The Wish

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, somebody—and I forget who because I found the whole thing too depressing to finish—wrote a piece focused on the ages of prominent rock figures from the 60s to the 80s, and the likelihood that they’re going to start dying in droves. And then it started happening. Eddie Money died on Friday at the age of 70, and Ric Ocasek of the Cars died yesterday at 75.

(That’s older than you’d expect. “Baby Hold On,” Money’s first hit in the summer of 1978, would have come when he was already pushing 30; when “Just What I Needed” hit that fall, Ocasek was 34.)

Money’s first two hits, “Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets to Paradise” (always choose the 45 mix, people), were simple, no-frills rock, the kind of thing that stood out in 1978, a year filled with lightweight pop tunes. His third album, 1980’s Playing for Keeps, has two of my favorite performances: “Trinidad,” with great jangly guitars and big stomping drums, and “The Wish,” which builds up from a single sizzling riff into a tough rock ‘n’ roll strut that leaves no ass unkicked.

Money ascended to a new level of stardom in the MTV era. In 1982, No Control featured “Shakin'” and “Think I’m in Love,” which are in competition with “Baby Hold On” for the title of Eddie Money’s signature song. Unless that’s “Take Me Home Tonight” from his 1986 album Can’t Hold Back, his highest-charting single of all.

(In 1986, the first show of the tour supporting Can’t Hold Back was in the Illinois college town where I was a Top 40 morning jock. Ann and I went to the soundcheck that afternoon, where we were surprised to see how tough he was on his band. He repeatedly stopped run-throughs and made his guys do them again. He was pretty blunt in telling them he expected more than they were delivering. When we sat down for our interview, that was the first thing I said to him: “You were working the band pretty hard out there.” “I was,” he said. “This is our job, and this tour is important, and we’ve got to get it right.” I had always assumed that rock bands just kind of showed up and started to play. His level of commitment opened my eyes, and it impressed me. I never forgot it.)

Part of Eddie Money’s appeal was his regular-guyness. Part of Ric Ocasek’s appeal, and that of the Cars, was that they were not. There had never been anything that sounded quite like that first album, with its all-world opening threesome of “Good Times Roll,” “Just What I Needed,” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The Cars is where the musical decade of the 80s begins: the band’s music and their buttoned-up look have lot more in common with the chilly, danceable pop music of the 80s and the fashion plates who made it than they do with the styles and stars of the looser, scruffier 70s. Candy-O remains my favorite of theirs. And as Alfred Soto wrote at Pitchfork last year, their 80s albums were both experimental and squarely in the pocket for the decade, which is not an easy daily double to hit.

Like Money, the Cars became MTV superstars in the 80s, and like him, they were a sure thing for several years. But the Cars were done as a force by 1987, shortly after Ocasek’s solo career peaked with the single “Emotion in Motion” (although he made five other solo albums between 1991 and 2005, and the surviving Cars reunited for a one-off album in 2011). He was also a prominent producer, and his 28-year marriage to supermodel Paulina Porizkova (pictured above in 1990) gave hope to nerdy-lookin’ dudes everywhere. After the 1991 album Right Here, Money’s longtime label Columbia dropped him, and he settled into a period of recording infrequently on small labels and playing shows featuring his old hits. But thanks to oldies and classic-rock radio, neither act ever disappeared.

At the end, Eddie Money was pretty happy just being Eddie Money, with a respectable set list to entertain the people. And that’s the kind of ending you and I might wish for: to be 70 years old and at peace with how things have turned out for you. We don’t know whether Ric Ocasek’s life turned out as he wished, given that he kept a much lower profile. But from the outside looking in at the lives of both of them, we can guess that it would be a fine thing to have so many people care so much about you when your time comes to leave.

Star Wars, Everywhere

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Mark Hamill and friends at the 1978 Oscars.)

Nobody wanted Star Wars, not at first. The studio made it reluctantly; theater operators thought it was a kids’ movie; the cast was mostly unknowns, and so was George Lucas. Some of the 42 theaters that opened it in May 1977 took it only because 20th Century Fox said that if you want some other, bigger, more prestigious movie later this summer, you have to take Star Wars now.

Tracking the 1977 Star Wars box office from 2019 sources is troublesome, because some of the best ones, The Numbers and Box Office Mojo, either conflict or are incomplete. What seems clear is that the movie was popular but did not dominate the box office in May or June, trailing Smokey and the Bandit and The Deep (one of those prestige pictures). But when Star Wars went into wider release in mid-July—as one film executive characterized it, “when it broadened to the suburbs”—it became a thing. It had competition for the box-office crown throughout the summer, fall, and winter, including Disney’s The Rescuers, The Spy Who Loved Me, Kentucky Fried Movie, Oh God, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever. But it outdid them all in terms of longevity: it played in many theaters for a full year, and although other sources disagree, Box Office Mojo says it was #1 at the box office as late as July 1978.

By September 1977, Star Wars was also high on the record charts. “Star Wars (Main Title),” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by John Williams, charted at KYNO in Fresno, California, in June, and hit the Hot 100 on July 9. It became a Top-10 hit in a handful of large radio markets as August turned to September, and made #1 in San Diego, Honolulu, and Pittsburgh. By October, however, it dropped off the charts, hastened on its way, perhaps, by another version of the theme.

A handful of stations were on “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” credited to disco producer and session musician Meco Monardo, in July, although it didn’t hit the Hot 100 until August 6. It was headed toward the Top 10 in several places by then, and hit #1 in a few cities before the end of the month. By the end of September it had gone to #1 in lots of places, including both KHJ in Los Angeles and WABC in New York City (although it would stick at #2 for five weeks on Chicago’s WLS). It did two weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, October 1 and October 8, 1977, before yielding to “You Light Up My Life.”

During the week of September 17, 1977, “Star Wars (Main Title)” hit #10 on the Hot 100. “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was at #13. The next week, Meco went to #8; the LSO fell to #36. And the next week, when Meco made his mighty leap to #1, the LSO fell out of the Top 40.

ARSA shows two other charting versions of the theme. A disco-ish version by Don Ellis and the Survival rode high at KKUA in Honolulu for five weeks in July and August. Ellis was a jazz trumpet veteran who scored several movies, including The French Connection. Maynard Ferguson did it too. (Here’s a TV piece, produced by DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow for the NBC affiliate in New York, in which we see Ferguson playing the song and talking with Morrow.)

Although no radio station ranked Meco’s record #1 for all of 1977, KKUA, WKBO in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, placed it at #2; WABC, KDWB in Minneapolis, and WKBW in Buffalo were among those that had it at #3. (WLS ranked it at #7.) Billboard‘s November-to-November chart year cost Meco some credit, so his record placed at #71 on the year-end chart. Billboard ranked the LSO version at #99 for the year.

The Star Wars original soundtrack album went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk peaked at #13. The “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” single is an edit from a 15-minute medley of Star Wars themes on the first side of his album; side two contains three unrelated disco tracks titled “Other,” “Galactic,” and “Funk.”

That the theme from the 70s’ most iconic movie would go to #1 in a disco version is just about the most 1970s thing there is. And while it seems pretty cheesy now, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” sounded pretty good on the radio back then. The London Symphony version could be a radio momentum-killer over its full 2:20 running time, but that blast of the opening fanfare always sounded pretty great too.

(The best version of the Star Wars theme is, of course, this one.)

The Fade-Out

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Chip Monck in 1974. Not only is he cooler than you and has a better voice than you, he’s also better lookin’.)

It’s just seeds and stems today.

I’ve gotten some nice compliments recently on various blog posts and podcast episodes, and I appreciate each one of them greatly. When I started this blog in 2004 (!), I wondered whether it would be interesting to anyone other than me. The fact that other people like it still surprises me a little, even after 15 years.

Regarding the podcast, it’s on hiatus right now. The next episode will be posted sometime in the back half of October. The four episodes that have appeared so far are easily accessible right here. (They are also available at TuneIn and Stitcher; the first three are at Google Play but the latest one is not, but I have neither the time nor the inclination right now to pursue the reason why.)

Also going on hiatus until sometime in October is my radio career. I will be off the air because it’s travel time again, for my seasonal gig teaching SAT preparation classes. Barring an unexpected sending-up of the bat signal next Monday or Tuesday, my last day on Magic 98 is today from 3 til 7 Madison time. I don’t regularly write for the station’s website anymore, but I posted something there today about my weird-ass working life and my travel itinerary for the next month. Go and read it if you like.

Since there’s some of the customary word count left, on the flip are some links to stuff I can strongly recommend.

Continue reading →

Something That You’ve Never Seen Before

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Stephen Stills onstage with Manassas, 1971.)

There are a handful of 70s seasons that have become particular favorites of mine simply because the music on my radio was, in retrospect, extraordinary, like the late summer and fall of 1971. Here’s some of the Bottom 60 of the Top 40 I wrote about last week, the week of August 21, 1971.

41. “Where You Lead”/Barbra Streisand. At scattered moments in the early 70s, Barbra was a rock singer, and the results were pretty great. “Stoney End” made the Billboard Top 10, and Carole King’s “Where You Lead” is pretty good too. It made #40 on the Hot 100 but was #3 on Easy Listening. A live version in medley form with “Sweet Inspiration” is probably better known, but this is the one you want.

46. “Maggie May”-“Reason to Believe”/Rod Stewart. “Maggie May,” beyond its humorous younger-man/older-woman dynamic, is about deciding who you are and where you are meant to be. I did not grasp any of that when I was 11, but I was already on that who-and-where journey by the time Maggie hit my radio.

47. “The Wedding Song”/Paul Stookey. This song has been sung at literally a million weddings, I’ll bet, including my own. But few wedding singers do it justice compared to Stookey’s original. It’s so familiar that we can’t really hear it anymore, but it nevertheless scales a height of beauty that pop music no longer strives for. His delivery of the lines “do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before / ohhh there is love” wrecks me every time.

48. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
49. “The Story in Your Eyes”/Moody Blues
55. “All Day Music”/War
60. “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”/Jr. Walker and the All-Stars
63. “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore”/Glass Bottle
64. “Marianne”/Stephen Stills

68. “Sweet City Woman”/Stampeders
73. “Resurrection Shuffle”/Ashton Gardner and Dyke
76. “Summer Sand”/Dawn

I keep repeating the phrase “pure AM radio pleasure” at this website because it’s the truest thing I can think of to say. This music in that environment was magnificent.

72. “I’ve Found Someone of My Own”/Free Movement. This record debuted in May and went 100-97-95-91-91 before falling off the Hot 100 for two weeks. It returned in July and spent two more weeks at #91 before starting to climb up again. It would crack the Top 40 in mid-September and make #5 for the week of November 13 before falling completely out of the Hot 100 after two more weeks. Its 26-week chart run was the longest of any record in 1971.

74. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe. I have said this several times before and here it is again because it blows my mind: “Stagger Lee” is a legendary murder ballad about which entire books have been written. Tommy Roe’s version is a straight-up bubblegum recording.

79. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart
80. “How Can I Unlove You”/Lynn Anderson
92. “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”/Tom T. Hall
94. “I’m Just Me”/Charley Pride
97. “Good Enough to Be Your Wife”/Jeannie C. Riley
I’m a longtime fan of Freddie Hart and Tom T. Hall; you shouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Charley Pride at least a little bit; and there was more to Jeannie C. Riley than just “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Anderson’s  “How Can I Unlove You” is “Rose Garden” turned sideways, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

84. “Top Forty (of the Lord)”/Sha Na Na. I caught a little bit of Sha Na Na’s more-enthusiastic-than-good Woodstock performance during WXPN’s rebroadcast of the show. Jimi Hendrix was a fan, and that helped them get the highly desirable spot right before he went on. (A spot that would have been more desirable at, say, 10:00 on Sunday night than it turned out to be at 7:00 Monday morning.) “Top Forty (of the Lord)” is a straight-up country joint that peaked at #84, and it doesn’t leave me any less perplexed about Sha Na Na’s appeal—a topic I plan to look into at some point soon.

87. “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”/Long John Baldry. Many young British musicians growing up in the 60s idolized Long John Baldry. He played in bands that employed Rod Stewart and Elton John as sidemen, and each of them produced one side of his album It Ain’t Easy, for which he’s best known in the States. The single version of “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie” is fine, but you really need to hear the full-length version, featuring a three-minute prologue in which Baldry recounts the story of being busted in Soho for playing music in the street.

Don’t Have a Wooden Heart

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Donny Osmond, jaded Casanova on the prowl for babes.)

I wrote about an American Top 40 show from late June 1971 earlier this summer, and while a few things had changed by the week of August 21, 1971, I would find myself plowing a lot of the same ground if I did the usual list of songs and comments. So here’s something different.

Continue reading →

Elsewhere and Else-Time

Embed from Getty Images

(This didn’t end up what it started out to be. Sometimes you just gotta hit “publish” and let it go.)

It is the last week of August, 1965. American soldiers are fighting in the Dominican Republic, Gemini 5 is flying in space, Shania Twain is born, and Moonlight Graham dies. Hit songs include “Help,” “I Got You Babe,” and “Do You Believe in Magic.” I am standing at the screen door, clutching the only item I am required to take to Miss Morgan’s kindergarten class on the first day: a red-and-blue plastic mat to lie on during “resting time.” The door has one of those aluminum grates in it, a letter “B” in the middle, and I am peering outside through the bars. As I wait for the unfamiliar school bus to intrude on the familiar view through the window, the world seems a lot bigger than it ever had before.

It is the last week of August, 1969. The Gulf Coast is cleaning up from Hurricane Camille, and top songs include “Sugar Sugar” and “A Boy Named Sue.” On the first day of fourth grade, Mrs. Goodmiller introduces us to a new student, David. She says he has just recovered from open-heart surgery. On that day, I decide that I will make friends with David. We will go through a lot, and put each other through a lot, over the years to come. We’ll fight, rebuild our friendship, fight again, rebuild again. We will be college roommates briefly, and he will stand up in my wedding. His heart trouble will kill him at age 23, and I will never have another friend so close.

It is the last week of August, 1979. The top movie at the box office, as it has been for much of the summer, is Alien. WKRP in Cincinnati and M*A*S*H are big on TV. “My Sharona” and Get the Knack are atop the Billboard charts. I am hanging out in the office at the campus radio station with some friends as new freshmen come in. As I first wrote back in 2006: “On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. ‘Holy crap,’ I said to my friends. ‘Who’s that?'”

(I have been married to that girl for 36 years now.)

It is the last week of August, 1984. The Chicago Cubs and New York Mets are in a pennant race no one saw coming after they duked it out for last place in 1983. President Reagan announces the Teacher in Space program, and the shuttle Discovery takes off on the program’s 12th mission. Radio playlists are crowded with hits that will become iconic, including “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner and “If This Is It” by Huey Lewis, plus two by Prince, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” At my radio station, we’re getting ready to throw the switch on a Top 40 format this Saturday. I am wired with anticipation, planning and fixing and tweaking. It feels like my whole life has been leading up to this.

Some days we walk into with both eyes open, knowing that they are going to be memorable, like five-year-old me on the way to kindergarten. Some days’ importance we don’t recognize until later, like that day in fourth grade, or the day of the format change (which, I realize now, is the most exciting single day of my radio career). The big days come with memories that can keep us going through the years.

But most days are ordinary. We spend them pushing whatever rock we’re pushing up whatever hill we’re fated to push it up. And at days’ end, we reach the top, the rock rolls down, and we’ll push it again tomorrow. This time of year, it’s those ordinary rock-pushing days I wish I could better recall. Every fall, when I see kids lined up at the bus stop, there’s something inside me that wants to say to them, “Make sure you remember everything.” But I never do it. First of all, you can’t remember everything. And second, when you’re five or nine (or 16 or 19 or 24 or 37 or 43 or whatever you are), only one thing would seem more absurd to you than the idea that your ordinary days are worth remembering: the amount of time you’ll eventually spend trying to remember them, when you are elsewhere and else-time.

%d bloggers like this: