Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Noble Experiment

My post from two weeks ago on Real Oldies 1690 in Chicago and the comments received on it have sparked two posts' worth of additional thoughts. To read Part One, click here.

I was critical of the music format on Real Oldies 1690 in my original post, calling it "largely 50s and 60s MOR." That was a mischaracterization--the intent of the station, as Tommy Edwards described it in this 2003 interview with Edison Media Research, was to cover a specific period of the rock-n-roll era in more depth than mainstream oldies stations do:
We’re really focused on ’54-63. We’ll play a few songs from 1964, but those were holdovers by groups like the Four Seasons--there’s no British invasion music whatsoever. The songs we play from Sinatra and Nat King Cole were songs that were on the pop charts, although there are a few album cuts like “Chicago (My Kind of Town)” for obvious reasons. We also play a lot of the great R&B stuff that was segregated off the pop chart at the time . . . and the country crossovers and instrumentals of that era. Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka had a lot of hits; we’ll play 10-15 when you only hear one or two on other stations.
I don't know if Edwards' statement at the time the station signed on reflected the reality for very long. When I listened to the station, what I heard seemed pretty housewifey, and I didn't hear much R&B or country crossover stuff, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

Other stations around the country have tried this sort of pre-Beatles format, but it seems unlikely to me that that there's a big-enough audience for it to succeed anymore. Part of the reality is demographic: the kids who grew up on the music of the 1950s are pushing 70 now. The Grim Reaper killed elevator music radio in the early 90s, and he'll put big pressure on 50s-based formats in the next 10 years or so. In addition, "narrowcasting" has been fashionable for quite a while now, but the format as Tommy Edwards originally described it is one of the narrowest pop formats you'll find on terrestrial radio. It's more scholarly historical excavation than living format. Even with the broadening variations Edwards describes--adding R&B and country crossovers to the pop stuff--the format is ultimately airless. The artists who make up the core of mainstream oldies formats (and classic rockers like my radio station) are in many cases still touring and recording, so they retain some contemporary resonance. Far fewer artists from the pre-Beatles period are still viable, or even visible outside of PBS pledge specials.

But me no buts about the viability of jazz and classical formats. Even though the pioneers in those forms are long since dead, new generations continue to work in them, thus they are self-renewing in a way that rockabilly and doo-wop are not. It's not that there isn't any audience at all for pre-Beatles radio pop. There are people who remember when it was the stuff of mainstream radio, and people who are merely searching for something different, and certainly some of them will gravitate to such a format--but not in large-enough numbers to make it viable on terrestrial radio. In the future, they'll likely have to go to Internet radio or satellite to get it.

In the end, the ace up Real Oldies 1690's sleeve--the one that could have turned the game if Clear Channel had understood it--was its jocks. If the station was going to make it, it would do so as much on its personalities as on its music. However, there's an argument that a station staffed by guys who made their reputations in the 1960s and early 70s, as Larry Lujack, Scotty Brink, Ron Brittain, Jerry G. Bishop, and others did, might have done better overall by covering a different slice of time in the same way--say from the rise of Elvis to the release of Revolver, 1956 to 1966, playing the hits plus the MOR and country crossovers that don't make it onto oldies radio now. But there would be more duplication of that format with traditional oldies radio. One thing a pre-Beatles format doesn't have to worry much about is duplication, apart from Elvis, Buddy Holly, and maybe Jerry Lee Lewis--and even they're disappearing from mainstream oldies stations, which are largely 60s based anymore. But a 60s version of what Real Oldies 1690 was trying to do with the 50s would have to include artists such as the Beatles, Beach Boys, and various Motown performers, who are also core artists on mainstream oldies. However, if a station were willing to sell its veteran jocks as hard as it sells its musical image, it might be able to separate itself--but such a station wouldn't be viable outside the country's largest markets, and there'd be little point in doing it on national satellite. The attraction of Scotty Brink and World Famous Tom Murphy is obvious in Chicago, but in New York, you'd need different personalities to resonate in the same way.

In the end, we can probably chalk Real Oldies 1690 into the column of "noble experiment." Said column is littered with failed ideas that might have worked if they'd been executed better, but that's the thing about noble experiments: We'll never know what might have been.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Real Oldies Redux

My post on the demise of Real Oldies 1690 in Chicago is still generating traffic and comments, even though it's nearly two weeks old and has dropped off the front page. (I even heard from my former colleague Len O'Kelly, who'd been doing overnights and production there--per the usual format-change ritual, the staff got practically no notice and had to vacate the building almost immediately.) And I've got enough left to say about the station's end that it's going to take two more posts to get it all in.

As is often the case with niche formats, Real Oldies 1690 inspired serious passion among its fans, some of whom have organized a campaign to save the station. I'm pleased to see that they recognize the essential futility of what they're doing--because it is indeed futile. At the same time, I'm skeptical about the suggestion that Clear Channel's decision to lease the frequency to WVON is racist--which is not supported by the Chicago Defender articles the campaign website links to. I can't believe I'm going to defend a company that's done more harm to the soul of American radio than any other single actor in the last 10 years, but here I go: Surely Clear Channel sees upside in developing a closer relationship with Chicago's African-American community, but that's essentially a business decision, a decision not much different than a grocery store opening a branch in a neighborhood that doesn't have one. It's got far more to do with demographics and opportunity than race. Like major corporations in other industries, Clear Channel lives for one thing only, and that's to make money, and they believe there's more money to be made by leasing the frequency to WVON than there is to continue the Real Oldies format.

This leaves aside the question of whether Real Oldies could have been profitable with better marketing and promotion, of course. One commenter observed that the station was clogged with advertisements for products and services aimed at a seemingly elderly audience. He/she wondered why there were no ads for the kinds of places he/she, a person in his/her 50s, regularly patronizes: "Target, restaurants, movies, travel, etc," and hits the nail precisely by asking, "who was going around selling commercial air time for Real Oldies? A bunch of 25-year olds?" Probably. The age of the people selling the time shouldn't matter--if you're paid to sell the product, you should be able to sell the product. Also, ad agency people will tell you that demographic reports rule their decisions--but the fact is that often, station sales representatives and agencies simply don't "get" certain formats, and as a result they steer clients to formats they do get. (This is a bigger problem than it used to be, because one set of sales reps may be marketing seven or eight stations today, whereas back in my day they would have marketed two at the most.) When I was in elevator-music radio in the late 80s, we had research showing our target demographics, 45-64 and 55-death, were among the leaders in disposable income in our market. But we lost agency buys for restaurants and discount stores to a Top 40 station whose audience was largely ages 12-24.

Another commenter gets at another issue that's rarely discussed--the continuing devaluation of jocks. Clear Channel has been one of the leaders of this movement, taking advantage of automation and voice-tracking technology to slash personnel budgets, and other radio companies have followed suit. It's spun to station managers thusly--"Even though you are located in West Overshoe, you too can have major-market talent on your station." Except you will be giving up much of what makes radio attractive to a lot of listeners--the immediacy of a local guy sitting in a hometown studio.

Real Oldies 1690, too, was extensively voice-tracked from outside the Chicago market. The difference that makes up for the lack of immediacy was that many of the station's jocks had major Chicago pedigrees, and as such were tapped into the city's collective radio memory. You'd listen to them now because you listened to them then. They should have been as much a part of the station's image as the core musical artists. Not living in Chicago, I don't know whether the station ever promoted the return of Uncle Lar and Little Tommy, let alone the other guys, like Ron Brittain or Jerry G. Bishop, who'd be almost equally well-known to a significant number of longtime Chicago listeners. But I doubt it--because in Clear Channel's world, jocks don't matter all that much. They're interchangeable parts.

Coming tomorrow: some thoughts about the music on Real Oldies 1690.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What You Need for Modern Times

I hadn't been over to the Plagiarist for a while, but thank goodness I stopped by today. I found something that will keep me from having to do actual remunerative labor for the rest of the afternoon while I'm listening to tracks from the new Bob Dylan album. It's a meme--one of those lists that one blogger will complete and then tag other bloggers to complete on their own sites. This is one of the lengthiest memes I've ever seen, so I'm not going to tag anybody else with it officially (although I'd like to see what Homercat could do with it when he gets back from his current hiatus, and I'll bet Kevin at Got the Fever could have some fun with it, too). And here we go:

Favorite Beatles song: "In My Life"
Favorite Rolling Stones song: "Brown Sugar"
Favorite Doors song: "Riders on the Storm"
Favorite Bob Dylan song: either "Hurricane" or "Positively Fourth Street"
Favorite Led Zeppelin song: "Over the Hills and Far Away"
TV theme song: "Cleveland Rocks" (The Drew Carey Show)
Favorite Prince song: "Musicology"
Favorite Madonna song: "Borderline"
Favorite Michael Jackson song: "I'll Be There" (cheating; sue me)
Favorite Queen song: "You're My Best Friend"
Favorite Motorhead song: none
Favorite Ozzy song: none
Favorite Public Enemy song: none
Favorite song from a cartoon: either "Happy Happy Joy Joy" (from The Ren and Stimpy Show) or "O Tannenbaum" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas)
Favorite Bruce Springsteen song: "The Wish" (from the Tracks box)
Favorite Depeche Mode song: none
Favorite Cure song: none
Favorite song that most of your friends haven't heard: "This Is Love" by Mary Chapin Carpenter
Favorite Smiths song: none
Favorite Beastie Boys song: none
Favorite Clash song: "Hitsville UK"
Favorite Police song: "Wrapped Around Your Finger"
Favorite Eurythmics song: "Would I Lie to You"
Favorite Beach Boys song: "Sloop John B"
Favorite Cyndi Lauper song: "All Through the Night"
Favorite song from a movie: "Wise Up" by Aimee Mann (largely for the way it's featured in Magnolia)
Favorite Duran Duran song: "Union of the Snake"
Favorite Peter Tosh song: "(You Gotta Walk and) Don't Look Back"
Favorite Johnny Cash song: "Sunday Morning Comin' Down"
Favorite song from an 80s one-hit wonder: "Tragedy" by John Hunter
Favorite song from a video game: In my day, we were happy when there were bells on the pinball machine
Favorite Kinks song: "Come Dancing"
Favorite Genesis song: either "Follow You Follow Me" or "Throwing it All Away"
Favorite Thin Lizzy song: "The Boys Are Back in Town" (anybody who names anything else is a better man than I)
Favorite INXS song: "What You Need"
Favorite Weird Al song: either "One More Minute" or "Hooked on Polkas"
Favorite Peter Gabriel song: "Games Without Frontiers"
Favorite John Lennon song: "Stand by Me"
Favorite Pink Floyd song: "Comfortably Numb"
Favorite White Stripes song: none
Favorite dance song: It doesn't matter; I can dance to anything provided I'm drunk first
Favorite U2 song: "Pride (In the Name of Love)"
Favorite song from an actor turned musician: I'm still waiting for Abe Vigoda to make an album; that's gonna rock
Favorite disco song: "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" by Tavares
Favorite power ballad: "More Than a Feeling" by Boston (the first power ballad)
Favorite Guns 'n' Roses song: "Paradise City" (didn't think I'd have one, did you?)
Favorite Who song: "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Favorite Elton John song: "Rocket Man"
Favorite song, period: "(They Just Can't Stop It) Games People Play" by the Spinners

Nothing especially unique there, I know--but I am a 70s guy raised on the Top 40. If you'd like to play along at home--whether you want to tackle the whole list or just a few--use the comments.

About the Dylan: As I've written previously, I missed Dylan during his most explosive period. Although I've gone back and listened to some of his landmark albums and sampled him now and then over the last 20 years, I wouldn't call myself a fan. But anybody who cares about rock and roll has to respect Dylan's place in the pantheon, and admire his desire to keep on keepin' on at his relatively advanced age. And based on a few tracks I've downloaded from various music blogs (via the Hype Machine), Bob's sounding good on Modern Times. "The Levee's Gonna Break," which is playing as I write, is superb; "Thunder on the Mountain" is pretty good, too.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Random Notes on a Rainy Afternoon

I don't know what the weather's doing where you are, but here it's been raining all day--the sort of rain that makes you think autumn is not far off. Here are a few thoughts that have been in my head this afternoon.

In the comments a couple of weeks ago, my pal Willie mentioned the impending demise of Tower Records, once one of the behemoths of record retailing. Over the weekend, a story about the bankruptcy of the company appeared online and in newspapers. I agree with the analyst who said that the failure can't be blamed on digital downloads, although that would make sense at first blush. Tower's bankruptcy is more about getting left behind as the music business changed--music sales slumped generally, having an online business became critically important, and other retailers, most notably Walmart, could undercut their prices. And it's not just Tower that's getting killed that way. There's no music store in the big mall out here on the west side of Madison anymore, and hasn't been for nearly a year. The ones that used to be there, FYE and before that Musicland/Sam Goody, were ridiculously expensive toward the end--you'd be paying full list price for most of the stuff you bought, although the selection was usually extremely good. You could walk across the parking lot to Shopko and pay a lot less.

Coincidentally, another good comment to the same post noted that downloading, which allows consumers to buy songs they like one at a time, is merely the modern equivalent of buying 45s, as so many of us did back in the day. I haven't quite gotten used to that yet--if I'm going to buy music online, I still feel like I have to download entire albums. And I bought a killer yesterday: Nothing But the Water by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. I should have discovered this band a month ago when Homercat at Good Rockin' Tonight posted about them, but I didn't. And so I have gone an entire month, unnecessarily, without having this album in my life. If you're a Bonnie Raitt fan, or you dig a blues band anchored by a smokin' Hammond B3, you'll dig this. Which is basically what Homercat said, but because I am an idiot, I missed hearing Grace until this past weekend. If you want a taste, click here.

I should mention too that jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson died last week. For a brief period in the late 70s and early 80s, he was probably the most famous jazz musician in the country. His version of "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky and the album Conquistador was a hit single in 1977, and sometime around 1980 he played a concert at my college that brought rock fans to their feet, repeatedly--although by that point, jazz fans were abandoning him precisely because he'd gone pop. In the Washington Post, David von Drehle wrote an appreciative column from the point of view of a late-70s teenage fan.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled afternoon, already in progress.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Top 5: Ring My Sharona

It's one of the tenets of this blog that the disco era, on the Top 40 at least, began with the release of Saturday Night Fever, and that it continued until August of 1979. That was when "My Sharona" by the Knack hit Number One and signaled that times were changing, again. But that's just my opinion--I could be wrong. First, five records from this week in 1979 that prove I'm right:

"My Sharona"/The Knack. As roundly hated by critics as any new band in history (partly for being unwilling to court the media, partly for imitating the Beatles on their album cover), the Knack nevertheless brought power chords and rock attitude back to the Top 40 at a moment when it seemed like all was lost.

"Goodbye Stranger"/Supertramp.
"The Logical Song" had ruled the radio during the summer, but it sounded like a novelty record compared to this, which rocked harder than anything Supertramp would ever take into the Top 40.

"Let's Go"/The Cars. There'd never been anyone who sounded quite like the Cars, and it would be several years until we figured out what they were--the precursor to the chilly English dance-pop of the 1980s, only with better musicianship and greater rock credibility.

"I Want You to Want Me"/Cheap Trick. Their first two albums had generated an underground buzz, and "Surrender" had been a modest hit on the singles charts in 1978. Live at Budokan was their breakthrough record, and it's as much the screaming energy of the Japanese fans as it is the energy of Cheap Trick themselves that makes the record.

"Bad Case of Loving You"/Robert Palmer.
In which Palmer exchanges blue-eyed soul for guitar edge--an edge that would stomp later records like "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistable," which strived to sound even harder and didn't make it.

And now, five records from this week in 1979 that prove I'm wrong, and that disco had as strong a hold as ever:

"The Main Event"/Barbra Streisand.
Absolutely everybody was dabbling in disco by this time--remember, Ethel Merman made a disco record in 1979. Streisand had the beat, but she lacked the soul to be remotely credible.

"Ring My Bell"/Anita Ward.
I hated this record back then--those stupid syn-drums in the intro and Ward's breathy sex-kitten voice. Although Bad Company was using syn-drums at the same time (on "Rock and Roll Fantasy") and I didn't mind them.

"I Was Made for Lovin' You"/Kiss. Make no mistake--despite their rep as the ultimate rock band, this is a disco record, and one as lacking in credibility as Streisand's. Even when they were rockin' at their hardest, they never sounded as white as they do here.

"Makin' It"/David Naughton.
Another disco record thoroughly steeped in whiteness. This was the theme song from a TV show starring Naughton, who later starred in An American Werewolf in London and as an alcoholic boyfriend of Elaine's who falls off the wagon at the office Christmas party on Seinfeld.

"Born to Be Alive"/Patrick Hernandez.
Completely disposable disco--you'd heard it before and you'd hear it again, although not specifically on this record. You knew this record would never get back on the radio once it fell out of recurrents.

I have a theory, which I haven't explored in detail but which I think is halfway plausible, that the period between "My Sharona" in '79 and the release of "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" from Thriller in early 1983--of which this week is typical--represents an inter-decade period that is neither entirely 70s nor entirely 80s in nature. It's a period when dance music and rock music co-existed uncomfortably on the charts, not only never meshing, but seeming utterly opposite of one another. (Thus it's no surprise that this in this period, Top 40 as a radio format began to splinter.)

But I could be wrong about that, too.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I'm Outta Here

During my radio career, I got fired on four separate occasions. The first was for refusing to take a more responsible position without receiving any additional money. The second was after being suspected (wrongfully) of industrial espionage. The third was after a new program director came on board and began systematically sacking the airstaff to provide jobs for his ne'er-do-well friends. The fourth was probably the most legitimate--an owner felt he needed to cut the budget and decided to sack the burnout case.

The third one happened on a Saturday afternoon. The new PD had been on the job a couple of months, and while he'd been careful to do the customary shuck--"we plan no major changes"--it was pretty clear that change was in the air. Two jocks and a couple of sales people had already been sacked. So when the PD showed up at the office that Saturday half-an-hour before I was supposed to get off the air, I knew precisely why he was there.

I finished my last break with, "Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a pleasure"--and walked out to face my fate. Would that I had done that last break with a bit more panache: "Ladies and gentlemen, my boss is in his office right now, and since he doesn't normally drag his ass in here on the weekend, there can be only one explanation for it--I'm about to get fired. But it's OK, really--working here has sucked like a $5 prostitute since he got to town. I take consolation in the fact that tomorrow, I will start whatever the next phase of my life is--but he'll still be the same slimy bastard he is this afternoon."

(At least I got fired in person. The woman who preceded me on the air that Saturday got fired on her answering machine that night. The PD could have sacked both of us in person when we changed shifts, but then he would have had to do the Saturday afternoon show himself. And he was the kind of asshole who wouldn't. I am not a person who carries grudges, but if this guy were drowning in a puddle at my feet, I wouldn't bend over to save him, and it's been 16 years.)

So anyway: A jock in Mobile, Alabama, quit her job on the air a couple of weekends back. "Izetta the Mood Setta" from urban contemporary station WBLX wrapped her show with a blunt rant (hear it here) about how she'd been mistreated and underpaid, and signed off with "I quit this bitch." She'd apparently been working at the station six years and was making only $6.50 an hour, but was also feeling back-stabbed by the staff and management.

Management, by the way, had a priceless comment amidst the usual corporate boilerplate about how Izetta should have spoken up about her complaints. The representative suit also criticized her for using words on the air that could have been damaging to children. Please. It isn't like a child who's been listening to R&B and hip-hop hasn't heard the word "bitch" before.

(Thanks to Pat for the tip.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Boogie Chillen

Haven't done one of these history things for a while, so here we go.

August 22, 2003: A Norwegian Elvis impersonator sings the King's songs for 26 straight hours to set a world record. It must have seemed important at the time.

August 22, 1979: Led Zeppelin's final studio album, In Through the Out Door, is released. The album is shipped in six different covers, although it's also shipped in a brown outer wrapper that makes it impossible for buyers to see which cover they are getting.

August 22, 1966: Two teenagers climb to the second floor ledge of a New York City hotel and threaten to jump unless they are permitted to meet the Beatles, who are in town for a concert. The cops talk them down; they don't meet the band.

August 22, 1965: The Beatles' second film, Help!, has its American premiere. Although it hasn't endured like A Hard Day's Night, the film is credited with inspiring the visual styles of both The Monkees and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

August 22, 1956: Production begins on Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley's first film. Originally set to be called The Reno Brothers, its title was changed to "Love Me Tender" after a song that was tacked on to the end of the film. Elvis is billed third and plays Clint Reno, a supporting character who dies in the end. "Love Me Tender" was reportedly tacked on because preview audiences disliked the fact that Clint/Elvis had died.

August 22, 1906: The Victor Talking Machine Company introduces the first gramophone with a built-in speaker, which is known as the Victrola. List price: $200, which is equivalent to something like $4,300 today.

Birthdays Today:
Ron Dante is 61. Dante sang lead anonymously on the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and the Cuff Links' "Tracy," which were in the Top 10 at the same time in the fall of 1969. He was also Barry Manilow's producer until 1981, but "Sugar Sugar" makes up for that.

John Lee Hooker would either be 86 or 89 today, depending on the source, had he not died in 2001. A blues growler better known to contemporary listeners for his famous friends, such as the Blues Brothers, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, and Bonnie Raitt, than for his own catalog, which includes "Boogie Chillen" and "Boom Boom."

Number One Songs on This Date:
1989: "Right Here Waiting"/Richard Marx.
For a few minutes in the late 80s, Marx had a perfect grasp on what pop radio required. When it required a desperately dull 4-1/2 minute ballad, he delivered this.

1980: "Magic"/Olivia Newton-John.
Actually a fairly respectable pop record, neither weird nor unlistenable. That would be ONJ's other summer-of-80 hit, the title song from the movie Xanadu, an inexplicable collaboration with ELO that represented the moment at which that band's career jumped the shark.

1974: "The Night Chicago Died"/Paper Lace. Essential 70s trash. If you have to ask, you'll never know.

1970: "Make it With You/Bread. Their first Top-40 hit, and--surprisingly--their only Number One song.

1944: "G.I. Jive"/Louis Jordan. In the 1990s, when swing and boogie-woogie came briefly back into fashion, I kept waiting for the big Louis Jordan revival. It never happened, but it should have. Jordan would become an enormously popular R&B figure in the postwar era, and as such, is one of the fathers of rock and roll, albeit largely unknown.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Station Seeks Goldmine, Listeners Get Shaft

There's been lots of stuff piling up in my inbox for over a week, so now's the time to clear it out.

A reader sent along the link to a Los Angeles Times story about the demise of the last country station in the L.A. market, KZLA, which went to "beat-heavy R&B and dance tunes" last Thursday. Several major markets are without country stations now, especially on the coasts. KZLA got caught in Southern California's demographic switches. Do the math: According to an executive at KZLA's parent company, Emmis Communications, the market is now about 40 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and eight percent black. Country listeners, meanwhile, are about 98 percent Caucasian.

And some of those people are pissed. One woman quoted in the story said, "I think it's racist. This is becoming a nation of minorities. I'm not going to turn on my radio anymore. Country music promotes patriotism and family values, and they've replaced it with something that just promotes money and hate." You'd be hard-pressed to find four sentences that better encapsulate our current culture wars. You've got A) a white person claiming to be the victim of racism; B) the demonstrably correct statement that the country is becoming a nation of minorities, but made with the conviction that the situation is highly regrettable; C) the insistence that country music is a bastion of "patriotism and family values"--as if non-whites are incapable of either being patriotic or valuing their families; and D) the insistence, likely without having heard note one of it, that beat-heavy R&B and dance tunes automatically promote materialism and hatred. That part is true, to a point: some R&B/dance songs do indeed promote values that run counter to what many people believe in--just as some country songs glorify alcohol, adultery, and anti-intellectualism, which runs counter to the values of others.

But the fact is that radio companies aren't stupid where the opportunity to make wheelbarrows full of cash is concerned. (They're often stupid in other ways, but not that one.) The country-music industry executives who are predictably bemoaning the decision know, behind their public faces of disappointment, that if country can be profitable in Los Angeles (or New York, or San Francisco, or anywhere else), somebody will figure out how to do it. If country radio is dead in major coastal markets, it's for good reasons. It surely isn't because the executives at Emmis Communications hate white people. And the country execs are weeping crocodile tears anyhow--as the article notes, 2006 so far has been one of the best years ever for sales of country music. Its fans are finding it--and they will continue to do so.

On another subject: A friend of mine, long out of radio himself, responded to my statement a while back that I find being on the air in the year 2006 like riding a bicycle, but that the bicycle is more technologically advanced than the one I learned on. He reminds me just how complicated it was being a combo announcer/engineer back in the day--there were pots, meters, cart machines, turntables, and reel-to-reel racks to mess with, plus a program log to follow and meter readings to take. And yeah, that's a far cry from point and click--although we've still got pots to play with.

And finally: Doing research for my radio show a while back, I found an interesting site called Acclaimed Music, which purports to be a sort of meta-critic site, compiling the opinions of many music critics into consensus lists of the most acclaimed albums and artists in various years, and for all time. There's plenty of interesting clicking to be done there. During the same bout of research, the mysterious hand of Google brought me to Up the Downstair, a music site based right here in Madison that features a regular podcast and posts on "live music from divers artistes." Recent editions have featured prog rock, Madeline Peyroux, and surf guitar--which is sho-nuff diverse.

(A version of this post is at Best of the Blogs.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

You Didn't Have to Be There

This past week, Pitchfork unveiled its list of the 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. The writers say that the list is made up of "the 200 songs that most resonate with a generation too young to have experienced the decade firsthand, but old enough to know it had more to offer than '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.'" (Technically, that generation includes me, given that I didn't start listening to the radio until 1970--but I my guess is that many of the Pitchfork folks were born in 1970 or later.) I was going to try listing a few of the tunes that caught my eye as particularly interesting choices, but there are too many, so you'll have to read it yourself. If you don't have time (and you may not, as it's a l-o-o-o-n-g set of clicks), the blog Heartache With Hard Work (whose template you may find familiar) comments on the list as a whole, rightfully noting that the stuff at the top is somewhat predictable. Only somewhat, however. A few of the tracks at the top are surprising enough to make you think twice about how you remember the 1960s.

Also from the music blogs: If you are a Fleetwood Mac fan, get thyself over to the mighty Jefitoblog for some outtakes from Rumours.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Random Rewind: 1986

I was involved, either as a listener or as a radio guy, with the day-to-day progression of pop music from 1970 until 1986. On the first working day of 1987, I went into elevator music radio. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.) Although I tried to keep up with the pop charts, it got harder--and the pop charts themselves were becoming a lot less interesting to me as times changed in the late 80s and I got older. I worked an adult contemporary format for three years in the early 90s, at the precise moment AC was becoming the blandest format imaginable. Sometime in these years I developed the following Law of Radio: In any market, the station promoting itself as having "the best variety" will in fact be the dullest station in town. Then it was off to classic rock, and eventually out of radio entirely.

Where was I? Oh yeah. This is a roundabout way of saying we're approaching the 20th anniversary of the Top 40 ceasing to matter to me the way it had since I was 10. And so here's a look back at some random selections off the Cash Box chart from this week in 1986.

1. "Papa Don't Preach"/Madonna. (peak)
In which an unwed mother wants to keep the baby, and asks for understanding from her father. This was controversial back then. Madonna had shown no signs of wanting to do anything but party since she burst on the scene a couple of years before, but now here she was offending both pro-choicers (for keeping the baby) and pro-lifers (by being an unwed slut). It might still be mentioned as a pro-life anthem today, were it not for the whole unwed-slut thing.

5. "Higher Love"/Steve Winwood. (climbing) Back in the High Life is as good an album as anybody made in the 1980s, although this song hasn't held up all that well after 20 year of continuous airplay. I wouldn't mind hearing "Split Decision" again right now, though.

8. "Dancing on the Ceiling"/Lionel Richie. (climbing) The record that made urban contemporary radio wonder whatever became of their old pal Lionel. "Dancing on the Ceiling" was the whitest record he had made to date (and inspired one of the lamest videos of all time). Of course, we hadn't yet heard "Ballerina Girl," the very thought of which makes me want to pull my arm off and use it to beat myself to death.

15. "Sweet Freedom"/Michael McDonald. (climbing)
16. "Danger Zone"/Kenny Loggins. (falling)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the Golden Age of Yacht Rock, apparently.

22. "Stuck With You"/Huey Lewis and the News. (climbing)
It's interesting to me how Huey Lewis and the News have become, in the last several years, shorthand for lame 80s rock. Yeah, OK, the album Fore! sounds today like the soundtrack for suburban fatherhood, and "Stuck With You," in retrospect, is one the first suburban-dad anthems, but Fore! got AOR play when it was released late in 1986 and contained two Number-One singles. It doesn't matter how he's perceived today, though. Huey gets the last laugh every time the checks come in.

32. "Rumbleseat"/John Cougar Mellencamp. (climbing) On Scarecrow, Mellencamp addressed the rural economic crisis that was destroying towns like the ones he knew in Indiana, at a time when social commentary had been largely absent from the Top 40 for 15 years or more. He seemed to have completed the journey from snotty punk to important artist. Except his snotty side never went away, and he never again recorded an album remotely as valuable or true.

41. "Velcro Fly"/ZZ Top. (climbing) This may be exactly the same record as ZZ Top's other post-Eliminator singles, "Sleeping Bag," "Rough Boy," and "Stages," but you'd need an advanced degree to tell the difference. And you'd have to be a fan to care.

48. "Two of Hearts"/Stacey Q. (climbing) Faceless, vapid, annoying dance pop, notable only because it was involved in a wager between my pal Shark and me. I was working in Macomb, Illinois, at the time; he was on the air in Marquette, Michigan. So when Western Illinois played Northern Michigan in football that fall, we bet on the game. The loser had to go on the winner's show and sing "Two of Hearts." WIU won, so Shark lost. It wasn't his finest radio moment, no.

61. "Secret Separation"/The Fixx. (falling)
The Fixx played Macomb at some point during my time there, and they employed one of the more unusual bits of staging I'd ever seen, then or since. The between-shows soundcheck had been going on for a while without a break, and what we thought was a drum technician was beating on the drum kit. Except it was the drummer, and after a couple of minutes, the rest of the band strolled on stage and started to play while the house lights were still up and half the crowd was out in the lobby.

I said it was unusual; I didn't say it was an especially good idea.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Real Oldies

I've written here before about Larry Lujack, the legendary Chicago DJ who's largely responsible for making me want to be a radio guy. His dominance in Chicago ended in the mid-80s, and 19 years ago this month, WLS bought out the 12-year contract he had signed only three years before. The radio industry was changing, yes, but Lujack was clearly burned out after 20 years at the top in Chicago--to hear him in the later years was almost painful. Unable to work as a condition of the buyout, he lived in the Chicago area for several years afterward, but eventually retired to New Mexico, where he often said he was "dodging rattlesnakes and waiting to die."

In 2000, Chicago's WUBT re-upped him for a weekend show that ran for about seven months. In the fall of 2003, Clear Channel paired him with former WLS jock Tommy Edwards on Real Oldies 1690. (In the 70s and 80, Edwards and Lujack had co-hosted "Animal Stories" on WLS, perhaps the most hilarious use of a simple concept in the history of radio.) As he'd done on WUBT, Lujack provided his bits for the morning show from a studio in his New Mexico home. Tuesday, Real Oldies 1690 ceased to be--Lujack, Edwards, and the rest of the jocks, who included fellow Chicago legends Scotty Brink, Ron Brittain, and Tom Murphy (and the overnight guy, Len O'Kelly, with whom I worked in Davenport, Iowa, in the late 80s), were turfed, and the signal is going to be leased to another station effective tomorrow.

That kind of thing happens in the industry, of course. I couldn't begin to guess the number of format-change-related firings among five guys the likes of Edwards, Lujack, Brink, Brittain, and Murphy, who must have nearly 250 years' experience altogether. But the fact that Real Oldies 1690 lasted nearly three years was a bit of an upset to begin with. The signal was terrible. Most of the jocks were voice-tracking their shows from faraway places. Promotion was nonexistent. And the music, far from being the stuff of classic AM Top 40, was largely 50s and 60s MOR. It's what kids like me who listened to WLS were escaping from--the stuff our parents liked.

Asked for a comment, Lujack was quintessentially Lujack. If you know the voice, you can hear it:
Given the fact that I am still charming, still delightful, and still blessed with the God-given ability to pleasure the listeners in every conceivable way, you would think that some station manager would be eager to throw money at me. But with the idiots running radio stations these days, who knows?
I could have said the same thing myself when I got out of radio the last time.

Lujack is 66 now, and most likely doesn't need to work anymore. But I never expected him to come back the last time, or the time before that. And as I know from my own experience, radio's a funny thing. You miss it, even when you try hard not to, or tell yourself you don't.

(Thanks to Willie for the tip.)

(Further commentary on Real Oldies 1690 is here.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Long Time Gone

Thirty-seven years ago today, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair opened in upstate New York. Scratch an ex-hippie, and many will wax lyrical about "three days of peace, love, and music" and the magical community that sprang up in the countryside, where people got stoned, played together in the flowers and the mud, danced for hours to unbelievable music, and spontaneously formed the forever indivisible Woodstock Nation. Well, not exactly. While it's probably not true that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren't there--surely one of the snottiest catchphrases the 60s generation ever dreamed up--a lot of what people "remember" about Woodstock isn't true, and some of what they've forgotten is interesting. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list.

Who was on the bill and who wasn't. Thousands of people "remember" Joni Mitchell singing her song "Woodstock" on stage at the festival. It didn't happen. She was booked, but never got to the festival after authorities closed the New York State Thruway to keep the crowd from becoming even more unmanageable. (Crosby Stills Nash and Young perform it in the concert film, but that performance was recorded later.) Other thousands have forgotten that Creedence Clearwater Revival played the festival, following the Grateful Dead and preceding the Who, during the early-morning hours of Sunday. The reason is that CCR's performances are not in the movie; performances by the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Blood Sweat and Tears also didn't make it in. Jimi Hendrix, who was supposed to close the show at midnight Sunday, didn't get on until 9AM Monday, thanks to the famous rainstorm and lengthy sets by earlier acts, including Crosby Stills Nash and Young, who famously admitted to being "scared shitless" by the size of the crowd. Playing the set immediately before Hendrix: Sha-Na-Na, who at that moment of the 1960s had counterculture credibility. Because it was Monday morning, only scattered handfuls of people saw what Hendrix considered a subpar performance. The Doors were booked but canceled at the last moment; John Lennon offered to perform but was turned down by the promoters, who had asked him to bring the Beatles. Led Zeppelin turned down an invitation in favor of a better-paying gig elsewhere.

The free festival. Woodstock wasn't intended to be a free festival, even though it eventually became one, after the logistical nightmare caused by 500,000 people showing up when 60,000 were expected--and thanks to the widespread belief that the festival was in fact going to be free. Three-day tickets cost $18--which was expensive for 1969, equivalent to about $95 in current dollars.

Peace, love, and music.
That was the phrase the promoters settled on, but they also intended to make money. Trust-fund baby John Roberts had the initial bankroll; his partners included Yale-educated lawyer Michael Rosenman, record executive Artie Kornfeld, and local businessman Michael Lang. They had the presence of mind to record and film the show for later release. Organizers had tried to prepare for the crowd they expected, but the concept of corporate sponsorship for such events was largely unknown. Vendors were brought on-site, but they were quickly cleaned out by the crowd. So volunteers made PB&J sandwiches by the hundreds, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best. Roberts ended up bouncing hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks during the festival in the attempt to meet the needs of the throng.

Back to the garden. The significance of Woodstock is a bit overrated, I think. For all the talk of "Woodstock Nation," it's worth noting that the nation was primarily white, middle-class, and East Coast. And for all the talk of Woodstock marking the climax of the 1960s, it's just as much the off-ramp. A little more than three months later, the communal ethos of Woodstock would go horridly sour at Altamont. A year after Woodstock, the antiwar movement that was as much the generation's glue as the music suffered a fatal blow at Sterling Hall. From there, it became a duel between Woodstock veterans who claimed that if you remembered it you weren't there and an ever-growing number of people who claimed to have been there but really weren't. Succeeding anniversary shows were little more than cynical attempts to exploit a younger generation's desire to have their own Woodstock experience. The last one, Woodstock '99, dissolved in a disastrous riot, and likely marked the last time anybody would try to emulate the original, or would want to.

Bob Spitz's Barefoot in Babylon is the best history of the festival, although it's out of print. The Woodstock 69 website has some interesting stories and memorabilia also.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I Think I've Only Got Five of Them

The Recording Industry Association of America recently published an updated list of the all-time top-selling albums. Here's the new Top 10, in reverse order, including the number of copies sold.

T9. Rumours/Fleetwood Mac. (19 million) Almost every track is pretty crispy from 30 years of continuous airplay, but if you want to know what the 70s sounded like, you still need this.

T9. "The White Album"/Beatles. (19 million) It's a mild surprise that this album ranks as low as it does, given that it's on the short list of music that will always be cool to every new generation. (The other stuff on that list is a post for another time.)

T7. Come on Over/Shania Twain. (20 million)
If country is where mainstream rock went to die (more on that below), this is the precise plot where it's buried. Calling this country is mostly a marketing term, thanks largely to Twain's husband and producer, Mutt Lange, who shaped the sound of Foreigner and AC/DC's Back in Black. The polish on Shania's records is out of the old Foreigner bottle.

T7. Double Live/Garth Brooks. (20 million) Industry observers think that many of the albums on this list will hold their high positions forever, as the splintering of the pop market makes mega-million-sellers less likely. If that's true, future generations will wonder who Garth Brooks was--he's less relevant now than anybody else on this list.

T5. Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2/Billy Joel. (21 million) This is the one on the list that surprised me the most. It's a good package, but if you spent your money The Stranger and An Innocent Man, you'd have most of it--and better filler.

T5. Back in Black/AC-DC. (21 million)
I wrote about AC/DC earlier this summer. You can read it again if you want to.

T3. The Wall/Pink Floyd (23 million)
Since I know you're wondering, Dark Side of the Moon has sold 15 million and ranks outside the Top 10, alongside other 15-million sellers including Born in the USA by Springsteen, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. Like most two-disc albums do, The Wall seems padded to me in a way that DSOTM doesn't.

T3. "Four Symbols"/Led Zeppelin. (23 million)
In the last couple of months, I have met people aged 25 and aged 9 who think that Zeppelin is the ultimate in cool--and this is as cool as they got.

2. Thriller/Michael Jackson. (27 million)
This spawned something like seven Top-10 hits, which was unprecedented then and unlikely to be repeated now. But which ones are still getting airplay now, and on what formats? I wonder.

1. Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975/Eagles. (29 million) A widely published Denver Post story on the RIAA's new list included a couple of knowledgeable music commentators greeting this with disbelief and outrage, but Don Henley has the simple explanation: "Well-crafted, well-played songs with memorable melodies and decent lyrics." Its success is all the more astounding when you realize it doesn't include anything from Hotel California and The Long Run. All that stuff is on Greatest Hits Volume II, which has sold 11 million to date.

Recommended Reading:
I'm a little behind on this, but last week, the AP's entertainment writer, David Bauder, who is probably about my age, decided it was time to get back to his Top 40 roots, so he downloaded the current Top 40 from iTunes and listened to all of them. His conclusions: The dominant subject matter of the Top 40--boy meets girl--hasn't changed since back in the day; the ratio of good songs to bad songs is about the same, too; female vocalists don't have to ask for "Respect," like Aretha did 40 years ago--they assume, as they rightly should, that they're entitled to it; most rap is dull; and "Country is where mainstream rock went to die."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Fever

I was out of town for a couple of days this past week and missed my usual Friday feature, which will return next week, and I've got other stuff I have to attend to today, so I'll let other people handle your music-blogging needs.

Get thyself over to Got the Fever, a brand-new blog that's going to be terrific. Kevin's inaugural post features Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. If you know them, you know that they're a traveling party that starts whenever you hit the "play" button. If you don't know them, well, that's why you need to visit Got the Fever, which is named for one of SSJ's best tunes.

I was pleased to see that London Lee at The Number One Songs in Heaven shares my opinion that the Four Seasons did some of their best work in the mid 1970s, and that he mentions the great "Silver Star," which followed "Who Loves You" and "December 1963" into the Top 40 in the summer of 1976. But apart from the Seasons, Frankie Valli was also enjoying some of his greatest solo success at approximately the same time. In the late summer of 1975, Valli took "Swearin' to God" into the Top 10--and The Number One Songs in Heaven has the extra-long dancefloor version posted right now.

The Stepfather of Soul has the strange history of Isaac Hayes' performances at Wattstax--and other oddities surrounding this famous soul music showcase, which is available on DVD, and is must viewing for anybody who digs 70s soul.

And that oughta hold you for a while.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cruising and Streaming

Monday night, for the first time in years, I hosted a radio station event. The Lake (93.1/106.7) does a series of sunset cruises on Madison's lakes--a listener and three friends get the ride on a top-of-the-line powerboat plus a wine-and-cigar tasting and some fabulous views of Madison, all hosted by a station personality. This time, said personality was me. (If the winners were disappointed at being hosted by the weekend guy who's only been at the station a couple of months, they didn't show it.)

That we don't do traditional contests is part of The Lake's identity. We have a Listener Advisory Panel people sign up for online, then we draw names from the list of members to award prizes. In the past, the station has run promotions allowing panel members to build up points, which they could use to bid on various perks, from cruises to concert tickets to station swag. So there's no "be caller number 11"--and I have to say I don't miss it.

On the way to the event (at the wheel of the station van, no less), I tried to remember the last time I did a public appearance on behalf of a radio station. In 1995, the AC station at which I worked part-time went to classic rock. They fired the full-timers, but kept the part-timers--and I was tapped to do a car-dealer remote that had been sold before the format change. (It may have been the very first remote under the station's new identity.) There was no remote broadcast on Monday--I just had to be Your Cordial Host, which meant I could drink as much wine as propriety would allow. The guy from the boat dealership said to me at one point, "I'll bet this makes up for all those times you had to broadcast from a steaming-hot parking lot." Well, not all of them, because there were a lot of them--but yeah, it was better than most.

However: The truly big news from The Lake is that the station is now streaming online. Visit the station's website and go from there. I'll be on the air from 3 to 7PM this Saturday and 7 to 10PM this Sunday. (All times U.S. Central.) So please . . . fill out those diaries correctly.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Still Classic After All These Years

A reader who found his way here via a Google search sent me an e-mail recently. He had been looking for information on the WLS year-end countdowns, and wondered if there are any Internet radio stations playing the hits from those days in that style. Well, the single best site on the Net for Classic Top 40 is still Reelradio. They've been on a subscription-only basis since February, but a mere $12 a year will get you access to a wide variety of airchecks from the 50s to the 80s. Normally, an aircheck is jock-talk only, but more and more Reelradio airchecks include all the music, commercials, and newscasts, so you can hear the shows just as they were heard back in the day.

If you're looking for free sites, there are a couple of good ones at, streaming free of charge 24 hours a day. Oldies Generation programs playlists from various classic-era Top 40 stations such as WLS, WCFL, WABC, WQAM, WRKO, and so on. For example, as I'm writing this, they're playing music heard on WABC during the week of March 8, 1961 (the set started with Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta," but also included Elvis, the Shirelles, and others). The program also include occasional jingles, news bits, comedy bits, and station promos, although not airchecks as such. But if you're looking for the music from back in the day, Oldies Generation has it.

Many young Top 40 geeks spent hours recording their favorite stations off the air. I did a bit of it myself, but the few tapes I made are long gone. At WLS Airchecks, they live. This station programs a collection of actual WLS recordings from the 60s to the 80s. The audio quality isn't always great--but I am guessing what we're hearing are ancient cassettes. The airchecks include the music, the jocks, the commercials, and occasionally the newscasts. If you want to know why I fell in love with Top 40, this station gives you the chance to find out, in real time.

You'll need to download the Live365 player to hear these stations, and if you register (which costs nothing), you can customize your player with presets for your favorite stations. Be sure to browse the station listings--if you can't find something you like, you're not trying hard enough. Some stations require a subscription fee, but the vast majority do not.

Coming later this week: My return to radio cranks up another notch.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Record Collector

A few years ago, I read an article in which the author suggested that mega-bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, while they're sometimes accused of driving independent booksellers out of business, provide an important service by bringing a vast selection of books to places that probably never had such a thing before. Electronics retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City provide a similarly vast selection of CDs to places that couldn't support an independent CD store. But even the mega-retailers have limits--last fall, I tried unsuccessfully to find the new edition of Elton John's Captain Fantastic at several megastores in the Twin Cities, and megastores' coverage of independent labels and local acts is always going to be hit and miss. So: if your taste is more than one standard deviation from that of the masses, you'll always find yourself in need of a good local independent record store.

Over at Soul Sides this afternoon, Oliver Wang pays tribute to Groove Merchant in San Francisco, "aka the greatest record store in the world." I'm not sure I've ever loved a record store like Wang loves Groove Merchant, but I've known some good ones in my day. In Madison, the Exclusive Company is the most reliable. They have quite literally everything, old and new, rock, jazz, country, classical--if they don't have it, you don't need it. When we lived in Iowa City, I did much of my music shopping at Record Collector, which is still the best used CD store I know. It's a regular stop whenever I get back there. (The best used shops in Madison today are Frugal Muse and Half-Price Books, although CD Exchange on State Street is excellent too, particularly for jazz.) During our years in the Quad Cities, Co-op Records was the best place for serious record shoppers, although there were good used shops, too. When we lived in Macomb, Illinois, the place would have felt like the outpost on the edge of the earth that it is had it not been for Victrola, which carried both new and used records, and was a solid customer of my radio station to boot. I went to college in Platteville, Wisconsin, which did not, as I recall, have the kind of great record store one normally associates with college towns, although the university book store and the mega-grocer stocked a few albums. You were better off going to Dubuque or Madison. Late and lamented Madison music stores from those days include Discount Records downtown and Victor Music at one of the malls.

In my hometown, Monroe, we had an actual record store worthy of the name for a while, in the new mall that opened with great fanfare in 1977 and never achieved more than 60 percent capacity--and the record store, whose name escapes me, was one of the first tenants to come and go. Before and after that brief interlude, however, we were left with the selection at Value Village and Gibson's Discount Store, which was usually pretty spotty. I have written before of buying my first 45s at S&0 TV, which was a fairly typical store of its kind in the 1960s and 70s. It sold mostly TVs (and serviced them in the back), but stocked audio equipment and records, too.

The music-shopping world has transformed dramatically since I laid down my first 95 cents at S&0 TV, and the change is still going on. Because so many people buy music where they can, at major retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, and because so many people are downloading music now, bypassing brick-and-mortar stores altogether, the concept of a great record store may disappear entirely one day. But that day is not yet.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Top 5: Reading Music

This week's Top 5 is intended to call your attention to the best music reads I've come across this week, in no particular order. And here we go.

Two of the best posts I've read online this week have to do with important, but not necessarily well-known, figures in country music. First up, at the inestimable Living in Stereo, David Cantwell republishes an obituary he wrote last year for Sammi Smith, who would be turning 63 this weekend. The post, titled "Girl Hero: Sammi Smith", features several tracks, including Sammi's 1971 crossover standard, "Help Me Make it Through the Night." It's a more important record than you might imagine. Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren, in their 2003 book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles, put it at Number One. People who know only the in-your-face mixture of beat and attitude that passes for country music today, or who dismiss all country music as "twang," know little if anything about the quiet, powerful sort of country Sammi Smith did so well. That style never dominated the charts back in the day, but at least it crept through now and then. Cantwell provides a generous helping of Sammi's best that you should sample in its entirety. If you can keep from getting goosebumps on "Help Me Make It," or fail to be moved by "Today I Started Loving You Again," you're a harder case than I.

The other country-themed post is by Tony Tost at Moistworks. He writes about three very different country songs, all written by the same interesting and controversial singer/songwriter: David Allan Coe.

One thing that's clear to a rock fan on the cusp of geezerhood--the kids just don't seem to be having much fun these days. The hottest bands right now all seem either dark and brooding or aggressively pissed off. Thom Jurek (who is not necessarily on the cusp of geezerhood himself--I have no idea) traces the rise and fall of hedonistic, good-time rock and roll, from the 1950s to its 80s resurgence and its 90s disappearance, in "Is Rock & Roll Really Dying? A Case Against Dourist Rockism". It's at

AK, who runs Soul Shower, is in the midst of relocating from Wisconsin to Indiana, so his latest post is one that's been up since last week--but it's a good one. It's a guest post by a reader writing about "a mournful longing for the only person who could ever make us feel whole," as expressed in two familiar soul records by Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Chi-Lites.

The Onion has recently expanded its "AV Club" section with some new features. Amelie Gillette's "The Hater" is one of my new favorite sources for snark, but also worth reading is "The Inventory," which features a music-and-movies list of some sort each week. This week's list is "14 Classic Tom Petty Opening Lines," a unique way to appreciate a guy whose reputation grows with every new record he makes.

Bonus Read: At Take Em as They Come, there's a post that has nothing to do with music, but go and read it anyway. Danny Alexander writes about the ghosts in his house this summer, and in his life more broadly. Damn, I wish I could write like that.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Melted Snowbird, and Other Mismatched Road Tales

Thirty-two years ago tonight, on August 3, 1974, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band opened for another artist for the very last time. The artist: Anne Murray. The bill, at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, was originally supposed to be headlined by Boz Scaggs. Brewer and Shipley were supposed to go on first, then Murray, then Scaggs. When Boz pulled out, the promoters replaced him with Springsteen. Murray's people objected, saying she was a bigger star and should go on last. This was true--in the summer of '74, she was at the crest of the biggest year of her career to date, so Springsteen was moved to the second slot. This left Murray in the position of having to follow Springsteen--whom most of the 5,000 people in attendance had come to see in the first place. (A few more details can be found here.)

I have been wanting to write about weird concert bills since Shark mentioned in the comments the other day that he once saw the Charlie Daniels Band opening for Heart. That's not as weird as Springsteen opening for Anne Murray--which has to be right up there with Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees. In 1969, the Staple Singers once opened for the Doors. In 1970, Miles Davis opened a few shows for the Steve Miller Band, which is not as odd as it seems when you realize that Miles was seriously electric by that point. In 1972, Stevie Wonder opened some shows for the Rolling Stones, which was a pretty bold move at the time (and in fact, Wonder got booed at some of the dates). That same year, country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers were on the same bill with Sly and the Family Stone in Chicago, although Sly didn't show. In 1973, Earth Wind and Fire opened for Uriah Heep.

At some point in the mid 70s, Billy Joel opened for Jethro Tull. The Joel/Tull pairing is instructive. When a performer is trying to make a name for himself, a slot on the bill with an established artist is an excellent way to reach a wider audience with money to spend on records. (That's how Hendrix ended up touring with the Monkees.) So 10 years ago, Radiohead opened for Alanis Morrisette. In the early 80s, Stevie Ray Vaughan opened for Huey Lewis and the News. It's how a three-way bill of Boston, Southside Johnny, and Starcastle toured the East Coast in 1977. It's not always clear at the time that a pairing is a poor one--and in fact, circa 1975, Billy Joel and Jethro Tull wouldn't have seemed especially odd, not like it does now. Neither would Charlie Daniels and Heart in 1977. Or the 1974 pairing of ZZ Top and Deep Purple.

The strangest bill I ever saw myself was in 1980, when Betty Wright opened for Bob Marley and the Wailers here in Madison. Wright was an R&B singer (biggest hit: "Clean Up Woman" in 1972), but her disco-inflected act didn't go down well with the Marley fans. At one point, a guy near me stood up and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Cut out this disco shit and let's hear some reggae!"

And now, predictably enough, it's your turn. Please contribute any strange concert bills you've attended or heard of by clicking "Comments."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

History Repeats

Yesterday in the Capital Times, a feature story on the MTV anniversary included a list of the videos the channel played in the first hour. Here's the list, with YouTube links where available:

"Video Killed the Radio Star"/Buggles. This had been a modest hit on good old-fashioned radio late in 1979--which, given its sonic oddness, was quite an accomplishment. With its iconic images of video screens rising from a pile of old radios, if it hadn't already existed, MTV would have had to invent something like it for its first video.

"You Better Run"/Pat Benatar.
In which we could finally see the pout.

"She Won't Dance With Me"/Rod Stewart.
Balls-out rocker in which Rod does an itchy-dance on a headache-inducing polka-dot background, shirt open to the waist. Clearly, MTV expected people to watch without really listening too closely, given this line from the lyric: "Got a hard-on, honey, that hurts like hell/If I don't ask her, somebody else will."

"You Better You Bet"/The Who.
Probably the best song on the list, but MTV soon made clear that the song was no longer the thing. I am guessing this is the video MTV showed-- it's a concert clip recorded in March 1981.

"Little Susie's on the Up"/Ph.D. The most obscure tune on the list, but not a bad one. If you wanted to play one video that summed up the early MTV vibe--bands you've never heard of doing strange things on camera--"Little Susie's on the Up" wouldn't be a bad choice.

"We Don't Talk Anymore"/Cliff Richard.
Watching early videos inspires a certain nostalgia for those innocent days when dry ice seemed cutting-edge. However, I'm betting that the disembodied-head video effects and Cliff's nifty T-shirt seemed uncool even back then. Video aside, it's a good song, though.

"Brass in Pocket"/Pretenders. Finally, a video you will probably remember having seen--Chrissie Hynde as coffee-shop waitress, serving the other Pretenders.

"Time Heals"/Todd Rundgren. State of the video art in 1981, it combined computer graphics and live action. It's widely reported to have been the second video played on MTV--but clearly not if this list is right.

"Take It on the Run"/REO Speedwagon
and "Rockin' the Paradise"/Styx. MTV blasted to popularity in small- and medium-sized cities first, because it was easier to get cable clearances in those places than in major metropolitan areas. And once it became clear that MTV's audience was going to be comprised largely of white suburban kids, that meant REO and Styx until you couldn't stand it anymore.

"When Things Go Wrong"/Robin Lane & the Chartbusters.
Boston-area new-wave band with a great name and a videogenic lead singer. How could it go wrong? After much success on a local label in Boston, they signed a major-label deal and promptly got lost in the major-label promotional shuffle. After two albums and a live EP, they vanished for more than 20 years, before the inevitable new-millennium reunion.

"History Never Repeats"/Split Enz.
This may have been the first video to depict a singer lying in bed singing--but it wasn't the last. Split Enz became one of the first bands whose career was made by MTV.

"Hold on Loosely"/.38 Special. Not a band you remember as video pioneers--but it was a live performance by a respectable AOR band, so it got on MTV's air in the first hour.

If you have VH-1 Classic--on the satellite dish or high up on the digital cable--you can see a rebroadcast of MTV's first 24 hours this coming Saturday.

(This post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Martha Quinn, Phone Home

(Edited to add link at the bottom.)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the debut of MTV, although as this interesting retrospective by the AP's David Bauder notes, the channel is planning no observance on the air. And why should they? The typical MTV viewer can't remember life without it. It would be like celebrating the discovery of oxygen.

The first time I ever heard of MTV was in the early fall of 1981, mere weeks after the channel premiered. Bob Pittman, erstwhile radio programming genius, spoke at a conference I was attending, and told us about this new video venture he was involved in. Around the table that night at dinner, my college-radio colleagues were skeptical. I forthrightly predicted that it would never fly. Which is why Pittman is still considered a genius and I'm an ex-radio programmer with a blog. I first got MTV on my cable system in 1982, and watched it on and off for the next five years. In those days, I was still into contemporary music and, for a while, programming a Top 40 station. So watching MTV was something I did for entertainment, but also something I did to keep tabs on the competition. MTV ceased to be relevant to me in the late 80s, as it began to program more rap and metal, in addition to the non-music programming that's its staple today, and I quit watching.

(Digression: After MTV, I switched over to VH-1, and watched that on and off into the mid-90s, at least until its transformation from a 60/70s/80s adult-contemporary format into an alternative rock channel striving to be über-hip--so much so that its audience research was visible on-screen, down to the clothes the VJs wore and the furniture they sat on. I would have given up on it anyway, though, even without that transition--I'm convinced that there's a switch in the human brain that shuts down its interest in music video when that brain reaches its mid 30s.)

You can argue that, 25 years after its birth, MTV as just one channel is largely irrelevant in the multi-channel universe it helped to spark. But that's only because its ethos is everywhere now. You can argue that MTV is largely responsible for the overpowering importance of image in our culture--how you look and/or what you seem to be are far more important in the long run than what you actually are. You can even argue that MTV is largely responsible for redefining the American Dream for millions of Americans. That dream used involve mundane considerations like owning your own home or being in charge of your own destiny. Now, it's about becoming a celebrity. But MTV also helped create the media environment we swim in today, as comfortable as fish--the bite-sized (or, if you prefer, byte-sized) programming style of contemporary TV and the Internet is cousin to MTV's smorgasbord of videos, news segments, and VJ bits. That we're comfortable with the Internet's instant click-and-go environment, or the process of channel surfing, may have something to do with the jump-cutting style of music video we got used to back in the 80s.

That's just my opinion, though. I could be totally wrong.

Recommended: It's also my opinion that MTV killed Abba, although that could be wrong, too. Lost in the 80s has an appreciation of their last major album, The Visitors, including two versions of the title track, which was an un-Abba-like as anything they ever recorded.