Author Archive: jb

Multifarious Serendipity

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(Pictured: Blue Oyster Cult onstage, 1978.)

A few years ago I made a CD for the car called “Multifarious Serendipity.” It’s a mix of college radio faves, minor hits from the AM Top 40 era, and miscellaneous tunes from here and there. I play it on shuffle so I never know what’s coming. The other night, the gods of shuffle were busy creating themes for me.

Chicago: 
“L.A. Goodbye”/Ides of March
“Soul Drippin’/Mauds
“Lake Shore Drive”/Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah
This is some grade-A good stuff right here. “L. A. Goodbye” peaked in the 70s on the Hot 100, IIRC, but went to #5 on WLS in the spring of 1971. The Mauds came out of the same Chicago scene that produced the Ides, the Shadows of Knight, the New Colony Six, and other bands. The crazy-good “Soul Drippin'” was recorded in 1968. Musicians on it include James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider, and Robert Lamm. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), their experience making “Soul Drippin'” inspired them to form a band of their own. “Lake Shore Drive” is a miracle, a perfect diamond fallible human beings could not have created. It must have come from some higher intelligence than ours.

The Longer You Do It the Better It Feels:
“Suspicious Minds”/Elvis Presley
“Hot Love”/T. Rex
“Let It Shine”/Santana
Each of these has a long, repetitive section that lasts until the fadeout but could easily go on for another 20 minutes and I’d keep listening. I bought “Hot Love” on a 45 in 1971 and it’s still around here somewhere. “Let It Shine” was a minor Hot-100 hit in 1976, and it’s pretty damn cool. It starts with some purely 70s wakka-wakka guitar before the conga player starts getting it on, then an electronic bassline comes thumping in. The drummer gets to working on the groove, a synth sizzles in with the instrumental hook, and you’re like hot damn this is fantastic.

And Elvis is, of course, Elvis.

A Really Terrible Segue:
“Charity Ball”/Fanny
“My Hang-Up Is You”/Freddie Hart
“Charity Ball” is a banger we’ve loved around here since always. It went to #3 on WLS as it was squeaking only to #40 on the Hot 100, and I would wonder if oldies and classic hits stations in Chicago play it (and “L. A. Goodbye,” and “Soul Drippin’,” and other monster local hits) today, if I were still a naive young radio boy. Freddie Hart came up at this blog just last Friday, and whatever I said then still applies.

Soundalikes:
“In Thee”/Blue Oyster Cult
“Killer Cut”/Charlie
When Blue Oyster Cult’s Mirrors album arrived at the college radio station in the summer of 1979, it wasn’t what we were expecting, not after Agents of Fortune, Spectres, and the live album Some Enchanted Evening, and the hits “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” Anybody who thought BOC sounded little like the Byrds on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” had that opinion confirmed by “In Thee,” which is actually pretty great. Charlie, meanwhile, was one of those bands that opened for everybody during their heyday, including the Doobie Brothers, Styx, Foreigner, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They made seven albums in seven years from their first one in 1976. “Killer Cut,” in which the band gives advice on how to make a hit record, peaked at #60. (Vintage video here. Drummer Steve Gadd is not the Steve Gadd of session fame; it’s another guy with the same name, which must be both inconvenient for him and not.)

Anthems:
“Love and Loneliness”/The Motors
“Trapped Again”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
“Lady of the Lake”/Starcastle
All of these are college favorites. “Love and Loneliness” is a Great Big Statement, portentous lyrics in a gigantic, inflated production that makes “Born to Run” sound understated. “Trapped Again” somehow avoided charting anywhere, according to the database at ARSA, despite the presence of Bruce Springsteen and the fact that it kicks ass all day. “Lady of the Lake” I’ve mentioned here many times, ridiculous Illinois prog-rock that somehow ends up awesome just the same.

Multifarious Serendipity is a great companion on a long trip, and I have lots more miles in my future over the next couple of months, so maybe there will be another post like this at some point. Or maybe not. It’s a gamble.

Some Songs of Some Years

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(Pictured: Dolly Parton.)

So the other day I was looking at the list of the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award winners, as one does. Some notes follow:

1968: “Honey”
1969: “The Carroll County Accident”
1974: “Country Bumpkin”
Today’s mainstream country has largely abandoned storytelling in favor of love songs and party songs. There was a time, however, when stories were one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Bobby Russell’s “Honey” has a narrative arc that audiences of 1968 couldn’t get enough of. If you hate “Honey” for its treacly sentimentality, you’ll really hate “Country Bumpkin,” another tale of love, domesticity, and death,  written by Don Wayne. But as a prime example of country music’s storytelling art—a long, happy relationship described in three vignettes—you can hardly improve on Cal Smith’s recording. As for “The Carroll County Accident,” written by Bob Ferguson and recorded by Porter Wagoner, it plays out like a bit of detective fiction before its final twist.

1970: “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” This song tells a story too, about loss and the coping with it, and after listening to it for nearly 50 years (in Johnny Cash’s magnificent recording), I still can’t quite tell how Kris Kristofferson did it. Image follows image and by the end of the song, you’re longing for something you can’t even name. Every time.

1971/1972: “Easy Loving.” Written and recorded by Freddie Hart who, you may remember, has his own one-man fan club at this blog. “Easy Loving” won this award two years in a row, although voters in 1972 might just as easily have chosen “My Hang-Up Is You,” which clones “Easy Loving” and was #1 on the country charts even longer than the OG.

1973: “Behind Closed Doors.” Just as old-school country fans decry the stuff that gets on the radio nowadays, the “countrypolitan” sound of the 60s and 70s was also controversial. String sections, tasteful keyboards, and choirs ooh-ing, aah-ing, and/or whispering replaced twang and yee-haw as Nashville went for a more upscale audience. Kenny O’Dell’s “Behind Closed Doors” (which was #8 adult contemporary and #15 on the Hot 100 as recorded by Charlie Rich) was the most countrypolitan thing to hit #1 in 1973.

1975: “Back Home Again.” This was the year that Charlie Rich famously set fire to the envelope after announcing John Denver as the winner of the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. That doesn’t change the fact that “Back Home Again” is the best thing Denver ever wrote, and the best song I know about returning to a place you love and the people who live there. “Back Home Again” hit #1 country in late 1974, a year that’s remarkable for its number of classics: the list of the year’s #1 songs includes Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” “Room Full of Roses” by Mickey Gilley, and Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.”

1977: “Lucille”
1979: “The Gambler”
Kenny Rogers’ two most iconic hits, the first written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum and the second by Don Schlitz. Then as now, Nashville was powered by songwriters and writing teams whose job it was to provide grist for the recording mills. But Bowling, Bynum, and Schlitz (and Bobby Russell, Bob Ferguson, Kenny O’Dell, and many others, including Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, below) knew how to tell engaging, involving stories—both what to leave in and what to leave out—and they took obvious pleasure in using the English language in clever and creative ways. “You got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run” is great stuff. Between the dearth of storytelling and a proclivity to name-check celebrities and consumer products in lyrics, modern Music Row songwriting isn’t in the same league.

1980/1981: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” With apologies to Steve Goodman and David Allan Coe, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the perfect country-and-western song. It’s said that George Jones didn’t like this Braddock/Putnam song when it was first pitched to him, but his performance, married to Billy Sherill’s magnificent production, made it one of the greatest performances in American popular music, any genre, any era.

It should win the CMA’s Song of the Year every year, actually.

Finding the Fair

(Pictured: the Iola People’s Fair. Photo lifted without permission from the Facebook group mentioned below.)

In June 1970, a rock festival called the Iola People’s Fair was held in a rural area about 80 miles west of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Like other festivals of the era, it was thrown together on the fly and attracted a respectable lineup of national and regional performers. About 50,000 people showed up, and newspaper reports about Friday’s opening day painted the festival as a benign Renaissance frolic, all peace and love. But by Saturday night, with every imaginable drug in use and wine bottles littering the ground, the event took on an ominous vibe. On Sunday morning, after a night of shakedowns, beatings, and rumors of rapes by bikers in the crowd, concertgoers started chucking rocks and wine bottles at them. In response, the bikers mounted up and counterattacked (“chicks were on the handlebars, shooting,” one attendee told me), and the festival dissolved into a riot. The next week’s newspaper reports were all about what a disaster the festival had been, from start to finish—as if the papers had forgotten their own reporting just a few days before. Even the Portage County sheriff had forgotten: on Friday, he praised the organizers for their cooperation and their attendees for their behavior, but by Monday he was calling the festival a “nice, big, organized, lawless drug party.”

In 2010, I dug into contemporary newspapers and interviewed attendees about what happened at Iola and why. My stuff shows up on the first page of Google when you search “Iola people’s fair.” There’s a Facebook group that’s mostly pictures and a sparse entry at a wiki called “Festivival,” which lifts the first paragraph of one of my posts as its description of the show, but apart from that, there’s a 1990 newspaper story, a Pinterest board, and that’s about it.

I seem to be the predominant Iola scholar on the Internets, for whatever that’s worth.

The 1990 story from the Racine Journal-Times contains one item I didn’t find in my research: a baby was born prematurely on the festival grounds and died. That wasn’t reported in any of the contemporary newspapers I read, although it certainly could have happened without making the papers. But nearly every rock festival from the turn of the 70s has its tales of babies born during the event. For years, people insisted that there were births at Woodstock, but nobody has ever identified the babies. It defies belief that someone with that particular claim to fame would keep quiet about it, so it’s likely they never existed. (There’s a story from the 1972 Concert 10 Festival in Pennsylvania that claims five babies were born during that single-day event, but that’s clearly nonsense.)

Any now-legendary drug-fueled rock festival from the height of the counterculture’s glory days, fondly recollected by aging hippies with fading memories, is going to spark its share of misinformation. For example, there’s a story about Iola that angry concertgoers “executed” a group of bikers in retaliation for an axe murder one of them committed. That, of course, did not happen, nor anything remotely close to it. The only death associated with the People’s Fair (apart from the possibly apocryphal baby) was that of a young man who died in a motorcycle accident near the grounds that weekend.

On a recent Sunday, I was traveling in central Wisconsin when I noticed a sign for the Iola Winter Sports Club. Remembering that the People’s Fair was held somewhere near there, I dipped into my e-mail file for some correspondence from a couple of years ago with a photographer looking for the site, and I took off into the wilds of Portage and Waupaca counties trying to find it.

And I’m pretty sure I did. There wasn’t much to see. After a Friday snowstorm, the town road that runs west of the site had theoretically been plowed, although a snowmobile would have been a better ride than my car that morning. I would have needed a snowmobile to navigate what looked like a trail through the roadside trees, a trail that ran into an open area. The county roads along the south and east sides of the site were better-plowed, but there wasn’t much to see from either one. I suspect the look of the grounds has changed over the years, given 50 years of forest growth. But the geography of the place, as far as I could see it, was right.

I didn’t take a picture. You’ve seen snowy woods and fields. It was like that.

The Coolest Place I Ever Worked

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Last fall, at the end of October, I missed a minor milestone: 10 years since the radio company I work for pulled the plug on 93.1 The Lake, the coolest place I ever worked.

Back in 2004, I ran into a college classmate of mine who was doing afternoons on the station, and he suggested I apply for a part-time gig, but apart from making a call to the program director (and leaving one of those convoluted voicemails you regret), nothing happened. I ran into my classmate again a couple of years later and he urged me to apply again. This time it went a lot better. There was a new program director, we hit it off immediately, and it didn’t take long before he offered me a job. Breaking a drought of something like eight years without doing a music show on the radio, I started working weekends in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t long before my gig-economy lifestyle made me the main weekday fill-in guy also.

It was a joy to be on the air at The Lake, and to listen to it when I wasn’t. It was a deep-cuts classic rock station, full of “holy smokes I haven’t heard that in years” musuc: the first time I got to play “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, it was a religious experience. But after I’d been there a while, the program director who hired me got fired. He wasn’t replaced, exactly; the operations manager with responsibility for the station took over the programming of it. He rebranded us—most of the deep cuts were dumped, especially from the 60s and 70s, and they were replaced by mainstream stuff from the 80s and even the early 90s. It was still cool, and still deeper than many classic-rock stations, but it was never quite the same to me.

The original format was based on a Chicago station called the Drive (which still exists today), a thinking fan’s classic-rock station, and we were encouraged to talk about the music like experts. But that positioning wasn’t as appealing as we hoped, apparently. It was explained to us that we were perceived like the person at a party who thinks he’s too cool for the room. So it may not have been a coincidence that one aspect of the rebranding kept us from talking to anybody for a while—the station ran jockless for a period of weeks.

(After I’d worked at the Lake for a while, I was traveling in Chicago and listened to the Drive. It really was remarkable how closely we’d cloned them. All except for the jocks. Top to bottom, the Drive’s lineup of brand-name Chicago rock-radio legends didn’t sound as good as ours.)

In both of its incarnations, The Lake played great music, ran attractive promotions, and encouraged us to both have fun on the air and serve our audience with stuff worth caring about. But nothing lasts forever. One day in October 2008, I got a call from the operations manager saying that The Lake was no more. It was being replaced by the rhythmic CHR format that was already running on another, weaker signal in the building, a format that remains on 93.1 in Madison today.

I had started working for another station in the building by then, so I had a place to go after The Lake was gone. Its studio stayed empty and silent for several months. The memos and the artwork stayed on the walls, and I’d go in there from time to time and think about how it was like a neutron bomb had hit the place, taking out the people but leaving the infrastructure intact.

Just as every radio jock has stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town, we all have stories about the most fun we ever had, the best place we ever worked. The Lake is mine. Over a decade since its demise, its imaging liners and music library are still on the company servers. I’m told that one of the engineers used to fire it up and listen to it downstairs in the shop. And why not? It’s what I’d do.

Classic Rock in the Classic Era

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(Pictured: young Bruce, 1978.)

The excellent Radio Rewinder Twitter feed recently tweeted, in pieces, a list of the Top 43 album cuts of all time, compiled in 1978 by Radio & Records, the now-defunct trade magazine. (Why 43? Just being quirky, as I recall.) As I was digging into my archives to find my copy of the list, I found another interesting one. In late 1979, R&R polled album-rock stations asking them to name their top tracks of the 1970s and created a Top-50 list out of it.

A spreadsheet with the lists is here. The top songs on both lists are exactly the same: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and “Layla,” and I suspect if you asked classic-rock stations to rank their top songs today, 40 years later, the same three would lead the lists. Also atop both charts are “Roundabout” (#4 Top 43, #6 Top 50) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (#6 Top 43, #5 Top 50). Twelve songs on the Top 43 wouldn’t qualify for the Top 50 because they were released before 1970. From the Top 10 that includes “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “A Day in the Life,” “Light My Fire,” and “Hey Jude.” One of the Top 43’s Top 10 (this nomenclature is gonna get confusing, isn’t it) doesn’t make the Top 50 at all: “Nights in White Satin.” (Technically, it was made in the 60s but didn’t become a hit until 1972, so I’m leaving it in the 70s.)

Eight songs released after 1970 appear on the Top 43 list but not on the Top 50. Apart from “Nights in White Satin,” none of these exclusions look all that weird to me. In fact, the inclusion of “She’s Gone” (#31 on the Top 43) and “Your Song” (#35 on the Top 43) strike me weirder than anything from the 70s that got left off of the Top 50 list two years later, except maybe “Nights in White Satin.”

Eleven of the Top 50 didn’t qualify for the Top 43 list because they were released in 1978 or 1979. Several pre-1977 songs on the Top 50 didn’t make the Top 43, among them “Brown Sugar,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Band on the Run,” “China Grove,” “Magic Man,” and “Slow Ride.” The highest-ranking song on the Top 50 that was available to the Top 43 but not on it is “Dreams” at #17. “Dreams” would have been a relatively recent hit at the end of 1977, but “Hotel California” went to #1 at nearly the same time, and it’s on the Top 43. (The highest-ranking song on the Top 50 not found on the Top 43 is “Miss You,” released in 1978.)

In the archive where I found these lists, I found another list I made myself, sometime back in the early 80s, which is titled “Top Ten Artists From Both Lists Compiled by Me One Afternoon in May.” (Oh for chrissakes, Jim.) They’re as follows: Zeppelin, Springsteen, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, the Who, Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Bob Seger, and Steely Dan. I noted that the Stones have twice as many songs as any other band on the lists, so why they weren’t #1, I don’t know, because I can’t recall the criteria I used.

Other observations about the two charts:

—“Born to Run” grew in stature as Bruce Springsteen did between 1977 and 1979, from #21 on the Top 43 list to #4 on the Top 50. So did “Hotel California,” going from #40 on the Top 43 to #8 on the Top 50, but it’s the only Eagles tune on either list. “More Than a Feeling” squeaked into the Top 43 at #42, but was #11 two years later.

—“Miracles,” which ranks high on both lists, was considered a lot more “classic” at the end of the 70s than it would be today. Ditto “School,” “Year of the Cat,” “Stranglehold,” and possibly even “Roundabout.” I bet “Just the Way You Are” and “It’s Too Late” aren’t on many classic-rock stations today, either.

—The inclusion of Aerosmith’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'” on the Top 43 list seems really weird now, especially at the expense of “Sweet Emotion” or “Dream On.” Also weird: the complete omission of Aerosmith from the Top 50.

—Other omissions: no “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or anything else by Queen, on either list? No love for Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” or “Whole Lotta Love”? No Allman Brothers?

One thing is for sure: the right crowd would party all night with either one of these lists, and in college, we did. I created a segued tape counting down one list or the other, and when we played it, over five hours pausing only for a single tape-flip, absolutely nobody went home until it was over, because the music kept getting better.

Outside, Looking In, Liking the View

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We haven’t done one of these for a while, so here’s another rerun from my original blog, the Daily Aneurysm—which, I notice, has finally disappeared from the Internet because somebody squatted on the domain name. This one is from December 22, 2005, and it has been edited slightly. As is the case with all of these off-topic posts, you won’t hurt my feelings if you skip it.

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