Walk On

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(Pictured: Boston in 1977.)

The first Boston album came on in the car not long ago and my wife said, unprompted, “This is still really good.” Lots of people on the Internet are A) sick of it or B) don’t think was all that good to begin with. I can understand A after 45 years, but I am guessing the majority of B weren’t teenagers when it came out. Those of us who love Boston tend to really, really love it, as in this 40th anniversary piece by journalist Tim Sommer (who would have been 14 in the fall of 1976), or this lovely reminiscence by Michele Catalano.

The second Boston album, Don’t Look Back, came out two years after the first. It suffers in comparison for the usual reasons second albums do—the first one is where the vision reached its fruition, and the second one is required to respond to the expectations, and the demand, created by the first. Tom Scholz has said that the reason Don’t Look Back feels as sketchy as it does is that it literally wasn’t finished.

Eight years after Don’t Look Back, Third Stage was an unlikely hit—unlikely because pop music had moved a long way beyond Boston’s 70s aesthetic by 1986. But the album hit #1, and so did the single “Amanda.” A second single, “We’re Ready,” also made the Top 10. The 1994 album Walk On had the Boston guitar sound, but a different main vocalist: although Brad Delp wrote or co-wrote the songs and sang with the band on tour, Fran Cosmo handled the leads on the record. Delp played and sang on the 2002 album Corporate America, which became the first Boston album to miss the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. Delp died in 2007, but because Boston albums take forever to make, he’s on the 2013 album Life, Love, and Hope, which is the last Boston album to date.

Unlike other bands, Boston’s entire output is limited almost entirely to those six albums (and the 45 version of “Peace of Mind,” a somewhat different vocal performance compared to the album version). The band’s 1997 Greatest Hits album includes four previously unreleased songs; in 2002 and again in 2013, they released a digital single version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” There aren’t a lot of bootlegs, either. I have a set called Demos and Unreleased, which is just that, and a live show recorded in Cleveland one month after Boston was released. (Clearly, the people who recorded quite literally every Eric Clapton show for the last 50 years weren’t taping Boston too.)

Apart from the standard discography, however, there was another Boston album, of a sort.

In 1980, Delp and two Boston mates, guitarist Barry Goudreau and drummer Sib Hashian, made an album that was ostensibly Goudreau’s solo debut. But the lead single, “Dreams,” sounded exactly like Boston. Some record-label promotion for the album also stressed the similarities. Scholz was not amused, and his displeasure may have contributed to Goudreau’s departure from the group in 1981. (Scholz apparently held no grudge against against Delp or Hashian, who remained in the band, or against Fran Cosmo, who also played on Goudreau’s record, or he wouldn’t have invited Cosmo into the band years later.) Goudreau’s album reached #88 in Billboard during an eight-week run from September to November 1980. “Dreams” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 for a single week in October, reaching #103.

In 1984, Delp, Goudreau, and Cosmo made one album under the name Orion the Hunter. Their lone hit, “So You Ran,” made #58. In 1990, Delp and Goudreau got together again to form the band RTZ, which prompted Delp to leave Boston. RTZ scored a couple of modest Hot 100 hits, “Face the Music” (#49 in 1991) and “Until Your Love Comes Back Around” (#26 in 1992). After one RTZ album, Delp returned to Boston, although Goudreau made one more under the RTZ name. Neither Orion the Hunter nor RTZ sounds quite so much like Boston as Barry Goudreau did on his self-titled album, and that was probably out of legal necessity as much as artistic license.

Thanks to classic rock and oldies radio, Boston became an icon, but a strangely evanescent one, given the molasses-slow way Tom Scholz preferred to work and their infrequent tours. But at the same time, those first two albums are going to remain essential for a long time to come, as long as the aging teenagers of the 70s can still push “play.”

Groovin’ All Week With You

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(Pictured: Donny Most, Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler on Happy Days, 1974.)

It’s well-known that Happy Days started in 1972 as an unsold pilot that was broadcast as an episode of Love American Style. Ron Howard was cast in American Graffiti as a result of the pilot, and after the success of the movie, ABC decided to pick up the show after all. It premiered on January 15, 1974, at a moment in American pop culture when the kids who had grown up in the hot car/jukebox/drive-in world of the late 50s and early 60s were pushing 30, and thereby ripe for a show that capitalized on their fond memories of those days.

Happy Days was not the same show at the beginning that it was at the end. Although it was always a sitcom and never a dramedy, it was at first intended to be an character-oriented portrayal of the trials Richie Cunningham and his high-school friends faced growing up. The first season of 16 episodes was fairly successful, placing at #16 in the ratings for the entire year. But in the fall of 1974, in the same timeslot and with the same approach, the show fell out of the Top 30 and was in danger of cancellation. It survived, however, finishing at #46 for the season, after executive producer Garry Marshall made some mid-season changes. The show started filming in front of a live audience. and a raucous episode about Fonzie accidentally marrying a stripper pointed the way forward. In the third season, with a greater focus on Fonzie, Happy Days became broader, louder—more “sitcommy”—and one of the most popular shows of the 70s. It made #1 in the weekly ratings for the first time during March 1976 and ended at #11 for the year.

During its first two seasons, Happy Days used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and as the first season ended, the song returned to the Top 40 for a single week (May 25, 1974). Starting in the fall of 1975, the show got a new theme song, written by prolific TV and movie composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and recorded by the duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain. Pratt and McClain had a band called Brother Love, which had recorded one album, although most of their work lately had been making commercial jingles. They got the gig through producer Michael Omartian, who had been in a band with McClain a decade before.

As Happy Days was rising in the ratings during the spring of 1976, the new theme—a much better version of the song than the one used on TV—was released as a single. The first listing for “Happy Days” at ARSA was at KHJ in Los Angeles in March, and it hit the Hot 100 on April 3. Before April was out, it was on the air everywhere. While it recorded only a single local #1, at WRAW in Reading, Pennsylvania (in mid-May), it became a Top-10 hit in dozens of cities between April and July. It spent the weeks of June 5 and June 12, 1976, at #5 on the Hot 100; in Cash Box, it peaked at #6. It would place at #76 on the Cash Box Top 100 of 1976; oddly, it didn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of the year, thanks to a relatively short chart run.

Although Happy Days didn’t win the weekly ratings race even once during the summer 1976 rerun season, having its theme song on the radio all summer could not have hurt it one bit. And when the new TV season began in September, Happy Days was unstoppable. For the 1976-77 season, Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, would finish #1 and #2 in the season-long ratings while airing back-to-back on Tuesday nights. For the ’77-’78 season, they would swap places at the top, still airing back-to-back, each drawing better than a 30-percent share of the audience, between 20 and 25 million viewers each week. (Between October 1977 and March 1978, one show or the other was #1 in the ratings every week but two: Christmas week, when reruns lost out to The Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special, and two weeks later, when Super Bowl XII beat all comers, as Super Bowls do.)

On the radio in the summer of 1976, “Happy Days” was both nostalgic and right on time. Decades later, it’s purely nostalgic, and for more than one reason. There’s just nothing like it anymore. It’s not just that nobody pays attention to TV themes nowadays. The major-key joyfulness of “Happy Days” is out of style, too. But on a sunny spring day, on the highway with the car windows down, you can hardly do better.

Picture Postcards From 1994

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Does anybody here besides me remember Joshua Kadison?

Kadison’s first hit, “Jessie,” hit the Hot 100 in late 1993, and it rose to #26 at the end of January 1994 in a 22-week chart run. It was #11 on adult contemporary for five straight weeks that winter. In the summer of ’94, “Beautiful in My Eyes” got to #19 in 21 weeks on the Hot 100 and went to #4 on AC. Finally, “Picture Postcards From L.A.” hit a Hot 100 peak of #84 in November, although it lasted into January 1995 on the AC chart, peaking at #16. The album containing all three singles, Painted Desert Serenade, ran the charts for 52 weeks and got to #69 (nice). Although Kadison would release a followup album at the end of 1995, neither it nor its singles went anywhere, and he hasn’t returned to the American charts. I haven’t heard him or played him on the radio since then.

On “Jessie,” Kadison sounds like Elton John, both in his vocal timbre and his piano style—so much so that when you google “Jessie,” the first thing that comes up under “people also search for” is “Elton John Jessie song.” It’s romantic, tasteful, extremely unthreatening VH1 suburban soccer mom pop music, and in the video, Kadison is panty-dropping handsome. None of that has to be bad, and “Jessie” isn’t, not really.

But I can’t exactly say that it’s good, either. I remember playing it on the radio and wanting to throw a heavy object when Kadison sang the following verse:

She asked me how the cat’s been
I said “Moses, he’s just fine”
But he used to think about you, all the time
We finally took your pictures down off the wall
Jessie, how do you always seem to know just when to call
She says “Get your stuff together, bring Mose and drive real fast”
And I listened to her promise
“I swear to God this time it’s gonna last”

There’s never a single moment in the song when you feel like these are real people, or this is a real experience. Again, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it feels off nevertheless. Do we really need to know the cat’s name, or is it in there for the sake of the syllables? And does Jessie like the cat more than she likes Joshua?

Nearly everything you can find about “Jessie” online quotes the Wikipedia article about the song. It speculates that Jessie is actress Sarah Jessica Parker, Kadison’s romantic interest at the time. However, again according to Wikipedia: “This has never been confirmed, and it has also been pointed out that Parker has never been known to be called ‘Jessie’ or own a cat named Moses.” That’s kind of legalistic, isn’t it, Wiki Writer? In addition, the footnote with that factoid directs a reader to the “Jessie” entry at Songfacts. And Songfacts, far from being an unimpeachable source, is vastly more full of shit than Wikipedia a lot of the time.

Just because you have a footnote doesn’t mean you have confirmation. After all, this blog you are reading right now is cited as a credible source by at least one Wikipedia entry, and we all know that ain’t right.

And isn’t Moses supposed to the singer’s cat?

Where the “Jessie” video put Kadison on the beach with his piano, the “Beautiful in My Eyes” video has him in front of a dancing string quartet, his hair blown picturesquely by a wind machine. The song is even more radio-friendly than “Jessie,” if such a thing is possible. While the lyric is less distinctive (“You’re my peace of mind in this crazy world / You’re everything I’ve tried to find / Your love is a pearl”), the melody on the refrain is an all-timer, and it’s not surprising that “Beautiful in My Eyes” ended up the somewhat bigger hit.

(Wikipedia and Songfacts are johnny-on-the-spot for “Beautiful in My Eyes” too, quoting what are supposed to be Kadison’s actual words explaining that it’s a song about how “you’ll always be beautiful in my eyes.” The HELL you say.)

I remember thinking in 1994 that, when you played them up against the other stuff getting adult contemporary airplay that year, “Jessie” and “Beautiful in My Eyes” sounded 20 years out of date. Not throwbacks, not homages, but songs that had been recorded around 1974 or ’75 and sealed in a vault. I still can’t decide if I like them or not. They remain uniquely weird, a thing entirely unto themselves.

What Would You Say

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(Pictured: Hurricane Smith, unlikely singing star and later, a breeder of horses.)

Norman “Hurricane” Smith was first a recording engineer, best known to history for his work on the Beatles’ albums up through Rubber Soul, and later producer of Pink Floyd’s early material, including the single “See Emily Play.” But he was not of their generation—he was pushing 40 when the Beatles came up—and so when he began recording himself at the age of 48, his work reflected a different taste. In the winter of 1972, the deeply odd “Don’t Let It Die” went to #2 in the UK, but a much bigger hit was to come.

“Oh Babe What Would You Say” hit #4 in the UK in the summer of 1972. It hopped the Atlantic and landed at two of America’s most influential radio stations, CKLW in Detroit and WFIL in Philadelphia, at the end of October. It was mostly an East Coast hit for a while, not getting much action farther west until December. For example, it’s a top-five hit at WRKO and WMEX in Boston before it ever charts in Chicago, at WCFL in mid-December. It doesn’t appear on a WLS chart until the second full week of January. By the end of January, it’s in the Top 10 in dozens of cities, and it spends the weeks of January 20 and 27 at #2 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, behind Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It records its first local #1 at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, during the week of February 5, and it goes #1 at KXOK in St. Louis for the week of February 17, 1973. In the same week, it hits #1 in Cash Box and peaks at #3 on the Hot 100. Also in February, Julie Andrews performs it with a giant blue Muppet on a TV special, and Smith himself sings it on The Tonight Show. But every record runs its course sooner or later, and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is gone from most charts by the end of March. For all of 1973, its highest local ranking is #8 at KRUX in Phoenix and WNCT in Greenville, North Carolina. On Billboard‘s 1973 Top 100, it’s #57; in Cash Box, it’s #31.

Although I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45. (I am continually baffled by the buying choices of the younger me.) And I wish knew whether “Oh Babe” got much radio play after 1973. I don’t remember hearing it a lot, although there’s no reason it would have made any greater impression on me than anything else from the winter of 1973, if I heard it in the few years following.  It would occasionally resurface: Peggy Lee occasionally sang it in her nightclub act, and comedienne Kaye Ballard did it, with the same giant blue Muppet that had duetted with Julie Andrews, on a 1977 episode of The Muppet Show. (The Muppet Show debuted on Disney Plus last week, so you can’t say this website isn’t topical every so often, if only by accident.)

It wasn’t long, however, before “Oh Babe” took a place among the largely forgotten hits of the past, at least for most people. In the early 80s, when I started sneaking records home from my radio job to record them to cassette, “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was one of the first ones I grabbed. And when it appeared on Rhino’s Have a Nice Day 70s anthology in 1989, that volume was one of the first ones I grabbed.

The sax player on “Oh Babe What Would You Say” is a guy named Frank Hardcastle, who had served with Smith in the Royal Air Force. The dude had chops: the solo in the middle sounds like it’s improvised. It’s the hook of that horn as much as Smith’s old-timey vocal that made the song into a hit. It’s easy to visualize Smith and Hardcastle in the 1940s, young men sitting in some club, eyeing the local girls, and listening to a band that honks like they would on a future day.

In the winter of 1973, not-quite-13-year-old me hears “Oh Babe” without a clue about how it refers to the bygone time when its musicians were young. Instead, I think about a particular pretty girl and imagine saying to her, “Have I a hope or half a chance to even ask if could I dance with you?”

I have neither.

If you’d like to hear “Oh Babe,” I recommend this clever version of it, which features the moment not-quite-13-year-old me dreamed of, at about one minute in.

(Note to Patrons: The comments on Wednesday’s post were far more interesting than what I wrote originally, and I thank all who participated.)

Bread and Beer

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(Pictured: Reg Dwight buys lunch.)

In the late 60s, as a scuffling artist trying to make a name for himself, young Elton John played every session he could get. His best-known pre-fame recordings have been released under several titles, most famously Chartbusters Go Pop!. They were covers of popular hits that were intended to sound like the originals, and they appeared on budget-priced, quickie compilations. Upwards of 50 songs on which he played or sang have been documented, recorded between 1968 and 1970, the last of them cut during the same month Elton traveled to Los Angeles for his famous American debut at the Troubadour.

While Elton was preparing to record his first album, Empty Sky, he was invited to join a group being put together by producer Chris Thomas. It included two members of his Empty Sky band, guitarist Caleb Quaye and drummer Roger Pope, as well as Bernie Calvert, who played bass in the Hollies, and two percussionists, Lennox Jackson and a guy known only to history as Rollo. Thomas and another colleague, Tony King, hoped that the group might end up a powerhouse studio outfit, maybe England’s answer to the Funk Brothers—and they would be its impresarios.

In August 1968, Thomas and King, who worked for George Martin, had some down time at the office while the boss was on vacation and the Beatles weren’t around much, so they assembled their guys at Abbey Road. They recorded mostly at night following afternoons down the pub, with studio ambience provided by colored lights the Beatles used when they worked. The group ended up with a dozen songs, mostly reworked instrumental covers of past hits, including “Wooly Bully,” “The Letter,” “Needles and Pins,” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” Decca was sufficiently interested to release a single, “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” backed with “Breakdown Blues.” It came out in February 1969 under the name of the Bread and Beer Band. The record got some brief and positive notices in the British music press, but Decca decided not to release anything more. So the stuff went into the vaults, just another job that came and went for Elton and his mates, leaving behind only a small paycheck, if that. And Elton went looking for his next gig.

Seven years later, in 1976, Elton John was on top of the world. Tony King was running Elton’s label, Rocket Records, and he gave the boss a birthday gift that year: an acetate of the never-released Bread and Beer Band album. King told a reporter that when he listened to it for the first time in seven years, he was ready for it to be “god awful.” It was instead “halfway decent,” King said. “Everybody who played on it still likes it.”

Elton’s management team had no plans to release the Bread and Beer Band stuff, and in fact, Elton’s birthday acetate was the only physical copy in existence, apart from the studio master tapes. But “Dick Barton Theme (The Devil’s Gallop)” and “Breakdown Blues” finally appeared on last year’s Jewel Box collection of Elton’s deep cuts. “Breakdown Blues,” with Quaye’s blazing guitar, is the better side, but on “Dick Barton Theme,” Elton’s piano style is easily recognizable.

(You can hear all of the Bread and Beer Band album here. If you’d prefer only a sample, here’s “The Letter,” with ghostly Elton vocals, the extremely reimagined “Wooly Bully,” and a version of the Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” that smokes. If you are inclined to get a bootleg mp3 version of the album, go here.)

On some of Elton John’s earliest anonymous recordings, his talent is impossible to contain. You can hear it on some of the Chartbusters stuff, which was intended to be disposable product and not lavished with a great deal of love and care in the studio. Even there, however, the chops and charisma that made him a superstar are audible. Similarly, the Bread and Beer Band had the potential to be the kind of virtuoso outfit that could play anything, sound good doing it, and thereby never be out of work. Perhaps, in some alternate universe, instead of becoming the flamboyant ruler of the 70s pop world, Elton John became one of the most in-demand studio musicians in Britain.

Note to Patrons: A new edition of The Sidepiece went out yesterday. Check your spam filter. To see the Sidepiece archive, go here. To receive it in your e-mail, go here. Also, thanks to the commenters who kept the discourse going around here this week despite the lack of new posts. I appreciate your contributions. 

Let ‘Em Play

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(Pictured: Meat Loaf, who is not the subject of this post, on stage in 1978.)

This New Year’s Eve, it will be 25 years since my first all-request show on the classic-rock station in Davenport, Iowa. It was a one-time thing that later became a regular gig on Saturday nights for much of 1996 and 1997. As I’ve written before, the program director trusted me to know what was appropriate to play and what was not, and if I skated over the line, he was willing to forgive me. I built a collection of literally hundreds of my own drops and sweepers too. It was highly produced, interactive, and fun for everybody, including (especially) me.

There were certain songs I could have played every week and more than once—“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “American Pie,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You”—but I didn’t. I wanted to please the people who didn’t call as much as the regular callers. And I wanted to take advantage of the fact that for every five listeners who wanted to hear fking Meat Loaf again, there would be one who would surprise me with something cool, something I couldn’t get on the air fast enough.

This post is about two of my favorite listener requests.

Continue reading “Let ‘Em Play”