Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Venus, Sugar Sugar, Yada Yada

It was 25 years ago this summer that Stars on 45 took the world by storm and started the medley craze. John at Lost in the 80s found a test subject who was six months old in the summer of 1981 and who has somehow lived the ensuing quarter-century without ever hearing of Stars on 45. He sent the subject the original "Medley" and some of the other medleys that made the charts in 1981 and 1982, and reported the test subject's reactions. It was all done in the name of science, and no 25-year-olds were harmed in the making of it, as far as we know. (I don't feel so good, but I'm sure I'll be fine.) The post also includes a video for the original "Medley," which is a typical early-80s mashup featuring dancers with a questionable sense of rhythm, bad lip-synching, public-domain silent-movie footage and child porn.

(I confess: On one of my college radio shows, I played a couple of the medleys in their original album versions, each of which ran 15 minutes plus. And no, I wasn't high. Now it's your turn to confess: How long was it after "Medley" left the airwaves before you could hear the original versions of the Beatles songs it featured without also hearing the Stars on 45 segues in your head?)

Watch the video. Listen to the medleys. You know you want to.

Monday, May 29, 2006

I Bet Yo' Mama Was a Trash-Hall Queen

May 29, 1992: Eighth-grade students at Sacred Heart School in Clifton, New Jersey, are told they won't be able to sing Queen's "We Are the Champions" at graduation as they had planned, after school officials find out Freddie Mercury was gay and died of AIDS. The ceremony is canceled entirely after students plan to protest the decision.

May 29, 1967: At a place called the Tulip Bulb Auction Hall in Spalding, England, a concert is held featuring the Move, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Zoot Money, and Pink Floyd. Cost per ticket: one British pound--equal to about $2.80 American back then. Accounting for inflation since then, the ticket would cost about $20 American today. That's real rock-and-roll value right there, yes indeed.

May 29, 1955: One of the first outdoor pop concerts is held in Atlanta. Headliners include Ray Charles, B.B. King, the Drifters, Ruth Brown, and Jimmy Reed. It rains.

May 29, 1942: Bing Crosby, John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra, and the Ken Darby Singers record "White Christmas." Released that Christmas, it would crack the pop charts every year for many years afterward, and is the second-largest selling single of all time. Only Elton John's 1997 Princess Di tribute version of "Candle in the Wind" has sold more.

Birthdays Today:
Larry Blackmon of Cameo is 50. I mention this only because I heard Cameo's 1986 hit "Word Up" the other day. Still some funky music, but the hip-hop slang in the lyrics sounds pretty archaic now.

Mike Porcaro is 51. One of the busiest studio musicians during the 70s and 80s, he also played in Toto, and still does.

Gary Brooker is 61. Brooker played piano and guitar with the original incarnation of Procol Harum and continues to lead today's version of the band. He's also played with the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, and the Alan Parsons Project.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1991: "Rhythm of My Heart"/Rod Stewart.
Stewart 1991 album Vagabond Heart was probably the best record he'd made since the 1970s. In addition to "Rhythm of My Heart," there's the joyous "Motown Song," a version of the Buffalo Springfield tune "Broken Arrow," a smokin' cover of "It Takes Two" featuring Tina Turner, and even a non-embarrassing version of the Stylistics' "You Are Everything."

1985: "Everything She Wants"/Wham. One of the great ticked-off classics of the 80s, in which George Michael decides he's had enough of his grasping, never-satisfied lover, and says so over the funkiest rhythm track Wham ever managed.

1972: "Oh Girl"/Chi-Lites. This record contains quite possibly the saddest sound ever coaxed out of a musical instrument--that gorgeously mournful harmonica.

1971: "Brown Sugar"/Rolling Stones. One of the greatest displays of testicular fortitude in rock history--taking a song full of such obvious racial and sexual incorrectness onto the singles chart in the first place. That it got to Number One is thanks largely to the grade-A musical assault that cloaks the nastiness in the lyric. I bought it. I was 11.

1966: "When a Man Loves a Woman"/Percy Sledge. Without 1966, oldies radio as we know it today wouldn't exist. Of the 27 songs to make Number One that year, between 15 and 20 are core records of the format today.

Blink and You Missed It: For about 20 minutes today, there was a post here that focused on "Memory Motel," a cut from the Rolling Stones' 1976 album Black and Blue. Then I thought better of it and took it down. But since the song is still taking up file space online, you can go and download it if you want. If you've never heard it, you'll want to, if only because it might be the exact opposite of "Brown Sugar."

"Memory Motel"/Rolling Stones (WMA file; Windows Media Player required for this one.) Buy it here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Top 5: You Don't Have Very Far to Go

(Edited since first being posted to add one more cool link.)

And now for something completely different. Instead of the usual Friday Top 5 or record chart review thing, here's a list of five of the best MP3 downloads I've found in recent days at various locations around the web. Don't wait to click them--as per usual in the MP3 blogosphere, the links will soon disappear.

"Sugar Baby Love"/Rubettes. The Rubettes were a British studio creation, and "Sugar Baby Love", their debut single, went to Number One in England and Number 37 here during the summer of 1974. The group was intended to cross glam rock with Sha-Na-Na- style 50s revivalism, but "Sugar Baby Love" sounds more like what you'd get if you mated "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes" with "Born to Run."

"AM Radio"/Everclear.
The Stepfather of Soul strayed a bit from his usual thang to feature this big ol' crunchy rock record and tribute to old-school Top 40, which incorporates a sample from Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff." Get it here as part of the Stepfather's "Mr. Big Stuff" tribute set.

Van Morrison at the Fillmore West/Van Morrison. One of my favorite things about the MP3 blogosphere is the way various bootlegs sometimes find their way online. (Jefitoblog is famous for this, with a regular "Bootleg City" feature that has left me stupid with delight several times in recent months.) On my planet, one can never have enough Van Morrison, so I was pleased to find this boot, posted by Jennings at rbally. It captures an April 1970 performance of songs from Moondance.

"Over the Rainbow"/Toots Thielemans. I'm not sure if anybody really needs to hear "Over the Rainbow" again--but this is a fine version of it, and it gives me an excuse to write about Thielemans. He's that unlikeliest of musicians, a jazz harmonica player. He doesn't appear until halfway through this track, but when he does, you'll hear his uniquely mellow, soulful tone, which is as recognizable as Stevie Wonder's.

"You Don't Have Very Far to Go"/Candi Staton. Merle Haggard wrote it; Rosanne Cash made it a hit; Candi takes it down home on her new album His Hands. This is great country soul, a style that's American roots music at its rootsiest.

The best way to find what's playing at MP3 blogs all over the web is the Hype Machine, which is how I found all these. Take note that each of the links above takes you to a single entry at the blogs listed--however, you should explore the main pages of each blog, too. You'll find plenty of fresh tunes for the holiday weekend.

Late Addition: You should check this one, too--at the Late Greats, a live Rosanne Cash performance, broadcast on WXPN in Philadelphia in February, featuring "unplugged" versions of songs from her latest album, Black Cadillac. Superb.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Universe of Vanilla

Fifty years ago today, the first Eurovision Song Contest was held. Tonight, the amped-up American descendant of that contest, American Idol, crowns its fifth winner.

The Eurovision Song Contest crowned its winner earlier this week when the Finnish rock band Lordi took the honor with a song called "Hard Rock Hallelujah." Lordi is probably the most unusual winner in the history of the contest. Unlike America's idols, who have to be amateurs or unsigned professionals, Lordi has had a couple of hit albums in Finland already. They're often compared to American acts like Kiss or Twisted Sister by elderly types like me, although a better metaphor for younger fans might be Korn or Insane Clown Posse.

I've never watched American Idol, but it's one of those cultural phenomena that's impossible to avoid even if you don't care, so I've got some opinions about it. First, if the Idols are all very much alike, that should surprise nobody. American Idol winners are the ultimate triumph of the mass market, and familiarity always trumps uniqueness in the mass marketplace. Not that there haven't been some variations on the theme: Kelly Clarkson was the generic white diva, Ruben Studdard the generic R&B lover man, Fantasia Barrino the generic black diva, Carrie Underwood the generic country diva. (The fact that I can remember those four names without having ever seen the show is evidence of its cultural reach.) Add in Clay Aiken, second-season runner-up, as generic country boy, and you've pretty much covered the universe of vanilla.

If anyone edgy ever auditions for the show, they don't make it to the end. A band like Lordi (whose website proclaims, "Bringing the balls back to rock and rock back to Eurovision") would cause Idol's talent coordinators to run screaming from the room. Last season's runner-up, Bo Bice, apparently came the closest to real rock-and-roll credibility--Allmusic.com describes him as "a throwback to a time when cleaned-up hippies like Three Dog Night and the post-Al Kooper incarnation of Blood, Sweat & Tears dominated the charts, AM radio, and TV variety shows, acting the part of rockers to an audience that didn't quite like rock & roll." (So he didn't get all that close to credibility, really--but as close as an Idol contestant is permitted to get.) But the album he turned out in the wake of his second-place finish contained nothing of the charm that had gotten him to the last round. It was--wait for it!--generic and bland.

I could go off on how rock and roll, which at its best is outsider music, is contrary to Idol, which, despite its democratic aspects, represents the triumph of mass taste pre-shaped by music industry insiders. I could go off on how Idol winners can't really be termed "artists," based on my premise that art is supposed to show us and tell us things we can't see for ourselves. But I'd have a problem doing that, because of a little voice that starts scolding me whenever I do:
"Wait a minute. You have admitted to a fondness for bubblegum--and wasn't that stuff created by insiders, people like Jeff Barry and Ron Dante and Tony Burrows? How are Kelly and Justin and Ruben and Clay and Fantasia and Carrie and Bo and Taylor and Katherine any different from them? The Idol winners at least have to be judged before they become famous. At least they're real human beings. 'Bands' like the Archies and Edison Lighthouse and Brotherhood of Man were strictly studio creations. It wasn't like they were discovered by a talent scout at some Holiday Inn in Kansas singing songs about how bad Nixon was."
There's not a good answer to that little voice. If American Idol contestants don't have artistic authenticity (as I define it), they've got something else that has been critical to pop music for most of the last 100 years: the ability to make money for somebody, some for themselves, but far more for other people.

So here's the way to approach American Idol--as a money machine in the form of a diversion for millions of people who care passionately and who are entertained deeply (kinda like I am about bubblegum) and something that's not remotely intended to support high-falutin' expections involving art. (I hope someday to make an effective case for bubblegum as art, but it's not going to be today.) Also, given the current dynamics of pop music, the generic stars Idol creates would be extruded from other sources if the show didn't exist, so its net addition to the spiraling vapidity of pop culture is zero. It's harmless. So if you'll be watching tonight, have fun. That's what it's there for.

(And if you'll be watching, click "Comments" and tell the class why. I'd really like to know.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Out of This Place

If I had to sum up the purpose of this blog in a sentence, I'd be tempted to do it thus: "This blog is largely about the way the music we grew up with affected us then, and how it sticks with us now." Memory can be (and around here, it often is) a simple phenomenon--old songs remind us of who we were, what we did, and/or how we experienced them back in the day. Sometimes this remembering is a more sophisticated process. Occasionally, we ponder how the meaning of certain songs or the work of certain artists evolves in our lives as our lives tick by.

Most of us who lived our youth with the radio on were fortunate enough to do so in (relatively) peaceful settings. Not everyone. Those who served in Vietnam did so with radios on, too. Doug Bradley, director of communications for the University of Wisconsin System, is one of them. He's collaborating with UW African-American Studies professor Craig Werner, author of several terrific books on R&B, soul, and gospel, on a book that examines the meaning of 60s rock music to those who served in Vietnam. Bradley and Werner have interviewed several hundred vets, and although the book has yet to be published, the authors already have a list of the songs most often mentioned:
1. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"/The Animals
2. "Chain of Fools"/Aretha Franklin
3. "Fortunate Son"/Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. "(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay"/Otis Redding
5. "These Boots Are Made for Walking"/Nancy Sinatra
6. "The Fightin' Side of Me"/Merle Haggard
7. "What's Going On"/Marvin Gaye
8. "Nowhere to Run"/Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
9. "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag"/Country Joe and the Fish
10. "Purple Haze"/Jimi Hendrix
Other Recommended Reading: Also making a list recently were the people at National Review Online, who compiled a list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs. In true conservative fashion, NRO required a $21.95 subscription to their website to see it. In true rock and roll fashion, however, it foiled the establishment's best attempts to contain it and busted out. Number One: "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who. Pandagon, one of my favorite political/cultural websites, discussed a few of the songs to make the list. If you're a conservative, you'll probably want to skip the Pandagon post and pony up the money at NRO. If you're a liberal, get thyself to Pandagon forthwith.

At Salon, there's a review of a new book called Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker. There's an argument that the roster of late 60s/early 70s residents in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles meant as much to rock history as the artists on the bill at Woodstock or the ones who lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love: Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, John and Michelle Phillips, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds, John Densmore and Robby Krieger of the Doors, John Kay of Steppenwolf, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, and Mark Volman of the Turtles. (If you're not a Salon subscriber, you'll have to watch a brief ad before you can read the article, but this one is worth the wait.)

Also: Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" became one of the last great classics of Southern soul during the summer of 1971. Soul Sides pays tribute, with downloads--but hurry, the post went up late last week, and the links are only live for a few days.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Rock the Dinosaur

May 21, 1981: Bob Marley receives a state funeral in his native Jamaica, and is buried beside the house in which he was born.

May 21, 1976:
The Rolling Stones begin a poorly received five-night stand in London that inspires British punk rockers to start calling them "dinosaurs"--and so the phrase "dinosaur rock" is born.

May 21, 1966: Several radio stations ban the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" because of its presumed drug references. It's actually about Gene Clark's fear of flying, written in the aftermath of the band's 1965 tour of England.

May 21, 1955: Chuck Berry records "Maybelline," which would become his first hit for Chess Records.

Birthdays Today:

Leo Sayer is 58. Sayer started his career by appearing in clown makeup, and his first American hit was the supremely odd hobo tale "Long Tall Glasses." His breakthough album, Endless Flight, contained some superb pop songs (including "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" and the sappy yet sublime "When I Need You"), but he was never able to come close to it again.

Tom Donahue, the San Francisco DJ considered the father of progressive radio, would be 78, had he not died in 1975. Tired of what he was hearing on the AM band, he convinced the owners of KMPX to switch to a 24-hour, free-form rock format. It was up to the DJs to pick the music and set the flow. For years afterward, doing free-form rock was the Holy Grail for a lot of DJs--although in my experience, many more people aspired to it than were actually capable of doing it well.

Number One Songs on This Date:
2000: "I Try"/Macy Gray.
One of the few chart-toppers in 2000 not recorded by a teen idol--Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Britney, NSync, and Backstreet Boys all scored one or more Number-One hits that year--and as such, one of the few enduring artifacts of perhaps the most disposable year in pop history.

1999: "Livin la Vida Loca"/Ricky Martin. Day in and day out, enormous pop hits come and go and leave non-pop fans largely untouched. Now and then, certain hits become inescapable--you can't avoid them no matter what you do or who you are. This was one of them.

1992: "Bohemian Rhapsody"/Queen.
Even bigger on its second, Wayne's World-powered, release than it had been in 1976, when it reached only Number 6. This is a record every new generation will inevitably rediscover, because there's never been and will never be anything quite like it.

1986: "The Greatest Love of All"/Whitney Houston. It sounded like a monster hit from the moment we first heard it, although it hasn't worn very well. What everyone forgets is that it was originally a Top 40 hit for George Benson in 1977, from the movie The Greatest, about Muhammad Ali.

1978: "With a Little Luck"/Paul McCartney and Wings. The Number One song in America on the day I graduated from high school. It seemed like a cosmic coincidence back then ("With a little luck we can help it out/we can make this whole damn thing work out"). It still does.

One More Thing: Our latest podcast is up, featuring some hit tunes from the month of May in bygone years. It runs about 18 minutes. Your feedback is encouraged, either in the comments here, or via private e-mail at the address on the right.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Top 5: The Wayward Wind

The story goes that Top 40 radio was invented in Omaha, Nebraska, sometime between 1953 and 1955. The exact date has been lost to history, but here's what's supposed to have happened: Radio station owner Todd Storz was sitting in a bar one night and noticed that patrons kept playing the same few songs on the jukebox again and again. At one point, he watched a waitress come over and put her own change in the machine. He expected her to play something other than the songs she had been hearing all day--but she played some of the same ones. "I like 'em," she explained to Storz. Thus was born the idea of playing the same hits on the radio, over and over. So Top 40 actually arrived before the full flowering of both teenage culture and rock and roll, but it's impossible to imagine any one without the other two.

The handout survey of a particular radio station's hits, used as a promotional tool, was not far behind. The oldest surveys in the collection of ARSA (Airheads Radio Survey Archive) date to 1956. One of them, the Shamrock Hit Parade from KXYZ in Houston, Texas, is from this week, 50 years ago, and here's the Top Five. From half-a-century ago.

5. "Heartbreak Hotel"/Elvis Presley.
It's almost impossible for us to hear this the way people did 50 years ago--an echo-drenched, minor-key shout from Romantic Hell, which was located down at the end of Lonely Street. Everybody had heard songs about love gone wrong, but nobody had ever heard anything that sounded quite so desolate.

4. "Long Tall Sally"/Little Richard.
Another record we can't hear like they did. When gangster rappers and their thousand-yard stares scare the hell out of suburban parents, they're only doing their take on what Little Richard did first, with that bizarrely pomaded hair, those wild eyes, and that pounding, scary music.

3. "The Wayward Wind"/Gogi Grant. What's very interesting about these old charts is the juxtaposition between rock and roll and MOR. Even though the phenomenon continued well into the 1980s, it's especially jarring in the early days. "The Wayward Wind" rocks not at all. It sounds like the theme to a splashy Technicolor western, with Gogi's clear voice riding a big orchestra into the sunset.

2. "Moonglow-Theme from Picnic"/Morris Stoloff. This one is a movie theme. "Moonglow" was a song from the Swing Era, revived as the theme for the William Holden/Kim Novak movie, which was one of those "adult" pictures Hollywood started making in the mid 50s to counteract television.

1. "I'm in Love Again"/Fats Domino. That name, and the happy-go-lucky persona it implies, have served to diminish Domino's historical importance--but he's the guy who first contributed New Orleans gumbo to the rock and roll stew. This was his second major hit, after "Ain't That a Shame," with "Blue Monday," "Blueberry Hill," and "I'm Walkin'" yet to come.

After going missing for a while during Hurricane Katrina last summer, Domino was found unharmed, and was set to perform at this year's New Orleans Jazz Festival a couple of weeks ago before bowing out due to health concerns. (Lionel Richie replaced him--no offense to Lionel, but you, sir, are no Fats Domino.)

Coming over the weekend: Another of our low-rent podcasts. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Thanks, But I Think I've Had Enough

Earlier this week, I started thinking about the jobs we don't get, and how they sometimes turn out to be more significant than the jobs we do get. The most significant job in my life was one I got, and then decided to give back.

On the first working day of 1994, I got fired from what turned out to be my last full-time radio gig, in Iowa. I spent that year working part-time in radio, looking for a job in (or, preferably, out) of the broadcasting industry, and thinking about going back to college. In November, I answered a blind-box ad in Radio and Records for a jock job that matched my qualifications--and got it. They'd advertised it as being "in the Milwaukee area," although it turned out to be in Racine, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee, far enough to be its own radio market with nearby Kenosha. But it was close enough for The Mrs. and me, so we made plans to move. We'd dreamed of moving home to Wisconsin for most of our married life.

The general manager and I decided that I would start in January, but he asked if I'd consider coming to town on a couple of weekends in December to do some remote broadcasts for them. Sure, I said. The first weekend, the program director and I did our remote at a jewelry store. Between segments, the PD, whom we will call Chuck because that is not his real name, shared with me a few tales that sounded pretty far out of school, about the incompetence of the owner, the ineptitude of the staff, and the station's lousy equipment--none of which had been apparent to me when I interviewed. I didn't say much, but I kept careful mental notes.

The next weekend, the general manager invited me to his house for dinner. "There are a couple of things you need to know," he told me as he handed me a beer. "First, there was a little problem with your remote last weekend." It turns out the client had been very dissatisfied with my performance. He apparently didn't like what I said on the air or how I was dressed, despite the fact I said and wore the same things I'd said at and worn for every remote I'd done in my life--and despite the fact that the store was full of listeners spending money the whole time I was there. The general manager downplayed the objections, although he did let slip that the station's absentee owner had parachuted into town from his suburban-Chicago home for the sole purpose of assuaging the client.

"The other thing you need to know," said the GM as he handed me a second beer, "is that Chuck gave his notice this week." He had been the station's third PD in the last eight months. (At my interview, they had explained the high turnover as a combination of new ownership and format changes. I don't know why it didn't make me more suspicious. I suppose it was because we really wanted to move home, and we didn't much care how we got there. Stupid, stupid, stupid.) During the interview process, I had vehemently insisted that I had no interest in being program director of the station, ever. Now the job was looking me right in the face, on top of the other stuff I'd learned about the station since I took the job.

It made for a long and sleepless night at the Super 8.

The next day, Chuck and I did our remote. We talked more about the station, and about his decision to leave. I asked a lot more questions this time. As we were pulling back into the station's parking lot, I said to him: "You don't have to answer this question if you don't want to, but if you were me, would you take this job?" Chuck, without pausing for a second (and to his eternal credit), said, "No."

Monday morning, back home in Iowa, I called the general manager and told him I'd changed my mind. I felt badly about it, because he was a decent guy, and I was pretty sure we would get along. He sounded shocked, but I also sensed that he was smart enough to know why I was bailing. Tuesday, I drove over to Iowa City and registered for the teacher ed program at the University of Iowa and officially began my second career.

Although I have done some part-time radio since then, I've never seriously considered going back full-time. I never say never, because the one thing my working life has taught me is to expect the unexpected. But apart from a couple of very specific situations I can imagine, I don't expect I will ever collect a full-time radio paycheck again--mostly because the career I started in the wake of the near-debacle in Racine has been more successful than my radio career ever was.

And that's how the job I didn't take ended up being the most important job of all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The One That Got Away

Sometimes the jobs we don't get or don't take end up being more significant in their way than the ones we do get.

Thirty years ago this month, I came close to achieving the thing I'd dreamed of since I was 10--a real-life radio job. It started when a group at my high school had a fund-raising auction. One of the items up for bid was a 15-minute show on our local radio station. I paid $6.25 for it, and within a couple of weeks made my radio debut. (One of the guys at the station the night I taped the show said he'd be happy to sell me some of his time at $6.25 for 15 minutes.) The show consisted of "Takin' it to the Streets" by the Doobie Brothers, "Seaside Rendezvous" by Queen, one other song I can't recall at the moment, and Monty Python's "Spam" sketch, plus my scripted and pseudo-witty jock-talk.

After the taping, the station's general manager quizzed me about myself, and I said I'd like to work at the station someday. He said, well, gee, you're welcome to come out on Saturday mornings and hang around, just to see what we do here, and maybe we'll have a job for you this summer. And so, for the next several Saturdays, I'd drive out, sit in the studio, talk to the jocks or the news guys--and feel like I was in the way. I kept it up for several weeks, waiting for them to offer me an actual job, but when they didn't, I stopped going. They never called me, and so I didn't appear on the station again for almost 20 years, until I did some voiceovers for a friend who was working there.

It was nearly that long before I found out precisely why they'd never offered me a job in 1976. A friend who knew the general manager well told me that my hanging-out skills apparently didn't impress them. Either I should have done more of it, or done better at it, because I made them think I wasn't interested enough in radio to work for them. Which is crazy, because I was not just interested in radio at age 16, I was consumed by it. But I was also a rather shy individual, especially with people I didn't know, and especially with people as famous as the local radio guys seemed to me. And that shyness caused me to blow it.

So my first experience with employment in radio was painful. I should have taken it as an omen.

Later this week: All about a job I got, and then decided to give back.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Teenage Wasteland

Fox will air the final episode of That 70s Show on Thursday night. Being the 70s geek that I am, I wanted to like this show when it premiered in 1998, and I did, for a while, but not for very long.

It started with the title. That 70s Show works as a post-modern self-referential wink at the very concept of titles--but damn, there must be 50 or 100 song titles from the 1970s that would have worked as well or better to capture the 70s vibe. The IMDB site for the show lists four discarded working titles, any of which would have been better: "Feelin' All Right," "Reelin' in the Years," "Teenage Wasteland," and "The Kids Are Alright." Before sitting down to watch, a viewer (all right, this viewer) might ask, with some justification, how creative is this going to be if that's the best title they can come up with?

The fumble of the title foreshadowed another of the show's problems. For a show set in the 1970s, it seemed to have only the most tenuous grasp on the decade's music. The first promos that Fox ran in 1998 used the B.J. Thomas song "Hooked on a Feeling," which didn't make a lot of sense given that the show was set in 1976 (and that "Hooked" was a hit from 1969). The show's theme song, "In the Street," originally recorded by 70s cult icons Big Star and later covered for the show by Cheap Trick, never worked for me either--again, mostly because I could imagine a lot of better choices. And while the show featured plenty of 70s music, I never really got the feeling that these kids lived and died by it the way lots of real 70s kids did.

Those problems aside, the show was funny at first. I still have trouble believing those scenes in the basement, marijuana smoke in the air, ever got on TV to begin with--although the amount of smoke was toned down a lot after the first couple. The two most believable characters, Eric and Donna, were always the most fun to watch, because they were played closest to the typical Wisconsin teenager I was, and the ones I knew. Eric's parents were pretty believable, too--not like mine, but like some I knew. However, because the show was on Fox, Ashton Kutcher's Kelso--loud, brainless, charmless--became the breakout star. (In my 70s, we all knew guys like Kelso--but the Erics and Donnas would never have hung out with him.)

After a while, the show became less about Wisconsin kids in the 1970s and more about life in a parallel universe decorated with 70s kitsch. Where a show like The Wonder Years was forever grounded in its times--east-coast suburbia around 1970--That 70s Show eventually became generic. From small-town Wisconsin in 1976, it morphed to anywhere, anytime, except for the clothes. And at that point, I stopped watching. And in fact, I was surprised to learn last week that it was still on.

It occurs to me that between reruns of The Brady Bunch (like the 48-hour marathon TV Land ran this past weekend) and That 70s Show, a lot of people who were born in the 80s and 90s think they know what the 1970s were like. They don't. Clothes and music do not a decade make. You really had to be there. And even though some of the producers of That 70s Show were there, they never figured out how to bring the time truly alive.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Still Another Great Moment in the History of Background Music

I have written here before about the convenience store in my neighborhood, and often-surprising tunes they pipe in. Yesterday, it was "Love Stinks" by the J. Geils Band.

I have always thought that the J. Geils Band's breakthrough to superstardom, which happened with the Freeze Frame album in 1981, really should have happened with Love Stinks a year earlier. It contains about as many radio-friendly tracks, and is every bit the departure from past J. Geils stuff that Freeze Frame was.

Even if it didn't make them superstars, it put them on the singles chart more than any of their previous releases. "Come Back" and "Love Stinks" both stalled in the 30s on the Hot 100. When "Just Can't Wait" was released as a 45 in the summer of 1980, my radio station jumped on it immediately, because the music director (me) thought it sounded like a slam-dunk smash. It wasn't. It got only into the 70s on the chart--which is probably more of a testimonial to my lack of ears than to the public's lack of taste.

(At my college radio station the preceding spring, our favorite track had been "No Anchovies Please," which is not a song in the traditional sense--it's a science fiction/film noir/shaggy-dog story that climaxes with the memorable line, "Oh my God, that bowling ball--it's my wife!" You had to be there, and it would help to be 20 years old.)

So anyway, I seem to have drifted. "Love Stinks," in the convenience store, very unexpected.

Recommended Reading: If you enjoyed Marathonpacks' first scholarly exploration of little bits of Beatles tunes, here's another. That we can take apart their body of work on this level--and find it interesting--is merely more proof that 500 years from now, the Beatles will be about the only musical artists from our era who will be of interest to anyone.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Random Rewind: 1972

A couple of years ago, I wrote here about spending a day in Oklahoma listening to the current incarnation of one of America's legendary Top 40 stations, Oklahoma City's KOMA. Thanks to the wonder that is the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, here's a look at a few randomly selected tunes from KOMA's Bookmark Survey for this date in 1972.

1. "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All"/Fifth Dimension. (peak)
Thanks to oldies radio, we tend to think that the Fifth Dimension's career ended after "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In" and "Wedding Bell Blues," but they kept turning out hits for several years, as late as 1976 when their original version of "Love Hangover" was blown off the charts by the Diana Ross version.

3. "Love Theme from The Godfather"/Andy Williams. (climbing) One of those records that was monstrous on some Top 40 stations whose format it fit but unheard on others, such that it barely made the national Top 40 chart. You may know this song by another title: "Speak Softly Love," and the tune is indelible--if you remember it. (If this were a better blog, I'd post it, but it's not, so you're on your own.)

8. "Vincent"/Don McLean. (falling) All these years later, I still can't decide if the lyrics to this song are really poetic or really stupid. Either way, I like the bit about "portraits hung in empty halls/frameless heads on nameless walls."

14. "Look What You Done for Me"/Al Green. (climbing)
Happy as I am that Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell have renewed their partnership in the new millennium, their new records don't have the melt-in-your-mouth sweetness of the old ones. Few of those were sweeter than this.

20. "Sylvia's Mother"/Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. (falling)
They were still "the Medicine Show" back then, and a lot more countercultural than they would be after they became enormous stars later in the decade. The best thing about this record back then was figuring up how much the guy spent on the pay phone. The best thing now is the increasingly demented urgency in his voice every time he sings, "And the operator says 40 cents more. . . ."

24. "Nice to Be With You"/Gallery. (debut) This may be the record that brings the summer of 1972 back to me more vividly than any other. Name-dropper alert: I once worked with a woman whose mother had been a member of Gallery, although not during their 1972-1973 hitmaking stretch. But, since a close encounter with fame is a close encounter with fame, there ya go.

27. "Chantilly Lace"/Jerry Lee Lewis. (falling) Lewis was an enormous country star at this time--he'd had 15 Top 10 hits in the preceding four years. "Chantilly Lace," which was just wrapping up three weeks at Number One, was the biggest in that period. Although the 1950s nostalgia boom was still a couple of years away, the most amazing thing about Lewis' cover of this bombastic 50s classic, originally recorded by the Big Bopper, is that he didn't do it sooner.

31. "Baby Blue"/Badfinger. (falling) A masterpiece of 70s radio rock--but make sure you get the 45RPM version, which pumps up the drums for maximum sonic crunch on the AM band. Fortunately, the most recent edition of the group's legendary album Straight Up includes it.

32. "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done"/Sonny and Cher. (falling)
A deeply weird record about kids playing cowboys and Indians as some kind of metaphor for love. Gains bonus points for the extremely cheesy shootout-at-the-OK-corral vibe.

Hitbound: "Amazing Grace"/The Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
First, a word about "hitbound," for the non-geeks out there--most stations that published a survey listed the new records they were playing as "hitbound" for the first week or two. Sometimes they'd make the regular chart, and sometimes they wouldn't. This one made lots of charts and rode high on them, eventually peaking at Number 11 nationally. Not bad for an hymm performed on the bagpipes.

That's why we love the 1970s.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Right Time

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that Paul Simon released a new album yesterday, Surprise, a collaboration with ambient music pioneer Brian Eno.

I considered myself a Simon fan through the 1970s--I bought "Loves Me Like a Rock" on a 45, and I worshipped Still Crazy After All These Years, especially in college, when its sometimes-cynical tone matched my own often-cynical outlook. Like many people, however, I didn't get what Simon was doing in the 80s, except at scattered moments. And although I have a copy of Graceland somewhere, I never liked it all that much. However, one of my all-time favorite Simon songs appears on 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints: "Born at the Right Time."
Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time
No wonder I'd dig it, really. This blog is, ultimately, a celebration of having been born at the right time.

The mighty Jefito has posted The Complete Idiot's Guide to Paul Simon. It's your chance to get caught up, if you've been away from his career for a while.

Recommended Reading: I have been dropping in at Keep the Coffee Coming for a few weeks now, not just for the folk MP3s, but also for the quirky writing. Now it's your turn.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Take the Money and Run

Cool songs are one thing, but there are also cool little moments in songs, right? Sometimes, such a bit may be the most memorable thing about the song. More often, it represents just one more reason to dig something you already like.

One example I heard again over the weekend is on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, where "Funeral for a Friend" turns into "Love Lies Bleeding," where we hear Elton John singing for the first time: "The roses in the window box have tilted to one side. . . ." What's impressive about it is that "Funeral," which is already pretty intense by that point, gets kicked up another notch. Another favorite moment is on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost," which begins with that stately electric piano, then a guitar buzzing in one speaker like a housefly in a lampshade. The moment arrives a few seconds later when the MFSB string section kicks in, and the record accelerates like a limousine on the interstate. On Stories' "Brother Louie," right before the last chorus, the string section gets into a call-and-response thing with the lead guitar, and it's Top 40 nirvana. On "Still the One" by Orleans, it's where the electric piano comes in on the introduction (all of which is great, actually). On Aretha Franklin's "Spanish Harlem," it's right at the end of her piano solo, where 'Ree plays a little five-note lick that's echoed by a guitar and by something from the woodwind section before the strings take it home. And I could go on.

Over at Retrocrush a couple of years ago, they assembled their 50 coolest song parts. This week at Marathonpacks, there's something a bit more scholarly--a list of favorite Beatle moments. Hours of fun, guaranteed--and it even includes sound files, which makes it far superior to this post, anyhow.

You Bought it Once, Now Buy it Again: Thirty years ago this summer, the Steve Miller Band's Fly Like an Eagle was one of the essential adolescent-guy-driving-around records. Now that all of us are old and fat and bald (but driving better cars), we'll be able to do it all over again. Capitol is releasing a 30th anniversary edition on June 27. The remastered CD will feature a 5.1 surround sound mix and the inevitable bonus tracks--a bluesy version of the title song, a slowed-down take on "Rock'n Me," and an acoustic version of "Take the Money and Run."

Bluesy, slowed-down, and acoustic? I think the message is that since we're old and fat and bald now, there's no need to drive very fast.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Cat Named Hercules

May 7, 1990: Tom Waits is awarded $2.5 million when a jury finds that Frito Lay unlawfully used a Waits soundalike in Doritos commercials. I'd let a company unlawfully use my voice for half that.

May 7, 1982: Rock impresario Neil Bogart dies at age 39. Best known for founding the disco record label Casablanca, Bogart also promoted Kiss and pioneered bubblegum at Buddah Records. Shortly before his death, he founded Boardwalk Records and signed Joan Jett. Her first solo hit, "I Love Rock and Roll," is spending its last day of seven weeks at Number One on the day Bogart dies.

May 7, 1977: Olivia Newton-John plays her first concert in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera House. Hmmm, that's not the first venue I'd associate with her.

May 7, 1972: Reginald Dwight legally changes his name to Elton John. (Trivia question: Elton also took a new middle name. What is it? Answer below.) On the same date, the Rolling Stones release the double album Exile on Main Street. The lead single from the album, "Tumbling Dice," is already rocketing up the U.S. singles chart.

Birthdays Today:
Prairie Prince of the Tubes and of the later, post-fame edition of the Jefferson Airplane, is 56. Name-dropper alert: I met Prince backstage at a concert during the early 90s, and apart from being unusually tall, he didn't seem especially unusual at all.

Pete Wingfield is 58. Wingfield, who played on dozens of other peoples' records, had a single moment of solo fame with his single "Eighteen With a Bullet." Based on a bit of record-chart jargon (a bullet refers to a designation that a record will continue to rise on the charts), it actually reached Number 18 with a bullet on the Billboard chart during the week of November 22, 1975.

Bill Kreutzman of the Grateful Dead and Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band are both 60, which is about as weird a coincidence as that of Danoff's one-time wife, Taffy, sharing a birthday with Jon Anderson of Yes.

R&B/disco singer Thelma Houston is 63. "Don't Leave Me This Way" had spent a week at Number One, and was still high on the chart this week in 1977.

Johnny Maestro is 67. He sang lead on the 1958 classic "16 Candles" with the Crests, and 11 years later with the Brooklyn Bridge on "Worst That Could Happen."

Number One Songs on This Date:
1991: "Baby Baby"/Amy Grant.
The first of four monster hit singles from the album Heart in Motion--they were hard to dislike, at least until you'd heard them about 500 times.

1988: "Wishing Well"/Terence Trent D'Arby. D'Arby famously called his debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby the best album since Sgt. Pepper. That was good for publicity, but as music criticism, not so much, although "Wishing Well" was probably the most interesting single to make Number One that year.

1977: "Hotel California"/Eagles. This spent only one week at Number One before being dethroned by Leo Sayer's "When I Need You." A nice record, that one, but c'mon.

1974: "The Loco-motion"/Grand Funk. Yes, this was a weird choice to cover for a band renowned as one of the most heavy-duty outfits in the world only a few years earlier, but they demolished it about the way we'd have expected. The real descents into could-be-anybody light rock, "Bad Time" and "Sally," were yet to come.

1966: "Monday Monday"/Mamas and the Papas. One of those records that seems as if it's always existed. Forty years of continuous airplay will do that.

Trivia answer:
Reginald Kenneth Dwight renamed himself after British jazz musician Elton Dean and singer Long John Baldry. For a middle name, he lifted a title from a song on his then-current album Honky Chateau, yielding the euphonious handle Elton Hercules John.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Tee Vee Tunes

If you're a fan of rock and jazz, you may not know or care whether you have CMT, Country Music Television, on your cable or not. Tonight might be a good night to find out, however. At 8:00 Central time, the channel will show a documentary on the making of Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. They'll follow it at 9:00 with a half-hour special featuring Van Morrison, doing songs from his latest album, Pay the Devil, recorded live at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Really short songs, I am guessing, as the show is also supposed to include an interview conducted by journalist Chet Flippo. Of course, given that Morrison is famously difficult to deal with, maybe it's the interview that's really short.

(And speaking of shortness, apologies for the short post today, and the lack of the regular Friday features. I promise to do better next week.)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

On Love and the Void it Leaves Behind, or Doesn't

There are lots of us who love radio, in a generic sort of way, or used to love it. I am guessing, however, that there are substantially fewer people who can claim to have loved an individual radio station. As a listener, I'm not sure I ever truly loved one, at least not to the point of maintaining long-term monogamy. As important as WLS was to me in the 1970s, I switched allegiance on a number of occasions--to other Chicago stations, like WCFL and WIND, or to local stations on the FM dial. I listened to Chicago's WGN and WBBM through much of my adult life, especially in the car, until the mid 90s. Today, I listen mostly to our local ESPN Radio affiliate. However, if it went dark tomorrow, I doubt I'd feel a void for more than a day or two. I'd find something to listen to, elsewhere on the dial or on the Internet, and life would go on.

That's the key thing in measuring whether you love the station you listen to, or whether you just like it. How much of a void would it leave in your life if it went dark or changed format tomorrow? More broadly, how much of a void would it leave in the community? Can you or the community imagine life without that station in it every day?

I am guessing that in any given market, there are only one or two stations that have an impact significant enough on the market's quality of life--that are loved deeply enough by enough people--that they would be truly missed by the community if they changed format or went dark. During my tenure at KDTH in Dubuque (1979-1983), that place was loved by a lot of its listeners, but that was the only station of mine that ever seemed to inspire such emotion deeply and/or broadly. At the other places I worked, we did our best to insinuate ourselves into the community in hopes of being the kind of station that would leave a void if we left, but I'm not sure how well we succeeded at any of them. There were people who liked us, but love? I can't honestly claim anybody loved us, except maybe the contest pigs.

Nope, I think it's a fact of radio life today that there are many stations whose absence would be noticed if they changed format or went dark, but who would not be long mourned. With so many stations in the typical market, each one seeking a thin slice of the demographic pie, individual listeners might feel a void, but the community would not--certainly not like the void that would have been created in days of yore, when the typical station had far broader appeal. But even if mass-appeal stations still existed, their disappearance in the current media environment would be less likely to cause pain. We expect less from our radio stations than we used to. It's hard to love someone who doesn't seem all that special to you, and it's even harder when you don't seem all that special to them. With so many stations sounding so generic, indeed so aggressively uninterested in the real lives of their listeners apart from servicing their musical desires for a couple of quarter-hours, how many are worth giving your love to?

All this gasbaggery is my introduction to an article from the Los Angeles Times earlier this week. (I'm late linking you to it, so click now before it disappears into the archives, to be retrieved only if you pay for it.) It's about a mysterious radio station in Arizona that has managed to inspire love, and has done so without DJs, or without promotion of any sort. And it's probably the exception that proves the rule--in the brave new world of corporate radio, stations worthy of a listener's love are mighty rare indeed.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Classic Pianist

This blog has always purported to be about the musical opinions and radio memories of an old Top 40 geek, but thanks to the LastFM playlist box and the more detailed charts you can access by clicking it, the true nature of the stuff I like to listen to is being more fully revealed. One of my readers has noticed a lot of Bill Evans music showing up on the list, and suggests I post a bit about him, so here I go.

Evans is a jazz pianist, and should not be confused with the Bill Evans who plays saxophone. I first heard of him as a member of Miles Davis' legendary late-50s group, the one that recorded the landmark album Kind of Blue. Like many neophyte jazz fans, I adored Kind of Blue from first hearing, and resolved to find as much of the same sort of thing as possible. This led me to start listening to Evans.

Bill Evans can be controversial to some jazz fans, who claim that his touch is so light and delicate that he can't be said to "swing" in the conventional sense. Sometimes, that's true. A few of his records come dangerously close to muzak, but rarely cross the line, because even at his lightest, he's always inventive and often plays with humor, soul, or both. No pianist has been more influential. Other jazz pianists admire the way he composes songs and conceives solos. More than almost any other musician you can name, he's a thinking person's artist.

Kind of Blue is the place to start with Evans. From there, his most famous solo work is Live at the Village Vanguard, a 1961 concert recorded with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. Although Evans often recorded in larger configurations, he's best heard in the trio format. LaFaro and Motian were his most famous collaborators, and one of the things that makes Live at the Village Vanguard special is that LaFaro was killed in a traffic accident only about a week after it was recorded. Together Again, a 1975 collaboration with Tony Bennett, is also worth searching out.

Evans died in 1980, just past his 51st birthday. Like so many jazz musicians who came up in the 40s and 50s, drug abuse was part of his life, and ultimately helped kill him. Allmusic.com describes Evans' importance this way:
Borrowing heavily from the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, Evans brought a new, introverted, relaxed, lyrical, European classical sensibility into jazz -- and that seems to have attracted a lot of young conservatory-trained pianists who follow his chord voicings to the letter in clubs and on stages everywhere.
If jazz is America's classical music, Evans is our most classic pianist.