Vintage Virgin Vinyl

In the fall of 1979, two of the biggest bands in the world released long-awaited new albums within three weeks of one another: the Eagles with The Long Run and Fleetwood Mac with Tusk.

Although record buyers loved the Eagles that fall, sending the album and its lead single, “Heartache Tonight,” to #1, one prominent critic definitely did not. In a Rolling Stone review that appeared in newspapers around the country in November, Dave Marsh wrote: “[W]hat can you say about a band which spends three years working on an album whose best song is one the inimitable Joe Walsh wrote for a movie soundtrack (‘In the City’ from ‘The Warriors’), and which contains such inanities as ‘We thought we could change this world—with words like love and freedom.’  The fact that this pack of cliche-mongers is one of the biggest ‘rock’ bands today is perhaps the most pathetic commentary I know about the current state of the musical world.”

Ooh, snap.

The reviewer for a local paper in Ohio was kinder: “The Eagles, consummate musicians that they are, have honed a finely-produced and excellently-executed album into what should prove to be another tour de force.” Contrast “excellently executed” with Marsh’s assessment of Don Henley—“a fine singer, but he’s a lame drummer.”

The Eagles could simply let negative reviews roll off because of all the money rolling in, although the amounts seem tiny by standards of our time. A department store in Madison, Wisconsin, was selling The Long Run on vinyl for $5.67 and on tape for $5.97. Eagles fans in the Philadelphia area could get into the band’s November 18 show at the Spectrum for $7.50 or $10, although the top tickets, priced at $12.50, were sold out.

If it had been up to Fleetwood Mac and its record label, Tusk would not have been out until later in the year. The intent was to release it just in time for it to find its way into Christmas stockings by the millions. But then an advance copy on cassette was leaked to a radio station in Cleveland. The station’s program director told a reporter, “To ensure its delivery, I had to buy a seat for [the tape] on a commercial flight.” He picked it up at the airport, drove it to the station, and put it on the air immediately. In succeeding days, other stations obtained copies of the album. As a result, Warner Brothers decided to release it officially in mid-October. (The title song had come out as a single in mid-September, also probably sped to release by the leak.)

When Tusk was released, I was doing a show on the campus radio station called Virgin Vinyl, on which I would play the week’s new releases. I tracked Tusk in its entirety the very night it came in, just as I was had played the lead track from The Long Run on the day it came in the mail.

Early in 1980, “Tusk” was featured on the TV music show Solid Gold. No way they were getting Fleetwood Mac to appear, but they could get the USC Marching Band to show up in the studio, and their performance was then intercut with the official “Tusk” video.

YouTube commenters are notoriously dim, but not the one who observed, “Stevie Nicks twirling a baton . . . there are probably sexier things on this planet, but none come to mind at the moment.”

(From a pair of posts written for the now-defunct WNEW.com.)

You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

The wire-service story appearing in newspapers around the country 40 years ago did not generally appear on front pages. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was on page 15. In San Mateo, California, it was on page 3. A few newspapers picked up the more immediate and personal story written by a couple of student journalists at Northwestern Louisiana University—a review of the last concert by Jim Croce.

“I’ve flown 700,000 or 800,000 miles just this past year,” the story quoted Croce as saying from the stage 40 years ago tonight, on September 20, 1973. “I’m starting to feel it now, too. You know, jet lag.” The story continues: “Then he gave his last concert before 2,000 laughing and cheering students at Northwestern Louisiana University’s Prather Coliseum. An hour later, after closing with ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown,’ he was dead in the wreckage of an airplane.” After the 35-minute performance that night, Croce’s plane hit a tree on takeoff, killing six people in all, including Croce, his guitarist Maury Muehleisen, his personal manager Ken Cortese, road manager Dennis Rast, comedian George Stevens, and pilot Robert Elliott.

At age 30, Croce had been on the scene for only a year, scoring the top-10 hit “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and taking “Leroy Brown” to #1. Three more top-10 hits would follow within the next six months, including the #1 hit “Time in a Bottle.” He remained one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the business through the late 1970s, as fans dug deeper into his catalog and discovered other characters as memorable as Jim, the “pool-shootin’ son-of-a-gun,” and Leroy Brown.

Four decades later, Croce remains one of the great what-ifs of popular music. One of his producers, Tommy West, saw beyond Croce’s potential as a musician in a news story published later in the week of his death. “He was only beginning to scratch the surface of what I think would have been a truly big career,” said West. “I wouldn’t call him a superstar because that has overtones of rock things and it went more beyond that. I think Jimmy could have been a Will Rogers or a white Bill Cosby.”

West was correct inasmuch as he suspected Croce would expand his horizons beyond music. He likely would have had to. Croce’s literate, confessional, acoustic songs would have had trouble finding a mass audience in the discofied late 70s and the jaded 80s, not like they had between 1972 and 1974. He seems a likely candidate to have become like Jimmy Buffett, a multimedia Renaissance man, a writer of short stories and books, a dabbler in other fields from acting to entrepreneurship, but always returning to his guitar and his songs.

Here’s a BBC-TV clip recorded the summer before Croce’s death, featuring Muehleisen on guitar, on what would become Croce’s last top 40 hit, “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”

(From my WNEW.com archives, revised a bit to reflect today’s anniversary.)

The Stereo Geeks

(Promotional announcement: I’ll have something very cool for you at this blog starting Monday, which will more than make up for the lack of interesting content this past week. I guarantee it.)

Were you a stereo geek? They were the guys—and they were always guys—who obsessed over their sound equipment. They could talk for hours about wow and flutter and signal-to-noise ratio, and they bragged about the wattage of their systems and the size of their speakers. You’d go over to a stereo geek’s house and he’d put on an album you’d never heard of, crank it up until the pictures on the walls were moving, and with a gleam in his eye, wait for you to react to the glory of the sound. If you were a fellow-traveling geek, you might get the same gleam. If you were not—if you were, like me, a guy who liked music but wasn’t particularly obsessed with sound—you’d try to think of something complimentary to say before your brain started leaking out of your ears.

Here’s a 1984 TV report on the hot new technological breakthrough, the compact disc. While the reporter describes Frank Maiale as a “connoisseur of music,” it’s pretty clear that he’s actually a connoisseur of sound equipment. Watch.

There are several clues to Frank’s stereo geekdom. First, his giant rack of equipment: turntable, tuner, amplifier, equalizer, and other silvery boxes to perform various esoteric functions. Second, his turntable, which in one shot seems to be equipped with a stability device to hold the album absolutely still. Third, after a lifetime of collecting music, he’s got only 600 or 700 albums, which is tiny by serious record-collector standards. Fourth, the breadth of his collection: “from modern electronica to classical acoustic.” But the single biggest clue is when Frank is asked to describe the advantages of the CD: “It’s clean. There’s no noise.”

The “clean” sound of the CD—no clicks, no rumble, and the amazing way in which the sound would rise up from absolute silence—was a major attraction for early adopters. For “clean” was the mantra of the stereo geek. The sound of the music was the thing, and not the music itself. Frank’s record purchases—modern electronica to classical acoustic—would show off the quality of his sound system first and foremost. For those in search of the cleanest possible audio, the CD promised nirvana. A stereo-geek friend once told me, “I don’t care what I listen to as long as it’s clean.”

I was not a member of the geek tribe. My first stereo system was an inexpensive all-in-one unit, turntable and AM/FM radio, received as a gift from my parents circa 1975. (They still use the speakers.) When my dormitory roommate quit school in 1978, I bought his turntable, receiver, and speakers from him. The speakers in our living room today are the ones I bought in 1988.

In general, people care less about sound quality today than in the pre-CD era. Much of our listening is done through earbuds or computer speakers, and the quality of our downloaded MP3s is spotty, even on the ones purchased from reputable online stores. The sound geek is still with us, however. Today, he’s more likely to obsess over the quality of his home theater system than whatever he plays music on.

(Adapted from a piece in my WNEW.com archives.)

Wrecked in America

In mid-June 1966, the Rolling Stones released Aftermath. It’s notable because it’s the first Stones album to contain exclusively Jagger/Richards compositions, so it represents the same artistic leap forward as the Beatles’ album A Hard Day’s Night, the first Beatles album with no songs by outside writers. It’s also the first Stones album released in stereo, and the first one the band recorded exclusively in America, at RCA Studios in Hollywood during sessions in December 1965 and March 1966. Perhaps it was the California atmosphere that led the Stones to experiment with new sounds on the album, such as sitar and marimbas.

Also like A Hard Day’s Night, Aftermath appeared in different configurations in the UK and the United States. The American version was shorter—11 songs instead of 14—had different cover art, and used different mixes. The American version omitted “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Out of Time,” “What to Do,” and “Take It or Leave It,” but included “Paint It, Black,” the Stones’ current American single, as the first track. (This review from Allmusic.com sorts out the differences.)

“Mother’s Little Helper” would get a single-only release in the States in July, a couple of weeks after the release of Aftermath. The absence of the hot new single from the new album must have been a bit frustrating for Stones fans, although it didn’t keep them from buying either one. Aftermath became the Stones’ fifth straight top-10 album in America, and the first of three in a row to peak at #2 on the Billboard album chart. It contains several Stones classics in addition to “Paint It, Black” and “Mother’s Little Helper.” “Lady Jane” sounds like a number from Elizabethan minstrels 400 years removed in time from Chicago blues, while  “Goin’ Home” is an 11-minute jam. “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb” were controversial for the attitude they displayed toward women in an era of rising feminist consciousness.

Right after the album came out, the Stones came to America for a month-long concert tour. It would, in the style of that era, be a remarkably intense month, town after town, night after night, with precious little time off.

The tour was scheduled to begin in suburban Boston on Friday, June 24, but the Stones arrived in New York the day before. On that day, according to the fabulous Rolling Stones database for 1966, Bill Wyman did a session backing singer/songwriter John Hammond on a couple of blues numbers, joined by guitarist Robbie Robertson, eventually of the Band. The next day, the Stones held a press conference aboard a boat in the Hudson River to plug the tour. Another source reports that they spent some time with Bob Dylan that day also, but the Stones database doesn’t confirm it, so I dunno.

After the press conference, it was up to Lynn, Massachusetts, and a New Deal-era stadium called the Manning Bowl for the tour’s opening show. Sources conflict about what happened that night. One source says it was a rainy night, and 10 songs into the show, the Stones fled the weather. Many in the crowd of 8,000 decided to follow them, and police were forced to use tear gas to restore order. Another source says that the cops moved to calm crazed fans only about 20 minutes into the show, and used tear gas to move them back from the stage. On Thursday June 30 in Montreal, the show included another near-riot, this one because, according to Mick Jagger, theater security started randomly beating up fans.

After their first day off in 11 days, the Stones turned west, with a show on July 6 in Syracuse, then they visited Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago. While in Chicago, they jammed a bit with blues legend Jimmy Reed. A show in Houston on July 11 seems to have resulted in a fringe benefit: a supply of Mexican marijuana, which kept the band “wrecked every day,” according to Keith Richards, and papered over some of the ongoing conflict between Brian Jones and the others,. Three days of off-time in California likely helped the mood, too, in advance of the tour’s final leg: nine shows in eight days before a tour-ending hop to Honolulu. (Fixed to correct the chronology–Ed.)

Here’s an incredible artifact: 29 minutes of the Honolulu show—which may have been the whole thing—with pretty decent audio quality, from July 28, 1966.

(Combined and edited from a couple of posts in my WNEW.com archives.)

The Failure

Between the fall of 1974 and the end of 1975, it was Elton John’s world. Regular readers of this pondwater can recite the tale, which I’ve told many a time: greatest hits album, John Lennon guest appearance, Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” Captain Fantastic, Tommy, Rock of the Westies, etc. Everything he touched turned to gold, in other words. Except for one thing—which happened 38 years ago today.

Many successful people will tell you that to maintain success, you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing indefinitely. You must continue to take the kind of risks you did on your way up. And so in April 1975, just as Elton was about to release Captain Fantastic, he broke up his band. When he fired bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, he was sacking two musicians who had been with him since he was still living in his mother’s house.

Elton kept lead guitarist Davey Johnstone and formed a new band around him. Then, after a limited amount of rehearsal, the band headlined a daylong concert at Wembley Stadium in London on June 21, 1975. The starpower onstage at the concert, billed as Midsummer Music, is enough to make anybody wish he’d been there. The show opened with a British band called Stackridge, which had played a lot around the UK in the early ’70s and was on Elton’s record label, and then made way for acts of ever-increasing fame—Rufus, Joe Walsh, the Eagles, and the Beach Boys—before Elton closed the show.

On that day, Chaka Khan wore an enormous headdress, and the Eagles did what they usually did, which is to sound almost exactly like their records. By all accounts, the Beach Boys burned the place down, playing hit after sun-kissed hit on a hot summer day, and it’s possible that only Elton John in his prime could have followed them. But Elton had made a fateful decision: to play the entire Captain Fantastic album start to finish, most of which would have been unfamiliar to most of the crowd. At the end of the set, the band played “Pinball Wizard” (then a hit around the world) and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but by then, many in the crowd, sunburned, sated, and bored by Elton’s new music, had already left.

Elton John had laid it on the line and lost it. The risks were multiple: a new band on its first live gig, a high-profile show, with no way to know how his new music would go over. It’s pretty clear that the band understood the risks. At the end of the show, Elton told the crowd, “We’d like to thank you for being so appreciative, because we were shit-scared.”

Here’s “Writing” as performed on that day, with Elton’s thanks to the crowd at the end. It is, for some reason, accompanied by a photo of Elton with Cher, so enjoy.

(From a post in my WNEW.com archives, featuring stuff I wrote for them between 2008 and 2012.)

Taking Texas to the People

So much of what happened in the 70s, what we did, what we bought, what we loved, what seemed like a good idea, now looks like stuff rational people would have kept themselves from doing/buying/loving. It’s as though we were compelled, by the positions of the planets in the zodiac or by radiation creeping though the ozone layer that we were depleting with hair spray and deodorant, to do weird things. One of the weirdest was ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour.

The tour’s official name was “The Worldwide Texas Tour: Taking Texas to the People.” It was in support of the album Fandango, which had produced the hit single “Tush” in 1975. It traveled with 75 tons of equipment—the stage alone weighed 35 tons. The backdrop was shaped like Texas and could change in appearance depending on how it was lit. But what those who were there remember the most about the Worldwide Texas Tour was the live animals. The show traveled with a menagerie of indigenous Texas wildlife, including a longhorn steer, a buffalo, rattlesnakes, vultures, and even tarantulas, all of which were displayed onstage. The show employed a veterinarian and animal expert to look after the critters. Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, an occasional opening act on the tour, is said to have complained about stepping in manure backstage.

The tour began on May 29, 1976, in Winston-Salem North Carolina, on an all-day bill with Point Blank, Elvin Bishop, and Lynryd Skynyrd. ZZ Top played several big all-day bills that summer, in Atlanta in June, Memphis on the Fourth of July, and in California that August. Blue Öyster Cult was a frequent opening act, although Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon were on a handful of shows also.

Aerosmith was on the bill at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on June 12, 1976, a show that became an epic debacle and nearly a disaster. The show wasn’t scheduled to start until 4:30, but people arrived early, many carrying kegs of beer on their shoulders. In addition to alcohol, drugs, nudity, public sex, and gate-crashing were part of the pre-show entertainment. Paid attendance was 54,000, but estimates placed the total number of fans on hand at around 70,000. The stadium was vandalized, and restrooms were quickly declared unisex. Media reports said that a bottle-throwing melee during the show resulted in 250 injuries; a couple hundred fans rushed the cops after they arrested a man for drug possession. A fan swimming in a river near the stadium drowned.

At the time, Aerosmith was not necessarily a good fit for the ZZ Top crowd, who came to hear Southern boogie. And during Aerosmith’s set, a ZZ Top fan somehow got into a restricted area and cut the power to the stage, resulting in a silence that was quickly filled by cheering ZZ Top fans who wanted to see their heroes.

Ticket price for the Pittsburgh show, which also featured Point Blank and ran about eight hours: $8.75.

The Worldwide Texas Tour was on the road through the end of November, except for a three-week break in early September. In February 1977, the band went out again. By this time, they had released the album Tejas. The itinerary for the second leg was less intense and broken up by long stretches of downtime, finally ending in December. The band, exhausted by it all, wouldn’t release another album until 1979.

Here’s a clip of “Chevrolet” from a show in Maryland during November 1976. The quality is poor, but it’s nevertheless a look at the legendary Worldwide Texas Tour.

(Expanded from my WNEW.com archives.)