Through Your Eyes

Embed from Getty Images

The music of January 1976 is emblematic of the listener I had become by then, and of the one I would be forever after. I was never going to be a metalhead; neither was I going to be somebody on the prowl for the next big thing. I was a creature of the radio, and specifically of Top 40 radio. While my horizons broadened some over the years— making room for prog rock while I was still a teenager and straight jazz after I turned 40—I still remain the kind of listener I was in January 1976: I want to hear the hits, and I want to hear them again and again. The list below is from Radio and Records.

1. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
Simon’s cool and clever wordplay is miles ahead of “I Write the Songs” composer Bruce Johnston’s sometimes-shaky “I am music” metaphor, but the latter is redeemed by these lines about the power of music to renew itself: “Now when I look out through your eyes / I’m young again even though I’m very old.”

3. “Theme From S.W.A.T”/Rhythm Heritage. We have noted before how several themes from ABC shows became radio hits in 1976, including S.W.A.T., Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Baretta, and Laverne and Shirley.

And speaking of the latter, the death of Cindy Williams this week should remind us all that she and Penny Marshall are, in character, still among the most recognizable figures of the 1970s. It’s also worth remembering how Laverne and Shirley detonated in popular culture during the very period I’m writing about here. The first episode, on January 27, 1976, was #1 in the ratings that week. The show’s 15-episode first season did well enough to rank #3 for the entire 1975-1976 TV season, behind All in the Family and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (which debuted in the same week). For the 1976-1977 season it was #2 behind Happy Days, which preceded it on Tuesday nights. For the next two seasons, it was #1.

4. “Love to Love You Baby”/Donna Summer
7. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”/Neil Sedaka
12. “Love Hurts”/Nazareth
13. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
23. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
26. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
30. “Dream On”/Aerosmith

31. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard
If my taste was/is small-c catholic, I came by it organically. Look at the variety among the 40 songs on this chart, and think about the willingness of mass appeal radio stations to play all of it: “Yeah, we already got Donna Summer pretending to get laid, Neil Sedaka doing a lounge number, and two CB radio novelty songs. Damn right we want Foghat and Aerosmith. And get us a polka too while you’re at it.”

5. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
6. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players

9. “Sing a Song”/Earth Wind and Fire
10. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles

11. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate
18. “Fanny”/Bee Gees
25. “Walk Away From Love”/David Ruffin
36. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
Any of these could be the best song on the list, although with the exception of “The White Knight” and Helen Reddy’s incredibly stiff version of “Somewhere in the Night,” every song has something to recommend it. Of course, the best song on the list might also be:

28. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There are songs that sound better on the radio than in any other environment. Imagine that you are 15-going-on-16 and listening to your favorite DJ on your favorite radio station. He makes a wisecrack, jingles out of it, and then plays this.

You want to be on the radio someday because you want to do that.

32. “Times of Your Life”/Paul Anka. Anka sings, “Suddenly it’s hard to find the memories you left behind.” And I realize that yeah, after all these years, the memories have gotten hard to find. I can’t tell you specifically why the winter of 1976 feels to me like it does, not like I could with the winter of 1977. What is left of being 15-going-on-16 are a few strong images and the retroactive realization that something important was happening to me then.

What it was, exactly, I don’t know.

But it occurs to me that I don’t need to know. As I listen to these songs, the vibe they create all together allows me to feel young again, even though I’m very old. And some of these days, there’s nothing I want more.

This post is by reader request. If there’s something you’d like to read about, get in touch

I Remember Everything

The very first post at this blog warned you: “Some of what we get into will likely be so personal that I’ll be the only one who could conceivably be interested in it.” And so here we are in the middle of January 1977. The list, which I playlisted and drove around with this week, was originally posted on Twitter by Retro Music Ads; click to embiggen.

2. “New Kid in Town”/Eagles. Me, 2017: “A few years ago some Internet site I was reading suggested that your life’s theme song is the one that was #1 on your 18th birthday. But there is no goddamn way I’m accepting “Love Is Thicker Than Water” by Andy Gibb. I would, however, take the #1 song on my 17th birthday….”

4. “Torn Between Two Lovers”/Mary Macgregor
5. “Walk This Way”/Aerosmith
“Torn Between Two Lovers” is very 70s, and not just because it’s bland pop cheese that scratched some cultural itch and became an unlikely #1 hit. It’s also quite progressive, in Mary’s suggestion that there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be able to love two people equally, as each one of them provides something she needs and cannot get from the other. That radio stations would play it in the same quarter-hour with “Walk This Way” leaves me woozy with delight.

8. “Hot Line”/Sylvers. Some big hits don’t stay on the radio very long after they drop out of current rotations, but precious few disappeared as fast or as completely as “Hot Line,” which went to #5 on the Hot 100 and was #1 at WLS in Chicago. It ranked #25 on Billboard‘s official year-end Top 100 (and #11 at WLS), but literally dozens of the songs that ranked behind it would be much better remembered and get much more airplay across the years to come.

9. “Dazz”/Brick. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me one of the things wrought by the triumph of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s was the virtual end of the crossover between jazz and Black pop. But before that, in bands from Earth Wind and Fire to MFSB down unto Brick, guys with jazz chops frequently got to show them off on the radio.

12. “Weekend in New England”/Barry Manilow
17. “After the Lovin'”/Engelbert Humperdinck
25. “Stand Tall”/Burton Cummings
28. “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)”/Barbra Streisand
Here I am at peak irrationality about the winter of 1977, although it has far less to do with what’s in the grooves than it does the context in which I was listening. That said, however, neither Manilow nor Streisand ever did anything better.

14. “Tonight’s the Night”/Rod Stewart
22. “Hard Luck Woman”/KISS
Rod sings, “Disconnect the telephone line / Relax baby, enjoy that line,” thereby rhyming “line” with “line.” My man’s got coke-fueled seducin’ to do and no time for poetic details. It’s said that in 1977, people mistook “Hard Luck Woman” for Rod Stewart, although to the extent I hear that, it’s much more so in the backing track, which sounds like it could have been on Gasoline Alley or another early album.

15. “Night Moves”/Bob Seger
16. “Somebody to Love”/Queen
20. “Year of the Cat”/Al Stewart
29. “Livin’ Thing”/ELO

The other day on my radio show I played for the first time one of the giant hits of the moment (which I cannot mention by name, alas), a record that’s been getting thousands of spins a week across the country for a couple of months—and friends, it is garbage. It’s so bad that it actually makes me angry. We consumed plenty of empty musical calories back in the day, but from time to time, artists would challenge themselves and us with music that demanded and rewarded attention, and it was good for the soul in ways that endure years later.

30. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston. I have written before about “the climax of ‘More Than a Feeling,’ just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything.

And I do. The angle of the light on those January mornings, and the promise of those days, and the way my future rolled out in front of me, a road leading inevitably over the rainbow, an easy journey as long as I just kept walking.

I would never get over the rainbow, of course. Remembering the time when I was sure I would will have to be enough now.

As with all things at this website, your mileage may vary. We’ve all got music that speaks to us of things only we can understand, on a frequency that only we can hear. This is some of mine.

The Wisconsin Woods

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: La Crosse, Wisconsin, was home to the G. Heileman Brewing Company and the World’s Largest Six Pack; the brewery and the six-pack have been renovated, and repainted, since Heileman closed in 2000.)

La Crosse is a city of about 50,000 on the Mississippi River in far western Wisconsin. We have from time to time bumped into radio station WLCX, most recently mentioning their selection of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the #1 song for the entire year 1976. ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, has quite a collection of WLCX surveys, and a look through them, especially during the early 70s, reveals some interesting stuff.

La Crosse had a thriving local music scene at the turn of the 70s, and WLCX played local hits. The excellent “Where Do You Want to Go” by Hope was #1 for four weeks in the summer of 1970. Hope was known originally as Jesters III; their earliest releases were on the La Crosse-based Coulee label, although “Where Do You Want to Go” was released on A&M. Hope’s run at #1 was interrupted by the Silver Bullets, with “The Lone Ranger (Overture to William Tell).” The Silver Bullets were the same group of La Crosse-area musicians who recorded as the Ladds and Today’s Tomorrow. The variously named group recorded on several small labels; “The Lone Ranger” came out on Teen Town, based in the Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville, where label owner Jon Hall ran a club called Teen Town. Today’s Tomorrow’s fabulous version of “Witchi Tai-To,” originally released on Teen Town, was licensed nationally to the Bang label and hit the WLCX Top 10 during Hope’s final week at #1.

Another significant group from western Wisconsin was Unchained Mynds, who recorded on the Transaction label, a sister of Coulee. Their trippy “We Can’t Go on This Way” was licensed to Buddah for national distribution. They also released a version of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” on Transaction. WLCX would chart two other local hits on Transaction before the end of 1970, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” by Last Draft and Stone Flour with “Till We Kissed.”

(We are deep in the Wisconsin woods now, but we’ll get you out in a minute.)

Apart from the local acts, WLCX also had a thirst for novelties. At the end of 1970, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug was #1 for a month. It’s a Scandinavian-themed holiday parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” which had done six weeks at #1 on WLCX in September and October. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such a thing in western Wisconsin, although Stan and Doug themselves were from Seattle.

In February 1971, WLCX listed Bloodrock’s execrable “D.O.A” at #1 for two weeks. (In both weeks, the #2 song is “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins, and it occurs to me that every discussion about the incredible variety of 70s radio music could begin and end right there.) Stan and Doug probably never overlapped with “D.O.A.,” which is kind of a shame, but as 1971 rolled on, the novelty hits did too. Later that year, the list of #1 songs at WLCX includes Tom Clay’s montage hit “What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John” and Hudson and Landry’s comedy cut “Ajax Liquor Store.” The year 1972 begins with a run to #1 for the passive-aggressive “Once You Understand” by Think, and the station started 1973 with an uninterrupted eight-week run at #1 for “Dueling Banjos.” In 1975, a five-week run at the top for Ringo Starr’s “No No Song” was followed by three weeks for Benny Bell’s reissued 1946 recording “Shaving Cream.” Later in 1975, “Mr. Jaws” by Dickie Goodman would be #1 for four weeks. Six weeks after that, “Convoy” would begin a seven-week stay at #1, followed immediately by the George Baker Selection’s “Paloma Blanca.” Also in 1976, WLCX would chart Jimmy Dean’s Mother’s Day novelty “IOU” at #1 for four weeks, and Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” for a week.

WLCX went on the air in 1947 and bore the same call letters, except for a brief period in the late 50s, until 1983. The station is known as WLXR now and is running an oldies format, still at 1490 on the AM band, still playing some of the songs it played in the 70s. (Probably not “Witchi Tai-To” or “Shaving Cream” though.) It’s always fun to remember when local radio was truly local, doing its own thing and going its own way, and the WLCX surveys reveal a station doing just that.

(This post owes a lot to Wisconsin music historian Gary E. Myers, whose Do You Hear That Beat (published 1994) and On That Wisconsin Beat (2006) are astonishing references, the first one compiled in the era before e-mail.)  

The Only Art That’s Really Worth a Damn

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: from somewhere in the 70s, Waylon Jennings is silently judging your taste in music.)

The Cash Box chart from November 1, 1975, isn’t going to be for everybody. For me, it’s a great one. I have to go down to #11 and #12 before I find something I don’t like a lot, and I can tolerate both of them, even “Feelings.” It’s not until I get to #20, and George Harrison’s “You,” that I find something I straight-up don’t like. Part of this chart’s appeal has to do with the way I have mythologized the fall of 1975, but not all of it. Any chart that contains my all-time favorite record, the Spinners’ “Games People Play,” just gots to be cool. And some of the most iconic records of the 70s are here, too: “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Low Rider,” “Born to Run.”

But if you don’t dig it, I understand. Let’s see how you might feel about some of the stuff farther down.

43. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain”/Willie Nelson
74. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”/Waylon Jennings
83. “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes”/Jessi Colter
“Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar / Where do we take it from here?” “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is Waylon wondering if there was a path to success in country music different from the one Nashville stars had followed for years. As it turned out, he and the other prominent outlaws found it.

55. “(How I Spent My Summer Vacation) Or a Day at the Beach With Pedro and Man Part 1″/Cheech and Chong. In the fall of 1974, “Earache My Eye” rose all the way into the Top 10 because A) it included a song with a monster riff and B) it was actually funny. Neither of those things is true about “A Day at the Beach With Pedro and Man,” which yammers on in its full-length version for seven deadly dull minutes.

65. “Manhattan Spiritual”/Mike Post. Post hit with the Rockford Files theme in the summer of 1975 and applied the same template to “Manhattan Spiritual,” a 1958 hit by British jazzman Reg Owen. Really, it’s quite remarkable how much it sounds like “The Rockford Files,” to the extent you can tell from the wobbly 45 at YouTube.

89. “Come and Get Your Love”/Roger Daltrey. The YouTuber who posted this says it was marketed in some countries as “Get Your Love.” The United States was apparently not one of them, even though a different “Come and Get Your Love” had been to #1 a year before. This “Come and Get Your Love” is arranged and played like it wants to be a soul record. As such, it would be better sung by quite literally anybody other than Roger Daltrey.

94. “Machines”/John Livigni
98. “Wake Up”/Law
It’s an indication of how obscure these records are that they aren’t posted in full at YouTube or anywhere else, which means they’ve disappeared as completely as any record ever does anymore. To have made the national charts for only a week or two, how many copies must they have moved, or how much payola was distributed on their behalf? Law was on the GRC label, which was a money-laundering operation for one of the largest pornographers in the country, although the artists signed to the label or one of its many subsidiaries didn’t necessarily know it. John Livigni, whose record was on the Raintree label (which was based in Los Angeles, Nashville, or Louisiana depending on which Internet source you prefer), changed his name to John Valenti and scored a minor hit in 1976 with “Anything You Want.” But that’s according to Wikipedia, so caveat emptor.

96. “Nice, Nice, Very Nice”/Ambrosia. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut gets a writing credit on “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” because it’s adapted from lyrics he wrote in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle. It was going to be a little much for Top 40 radio, but underground FMs were another story. After hearing it on the radio one night, Vonnegut wrote to the band: “Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you. And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be? This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn. I envy you guys.”

You’re Lookin’ at Country

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: country singer Lynn Anderson, 1971.)

It’s always a weird experience for me to look at a country radio survey from the late 60s or early 70s. I frequently see familiar names, but very few familiar songs. Only a tiny handful of the hits of that time would be found in the gold libraries of the stations I worked for in the first half of the 80s. That’s true of the survey from WEEP in Pittsburgh, dated October 15, 1971, which I saw on Facebook over the weekend. The pic won’t reproduce well here, but you can see the entire list here. And there’s some interesting stuff on it.

1. “Never Ending Song of Love”/Mayf Nutter. Few names are more country than “Mayf Nutter”: his given name is “Mayfred,” after his great-grandparents, May and Fred. He was a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, a couple of hours south of Pittsburgh. His “Never Ending Song of Love,” a cover of Delaney and Bonnie’s hit from earlier in 1971, was big there, and in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and a couple of other places, but it didn’t make Billboard‘s country Top 40, and neither did anything else Nutter recorded. He was also an actor, with recurring roles on The Waltons and Knots Landing, among others. He celebrated his 82nd birthday this past week.

2. “Easy Lovin'”/Freddie Hart
6. “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”/Tom T. Hall
10. “You’re Lookin’ at Country”/Loretta Lynn
19. “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”/Buck Owens
44. “She’s All I Got”/Johnny Paycheck
I submit that only these five records achieved anything like classic status in the years that followed 1971. There was a time when every respectable country singer or band would have known the Flatt/Scruggs bluegrass chestnut “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Owens’ recording was the biggest hit, but it would also be recorded by Leon Russell under the name Hank Wilson.

5. “Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel for Girls”/Tex Williams
9. “I’d Rather Be Sorry”/Ray Price

15. “A Song to Mama”/Carter Family
19. “The Mark of a Heel”/Hank Thompson
25. “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”/Slim Whitman
27. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye”/Faron Young
29. “Be a Little Quieter”/Porter Wagoner
30. “Someone Stole Me Blind”/Webb Pierce
35. “Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy”/Lefty Frizzell
40. “Fall Away”/Tex Ritter
41. “Red Door”/Carl Smith

These are some of the most famous names in country music, and in the case of the Carter Family, of American music, period. They would remain popular for as long as they could climb on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, but by 1971 it wouldn’t be long before they would be too old-timey for the radio.

8. “Quits”/Bill Anderson
12. “How Can I Unlove You”/Lynn Anderson
No relation, these two. I heard their songs on my parents’ radio stations and never forgot them. “Quits” is a perfect example of Bill Anderson’s ingratiating style and gift for wordplay, and also of Nashville’s pop-appealing countrypolitan sound. (It’s as far removed from “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” as it’s possible to get.)  “How Can I Unlove You” is three more minutes of “Rose Garden,” Lynn Anderson’s hit from earlier in the year, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

12. “Brand New Mister Me”/Mel Tillis
16. “Pictures”/Statler Brothers
33. “Six Weeks Every Summer”/Dottie West
A handful of stars on this chart would raise their profile as the 70s went on, and remain hitmakers into the 80s.

22. “No Need to Worry”/Johnny Cash and June Carter
24. “Good Lovin’ Makes It Right”/Tammy Wynette
39. “After All They Used to All Belong to Me”/Hank Williams Jr.
42. “Lead Me On”/Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
45. “Papa Was a Good Man”/Johnny Cash
46. “I Wonder What She’ll Think About Me Leavin”/Conway Twitty
Some era-transcending giants of country were at work too, although not with songs anybody remembers today.

47. “Baby I’m Yours”/Jody Miller
49. “There Must Be More to Life (Than Growing Old)”-“Fire Hydrant #79″/Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan
Jody Miller had a classic countrypolitan style and great taste in covers, including “Baby I’m Yours,” and I am sorry to learn that she died earlier this month at the age of 80. Jack and Misty, best known for “Tennessee Birdwalk” and “Humphrey the Camel,” have been favorites of this website since always. “There Must Be More to Life” is done straight, but with the odd harmony that made them so compelling. “Fire Hydrant #79” is sung from the point of view of a failed country singer to his only friend, a Nashville fire hydrant. It’s 100 percent uncut Jack and Misty.

(A new Sidepiece went out on Wednesday of this week. Check your spam filter, or click here to read it right now.)

Plugged In

When your cat goes out but doesn’t come back in, or a stray dog comes begging at your back door, do you call your local radio station and ask them to announce it? Almost certainly not. But there was a time when people commonly did so, and radio stations were happy to read lost-pet announcements—and not just in small towns, either. Take a look at the survey from KFRC in San Francisco dated August 21, 1972. (The front and back covers are pictured here. Click to embiggen, because they’re beautiful. ) Stations frequently sold advertising on the back page of the weekly music survey, but without an ad, a station promo would do. And on this particular week, KFRC promoted its Petline: “Call day or night. If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.”

We did this kind of announcement at KDTH years ago. You’d get a call—sometimes from a child—reporting that their dog was lost. It could be heartbreaking to take the description and the dog’s name, and to promise to read the announcement, all the while knowing that the odds of someone hearing the announcement and finding the animal as a result were slim. We also took pet-found announcements. The likelihood of reuniting pet with owner probably wasn’t any higher than with lost-pet announcements, but they were easier to take.

This sort of public service announcement was once just the tip of an iceberg. At KDTH, we kept a Rolodex full of other announcements for the jocks to read whenever there was time (like when you needed to fill a little time before the network news). Church chicken barbecues, ladies’ club bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, community craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

By the middle of the 1980s, the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside. Maybe the demand for announcements started to exceed the supply of time, or the value of the time became just too great to give away. Maybe it’s that many of the events were of limited interest, and promoting them sounded cheesy and small-time. But it occurs to me now that for making a station sound plugged-in to its community, you could scarcely do better. Any individual announcement didn’t get on much, but in the aggregate, it sounded like the station knew everything that was happening everywhere. And when members of the sponsoring organization—or the owner of the missing cat—heard their announcement, even if they heard it only once, they felt as though the station really cared about them, and by extension, the community.

The first part of this post was rebooted from something that appeared here on August 21, 2009. What’s on the flip is new. 

Continue reading “Plugged In”