And So It Goes

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(Pictured: Linda Ronstadt with Aaron Neville, 1990.)

I was a bit surprised by my visceral negative reaction to the hits from August 4, 1990, earlier this week, although it fits with a half-assed theory of mine. It has always seemed to me that by 1990, pop culture had grown more tolerant of vulgarity than ever before. The change wasn’t evolution as much as a distinct click of the ratchet. All of a sudden, 2 Live Crew is acceptable for radio play; “Tic Tac Toe” refers to girls with “their legs across my shoulders” and brags about “making the bed squeak”; “Poison” is about a girl the singers have gang-banged; “Hanky Panky” is explicitly about rough sex. And it’s not just on the radio: Andrew Dice Clay (see below) becomes a star, and Married With Children obsesses over bodily functions. It would take somebody smarter than me to elucidate precisely why it happened when it did and what it meant.

So here’s some of the Bottom 60, with an asterisk.

49. “Do You Remember”/Phil Collins
62. “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven”/Phil Collins

In the mid-80s, I was in Top 40 radio when the Phil Collins album No Jacket Required produced four giant singles and stayed on the air for a solid year. The album . . . But Seriously (sweet mama I hate that ellipsis) seemed just as big when I got into AC radio in 1990. There were five singles and we played ’em all. The only one I care to hear now, however, is “Do You Remember.”

53. “Oh Girl”/Paul Young. The summer of 1990 was a good one for whoever was collecting royalties on the Chi-Lites’ catalog, between MC Hammer’s “Have You Seen Her” and this faithful “Oh Girl.”

69. “Club at the End of the Street”/Elton John. Elton’s album Sleeping With the Past is a tribute to 60s soul. It produced three solid singles, “Healing Hands,” “Sacrifice,” and this, which, if it’s remembered at all, may be for its animated video.

Now, the asterisk: that’s all I could manage to care about from the Hot 100. So I went over to the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary chart for the same week, where I found more stuff I was actually playing on the radio in the summer of 1990. (Positions are from the AC chart.)

5. “Take It to Heart”/Michael McDonald
21. “Skies the Limit”/Fleetwood Mac

As I wrote earlier this year, the pop and adult-contemporary charts tracked each other pretty closely for the better part of 20 years, until they didn’t anymore. “Take It to Heart” had made #98 on the Hot 100 in June during a two-week run on the Hot 100. “Skies the Limit” never made it at all.

20. “And So It Goes”/Billy Joel.  According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), “And So It Goes” is written in iambic tetrameter, and it has only a couple of rhyming lines. It is also a momentum-killer on the radio. It did not make the Hot 100 until October and got to #37.

29. “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”/Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville
41. “Adios”/Linda Ronstadt
Although she didn’t do much big Top 40 business after 1982, Linda remained a major hitmaker throughout the 80s, thanks to her standards albums with Nelson Riddle and the Trio albums with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind contained her last two big singles, “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life,” plus the two songs mentioned here. Her career was not over in 1990, however. She would make eight (!) more solo albums, her last one coming in 2004.

34. “Sea Cruise”/Dion. In the pop-culture swamp that was 1990, Andrew Dice Clay’s vile, unfunny stand-up act and repulsive Brooklyn dude-bro persona didn’t stop him from becoming a star. He played the title character in 1990’s Golden Raspberry Worst Picture winner The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, the soundtrack of which contained Dion’s version of “Sea Cruise.” It did not make the Hot 100.

(Digression: Dion, who turned 81 last month, released a new album earlier this summer called Blues With Friends. The friends include Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, and Sonny Landreth. I haven’t heard all of it, but what I have heard is terrific.)

I had started working for an AC station in little Clinton, Iowa, in early 1990, because they had a job open and I needed one. I don’t regret taking the job, or the nearly four years I spent there. What I do regret is the tendency I had back then to let things happen to me instead of making them happen. But I’m not getting into that any further today.

Don’t Go Away Mad

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(Pictured: Wendy Wilson, Chynna Phillips, and Carnie Wilson.)

In the summer of 1990, I was doing adult-contemporary radio and had stopped listening to the Top 40 at all, so the American Top 40 show from August 4, 1990, hosted by Shadoe Stevens, contains a lot of music I’m not very familiar with. I usually listen to these shows in the car a little bit at a time and then write up my impressions afterward. This time, I decided to do a real-time live blog.

40. “Tic-Tac-Toe”/Kyper. The cue sheet for the show says that “Tic-Tac-Toe” contains content that “may be unacceptable for your station,” and offers instructions on how to seamlessly edit the song out of the show. You could also edit it because it’s awful.

A promo leading into a commercial break mentions that AT40 is provided to stations on CD and plugs Sony CD technology; the cue sheet says (punctuation theirs), “American Top 40 uses ‘hit disc CDs’ provided by Century 21 Programming, Inc.”

37. “Tonight”/New Kids on the Block
3o. “Step by Step/New Kids on the Block
Shadoe says he thinks “Tonight” sounds a bit like the Beatles, which is one way to describe it. I was thinking “mishmash of tempos and styles that would scare off a prog-rock band.” At least the former #1 “Step by Step” knows what it wants to be and sticks to it.

35. “Love and Emotion”/Stevie B. I am three segments into this show and the bass beats are wearing me out. It’s like being thrashed with a rubber hose.

33. “Poison”/Bell Biv Devoe. A few weeks back, Shadoe said that BBD was one of two acts who’d hit #1 on the black singles chart in two different configurations (BBD and New Edition) and that the only other acts to do the same were Parliament and Funkadelic. But a listener wrote in to say that members of Parliament and Funkadelic had also hit #1 black with Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and that the trio Isley-Jasper-Isley had all been to #1 black as members of the Isley Brothers. That’s a pretty good bit of research by a random listener, and a rather big fail for the AT40 research team to miss it.

32. “I Didn’t Want to Need You”/Heart. In which Ann and Nancy have to screech to be heard over guitars that are too loud and a rhythm section that is administering another rubber-hose beating.

31. “Pure”/Lightning Seeds. I am not sure if “Pure” is actually good, but compared to the rest of this hour it’s Mozart.

29. “Across the River”/Bruce Hornsby and the Range. It’s refreshing to hear some halfway-ambitious music for adults after an hour of mostly brainless product.

27. “Banned in the USA”/2 Live Crew. Based on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” with his permission, “Banned in the USA” is 2 Live Crew’s response to the widespread censorship of their album Nasty As They Wanna Be. Shadoe had to play this crud for seven weeks.

23. “Release Me”/Wilson Phillips. “Release Me,” on the other hand, is fantastic. That “Hold On” (also on the show at #39) gets so much airplay 30 years later and this doesn’t ain’t right.

21. “Don’t Go Away Mad”/Motley Crue. By this point, I’m ready for every record to be terrible, so it’s a mild shock that this isn’t.

19. “Have You Seen Her”/MC Hammer. This cover of the Chi-Lites’ 1971 hit is one of the best things on the show, partly because the source material is so good, but also because it feels to me like Hammer legitimately respects it.

17. “Epic”/Faith No More. Given the rest of the stuff on this show, I get the appeal of a rap/metal hybrid, but I don’t condone it.

Shadoe flashes back to the Top Five from the same week in 1982: “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Hold Me,” Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra,” “Hurts So Good,” and “Eye of the Tiger.” And I have a new degree of respect for all of ’em.

13. “Hanky Panky”/Madonna. I’m out. I can’t listen to any more of this junk. Seriously, this is the worst AT40 I’ve ever heard.

The last hour has a couple of bits of interest, however. There’s Michael Bolton (“When I’m Back on My Feet Again”), who in 1990 had just embarked on a four-year streak during which he had six Top 10s on the Hot 100 and 12 AC Top 10s, including eight #1s. And it has Mariah Carey hitting #1 with “Vision of Love,” her first hit single and the opening act of a career that has featured 19 Hot 100 #1 hits to date.

Thank you for coming as far as we got on this journey. We may do something like it again, but probably not soon.

August 3, 1984: Close Your Eyes

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(Pictured: gymnast Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.)

August 3, 1984, was a Friday. The lead story on all three network newscasts tonight is about the economy. Despite rising unemployment numbers, the stock market rose again today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 31.47 to close at 1166.08. The S&P 500 has gained more than eight percent in the last three trading days. Bert Lance, who resigned from his position in the Carter Administration under a cloud of scandal and was later acquitted of bank fraud, has stepped down as an advisor to Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. Mondale had tried to name Lance chairman of the Democratic National Committee before the party’s convention last month; that nomination was withdrawn after complaints from fellow Democrats.

The Summer Olympics continue in Los Angeles. Scoring a perfect 10 on her vault, Mary Lou Retton wins gold in women’s all-around gymnastics, one of six golds Team USA wins on this day. Swimmer Tracy Caulkins wins two, an individual gold in the 200 meter individual medley and a team gold in the 4-by-100 medley relay. Future Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte is born. In the majors, the Detroit Tigers are cruising in the American League East despite dropping a 9-6 decision to Kansas City; they lead the Toronto Blue Jays by 10-and-a-half games. The American League West is much tighter. The Minnesota Twins and California Angels opened a critical four-game series last night. The Angels took over first place by a half-game after a 14-2 laugher, but tonight the Twins regain the lead with a 4-2 win. The National League East is equally tight; the New York Mets pull to within a half-game of the Chicago Cubs with a 4-1 win over Pittsburgh while the Cubs lose 6-5 to Montreal. In the NL West, the San Diego Padres maintain a seven-and-a-half game lead over Atlanta despite losing to Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros 6-2.

ABC devotes primetime to the Summer Olympics and nearly triples the ratings of its competitors. CBS counterprograms with its usual Friday-night lineup of The Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas, and Falcon Crest. NBC presents a repeat episode of the martial-arts adventure The Master starring Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten, as well as the first network broadcast of The Private Eyes, a 1980 theatrical movie starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts as Scotland Yard sleuths solving a mystery in a spooky mansion. In theaters, moviegoers can choose from last week’s top-grossing picture, Purple Rain, along with Ghostbusters, Gremlins, the re-release of Disney’s The Jungle Book, The Karate Kid, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. New releases this weekend include Grandview U.S.A., The Philadelphia Experiment, and Joy of Sex, based (very loosely) on the how-to book by Dr. Alex Comfort.

Metallica plays New York City. Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Tampa; he’ll move on to Jacksonville tomorrow night and Columbia, South Carolina, on Sunday. Elvis Costello plays Sunrise, Florida, and the Pretenders play New Haven, Connecticut. The Beach Boys play the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, California, performing 22 songs in less than an hour. On the American Top 40 show to be broadcast around the country this weekend, “When Doves Cry” by Prince and “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. hold at #1 and #2. Also in the Top Five: “State of Shock” by the Jacksons, “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen, and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner. Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You” makes the biggest move of the week, up seven spots to #15. Richie’s “Hello” is one of two Long Distance Dedications on the show, along with “Looks Like We Made It” by Barry Manilow. There are four new songs among the 40 this week: “All of You” by Julio Iglesias and Diana Ross, Jermaine Jackson’s “Dynamite,” “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” by Billy Joel, and Night Ranger’s “When You Close Your Eyes.”

Perspective From the Present: The August 1984 gains in the stock market are widely recognized now as the start of a bull market that wouldn’t end until the Black Monday crash of October 1987. Three months before the presidential election, no one seriously believed that Walter Mondale would oust Ronald Reagan from office, and unforced errors like the continued promotion of the disgraced Bert Lance didn’t help his chances. The Soviet boycott of the Summer Olympics, which was a major story all summer, was forgotten in the blitz of American gold medals, and the games became a two-week patriotic celebration. From our one-bedroom basement apartment in small-town Illinois, we cheered Mary Lou Retton and the other Olympians, and we spent the weekend watching them.

Wadena Plus 50

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(Pictured: Leon Russell. The Getty Images caption says he’s at Wadena, Minnesota, but I’m certain that’s incorrect and this shot is from Wadena, Iowa.)

Fifty years ago this weekend, Iowa got its own Woodstock, when the Wadena Rock Fest attracted 40,000 people to a farm in Fayette County, in the northeastern part of the state. I researched the festival on its 40th anniversary, and that research made up part of the first episode of my podcast last summer. This summer, I tried to locate somebody/anybody who’d been at Wadena, in hopes of doing a podcast interview similar to the one I did with Steve Benton about Wisconsin’s Sound Storm and Iola festivals, but I struck out. It doesn’t look like the anniversary is getting much attention from Iowa media; a single piece from the Cedar Rapids Gazette is all that’s out so far, although I suppose there could be more this weekend.

At YouTube, there’s a 37-minute video focused on bands that played the show, interspersed with photos and newspaper clippings. Some of the bands on the bill were on practically every Midwestern bill during the festival era, such as Fuse, with Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, future members of Cheap Trick, who had played both Sound Storm and Iola, and Illinois Speed Press, which included future Poco guitarist Paul Cotton. Local and regional bands were a feature of every festival everywhere: Wadena featured Enoch Smoky, from Iowa City, future members of the Iowa Rock Hall of Fame, who played a 25th-anniversary Wadena show in 1995; two Minnesota bands, White Lightning and Gypsy; and from Illinois, the as-yet-unrecorded REO Speedwagon, as well as Chicago-based Rotary Connection and the Shadows of Knight.

There were plenty of blues performers, including Chicken Shack, with Christine Perfect, the future Christine McVie, on keyboards and vocals, plus Savoy Brown, Johnny Winter, Albert King, and Luther Allison. Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack were not the only British acts on the bill: so was Terry Reid, who turned down the chance to become Led Zeppelin’s lead singer the year before.

There were a couple of early rock ‘n’ roll legends: Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. There were folkies, including Tim Hardin and the duo Great Speckled Bird, to be known before long as Ian and Sylvia. And there was the rest of the lineup: Mason Proffit, the Youngbloods, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Lee Michaels, Leon Russell, the Chambers Brothers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Guess Who.

(Proviso: these bands were all mentioned in the initial publicity for the show. That doesn’t guarantee they actually played, although most if not all certainly did; some Wadena publicity said that the Who would be there, and they were not. That doesn’t mean there were no other acts who played and have gone unmentioned. Now-obscure regional acts likely performed too, such as the Wisconsin band Oz. Setlist.fm says that Hot Tuna, Joan Baez, and the Sons of Champlin were there. A random YouTube commenter says he remembers Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.)

The Gazette story includes about 13 minutes of silent film of the site from the concert weekend. The YouTuber who posted it says that his grandfather shot it; his farm was located about three miles away. (“[Grandpa] said he had people living in the woods for months afterward!”) Some of it was taken from an airplane; that footage gives you a good idea of the dimensions of the 200-acre site. A second, shorter, more colorful (but also silent) clip shows people groovin’ to a performance—possibly Leon Russell.

On one level, the films are almost completely mundane: people arriving and milling around, shots of the stage, lots of tents and lean-tos, cars and vans, people with backpacks and coolers, bikers flying a flag with a swastika on it, a guy lighting up a bong, a topless girl putting her shirt back on.

But on another level, the films are deeply evocative. The world of 1970 had plenty of troubles, and the people in the films—emissaries from a now-lost world—could have told you all about them. The people would be in their 60s, 70s, and 80s now, and some of them didn’t make it this far. But in those films, everything that happened to those people, and to us, in the last half-century (or in however much of the last half-century you happen to have been present for) hasn’t happened yet. They are innocent—without knowing that they are—and forever young. Would that we could be the same.

Wishbone What?

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(Pictured: Wishbone Ash, on stage in the 70s.)

The Federal Communications Commission isn’t what it used to be. Its main task today is to facilitate the efforts of giant television, radio, and Internet conglomerates to take an ever-greater stranglehold on the marketplace and to help the bankrupt ones stay afloat. While it occasionally hands out fines to broadcasters for various legal and technical infractions, the Commission is not an entity the average dumb-ass disc jockey thinks about anymore. But it wasn’t always that way, as this college radio story from around 1980 indicates. 

We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.

Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you a different one.

We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. It was made clear to every jock from Day One that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. In addition, the transmitter operator/DJ bore the ultimate reponsibility for whatever got on the air. So we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.

One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in nearby Dubuque that morning. Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably picked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.

As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too. Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right.

As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.

Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the day, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though the monster was really there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post.)

The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that the Omkring et flygel theme would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.

The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys didn’t do stuff like that all the time. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either.

It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.