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”

Satan Is a Blue Meanie

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(Pictured: Ringo poses with a yellow submarine in 2013.)

Years ago I did today-in-history posts at this website. They’re an easy way to feed the content monster, and they’re still popular with radio stations and websites devoted to classic rock or oldies. Trouble is, the sourcing for a lot of the stuff you see is sketchy to nonexistent. Websites cut and paste items indiscriminately without citations. (Even the low-rent Internet shebeen you are patronizing right now has been guilty of that.) Wikipedia entries have footnotes pointing to Songfacts, which in terms of credibility is one click north of “I made this up.” (Sometimes they even cite low-rent Internet shebeens.) Even assuming good faith on the part of the site or the writer, it’s like a giant game of Telephone. You can’t be sure stuff hasn’t gotten distorted. 

Certain items get repeated endlessly even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. Every year we’re told that a radio station in Washington DC was the first American station to play the Beatles, in December 1963, even though it’s abundantly clear—with contemporary record chart citations to prove it—that they were on in many American cities in the spring and summer of 1963. But smaller things get fubar’d too. Release dates for albums are especially untrustworthy. Often, people don’t differentiate between UK and US releases, or they confuse the date a record charted with the date it was released. 

Back when I was writing for WNEW.com, I made it my business to look deeper into some of the most famous cut-n-paste factoids. I’ve edited the original a bit here. 

Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”

In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.”

(Finally, a religion I can get behind.)

The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.

Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.”

(Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)

Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. It was just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.

I never determined how CBS Interactive, the parent of WNEW.com, found me out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, but they did, and they paid me to write from 2008 to 2012. After CBS moved the WNEW call letters from New York City to Washington DC, they nuked the old WNEW.com site, so most of what I wrote is gone, although some of it is at Internet Archive, and I have reposted a bit of it here over the years. The whole experience still seems kind of surreal to me.

Crazy Colors

(Watch this vintage TV ad for Panasonic’s Crazy Colors line of radios, which for some counterintuitive reason, was shot in sepia tones.) 

Fifty years ago this weekend, if you lived in or near Madison, Wisconsin, as I did (and I do), it was a very good time to be shopping for music or something to play it on. The Wisconsin State Journal dated July 20, 1972, contains a full-page ad for the Prange-Way discount stores at East Towne and West Towne Malls. Prange-Way was having a “sale of savings” (as opposed to a sale of what other kind, I wonder) at which you could snag stuff you might still have today—or wish you did.

The major record labels were offering some top current titles for $2.99, including Elton John’s Honky Chateau, the debut album by America, Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and School’s Out by Alice Cooper. Back-catalog stuff was also on sale: “All top artists and labels, Bobby Sherman, Neil Diamond and more, hundreds to choose from, all stereo” for $1.67 each. Still too pricey? “Assorted mono and stereo LPs with hundreds of selections to choose from,” only 77 cents. One line of albums was priced two for a dollar, and singles were three for a dollar. If vinyl was not your tech of choice, eight-tracks and cassettes were also on sale for just $1.99 each.

Need something to play your music on? A complete Lloyd’s system, “AM/FM/FM-PX 8-track stereo component system with changer and headphones, big speakers, wood cabinet with mar resistant vinyl, perfect for anyone who wants everything!”, was on sale for $129.92. Give yourself some extra credit if you know what FM-PX meant without having to look it up. It referred to multiplexed FM signals, or, in other words, stereo.

Does $129.92 seem like a lot of money for 1972? It was—it’s over $900 in 2022 dollars. So unless you had been saving up for a big purchase, you probably would have settled for something cheaper, like the Panasonic Toot-a-Loop Bracelet (“A radio you can wear like a bracelet! Big sound and comes in crazy colors!”) for $12.88, or the fabled Panasonic Ball and Chain for only $10.99.

On the list of the most 70s things ever, either of those would rank pretty high.

Some of the cats and kittens who may have been tempted by these music buys at Prange-Way (three syllables: PRANG-ee-way) were probably disappointed to find that they had already earmarked their disposable income for something else that week: the Dane County Junior Fair, which was going on then, just as it’s going on this week. Although it doesn’t anymore, the fair booked some pretty serious rock acts back in the day; in 1972, the rock show scheduled for Saturday night, July 22, starred the James Gang with special guest REO Speedwagon for $3.50 in advance, $4.50 day of the show. Seems cheap to us now, but not so much when put into modern dollars—think of ’em as $24 in advance and $31 day of show.

The front page of the paper bannered headlines about peace talks in Paris between envoys from the United States and North Vietnam, and about a tornado that struck Lake Mills, Wisconsin, the day before. The Green Bay Packers had opened training camp, Muhammad Ali defeated somebody named Blue Lewis, and my beloved Chicago Cubs were in fourth place.

I suspect that on the afternoon or evening of July 20, 1972, the 12-year-old me read the very newspaper I looked back at today. This I know: I’d have had the radio on that day—neither a Toot-a-Loop nor a Ball and Chain, alas—listening to “Lean on Me” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “Outa-Space” and “Brandy” and “Rocket Man” and “Take It Easy” and everything else on WLS, over and over and over again.

(This post is pretty much a straight-up repeat of one that appeared here on July 20, 2012., although I recalculated the currency conversions as you see them here. They’re all about one-third larger than they were in 2012.)

A Son and His Father

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(Pictured: Alf Lennon, down the pub with an unidentified woman, 1966.) 

Halfway-knowledgeable music fans know that John Lennon was raised mostly by his aunt Mimi, sister to his mother Julia. Julia was an enigmatic character who moved in and out of her son’s life until she was run over by a car in 1958, when John was 17. Julia’s legend endures largely because she inspired one of Lennon’s most beautiful songs, “Julia,” one of his bleakest, “Mother,” and one of his oddest, “My Mummy’s Dead.” On the other hand, you’re probably some kind of expert if you know anything about Lennon’s father.

Alfred Lennon, known to the family as Alf, had married Julia in 1938. He was a merchant seaman who spent all but three months of World War II away from his family. After the war, disapproving of the way young John was being raised by Julia, Alf secretly planned to emigrate to New Zealand with the boy. In the inter-familial row that followed discovery of his plan, five-year-old John was offered a choice between living with his father and living with his mother. He chose his father, only to change his mind immediately thereafter. He would not see Alf again for nearly 20 years.

At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, Alf turned up at Brian Epstein’s office in the company of a reporter. John saw him briefly, but then ordered him to leave. A year later, John and his wife Cynthia bought a house in Weybridge, near London. As it turned out, Alf was working as a dishwasher in a nearby hotel, and one afternoon, he knocked at the Lennons’ door. Cynthia invited him in, but he left before John returned home. Initially, John was not pleased by the visit, although he did make an effort to contact his father later in the year. The relationship quickly foundered when Alf attempted to capitalize on John’s fame by making a record himself. John’s embarrassment over the ensuing press coverage caused him to nickname his ne’er-do-well father “the ignoble Alf.”

In 1967, Lennon’s father appeared in John’s life again, this time with a new 18-year-old wife, Pauline. (At the time, Alf was 54.) John eventually gave Pauline a job as nanny to his son Julian, but that arrangement lasted only a few months. The birth of Alf and Pauline’s first child caused another rift between Alf and John. In 1976, Alf got cancer; shortly before his death, John spoke to him on the phone and the two men reconciled. Alf Lennon died in April 1976 at age 63. John offered to pay for the funeral, but Pauline refused.

About that record Alf made: “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)” was recorded late in 1965 and released under the name Freddie Lennon. As a boy, Lennon’s father had briefly been a vaudevillian, he could impersonate Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, and he played the banjo, so it’s likely that his co-writer credit with a showbiz agent named Tony Cartwright is legit. Because the only thing most people knew about Lennon’s father was that he had been a sailor, the choice of subject matter—the joys of a life at sea—was obvious. “That’s My Life” spent two weeks on the Radio London chart during the first two weeks of 1966, although the pirate station dropped it afterward, supposedly at John’s request.

The similarity in title to the recent Beatles song “In My Life” was widely noted at the time. Noted in later years is the similarity to “Imagine,” which was nearly six years in the future when “That’s My Life” was written. Nevertheless, without the family connection to John, it’s unlikely that “That’s My Life” would have made the radio in 1966, or that anybody would bother remembering it now.

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared on June 18, 2010. Listening to “That’s My Life” again, it’s remarkable how much John sounded like his father despite not living with him while he was growing up.)

What We Were

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(Pictured: the Ramones in 1978. Not the Reagans’ kind of people.)

I appreciate your comments at this website. All of us together have been making us each of us smarter individually for a long time. Readers catch me in mistakes or offer perspectives I either did not consider or do not share.

If there’s a type of comment that bothers me, it’s this kind: a drive-by (on a 10-year-old post) from somebody who has likely never visited this site before, who got here via a Google search, read one post, and decided that what the world most needs to know is that “I think this thing you like actually sucks.” Nothing constructive or insightful, just the Internet equivalent of egging somebody’s car.

For some people, the strongest urge in life is not for food or sex, it’s to correct strangers online. I try to imagine having the ego to do that, but I can’t.

Last week, I got a comment that I honestly don’t know how to take. Reader Bob wrote, “You’ve become like my father in his latter years … calling hard-disk drive space ‘memory.'” The most charitable way to take that is as a compliment on my voluminous capacity for recollection (albeit Google-aided). I might also take it as a suggestion that I spend too much time noodling with the past, and that my memories have blurred into an undifferentiated mush of information that no longer passes for knowledge.

Which one it is doesn’t matter, really, and I don’t choose to be offended if it’s the latter. Bob is not a drive-by reader; he’s part of this community. But he happened to comment on the same day I found something in the archives that is about being stuck in the past, and whether a person can change. I wrote it after spending some time reading a now-defunct nostalgia website whose tagline was “you are what you were.” I have edited it a bit.

I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and [he] wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’ve known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Links and Notes: I am still trying, and mostly succeeding, at spending less time on Twitter. It has made a modest difference in my mental health, and I intend to keep staying off. But I am still finding worthwhile stuff on it now and then, and here’s some of it:

Continue reading “What We Were”

One Night at the Firehouse

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(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.