Friday, December 30, 2005

Kiss and Say Goodbye

This week last year, I wrote about the ritual of bidding farewell to the old year with the New Year's Eve countdown of the year's top songs, and focused on the yearend charts from WLS in Chicago. This year, let's examine the charts from another influential AM Top 40 station of the classic era, WABC in New York. Musicradio 77 lives on at a comprehensive tribute website that includes history, airchecks, and a treasure trove of music charts, including the station's yearend surveys. WABC began surveying the year's top hits in 1964, and published its last yearend list in 1981. I've included the top song from each year, as well as the one placing at Number 100, the last slot on the chart (except for a couple of years, when WABC counted down the Top 77), plus a bonus list for 1982.

#1: "Hello Dolly"/Louis Armstrong
#100: "I Have a Boyfriend"/Chiffons
Comment: Strange that Armstrong would top the list for the year in which the station frequently proclaimed itself "WA-Beatle-C." The Beatles had two of the top three, five of the top 20, and 10 of the top 100, however.

"Satisfaction"/Rolling Stones
#100: "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"/The Silkie
Weirdest entry: "The Mouse"/Soupy Sales (#60), a dance novelty.

"The Ballad of the Green Berets"/SSgt. Barry Sadler
#100: "Flowers on the Wall"/Statler Brothers
Comment: The counterculture hadn't taken complete control of pop culture just yet, with the ultimate pro-military anthem and a country record bracketing the chart. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by the Silkie appeared on the list for a second year, at Number 99 this time. Records overlapped two different years a lot more often on WABC than they did on WLS.

"To Sir With Love"/Lulu
#100: "Higher and Higher"/Jackie Wilson
Comment: Hard to picture an essential classic like "Higher and Higher" being unable to outdo "Lady" by Jack Jones (#97) or "Hey Leroy" by Jimmy Castor (#76). Or "To Sir With Love," for that matter.

"Hey Jude"/Beatles
#100: "Do It Again"/Beach Boys
Weirdest segue: "The Unicorn" by the Irish Rovers (#63) into "Dance to the Music" by Sly and the Family Stone (#62).

"Aquarius-Let the Sun Shine"/Fifth Dimension
#100: "This Girl's in Love With You"/Dionne Warwick
Weirdest segue: "Proud Mary" by CCR (#18) into "A Time for Us" by Henry Mancini (#17) into "I Can't Get Next to You" by the Temptations (#16). Damn, I love me some classic top 40.

"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"/B.J. Thomas
#100: "Something's Burning"/Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
Best segue: "All Right Now" by Free (#55) into "Whole Lotta Love" by Zeppelin (#54). Made even better by following "I Think I Love You," which was Number 56.

"Joy to the World"/Three Dog Night
#100: "Sweet City Woman"/Stampeders
Weirdest entry: "Hymm 43"/Jethro Tull (#86). Pretty strong stuff for Top 40 radio in 1971.

"Alone Again (Naturally)/Gilbert O'Sullivan
#100: "Suavecito"/Malo
Comment: "Suavecito"!

"Killing Me Softly"/Roberta Flack
#100: "Do You Want to Dance"/Bette Midler
Comment: "Do You Want to Dance" is one of the forgotten horny classics of top 40, slowed down and sexed up from Bobby Freeman's 1958 original. It should have been a much bigger hit everywhere, not just in New York City.

"Rock the Boat"/Hues Corporation
#100: "Just Don't Want to Be Lonely"/Main Ingredient
Best segue: Either "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder (#96) into "Junior's Farm" by Wings (but almost any segue into "Junior's Farm" sounds pretty good), or "The Entertainer" by Marvin Hamlisch (#21) into "Hooked on a Feeling" by Blue Swede (#20).

"The Hustle"/Van McCoy
#100: "My Little Town"/Simon and Garfunkel
Weirdest entry: "Swearin' to God" by Frankie Valli at Number 4--a lot higher than it ranked on other yearend charts.

"Kiss and Say Goodbye"/Manhattans
#100: "Rhiannon"/Fleetwood Mac
Best segues: Lots of them. "Magic Man" by Heart (#82) into "Rock and Roll Music" by the Beach Boys (#81); "Only Sixteen" by Dr. Hook (#72) into "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate (#71); "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" by Neil Sedaka (#47) into "Saturday Night" by the Bay City Rollers (#46).

(Chart changes from Top 100 to Top 77 of the year.)
#1: "I Just Want to Be Your Everything"/Andy Gibb
#77: "Just a Song Before I Go"/Crosby Stills and Nash
Weirdest entry: "Whodunit"/Tavares (#23). There's not much evidence of regional, New York-specific variation on the WABC yearend charts up to this point (apart from 1965's chart, which contains a number of oddballs). That could be due to the sheer size of the New York market--what was big there was big across the country. Whatever the reasons, "Whodunit" is an exception that proves the rule.

"Boogie Oogie Oogie"/Taste of Honey
#77: "Love Is in the Air"/John Paul Young
Comment: As '64, so '78: In the year of the Bee Gees, another performer gets the top spot, but the Bee Gees get Numbers 2 and 3, and Andy Gibb gets Number 4. Despite New York's status as ground zero of the disco revolution, nothing out of the Top 40 mainstream made WABC's list in this year.

(Back to the top 100 again.)
#1: "I Will Survive"/Gloria Gaynor
#100: "Take the Long Way Home"/Supertramp
Comment: A few more dance-floor tracks outperform their national profile on WABC--"Keep on Dancin'" by Gary's Gang (#92), "You Stepped Into My Life" by Melba Moore (#90), "Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'" by Stephanie Mills (#52), and "Haven't Stopped Dancin' Yet" by Gonzales (#41).

"Another One Bites the Dust"/Queen
#100: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"/Hall and Oates
Comment: Half-a-continent away, WLS had tweaked its playlist in a more rock-oriented direction by 1980. This chart proves why WLS was right.

(Back to the top 77 again.)
#1: "Endless Love"/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
#77: "Living Inside Myself"/Gino Vannelli
Comment: Let's hope that during the countdown, there was a commercial break somewhere in the stretch from Number 30 through Number 22, to ameliorate the awful spectacle of Top 40 radio in America jumping the shark.

#1: "Centerfold"/J. Geils Band
#40: "Eye in the Sky"/Alan Parsons Project
Comment: As was the case across the country during the early 80s, WABC's dominance was eroded by FM penetration and market fragmentation. This list is evidence of just how hard it was to create a coherent, broadly appealing pop-music format at that time. The station changed to all-talk in May 1982, so this list reflects program director Rick Sklar's ranking of the year's 40 biggest hits, and not airplay or sales statistics.

Now that the countdown is over, we end another year here at The Hits Just Keep On Comin' by going on a hiatus that will last approximately a week. This is not one of the busier streetcorners of the Internet, but I like to think our tunes are decent. To those of you who hang out here now and then, I thank you.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Trapped on Planet of the Wuss

A commenter to the post below mentions some New Year's songs, including Dan Fogelberg's early 80s holiday perennial, "Same Old Lang Syne." Can I just say how much I hate "Same Old Lang Syne"? Let me count the ways:
Wimpy singing, wimpy playing. As was the case on most of his early 80s work, Fogelberg goes for sensitive and soulful, but comes off like a wuss. And it's too bad, really, because he was actually a fairly competent singer of rock songs when he tried to be. I'm thinking the entire Souvenirs album (the one with "Part of the Plan"), or "Tell Me to My Face," one of the great pissed-off classics of all time, from the Fogelberg/Weisberg album in '78, or "Face the Fire" from Phoenix the year after that. But Phoenix, of course, contained Fogelberg's wimp-rock monument "Longer," and he rode various permutations of that slush up the charts time and again for the next three years or so.

Bitching about travel. It's another song in which a wealthy and famous rock star sings about how the travel makes it so hard to be a wealthy and famous rock star. Well, if the travel is so bad, then give up singing and get a day job like the rest of us. Or else shut up about it.

Lyrics: stupid, stupid, stupid. The story told in "Same Old Lang Syne" rings false--the details are wrong, as anyone who's ever met an old love unexpectedly can probably tell. All the bars are closed but the liquor stores are open? Only on Planet of the Wuss. "We drank a toast to innocence/We drank a toast to now." Shut up. And as songcraft, the lyrics have got problems, too. "The beer was empty and our tongues were tired"? Clunky as it is, that line might be forgivable if he needed "tired" to rhyme with something, but he doesn't--it just sits there like a meatball for no good purpose.

Love and precipitation. And while we're hating on the lyrics, let's not forget the song's final lines: "And as I turned to make my way back home/the snow turned into rain." This sort of thing was a recurring theme in Fogelberg's early-80s material. But it never just rained or snowed--it always rained or snowed in such a way as to show the universe's wryly commenting on Dan's life. As if the universe gives a shit.

Can't read the calendar. Why, if the action takes place on Christmas Eve, does the song end with "Auld Lang Syne"? (And a hideous smooth-jazz "Auld Lang Syne" to boot.) That's New Year's Eve, you twit.

The company it keeps. "Same Auld Lang Syne" appears on Fogelberg's album The Innocent Age, which could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. It's docked points for the treacly and sentimental "Leader of the Band" (I don't care if it's a tribute to Dan's father; that tasteful low brass makes me want to hurl). And then there's the monumentally stupid "Run for the Roses," about thoroughbred horses. I said it then and I'll say it now: Somewhere in Kentucky, a horse has written a song about Dan Fogelberg.
With the possible exception of Back in Black, no album that came out while I was in college did I detest more than The Innocent Age. And the most detestable tune on that most detestable of albums is "Same Old Lang Syne." I hate that record. Hate it hate it hate it. And I am prepared to hate anyone who doesn't hate it as much as I do.

(PS: Don't bother e-mailing me to say that Fogelberg has prostate cancer and has temporarily retired because of it. I know, and I wish him and his family well. But I still hate "Same Auld Lang Syne" just the same.)

Coming tomorrow: Our yearend countdown.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

In With the New

Christmas is history. Even the all-Christmas radio stations have stopped with the holiday cheer--some of them before Christmas Day was completely over. After a short interholiday week that focuses on the year in review, we'll plunge into 2006--a year that will feature some of my favorite artists releasing new music.

Most exciting to me is news that Donald Fagen will release a new album, Morph the Cat, sometime early in the year. It's his first solo album since Kamarkiriad in 1993--a long time for most people, but only slightly longer than normal for Fagen, who went 11 years between The Nightfly and Kamakiriad. (All three of Fagen's solo albums will reportedly be released as a box set in 2006 as well.)

Fagen's opposite--a guy whose new releases come with astonishing speed--is Van Morrison, who will release Pay the Devil, an album of country covers, in March. It's not really a surprise that Morrison continues to be so prolific--he's a little like a shark that has to keep swimming to survive. He's aggressively uninterested in what he's done in the past, and only in what he's doing now. So any given album in his flurry of work is likely to be unpredictable, uneven, unclassifiable--or brilliant. That's the chance you take when you're a Morrison fan.

Rosanne Cash is set to release a new album in January: Black Cadillac, with songs inspired by the losses of her mother, stepmother, and especially her father over the last three years. One early review is glowing, so I wait eagerly.

Why CD Changers Were Invented: The new year will also see the release of a CD set that's a good idea executed in a less-than-entirely-useful way. To honor the 50th anniverary of Elvis Presley's first recording session on January 24, Sony BMG will release a limited-edition numbered collection of Presley's 21 American number-one hits, complete with B-sides, on individual CD singles. Let's hope they're full-size CDs and not those little three-inchers that were popular for a few minutes in the late 80s.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Friday Random 10: Here Comes Santa Claus

'Tis the season for an all-Christmas edition of the Friday Random 10. Fasten your sleigh bells.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"/Kenny Burrell/Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas. From the swingingest Christmas album ever. Burrell mixes up traditional Christmas tunes with just enough improvisation to make them seem fresh even now--which is quite an accomplishment considering the album was recorded in 1966.

"Here Comes Santa Claus"/Elvis Presley/Time-Life Treasury of Christmas. Originally recorded by Gene Autry in 1947, this song is nothing less than an attempt to bridge the gap between religious and secular Christmas celebrations: "Santa knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right." Bill O'Reilly, are you listening?

"This Christmas"/Donny Hathaway/Jingle Bell Rock. Maybe the most beloved R&B holiday original to emerge since the 1950s, this first appeared, as best I can tell, in 1971. This one suffers more than most from overexposure, as it's been anthologized everywhere.

"Some Children See Him"/James Taylor/A Christmas Album. As a concept, James Taylor doing Christmas songs seems like a good one. After all, in 2002, he recorded a superlative version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on his October Road album. So last year, he released an entire Christmas album as a promotion for Hallmark--but it was a wasted opportunity. It didn't include "Have Yourself . . .," or much else that's memorable.

"O Come All Ye Faithful"/Martha's Trouble/Christmas Lights (EP).
Tip of the Santa hat to Paste magazine for pointing me to this, a brand-new recording for 2005. Martha's Trouble is a husband-and-wife folk duo, and once you get used to the sound of Jen Slocumb's voice (some call it "vulnerable," I call it "thin"), this version of the old hymn is hauntingly beautiful.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"/Brenda Lee/Jingle Bell Rock. First appearing in 1960, this song has been covered by almost everybody: Jessica Simpson, Amy Grant, LeAnn Rimes, Hanson, and even Cyndi Lauper. Lee's original is one of a handful of rock 'n' roll classics you can't imagine the season without.

"Sleigh Ride"/Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops/Time-Life Treasury of Christmas Volume 2. There are two essential instrumental versions of this tune, the 1948 original by Leroy Anderson's orchestra, which I always think of as the "wall of sound" version, and this one (recorded 1959), which has a somewhat lighter feeling. Either one will do you fine--either one stomps every vocal version, except the one by the Ronettes.

"Christmas Blues"/Willie Nelson/Pretty Paper. This album is as close to a living, breathing, organic whole as any Christmas album is likely to be, and "Christmas Blues," even though it's an original instrumental and not a holiday standard, fits perfectly. It captures a complicated emotion most of us rarely experience outside of Christmas Day--how it feels, in a time of celebration, to be mindful of the passage of time and to remember loved ones we've lost.

"The Little Drummer Boy"/Liona Boyd/A Guitar for Christmas. Here's one from another irreplaceable Christmas album at my house. Boyd, a Canadian classical guitarist who's had a long and distinguished career, originally released this album in 1983. She's probably as famous, in Canada at least, for having carried on a secret, eight-year affair with Pierre Trudeau while he was prime minister. (Hey, if you want trivia, we've got it.)

"Christmas Is Coming"/Vince Guaraldi Trio/A Charlie Brown Christmas. If I could keep only one of my many Christmas CDs, there's no doubt that this would be the one. "Christmas Is Coming" is the song Charlie Brown hears as he arrives at school to direct the Christmas play, and, next to "Linus and Lucy," it's the hardest-swinging tune on the soundtrack.

Recommended Listening: I have been meaning to mention this for a couple of weeks and keep forgetting--the rarest and most interesting of all Beatles' memorabilia are the Christmas recordings they made each year for members of their international fan club. You can read about them, see the cover art, and hear them--an interesting experience indeed--here.

And now, on with the holiday. This blog will be on hiatus until sometime next week. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night/day/weekend/whatever.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Live Your Life in the Songs You Hear on the Rock 'n' Roll Radio

(This post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)
If you love old-school Top 40 radio--or you'd just like to find out why I love it so much--you need to click over to Reelradio for Christmas-season airchecks from two of Chicago's legendary radio stations.

First, the ultra-professional Bob Dearborn at WCFL, on the air 33 years ago today. All these years later, Dearborn remains the smoothest jock I've ever heard--a smoothness I could recognize even before I knew much about being on the air, and a smoothness I admired even more after I got into radio myself. It's about 40 minutes unscoped, which means you get all the music, commercials, and news. Hearing "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" back-to-back with "If You Don't Know Me By Now" from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes is positively joy-inducing, as is the outro of the included newscast. The audio has been restored--and it actually sounds better now than it would have on your AM radio back in the day.

The second one is from WLS, December 20, 1974, featuring the inimitable Fred Winston and J.J. Jeffrey (who was pretty smooth himself, with an uncharacteristically soft voice for the classic Top 40 era). They're getting ready to change shifts at 10AM, and enjoying some holiday cheer a couple of days early (and goofing on a perfume commercial). Plus you get a complete newscast featuring Lyle Dean, and the classic WLS and ABC Contemporary Radio news sounders. The audio quality of this aircheck is great, too, with tons of reverb (is it my imagination, or does the reverb diminish after Jeffrey takes over?) and some tremendous music, so crank up the speakers, especially toward the beginning for "Tears of a Clown." (But beware, Bobby Vinton's "My Melody of Love" appears toward the end.)

Both of these checks (but especially the one from WLS) crackle with energy and attitude, but also contain great warmth and humor--a necessity in an era when radio stations reached for broader demographics than they do now. (On the second part of the J.J. Jeffrey aircheck, notice the contest winner who says she's been married 26 years and needs the cookware set she just won. A few minutes later, Jeffrey plugs an Alice Cooper album giveaway.) Most of today's formats, by their very nature, exclude people. These stations were inclusive--speaking to a community, rather than to scattered residents of individual islands. There's something especially appealing about that, a couple of days before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Top 5: That's My Goal

In Britain, pop music fans are dead chuffed (as they might have said, oh, I don't know, maybe 40 years ago) about the annual race for the Christmas Number One on the British singles chart. This year, it will almost certainly be "That's My Goal" by Shayne Ward. It's the winning song from the TV show X Factor, which is the British American Idol. However, because the song isn't being released until today, some bookmakers have stopped taking bets on the Christmas Number One (as they do each year), because they're unsure how "That's My Goal"'s release so close to Christmas Day will affect sales.

As I wrote one year ago today, there's no tradition in America like that of the Christmas Number One single. But every year, there's something topping the American charts on December 25. Here are five worth noting from back in the day:

1984: "Like a Virgin"/Madonna.
Snicker at the virgin metaphor if you want (Bette Midler once said, "'Touched for the very first time'? First time today!"), but this is as perfect a pop record as anyone made in the 80s.

1977: "How Deep Is Your Love"/Bee Gees. Snicker at the very idea of the Bee Gees if you want, but this is as perfect a pop record as anyone made in the 70s. A genuinely lovely song performed charmingly and well.

1972: "Me and Mrs. Jones"/Billy Paul. Philly soul perfection, proving again the thin line between pain and pleasure. It had to be hard being in the adulterers' shoes--but you can tell (if only from that languorous guitar) that it must have felt pretty good, too.

1962: "Telstar"/The Tornadoes. There's never really been anything else remotely like this--a highly futuristic, electronically-driven record perfect for the forward-looking space-age world of 1962. (Killer trivia fact: The Tornadoes were the first Btitish group to have a Number One song in the States, a year before the Beatles. More amazing "Telstar" facts can be found here.)

1958: "The Chipmunk Song"/Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Only twice in American chart history has a Christmas-themed song been Number One on Christmas Day itself, and this was one of those times.

The top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 during Christmas week this year belongs to 16-year-old R&B singer Chris Brown and his debut single "Run It." The very first song to top an American chart on Christmas Day was "The Thunderer" by the U.S. Marine Band under the direction of John Philip Sousa in 1890.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Radio Christmas

As I wrote here a year ago, the intersection between radio and Christmas is an important part of my personal mythology. From my first radio Christmas at the age of 10, it seemed to me a magical thing to be on the air on Christmas Eve. What a gift, it seemed to my 10-year-old self, to be able to ring in the holiday in such a wondrous way. And it wasn't just a gift to the person who got to do it, but it seemed like a gift from the person doing it, too. Here is someone, giving his time, on this day of all days, for listeners to enjoy. I, for one, appreciated it.

So I never minded working radio on Christmas. And even after my romantic impressions of holiday work were replaced by knowledge of the reality (I worked my first radio Christmas in 1979), it still wasn't that bad. Working Christmas got to be like changing diapers is part of parenthood--a little unpleasant, but something you can't help doing, so you don't stress over it.

My most memorable radio Christmas was one I didn't expect to work at all. In 1983, The Mrs. and I, still newlyweds, had just moved to rural Illinois. I was scheduled to work 6 to noon on Christmas Eve, and then we were going to drive home to Wisconsin. We awoke to a blizzard and record subzero cold, however, and were marooned. So we improvised a Christmas celebration. We went to a bar with the program director and his wife in the afternoon, and then I worked the night shift to cover for a guy who couldn't get out of his house to come to work. That night, the pipes froze in our one-bedroom basement apartment. On Christmas Day, the general manager and his wife invited us to their house for dinner with the owner and his wife, who had made it in from Louisiana just before the blizzard hit. It was a thoroughly pleasant evening, and I left quite impressed with the owner. Only later did I discover how close the station had come to missing its payroll entirely that very week, and how inept a businessman he was.

The Christmases blur between the mid 80s and the early 90s. I know I worked at least one 5:30-9AM shift on Christmas morning. And one year in the late 80s, I worked a full eight hours on Christmas Day to get New Year's off, in accordance with a station owner's policy that if you wanted one holiday off, you had to work a double shift on the other.

By the early 90s, I was operations manager of a small-town station in Iowa, and the guy in charge of scheduling the jocks. I did my best to accomodate my staff's requests to work or be off on specific holidays. One year, however, I ended up scheduling one of my part-timers, who hadn't given any indication of when he could work, for Christmas Eve from 6 to midnight. "I can't do it," he said on December 22. "I have to referee a basketball game that night." "A basketball game on Christmas Eve?" I asked. "Some of these little towns play basketball on Christmas Eve," he said. Well, they don't, and I knew it--and he knew that I knew it, but he thought he could brazen it out anyhow. He couldn't, mostly because I, like Santa, had made my list and checked it twice, and this wasn't the first time he'd complicated my life during his brief tenure at the station, so I fired him. Merry Christmas to you, too, fella, and have a nice time at the game.

The best Christmases I had were at that station, though. I usually worked the afternoon show on Christmas Eve, the same show that had captivated me when I was 10 years old, and so I did my best to conjure up some of that 1970 radio magic each time. Same for the last Christmas Eve radio show I did, at a classic rock station in another town, in 1996. No matter where I was, no matter what format I was doing, I couldn't forget how it was to listen to Christmas coming in over the radio as night fell on Christmas Eve.

For a couple of years after that, I would surf the radio dial on Christmas Eve, listening to what people were doing. I don't anymore. In an era of voice-tracking and sophisticated digital automation, the Christmas Eve show on your hometown station may have been recorded three days before by someone living a thousand miles away, and it's just not the same without that element of real time--without the sense that the person on the radio has given up some time he might be spending with his family to spend it with you.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Friday Random 10: Our Little Angels

It's Introspective Singer/Songwriter Day on this week's Friday Random 10, so everybody look down at your navels and think of the loves you've lost. It's either that or Angel Day, which is seasonally appropriate, at least.

"Runnin' Blue"/Boz Scaggs/My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology.
I wouldn't consider Boz one of those introspective singer/songwriter types, really. He's been more of a bluesman mostly (as on this early hit), except for a brief period in the 1980s when he could have been lumped with practitioners of yacht rock.

(The Yacht Rock link is courtesy of reader Dave P. It takes you to online episodes of a homemade sitcom that makes fun of early-80s stars like Kenny Loggins, Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald and--gasp!--Steely Dan. I've watched a couple, and they're pretty funny.)

"Tighter, Tighter"/Alive and Kicking/70s Smash Hits, Volume 3.
It wouldn't be a proper Random 10 without a dash of bubblegum, and this is state of the art.

"I Underestimated You"/Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band/Live on the Westside.
Madison's favorite blues band. This isn't one of their better tunes, but with these guys, even that's pretty good.

"Quittin' Time" and "Wherever You Are"/Mary Chapin Carpenter/State of the Heart and Party Doll and Other Favorites. Born in New Jersey, raised in Washington D.C., American Civ major at Brown (which she attended at the same time as sportscaster Chris Berman)--not exactly the life experiences that make you a country star, although she was one by the early 90s. "Country" is a convenient place to file her CDs in the music store, although she never twanged much, and nowadays twangs hardly at all.

"Angel"/Rod Stewart/Storyteller: The Complete Anthology. You're probably getting tired of hearing me bash Stewart's Great American Songbook series, but every time I hear one of his classic recordings, like "Angel," I'm reminded again of how much talent he's squandered. But it's not a recent phenomenon--it's been going on since the late 70s.

"That's All for Everyone"/Fleetwood Mac/Tusk. When Tusk was released in 1979, Lindsey Buckingham's odd, experimental tracks, such as this one, were offered as Exhibit A of the perils of the double-disc album--the need to fill four sides rather than two often means less-than-stellar tunes make the cut. However, some of the tracks we thought were filler back then sound OK now. Such as this one.

"Carolina in My Mind"/James Taylor/Greatest Hits. King of the introspective singer/songwriters. The Mrs. and I saw Taylor at Summerfest in Milwaukee this past July. In all my years of going to concerts, it was one of the dullest shows I've ever attended. Truly. I was (and I remain) surprised and disappointed by how much I hated it. So much so that I didn't write about it.

"Our Little Angel"/Rosanne Cash/Retrospective.
Some of Rosannne's best music--and this is an example--came when she was collaborating with her husband, Rodney Crowell. Of course, many critics think her greatest album is Interiors, the one that grew out of her divorce from Crowell.

"Rose Room"/Kenny Burrell/For Charlie and Benny. Charlie Christian was the first great innovator of the electric guitar, when it was little more than an acoustic with a wire sticking out of it. In 1939, talent scout John Hammond signed him to play with Benny Goodman's orchestra--without telling Goodman. So for the first number on the first night, Goodman told his band to play "Rose Room," an old song he believed Christian wouldn't know. Christian not only knew it, he soloed magnificently, and a legend was born. This version is by one of Christian's heirs, Burrell--although everybody who picked up an electric guitar before the late 50s was one of Christian's heirs.

Next Friday: an all-Christmas edition of the Random 10.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Top 5: Comin' on Christmas

We're getting an old-fashioned December snowstorm out my window today--so before I headed out for some errands, I grabbed a cassette labeled "Christmas Hits" for the ride. Here are the top five tunes on the tape:

5. "Christmas Is"/Percy Faith, His Orchestra and Chorus. (1966)
Christmas is a time when we reconnect with our childhood, and this song takes me vividly back, not just to a hazy, generalized Christmas season, but to a specific moment on Christmas morning. It's after we've found Santa's loot and before we've realized we're hungry and want some breakfast. Stuff is strewn everywhere, and amidst the chaos, my mother would tune in our local radio station, and before long, they would inevitably play "Christmas Is," along with others from the album of the same name--many of which you would recognize.

4. "A Christmas Song"/Jethro Tull. (1972) Originally appearing on Living in the Past, this song was also included on Tull's 2003 Christmas album. A Christmas album is a give-up move for a lot of artists, but Tull's was praised by many critics. On "A Christmas Song," Ian Anderson comes across like a Puritan scold ("the Christmas spirit is not what you drink"), but what he says needed hearing in 1972, and still does.

3. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"/John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (1971) This is probably the single most popular and enduring rock-and-roll Christmas record, and one about which there's not much left to say. Did it seem quite so heartbreakingly earnest before Lennon was murdered? It's been too long for me to tell.

2. "River"/Joni Mitchell. (1971) The instrumental lick "River" cops from "Jingle Bells" and the verses that are directly about the jolly season ("it's comin' on Christmas/they're cuttin' down trees") are really just framing devices for a song about loss, loneliness, and the desire to escape--feelings that the Christmas season often multiplies. Gains bonus points for the most erotic lines you'll ever hear in a holiday song: "He loved me so naughty/made me weak in the knees."

1. "Seven O'Clock News-Silent Night"/Simon and Garfunkel. (1966) The eeriest Christmas record ever made. Simon and Garfunkel harmonize on the most beautiful of carols, but soon you become aware of something else fading up in one speaker--a radio newscast, describing civil rights marches, the arraignment of mass murderer Richard Speck, the death of Lenny Bruce, and ending like this:
Former Vice-President Richard Nixon says that unless there is a substantial increase in the present war effort in Vietnam, the U.S. should look forward to five more years of war. In a speech before the Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in New York, Nixon also said opposition to the war in this country is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.
Almost 40 years later, although the news is dated, the effect is not. Somebody should record a contemporary version of it--although few radio stations would have the stones to play it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

For Radio Geeks

WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey has a superb blog dedicated to audio rarities and weirdness of all kinds. This past week, somebody posted a scan of the New York City radio dial from the night John Lennon was assassinated. This isn't the aircheck I referred to in my post on Lennon last week, but it's interesting listening nonetheless.

Does anybody surf the radio dial like that anymore? I used to. Long-distance reception on AM radio always fascinated me. My father used to tune in distant stations early in the morning on his little AM radio in the barn, and when I got my own AM radio, I tried doing the same. (One of the first stations I ever got was WWL from New Orleans, which is at 870, right next to WLS from Chicago at 890.) The rise of digital tuners, first in cars and then at home, made this a lot easier--no more need to nudge the tuning dial to make sure you were precisely on the beam. You could choose the frequency and see what came in. From my various listening posts in Wisconsin and Iowa over the years, it was ridiculously easy to pull in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, and Dallas on a single swing around the dial after dark.

If you applied yourself, you could do even better. While I was working at KDTH in Dubuque in the early 80s, our signal was directional--meaning that after dark, its transmission pattern shifted so as not to interfere with another similarly powered station at about the same frequency. KDTH's signal went north. As a result, the station became inaudible only a few miles south of Dubuque--but one day we opened the mail and found a reception report from a guy in Finland. Clearly that was an anomaly--your typical medium-wave transmission can go a long way, but not normally that far.

I experienced an anomaly of my own--and on FM, which isn't known for long-distance reception--one rainy Wisconsin morning in the late 70s, I was fiddling with my FM tuner and thought I had landed on my favorite station--only to be shocked when the station identified itself as being from Paterson, New Jersey. I accomplished this feat with a simple ribbon antenna draped over a desk chair.

So anyway--at WFMU's blog, a contributor has posted the results of a dial scan he did over Thanksgiving weekend from a vantage point in upstate New York. If you're a member of the AM-radio dial-surfing fraternity, you'll enjoy it.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Sittin' When the Evening Comes

A couple of years ago, our ABC-TV affiliate here in Madison celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special on its history, featuring lots of clips and stories from people who worked both in front of the cameras and behind it. Among the many news clips was footage of debris from Otis Redding's airplane being removed from Lake Monona following the crash that killed him and all but one member of his band. What the cameraman remembered most was what the station couldn't show, then or now: He filmed crews pulling up Redding's seat, with Otis' body still strapped into it.

It happened thirty-eight years ago today. It was a foggy and miserable Sunday in the Madison area. Commercial flights were grounded because the weather was so bad, but that's why Redding had his own plane--an up-and-coming star couldn't stay on the rise if he was going to miss gigs. He and his band, the Bar-Kays, were coming into town from Cleveland for a show at the Factory, a downtown club on Gorham Street, where the Canterbury Inn is located today. (Many stories about Redding's death erronesously claim the crash happened after the concert, a la Buddy Holly.) The twin-engine Beechcraft was on final approach to Truax Field around 3:00 in the afternoon. Due to the weather, it apparently had to make a second approach, and circled out over Lake Monona. Nobody's quite sure what happened next--not even the National Transportation Safety Board--but just before 3:30, the plane crashed into Lake Monona, not far from where the Monona Terrace Convention Center stands today. Redding and all but one member of his band died in the crash.

Three days before the Madison crash, Redding had recorded a new song. The recording wasn't finished yet--Otis had whistled one part of the song and intended to write another verse later. The song was "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," and it became a classic almost instantly upon its release, but it's also had the effect of skewing the way people think about Otis. It was quiet and introspective, and made it easy to picture a wistful troubadour strumming a guitar at the edge of the water. (Ironic, given how he died.) "The Dock of the Bay" was utterly unlike anything he'd recorded before--far different than the deep Southern soul tunes for which he was known at the time (and so different that record company officials didn't want to release it). But because it's one of the few Otis tunes that endures in the oldies-radio pantheon, it's all many folks know about him.

Redding wasn't a major star on December 10, 1967--that would come only after "The Dock of the Bay." And because he'd be only 64 years old today if he'd lived, the direction his career might have taken after 1967 is one of music's most intriguing what-ifs.

Friday, December 09, 2005

One Day in Your Life

December 9, 1968, was a Monday. Computer scientist Doug Engelbart gave the first public demonstration of windows, hyperlinks, and the mouse. Olympic champion and professional wrestler Kurt Angle was born. PBS affiliate KRNE in Merriman, Nebraska, went on the air. Joe Namath was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And when you turned the radio on, you were likely to hear some of these, chosen at random from the Cash Box magazine chart for that week:

5. "Stormy"/Classics IV. (climbing) Few performers in any era can boast three singles as elegant as "Traces," "Spooky," and "Stormy"--which is my favorite of the three.

13. "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"/Marvin Gaye. (climbing)
Blasting up the charts and headed for Number One, "Grapevine" was critic Dave Marsh's pick as the Number One single of all time a few years ago. But if you asked most regular people (non-critics) to rank the great Motown singles, I'll bet this wouldn't top the list--because it varied so much from the Motown template of the 1960s.

20. "Quick Joey Small (Run Joey Run)"/Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. (peak)
The most demented bubblegum record ever recorded, and largely beyond my powers of description. I can say this: Even though bubblegum is often thought to be squeaky-clean and wholesome, dope was clearly involved in the creation of this record.

40. "Going Up the Country"/Canned Heat. (climbing)
One of the most seriously heavy blues-n-boogie bands ever to plug in, Canned Heat is all light-n-happy here.

41. "Cycles"/Frank Sinatra. (climbing) Sinatra's voice is so familiar that we often don't realize that it's one of the most impressive musical instruments an American artist has ever possessed. By the late 60s, he was using it to sing about the disappointments of middle age--and on this tune, the determination to cope with them.

49. "Hooked on a Feeling"/B.J. Thomas. (climbing) Do not confuse this version of "Hooked on a Feeling" with the 1974 "ooga-chucka" version. This version is as much a snapshot of its moment in history as Blue Swede's version was going to be of its moment in history.

72. "Stand by Your Man"/Tammy Wynette. (climbing) If I were to pick my own list of the five greatest singles in country music history, this would be on it. It contains probably the greatest hook in country music history--that three-note steel guitar thing in the refrain after Tammy sings the words "stand by your man."

77. "Worst That Could Happen"/Brooklyn Bridge. (debut) Home of another magnificent hook, copping a phrase from the Wedding March just before the final fadeout begins.

87. "I Put a Spell on You"/Creedence Clearwater Revival. (climbing) In which John Fogerty puts on his best howl, and makes everybody forget the original by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who had a pretty good howl himself.

88. "Everyday People"/Sly and the Family Stone. (debut)
Some folks dig "Dance to the Music," other go for "Stand," a few take "Family Affair"--but this is my favorite Sly song, which hides a quintessentially 60s social message in a record that sings like a nursery rhyme and rocks like crazy.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Shine On

So today's 25 years since John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in New York City. Everybody's got their own story of how they heard the news and reacted to it. I told mine last September, when Mark David Chapman was up for parole, so there's no need to repeat it here. I hope to find some airchecks from that night posted on the Internet somewhere, but so far, I haven't. (At some point in the late 1990s, I heard an aircheck from WPLJ in New York on the web, but it doesn't seem to be out there now.)

Reminiscences are thick on the ground today--just search "Lennon" on Google News. One of the best I've ever read is actually not new this year. It's by Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya, writing on the 20th anniversary in 2000. I have actually used the opening paragraph to help teach writers the definition of a great opening paragraph:
If there were any justice, it would have taken more than a gun to kill John Lennon. His enemies should have had to fight him with his own weapons, hand to hand, the way they do in the Iliad or Beowulf or the Song of Roland, all those tales in which the strong young king, the mighty in spirit, the proudest, the most reckless, the most potent dreamer, goes out into the world and sweeps all before him. They should have been forced to compose "Strawberry Fields Forever" and make a fortune at age 23 and screw everything that moved and write "Julia" and get churlishly drunk and live out every stupid and sublime '60s impulse and tell the royal family to rattle their jewelry and crank that Gibson Jumbo and hide behind a hundred hairstyles and get strung out and wail on "Twist and Shout" and bellyflop into mysticism and spend a public week in bed with Yoko and take acid in the face of everything and through it all create, sitting on the edge of a thousand hotel beds with a guitar, alone or with a brother named Paul, the most varied and memorable body of songs of our time. If they could do all that, then let them kill the man.

Just as the family of John F. Kennedy no longer observes the date of his death, perhaps it's time we quit focusing on Lennon's death, and focused on his life instead. Salon has compiled a bunch of tales about Lennon that show him in many of the guises Kamiya wrote about five years ago--artist, rebel, hero, lover--and also as a regular guy, in a coffee shop and at a football game.

Chances are pretty good that you're within earshot of a radio station that's playing Lennon's music wall-to-wall today. The thing about great musicians is that in the end, it all comes down to the grooves (or, today, the bits and bytes). That's where you're remembered or forgotten. It's your best monument as an artist--and so it's the best one for us to gather around today. Not outside the Dakota or at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, not at 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool--but in front of a speaker, anywhere.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In Your Ear

One fine night in the early fall of 1979, I was on the air at my college radio station when the studio telephone rang. (Or blinked, as the case may be.) It was the associate editor of the campus newspaper. "We'd like somebody to write a music column for the paper every week, and I can't think of anyone better qualified to do it than you." Honesty compels me to report that the editor happened to be a former girlfriend, and that was my primary qualification for the gig, because I had no other credentials at that point. I'd been on the campus station for less than a year, and I had neither a recognizable on-air style that made me unique, nor a golden ear for picking the hits. What I did have was passion for music and the ability to cobble together strings of coherent sentences. It was this that my ex remembered, and so "Stick 'Em In Your Ear" was born. Working at a radio station gave me access to new music, concert news, and the occasional concert ticket. Because the station was populated by other music freaks, we often talked, and more often argued, about our preferences and prejudices. As a result, my opinions came to be passionately held and in my columns, bluntly expressed.

I used to have a bunch of these columns posted online, but when I changed ISPs a couple of years ago, they came down--and they aren't going back up again. For one thing, the young man who wrote them comes across in print as pompous and arrogant now, utterly convinced of his own rectitude and completely lacking empathy for anyone else. For another, the writing is pretty rough. Even the best columns have a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness feel to them, because that's how I wrote in those days--when you think you're perfect just the way you are, you don't bother to edit.

I was going through some of these old columns recently and discovered one published 26 years ago today, on December 6, 1979. In the paper's last edition of the calendar year, I listed my top albums and singles of 1979.
1. Candy-O/Cars
2. The Long Run/Eagles
3. Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4. In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5. 52nd Street/Billy Joel
6. Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7. Rickie Lee Jones
8. Get the Knack
9. Time Passages/Al Stewart
10. Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees

1. "What a Fool Believes"/Doobie Brothers
2. "Cruel to Be Kind"/Nick Lowe
3. "Heart of Glass"/Blondie
4. "Goodbye Stranger"/Supertramp
5. "Rise"/Herb Alpert
6. "Bad Case of Loving You"/Robert Palmer
7. "Let's Go"/Cars
8. "Tragedy"/Bee Gees
9. "Goodnight Tonight"/Wings
10. "Sail On"/Commodores

It strikes me that those aren't bad lists, even after all this time. On the singles list, I overrated "Rise" and "Goodnight Tonight," and I liked "Heart of Glass" a lot more then than I do now. About Candy-O, I wrote, "It typifies what the late 70s have been about, rockwise." I don't agree with that now--looking back today, Candy-O is actually a break with 70s styles and a precursor of the polished, chilly, danceable 80s rock that MTV would make famous. Including the Bee Gees on both lists was an act of reverse iconoclasm, in which I praised an act everyone else was bashing at the time--although I still think the dramatic "Tragedy" is one of the most underrated records in their canon.

What's missing from these lists is what was missing from our radio station: punk and new wave (with the exception of Blondie and Nick Lowe, whom we considered new-wavey at the time), and anything remotely alternative, the kind of music associated with adventuresome college radio. We were top-40 and album-rock fans. Our program director had worked the previous summer at Milwaukee's top album-rock station and brought Lee Abrams' legendary Superstars format (the first classic-rock format) to school with him in the fall. The playlist contained a limited number of new, below-the-radar bands--but most of them left most of us cold. We wanted to play the hits by the bands we loved, and they were many of the same ones we'd loved in high school. (If we'd paid better attention to the under-the-radar bands, we might have noticed that they resembled the Cars more than they did the Eagles or Doobies.)

As the new calendar year 1980 dawned, the station's new program director--me--had no intention of changing things much. But some of those stories will have to wait for another time.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday Random 10: Several Shades of Blue

H ere's a Friday Random 10 that touches on several shades of blue. (Wow, that's not much of an introduction, is it?)

"Hole in the Wall"/Gary Burton/For Hamp, Bags, Red, and Cal. There's a thin line sometimes between cool and uncool. For example, there's the vibraphone, which is the very epitome of cool. And then there's the xylophone, which looks a lot the same and is played the same way, but can easily produce what sounds like music for a clown show at the circus. On this track, Burton does the best he can on the xylophone, but it's not enough.

"Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)"/Aretha Franklin/30 Greatest Hits. Soulful and swinging and yet another Aretha tune upon which it would be impossible to improve. (And co-written by Stevie Wonder, too.)

"Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"/Edison Lighthouse/Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day, Volume 2.
Boy, do I love this record. It's bubblegum, but with a killer backbeat, and the louder you crank it, the better it sounds.

"Hey Bartender"/Floyd Dixon and "I Ain't Got You"/Sugar Blue/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. More electric Chicago crunch; the former was made famous by the Blues Brothers on their debut album.

"America the Beautiful"/Ray Charles/Ultimate Hits. I don't remember how this got into my laptop music stash to begin with, but it's welcome. Patriotic music is usually the opposite of soulful, but not in the hands of Brother Ray. In fact, this is the single most glorious version of an American patriotic song. Any song. Any performer.

"Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday"/Mighty Blue Kings/The Christmas Album.
The Kings, a Chicago-based jump blues and jazz outfit, split up a couple of years ago, and I'm still trying to get over it. Strange as it seems, their Christmas album is probably their definitive record--and this is the definitive track.

"Blues Before Sunrise"/Eric Clapton/From the Cradle.
The commitment with which Clapton performs on From the Cradle makes me think sometimes that he would be happy playing blues clubs in obscurity, and superstardom be damned.

"Get Closer"/Seals and Crofts/Singers and Songwriters: 1976-1977. As I wrote last summer, I cannot explain this record's power to bring back the summer of 1976, when it was a Top-10 hit. I'm always glad to hear it, though.

"Every Kinda Man"/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters/The Color of Love. Featuring a guest vocal by Gregg Allman, who sounds quite at home with this terrific blues band.