Happening Now

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(Pictured: the O’Jays on Soul Train in 1974.)

I spent some time recently poking through the yearly statistics at this website, and here’s some of what I found.

—I wrote 132 posts in 2021, totaling over 104,000 words (!). Those posts received 868 comments. WordPress does not show me the most-commented post of the year, but I am grateful for your interaction wherever it occurs.

—The eight most-read posts during 2021 were all written before 2021. The most-read was Off White on Soul Train, written in 2014, which pops up when people google to find out which white artist was the first to appear on Soul Train. In second place is a 2013 post called Believe It or Not, George Isn’t at Home, which is about pop songs used in Seinfeld episodes. Those two outdistance the pack by quite a lot. The Last Word on Humble Harve is next, a 2019 compilation of stuff I wrote in earlier times about the Los Angeles DJ who murdered his wife.

—My most-read statistics give me insight into what people are googling for. There was a bump in interest this year about the appearances of Neil Diamond and the Buffalo Springfield on Mannix, which I’ve written about a time or two. My yacht-rock post from 2017 gets hits every time people go searching for the term “yacht rock.” Posts about old rock festivals tend to get hits on weekend nights, as old hippies go a-googling into the past.

—My most-read post written in 2021 was Who’s Happening Now, in which I took publicist and prolific Twitter-er Eric Alper to task for fluffing Drake’s Hot 100 domination during a single week, and for his ongoing hype of Ariana Grande. After the post went up, Alper (who must have a Google alert set up to ping every time somebody mentions him online; if so, hello again, Eric) sent me a private message disputing my characterizations, but also put up a very cordial public comment on the post saying that he always has time for conversations about music, and that “there’s a lane and a road and an opinion for everyone.”

And after doing that, he went over to his Twitter feed and blocked me.

Dude has 785,000 followers and decided to block me, a guy with 546 Twitter followers and a regular readership of maybe 200 people at the outside. He is absolutely entitled to do whatever he wants, of course, including using a helicopter gunship to swat houseflies. But I would remind you of this: hit dogs holler.

—Other well-read posts written in 2021 included The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV, about the locally produced entertainment shows and contests that were once a staple in markets large and small, and Art and Artifice, about the domination of “corporate rock” in the summer of 1981.

–My least-read post written in 2021 appears to be The Night It Hit the Fan, which indicates there may be a limit to your tolerance for stories from my distant past.

—Just for fun, I looked at the all-time statistics, which go back to my move to WordPress in 2007. My most-read post of all time is Favorite Waste of Time, which was my blogroll, and which hasn’t appeared on this site in nearly a decade and how it’s getting hits I don’t know, unless people are googling for the song “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” which is as likely an explanation as any. In second place all-time is jb on the Radio, and thank you for caring about that.

—I suppose I could use these stats to make some prognostication about the future of this website, but I ain’t doing that, except to say that I am going to keep writing here whenever there’s something to write about, for as long as I can sit upright at the keyboard. And at some future day, when this website stops updating without explanation, you’ll know what happened.

The one thing I would like to do is 2022 is to record the handful of podcast scripts that are in repose on my laptop somewhere. When I first launched the podcast I posted episodes every three weeks, and it was embarrassingly foolish of me to think I could keep that up. I have done only two or three since the fall of 2020, and if I were to do more than that in 2022, it would be a surprise to me.

But nothing is impossible, I suppose. I ended up back in full-time radio in 2021, and I never expected that to happen, either.

Something New

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(Pictured: the Beatles meet the press in Chicago, 1964.)

It’s a December tradition: radio station websites, rock history websites, and social media users celebrate the anniversary of “the first Beatles record ever played on American radio.” The date was December 17, 1963, they say. Carroll James of WWDC in Washington, DC, was the first DJ to do it, and the record was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Except he wasn’t, and it wasn’t.

This claim, which is passed around even by people who should know better, has been comprehensively debunked, both by me and elsewhere. The first American DJ to play the Beatles was Dick Biondi of WLS in Chicago, in February 1963—ten months earlier—and the record was “Please Please Me.”

In Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the 1960s, John F. Lyons writes that after Capitol Records passed on issuing Beatles singles in late 1962, British EMI persuaded the Chicago label Vee-Jay to release them. Vee-Jay had scored a modest hit with British singer Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You,” and so the label put out “Please Please Me” and promptly took it to WLS. WLS DJ Clark Weber told Lyons in 2015 that Cliff Richard had bombed on WLS previously, which made the station reluctant to gamble on another British act. But after a personal plea from one of Vee-Jay’s owners, the station agreed to play it on weekends. Weber confirmed that Biondi was the first to air it, on February 8, 1963. But in Weber’s words, “It didn’t do anything.” “Please Please Me” was dropped and re-added, eventually spending a couple of weeks on the WLS Hit Parade in mid-March before disappearing. “It was no great shakes,” Weber said. “As a matter of fact, it was patently bad as far as music was concerned. But we played it. It was something new.”

(Weber does not seem to have been impressed by the Beatles at all. Discussing having MC’d their 1965 Chicago concert he said, “I just wanted to get out of there.” As program director in the wake of Sgt. Pepper, he refused to play “A Day in the Life” because of its “drug references.”)

In a footnote, Lyons points out that WLS has the first documented evidence of playing the Beatles, but other stations could have beaten them to it. Beatles records were available in the UK as early as October 1962, and it is possible that some enterprising station could have played an imported copy. Longtime LA personality Dave Hull was working at WVKO in Columbus, Ohio, in 1962. In 2014, he told a newspaper that the station’s DJs voted on whether to add “Love Me Do” to the playlist but “we really didn’t think much of the song.”

In May 1963, Vee-Jay released “From Me to You,” but WLS (and other major stations across the country) played Del Shannon’s cover version instead. Two stations that did not were Chicago’s WVON and WYNR, which were programmed to Black audiences. Both played the Beatles’ version. It’s not remotely R&B, but that didn’t matter. As with “Please Please Me,” personal connections likely played a role in getting the song on the air. Vee-Jay was primarily an R&B label and would have worked closely with R&B stations.

Joy and Fear explores the perception of the Beatles and Beatles fandom in the Black community, which I’ve not seen discussed much elsewhere. Some Black kids responded positively to the Beatles, although others did not. Reaction in the Black press was similar to that in the white press: highly critical and sometimes hysterically overblown. Among musicians, however, respect for the Beatles was almost universal. Their refusal to play segregated shows did not go unnoticed; neither did their willingness to cover songs written or originally performed by Black artists. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters both credited the Beatles and the British bands that followed them for renewed interest in American blues. Otis Williams of the Temptations said, “It seemed like at this point in time white America said, ‘OK, if the Beatles are checking them out, let us check them out.'”

Chicago in the 1960s was a socially conservative town. Its conflicts between young and old, black and white, past and present, played out much differently than the same conflicts in more worldly cities might have done. Joy and Fear explores those conflicts in excellent chapters on the Beatles’ three Chicago shows. Other chapters include a Beatles biography—a story which does not need telling again in this context—and their influence on the Chicago music scene, which is interesting but not essential. You can skip that stuff, and if you do, you’ll likely find what’s left worthwhile.

Comfort Food

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(Pictured: John Denver circa 1975.)

Hungry for some comfort food the other day, I pulled out the American Top 40 show from October 19, 1974. I’ve written about it already, but I have more to say about a couple of the songs.

There’s often a dialogue between the pop culture of a bygone day and the way it plays now, knowing what we know and thinking the way we think. I have referred to “The Need to Be” by Jim Weatherly as the sound of a man of the Me Decade disappearing up his own external orifice. But listening to it again the other day, it occurs to me that there’s something deeper going on.

Read the lyrics. Weatherly speaks candidly of how he feels as a man, and how he intends to achieve the fullness of his being. Such openness was a relatively new concept in 1974, after the social upheavals of the 60s and early 70s. As Weatherly demonstrates, a man of the 70s could speak honestly about his feelings without shame; it was not necessary to keep them hidden until he drifted into alcoholism or died of a coronary, as a man of the 50s might have done.

But now read it again, or listen to it. Weatherly’s sensitive confession of his wants and needs is not nearly so enlightened as his heartfelt delivery makes it sound. He’s putting a stake in the ground and saying, “I am what I am, and it is my purpose in life to remain that, no matter what. Do not expect me to be what I am not, or to become what I refuse to be. Be sure you love the man I am, because I ain’t changing.” A man of the 50s, to the extent that he would be willing to think about it at all, might recognize himself in that attitude.

The woman to whom Jim Weatherly is singing in “The Need to Be” (and I say “woman” because this was 1974) had best tread lightly. Committing to a man so unbendingly invested in the maintenance of a fixed identity seems like a prescription for eventual trouble.

(I should state for the record that when I refer to Weatherly here, I’m referring to the character singing in his song and not to the man himself, although Weatherly died earlier this year, so he ain’t gonna complain.)

Moving along: here in 2021, there’s a degree of unreality to practically everything we experience. We read the news and we are told every day, by journalists, politicians, and social media randos, that what we see happening isn’t really happening at all, and that “reality” is something else entirely. Every single person in the public eye—musicians, actors, athletes, authors—is curating themselves as a brand that might have little or nothing to do with their true selves. Those of us with an Internet presence are doing it too, creating a persona that’s something less than 100 percent of who we really are.

It feels like the only way to make sense of anything is to maintain ironic distance from everything: assume that everything and everyone is lying or joking or selling something—trying to get over on us in some way—and calibrate our own perception of reality based on those assumptions.

(Present company excluded, of course.)

One of my favorite songs on the 10/19/74 AT40 show is John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” As comfort food, it’s pretty rich. I have written many times about the autumns of 1974 and 1975, which seem in memory like very warm, secure, and happy family times (even though it is likely that they were not). What could fit better into that landscape of memory than a singalong ballad about the pleasures of being at home?

Putting nostalgia aside, what’s most appealing about “Back Home Again” in 2021 is Denver’s absolute earnestness. The song, in which a pregnant woman and her husband are reunited after he’s been away, is about the joy they feel in being together again. That’s it. There’s nothing else going on; there’s no subtext to parse out. Denver sings, “Hey, it’s good to be back home again,” he means it, and he doesn’t have an ulterior motive in saying so.

It’s a relief to hear something we don’t have to evaluate for its relative truthfulness against all the lies people are telling one another.

Part of my brand is to doubt my entire premise in the end. All of this—speculations about Jim Weatherly’s old-style chauvinism dressed in Alan Alda drag, and about whether we’re all lying to each other all the time—is just an opinion. I might be completely wrong.

Past and Future

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(Pictured: this llama is my energy today—talking, but not willing to exert himself beyond that.)

It’s time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, in which I sift the seeds and stems in my Drafts file in hopes of finding enough to roll one post.

As of this summer, I am newly out of the gig economy, working for The Man every day for the first time in 18 years, and he’s taking up a great deal of the inspiration/research/noodling time I used to be able to devote to this website. And so I strongly feel this old paragraph: 

From the time my brothers and I were seven or eight, we had small farm chores to do: helping feed the cows and getting the equipment ready before the evening milking, or gathering eggs, back when we still had chickens. The year I turned 12, I was expected to drive a tractor on the farm, helping with the crops. The small farm chores took maybe 15 minutes at the outside. Work on the tractor—driving the cultivator to uproot weeds from the corn, or the rake to get hay ready for baling—took several hours at a stretch. Dad was good enough to pay by the hour, which was something not all of my friends’ dads did, but being forced to give up a morning or an afternoon because the job needed to be done now was different.

A job you do by choice (“Sorry, I can’t fill in on the afternoon show today, I have plans”) vibes differently than one that has the first claim on your time every day. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

On thinking of the future and then finding oneself there, written well before events of the last 18 months: 

As a kid, I could project myself forward in time if I chose. In second grade, when I read that Halley’s Comet would return to Earth in 1986, I presumed I would be around to see it. Not long after that, I figured out that I would likely be alive in the year 2000 (and that I would be 40 years old, which was an abstract concept entirely meaningless to eight-year-old me). Since 2000, however, I’ve had a harder time with this kind of projection. It’s partly because the older you get, the shorter your future is. But it’s also because the 21st century feels like a foreign country to me, and I’m not so comfortable living in it.

This happens all the time, of course. Every generation watches the passage of time erode what it thought was settled. Every generation tries to modify its outlook to reflect the changes it knows are normal and natural. And every generation eventually throws up its hands in exasperation and yells “you damn kids stay off my lawn,” and for the same reasons: what we used to value seems to be valued less; what we understood back then is less comprehensible now; the rules that used to apply no longer do.

As of 2021, this century seems even more foreign to me. There’s no way to make these times feel normal by any standard I know. As bad as the last 18 months have been, there’s a real sense this summer that we are heading for something exponentially worse in America, and I fear it. 

Here’s the middle and end of a story:

You get over stuff like that, of course, and I did. I saw her once a few years later, but I didn’t try to speak to her, because I doubted she would remember me, and why should she, really.

More time goes by. It’s decades now. In the Facebook era, she reappears through a friend-of-a-friend connection. I look at her profile. Lives out west, married and divorced, grown children. I am not tempted to friend her.

Still more time. Then one night, there we are, in the same room. We stop. We look each other up and down, a surreptitious glance at name tags. “Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “It’s good to see you.” And that’s pretty much it.

Not long after, I write a thing, in which I talk about the bonds that people have, bonds that surpass time. In it, I mention that among those we are bonded to are “people we need to apologize to, and people who need to apologize to us.”

And I get a message from her. She read it, and she says it tugged her heartstrings. Then she wrote, “I think I need to apologize to you.”

Well.

If We Remembered Everything

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(Have I used this picture before? I think I’ve used this picture before. With a better work ethic, I’d look and make sure.)

Here’s another one of those posts that has both nothing and everything to do with the ostensible subject of this website. It’s been sitting in my Drafts file in pieces for two or three years, and it still seems a little undercooked, but sometimes you gotta hit “publish” and move on.  

Continue reading “If We Remembered Everything”

Old School Mono

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I’d like to call your attention to a comment from reader Douglas, as part of the weekend’s discussion of the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”: “In this day of Super Dolby-Digital Plus-Remastered from the Original Remaster reissues, is it possible that some bands just f-ing sound best in Old School Mono (TM)?”

F yeah.

Years ago I was doing some research at YouTube and came across a homemade stereo mix of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” which was famously heard only in mono for the first 30-plus years of its existence. The YouTuber who posted it included the following note: “Demand that Music Companies issue British Invasion, etc in Full STEREO & NOT in monaural . . . Don’t buy mono versions, etc !!!”

This person was guilty of a fairly common prejudice: that mono is stereo’s unsophisticated cousin, and that stereo is a “true” reproduction of music where mono is not. But we think that’s true only because stereo is what we know best. In the early days of recording, there was a debate between people who thought the goal of recording should be exact reproduction of what a listener would hear sitting in the concert hall and those who believed recording could and should enhance the listening experience. The debate was going on long before stereo came on the scene in the late 1950s. Our modern-day preference for stereo basically means that the enhancers won the debate.

A few years ago, I wrote this:

As we were reminded when the Beatles’ catalog was re-released in mono, it was the mono mixes that were slaved over in the studio. The stereo mixes were secondary. (Listen to early Beatles music in stereo—how often do you hear vocals on one side and instruments on the other? That’s the quick and easy way to create a stereo effect.) And if George Martin and the boys had considered mono inferior to stereo, it’s doubtful that the Beatles would have continued to release albums in mono right up until the end of their time together. Sgt. Pepper was intended to show what could be accomplished in the studio. Why would it have been released in mono if mono was merely an inferior copy of a better stereo original?

Mono mixing is an art, and mono mixes can be works of art, as we have chronicled here again and again over the years. And when you go to a live concert, the sound you get isn’t widely separated stereo sound—it’s something much closer to mono.

Mono isn’t inferior, it’s just different.

Stereo recording has been a thing for 60 years now, and I get the sense that it’s become so “normal” today that a lot of producers don’t think about it, the way fish don’t know they’re wet. A lot of today’s mainstream country is mastered to be intensely loud with practically no dynamics. Separation doesn’t matter much in that firehouse of sound. (Connoisseurs understand that mono doesn’t have to be loud; neither does it need to destroy dynamics.) In pop music, the loudness wars seem to have eased in recent years, which leaves more room for stereo to expand the soundscape, but there’s not much creative use of left and right. Maybe stuff flying around the soundscape is disorienting for earbud listeners, I don’t know. One thing I do know: stereo can certainly increase the effect of echo. Every other young pop singer is emoting from inside an empty water tank now, which is sometimes a hard listen for a geezer such as I, weaned on the dry, flat style of production and recording that dominated the 1970s.

The way we listen has always affected the way we make musical art, going back to the early 20th century debates about what recording should do. Think of how the development of the 45RPM record and the portable radio made kids into tastemakers; how the console stereo of the 1950s opened up a market for lush instrumental music; about the symbiotic relationship between sophisticated stereo gear and certain popular styles in the 70s; how the Walkman contributed to the DIY musical culture of the 80s; and how the modern marketplace has been affected by earbuds and streaming. There’s never been a time when we could cleanly separate what we were listening to from the things we were using to listen to it. But just as stereo wasn’t intrinsically better than mono, each succeeding innovation isn’t necessarily an improvement on what came before.

So yeah, some bands (and many of their songs) just f-ing sound best in Old School Mono.