Let Me Be There

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, 1976.)

For all of my most important time as a listener, Olivia Newton-John was there, from “If Not for You,” which I first heard during my long ride on the school bus in the fall of 1971, to “Let Me Be There,” which I bought on a 45 just before I stopped buying 45s, to “Soul Kiss,” which I played on the radio as a Top 40 DJ in 1985.

I’m not gonna tell you I liked all of her records. A 15-year-old boy was more likely to make fun of the corny lyrics of “Please Mr. Please” or her breathy-to-squeaky delivery on “I Honestly Love You,” and I did. I knew enough about radio in 1981 to understand the appeal of “Physical” and why it stayed #1 for so long, but it was never going to capture any of my jukebox money. Most of the hits from her imperial phase, post-Grease/early 80s, didn’t do much for me one way or the other—at the time.

But I go back and listen to that stuff now and I’m like, damn, she was really good. And she was. Nothing else sounds quite like “Magic.” “You’re the One That I Want” is pure joy (and the joy is thanks to her, since John Travolta mostly yodels the whole time). I saw somebody online call “A Little More Love” a new-wave record, and it’s worthwhile to listen to it again with that thought in mind. I am not sure she ever sounded better than on her version of the Bee Gees’ “Come on Over,” which came out at the height of her country-crossover period. (Bonus points for the album cover photo, which you can admire for three minutes and 45 seconds if you click that link.) And I find “Sam” to be pretty great, too, and I did so even when I was 17 and could never have admitted it to anybody.

“Sam” is a Hollywood pop production, not the sort of thing ONJ was known for, really. Although her 70s records were plenty slick, there was a straightforwardness to them also: what you see is what you get. As the 70s got further along and the going got weirder, her girl-next-door appeal is easy to understand. Between 1974 and 1976 she scored seven straight #1 hits on Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart. All of them crossed over to the country chart, and six of them made the Top 10 there. For 1974 she won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award—the year of “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” and “I Honestly Love You,” which won Record of the Year at the Grammys for the same year, and was #1 on the Hot 100.

ONJ was never off the radio in 1976 and 1977, although she didn’t make much noise on the Hot 100. (“Sam” got to #20.) Then came Grease. After “You’re the One That I Want,” which was #1 quite literally all over the world, she hit #1 two more times in America and made the Top 10 seven times beyond that by 1984. Her last Billboard Top 40 hit was “Soul Kiss,” although “The Best of Me” was an AC Top 10 in 1986. In 1988, she got to #62 on the Hot 100 with “The Rumour,” written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, co-produced by Elton, with Elton on piano and vocals, and Davey Johnstone on guitar. (“The Rumour” is an absolute banger loaded with radio hooks, but it came along several years too late; on the video for “Soul Kiss,” she achieves levels of smokin’ hotness only hinted at by the likes of “Physical.”)

We have occasionally pondered here why Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy, two stars of unsurpassed magnitude in the 70s, did not find a place on good-times/great-oldies radio in the 80s and 90s. Hits by female rock and disco stars had more staying power than those by straight-up pop singers. Also, their biggest hits sounded fairly dated as soon as disco came to town, if not before. ONJ’s reinvention in Grease came at precisely the right time.

I am a bit surprised and more than a little pleased at the outpouring of affection and respect for ONJ on social media in the last 24 hours. Once again, history knows what we did not always recognize in the moment.

And Also: Lamont Dozier’s passing at age 81 won’t get the notice of ONJ’s, but as The 60s at 60 pointed out this morning, Motown as we know it would not exist without Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland. The songs they wrote are as vital to our lives as oxygen.

Meet the Bickersons

I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this week’s episode of Better Call Saul to say that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul finally made their long-awaited return as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Listening to the two argue, Saul Goodman says, “I was enjoying the Laurel and Hardy vibe, but I’m not such a fan of the Bickersons.”


Continue reading “Meet the Bickersons”

August 2, 1996: Let It Flow

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(Pictured: Jackie Joyner-Kersee gets airborne at the Olympics on August 2, 1996.)

August 2, 1996, is a Friday. The Deep South will see highs in the 90s today, with triple-digit temperatures forecast for south Texas, the Desert Southwest, and southern California. The Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest remain unseasonably cool. West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton has declared a state of emergency in nine counties after up to five inches of rain caused widespread flooding this week. Headlines in the newspapers this morning include the passage of a health care reform bill by a margin of 421-2 in the House of Representatives. Senate approval is expected today. Amid protests from the visitors’ gallery, the Senate approved a welfare reform bill backed by Republicans, one that some Democrats say will harm the poor. President Clinton, who has vetoed two previous welfare reform bills, is expected to sign this one, as well as the health-care bill. In positive news for Clinton, a pair of Arkansas bankers have been acquitted of conspiracy in the Whitewater case. The investigation continues into last week’s bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. One spectator was killed and 111 were injured, but the toll might have been higher if a security guard hadn’t spotted the bomb and notified police.

In the American League, Dwight Gooden of the New York Yankees and Kevin Appier of the Kansas City Royals throw nine-inning shutouts, but each is lifted for the 10th. The Yankees take a 3-0 lead in the top of the inning but Mariano Rivera blows the save in the bottom of the 10th and the Royals win 4-3. The Yankees maintain their 10-game lead in the AL East with the best record in baseball. In the AL Central, Cleveland has a six-game lead on the Chicago White Sox, and in the AL West, Texas leads Seattle by a game-and-a-half. In the National League, two tight races stay tight. The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros both win, so the Cards maintain their half-game lead over Houston in the Central; in the West, San Diego and Los Angeles both win, so the Padres continue to hold their half-game lead over the Dodgers. The Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 2-1, but the Braves continue to lead the NL East over the Montreal Expos by seven games.

Among the medalists on a busy day of Olympic competition today is American Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who wins bronze in the long jump. Joyner-Kersee had been forced to withdraw from the heptathlon earlier in the Olympics due to an injury. She has now won three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals competing in three Olympics. NBC’s coverage of the Olympics dominates TV viewership tonight, more than doubling the ratings of its competitors. ABC counterprograms with its TGIF lineup: Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step by Step, and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, followed by 20/20. CBS presents a two-hour Diagnosis Murder and Nash Bridges. FOX has episodes of Sliders and The X-Files.

The traveling music festival Lollapalooza plays San Jose, California. Headliners include Metallica, Soundgarden, and the Ramones. The festival will conclude its 1996 run with shows in Irvine, California, tomorrow and Sunday. Today, in the same arena, Irvine hosts the Furthur Festival, which is headlined by members of the Grateful Dead as well as Hot Tuna and Bruce Hornsby. Tina Turner plays the second of four nights in Berlin, Germany. Phish plays Wolf Mountain, Utah, and the Eagles play Manchester, England. On the new Billboard Hot 100 that will come out tomorrow, “The Macarena” by Los Del Rio takes over the #1 spot. (The version at #1 is the Bayside Boys Mix; the original version is also on the chart this week at #53.) The double-sided hit “You’re Makin’ Me High” and “Let It Flow” by Toni Braxton falls to #2 (but it stays at #1 in Cash Box for a fourth straight week). “I Love You Always Forever” by Donna Lewis leaps from #23 to #13; the two new songs in the Top 40, “Where Do You Go” by No Mercy and “Stupid Girl” by Garbage, are up 10 and 11 spots from last week. But apart from those three records, there’s not much action in the Top 40. The highest debut on the Hot 100 is “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” by Whitney Houston at #60.

Perspective From the Present: I spent the summer of 1996 attending the University of Iowa. I can’t find my grade reports or transcript to say exactly what I took; there was one political science course in there, I think, but the rest of it is gone. It’s entirely possible that August 2 was the last day of the summer session.

Everybody’s Doing It

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(Pictured: the Village People onstage in the summer of 1979.)

On the weekend of July 7 and 8, 1979, American Top 40 counted down the Top 40 Hits of the Disco Era, covering big hits on the radio and in clubs over the preceding five years. It’s all killer and no filler. Seven songs from Saturday Night Fever are on the show: “How Deep Is Your Love,” “You Should Be Dancing,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps, “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy, and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.” (The latter might be the best song on the show, if it’s not “Stayin’ Alive,” or “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, which sounded great in this context.) As an individual performer, Donna Summer has the most songs on the show, five: “Love to Love You Baby,” “Last Dance,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” and “MacArthur Park.”

“MacArthur Park” was Summer’s first Hot 100 #1, in the fall of 1978, but after the twin barrage of “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls” a few months later, you stopped hearing it much. “Bad Girls,” which is not on the list, would make #1 the week after this show aired and end up the longest-running #1 hit of Summer’s career—something the AT40 staff could not have predicted when they were researching, scripting, and recording in the spring and early summer.

The show is packed with informational factoids. At one point, Casey says that the popularity of disco means that everybody is doing it, referencing the forthcoming Ethel Merman Disco Album and a disco version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by baseball announcer Harry Caray. (The latter is quite something. Harry sings, but he’s swamped by the female singers with him.) Elsewhere, Casey mentions that disco DJs like to play a slow song every 45 minutes to one hour, and lists the most popular slow-dance numbers: “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores, and “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb. All are heard as extras on the show.

Other extras include “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, widely considered to be the first disco record to hit #1; “The Twist,” the most popular dance hit of all time; “The Hustle,” the most popular song named for a disco dance step; and “Disco Duck,” which Casey cites as an indication that disco is here to stay and more than just a fad. Also included: “San Francisco” by the Village People, which Casey says is the most successful record in clubs never to make AT40, because it was never released as a single.

Casey offers quotes from record executives, journalists, and broadcasters discussing the disco phenomenon. Several of them suggest that disco’s popularity has a lot to do with people’s desire to escape economic and social hardships. Others portray it as a communal art form in which the audience is the star. He mentions a couple of different times that there are 20,000 discos in America, which seems like a lot. I suspect that number includes any small-town bar or Holiday Inn lounge that put up a disco ball or had a DJ rig. He name-checks a doctor who claims to be a practitioner of something called “discogenics,” which treats injuries people get from dancing. (There is a real thing called discogenic pain, which is caused by degenerating discs in the spine, regardless of whether the condition is caused by too much boogie-ing.)

But despite all of its undeniable bangers, the show has an odd vibe, and it’s because of Casey himself. It sounds like he’s not entirely present in the moment. He zips through his scripted lines in perfunctory fashion, like he’s trying to get the show done, just another item on a jam-packed To Do list. (What we know of Casey’s career as a voiceover talent by 1979 indicates that certainly could have been the case.) The show largely lacks the feeling of one-to-one communication that made Casey such a pleasant companion on the radio.

AT40 compiled its list based on Billboard chart data and a survey of disco DJs across the country. The #1 song is “Le Freak” by Chic, which spent six non-consecutive weeks at #1 as 1978 turned to 1979. (Like “MacArthur Park,” “Le Freak” would soon be surpassed in importance within a few months by another of its own performer’s hits: “Good Times.”)

When this show aired in the summer of ’79, the disco tide was already going out a bit after peaking in the spring. But as a snapshot of an all-consuming cultural moment, you can’t do better.

“I’m Here to Bring Inspiration”

(I knocked this piece off in about an hour this morning, which is not the way I usually write. If it seems half-baked, that’s why.)

I’m not religious. As I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever was. I did all of the things you do when you grow up in a church, but it was largely because it was what was expected of me, rather than out of genuine commitment to what it meant. I prayed by myself at night from the time I was just a kid, and while I hoped I was being heard, I never knew for sure. In our mid-30s, Ann and I joined a church, and for a while we were very active in it. For the first time in my life, I felt like prayer was actually having concrete results. But it wasn’t long before the connection was terminated. I don’t know why it happened; it just did. And after doing a lot of reading and studying and thinking over the next couple of years, I decided that I was wrong about the connection. Ain’t nobody up there, not Yahweh or Allah or Zeus or Thor or any other supernatural being. When I thought I was talking to God, I was talking to myself.

Accepting that was incredibly liberating. I had lived the first 40 years of my life with the internalized notion that I was being watched and judged, and the knowledge that I could not live up to the standard that I was being judged by. My mental health, such as it is over these last 20 years or so, is vastly improved by the belief—no, the knowledge—that I am responsible for my actions only to the people who are affected by them. Not some dude in a celestial palace, a guy I won’t meet until after I’m dead, and who laid down the rules thousands of years ago, when people couldn’t explain why it rained without recourse to magic.

Some people will tell you that the human brain is wired for religion. I doubt it, if by religion they mean rituals involving holy books and black robes. If we’re wired for anything, it’s probably to crave connection. We don’t want to be alone. Also, we’re wired to find purpose. We don’t want to feel like rats in a maze, running around for no reason. This wiring is why we formed societies in the first place, when groups of people not related by blood decided to live together. You can call the connection and purpose religion if you want, although you don’t have to. It’s enough to want to be part of a group of people that shares something all find important, and which uses that important thing to animate the way they live.

Some people go to church on Sunday to affirm that they are not alone, and to affirm their purpose for carrying on. Some of us find that affirmation elsewhere.

Last night, Ann and I saw Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt in concert. Mavis, who is 83 years old now but performs like a much younger person, comes out of the gospel tradition, and every one of her songs had a religious bent—but not a sectarian one. Mavis’ religion does not tell you how to vote and who to hate. She said at one point, “I’m here to bring joy. I’m here to bring inspiration.” Her songs argued that we’re in this world together, and that while the road is sometimes hard and long, we must keep going forward, together. They were all infused with the hope that we might someday get to the place where love and brotherhood prevail, and even when the road is at its roughest, we must not lose our determination to walk it, together. Bonnie’s message, discussing her long years of activism and her fears and hopes in this moment, was less explicit, but not much different. Her music is the expression of a soul on the same journey that Mavis describes.

Today, the religion of millions in America is a terrible, destructive force that diminishes our humanity and will, if undefeated, destroy our planet. The religion of Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt—a belief in the importance of human connection and common purpose that stands outside of ancient dogma and modern prejudice, driven by both the hope that we will achieve that connection and purpose and the determination to do so—is the only religion that will save us, the only one we need.

Crazy Colors

(Watch this vintage TV ad for Panasonic’s Crazy Colors line of radios, which for some counterintuitive reason, was shot in sepia tones.) 

Fifty years ago this weekend, if you lived in or near Madison, Wisconsin, as I did (and I do), it was a very good time to be shopping for music or something to play it on. The Wisconsin State Journal dated July 20, 1972, contains a full-page ad for the Prange-Way discount stores at East Towne and West Towne Malls. Prange-Way was having a “sale of savings” (as opposed to a sale of what other kind, I wonder) at which you could snag stuff you might still have today—or wish you did.

The major record labels were offering some top current titles for $2.99, including Elton John’s Honky Chateau, the debut album by America, Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and School’s Out by Alice Cooper. Back-catalog stuff was also on sale: “All top artists and labels, Bobby Sherman, Neil Diamond and more, hundreds to choose from, all stereo” for $1.67 each. Still too pricey? “Assorted mono and stereo LPs with hundreds of selections to choose from,” only 77 cents. One line of albums was priced two for a dollar, and singles were three for a dollar. If vinyl was not your tech of choice, eight-tracks and cassettes were also on sale for just $1.99 each.

Need something to play your music on? A complete Lloyd’s system, “AM/FM/FM-PX 8-track stereo component system with changer and headphones, big speakers, wood cabinet with mar resistant vinyl, perfect for anyone who wants everything!”, was on sale for $129.92. Give yourself some extra credit if you know what FM-PX meant without having to look it up. It referred to multiplexed FM signals, or, in other words, stereo.

Does $129.92 seem like a lot of money for 1972? It was—it’s over $900 in 2022 dollars. So unless you had been saving up for a big purchase, you probably would have settled for something cheaper, like the Panasonic Toot-a-Loop Bracelet (“A radio you can wear like a bracelet! Big sound and comes in crazy colors!”) for $12.88, or the fabled Panasonic Ball and Chain for only $10.99.

On the list of the most 70s things ever, either of those would rank pretty high.

Some of the cats and kittens who may have been tempted by these music buys at Prange-Way (three syllables: PRANG-ee-way) were probably disappointed to find that they had already earmarked their disposable income for something else that week: the Dane County Junior Fair, which was going on then, just as it’s going on this week. Although it doesn’t anymore, the fair booked some pretty serious rock acts back in the day; in 1972, the rock show scheduled for Saturday night, July 22, starred the James Gang with special guest REO Speedwagon for $3.50 in advance, $4.50 day of the show. Seems cheap to us now, but not so much when put into modern dollars—think of ’em as $24 in advance and $31 day of show.

The front page of the paper bannered headlines about peace talks in Paris between envoys from the United States and North Vietnam, and about a tornado that struck Lake Mills, Wisconsin, the day before. The Green Bay Packers had opened training camp, Muhammad Ali defeated somebody named Blue Lewis, and my beloved Chicago Cubs were in fourth place.

I suspect that on the afternoon or evening of July 20, 1972, the 12-year-old me read the very newspaper I looked back at today. This I know: I’d have had the radio on that day—neither a Toot-a-Loop nor a Ball and Chain, alas—listening to “Lean on Me” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “Outa-Space” and “Brandy” and “Rocket Man” and “Take It Easy” and everything else on WLS, over and over and over again.

(This post is pretty much a straight-up repeat of one that appeared here on July 20, 2012., although I recalculated the currency conversions as you see them here. They’re all about one-third larger than they were in 2012.)