Chart 5: Snapshot

Thirty years ago this June, The Mrs. and I moved to a new place in Dubuque, Iowa. A big improvement over the old place, it was the bottom quarter of a house that had been subdivided into four apartments. Cozy living room, big dining room (where I kept the stereo, because there wasn’t space enough in the cozy living room), eat-in kitchen, tiny bedroom, tinier bathroom, great light, cool neighborhood full of old houses. We had quite a difficult time finding it, as I recall; we looked at lots of rentals and disagreed mightily over a few of them before deciding on it. Although we lived there only four months, it’s still my favorite of all the places we’ve ever lived.

I was the afternoon guy at KDTH, and while I had some shadowy idea of how I wanted my career to go, I didn’t have anything like a plan. I occasionally applied for jobs that interested me—like a gig at Magic 98, then assembling its original staff—but mostly I figured that I’d magically climb the market ladder simply because I was halfway good at what I did. (“Halfway good” was an optimistic assessment. I have only a couple of tapes from back then, and they’re quite the horror show.)

It’s not necessary to say that several of the songs on the radio that June take me back to that place and time. They’re on the survey from WXLK-FM in Roanoke, Virginia, dated June 5, 1983:

5. “Never Gonna Let You Go”/Sergio Mendes (up from 9). We were playing this amidst the country hits on KDTH, during quite literally the last few months in which such a thing could become a monster, multi-format hit.

11. “I’m Still Standing”/Elton John (up from 12). I bought myself a new turntable shortly after we moved into the new place, replacing the old Sansui I had inherited from my dormitory roommate when he quit school. It served me until sometime in the late 90s.

27. “Every Breath You Take”/Police (debut). I can see us in that kitchen making dinner one night, radio on, and this plays, when it was still very new.

30. “Jeopardy”/Greg Kihn Band (down from 17). More than any other record on the radio at that time, “Jeopardy” made me want to be playing rock ‘n’ roll again. But I was playing mostly country music on KDTH. Our FM sister station, D93, was continuing to rock, however, as it had since sometime in 1975. But it had some competition now—the beautiful-music station across town had switched to a Top 40 format with live jocks sometime in the last year, and it made automated D93 sound clunky and outdated. If I’m recalling correctly, the strategy at D93 was to ignore the competition and trust that the eye-popping audience shares it had enjoyed for years would by some alchemy continue, but they didn’t. And by the summer of 1983, there would be a change in format and call letters—and the addition of live jocks.

Add: “Snapshot”/Sylvia. Today, country music is evolving into a weird mono-genre, with big rock riffs, rapped lyrics, Tourette’s-like invocation of the same clichés about rural life, boats, and beer, and practically nothing to do with the ostensible roots of the music. But 30 years ago, country was nearly swallowed up by a different kind of pop, almost twang-free and perfectly calibrated for multiple radio formats. There’s nothing country about “Snapshot” except the section in which it was filed in the record store (and the writers of “What a Fool Believes,” Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, should have gotten a cut of the royalties). It made #5 on Billboard‘s country chart, but even though it’s a near-copy of Sylvia’s earlier crossover hit, “Nobody,” which had gone to #15 on the Hot 100, “Snapshot” missed the big chart altogether.

It’s an utterly charming pop song, however, with a video that is as 1983 a thing as you’ll see today.

Meet Normal Norman

Forty years ago, a guy named Hurricane Smith briefly became an unlikely pop star when “Oh Babe What Would You Say” became a smash in Britain and America. It’s another one of those oddball 70s hits for which there’s no explanation. I adored it when I was 13, and I still do. As it turns out, however, Smith’s claim to fame is much stronger than a single indelible hit record. He was present at the creation of some of the most important music of the 20th century.

In 1959, Smith became an apprentice engineer and tape operator at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. He was 35 years old at the time. EMI had a rule at the time that no one over age 28 could apply for an apprentice position. To get his, Smith simply lied about his age.

Three years later, Smith was at the controls when a new group made its first recordings at Abbey Road, handling the chores while his boss, producer George Martin, was elsewhere in the building. He thought the musicians looked like “louts” with funny haircuts, but he liked their sound enough to summon Martin to the studio to “see what he thinks of this.” What impressed him would become “Love Me Do,” the first single for the Beatles. Between 1962 and 1965, Smith engineered 150 Beatles recordings, positioning microphones, setting recording levels, and operating the studio equipment. For his low-key manner, he was nicknamed “Normal Norman” by John Lennon.

Smith eventually got promoted to an executive position with EMI, where one night in 1966, his duties took him to London’s famed UFO Club to hear a band called Pink Floyd. After signing them, he intended to produce them, although the band resisted, since they already had a producer they liked. But during the first session at EMI, Paul McCartney stopped by the studio and told the band, “You won’t go wrong with this bloke as your producer.” Smith produced Pink Floyd’s single “See Emily Play” and their first three albums, even though he claimed not to fully understand their psychedelic style. Nevertheless, Roger Waters said, “I liked him enormously.”

In 1971, Smith began his own recording career, adopting the stage name Hurricane Smith and cutting songs inspired by the old-fashioned English music-hall style. The single “Don’t Let It Die” reached #2 in Britain, but “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was a smash in both Britain and the United States in the winter of 1973. He had originally cut “Oh Babe” as a demo to shop around to other artists for them to record, but when a fellow producer told him it sounded like a hit, he put it out on his own. It was the high-water mark of his career as an artist. He would later return to behind-the-scenes roles as producer and engineer.

Smith became a horse breeder in retirement, although he recorded an album of songs and spoken-word reminiscences about his career in 2003, at age 80. Smith died in 2008, just past his 85th birthday.

Because it is awesome, here’s Hurricane Smith on The Tonight Show in 1973 doing “Oh Babe What Would You Say.”

(Expanded from a post in my WNEW.com archives.)

Stoned on Sullivan

Ed Sullivan did not care much for the Rolling Stones, but he knew that his audience did, and so he brought them on his long-running Sunday night CBS variety show not just once, but six times between 1964 and 1969.

The first time, October 25, 1964, Stones fans went so crazy after “Around and Around” that Sullivan had to ask for quiet to continue the show. After “Time Is on My Side” at the end of the show, Sullivan followed an old showbiz reflex by saying, “Come on, let them hear it!” No more unnecessary exhortation has ever been given to any audience anywhere. The resultant screaming made it difficult for Sullivan to talk briefly to Mick Jagger and plug the next week’s guests. The crazed audience disturbed him; so did the Stones’ dress and deportment, which caused a few viewers to write and complain. After the show, Sullivan is said to have remarked, “I promise you, they’ll never be back on our show.”

Shrewd as he was, however, Sullivan was willing to listen when the Stones’ management approached him about another appearance. But he wanted something in return: “Before even discussing the possibility of a contract, I would like to learn from you,” he told them, “whether your young men have reformed in the matter of dress and shampoo.” They had. Here they are on May 2, 1965, wearing jackets and performing to an audience far less amped that the one that had greeted them seven months before.

On February 13, 1966, the Stones appeared for a third time. This time, the show’s director cut to screaming girls in the audience as the band performed “Satisfaction,” which had been a #1 hit the previous summer, and he focused mostly on Mick in closeup. Later in the show, Jagger and Keith Richards performed “As Tears Go By” as a duo, and the band closed with “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

On September 11, 1966, the Stones were among the guests for Sullivan’s season-opening show. Heedless of their superstar status, Ed ruled them with an iron hand, demanding that the members wash their hair before going on. But they were rebellious rock stars, too, and so they refused Ed’s edict to stay in the theater between the dress rehearsal and the live show. They ended up having to escape from a mob of fans in the street before performing “Paint It Black, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby,” and “Lady Jane.” Sullivan told the audience, “You’re screaming much better this year.”

So: after four appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and with a firm understanding of both the show’s value to them and the quirks of its host, you might think the Stones would cruise through later appearances without a hitch. But their January 15, 1967, appearance was the most rebellious of all. On that night, Sullivan did not want the Stones to sing the title line of their hit, “let’s spend the night together.” He told them to sing “let’s spend some time together” instead. Jagger agreed, but was annoyed when the show’s talent coordinators kept reminding him about it during the dress rehearsal. On the air that night, he did as he was told, but he exaggerated the line and rolled his eyes as he sang it.

(It’s often said that Mick agreed to sing the altered lyric, but then sang the original lyric on the air. Not true. That was Jim Morrison on “Light My Fire,” eight months later.)

It would be nearly three years before the Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for a final time. On that occasion, Ed went to them, flying to California where the band taped performances of “Gimme Shelter,” “Love in Vain,” and “Honky Tonk Women.” On November 23, 1969, Mick “laid a divorcee in New York City” without incident, Keef looked spectral, the audience screamed, Ed promised to visit the band backstage later in the week, and the Sixties were nearly over.

(Put together from a series of posts in my WNEW.com archives.)

This Is Us

(This post, edited a bit, is from five years ago today, when The Mrs. and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. You can do the math.)

[Before our 25th anniversary] we went through a lot of pictures so we could put together a montage of the last 25 years, which have whizzed by us in an eyelash. . . .

I had a lot more hair. A lot. Staggering amounts of hair, on my head and on my face. I am positively bearlike in more than a few of the photos. I think I was fatter early on than I would be later in the 80s and 90s, although it might have been that I was less careful to hide it. A few of those pictures show The Mrs. with the waist-length hair she had when I first met her. Others show her during her unfortunate Afro phase, and with the big hair everybody had in the 80s. Some of our fashion choices then are not ones we’d make now—no more matching sweaters, for example—but they’re no more egregious than the choices you were making in those bygone years, I’m sure.

We also found pictures of our parents that had been taken for their 25th wedding anniversaries. “I don’t feel like I’m as old as our parents look in those pictures,” she said. Neither do I. Their generation, high-school graduates of the pre-rock 50s, often looked older younger, if you know what I mean. Page through a high-school yearbook from the 50s and you’ll see people who look 18-going-on-40, ready to jump into lifelong employment selling insurance or raising a family. Which many of them did. (One of my favorite pictures of my late mother-in-law breaks that mold; in it, she looks precisely like the young, trim, and athletic woman she was at the time, and not like a matron in waiting.)

We’ve had nine addresses, in six towns, in three states, so we found ourselves looking at backgrounds, too: “Is that Central Avenue or Jefferson Street?” “Remember the kitchen in that place?” We looked back on eventful vacations, wild weekends, old friends, departed relatives, and other characters and events of our life together.

We’ve upgraded to digital cameras and cellphone picture-snapping now, so we’ll be preserving our next quarter-century’s memories in digital form. But just as there’s tactile pleasure in handling old vinyl albums, there’s similar pleasure in flipping through actual photographs. They come in different sizes and shapes; some are bent or faded or torn; some have thumbtack holes where they once hung on a bulletin board. As I hold them, I actually find myself recalling not just the events shown in the photos, but where they used to hang and other times I’ve handled the photos. It’s all very meta, but whatever it is, I don’t think it will be the same with pixels and bytes.

In 2006, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris released All the Roadrunning, an album of adult love songs that consciously distanced itself from the most of the usual moon-June cliches. One of the finest tunes on the album is about flipping through old pictures and seeing your life reflected in them—an appropriate song for this day.

The Love Song

Once again this week, we are short on time, energy, and inspiration at this blog. If the song below hadn’t popped up on shuffle this morning, there probably wouldn’t be anything here today, either.

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby wrote:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

There’s a corollary to this idea that we learn “heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss” from pop songs. It’s that we also learn about love through them. Yet most of what we learn is some wispy, moon/June cookie-cutter emotion that’s miles wide and fractions of an inch deep. Nevertheless, songwriters and singers keep recycling the same platitudes, and listeners keep lapping ’em up as if they were new.

Do we listen to pop music because we’re stupid about love, or are we stupid about love because we listen to pop music?

There’s got to be more to love than the stuff most love songs are about. And there’s got to be more to love than Valentine’s Day, frankly. More than cards and flowers and chocolates and the other totems we’re told to spend money on today. There’s got to be more to it than sex. (Which singers, songwriters, and listeners frequently confuse with love—right?)

So what’s love supposed to be about? What’s a love lesson worth listening to, one worth learning?

This: “The Dutchman,” popularized by Steve Goodman but written by a fellow Chicago folksinger, Mike Smith. This is the greatest love song ever written, because Smith understands that love, to be worth anything, has to endure through everything: not just the tribulations of thwarted infatuation, but the most difficult barriers life can put up. Only when it can do that is it a love really worth singing about.


Here, There, and Nowhere

It’s odd.

In 1976, Elton John released Here and There, an album of live recordings from 1974—one side from a royal benefit show in May and the other from the famous Thanksgiving show at Madison Square Garden. It’s got all the earmarks of a quickie, with only nine songs and no big single (although “Love Song” was pressed onto 45s for radio airplay, and deservedly got some). It got up to to #4 on the Billboard 200 album chart in the summer, but was largely forgotten after “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” began roaring up the singles chart.

The original Here and There has liner notes by British DJ Paul Gambaccini describing both shows. He says of the MSG show: “On the uniquely American holiday these thousands were witness not only to Kiki Dee’s opening act but Ray Cooper’s first New York appearance with the Elton John Band.” And also: “Giants were walking the earth.” But there is not one damn word about the giant among giants who was walking the Garden that night: John Lennon, paying off his fabled wager with Elton, who had challenged him to come sing onstage if “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” hit #1.

It’s odd. Surely John Lennon meant a hell of a lot more to “these thousands” than either Kiki Dee or Ray Cooper did, both in 1974 and in 1976. And the songs he performed with Elton and the Muscle Shoals Horns were much more significant than mere live versions of “Crocodile Rock” or “Bennie and the Jets.” I have not been able to determine why the Lennon tracks were left off the original release—legal reasons, if I had to guess—but why his appearance would go unmentioned in the liner notes rhapsodizing about the show, I cannot fathom.

Lennon sang three songs with Elton that night: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” a couple of weeks after it was the #1 single in America; “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which was Elton’s new single; and “I Saw Her Standing There.” The latter was released in 1975 as the flipside of “Philadelphia Freedom,” but as best I can tell, the other two remained unreleased until 1981, when they appeared with “I Saw Her Standing There” on an EP released in Europe. “I Saw Her Standing There” was also on Elton’s Rare Masters box set released in 1992. It wasn’t until the superb CD reissue of Here and There in 1995 that all three tracks appeared together as they were heard on November 28, 1974.

Film of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” surfaced last year on Elton’s website. It was shot by a fan from the 12th row—a fan seated not far away from Yoko Ono, who is prominently featured in it. The video has clearly undergone a great deal of post-production and the audio is dubbed in from Here and There, but all that is forgivable considering the magnitude of what it shows.

On Thanksgiving night, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was days away from its Hot 100 debut, and the live performance from that night is marvelous. (Lennon is less heavily featured on the studio version, billed as Dr. Winston O’Boogie.) But “I Saw Her Standing There” is the greatest of the three. Elton and Lennon joyfully roar out the lyrics and lead guitarist Davey Johnstone burns the place to the ground. The best part of it, however, might be Lennon’s brief speech beforehand: “We tried to think of a number to finish off with so’s I could get out of here and be sick.”

Later that night, of course, John and Yoko would reconcile after their separation, and he would spend the rest of his life a devoted family man. It would be the last time he ever appeared onstage.