(Pictured: Elton John and bandmate Davey Johnstone in a hotel elevator at some point in the 70s.)
Here’s another rebooted post from the earliest days of this blog—in this case, April 22, 2005.
Piped-in music isn’t what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.
My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling a giant mug full of Diet Pepsi was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip-hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.
(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing “Sex Machine.” He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)
Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store’s music, at a barely audible level, was playing “Saturday Night” by Earth, Wind and Fire. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone’s great 1971 hit “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.
The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music: those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music, known officially as “beautiful music,” is largely dead, too—because its target audience is largely dead. But in its heyday, elevator music plundered all genres of popular music for familiar tunes. Some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes include Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and—I swear it’s true—“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.
I worked at an elevator-music radio station for a while, back in the late 80. It wasn’t quite as tomblike a place as you might expect—I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. Alas, none of those delightfully bizarre remakes were on our station. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no KISS or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and a remake of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren’t all bad. You’d get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado.” However, there’s no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”
No wonder you’d get sleepy on the night shift.
Some years after I wrote this, I heard “I Ain’t Superstitious” by the Jeff Beck Group and “Little Sister” by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the same convenience store, and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat at a different grocery store. At first I feared the latter might be some kind of a promotion for the meat department, but I was grateful to determine it was not.
(Pictured: Gloria Gaynor with Clifton Davis, writer of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”)
Here’s another ancient rerun, from August 12, 2005, slightly condensed.
Making a list of disco songs that do not suck is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It took finishing Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco to get me off the dime. Shapiro believes that the best disco never made it to the radio, and what made it to the radio was often drained of disco’s passion and/or artistry. Nevertheless, I’m picking from what I heard on the radio, and here we go (in chronological order).
“The Love I Lost”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I never really thought of this as a disco record—mostly because what Teddy Pendergrass is doing with the vocal is more gospel testifyin’ than disco crooning. In Shapiro’s opinion, “The Love I Lost” is one of the most important early examples of the form. And he’s right—it’s got the gliding orchestra, the chugging bass line, and the hard-working high-hat cymbal. And its full-length version runs over six minutes, gloriously extending the groove. [The Tom Moulton mix takes it to nearly 13 minutes, and to heaven. —Ed.] (Hot 100 peak: #7, December 8, 1973)
“Love’s Theme”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. According to Shapiro, this was the first song to reach #1 on the pop charts thanks in part to its exposure in discos. On the one hand, it’s elegant and sophisticated, but on the other, he says, it’s as drenched in funk as Ron Jeremy‘s basement. (#1, February 9, 1974)
“Rock Your Baby”/George McCrae. If you wanted to pick a spot where disco began to make inroads into the Top 40 and neither of the two previous records suited you, this would work. “Rock Your Baby” sounds cheap and cheesy, but similar limitations didn’t stop a lot of disco records from becoming enormous hits. (#1, July 13, 1974)
“Never Can Say Goodbye”/Gloria Gaynor. One of the first major pop hits that sounded like disco as we remember it now—a big flashy orchestra chugging at a hundred miles an hour with a diva soaring above it. And another cymbal player working his ass off. (#9, January 25, 1975)
“Doctor’s Orders”/Carol Douglas. My favorite disco record. The medical metaphor is cute without being too forced, and Douglas is a charming singer. The rhythm guitarist, whoever he is, deserves some kind of award for persistence. (#11, February 8, 1975)
“Disco Queen”/Hot Chocolate. No happy-happy-everybody-dance vibe here. It’s more like, “You will dance, or else.” Hot Chocolate’s signature noise, that ominous, low guitar buzz, runs all through it; the horns could demolish entire buildings; and the drummer damn well means business, too. (#28, July 19, 1975)
“Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention. This record gets its unique sound from the soloing string section, but the part was originally intended to be played by horns. According to Shapiro, there was a shortage of competent horn players in Germany at the time “Fly Robin Fly” was recorded. Thus, the producers used string players from the Munich Philharmonic instead. (#1, November 29, 1975)
“Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor. Controversial in its time for “shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move it around.” (It’s kind of cute what passed for controversial back in the Paleozoic Era.) But if you stripped off the lyrics entirely, you’d be left with one of the most gorgeous instrumental tracks of any era, disco or otherwise. Plus it’s got one of the all-time great intros for DJs to talk over. (#1, April 3, 1976)
“Whispering-Cherchez La Femme”/Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Shapiro devotes a great deal of space to the work of August Darnell, the man behind Dr. Buzzard and later, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, as an example of the artistic possibilities of disco. (#27, January 29, 1977)
“Stayin’ Alive”/Bee Gees. Shapiro disposes of the Bee Gees with a handful of dismissive comments, which is quite an omission for a history of disco. Although Saturday Night Fever was the most potent expression of disco in the marketplace, let’s not equate “commercial” with “crap” in this case. “Stayin’ Alive” is one of the most exciting records of the 1970s, and possibly of all time. There’s no question about it. (#1, February 4, 1978)
After this post first appeared, several amongst the readership wrote in to ask where KC and the Sunshine Band were, and I was forced to write an entire mea culpa. Either “Get Down Tonight” or “Keep It Comin’ Love” should have been on this list. Of the many reasons to dig KC I wrote, “[E]ven white men who claim they can’t dance can dance to KC.”
(Pictured: Charley Pride on The Johnny Cash Show, circa 1969.)
The PBS series American Masters, which has been profiling prominent American artists (along with the occasional athlete and journalist) since 1986, is generally awesome, and not enough people talk about how awesome it is. Last month, the show spotlighted Sammy Davis Jr., and Charley Pride during the same week. Davis, whose array of talents is matched by very few in the history of American showbiz, came off as a man always desperate for approval, not just of the audience but of his peers, and willing to make questionable choices in hopes of receiving it. That he stoically endured countless hours of racist abuse onstage from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin indicates to me that he felt it was part of the price he had to pay for their friendship, and by extension, for his popularity with white America. His literal embrace of Richard Nixon feels as if it came from the same needy place.
As for Pride, somebody said on Twitter the other day that the only person who doesn’t think Charley Pride is one of the coolest cats on Earth appears to be Charley Pride himself. His music is the essence of country, and his journey—from Mississippi sharecropper to Montana-based professional baseball player to stardom in a genre where he literally stood alone—is the kind of biography nobody will ever have again. His American Masters profile was one of the best hours of television I’ve watched in ages, and you can watch it right here.
Back in 2011, I wrote about one of Pride’s iconic hit records, and how it told a truth that a lot of today’s country-music fans don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. What follows is a piece of that post.
There’s a whole subgenre of country music devoted to songs about the simple pleasures of small town or rural life, songs that idealize the places where the high-school team nickname is painted on the water tower, where everybody believes in Jesus, etc. It’s easy to view the popularity of this sort of thing as a reaction to the world we live in. Compared to our harried urban existence, with its tenuous prosperity and impermanent personal relationships, and the way it randomly deals out fortune and tragedy, a world bounded by solid, simple, unchanging values is extremely attractive. It’s no wonder people caught in the former might want to gravitate to the latter. Because music has such power in our lives, songs about those values grab hard and hold on tight.
But, if given the chance, would people really give up modern urbanized life for a country idyll? Would they give up satellite TV and the Internet for sitting on the front porch at sunset? Would they give up the multiplex for the fishing hole, the megamart for the small-town general store, the sports bar with HD flat-screens for the Dew Drop Inn? Some might, but others may find that in their souls, they’re not so down-home after all.
There’s a song about this. Charley Pride, who’s as down-home as they come, recorded “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” which sounds like a nostalgic encomium to a simple life on the farm—beautiful rural vistas, Uncle Ben milking the cows, Mama in the kitchen. But it’s revealed that Uncle Ben is working the farm because Daddy is working a second job in town “to pay our bill at the grocery store.” And in the final verse, Pride says that when he thinks about his childhood and his old hometown, he doesn’t miss them like before. “It’s nice to think about it,” goes the refrain, “Maybe even visit, but I wonder could I live there anymore?”
“Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” isn’t a postmodern song recorded recently—it was a #1 country single for Pride in the summer of 1970. And it’s a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves tempted by what looks like the simple life.
The days we romanticize as simpler and easier were neither. A lot of the trouble we get into, both in our personal lives and as a nation trying to govern itself, comes from our failure to remember.
(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.)