Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Click, Read, Repeat

I've accumulated a few links in the last couple of weeks that are worth a click, and here they are:
The Museum of Bad Album Covers collects some of the worst visual ideas in music history, including some that were censored or banned, many more that should have been, and some that are simply indescribable.

If you enjoy my old-radio-guy reminiscences and old-radio-guy opinions on music, you might want to check out Radio Randy's blog, which is great.

Yet another old radio guy, a regular reader of this blog, weaned, like I was, on WLS, sent me a great essay on the Big 89, and what it meant to radio-crazed listeners back in its heyday.

The Vintage Boombox and Ghettoblaster Museum is all about, uh, vintages boomboxes and ghettoblasters, with lots of pictures from the boombox glory days and information for collectors.
If you find something out on the web that's radio- or music-related and of interest, tell me. Either click "comments" or use the e-mail address in the right-hand column.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Gonna Shoot the Whole Day Down

(Edited to add link to a radio-related post at the Daily Aneurysm, below.)

January 29, 2001: A data research company publishes its list of the artists who had sold the most records posthumously. In reverse order, the top five were: the Doors, Eva Cassidy, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and 2Pac. Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, and Robbie Krieger of the Doors were undoubtedly surprised to learn that they were dead.

January 29, 1992: Blues musician Willie Dixon dies at age 76. Dixon is best remembered as a major influence on the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin, all of whom recorded his songs--although Dixon and his managers sued Zeppelin twice for copyright infringement. Before rock bands discovered them, several of his songs were already standards in the repertoire of electric Chicago blues, most famously "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Back Door Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and "I Ain't Superstitious."

January 29, 1979: A 16-year-old girl opens fire on an elementary school across the street from her house in San Diego, killing two people and wounding nine. When asked why, she responded, "I don't like Mondays," thus inspiring the lone American hit by Bob Geldof's Boomtown Rats a year later. On the same day, Emerson Lake and Palmer split up, after the financial disaster of their latest American tour and the aesthetic disaster of Love Beach.

January 27, 1969: Fleetwood Mac's gorgeous instrumental "Albatross" hits Number One on the British singles charts. It would chart on at least three other occasions in the next three decades, and remains the Mac's only Number One single in the UK.

Birthdays Today:
James Jamerson, perhaps the greatest bass player in history, would be 68 today, had he not died in 1983. Jamerson anchored the Motown rhythm section throughout the 1960s, but when Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary a few months before his death, they did not acknowledge the contributions of the musicians. Jamerson had to buy a ticket to the show from a scalper.

Acker Bilk is 77. British jazz fans know him as a popular clarinetist who emerged during the "trad jazz" boom of the late 50s. If Americans know him at all, it's for "Stranger on the Shore," a haunting instrumental that made it to Number One on the U.S. charts in May 1962.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1995: "Take a Bow"/Madonna.
The prettiest melody she's ever recorded.

1990: "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You"/Michael Bolton. On Judgement Day, all of us who were DJs and music programmers on adult-contemporary radio in the 1990s are going to have to answer for the massive success of Michael Bolton.

1986: "That's What Friends Are For"/Dionne Warwick and Friends.
The Friends, of course, are Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, who would have throat surgery not long after, and clearly needed it.

1973: "Superstition"/Stevie Wonder.
Thirty-three years later, this groove hasn't hit bottom yet.

1946: "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!"/Vaughn Monroe. Now a Christmas perennial, this was originally just a song about a season, like "It Might as Well Be Spring." Between 1940 and 1954, Monroe charted 67 different records, including "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Ballerina," and the original version of "There! I've Said It Again," all in a stiff baritone that makes his work sound far more dated than most other pop music from the period.

(Note: Those of you who enjoy reading tales of my radio days may wish to click here, for a reminiscence of the day the Challenger exploded in 1986.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday Random 10: The Winner Takes it All

Time again for our every-so-often exercise in musical schizophrenia, the Friday Random 10. No, wait--not schizophrenic--eclectic. Yeah, that's the ticket.

"Everybody Plays the Fool"/Main Ingredient/Nipper's Greatest Hits: The 70s. Most people know who Cuba Gooding Jr. is. I am one of the few who knows who Cuba Gooding Sr. was: lead singer of this fine early-70s R&B group, heard here on its biggest hit.

"Roots Woman"/Corey Harris/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection.
Corey Harris sounds like a Delta bluesman from back in the day, which is quite something given that he's not 40 years old yet. He's not copying the old masters, but he's taking their influence and turning it into a sound entirely his own.

"Haunted Heart"/Bill Evans Trio/Explorations.
The more jazz I listen to, the more I realize I have yet to learn about it. So far, I know what I like, and I like Bill Evans, whose touch on the piano is unparallelled.

"Rebellion (Lies)"/The Arcade Fire/Funeral. This was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2004, and it's easy to hear why. Although it occurs to me that what this Montreal group is doing here is not all that far removed from . . .

"Crimson and Clover"/Tommy James and the Shondells/Classic Rock: 1968. To compare anyone to Tommy James or anyone to this song is not a slam. A love song that burns with the intense flame of adolescent desire, when you've got to have her or die, and a backing track that glows with all the trippiness of the 1960s. Truly, this is one of the greatest records ever made, in any genre.

"The Winner Takes it All"/Abba/20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection.
The last significant hit for Abba, from 1982, and a performance with more real emotion than the rest of their catalog combined. The sadness of this record is nearly overwhelming, in which a lover comes to grips with the knowledge that A) the affair is over, and B) there's no reason for it, except that humans are just pawns in a game we're not permitted to understand.

"Future Sighting"/I Am the World Trade Center/The Cover Up. I don't normally go in for synthesizer dance-pop, but this tune sounds pretty good to me. I Am the World Trade Center came up with their name in 1999, but after 9/11/2001, they were criticized for trying to capitalize on the disaster. (Coincidentally, the 11th track on their debut album is called "September.") They tried changing their name for a while, but eventually went back to it, and nobody's concerned now.

"The Sheriff"/Emerson Lake and Palmer/Trilogy. An Old West tale told by people whose knowledge of the Old West derives entirely from movies. Musically, it's a strange combination of barroom piano and oddly distorted organ. Once again, I wonder precisely what it was I saw in these guys back when I was a fan.

"Sierra"/Boz Scaggs/Some Change.
The loveliest song Boz had written since "We're All Alone." It's no wonder--1994's Some Change was his best album since Silk Degrees, and in the end, it's better.

"Got Lucky Last Night"/Lonnie Brooks/Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection.
A song about Friday night, as sung on Saturday morning, and a good way to launch ourselves into the weekend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Years Later and Miles Away

I heard via e-mail from an old colleague of mine this week--a guy I'd heard on the radio long before I began working with him, and a guy who, like me, has been out of radio for a long time now. And that's not the only similarity between us. We had similar experiences in radio, although years and miles apart.

You'd peg him as a radio guy from the moment you met him. He cultivated the look of a rock DJ--kept his hair long, wore a mustache, dressed like a hipster. He had a great voice, deep and resonant, which you'd notice just talking to him. On the air, he forced it lower. Lots of jocks do this, some deliberately and some accidentally--when you're wearing good headphones and you have the volume cranked, something about that combination makes you force your voice down. He could get his voice almost absurdly low, to the point at which it sometimes sounded like a caricature of the ballsy DJ--but that sound was his trademark.

He'd acquired a reputation in the industry as a guy who knew how to break hits by playing them early, before other stations did. In those days, record labels rewarded such programmers by sending them gold records to hang on their wall. He'd won a few, and because he wanted more, his station was fairly adventuresome in playing new music. This was a great thing when it worked and bad when it didn't--for every cutting-edge smash his listeners heard first, there were many complete stiffs that took up precious playlist spots.

He was also the station's primary voice--it was automated, so there were no DJs, and he was heard on most of the commercials and promotional announcements. So you'd rarely go more than 10 minutes without hearing him.

So given that the music mix was based on his famous ear for the hits, and that his voice was on the air almost continuously, the station eventually became an extension of his personality. It had the same blend of strengths and weaknesses that he had personally. And that seemed weird to me. I'd always thought of radio as a collaborative effort involving jocks and news guys and programmers and rock bands and voice-over artists. It seemed odd to think that the essence of such a powerful station--powerful in the industry, in the ratings, and with a 50,000-watt transmitter blanketing 50 miles in all directions--could exist mostly in one person's head.

Odd, that is, until something similar happened to me. My first commercial program director's gig, in a small town in Illinois, involved programming an automated Top 40 station. I was the primary voice on commercials and promotional announcements, so you'd rarely go 10 minutes without hearing me. And while I didn't try to break new hit records, I tweaked the music library and the formatics to reflect my personal sense of what was cool. Years later and miles away, the essence of that little station existed mostly in my own head. And that didn't seem especially weird at all.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Top 5: Clues and the Clueless

A while back, I picked up Out of a Dream, a solo album by Danny Federici, organist for the E-Street Band. I got the album hoping that it might come from the same rock/pop/soul intersection that's the source of Springsteen's music. It doesn't. It's syrupy smooth jazz--the kind of thing beloved by people who want others to think they like jazz when they really don't. Granted, there's no law that says Federici's music has to have anything in common with Springsteen's--after all, Charlie Watts' first love is jazz, and what he does on his own hook has nothing to do with what he does with the Stones. But I wasn't expecting such a difference from Federici, so, fair or not, his album failed to live up to my hopes for it. Along this line, here are four other albums that were similarly disappointing--because there's no bummer like the one that happens when an artist you like lays an egg.

Fundamental/Bonnie Raitt (1998). Bonnie Raitt's 1990s comeback was guided by Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw, and Longing in Their Hearts, with spectacular results. Bonnie tried changing things up on Fundamental, turning to the hot producers of that moment, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Well, there's avant garde, which is what Froom and Blake purportedly were, and there's just plain clueless, which they demonstrably were. Some of the songs are as good as anything Raitt wrote for her previous three albums, but the production is so incompetent that the album is painful to listen to. Froom and Blake sound like they don't know how to place a microphone or run a mixer.

Time Sex Love/Mary Chapin Carpenter (2001).
At the time, this was MCC's first new album in over four years, and as a result, I really wanted to like it, but I didn't then, and I don't now. There's almost nothing on this record that's as affecting as the weakest cuts on Stones in the Road, her best album. Plus, MCC spoils the effect of the album's loveliest track, "Late for Your Life," by following it with a hidden outtake, which features she and the band melting down in laughter. This sort of self-indulgent piffle is why hiring an outside producer isn't a bad thing. Unless it's Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

Clues/Robert Palmer (1980).
After a superb series of blue-eyed soul records that were exactly the kind of thing I adored, Palmer went new-wave on Clues, collaborating with Gary Numan, an artist I didn't understand and could barely tolerate, and I hated the album like poison. My overwhelmingly negative reaction, it occurs to me now, stemmed from the sense of betrayal I felt. I think maybe you have to be 20 years old to feel betrayed by an album, because this album isn't worth that kind of passionate dislike. And in retrospect, some of it ("Sulky Girl," "Johnny and Mary") really is a lot better than it sounded to me then.

River of Dreams/Billy Joel (1993). The title song of this album blew me away, and still sounds pretty good. The rest of the album didn't, and doesn't. There's something shrill and hectoring about it. For example, the second big single, "All About Soul," goes on for six minutes, and by the end, you feel like you've been beaten over the head for that long. Even the ballads have a disturbing darkness to them. If this really was Billy Joel's last pop album, it was a memorable exit for all the wrong reasons.

Feel free to contribute your own tales of disappointing albums by clicking "Comments."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Random 10: Nothing to Hide

Since I'll be out of blogging range tomorrow, I'm serving up a Random 10 one day early. This week, the magic random number generator (which is powered--honestly--by a lava lamp somewhere in California) has summoned up the year 1972. So here are 10 random records from the Billboard Hot 100 chart from this week, that year.

11. "You Are Everything"/Stylistics. (peak)
The first Philly soul record I ever bought, on a 45 with the deep purple Avco Records label--and what a record it was, dreamy, ethereal, unlike most everything else the Stylistics ever recorded. It kicked off an amazing streak of hits: "Betcha By Golly Wow," "Rockin' Roll Baby," "Break Up to Make Up," and lots more.

30. "Levon"/Elton John. (rising)
I wouldn't discover this tune until several years later because WLS didn't play it at the time; nor did they play the followup, "Tiny Dancer." Nevertheless, Elton would do OK in 1972, which was the year of Honky Chateau and "Rocket Man."

35. "Stay With Me"/Faces. (rising)
The lower reaches of the top 40 were rockin' during this week. Zeppelin's "Black Dog" was sitting at Number 33, and the J. Geils Band's raucous "Lookin' for a Love" was at Number 38.

42. "(I Know) I'm Losing You"/Rod Stewart. (falling) And also this at Number 42.

43. "Precious and Few"/Climax (rising) Wimpy, sure, especially against the likes of Faces and Zeppelin. But also a romantic pop classic.

53. "Nothing to Hide"/Tommy James. (falling) If there'd been such a thing as contemporary Christian music in 1971, Tommy James would have owned the genre for a while. His album Christian of the World featured several songs that had overtly religious themes (and one massive hit that didn't, "Draggin' the Line"). "Nothing to Hide," from the album My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar, continued the revival.

70. "Tupelo Honey"/Van Morrison. (rising) Some songs are just a bit too good for mainstream pop radio, and this was probably one of them, peaking at Number 47. Whenever I played this song on the radio, I used to back-announce it by saying, "There's a song far too classy for any radio show hosted by the likes of me."

78. "Truckin'"/Grateful Dead. (falling)
Lots of people think the Dead never had a hit single until "Touch of Grey" in the 80s. They actually had five singles make the Hot 100 before that, and this was the biggest, peaking at Number 64. Others included "Uncle John's Band," the magnificent "Sugar Magnolia," and 1980's "Alabama Getaway."

91. "Jungle Fever"/Chakachas. (debut)
One of the weirder records of the 1970s, "Jungle Fever" is a rhythm track, mostly, over which somebody, unidentifiable as either male or female, wails the sounds of sexual pleasure in an indeterminate language. The rhythm track may sound familiar, because it's been widely sampled by hip-hop artists in recent years.

99. "Ajax Airlines"/Hudson and Landry. (debut) These guys were Los Angeles DJs who recorded several sketch comedy albums during the early 1970s. A recurring bit involved Landry as the guy behind the counter at Ajax Something--Airlines, Pet Store, Mortuary--and Hudson as an intoxicated patron, back in the days when stuff like that was funny. Their recording of "Ajax Liquor Store" was nominated for a Grammy. One of the most underrated comedy teams of the 1970s.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Groovy Kind of . . .

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)
January 16, 1996: Jimmy Buffett and Bono, flying in Buffett's seaplane, are fired upon by Jamaican authorities, who think the plane belongs to a drug trafficker. Nobody was hurt. Bullet the blue sky, indeed.

January 16, 1992: Eric Clapton records his MTV Unplugged session. The most memorable bit from the show is his acoustic reworking of "Layla," which becomes a massive hit and swiftly burns out from overexposure. Weirdly, the original 1971 Derek and the Dominoes recording of "Layla" has yet to become similarly burnt.

January 16, 1987: Host Jools Holland is suspended from his British TV music show for using the phrase "groovy fuckers" on the air. On the same date in 1982, the group Bucks Fizz hits Number One on the British charts with "Land of Make Believe." I include both of these because I like the phrases "groovy fuckers" and "Bucks Fizz."

January 16, 1980: Paul McCartney is jailed in Japan and spends nine days locked up for marijuana possession. On the same date in 1984, Paul and Linda are busted for drug possession in Barbados. Kids, just say no.

January 16, 1973: Villanova University is distinctly underwhelmed by the appearance of an unknown singer who draws only 25 students to an appearance on campus. The singer's name: Bruce Springsteen.

Birthdays Today:

R&B singer Aaliyah would be 26, had she not died in a plane crash in 2001. Name-dropper alert: I once worked with a woman who had been Aaliyah's tutor during a concert tour in the mid 1990s. She had to sign a confidentiality agreement, because apparently stuff happens to 17-year-old R&B singers on the road.

Country/pop singer Ronnie Milsap is 60. His dominance of the country charts was almost unparallelled. He had 34 Number One songs between 1973 and 1989, including a streak of 10 in a row in the early 80s--several of which ("No Gettin' Over Me," "Smokey Mountain Rain") crossed to the pop charts. Other essential tracks: "Why Don't You Spend the Night," "What a Difference You've Made in My Life," and "Stranger in My House," which has a backing track like a Foreigner record. Really.

Number One Songs on This Date:
2000: "What a Girl Wants"/Christina Aguilera.
And they said the early 1960s was the age of the teen idols? Check this list of artists to hold the Number-One spot from January through April 2000: Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, N'Sync.

1978: "Baby Come Back"/Player.
These guys aspired to be a rock band (listen to "Silver Lining" or the great "Prisoner of Your Love"), but they were L.A. popsters foremost, and "Baby Come Back" is an excellent example of that sound.

1977: "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing"/Leo Sayer.
Yes, at one time, this kind of thing sounded hip and contemporary, and thousands, nay millions, bought it. Sounds kind of silly now, but if you were there--and I was--it's still fun to hear.

1972: "American Pie"/Don McLean. Pop music's uber-epic, this has retained its popularity to an amazing degree so long after its release. In the mid 90s, I hosted an all-request show on a classic-rock station, and I could have played this twice a night if I'd wanted to.

1926: "The Prisoner's Song"/Vernon Dalhart. Another monumentally important recording that you have probably never heard. This was the first country recording to sell a million--actually five million, making it either the biggest-selling or second-biggest-selling non-holiday recording of the pre-1955 era. Only "My Blue Heaven" by Gene Austin, which I mentioned last week, is in the same league, and only "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby beats them both.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday Random 10: Breaking Hearts, and Other Things We Can Do

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)
On my laptop computer at the moment are 849 songs, 63 hours of music, 2.5 gigabytes of toonage, as we called it in college. Every once in a while on a Friday I'll fire it up, hit "play all" and "shuffle," and see what comes out. Today, we can make broken hearts, mend broken hearts, show respect, search our souls, do magic, and get ready, although there may also be nothin' we can do. Here's today's list:

"Still Soul Searching"/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters/Grateful Heart: Blues and Ballads. I've run out of things to say about Ronnie Earl, except to reiterate that you ought go out and buy or download some of his stuff post haste. You won't be sorry.

"Respect Yourself"/Staple Singers/Soul Hits of the 70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind, Vol. 6.
Early 70s self-empowerment rhetoric in the lyrics, which are laid down over smokin' Southern soul music. Essential.

"The Way We Make a Broken Heart"/Rosanne Cash/King's Record Shop. Another one of those sneaky Rosanne Cash tunes--you may not notice it while it's playing, but you'll sing it to yourself the rest of the day.

"People Get Ready"/Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck/Storyteller: The Rod Stewart Anthology.
The greatest guitar-playing ever on a Stewart solo tune, I think, thanks to his old mate Beck. Great video too, in which the old friends take obvious delight in being together again.

"How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"/Al Green/Let's Stay Together. In Green's hands, this is an entirely different song from the one the Bee Gees took to Number One.

"You and the Night and the Music"/Bill Evans and Stan Getz/But Beautiful. Begins with a breathtaking Getz solo--if you want to know why jazz experts praise Getz's tone on the tenor saxophone, listen to this.

"You Can Do Magic"/America/The Complete Greatest Hits. When America hit Number One with "Sister Golden Hair" in 1975, there was no reason to expect that the hits would cease. And they didn't, although it would be seven years before they returned to the Top 10 for the final time, with this.

"Ain't Nothin' You Can Do"/Van Morrison/It's Too Late to Stop Now. By the time this album was recorded in 1973, Morrison had become one of the more soulful white guys around, as his performance of this R&B tune by Bobby Blue Bland attests.

"Wrapped in the Arms of Another"/Susan Tedeschi/Wait for Me.
No soul shouting here, no searing guitars--just the power of Susan's voice to convey the blues, and it works.

"Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"/Edison Lighthouse/Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day, Vol. 2.
This tune appears pretty regularly on these lists, even though they're supposed to be random. The laptop and I spend so much time together that I guess it's figured out what I like.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hello Goodbye

January 11, 2003: Pete Townshend issues a public statement denying that he's a pedophile, after he's caught up in a child porn investigation. He acknowledges researching child porn online, however. On the same date in 2000, Gary Glitter gets out of jail after serving a sentence for possessing child porn.

January 11, 1992: A new era arrives, as Nirvana appears on Saturday Night Live the same day Nevermind hits Number One on the American album chart.

January 11, 1967: Jimi Hendrix records "Purple Haze." On the same day one year later, Hendrix moves into a London townhouse were composer George Frederick Handel was believed to have composed some of his famous works, including The Messiah. Hendrix promises he will "not let the tradition down."

January 11, 1958: The UK release date for Elvis Presley's new single, "Jailhouse Rock" is pushed back a week because the record company can't press copies fast enough to meet the demand for advance orders.

Birthdays Today:

Clarence Clemons is 64. It's impossible to imagine Bruce Springsteen's megahits of the 1970s and 1980s without the Big Man's big saxophone. Twenty years ago this week, Clemons was enjoying a Top-40 hit under his own name. Title? Answer below.

Laurens Hammond, inventor of the Hammond organ, would be 111, if he hadn't died in 1973. No instrument better captures the churchy intersection of gospel, soul, and jazz--but progressive rockers liked it, too.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1988: "Got My Mind Set on You"/George Harrison.
The last song by a Beatle to reach Number One on the Hot 100. (His "My Sweet Lord," which was Number One on this date in 1971, was the first.) It was parodied (accurately) by Weird Al Yankovic as "This Song Is Just Six Words Long."

1973: "You're So Vain"/Carly Simon. The most overrated mystery in pop music might be who this song is about. Carly has told only one person who it is--the winner of a charity auction in 2003--but has often said who it isn't.

1968: "Hello Goodbye"/The Beatles. Few Beatles tunes have brought me more consistent pleasure in hearing them over the years than this one. It's rarely on anyone's list of the best Beatles singles, but it should be.

1960: "El Paso"/Marty Robbins. Possibly the greatest story/song ever, "El Paso" inspired a sequel. In Robbins' 1976 hit "El Paso City," a guy flying over El Paso in an airplane gets the weird feeling he's been there before.

1928: "My Blue Heaven"/Gene Austin. This song was first made famous in vaudeville's dying days by Eddie Cantor. A couple of years later, Austin's recording sold five million copies, making it the top-selling single of all time until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" came along in 1942.

Trivia answer: Clarence Clemons and Jackson Browne teamed up on "You're a Friend of Mine," which would peak at Number 18 for the week of January 18, 1986.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Competition

The Internet is, of course, the greatest time-waster mankind has ever invented. And so this morning I have been wasting my time reading other music blogs. Many are far superior to my own crappy blog, so you might better spend your wasted time at these sites.

I started with the splendidly named "The Number One Songs in Heaven," which is all about classic soul, funk, and dance music. Jumping off from the links list there, I found my way to Get On Down With the Stepfather of Soul!, who posts short bits about obscure and vintage soul, blues, jazz, funk, and gospel recordings (and uses the same Blogger template I do). Both blogs posted audio tributes to Lou Rawls upon his death last week--either one would be a good place for you to start. This post is being finished to the accompaniment of the Stepfather's most recent podcast--which is soul nirvana.

"Heaven" and "Stepfather" (both of which I've added to the blogroll at the right) are MP3 blogs--a growing category in the blogosphere. MP3 blogs post audio files of the tunes they discuss. I've considered doing that here, or perhaps getting into podcasting myself. (Some curious readers have asked me to post airchecks of my radio shows from back in the day. That's also something I'm looking into.) Most blogs of this type keep their files up only temporarily to avoid copyright issues--so if you plow deeply into these blogs, you'll find dead links where the music used to be.

A couple of clicks further on brought me to Captain Video, which hilariously critiques music videos from the 80s. It's hard to believe anybody ever thought the videos featured on the site were cool--but sometimes there's no explaining our past. And even when there is, the explanations may not be pretty: "CAPTAIN VIDEO! feels confident in telling you that literal pounds of cocaine must have been involved in the making of 'Owner of a Lonely Heart.' Also probably more than one art-school freshman. But mostly just cocaine."

Monday, January 09, 2006

Top 5: Mojo Mystery

Twenty-six years ago, as the 1970s changed into the 1980s, I was a little baby disc jockey in Dubuque, Iowa. I'd been working at an AM/FM combo there since the previous April, and by this time I was holding down the night shift on either Saturday or Sunday, and sometimes both. The shift was six hours of playin' those country hits until the AM station signed off at midnight, and two more hours after that, tending the automation on the top 40 FM. Then I'd get in my car and drive the half-hour back to the dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville--usually with the radio tuned to another Dubuque top 40 station that operated 24 hours a day.

Often, one of my Platteville mates would be on the air there. There were two who worked weekend overnights. One had worked on the air at an album-rock station in Milwaukee, and another, who cultivated a Prince-of-Darkness vibe on the air in Platteville (and, come to think of it, off the air, too) had musical tastes that favored bands few others at school had even heard of. So to hear them playing this sort of thing--the Top Five from the Billboard chart during this week in 1980--made the rides home a wee bit surreal. (As if driving home through the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night wasn't surreal enough.)

5. "Do That to Me One More Time"/The Captain and Tennille. I have to admit that Toni Tennille does a nice job of capturing a languid, post-coital mood on this record, although strangely chaste at the same time: a bit like a long-married PTA mom who was pleasantly surprised to get off. However, for his solo, the Captain opts for a series of keyboard farts that tend to spoil the mood. All in all, a much-reviled record, for very good reasons.

4. "Send One Your Love"/Stevie Wonder.
A love song so lightweight and inconsequential that as soon as you hear it or think of it, it disappears. Yup, it's gone.

3. "Rock With You"/Michael Jackson. The second single from Off the Wall, and more early evidence of the heights Jackson would scale in the 1980s. I heard this on the radio again the other day, and it remains one of his most accessible and enjoyable singles.

2. "Escape (the Pina Colada Song)"/Rupert Holmes. Holmes would become quite the Renaissance man by the 90s--adding novelist, creator of a Broadway show, and creator of a TV series to his singer/songwriter credentials. His hit singles ("Escape," "Him," and "Answering Machine") were cute little playlets a notch above the average top 40 hit--too cute, I think. You remember the storyline of "Escape," right? Bored husband arranges a tryst through a personal ad, only to discover that the trysting partner is his own wife? If I were in his shoes and I'd seen the wife walk into the bar, I would not have treated it as a romantic epiphany. I'd have been on the floor or out the door quicker than you could say "divorce court."

1. "Please Don't Go"/KC and the Sunshine Band. After all these years, I can't hear this song without feeling as though I'm back behind the wheel of my '74 Hornet sometime after 2AM, driving up U.S. 151, heading back to Platteville. I'd been in college a little over a year, had just been elected program director of the campus radio station, was taking a full credit load, and on top of working a paying radio gig, I was also trying to win a certain girl away from her boyfriend. With all of that happening at once, life seemed bigger and more vivid than it ever had before, and as I look back now, probably bigger and more vivid than it would ever be again. And somehow, all of that has been rolled up into this uncharacteristic KC hit, a song of love and desperation recorded by an otherwise happy-go-lucky disco group.

You wouldn't think something like "Please Don't Go" could possess a time-traveling mojo so powerful. But if there's one thing listening back to old records has taught me, it's this: Mojo is a mystery.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Friday Random 10: Let's Do it Again

Nobody will care about this apart from me--but this is the 200th post in the history of this blog, and although it looks like I'm giving myself an anniversary gift, I swear it was all happenstance. As I sometimes do on Fridays, I've picked a random year and 10 random record chart positions from this week in that year. The year is 1976, which is, as I have chronicled extensively here before, my favorite year. (It really was a random choice, I swear.) So here are 10 notable tunes popular 30--count 'em, 30--years ago this week, with their chart positions from the Billboard Hot 100.

5. "Let's Do it Again"/Staple Singers. (falling) The last big hit for this great gospel-soul group from Chicago, it had spent the previous, interholiday week at Number One. The year 1975 was the last year in which Billboard would publish a Hot 100 during the holidays. Beginning at Christmas 1976 (actually with the chart dated 1/1/77), the magazine would take a week off from publishing, and the Hot 100 would be "frozen" for a week.

6. "Convoy"/C.W. McCall. (rising) The CB-radio craze may have been the definitive pop-culture phenomenon of the 1970s, although it may already have jumped the shark by the time McCall got around to immortalizing the adventures of Pigpen and the Rubber Duck. (My handle was "Captain Fantastic," by the way.)

28. "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do"/Neil Sedaka. (rising) In which Sedaka reconfigures his biggest hit, which was brain-dead early 60s cheese, as a romantic ballad, which is what the song should have been in the first place. An innovative decision, and a successful one--but ultimately not as big a hit as the original version.

41."Paloma Blanca"/George Baker Selection. (rising)
Despite being twang-free (and a polka besides), this record would cross over to become an enormous country hit later in the spring of 1976. That was the spring I was learning to drive, and because the guy who handled the behind-the-wheel part of driver education wouldn't let us mess with his radio station, "Paloma Blanca" puts me back behind that particular wheel whenever I hear it. Which, thankfully, isn't often.

51. "Play on Love"/Jefferson Starship. (peak) I don't claim to know everything--and one of the things I don't know is how this record could have failed to become a smash. I'd rank it close to "Miracles" among the best singles the Starship ever made.

53. "Theme from S.W.A.T"/Rhythm Heritage. (rising) Nothing says "1976" like a TV theme song becoming a major top-40 hit. This one would become a Number One record, just in time for my 16th birthday in February. S.W.A.T. ran for only a season-and-a-half and was canceled before this record was out of recurrents (the radio term for records no longer considered current hits but not old enough to be oldies just yet).

61. "Tracks of My Tears"/Linda Ronstadt. (rising) I like this record more than a lot of critics do--but I also like Linda's other famous Motown cover, "Heat Wave." "Tracks of My Tears" is worth a listen if only for the lovely steel-guitar solo that takes it to its conclusion.

77. "The White Knight"/Cledus Maggard. (rising)
Another CB-radio novelty record, which was crammed with CB jargon and country-music references, mostly recited rather than sung, and in a high-pitched rural twang. Thus it makes "Convoy" sound like Hamlet.

85. "Only Sixteen"/Dr. Hook. (debut)
The first big hit for the reconstituted Dr. Hook, after their transformation from longhaired stoners to country-inflected popsters. If you want trivia, we've got it: Of their six Top-10 hits, four would peak at Number Six (like this) and two others at Number Five.

95. "I Believe in Father Christmas"/Greg Lake. (peak) One of my favorite rock Christmas songs. It's one of the few to acknowledge that Christmas can be a disappointment sometimes--but it also reminds us that karma is what decides the matter ("Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell/the Christmas we get we deserve"). This has been anthologized endlessly in recent years, but make sure you get the original. There's a newer version floating around without much of the original's spirit, and on which Lake sounds awful.

In Other News: Lou Rawls died of cancer today. Smooth as Nat King Cole and ballsy as Barry White, he was always cool, as on "A Natural Man," "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," "Lady Love," and/or nearly anything else he wanted to sing during his long career. He was a spokesman for Anheuser Busch for several years, and as one album title recorded during that time had it, When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All. Yup.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Forgotten 45: "Strawberry Letter 23"

In the 1970s, one did not generally turn to R&B acts for psychedelia. Sure, there was Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 album There's a Riot Goin' On, and George Clinton's Parliafunkadelicment Thang was doing some material that was fairly far out there--but it wasn't until the 80s and 90s that you could hear a lot of R&B records that made you think dope was being smoked while they were being created. One trippy exception to the rule was "Strawberry Letter 23," originally written and recorded by Shuggie Otis in 1971 on his album Freedom Flight. At the time, Otis was an 17-year-old musical prodigy who had already recorded two albums. The song was reportedly a tribute to his girlfriend, who often wrote him letters on strawberry-scented paper.

Listening to Otis' music now, you're struck by how far out of its time it seems--you'd never peg "Strawberry Letter 23" as being from 1971. His version is good (and was included as a bonus track on the 2001 rerelease of his 1974 album Inspiration Information), but the Brothers Johnson's hit version is classic. They'd known of the song for several years before putting it on their 1977 album Right on Time, where they took a lyric that's pure stoned nonsense and funked it up until it sounded like poetry.

The part everybody remembers about the Brothers' version is the guitar solo in the middle which, as it turns out, is played by neither of the Brothers, but by veteran session musician Lee Ritenour. He repeats the same pattern over and over, taking it repeatedly to a higher key and back down again until the effect is a lot like, well, sex. That is, the tension keeps rising beyond the point where you think you can stand it (but you can), and when it finally breaks, you float off into the ether, not caring if you ever come back.

Blue flower echo from a cherry cloud, indeed.

(A&M 1949, chart peak: #5, September 24, 1977)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Stop, Look, and Listen

January 4, 2004: Britney Spears has her 55-hour marriage to Jason Alexander annulled. (No, not that Jason Alexander.) Her lawyers argued that she "lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to the marriage." Jello shots will do that.

January 4, 2001: In London, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum reports its list of the most hated characters amongst its exhibits. Number one: Adolf Hitler. Number two: Slobodan Milosevic. Number three: Liam Gallagher of the British group Oasis. Because the success of Oasis hasn't translated here, most Americans have no idea how polarizing a figure Gallagher is, which is probably OK because we've got enough polarizing figures of our own.

January 4, 1969: Jazz bassist Paul Chambers dies. He played in the classic Miles Davis group of the 1950s for several years, and is heard on Kind of Blue. Later, he played with John Coltrane on Giant Steps, among others. Like many jazz musicians of the era, he lived hard and died young--age 33.

January 4, 1954: On his second visit to the Memphis Recording Service to make vanity recordings, Elvis Presley meets Sam Phillips for the first time.

Birthdays Today:
David Glasper of the group Breathe is 41. Allmusic.com describes their best-known hits, "Hands to Heaven" and "How Can I Fall," (both 1987) as the aural equivalent of Harlequin romance novels, so if you don't remember them, I'm not surprised. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean a deluxe boxed-set release featuring rare and unreleased tracks can't be ruled out.

Michael Stipe of REM is 46. In a stunning reversal of digits, jazz-rock fusion guitarist John McLaughlin is 64.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1996: "One Sweet Day"/Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.
If you accept chart guru Joel Whitburn's contention that the top songs of all time are the ones that have spent the most weeks at Number One, "One Sweet Day" is the top song of the rock era, 1955 to the present, with 16 weeks at the top. (Francis Craig's "Near You," which topped the charts for 17 weeks in 1947, is the all-time title-holder.)

1993: "I Will Always Love You"/Whitney Houston. The top song of all time before "One Sweet Day," it took the crown away from "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men. Oddly enough, "I Will Always Love You" began its run at the top only two weeks after "End of the Road" dropped out of the top spot.

1987: "Walk Like an Egyptian"/Bangles. At this point, you'd have bet that the Bangles would become major stars and enjoy a long and glorious career. But you'd have been wrong.

1980: "Escape (the Pina Colada Song)"/Rupert Holmes. The last number-one song of the 1970s, on its last day at the top. Not that things were going to change drastically right away--on January 5, a quintessential 70s act, KC and the Sunshine Band, would reach the top with "Please Don't Go."

1936: "Stop, Look, and Listen"/Joe Venuti.
This was the first song to top Billboard's first record chart that was based on national sales data, which published for the first time on this date.