-known of the four.

"If You Have to Know"/Lonnie Mack/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection.
Mack is yet another example of an influential figure who never got the widespread recognition he deserved. As often happens, a fan who became famous himself, in this case Stevie Ray Vaughan, came to the rescue, and produced the 1985 album on which this tune originally appeared.

"Ice Cream Man"/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters/Grateful Heart: Blues and Ballads.
I'm not sure, but I might be the single biggest Ronnie Earl booster on the Internet right now. You've got to hear this guy.

"Crimson and Clover"/Tommy James and the Shondells/Classic Rock: 1968.
This tune tends to remind people who are old enough to remember it of junior-high record dances--but listen to it again. This is every bit as trippy as what more critically respectable rock bands were doing at the same moment, and a lot more fun than most of it.

"Have You Seen Her"/Chi-Lites/Billboard Top R&B Hits: 1971. This could have been one of the hokiest songs of all time: the singer, bereft at the loss of his one true love, spends his days playing with children in the park, and asking every passerby if they've seen his baby. And if it had been done in a pleading, histrionic way, it would have been. Chi-Lites lead singer Eugene Record doesn't, and that's what makes it a classic.

"Puts Me in the Mood"/Elvin Bishop/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. As a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the 1960s, Bishop helped bring Chicago blues to the attention of white audiences, and he helped back up Bob Dylan on the day he went electric at Newport. Oh yeah, and he recorded "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" in 1976.

"O'Yeah"/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters/The Color of Love. Go listen. Now.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Starry Nights, Sunny Days

Last year about this time, I wrote that everyone has one season in which they would live forever, if they could, and that mine is the fall of 1976. In that post, I listed one possible soundtrack for that season. Here's another.

"I'd Really Love to See You Tonight"/England Dan and John Ford Coley. This was their first hit, which sounded great on the radio, and still does. "There's a warm wind blowin' the stars around" is a pretty good line, too.

"You Are the Woman"/Firefall. Another radio record from the same light-rock side of the road as "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." It was also Firefall's only top-10 hit, although a couple of other singles reached Number 11.

"Rubberband Man"/Spinners. This was the last major hit written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed, who wrote several smashes for the Spinners and the Stylistics. It was released at a moment when the sound of Philadelphia was beginning to wane as a hitmaking force. But what a way to go.

"Summer"/War. In which another of the consistent hitmakers of the early 1970s bids farewell to the upper reaches of the record charts, with a sleepy-sounding tune that effectively captures the slow pace of a lazy summer day. Cultural anthropologists should note the authentic period detail: "Rappin' on the CB radio in the van/Give a big 10-4 to the truckin' man."

"The Best Disco in Town"/Ritchie Family. The "Family" was made up of Philadelphia session musicians and singers and produced by Jacques Morali, who would create the Village People in a year or two. This record is a medley of various 1975 dance-floor hits, ranging from "Bad Luck," "That's the Way I Like It" "Lady Marmalade," and "Fly Robin Fly" to the Ritchie Family's own "Brazil." And you thought the medley craze began with Stars on 45.

"Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang)"/Silver. As an indication of how obscure Silver is, Google their name and this song title and about all you get are sites referring you to the lyrics of the song: "Starry night, sunny days/I always thought that love should be that way." We do know that the group's drummer on this record was Brent Mydland, who, later on, would become a member of the Grateful Dead for a while. As an example of what the Top 40 sounded like in the fall of 1976, "Wham Bam" still works pretty well.

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"/Gordon Lightfoot. From the centuries-long tradition of storytelling in song, this describes the sinking of an oreship in Lake Superior during a storm in November 1975. It has special meaning for me because I actually saw the Edmund Fitzgerald just two or three months before she sank, going through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Plus, Gordon Lightfoot's voice just sounds like autumn to me.

"Getaway"/Earth Wind and Fire. As furiously funky as any record EW&F ever made, "Getaway" is played so fast it seems to be in danger of flying apart at any moment.

"Do You Feel Like We Do"/Peter Frampton. This song represents the apotheosis of the guitar accessory known as the talkbox, although several other performers had used it before Frampton did, including Joe Walsh on "Rocky Mountain Way" and Aerosmith on "Sweet Emotion." (After "Do You Feel," Stillwater used it on "Mindbender," and if you remember that one, we should probably have lunch sometime.) "Do You Feel Like We Do" was edited down from more than 14 minutes to a little over seven for the 45--still outrageous for Top 40 radio at that time. The edit improves on the full-length version, though, by simply tightening things up.

"Beth"/Kiss and "More Than a Feeling"/Boston. Lots of people don't know that the power ballad was born in the fall of 1976. Boston provided what would become the template; Kiss didn't follow it, but they proved nevertheless that even the hardest-rockin' band could score by dialing down the intensity. "Beth" remains the biggest hit single Kiss ever had, reaching Number 7 on November 27, 1976.

Why do we listen to our old records? Because they sound good and we like 'em, mostly. But that doesn't explain the phenomenon thoroughly enough. Another highly significant reason, I'm convinced, is that sometimes, old records help us recapture the people we were when those records were new--young, optimistic, full of potential, living every day in a world of new experiences. Time being what it is, we lose almost all of that as we get older. But not entirely. Not as long as the turntable, CD player, or iPod still works.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)

Monday, October 17, 2005

History Lesson: Ringo's Rental

October 17, 2000: A townhouse once owned by Ringo Starr goes on the market in London. Ringo was apparently a landlord for a while: Other residents of the place included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and Jimi Hendrix. Asking price: 575,000 pounds. On the same day, George Michael pays almost three times that much for the piano on which Lennon composed "Imagine."

October 17, 1979: Fleetwood Mac's Tusk is released in the United States ahead of schedule, after several tracks mysteriously show up on radio stations. A few days later, when it arrives at my college station, I track the entire album on the "Virgin Vinyl" segment of my Tuesday-night show. The primary reason I am working Tuesday nights that semester is because the girl assigned to read news that night is smokin' hot, and I want to get to know her better. (I have been married to her for 22 years.)

October 17, 1968: Bob Marley gets his last haircut. (He would live, remember, until 1981.) On the same day--and I don't know whether there's any relationship between the two events--his son Ziggy is born.

October 17, 1962: The Beatles make their first appearance on television, singing "Love Me Do" on a British program.

Birthdays Today:
Jim Seals is 64. He's half of Seals and Crofts, and has spent the last 25 years running a coffee plantation in Costa Rica. S&C released a new album last year, updating several of their 70s hits. It wasn't exactly a smash.

Floyd Cramer would be 72, had he not died in 1997. As the house pianist at RCA in Nashville, he played on more famous sessions than most of us have had hot dinners. Under his own name, he enjoyed a few instrumental hits, most famous of which was "Last Date" in 1960. You may not know it by title, but you've probably heard it, especially if you were a radio listener in the 1960s and 70s, when it was frequently used by DJs to "take us up to news time." (Find a taste of it here.)

Number One Songs on This Date:
1981: "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)"/Christopher Cross.
Back then, we didn't find anything wrong with laughing at a movie about the humorous life of an alcoholic. We also didn't realize that "If you get caught between the moon and New York City/the best that you can do is fall in love" would live on as some of the dumbest lines in music history.

1976: "Disco Duck"/Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots. I appreciate trash a lot more than most people, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. In a photo-finish with "My Ding-a-Ling," "Rock Me Amadeus," and "Baby Got Back," this is the worst Number One record of all time.

1975: "Bad Blood"/Neil Sedaka with Elton John.
In which Sedaka's terminal whiteness is briefly overcome by a funky backing track. Said track cannot obscure the misogyny of the lyrics, however: "Woman was born to lie . . ./The bitch is in the smile/the lie is on her lips/such an evil child."

1965: "Yesterday"/The Beatles. Just the thing to blot out the aftertaste of "Disco Duck"--or any other bad record you've ever heard.
1939: "Over the Rainbow"/Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Although this song is forever associated with Judy Garland, hers was not the most popular version of it when The Wizard of Oz first appeared in theaters. Big-band versions by Miller and Bob Crosby charted higher; Miller's version and one by Larry Clinton's band actually charted before Garland's did.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Top 5: Listening to You, I Get the Music

Thirty-five years ago this week, a titanic event rocked the universe of 10-year-olds. "I Think I Love You" by the Partridge Family made its debut on the Hot 100. (The family's eponymous TV series had premiered only a couple of weeks earlier.) It wasn't the highest-debuting single of the week--"Cry Me a River" by Joe Cocker entered the chart at Number 62--and it took a while to catch fire. It went from 75 to 60 to 41 before blasting to Number 17, then to 7, 4, and finally, Number One, on November 21, 1970.

While it's true that there was plenty of other bubblegum on the radio at the same time (Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Candida," a record about which I am totally irrational, peaked at Number Three the same week "I Think I Love You" debuted; Bobby Sherman's "Julie, Do Ya Love Me" was at Number Six; R. Dean Taylor's "Indiana Wants Me" was on the charts as well), the Sixties weren't long over, and Top 40 radio could still rock. Here are five records you'd also have heard during this week of 1970, which still do.

"Green Eyed Lady"/Sugarloaf. (Chart position: #8)
The organ is my favorite jazz and rock instrument, and I think I probably acquired the taste, at least a little bit, from this record. You really need the long version, which clocks in at about seven minutes, to get the full effect, but even on the 45, this was about as cool as Top 40 radio ever got.

"25 or 6 to 4"/Chicago. (Chart position: #26) I've been trying to think of a record on which the horn section rocked harder than Chicago's did here, and the best I can do is Benny Goodman's 1937 big-band masterpiece "Sing Sing Sing," which a friend of mine insists is the first heavy-metal record.

"Closer to Home"/Grand Funk Railroad. (Chart position: #27)
"Closer to Home" was retitled for 45 release. It was known as "I'm Your Captain" to album buyers, who also knew it as running twice as long, at just under 10 minutes. However, the single version provides what's necessary on a song like nothing else this band ever recorded.

"See Me, Feel Me"/The Who (Chart position: #51) As a radio-crazed 10-year-old, I knew about the rock opera Tommy, although for several years, this would be the only song from it that I knew. What I also didn't know then was how much of a radio momentum-killer it could have been--but that's why they had those uptempo-to-downtempo jingles.

"Funk #49"/James Gang. (Chart position: #73) This classic-rock essential would have sounded mighty weird next to the Partridge Family or Bobby Sherman, but that's the beautiful thing about 70s Top 40.

(If you have enjoyed this crappy post, be sure to visit the Daily Aneurysm for today's Friday Random 10: Just Can't Stop It.)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Another Great Moment in the History of Background Music

I have written previously about the convenience store in my neighborhood, which tends to play 60s and 70s oldies on its piped-in music system, but which surprised me one fine morning by playing James Brown's "Sex Machine." Well, they've built a new location in my neighborhood, and when I stopped by the other day, I realized that I was hearing Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious," as recorded by the Jeff Beck Group--a seriously loud electric blues number featuring the young Rod Stewart on vocals. As the All Music Guide's Joe Viglione observes, the incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group that recorded "I Ain't Superstitious" was Led Zeppelin's biggest potential rival in the late 1960s. And it's unlikely that you'd hear them on your local good-times, great-oldies station, either. So it seems that somebody at the background-music company, perhaps the same somebody who programmed "Sex Machine," has either a sense of humor or a wicked blues/funk jones.

We can only hope.

Then I went back yesterday, and the place was rockin' with Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of "Little Sister." Pretty incongruous, really, given that the place was, at that moment, full of suburban moms stopping by for coffee. And even more so when you consider that a significant percentage of them probably popped out a Celine Dion CD before turning off the engine in the SUV. I'm sure that Celine's music has its purposes, but getting one's mojo workin' probably isn't high on the list.

I'd like to think my mojo is always workin', but I'm taking some time off to get it tuned up. Back Friday.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Top 5: Not on Sale at Best Buy

We're putting the Wayback Machine in overdrive today: When I grabbed the first book at hand for research on this week's Friday Top 5, it happened to be Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954, which might be the single most astounding music reference book ever written.

Billboard magazine, the bible from which most of Whitburn's research is derived, began publishing a formal chart of best-selling records in 1940. To assemble chart statistics before that time, Whitburn turned to other sources--the very existence of which is pretty astounding, too. For example, the first magazine dedicated to the recording industry, Phonogram, was established in 1891, only 14 years after Thomas Edison first demonstrated the phonograph. Billboard debuted in 1913, but magazines such as Talking Machine World and Variety were more important sources of record sales information for the early years. In addition to record sales, Whitburn also researched sheet music sales--from the mid-19th century onward, playing music at home, on the spinet or the parlor organ, was a widely popular form of entertainment, and it remained more popular than recorded music well into the 20th century.

The era from the Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 to 1920 is known as the pioneer era of recording, and it's a fascinating time to study. Some of the best-selling records in all history were recorded in that era, but the vast majority of them are are utterly forgotten today. This is often due to their primitive sound. Through much of the period, records were oblong cylinders, and they were recorded acoustically, by artists performing directly into a recording horn, which caused a needle to carve the signal directly onto a wax cylinder. Cylinders (eventually metallic instead of wax) were the primary medium for recording until around 1912, although they weren't replaced entirely by flat records until the '20s. The 1920s also saw the development of electrical recording, in which performers worked into microphones. The technology increased the frequency response of recordings, which simply means they sounded better. But many records from the pioneer era are forgotten for another reason--their style and subject matter is so completely foreign to modern ears that they may as well have been recorded on another planet.

So here's today's Top Five--the top five records of the year, 100 years ago--1905. These were enormously popular in their time, either as recordings or as sheet music. The phenomenon of "media penetration" was nothing then like it was now, so nobody can reasonably argue that the artists mentioned here were as ubiquitous as Britney Spears is now--but it's reasonable to guess these songs were at least somewhat familiar to a goodly number of Americans, especially in urban areas, where records and sheet music were easier to acquire. (And I'm cheating a little by counting five places instead of five records. If you don't like that, get your own blog.)

5. "Come Take a Trip in My Air Ship"/Billy Murray.
Murray was the biggest-selling male star of the pioneer era, by himself and in duets with Ada Jones, who was the biggest-selling female star of the pioneer era. That's star power. This recording was inspired by the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk.

4. Tie: "Give My Regards to Broadway"/Billy Murray and "Where the Morning Glories Twine Around the Door"/Byron G. Harlan. As Whitburn says, Murray "established himself as the official interpreter of George M. Cohan, since he recorded the definitive hit version of nearly every Cohan song from 1905 on." Cohan tunes don't get much more famous than "Give My Regards to Broadway." Harlan, meanwhile, was a neighbor of Thomas Edison and famous for sentimental ballads, of which "Morning Glories" is surely one. He also recorded comedy duets with Arthur Collins, about whom we'll say more in a bit.

3. Tie: "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree"/Henry Burr and "In My Merry Oldsmobile"/Billy Murray. In addition to being the official interpreter of George M. Cohan, Murray was also clearly a guy who sang about hot new technology--airships and automobiles. And despite the fact that he appeared on an unfathomable number of records in various combinations (not just with Jones, but with the fabulously popular Heidelberg Quartet, Haydn Quartet, and American Quartet), it's Burr who appeared on more recordings than anyone else in history--over 12,000.

2. "Yankee Doodle Boy"/Billy Murray. Murray, Cohan, yada yada yada.

1. "The Preacher and the Bear"/Arthur Collins.
Collins came out of the minstrel-show tradition I wrote about earlier this week, a white man in blackface doing songs in black dialect. He was the most popular of the minstrel performers on record. "The Preacher and the Bear," a comedy routine, was not just his biggest hit, it's the biggest hit of the entire pioneer era and the first record to sell two million copies. (We'd call that "going platinum" today.) Not that you'd be likely to hear it anywhere today--to call it "politically incorrect" is too mild. It derives its humor from the predicament of a black preacher--referred to only once as a preacher but several times as a "coon"--driven up a tree by a bear. As a minstrel performer, Collins was best known as a performer of "coon songs," the mere titles of which come across as painfully and often idiotically racist to modern ears. (sample: "All Coons Look Alike to Me.") Nevertheless, if you're talking about the history of recorded music, Collins has earned his place--although as we noted at the beginning of this post, the pioneers don't usually get their due.

For a motherlode of stuff about the pioneer era, you could scarcely do better than Tim Gracyk's website on antique record machines and the pioneer era. It features bios of the major pioneers, including Murray, Burr, Collins, Jones, and others.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mr. Morrison, Meet Mr. October

Last year at this time, when I spent the whole month of October waxing lyrical about my favorite month of the year and the music I most associate with it, a reader suggested I should just start calling myself "Mr. October." That's an excellent idea, because I am all about this month--less than a month, usually, and often only a week or two--when the temperature falls, the leaves change, and time runs in reverse. As I wrote a year ago:
The deeper we get into October, the more I retreat into my Top 40 past. The reasons are in the very first post on this blog [in July 2004]: "[T]he record charts became the calendar of my life, and . . . down to this very day, certain songs transform me into the person I was when they were hits so long ago." Sometimes I think the autumn me was the best of me in those years--although honesty compels me to report that it was often the worst of me, too.
Apart from the hits of Octobers past, other music finds its way into my CD player in the fall, and not all of it is 30 years old. My most essential autumn album is Van Morrison's 1999 release Back on Top. Other Morrison fans can spend their time talking up Astral Weeks or Moondance--to me, what the young Morrison did was interesting, but what Morrison has done lately, in his 50s, is even more rewarding to listen to.

What I love about Back on Top is that it's filled with the wisdom you can acquire only in real time, one year or one mile at a time. For example, "Philosopher's Stone" (which is also the title of a double-disc collection of Morrison outtakes and rarities):
Up in the morning, up in the morning out on the road
And my head is aching and my hands are cold
And I'm looking for the silver lining, silver lining in the clouds
And I'm searching for, and
I'm searching for the philosopher's stone
Part of the charm of autumn is the way nature summons up all its energy for one last go, even though it knows winter is going to win the battle. It's what people do, also. We carry on, even with the knowledge that some day, we'll have to give in, too. But not today.

"When the Leaves Come Falling Down" is less philosophical and more personal. Once you understand how Morrison writes--often improvising songs in the studio while the tape is running--this song becomes especially poignant.
And at night the moon is shining on a clear, cloudless sky
And when the evening shadows fall I'll be there by your side
When the leaves come falling down
In September when the leaves, come falling down

Follow me down, follow me down, follow me down
To the place beside the garden and the wall
Follow me down, follow me down
To the space between the twilight and the dawn
It's pretty clear to me that whomever Van is singing to, it's somebody he lost a long time ago, yet the torch continues to glow.

(This song is also notable for the line, "As we're listening to Chet Baker on the beach, in the sand." Baker was a jazz trumpeter who made some beautiful records in the 1950s but lived a famously dissolute life, using illegal drugs almost daily from the 50s until his death in 1988. I'd never heard Baker until I heard this song, and started listening to him essentially on Morrison's recommendation.)

Of course, Back on Top wouldn't be a Morrison album without at least one song complaining about being famous ("New Biography"). And "Golden Autumn Day," which by title alone should make it one of the centerpieces of the album for me, is actually about a mugging incident. But never mind: it's a worthwhile listen from start to finish, and in spots, it rocks. "Goin' Down Geneva" is a great blues number; "Philosopher's Stone" features Van playing harmonica as well as I've ever heard him do; "Precious Time" is a throwback to Van's early-70s R&B days. In the end, however, it's hard for me to imagine that Van himself didn't intend this as his autumn album, given the many references to summer, Indian summer, the passage of time and reminders of the past.

If you were going to own only one Morrison album from his vast catalog, this would be a good one to have. In October, it's a necessary one.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

History Lesson: Nobody's Business

October 4, 1992: Sinead O'Connor commits career suicide by ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. What made it such a monumentally stupid thing to do is that maybe two percent of the viewing audience might have understood what she meant by saying, "Fight the real enemy." If you're going to make a symbolic protest, you'd best make sure people get the symbolism.

October 4, 1970: Only a couple of weeks after Jimi Hendrix dies, Janis Joplin is found dead of an accidental heroin overdose. Her bandmates complete the album Pearl by including an instrumental version of the track "Buried Alive in the Blues."

October 4, 1966: The Beach Boys release the single "Good Vibrations." Eighty-two miles of tape are used in the recording, which took six months to complete--but the single is released in mono.

October 4, 1964: Rod Stewart releases his first single, a version of the blues number "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." It fails to chart. Nevertheless, his career turned out OK.

Birthdays Today:
Patti Labelle and her fellow Labelle member Nona Hendryx are both 61, and are still trying to get out of some of those costumes they wore onstage in the 1970s.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1983: "Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Bonnie Tyler.
Represented the high-water mark of Jim Steinman's career as a producer of dramatically overblown sludge. The world has forgotten that he produced hits by Air Supply ("Making Love Out of Nothing at All") and Barry Manilow ("Read 'Em and Weep") at about the same time.

1977: "Star Wars-Cantina Band"/Meco. A disco version of the Star Wars theme was unavoidable in 1977, I suppose. But this isn't as bad as it could have been.

1971: "Maggie May"/Rod Stewart. The one Rod Stewart record to take to the desert island. Many hits followed, none as essential as this.

1963: "Blue Velvet"/Bobby Vinton.
Yet more evidence for why the British Invasion had to happen.

1919: "It's Nobody's Business But My Own"/Bert Williams. From the 1870s to the 1940s, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment, in which performers would blacken their faces with cork and perform skits and songs in African-American dialect. Williams was a major star on the minstrel circuit. Despite the fact that he was in fact black, Williams was still expected to "cork up" for his performances.