(Pictured: a farm near Madison, Wisconsin. Photo taken in 1945.)
With the world shutting down over coronavirus and people planning to stay inside (with no sports to watch), it’s a good time for me to put up a new podcast episode. It’s one of those I warned you about—one that has nothing to do with music or radio. If you want to catch up on the rest, eight other episodes are available at the usual spots: Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, and my archive.
If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. Radio consumed me before my 11th birthday. The summer I turned 17 I got a job in town, and I never looked back. Farming is the hardest work I can imagine, and it’s not just physically hard. Your success depends on the whims of forces you cannot control, and the weather is only one of them. You have to be a little bit of an expert in everything, from horticulture to veterinary science to engine maintenance to accounting to animal husbandry to other things most people are not expert in one of, let alone a dozen or more.
At the time Dad sold his cows, he had milked cows twice a day, seven days a week, for over 50 years. Seven days a week. He milked cows in the morning, did other chores and/or planted and/or harvested crops all day, and then milked cows again that night. He worked maybe 15 hours a day, six days a week. If we went somewhere as a family on a Sunday, it wasn’t until after the morning milking was done, and we had to be home in time for the evening milking. (He worked only six or eight hours on those days.) If Dad had the flu, he milked the cows. If it was 20 below, he milked the cows. If it was 95 in the shade, he milked the cows.
It’s no wonder I never aspired to that life. It’s a wonder anyone did, or does.
The farm is a fine place to be from, however. I suspect it shaped me in ways I barely realize, even now, 40 years after I moved away.
The latest episode of my podcast is two separate stories linked by the farm. The first is about some of my years as a 4H kid. Even if you were not burning to be a farmer yourself in that time and place, 4H was what you did. I stayed with it long after I had decided farming was not for me. The second is about the farm itself. You and I will take a long walk around the place. I’ll show you what’s still there, what used to be there, and talk about what I remember.
Last fall, when I asked you to vote for the episode you’d like to hear next, this one very nearly finished first in the poll. So listen below, and let me know what you think of it.
(Pictured: the Bangles.)
On the weekend of February 22, 1986, the radio station I worked for carried American Top 40, and here’s some of what was on the show.
39. “Manic Monday”/Bangles. If this isn’t one of the most beloved hits of the 80s, and I’m not sure that it is, it ought to be.
36. “Go Home”/Stevie Wonder
35. “Let’s Go All the Way”/Sly Fox
3. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”/Billy Ocean
During the 80s, Casey frequently filed “special reports.” Some of them were timely, as in the bit about the forthcoming opening of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park that ran between Stevie Wonder and Sly Fox. But some of them aren’t worth the time, as in the lengthy bit about the longest river in the world before Billy Ocean’s song (which was from the soundtrack of the now-forgotten movie Jewel of the Nile).
38. “Night Moves”/Marilyn Martin
34. “Another Night”/Aretha Franklin
25. “He’ll Never Love You (Like I Do)”/Freddie Jackson
21. “Digital Display”/Ready for the World
It’s possible that my station didn’t play Marilyn, Aretha, and Freddie—the syndicator providing our music didn’t add everything that made the Top 40, often omitting big R&B crossover hits. I remember “Digital Display” only because I’m still trying to understand the popularity of Ready for the World, who somehow got to #1 in 1985 with “Oh Sheila,” which is three minutes of quite literally nothing.
35. “(How to Be a) Millionaire”/ABC. Sweet mama “(How to Be a) Millionaire” is exhausting. You rarely hear people trying so hard to be whatever the hell they think they are. (And I hate those parentheses in the title, too.)
34. “Say You, Say Me”/Lionel Richie
20. “The Sun Always Shines on TV”/a-ha
Consider that these songs were all likely written on a piano or single guitar first, and only later turned into echo-drenched epics consumed by their own self-importance. Lionel gets away with it by being likeable, but as I listened to “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” I found myself wondering how many radio stations added it solely because “Take on Me” had been a big hit and not because anybody actually liked it. I have already told you what I think of “Russians.”
30. “Spies Like Us”/Paul McCartney. The theme song from an extremely minor Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd film, this was Paul’s last Top-10 hit until “FourFive Seconds” with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2016.
Less than four weeks after the Challenger disaster, Casey noted that AT40 had received many letters suggesting Long Distance Dedications to the spacecraft and its crew. (I did a full-body dry heave on spec imagining the worst possibilities.) The letter he chose was from cadets at the Air Force Academy, who told him that the son of the shuttle commander was a fellow cadet, and that they all felt a personal loss. They suggested “Come Sail Away” by Styx, which Casey introduced by quoting a lyric line: “They climbed aboard their starship / They headed for the skies.” Which gets it right. (That he used the rarely-heard-anymore 45 edit of the song was a bonus.)
Among the other features on the show, Casey answered a listener question about “heavy metal acts with the most chart hits.” His definition of “heavy metal” is probably neither yours nor mine, but here are the top five: Deep Purple Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Aerosmith, and at #1, KISS (with 18, including eight in the Top 40).
13. “I’m Your Man”/Wham
6. “The Sweetest Taboo”/Sade
I don’t think either of these got much airplay after they dropped off the Top 40, although “The Sweetest Taboo” is pretty good.
9. “Burning Heart”/Survivor
8. “Silent Running”/Mike and the Mechanics
7. “Life in a Northern Town”/Dream Academy
Here are more records on which the echo chamber is the star. Despite that, “Life in a Northern Town” is probably the best thing on the show.
Two segments after “Burning Heart,” Survivor is back for a Long Distance Dedication of “The Search Is Over.” I was always taught to maintain approximately an hour of separation between records by the same artist, a rule that still holds in a lot of places today, but this represented approximately 15 minutes of real time. It’s a strange choice considering the LDD could have run anywhere in the show.
1 “How Will I Know”/Whitney Houston. This record still gets daily airplay on adult-contemporary radio stations, which means somebody must want to hear it again, but not me.
After three solid years in a row for Top 40 music, 1986 represents a definite drop-off, although any year in which Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Paul McCartney are still making hits, and in which superstars like George Michael and Whitney Houston are on the way up, has something going for it.
Thirty-five years ago this month, “We Are the World” detonated in American popular culture. Here’s a reboot of some stuff I’ve written about it.
KIIS in Los Angeles, WINZ in Miami, and WHYI in Fort Lauderdale charted “We Are the World” at #1 within a week of its release on March 7, but it did not hit the Hot 100 until two weeks later, on March 23, when it entered at #21—astoundingly high by the standards of the time. It went to #5 the next week—the first single to reach the top 5 within two weeks since “Let It Be” 15 years before. For the week of April 6, it went to #2, held out of the top spot by Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” which was spending its second week at #1.
“We Are the World” finally reached #1 for the week of April 13, 1985. It topped the charts for four weeks, until Madonna’s “Crazy for You” bumped it to #2 for the week of May 11. . . . The song also appeared on Billboard‘s Rock Tracks and Hot Country Singles charts. According to Joel Whitburn’s accounting, it was the #2 single of 1985 behind Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” It would reach #1 in 15 other countries.
That spring, I was program director of an automated Top 40 station. Our music was shipped to us from a programming service, and I had been told that based on the company’s schedules, “We Are the World” wouldn’t be added to our regular rotation until early April. This was simply not good enough, so I went down to our local record store and bought a copy. When I brought it back to the office and set it on my desk, it promptly snapped in two, the only time in my life I’ve ever broken a record that way. So I went and got another one, and I had it on the air within 15 minutes, sometime during that first week of its release.
Not long ago, the full seven-minute version of “We Are the World” popped up on shuffle, so I decided to live-blog it. . . .
0:00: Jingly keyboard noise, then an orchestra blat followed by stately low brass, like something in a documentary about Washington DC, a camera rolling past statues and columned buildings, all heartwarming and patriotic. (Lionel Richie has said that he and co-writer Michael Jackson were going for a national-anthem feel.) Then that jingly keyboard noise comes back, and the echoing production that was all over everything in the 80s.
0:54: Kenny Rogers gets a line less than minute in. Clients of high-powered artist manager Ken Kragen, who helped organized the event, got priority treatment.
1:18: And there’s Michael Jackson, coming in like an angel, followed by a voice I bet I recognized in 1985 but not now, until I looked it up: Diana Ross.
1:55: There’s the Dionne Warwick/Willie Nelson duet we didn’t know we never needed until we heard it and realized, nah.
2:20: And there’s Bruce Springsteen in full my-voice-is-shot-from-touring wail. . . .
2:48: At the bridge we reach Peak 80s, with Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes singing together.
3:09: Full choir. It’s weird that Dan Aykroyd is in there somewhere, like he sneaked in with the craft-service people, then stood at the back hoping nobody would notice. True, he once had a #1 album (Briefcase Full of Blues), but still.
3:48: Bob Dylan invents his own melody line, of course.
4:02: The choir is clapping now. It’s remarkable how even though Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, the Jacksons, and Tina Turner are all on this record, it’s still so white it makes Bobby Vinton sound like George Clinton.
4:27: Ray fking Charles, everybody. . . .
5:10: Has anybody ever explained what “we’re saving our own lives” is supposed to mean? If indeed we are the world, and we could indeed save our own lives, we wouldn’t even need USA for Africa. According to this absolutely golden Rolling Stone piece on the making of “We Are the World,” the line was originally “we’re taking our own lives.” Reporter Gavin Edwards wrote, “Richie and Jackson changed it when they recorded the demo so that the group wouldn’t seem to be unduly congratulating themselves for advocating mass suicide.”
7:07: Stevie, Bruce, Brother Ray, and the rest fade out to silence.
Playing “We Are the World” on the air was exhilarating the first few times. You knew you were part of an enormous cultural phenomenon, you were giving your listeners exactly what they wanted to hear (for they were caught up in the phenomenon too), and you even felt like you were personally helping feed starving Ethiopians. On April 5, 1985, over 8,000 radio stations around the world (including mine) joined in a simultaneous airing of “We Are the World.” At that moment, it was hot like nothing since “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The feeling didn’t last, however. By the time it fell off the charts in July after over four months of ubiquity, radio stations were ready to be rid of it.
(Pictured: Donna Summer onstage in February 1976.)
I have written many times before about the warm and secure family feeling I get when I think back on the end of 1975 (always keeping in mind that it may have been different than I remember it). Regular readers of this pondwater know how I am about 1976; it’s my favorite year, and I’m pretty much irrational about all it represents to me. But there’s something about the winter of 1976 that’s different. As I listen to the hits from that season, one after another, there’s something dark there, something lurking at the edges. On the threshold of my 16th birthday, something had changed within the previous couple of months—and it would change again within the next couple of months. What it was I cannot remember, nor can I hazard an intelligent guess.
Here are some notes about the American Top 40 show from February 21, 1976, in which I will try not to repeat myself any more than one might when one gets back on one’s usual BS.
40. “Hold Back the Night”/Trammps. “Hold Back the Night” is really good, and it deserved better than to peak at #35.
39. “Renegade”/Michael Murphey. Casey mentions some of the stars appearing with Murphey on “Renegade”: Charlie Daniels, John McEuen and Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson, and John Denver. Kind of makes you wonder why the record isn’t better.
35. “Tangerine”/Salsoul Orchestra
29. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
24. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard
23. “Junk Food Junkie”/Larry Groce
17. “Baby Face”/Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps
That’s a lot of novelty records on one show. “Tangerine” and “Baby Face” qualify, as they were disco remakes of then-familiar songs from the big-band era, and they seem qualitatively different from the other covers on the show. And once again, I marvel at how profoundly awful “The White Knight” is. Its southern/rural/trucker/CB stereotyping is so meatheaded, and its attempts at humor so lame, that it holds its presumed audience in contempt.
EXTRA: “Mr. Tambourine Man”/Byrds
Snipped from the show and offered as an extra during the recent repeat, this allows Casey to tell the story of how producer Terry Melcher didn’t believe the Byrds’ musicianship was strong enough for them to play on their debut single, so he brought in the Wrecking Crew. Casey says Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell played on the record, although the song’s ringing, iconic guitar riff was performed by Roger McGuinn.
31. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Casey says that “This was #1 for nine weeks in England. It must have something going for it.” It’s up two spots here in its eighth week on the Hot 100.
19. “Somewhere in the Night”/Helen Reddy. If this song is at all familiar to you, it’s probably in a 1978 version by Barry Manilow. Reddy’s version is not good; it’s sung in a stiff, whitebread manner that makes Manilow’s version swing.
15. “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford)”/Elton John. I like Elton’s Rock of the Westies album more than a lot of people do, but this song works better in the context of the album than it does standing alone.
7. “All By Myself”/Eric Carmen. Carmen famously plundered Rachmaninoff for this record, but Casey explains that he came by it legitimately. When other kids his age were playing baseball, he was studying classical music, although his tastes changed after he heard the Beatles.
5. “Love Machine”/Miracles. I appreciate 70s cheese more than most people do, but by the time I got to this point in the show, I’d had enough.
4. “Love to Love You Baby”/Donna Summer
3. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate
Hearing Hot Chocolate’s playful, sexy groove alongside “Love to Love You Baby” made the latter sound exploitative and deeply wrong. I’m pretty sure that I hated it more in that moment than at any other time since I was 16.
Maybe the darkness is coming from inside the house.
Before playing #3, Casey reviews the tops of the other charts. They include “Sweet Thing” by Rufus on the soul chart, “Good Hearted Woman” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on the country chart, and Desire by Bob Dylan on the album chart. There were giants walking the earth in those days.
2. “Theme From S.W.A.T“/Rhythm Heritage
1. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
These two songs will trade places the next week after Simon spent three weeks at #1. By the time its theme song hit #1, S.W.A.T. had already been cancelled, and its last first-run episode would air in early April.
(Pictured: Team USA and the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics, February 27, 1960.)
February 28, 1960, is a Sunday. This afternoon, closing ceremonies are held at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. One day after a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Soviet Union, the United States wins the gold medal in ice hockey, scoring six third-period goals to beat Czechoslovakia, 9-4. The only other event held today is ski jumping. The Soviets won the medal race with 21, including seven gold; the United States takes 10 medals, three of which are gold. In addition to the hockey gold, Americans David Jenkins and Carol Heiss won gold in men’s and women’s figure skating.
The New York Times publishes a brief item on an order issued by top Air Force brass regarding unidentified flying objects. They are to be treated as “‘serious business’ directly related to the nation’s defense.” Also today, newspapers report on the first test of the 1960 presidential campaign, the New Hampshire primary, one week from Tuesday. Also in the Sunday papers: stories on Friday’s surprise announcement by Britain’s Princess Margaret that she plans to marry a commoner, photographer Antony Armstrong Jones, and on the demolition of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, which began this past week. On a visit to Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at three different churches. Tomorrow, he will return to Montgomery, Alabama, and surrender to authorities on a charge of perjury regarding purportedly fraudulent tax returns. In Vancouver, British Columbia, future model Dorothy Stratten is born. In rural Wisconsin, after the cows are milked tonight, a young farm couple goes to the hospital for the birth of their first child, whose due date was last Thursday.
At Southern States Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, Richard Petty wins today’s NASCAR race on the half-mile dirt track. It’s his first NASCAR win. Three games are played in the National Basketball Association today. The league-leading Boston Celtics get 27 points each from Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and 26 from Bill Sharman to beat the New York Knicks 129-125. The Philadelphia Warriors come from behind to beat the Detroit Pistons 113-111; Warriors’ rookie sensation Wilt Chamberlain plays all 48 minutes and scores 23 points. Also today, the Western-Division leading St. Louis Hawks beat the last-place Cincinnati Royals 122-105. The NBA’s other two teams, the Syracuse Nationals and Minneapolis Lakers, are idle today. Two games are played in the National Hockey League: the Chicago Black Hawks beat Detroit 5-2 and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat New York 5-3.
On TV tonight, the networks roll out a number of westerns: Colt .45, Maverick, The Lawman, The Rebel, and The Overland Trail. Not quite a western is The Alaskans, an adventure show starring Roger Moore. Ed Sullivan welcomes Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Della Reese, and a couple of his regular guests, comedians Corbett Monica and Senor Wences. On What’s My Line, panelists include Arlene Francis and Ben Gazzara, and the mystery guest is singer Peggy Lee. Other shows on TV tonight include Lassie, General Electric Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Loretta Young Show.
At WOKY in Milwaukee, “Wild One” by Bobby Rydell takes over the #1 position on the new Hit Parader Survey, knocking “Handy Man” by Jimmy Jones to #2. “He’ll Have to Go” by Jim Reeves, “Harlem Nocturne” by the Viscounts, and “Theme From A Summer Place” by Percy Faith make strong moves within the Top 10; “Theme From ‘A Summer Place'” is concluding its first week at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Also in the WOKY Top 10: Jack Scott’s “What in the World’s Come Over You,” “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning, “Let It Be Me” by the Everly Brothers, the Four Preps’ “Down by the Station,” and “Beatnik Fly” by Johnny and the Hurricanes. Elsewhere on the chart: Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea,” “Running Bear” by Johnny Preston, “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, and Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love.”
Perspective From the Present: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy won their New Hampshire primary races in undramatic fashion. Martin Luther King would be freed on bail after returning home and acquitted of perjury charges during a spring trial. Richard Petty would win 199 more times before retiring in 1992 as the greatest stock-car racer of them all. Wilt Chamberlain would be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and its Most Valuable Player for the 1959-60 season. In 1980, Dorothy Stratten would become Playboy‘s Playmate of the Year and be murdered by her estranged husband. “Theme From A Summer Place” would spend nine weeks at #1 in Billboard. And I would be born on the 29th, four days late and a little behind ever since.