You Really Got Me

Although I was in the prime Van Halen demographic—“You Really Got Me” was a minor radio hit during my last semester in high school—I was never a fan. As somebody whose top two musical obsessions were A) Top 40 pop and B) English prog rock, I wasn’t wired for it. When I got to college in the fall of 1978, I quickly associated Van Halen’s debut album—and specifically, the siren-like fade-in of “Running With the Devil,” cut one on side one—with dormitory stereos cranked beyond the limits of human endurance. I cheered the music critic who wrote of Van Halen II that it was as imaginative as its title. When Women and Children First came out in 1980, I was writing for the campus newspaper, and I destroyed it.

I should go through my clips and find the actual column, but I’m not doing that today. If I’m recalling correctly, it was mostly a screed about what an asshole David Lee Roth was, a word that the paper actually printed. (And I remember that it led to a blizzard of aggrieved letters from Van Halen fans.) It occurs to me now, 40 years later, thinking about Eddie Van Halen, that 100 percent of what I hated about his band was Roth. He was the opposite of the kind of rock star I admired—a keyboard god like Keith Emerson, to name one. And he also represented the very kind of person I disliked in the real world—a strutting, bloviating pretty boy. It took a long time before I could get past him to the music of the band behind him. But by the end of 1980, after several months of hearing Women and Children First in radio rotations, I had come around a little. I was never going to be a fan, but I wasn’t going to savage them anymore, either.

One measure of genius is whether you can inspire legions of imitators without any one of them sounding exactly like you. Eddie Van Halen certainly had that. Just as guitar players who came up in the 50s wanted to be Chuck Berry and those who came up in the 60s wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, those who came up in the 80s wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. His sound owed plenty to Hendrix, but it went to its own places. Even when his band was making music that left me cold (the entirety of the Van Hagar years), Eddie’s one-of-a-kind virtuosity on both guitar and keyboards was clear.

Based on everything I’ve read about him before his death and after, Eddie was relatively normal, and largely unimpressed by who he was. (Maybe you have to be like that when you’re in a band with David Lee Roth.) A former radio colleague of mine tells how his station’s morning team somehow got the direct phone number to Eddie’s studio. They would call it every now and then, and sometimes Eddie himself picked up, and he’d talk to them when he wasn’t talking to anyone else. “Unfazed by fame,” one of the jocks said on Facebook this morning.

And the man was married to Valerie Bertinelli. I mean, really. That’s a life well-lived.

Also yesterday, we lost soul singer Johnny Nash. “I Can See Clearly Now” is Nash’s monument, having done a month at #1 in the fall of 1972 (not long after Mac Davis, who passed last week, did a month at #1 with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”). It’s as familiar as the weather now, and I’m not sure anybody needs to hear it again. Maybe give “Hold Me Tight” a few spins instead—it was a #5 hit in 1968 that somehow resisted becoming part of the good times/great oldies radio pantheon.

Nash, born in Houston, was an important figure in the rise of Jamaican music in the United States. On “Hold Me Tight,” he’s backed by the band of Jamaican impresario Byron Lee, and nothing that sounded quite like it had ever hit so big on American radio. According to music historian Charles Hughes, Nash got the first UK record deal for what became Bob Marley and the Wailers, and publishing deals for Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.

If it’s true that they always go in threes, we need to hold our breaths today. But that’s a regular condition of life in America right now, and it’s got nothing to do with music.

Hold Me

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(Pictured: Fleetwood Mac.)

Regular reader Wesley e-mailed a while back: “When the Hot 100 went into effect in 1958, it was rare for any record to stay at the same position from #11 to #40 for more than three weeks for the chart’s first 23 years.” And then he shared his list.

It turns out that two records stuck in the same spot for five weeks: “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers at #11 and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Joe Simon at #25, both in 1968.

Eight songs held for four weeks in the same spot:

“Honey Chile”/Martha and the Vandellas (#11, 1967)
“Neon Rainbow”/Box Tops (#24, 1967)
“Take Me for a Little While”/Vanilla Fudge (#38, 1968)
“Question”/Moody Blues (#21, 1970)
“Never Ending Song of Love”/Delaney and Bonnie (#13, 1971)
“You Can’t Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On)”/High Inergy (#12, 1977)
“How You Gonna See Me Now”/Alice Cooper (#12, 1978)
“Touch Me When We’re Dancing”/Carpenters (#16, 1981)

(The complete randomness of that list is delightful.)

But come 1982, Billboard‘s methodology changed. The magazine introduced a “super star” or “super bullet,” a clear bullet distinct from the traditional solid-colored bullet. I have not been able to learn a great deal about how it worked, but as I understand it, the super bullet indicated a greater degree of strength and potential for future upward movement than the regular bullet. Although there might have been other methodology changes in the background, it seems at the very least that Billboard became more likely to change the color of the bullet than to move a record up or down, which led to some remarkable instances of stasis.

And so in 1982, Wesley says, Rick Springfield’s “What Kind of Fool” did six straight weeks at #21. Several others did five weeks in the same spot between #11 and #40:

“Love Will Turn You Around”/Kenny Rogers (#13)
“What’s Forever For”/Michael Murphey (#19)
“Missing You”/ Dan Fogelberg (#23)
“You Dropped a Bomb on Me”/Gap Band (#31)

Four weeks:

“It’s Raining Again”/Supertramp (#11)
“Shadows of the Night”/Pat Benatar (#13)
“Take Me Down”/Alabama (#18)
“Hot in the City”/Billy Idol (#23)
“Kids in America”/Kim Wilde (#24)
“Voyeur”/Kim Carnes (#29)
“A Penny for Your Thoughts”/Tavares (#33)

I dug into the 1982 charts below #41 to find some more:

“I Gotta Try”/Michael McDonald (#44, four weeks)

“Bad Boy-Having a Party”/Luther Vandross (#55, five weeks)
“Psychobabble”/Alan Parsons Project (#57, four weeks)
“The Elvis Medley”/Elvis Presley (#71, four weeks)
“Over the Line”/Eddie Schwartz (#91, four weeks)

In addition, there were far more three-week holders in 1982 than ever before.

Wesley also notes: “And as for the top 10 itself, ‘Muscles’ by Diana Ross spent six weeks at #10. ‘Hold Me’ by Fleetwood Mac spent seven weeks at #3. Both were new records for those positions.” And also: “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Ebony and Ivory” each did seven weeks at #1. “Eye of the Tiger” and “Centerfold” were six weeks at #1, and “Open Arms” by Journey six weeks at #2. “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats did five weeks at #9 and “Take It Away” by Paul McCartney five weeks at #10. Wesley again: “Let’s not forget how 1982 began with ‘Physical’ ending a 10-week run at the top that kept ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ by Foreigner at #2 for ten weeks as well—again, another record.”

During the run of “Hold Me,” on August 28, 1982, the top 12 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were in the exact positions as the previous week. And there was little movement in weeks around that: during the week of August 14, the top five were the same; the week of the 21st, the top seven.

In 1983, the wackiness continued: Billy Joel’s “Allentown” spent six straight weeks at #17; Kenny Loggins’ “Heart to Heart” five weeks at #15; “Synchronicity II” by the Police four weeks at #16, and “I’m Alive” by Neil Diamond four weeks at #35. Below the Top 40, “Always” by Firefall did five weeks at #59, and “Love Me Again” by the John Hall Band spent four weeks at #64.

In 1983, Billboard sacked its chart director, Bill Wardlow, amid fears about the credibility of the magazine’s charts; the Wardlow era was famed for all kinds of statistical shenanigans. Whether the weirdness of 1982 and 1983 had anything to do with his ultimate adios, I don’t know. Neither can I guess how it might have served Wardlow’s purposes to hold records for long runs at seemingly random chart positions.

At the top of the charts, it seems entirely plausible to say yes, this song has been the most popular for five or eight or ten straight weeks. But farther down, the concept gets shaky. Given all of the moving parts involved, how plausible is it that exactly 16 songs were more popular than “Allentown” (and 83 less popular) for six consecutive weeks?

Thanks to Wesley for getting this started, and for doing the heavy lifting. 

My Love You Didn’t Need to Coax

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(Pictured: young Rod Stewart hangs out.)

(Optional soundtrack for this post.)

This happened just the other day, on the kind of afternoon we get in September, warm, a lovely breeze, beautiful light. I stop by my neighborhood convenience store, step inside, and all of a sudden I’m not there anymore. That is because the in-store music is playing Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”

I have an annual rendezvous with Maggie, the first time I hear her every fall, when she takes me back to the first time I ever heard her. It is 1971. I am back at Northside School for the sixth grade. I have been in love with pop music and the radio for a year. But an equal passion at the moment involves the organized city park-and-rec touch football games after school. At Recreation Park, we play on the field where our fathers played high-school ball in the 40s and 50s. Occasionally we play on a half-grass, half-gravel field across the street from Lincoln School, which I attended until halfway through second grade. Each game is a rabble of boys, running and yelling and grabbing and falling and getting back up again in the September light, soft and golden then as now, which crowns the trees and slowly lengthens the shadows. “Maggie May” brings back those images of 1971; it isn’t the only song that does it, but it’s one that has never left me. And it was probably late September, like in the song, when I went to the store and put down my 94 cents to bring Maggie home.

The 1971 Northside Browns, champions of the Grade Football League. I am in the back on the far left, and how my mother let me out of the house dressed like that I do not know. (Click to embiggen.)

WMEX in Boston and KRLA in Los Angeles, both rock-leaning Top 40 stations, were playing “Maggie May” as an album cut in early July 1971, and it was #1 in Boston as July turned to August. It was issued on a single with “Reason to Believe,” which was the original plug side; “Reason to Believe” is listed alone for its first four weeks on the Hot 100. On August 14, 1971, it appears for the first time as “Reason to Believe”/”Maggie May,” and the next week, as “Maggie May”/”Reason to Believe.” That’s the way the record is listed through five weeks at the top of the Hot 100, beginning on October 2, until it drops off the chart following the week of December 4, 1971. WLS, the only station that mattered to me, charted both sides of the record during the week of August 30, just as we went back to school, ranked both at #1 for four weeks starting September 27, and listed it through November. WLS ranked it at #4 for the entire year; Billboard had it at #2 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Maggie May” was the #1 record for all of 1971 on radio stations in New York City, Buffalo, and San Jose; WFIL in Philadelphia listed “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” as co-#1s.

(“Reason to Believe” is a pretty potent memory trigger itself, with its piano chords tolling out the years.)

Rod and guitarist Martin Quittenton wrote “Maggie May” about how Rod lost his virginity to an older woman, but before I knew what it meant, I loved it for the sound of it on the radio. After many years had passed, I started associating it strongly with how it felt to be alive in the fall of 1971: not just hearing it on the radio, not just experiencing band practice and enjoying touch football, but being truly conscious of the change of seasons for the first time in my life, the sights and sounds of crops being harvested, the need to wear a coat to school, the earlier coming of sunset, and the welcome weight of an extra blanket at night. I also hear “Maggie May” as a song about the pull of home, our reluctance to let the days of our lives slip away—how we hold tight to the good ones and even a few of the bad ones—and how we are compelled to revisit them. We love those days and the songs that soundtracked them because they tell us about ourselves: who we have been, who we are, and now that we’re older, who we’re going to be.

And there’s something else about how much that song means to me, something I’ve said here before: The Mrs. and I have no children. But if we’d had a daughter, I’m pretty sure she would have been named Maggie May.

Superman

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(Pictured: Evel Knievel clears a line of buses in London in 1975. Seconds after this photo is taken, he will crash, and later announce his retirement. It didn’t take.)

America loves its daredevils and its outlaws, people who face down danger and do what cannot be done, but there’s never been one quite like Evel Knievel. At the same time, he is yet another in a long line of self-made entrepreneurs whose main product was himself.

Bobby Knievel took the name Evel Knievel in 1966, choosing to spell it “Evel” rather then “Evil,” the story goes, so that he wouldn’t be mistaken for a Hell’s Angels type. He first gained fame jumping his motorcycle over whatever a promoter wanted him to jump over. In 1967, he jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Unable to interest anybody in broadcasting it live, he paid for the filming himself, and then sold it to ABC. And for the next several years, the legend of Evel Knievel grew. His jumps (and crashes) became a regular feature of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In fact, the show’s single highest-rated episode, on October 24, 1975, featured a live Knievel jump at Kings Island, Ohio.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. As early as 1968, Knievel was trying to arrange a jump across the Grand Canyon. That was never going to happen, but he eventually settled on the privately owned Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho. A standard motorcycle wouldn’t do the job. It took over two years of development and testing before the Skycycle—registered with the state of Idaho as an airplane but considered by the FAA to be a rocket—was ready to fly.

On jump day, Sunday, September 8, 1974, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It took a story of that magnitude to pull the spotlight away from Evel Knievel, but his show went on. Knievel and ABC had been unable to agree on live TV rights, so the jump was presented on closed circuit in theaters. A parachute deployed prematurely and the Skycycle fell into the canyon. Knievel’s jump aired on Wide World of Sports the next week; see it here, both highlights of the jump and an interview with Jim McKay and ABC science editor Jules Bergman, who had covered the jump live.

Knievel’s notoriety led several recording artists to try cashing in on it. This had actually begun in the late 60s, but reached an early peak thanks to the 1971 movie Evel Knievel, which starred George Hamilton. Two Knievel-themed songs sung by Hamilton, neither of which was in the movie, were released on a single. Another single included the film’s opening and closing theme, “I Do What I Please.”

Knievel’s 1974 notoriety produced a few more records, but only two of them were on labels with national reach. To help promote the Snake River Canyon jump, Amherst Records released an album called Evel Knievel, which includes a load of ephemera: press conference clips, Evel talking with some children and reciting poetry, and “The Ballad of Evel Knievel” by John Culliton Mahoney. The latter (backed by one of Knievel’s poetic readings, which was heard on the TV coverage of the Snake River jump) made #85 in Cash Box and #105 in Billboard in late September 1974.

The most successful of the Knievel-themed records was “Evil Boll Weevil,” a break-in record on the Bang label credited to Grand Canyon and featuring an introduction by Chicago radio legend Fred Winston. “Evil Boll Weevil” (a name frequently used in media parodies of Knievel) got to #72 during a five-week run on the Hot 100 in November 1974. It was a Top-10 hit in Minneapolis and Columbus, and it got airplay in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Denver, Louisville, and Des Moines.

Knievel’s star peaked in 1975 and dimmed in 1976. He was jailed for the 1977 beating of a promoter, and he jumped for the last time in shows with his son Robbie in 1981. After a decade of obscurity, he embarked on a second career in the 90s—being Evel Knievel (but also engaging in some shady business ventures). He died in 2007 at the age of 69, not of motorcycle-related injuries, but of lung disease. Although he had been in ill health for a while, a friend is said to have said, “You just don’t expect it. Superman doesn’t just die, right?”

Evel Knievel’s Wikipedia page is crazy entertaining, if questionably sourced. For more on the Knievel media phenomenon, read Steve Mandich, whose book Evel Incarnate inspired a TV movie and which lives on at a website I strongly recommend.

Stars in the Sky

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(Pictured: Helen Reddy with Glen Campbell and Donna Summer, and Mac Davis with Doc Severinsen, both from 1979.)

I stayed off Twitter last night to avoid the presidential debate, so it wasn’t until early this morning that I learned of the deaths of Helen Reddy and Mac Davis. It wasn’t the debate that killed them, however. Reddy had Alzheimer’s disease, and Davis died after heart surgery.

Reddy’s first hit was a version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. She would hit #1 three times between 1972 and 1974 with “I Am Woman,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Angie Baby.” She charted a total of 14 records on the Hot 100. On the adult contemporary chart, she had six straight #1 hits between 1973 and 1976. Five of her albums made #11 or better on the Billboard 200 in that period. She was not the sort of performer who was going to thrive in the disco era, however, although she had a few modest AC hits, and her career continued to thrive even after the hit singles stopped. She became the host of The Midnight Special in 1975, acted on TV, and appeared on variety, game, and talk shows for as long as that was a thing. Her last charting record on the Hot 100 and AC chart came in 1981.

Davis, meanwhile, first came to prominence as a songwriter, and every obit you read today will mention in its first couple of lines the ones he wrote for Elvis. His first big single under his own name, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” spent a month at #1 in 1972. Of his other 14 Hot 100 hits, only “Stop and Smell the Roses” would make the Top 10. (America reached peak Mac-itude in September 1974, when “Stop and Smell the Roses” and “One Hell of a Woman” were both in the Top 40, just weeks after his limited-run summer TV series left the air.) Several of his Hot 100 hits in the 70s scratched onto the country charts, but he didn’t become a major figure in country until 1980; five singles hit the country Top 10 in less than two years, and three of those made the Hot 100, including “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” which peaked at #43. His last country chart hit was in 1985.

Like Reddy, Davis pursued an acting career as the 70s turned to the 80s, appearing in a string of high-profile movies: North Dallas Forty, Cheaper to Keep Her, and The Sting II. Based on their entries at IMDB, both Reddy and Davis largely retired from acting around the year 2000. Davis recorded his last album in 1994; Reddy released an album of re-recorded hits in 2002.

So it’s been a long time since Helen Reddy and Mac Davis were much on anybody’s mind, outside of their families. But if you could transport yourself from the fall of 2020 back to the fall of 1974, back into the world of Top 40 radio and TV as it existed in that bygone day, Helen Reddy and Mac Davis would be two of the biggest stars in the sky.

And on the subject of time travel. . . .

Continue reading “Stars in the Sky”

The Same Thing, Only Different

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I’ve told the story before, I think. My blogging days began in 2001, shortly after 9/11, when I used a sliver of web space from my ISP to put up something I called “Rant of the Day.” In 2003, I started The Daily Aneurysm, named because there’s always something in the news that makes you want to have a stroke. I stopped writing it in 2006, and it’s no longer available online because somebody squatted on the domain name. For several years I contributed to a current-events site called Best of the Blogs, which also no longer exists. The Hits Just Keep on Comin’ was born in 2004.

Despite focusing on music and radio over here, I still have some of the same impulses to write about current events and other topics that I had years ago. Most of the time, I simply lie down until they go away. Since 2020 went to Hell, however, those impulses have been stronger than before. I have written a lot of stuff that I ended up not posting here because it feels off-brand, to the extent that I have established a brand. I’d like to stick to music, radio, and music/radio-as-memoir pieces here as much as possible, which means that pieces about life on lockdown and other current topics don’t really fit.

Also, it’s likely you come here for diversion from the Great American Dumpster Fire, and not to engage with it. Maybe you come here because you like the music and radio stuff in spite of the fact that I’m a commie-lib atheist. And if either of those is the case, I don’t want to drive you away.

So: if you’re interested in reading that other stuff—about current events, maybe some sports now and then, rebooted pieces I find in my journals, and/or whatever additional flotsam comes into view—please enter your e-mail below. This is different from whatever subscribing or following you have already done with this website. It’s a whole ‘nother thing.

There is no guarantee that when you sign up for this list, you will actually receive anything. I’m starting off by gauging interest, and if it turns out to be insufficient (which will not offend me in the slightest, by the way), this idea will disappear into the ether and we shall never speak of it again.