Context Gets Lost

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Robert Klein, in an acting role on Love American Style, 1973.)

It’s time again to plunder my drafts file for fragments that never added up to a full post.

If you read the history of modern stand-up comedy, you’ll notice how many major stars, up to Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, mention Robert Klein as an influence. His most famous of several albums is Child of the 50s, which came out in 1973. Comedy does not always translate over time. Styles change, context gets lost, new comics shift the paradigm of what’s funny. But Child of the 50s is still consistently hilarious 45 years after its original release. Although Klein’s growing-up stories are set in a faraway time and for many of us, a faraway place—the Bronx—they’re still relatable, because we all dealt with school discipline, subtitute teachers, and lunch ladies. We all watched TV shows that annoyed us, listened to the radio, dealt with surly retail clerks, and tried to get a date. The reference points have changed, but the experiences remain universal.

You can hear all of Child of the 50s here. It’s observational like Seinfeld and absurdist like Martin, but at the same time firmly in the stand-up mainstream of the early 1970s. Klein’s act wasn’t so foreign that a network variety show couldn’t book him.

On the subjects of television and of lost context, there’s this:  

The CBS reboot of Murphy Brown was big news at our house because we loved the original series. But boy is the new Murphy not good. At its best, the original series delivered uprorariously funny takes ripped from the headlines; the reboot just can’t. The show’s attempts to mock and/or parody Trump, Republicans, and conservative media come off either too broad or just toothless. Yes, our current reality is hard to satirize. But the new Murphy Brown is positively wheezing; you can almost see the cast worrying that it just ain’t funny.

It seems obvious that Murphy Brown‘s audience will be people who watched the show 25 years ago, but the producers, and possibly CBS too, are reluctant to accept it. In fact, the single best joke in the entire reboot so far was ruined because of that reluctance. Tyne Daly, who plays the crusty owner of Phil’s, the bar where Murphy and her colleagues hang out, delivers a speech about her toughness that ends with “I spent 20 years in one of the toughest divisions of the NYPD.” The audience in the studio—and in the living room at our house—laughs uproariously at the cleverness of the callback to Daly’s role as a detective on Cagney and Lacey. Instead of leaving well-enough alone, however, the writers add the line, “Parking enforcement.” Which turns a funny bit of fan service into a lame joke that could have been on Sgt. Bilko 60 years ago.

And finally: last summer, somebody tweeted a record chart from 1974 and asked, “Worst year ever?” This bit was a response that never went anywhere.

When the list of #1 hits includes “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Annie’s Song,” “The Night Chicago Died,” and “You’re Having My Baby,” all of which topped the Hot 100 between Memorial Day and Labor Day 1974, it makes you wonder. American taste had gotten mushy during that Watergate year. It would take somebody smarter than me to explain what happened between the spring of 1973 and the summer of 1974 to make this happen to the Top 40. Soul music was turning to disco, novelty records and earworms with the artistic depth of commercial jingles were becoming massive hits, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce. Maybe the news from Washington was so bad that we thought silly, non-threatening music could take our minds off of it.

I was about to say that if that last bit had been true in 1974, we’d be up to our ears in silly, non-threatening music in 2018. But a recent piece at Pitchfork argues that today’s hits actually reflect our morose times and our uncertain future pretty well. But those reflections are far more passive than those of two generations ago. In a world of streaming, shuffling, and skipping, music doesn’t get in our faces like it used to. Neither do the people who make it. Their main job, and the job of their music, is simply to be there when we turn it on.  

Please tune in again next time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, or whatever the hell this is. 

18 thoughts on “Context Gets Lost

  1. mackdaddyg

    Robert Klein was fantastic back in the day. Both Child of the 50s and Mind Over Matter are fantastic albums. I don’t know if anybody under 40 would appreciate the source of the humor, but it’s their loss.

    I also enjoyed Murphy Brown the first time around, but was skeptical of this reboot from the get go. I made myself watch the entire first episode and haven’t seen any of the other episodes. I didn’t want it to fail, but it won’t surprise me when it gets cancelled. It’s just not funny. I think that’s because these days their target is too easy. Trump may be in charge, but with the late night talk shows and the internet, the opposition has plenty of outlets. Back in the day, shows like Murphy Brown were one of the few ways an opposing sarcastic viewpoint could get out there. The late shows have better writers nowadays.

  2. mikehagerty

    I got Klein’s “Child of the 50s” as a promo album when it was new. The Jazz DJ still kills me.

    1974’s music was so bad it drove me out of Top 40 and into AC, which (if you did it right) was less mind-numbing.

    As for “Murphy Brown”, my wife and I were like kids at Christmas for the reboot. Perfect timing, right? Eight minutes in, we looked at each other and said “This is painfully unfunny”. Analyzing as we are both given to do, we came to the conclusion that it is written like pretty much every other sitcom and has none of the briskness and bite of the original.

    Charlie: The ratings are pretty grim. There are only four primetime shows on CBS that do worse in total audience: MacGyver, Madam Secretary, Happy Together and 48 Hours. Murphy Brown is 31st in total audience and 54th in the sales demo of 18-49.

  3. Chris Herman

    “It would take somebody smarter than me to explain what happened between the spring of 1973 and the summer of 1974 to make this happen to the Top 40. Soul music was turning to disco, novelty records and earworms with the artistic depth of commercial jingles were becoming massive hits, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce.”

    One reason “straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce” during that period was that “progressive rock” (or “art rock”) was dominant. It was popular at the time but to say it didn’t age well would be an understatement. Granted, the music of groups like Yes and ELP still have a following but most rock historians regard this period (perhaps unfairly) as rock ‘n’ roll’s “Dark Age” (or, more fittingly, “Dork Age”).

  4. Wesley

    I’m not smarter than you by any means, but I think by 1974, the American psyche had been shaken by a combination of the energy crisis, Watergate, the still ongoing Vietnam War and probably a few other demoralizing events I’m leaving out. Some listeners and radio programmers let their guard down as a result. Just look at what was the highest debut on the Hot 100 the first week of 1974–“Americans” by Byron MacGregor. Three weeks later, it’s in the 10 while for the second week in a row, a version by Gordon Sinclair is the biggest mover within the Hot 100. It’s at #28, making it the first time on the Hot 100 two versions of a spoken word record are in the top 30. (Mercifully, Casey Kasem played just one version of it on American Top 40.) Even Tex Ritter got to #90 on the chart with his take on it posthumously (he had died on January 2 of that year).

    That patriotic ode set the stage for trying anything in the top 10 the next eight months, and anything did hit. Religious soft rock (“The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead). Not just one but two novelty songs by Jim Stafford (“Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Weed”). “Eres Tu” by Mocedades became the first top 10 hit in a foreign language since “Guantanamera” by the Sandpipers in 1966 (The Sandpipers was an American act, so if you want to find a foreign act with a foreign tongue, go back to 1963 with “Dominique” from the Singing Nun). It was the last non-English top 10 hit until “99 Luftballons” in 1984 too. Even some of the instrumentals came off as novelties, notably Marvin Hamlisch’s take on Scott Joplin’s ragtime tune “The Entertainer” and Mike Oldfield’s creepy “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist.

    With the possible exceptions of “Eres Tu” and “The Entertainer,” all of the records previously listed pretty much disappeared from playlists after they peaked. Combine them with the negligible number ones listed during the period, and you’ve got a tough slate of hits to endure at the time no matter what the circumstances were.

    The trend lessened somewhat after “You’re Having My Baby” ended its run at the top in September, but you still had the alleged comedy record “Earache My Eye Featuring Alice Bowie” by Cheech & Chong in October and Bobby Vinton’s cornball comeback “My Melody of Love” in November (peaking at number three one week when John Denver’s equally forgettable “Back Home Again” topped out at number five). There was dross as late as January 1975, when Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” Paul Anka and Odia Coates’ “One Man Woman/One Woman Man” and Donny and Marie’s deadly rendition of “Morning Side of the Mountain” were all in the top 10, but things soon improved thereafter. Still, when people talk about hating 1970s music, these records probably played a factor in their judgment.

    1. mikehagerty

      “Eres Tu” by Mocedades became the first top 10 hit in a foreign language since “Guantanamera” by the Sandpipers in 1966…”

      Wesley—“Oye Como Va”, by Santana. 1971.

  5. mikehagerty

    JB and Wesley: And I’m no smarter than either of you, but I can add a bit to what you’ve both said.

    It was less about program directors letting their guard down than a change in the philosophy of successful Top 40 programmers.

    The biggest chain of Top 40 stations in the country was RKO (99X New York, KHJ Los Angeles, WFYR Chicago, KFRC San Francisco, WRKO Boston, WAXY Fort Lauderdale, WHBQ Memphis). In 1973, the chain was in its final days of being consulted by Bill Drake. In June of that year, Drake left and Paul Drew became National PD. Drew’s philosophy was “mass appeal”.

    A lot of John Denver and Helen Reddy and other records that might otherwise only have done well on the Easy Listening charts went as big as they did from the momentum of the entire RKO chain, under Drew, going on them out of the box.

    Other chains and independent stations took Buzz Bennett’s “Q” approach—heavily emphasizing teen audiences above all else—even 18-34 adults. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy—driving a lot of young adults to FM rock stations.

    In Ron Jacobs’ research that led to a “recycling” of KGB, San Diego in the spring of 1972, he found that while KCBQ was #1 in teens, that 12-17 rating was heavily weighted in 12-13, with a chunk of 8-11 year olds boosting their overall 6+ number. It looked good in the ratings books, but their teens were actually pre-teens and tweens—and what appeals to them is rarely the same thing that appeals to 16+.

    Needless to say, the Osmonds and novelty records (including and especially Cheech and Chong) were huge on Q format stations.

    And then you had the biggest station in the land—WABC, which only added songs after they’d become proven hits. Proven, increasingly, by RKO, which leaned AC, and the Q stations and clones, which thought they were leaning teen.

    This had been brewing for some time, though, and wasn’t a 1973-into-1974 thing. Buzz had been aiming low, demographically, since taking over KCBQ in January of ’71.

    Just for comparison, I grabbed (from the Billboard Hot 100 charts from mid-spring 1973 (May 5) and mid-summer 1974 (August 3). Here’s the top 10 from each:

    Mid-spring 1973:

    1. Tony Orlando & Dawn-Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Old Oak Tree
    2. War-The Cisco Kid
    3. Sweet-Little Willy
    4. Stevie Wonder-You Are the Sunshine of My Life
    5. Vicki Lawrence-The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia
    6. Dobie Gray-Drift Away
    7. Stealer’s Wheel-Stuck In the Middle With You
    8. Donny Osmond-The Twelfth of Never
    9. Carpenters-Sing
    10.Edgar Winter Group-Frankenstein

    Mid-summer 1974:

    1. John Denver-Annie’s Song
    2. Elton John-Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
    3. Roberta Flack-Feel Like Makin’ Love
    4. Steely Dan-Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
    5. Paper Lace-The Night Chicago Died
    6. Hollies-The Air That I Breathe
    7. Righteous Brothers-Rock and Roll Heaven
    8. Dave Loggins-Please Come to Boston
    9. Chicago-Call on Me
    10. Blue Magic-Sideshow

    It’s subjective, and it certainly varied from week to week, but I’d argue that the ’74 list is a little lower on dreck (really, just “Annie’s Song” and “The Night Chicago Died”) than the ’73 (“Tie A Yellow Ribbon”, “The Night the Lights Went Out”, “Twelfth of Never”, “Sing”). And both have some great songs.

    And, really, the front half of ’75 was kinda iffy, too—let’s just take the dead center of that year (June 26, 1975):

    1. Captain and Tennille-Love Will Keep Us Together
    2. Linda Ronstadt-When Will I Be Loved
    3. Michael Murphey-Wildfire
    4. Jessi Colter-I’m Not Lisa
    5. Major Harris-Love Won’t Let Me Wait
    6. Van McCoy-The Hustle
    7. Paul McCartney and Wings-Listen to What the Man Said
    8. Joe Simon-Get Down Get Down (Get on the Floor)
    9. Pilot-Magic
    10.Average White Band-Cut the Cake

    Truth be told, it was Stevie Wonder, Eagles and Fleetwood Mac all dropping huge albums within a few months of each other (Eagles arguably kicked it off with “One of These Nights”, then topped it with “Hotel California”) that refocused Top 40 away from disposable pop—but that was ’76-’77.

  6. mikehagerty

    …and I knew I was forgetting something—the absence of “straight-up rock and roll”. For that, a look at the album charts from those same weeks in 1973 and ’74 is helpful.

    In 1973, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, The Edgar Winter Group, Humble Pie and Focus all had albums in the Top 15. The argument could be made that Pink Floyd and Focus were part of the progressive rock that Chris Herman mentions, though “Money” and “Hocus Pocus” did rock.

    In 1974, Pink Floyd was between albums (“Dark Side of the Moon” was still selling at a brisk enough clip that it had only just fallen out of the top 40 albums in the first week of August), as was Alice Cooper, whose late ’73 album, “Muscle of Love”, was a disappointment compared to “Billion Dollar Babies”) and Humble Pie.

    Edgar Winter had a new album in the Top 20 (“Shock Treatment”), but the two singles from it stiffed. And Focus was in its first week at number 198 with its new album “Hamburger Concerto”…which did nothing in terms of Top 40 singles.

    Other strong performers in ’73 also didn’t do so well in ’74. The Doobie Brothers’ “What Were Once Vices are Now Habits” was pretty much a stiff until “Black Water” broke in late ’74-early ’75. The Allman Brothers were between albums. And Grand Funk traded its clean, tight sound from “We’re An American Band” for the echo and phase-drenched “Loco-Motion” and “Shinin’ On”

    The one bright light in early August of ’74—Bachman-Turner Overdrive was #8 with BTO II, and “Takin’ Care of Business” was on its way up the Hot 100 at #16.

  7. Thank you, Wesley, for writing the post I was trying to achieve when I wrote that fragment. And thank you Mike for illuminating the situation.

    I keep saying that you guys don’t even need me anymore. Convinced yet? :-)>

    1. Wesley

      We always need you, JB. Reading this blog keeps me sane and amused in a world that sometimes seems determined to make me feel otherwise.

  8. Wesley

    mikehagerty: Excellent analysis. Really opened my eyes and makes sense of what happened here. I’d only add that I consider when “The Hustle” hit #1 a month later (July 26, 1975), it served as the unofficial demarcation mark between the early 1970s AM bright /soft rock pop sound and the disco-y and harder rock music dominating the rest of the decade. From that point onward, the Carpenters, John Denver, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and all the Osmonds failed to crack the top 10 and went into decline. Helen Reddy managed to sneak in one more top 10 entry (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”) three months later before the same thing happened to her. Even Neil Diamond had to have Barbra Streisand help him with “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” for him to return to the top 10 in 1978 for the first time since “Longfellow Serenade” in 1974.

    And for anyone who points out Seals & Crofts got back using their signature sound for one more top 10 hit with “Get Closer” in 1976, let me point out that the female vocal came from Carolyn White, formerly of the Honey Cone. That group’s funky soul sound was out of fashion then too, as shown by the disappearance of James Brown and Aretha Franklin on the top 40 then as well. Best example of all: Contrast the groove the Ohio Players had with their #1 hit “Fire” pre-“The Hustle” versus the strong disco influence on their second and final #1 hit a year later, “Love Rollercoaster.” I rest my defense..

  9. mikehagerty

    Wesley: All good points. It helps to keep in mind that singles sales peaked in 1974. It was all downhill (and fairly rapidly) from there. Album sales eclipsed singles in 1969, and never looked back until it all got soft and gooey around ’79-’80.

    That means two things—it took fewer sales to get a hit single from ’75 on, and that if you wanted a true measure of the popularity of a single, it helped to factor in sales of the album on which that single appeared.

    Let’s take the week where “Get Closer” went top 10—from #16 to #6, July 24, 1976. The top 10 was:

    1. Manhattans-Kiss and Say Goodbye
    2. Starland Vocal Band-Afternoon Delight
    3. Brothers Johnson-I’ll Be Good To You
    4. Starbuck-Moonlight Feels Right
    5. Gary Wright-Love Is Alive
    6. Seals and Crofts-Get Closer
    7. The Beatles-Got To Get You Into My Life
    8. Elton John and Kiki Dee-Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
    9. Beach Boys-Rock and Roll Music
    10.John Travolta-Let Her In

    Now let’s look at the albums:

    1. Peter Frampton-Frampton Comes Alive
    2. Wings-Wings At The Speed Of Sound
    3. George Benson-Breezin’
    4. Chicago-X
    5. Fleetwood Mac
    6. Jefferson Starship-Spitfire
    7. Neil Diamond-Beautiful Noise
    8. The Beatles-Rock N’ Roll Music
    9. Steve Miller Band-Fly Like An Eagle
    10. Aerosmith-Rocks

    “Baby I Love Your Way” and “Let ‘Em In” were on their way up the charts and became big hits. So was George Benson’s “This Masquerade”, but it stopped at #10, and factoring in album sales suggests it was bigger than that. Ditto Chicago’s “Another Rainy Day in New York City”, which peaked at #32 on the singles chart.

    Fleetwood Mac…”Over My Head” peaked at #20. “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” both stopped at #11. Again, factor in album sales and they’re much bigger.

    Jefferson Starship’s “With Your Love” was just in its first week on the singles chart at #69. But album sales suggest it’s already big.

    Neil Diamond’s “If You Know What I Mean” made #11. So did Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run”. Again, like Fleetwood Mac, the albums suggest both songs are bigger.

    Aerosmith’s “Last Child” peaked at #21. Again, very few programmers in ’76 were counting the album.

    Go back to the singles chart, and the Manhattans’ album peaked at #16, the Starland Vocal Band at #20, the Brothers Johnson at #9, Starbuck at #78, Gary Wright at #7, Seals and Crofts at #37, The Beatles at #2, The Beach Boys at #8 and John Travolta at #39. Elton and Kiki was a singles-only release until Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II was released in the fall.

    So the case can be made that, of the singles in the top 10 that week, “I’ll Be Good To You”, “Love Is Alive”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “Rock and Roll Music” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” were the strongest, with “Kiss and Say Goodbye” certainly a hit. “Afternoon Delight” is kind of on the bubble.

    But if a top ten single can’t drive an album beyond 37, 39 or 78(!) on the album chart, with singles sales in decline, then “Get Closer”, “Let Her In” and “Moonlight Feels Right” were really turntable hits.

    I wish I could tell you I was this aware when I was programming in 1976. It wasn’t until ’77 that I started factoring in album sales. Most programmers had it figured out by ’78-’79, when the first three singles by The Cars peaked at 27, 35 and 41, but the albums they came from were multi-platinum.

  10. Pingback: Polyester Glory | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

  11. Pingback: American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/2/74: Love Unlimited Orchestra, “Love’s Theme” | The Music of My Life

  12. Pingback: Tell Me a Lie – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.