Uncommon Ground

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Doing radio every day has cut into my fooling-around-with-the-blog time. So here’s something that’s been sitting in my Drafts file for a while.

Here’s something you may not know, even if you’ve been reading this blog for a while: I have an interest in the paranormal. It goes back to grade school. I’ve read all of the most famous paranormal populizers, from Charles Fort and Colin Wilson to Frank Edwards and Brad Steiger, and I follow a few paranormal feeds on Twitter. My interest is in oddities and strangeness, as opposed to ghosts, monsters, and aliens. I am, however, a skeptic. Like Fort, who did not often attempt to explain what he reported, it’s enough for me to know that something happened. If it can’t be explained by our current knowledge of the world, that’s OK. I don’t need to know the reasons for everything, and I have no patience for speculations that the evidence won’t support.

If I were a more credulous person—if I, like Fox Mulder, wanted to believe—maybe I would have a lot of personal experiences involving the sort of oddities and strangeness that interest me. But I have had only a few.

Continue reading “Uncommon Ground”

Walk On

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(Pictured: Boston in 1977.)

The first Boston album came on in the car not long ago and my wife said, unprompted, “This is still really good.” Lots of people on the Internet are A) sick of it or B) don’t think was all that good to begin with. I can understand A after 45 years, but I am guessing the majority of B weren’t teenagers when it came out. Those of us who love Boston tend to really, really love it, as in this 40th anniversary piece by journalist Tim Sommer (who would have been 14 in the fall of 1976), or this lovely reminiscence by Michele Catalano.

The second Boston album, Don’t Look Back, came out two years after the first. It suffers in comparison for the usual reasons second albums do—the first one is where the vision reached its fruition, and the second one is required to respond to the expectations, and the demand, created by the first. Tom Scholz has said that the reason Don’t Look Back feels as sketchy as it does is that it literally wasn’t finished.

Eight years after Don’t Look Back, Third Stage was an unlikely hit—unlikely because pop music had moved a long way beyond Boston’s 70s aesthetic by 1986. But the album hit #1, and so did the single “Amanda.” A second single, “We’re Ready,” also made the Top 10. The 1994 album Walk On had the Boston guitar sound, but a different main vocalist: although Brad Delp wrote or co-wrote the songs and sang with the band on tour, Fran Cosmo handled the leads on the record. Delp played and sang on the 2002 album Corporate America, which became the first Boston album to miss the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. Delp died in 2007, but because Boston albums take forever to make, he’s on the 2013 album Life, Love, and Hope, which is the last Boston album to date.

Unlike other bands, Boston’s entire output is limited almost entirely to those six albums (and the 45 version of “Peace of Mind,” a somewhat different vocal performance compared to the album version). The band’s 1997 Greatest Hits album includes four previously unreleased songs; in 2002 and again in 2013, they released a digital single version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” There aren’t a lot of bootlegs, either. I have a set called Demos and Unreleased, which is just that, and a live show recorded in Cleveland one month after Boston was released. (Clearly, the people who recorded quite literally every Eric Clapton show for the last 50 years weren’t taping Boston too.)

Apart from the standard discography, however, there was another Boston album, of a sort.

In 1980, Delp and two Boston mates, guitarist Barry Goudreau and drummer Sib Hashian, made an album that was ostensibly Goudreau’s solo debut. But the lead single, “Dreams,” sounded exactly like Boston. Some record-label promotion for the album also stressed the similarities. Scholz was not amused, and his displeasure may have contributed to Goudreau’s departure from the group in 1981. (Scholz apparently held no grudge against against Delp or Hashian, who remained in the band, or against Fran Cosmo, who also played on Goudreau’s record, or he wouldn’t have invited Cosmo into the band years later.) Goudreau’s album reached #88 in Billboard during an eight-week run from September to November 1980. “Dreams” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for a single week in October, reaching #103.

In 1984, Delp, Goudreau, and Cosmo made one album under the name Orion the Hunter. Their lone hit, “So You Ran,” made #58. In 1990, Delp and Goudreau got together again to form the band RTZ, which prompted Delp to leave Boston. RTZ scored a couple of modest Hot 100 hits, “Face the Music” (#49 in 1991) and “Until Your Love Comes Back Around” (#26 in 1992). After one RTZ album, Delp returned to Boston, although Goudreau made one more under the RTZ name. Neither Orion the Hunter nor RTZ sounds quite so much like Boston as Barry Goudreau did on his self-titled album, and that was probably out of legal necessity as much as artistic license.

Thanks to classic rock and oldies radio, Boston became an icon, but a strangely evanescent one, given the molasses-slow way Tom Scholz preferred to work and their infrequent tours. But at the same time, those first two albums are going to remain essential for a long time to come, as long as the aging teenagers of the 70s can still push “play.”

Got It and Gone

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(Pictured: soul singer Margie Joseph in 1973.)

Instead of following up an American Top 40 post by looking at the Billboard Bottom 60, let’s look instead at the Cash Box Looking Ahead chart for the week of July 17, 1971, which is like Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart.

1. “Crazy Love”/Helen Reddy. “Crazy Love,” Reddy’s followup to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” is Van Morrison’s song.

2. “And When She Smiles”/The Wildweeds. The Carpenters sang this song as early as 1971 as “And When He Smiles,” but the version by the Wildweeds, a band from Connecticut, is the original.

8. “Make It With You”/Ralfi Pagan. Pagan’s falsetto version of “Make It With You,” which had been a #1 hit by Bread a year before, maybe ain’t for everybody, but it got Pagan onto Soul Train and boosted his career as one of the top Latin artists of the early 70s. In 1978, he was murdered under mysterious circumstances while touring in Colombia. The crime was never solved.

9. “That Other Woman Got My Man and Gone”/Margie Joseph.  If “That Other Woman Got My Man and Gone” puts you in mind of Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” that was probably the idea.

16. “Leave My Man (Woman) Alone”/Raelettes. In which Ray Charles’ backup singers gender-switch one of his songs. “Leave My Man (Woman) Alone” is advice you’d be wise to take.

17. “Breezin'”/Gabor Szabo and Bobby Womack. Although “Breezin'” was more famously recorded in 1976 by George Benson, this “Breezin'” is the OG.

20. “Good Enough to Be Your Wife”/Jeannie C. Riley. If Carly Simon’s contemporaneous “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” is about the ambivalence many young women felt about being expected to fit into society’s expectations about marriage and domesticity circa 1971, “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” expresses a dissenting view. Jeannie C’s man says marriage doesn’t fit his way of life, but she says (paraphrasing), you want the milk, honey, you best buy the cow.

21. “Near You”/Boz Scaggs. Boz was already on his way to stardom in the San Francisco Bay area by 1971. “Near You” would fit right in with his stuff from the late 70s and early 80s, a period that Boz now refers to as “the Hollywood years.”

22. “Candy Apple Red”/R. Dean Taylor. After throwing shots with the police in a doomed attempt to escape a murder charge in “Indiana Wants Me,” R. Dean Taylor commits suicide over a lost love in “Candy Apple Red.” In a church. His last words are, “Someone please pray for me on Sunday,” and the record goes to the fade with a bit of the Lord’s Prayer. What the hell, R. Dean?

23. “Hymn 43″/Jethro Tull. “Hymm 43” seems like such a weird choice for a single. It’s hard to imagine on it AM radio alongside the likes of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “Draggin’ the Line.”

25. “I Want to Take You Higher”/Kool and the Gang. As long as the original exists, you don’t really need this version of “I Want to Take You Higher,” but it’s fine.

26. “Where Evil Grows”/Poppy Family
27. “K-Jee”/Nite-Liters
28. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
30. “Where You Lead”/Barbra Streisand
A handful of singles on this week’s Looking Ahead charts would scrape onto various Top 40s and bigtime radio stations. “Do You Know What I Mean” would end up the biggest. “Where Evil Grows” deserved to be bigger. I have for many years fanboy’d over “Where You Lead.” And “K-Jee” is straight-up disco, years before the word came into widespread use.

29. “Call Me Up in Dreamland”/Van Morrison. After the success of “Domino” and “Blue Money” from His Band and the Street Choir, “Call Me Up in Dreamland” was a stiff. It’s got a great chorus, but the verses are lacking and Morrison’s tenor sax is kind of old-timey.

Sometimes I worry A) that I should do better at keeping up with current music trends strictly because playing that music on the radio is my job now and B) that I am missing out on new stuff that’s good and worthwhile. But I remember that there are hundreds and hundreds of good, worthwhile, and/or interesting records from the preceding 130 years or so that I haven’t heard yet. Then I stop worrying and listen to them instead.

Programming Note: A while back, a reader asked a question I am happy to answer. But my answer is going to be a Sidepiece post, for reasons I will enumerate there. It will go out over the weekend. If you’re not a subscriber yet, the Sidepiece is free and worth the price. Find out about it and sign up here. 

Stop, Look, and Listen

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(Pictured: Carly Simon says hello from the summer of 1971.)

I wrote about the American Top 40 show from June 5, 1971, last month. Now here we are again, six weeks later in that summer (the July 17 show), with more to say about other songs from the ever-more-distant past.

40. “Liar”/Three Dog Night
8. “Draggin’ the Line”/Tommy James
One night in the summer of 1971, my cousin and I decided to camp in his back yard. We were not sleeping rough; we were in a tent 15 feet from the back door of his house, which was located on a fairly busy street in the small town where he lived. I didn’t like it, tossing and turning and wishing that morning would come. Thank goodness I had my little transistor radio, the one I’d gotten for my birthday in February, with the Packers logo and the little earphone, so WLS kept me company through the long night. These two songs bring that experience back.

39. “Stop, Look, and Listen”/Stylistics
37. “If Not for You”/Olivia Newton-John
The first week in the Top 40 for two acts who would spend a lot of time there in years to come.

33. “Rings”/Cymarron
25. “Get It On”/Chase
24. “Double Barrel”/Dave and Ansil Collins
21. “Signs”/Five Man Electrical Band
15. “Funky Nassau”/Beginning of the End
11. “She’s Not Just Another Woman”/8th Day
Some of these you know, some you might not. (Honk if you remember the Magnificent W-O-O-O. Honk twice if you could live for days in the last verse and fade-out of “Rings.”) They have been a part of me for half a century now, and each of them leaves me with a feeling of awe and wonder at the passage of so much time.

32. “You’ve Got a Friend”/Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
29. “Love the One You’re With”/Isley Brothers
3. “You’ve Got a Friend”/James Taylor
We were approaching peak “You’ve Got a Friend” in this week. I once predicted that James Taylor’s version would still resonate 100 years after its release, and we’re halfway there. I’ve written before about the Flack/Hathaway and Isleys covers, but I don’t think I’ve said how much I like them. The Isleys’ “Love the One You’re With” just might outdo the Stephen Stills version.

31. “Brown Sugar”/Rolling Stones
30. “Wild Horses”/Rolling Stones
Radio stations probably shouldn’t play “Brown Sugar” anymore, in the era of BLM and #MeToo. That’s fine. But I have adored every lascivious second of it for 50 damn years, so if you come for my personal copy, you’ll have to pry it out of my sticky fingers.

EXTRA: “Maybe Tomorrow”/Jackson Five
EXTRA: “Harbor Lights”/The Platters
“Maybe Tomorrow,” which would chart at the end of July, was a modern-day extra offered to affiliates by Premiere Radio Networks to fill unsold time. The original cue sheet shows “Misty” by Johnny Mathis as an extra, but it’s scratched out and replaced with a handwritten “Harbor Lights.”

20. “Want Ads”/Honey Cone
16. “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”/Fortunes
10. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”/Carly Simon
6. “Mr. Big Stuff”/Jean Knight
4. “Don’t Pull Your Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
If you were going to teach a class on songwriting and record production, you could build whole lessons around these. Some are rich in clever, figurative language (“experience in love preferred but will accept a young trainee,” “misty morning eyes I’m trying to disguise the way I feel”), and Carly Simon presents text enough for a whole seminar on the sexual politics of 1971 (“you say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds but soon you’ll cage me on your shelf”). All have memorable melodies, and the productions stand up to repeated listening—50 years’ worth.

EXTRA: “I Feel the Earth Move”/Carole King
1. “It’s Too Late”/Carole King
The original cue sheet shows that Casey planned to play a cut from Tapestry in the last hour of the show, but it doesn’t specify which one. Since the show was being recorded in real time in 1971, I wonder if they decided on “I Feel the Earth Move” based on the timing of the show as it got close to the end. Introducing “It’s Too Late,” Casey says that it’s only the third time since 1955 that a song by a female artist has spent five or more weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart. Carole joins Gogi Grant (“The Wayward Wind”) and Lulu (“To Sir With Love”). But King was the first to write her song and to play on it, which is a different, and more significant, milestone. (Ralph Schuckett, who played the electric piano that entwines so  seductively with the sax and guitar on “It’s Too Late,” died last April at the age of 73.)

The Histories of Disco

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I came across this post in the archives a while back, and it holds up OK. It’s been slightly edited and annotated.  

Scholars who have examined the history of disco place its origins in the early 1970s, and locate them in the gay clubs of post-Stonewall New York City, where newly empowered gays were able to create and openly celebrate their own culture for the first time. Disco reached critical mass with the public in part because several key executives who supported and encouraged their record labels to market disco were homosexual themselves. The first disco records to break through to mainstream Top 40 appeared sometime in 1974 or thereabouts. As celebrities of the mid 70s embraced the disco scene and got publicity doing so, people far removed from the nation’s urban centers became interested in the disco experience, and clubs began to proliferate. The opening of Studio 54 in 1977 was national news, and it helped prime the pump for the disco explosion that rocked the country with the release of Saturday Night Live at the end of the year. In 1978, disco came to Holiday Inn lounges by the hundreds as John Travolta’s Tony Manero and the Bee Gees stood astride the pop world. But by this time, the people who had pioneered disco a half-decade before were proclaiming it dead. And within two years, it would indeed be dying, done in by a rock-n-roll backlash.

This isn’t entirely accurate. Disco never really died; it fell out of mainstream popularity and off the radio, which is not the same thing. The disco at your local Holiday Inn became a sports bar, but the clubs that had been disco clubs before disco was cool continued to thrive. And by 1982 or 1983, beats were back on mainstream pop radio, but in the guise of English bands with interesting haircuts. (*White* English bands, mostly, which opens a potentially interesting window we aren’t going to climb through today.) And it wouldn’t be long after that before hip-hop—with more beats you could dance to—got onto the radio, on its way to becoming the predominant genre in pop music.  

In the Midwestern United States of my teenage years, the history of disco went down another way entirely. For most of us, disco began as a radio phenomenon, although for a long time, it didn’t seem all that different from the rest of the stuff we were hearing on WLS, or whoever we were listening to. I was an R&B fan with catholic tastes, so I wasn’t automatically prejudiced against anything. Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, and “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” by Tavares had a distinctive sound, but they did not seem like harbingers of a new era—they were just other ways to do R&B. Not until disco performers and their records became interchangeable, and you couldn’t tell by listening who was who, did I start to dislike the stuff. And that wasn’t until sometime in 1979.

A couple of years ago, in a Twitter convo, our man Larry Grogan said: “If the culture had stuck to the kind of wide-ranging things you’d hear at the Loft (funky rock, Afro funk, world music), all of which was danceable yet not homogenous, it would have made for a much more robust, interesting scene, instead of the fast-burning shit show it turned into.”

Every history of disco talks about its roots in the gay community—but out in the Midwest, we tended to miss that part of it entirely. To us, the Village People were did not signify particular types of gay men; they were just guys in crazy costumes. Neither did we get the in-jokes of “Macho Man,” “YMCA,” and “In the Navy.” It wasn’t until years later that the powerful symbolism of the Village People became obvious. That’s because in my town circa 1978, we were pretty sure we didn’t know any gay people, and gay culture—even the very idea that such a thing might exist—was a mystery. Homosexuality simply didn’t register. (We would discover in a year or two that one of the guys in our circle of friends was gay, but even after we found out, he seemed no different than the guy we’d known for years, so it didn’t matter.)

Originally posted 10 years ago today. Sweet mama we been at this a long time. 

Horny Season

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(Pictured: this website will never miss opportunities to post contemporary pictures of Emmylou Harris. Here she is in April, three weeks past her 74th birthday.) 

Looking over the Bottom 60 from the week of July 12, 1975, there are lots of songs I’ve written about before. In this post, I will try to write about different songs, or say new things.

50. “Philadelphia Freedom” /Elton John. Just out of the Top 40 in its 19th week on the chart. “Philadelphia Freedom” was billed on the label to the Elton John Band, a billing reinforced by the full-band photo on the front of the 45’s picture sleeve. It was a one-shot deal, however. When “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from Captain Fantastic became a single, it was billed to Elton only.

57. “Fallin’ in Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
67. “Fame”/David Bowie
Two records that couldn’t be more different, and would both reach #1 before the end of the summer.

62. “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Blood Sweat and Tears
63. “That’s the Way of the World”/Earth Wind and Fire
65. “Sneakin’ Up Behind You”/Brecker Brothers
The summer of 1975 was a very horny season. In the Top 40 this week, Paul McCartney’s “Listen to What the Man Said” featured a Dixieland-style saxophone; Major Harris got down with a sexy alto sax and Gwen McCrae got up with a whole horn section; Bazuka and AWB did what they did, and “Disco Queen” knocked down Jericho walls. Earth Wind and Fire’s horn section never sounded better than on “That’s the Way of the World.” It was inevitable that BS&T would cut “Got to Get You Into My Life,” although it’s got far less horn punch than the Beatles had, or Earth Wind and Fire’s version would. Randy Brecker was gone from BS&T by 1975, but he and his brother Michael formed their own jazz/soul/fusion outfit. Their self-titled 1975 debut album was nominated for three Grammys, and two tracks from the album remain at least somewhat familiar, “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” and “Some Skunk Funk.” On any list of Names Most Familiar to Nerds Reading the Credits on the Album Cover, the Brecker Brothers would probably be in the Top 10. Other familiar studio cats on “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” include David Sanborn and Will Lee.

79. “Biggest Parakeets in Town”/Jud Strunk. Jud Strunk’s sappy and sentimental “Daisy a Day” rose to #12 in the spring of 1973 at about the same time he was completing his lone season as a member of the cast of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. His Laugh-In persona was a guy from rural Maine, which he was, although he’d been born in New York state. Coming up, he sang in clubs and performed on Broadway, and he made four country-tinged albums between 1970 and 1977. The last one was titled A Semi-Reformed Tequila Crazed Gypsy Looks Back. In 1981, he had a heart attack while flying a private plane and died at the age of 45. “Biggest Parakeets in Town,” a double-entendre novelty recorded live, has a single word of the lyrics bleeped. Even if you remember the words most frequently bleeped in hits of the 70s, you’ll never guess which one gets it here.

81. “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)”/Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasa Band. As an indication of just how culturally significant Muhammad Ali was by 1975, you can hardly do better than “Black Superman.” Nobody ever hit so big with a song about Michael Jordan (although rappers loved to name-check him) and even Joe DiMaggio merited only a single verse in “Mrs. Robinson.”

94. “Get Down Tonight”/KC and the Sunshine Band. In its first week on the Hot 100. I heard this the other day and was impressed by it all over again: it smokes.

99. “Honey Trippin'”/Mystic Moods. Record-store browsers of the 70s would have been quite familiar with the Mystic Moods Orchestra, a studio project that mixed instrumentals with environmental sounds (birds, rain, etc.). Although the Mystic Moods albums were intended originally as a showcase for audiophile recording, their stuff eventually assumed another purpose; as Wikipedia puts it, “these were records to serve as the preamble or accompaniment to sexual intercourse.” However, “Honey Trippin'” chugs along too fast for that (ask your wife), and it does so on a solid electric piano groove.

103. “If I Could Only Win Your Love”/Emmylou Harris. “If I Could Only Win Your Love” is my favorite thing by Emmylou, originally written and recorded by the Louvin Brothers in 1958. Emmylou’s version was her first Top 10 country hit; she would have 19 more in the next 15 years.