Friday, June 30, 2006

Random Rewind: 1973

When I started writing this morning's post, I didn't intend it to be solely a book review--but when I saw how long the post was going to be if I did the accompanying Random Rewind along with the book thing, I decided to split it in two. (Your tolerance for my gasbaggery is admirable, but I'm not gonna push it.) So here's Part Two.

In my personal pantheon of favorite years, 1973 probably ranks last--not necessarily because of anything that happened or didn't, but because I simply don't remember much about it. That was the year I turned 13. I have since heard (although I don't know whether it's true) that the raging hormones of adolescence can provoke a kind of amnesia in some people. My guess is that this amnesia happens because what you feel in any given instant--good, bad, or indifferent--is so intense that your life becomes a kind of eternal now.

Well, at least you've gotta admit it sounds plausible.

Not even the music, which is my primary means of time travel, can salvage 1973 for me. When I look at the record chart from this week in that year, I see records I heard, records I bought, records I've listened to frequently in the years since--but they don't unstick me in time, certainly not like records from a year earlier or a year later. But since 1973 is our theme, here's a look back, via the Sound 30 from WSEA in Georgetown, Delaware--a little town on the Eastern Shore. I like both the look and the idea of this chart--a station serving a family vacation destination in 1973 could certainly have justified playing MOR--but they were rockin' instead.

1. "My Love"/Paul McCartney and Wings. (peak) Probably McCartney's most reviled song, from his most reviled album. Nevertheless, it's his third-biggest solo single ever, behind only "Ebony and Ivory" and "Silly Love Songs."

4. "Will It Go Round in Circles"/Billy Preston. (climbing)
One of the few seriously smokin' records of the summer, and as such a good antidote to the Tony Orlando/Carpenters dreck that was endemic in 1973.

7. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"/Jim Croce. (falling)
A great radio record, thanks in part to that bangin' piano. It's safe to say millions of Americans walked around involuntarily humming this to themselves all summer--it's that kind of record, like it or not.

8. "I'm Doin' Fine Now/New York City. (climbing)
This group was a Spinners soundalike, produced by Spinners producer/Philly soul genius Thom Bell--and if that's not Spinners singer Bobbie Smith improvising over the fadeout of this great summer record, this group was channeling the Spinners even more than I thought.

9. "Monster Mash"/Bobby 'Boris' Pickett. (climbing) Originally a hit in the early 60s, "Monster Mash" had been back on the charts several times since, always around Halloween. Why it should have been a monster (insert rimshot here) in the middle of summer this time around, I cannot imagine. One of my favorite exhibits proving the bone-deep weirdness of the 1970s generally.

13. "Frankenstein"/Edgar Winter Group. (falling) This record gets its name from the fact that it was made up of bits and pieces of unfinished songs. We apparently had a taste for that in the summer of 1973. "Frankenstein"'s chart run overlapped with "Hocus Pocus" by Focus, which, if it wasn't also made up of bits and pieces of unfinished songs, sure sounded like it.

17. "Daniel"/Elton John. (falling)
Best bits: the harmony on "star" in the line, "Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky," and Elton's last repetition of the verse: "Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane. . . ." They're two lovely moments from one of the loveliest records Elton ever made.

20. "Long Train Running"/Doobie Brothers. (holding steady) On the Doobies' box set, you can hear an early version of this, which is for some reason titled "Osborne." The hit version is another great radio record, good boogie (as we'd have said back then) from the first second.

26. "Over the Hills and Far Away"/Led Zeppelin. (climbing) This didn't make the Billboard Top 40, but it should have. It's easily more commercial than "D'yer Mak'er," which would become a substantially bigger hit later in the year.

28. "Natural High"/Bloodstone. (debut) The summer of '73 was not exactly soul nirvana--the two biggest hits of the moment were heavy breathers by Sylvia ("Pillow Talk") and Barry White ("I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby")--both of which acted on my twitchy 13-year-old hormones to make me crazy. "Natural High" and its Temptations-style sweetness felt a lot safer.

This blog is now going on hiatus until at least July 5. In my absence, visit the music blogs listed at the right--all are recommended and many will be updating with interesting stuff throughout the holiday weekend.

Breakdown '73

Last night I finished a new book titled 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America by Andreas Killen. It's a fairly scholarly book. That isn't intended as a putdown--scholarly doesn't necessarily equal dull, although it does mean you have to keep your brain engaged a bit more than you might like for a summer read. (I didn't mind, but I'm a geek that way.)

For many people, 1973 in America equals Watergate. Killen's analysis of Watergate as a national ceremony of parricide (killing your father) and how the theme of parricide resonates through some of the year's other landmark events, such as The Exorcist and the furor surrounding it, is something I've never read anywhere else. Although Killen spends a lot of time on Watergate, he largely ignores the Constitutional near-meltdown surrounding the famous Saturday Night Massacre and the way it contributed to the sense of creeping paranoia that followed it. He does, however, talk a lot about the weird national mood in 1973, finding its sources in the impending end of the post-World War II economic boom and the continuing erosion of the postwar social consensus, which he believes began with the Kennedy assassination. His chapters on airline hijackings, the PBS series An American Family (the first reality TV series), and the way movies like American Graffiti and the blaxploitation genre mirrored the mood, offer some interesting insights also.

Killen spends too much time on subjects more interesting to a scholarly audience than a non-scholarly one--I guarantee that when most people think back over 1973, the sea-change in architectural philosophy, as demonstrated by the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, probably doesn't rank among the year's most significant events. Yet architecture gets a whole chapter, while the women's movement, and especially the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match, which symbolized so much of the conflict over the movement and America's reactions to it, doesn't rate a mention. Similarly, I think Killen overrates the importance of Andy Warhol and the New York "underground" over which he presided, which mattered if you were there, but hardly at all if you weren't.

Nevertheless, I'd recommend the book, but don't be afraid to skip a few paragraphs or a whole chapter when the going gets rough.

Coming later today (because the post would be too long if I did it all at once)--a Random Rewind from the summer of 1973.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Song of the Year

Earlier this month I posted a bit about the Dixie Chicks' single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Today, Living in Stereo writes about it, and about their album Taking the Long Way. You'll want to read the post for two reasons: First, to find out what the album has in common with Public Enemy's 1994 recording Fear of a Black Planet; and second, to hear "I Hope."

There are two versions of "I Hope" posted--a new version that appears on Taking the Long Way and the original, which appeared on a Hurricane Katrina benefit record last winter. I second the motion that the remake "is like trading in the Roman Candle you bought to celebrate our nation’s independence with a pack of those goofy charcoal snake pellets." Accept no substitutes. The original "I Hope" will take your breath away, especially the steel guitar solo for the ages that makes it not only better than "Not Ready to Make Nice," but better than maybe 95 percent of the records you've heard this year.

That the anti-Chicks crowd will never hear something so fine is just another way in which their politics is blighting their lives. And not a small way, either.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pick Up the Pieces

Just as he quietly produced some of most influential artists in history without calling much attention to himself, record producer Arif Mardin died quietly Sunday at age 74. Even if he'd produced only Aretha's I Never Loved a Man, Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, the Bee Gees' Main Course, and Norah Jones' Come Away With Me, we'd probably want to talk about him--but those four albums barely scratch the surface of his accomplishment.

Almost everybody who recorded for Atlantic Records worked with Mardin at some point--as well as lots of people who recorded for other labels. Just take a look at the list in his obituary of artists he worked with: the Rascals ("Good Lovin'), John Prine, Hall and Oates ("She's Gone"), Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, David Bowie, Carly Simon ("You Belong to Me"), Phil Collins (Face Value and No Jacket Required), Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler ("Wind Beneath My Wings"), Chaka Khan ("I Feel for You"), and Queen Latifah. And there were more: jazz stars Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Mose Allison, Eddie Harris, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Willie Nelson, Average White Band ("Pick Up the Pieces"), Culture Club, Patti Labelle, Jewel, Ringo Starr, the Manhattan Transfer, Melissa Manchester, Judy Collins ("Send in the Clowns") and Diana Ross.

(And yes, Mardin is the person who convinced Barry Gibb to sing falsetto, thereby establishing the Top 40 template for the late 1970s--but I believe I have indicated before that we're OK with that around here.)

Atlantic Records, more than any major label you'd care to name (except maybe Motown), was driven by a mere handful of individuals: Mardin, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and uber-engineer/producer Tom Dowd. While there are still superstar producers today, it's unlikely that there will ever again be one with the reach of Arif Mardin. Soul Sides has a fine audio tribute. The Washington Post provides a good retrospective here.

(Edited slightly since first being posted.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Jack Me, HD Me, Make Me Write the Check

On this date in 1994, Aerosmith made a full track available for download on the Internet, the first time such a thing was ever done. (Shorter samples of tracks had been available for a while, but not whole songs.) Subscribers to CompuServe could download a broadcast-quality version of "Head First." CompuServe waived the usual connection charges to do it, and for good reason: With a 9600-baud modem--still in common use at a time when 28,800 was considered smokin' fast--it would take up to 90 minutes to get it.

(June 27, 1994, coincidentally, was also the day Anna Nicole Smith married octogenarian oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall. It may also have taken him up to 90 minutes to get it, but I digress.)

Not only did 1994 represent the primordial ooze as far as downloading is concerned, it was still the dark ages of the web, which didn't really blast into general public consciousness until perhaps 1995 or 1996. We've been in hyperdrive ever since, though. In the first half of 2005 alone, there were 180 million legal music downloads, tripling the rate for 2004, and an unknown number of technically illegal downloads--like the ones on the MP3 blogs you read about here.

Not only has downloaded music has captured a significant share of music sales, it actually represents a threat to the radio industry. When almost anything you could want to hear can be brought into your house on the laptop, you need a compelling reason to turn on the radio and listen to what Steely Dan called "somebody else's favorite songs." So enter the "jack" format, where anything goes, just like an MP3 player on shuffle--and next, make way for HD radio. HD radio offers stations the opportunity to put multiple program streams on a single existing FM frequency, provided listeners have the receiver to decode them. The technology is just starting to go mainstream--oddly enough, Indianapolis seems to be leading the way--as receivers are already turning up at specialty audio retailers, and will be in Radio Shack and the like within a year.

Terrestrial radio operators are looking to HD as a way of competing with satellite radio, by offering satellite radio's variety at a fraction of its cost. However, a problem already looms: further fragmentation of the terrestrial radio audience. The expansion of HD in Indianapolis has the potential to add 20 or 30 signals to an already-crowded marketplace, and in larger cities, the proliferation will be exponentially greater. Advertisers already struggle to cut through the clutter, and stations already struggle over ever-shrinking slices of the demographic pie. Also, while some HD stations will likely be commercial-free, many more probably will not be. Thus it seems likely that station owners will face the same problem they do now--how to make programming attractive enough to convince listeners to sit through the commercials--only multiplied.

I've been an occasional Internet radio listener for a couple of years now, and I will probably have satellite radio in my next car--although the vast majority of the music I listen to is on MP3s and CDs. Thus, I'm not sure I'd go for HD radio. Like most consumers, I'll need to be convinced.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Dancing Chickens

There are a whole bunch of musical birthdays today, so break out the birthday cake. No, wait--all of the people mentioned here are (or were) rich and famous, so they can buy their own damn cake.

Country singer Gretchen Wilson is 33. Wilson broke huge in 2004 with her album Here for the Party and her single "Redneck Woman," which won a Grammy. Her second album, All Jacked Up, featured a song called "Politically Uncorrect," a duet with Merle Haggard in which she attempted to solidify her right-wing bona fides:
And I'm for the Bible and I'm for the flag
And I'm for the working man, me and ol' Hag
I'm just one of many
Who can't get no respect
Politically uncorrect
Not from English teachers, at least.

Given her flag 'n' bible thing, one can't help note the irony that Wilson gave birth to a child out of wedlock in 2000 and is raising the child alone. Her Wikipedia entry contains an unsourced note that after seeing the anti-McDonalds movie Super-Size Me, she resolved to eat at McDonalds on every stop of her concert tours. It also says Wilson was raised in a trailer park, which may explain everything.

Chris Isaak is 50. Parlayed the eerie, Roy-Orbisonesque "Wicked Game" and its R-rated video into cult stardom and a Showtime series.

Mick Jones of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite is 51. Was more or less present at the creation of British punk rock. Formed the Clash with Paul Simonon in 1976 (the band opened for the Sex Pistols in Britain on July 4 of that year). After feuding with the other band members, Jones was fired from the Clash in 1983, and formed BAD the next year.

Georgie Fame is 63. Fame's major American hits, "Yeh Yeh" and "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde" are second- or third-tier British Invasion trivia. Much more notable is his work with Van Morrison, as Van's musical director and keyboard player from 1989 to 1998. He's often heard providing harmony vocals on various tracks, and often got his own solo spot during Morrison's concerts. He's currently signed to a record label owned by Madison's Ben Sidran.

Billy Davis Jr. is 66. One-fifth of the Fifth Dimension and one-half of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. The Fifth Dimension occupied an interesting spot in the late 1960s--right at the intersection of soul music and splashy supper-club pop. In other words, they were what Berry Gordy wanted the Supremes to be.

Colonel Tom Parker would be 96, if he hadn't died in 1997. The British website This Day in Music says of Parker, "Before working in the music business Parker ran a troupe of dancing chickens." A more succinct commentary on Parker you won't find anywhere--he managed Elvis Presley like a carnival guy trying desperately to get people in the tent to watch the dancing chickens, utterly unequipped to grasp Elvis' art in any fashion at all.

Big Bill Broonzy would be 113, and that would be quite an accomplishment, if he hadn't died in 1958. Born in Mississippi, he began his recording career in Wisconsin with the Paramount label, and is recognized as an important figure in both Delta and Chicago blues. He toured Europe extensively during the 1950s, and as a result is often cited as a major influence by British rockers, many of whom got their first exposure to American blues from him.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

That's Time for Ya

Raise your hand if you remember John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. They played a concert in Macomb when I was on the radio there--to promote the show, I got to do a phone interview beforehand with Michael "Tunes" Antunes, the sax player, and I got to talk to Cafferty on the night of the show. He'd been sleeping on a bench in the basketball arena locker room that passed for a dressing room, and asked me a question before I could ask him one: "Where am I?" Not in a befuddled or drugged-out way, but honestly, the question of a guy who got on the bus the previous night and knew only that it would take him . . . somewhere. Kelly at Looking at Them is listening back to Eddie and the Cruisers, the cult movie sensation of 1984, for which the band provided the music.

Often, the reason we we single out MP3 blog posts here is for interesting music. The following I noticed more for the quality of the writing:

Shake Your Fist takes another listen to Fleetwood Mac:
That's time for ya. You lose things (as Elizabeth Bishop said more eloquently), but with luck, you find new ones too. And if you're really fortunate, you make big loping, irregular circles and stumble back to original loves--even loves you didn't know you had--and meet them fresh.
Indie Don't Dance is finishing up a year teaching school, and pondering the stuff that second graders took home, tangible and intangible:
[E]ven when I thought that no one was learning, my students internalized such a deep respect for themselves, their peers, and their teachers.
During my brief experience teaching almost 10 years ago, I often worried that my kids weren't learning the stuff I wanted them to learn--names and dates and facts. But that wasn't all I was hoping to teach. I hoped they would pick up other things I was demonstrating--like curiosity and humor and the willingness to ask questions. Perhaps they did.

Click the links. Read 'em. The tunes are just a bonus.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Top 5: Canon Fodder

I missed my customary Friday post yesterday--as it turns out, I've worked a lot more radio this week than I planned to, filling in for the night jock at The Lake on Thursday and Friday.

As I wrote earlier this week, being on the air is like riding a bicycle--you don't forget how even if you haven't done it for a while--although this bicycle is a lot different than the last one I rode. For one thing, I've been voice-tracking the shows instead of doing them live. This gives me a chance to get comfortable--or, to put it another way, to screw up in ways that facilitate learning--without the pressure of being live on the air. (It also gives the PD a chance to hear what I'm doing in detail without having to listen for five hours.) Since getting out of radio, I haven't had much good to say about voice-tracking, although the way its done at The Lake minimizes its evils. It's rarely done more than a day in advance (we can't do it much further out, because the music logs aren't generated that far ahead), and we don't try to fake being live, particularly in ways that could render us stupid. For example, if you're voice-tracking on Friday for a show on Sunday, you don't talk about the weather unless you know it's going to be perfect. Of course, if Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney should drop dead between Friday and Sunday, you'd have a problem, but the odds of that are less than the odds that it might unexpectedly rain.

Another thing that's different about this gig is that it's the purest album-rock format I've done since college, and so it requires a different sort of presentation than I'm used to. At most of the gigs I had during my career, even at the classic rock station that was my final stop in the 90s, I did essentially the same sort of presentation no matter what the format--gregarious semi-uptempo guy. I need to dial that back now, and it hasn't been as easy as I thought it would be. I've been surprised that nine years away haven't erased some of the habits that annoyed the hell out of me back in the day, so I'm working on getting rid of those. That, and just trying to fit in with the rest of the people on the air, so I don't sound radically different.

There's no denying that The Lake, which calls its format "timeless rock," has based its library on the standard classic-rock canon: "Magic Man," "Carry On Wayward Son," "Rocky Mountain Way," "Radar Love," etc. But I've already played a few interesting tunes and artists from outside that canon, and here are five of them:

"Sneaking Sally Through the Alley"/Robert Palmer. If a classic rock station is going to play Palmer, it usually starts with "Bad Case of Loving You" and ends with "Addicted to Love." That we'd play the best track from Palmer's most R&B album is a signal that we're not in Kansas anymore.

"Rose of Cimarron"/Poco.
There's a load of country rock in The Lake's library--the Skynryd you'd expect, but also this gorgeous obscurity. There's also plenty of Marshall Tucker Band and Outlaws, some of which is starting to sound dated to me. Until you go a few years without hearing it, you don't realize how much "Fire on the Mountain" twangs.

Three Dog Night, generally. It's largely forgotten now that Three Dog Night was considered a legitimate rock band for the first two or three years of its existence. "Eli's Coming" and "Liar" sound just fine alongside the staples of the library (and a lot better than "Fire on the Mountain" does), but it's still surprising to find them there, since they've been off the classic-rock radar screen for so long.

Tommy James and the Shondells, generally. I was driving back from Iowa last week, on the fringe of The Lake's signal in southwestern Wisconsin, when I heard "Crimson and Clover" amidst the static. I thought it must be a competing signal, but it wasn't. I played it myself last night, and "Mony Mony" the night before. I've argued previously that James' late-period hits, "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crimson and Clover," are rock records every bit as serious as whatever the Grateful Dead was doing in 1969, and now I consider that opinion vindicated. Good for me.

"Lake Shore Drive"/Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah.
OK, this is a ringer--I haven't played it yet, but I know it's in the library, and it will come up on my show eventually. It's a shadowy lost legend of Top 40 radio, a record beloved by radio geeks and record collectors, and may be one of the most popular singles never to make the Hot 100. As such, it's a good indicator of the depth and breadth of The Lake's library, and the ethos that drives the place. The canon is made up of important, necessary stuff--that's why they call it "the canon"--but it's not all there is, and it's not all everyone wants to hear.

One Other Thing: Last night at Best of the Blogs, I put up a post about Bruce Springsteen's encounter with a CNN talking head who wanted him to admit his politics are wrong. If you're interested, click here. And also, if you haven't done so yet, please vote in the poll.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Another Great Moment in the History of Background Music, Redux

Perhaps it's a consequence of being raised during a time when background music in stores was almost exclusively Muzak, but, as I've noted here before, I find myself frequently surprised by what I hear on in-store background music services. The other day in the grocery store, the background music yakked up the following set of three: "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, "Roots Rock Reggae" by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley.

The Troggs are widely recognized today as one of the godfathers of punk. "Wild Thing" was criticized back in the day for its primitive three-chord structure. Later records were banned from some airwaves--"Love Is All Around" for supposedly being about masturbation, "I Can't Control Myself" for its general horniness. And a famous obscenity-laced tape of them in the studio is said to have inspired Spinal Tap. Not exactly the grocery-store pedigree.

Marley is one of those rare artists who ascended to a greater level of popularity after dying than he ever achieved while he was alive. It's a safe bet that many of the people under age 50 pushing carts around the store probably own a copy of Legend, one of the best-selling back-catalog albums in history. "Roots Rock Reggae" isn't on it, but its sound is familiar enough--Marley's best-known songs are practically a genre unto themselves. Nevertheless, the number of people walking around a suburban grocery store who are familiar with reggae must be dwarfed by the number familiar with modern country, but I rarely hear country tunes in stores--not even the Faith-Hill non-twangy variety.

Astley strikes me today as someone who would have won American Idol if it had existed in the late 80s. He's got a big ol' voice, even if it seems odd coming out of a guy with such a baby face. However, his producers, Britain's famed Stock-Aitken-Waterman hit machine, used it on bland dance-pop, of which "Never Gonna Give You Up" is the most egregious example. It wasn't until Astley cut loose from them in the early 90s that he made his best records, the blue-eyed soul ballads "Cry for Help" and "Hopelessly," either of which would have sounded a lot less jarring next to Bob Marley.

Now I suppose such a set might represent the Jack-ification or iPod-ification of the world. Not only that, but it's possible to view this we-play-anything ethos as an admirable form of musical democracy. It might even make good business sense, given that the average grocery store will attract a crowd ranging in age from birth to death. It's not that I'm musically anti-democratic: After all, my own LastFM playlist occasionally shows evidence of similarly whiplash-inducing musical transitions--if not worse. But there was something distinctly odd about Troggs/Marley/Astley. And if not odd, then certainly blogworthy.

Your thoughts on the nature of in-store background music, odd songs you've heard, or anything else you have to add are welcome in the comments. And if you haven't done so yet, be sure to vote in the poll.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Broke at the Grass Roots

Before we get started today: I'd like to find out which features on this blog you find the most interesting, useful, and/or entertaining. If you're viewing this site with Firefox or Netscape, you will see a web poll in the right-hand column. (If you're using Internet Explorer, the right column most likely drops to the bottom of the page--but if you get Firefox, which is free and a vast improvement over IE, you can see things properly.) Click the feature you think is the best. If you'd like to express opinions about this blog beyond one click in the poll, e-mail me at the address in the right-hand column.

So anyway: The year was 1982. I had just moved to Dubuque. The cable company was expanding its channel lineup beyond 2 through 13, and so, in those days before cable-ready TVs, everybody had to get a converter. (The cable company scheduled the changeover for a period of several days and turned it into a jubilee, with live entertainment, free food, and prizes. It soon became apparent why--customers were required to stand in line for several hours to get their converters, and the company needed to do something to keep the crowd from turning into a murderous mob.) When I got mine, the first channel I wanted to see was MTV. A little-known fact about MTV is that it made its mark first in smaller cities like Dubuque. Space on cable systems in major American cities was expensive and hard to come by anyhow, but that wasn't the case in smaller towns. So MTV and its early signature artists--the vanguard of the Second British Invasion of the early 80s--broke at the grass roots first. The first MTV-made stars to tour the United States visited small-to-medium-sized cities, rather than jetting into New York and LA. Nothing was clearer evidence of the way MTV profoundly changed the way people consumed music.

All this is a roundabout way of mentioning that Pitchfork has compiled a list of 100 Awesome Music Videos. They aren't ranked in numerical order; neither are they a list of the "best" videos by some aesthetic judgment. But from a-ha to ZZ Top, the list does a fine job of capturing the broad spectrum of the first quarter-century of music video as an art form--good and bad. For an example of a bad 80s video, you can't do worse than Journey's "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)." What's most shocking about that one is that several people, from the band members to the video's director to the programming people at MTV, had to think it was cool--although it's hard to imagine now why they might have thought so then.

Speaking of bad 80s music (as we were, obliquely), Tampa has a superb web feature called "Stuck in the 80s," which we are adding to the blogroll forthwith. In May, the site published its list of the Worst Songs of the 80s--many of which are slam-dunk choices, a few of which are debatable. (Stuck in the 80s also features a regular podcast featuring 80s tunes and pop culture, so if that's your decade, go nuts.)

(Note: I originally credited the existence of Stuck in the 80s to Tampa Bay Online, but was corrected by Steve Spears at Tampa, and I've fixed it here. Sorry about that, Steve, and thanks for checking in to tell me about it.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

All Through the Night

June 20, 2004: Organizers of Paul McCartney's appearance in St. Petersburg, Russia, hire three jets to seed the clouds above the outdoor venue with dry ice so it won't rain during the show. This strikes me as one of the strangest historic events we've ever noted on this feature, although I'm not sure why.

June 20, 2000: The Ronettes are awarded $2.6 million in back earnings from Phil Spector, who was ruled to have cheated them of royalties during their recording heyday. It is the first indication that the new century is not going to be the best one Spector ever had.

June 20, 1974: A giant outdoor festival in Knebworth, England, features what's supposed to be the best sound system ever used at such a show. It weighs 12 tons and requires five technicians to operate, not counting the guy whose job it is to say "check, check" for 20 minutes before the show.

June 20, 1969: The three-day Newport Pop Festival opens in Northridge, California, with performances by Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Albert King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Spirit. (On succeeding days, CCR, the Rascals, Three Dog Night, Marvin Gaye, Jethro Tull, and the Byrds would also appear.) Northridge is a residential community not equipped to handle the influx of 200,000 fans, and in response, the City of Los Angeles bans outdoor festivals. On the same day, David Bowie records tracks for his single, "Space Oddity."

Birthdays Today:
Cyndi Lauper is 53. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" will be in the first sentence of her obituary, but "All Through the Night" and "Time After Time" (which was Number One 22 years ago today) are better songs and superior performances.

Lionel Richie is 57. Few performers were capable of creating such extremes of the sublime ("Easy," "Sweet Love," and "Sail On" with the Commodores) and the ridiculous ("Endless Love," "Ballerina Girl," his daughter Nicole).

Anne Murray is either 59, 60 or 61, depending on the source. She was an unlikely pop star to begin with. However, she put at least one record into the Hot 100 in all but one year between 1970 and 1983, including "You Needed Me," a Number-One song in 1978.

Brian Wilson is 64. Two days younger than Paul McCartney, and could have been more influential, if he hadn't lost two midlife decades of productivity.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1989: "Wind Beneath My Wings"/Bette Midler.
Although this version is the most famous, the song had been recorded by lots of other people before Bette did it, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (under the title "Hero"), Sheena Easton, Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, and Lou Rawls, whose version made the Hot 100 in 1983.

1980: "Funkytown"/Lipps Inc. That sing-songy Casio keyboard sound guaranteed that this would be a monster. It also guaranteed that, one by one, people would grow to hate it passionately after they'd heard it once too often.

1978: "Shadow Dancing"/Andy Gibb.
During its seven-week run at Number One, "Shadow Dancing" kept Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" stuck at Number Two, proving again that there is no God.

1971: "It's Too Late"-"I Feel the Earth Move"/Carole King. King's brilliance as a songwriter obscures the fact that she doesn't sing very well--yet this remains one of the landmark singles of the 1970s, and a 45 buyer's dream.

1917: "The Star-Spangled Banner"/John McCormack.
It wasn't the National Anthem yet--that official declaration wouldn't come until 1931--but patriotism was at a fever pitch in the summer of 1917, only a couple of months after the American declaration of war against Germany. McCormack, the most famous Irish tenor of them all, was also one of the biggest-selling stars of the Pioneer Era. You can find snippets of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other famous recordings here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The New Bicycle

Around the music blogs, it's a quiet Monday, or so it seems. Ickmusic has an unquiet post on the Sex Pistols' 1978 American tour, which is always described as "ill-fated." Blogmaster Pete observes that the Pistols were scheduled to play Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Tulsa before hitting San Francisco's Winterland, where the tour imploded. Pete wonders--as well anyone might--why a band like that was playing towns like those. Well, if manager Malcolm McLaren set out to create the maximum amount of good-for-publicity shock value, he'd be more likely to create it in those cities than in more cosmopolitan places that were less prone to the cultural fantods for which the American South is famous.

An Aquarium Drunkard has a track from the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration All the Roadrunning. I've been hearing about this album for a couple of months now, but this is the first track I've sampled--and now I think a downloading trip to iTunes is in my near future.

Wavelength: For those of you not within earshot, my first show at the new radio station went fine last night. Being on the radio really is like riding a bicycle, although this bicycle is a lot more technologically advanced than the last model I rode. Although I strived to sound comfortable, I don't think I succeeded entirely, but I knew I wouldn't, and I'm not a good-enough actor to fake it. Looks like I'll be only on Sunday nights for a while, which is fine with me. For now, it's enough just to be on somewhere. (I grabbed an aircheck, but it may be a while before I take time to digitize it. You'd be better off coming up here for a weekend.)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Random Rewind: 1969

You are probably getting good and truly sick of reading about the revival of my radio career, but here's another damn post that has something to do with it, although this one isn't really my fault.

The Airheads Radio Survey Archive's latest acquisition is one from WISM in Madison, dated June 14, 1969. WISM was once the flagship of the company I'm working for, although the station itself no longer exists. It changed call letters and went all-talk sometime around 1990 and moved from 1480 to 1670 when the AM band expanded; the company put an all-Spanish station on 1480 a few years ago. But there's still some old WISM memorabilia in the hallways of the station building, and WISM's most famous jock is still on the air, hosting a lunchtime slot at my station. Anybody who grew up in southern Wisconsin during the 1970s and 80s is familiar with Jonathan W. Little, who held down afternoons at WISM and Z104 for years, and whose voice was the sound of rock and roll on the radio in this town. He's prominently featured on the 1969 WISM survey, which lists five records as "Jon Little premiers" and 21 (!) hitbound records in addition to the weekly list of 30 charted hits. Here's a nice double-handful from the list.

1. "Bad Moon Rising"-"Lodi"/Creedence Clearwater Revival. (previous week: 4) In 1969, the golden age of the double-sided hit was just arriving. It would remain a fairly common phenomenon through 1971--two hits for the price of one. Great value for singles buyers--especially in this case, with two near-perfect CCR tunes--bad luck for record companies who missed the chance to double their money.

4. "In the Ghetto"/Elvis Presley. (previous week: 1) There's no doubt that the famous 1968 comeback TV special energized Elvis, who returned to the studio not long afterward to record "In the Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and "Suspicious Minds." You've got to go back before he went in the Army to find a stretch in which he recorded records as good as these.

5. "Morning Girl"/Neon Philharmonic. (previous week: 7) Standard-issue pop psychedelia, 1969-style, although not representative of the album from whence it came. The Moth Confesses is described thusly by's Richie Unterberger:
. . . something like Jimmy Webb on acid. For all of its ambitious orchestral arrangements and operatic lyrical reach, it has dated in the most embarrassing and silly of fashions, sounding like the aural equivalent of the middle-class accountant who decides to take acid with his kids in a misguided attempt to get with it.
Ouch, babe.

7. "More Today Than Yesterday"/Spiral Starecase. (previous week: 2) When Rhino Records put together its epic Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series in the late 80s, this was the first song on Volume 1. It's got that glossy early-70s feel, and just the right amount of one-hit-wonder obscurity to set the tone for the series, despite arriving a few months before the 1970s did.

12. "Love, Love, Love, Love, Love"/Wool. (previous week: 15) Like many radio stations back in the day, WISM set its own playlist and took some chances on local bands and obscure tunes. Their chart for this week 37 years ago contains several records that have disappeared into oblivion, although none is more obscure than this one. I can find practically nothing about it on the Internet--so if you know anything about it, get in touch. (Maybe I should stake out the studio and see if Jonathan Little remembers it.)

13. "Oh Happy Day"/Edwin Hawkins Singers. (previous week: 5) One of the odder Top 40 hits, ever. It's largely a straight gospel recording, but Hawkins' vocal gives it soul in the secular sense. A DJ in San Francisco discovered it--sources vary on whether it was an underground FM station or a mass-appeal AM station--and as the wild 1960s careened to a close, it touched something in the record-buying public sufficient to make it a Top 10 hit nationally.

17. "Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet (A Time for Us)"/Henry Mancini. (previous week: 27) In the spring of 1969, I was finishing up the third grade. The school newspaper, edited by older kids, went around asking random students what their favorite song was. I told them that mine was "Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet." There may be a thin line between being precocious and being a geek, but it's easy to see which side I was on.

26. "Bet Your Sweet Bippy"/The Wrest. (previous week: 29) Here's another obscurity, and another record based on a catch-phrase from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The Wrest was a Milwaukee band, and this record got a bit of airplay in both Madison and Milwaukee.

Hitbound: "In the Year 2525"/Zager and Evans. They were the only act in history to hit Number One with their first record in both the US and UK and then never to chart again. In spite of that, Zager and Evans squarely nailed what became the spirit of 1969, even though we may not have been able to articulate it back then. The song captures a combination of dread and optimism, leavened with two kinds of hippie spirituality--the religious kind ("in the year 7510/if God's a comin', he ought to make it by then") and the eternal cycle of life (the suggestion that, after 10,000 years of existence, perhaps our destiny will be to start over again.)

Hitbound: "Baby I Love You"/Andy Kim. Kim would be considered one of the gods of bubblegum even if he hadn't collaborated with Jeff Barry to create the Archies--"Baby I Love You" is a junior-high sugar rush that nearly defines the gum genre, as does his cover of "Be My Baby." (And there's "Rock Me Gently," too.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Iowa City Lights

You know, if you read this blog regularly, that I'm based in Madison, Wisconsin. Tonight I'm writing from my much-missed former home, Iowa City, Iowa. Madison is the only town The Mrs. and I would have left Iowa City for, and Iowa City is the only town I'd leave Madison for. I'm looking out my fifth-floor hotel room window at the lights of downtown, to the north up Linn Street toward the edge of the University of Iowa campus, where I was a student for a couple of years in the mid 90s. This place is a very important part of my personal history. None of my radio history happened here, though. Plenty of it happened at other stops along the way on this trip, though.

The history actually starts with the newest bit of it, just west of Madison on County Highway M at Pine Bluff, where there's a big billboard for my new radio station, The Lake. (My debut on the air there will be this Sunday night. The station isn't streaming online yet, but they're reportedly working on it.) The unlikelihood that I'd end up back on the air nearly nine years after my last radio show is still hard for me to get my head around, but I'm working on it.

Cruising down U.S. 151 for about an hour, you soon reach Platteville. I was program director of the campus station, WSUP, for three semesters. I met The Mrs. at the station--she was a comely newscaster who already had a boyfriend, I was a horndog DJ, one thing led to another. Today, WSUP is one of the best-equipped radio stations I've ever seen. Back in the day, we all wanted to get wanted real paying radio jobs so we could work with equipment that was reasonably well-maintained, instead of the creaky hand-me-downs we had at WSUP. Many of today's graduates are going from the Cadillac that is WSUP to real-world stations held together with Kleenex and spit--and that's a harder transition to learn your way through than the other way around.

Farther on down Highway 151, you eventually reach Dubuque, which is where I worked my first paying radio gig, at KDTH and what was then KFMD, the legendary D93. On this June day, I found myself thinking about one of the more ill-fated promotions I was ever involved in.

June is Dairy Month in the Midwest--with the dwindling number of dairy farms nowadays, it's not as big a deal as it used to be, but when I was a little baby DJ, it was still very important. It must have been 1982 when our morning crew was broadcasting live from a Dairy Month cow-milking contest during my afternoon show. At one point in the broadcast, I made a throwaway remark to the morning man that I, the son of a dairy farmer, would certainly be able to stomp him, a child of the Chicago suburbs, if we were ever to meet in a cow-milking contest. Flash forward one year. The studio phone rings one afternoon and a listener asks me, "So when are you and Don going to have that cow-milking contest you challenged him to last year?"

Did I mention that despite growing up on a dairy farm, I had never actually milked a cow by hand?

The contest went on, all right. I didn't get a drop out of my cow, unless you count the fact that it nearly peed on me.

You'd have to take a different highway to get to my other Iowa radio stops, in Davenport and Clinton, but those are travels for another time. This trip ends here tonight.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Take 'Em as They Come

Since I am spending some of this Monday doing housekeeping tasks around my own house, it seems only fitting to do a bit of it here on the blog as well.

First off, the plugin that keeps my LastFM playlist box updated has not been functioning for the better part of a week. It's working now, though, in case you care what I've been listening to.

Second, I'm adding a bunch of links to the blogroll. All of these are sources of good downloadable tunes, good writing, or both.

--Start with Lil' Mike's Last Known Thoughts & Random Recollections, currently the place to go for all things Cheap Trick.

--Proceed thence to Mars Needs Guitars, currently exploring originals and cover versions of songs by the Clash and the Rolling Stones.

--Hie thyself on to The Late Greats, which put up some live tracks from Corinne Bailey Ray, a singer you should know if you like Norah Jones, for example. Her album is currently Number One in the UK and she's starting to get noticed over here now, for good reason.

--Make tracks next to Living in Stereo, where you will learn interesting things. You'll find a superb essay there called "Two Reckonings: Bruce Springsteen and the Voices of Black Women," the sort of writing I'd like to do if I had the intellect and/or the attention span. The essay is actually by Danny Alexander, who wrote it for a Springsteen conference. Speaking of whom . . .

--There's Take Em as They Come, Alexander's blog, currently featuring a post about Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and the singer Pink as "gangstas." Great stuff.

--Our last blog-stop is Holler If Ya Hear Me. Any blog whose contributors number authors Craig Werner and Dave Marsh (and Danny Alexander) is worth my time on a regular basis, and yours, too. The blog publishes a regular list of what its contributors are listening to.

You Go Girls: I have never cared much for the Dixie Chicks. Although I thought "Goodbye Earl" was funny (and found myself mildly surprised that family-values obsessed country radio would embrace it), their mega-selling album Fly has been in my CD player exactly once. I have rarely hated an album so instantly and so completely as that one. Nevertheless, after they made their famously overblown anti-Bush remark, I admired the courage they showed in refusing to back down. They're still refusing. If you have not heard their single "Not Ready to Make Nice," from their new album Taking the Long Way, go to There's Always Someone Cooler Than You and download it now. It's as satisfying a record as you're going to hear all year.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

One Day in Your Life: June 10, 1972

June 10, 1972, was a Saturday on which the weather was the news. It was cold here in Madison--the National Weather Service recorded a killing frost, the latest one ever. In Rapid City, South Dakota, a series of thunderstorms dropped 15 inches of rain in six hours, causing a flood that killed 237 people.

President Nixon officially submitted the SALT Treaty with the Soviet Union to the Senate for ratification. The Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, who were to the 1970s what Al Qaeda is to the new millennium, blew up a bomb at the West German embassy in Dublin, Ireland. No one was hurt. The rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun officially retired from NASA. Barbara Jordan, who that fall would be elected the first black woman to serve in Congress, was officially governor of Texas all day. The governor and lieutenant governor were both out of state, making Jordan, president of the State Senate, the highest-ranking official in the state.

In sports, I was watching on TV when Riva Ridge won the Belmont Stakes. (He had also won the Kentucky Derby a few weeks before.) And I'm sure I noticed that Hank Aaron became the all-time National League leader in home runs when he hit the 694th of his career, a grand slam, as the Atlanta Braves beat Philadelphia 15-3.

On that day in music, jazz pianist Bill Evans played in Ljubljiana, Yugoslavia. Elvis Presley played his first-ever concerts in New York City, at Madison Square Garden, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. John Lennon and Bob Dylan both attended. David Cassidy drove the little girls wild at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. On that same day in Britain, David Bowie played in Leicester, while Gordon Lightfoot played the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Badfinger played in Whitchurch.

The Rolling Stones, one week into their epic 1972 American tour, played in Long Beach, California, the same day Exile on Main Street hit Number One on the U.S. album chart. However, the new Number One on the singles chart was "The Candy Man" by Sammy Davis Jr. Less offensive singles on the radio that same day included Elton John's "Rocket Man," "Take it Easy" by a new band called the Eagles, "Layla" by Derek and the Dominoes (the 45 version probably, without the glorious piano and slide guitar coda, alas), and the magnificent soul of Luther Ingram's "I Don't Want to Be Right." (mp3 download)

(Buy Luther here.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Top 5: Roll With the Changes

Last year, I wrote about the best summer job I ever had--rock and roll night guy on WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois. Six nights a week, I sat in a glassed-in studio on the 12th floor of a bank building, playing album rock on a station largely uncontaminated by commercials. And here are five of the most important albums we were playing during the early part of that summer.

A Decade of Rock and Roll/REO Speedwagon. It's an indication of REO's place in the Midwestern rock hierarchy that they could release a two-disc best-of almost a year before their national breakout of Hi Infidelity and "Keep on Lovin' You." A Decade of Rock and Roll was a great summation for their Midwestern fans. If all you know about REO are the 80s radio hits, you should hear this. Key tracks: "Golden Country, "Keep Pushin'," "Roll With the Changes," and "Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight"--which is probably the single greatest balls-to-the-wall performance of REO's career.

Just One Night/Eric Clapton. Clapton has recorded a gazillion live albums, and in the summer of 1980, we dutifully played the hell out of this one, although it probably wouldn't find its way onto many turntables today. Key tracks: "Tulsa Time," "Blues Power," "Cocaine."

Women and Children First/Van Halen.
Before heading out for the summer, I had written a scathing review of this album for my campus newspaper. It wasn't a review, actually--more a rant aimed at David Lee Roth, whose preening frat-boy routine got under my skin. (The review sparked a blizzard of angry letters to the paper, many of them from preening frat boys.) There was something about the band's signature guitar sound that I hated, too--it reminded me not so much of music as of engine backfire. And part of the reason I didn't like Van Halen was that everybody else did, and I was big into iconoclasm back then. My opinion has moderated over the years, though. I hear now, as I didn't hear then, how inventive they were, and I have even come to appreciate Roth's act, which is more stand-up comic than rock front-man. But Women and Children First still strikes me as unessential. Key track: "And the Cradle Will Rock."

Glass Houses
/Billy Joel.
This was another album I roundly hated back then, mostly because I had adored 52nd Street and The Stranger, and this couldn't have been more different, which was exactly the way Billy Joel wanted it. It was his attempt at making a real rock record, heavier on guitars (and attitude) than ever before. The heavier stuff didn't take, though. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" was the album's biggest hit; "Don't Ask Me Why" is probably its most enduring song. And 26 years later, I am still trying to turn the one cut I liked, "Sleeping With the Television On," into a hit.

Against the Wind/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. The stuff on this album is far removed from the Live Bullet era, or even from Night Moves just three years before. Seger's songs were just as good as ever, but he was clearly going for a pop audience, dialing back the rock and roll grit. This time, a crunchy rocker like "Her Strut" was the exception, while introspective tunes with lovely melodies ("Against the Wind," "No Man's Land," "Shinin' Brightly") were the norm. The album is docked points for "You'll Accomp'ny Me," partly for that stupid apostrophe in the title, and partly because it would represent the longest four minutes of Seger's career if it weren't for "We've Got Tonight."

Other key albums of the summer: Duke by Genesis, Departure by Journey, Empty Glass by Pete Townshend.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

I'll Take You There

It's the last day of school today--and if not today, then maybe yesterday, or tomorrow, or within a window of a week or two before or after today. Here in Wisconsin, the relatively small number of snow days this past winter has most kids getting out reasonably early in June this year, although a couple of years ago, they were there until almost Father's Day.

There's no feeling in adult life analogous to the last-day-of-school feeling. What comes closest is probably when you voluntarily quit a job, especially if it's a job you don't like very much. (Because I am an old radio guy, I have to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary quitting, because there's as much of the latter on my resume as the former.) The feeling of exhilaration at being set free and a sense of accomplishment over a job done, if not always well done, combine into a sensation of psychological weightlessness that's almost like flying.

And as you might expect, there are a few songs that remind me of what that flying feeling was like. They're records that call up a particular angle of the light around the house I grew up in, and that humid June feeling in the air (inside and out--no air conditioning in that house). In 1979, at the end of my first semester on the air in college, we were playing the hell out of "Roxanne" by the Police--it may have been the last song I played before heading out of town for the summer. In 1975, the end of my freshman year in high school, it was America's "Sister Golden Hair," and Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which I was playing multiple times a day that spring. In 1973 , the end of seventh grade, it was "Little Willy" by the Sweet and "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel. In 1972, the end of elementary school, it was "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers. And in 1971, the start of the first AM radio summer of my life, "Want Ads" by the Honey Cone.

(That summer, 1971, was also my last as a full-time child. By the next year, I would be expected to help my father with farm work, driving a tractor and such--my first experience with the obligations inherent in trading your life for money, at the princely sum of 85 cents an hour. So when the last day of school rolled around that year, to the tune of "I'll Take You There," it's logical to assume that the feeling of flying may have been a little less exhilarating than before, although I confess I can't actually remember.)

When you're an adult, summers don't come pregnant with possibility like they used to. But if you can remember how they used to, you can capture a little bit of those old possibilities yet. Like so much else in life, they're hidden in the grooves of those old vinyl records.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave

Today is 6/6/06. For most people, it's like Halloween in June, although some people really do think the world will end in the next few hours. I don't think it will, although Madison is under a tornado warning at the moment, so I can't be sure. However, I don't think that's how the apocalypse is supposed to begin. Some people think it will begin with the Rapture, when Christian believers are plucked off the planet, leaving the rest of us behind--and utterly screwed. I don't know about that either, but if you'd like to experience "Rapture" like you've never heard it before, visit this link and scroll down a bit.

Elsewhere around the music blogs tonight:

WFMU's Beware of the Blog has gone way overboard in honor of the day.

If you'd prefer a smaller and more manageable motherlode, Awesome Until Proven Guilty has a collection of appropriate tunes, from old school ("Sympathy for the Devil") to new (Bright Eyes and Beck).

If you've never heard Skip James' otherworldly "Devil Got My Woman," go to Un Violon, Un Jambon--and don't worry if you can't speak French.

The editorial staff at, in their daily feature "The Whole Note" (guys--you need an RSS feed), has come up with a listing of the devil's playlist--Black Sabbath, Robert Johnson at the crossroads, Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Hotel California among them.

"Hotel California" is one of Satan's masterworks, because Old Scratch put a secret backward message into it. And also into "Stairway to Heaven." And also into Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time." Jeff Milner is the only man among us with the courage to unmask the scandalous truth.

On a more serious note, if you've been anywhere else on the Internet tonight before coming here, you have probably learned that Billy Preston died today after a long illness. Various music bloggers have already posted tributes that are better than I could manage, so go visit them:

Lil' Mike's Last Known Thoughts and Random Recollections has the rundown of Preston's bio and posts a bunch of tracks, mostly with Preston as a sideman--but be sure to listen to Al Green's cover of "You Are So Beautiful," which Preston co-wrote. It's in the tradition of Green's great 70s covers of "For the Good Times" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," but it's from his 2005 album Everything's OK.

Cable and Tweed has posted some of Preston's biggest hits including "Outa-Space," "Nothing From Nothing," and "Will it Go Round in Circles."

It's getting darker outside here. Maybe I shouldn't have been so flippant about the end of the world. I hope to be back here tomorrow--but time will tell.

A Jump in The Lake

Legendary Chicago DJ Larry Lujack turns 66 years old today. For nearly 20 years, Lujack was the king of Chicago jocks, going back and forth between the city's Top-40 flamethrowers, WLS and WCFL. He retired in 1987, but returned to Chicago radio doing a weekend gig over the phone from his New Mexico home in 2000, and has co-hosted a morning show with old WLS partner Tommy Edwards on a small FM station in Chicago since 2003. Uncle Lar, also known as Superjock, is the greatest personality DJ in the history of radio, even though his personality was often sardonic and/or grumpy. (You can get a far-too-tiny taste of Lujack at his Radio Hall of Fame page, from the early days to his emotional 1987 farewell to his new-millennium return; find more Lujack clips and reminiscences here.)

I became a DJ largely because of Lujack, and I'm not the only radio guy who would say that. I was only 10 years old when I first heard him, and by the time I turned 11, I knew that I wanted to do what he did every morning. And I did it, for 18 years.

The things we love the hardest when we're young are often the things we never leave entirely behind. So, after I got out of radio entirely in 1997, I occasionally found myself tempted to get back in, but I never gave in to that temptation. And the further my radio days receded in the rearview mirror, the more it seemed that my DJ days were probably over--barring some specific, special situation that was too good to pass up.

Enter one specific, special situation. Old Uncle Lar's birthday seems like an appropriate date for me to tell you that later this month, I'll be going back on the air, doing weekends and fill-ins at The Lake (93.1 and 106.7) in Madison.

I wasn't interested in going back on the air just to play faceless and disposable AC or country hits. The Lake calls its format "timeless rock"--think classic rock, but with a much broader and deeper library than most classic rock stations. I'm a listener who knows the classic rock canon pretty well, and if they can surprise me, they've really got something. (Playing as I write: "All the Way From Memphis" by Mott the Hoople.) But here's the thing that's most amazing about the place: It's a throwback to the days when stations expected their jocks to know the music they play. We're expected to uncover interesting stories and facts about the performers and songs, and we're given time to use them on the air. Also, jocks in all dayparts--not just morning drive--are expected to connect with the community and talk about what's going on in the lives of its listeners.

In other words, this is no over-researched jukebox that tells jocks to read what's on the index cards and then shut the hell up. The people who run it believe that the way for the station to succeed is to--gasp!--hire jocks who know what they're doing, and then let them do it. That's what I meant by a special situation. Those of you with radio experience can best grasp how special it is. So how could I pass it up?

(Playing as I write: "Black Cow" by Steely Dan.)

I'm back, Uncle Lar. Happy birthday.

Monday, June 05, 2006

We're Putting the Band Back Together

During this week in 1983, the reformed Hollies made the Top 40 with their version of "Stop in the Name of Love." The Hollies were one of the first examples of a popular group that scored a lot of hits, broke up, and then reformed to work again. Since then, it seems like every band other than the Beatles has reunited, either to make new music, cash in on the old stuff, or both. Three more are in the news this week.

First up: the Zombies, who are planning an American tour for later this year. Not that they haven't gotten back together before--Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone played together at a gig in 1997, recorded an album under their own names in 2001 and under the Zombies name in 2004. Nevertheless, anybody who remembers how astoundingly good "Time of the Season," "She's Not There," and "Tell Her No" were has to be a bit excited by the prospect.

Next: Roxy Music. Talk about bands ahead of their time--listen to what Roxy Music was doing in the early 70s to hear the roots of the electro-mechanical music of the Second British Invasion of the early 80s. They last recorded in 1982. Brian Eno, last seen collaborating with Paul Simon on Simon's new album, Surprise, hasn't recorded with them since 1973, but he'll be participating this time, too, although not touring.

Last: the New Cars, who will release an album tomorrow featuring three new songs and several old Cars tunes covered by the new lineup, which includes Todd Rundgren. I had my doubts about this project last fall, and the Cars' hometown newspaper, the Boston Herald, checks in with a review that confirms some of my suspicions. The new tunes are reportedly OK, but the new versions of the old ones, not so much. The band is touring with Blondie--talk about your quintessential radio-friendly-new-wave concert bill--and has promised a whole album of all-new material if the tour goes well. So vote with your dollars, Cars fans.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Random Rewind: 1968

Time to revisit another week in Top 40 history via the historical wonder that is the Airheads Radio Survey Archive. From their massive database, we've plucked the "Music Power Pack" survey from WKNR in Detroit for this week in 1968--and here are a few randomly chosen hits from the list:

1. "This Guy's in Love With You"/Herb Alpert. This soothing and tasteful MOR classic did a month at Number One nationally--and maybe that's understandable, given the turmoil the country had endured so far in 1968. But it wouldn't keep another shock from coming, within days of this chart.

7. "Here Come da Judge"/Buena Vistas. Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In had premiered on NBC in January, and over its run would spawn catch-phrases by the barrel. "Here Come da Judge" was the first, coming from a 1940s-vintage comedy routine written and performed by Pigmeat Markham and revived on Laugh-In by Sammy Davis Jr. Four versions of "Here Come da Judge" would chart in 1968. Funky 16 Corners has much more.

11. "The Unknown Soldier"/Doors.
A lot of radio stations wouldn't touch this because of its overtly antiwar message, so it barely squeaked into the national Top 40. Stations would have been justified in refusing to play it for another reason, however: It's not very good. You can see a performance clip of the song here, notable for a bit in the middle where Robby Krieger, holding his guitar like a rifle, appears to shoot Jim Morrison.

12. "2 + 2 = ?"/Bob Seger. Another protest record, more subtle than "The Unknown Soldier":
All I know is that I'm young and your rules they are old
If I've got to kill to live
then there's something left untold
I'm no statesman I'm no general
I'm no kid I'll never be
It's the rules not the soldier
that I find the real enemy
In the summer of '68, Seger was still six months away from his first national hit, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man"--but he was already a huge star in his hometown.

17. "A Man Without Love"/Engelbert Humperdinck. Tom Jones wasn't enough to satisfy American housewives' desires for tanned and handsome crooners performing romantic ballads. Enter Engelbert Humperdinck, who made the Top 10 twice, with "Release Me" in 1967 and "After the Lovin'" in 1977. Between those records, he put several other romantic ballads into the middle reaches of the charts, had a network TV show, and settled into the Vegas routine he continues to occupy today. Nice work if you can get it.

21. "The Horse"/Cliff Nobles and Company.
This early Philadelphia soul recording was the instrumental track for "Love Is All Right," which was supposed to be Nobles' second single. It ended up on the B-side of the single as a throwaway. The vocal version stiffed, but then a DJ in Tampa turned the record over, and "The Horse" became one of the biggest instrumental hits of the 1960s. Cliff wasn't even in the room when his biggest hit was recorded.

23. "Journey to the Center of the Mind"/Amboy Dukes.
Another local legend in Detroit, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes were more psychedelics than headbangers in their day. Nugent, of course, has long since transcended music, gaining fame for his pro-hunting and anti-vegetarianism stances first, and later for embracing strongly right-wing politics. He is reportedly contemplating a run for governor of Michigan in four years. A recent profile in the Belfast Telegraph described a guy who is at best colorful, and at worst, batshit crazy.

25. "Sky Pilot"/Animals.
The last hit single for the Animals, and the first 45 to be released in stereo, "Sky Pilot" is one of the most exhilarating records you'll ever hear, if you can get past what's always felt to me like unfair criticism of the sky pilot, a chaplain whose job it is to comfort the flyers before their missions:
He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile
The order is given
They move down the line
But he's still behind and he'll meditate
But it won't stop the bleeding or ease the hate
29. "Things You Never Get Used To"/Supremes. You'd expect a radio station in Hitsville to play everything that came out of that little house on West Grand Avenue, whether they turned into big hits or not. Which none of the three Motown releases riding the WKNR chart 38 years ago this week became.

30. "Jumpin' Jack Flash"/Rolling Stones. In which the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band clearly is.