I Don’t Want to Die in Nashville

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(Pictured: Donna Summer takes the wheel in 1978.)

I have written a lot about the summer of 1978 at this website, so in this rundown of the American Top 40 show from June 17, 1978, I promise not to repeat myself.

40. “Warm Ride”/Rare Earth
39. “Grease”/Frankie Valli
Casey opens the show by saying it’s the first edition of AT40 in nine months without a song by the Bee Gees, although they’re on several times as writers and/or producers, including these two debut records.

34. “I Can’t Stand the Rain”/Eruption
28. “I Was Only Joking”/Rod Stewart
23. “Last Dance”/Donna Summer
20. “Bluer Than Blue”/Michael Johnson
14. “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”/Meat Loaf
12. “Use Ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays
6. “You Belong to Me”/Carly Simon

5. “Too Much Too Little Too Late”/Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams
4. “It’s a Heartache”/Bonnie Tyler
It seems like there’s an unusual number of songs of loss and regret on this show, so maybe it wasn’t just me that summer.

(Didn’t take long to break my promise, did it?)

32. “Cheeseburger in Paradise”/Jimmy Buffett. Which Casey introduces with an anecdote about the time Buffett and his drummer got into a fight with Walking Tall sheriff Buford Pusser. It’s too long and not all that interesting, but it does include the line, “I don’t want to die in Nashville in a rented Gremlin.”

26. “Baby Hold On”/Eddie Money. It occurs to me that “Baby Hold On,” now on its way off the chart after a run to #11, is one of the more impressive debuts of the 1970s. Money had his sound and vision down from the jump, and he made a success of it for decades to come.

22. “Even Now”/Barry Manilow. Another song of loss and regret. I once described it (broken promise again) as “eternal romantic damnation.” Although he didn’t write the lyrics, the song becomes even more powerful when you realize that in 1978 Manilow was a closeted gay man—you wonder who he might have been pining for. Casey says “Even Now” makes Manilow the third male solo singer to hit the Top 40 with his first 10 hits, joining Ricky Nelson and Chubby Checker. Elvis Presley doesn’t qualify because he released several EPs during his early chart run that failed to make the Top 40.

19. “Deacon Blues”/Steely Dan
18. “Every Kinda People”/Robert Palmer
17. “With a Little Luck”/Wings
16. “Still the Same”/Bob Seger
This is the best part of the show, with songs I have praised in the past. (Promise now officially shot to hell.) In the context of the other radio hits in this summer, “Deacon Blues” is something from another planet entirely, a one-song genre all its own.

There’s a lot of solid trivia on this show. Casey says that no act made up of a father, mother, and children had ever hit #1, but the Cowsills (mom and six kids), the Staple Singers (dad and three daughters), and the Partridge Family (mom and stepson) did. The artists with the most successful remakes of their own songs are the Ventures, with “Walk Don’t Run” in 1960 and 1964, and Neil Sedaka, who did “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” in 1962 and 1976. The largest number of songs in the Top 10 all at once is five, and it’s been done several times: Glenn Miller in 1940 and 1942, Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, Bing Crosby in 1944, and the Beatles in 1964.

The latter record has since been broken by Drake, who put seven songs into the Top 10 in a single week of 2018 and nine in 2021 (and released a new album overnight, thereby making it likely that he will dominate the list again next week). This, of course, means that he is the greatest, bestest, most awesomely awesome recording artist of all time.

1. “Shadow Dancing”/Andy Gibb. For the second time on this show, Elvis gets knocked out of the record books on a technicality. “Shadow Dancing” makes Andy Gibb the first solo artist to hit #1 with his first three single releases. Elvis did it with his first three chart hits, but they weren’t the first three records he ever made.

There’s an argument that Andy Gibb was the Drake of his day—an artist whose historical stature is obviously nowhere near the legends of popular music, but who took advantage of his historical moment to outperform them.

A Final Word: In 1970, when Casey Kasem and Don Bustany were licensing the Billboard charts for their new radio show, Joel Whitburn was licensing them for a chart book. His death at age 82 is noteworthy, but he had already built his monument long before. His books are quite literally bibles to many of us. I have a whole shelf of them, but they’re never on it. They’re always stacked within arm’s length of my desk. 

A Son and His Father

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(Pictured: Alf Lennon, down the pub with an unidentified woman, 1966.) 

Halfway-knowledgeable music fans know that John Lennon was raised mostly by his aunt Mimi, sister to his mother Julia. Julia was an enigmatic character who moved in and out of her son’s life until she was run over by a car in 1958, when John was 17. Julia’s legend endures largely because she inspired one of Lennon’s most beautiful songs, “Julia,” one of his bleakest, “Mother,” and one of his oddest, “My Mummy’s Dead.” On the other hand, you’re probably some kind of expert if you know anything about Lennon’s father.

Alfred Lennon, known to the family as Alf, had married Julia in 1938. He was a merchant seaman who spent all but three months of World War II away from his family. After the war, disapproving of the way young John was being raised by Julia, Alf secretly planned to emigrate to New Zealand with the boy. In the inter-familial row that followed discovery of his plan, five-year-old John was offered a choice between living with his father and living with his mother. He chose his father, only to change his mind immediately thereafter. He would not see Alf again for nearly 20 years.

At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, Alf turned up at Brian Epstein’s office in the company of a reporter. John saw him briefly, but then ordered him to leave. A year later, John and his wife Cynthia bought a house in Weybridge, near London. As it turned out, Alf was working as a dishwasher in a nearby hotel, and one afternoon, he knocked at the Lennons’ door. Cynthia invited him in, but he left before John returned home. Initially, John was not pleased by the visit, although he did make an effort to contact his father later in the year. The relationship quickly foundered when Alf attempted to capitalize on John’s fame by making a record himself. John’s embarrassment over the ensuing press coverage caused him to nickname his ne’er-do-well father “the ignoble Alf.”

In 1967, Lennon’s father appeared in John’s life again, this time with a new 18-year-old wife, Pauline. (At the time, Alf was 54.) John eventually gave Pauline a job as nanny to his son Julian, but that arrangement lasted only a few months. The birth of Alf and Pauline’s first child caused another rift between Alf and John. In 1976, Alf got cancer; shortly before his death, John spoke to him on the phone and the two men reconciled. Alf Lennon died in April 1976 at age 63. John offered to pay for the funeral, but Pauline refused.

About that record Alf made: “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)” was recorded late in 1965 and released under the name Freddie Lennon. As a boy, Lennon’s father had briefly been a vaudevillian, he could impersonate Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, and he played the banjo, so it’s likely that his co-writer credit with a showbiz agent named Tony Cartwright is legit. Because the only thing most people knew about Lennon’s father was that he had been a sailor, the choice of subject matter—the joys of a life at sea—was obvious. “That’s My Life” spent two weeks on the Radio London chart during the first two weeks of 1966, although the pirate station dropped it afterward, supposedly at John’s request.

The similarity in title to the recent Beatles song “In My Life” was widely noted at the time. Noted in later years is the similarity to “Imagine,” which was nearly six years in the future when “That’s My Life” was written. Nevertheless, without the family connection to John, it’s unlikely that “That’s My Life” would have made the radio in 1966, or that anybody would bother remembering it now.

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared on June 18, 2010. Listening to “That’s My Life” again, it’s remarkable how much John sounded like his father despite not living with him while he was growing up.)

Doomsday DJ

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The Kids in the Hall, the Canadian comedy troupe whose TV show ran from 1989 to 1995 and who have reformed for concert tours and a couple of other projects since then, have released a new season of eight episodes, and they’re profiled in a new documentary Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks. It’s all on Amazon Prime. The new episodes are a wonder: it’s a little jarring at first to see the Kids all 30 years older, but it quickly becomes clear that time hasn’t robbed them of a single iota of their unique comedic sensibility.

The single most talked-about sketch in the series is “Doomsday DJ,” in which Dave Foley is on the air following some sort of unspecified apocalypse. It’s a funny premise, but it works as art because Foley gives the acting performance of his life. (You can watch it and read Foley’s comments about it here.)

If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I take the service responsibility of my radio job very seriously. If I see a tornado out the window, I may hide under the desk, but I’m staying in the studio; if I can get out of my driveway in a blizzard or an ice storm, I’m going to the station. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, I was happy to keep working because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

But the pandemic was hard for some radio jocks, who had trouble with the new reality. Not a lot of them, but certainly a few. “Service responsibility? I got into this to do entertaining things in creative ways, not to talk about life and death.” But now that wasn’t going to be enough. There was an all-consuming struggle going on, and there was no avoiding it. But how to talk about it? Having to do so made them uncomfortable, or sad. Some had trouble on a more fundamental level: it was tough to function while coping with the unrelenting fear of getting sick.

On the most basic level, radio work is fun. It’s why we do it, and it’s why we love it. But it’s a lot less fun if you feel shadowed by fear and doubt every day.

I understand the self-doubt one might feel at being forced into an unfamiliar role. I even understand a person being afraid of getting sick or seeing loved ones get sick, because we were all afraid of that. But this thing we do isn’t only about ourselves and the gratification of our own egos. There are other people involved—and those people are depending on us. They depend on us for entertainment and companionship, which are the easiest and most fun things we provide. But there are times when they will look to us for information. We shouldn’t shy away from providing it just because it’s deadly serious.

Today, it feels like we’re on the other side of the pandemic. (We aren’t, not really, but what we feel guides us more than what is true.) New roles have been learned, and many old roles are appropriate again. We radio jocks have, for the most part, gone back to doing our jobs as we did them before March 2020. But there are almost certainly other crises yet to come, other matters of life and death, and we’ll be required to respond to them just as we did to the pandemic. It’s not optional. If you bought the ticket, you’re obligated to take the ride.

And as I watch the Doomsday DJ one more time, I know what, at the end of the world, my service responsibility will be.

After the war in Ukraine began, in those tense days when it was easy to imagine a nuclear faceoff between the United States and Russia, The Mrs. and I had a conversation about it. We live in a state capital city. Somewhere out on the Russian steppes, it is likely that there’s a missile with the word “Madison” on it. If we heard it was coming, I asked her, what would you want to do?

She would not want to hide in the basement, go to a shelter, or flee to the countryside, she said. “I would want to sit on the couch with you and the cat and wait to be vaporized.”

It’s what I want, too. But I think she knows, if that distant early warning blows, and I’m on the air somewhere, I won’t be coming home.

June 1, 1982: Visiting Hours

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(Pictured: Joan Jett on stage in Chicago, 1982.)

June 1, 1982, was a Tuesday. Britain has taken control of an area near the Falkland Islands capital city of Stanley, and is demanding Argentina surrender or face a full-scale assault on the city. President Reagan meets with top advisers in advance of his first major European trip as president, which will begin tomorrow. He will visit France, Britain, and Germany for discussions on economic, political, and military issues. In Washington, the trial of John Hinckley continues. Hinckley, who turned 27 over the weekend, is accused of shooting Reagan and three others last year. The United States Supreme Court has overturned its own 1981 ruling and expanded the right of law enforcement officials to search vehicles without a warrant if they suspect contraband is present. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes have been thrashing the nation’s midsection since last Thursday. In Marion, Illinois, 10 people died in a tornado and over 100 were injured over the weekend, and cleanup yesterday was interrupted by severe thunderstorms with heavy rain. Fourteen more tornadoes were reported across the Midwest and South yesterday. In Harrisburg, Illinois, shoppers at Food Park can get USDA choice boneless chuck roast for $1.59 a pound, a 10-pound bag of red potatoes for $1.39, and an eight-pack of Coca-Cola in 16-ounce returnable bottles for $1.59 plus deposit.

The NBA Finals continue tonight. The Los Angeles Lakers take a 2-1 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers with a 129-108 win in Los Angeles. Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in danger of missing the game due to a migraine, but he plays 28 minutes and scores 16 points. Andrew Toney of the Sixers leads all scorers with 36 points. The two best teams in baseball at the moment are the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox. They are separated by one-half game atop the American League East after Detroit beats the West-leading California Angels and the Red Sox lose to Oakland. In the National League, East leader St. Louis loses to San Francisco in extra innings and West leader Atlanta beats the New York Mets.

Midweek moviegoers can see Memorial Day weekend’s big release, Rocky III, or the new slasher movie Visiting Hours. Other movies popular at the box office right now include Conan the Barbarian, Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Mad Max II: the Road Warrior, Porky’s, and Chariots of Fire. On TV tonight, CBS airs Game 3 of the NBA Finals live, preceded by a repeat of the 1979 special Hanna-Barbera Hall of Fame: Yabba Dabba Doo II, which goes behind the scenes with some of Hanna-Barbera’s most famous characters and their creators. NBC airs a repeat episode of the recently canceled Bret Maverick, starring James Garner, and the second-season premiere episodes of the primetime soap Flamingo Road. ABC presents Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, Too Close for Comfort starring Ted Knight, and Hart to Hart.

At WLS in Chicago, “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder and “Titles” by Vangelis from Chariots of Fire hold at #1 and #2 on the current station survey. “’65 Love Affair” by Paul Davis and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” are #3 and #4. Only one song is new in the Top 10 this week: “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene, at #10. “Rosanna” by Toto is up 10 spots from #24 to #14; “The Other Woman” by Ray Parker Jr. makes a nine-place move from #21 to #12. The highest debut on the chart this week is Joan Jett’s “Crimson and Clover” at #29. The #1 album in Chicago is the self-titled debut by Asia.

In Dubuque, Iowa, a young radio DJ spends the first part of his afternoon as board operator for the station’s broadcast of the Chicago Cubs. Their 9-1 shellacking at the hands of the San Diego Padres is over early after the Padres get four in the second inning and four more in the third. The game takes only two hours and 14 minutes to play, so there’s time after the post-game show for the young DJ to do a bit of his show. Afterward, he will go home to an empty apartment, empty by choice, as he lives alone and on his own for the first and only time in his life. Although he’s not a big basketball fan, he probably watches the NBA Finals on this night, although on many nights he listens to the radio, stretched out on the couch the way people do in front of the TV.

This post is by reader request. If there’s a date you’d like to get the ODIYL treatment, even if it’s several months in the future, get in touch

Also, a new Sidepiece went out this morning. To subscribe, go here.

I Get Around

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(Pictured: Dionne Warwick with Burt Bacharach at the piano, 1971.)

I have a 60s playlist sourced from the Time-Life AM Gold and Classic Rock series, and another of MOR that comes from the Lifetime of Romance series. I dipped into both of them on a recent all-day car ride, and here are some notes.

Continue reading “I Get Around”

Kick Out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters

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(Pictured: a completely spontaneous and not-at-all-orchestrated demonstration of support for Tipper Gore and the PMRC during congressional hearings in 1985.)

Thanks to all for your comments on naughty language in radio songs last Friday.

Mike helpfully linked to Ultimate Classic Rock’s list of songs with cuss words. A lot of the songs were never radio staples, however—in some cases, such as “Star Star,” precisely because the language was so far beyond the pale. Some of the obscenities are barely understandable (the supposed “I wanna fuck you” in the middle of “Do You Feel Like We Do”) or even audible (Paul’s expletive on a missed note in “Hey Jude.”) And many were edited for radio, with edits often more widely heard than the originals: “Who Are You,” “Jet Airliner,” “Kick Out the Jams,” “Hurricane.” As is the case with songs I mentioned in my earlier post, none of these lose very much for being edited. In fact, the radio edit of “Jet Airliner,” which replaces the line “funky shit going down in the city” with “funky kicks going down in the city” and adds a vocal harmony line to the replacement, represents an improvement.

But not all of the bad words got snipped. I think I can remember hearing “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit” in “Money” on AM radio back in the day, but I am not sure I trust the memory. (The blanked version sounds quite odd and foreign to me, however.) While many radio stations edited the line “haven’t seen a goddamn thing” from “Life in the Fast Lane,” it’s my understanding that the Eagles’ label never put out an official edit. “I’m so awful goddamn glad I’m not in your shoes,” from the Guess Who’s “Bus Rider,” was even printed in one of those song-lyric magazines I used to buy when I was a kid.

Album-rock radio always had a greater tolerance for rough language than Top 40. Neither programmers nor listeners seemed to care much. A certain level of maturity was assumed, and nobody made much of it. Today, so-called “active rock” stations are playing songs with obscenity-filled lyrics that glorify violence. Their audience accepts it, and life goes on.

As a culture, our grip on bad words in pop songs has always been kinda slippery. Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” ended up a Top-10 hit in 1974. A year later, on “Bad Blood,” Neil Sedaka sang “the bitch is in the smile.” But in 1977, radio stations went out of their way to edit “it’s a bitch, girl” out of “Rich Girl.” Two years after that, nobody looked sideways at “go on and cry in your coffee but don’t come bitchin’ to me” in Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”

The ebb and flow of naughty language in pop songs and on pop radio would be a good subject for further study, albeit maybe by somebody who doesn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. To the extent that there’s a difference today in how people react to such language, it started back in the mid-80s with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Council, and their campaign to warn parents about music with explicit lyrics. (That campaign, however, was focused on songs that didn’t get any radio play, and eventually jumped the shark when a Frank Zappa album got the “explicit lyrics” sticker despite being entirely intrumental.) But the ethos that fueled Mrs. Gore’s campaign—“who will save the children?”—remains today, fortified by a media superstructure that enables the weaponization of outrage, leaving little room for nuance, and certainly not for arguments about artistic freedom, personal choice, or the First Amendment. People getting amped about the content of a song in 1975 (for example) could make noise in their local community or with their local radio station. Today, some mom in West Overshoe who’s Big Mad about “abedefu” can write about it on WorldNetDaily today and be on Newsmax tomorrow, and the day after that, a whole segment of the country will be aflame with godly indignation, the kind that launches political careers.

In a nation where half of the electorate is drunk on weaponized outrage and going out of its way looking for stuff to be offended by, blanked and edited pop songs are likely to remain a part of the scene. And it’s not hard to imagine the lyric content of pop songs becoming a political issue again, eventually. But that’s a topic for another day, or maybe for The Sidepiece.