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.

Is This the Real Life?

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(Pictured: Queen in 1976.)

This is not the post I was planning for today. I wrote something a few weeks ago, scheduled it, took it down, rewrote it, scheduled it again, and got up this morning thinking nah, I ain’t doing that. So here’s a rundown of some stuff that has recently passed through my Twitter feed instead.

—The movie Bohemian Rhapsody opens in the States on Friday. The handful of reviews I have read suggest that Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury is impressive, but the movie itself is only just OK. A piece in The Guardian suggests that the film sanitizes Mercury, depicting his sexuality as a problem rather than an animating force behind his art and his life.

—Tonight at my house we’ll watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, as we’ve done around Halloween since God was a boy. The show inspired our man Kurt Blumenau to state five reasons why he likes it. In a Twitter exchange, Kurt pointed out that in the title of my post about The Great Pumpkin last week, I misquoted Linus’ anguished line after Lucy stabs the pumpkin, which is actually, “You didn’t tell me you were gonna kill it!” I have resisted changing the title, but it’s gonna drive me nuts every October until the end of time. (During my recent trip to the East Coast, I had the opportunity to hang out with Kurt for a couple of hours over beers and pizza. It was the best part of the trip by a long shot.)

—You may recall that I’m a Rosanne Cash fan. We’ve seen her live three times (with a likely fourth in Madison next spring), and her albums are an instant buy. Her latest, She Remembers Everything, will be out on Friday. You can still stream it at NPR, and you should.

—Also out on Friday is a new album by J. D. McPherson. I know precious little about him beyond what a quick Internet search turns up—a fortysomething rocker inspired by Buddy Holly and other 50s rock and R&B acts. But a headline on Paste‘s Twitter feed grabbed my attention: “JD McPherson Is Planning a Retro-Rock Christmas With Holiday Album Socks.” “Retro-rock Christmas” is in my wheelhouse, even when it’s rushing the season—and holy smokes, the two tracks previewed with the story, “Socks,” and “Hey Skinny Santa,” are fabulous. Socks is gonna be an instant buy on Friday as well.

—I have written here many times before that my parents were (and are) devoted radio listeners. So in addition to memories of hearing my own music on my own stations, I remember hearing their music on their stations. And it was on their stations that I first heard Freddie Hart, because while his crossover hit “Easy Loving” made #17 on the Hot 100, WLS didn’t chart it. “Easy Loving” was the first of Hart’s six straight #1 country singles in Billboard, a streak that also included the very fine My Hang-Up Is You,” which sounds like a reboot of “Easy Loving” and was #1 for six weeks where “Easy Loving” did only three. This past Saturday, Freddie Hart died at the age of 91. He had just finished a gospel album, which hasn’t been released yet.

—After Hurricane Michael hit Florida, a radio station in Panama City Beach was shut down by its owner after suffering storm damage. But two of the station’s DJs, Tiffany Dunning and Sean Streeter, weren’t ready to stop operating in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. One of them had evacuated to Birmingham and another to Nashville, but they kept updating emergency information on the station’s Facebook page even after the station was off the air. Streeter says, “This is what we signed up for as broadcasters.” Damn straight, sir, and well done.

Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars is discussing every song to peak at #2 on the Hot 100. Last spring, with the feature up to 1974, writer Marcello Carlin had to suspend it because of some medical issues. But after six months, he’s back and coming in hot with this spectacular essay tying Sylvia Plath and the Titanic to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” If I could write like that, I would, and so would you.

And one more thing: my post on Monday about the badly run station in the nowhere town prompted reader Mike to respond with one of the craziest radio stories I’ve heard in a long time. Read it here.

Vanity Projects

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(Pictured: King Crimson, 1969; L to R: Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, and Peter Sinfield.)

Odds and ends from here and there:

—After finishing up that great Jimmy McDonough biography of Al Green, I moved on to David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Weigel, whose day job is national reporter for the Washington Post, based the book on a series of articles he wrote for Slate. I read those articles, and I liked them. But I liked Weigel’s book a lot less. It felt disjointed to me, leaping from act to act, generally in chronological order, but sometimes in confusing fashion. Pivotal acts like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer get less space than Soft Machine and Marillion—the latter band gets almost an entire chapter toward the end of the book. Weigel’s time might have been better spent writing a biography of Robert Fripp, originally of King Crimson, whose career is traced from the 60s through the present day, a treatment no other individual in the book receives. The book takes a weirdly dismissive tone toward prog in some spots; so much so that I ended up unsure whether Weigel even likes prog rock, at least until he came out and said so in the last chapter.

Prog rock certainly deserves a full-length history. But I’d like to read one by an actual music historian instead of a guy for whom it was basically a vanity project.

—I have written a lot about rock festivals over the years (and I’ve got another post in that series scheduled for next week), so a piece published at Consequence of Sound about festivals of the 70s and 80s was highly interesting to me. The author dug into the archives of the New York Times to find articles written about various famous and not-famous fests at the time they occurred, to understand how they were reported and perceived, and to get some insights into why the festival era petered out in the 70s, bounced back in the 80s, and petered out again before Lollapalooza rejuvenated it in the 90s.

—I picked up an interesting bit of trivia about the American Top 40 special of July 4, 1976, from William, who writes a blog called The Music of My Life. William says that when Casey announced “Says My Heart” by Ozzie Nelson as the #1 song on July 4, 1938, he actually played something else. William didn’t say what, and I don’t know, but I’m certain both of us (and maybe you) would really like to know.

(You should be reading The Music of My Life. Start with this first-anniversary post, a selection of greatest hits.)

—Another thing I learned, via a different source: throughout the American Top 40 era, issues of Billboard were dated to the Saturday of the issuing week. In the case of the Bicentennial, that should have been July 3, 1976, but given that Billboard was publishing a special commemorative issue on the history of the music industry, they couldn’t pass up the chance to date it July 4.

—In 2015, Nashville radio consultant Keith Hill caused a stir by suggesting that female artists are a turn-off for the typical country radio listener, and that stations wanting ratings success should limit female artists to something like 19 percent of the playlist. He referred to them as the “tomatoes” in the radio salad, which is properly composed of male artists otherwise. Recently, Hill got into it again with some people on Twitter who insisted that, sexism aside, the methodology by which he claims to prove his assertion is flawed. This piece is inside baseball and maybe not for everybody, but it does a pretty good job of refuting Hill. As I read it, his attitude struck me familiar, based on my dealings with some—not all, but some—radio consultants over the years: they believe that their opinions are equal to empirical data, and they think that the most effective way to get you to buy what they’re selling is to be a jerk about it.

I have a post in my drafts file about an experience I had with one of those guys. Someday you may get to read it.

—Last but not least: thanks to all for your interesting responses to my post about instrumentals last week. Reader David has compiled many of them (and some others you didn’t mention) into a Spotify playlist. It’s got everything from Van Halen and Pink Floyd to Martin Denny and Ramsey Lewis, and you can find it here.