(Pictured: Conrad Keely of the band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead gets body-passed in 2002.)
In an attempt to keep feeding the content maw, I dug back into the archives to find some ancient posts from the earliest days of this blog that I haven’t repeated already. Here’s one, originally posted on January 15, 2005, and edited slightly.
Last night I was reading a review of the latest album by a group called And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. It got me to thinking about great and/or stupid band names I have known. I am not talking about well-known groups, particularly—some of the best names have become so familiar that we can’t appreciate them anymore. For example, “Beatles” is one of the greatest musical puns ever coined, but who notices that now?
The bubblegum era gave birth to many great/stupid names, from the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the 1910 Fruitgum Company to the Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Groups with rock pretensions, such as Chocolate Watchband and Lothar and the Hand People made records, too, but didn’t sell so many. (Somewhere, I believe I have a single by Lothar and the Hand People.) About the same time, according to the Book of Rock Lists, there was a group called Detroit Edison White Light Company. This was not the group’s original name, however. They were first going to be known as Charging Tyrannosaurus of Despair, until the drummer announced he didn’t want anything to do with despair.
One reliable way to create a weird group name is to be Someone and the Something Outrageous or Catchy. For instance, one band that plays frequently around my town is called Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smokin’ Altar Boys. Other representative examples of the same include Biff Hitler and the Violent Mood Swings, Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid Kids, and Big Dick and the Extenders.
My favorite band name of all time is one of the latter: The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities.
“Big Dick and the Extenders” is an example of a contemporary phenomenon—the risque/tasteless/obscene band name. You wouldn’t have seen these much before the 1990s. Such names often give you a clue to a particular group’s genre, depending on how risque/tasteless/obscene the name is. For instance, Buster Hymen and the Penetrators would likely be a blues band, whereas Fuck Me Suck Me Call Me Helen is more likely to be punk. The Well Hungarians may be a polka band; Well Strung, on the other hand, is almost certainly bluegrass.
Punks occasionally get carried away with their punkiness. The Do I Look Like I Give a Fucks are a bit too literal, while Electric Vomit is an example of punkers trying way too hard. Other bands from the Almost Certainly Punk File: Sucking Chest Wound, Immaculate Infection, and Grim Skunk. [Or death metal. —Ed.]
Some contemporary band names take their names from celebrities: Barbara’s Bush, for example, or Drew Barrymore’s Dealer, or the Fat Chick from Wilson Phillips, or Kathleen Turner Overdrive. The latter represents a nice segue into the name that plays on somebody else’s name, such as John Cougar Concentration Camp, REO Speed Dealer, or Earthpig and Fire.
Some names, like And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, go on just a bit too long. Other examples include Gee That’s A Large Beetle I Wonder If It’s Poisonous, The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac, and Nearly Died Laughing While Shaving My Butt. Better to make your point and get out in a hurry, like Lawnsmell, Schlong, or the Shit—three more for the Almost Certainly Punk file.
In the many years since this post first appeared, band names have come even further unmoored from any need to make sense. The Canonical List of Weird Band Names has many. I am sure you have a favorite, so hit the comments if you do.
Additional Note to Patrons: Last December, I wrote about the book Madison in the Sixties, a civic and political history of my town. Part of my radio gig involves producing a talk show for one of the stations in our group; since I’d read and adored the book, the host of the show let me interview the author, local historian and broadcaster Stu Levitan. I am not much of a talk-show host, but Stu made it easy. If you’d like to listen to the interview, it’s here.
(Pictured: a house alight at Christmas 1972. One year later, things would not be so merry or bright.)
The series Tales of ’73 hasn’t really turned out like I hoped it might, but I want to return to it before 2018 is over. Back in 2013 and 2014, I wrote about Christmas in America at the end of 1973. This next is a reboot of bits from both.
In October 1973, the United States aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, and as a result, OPEC countries deployed the oil weapon against us. By the holidays, officials right up to President Nixon were predicting hard times and requiring difficult choices. Lines formed at service stations, and “sorry no gas” signs appeared; eventually, Nixon requested that stations voluntarily close from Saturday night through Monday morning. The Senate came eight votes short of instituting gas rationing; the order had already been given to print the coupon books. Some schools extended Christmas vacation to save energy; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, kids stayed out for all of December and January. Christmas lights became an extravagance many communities and families could not afford.
On Monday, December 24, 1973, all the trouble in the world was on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, starting with “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s Christmas gift to the West was to announce that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while Nixon was beleaguered by Watergate—the fabled Saturday Night Massacre happened in October while the Middle East was at war, and while a full-blown Constitutional crisis was averted at that moment, impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress, and nobody could be sure what twists were ahead.
By year’s end, some commentators felt a sense of looming disaster—that something earth-shatteringly terrible was about to engulf the country. Nobody could predict what it would be, although in retrospect, what it was seems obvious—not some grand conflagration, but a transformation nonetheless: the end of America as we’d known it since the winning of World War II. Soon we would live in a different country.
It occurs to me now that the greatest gift my parents gave us for Christmas in 1973 was to protect us from even noticing the possibility of disaster. As best I can recollect, the energy crisis did not have a grave effect on us. If we put up fewer Christmas lights that year, I don’t recall it. I don’t remember us having trouble getting gasoline, either, or the gas shortage affecting our travel requirements much. Dad kept tanks of regular and diesel on the farm for his tractors, his truck, and the family car; the only concession he made to the energy crisis was to put locks on the tanks after we heard that people were stealing gas from farmers at night.
The worst I had to endure in that year was being 13 years old, and all the complications that being 13 will cause in anybody.
There is less ominous news inside the paper on 12/24/73, the kind of thing that would have interested me more than the front page. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow. One article is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend.
Also in the paper is an Associated Press story headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim,” which quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America. “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”
As it was, and ever shall be.
During our college days at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, early December meant the annual telethon for Wisconsin Badger Camp, a place that provided outdoor recreational opportunities for the developmentally disabled. It was broadcast on the campus cable station, and it was all hands on deck for 24 hours—even those of us who didn’t work much TV found ourselves involved. (I tried to remain pure by handling the audio board.)
In December 1980, The Mrs., then a sophomore, was a co-host of the telethon, and was on camera for the whole 24 hours. “The week before the telethon,” she remembered, “I got to visit a local bridal shop in town that loaned me three or four different formal gowns to wear during the telethon. I had actual costume changes!” She also said, “The next year, I wanted to participate again. The telethon always had new co-hosts each year, so I convinced the supervising faculty member to let me be the 24-hour telephone answerer. Different student organizations would provide people to help answer phones in four-hour shifts every year. I sat at the end of the line, so all the other phones had to be busy for me to get a call. Several times an hour, the cameras would turn on me (and I mean that in both meanings of the phrase) and I’d do my best to get people to call in, even if it was just to talk to me so the darn phone would ring while we were on camera. That telethon seemed to last a lot longer than the year before.”
For the 1980 telethon, we decided to get the campus radio station involved with a promotion we called Jock Around the Clock. The plan was for me to do a 24-hour shift on the station during the telethon, soliciting donations and doing who-knows-what to keep the audience (and myself) entertained. We promoted the hell out of it for a couple of weeks, only to have the station’s transmitter kick the bucket three days beforehand. We were off the air entirely during telethon week (which was also the week John Lennon was murdered), so Jock Around the Clock didn’t happen. There was talk of trying to do it again the next year, but I had lost interest by then.
There is absolutely no guarantee that I would have been able to complete the 24-hour radio show, of course. Thinking back on it now, it seems absurd to have believed I would. I hadn’t planned anything special apart from staying on all that time—I hadn’t booked any guests, from Badger Camp, from the TV crew, or from anywhere else—and I suppose I assumed that the novelty of all-me, all-the-time was going to be sufficient. In those days, it would not have been out of character for me to bail on it partway through, even after the station had spent weeks promoting it. Such was the extent of my ego back in the day.
The Badger Camp Telethon got shorter over the years, and it aired for its last time in 2013, I believe. But during its 40-year lifespan, it raised untold amounts of money, and it remains a fond memory among those of us who participated in it. It was a rare opportunity to do live, long-form television—and it was usually capped off with an epic party involving the TV station staff, volunteers, and the Greek organizations that co-sponsored the telethon. One year, when the party was raging at 2:30 in the morning, we looked around and noticed that only the broadcasters were left standing—we’d outpartied the frat boys in their own house.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2009.)
(Pictured: Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.)
Comedy albums sold decently well in the 60s and 70s, but only a handful of acts sold ’em like rock stars. Bob Newhart hit #1 twice between the summer of 1960 and the spring of 1961 with his Button-Down Mind albums. In 1965, the ethnic comedy album You Don’t Have to Be Jewish went to #9; a few months later, Welcome to the LBJ Ranch!, which featured the actual voices of Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Robert Kennedy, and other prominent political figures mashed up for comedic purposes, went to #3. (It was held out of the #1 spot around Christmastime by the Tijuana Brass album Whipped Cream and Other Delights and the soundtrack from The Sound of Music.) Impressionist David Frye’s I Am the President, featuring his Nixon impersonation, made the Top 20 in 1970. Richard Pryor scored several substantial hits on the album chart between 1974 and 1982 including the #12 Is It Something I Said? in 1975. Eddie Murphy: Comedian was double-platinum in 1984 and topped out at #35. (Late update: Bill Cosby belongs on this list too; see this comment below.) But apart from Newhart, nobody rode the charts higher than Cheech and Chong. In 1972 and 1973, their albums Big Bambu and Los Cochinos both made #2 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
In the fall of 1973, Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones,” from Los Cochinos, became a monster single. It first hit the radio in September and peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 in October, although it was a Top-10 hit in Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, and some smaller cities. It was probably biggest of all in Chicago, where it went to #2 at WLS and WCFL and #1 on FM rocker B96. (There was an animated video that went with it, which I’m not going to link to. No good version exists online, and the video’s casual racism and sexism, which was no big deal 45 years ago, is pretty offensive now.)
On November 24, 1973, one week after “Basketball Jones” dropped off the Hot 100, Cheech and Chong charted again. Despite the success of Los Cochinos, the duo’s label chose to take another run at radio airplay with “Sister Mary Elephant” from Big Bambu. It had been released as a single the year before but went nowhere (except at WDRC in Hartford, where it was their #1 request for a while). But this time, in my town, “Sister Mary Elephant.” became the hottest thing to hit the eighth grade. I bought it, most likely sometime in December as it headed to the top in Chicago (#3 on WLS, #2 on WCFL) and #24 on the Hot 100, and (I think) the last spoken-word comedy cut to become a significant hit single. But by then, lots of people I knew were talking about the Big Bambu album. I borrowed a copy from a friend who had one, and then went out and got one of my own.
In 1973, parents of small-town eighth-graders wanted their kids to grow up right, but they didn’t give a damn what we listened to. I suspect now that if they’d paid attention to Big Bambu, they’d have confiscated it. Take, for example, “The Bust,” in which a couple of dealers flush their stash, a radio spot in favor of the legalization of marijuana featuring a stoner named Ashley Roachclip, or a game show called “Let’s Make a Dope Deal.” At the time, however, it never occurred to me, or to anybody else in the eighth grade, that adults would have the slightest interest in the frivolous crap we liked.
Cheech and Chong’s most successful single was yet to come: “Earache My Eye,” which went all the way into the Billboard Top 10 (and to #1 on WLS and at KHJ in Los Angeles) in the fall of 1974. The album containing “Earache My Eye,” Cheech and Chong’s Wedding Album, would go to #5. The duo would hit the singles chart five more times; “Framed” and “Bloat On” would both peak at #41. Their movie career began in 1978 with Up in Smoke, and they were fairly reliable box-office performers for the next seven years. Their record-chart career ended with “Born in East L.A.,” a Bruce Springsteen parody, in 1985.
Although Big Bambu‘s content would give parents and school officials an attack of the vapors today, it’s doubtful that it warped anybody I knew. To us, it was just funny. It certaintly didn’t make a stoner out of me. The giant-size rolling papers that came with the album, featuring a picture of Cheech and Chong, are still inside my copy today.
(Extensively rebooted from a post first appearing in 2004.)
I’m gonna climb out on a limb here and risk somebody sawing it off behind me by making the following declaration: all of the truly great songs about food come from performers who are A) Southern; B) black; or C) both. As tasty as Chicago-style pizza, Philadelphia cheesesteaks, or the Wisconsin fish fry can be, they’re apparently not tasty enough to inspire widespread musical inspiration. But how many songs have been written that involve Southern staples like grits, ribs, black-eyed peas, or fried chicken? During this Thanksgiving week, I offer you one of my favorite food songs, and it doesn’t mention a food item in the title at all.
Wet Willie was formed in Mobile, Alabama, and rose to fame on the Capricorn record label out of Macon, Georgia. They never reached the heights climbed by their labelmates, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but they weren’t especially comparable to either of those bands anyhow. Wet Willie was a Southern soul band; had they formed in Memphis instead of Mobile, they’d have likely found their way to Stax and could have fit right in there without changing much.
The band recorded its first album in 1971, but only sharp-eared listeners would have heard of them before 1973, when they released a live album called Drippin’ Wet. Greater fame arrived in 1974 when their first hit single, “Keep on Smilin’,” made the Top 10. Dixie Rock and The Wetter the Better came in ’75 and ’76. Another live album followed (what “special editions” are to artists today, live albums were in the 1970s), and then the original lineup splintered. The new lineup produced two more albums and two more modest hit singles, “Street Corner Serenade” and “Weekend,” before going out of business in 1979—at least until the inevitable new-millennium reunion, which has resulted in a shifting lineup producing a couple more live albums.
(Digression: I am guessing that the cover of The Wetter the Better was a popular adornment on teenage bedroom and college dorm-room walls, at least until the Farrah poster came along. The Wetter the Better also features the superb “Everything That ‘Cha Do (Will Come Back to You”), #66 on the Hot 100, and “Baby Fat,” the lyric of which is skeevy as hell, but which also rocks like crazy.)
But let’s turn back to 1975 for a moment. For a band that could be plenty funky, it’s really saying something to call “Leona,” Dixie Rock‘s lead single, the greasiest thing they ever made—not just in sound, but in subject matter, too. It’s sung by a guy who stops in at a café that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but is heaven within:
She fixed a good ol’ golden brown Southern fried chicken
That would make the Colonel run and hide
I had collard greens and fresh snap beans
And sweet potatoes on the side
I had homemade biscuits just as big as your fist
A-drippin’ with sweet creamy butter
A Mason jar fulla cold ice tea
So good it make you run home to Mother
By 1975, disco was on its way in and Southern soul was on its way out. That’s probably why “Leona” lasted only five weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at #69 in March. But nothing more scrumptious ever hit the Hot 100. Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving dinner this year is at least that tasty.
(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2007.)
In 2009, I wrote about It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and every year in October that post gets a little bump in traffic. So here’s a reboot of it, with some additional stuff added.
Every time I watch The Great Pumpkin, I wonder how much of it goes sailing over the heads not merely of today’s kids, but of their parents’, too. . . . “I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Never mind the vocabulary itself; today, placing such high stakes on sincerity versus hypocrisy seems about as quaint as worrying about the commercialization of Christmas, which is the point around which A Charlie Brown Christmas revolves.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the third animated Peanuts special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas and the little-seen Charlie Brown’s All Stars, and like its two predecessors, it was among the highest-rated programs on television the week it aired—nearly 50 percent of the viewing audience watched the premiere on October 27, 1966. It won’t draw that kind of numbers when it’s rebroadcast on ABC this year, although it does well enough. If you plan to watch the network broadcast, keep in mind that when the show was originally produced, it ran 25 minutes. The standard for commercial TV today is 21 or 22, and sometimes less in “children’s” programming, so you may not be seeing the whole thing. According to Wikipedia, ABC once cut out the scene in which Lucy tries to get Charlie Brown to kick the football, one of the classic bits in the history of the Peanuts strip. That’s like trying to shorten “Stairway to Heaven” by taking out the guitar solo.
There’s a lot to love about The Great Pumpkin—the early scenes featuring golden fall leaves are gorgeous, and all throughout the show the backgrounds are rich with shades of gray and purple. And of course, there’s the music. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack features of Vince Guaraldi’s cool, contemporary jazz. The choice to score the Christmas special with jazz hadn’t pleased CBS when that special was first delivered, but its success ensured that all future specials would feature the same sort of thing.
The soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas is an album that sounds good even in July. It has always been a mystery to me why there has never been a Great Pumpkin soundtrack album. The full-band version of “Linus and Lucy” that backs the kids’ search for a Halloween pumpkin has been on my most-wanted list for years; the atmospheric music that underscores Snoopy’s World War I adventure behind enemy lines (a piece called “Breathless”) is much-sought-after by fans of the specials and of Guaraldi. Although Guaraldi recorded a version of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the 1968 album Oh Good Grief!, nothing else from the special ever saw official release.
Here in 2018, however, The Great Pumpkin soundtrack is finally out—but buyer beware. According to the Peanuts-centric website FiveCentsPlease, the soundtrack is just that: the music and effects track from the special, and not original master tapes from the soundtrack sessions like A Charlie Brown Christmas. That means you’ll hear Linus rolling the giant pumpkin and Lucy stabbing it; when the kids are getting their candy, you’ll hear it dropping into the bags; Snoopy’s trek across the French countryside will have all the accompanying sound effects with it as well. Tapes of the original soundtrack sessions from 1966 are apparently lost, so the soundtrack release has been sourced from the TV audio. That means it’s in mono, and although it’s been cleaned up as much as possible by Craft Recordings, the quality is still not great. The CD is being sold at Amazon for $11.98, but it runs only about 20 minutes. So there are lots of reasons not to buy it, and you don’t need to. It’s on various streaming sites and at YouTube in its entirety.
But the disappointment of its official soundtrack doesn’t detract from the greatness of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. While it lacks the philosophical heft of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it has a level of sophistication and subtlety that’s missing from broadcast TV today. When it’s rebroadcast this coming Friday night, it’ll be the smartest thing on any of the broadcast networks—by a mile.