Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Golden Year

Today's the 30th anniversary of my 16th birthday. Strange way to look at it, maybe, but then again, I'll bet I'm not the only person who ever thought of it that way. The years of our youth tend to echo down through time (in various ways, voluntarily and involuntarily, good and bad, whether we like it or not), and few of mine echo the way 16 does. I wrote about it last summer in a series of posts about the summer of 1976, and I've written about the fall of 1976 on more than one occasion. Before the 30th anniversary of '76 is over, you're liable to be sick of reading about it here.

I don't remember much about the actual events of my 16th birthday, except I had an actual birthday that year because there was a February 29th that year. (In off-years, like 2006, I observe it on the 28th.) It was a Sunday. One odd memory sticks with me--when I came down to breakfast that morning, my mother teased me with "sweet 16 and never been kissed," which was not strictly true, although I surely hadn't been kissed very much, and in my opinion, not nearly enough.

What's more memorable is the next week--on Thursday and Friday, March 4 and 5, one of the worst winter storms ever to hit Wisconsin barreled into our area. As the National Weather Service describes it:
This incredible ice storm completely snapped hundreds of utility poles, downed thousands of power and telephone lines and totally destroyed many trees. Some ice accumulations ranged up to a phenomenal five inches in diameter on wires and limbs of trees. The excessive ice accumulations were in part caused by thunderstorms that rapidly built up the ice. High winds gusting to 60 mph made a horrible situation even worse. Up to 600,000 residences were directly affected by the ice storm and up to 100,000 people were without power during the height of the storm. Some rural areas were without power for over 10 days.
We lost the electricity fairly early on, and spent one dark night listening to the wind howl around the farmhouse. On the second day, my parents dispatched us kids to the homes of various friends in town, where the lights were on. That was an adventure in itself--but the adventure had its limits. I passed up the chance to go to an out-of-town basketball game with my friend because I wanted to stay in and read Vincent Bugliosi's chronicle of the Manson clan, Helter Skelter. Such was the level of my nerdiness aged 16 years and one week.

We were among the lucky ones. We were only three days without electricity, the longest we went without it during all the years I lived at home. Yet even in the midst of a storm for the ages, one thing remained the same for me: My radio never went off, although it switched to battery power for a while. In fact, my memory of the wind howling around a dark and cold house on that first night is punctuated by Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way," which was new that week. Several other records from early March 1976 can still bring back those stormy days--even though I've listened to a lot of them over and over since then. Eric Carmen's bombastic "All By Myself" and Gary Wright's spaced-out "Dream Weaver" were in the hot rotation. And there was "Squeeze Box" by the Who and "Fanny" by the Bee Gees, the theme from S.W.A.T. and "Love Hurts" by Nazareth, "Slow Ride" by Foghat and "Golden Years" by David Bowie and at least 32 others on the Top 40--because no matter what, come hell or high water or five inches of ice, when you've just turned 16 and you're obsessed with rock on the radio, the hits must keep on comin'.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ain't That a Shame

The right-wing news and commentary website World Net Daily has an article up this weekend with the following headline: "Who's missing from Rock Hall of Fame? Effort initiated to induct pop pioneer Pat Boone". The story goes on to explain that Pat is as deserving of honor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or any other performers of his era, and reports on an effort by legendary radio programmer John Rook to petition the Hall to induct Boone. The WND article tries to debunk the idea that Pat is undeserving because many of his major hits were versions of R&B hits recorded by other people first. And, because this is World Net Daily, we are eventually told the main reason why Pat is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It's because he's a conservative Christian.

Yes, Boone recorded several early rock songs (not as many as WND would have you believe, however), and yes, they sold a lot of copies. But "copy" is actually the operative word here. Boone got the chance to make his mark on music history thanks to a repeat of a familiar cultural phenomenon. It started not long after the Civil War, although it wasn't until the Jazz Age that it became commonplace. A black cultural product--gospel in the post-Civil War era, jazz in the first third of the 20th century, early rock and R&B in the 1950s, or rap in the 1980s--is viewed as exotic by white kids, and as a threat by white parents, who fear its influence on their kids. Eventually, those threatening forms are co-opted by whites, and in the process of reconfiguration into "acceptability," the authenticity and/or edges of the original product is sanded off. The case of 50s R&B is textbook. The kids don't always catch the difference, as the monster sales of Boone's covers indicates, but the process happens all the same. Boone wasn't the only performer who did it during the 1950s, but he's the most famous example of someone whose career was made by it. Tellingly enough, he didn't go back to it once he'd established himself. It wasn't like he covered the Beatles in 1963.

Boone's contention that his cover versions were helpful to black artists represents an interesting interpretation of history. I don't doubt that some of those artists feel warmly toward Pat for exposing their songs to a wide audience, but don't be confused into thinking that the exposure necessarily translated into money. In the 1950s, early R&B songwriters frequently signed, or were tricked into signing, publishing contracts that robbed them of the royalties that are paid when songs are recorded. I'm glad Fats Domino made some money, but I'm guessing he may be the exception that proves the rule--many other songwriters didn't make a dime from some extremely popular cover versions.

I'm a chart geek, and I put a lot of stock in chart positions as measures of historical worth, but in the case of Boone, chart positions are deceiving. His versions of "Ain't That a Shame" and "I Almost Lost My Mind" reached Number One, "Long Tall Sally" got to number 8, and "Tutti Frutti" to number 12. Fats Domino's original "Shame" reached number 10, Ivory Joe Hunter's "Lost My Mind" didn't make the pop chart, and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" reached number 17. Only Richard's original "Long Tall Sally" outpeformed Boone on the pop charts, reaching number 6.

But history has had the verdict on whose versions are remembered and whose are forgotten. And in the end, Boone's recordings, especially of the rock classics World Net Daily cites as evidence of his fitness for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, represent a clearly audible argument for why he doesn't belong. His versions of "Ain't That a Shame," "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "I Almost Lost My Mind" are pallid copies of the originals, aping the energy but completely missing the spirit. He sings like he's got the vocal equivalent of latex gloves on, to keep from being contaminated by that spirit. This makes his comparison of his cover versions with those by Elvis and the Beatles especially silly, because in most cases, the love and respect Elvis and the Beatles have for the songs they covered is audible--they worked as hard to replicate the spirit of the originals as they did to remember the words. Boone's later hits, like "April Love" and "Friendly Persuasion." are pure mom-and-pop pop. Even a gospel record like "A Wonderful Time Up There," which a Bible believer like Boone should be able to sing from a place close to his true soul, lacks any feeling of soul at all.

I've written before that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should not be exclusively for performers whose body of work stands up to serious critical examination. I've argued that performers whose work is considered disposable by many critics, such as Tommy James and Three Dog Night, are deserving of induction, too. Their best recordings were filled with a spirit of fun that typifies rock and roll's heart, they were made at a high level of craft, and they meant a great deal to the people who bought them at the time. And so I'm sympathetic to John Rook, at least, because Pat Boone clearly meant a lot to him in the late 1950s. But spirit and heart are what matters most, and Pat Boone's 50s recordings demonstrate clearly that he hasn't got either one in sufficient quantity to be immortalized alongside those who do.

His religion's got nothing to do with it. And anyway, fathering the woman who inflicted "You Light Up My Life" on an unsuspecting world is a much greater offense than being religious.

(A similar version of this post appears at The Daily Aneurysm.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Random 10: I Do

Time for another Random 10. For those unfamiliar with the ritual, it's common in the blogosphere. Many bloggers celebrate Friday by putting their iPods on "shuffle" and listing the first 10 songs that come up. I use my laptop, on which I've stashed almost three gigabytes of music, some downloaded from the Web, some for burning to CD, and most to have along wherever the laptop and I might go. My tastes are pretty wide-ranging/eclectic/bizarre/tasteless, as you have probably gathered from previous editions of this feature. Today's list is more of the same--starting with an Abba double play.

"Waterloo" and "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do"/Abba/20th Century Masters. When Abba arrived in the summer of 1974 with "Waterloo," they represented something relatively fresh. There hadn't been anything like that sound at least since Phil Spector was building his walls of sound in the early 60s. If you don't like Abba, what I consider Spectoresque you might consider overproduced. And in truth, "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" sounds a little overproduced even to me--why use a couple of saxophones when 500 are available? Even so, it's every bit as irresistable as "Waterloo."

"I Can't Get Next to You"/Al Green/Hi Times: The Hi Records Years. Here's another cover of a Motown hit that I prefer to the orignal. On the Temptations' version, they seem amazed that they can't get over. Al just sounds pissed.

"Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"/Crystal Gayle/10 Greatest Hits. A good song popular at a bad time in my life, but that's not Crystal's fault.

"Never Never Love"/Simply Red/Life.
Lots of people dig Mick Hucknall's blue-eyed soul, but people rarely give up any love to the musicians who back him. I'm giving up a little bit now, for their simmering work on this.

"Still the One"/Orleans/Rock On: 1976. I think I've said this before--"Still the One" is one of the best songs with which to start your radio show. (Old radio types reading here are encouraged to contribute other great show-starters in the comments.)

"Oh Papa"/Maria Muldaur/Waitress in the Donut Shop. One of the best rainy-day records I know, with a delicate lead guitar that sounds like raindrops rolling down a foggy window, and a vocal rich with longing and loss. (Download here; Windows Media Player required for this one.)

"Hard Luck Story"/Elton John/Rock of the Westies. Not an album that ranks high in the Elton pantheon, despite being his second straight release to debut at Number One, back when that meant something. The songs are more labored and less memorable than on Captain Fantastic, his previous release--but they also rock harder, generally. As this does.

"Shadow of Doubt"/Cash Brothers/A Brand New Night.
A pair of Canadian brothers, successful on their own with separate bands in the 80s and 90s, decided a few years ago to see how it would be to work together. This tune is from a 2003 release; if you like Wilco, you'll probably like it, too.

"Body and Soul"/Sonny Rollins/Ken Burns Jazz: Sonny Rollins. I read an interesting theory not long ago that one of the reasons jazz has faltered in the last 50 years is that there's no longer a vast catalog of well-known popular songs to use as the basis for improvisation. Today, one artist's hit songs are rarely covered by others. During the first half of the 20th century, however, popular songs were constantly being reimagined by jazz musicians, few more often than "Body and Soul." The most famous version was performed by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins in 1939. Rollins' take, from the late 1950s, is less lyrical than Hawk's beautiful version--but then again, everyone's is.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Yet Another Great Moment in the History of Background Music

So I am in the grocery store the other day, maneuvering a cart through the produce department. Suddenly I find myself humming along with the background music, which is playing "Dixie Chicken" by Little Feat. Now this is pretty serious stuff for the grocery store, for a number of reasons. First, it's not really aimed at the demographic group likely to be prowling the aisles of a grocery store at 10:00 on a weekday morning. (On this particular morning, I was the youngest customer in the place.) Second, it doesn't rank especially high on the familiarity scale. Not like "Brown Eyed Girl" or anything. Third, it's got a funky New Orleans groove that's deeper than you'd typically hear on those carefully programmed retail background music services. After I determined that it wasn't some kind of promotional gimmick for a sale in the meat department, I was grateful for the exception to the rules.

If you know anything about Little Feat's music, you might guess, based their New Orleans leanings, country twang, and occasional forays into the blues and R&B, that they were from somewhere in the South. Well, yeah, sort of--from southern California. They never had a single break the Hot 100, although "Dixie Chicken," which was the title track from their 1973 album, should have made it. Before I looked it up, I guessed that "Down on the Farm" (1979) made it, but it didn't. Some of their songs were recorded by California colleagues--for example, Linda Ronstadt covered "All That You Dream." "Easy to Slip," from the Feat's first album, was originally written for the Doobie Brothers, although they never recorded it.

The title song from 1974's Feats Don't Fail Me Now is a particular favorite of mine--although I prefer the version by Big Wooden Radio, Iowa City's favorite band. Speaking of which, I'm off to Iowa City and will be away from this blog for a couple of days. I should be back Friday with another Random 10.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The American Sportsman

Since this blog is partially devoted to radio reminiscences, it's appropriate to mention here that sportscaster Curt Gowdy died today. His name won't mean much to you unless you grew up in the 1970s, when he was one of the best-known and most recognizable sportscasters in the business. The standard one-liner on Gowdy is that he's the former voice of the Boston Red Sox--but that's East Coast media bias talking. As his obituary notes, he called Sox games on radio from 1952 through 1966, which means that he's only the voice of the Red Sox if you're over the age of 50, and from New England at that. To millions of other Americans, he was a TV guy, the voice of NBC baseball coverage. He broadcast the World Series and the All-Star Game, but most importantly, NBC's Game of the Week, in an era when that really meant something--when we'd sit down on Saturday afternoons and watch whoever was on, because it was on.

Gowdy was also NBC's primary voice on AFL football--his obit mentions the famous Heidi game of 1968, but doesn't mention Super Bowl III, when the upstart New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in the most famous Super Bowl ever played. (His call of that game surfaces on ESPN Classic occasionally, as do some of his NBC baseball games.) He was also the voice of NBC's Rose Bowl coverage--for a TV sports geek such as I, it was strange to hear him do college football, but then again, that was an era when NBC did only two games a year. He also hosted the ABC outdoor show The American Sportsman.

People wonder who the Gowdys are today--the versatile next-door-neighbor types who sound, in John Updike's famous characterization of Gowdy, like your brother-in-law. There are guys who do lots of different sports, like Marv Albert, but Albert's got an edge that means he'll never be a beloved figure. There are guys who sound neighborly, like Jim Nantz of CBS, but Nantz is also fairly colorless. Most guys who become broadcasters today are colorless--the bleaching of personality and the sanding of edges is part of the training process now, unlike in Gowdy's day, when the guys in the trade made it up as they went along. Plus, the changed face of sports media--more teams, more channels, more opportunities--makes it harder for any individual broadcaster to reach a mass audience, like Gowdy did.

So I guess what I'm saying is that with Gowdy's death, we irretrievably lose a little bit more of our media history. It's a natural-enough process, but bittersweet nonetheless.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Misadventure, Rumours, and Death

(Editor's Note: I know I did one of these today-in-history things just a couple of posts back, but there's so much weirdly interesting stuff in the annals of this date that I'm compelled to do another one.)

February 19, 2004: Johnny Cash's family blocks an attempt by a pharmaceutical company to use "Ring of Fire" in commercials for hemorrhoid cream. The idea doesn't come from some twentysomething marketing geek who wouldn't know Johnny Cash from Jonny Quest--it comes from Merle Kilgore, who co-wrote the song (and who would get paid if it were used in a commercial).

February 19, 1997:
A judge dismisses a $7 million lawsuit against Motley Crue by a fan who claimed he lost his hearing at one of their concerts. C'mon dude, it was Motley Crue.

February 19, 1982: Ozzy Osborne visits the Alamo in San Antonio wearing a dress. And as if that won't draw enough attention, Ozzy decides to urinate on the side of the building, whereupon he is arrested.

February 19, 1980: Bon Scott of AC/DC dies at age 33 of acute alcohol poisoning and "death by misadventure." Those readers who know me personally know how greatly I detest AC/DC, but I'll say this: Compared to Brian Johnson, who replaced Scott as AC/DC's lead singer, Scott was Frank Sinatra.

February 19, 1977: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is officially released. That this album even exists is a minor miracle, given the prodigious drug use and the serial coupling and uncoupling of band members during its recording. For all that, its artistic achievement is even more remarkable.

February 19, 1958: Motown Records releases its first record, the Miracles' "Got a Job", which is an answer record to the Silhouettes' famous "Get a Job."

Birthdays Today:
Falco would be 48, had he not been killed in a traffic accident in 1998. I heard "Rock Me Amadeus" again the other day, and it occurs to me that it was more of a landmark record than we could have known in 1986. Its combination of hideously unpleasant vocals over a dark and seething instrumental track was followed in the 90s and 00s by lots more best-selling sonic ugliness purporting to be art.

Lou Christie is 63. Possessor of one of popular music's great falsettos. Get the singles, including "Lightning Strikes," "Rhapsody in the Rain," and the legendary "I'm Gonna Make You Mine." Avoid the rest.

Smokey Robinson is 66. In the 60s, Bob Dylan called Robinson "America's greatest living poet." That was an exaggeration, but Smokey had the greatest lyrical gift of anybody at Motown, and one of its most distinctive voices, too.

Number One Songs on This Date, Wayback Edition:
1956: "Rock and Roll Waltz"/Kay Starr.
Early tale of culture clash in which Kay's parents try to waltz to her rock-n-roll records, and thus an ancestor of Cheap Trick's "Surrender."

1940: "In the Mood"/Glenn Miller Orchestra. In their day, the Miller Orchestra was not considered a jazz band, but this record swings. It's the one big-band hit everybody knows.

1930: "Happy Days Are Here Again"/Benny Meroff Orchestra.
In the depths of the Depression, this became a huge hit, with three best-selling versions as spring came in 1930. Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted it as his campaign song.

1924: "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'"/Wendell Hall. Yet another massively popular ukulele record from the early 20s, but that's not how I know this song. It's one my mother used to sing around the house when we were kids.

1906: "My Gal Sal"/Byron G. Harlan. Harlan was one of the major stars of the pre-1920 pioneer era of recording, and it's no wonder, given that he was a longtime neighbor of Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph. You can navigate to an MP3 of "My Gal Sal" here, at the Internet Archive. Note the sound quality, which is quite good. I am guessing it's been digitally cleaned up, but that's not the point--100 years ago, cylinders were the most popular recording format, and they actually had superior fidelity to the flat vinyl discs that replaced them.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Random Revisitation: 1970

The lava lamp has spoken, and today we randomly revisit the week of February 17 . . . 1970, with 10 randomly selected chart positions from the Billboard Hot 100.

1. "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)"/Sly and the Family Stone. (peak) Sly's appearance at the Grammys last week reminded everybody that A) he isn't dead, and B) he tends to follow his own rather peculiar muse even now. It's always been that way. After a run of joyous R&B records in the late 60s, the deep funk of "Thank You" represented a move toward something different--which culminated in the odd and disturbing album There's a Riot Goin' On in 1971.

10. "Arizona"/Mark Lindsay. (rising) The lyrics are complete nonsense ("She must belong to San Francisco/She must have lost her way/Postin' a poster of Pancho and Cisco one California day"), but damn, this record sounds great.

11. "Without Love (There Is Nothing)"/Tom Jones.(falling) A big splashy MOR production, and Jones' second Top-Ten hit in a row, thanks in part to his ABC-TV series, produced in England. Jones landed a fairly hip guest list--in early 1970 alone, he welcomed the Rascals, Joni Mitchell, Joe Cocker, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

13. "Bridge Over Troubled Water"/Simon and Garfunkel. (rising) Billboard gives bullets to fast-rising records on each week's chart. This, debuting the previous week at Number 49 and rising in one leap to 13, deserved a cannonball.

27. "Give Me Just a Little More Time"/Chairmen of the Board. (rising)
The Chairmen were a Detroit group led by General Johnson, who, for a brief moment in the early 1970s, was a hot property. In addition to a handful of hits with the Chairmen, he wrote hit songs for lots of folks, including Honey Cone's Number-One hit "Want Ads."

34. "One Tin Soldier"/Original Caste. (peak)
Famous song, checkered history. Original Caste recorded it first; in 1971, it was recut by a group called Coven for the movie Billy Jack. Coven's version squeaked into the Top 30 in 1971. It was rereleased late in 1973 and became a massive hit on WLS in Chicago, ranking Number 4 for the entire year 1974. And if you want more trivia, how about this: the song is based on the chord progression of Pachelbel's Canon.

60. "House of the Rising Sun"/Frijid Pink. (rising) Not to be confused with Vanilla Fudge, who had a similar taste for ponderous hard-rock demolitions of well-known songs. OK, confuse the two if you want. I don't care.

66. "Hello It's Me"/The Nazz. (rising) Early Todd Rundgren band doing a song he would record more successfully later on.

78. "Shilo"/Neil Diamond. (rising) A song whose recorded history is stranger than that of "One Tin Soldier" by several orders of magnitude. You may be utterly confused, but perhaps also fascinated, by Allmusic.com's explanation of it here.

89. "Come and Get It"/Badfinger. (rising) Four straight singles from their early-70s heyday: this, "No Matter What," "Day After Day," and "Baby Blue"--who's done better on four in a row? You want to know how good they were? This is the weakest of the four singles--and Paul McCartney wrote it, fer chrissakes.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Champagne and Coca-Cola

February 16, 1991: The Simpsons top the British singles charts with "Do the Bartman." The novelty-hit cash-in is often the point at which a particular cultural phenomenon jumps the shark. Not this time.

February 16, 1975: The Cher show has its official premiere on CBS-TV, although it had actually launched with a special preview episode four days earlier. It was only a modest success, and when a second-season retooling didn't improve the ratings, CBS decided to shut it down in January 1976 and re-team Cher with Sonny, despite their acrimonious parting a couple of years before. The new show launched in February and lasted a season-and-a-half, but it didn't make anybody forget the old Sonny and Cher show.

February 16, 1974:
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer are arrested in Salt Lake City for skinny-dipping in the hotel pool and fined $75 apiece.

February 16, 1968:
The Harrisons and Lennons fly to India for two months' meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Starrs and Paul and his entourage would join them two days later. The whole thing will end badly when the Beatles accuse the Maharishi of making a pass at one of the women in the group.

Birthday Today:
Sonny Bono would be 71, had he not died in a skiing accident in 1997. A woman I know tells the following story: She was teaching high school in 1997, and one of her classes was discussing Bono's accident. One student was incredulous at hearing that Bono was missing for several hours before being discovered. She asked, "Didn't anyone look behind the boat?"

Number One Songs on This Date:
1999: "Baby One More Time"/Britney Spears.
And so it begins.

1981: "Celebration"/Kool and the Gang. I once read a bit of political analysis suggesting that "Celebration" was such a big hit at this time because people were happy that Ronald Reagan had taken office. That kind of brilliance explains why there are very few influential Republican music critics.

1968: "Love Is Blue"/Paul Mauriat. In the peak year of the 1960s, one of the year's biggest hits was this, a harpsichord-driven muzak-y instrumental.

1961: "Calcutta"/Lawrence Welk. Another harpsichord-driven muzak-y instrumental which, despite the title, this has nothing to do with India. It's actually not half-bad, either, possessing a lot more energy than you'd expect from Welk. Maybe all that champagne made 'em giddy.

1945: "Rum and Coca-Cola"/Andrews Sisters. The Sisters had the sound that defined the World War II era, and this was their biggest hit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Blog Friends

Since first getting into blogs in 2003, I have spent most of my time on political blogs. Lately, as the political situation gets more dire, I've been spending more time on music blogs. Some favorites are already in my links list: the Stepfather of Soul, the Number One Songs in Heaven, and Radio Randy. Here are some others:

Jefitoblog provides lengthy and intelligent reviews of new albums (such as Rosanne Cash's Black Cadillac), as well as lengthy and intelligent re-listens to old albums and classic artists. I especially enjoyed his Complete Idiot's Guide to Robert Palmer (part 1 here, part 2 here), even if he did like Clues a lot more than I did. Jefito also posts tracks for download.

I Am Fuel, You Are Friends
also posts lots of tracks for download. The music selection there is more consistently contemporary than Jefitoblog--and more so than this blog, for certain. Still, I'm not averse to learning about new stuff--and some of the old stuff posted there is mighty interesting, too. (I happily downloaded Sly and the Family Stone's great 1973 hit "If You Want Me to Stay," for example, along with newer stuff by Josh Rouse and Lucinda Williams.) Here at this blog earlier in the week, we had a brief exchange in the comments about remixes of old songs, and whether they constitute art. Seems to me that simply throwing a light hip-hop track behind somebody else's record isn't all that creative. Last month, however, I Am Fuel's Heather Browne linked to some more inventive remixes. You gotta hear the one in which Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" meets the B52s "Love Shack."

We Get Mail: From Texarkana, reader Q-SKY checks in with a link about radio's past that will interest any other old radio types reading here, and might also interest those of you too young to remember when radio stations played records and used tape instead of running everything digitally. (It's part of a broader tribute site for station WTMA in Charleston, South Carolina.) Although the photos and text date largely to the early 70s, I can vouch for the fact that things hadn't changed a great deal by the late 70s, when I started my radio career. Although we didn't hang 45s from those pegs or anything.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Forgotten 45s: The First Year

Last February, we launched a feature on this blog called "Forgotten 45." It's nothing especially original--I'll hear or remember something that, by my subjective evaluation, doesn't seem to be heard much anymore or especially well remembered, and I'll write a brief squib about it on the blog, along with the pertinent chart information. But it occurs to me that just reading about these songs is not enough. You need to hear them, too. (Damn, am I hip to the way things ought to be, or what?)

And so, I'm happy to present my first-ever podcast, featuring five favorite Forgotten 45s from the past year. It runs about 18 minutes and contains only music--it has neither snappy DJ patter nor bitchin' production effects, although future podcasts likely will. Like other bloggers who post MP3 files on their sites, I do so here without the permission of the copyright holders, which means I will not only be happy but also legally obligated to remove them if anyone's lawyer objects. I hope, that if you like these tunes, you'll go out and buy them, or download them from one of the online music stores. Also, be sure to watch--and listen--for future Forgotten 45s, coming soon.

Oh--one other thing. I suppose I could give you a playlist for the show, and include links to the original Forgotten 45 posts about the songs, but that would take some of the fun out of listening to it. So if you want the list, or have any questions about the songs, leave a comment or send me an e-mail at the address on the right. (Here's a hint: the original posts appeared in February, June, July, and November 2005, and January 2006.)

(Thanks for technical advice and encouragement are due to Dave P. at Poolside Jazz and Jason Stone, a.k.a. the Stepfather of Soul.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Top 5: It's a Miracle

It might be the unlikeliest comeback since the Resurrection: On the latest Billboard album chart, Number One belongs to Barry Manilow. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties is his version of the standards formula that has resulted in huge hits for Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, and others, and moved 156,000 copies in its first week of release. (The album is produced by Clive Davis, who guided Manilow's career at Arista Records in the 70s, and who has produced Stewart's Great American Songbook series.) Let's note this achievement with five more memorable Manilow moments.

5. The last time. Manilow last topped the charts in 1977 with Barry Manilow Live. Its two most famous tunes include the lone single, "Daybreak," which is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Manilow comes across so sugary and upbeat that it's almost creepy, for one thing. The backup singing group, Lady Flash, who actually had a hit record of their own on the "strength" of their appearance here, is way too funky for a song so terminally white. (There are several other reasons to hate on "Daybreak," but I haven't got that kind of space here.) The other notable tune on Live is "A Very Strange Medley (V.S.M)," on which Manilow performs the famous commercial jingles he's written. Fun for fans, interesting exercise in nostalgia for everybody else, and the sort of product placement corporate marketers dream of making today but can't.

4. The first time. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties is not the first time Manilow has plundered the past for material. Live includes a big-band medley that's capped off by "Bandstand Boogie," the American Bandstand theme. The 1980 single "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" had the feel of something Fred Astaire might have recorded in the 40s. Manilow's 1984 album 2:00AM Paradise Cafe was an attempt to do Mel Torme-style jazz vocals; 1987's Swing Street was a swing album made up mostly of original tunes. By the 1990s, Manilow was covering Broadway and swing-era standards regularly. Clearly, however, the moment for that kind of thing to break through big hadn't arrived until now.

3. "It's a Miracle." Even during the mid-70s, not exactly a hard-rockin' era, Manilow music was mighty wimpy. Most of his hits unfolded the same way--quiet opening on piano, verse, chorus, verse, big emotional buildup bringing in the orchestra, chorus again, and fade out as the string section reprises the melody. Which is why "It's a Miracle," Manilow's second Top-40 hit (1975), jumps out of his catalog today. Not as formulaic as the majority of his hits, "It's a Miracle" was a nod to mainstream Top-40 he should have tried to repeat, although he never did.

2. Ecch ptui. It was sometime in the late 80s that Manilow's name became synonymous with 70s dreck. Maybe it was the TV show Murphy Brown, whose writers adopted Manilow's name as shorthand for everything in pop music that sucked. A more likely explanation is that adult contemporary radio was evolving in the late 80s--rocking harder than it ever had before as the 70s generation came to full adulthood. Whatever the reason, stations began dropping Manilow's bombastic balladry from their libraries, even while other late 70s popsters remained core artists of the format. (The station where I worked in the early 90s got an impassioned letter from a Manilow fan who noticed his absence after we tweaked our format, and demanded that we bring his music back if we didn't want the "thousands" of fans within range of our signal to desert us.) In any event, that it took 10 years for Manilow to become the butt of jokes is a wonder. It's hard to fathom how, even in the 70s, even with the recurrent failures of mass taste that decade was prone to, a record like 1978's "Can't Smile Without You" could make it to Number 3. And "Copacabana," from later that year, might be the single most-reviled record in Manilow's catalog.

1. The most memorable. Apart from "It's a Miracle," there are three records in Manilow's catalog that I don't mind hearing now and then. While they tend to adhere to the formula described above, they rise above the rest of it because they're his most credible adult love songs. In fact, you can view them as three chapters of the same love story. "Even Now" (1978) is the final chapter, in which the singer can't shake the memory of his old love despite having been with someone else for years. It's almost harrowing, if you can forget who we're talking about--the record is a portrait of a man suffering eternal romantic damnation. "Looks Like We Made It" (1977), Manilow's biggest Top-40 hit, is chapter two of the story, in which the old lovers whistle past the graveyard, thinking they're over each other. (It features an actual guitar solo, a rarity on Manilow's records.) The story begins with "Weekend in New England," (1977), in which the memory of one perfect weekend leads to anticipation of the next one--and the unspoken fear that it might never happen again.

We have not heard the last of Barry Manilow, revivalist. Manilow and Clive Davis are already planning a followup to his 1950s album featuring tunes from the 1960s. So be warned before you disrespect Manilow again--his new Number-One album proves that maybe my station's letter-writer was on to something. There really are thousands of his fans still out there.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Random 10: Are You Ready?

Today's Random 10 is crazed. That's the only way to put it. No human being would pick these 10 songs to play together--which is the point.

"Motherless Child"/Eric Clapton/From the Cradle. Starts off normally enough, doesn't it?

"'Til I Gain Control Again"/Crystal Gayle/The Best of Crystal Gayle. Sad-and-bluesy version of a country standard by a singer whose default sound is sad-and-bluesy. (Van Morrison is covering this tune on Pay the Devil, his forthcoming album of country standards.) Not too weird yet.

"Stones in the Road"/Mary Chapin Carpenter/Stones in the Road. A fine song about growing up boomer, with one of the great throwaway lines ever, at the end of a verse:
And now we drink our coffee on the run
We climb that ladder rung by rung
We are the daughters and the sons
And here's the line that's missing
And thus things grow a touch weirder.

"Are You Ready?"/Pacific Gas and Electric/Reelin' in the Years, Vol. 3. Smokin' rock and roll meets gospel testifying. A bit of preaching to the kids, which makes it not entirely inappropriate next to. . . .

"An Open Letter to My Teenage Son"/Victor Lundberg.
Not so much preaching to the kids as it is passive-aggressive haranguing of the kids. This must be heard to be believed. (It's on my laptop because I had to hear it before I'd believe it.) Keep in mind as you listen that it made it all the way to Number 10 on December 2, 1967. Then drink in the majestic weirdness of its juxtaposition next to. . . .

"Ghosts (First Version)"/Albert Ayler/Spritual Unity. Ayler is a major figure of 1960s free jazz--a form that goes to a place this jazz fan can't follow. Unlike some free jazz, however, "Ghosts" has snatches of a conventional melody. Allmusic.com describes Ayler's sound as "like a runaway New Orleans brass band from 1910." That's about right.

"Another Morning"/American Music Club/Love Songs for Patriots. Victor Lundberg would like the "patriots" part of this, I'm sure, but probably not much else. In 2004, Love Songs for Patriots was the first album for this acclaimed roots-rock band after a 10-year hiatus.

"I Should Care"/Thelonious Monk/Jazz Moods: Round Midnight. Despite Monk's reputation for odd harmonies, this is as conventionally lovely as anything I've heard him play.

"Taboo"/Chet Baker/Young Chet.
Yer basic note-splattering 50s vintage bebop track. Sounds fine next to Monk, works OK in close proximity to Ayler, but makes no damn sense at all next to. . . .

"Diary"/Bread/Anthology of Bread.
Memo to all those Jack stations out there who are marketing themselves with the slogan "We play anything": Eat my dust.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

One Fine Night in Iowa

During the full-time part of my radio career, I spent nearly 12 years going town to town, up and down the dial. During the last year I decided that my career wasn't all that successful. Yes, I'd had a lot of fun and done some good work, but I was still toiling in obscurity and tired of the small-market grind. So, in 1994, I left radio to go back to college and start on another career.

I didn't stay out for long. After six months, I got back on the air part-time. Then the station that had hired me flipped to classic rock--and didn't fire me. For the next two years, I had the most fun I'd ever had on the radio, and did my best work, too. By 1997, in many ways, I'd finally become the jock I'd always wanted to be--just as I finished college and was getting ready to quit the station and move to another city.

So it's been over eight years now since I've done a DJ show on radio. Every so often I miss it, and I think that I'd like to get back into it. This blog was created, at least in part, to keep those thoughts at bay. So far, it's helped me feed the jones.

Every now and then a reader of this blog says they'd like to hear what I sounded like on the radio. OK, then. This is me, recorded sometime during the summer of 1996 at classic rocker Q106.5 in Davenport, Iowa. I'm filling in on the 9PM-2AM shift, and this is the after-midnight portion. We did a fairly uptempo presentation there compared to a lot of classic rockers, and I like this aircheck because I get to talk over some intros, just like in the Classic Top 40 days of yore. (Be patient--it takes a few seconds for the audio to start once you get to Upload2.com.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

No Satisfaction

Many are called, but few are chosen. The phrase "world's greatest" truly applies on far fewer occasions than the number of times it's handed out.

The Rolling Stones started calling themselves the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band at some point in the late 60s. It may not apply to their 2006 incarnation, but as long as their classic recordings continue to exist, it will apply in any moment you play 'em. It ain't bragging if you can back it up, and there are tracks in the Stones' library that aren't merely good or great, but that border on the miraculous. These records feature Keith's guitar drawing blood like a whip (I'm thinking of the intro to "Honky Tonk Women" or the first couple of seconds of "Start Me Up" and "Brown Sugar"), or Mick's voice dancing on the line between menace and decadence (as on "Bitch" and "Sympathy for the Devil"), or the whole band locking into a supernatural sync that's the very definition of rock and roll ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Gimme Shelter").

Any concern that stays in business 40 years is probably going to have its weak moments, artistic endeavors especially. And the Stones have certainly sounded flaccid or phoned-in now and then--most often, it seems, when they're playing live. If you check their discography at Allmusic.com, take note of the star ratings of their live albums: mostly in the two-star range, except for Get Yer Ya-Yas Out from 1970, but even though it gets 4 1/2 stars out of five, the review by Richie Unterberger says its appeal has dimmed today.

Now it's possible that they may never have been captured effectively on stage. But with at least 10 live albums in their catalog and few getting much more than faint praise, I doubt it. In fact, there's ample evidence to claim that The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band is in fact The World's Greatest Studio Group. They're just not all that good playing live, and yesterday's Super Bowl halftime show was the latest evidence of it.

Granted, it has to be extremely difficult to play "Start Me Up" and "Satisfaction" anymore. One is almost 25 years old and the other's over 40, and familiarity has to breed just a little bit of contempt. But it's more than that. When they're live, Mick's singing seems to lose focus--it's as if he's concentrating more on firing up the audience and working the strut than on getting the words across. Keith's guitar retains some of its sonic menace, but with volume and distortion instead of the razor's edge he achieves in the studio. It's still rock and roll, but instead of blowing me away, it makes me conscious of how much better they sound elsewhere. As a result, although I've never seen the Stones live in person, it's not a priority for me to do so. I'd rather play Sticky Fingers again.

(Side note: I own Stripped, the Stones' live album from 1995, released when the "unplugged" craze was at its height. I got it precisely because I wanted to hear how they'd sound in more intimate settings, without the larger-than-life arena trappings of their other live albums. It's become one of my favorite Stones albums, with great versions of "Dead Flowers," "Sweet Virginia," and "Shine a Light," plus the inevitable cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." That might make it the exception that proves the rule.)

It came out today that the Stones consented to the electronic removal of potentially offensive words from "Start Me Up" and "Rough Justice." For people who remember the famous "Let's Spend the Night Together" brouhaha from The Ed Sullivan Show, it's painful to note that the Stones agreed quietly to comply this time. Maybe, with all those bluenoses sitting at home waiting for reasons to rain down their wrath on those they define as insufficiently moral, the Stones decided it would be easier to switch than fight. But then again, if anybody in rock and roll has the clout to tell the NFL and the Bible-beaters to go screw themselves, it would be the Rolling Stones, wouldn't it?

Friday, February 03, 2006

One Day in Your Life: February 3, 1984

February 3, 1984, was a Friday. The top movie at the box office that weekend would be Terms of Endearment, although the highest-grossing new movie was Reckless, starring Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah. The Challenger blasted off on the 10th mission in shuttle-program history. The child abuse scandal at the McMartin Preschool in California broke when a Los Angeles TV station filed the first major report on the story. Van Halen played a concert in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Kiss played in San Bernardino, California. On TV that night were new episodes of Matt Houston, Dallas, and The Dukes of Hazzard. And when you turned the radio on that day, here's some of what you heard, with chart numbers from Cash Box:

3. "Karma Chameleon"/Culture Club. (rising) After we got used to the idea of Boy George, it was easier to notice that Culture Club made good records that could stand alone as records, not just as the soundtrack for videos.

9. "The Curly Shuffle"/Jump n' the Saddle Band. (peak)
This well-known Chicago-area band had been touring for years and playing this song, which they self-recorded in 1983. When Atlantic Records picked it up nationally, they didn't care about the band's history--they merely wanted more of the same, and asked them to write a followup about the Marx Brothers. When the band refused, the record company ordered them to record the old Benny Bell novelty "Shaving Cream," which they did--but they wrote a new verse that insulted the record company. From there, it was a short bus-ride back to Chicago.

12. "Think of Laura"/Christopher Cross. (rising) A dishwatery and dull record that nevertheless became a smash thanks to its being featured on General Hospital. The Mrs. and I had just recently moved to a new town and she hadn't found a job yet, so she was watching GH professionally at that moment.

13. "Holiday"/Madonna. (rising) Hmm, who's this new girl? Better keep an eye on her. She might become a star.

20. "An Innocent Man"/Billy Joel. (rising)
Title song, and one of six singles, from a terrific album. Not quite as legendary as The Stranger, but a bit less burned-out today.

22. "Nobody Told Me"/John Lennon. (rising) The first single from Milk and Honey, recorded during the same sessions that produced Double Fantasy, this is easily a better tune than any of the singles from Double Fantasy.

47. "Almost Over You"/Sheena Easton. (rising) A lovely and underrated ballad from Easton, who would, later in 1984, pull an Olivia Newton-John-like transformation into a virginally slutty pop tart.

57. "Islands in the Stream"/Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. (falling) Rogers followed his collaboration with Lionel Richie by collaborating with Barry Gibb, who had slicked this up into a Number One song.

70. "Synchronicity II"/The Police. (falling) One of the unlikeliest singles of all time: "Many miles away, something crawls to the surface of a dark Scottish loch."

77. "Somebody's Watching Me"/Rockwell. (debut) Rockwell was Berry Gordy's son, who signed to Motown without his father's knowledge, saying he wanted to make it on his own. So he probably shouldn't have invited Michael and Jermaine Jackson to sing with him on his first single--because Michael's appearance, at the white-hottest moment of his cultural relevance, was what made it a smash.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Forgotten 45: "Sisters Are Doin' it for Themselves"

I was never a big fan of Eurythmics. They always seemed to me the definitive made-by-MTV band. Take 1983's "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This": Despite its rep as one of the essential records of the 1980, it's actually a grim, cold, soulless record that would have barely rated a second listen had it come without the highly videogenic wrapper. Annie Lennox had the kind of voice that booms through my nightmares--a sort of mythological harpy whose cosmic responsibility is to harangue me about my failings while I lie frozen in the dark.

In 1985, Eurythmics released the album Be Yourself Tonight and the first single, "Would I Lie to You?" I was surprised at the contrast with their earlier work, which couldn't have been greater. But it wasn't until they got down to the third single from the album that I understood the source of the change.

That third single (after "There Must Be an Angel") was "Sisters Are Doin' it for Themselves," which is a duet between Annie and Aretha Franklin. On "Sisters," Annie is trying hard at sounding like a human being instead of a robot, but Aretha outsings her, and could have done so breaking a sweat--although Aretha never sings without breaking a sweat. I'd be interested to know exactly when during the sessions "Sisters" was recorded--early on, I'd wager, because the other singles on the album indicate that Annie learned something while being schooled by Aretha. Quite simply, she loosens up and gets down, and as a result, Eurythmics never sounded better.

(RCA 14214, chart peak #18, December 7, 1985)