A Rose From Days Gone By

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(Pictured: Helen Reddy at the Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21, 2017, at which she performed “I Am Woman.”)

I know just enough about the concept of synchronicity to be stupid about it. The way I understand it, there are no coincidences. Everything is connected. Once you start noticing the way coincidences cluster, you’ll see clusters all the time.

For example: first thing yesterday morning I found myself looking at a post in the archives of this blog that mentioned Helen Reddy’s hit “I Am Woman.” A few minutes later, I came across this excellent piece from NPR on this history and impact of “I Am Woman,” which was climbing the charts 46 years ago this week. And a few minutes after that, from a totally different source, I learned that yesterday was Helen Reddy’s 77th birthday.

So I postponed what I was planning to put up today, and you’re gonna read about Helen Reddy instead.

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“I Didn’t Know You Were Gonna Kill It!”

In 2009, I wrote about It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and every year in October that post gets a little bump in traffic. So here’s a reboot of it, with some additional stuff added.

Every time I watch The Great Pumpkin, I wonder how much of it goes sailing over the heads not merely of today’s kids, but of their parents’, too. . . . “I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Never mind the vocabulary itself; today, placing such high stakes on sincerity versus hypocrisy seems about as quaint as worrying about the commercialization of Christmas, which is the point around which A Charlie Brown Christmas revolves.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the third animated Peanuts special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas and the little-seen Charlie Brown’s All Stars, and like its two predecessors, it was among the highest-rated programs on television the week it aired—nearly 50 percent of the viewing audience watched the premiere on October 27, 1966. It won’t draw that kind of numbers when it’s rebroadcast on ABC this year, although it does well enough. If you plan to watch the network broadcast, keep in mind that when the show was originally produced, it ran 25 minutes. The standard for commercial TV today is 21 or 22, and sometimes less in “children’s” programming, so you may not be seeing the whole thing. According to Wikipedia, ABC once cut out the scene in which Lucy tries to get Charlie Brown to kick the football, one of the classic bits in the history of the Peanuts strip. That’s like trying to shorten “Stairway to Heaven” by taking out the guitar solo.

There’s a lot to love about The Great Pumpkin—the early scenes featuring golden fall leaves are gorgeous, and all throughout the show the backgrounds are rich with shades of gray and purple. And of course, there’s the music. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack features of Vince Guaraldi’s cool, contemporary jazz. The choice to score the Christmas special with jazz hadn’t pleased CBS when that special was first delivered, but its success ensured that all future specials would feature the same sort of thing.

The soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas is an album that sounds good even in July. It has always been a mystery to me why there has never been a Great Pumpkin soundtrack album. The full-band version of “Linus and Lucy” that backs the kids’ search for a Halloween pumpkin has been on my most-wanted list for years; the atmospheric music that underscores Snoopy’s World War I adventure behind enemy lines (a piece called “Breathless”) is much-sought-after by fans of the specials and of Guaraldi. Although Guaraldi recorded a version of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the 1968 album Oh Good Grief!, nothing else from the special ever saw official release.

Here in 2018, however, The Great Pumpkin soundtrack is finally out—but buyer beware. According to the Peanuts-centric website FiveCentsPlease, the soundtrack is just that: the music and effects track from the special, and not original master tapes from the soundtrack sessions like A Charlie Brown Christmas. That means you’ll hear Linus rolling the giant pumpkin and Lucy stabbing it; when the kids are getting their candy, you’ll hear it dropping into the bags; Snoopy’s trek across the French countryside will have all the accompanying sound effects with it as well. Tapes of the original soundtrack sessions from 1966 are apparently lost, so the soundtrack release has been sourced from the TV audio. That means it’s in mono, and although it’s been cleaned up as much as possible by Craft Recordings, the quality is still not great. The CD is being sold at Amazon for $11.98, but it runs only about 20 minutes. So there are lots of reasons not to buy it, and you don’t need to. It’s on various streaming sites and at YouTube in its entirety.

But the disappointment of its official soundtrack doesn’t detract from the greatness of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. While it lacks the philosophical heft of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it has a level of sophistication and subtlety that’s missing from broadcast TV today. When it’s rebroadcast this coming Friday night, it’ll be the smartest thing on any of the broadcast networks—by a mile.

Closer to It

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(Pictured: Brian Auger with Julie Driscoll and Aretha Franklin, 1968.)

I am just off another couple of days spent on the road, listening to music from my USB stick. Here’s a little bit about some of it.

Closer to It!/Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. When other people play air guitar, I am an air keyboard player. It has less to do with the two years of piano lessons I took than it does with how much I love the sound of keyboard instruments, including the Fender-Rhodes electric piano, the Hammond B3 organ, and the Moog synthesizer. Auger plays keyboards on Closer to It! with the showy virtuosity of a guitar hero, but he never makes just noise. On the album-opening “Whenever You’re Ready,” the organ is the rock-solid foundation of the track. On “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend,” the electric piano rocks like crazy. Auger’s not a technically great singer, but he makes it work, especially on “Compared to What” and on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” (Hear the whole album here.)

Digression: I first heard of Closer to It! in a used-record store one Saturday afternoon, along with my friend Lance. This particular store played music at ear-bleeding levels, and on this particular day, it wasn’t anything either of us, then both in our 40s, would have been interested in. We’d been there awhile when the store stereo went silent, long enough for the clerk to put on something new. After he did, Lance and I made eye contact across a rack of albums and took off for the front of the store at the same moment to find out what we were hearing. The clerk wouldn’t sell the store’s copy, but by the end of the weekend I was on the Internet searching for it, and within a couple of weeks, I had my own copy of Closer to It!—a Spanish CD release that came in the mail from actual dang Spain.

City to City (Collector’s Edition)/Gerry Rafferty. I wrote about this edition of City to City a few years ago, and I was largely dismissive of the bonus disc containing mostly demos and “Big Change in the Weather,” the non-album B-side of “Baker Street.” Listening again last week, I liked that part of the album a lot better. The elaborate production of the finished tracks made City to City a #1 smash, but the demos could have made a perfectly good album on their own. And “Big Change in the Weather” was good enough to be an A-side.

Let It Be/Beatles. I like this album a lot less now than I used to. The Phil Spector-ization of “The Long and Winding Road” would have made more sense if it had been on a Wings album in 1975 (but it works a lot better on “Across the Universe”). The Beatles created some great art while they were stoned, but “Dig It,” “Maggie Mae,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are not examples of it. However: George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue” are fine, and “Two of Us” should have been a single and would have been huge.

The Definitive Collection/Little River Band. One of the first CDs I ever bought, back in the late 80s, was the Little River Band’s Greatest Hits, the one with the blue cover featuring the bottom half of a swimsuit-clad woman in a swimming pool. That compilation, originally released in 1982, was replaced in 2002 by The Definitive Collection, which added some songs released before the band’s 1976 American breakthrough and included some post-’82 tracks. And a couple of those early tracks are fabulous. “It’s a Long Way There” was a modest American hit late in 1976 but is heard here in its full-length version; the Australian hit “Curiosity Killed the Cat” played in my head for hours after I heard it. Not only are the songs themselves really good, they’re beautifully recorded. I’m no audiophile, and I was listening in the car with road noise all around, but their clarity astonished me. I am guessing that in a quiet space with big speakers, you could hear the musicians’ heartbeats and the hum of the studio HVAC. I would have guessed that the band’s 1981 album with George Martin, Time Exposure, would have been their most beautifully made record, but these songs from years before, when nobody knew who they were, are better by a mile.

My travel season is over, thank the gods. But my USB stick will play on, even when I’m staying relatively close to home.

What’s Playing

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(Pictured: Delaney and Bonnie, bigger with the kids than you might expect.)

Let’s look inside the edition of Billboard dated October 17, 1970, to see what we can see.

Three-month-old syndicated radio show American Top 40, now heard on 30 stations, has sold all of its national commercial inventory for the next six weeks to MGM Records. The label intends to use the buy to promote 10 of its artists: Eric Burdon, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Bloom, Michael Parks, the Mike Curb Congregation, Hank Williams Jr., the Osmond Brothers, Richie Havens, Lalo Schifrin, and Heintje, an 11-year-old singer from the Netherlands. (An MGM ad elsewhere in the magazine says that Heintje is 14, however.) A different story details another new media venture that’s gaining popularity: the Chicago-based TV series Soul Train. Host Don Cornelius estimates that the show has 100,000 to 150,000 viewers daily at 4:30 in the afternoon. He hopes that the show will soon be picked up for syndication across the country.

Headline toward the bottom of page 8: “Janis Joplin, Queen of Rock, Dies of Overdose of Drugs.” The lede: “Janis Joplin, whose personal philosophy was to do everything possible to enjoy life, was found dead Sunday [(10/4)]. She had been working on her third Columbia album.”

Another headline: “‘What’s Playing’ on Jukebox Often Differs From Charts.” “On any given week,” the magazine reports, “the ‘What’s Playing?’ [chart] reflects the tastes of the record playing public, which generally differ greatly from the record buying public.” Jukebox operators report figures based on the target audience where jukeboxes are located, including teen, adult, and soul. In a recent week, an operator in Glendale, California, said that the most popular songs among her teenaged jukebox patrons were “Soul Shake” by Delaney and Bonnie, “Lola” by the Kinks, and “Funk 49” by the James Gang, none of which was currently placed higher than #40 on the Hot 100. Records often achieve jukebox popularity before they make any noise on other charts; similarly, records often remain hot on jukeboxes after they’ve cooled on the charts.

On the Best Selling Tape Cartridges chart, Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Chicago lead both the 8-track and cassette listings. Other top tapes include Closer to Home by Grand Funk Railroad, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the Woodstock soundtrack. Best Selling Jazz LPs is led by Miles Davis and Bitches Brew. Isaac Hayes has two albums in the jazz Top 10, The Isaac Hayes Movement and Hot Buttered Soul. The Isaac Hayes Movement is also riding high on the Best Selling Soul LPs chart, along with releases by the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and the Four Tops. Cosmo’s Factory and Mad Dogs and Englishmen are also on the Soul LPs chart. On the Top LPs chart, Cosmo’s Factory is #1 again this week, but Abraxas by Santana makes a strong move to #2 from #8. The new Rolling Stones album, the live Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! debuts at #10.

The Best Selling Soul Singles chart has the same four songs at the top as last week: the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright, and “Still Water (Love)” by the Four Tops. The #1 song on the Hot Country Singles chart is “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash. Two songs in the country Top 10, “It’s Only Make Believe” by Glen Campbell and “Snowbird” by Anne Murray are major pop crossovers. They sit at #2 and #8 on the Easy Listening chart respectively, where the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” is #1. Two new songs have blasted into the Easy Listening Top 10: “Sweetheart” by Engelbert Humperdinck is at #3 from #17 last week, and Shirley Bassey’s cover of the Beatles’ “Something” is at #7 from #22 last week.

On the Hot 100, “I’ll Be There” hits #1, knocking “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond to #2. “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf is #3. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is the lone new entry in the Top 10 at #10. The hottest song within the Top 40 is “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, up 11 spots to #11. The highest debut in the Top 40 is “God, Love, and Rock & Roll” by Teegarden and Van Winkle at #30. The highest debut on the Hot 100 is “Heed the Call” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition at #67; “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles is new at #68.

And finally: a small display ad in the magazine offers wristwatches bearing the faces of Bullwinkle J. Moose or Dudley Do-Right “in five mind-boggling colors! Spiffy up your wrist with this happy watch!” Send $12.95 plus shipping and handling to Jay Ward Productions, Hollywood, California.

And Do It All Over Again

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, howlin’.)

I would not have guessed, back in the fall of 1976, that one of the songs most evocative of that time, many years later, would be a good-time rock ‘n’ roll throwback featuring a famous DJ.

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids started out as a bargain-basement Sha Na Na, formed at the University of Colorado in 1969. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1971, they ended up catching the 50s nostalgia updraft at precisely the right moment. A series of free shows at the Troubadour got them noticed, and they became a tireless touring outfit. They appeared on American Bandstand in 1972, one of the rare acts to get the gig without a record to promote. The next year, they got a deal with Epic Records. They considered asking Phil Spector to produce their album but ended up working with starmaker Kim Fowley. That same year, they were invited by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to appear as Herby and the Heartbeats in American Graffiti. Their version of “At the Hop” from the movie was released as a single, but given that they were playing a decent-but-not-great high-school dance band, it’s probably not surprising that the record didn’t hit.

A second album, There’s No Face Like Chrome, was to have been produced by Jerry Leiber, but he ended up handling only four songs. The members of the band did not consider themselves a nostalgia act anymore, and some of their mid-70s material was closer to glam rock, including the single “Dancin’ (On a Saturday Night),” which squeaked into the Hot 100 at #93 in 1974. The band went on a package tour with other Epic acts including Rick Springfield, the Meters, and Johnny Nash, but There’s No Place Like Chrome didn’t do any better than their debut album; neither one of them charted, and they ended up leaving Epic.

In 1975, the band made a guest appearance as Johnny Fish and the Fins in an episode of Happy Days. The same year, their first single on the Private Stock label, a 50s rock tribute called “Good Times, Rock and Roll”—on which they sang but did not play—rode the charts for weeks in Denver, was a Top-10 hit in Tucson, and was made available in versions customized for different radio stations. All that was enough to push it to #41 on the Hot 100. But the album Sons of the Beaches got short-circuited when Epic reissued the first two Flash Cadillac albums in a double set under the title Rock and Roll Forever. (If you’ve ever seen a Flash Cadillac album in a used bin, it’s probably that one.)

After Sons of the Beaches crashed, Private Stock brought the band a song called “Did You Boogie (With Your Baby).” Because they didn’t want to be only a nostalgia act, “Did You Boogie” wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted to do, but they did it, even bringing in Wolfman Jack to provide some nostalgic atmosphere. It hit as August turned to September, and made the Top 10 in Kansas City, Denver, Columbus, and Tucson. It hit #12 in my town, Madison, Wisconsin, and was ranked #10 for all of 1976 at WCIL in Carbondale, Illinois. It spent six weeks in the Billboard Top 40, 14 weeks on the Hot 100, and peaked at #29 during the week of October 23, 1976.

Flash Cadillac spent the 70s on the road almost continuously, largely as an opening act for someone or other. After another gig for Francis Ford Coppola, appearing in Apocalypse Now, they spent much of the 80s recording jingles and songs for the syndicated radio show Super Gold, and in the 90s they self-released some music. An edition of the band still exists today, although a couple of the original members have died. (This extended essay tells the whole story I have only sketched here.)

Against the odds, “Did You Boogie” is one of the hits from the fall of 1976 that most vividly takes me back to that time. It hit the radio in two versions—the original with Wolfman Jack and a non-Wolfman version. I used to prefer the non-Wolfman, but it occurs to me now, 42 years later, that his contributions are probably essential. And truthful, too: “Sometimes I get to thinkin’ there’s not enough love and romance in our lives today. And that’s why I like to reminisce, and relive that first feeling of love . . . and do it all over again.”

Another Early Warning

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A couple of weeks ago, in the runup to the presidential alert cellphone users received on October 3, I wrote about the history of America’s various early-warning systems, from Conelrad to EBS to EAS to the Wireless Emergency Alert system. The goal of each was/is to transmit critical information to the public immediately and all at once, and to get people to shelters where they’d have a chance to survive an attack.

The question of what would happen after an attack was less widely discussed. Conelrad and, after 1963, the Emergency Broadcast System, would theoretically be able to continue transmitting emergency information. But what if people had to remain in underground shelters for days or weeks? How would they get emergency signals down there, where regular radio signals don’t go? And what if radio stations themselves were devastated? Nuclear weapons generate electromagnetic pulse radiation (EMP) that is capable of crippling the electrical grid, telephone systems, and practically everything that runs on electricity. Even if your town didn’t get incinerated, a big-enough EMP in the atmosphere could turn back the technological clock 150 years.

In the 60s and early 70s, federal emergency planners worked on a refinement of the Emergency Broadcast System intended to respond to these issues and improve the warning system: DIDS, the Decision Information Distribution System. It would be a network of radio stations spread across the country with the sole purpose of delivering emergency messages to the public, and secure enough to keep broadcasting even after widespread devastation. Unlike Conelrad and EBS, DIDS would not use existing broadcast stations. Instead, it would build its own. The stations would broadcast not on the standard AM or FM bands, but on the longwave band at 167, 179, and 191 kHz. (The standard AM band begins at 540 kHz.) The advantage of using longwave was that unlike standard-band signals, longwave signals travel mostly along the curvature of the earth. Signals could reach underground and underwater over long distances and wouldn’t depend on a network of towers, as EBS did, given that after a nuclear exchange, a lot of those towers would likely be turned to rubble.

A 10-station network was proposed, with stations to be built in places such as Mount Joy, Pennsylvania; Starke, Florida; Winslow, Arizona; Hermiston, Oregon; and Mazomanie, Wisconsin (just west of my town, Madison). It would be powerful enough to cover the entire lower 48, although just what Alaska and Hawaii were supposed to do was a question left open. In the event of an attack, activating stations in Colorado and Kansas would send a “go” signal to the network, which would supposedly be operational within 30 seconds. Connections to the Pentagon’s early-warning radar systems would give the network the capability of telling people where attacks were occurring and where it was safe, but how that was going to work is unclear to me. Planners claimed that by the time the network was completely built, in 1979, it could save the lives of 10 to 17 million people, and maybe another 10 million if additional stations were built.

A prototype station was built: WGU-20, licensed to Chase, Maryland, but located near the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground on Chesapeake Bay northeast of Baltimore. It went on the air in 1973 on 179 kHz with 50,000 watts of power from the first all-solid-state radio transmitter Westinghouse ever built. It had a 700-foot tower, was partially underground to guard against EMP and blast effects, and cost $2 million to build. That $2-million figure explains in part why the rest of the network was never built. But there was another problem: few people owned a longwave radio. The plan was to build emergency receivers into new radios and TV sets and offer an add-on device to retrofit old ones. To increase awareness and encourage people to use the system, it was given a benign name, Public Emergency Radio (PER), and a marketing campaign starring a cute dog mascot named PERki. It didn’t help, and at mid-decade, PER was abandoned.

But WGU-20 soldiered on. At first, it broadcast only a continuous series of time-checks and station identifications, and was quite mysterious to the small number of longwave listeners who found it, since the feds had never explained what it was for. After its purpose became public, it added weather updates for the East Coast; in that way, it was not unlike today’s NOAA weather radio stations. WGU-20 went off the air in 1990, but its tower wasn’t demolished until 2011. You can read more about it and hear what it sounded like here. Read more about America’s alert-program history in this fascinating piece from Wired here.

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