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.)

Hit Machine

(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today.)

The video embedded above represents the most enjoyable half-hour I’ve spent in a long time. It collects 38 vintage K-Tel ads, mostly from the US, a few from Canada, and a couple from the UK, spanning the early 70s to the early 80s.

K-Tel ads shilled albums featuring “original hits, original stars” to distinguish them from knockoff albums of sound-alikes by the Sound Effects or the Countdown Singers. Albums generally cost from $3.99 to $5.99, with another buck or two if you wanted an 8-track or cassette, although K-Tel also marketed two-disc sets that often went for $9.99. K-Tel would release a new compilation every few months, mostly with songs that had recently been hits, although they often included a song or two that went back a year or two, and sometimes a minor hit or a never-was to fill out the track list.

During their 70s heyday, the albums generally contained 20 songs (sometimes more), a number often featured in the compilation title, such as 20 Explosive Hits or 20 Dynamic Hits, 10 to a side. If you bought a K-Tel album, and I have a lot of them, it was always caveat emptor: K-Tel was famous for making their own edits to shorten songs, snipping intros or hacking out entire verses. (I can still remember the clanging disappointment I felt when I heard their edit of Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” on the 1975 release Disco Mania.) They did this less as time went on, until by the 1980s you could count on getting lots of full-length versions.

K-Tel did not sell only compilations of recent hits. There’s no one my age who doesn’t remember the ubiquitous Goofy Greats collection of novelty songs. An album of 50 kids’ songs (“Old MacDonald,” “London Bridge,” etc.) sounds positively hellish. A polka compilation featured such famous names as Frankie Yankovic, Myron Floren, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, and there were collections of country hits, rock ‘n’ roll oldies, and even metal.

Watching 38 K-Tel ads in a row reveals how cheaply made they were. The same announcer is on most of them—not a mellifluous radio voice but a shouting hard-seller of the kind you’d hear on a car dealership or dragstrip ad. The spots are tightly edited, usually, to cram as much information as possible into 30 or 60 seconds. The graphics are simple, often just the names of featured artists appearing with a snippet of their songs or scrolling by in an endless list, and sometimes both. Artist names are sometimes misspelled—Dianna Ross, Steelers Wheel, Alvin Bishop, Roy Clarke, and Dotty West, to name a few. The ad for 50 Children’s Favorites features a skeevy-looking bearded dude and a nightmarish giant rabbit. The oldies album Girls Girls Girls, made up of songs with girls’ names, is advertised with a bizarre spot in which a middle-aged man lying in bed is teased by visions of pretty young women, but they disappear before he can get to them. Some of the women are beautiful in a distinctly 70s way, although the talent budget did not buy gifted performers: the girl in the spot for Right On! dances without actually moving her feet.

It occurs to me that K-Tel’s oldies compilations might have represented my first exposure to stars of the 50s—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and such. The ads would have been all over after-school TV in the early 70s, when we came home to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Flintstones. I would have taken from them that such people were important—important enough to be on a K-Tel album like more familiar artists from the radio. It seems reasonable to think that the ads may have planted a seed for something I would recognize in later years when I finally heard “Tutti Frutti,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Great Balls of Fire” for real.

So take a half-hour and watch the video, which was compiled by a YouTuber called FredFlix. After you’re done, explore the other compilations on the FredFlix channel—it’s a remarkable trove of vintage TV with lots of stuff I haven’t seen anywhere else.

(I did not realize until I started researching this post that our friend HERC has a site devoted to K-Tel compilations. If you will excuse me now, I’m going over there to get lost for a few hours.)

Starbuck Stories

Forty years ago this week, “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck reached #3 on the Hot 100, where it would stay for two weeks. It had been inescapable on the radio long before that, however, having cracked the Top 10 in some markets around the country as early as mid-May. The record is as 70s as it gets, all Mini-Moog and marimba, with a singalong lyric about listening to the radio in the car by the water with a beautiful girl (who wears a “class of 7-4 gold ring,” meaning she would be around 60 years old now). While your mileage may vary, it has always sounded to me like the distilled essence of my favorite summer.

Five years ago, I struck up a Facebook chat with David Shaver, Starbuck’s keyboard player. (You can see him in the video above, a live performance on The Midnight Special; he’s the second keyboard player, not the lead singer.) What follows is taken from a post I wrote about our chat.

“I was not a member when the record was [made],” David told me. “There were so many Mini-Moog overdubs on the album that when ‘Moonlight’ started up the charts, they realized they needed to hire another keyboard player in order to reproduce the sounds live. I also played an ARP String Ensemble to reproduce all the string parts.” . . .

Once the record hit the charts (in April 1976), things began to move fast for Shaver and Starbuck. “Opening for Hall and Oates in Macon, Georgia, was the first show I played. They were huge at the time.” Other shows followed. “The biggest show we did was opening for Boston at the Hollywood Sportatorium in Florida. I heard the sound of 16,000 screaming vocal cords and at that moment I knew what Beatlemania felt like. We played with Styx at the Atlanta Omni for Toys for Tots.” (Based on information at a Styx fansite, that show was on December 5, 1976, and also featured Boston, the Manhattans, and Dr. Hook, which is a pretty damn good concert bill in any decade.)

David says, “It was certainly one of the most exciting times of my life. We were being treated like rock stars, where two months prior we were playing night clubs! I met Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Don Kirshner, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, Peter Marshall. Once on American Bandstand, some girls in the audience made a big fuss over me and the cameras zoomed in on me in my blue Hawaiian shirt. My one and only closeup. My big 15 minutes. I’d give anything for a copy of that video!” . . .

David Shaver is still playing today, years after his rock-star adventures. “I am very happy to be performing in a show band called Glow. We’re based out of Atlanta and have some of the best vocalists in the Southeast. We play every weekend! Concerts, weddings, corporate parties, and a few select dance clubs. We just opened for the Little River Band a few months back.” Because Glow is a show band, David says, “Our song choices are focused 100 percent on the dance floor,” so “Moonlight Feels Right” is not part of their regular repertoire. But he also says, “Back in 2004/2005 I played in a wedding band and we did a great version of “Moonlight.” I did my best at imitating the marimba solo on the keyboard. Not an easy task!”

David recently posted pictures on Facebook of rehearsals for a Starbuck reunion that’s happening in August. Forty years since “Moonlight Feels Right,” what he and I share is this: no matter how far 1976 recedes into the rearview mirror, that song will always bring it back.

If We Make It

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Merle Haggard, 1993.)

(I wasn’t planning to post again until Saturday, but stuff happens.)

Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will choose his pumpkin patch because of its sincerity. “Everywhere you look, there’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” If that seems quaint, it’s because we can no longer tell the difference between the two. In fact, we don’t care. The appearance of sincerity is enough for us.

Looking like you care is often every bit as useful as actual concern. It’s a guise you take on, and then take off when people are no longer watching. I do it myself, and so do you. We are often required to demonstrate concern about things that don’t really matter to us. We do it to please an employer, a customer, a spouse, or a family member when we wouldn’t give it a second thought otherwise. To navigate these situations, the appearance of sincerity is usually enough. (It’s certainly less emotionally taxing than maintaining the real thing.)

But when many of us are projecting an image that may not reflect what’s in our hearts—from the workplace to the marriage bed to wherever the hell—real sincerity lands like a punch in the face. Honest emotion and true wisdom legitimately earned are to the appearance of sincerity what a glass of straight Kentucky whiskey is to one of those fruit-flavored Bud Light concoctions. You’re knocked square on your ass; you realize that your phony bullshit is just playacting, and there’s a whole ‘nother level of real out there.

As I write this, it’s been about two hours since I learned of the death of Merle Haggard. Oddly, this loss hurts me more than the recent deaths of Glenn Frey and Keith Emerson, even though the music of the Eagles and Emerson Lake and Palmer ranks far higher on my personal hit list than that of Hag. Losing Haggard is painful because the truth-tellers are going, and they’re making damn few new ones. When they’re gone, we’ll lose whatever chance we have at knowing what’s real and what isn’t.

Merle Haggard did not project the appearance of sincerity. He sang with authority. He wasn’t acting like a country singer, like those dudes singing about dirt roads and skinny-dippin’ in the crick despite having a suburban upbringing and a college education. He was doing the only thing he could do, based on who he really was, on the places he’d really come from, on a life he lived a day at a time.

“I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole / No one could steer me right but mama tried,” goes one of his most famous songs. I remember being horrified by that image when I first heard it as a kid—even more so when I realized that Haggard had done time, that he must have known boys just like the one in “Mama Tried”—and probably could have ended up as such a boy. Years later, at a time supposed to be “morning in America,” he wondered aloud whether the good times were over for good. And as I played that record on the radio, a young man in his early 20s just starting out, I worried that he might be right.

When authority speaks, you’d best pay attention.

Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.

Merle Haggard sang about that, at the end of 1973, a recession-wracked year that was just the beginning of an awful time in America’s national life, in the only way he could: with mingled pain and hope, and a willingness to face the future even though it comes with no guarantees. He sang with sincerity, honest emotion, and true wisdom legitimately earned.

“If We Make It Through December” was Merle Haggard’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching #28 on January 19, 1974; it spent four weeks at#1 on the country chart in December 1973 and 1974, and is his second-biggest country hit of all time behind only “Okie From Muskogee.” I haven’t seen it mentioned much amongst the many Haggard tributes online since yesterday, but to me, it’s his monument.

The Whole Show

One of the more fascinating incidents in Elton John’s landmark-stuffed year of 1975 was the all-day concert he headlined at Wembley Stadium on June 21st. Supporting acts included Rufus, Joe Walsh, the Eagles (of which Walsh was not yet a member), and the Beach Boys. On that fine afternoon, the Beach Boys gave the crowd all the summertime they could handle—and set the bar almost too high for Elton to clear. Elton’s decision to play all of his then-new album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy caused many in the crowd to leave before the headliner was finished.

Almost 10 years ago, the live performance of Captain Fantastic got an official release as the second disc of a deluxe edition of the original album. The live disc also included performances of “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” from Wembley. The deluxe edition gives the impression that Captain Fantastic was the whole show, beginning with BBC Radio DJ Johnnie Walker introducing Elton, and Elton taking over to introduce his new album. We hear him apologize for the high price of it in English record shops, and then he warns that some people might be bored by hearing the whole thing but they’re going to play it anyway.

There was much more to Elton’s set that day, however. Before playing Captain Fantastic in its entirety, Elton packed a set with hit songs from the previous couple of years: “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The set included a couple of off-the-wall choices: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, and “Chameleon,” a song that would appear on the 1976 album Blue Moves. Elton even brought back “I Saw Her Standing There,” which he’d famously performed with John Lennon in New York the previous November. Only then did he and the band play Captain Fantastic start to finish.

A bootleg of the full Wembley show recently turned up at The Ultimate Bootleg Experience, but it’s not really the bonanza it appears to be. It opens with the Walker intro from the deluxe edition, then cuts to a pretty terrible audience recording of the first set: you can hear Elton and his piano but you can’t make out much else. The Captain Fantastic performance comes straight from the deluxe edition CD in copyright-infringing full-fidelity stereo. Still, it’s good to hear the whole thing (as much as it’s possible with such a crappy recording), and it makes it more understandable why Elton’s fans might have decided to pack it in before the show was over. You’ve been out in the sun all day and you’ve heard a lot of music. Elton’s played all of his hits, but the next 45 minutes is going to be stuff you don’t know, so why not call the day good enough and go beat the traffic?

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that Elton had recently fired almost all of his band, some of whom had been playing with him since he still lived in his parents’ house. Only guitarist Davey Johnstone was retained, although several of the new players were musicians Elton had known and played with years before. The Wembley show was their first official gig together. At about the same time, the new band was recording the followup to Captain Fantastic. Rock of the Westies was being recorded mostly in Colorado (hence its name), so the band was zipping back and forth across the Atlantic that summer like most people go to the office.

Somebody should write a book about Elton’s remarkable 1975. I’m not the one to write it, but I’d definitely read it.

Two-Lane Blacktop

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(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)

In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.

Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)

It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.

Read much more about the movie here and see some terrific stills from the production. The trailer is below. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my archives.)