You’re Reading It, You Title It

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(Pictured: Badfinger.)

It is time for some Links and Notes, with worthwhile stories I’ve highlighted on Twitter recently. 

—Our Internet friend Scott Paton, a former researcher at American Top 40, has had a long and varied career in broadcasting and publishing. His first-person stories of meeting and hanging out with Brian Wilson and other stars in the Beach Boys’ orbit are golden.

—This conversation between Mavis Staples and country star Chris Stapleton is great and highly worth your time. So are the stories from Mark Rivera, longtime sax player in Billy Joel’s band.

—Several Motown and Stax artists participated in an oral history of touring life in the South during the days of legal segregation. Key quote from soul singer William Bell: “Three or four years ago, you started seeing the attitudes popping back up. And I’m going, ‘Have we not learned anything yet?'”

—For a while in the late 60s, the R&B editor of Billboard was a white guy, and it occasionally got awkward.

—I took a music appreciation course in the seventh grade, and when the teacher played Switched-On Bach for us, it blew my mind. It’s still a remarkable piece of work, and the story of its creator, known then as Walter Carlos and today as Wendy Carlos, is just as remarkable.

—Please Kill Me is a website that covers music, art, culture, fashion, poetry, and movies from the 60s to now. Read their recent story on the difficult and sad history of Badfinger.

—It got swamped by the news during Election Week, but the death of original Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman is worth noting, because he took some very famous pictures of very famous people.

—Last week was the 50th anniversary of the Exploding Whale of Oregon. This is truly one of the weirdest stories you will ever read, and it is extremely well-told here.

—Although WRIT was the first Top 40 radio station in Milwaukee, WOKY is the more fondly remembered. The building in which it was located still stands today, converted mostly to offices, although vestiges of the old radio days remain in what the building’s owner calls the MilWOKY Center. OnMilwaukee.com’s excellent Urban Spelunking series took a look.

—The return of Stevie Nicks’ composition and Fleetwood Mac’s recording of “Dreams” to the Hot 100, thanks to that viral video of the skateboard guy, is a reminder that songs written by a single person have grown rare, and nothing is more rare than a #1 song written by one person. Billboard ran down the numbers: In the 1970s, 44 percent of #1 hits were written by a single writer; in the 2010s, just four percent; in the last three years, none. Hit songs today routinely credit a half-dozen people or more. A geezer such as I thinks to himself that an individual human vision is more likely to result in worthwhile art than something bolted together by committee, although there’s an alternate viewpoint. Author Ted Gioia points out that the creation of ASCAP meant that songwriters were assured of getting paid for their creative contributions, but musicians, engineers, and producers might not be. Crediting them as writers allows them to get fair compensation in the form of performance royalties from radio airplay.

—Gioia wrote about one of the most unlikely interpreters of the Great American Songbook: Willie Nelson. His 1978 standards album Stardust is a masterpiece, but Willie has recorded standards frequently ever since, and he’s got a gift for it.

—When Rolling Stone came out with its revised list of the Top 500 albums of all time earlier this fall, I was torn. As a Guy With Opinions About Music, I felt like I should read it. But at the same time, I’m not as young as I used to be, and my clock is ticking. So I didn’t read the whole thing. I did read a couple of articles about it, however, including this one from the New Yorker about the futility of the whole enterprise. They ask: how can you rank Joni Mitchell, the Notorious B. I. G., and Ornette Coleman side-by-side?

That’s all I’ve got today. Thank you for your continued support of this Internet feature, even when it sucks. 

Sunsets and Shellfish

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(Pictured: sunset in the Virgin Islands.)

When I was writing about WIBS, the radio station in the U.S. Virgin Islands that changed its call letters to WGOD back in 1985, it slipped my mind that my old boss, Gene, was doing radio in the Islands back in the 80s. He e-mailed to say that he was a friend of the man who built WIBS, and that after the station was sold, he told the new owner that there was no way that the WGOD call letters would be approved. “I nearly dropped over when I heard he got them.”

Gene said the new owner asked him to train his sales people. (“He had no clue about radio, he owned a trucking company.”) But the owner needed some training himself. Gene says that for religious reasons, the guy didn’t want to advertise restaurants that sold shellfish. “I told him then, you might as well beg for money because this is one of the top vacation destinations with abundant seafood, many of which have shells. You’re eliminating more than half of your prospective advertisers.” Swiftly, the owner got over his Old Testament issue, and WGOD is still on the air today.

The original WIBS “had beautiful views from one of the highest peaks in the VI,” Gene says. “The station had a large free-standing tower and the studios were built under the legs. The tower eventually came down in one of the hurricanes.”

(When I was working for Gene in the early 90s, I wondered why he’d leave the Virgin Islands for Iowa. I remember him telling me that he missed the weather. In the Islands, he said, it was sunny and 82 every single day except for three days in August when there would be a hurricane. That wasn’t the only reason he came back to the continental U.S., but for an old radio guy, it’s a persuasive one.)

Continue reading “Sunsets and Shellfish”

The Message

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(Pictured: Madison, last Saturday, before it hit the fan.)

(Life on Lockdown returns today with political content ahead. Read it or don’t, be offended or not. It’s up to you.)

We read about George Floyd’s murder, and we react to it in horror. Then we read about the riots and other protests around the country, and we react in horror to them as well. It makes us sad and angry. We wish none of it was happening.

But here’s something lots of well-meaning people are saying: From comfortable living rooms—and comfortable privilege—they want to take the moral high ground above the fray. “Both sides are at fault. The cops shouldn’t have killed George Floyd, but the people of insert big city name here shouldn’t have burned shit down in response. How can America hear what they’re saying when all they see is people on TV breaking windows, starting fires, and looting stores? That’s not the message they should be sending.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that, drinks would be on me until time should be no more.

But guess what, Mr. and Mrs. Respectable White People? The riots are the message. People of color have been trying for decades to get privileged white people to see and hear and comprehend the injustices they face and to help do something about it. But nothing ever changes. Asking peacefully hasn’t changed anything. Colin Kaepernick tried it, and some of the same people decrying the current violence turned him into a pariah for it. Voting hasn’t changed anything either, and organized voter suppression efforts aimed at minorities make clear that for them, it isn’t supposed to.

What else would you have them do?

If we have reached the point in this country where people have exhausted all the lesser options, and burning shit down is the only way to effect real change, there’s a great temptation to say that we ought to let it burn. But there’s a broader issue that has nothing to do with burning shit down. After watching police in city after city abuse the legal, civil, and human rights of their fellow citizens night after night—citizens whose only crime, in the vast majority of cases, is exercising their Constitutional right to free assembly—and with the President of the United States ready to unleash the military for the same purpose, it’s hard to argue that the current system is worth saving.

An automatic default to “all violence is bad” without trying to understand why certain people might find violence to be a legitimate response to repression plays into the hands of Donald Trump, who is weaponizing the violence for far more nefarious and destructive ends than broken windows and graffitized buildings. And eventually, not even the moral high ground will save you. Today it’s people of color protesting brutal policing. Tomorrow it could be privileged white people fighting injustices that burst through the doors of comfortable homes in respectable suburbs.

But Jim, can’t you think of something else to write about today? Well, sure.

Continue reading “The Message”

The Fade-Out

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(Pictured: Chip Monck in 1974. Not only is he cooler than you and has a better voice than you, he’s also better lookin’.)

It’s just seeds and stems today.

I’ve gotten some nice compliments recently on various blog posts and podcast episodes, and I appreciate each one of them greatly. When I started this blog in 2004 (!), I wondered whether it would be interesting to anyone other than me. The fact that other people like it still surprises me a little, even after 15 years.

Regarding the podcast, it’s on hiatus right now. The next episode will be posted sometime in the back half of October. The four episodes that have appeared so far are easily accessible right here. (They are also available at TuneIn and Stitcher; the first three are at Google Play but the latest one is not, but I have neither the time nor the inclination right now to pursue the reason why.)

Also going on hiatus until sometime in October is my radio career. I will be off the air because it’s travel time again, for my seasonal gig teaching SAT preparation classes. Barring an unexpected sending-up of the bat signal next Monday or Tuesday, my last day on Magic 98 is today from 3 til 7 Madison time. I don’t regularly write for the station’s website anymore, but I posted something there today about my weird-ass working life and my travel itinerary for the next month. Go and read it if you like.

Since there’s some of the customary word count left, on the flip are some links to stuff I can strongly recommend.

Continue reading “The Fade-Out”

Disco, Demolition, and Other Topics

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(Pictured: Steve Dahl revs up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night in July 1979.)

There’s been a lot of good reading on the Internet over the last couple of weeks. I tweeted a bunch of it as I saw it, but those links disappear quickly on this page, so here’s an annotated recap, along with a couple of detours.

NPR tried to figure out where disco began, precisely, although reporter Jason Heller didn’t find a definitive answer among a 1969 Chicago soul record by the Radiants, turn-of-the-70s records by the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks, and Santana, “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango, “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, and the funk and world music featured in the early 70s by pioneering DJ David Mancuso at the Loft in New York City.

Digression: In a Twitter DM, soul man Larry Grogan gave me his take: “I always draw a dividing line between the stuff from the early disco culture playlists (a la Mancuso and the Loft) and stuff purpose-made as ‘disco’. In between those two are Philadelphia International stuff like Harold Melvin (which was still expansive/adventurous) and Eddie Kendricks. That’s the true transitional stuff. If the culture had stuck to the kind of wide-ranging things you’d hear at the Loft (funky rock, Afro funk, world music), all of which was danceable yet not homogenous, it would have made for a much more robust, interesting scene, instead of the fast-burning shit show it turned into.”

I’d cosign that. What it means is that there’s going to be neither a specific disco birth date nor a particular record that is, as NPR’s dreadful headline termed it, “disco’s Cro-Magnon”—which Jason Heller seems disappointed not to have found.

Related: the Chicago White Sox are getting ready to observe the 40th anniversary of the Disco Demolition Riot of July 12, 1979, when a disco-sucks promotion involving Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and rock radio station WLUP between games of doubleheader ended in chaos. I’ve alredy seen some nostalgic writeups about it, and Dahl, now a respectable gray eminence among broadcasters, will no doubt be widely visible as the anniversary approaches. Forty years ago, I would have been firmly on the side of the rioters. Today, however, it’s clear that the disco-sucks movement was to a great extent racist and anti-gay. One might even call it an expression of toxic white masculinity. I am not, however, holding my breath to see any of that acknowledged amidst the retrospectives.

Also on the Twitter feed recently:

Continue reading “Disco, Demolition, and Other Topics”

Turn On

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(Pictured: Marvin Gaye at work, 1973.)

It’s been awhile since I did one of these Links and Notes things, so here:

—Up first, a radio story from Florida, in which a veteran broadcaster was fired by a new manager at his non-commercial station for reasons including “not paying enough attention to social media.” Public outcry saved the guy’s job, but the idea that a broadcaster could be fired for inattention to social media is a bizarre misplacing of priorities. As I wrote on Twitter, if you’re more concerned about your station’s social media than what you’re putting on your air, you should turn in the license. Social media should always—always—be a secondary concern. To rate it any higher than that is to take your eye off the ball.

(Digression: I once heard a young jock who fancied himself a social-media savant tease an interview he was going to do on the air by saying, “To find out what time it will be on, follow me on Twitter.” Yeah no, kid, that ain’t how we do.)

—Here in Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, a local radio legend is going out on her terms, more or less.

—For a couple of years in the middle of the 1970s, the Sunday night broadcast of the King Biscuit Flower Hour was appointment radio for me. Consultant Fred Jacobs recently wondered whatever happened to appointment radio, and whether a show like King Biscuit could survive today.

—I have written a fair amount over the years about the flaws of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chief among them is that an artist’s historical impact and influence is far less important than their long-term popularity. The annual inductions to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry should be a much bigger deal. From the news release about this year’s inductees: “The sound recordings recently named to the registry showcase works across multiple genres, including blues, children’s recordings, classical, comedy, country, radio, jazz, pop, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, Latin and Broadway.” You’ll get a much better understanding of the history of American pop from the Registry than you’ll ever get from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And I say that as somebody who A) enjoyed a visit to the Hall and thinks that being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame librarian is a very cool job.

—In 1972, Marvin Gaye worked on the followup to What’s Going On, but his first attempt got shelved. Nearly 50 years later it’s been released, and its social relevance to the world of 2019 is fairly strong. In 1985, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” became an anthem, albeit a misunderstood one. The story of how it was made (from a forthcoming book of stories behind Springsteen’s songs) is fascinating.

—Seventy years ago this spring, the 45RPM record first appeared in stores. Music formats have evolved since 1949, but as we look back, the social impact of the 45 may have ended up greater than that of the LP or the CD. On the subject of anniversaries, all-news WTOP in Washington, D.C., is celebrating its 50th this spring. Even if you’ve never heard the station, some of the stories from its history are great. It has also been 50 years since TV producer George Schlatter’s ill-fated experimental comedy Turn On lasted one episode, and in some cities, less than one.

Los Angeles magazine’s story about rejected vanity license plates in California was quite entertaining. It came to me via Strong Language, which is a feed you should be following. On the occasion of the Twilight Zone reboot at CBS All Access, Paste ranked all of the original Twilight Zone episodes from worst to first. I admire that sort of list-making because A) I like to read them and B) I don’t have the work ethic required to do them. A piece from The Atlantic about the college admissions scandal was infuriating. Among the many, many reasons our society is in deep trouble is the fact that people who have the money to do anything they want believe that anything they want to do is permissible.

That gets us back nearly a month. If you find any of these links worthwhile and you do not yet follow me on Twitter, please do so. My feed also features lots of half-assed jokes and pictures of beer, but you can probably figure out how to mute that stuff.