Author Archive: jb

Dust

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(We are way off-topic today. Read this or not, your choice, as always.)

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The Best of Intentions

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(Pictured: Styx in the 70s.)

I’ve said before that it’s probably not fair to listen to American Top 40 on the molecular level. Casey Kasem and his staff were just making a show from week to week, one that they hoped would be A) entertaining and B) profitable. They didn’t realize they were creating an institution, one that nerds would continue to obsess over even after Casey left this plane of existence for the Great DJ Booth in the Sky.

But here we go anyhow.

This blog has made its share of mistakes over the years, and has proliferated plenty of misinformation. I’ve done it on the radio, too. There’s less justification for errors in the Internet age because it’s easier to fact-check than it used to be. But AT40 did not have the benefit of such a miraculous resource. Like DJs in other places (and bloggers in modern times), the AT40 staff went ahead with the best of intentions, hoped to get things right, and sometimes did not.

Some feats of research accomplished by the AT40 staff were positively heroic in an age before searchable electronic databases. By the time the show reached its height of influence and popularity, a lot of the features came from original reporting, from exclusive interviews with stars and record-industry people. But even those interviews could lead to misinformation, most famously John D. Loudermilk’s tale of how he came to write “Indian Reservation.” That dramatic story was a fabrication concocted for the benefit of an AT40 researcher. Casey repeated the story a couple of times over the years, even after it should have been possible to debunk it.

As former AT40 staffer Scott Paton told us a few years ago, AT 40 also relied on popular music magazines for content. Those magazines also hoped to get things right, but sometimes they didn’t either.

Most often, mistakes involved little things. On the show dated February 1, 1975, Casey mentioned that members of Styx, then rising with their first hit, “Lady,” had been in the Trade Winds, who had recorded the 1964 hit “New York’s a Lonely Town (When You’re the Only Surfer Boy Around).” But they weren’t. The Trade Winds (two words) were from Providence, Rhode Island. Chicago-area teenagers John Panozzo, Chuck Panozzo, and Dennis De Young were in a band called the Tradewinds (one word), but they changed their band’s name to TW4 after “New York’s a Lonely Town” hit.

Casey had made a similar error in 1971. He told listeners that James Taylor had been in the Flying Machine, a group that had hit in 1969 with the bubblegum classic “Smile a Little Smile for Me.” James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine had banged out some demos in 1966 but they weren’t released until 1971. And that Flying Machine had nothing to do with “Smile a Little Smile for Me.”

I know from bitter experience myself that erroneous leaps of logic like those are fabulously easy to make.

The very first thing people ever knew about Barry Manilow besides the fact that he sang “Mandy” was that he wrote and sang on many famous commercial jingles. On the 2/1/75 show, with “Mandy” still on the chart, Casey mentions one of those jingles: “you deserve a break today” for McDonalds. That bit of trivia actually has a narrative arc: for a long time, it was believed to be true; then it was believed to be false, and pedants such as I would point out that one McDonalds jingle Manilow really did write was the somewhat less famous “you, you’re the one.” Today, most sources say it’s unclear whether he wrote “you deserve a break today,” although he definitely sang it on a number of ads.

There’s no malice in these mistakes. They’re just part of making a show, day to day or week to week. You do it with the best of intentions, but sometimes you just get stuff wrong.

On Another Matter: AT40‘s modern-day repeats contain extra segments that affiliates can use to fill unsold commercial time. Most of these are voiced by the show’s announcer, Larry Morgan, and they’re usually highly familiar hits that are a week or two away from hitting the countdown. The 2/1/75 show included Neil Diamond’s “I’ve Been This Way Before” which, compared to the usual run of extras, is fairly obscure. It debuted on the Hot 100 at #73 that week, and would peak at #34 in a three-week run on the Hot 100. It was a #1 Easy Listening hit, however, and it’s easier to imagine it there than on your typical Top 40 blowtorch.

A Hard Luck Woman After the Lovin’

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(Pictured: Rose Royce, fronted by lead singer Gwen Dickey.)

“I am entirely irrational about the songs on the radio during the winter of 1977,” I wrote three years ago. “Most of them sound great to me, and you can’t persuade me otherwise.” So I enjoyed the recent repeat of the American Top 40 show from January 29, 1977. In this post, I hope to say some new things about the hits of that season.

37. “It Keeps You Runnin'”/Doobie Brothers 
35. “You Got Me Runnin'”/Gene Cotton
“It Keeps You Runnin'” wasn’t the first big hit by Doobies Mark II—that was “Takin’ It to the Streets” the previous summer. We still didn’t quite know what to make of the new sound, however; this is as high as “It Keeps You Runnin'” would get. Cotton recorded steadily for years before breaking onto Top 40 radio with hits in 1977 and 1978, none of which get much airplay anymore: “You’ve Got Me Runnin,'” “Before My Heart Finds Out,” and a duet with Kim Carnes called “You’re a Part of Me.” Cotton’s 1978 single “Like a Sunday in Salem,” which was less successful than the other three, is obliquely about the McCarthy/blacklist era of the 1950s, and is pretty dang good.

In the first hour of the show, Casey welcomes some new stations to the AT40 family including WLSD in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and the fact that they weren’t running an underground rock format was a great lost opportunity. (I can hear the jocks now: “You’re trippin’ on WLSD, Big Stoned Gap.”) The call letters have nothing to do with the drug: according to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), they stand for the four counties served by the station, which went on the air in 1953 and still exists today, with the same set of calls, playing Southern gospel.

31. “Save It for a Rainy Day”/Stephen Bishop. Like “You Got Me Runnin'” and several others on this chart, “Save It for a Rainy Day” is a light-and-easy feel-good pop song. This kind of thing would grow in popularity as the boomers hit their mid-30s.

26. “Dancing Queen”/ABBA
25. “Night Moves”/Bob Seger
24. “Year of the Cat”/Al Stewart
These three songs ran the chart in a clump for several weeks, as you’ll see if you look at the 2016 post linked above. Hearing them in the context of their time once again was strangely moving. While I’m sometimes sorry to have missed the musical 60s, I feel lucky to have grown up with the music of the 70s.

20. “Hard Luck Woman”/KISS
19. “After the Lovin'”/Engelbert Humperdinck
There are no words for how much I love this train wreck.

10. “Walk This Way”/Aerosmith
9. “Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)”/Barbra Streisand
Or this one. “Evergreen” was up 11 spots this week.

(Digression: I have heard the Oscar-nominated song from last year’s remake of A Star Is Born, “Shallow,” only a couple of times, but I have opinions. One, the crowd noise on it is pretty obviously fake, as if the producers were trying to subliminally suggest to us, “This song is really good! Just listen to people liking it!”) And two, you can hear how hard Bradley Cooper is working to be an adequate singer. When Lady Gaga comes in, her virtuosity reveals how limited he is. The fact that non-singing actors aren’t dubbed anymore isn’t a victory for artistic integrity, it’s the triumph of ego.)

11. “Enjoy Yourself”/The Jacksons. After the Jacksons left Motown, their first album for CBS/Epic was recorded at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble says they taught Michael and his brothers a lot about songwriting and production. While “Enjoy Yourself” has a spiky beat that falls in line with the sound the Jacksons had established during the Motown years, a better indication of what might have been, had Gamble and Huff continued to produce them, is the followup single “Show You the Way to Go.”

3. “Dazz”/Brick
2. “I Wish”/Stevie Wonder
1. “Car Wash”/Rose Royce
This is a pretty solid ending to the show. One of these three songs was on the radio literally every hour between December 1976 and March 1977. Brick had been in the Top 10 for five weeks at this point; Stevie was coming off a week at #1. As for “Car Wash,” if you haven’t seen the movie, go find it. It captures the look and attitude of a particular moment of the 1970s, and it features a lot of actors whose faces you’ll recognize (Franklin Ajaye, Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes, Professor Irwin Corey, and Melanie Mayron, who would be in the cast of thirtysomething), plus Richard Pryor and George Carlin too. (See a clip of the title song here.)

The Other Possibilities

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(Pictured: Conrad Keely of the band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead gets body-passed in 2002.)

In an attempt to keep feeding the content maw, I dug back into the archives to find some ancient posts from the earliest days of this blog that I haven’t repeated already. Here’s one, originally posted on January 15, 2005, and edited slightly.

Last night I was reading a review of the latest album by a group called And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. It got me to thinking about great and/or stupid band names I have known. I am not talking about well-known groups, particularly—some of the best names have become so familiar that we can’t appreciate them anymore. For example, “Beatles” is one of the greatest musical puns ever coined, but who notices that now?

The bubblegum era gave birth to many great/stupid names, from the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the 1910 Fruitgum Company to the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Groups with rock pretensions, such as Chocolate Watchband and Lothar and the Hand People made records, too, but didn’t sell so many. (Somewhere, I believe I have a single by Lothar and the Hand People.) About the same time, according to the Book of Rock Lists, there was a group called Detroit Edison White Light Company. This was not the group’s original name, however. They were first going to be known as Charging Tyrannosaurus of Despair, until the drummer announced he didn’t want anything to do with despair.

One reliable way to create a weird group name is to be Someone and the Something Outrageous or Catchy. For instance, one band that plays frequently around my town is called Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smokin’ Altar Boys. Other representative examples of the same include Biff Hitler and the Violent Mood Swings, Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid Kids, and Big Dick and the Extenders.

My favorite band name of all time is one of the latter: The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities.

“Big Dick and the Extenders” is an example of a contemporary phenomenon—the risque/tasteless/obscene band name. You wouldn’t have seen these much before the 1990s. Such names often give you a clue to a particular group’s genre, depending on how risque/tasteless/obscene the name is. For instance, Buster Hymen and the Penetrators would likely be a blues band, whereas Fuck Me Suck Me Call Me Helen is more likely to be punk. The Well Hungarians may be a polka band; Well Strung, on the other hand, is almost certainly bluegrass.

Punks occasionally get carried away with their punkiness. The Do I Look Like I Give a Fucks are a bit too literal, while Electric Vomit is an example of punkers trying way too hard. Other bands from the Almost Certainly Punk File: Sucking Chest Wound, Immaculate Infection, and Grim Skunk. [Or death metal. —Ed.]

Some contemporary band names take their names from celebrities: Barbara’s Bush, for example, or Drew Barrymore’s Dealer, or the Fat Chick from Wilson Phillips, or Kathleen Turner Overdrive. The latter represents a nice segue into the name that plays on somebody else’s name, such as John Cougar Concentration Camp, REO Speed Dealer, or Earthpig and Fire.

Some names, like And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, go on just a bit too long. Other examples include Gee That’s A Large Beetle I Wonder If It’s Poisonous, The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac, and Nearly Died Laughing While Shaving My Butt. Better to make your point and get out in a hurry, like Lawnsmell, Schlong, or the Shit—three more for the Almost Certainly Punk file.

In the many years since this post first appeared, band names have come even further unmoored from any need to make sense. The Canonical List of Weird Band Names has many. I am sure you have a favorite, so hit the comments if you do.

Additional Note to Patrons: Last December, I wrote about the book Madison in the Sixties, a civic and political history of my town. Part of my radio gig involves producing a talk show for one of the stations in our group; since I’d read and adored the book, the host of the show let me interview the author, local historian and broadcaster Stu Levitan. I am not much of a talk-show host, but Stu made it easy. If you’d like to listen to the interview, it’s here.

The Stakeout (Part II)

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This is the second part of a middle-school fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. In part 1, it was Friday, February 7, 1964. Our young hero and his uncle, both huge Beatles fans, tried to get into the Plaza Hotel in New York City where the Beatles were staying on their first American visit. When they failed, Uncle Aaron guessed that the Beatles would have to rehearse on Saturday before playing The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, and he suggested they stake out the theater. 

When we got there at 7:00 on Saturday morning, the police had already put up barricades to keep the street clear for the Beatles whenever they got there. So we waited, and so did a few hundred of our closest friends, some of the same crazy crowd from the day before at the Plaza. This time, we were at the front, so if there was anything to see, we’d see it.

It seemed like we’d been there forever when a couple of limousines rolled up behind the barricades, and people started cheering and screaming and waving their signs. We saw four shadows jump quickly from the first limo and hustle through the stage door.

A bunch of official-looking people trailed along behind the second limo on foot. Suddenly Aaron yelled, “Rube! Hey, Rube!” One of the official-looking people turned to look . . . and then walked over to where we were standing. “Rube!” Aaron cried. “What’s going on?”

“Aaron!” he said. “How long has it been, anyhow?”

“Not since we graduated from college in ’59! What are you doing here?”

Rube gestured at the cameras around his neck. “Photographer. The Beatles are doing a photo shoot in Central Park this afternoon, but I get to tag along this morning.”

“Are they going to rehearse now?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah, they are.” And then, even though we were in the middle of a crowd of kids cheering, chanting, and screaming, Rube’s next words seemed to echo forth from a silent place in the center of the universe. He said to us: “Do you want to come inside and watch?”

I have never passed out in my life, but at that moment, I almost did.

We went toward a gap in the barricade, only to be met by the same man-mountain of a guard who had stopped us the previous day. “No admittance,” he growled. We’re going to jail, I thought. Then Rube stepped in and said, “Reuben Jefferson, New York Journal photographer. These two are with me.” Unbelievably, the guard let us through—and he winked at me as we passed. There were shouts of disappointment from the crowd: “Hey, why do they get in? Come back! No fair!” But we were in.

Ten minutes later, we stood with a knot of people on the side of the stage, staying as close to Rube as we could, fearing that if got separated, we’d get thrown out of the theater, or worse. The Beatles came out and took their places, Paul, George, and John from left to right, and Ringo above and behind them on drums. One of them, either Paul or John, counted off the first song, and they began to play.

If you want to know what happened next, I can’t really tell you. I know that they practiced five songs altogether, and “She Loves You” was the third one, but just like you, I have to rely on the history books for the rest of it. All I remember of that half-hour with the Beatles is a mixture of shock and joy.

The next night, 70 million people watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the first time most Americans had ever seen them play. Most, but not all. A handful of us had seen them already.

The Stakeout

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In 2009, a client contracted me to write several historical fiction pieces for middle school readers. Even though I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, I wrote ’em, submitted ’em, and cashed the checks. I never learned precisely how they were used (which is not all that unusual in my line of work), and I have no idea whether they’re still in print somewhere. Technically, they don’t belong to me anymore. But I’ve posted a couple such pieces in the past, and what follows is another one. If the client wants to cease-and-desist me, that’s fine. The piece was written for middle school students, so it requires some exposition, and it uses a couple of tropes that are a little shopworn. Despite all that, it ain’t bad, and I hope you like it. 

You know the Beatles, right? The rock band from the 1960s? You can ask your mother and father, or maybe your grandparents, to tell you about them. Most people think they were the greatest group in music history. I’ll tell you this: On February 9, 1964, when they were on TV, on The Ed Sullivan Show, over 80 percent of the country watched them play. It was the first time most people had seen them.

Most people, but not everybody. Not me.

My pen pal in London, England, had sent me one of their records, “She Loves You,” for Christmas in 1963. I’d since heard other some Beatles songs on the radio, and I loved them. By luck, I had Friday, February 7, off from school. That was the day the Beatles were to land in New York, so my Uncle Aaron and I drove into the city to stake out the hotel where they were going to stay.

Uncle Aaron was more like an older brother than an uncle to me. He wasn’t about rules; he was just about fun. When I played my Beatles record for him, he liked it as much as I did. The stakeout was actually his idea.

When we arrived at the Plaza Hotel, a squadron of policemen was trying to hold back the hundreds of kids hoping to catch a look at John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There were people holding signs that said, “We love you” and “Beatles 4-Ever.” I thought that maybe we’d be able to sneak into the hotel through the crush of people, but there was no sneaking with those cops around.

Then Uncle Aaron said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s tell them we’re guests at the hotel and we’re trying to get back into our room.”

“Do you think that’s going to work?”

“It might, if we do it right. When we get to the front, you tell the guard that we’re guests, and we just want to get back to our room. If you could manage to cry a little, that would be even better.” I hadn’t cried since I was eight, but I was willing to take my best shot.

We spent the next 20 minutes inching to the hotel door, but when we got there, a mountain of a security guard blocked our passage. He looked like six kinds of mean in a big, ugly bag. When I imagined him taking us to jail for trespassing, it was easy to squeeze out some tears. “Sir . . . we’re guests at the hotel, and we’ve been gone all day.” I sniffed loudly. “We just want to get back inside so my uncle can lie down and rest.” Sniff. “He hasn’t been well.”

I thought the bit about Uncle Aaron being sick would clinch the deal until the guard said, “Can I see your hotel key, kid?”

Thinking quickly, I said, “We lost it.”

The guard’s face creased with a sour, sarcastic grin. “Kid, do you know how many people have told me that today? Back off.”

Inching back into the crowd, I said, “At least we got an A for effort. Ringo’s mother wouldn’t have been able to get past that guy.”

“You aren’t giving up, are you?” I guess I probably was, but Aaron wasn’t. “They’re playing on the Sullivan Show Sunday night. Now, it’s just a guess, but I bet they’ll have to practice tomorrow sometime. Why don’t we stake out the theater?”

To learn what happens next, read the next installment, coming Friday. 

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