Luna’s Shadow

It’s a grand coincidence that the 2007 documentary film In the Shadow of the Moon, which has been in our Netflix queue for months, should have shown up last Thursday—the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. The film features interviews with 10 of the 24 astronauts who orbited or walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972, along with historic film and TV footage, some of it rare or unseen. I recommend it to you highly if you remember the Apollo missions, but especially if you don’t.

Before I was obsessed by music or baseball (an obsession I have since lost), I was wild about space, and Apollo 11 marked the climax of three years’ geekery. The mission launched at 8:32 on a Wednesday morning, July 16, 1969, but I would have been watching Walter Cronkite long before that. But when the lunar module Eagle touched down on the surface of the moon at 3:17 on the afternoon of Sunday July 20, I wasn’t watching. We’d gone to a family picnic, and I spent the afternoon playing in the yard with my cousins. The TV was on inside the house, however, and some of the adults were watching, and at some point late in the afternoon, I learned that Eagle had landed.

It was just before 10:00—well past my bedtime 40 years ago tonight—when Neil Armstrong emerged from Eagle to take his first step. The TV pictures were hard to make out, but CBS helpfully added the graphic, “Live from the surface of the moon.”

(NASA, which actually destroyed its own original footage of the landings at some point in the 1970s or 1980s, has restored the landing video from other sources, and it’s a vast improvement over what we watched back then. Also, the CBS news clips at YouTube prove that the Apollo 11 mission was the apex of the late Walter Cronkite’s career. He was as big a space fan as any nine-year-old boy, and didn’t hesitate to appropriately express excitement and wonder as he guided his viewers through what they were seeing.)

The astronauts walked on the moon until well after midnight, and I can see myself there in the living room with the family, rarely taking my eyes off of the hazy pictures on the console TV. The next afternoon we were there again to watch Eagle lift off from the surface of the moon. I was excited and relieved when the liftoff was successful, because while we were waiting Mom had said, “Wouldn’t it be awful if their rocket didn’t work?”

Continue reading “Luna’s Shadow”

It’s Good to Be the King

I’ve got stuff going on this week and not much time to post, so here’s a quick one.

On this date in 1978, 90,000 tickets for a Bob Dylan show in London were sold in eight hours. Which reminds me of a pretty good line from a lifelong-Dylan-fan friend of mine who finally got to see Dylan live at some point in the early 80s. He observed that it was like seeing God, although God wouldn’t have sold out as fast.

On this date in 1972, the Rolling Stones released Exile on Main Street in the UK. (The official American release came a few days later). The album may have marked the peak of their extraordinary career, and was followed by one of their most fabled tours of the United States. The two-month odyssey attracted celebrity journalists, caused riots, and resulted in two films (Ladies and Gentlemen—the Rolling Stones and the never-released-but-widely-bootlegged Cocksucker Blues). The tour opened June 3 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and wound its way east, ending in New York on July 26. On eleven of the dates, the Stones played two shows in one day.

(Speaking of concerts: I’ve written a new post at WNEW.com—I actually wrote it one day last week, but the editorial wheels grind slowly over there—about classic rock concert cliches.)

It’s Pete Wingfield’s 60th birthday today—Wingfield is primarily known as a session musician with a diverse career, having played with Van Morrison, the Hollies, and Paul McCartney, among others. His songwriting portfolio is also diverse, ranging from “It’s Good to Be the King” for the Mel Brooks movie History of the World Part 1 to “Making a Good Thing Better,” a minor hit for Olivia Newton-John. Around here we dig him for his lone solo hit, “Eighteen With a Bullet,” which I’d post again today if I hadn’t posted it twice already.

Instead, I’m going to post an alternate version of one of my favorite tracks from Exile on Main Street. It was originally written in 1968 at about the time of Let it Bleed, and was rewritten by Mick Jagger as a tribute to Brian Jones after Jones died. It’s from the Stones bootleg Laid in the Shade.

“Shine a Light (Get a Line on You)”/Rolling Stones (bootleg; buy Exile on Main Street, if you’ve somehow managed to live this long without it, here)

No Matter What You’re Into

(Edited to add a link below.) 

June 5, 1999: Mel Tormé dies at age 73. After more than 30 years as one of the most respected jazz singers in the world, he had become an unlikely pop-culture icon in the 80s and 90s thanks to appearances on TV shows such as Night Court and Seinfeld. And he wrote “The Christmas Song,” made famous by Nat King Cole, too.

June 5, 1993: Singer Conway Twitty dies. He’d been a rock and roll star in the 1950s before settling into a long career as a country singer after 1965, with 40 Number One records on the country charts between 1968 and 1986. Key tracks: “Hello Darlin’,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “Linda on My Mind.”

June 5, 1971: Grand Funk Railroad sells out a show at New York’s Shea Stadium in 72 hours, breaking a record set by the Beatles. One month earlier, at a coming-out party for the band in New York, only six reporters had showed up when 150 were expected.

June 5, 1964: The Rolling Stones play their first American show, in San Bernardino, California.

June 5, 1959: Robert Zimmerman graduates from high school in Hibbing, Minnesota.

June 5, 1954: Billboard reports that beginning in July, record companies will start sending new records to radio DJs in the 45rpm format instead of 78s.

Birthdays Today:
Mark Wahlberg is 36. He was supposed to be an original New Kid on the Block but disliked the squeaky-clean music the group’s producers had in mind. (He’d already done time in jail by then.) He later had a Number One single (“Good Vibrations”) with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch before going on to a film career, including Boogie Nights and The Departed.

Kenny G is 51. Is the musical equivalent of store-bought white bread, has made the soprano saxophone into the most annoying instrument imaginable, and nearly caused Pat Metheny to stroke out in print.

Ronnie Dyson would be 57, had he not died in 1990. One of the lesser-known figures of Philadelphia soul, his biggest hit was “(If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You” in the late summer of 1970. Dyson absolutely sings his ass off on the record, but it would be gorgeous as an instrumental, too, with its bright xylophone (!), shimmering strings, and stereo separation worthy of a speaker demo. It’s a lovely artifact of its time, so check it out below.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1990: “Vogue”/Madonna. Madonna’s first release following her massive Like a Prayer album, this was originally slated for a B-side until somebody came to their senses. Its success that summer helped generate publicity for Madonna’s role as Breathless Mahoney in the movie Dick Tracy. Eventual title of the album containing “Vogue”—I’m Breathless.

1987: “With or Without You”/U2. Signaled U2’s arrival in the mainstream by becoming the band’s first record to make the adult contemporary charts.

1979: “Hot Stuff”/Donna Summer. I heard this again not long ago, and it occurs to me that while this was considered a disco record, its stomping beat and big guitar make it rock harder than any other disco record to climb the charts that summer.

1972: “I’ll Take You There”/Staple Singers. Like “Suavecito” (a hit at about the same time), this record still carries that school’s-out vibe all these years later.

1947: “Heartaches”/Ted Weems Orchestra. Somebody could probably write a thesis or dissertation on the pop-culture nostalgia movement of the late 1940s. With the end of World War II and the dawning of the Atomic Age, many people seemed to be looking back to the 20s and 30s. “Heartaches” sounded old-school even in 1947, and it was—the hit version had been recorded in 1933, featuring the immortal Whistling Elmo Tanner. A quick search for information about Tanner led me to this page, which proves that no matter what you’re into, somebody else was into it first.

(For more rockin’ forms of whistling, click here.)

“(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You”/Ronnie Dyson (buy it here)

Our Day Will Come

March 26, 2006: Total Guitar magazine names Jimmy Page’s solo on “Stairway to Heaven” the top guitar solo of all time. (We talked about it here.)

March 26, 1975: The film version of Tommy has its London premiere. The only thing that exceeded my desire to see this movie when it opened here, in the summer of 1975, was my disappointment when I saw it. Although the movie left me cold, I played the hell out of my copy of the soundtrack.

March 26, 1971: Emerson Lake and Palmer record Pictures at an Exhibition. Bruce Eder’s review at Allmusic.com says it all, and says it better than I can.

March 26, 1965: During a Rolling Stones show in Denmark, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman are electrically shocked by a faulty microphone. With all the shows that have been done in all different venues (and in all kinds of weather, although there’s no indication that this was an outdoor show), it’s a wonder more prominent artists haven’t gotten dead that way. As it was, Wyman was knocked cold for several minutes.

March 26, 1955: Three different versions of Joan Weber’s American hit, “Let Me Go Lover,” by Dean Martin, Teresa Brewer, and Ruby Murray, appear at Numbers 5, 6, and 7 on the British singles chart.

Birthdays Today:
Teddy Pendergrass is 57. One of the greatest of all Philly soul shouters, he’d have been more famous if his group had been called Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes.

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Richard Tandy of ELO are both 59. As the keyboard player in one of the most synth-dependent bands of all time, Tandy should probably be more famous. Tyler, on the other hand, is one of the few live musicians (as opposed to iconic dead ones like Jim Morrison and John Lennon) who’s been cool in two generations.

Diana Ross is 63. I often downplay Diana’s accomplishments at Motown because she’s not remotely as gifted a performer as her contemporaries there—Smokey, Stevie, Tops, Temps, Marvin, etc.—yet her track record is impossible to deny. Between 1964 and 1967, Diana and the Supremes scored 15 straight hits, 10 of which went to Number One, including five in a row in 1964 and 1965.

Fred Parris is 71. The story is told that while serving in the Army, Parris was on guard duty one quiet night when he started writing a song in his head. By the time his group, the Five Satins, got around to recording it, Parris had been stationed in Japan. So he’s not heard on what is considered by many to be the greatest doo-wop song of all time—“In the Still of the Night.” I won’t argue with that consensus, but I also really like “To the Aisle,” on which Parris actually sings. (I’ve been corrected on this last point, and I appreciate the knowledge. Click here. Parris was in Japan while “In the Still of the Night” was a hit, but he apparently sang on it before he left. Another singer takes the lead on “To the Aisle.” Far more than you might ever want to know about the Five Satins is here. Shoulda looked there before I posted this originally.)

Number One Songs on This Date:
1998: “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”/Will Smith.
I have never actually heard this song, but it’s mentioned in a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry talks about being in charge of the music at a party he once attended: “I got jiggy with it!” He also says he “turned that mother out.” If incongruity is funny, that’s hilarious.

1992: “Save the Best for Last”/Vanessa Williams. I was doing adult contemporary radio in the early 90s. “Save the Best for Last” got as annoying after the first thousand times you played it as almost every other adult contemporary hit of the era did, but at least it was tolerable for that first thousand—which wasn’t always the case.

1983: “Billie Jean”/Michael Jackson. A notable record for lots of reasons: It was so big that it helped force MTV to stop ignoring black artists; the moonwalk Jackson did to it on the Motown 25 special made him not just famous, but for a time, godlike. In the end, however, it comes down to the groove, which is as intense as anything James Brown ever put down, and will still be making people move in 100 years.

1963: “Our Day Will Come”/Ruby and the Romantics. Despite being considered one of the classics of early 60s black pop, “Our Day Will Come” doesn’t sound like anything else in its era—or any era you can name.

1923: “Carolina in the Morning”/Van and Schenck. These guys were a Broadway and vaudeville comedy team who recorded a couple of songs that are imprinted in the DNA of people over a certain age. “Carolina in the Morning” is certainly one: “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.” The other is probably their 1921 hit “Ain’t We Got Fun?”: “In the morning, in the evening, ain’t we got fun?” They also did some radio—very early radio, since Schenck died in 1930.

“To the Aisle”/Five Satins
“Our Day Will Come”/Ruby and the Romantics
(Both of these songs are taken from the Time-Life Classic Love Songs of Rock ‘n’ Roll Collection; Ruby is available only as part of a 10-CD set; the two-CD set containing the Five Satins is currently unavailable. Given that you probably wouldn’t want to spend $100 or more to get them, I’ve located cheaper alternatives. Buy the Five Satins here; buy Ruby and the Romantics here.)

Kind of a Drag

I wrote this thing late on Monday afternoon, then got sidetracked from posting it. But since it’s still February 26 in my time zone for another 78 minutes, it’s still OK, so here we go:

February 26, 1987: The first four Beatles albums are released on CD. The albums are released in their British configurations, and in the original mono.

February 26, 1983: Michael Jackson’s Thriller hits Number One on the Billboard album chart. It would top the charts for 37 weeks and become the largest selling album of all time.

February 26, 1977: The Eagles’ Hotel California is officially released; “New Kid in Town” hits Number One on the Hot 100.

February 26, 1954: Michigan Representative Ruth Thompson, the first female member of the House Judiciary Commitee, introduces a bill that would ban any “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy disc—or any other article capable of producing sound” from being sent through the mail. At the time, the bill is seen as an attempt to stem the growth of R&B. However, precisely the same language is on the federal statute books today, and has been used in attempts to regulate pornography. Whether that law is Thompson’s bill, I don’t know—I’m not a lawyer, and this is just a lameass blog, so we’re moving on.

Birthdays Today:
Corinne Bailey Rae is 28. Her 2006 debut single, “Put Your Records On,” was one of my favorite new songs of last year.

Michael Bolton is either 53 or 54, depending on the source. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: On Judgment Day, those of us who programmed adult-contemporary radio stations in the ’90s are going to have to answer for the staggering success of Michael Bolton.

Bob “the Bear” Hite of Canned Heat would be 62, had he not died in 1981. His vocals and harmonica contributed the most to the unique sound of the band.

Paul Cotton of Poco is 64. I hadn’t listened to much Poco until recently, and I was surprised by how lovely a lot of their stuff is, and how much better it is than the other country rock that still survives on classic rock radio. Why would you listen to Marshall Tucker when there are Poco records around?

Johnny Cash would be 75, had he not died in 2003. A hundred years from now, he’ll be considered one of the 20th century’s greatest musical innovators.

Fats Domino is 79. He, too, is a great innovator—one of the pivotal figures in the birth of rock and roll—but his role has been obscured by his jolly persona and by “Blueberry Hill” on an endless loop for the last 50 years. A recent biography, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rick Coleman, does a great deal to restore Fats to the pedestal he deserves.

Number One Songs on This Date:
1986: “How Will I Know”/Whitney Houston.
It was pretty clear by this time, three singles into Whitney Houston’s debut album, that she was going to be a big star.

1972: “Without You”/Nilsson. An epic song of love and desperation, written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger, neither of whom made much money from their song, and both of whom ended up as suicides. One didn’t necessarily lead to the other, but it couldn’t have helped.

1970: “Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)”/Sly and the Family Stone. One of the most seriously funky records ever to top the charts. Nothing would pop the bass like that again until the 90s.

1967: “Kind of a Drag”/Buckinghams. From Chicago and not from England, the Buckinghams scored five Top-20 hits in 1967, each one a perfect pop record: this one, “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)”, and “Susan.” That’s easily as Rock-Hall-of-Fame-worthy as anything ZZ Top ever did, and they’re in.

1961: “Calcutta”/Lawrence Welk. Welk scored 40 hit singles between 1938 and 1965, but this was the biggest. Yes, its success is more evidence that the British Invasion had to happen. Those la-la-las! That accordion solo! But perhaps change is already in the wind. Listen closely, at the 1:40 mark—those handclaps are putting down a backbeat.

“Calcutta”/Lawrence Welk (buy it here)

If I were to post only Lawrence Welk tonight, I would be, as Abraham Lincoln put it in another context, “damned in time and eternity for so doing.” So here’s another, to take the curse off.

“Kind of a Drag”/Buckinghams (buy it here)