Author Archive: jb

What’s Playing

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(Pictured: Delaney and Bonnie, bigger with the kids than you might expect.)

Let’s look inside the edition of Billboard dated October 17, 1970, to see what we can see.

Three-month-old syndicated radio show American Top 40, now heard on 30 stations, has sold all of its national commercial inventory for the next six weeks to MGM Records. The label intends to use the buy to promote 10 of its artists: Eric Burdon, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Bloom, Michael Parks, the Mike Curb Congregation, Hank Williams Jr., the Osmond Brothers, Richie Havens, Lalo Schifrin, and Heintje, an 11-year-old singer from the Netherlands. (An MGM ad elsewhere in the magazine says that Heintje is 14, however.) A different story details another new media venture that’s gaining popularity: the Chicago-based TV series Soul Train. Host Don Cornelius estimates that the show has 100,000 to 150,000 viewers daily at 4:30 in the afternoon. He hopes that the show will soon be picked up for syndication across the country.

Headline toward the bottom of page 8: “Janis Joplin, Queen of Rock, Dies of Overdose of Drugs.” The lede: “Janis Joplin, whose personal philosophy was to do everything possible to enjoy life, was found dead Sunday [(10/4)]. She had been working on her third Columbia album.”

Another headline: “‘What’s Playing’ on Jukebox Often Differs From Charts.” “On any given week,” the magazine reports, “the ‘What’s Playing?’ [chart] reflects the tastes of the record playing public, which generally differ greatly from the record buying public.” Jukebox operators report figures based on the target audience where jukeboxes are located, including teen, adult, and soul. In a recent week, an operator in Glendale, California, said that the most popular songs among her teenaged jukebox patrons were “Soul Shake” by Delaney and Bonnie, “Lola” by the Kinks, and “Funk 49” by the James Gang, none of which was currently placed higher than #40 on the Hot 100. Records often achieve jukebox popularity before they make any noise on other charts; similarly, records often remain hot on jukeboxes after they’ve cooled on the charts.

On the Best Selling Tape Cartridges chart, Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Chicago lead both the 8-track and cassette listings. Other top tapes include Closer to Home by Grand Funk Railroad, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the Woodstock soundtrack. Best Selling Jazz LPs is led by Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. Isaac Hayes has two albums in the jazz Top 10, The Isaac Hayes Movement and Hot Buttered Soul. The Isaac Hayes Movement is also riding high on the Best Selling Soul LPs chart, along with releases by the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and the Four Tops. Cosmo’s Factory and Mad Dogs and Englishmen are also on the Soul LPs chart. On the Top LPs chart, Cosmo’s Factory is #1 again this week, but Abraxas by Santana makes a strong move to #2 from #8. The new Rolling Stones album, the live Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! debuts at #10.

The Best Selling Soul Singles chart has the same four songs at the top as last week: the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright, and “Still Water (Love)” by the Four Tops. The #1 song on the Hot Country Singles chart is “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash. Two songs in the country Top 10, “It’s Only Make Believe” by Glen Campbell and “Snowbird” by Anne Murray are major pop crossovers. They sit at #2 and #8 on the Easy Listening chart respectively, where the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” is #1. Two new songs have blasted into the Easy Listening Top 10: “Sweetheart” by Engelbert Humperdinck is at #3 from #17 last week, and Shirley Bassey’s cover of the Beatles’ “Something” is at #7 from #22 last week.

On the Hot 100, “I’ll Be There” hits #1, knocking “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond to #2. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf is #3. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is the lone new entry in the Top 10 at #10. The hottest song within the Top 40 is “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, up 11 spots to #11. The highest debut in the Top 40 is “God, Love, and Rock & Roll” by Teegarden and Van Winkle at #30. The highest debut on the Hot 100 is “Heed the Call” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition at #67; “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles is new at #68.

And finally: a small display ad in the magazine offers wristwatches bearing the faces of Bullwinkle J. Moose or Dudley Do-Right “in five mind-boggling colors! Spiffy up your wrist with this happy watch!” Send $12.95 plus shipping and handling to Jay Ward Productions, Hollywood, California.

And Do It All Over Again

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, howlin’.)

I would not have guessed, back in the fall of 1976, that one of the songs most evocative of that time, many years later, would be a good-time rock ‘n’ roll throwback featuring a famous DJ.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids started out as a bargain-basement Sha Na Na, formed at the University of Colorado in 1969. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1971, they ended up catching the 50s nostalgia updraft at precisely the right moment. A series of free shows at the Troubadour got them noticed, and they became a tireless touring outfit. They appeared on American Bandstand in 1972, one of the rare acts to get the gig without a record to promote. The next year, they got a deal with Epic Records. They considered asking Phil Spector to produce their album but ended up working with starmaker Kim Fowley. That same year, they were invited by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to appear as Herby and the Heartbeats in American Graffiti. Their version of “At the Hop” from the movie was released as a single, but given that they were playing a decent-but-not-great high-school dance band, it’s probably not surprising that the record didn’t hit.

A second album, There’s No Face Like Chrome, was to have been produced by Jerry Leiber, but he ended up handling only four songs. The members of the band did not consider themselves a nostalgia act anymore, and some of their mid-70s material was closer to glam rock, including the single “Dancin’ (On a Saturday Night),” which squeaked into the Hot 100 at #93 in 1974. The band went on a package tour with other Epic acts including Rick Springfield, the Meters, and Johnny Nash, but There’s No Place Like Chrome didn’t do any better than their debut album; neither one of them charted, and they ended up leaving Epic.

In 1975, the band made a guest appearance as Johnny Fish and the Fins in an episode of Happy Days. The same year, their first single on the Private Stock label, a 50s rock tribute called “Good Times, Rock and Roll”—on which they sang but did not play—rode the charts for weeks in Denver, was a Top-10 hit in Tucson, and was made available in versions customized for different radio stations. All that was enough to push it to #41 on the Hot 100. But the album Sons of the Beaches got short-circuited when Epic reissued the first two Flash Cadillac albums in a double set under the title Rock and Roll Forever. (If you’ve ever seen a Flash Cadillac album in a used bin, it’s probably that one.)

After Sons of the Beaches crashed, Private Stock brought the band a song called “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby).” Because they didn’t want to be only a nostalgia act, “Did You Boogie” wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted to do, but they did it, even bringing in Wolfman Jack to provide some nostalgic atmosphere. It hit as August turned to September, and made the Top 10 in Kansas City, Denver, Columbus, and Tucson. It hit #12 in my town, Madison, Wisconsin, and was ranked #10 for all of 1976 at WCIL in Carbondale, Illinois. It spent six weeks in the Billboard Top 40, 14 weeks on the Hot 100, and peaked at #29 during the week of October 23, 1976.

Flash Cadillac spent the 70s on the road almost continuously, largely as an opening act for someone or other. After another gig for Francis Ford Coppola, appearing in Apocalypse Now, they spent much of the 80s recording jingles and songs for the syndicated radio show Super Gold, and in the 90s they self-released some music. An edition of the band still exists today, although a couple of the original members have died. (This extended essay tells the whole story I have only sketched here.)

Against the odds, “Did You Boogie” is one of the hits from the fall of 1976 that most vividly takes me back to that time. It hit the radio in two versions—the original with Wolfman Jack and a non-Wolfman version. I used to prefer the non-Wolfman, but it occurs to me now, 42 years later, that his contributions are probably essential. And truthful, too: “Sometimes I get to thinkin’ there’s not enough love and romance in our lives today. And that’s why I like to reminisce, and relive that first feeling of love . . . and do it all over again.”

Another Early Warning

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A couple of weeks ago, in the runup to the presidential alert cellphone users received on October 3, I wrote about the history of America’s various early-warning systems, from Conelrad to EBS to EAS to the Wireless Emergency Alert system. The goal of each was/is to transmit critical information to the public immediately and all at once, and to get people to shelters where they’d have a chance to survive an attack.

The question of what would happen after an attack was less widely discussed. Conelrad and, after 1963, the Emergency Broadcast System, would theoretically be able to continue transmitting emergency information. But what if people had to remain in underground shelters for days or weeks? How would they get emergency signals down there, where regular radio signals don’t go? And what if radio stations themselves were devastated? Nuclear weapons generate electromagnetic pulse radiation (EMP) that is capable of crippling the electrical grid, telephone systems, and practically everything that runs on electricity. Even if your town didn’t get incinerated, a big-enough EMP in the atmosphere could turn back the technological clock 150 years.

In the 60s and early 70s, federal emergency planners worked on a refinement of the Emergency Broadcast System intended to respond to these issues and improve the warning system: DIDS, the Decision Information Distribution System. It would be a network of radio stations spread across the country with the sole purpose of delivering emergency messages to the public, and secure enough to keep broadcasting even after widespread devastation. Unlike Conelrad and EBS, DIDS would not use existing broadcast stations. Instead, it would build its own. The stations would broadcast not on the standard AM or FM bands, but on the longwave band at 167, 179, and 191 kHz. (The standard AM band begins at 540 kHz.) The advantage of using longwave was that unlike standard-band signals, longwave signals travel mostly along the curvature of the earth. Signals could reach underground and underwater over long distances and wouldn’t depend on a network of towers, as EBS did, given that after a nuclear exchange, a lot of those towers would likely be turned to rubble.

A 10-station network was proposed, with stations to be built in places such as Mount Joy, Pennsylvania; Starke, Florida; Winslow, Arizona; Hermiston, Oregon; and Mazomanie, Wisconsin (just west of my town, Madison). It would be powerful enough to cover the entire lower 48, although just what Alaska and Hawaii were supposed to do was a question left open. In the event of an attack, activating stations in Colorado and Kansas would send a “go” signal to the network, which would supposedly be operational within 30 seconds. Connections to the Pentagon’s early-warning radar systems would give the network the capability of telling people where attacks were occurring and where it was safe, but how that was going to work is unclear to me. Planners claimed that by the time the network was completely built, in 1979, it could save the lives of 10 to 17 million people, and maybe another 10 million if additional stations were built.

A prototype station was built: WGU-20, licensed to Chase, Maryland, but located near the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground on Chesapeake Bay northeast of Baltimore. It went on the air in 1973 on 179 kHz with 50,000 watts of power from the first all-solid-state radio transmitter Westinghouse ever built. It had a 700-foot tower, was partially underground to guard against EMP and blast effects, and cost $2 million to build. That $2-million figure explains in part why the rest of the network was never built. But there was another problem: few people owned a longwave radio. The plan was to build emergency receivers into new radios and TV sets and offer an add-on device to retrofit old ones. To increase awareness and encourage people to use the system, it was given a benign name, Public Emergency Radio (PER), and a marketing campaign starring a cute dog mascot named PERki. It didn’t help, and at mid-decade, PER was abandoned.

But WGU-20 soldiered on. At first, it broadcast only a continuous series of time-checks and station identifications, and was quite mysterious to the small number of longwave listeners who found it, since the feds had never explained what it was for. After its purpose became public, it added weather updates for the East Coast; in that way, it was not unlike today’s NOAA weather radio stations. WGU-20 went off the air in 1990, but its tower wasn’t demolished until 2011. You can read more about it and hear what it sounded like here. Read more about America’s alert-program history in this fascinating piece from Wired here.

Somewhere, Anywhere, and Nowhere

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I have been traveling again, out to the East Coast, surfing the local dial wherever I was with the “seek” button on the rental car radio.

It’s my opinion that there’s a rather deep hole in Hell waiting for the guy who was the first to decide that his radio station should be the loudest one on the dial. The “loudness war” has changed radio and affected the way records are made. If you look at a waveform of many a top pop or country hit, you’ll see that there are no peaks and valleys, just an undifferentiated block of audio at maximum level, a phenomenon known as brickwalling. And even when the audio isn’t brickwalled by the people who make the records, radio stations are brickwalling it themselves, and not just music but commercials too. The iHeart classic-hits station in Boston and another classic-hits station I heard from somewhere in Connecticut sound really hot when you first tune them in, but after a while, the audio processing becomes oppressive. Songs have neither loud parts nor soft parts; every bit is artificially jacked up to the same level. Individual instruments audible on the original recordings either get swallowed up or weirdly emphasized; sometimes the vocals get drowned in the backing track. The net effect is to render some songs into uncanny-valley simulations of themselves: Keef’s guitar solo on “Honky Tonk Women,” which is normally sharp enough to draw blood, is buried in mush; Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” loses most of its power when its earth-moving bass shares equal sonic space with the other sounds on the record, instead of dominating them; Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” becomes little more than a high-pitched whine.

I am, as you know, a person who digs the old-school sound of AM radio and music in mono. But the Top 40 stations of yore, hot and processed as they were, didn’t do to the music anything like the kind of violence perpetrated by stations that want to sound louder than the other guys.

(Digression: the Connecticut station, which promoted itself as playing hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at one point played the Uncle Kracker version of “Drift Away,” which features the original “Drift Away” singer Dobie Gray but was released in 2002. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you leave the intern in charge.)

I eventually fled the FM dial for AM, although the AM band in my Toyota Corolla sounded tinny and weak. (The fidelity of the FM band, apart from the brickwalling, was fine, so I suspect the AM side of the radio just wasn’t very good.) There’s not much on AM in the Boston area—mostly Jesus, Spanish, or Jesus in Spanish—although when you get closer to New York City, there’s greater variety. In Hamden, Connecticut, Quinnipiac University operates WQUN-AM. They were playing oldies while I listened, including a “Beatles break” with the original 1962 UK version of “Love Me Do” and “Dear Prudence” from the White Album. Then they stopped for a long interview segment with somebody from a local animal welfare organization about an event the group would be hosting on the weekend. (I might not have gone 20 minutes with it, but that’s just me.) WQUN’s slogan is “great music and local news,” and it’s pretty clear that they know A) precisely who’s listening and B) exactly what those listeners want.

After I lost WQUN, I picked up another oldies station from Babylon, New York. The music mix was OK, but the jock on the air was not. I suspect he’s one of those guys who’s been on the air forever but hasn’t been critiqued by anyone since the Carter Admininstration, jabbering at people in a voice that sounds like Harry Shearer playing a DJ. Most program directors will tell you that as a jock, you should limit yourself to one thought per break. This guy would do three or four—back-announce a song, mention a bit of trivia about the artist, give the time and the temperature and/or talk briefly about the weather, and then promote a contest. I bailed on him shortly after he gave the time twice in the same break. (It hadn’t changed.)

For all their flaws, the small-town and suburban stations at least have a sense of place, a feeling of being from somewhere. The major chain stations were slick and professional, but also plastic and soulless, with little local about them beyond the local addresses in commercials. They could be from anywhere . . . which is a lot like being from nowhere at all.

A Kaleidoscope of Sounds

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You knew we’d be going back to 1976 sometime this month. Here’s what’s inside the issue of Billboard dated October 2, 1976.

Among the front-page headlines: “Disco Music Sounds Undergoing Changes.” Labels and artists have been stung by accusations that “emphasis on basic rhythms and marginal lyric content were mindless and insulting to the intelligence of audiences.” As a result, Billboard contributor Tom Moulton says, “The disco record is no longer all rhythms and a bunch of drums. . . . Consequently there is no longer a single, readily identifiable disco beat but a kaleidoscope of sounds that are melodic and danceable.” Among the artists mentioned as trendsetters of the new sound: Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, the Bee Gees, Lou Rawls, Donna Summer, Double Exposure, and Vicki Sue Robinson.

(Commentary from the present: Moulton’s contention interests me, as I’ve always believed disco, at least the stuff on the radio, was more interesting pre-1977, and that as time went by, the beat got more mindless, not less.)

The magazine’s Disco Forum includes a feature on the growing popularity of mobile discos, which can take the party anywhere. Twenty-one-year-old Bill Alan operates Apollo Disco, a mobile in Minneapolis, and says that when he entertained at a nursing home, he brought his parents’ Longines Symphonette albums, but the residents didn’t want to hear Dorsey, Dean Martin, or Sinatra. “They wanted Earth, Wind and Fire and Van McCoy,” Alan recalls.

Former CBS Records executive Clive Davis has been fined $10,000 for tax evasion but will not receive jail time. Two men and a woman have been arrested in the kidnapping case involving producer Lou Adler, who was held for eight hours early in September. A report by the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy says radio broadcasters could lose up to 15 percent of car listeners to “CB crosstalk” by 1980. The study also predicts chaos if the FCC goes ahead with plans to expand the citizens band without increasing its ability to regulate use of the new channels. A Christian music publisher is suing five Catholic churches in the Chicago archdiocese for using pirated hymnals. In recent years, publishers have stepped up efforts to collect royalties from individual churches, especially since the reforms of Vatican II changed the primary language of the Catholic mass from Latin to English.

A canvas of retail stores in the northeastern United States reveals that despite a standard list price of $6.98, albums are most frequently sold for $3.99. Stores based in malls and discount or department stores tend to sell at higher prices than retail record and tape stores and freestanding stores not connected with a mall. Prices in the New York and Philadelphia metro areas are the highest. The average price across the region is $4.94, although some stores in outlying areas sell $6.98 albums for as little as $2.99. In a related story, retailers would like labels to release more product at a price point of $4.98.

In the Marketplace section, readers can buy spray incense and velvet posters, FCC exam study guides for first- and second-class operator’s licenses, and several different radio comedy services. One guy advertises his service by saying, “Absolutely none can top my original, sophisticated material. Make listeners think you actually finished high school!”

On the record charts, the most-added singles on playlists across the country are “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tennille, “A Dose of Rock and Roll” by Ringo Starr, and the Bee Gees’ “Love So Right.” Albums getting the most adds to station playlists are Long May You Run by the Stills-Young Band, Year of the Cat by Al Stewart, Modern Music by Be Bop Deluxe, and Robin Trower’s Long Misty Days. Most-requested albums at radio stations are Linda Ronstadt’s Hasten Down the Wind, One More From the Road by Lynryd Skynyrd, and self-titled albums by Boston and the Funky Kings.

Rack jobbers report that 12 of the nation’s 40 best-selling albums are compilations of hit singles; Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles and Greatest Hits by War rank in the Top 10 of all albums sold. The jobbers’ best-selling albums are Frampton Comes Alive! and Fleetwood Mac. Frampton Comes Alive! is #1 on Top LPs and Tape; Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs is #2. “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry leads the sales chart for singles; it’s also #1 on the Hot 100 for a second week. “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley holds at #2, while Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” and “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees make strong moves to #3 and #4. Both will eventually reach #1, Murphy next week and Dees the week after that.

Made for October

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A while back, I saw a few people on Twitter ranking the months of the year, so I have spent some time trying to do it myself:

1. October
2. September
3. November
4. December
5. April
6. May
7. March
8. June
9. January
10. July
11. February
12. August

What February and August have in common is that they’re when the two most extreme seasons of the year start to overstay their welcome. We can still have 90-degree days in September, but September comes with the promise that they’ll soon be over. August only promises the likelihood of more. It isn’t all bad, though. For a lot of people—as it was for my family when I was a kid—August is vacation month. We could go away for a few days because the hay had been made and the oats weren’t ready yet. We’d get home and it wouldn’t be long before school would start, which never particularly bothered me.

I’d have ranked February higher when I was a kid because it’s the month my birthday is in, but screw that now.

Ranking November so high may seem weird to you, but November has much to recommend it: football and hockey, Thanksgiving (which is my favorite major holiday), the coming of winter seasonal beers, and the locking time. December gets a boost because I enjoy the trappings of the Christmas season, but also because I am a charter member of the Winter Is Better Than Summer Club. Motto: “You can keep putting clothes on, but you can only take so much off.” (But see March below.)

April gets the springtime nod over May and March because even if the boy leaves the farm, the farm never entirely leaves the boy, particularly during April. All that black, rich soil and the even rows of newly planted crops—I can see it and smell it even though I haven’t lived on a farm for nearly 40 years. March gets marked down because it’s usually the absolute butt end of winter. I remember actually cursing snowflakes as they fell one late March afternoon this year: “Isn’t this ##$%^@ing #%$ ever going to stop #@*ing falling, for #$@% sake?”

May is ranked where it is because it has to be someplace. Nothing interesting ever happens in May. It is the beige of months.

June is OK because of those nights before it gets too humid to breathe the air—in other words, before it becomes July. January is a letdown because the holidays are over, everything is one year older, and hockey season is in the midwinter doldrums. There is playoff football, but your team has to be in it. If they’re not, January is merely a long, cold slog to February, which is a slog of its own.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has regularly imbibed this pondwater that my favorite months of the year are September, now concluded, and October, back again. Our friend whiteray wrote about being an autumnal man a couple of weeks ago, and so am I. This change of season, from fruitfulness to harvest, from long days to short—from light to darkness—is our fate as creatures on this planet, compressed into a few weeks. In spring we grow, in summer we prosper and we frolic in the sun, but only for a while. In the fall, we start to feel our age, and we know where we’re going after that. But even while that inexorable process is taking us, we get to experience a few moments of beauty before we go.

Personally, October has been a month in which I have experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my time as a creature on this planet. I fell both in love and out of it, performed deeds both great and terrible, acted both brave and cowardly. So beyond the sunlight and the leaves and the first fire in the fireplace and pulling up an extra blanket in the night, October is full of people and places and times to remember. Memories enough to make me believe that the man I have become, whoever and whatever he is, was made in October and made by October.

Made for October, too.

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