Listening to the Pioneers

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The Pioneer Era of Recording spans the period from the late 1880s, when Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention, the phonograph, became simple enough to be operated by non-experts, to about 1920, when electrical methods of recording replaced Edison’s old acoustic methods. Some of the most famous songs ever written first appeared during the Pioneer Era, performed by people who became popular, bankable stars. The vast majority of those stars, however, are almost entirely forgotten a century later.

I have had a longstanding interest in the Pioneer Era, and I have written about it at this website now and then. The latest episode of my podcast is about the Pioneer Era. It describes the birth of the era, profiles a few of the big stars, and even includes bits of some significant Pioneer Era songs. You can listen to it right here:

 

 

Follow my Soundcloud for new episodes, or subscribe to this website to be notified of new episodes (and every other damn thing we do here). The podcast is also available at Google Play, Tune In, and Stitcher. I hope you find this episode interesting, and your comments are welcome.

Walk This Way

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(Pictured: Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines with Michael McDonald in his video for “Sweet Freedom.” I’ve used the pic before, but I’m bringing it back so you can see yet again the worst Chicago Bears knockoff jersey in the world.)

This is the second installment of various ruminations inspired by the American Top 40 show from August 16, 1986.

31. “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”/Glass Tiger
22. “One Step Closer to You”/Gavin Christopher
Listing these songs separately is a distinction without a difference; they are remarkably similar. If I’m recalling correctly, my radio station got rush reservice on the automation tapes that announced “One Step Closer to You” as being by Christopher Gavin. But that too is a distinction without a difference.

30. “Walk This Way”/Run-DMC. Other rap records made the Hot 100 (“The Message,” “The Breaks,” “Rapper’s Delight,” “Planet Rock”), and Blondie’s “Rapture” had been to #1, but Run-DMC was the first rap act to crack the Top 40. While rap was growing in popularity in 1986, I suspect that a lot of people heard “Walk This Way” as a novelty remake and never bought another rap record. Given, however, that within the next decade, rap and hip-hop would become the dominant form of pop music, its success is one of history’s pivot points.

27. “Man Size Love”/Klymaxx
12. “Sweet Freedom”/Michael McDonald
Everybody’s got one obscure movie they love beyond all others, and mine is Running Scared, a buddy comedy featuring the amazing chemistry of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, playing Chicago cops who want to quit and move someplace warm, but end up saving Crystal’s ex-wife from a drug dealer instead. (Crystal to the villain, played by Jimmy Smits: “You hurt that lady and you will never be dead enough.”) Running Scared never got above #6 in the weekly box office rankings that summer, but four songs from its soundtrack charted, and these two went into the Top 15.

24. “Stuck With You”/Huey Lewis and the News 
23. “Yankee Rose”/David Lee Roth
Of all the Huey Lewis records in the world, “Stuck With You” is the Huey-est. Of all the David Lee Roth records in the world, “Yankee Rose” is the crappiest. (The opening segment of the video contains something to offend almost everybody, even before the song starts.)

21. “Invisible Touch”/Genesis
16. “Danger Zone”/Kenny Loggins
13. “Sledgehammer”/Peter Gabriel
9. “Take My Breath Away”/Berlin
4. “Higher Love”/Steve Winwood
2. “Glory of Love”/Peter Cetera
Any one of these might qualify as the song of the summer for 1986, and I don’t think any of them have been off the radio since then. But on the other hand:

19. “All the Love in the World”/The Outfield
18. “Baby Love”/Regina
17. “Suzanne”/Journey
15. “Friends and Lovers”/Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson
10. “The Edge of Heaven”/Wham
8. “Rumors”/Timex Social Club
5. “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”/Jermaine Stewart

It’s strictly via the eyeball test, but it seems to me that a lot of big hits from 1986 (and not just these) disappeared without a trace as soon as they dropped out of current rotations. Apart from Casey reruns, I am pretty sure nobody has played any of these songs on the radio since 1986. “The Edge of Heaven” was Wham’s sixth Top-10 hit in two years, and their last; they would chart one more time as Wham before George Michael became exclusively a solo act.

6. “Venus”/Bananarama. I cannot remember what I thought of this record in 1986, when I was the morning jock and program director of a Top-40 station. I can tell you now that “Venus” was the kind of record that made your station sound hot and hip, and as a soundtrack for summer fun, you couldn’t do better.

3. “Mad About You”/Belinda Carlisle. I can’t remember how I felt about this in 1986 either, but hearing it again the other day all I could think was, “Holy smokes, this is the best thing on the show.”

1.”Papa Don’t Preach”/Madonna. Casey says that “Papa Don’t Preach” is Madonna’s fourth #1 hit, which ties her with Olivia Newton-John for second place all-time among female artists behind Diana Ross. That’s quite a statistic, from the pre-Mariah, pre-Whitney, pre-Janet, pre-Rihanna world. That Madge accomplished it in less than two years makes it even more impressive. Also impressive: her creative development since her first chart hit in 1983. “Papa Don’t Preach” takes her a long way from the chirpy boy toy who made “Holiday” and “Like a Virgin”—but she had even further to go.

As did we all. Although, as I wrote in the earlier installment, not all of us knew it at the time.

“After 1986, What Else Could Be New?”

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(Pictured: Billy Joel picks up a guitar, 1986.)

It’s a reasonably common literary trope, I guess: that fading, end-of-summer vibe, the last couple of weeks of summer vacation when you were still in school, or an August week or weekend spent away from work, at the lake or in the mountains in adult life. Such tales almost always involve something slipping away, changes coming, holding on to something precious, that kind of thing. It’s a fertile field for a memoirist to plow, and you’ve read a lot of stuff like that. (And not just at this website, where we specialize in it.)

What we can’t always see clearly is what those times felt like while we were living them. Did I look at the calendar back there in, say, August 1972, see the first day of school looming there, and think, “I should hang onto these days because they will soon be gone”? How about August 1976, as my summer of all summers turned toward the autumm of all autumns? Or August 1986, by which time I was out in the working world? Did it feel to me like summer was fading, or was I too busy with the day-to-day routine of programming a radio station and hosting a morning show?

Today, there are narratives, but they’re retroactively applied. For 1986, it’s not just the narrative of a summer, but of the arc of my career and ultimately, my life. Today, I know that I had already made a critical choice that would change the course of my career. And the narrative had a second part that had nothing to do with the first: leaving my radio station in December and moving to a new city in January 1987.

If, in my head, the summer of 1986 had a narrative while I was living it, it wasn’t either of those.

That’s a weird way to introduce a few thoughts about the American Top 40 show from August 16, 1986, but it’s what I found myself pondering as the show went along. I have just enough of the word count left to get started; we’ll finish it up in a future installment.

40. “Two of Hearts”/Stacey Q. During the football season of 1986, I made a bet with a DJ friend on the outcome of a game between the colleges in the towns where we worked. The loser had to sing along with “Two of Hearts” on the winner’s show. I hated “Two of Hearts” back then. Today I realize that what I hate is the stuttering electronic “I-I-I-I-I-I need you” effect. The rest of the song isn’t nearly so awful.

(I won the bet.)

38. “Take It Easy”/Andy Taylor. I have utterly no memory of “Take It Easy,” but I do remember the spate of Duran Duran side projects, including Arcadia, Power Station, and various solo singles. Apart from Power Station, none of them did much for me, and I dug Power Station because I was a Robert Palmer fan.

37. “Modern Woman”/Billy Joel. “Modern Woman” is probably meant to sound like a progressive take on 80s relationships but it comes off smug nevertheless; Billy can’t hide his condescension even though “she’s got style and she’s got her own money.” Notable lyric line: “After 1986 what else could be new?”

36. “Digging Your Scene”/Blow Monkeys
34. “The Captain of Her Heart”/Double
I adored “Digging Your Scene” back then, and I still like it today, even though the Blow Monkeys sound to me like they want to be funky but not break a sweat. “The Captain of Her Heart” represents an impressive level of white-boy soul for two dudes from Switzerland.

35. “Hanging on a Heart Attack”/Device. Device was fronted by Holly Knight, who would become one of the most esteemed songwriters in the business over the next three decades. I can’t say whether or not I like “Hanging on a Heart Attack,” but I can tell you that few records sound more like 1986.

Coming in the next installment: songs of the summer, songs that disappeared, and a ton of iconic 80s stars and hits including Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis, Wham, Lionel Richie, Madonna, and a bunch of others. Stay tuned.

[jingle out]

Bad, Wild, and Crazy

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(Pictured: police look for clues in the house where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by members of the Manson Family on August 10, 1969.)

In August 1969, I spent a few days with my favorite cousin at his house. I remember picking up the paper one afternoon to read a story about some terrible murders that happened in Los Angeles. I didn’t recognize the names of anyone involved, although they would become familiar to me as I read the papers over the next several months: Tate, LaBianca, Folger, Frykowski, Sebring, Parent, Manson, Van Houten, Krenwinkel, Atkins, Kasabian, and others. By the time I started listening to the radio in 1970 and hearing news on the hour, Charles Manson and his family members were on trial. Over the years, the Tate-LaBianca murders and the Manson Family held a grim fascination for me; at some point in high school, I would read prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s story of the case, Helter Skelter, in a single weekend.

Fifty years after the murders—a half-century to the very weekend—I read another book about the case in a couple of days. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill claims that the theory of the case advanced by Bugliosi—that the murders were inspired by Manson’s interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album and were intended to start a race war—was simply not the reason, and that Bugliosi hid and/or distorted evidence in his desire to get a conviction that would advance his career. (One of Bugliosi’s colleagues, reviewing O’Neill’s research, told the author that it would be sufficient to get the 1971 verdicts against the Manson Family overturned.)

As to exactly what was the reason for the killings—that’s where it gets murky. O’Neill shows time and again the strange ways in which Manson was seemingly protected by the LAPD and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department and by various probation officers, but he never found out why. He explores Manson’s connections to music-industry figures Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, but doesn’t connect many dots. Before he’s done, O’Neill gets into the possibility that the FBI’s political surveillance program, COINTELPRO, and the CIA’s Operation CHAOS program, which spied illegally on Americans perceived as domestic enemies, might have been involved in the case. O’Neill even suggests a possible connection between the Manson murders and the famous CIA mind-control program MK-ULTRA.

As it is my practice to look sideways at MK-ULTRA—it is frequently a one-size-fits-all explanation for all manner of lunacy—I found the last part of the book disappointing. The first half, in which O’Neill retells the story of the murders and the trial, and details his ten-year investigation into what happened, is much better. If you have an interest in the Tate-LaBianca case (and especially if you read Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter back in the day), O’Neill’s book is worth reading. It’s a well-written and fast-moving tale of events that still retain the capacity to shock, and the unsolved mysteries that still surround them a half-century later.

Also on the Reading List: If murder and mind control don’t appeal to you, read Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changed Hollywood Forever, by Nick de Semlyen instead. It’s about the period from Animal House through Groundhog Day, late 70s to early 90s, when Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, and John Candy were among Hollywood’s most prominent stars. Not every one of their movies was good—if Chase was offered more than one project at a time, he frequently chose the worst one, and Aykroyd had more misses than hits—but the best of them (Animal House, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Groundhog Day) are among the most reliably entertaining films ever made. They did not replay the same premise every weekend. Their stars and their filmmakers had recognizable personalities and styles. The movies were not focus-grouped into existence and marketed the same way.

Wild and Crazy Guys is a fast read, partly because you don’t want to put it down, not necessarily because it’s filled with previously unknown revelations, which it isn’t, but because it covers a bygone-and-much-missed era in pop-culture history, a time when Hollywood’s ambitions weren’t as small as they are today. It will make you want to dig into your DVDs, visit the public library DVD section, or find a stream to revisit movies you remember from decades ago.

To Be There in the Garden

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(Pictured: peace and love, man.)

Back in the middle of the 1980s, on the air one August day, the news guy and I talked a little about the anniversary of Woodstock. Later that day, one of the station’s sales reps flagged me down in the hall. “I heard your bit about Woodstock this morning,” she said. “I was there, you know.”

“Really?” I said. I did some math in my head. “You must have been pretty young.”

“I was 13, but I was there.”

That seemed plausible enough. “You should come on the show tomorrow morning and we’ll talk about it.”

And so she did, but what she claimed to remember about Woodstock were things anybody who had ever heard of Woodstock would know, whether they’d been at the show or not. When I prodded her for personal recollections, they were hazy to the point of incoherence. The interview was pretty much worthless, and although I didn’t confront her about it, I was convinced that she had lied to me. She hadn’t been there at all.

There’s an argument, of course, that her inability to remember proved exactly the opposite: “if you can remember it, you weren’t really there.” In the only lengthy piece I ever wrote about Woodstock, I called that “one of the snottiest catchphrases the 60s generation ever dreamed up.” A portion of that piece—which was posted here in 2006 but was based on something unpublished that I wrote in the late 90s—is below, with a couple of links added to relevant pieces written since.

Scratch an ex-hippie, and many will wax lyrical about “three days of peace, love, and music” and the magical community that sprang up in the countryside, where people got stoned, played together in the flowers and the mud, danced for hours to unbelievable music, and spontaneously formed the forever indivisible Woodstock Nation. Well, not exactly. . . . The significance of Woodstock is a bit overrated, I think. For all the talk of “Woodstock Nation,” it’s worth noting that the nation was primarily white, middle-class, and East Coast. And for all the talk of Woodstock marking the climax of the 1960s, it’s just as much the off-ramp. A little more than three months later, the communal ethos of Woodstock would go horridly sour at Altamont. A year after Woodstock, the antiwar movement that was as much the generation’s glue as the music suffered a fatal blow at Sterling Hall. From there, it became a duel between Woodstock veterans who claimed that if you remembered it you weren’t there and an ever-growing number of people who claimed to have been there but really weren’t. 

That’s the extent of my take on Woodstock. I would revise it to mention Kent State in addition to Madison’s Sterling Hall bombing as nails in the counterculture coffin, but aside from that, I’ll stand by the rest of it. Woodstock interests me as the catalyst for other festivals that I have studied more extensively, including the Iola People’s Fair and the Wadena Rock Fest, and as one of the last landmark events of the 1960s, before the calendar turned to 1970, but its significance, in terms of long-lasting historical impact, is indeed overrated. Its main legacy, thanks to the success of the soundtrack album and film, was the realization that hippie culture could be monetized succesfully—as it has been ever since. Certain performances on that weekend remain iconic a half-century on. Leaving aside the question of how and how long it affected individuals who were there that weekend, whatever Woodstock did to affect the broader American culture was done and gone within a couple of years.

But as a totem? That’s where Woodstock lives, and why it lives. For all the mud and the drugs and the unwashed thousands, it possesses a kind of purity as a place before the world was born: our world, the one we live in today. A world that in the five decades since Woodstock promised much and delivered some of it, but that also failed to deliver much of what it could have. A world that is now moving swiftly backward, immolating itself in sacrifice to the gods of greed, hate, and death—pretty much the opposite of everything Woodstock is supposed to have stood for.

So let us read about Woodstock this weekend. Let us watch the movie again. (Or the recent PBS documentary.) Let us listen to the music made at Woodstock. Let us take a few hours’ respite from 2019’s hell of our own making and be there in the garden one last time.

“In the Privacy of Our Own Lives”

 

For the last several months, Antenna TV has been running Maude in the early evenings, and I catch it from time to time. Recently, the channel repeated the famous two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which she finds herself pregnant at the age of 47 and struggles with the decision of what, if anything, to do about it.

When Maude tells her daughter that she’s pregnant, Carol responds: “You don’t have to have the baby.” Maude says, “What am I supposed to do? Trade it for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?” Carol says, “You don’t have to, Mother. It’s legal now.” Just “it,” for the moment, although later, Carol uses the word in question: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word, but it’s not anymore.” By the late 60s, a number of states had either decriminalized or legalized abortion under certain circumstances; New York state, where Maude is set, had revised its law in 1970, allowing abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

(It’s interesting to me that some of the same states that were first to modify their abortion laws 50 years ago to permit them are among those that have passed draconian anti-abortion laws in recent months.)

There is no character in the episode who explicitly argues against abortion, although Maude’s own uncertainty offers a degree of balance to the issue. (At the request of CBS, there’s a brief appearance by a overworked mother of four who is pregnant with a fifth, yet happily accepting of it.) The majority of the episode is devoted to Maude and her husband, Walter, failing to communicate. Each one believes that the other knows what they want and that there’s no need to ask. For a while, any of four outcomes seems possible: they both want the baby, they both don’t, she wants an abortion and he doesn’t, and vice versa. In the end, however, they finally talk about it directly, and Maude admits she doesn’t want the baby. Walter says, “For you, Maude, and for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”

The episode ends there. And in the next week’s episode, the cast moves on to another sitcom situation, the abortion unmentioned.

When “Maude’s Dilemma” aired in November 1972, about two months before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, a couple of CBS affiliates refused to carry it, but apart from that, it caused no widespread controversy. After Roe v. Wade, however, the outrage machine cranked up. Maude had become one of the biggest hits on TV in its first season, and before “Maude’s Dilemma” was repeated on August 14 and 21, 1973, religious organizations put pressure on individual CBS stations. Affiiates in Milwaukee, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, and 20 to 25 other cities refused to air the repeats. Even with the affiliate defections, however, “Maude’s Dilemma” attracted an audience of 65 million on its second time around.

“Maude’s Dilemma” was a brave episode of television for 1972, even after the taboo-breaking success of All in the Family. And it was especially brave considering that the first part of “Maude’s Dilemma” was only the show’s ninth episode. It’s entirely possible that it was produced before the series had even premiered. The network’s first reaction to the script outline was, in producer Norman Lear’s words, “You’re out of your mind. You’re crazy.” But CBS didn’t step in and stop it. There was a sense, as critic Noel Holston wrote, that the legal decisions had settled the abortion issue.

“Maude’s Dilemma” wasn’t the last time episode writer Susan Harris sparked controversy. In 1977, she created Soap, which outraged various self-appointed guardians of decency even before it premiered due to its explicit sexuality. And it wasn’t the last time she worked with Maude stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, either. Harris also created The Golden Girls.

The full episode of “Maude’s Dilemma”—not the hacked-up Antenna TV version I saw—is available at the top of this page and at YouTube, at least for now. If you watch at YouTube, you will want to avoid reading the comments, as they demonstrate the utter shitshow that the abortion debate has become since the days when abortion was viewed as settled law, when it was a decision that properly belonged “in the privacy of our own lives” and nowhere else. Given what seems to me the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in 2020, “Maude’s Dilemma” is worth watching in 2019.

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