Real to Reel at the Dew Drop Inn

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(Pictured: Gary Strater and Steve Hagler of Starcastle, on stage in 1977.)

I recently came across a thing that I wrote in 2009, after digging into the now-defunct tour history page for the group Starcastle, the central Illinois prog-rock band I’ve mentioned here many times. It painted an interesting picture of the life of a hard-working band that made it to the B-list and became modestly successful, until they weren’t anymore. Here’s a bit of that, slightly edited.

. . . . The tour history begins in 1973, when the band was known as Mad John Fever. For the next two years, they played lots and lots of bars, a few high school gyms, and a Ramada Inn. They occasionally shared a bill with big names, opening for Blue Oyster Cult, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Stories (in Platteville, Wisconsin, where I would go to college years later), Captain Beyond, and the Strawbs.

They were known as Pegasus for the Strawbs gig; at some point late in 1974 they had changed their name, and they promptly got in trouble with another Illinois band that already had the name. So they put some other likely choices into a hat and drew one. No name could have been better than Starcastle for the Yes-styled prog rock they would play over the next several years.

The tour history for 1975 is sketchy, as the band worked on their first album. . . .  In January 1976, they open for another conglomeration of heartland prog-rockers, Kansas, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. A month later they open for Gary Wright in St. Louis, but the next two nights they’re playing bars in southern Illinois before they open for the Electric Light Orchestra in Chicago. A week later they hook up with Kansas again (and Rush) for a show in the Chicago suburbs.

In two weeks of March 1976, following a bar gig in Mattoon, Illinois, Starcastle plays on bills with Journey, the J. Geils Band, Styx, and Peter Frampton. The next month, they alternated college gigs with spots on bigger arena shows (ELO, Rush and Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult and Styx). As their profile grew in 1976, they got some extended gigs, opening for both Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull for about a week at a time. They opened for Fleetwood Mac at shows in Green Bay and Madison during July.

In December 1976, Starcastle joined up with Boston (their CBS/Epic labelmates) for the first time. The two bands would spend much of February and March 1977 on the road together. A February 10 show on Long Island added East Coast legends Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to the bill. (On March 6, 1977, Boston and Starcastle played Madison.) Through the remainder of 1977, Starcastle appeared with artists including Manfred Mann, ELO, Journey, Gary Wright, Rush, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Foreigner, Styx, Utopia, Kansas, and Robin Trower. Some of these were headlining gigs. Starcastle had released two albums in 1977, Fountains of Light in January and Citadel in October. . . .

The next year, 1978, saw lots of dates with Styx, but also what must have been one of those all-day outdoor shows, with Ted Nugent, Mahogany Rush, Journey, and Eddie Money, in Louisville in July. By 1979, however, it was back to the bars: Starcastle’s album Real to Reel had bombed, CBS had dropped them, and lead singer Terry Luttrell and keyboard player Herb Schildt left. (Schildt would go on to a distinguished career in computer science.) So they played the Barn in Ottumwa, Iowa, Vogues in Indianapolis, and even the Dew Drop Inn in Danville, Illinois. They got a few arena shows in this period, including several dates with Head East in 1979 and 1980.

At some point in 1980 or ’81, Starcastle was back at my college, recruited at the last minute to replace another act that had canceled its appearance at the annual Homecoming concert. But that show wasn’t on the tour history page. And although there’s been a working edition of Starcastle in recent years, by 1980, they were pretty much history themselves. 

In the 70s, it was possible for a band like Starcastle to make a perfectly acceptable living in bars and at colleges, by professionally filling 45 minutes at the start of someone else’s arena show, and maybe, every once in a while, headlining an arena show themselves. I am not sure there’s a place for that kind of act anymore, or if that kind of act even exists, the kind of act whose manager might say to the promoter handling Kansas, “The guys can’t open Saturday night because they’ve got a bar gig in Mattoon, but you can put ’em down for Sunday.” 

Wishbone What?

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(Pictured: Wishbone Ash, on stage in the 70s.)

The Federal Communications Commission isn’t what it used to be. Its main task today is to facilitate the efforts of giant television, radio, and Internet conglomerates to take an ever-greater stranglehold on the marketplace and to help the bankrupt ones stay afloat. While it occasionally hands out fines to broadcasters for various legal and technical infractions, the Commission is not an entity the average dumb-ass disc jockey thinks about anymore. But it wasn’t always that way, as this college radio story from around 1980 indicates. 

We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.

Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you a different one.

We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. It was made clear to every jock from Day One that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. In addition, the transmitter operator/DJ bore the ultimate reponsibility for whatever got on the air. So we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.

One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in nearby Dubuque that morning. Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably picked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.

As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too. Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right.

As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.

Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the day, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though the monster was really there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post.)

The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that the Omkring et flygel theme would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.

The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys didn’t do stuff like that all the time. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either.

It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.

The Big City

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It’s 20 years today since The Mrs. and I officially moved from Iowa, where we’d lived for all but three of the previous 18 years, to the suburbs of Madison. We are still in the condo we bought thinking we’d stay in it three years, and it occurs to me that I have lived in this place about as long as I lived in my parents’ house before I moved into my first apartment at college. Here’s some of a thing I wrote in 2009 about the role Madison played in my life before we got here. Stuff in square brackets has been added for 2020.

I grew up about hour away, but I have no memories of coming here before I was 10. Once the big shopping mall opened, in October 1970, a month in which all things seem to have begun, my family would periodically come up to shop on Sunday afternoons. Malls were not ubiquitous then; they could still amaze with their exotic spaces—sunken lounges, fountains—and stores you wouldn’t find anywhere else. We marveled at the existence of a place that sold nothing but pretzels, and I bought lots of records at the Victor Music store. My aunt and uncle moved here in 1972, which meant that summer vacations with my cousin were now trips to the big city. He was pretty good at navigating the bus system, so we moved easily from their house on the west side to downtown and back. It didn’t take long before I became a connoisseur of the State Street scene, although I’d like to see it back then with the eyes I have now.

But you didn’t have to visit Madison to feel steeped in its culture. Most of the TV we watched came from Madison’s three network affiliates and its PBS station, and I read the Wisconsin State Journal every day. Places you’d never seen became familiar thereby. You knew about Rennebohm Rexall Drug Stores before you ever set foot in one, and Manchester’s Department Store, and the Strand Theater [all of which are gone now]. You knew the names of major streets like Atwood Avenue, Pflaum Road, and Mifflin Street long before you knew where they went. And you knew Madison’s local celebrities, from mayors to sports stars to characters famous and infamous.

It was the mid 70s before Madison radio became as influential to me as Madison TV. I discovered Z104, an automated FM rock station, shortly after it threw the switch in the fall of 1974, and I listened a little to WISM, the AM Top 40 station, although its signal at home wasn’t especially good, and to WIBA-FM during its days as a free-form rock station. [And to WISM-FM, the future Magic 98, where I would one day work and hope to work again, if they ever call me back.] It didn’t take long before a gig in Madison radio began to seem to me like the best of all possible careers—if Chicago radio didn’t work out. When it came time to go to college, I desperately wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin. But it didn’t have the kind of broadcasting program I wanted, so I ended up at another school, which turned out to be the right choice after all. I found radio jobs in Iowa and in Illinois, but I hoped I’d get to Madison someday.

Finally, in 2000, out of radio entirely, we were able to make the move. I remember a conversation with The Mrs. in which I said that even if the job I was taking turned out to be a poor choice, at least we’d be back in Wisconsin. (After it turned out I was right about the job being a poor choice, being in Wisconsin was less consolation than I hoped it would be, although it must have helped a little.) We’ve been here ever since, and while the thought that either of us might be able to advance our careers elsewhere occasionally flits across our minds, we never take it seriously. This is where we belong, and it’s where we expect to stay.

Back to music stuff tomorrow, I promise.

May 28, 1980: Stealing Home

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(Pictured: Mount St. Helens erupting, with Washington’s Mount Hood in the background, 1980.)

(This is the last in a series of repeats of ODIYL posts from the defunct blog of that name, for now.)

May 28, 1980, was a Wednesday. Headlines this morning include yesterday’s presidential primaries in Idaho, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Nevada, in which the big winners were Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter. Carter now seems likely to hold off a challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy. Former president Gerald Ford endorsed Reagan yesterday, but ruled out the possibility of being Reagan’s running mate. He also pressed Illinois GOP Congressman John Anderson to abandon his independent campaign for the presidency, fearing it might throw the November election into the House of Representatives, where Carter would win.

Today, Iran’s parliament meets for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. Legislators and the Ayatollah Khomeini are apparently in no hurry to consider the fate of the 53 Americans currently being held hostage in Tehran. A special prosecutor is ready to clear White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan of allegations that he used cocaine on a visit to New York’s Studio 54 last year. Washington state continues to cope with the aftermath of the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano earlier this month. More earthquakes were felt today as search-and-recovery efforts continue. Sixty-eight people are still missing in the area. It’s graduation day at West Point, where the first female cadets, 62 of them, receive their commissions from the United States Military Academy as second lieutenants. The Associated Press reports that 73 percent of American workers between the ages of 25 and 44 have little or no confidence that the Social Security system will have funds enough to pay them benefits at retirement. The ninth annual meeting of the International Trombone Association opens in Nashville.

Michigan and Notre Dame announce that their hockey teams will leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Association after the 1980-81 season to join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. In the majors, the New York Yankees continue to own the best record in baseball despite a 6-3 loss to the last-place Detroit Tigers. Jack Morris gets the win; Ron Guidry takes the loss. American League West leader Kansas City loses 6-2 to Oakland. The A’s score four runs in the first inning, including two steals of home. The National League’s best record belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are idle today. This afternoon in the NL, the game between the Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos is suspended due to lightning, which knocks out the public address system at Wrigley Field. The game is tied 3-3 in the 10th inning and will be resumed on August 8.

Popular movies in theaters include The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Fame, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Long Riders, and Friday the 13th. At a U2 show in Bristol, England, Bono, Adam Clayton, and the Edge enthusiastically jump into the crowd and accidentally unplug their instruments and microphones, leaving drummer Larry Mullen to carry on by himself for a bit. Toto, just off a Memorial Day gig at the Iowa Jam in Des Moines with Molly Hatchet, the Babys, and Off Broadway, moves on to Milwaukee. Ted Nugent, the Scorpions, and Def Leppard continue their tour in Seattle. The Osmonds play in the Philippines, and Christopher Cross plays the Bottom Line in New York City. At K-EARTH in Los Angeles, “Biggest Part of Me” by Ambrosia is the new #1 song. “Cars” by Gary Numan is #2, and last week’s top song, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc., is #3. Three songs are new in the Top 10: “Coming Up” by Paul McCartney, “All Night Thing” by the Invisible Man’s Band, and “Let’s Get Serious” by Jermaine Jackson. The latter makes the biggest move of the week, up 13 spots. Also making strong moves up: “Shining Star” by the Manhattans and Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Among the new songs on the Top 30 are “Let Me Love You Tonight” by Pure Prairie League and “Magic” by Olivia Newton-John.

Perspective From the Present: For a few hours on one night during the Republican National Convention later in the summer, it looked as if Ford would become Reagan’s running mate after all, but he did not. The Invisible Man’s Band was made up of members of the Burke family, who had recorded under the name of the Five Stairsteps and hit big with “Ooh Child” in 1970. “All Night Thing” would get to #45 on the Hot 100. And on this day I was settling in on the album-rock night shift at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, where I’d started working only a week or two before.

May 26, 1974: Let It Happen

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(Pictured: Paul McCartney and Wings, 1974.)

(Life on lockdown is continuing for us (if not for many others in my state) but Life on Lockdown is taking this Tuesday off. Here’s another post from the old One Day in Your Life blog that has never appeared here.)

May 26, 1974, is a Sunday. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. President Nixon is spending a second consecutive weekend at his home in Key Biscayne, Florida. A wire service story observes that six months ago, aides would have discouraged him from taking back-to-back weekends off, fearing bad press, but Nixon has reportedly adopted a “let it happen” attitude, given the impeachment hearings now taking place in Congress. Investigators in California have intensified their search for a man they believe can lead them to Patty Hearst and her Symbionese Liberation Army cohorts, who have been on the run since six SLA members were killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police on May 17th. At a funeral home in New York City, mourners have been filing past the casket of composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, who died on Friday. His funeral will be held tomorrow.

The Treasury Department and U.S. Mint say 32 million pennies are “missing.” The director of the Mint says the shortage is because people keep pennies “in dresser drawers, pickle jars, piggy banks,” although a Treasury official blames simple neglect of the unpopular coin. The shortage of pennies has prompted some stores to round prices to the nearest nickel and others to make change with one-cent postage stamps. Still others are rewarding customers who pay with pennies. Osco Drug Stores in the Chicago area have a weekend special on Schlitz beer, at $1.15 for a six-pack. Fifths of selected brands of bourbon, vodka, rum, and gin are $2.98 each. JC Penney Auto Centers have a closeout special on a FM stereo/8-track tape deck for your car, originally $119.95, now $79.88. Automobile air conditioning units are also on sale, starting at $159.88 plus installation.

The best-selling fiction book this week is Watership Down by Richard Adams; Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking, an oral history-style biography of Harry S Truman, is the nonfiction best-seller. In her nationally syndicated newspaper column, Dr. Joyce Brothers writes about sexuality among older adults. “The young think sex is their prerogative and therefore resist the notion that their grandparents can not only have but enjoy sex.” In baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox, dueling for the top of the American League East, continue a weekend series. The Brewers won yesterday, 9-2, to reclaim first, which the Sox had taken with a win on Friday night. A. J. Foyt has the pole position for today’s running of the Indianapolis 500. New safety measures are in place after the fiery 1973 crash involving driver Swede Savage, who died about a month later; activities leading up to the race were curtailed in response to the ongoing gasoline shortage.

On TV tonight, ABC has its traditional tape-delayed broadcast of the Indy 500, which is won by Johnny Rutherford. The CBS lineup includes Apple’s Way (a family drama from the creator of The Waltons), Mannix, and Barnaby Jones; on NBC it’s The Wonderful World of Disney, Columbo, and a news special on cancer. At KHJ in Los Angeles, the top three songs are unchanged from the week before: “The Streak,” “The Loco-Motion,” and “Band on the Run.” Three new songs move into the Top 10: “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by the Stylistics, “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” by the Main Ingredient, and “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. They replace Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” “The Show Must Go On” by Three Dog Night, and Mike Oldfield’s Exorcist theme, “Tubular Bells.” The biggest mover on the station’s chart is “Be Thankful for What You Got” by William DeVaughn, up eight spots to #18.

Perspective From the Present: I have written elsewhere about the smoky fire we had in our house sometime in the spring of 1974, although I no longer remember the precise date. It was, and it was not, a remarkable disruption in our lives; my brother and I were displaced from our bedrooms for the whole summer amidst the repainting of the house upstairs and down, but I merely moved my hanging-out space to our furnished basement. With a radio, a TV, and a couch, I had everything I needed.

Many of “the young” Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote about in 1974 are grandparents now, and another generation of grandchildren is skeeved out at the idea of Nana and Papa getting it on. But they are, kids. They are. Possibly even as you’re reading this.