Thursday, November 30, 2006

Schticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other

Had he not died more than 30 years ago, Allan Sherman would be 82 today. For a brief moment in the 1960s, Sherman was one of the biggest stars in America--and there are still a few of us around who continue to be entertained by him.

Sherman's career started as a TV producer, best known for creating the original I've Got a Secret. Steve Allen hired him to produce the Tonight Show in 1962, but for various reasons, that job didn't last long. Out of work, Sherman managed to land a recording contract with Warner Brothers, the same label that had made Bob Newhart a star a couple of years earlier. Taking advantage of the folk boom in the early 60s, Sherman released an album of folk-song parodies--although he had been doing similar parodies at Hollywood parties ever since hitting town in 1950 or so. The album, My Son the Folk Singer, became a surprise hit. My Son the Celebrity quickly followed, and in the summer of 1963, My Son the Nut, which went to Number One. The single from the album, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" rose to Number Two (behind Stevie Wonder's first single, "Fingertips") in August. That same month, Sherman was invited to sit in for Johnny Carson--back to the Tonight Show as a star, about a year after having been sacked.

What happened next is a familiar showbiz story--at the moment of one's greatest triumph, something happens, often something one can't control, and wham--career over. That's more or less what happened to Allan Sherman. John F. Kennedy (who had famously been overheard singing a Sherman parody to himself) was assassinated; Sherman's next album was a relative stiff, and, according to's Jason Ankeny, the assassination was the reason. Sherman's brand of frivolity suddenly seemed inappropriate to the times.

Perhaps, although by the time Sherman released Allan in Wonderland in early 1964, the British Invasion was underway, transforming the record business, radio, and popular culture itself in ways that made it difficult for a lot of artists who had flourished beforehand to thrive afterward. The sunny pop of the early Invasion period was in some ways the spiritual opposite of Sherman's heavily Jewish comedy. (Sherman proved it later in 1964 by recording a song called "Pop Hates the Beatles.") After several more poorly selling albums, Sherman's showbiz career ended in 1966 after Warner Brothers dropped him. He was already suffering from emphysema and financial difficulties by that time, and he died in 1973. Sherman's schtick lives on, however, in the work of Weird Al Yankovic, who lists Sherman as one of his influences.

There are any number of Sherman tracks a fan might post. "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" is the obvious one. "Pop Hates the Beatles" is another, although it's sung in the sort of gritted-teeth manner that makes clear Sherman knows he's lost the battle and the war. Like Yankovic, Sherman frequently recorded parody medleys, in which he'd take off on several songs one verse at a time (sample title: "Shticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other"). But given that the holiday season is here, how about "The Twelve Gifts of Christmas"? Next to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!," it's the most enduring item in Sherman's catalog.

(Buy Allan Sherman here. )

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


If you prowl the music blogs these days, you'll find lots of interesting Christmas music, some old but much new, and the season's barely started. Blogsarefordogs has a holiday mix featuring a couple of tunes that are essential at my house from Nat King Cole and Vince Guaraldi, but also a fine version of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Death Cab for Cutie and a strangely compelling take on "Welcome Christmas" from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands has a track from Aimee Mann's new Christmas disc. Historically, Christmas discs have been perceived as either a cynical cash-in or a give-up move, and when they're not, it's usually because they offer some sort of compelling new vision of the season. (That doesn't happen very often, however.) The tracks I've heard from Mann's album seem pleasant enough, but I wouldn't call them compelling. Still, I'll probably buy the whole album--but not until it gets to be December--and perhaps I'll be compelled by hearing the whole thing together.

Off the Christmas track, John at Lost in the 80s has a couple of cuts from the Cars' Panorama, their third album, a distinctly different experience from the first two. Because it didn't adhere to the formula established by The Cars and Candy-O, it was perceived as less radio-friendly--although John's point is that radio was more unfriendly to Panorama than Panorama was to the radio.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

You may have noticed all hell breaking loose around us these last few days--earthquakes, tidal waves, cats and dogs living together--clearly time is out of joint, and the universe is not the place it used to be. From Forbes, last week:
"Absolutely, for radio to be competitive it has to be local," says Tom Barnes, CEO of MediaThink, a business strategy consultant that works with several radio stations in various-sized markets. While syndication works for relatively generic shows like pop chart countdowns and some morning drive slots, everyday music radio isn't going to compete with MP3 players and online streaming by mimicking them. Differentiation is the key.

Barnes notes that while 95% of U.S. households still tune in to broadcast radio, the average time people spend listening has dropped steadily for years.

A renewed concentration on going local "is the only thing that can save the industry," he says.
Back when I was a program director in small-town radio, I had my own version: We are not going to be able to compete with the big sticks in the larger markets up the road head-to-head on the music we play. Where we're going to carve our niche is with what goes on between the records. Now it seems that all these years later, the radio industry's biggest players are starting to get the message. That's right, kids: Local radio featuring actual personalities is coming back into fashion.

On the list of things I thought might happen before I'm encased in Lazarus' Box--Cubs win the pennant, Kate Hudson calls for a date, etc.--this development ranked pretty far down the list. But if the consultants understand it--the same people who homogenized radio into irrelevance in the first place (and, I might add, who largely ignored iPods and satellite radio until those horses were pretty far out of the barn)--I think I'll be getting a call from Kate any day now.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Top 5: Like a Dinosaur

It's 20 years now, sometime between Thanksgiving and the first full week of December, that I bagged my job as program director and Top-40 morning show host in Macomb, Illinois, to move up to a larger market--on an elevator-music station.

By the fall of 1986, I'd been at WKAI for 2 1/2 years. The owner who'd brought me on board had sold the place about a year before; the new owner was, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, neither ignorant nor simian, but I ended up wanting to leave anyhow. As a programmer, I wanted to strive for excellence regardless of our market size; the new owner was OK if the stations sounded good enough for where they were, which I interpreted as settling for mediocrity. Sometime during the last half of 1986, he hired a guy to take over programming of the AM station so I could concentrate on the FM--but he also gave the guy the title of operations manager, which put him above me on the organizational chart. We co-existed, and for the most part he didn't mess with me--but his very presence was a daily reminder of the gulf between the owner's goals and my own.

So I started poking around for another job, and landed an interview at what was billed as a "soft AC" up the road a couple of hours in Davenport, Iowa. It turned out to be an elevator-music station, but one that was supposedly committed to doing elevator music with a touch of personality, and I was just the kind of guy they said they wanted. In addition, the program director and I hit it off on a personal level, trading banter like old friends about 15 minutes into the interview. Davenport was a place we wanted to live, even though the station was not exactly the kind I wanted to work for. When they offered me the job at about $2,000 a year more than I was making in Macomb, it didn't take long for The Mrs. and me to decide.

So anyway, this is an incredibly roundabout way of introducing the top five songs on the Cash Box chart from this week in 1986, while we were deciding to move on. Perhaps it was time for me to start exploring an entirely new musical genre, because looking back on it now, this was a perfectly dreadful week for the Top 40. If you can find something on the chart worth posting as an mp3, let me know, because I can't.

5. "The Next Time I Fall"/Peter Cetera and Amy Grant. With this, Cetera had flown millions of miles from Chicago. A guy who'd been an integral part of a politically aware and progressive rock band, who'd been hippie enough to get beaten up at Wrigley Field one day in '71 for being a longhair, he decended willingly into a solo career from adult-contemporary hell. With a mullet, yet.

4. "You Give Love a Bad Name"/Bon Jovi. Sounds like a hard-rock record, don't it? There was always something about phony about Bon Jovi, though--as if they were the product of a focus group designed to sell records to teenagers. The biggest joke was on Jon Bon Jovi himself, who actually believed he was a genuine rock icon.

3. "True Blue"/Madonna.
Her most charming record. It's like you took the Material Girl out of the expensive gown, put her in a cheerleader sweater and jeans, and took her to a sock hop. This is grade A girl-group bubblegum, like Abba by way of Josie and the Pussycats.

2. "Human"/Human League. In which hot-producers-of-the-moment Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were making a star of Janet Jackson at about the same time, put some warmth into a group that had, up to this moment, sounded pretty cold.

1. "Amanda"/Boston.
It had been almost eight years since Boston's last visit to the Top 40. I remember thinking when "Amanda" came out that it was an interesting novelty, only to be shocked when it smoked up the charts and made Number One. If Boston had waited another year, however, it's likely that "Amanda" wouldn't have had the same impact. The pop landscape was changing; rap and dance-pop were on the rise. By the fall of 1987, "Amanda" would have sounded even more like a dinosaur than it did in the fall of '86.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Way it Is

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. I wasn't going to post here until tomorrow, but idle hands make bloggers blog. Once I got going I wanted to post a track, but they're apparently already in a turkey-and-football coma at (the same coma I expect to be in by mid-afternoon), so there's no audio today. Yet here we go.

November 23, 1995: Motown sax legend Junior Walker dies at age 64. "Shotgun" rocked as hard as anything on the radio in the 1960s; the main riff of "What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)" is the quintessential sound of summertime.

November 23, 1994: Songwriter Tommy Boyce commits suicide at age 55. If you do not know the name, you know the songs he wrote for the Monkees with partner Bobby Hart, including "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," and other songs including the Monkees' theme. Boyce and Hart also wrote the theme for Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, which, if you are a certain age, is imprinted in your DNA. And they scored a hit of their own in 1968 with "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight."

November 23, 1976: In the early hours of the morning, Jerry Lee Lewis is arrested outside the gates of Graceland, where he's waving a pistol and demanding to see Elvis. It's the Killer's second arrest in the last 12 hours.

November 23, 1899: Louis Glass and William Arnold install the first jukebox at the Palais Royal Hotel in San Francisco. It's an Edison phonograph with a coin attachment, and it plays cylinders instead of flat records. For the next quarter-century, phonographs are too expensive for most home consumers, so coin-operated players become fabulously popular. The term "jukebox" would not be coined until the 1930s.

Birthdays Today:
Bruce Hornsby is 52. Hard to believe it's been 20 years now since "The Way it Is," Hornsby's debut single, which sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time. An exhaustive box set released last summer demonstrates that Hornsby's career has been far more interesting than his handful of hit singles would indicate, generally terrific though they have been.

Alan Paul of Manhattan Transfer is 57. Dismiss Manhattan Transfer as mere revival act or gay icon at your peril. A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of their two-disc anthology Down in Birdland mostly for The Mrs., who digs that sort of thing--but then I discovered that I dig that sort of thing, too. Key tracks: "The Morse Code of Love," "Ray's Rockhouse, "Soul Food to Go"--all of which, in a rational universe, would have been enormous hit singles.

Betty Everett is 67. Think of the great opening seconds in pop music history--the shattering chord that starts "A Hard Day's Night," for example, or the enormous piano glissando that opens Abba's "Dancing Queen." Does either of them top Betty Everett's blast of "Does he love me I want to know/How can I tell if he loves me so" at the top of "It's in His Kiss"? I think not.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1996: "No Diggity"/Blackstreet featuring Dr. Dre.
I note this because it topped the last-ever chart published by Cash Box magazine, which ceased publication after 54 years with the issue dated November 16, 1996.

1987: "Mony Mony"/Billy Idol. Despite the reputation this song had at the time--the ultimate hard-rock party anthem, complete with an obscene chant to go with it--the Tommy James original kicks its ass. (Billy Idol is releasing a Christmas album this year. Be very afraid.)

1974: "I Can Help"/Billy Swan. In which Swan gets his Roy Orbison on.

1970: "I Think I Love You"/Partridge Family. If you have to ask, you'll never know.

1899: "Curse of the Dreamer"/Dan Quinn.
It's a good bet that this was on that first jukebox in San Francisco, because Quinn was one of the top recording stars of the 1890s. You can hear some of his recordings at the website of the University of California-Santa Barbara's amazing Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I'm not surprised that at least one "Taxi" fan uncloaked him/herself in the wake of my rip on it last week. It's that kind of record: Not only do people adore it, they're willing to defend it against somebody who doesn't, although people never say exactly what it is that makes them consider the song a classic.

A couple of commenters have mentioned "Sequel," Chapin's updating of the story, which reached Number 23 in December 1980. It's been a long time since I heard it, but I went out and found the lyrics online--and I'm actually offended less by it than I am by its predecessor. Unlike "Taxi," "Sequel" doesn't overtly announce its pretensions to Great Art. It's just a song, and it's a harmless one, although it does contain a fair amount of philosophical gibberish: "We talked of the tiny difference/Between ending and starting to begin/We talked because talking tells you things/Like what you really are thinking about". You're left with the feeling that a lot of what's in the lyric is there to fit the tune, and not because it actually means anything.

If you still think I'm hideously wrong, there's always the all-purpose argument stopper: "Well, who the hell are you, anyway? Have you ever written a song?"

Nope. But you don't have to be a chef to know you don't like the taste of something.

If you've decided you hate me now, there's good news for you: Due to the press of actual remunerative labor (three deadlines in the next 10 days or so) and the holiday (turkey and football coma wiping out Thursday), posting will be mighty light here this week. So you might consider visiting any of the music blogs listed at the right--they're all fine and worthy, and many are better than this blog anyhow. (At least one would probably have kind things to say about "Taxi," if you asked.) And if you haven't done so yet, poke around the Hype Machine (also linked at the right) and explore the world of mp3 bloggery.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Top 5: Bottom Feeding

The people at are out with another list of the 10 Worst Songs of All Time. When I first saw it mentioned somewhere, I thought it might be good blog fodder, and it is, but only inasmuch as it shows how these lists have jumped the shark. Everybody does 'em nowadays, but nobody's trying too hard anymore. By now, there's not a single sentient being left in the observable universe who doesn't know that Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" is the suck. Similarly, making fun of "We Built This City" or "Ice Ice Baby" hasn't been cutting-edge for a long while either--not since the first three or four times the songs appeared on lists like these. It doesn't seem entirely kosher to bash a record because the accompanying video is stupid: Journey's "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" is probably one of the Ten Worst Videos of All Time, but the record itself isn't nearly so bad. And I'd even go as far as defending Kevin Federline, ostensible inspiration for the list, because what the hell did everybody expect? The second coming of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan? Federline's vanity rap record is merely the latest in a long line of cynical record-company cash-ins designed to separate idiots from their money. I'd submit Federline's probably not smart enough to be put to blame for it. (I will give credit for getting one thing right, though: including Fergie's execrable "My Humps" on its list. Do not, under any circumstances, click the YouTube link at that particular entry, or you will be walking around for the next several hours humming about the dumbest goddamn thing imaginable. I mean it. Don't go there.)

With a little more thought and creativity, you and I can surely come up with a better list of The Worst Records of All Time. Here are my nominees, biased toward the 70s and 80s as usual, in order of increasing awfulness:

"Sugar Walls"/Sheena Easton. (chart peak: #9, March 2, 1986) Famously written by Prince, whose generally juvenile attitude toward sex was never more strongly demonstrated than it is here, and sung in a clueless and unsexy whine by Easton, its title metaphor would be considered less than clever in a junior-high locker room.

"Rock Me Amadeus"/Falco. (chart peak: #1, March 29, 1986) Sheer sonic ugliness masquerading as art. I realize Falco was Austrian, but if the Germans had won World War II, every record in the 80s would have sounded like this.

"Taxi"/Harry Chapin. (chart peak: #24, June 3, 1972) One of the first entries in the history of this blog bashed "Taxi," and I haven't changed my opinion. I hate that record.

"Christine Sixteen"/Kiss. (chart peak: #25, September 3, 1977)
In which a sexual predator latches onto an underage girl outside her school--although what's really obscene is the barely competent whorehouse piano banging throughout. Relentlessly vile. I not only hate that record, I hate anybody who doesn't hate that record.

"The Last Game of the Season"/David Geddes. (chart peak: #18, December 20, 1975) The story of a scrub high-school football player whose blind father dies during the first half of a game. The scrub somehow gets into the game in the second half and singlehandedly wins it for the home team, explaining afterward, "It's the first time Dad ever saw me play." This record's most amazing achievement might be that it makes Geddes' more famous record, "Run Joey Run," sound like "Stairway to Heaven" in comparison. Ecch ptui.

Deciding which of these tracks to post was a chore. I finally settled on "The Last Game of the Season," because to people used to the concept of ironic distance, it sounds like something from another universe. Today, this kind of unabashedly sentimental treacle would never make the Top 40, although it would probably still get some traction on country radio. And in fact, a country version by Kenny Starr rode high on the charts in early 1976, albeit under a different title: "The Blind Man in the Bleachers." Starr's version made it to Number Two--an apt description indeed.

Buy Geddes' version here, if you dare. It's Rhino's Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day, Volume 20, but be forewarned that it contains a few other records that could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, such as "Disco Duck" and Engelbert Humperdinck's "After the Lovin." However, you will get some decent songs in addition, including the Sanford/Townsend Band's "Smoke From a Distant Fire" and Smokie's "Living Next Door to Alice." I mention the latter because ever since last summer, I've been getting dozens of hits to this blog from people Googling "Living Next Door to Alice," mostly from Europe. I'm not sure why, but for those of you looking for the tune, there's where to find it.)

So anyway: I'd stake those five choices against anybody else's list of the truly awful. What are your choices for Worst Records of All Time? Let's see 'em in the comments.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Clearance Sale

Big radio news today: Broadcast behemoth Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio owner, is selling out to a private equity firm. It will also sell off almost 40 percent of its radio stations and all of its TV stations. The sale of the company itself wasn't necessarily a surprise--it's been up for sale for a month. Neither is it news that they'd sell off some stations. The scale of its station sale--every last one it owns outside of the nation's top 100 radio markets--is what's surprising. The company says the 448 stations it will sell accounted for less than 10 percent of its revenue last year. So you wonder why the company wanted them in the first place. It's as if the nation's radio landscape were a floor covered with money, but they were being just as diligent in picking up the change as they were in grabbing the $50 bills. Nevertheless, 448 stations is a lot to shed at one time.

The move may put a boatload of radio stations into the marketplace, but it doesn't necessarily mean I'll be able to go out and buy me one. Other major media companies are likely to snap up a lot of them, especially in the biggest markets, the ones in the low 100s of the market rankings. It's not known whether Clear Channel will sell the stations individually or put them up for sale in blocks--and what Clear Channel eventually decides to do will be important if it wants to keep the prices up in a suddenly glutted market.

My concern in all this is not for the corporate high rollers who are already unconscionably rich and will get richer as a result of it. I know some people who work for Clear Channel in markets that are going to be sold off. (Madison, market number 96, is apparently not among them.) I went through several station sales in my radio days, so I know that today has been an uncomfortable day for Clear Channel staffers, and today's only the first of many uncertain days to come. The thing about a sale is this: You always go into it hoping for the best, but you should never be surprised if the worst happens. I've had both. I've been through sales where the new company was a vast improvement over the old--and given some of the horror stories you hear about working for Clear Channel, lots of its employees are probably looking forward to a change. But I've also been through sales that went badly. I got fired as a result of one, albeit indirectly. Everybody in the biz knows somebody, or knows somebody who knows somebody, who got caught up in a mass execution on the first day of new ownership. It happens.

If you're a Clear Channel employee reading this, let us know what you're thinking. You can be anonymous in the comments. I'll never tell.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Four Out of Five Dentists Surveyed Recommend You Skip This Post

Sugar: We love bubblegum here, as you know--and Foxbase has posted six compilations of obscure "sunshine pop" that is almost 100 percent pure refined sugar. You probably don't need six zip files full of the stuff--but if you dig it, it's good to have in overdose proportions. Here's a sample: the Sugar Bears' sublime "You Are the One." This was an actual Hot 100 hit (chart peak: #51, May 13, 1972) available on actual vinyl, although lots of people--myself included--cut if off the back of a Post Sugar Crisp cereal box. As was often the case in the bubblegum era, the group featured people who were happy to be making a living as musicians and didn't trouble themselves with artistic pretentions: The Sugar Bears included Mike Settle, onetime member of the First Edition with Kenny Rogers, Baker Knight, who wrote such hits as "Lonesome Town" and "Never Be Anyone Else" for Rick Nelson, "The Wonder of You" for Elvis, and "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time" for country star Mickey Gilley, as well a pre-stardom Kim Carnes.

(It looks like the Sugar Bears have slipped out of print--imagine that!--so if you're looking to buy "You Are the One," eBay is your best option.)

Soda: If you've been watching TV (especially, but not exclusively, sports on TV), you have probably seen a new Dr. Pepper commercial touting its supposed 23 flavors. And if you've seen it, you've heard another pop tune converted to a jingle--the Vapors' "Turning Japanese," heard in the ad as "Turning 23." I intended to blog about this last week--until I discovered that "Turning Japanese" wasn't in my library. But it is now, thanks to Kelly over at Looking at Them, who posted it along with other songs from the soundtrack of the 80s flick Sixteen Candles. Better get there quickly before the tracks disappear. (One wonders if the people at Dr. Pepper or their ad agency realize that "turning Japanese" is an obscure euphemism for excessive masturbation, and when taken as such, is also racist. I'm guessing not.)

Sweet: The inimitable Locust St. is up to the 1976 installment of 100 years in 10 jumps. That's my favorite year, of course--and I was fascinated by both the commentary and the tunes, those familiar to me and those unfamiliar, too--especially "You to Me Are Everything" by the Real Thing. By 1976, soul and R&B were being subsumed by disco, but before disco became first formulaic and then robotic, there were a number of gorgeous records that straddled the genres, and 30 years later, they're the ones worth remembering.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Heart of Darkness

Here's a bunch of tunes on your radio this week in 1969, all of which have the same thing in common. If I listen to all of these songs in a row--and I've done it--I'm left feeling uneasy. They all hint at the dark side of the 60s, a darkness that would break over Altamont in December 1969, and in other places in 1970: Kent State and Jackson State in April, Sterling Hall in August--Vietnam every day--and on and on. These records are, to me, the sound of the happy dream of the 1960s as it started to die: even the uptempo ones, even the ones that sound happy on the surface, even the bubblegum. They're taken from the WLS chart dated November 10, 1969.

1. "Come Together"-"Something"/The Beatles. (peak)
That's maximum value for your 95 cents right there, although the darkness manifests itself in the first second of side A: On "Come Together," John Lennon is heard to say, "Shoot me."

3. "Baby It's You"/Smith. (climbing)
Damn, does this record ever rock. But there's something ominous about that thumping bass line and Hammond B3 organ, too. (Pay no attention to the pastoral images on the YouTube video, which have nothing to do with the song.)

5. "Eli's Coming"/Three Dog Night. (climbing) A few weeks back I wrote about Aaron Sorkin's use of pop songs to punctuate episodes of his various TV series. "Eli's Coming" is the single greatest example, from the single greatest episode of Sports Night (which may be the single greatest entertainment program in the history of television, but that's another post entirely). One of the characters discusses how he first heard the ominous "Eli's Coming" as a kid, and associated it with the feeling that something bad was about to happen--and before the episode is over, something does.

7. "And When I Die"/Blood Sweat and Tears. (climbing)
Now here's a lyric guaranteed to make many people feel uneasy: "I'm not scared of dyin' and I don't really care/If it's peace you find in dyin', well then let the time be near." It used to bother me too, although now, worrying about death seems like a waste of time. But nevertheless . . . .

13. "Smile a Little Smile for Me"/Flying Machine. (climbing)
Do not confuse this Flying Machine with a group James Taylor formed in the 1960s; this Flying Machine belongs to Tony Macaulay, the British songwriter/producer responsible for (among others) "Build Me Up Buttercup," "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again," and "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes"--in other words, a freakin' bubblegum genius who ought to have a statue erected somewhere in his honor. But "Smile a Little Smile for Me" leaves you with the feeling that no matter how hard he tries, Tony won't be able to get Rose Marie to smile. Maybe because she feels the darkness closing in.

14. "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)"/Steam. (climbing) This record was made as a joke, an intended B-side that was supposed to be so bad that no one would mistake it for a hit--which makes it a bit like a dead man walking. And if you listen for it, the drums and vibes sound a bit like a skeleton dancing, or something. Kiss him goodbye, if you dare.

17. "Ball of Fire"/Tommy James and the Shondells. (falling)
Another great, trippy Tommy James record. (Let this man into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, dammit.) James sings about how the "ball of fire in the sky/keeps watchin' over you and I," and although it's supposed to feel peaceful and secure, it feels a little spooky to me.

22. "Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday"/Stevie Wonder. (climbing)
One of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs, this record is atypical for Motown, starting off with an old-school mixed chorus and featuring some shiveringly beautiful string flourishes--and a powerful sense of loss.

29. "Hot Fun in the Summertime"/Sly and the Family Stone. (falling) You could stack this and "Everyday People" against any two singles from any other group--even the Beatles--and Sly would come out pretty well. But given that this song was a hit in September and October, after summertime was over, it too carries a sense of loss with it.

Extra: "Cherry Hill Park"/Billy Joe Royal. (off the chart) I'm throwing this in as a ringer--it did a single week on the WLS chart dated November 3 and then dropped off--but like all of the other records on this list, there's darkness, or at least mystery, at its heart. We're supposed to think only that Mary Hill is a girl of easy virtue there on the merry-go-round in Cherry Hill Park, but the song's minor key hints that she's up to something else entirely.

(Buy "Cherry Hill Park," "Baby It's You," "Smile a Little Smile for Me," "Na Na Hey Hey," and other Top 40 landmarks here.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Keepin' it Mellow

Here's a quick word of welcome for those who may have found their way here from, home of "Adventures Through the Mines of Mellow Gold." Jason was kind enough to mention this blog and link to an earlier post in his latest installment. The latest Mellow Gold also takes on "Dance With Me" by Orleans, which I'd hoped Jason would get to eventually--and notes that Orleans leader John Hall got himself elected to Congress from New York State on Tuesday.

It's a bit early to talk about Hall's reelection race already--but clearly his campaign song in 2008 will have to be "Still the One."

Recommended Reading:
Homercat on the wind of change blowing through America this week.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Jocks and the Jockless

Another Chicago radio legend is back on the air on WZZN, the "true oldies" station left standing after Real Oldies 1690 perished. According to Chicago Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder, Dick Biondi, who first lit up the nighttime airwaves on WLS in the early 60s, is doing nights at the station, which also recently added John Landecker to its lineup. Rumors are flying that Fred Winston might be the next on board.

(Thanks to Willie--who has started blogging and podcasting--for the tips.)

Poking through Feder's archives, I saw a story from last week that Chicago's WLIT-FM launched its all-Christmas format on November 2--two-and-a-half weeks earlier than last year. WLIT scores big ratings when it goes all-Christmas--but c'mon. November 2? The people I feel sorry for are the jocks. Poor bastards.

Speaking of jocks: If you've visited my station lately, you may have noticed the lack of jocks. On November 1, The Lake bagged the phrase "timeless rock" in favor of "everything classic," and both broadened and deepened its music library considerably. (Heard recently: "Absolutely Right" by the Five Man Electrical Band and "The Slider" by T. Rex.) The station is currently going jockless during the week, although the jocks are on the air on weekends. This will apparently continue for a while, although we've been assured it's not permanent.

Couple of housekeeping tidbits:

Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7 recently, and you'll want to upgrade to it for a couple of reasons. First, Microsoft will badger you incessantly if you don't, and second, this blog will finally look right if you do. When viewed with earlier versions of IE, the sidebar drops to the bottom of the page, but that doesn't seem to be happening with IE7. Of course, if you've been using Firefox like I do, everything has always looked right.

And also: Since I've started posting mp3s regularly, this blog has finally been listed at the Hype Machine, a website that aggregates music blog posts from around the Internet. It's a small thing, but if it brings in some more eyes and ears, I'm for it, because I'm a whore like everybody else.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Siberian Lockdown and Other Punishments

November 6, 1993: The box set Citizen Steely Dan is released. It features all seven of the Dan's studio albums plus a few rarities, including the non-album single "Here at the Western World," an alternate version of "FM," a live version of "Bodhissatva," and a demo version of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies." On the same date in 1971, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are hired as staff songwriters at ABC-Dunhill Records in Los Angeles. They get the gig because independent producer Gary Katz demands ABC hire them before he will accept the contract the label has offered him. Katz later produces the albums that end up on the box set 22 years later.

November 6, 1973: Phil Kaufman, manager of singer Gram Parsons, is fined $300 for stealing Parsons' body from Los Angeles International Airport. After Parsons' death in September due to complications from a night's overindulgence in alcohol and heroin, his family had wanted him buried in Louisiana. However, Parsons and Kaufman had made a pact that whoever died first would cremate the other at Joshua Tree National Monument in California, and Kaufman resolved to live up to it. If the tale of the hijacking of Parsons' body hasn't been made into a movie yet, it should be.

Birthdays Today:

Glenn Frey is 58. When I was writing about the fall of 1982 last week, I could have mentioned Frey's debut solo single, "The One You Love," which was on the charts back then. I didn't--because it's pretty inconsequential, as is most of Frey's solo material, except for 1991's "Part of Me, Part of You," which was the most Eagle-ish thing he ever did, but which went largely unheard.

Ray Conniff would be 90, had he not died in 2002. Conniff's achievement was to, as he described it, "put voices alongside instruments so you couldn't tell them apart." Although there's a tendency to think of all elevator music as sounding alike, Conniff's sound was distinctive: Nobody ever did more with "ba-ba-ba" and "doot-doo-doo." Between 1956 and about 1976, the Ray Conniff Singers became one of the largest-selling album acts of all time. They scored only a few hit singles, most notably "Somewhere My Love," which made the Top Ten in the late summer of 1966. You know that record, even if you think you can't remember it. Of course you do. Click the link and hear for yourself.

Adolphe Sax, the Belgian inventor of the saxophone, would be 192, had he not died in 1894. The saxophone is probably the only instrument in history apart from the electric guitar to be criticized for immorality--according to The Devil's Horn by Michael Segell, the sax was banned in Japan, saxophonists have been sent to Siberian lockdown by Communist officials, and a pope even indicted it.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1993: "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"/Meat Loaf.
From Bat Out of Hell II, on which Mr. Loaf returned to the charts doing the same overproduced sludge he'd done in the 70s. Because yet another new generation of listeners has grown up since 1993, he released Bat Out of Hell III last week, on Halloween. (Volume 3 is problematic for a number of reasons, ably catalogued here.)

1990: "Ice Ice Baby"/Vanilla Ice. Every generation has music in its past that it will have to answer for. This is Generation X's.

1988: "Kokomo"/Beach Boys.
A cross-generational hit, sounding fresh to kids who couldn't remember the Beach Boys, and familiar to their parents, who could. Right song, right time.

1979: "Pop Muzik"/M.
The future was writ large on this record. The soulless, mechanical music presaged the early 80s, and the mostly rapped lyric presaged the late 80s--but this record also came with a video.

1958: "It's All in the Game"/Tommy Edwards.
One of the most gloriously romantic records of the 1950s, this was actually an old song even back then, written in 1911 by Charles Dawes as "Melody in A Major." (Dawes would become Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge.) Lyrics were added in 1951, and the song was recorded by Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole before Edwards did it. Since Edwards, it's been done by the likes of the Four Tops, Van Morrison, and Elton John.

Plug: Nothing new will appear here for a couple of days. However, tomorrow night I'll be liveblogging the midterm election returns at Best of the Blogs all evening starting at around 6PM Central, so come on over for news, analysis, and snark.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Top 5: Steppin' Out

By autumn 1982, I was out of college. I'd finished my coursework that summer (thanks to a professor who passed me in my last course, even though I'd flunked both tests and didn't turn in any assignments) but wouldn't walk through graduation ceremonies until December. I'd been working full-time at KDTH in Dubuque since the spring. Over the years, KDTH was great to me. They hired me part-time in 1979 at a time when my on-air experience consisted of less than three months at my college station. They let me leave for the summer of 1980 to work a full-time gig at another station, then took me back in September. And they reconfigured their weekday schedule to make room for me as a full-timer when I finished school in the spring of '82.

I'd planned to stay in Platteville and commute to my job in Dubuque, but we had a fire in our apartment in January, so I found a place in Dubuque and commuted to Platteville instead--from a furnished one-bedroom walkup, old building, urban neighborhood. There was a grocery store and a gas station across the street, and a sub shop down the block. I wouldn't live there now, but in 1982, it was fine. And by autumn, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the life. I liked my job, I liked living alone, I liked living in a big city--compared to Platteville and growing up on the farm, anyhow. (Dubuque was, and is, gorgeous in its own way, with beautiful old houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings clinging to the Mississippi River bluffs along streets that are impossibly steep, impossibly narrow, and often both.)

That autumn is one of the last ones in my life that's vividly brought back by certain songs, and here are five of 'em:

"Blue Eyes"/Elton John.
There's a quality to this song that I can't describe well except to say that reminds me of how it feels to bundle yourself against the wind while you crunch through the fallen leaves. Probably because it was the last song I heard one day before bundling myself against the wind to crunch through the fallen leaves.

"Steppin' Out"/Joe Jackson.
Killer hooks aplenty--drums and bass marking a brisk beat, then the piano crashing in with those big, beautiful chords. Elec-tricity so fine, indeed.

"Southern Cross"/Crosby Stills and Nash. All about trying to escape your feelings for another person by lighting out for the ends of the earth, and how well that always works. As beautiful a lyric and tune as they ever recorded.

"You Should Hear How She Talks About You"/Melissa Manchester. One way to hear this is as an uptempo example of the adult contemporary sludge that clogged the Top 40 in the early 80s--and Manchester contributed her share with records like "Don't Cry Out Loud" and "Fire in the Morning." Or you can hear it as a clever bit of adult bubblegum made to sound great on the radio--which is the way I like to take it.

"IGY (What a Beautiful World)"/Donald Fagen. We didn't know at the time that The Nightfly would be the last gasp for Steely Dan fans until the 1990s. In one of the Top 40's most unsatisfying eras, "IGY" raised the level quite a bit.

There's a cut on The Nightfly, not released as a single, that brings autumn back even better than "IGY." "Maxine" gives me that same kind of buttoned-up-against-the-cold feeling I get from "Blue Eyes"--and it's one of Fagen's best lyrics, too, about a young couple graduating from college who are eagerly anticipating sophisticated lives in the adult world: "We'll move up to Manhattan/And fill the place with friends." Dubuque's no Manhattan, but I could relate nevertheless.

("Maxine" is a WMA file again this time. Buy The Nightfly here.)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Soul Nirvana

After cranking out so many posts in the last few weeks, I wasn't planning to post today--but there's something out there you've got to hear.

All of us who love music have a handful of records we remember fondly from back in the day but have, for one reason or another, been unable to lay our hands on. The record that's been at the top of my most-wanted list for a long time is a gorgeous record from my earliest days of listening to the radio: "5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love)" by the Presidents, a classic one-hit wonder whose moment of fame came at Christmastime of 1970, when they reached Number 11 on the Hot 100. The last time I saw it for sale anywhere was on an out-of-print volume of Rhino's Soul Hits of the 70s series at a prohibitive cost, so I've done without it. Up until today. The Stepfather of Soul is celebrating his first anniversary as a blogger this week, and today he put up this superb soul rarity. You don't want to miss it, so stop by, listen, and leave Jason some anniversary greetings. And watch for his anniversary podcast coming soon--as his podcasts frequently are, it's likely to be filled with further transmissions from Soul Nirvana.

While I have your attention: Another friend of this blog, Homercat at Good Rockin' Tonight, put up a dead-on rant about the latest list of nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He suggests that if R.E.M. gets in before several overlooked acts from the 1970s--the Doobie Brothers and Jethro Tull, to name two of the most egregious omissions--there's something seriously wrong with the induction process. Although we kind of knew that already, when ZZ Top got in.

And one other thing: Sometimes a band's name is all you need to know about whether you want to hear them or not. Take Hoobastank, for example. If you're a band stupid enough to think that's a good name, I'm not going to bother with you. But on the other hand: A band called Jesus H. Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse deserves at least three minutes of my time, and yours. Thanks to Nathaniel at I Guess I'm Floating for including JHC and the FHotA in his Halloween mix.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Surviving Studio 60

When we're not listening to tunes around here, we're watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. A report earlier this week that the new TV series created by Aaron Sorkin was on the verge of cancellation. Not true, apparently. NBC has ordered three more episodes of the show. (The same report earlier this week containing that news also said cast members were telling friends that the show's being canceled.) NBC replaced the show in its timeslot last Monday night, but it will air as usual next Monday. The show reportedly rebounded in the ratings a bit on its October 23rd airing, and NBC has acknowledged two critical facts--first of all, it attracts the kind of educated and upscale audience advertisers want, and second, they haven't got anything else that would do any better against CSI: Miami.

There are lots of people who passionately hate Studio 60, calling it smug and/or self-important. (And if you don't like what you're seeing in the first place, Sorkin's trademark combination of literate dialogue delivered at high speed isn't going to raise your opinion of it.) And the critical voices have gotten louder as the ratings have slumped. I can see how people might see it as smug or self-important--a show about the trials of very rich people producing a very popular TV program might seem a bit far removed from the real-life concerns of most viewers. But then again, few of us are young, nubile medical interns, and people still love Grey's Anatomy. Does the phrase "suspension of disbelief" mean anything to anybody? How about "living vicariously"? In all of Sorkin's series (including Sports Night and The West Wing), I find myself wishing I could crawl through the screen and become part of the group that's making a TV show--or governing the free world. I don't get that from any other show on TV.

My guess is that Studio 60 will get a lot more rope than most other struggling shows, not just because it attracts a highly desirable demographic, but because Sorkin delivered NBC one of the most honored shows in history with The West Wing. And maybe the extra time will be enough to build an audience of smart people who like smart TV about smart people.

Big Whompin' Music Blog Roundup: The first links are long-overdue heads-up on great stuff at three of my favorite sites, which I hadn't visited recently. Look what I missed:

Over at Take 'Em as They Come, Danny Alexander counted down to Halloween with a series of 13 essays on ghosts, horrors, fears, monsters, and lots more. It's great, thought-provoking stuff, and even though Halloween is past, it's still a worthwhile read. You can find the first parts at this link, then use Danny's archives to find the rest. Locust St.'s series of 100 years in 10 jumps, 1906 to 2006, is up to 1956. You can find the entries from 1906 to 1956 at this link. Living in Stereo paid tribute to Chuck Berry's 80th birthday with a series of posts. Find the first one here; browse for the rest of them here.

Also notable: Bob Dylan played the Kohl Center in Madison last night. (I probably should have gone, but I didn't.) Wild Mercury has a review and the setlist for his Chicago-area show this past weekend. And Stereogum has a rundown on the new Christmas albums for 2006. Every year I swear I'm not buying any more Christmas music, and every year some artist I like makes a liar out of me. This year: Aimee Mann. I've heard a couple of tracks from One More Drifter in the Snow already, and I'll be buying it, but not until Christmas gets closer.