Born at the Right Time

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When I was a younger man, I believed that the people I grew up with had a magical bond. We saw so much together and did so much together, lived life’s most tumultuous period of change together, that we would just naturally ride into the future on the same ship for as long as time lasted. We wouldn’t be together in space, but having once been together in time meant that we would always be together in time.

But what about the people I met in the college dorm, people with whom I lived in even closer proximity than my school friends from back home? We, too, went through a tumultuous period of change together. But there was less magic in it. It wasn’t a community. It wasn’t a ship built to sail through time. It was just an accident of geography.

Then I started thinking that maybe everything else was an accident of geography, too. I took Job A instead of Job B, then quit Job B in favor of Job C. I didn’t choose the people who were my colleagues at A, B, or C. They were just there, like office furniture. And even more fundamental: what if my mother had married somebody from her hometown instead of a man from the next town over? What if my grandfather had stayed where he was born, in northern Illinois, instead of buying land just over the state line? I’d still have gone on a journey with a group of people, but it would have been a completely different group of people, different people to love, and hate, and be indifferent about.

I eventually started believing that the bond was actually contingent, random, and perhaps, because of that, meaningless. Sure, I have individual friendships—close, rewarding, beautiful friendships—with people I grew up with, people I met in college, people I have worked with. But that thing about the magical bond from childhood and the ship sailing into the future, all of us together? Too romantic. Not the way the world is. Just an accident of geography.

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One Million Years

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(Pictured: John Phillips contemplates his next move.)

Last weekend I was doing my radio station’s all-70s Saturday show and played “Close to You” by the Carpenters. I told the audience it was the #1 song in Madison “exactly one million years ago today.” It’s something I’ve said before in referrring to “Close to You.” It’s so vastly different from what constitutes pop music today, and it was different that summer as well, despite spending a month at #1. I often say that it signaled that the 70s were going to have a far different energy than the 60s, but there’s a perfectly good argument that the signal had already blinked. “Close to You” is no less adult, no less the opposite of what we think of as the 60s vibe, than earlier #1 hits including Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” the year before, or “This Guy’s In Love With You,” “Love Is Blue,” and “Honey” in 1968. Or Frank Sinatra’s #1 hits “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid” in 1966 and 1967. As I’ve said before, eras don’t break cleanly, and across the totality of history in any field, there is almost never any such thing as a dividing line.

But for me, the summer of 1970 really is a dividing line, or damn close to one. At the end of July 1970, I was a month or six weeks from first discovering popular music and the radio, and thereby setting myself on the course that has brought me to gasbagging at you on this day, in this year.

As it happens, the ARSA database contains a music survey from my radio station’s legendary ancestor WISM, dated July 25, 1970. “Close to You” and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” occupy the top two spots for a second consecutive week. Moving up on the survey are songs I will experience in real time over the next few months: in the Top 10 there’s “Spill the Wine,” “Make It With You,” “Tighter Tighter” and the Neighborhood’s cover of “Big Yellow Taxi,” which would get to only #29 on the Hot 100. Farther down, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross and “Hand Me Down World” by the Guess Who are hitbound, along with “In the Summertime” and “25 or 6 to 4.”

But there’s plenty of adult flavor on this chart, stuff that’s a better fit with “Close to You” than with other hits of the moment. “One Day of Your Life” by Andy Williams is in Billboard‘s Easy Listening Top 10 for July 25, and Al De Lory’s “Song From M*A*S*H (bad link fixed) has just fallen out of it. Mark Lindsay’s “Silver Bird” and “Teach Your Children” by Crosby Stills and Nash are on the Easy Listening chart in this week, and “Big Yellow Taxi” cracks it for the first time. It seems to me that Ronnie Dyson’s joyous “Why Can’t I Touch You” should be doing big Easy Listening business, but it’s nowhere to be found, not with playlist slots reserved for Engelbert Humperdinck (“My Marie”), Dionne Warwick (“Paper Maché”), and the Lettermen (“She Cried”), and one at the bottom of the Easy Listening chart for a slowed-down instrumental cover of “Louie Louie” by Sounds Orchestral.

A couple of songs on the WISM chart from 7/25/70 will eventually make the Easy Listening chart, and I have mentioned both of them before at this blog: “Mississippi” by John Phillips, from his acclaimed-but-forgotten album John, the Wolf King of L.A., and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” by the Poppy Family. “That’s Where I Went Wrong” would eventually reach #7 and “Mississippi” #13. I heard neither of them during that July week, although I would hear them a few times as summer turned to fall, and then forget them as fall turned to winter. But they would find their way back into my life and now, alongside “Close to You” and “Tighter Tighter” and all the rest, they possess a time-traveling mojo that knocks me sideways, one million years later.

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Vanity Projects

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(Pictured: King Crimson, 1969; L to R: Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, and Peter Sinfield.)

Odds and ends from here and there:

—After finishing up that great Jimmy McDonough biography of Al Green, I moved on to David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Weigel, whose day job is national reporter for the Washington Post, based the book on a series of articles he wrote for Slate. I read those articles, and I liked them. But I liked Weigel’s book a lot less. It felt disjointed to me, leaping from act to act, generally in chronological order, but sometimes in confusing fashion. Pivotal acts like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer get less space than Soft Machine and Marillion—the latter band gets almost an entire chapter toward the end of the book. Weigel’s time might have been better spent writing a biography of Robert Fripp, originally of King Crimson, whose career is traced from the 60s through the present day, a treatment no other individual in the book receives. The book takes a weirdly dismissive tone toward prog in some spots; so much so that I ended up unsure whether Weigel even likes prog rock, at least until he came out and said so in the last chapter.

Prog rock certainly deserves a full-length history. But I’d like to read one by an actual music historian instead of a guy for whom it was basically a vanity project.

—I have written a lot about rock festivals over the years (and I’ve got another post in that series scheduled for next week), so a piece published at Consequence of Sound about festivals of the 70s and 80s was highly interesting to me. The author dug into the archives of the New York Times to find articles written about various famous and not-famous fests at the time they occurred, to understand how they were reported and perceived, and to get some insights into why the festival era petered out in the 70s, bounced back in the 80s, and petered out again before Lollapalooza rejuvenated it in the 90s.

—I picked up an interesting bit of trivia about the American Top 40 special of July 4, 1976, from William, who writes a blog called The Music of My Life. William says that when Casey announced “Says My Heart” by Ozzie Nelson as the #1 song on July 4, 1938, he actually played something else. William didn’t say what, and I don’t know, but I’m certain both of us (and maybe you) would really like to know.

(You should be reading The Music of My Life. Start with this first-anniversary post, a selection of greatest hits.)

—Another thing I learned, via a different source: throughout the American Top 40 era, issues of Billboard were dated to the Saturday of the issuing week. In the case of the Bicentennial, that should have been July 3, 1976, but given that Billboard was publishing a special commemorative issue on the history of the music industry, they couldn’t pass up the chance to date it July 4.

—In 2015, Nashville radio consultant Keith Hill caused a stir by suggesting that female artists are a turn-off for the typical country radio listener, and that stations wanting ratings success should limit female artists to something like 19 percent of the playlist. He referred to them as the “tomatoes” in the radio salad, which is properly composed of male artists otherwise. Recently, Hill got into it again with some people on Twitter who insisted that, sexism aside, the methodology by which he claims to prove his assertion is flawed. This piece is inside baseball and maybe not for everybody, but it does a pretty good job of refuting Hill. As I read it, his attitude struck me familiar, based on my dealings with some—not all, but some—radio consultants over the years: they believe that their opinions are equal to empirical data, and they think that the most effective way to get you to buy what they’re selling is to be a jerk about it.

I have a post in my drafts file about an experience I had with one of those guys. Someday you may get to read it.

—Last but not least: thanks to all for your interesting responses to my post about instrumentals last week. Reader David has compiled many of them (and some others you didn’t mention) into a Spotify playlist. It’s got everything from Van Halen and Pink Floyd to Martin Denny and Ramsey Lewis, and you can find it here.


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(Pictured: Billy Preston, 1974.)

Not gonna lie: the most obscure tunes on American Top 40 repeats make my old program director’s spidey senses tingle a little, and might cause current PDs to reach for the antacids. The show from the week of July 14, 1973, contains a remarkably large number of them. Some were unfamiliar even to me. And if a geek such as I doesn’t know something, chances are good that a casual listener isn’t going to know it either.

I decided to see how many of that week’s Billboard Top 40 never charted on WLS, the Top-40 giant from Chicago, which was what I listened to that summer. The following did not:

40.  “Plastic Man”/Temptations
39.  “Swamp Witch”/Jim Stafford
36.  “Goin’ Home”/Osmonds
35.  “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
33.  “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
28.  “Satin Sheets”/Jeanne Pruett
22.  “Doing It to Death”/Fred Wesley and the JBs

A few other songs charted briefly: “I’ll Always Love My Mama” by the Intruders (#38) for two weeks, “Misdemeanor” by Foster Sylvers (#25) for three, and Gladys Knight’s “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare” (#24) for five.

It’s possible that WLS may have played some of the missing songs for a short time without charting them. Whatever the case, some of the missing and semi-missing are pretty good. “I’ll Always Love My Mama” is a Gamble and Huff production, and those are always welcome. “Misdemeanor” might put you in mind of the Jackson Five, a circumstance almost certainly intentional. “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” seems a lot more commercial and appealing than the more successful “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare.” WLS had charted the Osmonds’ hard-rockin’ “Crazy Horses” and “Hold Her Tight” for only five weeks each in 1972 and must have figured that “Goin’ Home” wouldn’t measure up to them.

“Why Me” did just fine without airplay on WLS, with one of the longest and strangest chart Billboard chart runs in history. Somebody who was there in 1973 would have to explain the crossover appeal of “Satin Sheets,” which sounds to me like plain old hard country. Its chart profile at ARSA is similar to that of “Doing It to Death,” actually: each had lots of listings on country/R&B stations and got a little bit of traction at a few major Top 40 outlets. Maybe that was enough to push both records up the Hot 100. What appealed to anybody at any station about “Swamp Witch,” I have no idea; it’s dreadful.

Although we hear some certifiable killers in the first half of the show, including “Frankenstein,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “One of a Kind (Love Affair),” it takes 90 minutes before the 7/14/73 show consistently features songs a casual listener is going to know, and I can’t remember another edition like that.

Once the show gets to the Top 20, however, it’s pretty solid, and the stretch from #21 to #8 is pretty much all-killer, no filler, although your mileage may vary on “Monster Mash.” People underrate “Touch Me in the Morning” and “So Very Hard to Go”—I can’t think of a way one might improve on either one of them. “Money” and “Behind Closed Doors” back-to-back is a quintessential AT40 train wreck, in a good way. I am not particularly a fan of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,”  but with “Pillow Talk” and “Behind Closed Doors,” it completes a very horny quarter hour. “Long Train Running,” “Right Place Wrong Time,” and “Smoke on the Water” have been so familiar for so long that it takes some effort to remember they were once current hits jockeying for position like everything else. The very top of the chart is only just OK: “Playground in My Mind” and “Yesterday Once More” don’t do much for me; the rest are decent (yes, even the frequently reviled “My Love,” which I don’t mind), but pretty crispy after 45 years.

Casey notes what he calls one of the most amazing bits of chart trivia ever: Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” is #1 this week, having followed Paul McCartney’s “My Love” and George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” into the  #1 spot. In 1969, the #1 hit “Get Back” was credited to the Beatles with Billy Preston. If it had been three official members of the Beatles with consecutive #1 hits, Casey says, it would be easier to understand, but the oddity of Preston being co-credited with the Beatles on a single hit makes it a remarkable longshot.

An Autobiography With No Words

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(Pictured: Henry Mancini in the studio, circa 1970.)

(Before we begin: this seemed like a great idea when I thought of it. Now that it’s finished, I’m not so sure anymore.)

Fifty years ago this week, three instrumentals were in the Billboard Top 10: “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “The Horse,” and “Classical Gas.” After digging into my own instrumental music stash, I discovered that I can tell my life story to approximately age 20 entirely in instrumentals.

“Theme From A Summer Place”/Percy Faith. The #1 song on the Hot 100 on the day I was born, and the definitive easy-listening hit. Also on the radio that same week: “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross, less monumental but more significant in the mythology of this blog, for I imagine it as one of the first songs I ever heard, lying on the little bassinet in the kitchen, as Mother went about her daily routine with the radio on.

“Alley Cat”/Bent Fabric. When I was two, I apparently had a little dance I would do whenever “Alley Cat” came on the radio. Kids dancing to “Alley Cat” is now an Internet genre all to itself, so I was clearly ahead of my time—possibly for the only time.

“A Walk in the Black Forest”/Horst Jankowski. This is the first song I can remember thinking of as a favorite, having heard it on our hometown radio station, presumably when it hit in 1965 and for years thereafter, “taking us up to news time.” See also “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer.

“Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley. I have written before of certain long afternoons during which my brother and I would amuse ourselves with toys in the living room while my mother did household chores with the radio on. Certain instrumentals popular in the mid 60s conjure up this image when I hear them today, and “Summer Samba” is one of the most reliable.

“Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”/Henry Mancini. When I was in fourth grade, a reporter from the school newspaper (a sixth grader) asked me some questions for a student profile. To “what’s your favorite song,” I responded with “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” which may have been the last thing I heard on the radio before I went to school that morning. But it also confirmed me as one of the world’s biggest nerds, which remains accurate.

“Time Is Tight”/Booker T. and the MG’s. This struck me differently than “Summer Samba” and the rest of the instrumentals popular just a couple of years earlier. It activated some strand of DNA that had lain dormant for the first nine years of my life—or maybe it’s truer to say it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

“Scorpio”/Dennis Coffey. I’d been buying 45s for about a year when I bought this. To be added to my collection over the next couple of years: Coffey’s “Taurus,” “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and “TSOP” by MFSB. I found—and still find—all of them to be equally crankable.

“Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band. On the radio the night of my first kiss. See also “The Hustle,” learning to do it in gym class, and the socially sanctioned—even academically necessary—touching of girls.

“A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy. Bridges the summer and fall of 1976. See also “Nadia’s Theme (The Young and the Restless)” for a further significant text from the fall of 1976.

“Star Wars Theme-Cantina Band”/Meco. I resisted my peer group’s mania for all things Star Wars in the summer of 1977 (except for this), mostly because that was how I rolled back then. Eventually, the iconoclasm of never having seen the movie became a thing. A few years ago, my nephews put in the DVD and I quietly fled the room, mostly so I could still tell people I’ve never seen it.

“Music Box Dancer”/Frank Mills. A hit during my first spring getting paid to be on the radio. On those rare occasions when I hear it today, it takes me back to that studio and makes me into the kid I was. He acted like he knew what he was doing, but in fact he did not know the most important thing: that he really had very little idea what he was doing.

We’ll end the story there. If you care to name an instrumental significant to part of your life story, add it in the comments.

The Same Old Song

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(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, December 31, 1977.)

Recently I mentioned that I was not willing to listen to a full American Top 40 show from May 1978 because I was not eager to relive my last month of high school. However, I recently decided to risk the one from June 24, 1978.

40.  “If Ever I See You Again”/Roberta Flack. Well shit, maybe this was a bad idea after all.

38.  “Dance Across the Floor”/Jimmy “Bo” Horne and 36. “It’s the Same Old Song”/KC and the Sunshine Band. The best KC record on this countdown is credited to some other guy, Jimmy “Bo” Horne, a Florida native who kicked around the Miami music scene in the 70s. “Dance Across the Floor” was, however, produced by Harry Casey and Richard Finch. KC and the Sunshine Band had been an unstoppable force between 1975 and 1977, with four #1 hits, but their momentum cooled in 1978. “Boogie Shoes” deserved better that its #35 peak in the spring, but “It’s the Same Old Song” was lucky to get that far. It just kinda happens for three minutes and then it’s over and you don’t remember it.

35.  “Runaway”/Jefferson Starship. On certain days, I like this better than “Miracles.”

32.  “Deacon Blues”/Steely Dan. An unlikely Top 40 hit, just off its chart peak of #19. The single edit seems kind of pointless, mostly by shortening the sax solo to cut the total length from 7:37 to 6:40.

28.  “Almost Summer”/Celebration Featuring Mike Love. I hadn’t heard “Almost Summer” in a long time before it turned up on this countdown, and I was positively shocked at how flimsy it is. It sounds like it took five minutes to write and one take to record, which may actually have been the way Mike Love preferred to work.

27.  “Wonderful Tonight”/Eric Clapton. If I were to make a list of songs I never never ever need to hear again, this might be #1. The single edit of 3:13, which is what I think Casey played, helps it a great deal, though.

24.  “Oh What a Night for Dancing”/Barry White. Before playing this song, Casey runs down White’s chart accomplishments, having produced 12 gold records in a single year between his groups Love Unlimited, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and his own solo work. You’d be better off listening to any one of those than to “Oh What a Night for Dancing.”

22.  “I Was Only Joking”/Rod Stewart. I have written before of my fondness for this record, and the way I heard it in the summer of 1978, although it occurs to me now that my interpretation of it doesn’t match the plain words on the page. But the regret in Rod’s voice is real, as was mine in the summer of 1978.

20.  “Last Dance”/Donna Summer. The week of May 6, 1978, was the first week without a Donna Summer song on the Hot 100 since “I Feel Love” charted the previous August. “Last Dance” charted the next week, May 13, and there would not be another Summer-less week on the Hot 100 for almost exactly two years, until “On the Radio” fell off in May 1980. That’s 142 out of 143 weeks. It may surprise you to learn that “Last Dance” never made #1 on the Hot 100. It peaked at #3 in August.

11.  “The Groove Line”/Heatwave. This band could play. First hit “Boogie Nights” is iconic, or ought to be. Their second hit, “Always and Forever” was the soundtrack to thousands of lost virginities (“the best slow jam of all time,” My Favorite Decade says), and “The Groove Line” is a burner.

9.  “Still the Same”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I wrote about this song a few years ago, and when I heard it the other day, it gave me a strong sense of the kid I was that summer, working at the gas station with no customers, absorbing the radio hour after hour, poised on the edge between past and future.

7.  “Use Ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays and 6. “You Belong to Me”/Carly Simon. Will say again: maybe relistening to this countdown this wasn’t such a good idea.

2.  “Baker Street”/Gerry Rafferty and 1. “Shadow Dancing”/Andy Gibb. A few years ago, we got acquainted with former AT40 staffer Scott Paton. He told us how “Baker Street,” which famously spent six consecutive weeks at #2 on the Hot 100 behind “Shadow Dancing,” was actually #1 for maybe 18 hours, until some shenanigans took place. It’s quite a tale.

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