The Night It Hit the Fan

The video embedded above is from 1970, in which Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam explains how he did a famous piece of animation. A hand repeatedly tries to pull a fig leaf from the crotch of Michelangelo’s David and finally succeeds, to reveal underneath a talking head that says, “We’re not going to allow this kind of filth on screen.” A giant “Censored” stamp comes down and the animation ends. The bit is seen in the Python TV series and also in the film And Now for Something Completely Different.

In 1978, I was co-editor of our high school’s literary magazine, and we decided to participate in the school’s fine arts festival that spring by showing a movie. In those pre-videocassette days, you’d rent a movie on 16MM—there used to be companies that provided them—and show it for a couple of bucks a ticket. With Python-mania at its height in 1978 and several Python fanatics on the staff of the magazine, a showing of And Now for Something Completely Different was perfect. So we rented it, publicized it heavily, and planned to show it on a Thursday and Friday night in the high school lecture hall.

The Thursday night showing was not particularly well attended, as we guessed it would not be. Friday was going to be the big night. Five minutes before Thursday night showtime, however, a whole family showed up—Mom, Dad, their high-school-aged son (who was a year or two behind me), and three much-younger siblings. We were not sure what they were doing there, but we collected their $2 a head and rolled the film for them, and the two dozen other people who had showed up.

And Now for Something Completely Different is an anthology of bits from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the first sketches involves a phrasebook that mistranslates mundane Hungarian phrases into sexually suggestive English. Another sketch involving a marriage counselor ends with the counselor and the wife undressing behind a screen before a romantic tryst. This is followed a few minutes later by the fig leaf animation.

On this particular night, the fig leaf animation was followed by the family in the audience noisily getting out of their seats and marching up the aisle and out of the hall. The father demanded of the staff member at the ticket table, in Biblical tones, “Who is responsible for this abomination?”

That night, I knew nothing about the brouhaha, or if I did, I ignored it. The next morning, however, I arrived at school to hear myself being summoned by the public address system to the magazine advisor’s classroom. “It has hit the fan,” he said. “That family at the movie last night complained to the school board, and we have to show the movie to the board at 8:00 this morning.” As it turned out, we had to show it to one member of the school board, a woman I had known for several years because her daughter was a classmate. Perhaps that previous personal relationship saved the magazine—and our advisor—from as much trouble as we could have been in. (He told me years later that he was afraid he would be fired.) We were not permitted to show the film on Friday night, but that was the last I heard of the controversy.

It turned out that the family who had left outraged the previous night had come to the Monty Python movie under the impression that it was about an actual circus, with clowns and acrobats and suchlike. They did not own a TV set, having gotten rid of it years before to keep televised filth out of their very religious home. I asked our advisor, “Why is their backward attitude our problem?” Under the circumstances, he did well not to smack me upside the head in response.

If something similar happened today, the family would have gone to the media in addition to the school board, and the resulting shitstorm would have been epic—a Fox News profile of the religious family that was assaulted by pornography with the approval of the public school they support with their tax dollars. We were lucky to have been living in simpler times.

(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2012.)

Tune In, Turn On, Make Lunch

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This has nothing to do with music, really, but just go with it.

It all started sometime in 1969 with scattered stories in local newspapers, but it didn’t become national news until late that summer, after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a series of workshops on urban issues. In a report on the link between organized crime and narcotics, the following sentence appeared, without context or elaboration: “In Chattanooga, it was learned that due to the high cost of narcotics, young people are using as mainline injections Kool Aid and peanut butter mixed with mayonnaise.”

In October 1969, the Senate Appropriations Committee held hearings on the  federal budget. Dr. Stanley Yolles, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, was being quizzed about NIMH’s anti-drug programs when Hawaii Republican Hiram Fong asked, pretty much out of the blue: “When you find out that a person gets a big kick out of injecting peanut butter in his veins, what do you do?” Yolles reponded, “I think the only kick they get out of peanut butter is the final kick. It is a very dangerous practice to say the least; it causes death if injected in any large quantity.”

Fong then asks what NIMH does when that happens. Yolles says (and we can imagine his patient tone, but also perhaps the internal eye-rolling) that the agency doesn’t involve itself in individual cases, but instead tries to educate people about the dangers of doing such things through “straight factual information, because we have had experience over the years with misinformation deliberately set out to scare people about using various substances and this has not worked. . . .”

The feds may have wanted to counter misinformation about substance abuse, but at least some of it was coming from inside the house.

That same month, the American Academy of Pediatrics met in Chicago. Guest speakers included Ernest A. Carabillo, Jr., described by the Associated Press as “a lawyer/pharmacist in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,” and Frank Gulich, “a narcotics bureau official stationed in Chicago. ” They spoke to reporters, and an AP story appeared in papers around the country in which Carabillo told about “an underground recipe book purporting to outline ‘culinary escapes from reality.'” Gulich said that the books “usually sell for about $1 and often give the formulas for preparing drugs such as LSD.”

But the AP story did not focus on how kids were using their chemistry sets to become little neighborhood Owsleys. Instead, it focused on the use of peanut butter, mayonnaise, and other substitutes for narcotics. Carabillo said that users “confused the bizarre and toxic reactions with the so-called ‘high’ provided by heroin or marijuana. He cited the smoking of dried banana skins, a fad of a couple of years ago, as an example.” He said that kids were also using cleaning fluid, paregoric [an anti-diarrheal derived from morphine], ethyl chloride [a cooling spray used for pain relief], and freon from aerosol cans to get high. It seems obvious to us that any of the latter would get you off better than peanut butter or mayonnaise, but Mr. and Mrs. Middle America focused on the sandwich spreads.

In December 1969, President Nixon hosted a conference of state governors to address the drug problem. Nixon would try to have it both ways in the drug fight, warning that drug abuse was a threat to American civilization and firing Yolles in 1970 for criticizing stiff marijuana sentences, but also arguing for education over incarceration, at least for some users. (A cynic might suspect it was because middle-class white kids, the sons and daughters of the Silent Majority, were getting thrown in jail.) The conference also gave the peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise phenomenon a publicity boost when TV personality Art Linkletter, whose daughter had committed suicide in October while tripping on LSD, addressed the governors. He repeated the canard and added a new one: that young people were smoking crushed aspirin to get high.

It may not surprise you to learn that there were no solid sources for any of this. The titles of those underground cookbooks went unrecorded. Linkletter’s gravitas on the issue exempted his claims from close scrutiny. News stories about the practice were entirely hearsay. No one really knew if the peanut butter-and-mayonnaise thing was something kids legitimately believed would get them high, or if it was merely a few stoners pranking The Man.

Whatever the case, by the end of 1970, nobody was talking about it anymore.

Sold to the Lowest Bidder

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(Pictured: Olivia Rodrigo in 2019.)

As it happens, I know a little about the teaching of writing. Years ago, I had a job that required me to read 30,000 short essays written by kids in grades three through eight. Some of the older kids clearly aspired to be writerly. Some of them demonstrated the glimmerings of a gift, but the vast majority did not. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know the craft (because at age 12 or 13, how could they?), but they lacked the vocabulary. For example, when they wanted to describe something, instead of using the five senses in simile or metaphor, they’d say things like, “It was beautiful. It was so, so beautiful.”

Because I am not hip, I didn’t hear Olivia Rodrigo’s song “Driver’s License” until earlier this week, even though it spent eight straight weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 from January to March. It’s a meandering mix of textures and tempos, but I fixated on the words. A sample:

And all my friends are tired
Of hearing how much I miss you
But I kinda feel sorry for them
‘Cause they’ll never know you the way that I do
Today I drove through the suburbs
And pictured I was driving home to you

Exposition can’t be avoided, but writing teachers tell students, especially young ones, to show and not tell. Rodrigo, who wrote the lyric, spends most of her time telling. And when she wants to crank up the emotional intensity, she does this:

Red lights, stop signs
I still see your face in the white cars, front yards
Can’t drive past the places we used to go to
‘Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe

A writing teacher would circle “red lights,” “stop signs,” and “white cars” and suggest the student find stronger words. As for the obscene adverbial intensifier, it’s as inept and immature as “so, so beautiful.” So like many an eighth-grade essay, “Driver’s License” ends up the opposite of what the writer intends: not a vivid description of a deeply felt experience, but the emotional equivalent of a grocery list.

Olivia Rodrigo is a Disney Channel star who turned 18 in February, so she isn’t that far removed from eighth grade. And at least she’s taken to heart the idea that you should write what you know. My purpose here is not to fault her. The main fault involved with “Driver’s License” lies with the people who made something that’s not especially artful into the most popular song in America for two solid months.

In 2003, Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries wrote: “The real problem with our culture is not a dearth of ingenuity but a willingness to lend that ingenuity to devising things that should be beneath contempt.” Two decades later, the beat goes on. Earlier this week, essayist John Ganz wrote about the blandness of practically every cultural rage right now. We hand over our attention and money in exchange for very little. We are happy to sell ourselves not to the highest bidder, but to the lowest one.

I’ve said before that one purpose of art is to take you out of your moment, to allow you to experience something in a way you can’t do for yourself in that moment. But anybody who ever had a busted high-school relationship has felt what Olivia Rodrigo feels. She doesn’t say anything new about it, or describe a new way of seeing or feeling it, yet millions of listeners (many long past high-school age) were eager to listen to her tell about it, again and again.

It doesn’t take much to buy our devotion. Consider Ed Sheeran: can you recite one interesting or perceptive lyric or whistle a single memorable melody he’s written? Perhaps you aren’t intended to. It’s not an accident that we talk about “music consumption” now. The job of most popular music (words chosen deliberately, as opposed to “the purpose of most popular art”) is to be there when people are hungry for it, like a bag of chips. If chips are what people want, why spend time and effort cooking a steak?

Artists used to aspire to extend themselves. Paul McCartney, for example, has released a half-dozen albums of classical music. But what’s the likelihood that Ed Sheeran will do anything on his next album that he didn’t do on his first four? What are the chances that Olivia Rodrigo’s next single will be a vivid lyrical ride that reminds people of the early Dylan?

Does it even have to be?

Did I miss something important, or am I just completely wrong? Your comments are not just welcome, but necessary.

The Motherlode

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(Pictured: kicking out the jams with the MC5, 1969.)

If you looked inside my head, you’d find that it’s filled mostly with empty beer bottles, regret, and record charts. Young me pored over the agate-type baseball statistics in the Sunday sports section, and that same impulse soon led me to treasure the week-to-week minutiae of the record charts. Now that I’m old, several of my chart books are very nearly “clawed to pieces,” as poet W. H. Auden’s copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was said to have been. With so many charts to look at and think about, they tend to blur. But every now and then I see one that makes me sit up and say, “Hot damn, look at that.” So it was the other morning after Radio Rewinder posted the Cash Box chart from April 12, 1969.

In recent months we’ve mentioned, either here or on Twitter, candidates for the greatest Top 10 of all time. The April 12, 1969, chart should certainly be a high seed in the bracket—and if we were crazy enough to try to pick a single best Top 40 of all time, it would be a contender. Apart from the three big easy-listening crossovers, “You Gave Me a Mountain,” “The Way It Used To Be,” and “Johnny One Time” (the latter two aren’t bad, although “You Gave Me a Mountain” hasn’t worn well) that Top 40 is a greatest-hits mixtape with something for everybody, even 52 years later.

I can barely decide where to start talking about the full Top 100, but here goes:

The following seem to me like absolute all-timers. They’re records without which you can’t tell the story of rock and pop, either because of their historical significance (the record or the artist) or their ubiquity in the decades since they first hit: “Aquarius,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Galveston,” “It’s Your Thing,” “Time of the Season,” “Traces,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Run Away Child,” “Time Is Tight,” “The Boxer,” “Proud Mary,” “My Way,” “Pinball Wizard,” “More Today Than Yesterday,” “These Eyes,” “Grazin’ in the Grass,” and “Kick Out the Jams.”

There are records that ought to be better-remembered than they are, songs that got lost because they didn’t end up big enough, songs that never made it onto oldies radio or weren’t there for long: “Only the Strong Survive,” “Twenty-Five Miles,” “Mendocino,” “Hot Smoke and Sassafras,” “Snatchin’ It Back,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “My Whole World Ended” (which gets my vote for most unjustly forgotten Motown single—that thing is astounding), “Atlantis,” “Morning Girl,”  and “Love (Can Make You Happy),” which ranks high on the list of all-time-great dreamy/stoned love songs.

This chart is loaded with significant and/or extremely fun bubblegum records, which is a topic for a future post, possibly right after I get done writing this one: not just the several mentioned in the preceding paragraph but also “Dizzy,” “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’,” “Will You Be Staying After Sunday,” and “Indian Giver,” as well as the Arbors’ version of “The Letter” and “Things I’d Like to Say,” although your mileage may vary on how bubblegummy those last two really are.

I was paying more attention to my hometown radio station by the spring of 1969, because I remember hearing a lot of these: “Galveston” and “Aquarius” for sure, but also “Hawaii Five-O,” “Time Is Tight,” “No Not Much,” both versions of “Happy Heart” (Andy Williams and Petula Clark), and “Seattle,” the Perry Como record at #98 in its first week on. “Seattle,” which was also the theme song for the TV series Here Come the Brides, is a powerful signifier of time and place for me; by the time it reached #2 on the easy-listening chart, it was full glorious springtime on the farm and school was almost out. I can still feel that when I hear “Seattle,” even now.

There are records I would not learn about until years later, some reasonably significant, like “Good Times Bad Times” and “Badge,” and some not, like “Playgirl” by the Wisconsin band Thee Prophets, Red Skelton’s “The Pledge of Allegiance,” “Apricot Brandy” by Rinoceros, “Tricia Tell Your Daddy” by Andy Kim, “Day After Day” by Shango, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself),” on which James Brown is a thang all his own.

The April 12, 1969, Cash Box chart is the motherlode: 100 songs that span the phenomenal spectrum of musical creativity in the late 1960s. There is not one solitary record on the chart that doesn’t spark an interest or tell at least part of a story.

Don’t Run

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(Pictured: Men at Work celebrate their Grammy.)

After recapping an American Top 40 show, it’s our practice to look at the Bottom 60 from the same week, so here are a few tunes also popular in some place or another during the week of April 9, 1983.

41. “Take the Short Way Home”/Dionne Warwick. Dionne was incredibly prolific, with 55 Hot 100 hits between 1962 and 1987. The back-to-back singles she made with Barry Gibb, “Heartbreaker” and “Take the Short Way Home” (at its Hot 100 peak in this week), are very good.

42. “The Fanatic”/Felony. Based on their Wikipedia article, Felony is one of the pioneers of modern rock. What they actually appear to have been is a hard-working and photogenic Los Angeles band that got a break by appearing in the 1981 slasher movie Graduation Day, and that came along at the right time to capitalize on music video. “The Fanatic” was popular enough on the radio, especially in Los Angeles, to peak at #42 on the Hot 100 and get Felony a two-song spot on American Bandstand at the end of April 1983.

48. “So Wrong”/Patrick Simmons. Both of the Doobie Brothers’ lead singers from the pre-Michael McDonald era scored solo hits that won’t remind you much of the Doobies, and which both have a disco/dance vibe: Tom Johnston’s “Savannah Nights” in 1980 and “So Wrong,” which would eventually make #30.

50. “Stranger in My House”/Ronnie Milsap. In the spring of 1983, I was music director at KDTH in Dubuque, which was mostly a country station, although country hits and stars that crossed over to pop were our bread ‘n’ butter. In the early 80s, Ronnie Milsap was one of them: since 1974, he had hit the Billboard country chart 27 times, and 22 of those had gone to #1, including his last 10 singles in a row. Four of those last 10 had been pop Top 40 hits: “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “No Getting Over Me,” “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World,” and “Any Day Now.” “Stranger in My House,” which would peak at #5 country and #23 on the Hot 100, was quite unlike anything that had ever hit on country radio up til then. I described it then as “Ronnie Milsap meets Foreigner, and Foreigner wins,” and that’s still accurate.

53. “Baby Come to Me”/Patti Austin and James Ingram
60. “Never Give Up”/Sammy Hagar
70. “Every Home Should Have One”/Patti Austin

93. “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy”/Sammy Hagar
Next month, I’m going to write about the May 1983 AT40 chart on which seven acts had two different singles in the Top 40. On this chart, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Bob Seger, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel, and Men at Work each have two in the Hot 100, as do Patti Austin and Sammy Hagar, which I did not see coming.

54. “Down Under”/Men at Work. In my earlier post about the AT40 show from this week, we saw Men at Work’s “Overkill” make the highest Hot 100 debut since 1971, which indicates how popular that band was after two #1 hits, “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under,” plus the 1982 Best New Artist Grammy. But it was heat they couldn’t sustain. “Overkill” would make #3 and “It’s a Mistake” #6 later in the summer, but neither remained on radio playlists for very long afterward. “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive” would peak at #28 in the fall, and they’d never return to the Top 40 again.

67. “Smiling Islands”/Robbie Patton. I have mentioned before how D93, the FM sister station of KDTH, invested a lot of time and effort trying to break hits. It meant that the station gave a lot of airtime to records the program director believed in, regardless of whether anybody was buying them, or even wanted to hear them. One of them was “Smiling Islands.” Robbie Patton, a collaborator with Fleetwood Mac, whose “Don’t Give It Up” had gone to #26 in the summer of 1981, welcomed Stevie Nicks to sing a verse. “Smiling Islands” is a perfectly pleasant pop song directly in the pocket for 1983 that peaked at #16 on the Billboard AC chart and #52 on the Hot 100. D93 played it like it was a #1 hit.

103. “Don’t Run”/KC and the Sunshine Band with Teri DeSario. “Yes I’m Ready” had been #2 hit for KC and Teri in 1980, but “Don’t Run” wouldn’t make the Hot 100 at all. This is its peak, although it went to #12 on the Billboard adult-contemporary chart. It’s the sort of pop cheese I am helpless to resist, and never mind that I’m a KC fanboy. Now that I’ve listened to it while writing this post, it’s gonna be playing in my head for the next several hours.

One on One

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(Pictured: Laura Branigan, 1982.)

Old AT40 shows often seem to me to be both very far away and very close in time. So it is with the weekend of April 9, 1983, itself, for that was the weekend The Mrs. and me became Mr. and Mrs. We didn’t hear American Top 40 that weekend, but America did, and here’s some of what was on the show.

39. “I Don’t Care Anymore”/Phil Collins
30. “Lies”/Thompson Twins
21. “Change of Heart”/Tom Petty
20. “Little Too Late”/Pat Benatar
18. “I’ve Got a Rock and Roll Heart”/Eric Clapton
13. “I Know There’s Something Going On”/Frida
8. “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”/Journey
6. “We’ve Got Tonight”/Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton
3. “Hungry Like the Wolf”/Duran Duran
2. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”/Culture Club

We’ve discussed how early 80s Billboard charts hardly moved at all some weeks; in this week Casey mentions several songs that had been in the same spot for a while: four weeks for Journey, two weeks for Petty, and three weeks each for the rest of these.

38. “Some Kind of Friend”/Barry Manilow. Like him or not, you gotta admit that Barry Manilow’s arrangements gave his records their own distinctive sound—which he abandons entirely on “Some Kind of Friend” in favor of a cutting-edge-of-the-80s rock track that could be by anybody.

36. “Make Love Stay”/Dan Fogelberg. Behold some of the most dreadful rhymes in all of pop music:

Moments fleet, taste sweet within the rapture
When precious flesh is greedily consumed
But mystery’s a thing not easily captured
And once deceased, not easily exhumed

But even cannibalism and necrophilia aren’t as gross as the saxophone that’s slathered all over the record like mayonnaise.

29. “Let’s Dance”/David Bowie
28. “Overkill”/Men at Work
Both of these are debuts on the show: “Let’s Dance” is Bowie’s first Top 40 hit since 1976; “Overkill” is new on the Hot 100 in this week, making the highest debut since John Lennon’s “Imagine” came in at #20 in 1971.

26. “Solitaire”/Laura Branigan. Casey tells an amusing story about Branigan’s appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the previous year. She sang her hit “Gloria” riding on a float with her name on it, but she says she told the organizers, “You’d better put ‘Gloria’ on it too, or nobody will know who I am.”

LDD: “Ships”/Barry Manilow. Casey reads a long letter from a woman who took a temp job at the circus when it came through her town and fell in love with an injured French acrobat who had fallen off the trapeze, only to have him move on after five days. If that’s not a Hallmark movie plot, my name isn’t whatever my name is.

15. “Twilight Zone”/Golden Earring
9. “Jeopardy”/Greg Kihn Band
7. “One on One”/Hall and Oates
One of these is the best record on the show (and “Jeopardy,” Casey says, is #1 on the dance and disco chart in this week). How did I not know that future Stars on 45 impresario Jaap Eggermont was the drummer in Golden Earring until they fired him for incompetence?

LDD: “Don’t You Wanna Play This Game No More”/Elton John. From a guy in Chicago to his former co-workers at a pizza restaurant in Connecticut, for whom he used to play “Don’t You Wanna Play This Game No More” on the jukebox after closing. I can’t think of a more obscure song to be featured as an LDD, with two weeks on the chart in 1980, peaking at #39. At least it’s one of those that sounds familiar even if you don’t know it.

5. “Mr. Roboto”/Styx. There is not enough of the word count left for me to talk about how much I hate this record, and the toxic self-regard that drove Styx and their label to make it and release it.

1. “Billie Jean”/Michael Jackson. It seems deeply weird that “The Girl Is Mine” was the first single from Thriller ahead of two all-time bangers like “Beat It” (on this show at #10) and “Billie Jean,” until you consider that Paul McCartney was a bigger star than Michael at the end of 1982, and it made sense from a marketing standpoint. Now, however, “The Girl Is Mine” is widely considered the worst track on the record. “Billie Jean,” on the other hand, in its sixth week at #1 here, raised the bar—not just for dance music and music video, but for pop stars themselves, and what would they have to do if they wanted to keep pace with Michael. Even Paul couldn’t do it.

I have some more AT40s from the 80s in my archive, so look for more posts along this line, especially written for those amongst the readership not as deep in the tank for the 1970s as I am.