Top 5: One Little Speaker

As I’ve noted a million times before, the fall of 1970 is where time really begins for me—when the record charts first became the calendar of my life. I heard the season like the 10-year-old I was, gravitating toward my generation’s answer to the Jonas Brothers or Hannah Montana—the Partridge Family and Dawn. But while I was buying that stuff, I was also buying “Love the One You’re With” and “Domino,” and digging “Tears of a Clown” and “Share the Land” and “Immigrant Song.” And in the lifetime since, I’ve discovered the context in which those first beloved records appeared. And there’s context aplenty on the survey from WIXY in Cleveland, dated November 27, 1970:

3. “Back to the River”/The Damnation of Adam Blessing (up from 4). A Cleveland band from the same scene that produced the James Gang and the Raspberries, the Damnation of Adam Blessing made three albums between 1969 and 1971 before renaming itself Glory and eventually disbanding. The group’s bassist, Ray Benich, has an extensive website covering his and the group’s history, in which he mentions that he did nearly 18 years in prison (1982-2000) for a domestic shooting, “despite having no prior criminal record (except for that Glory album).” You gotta respect a man able to retain his sense of humor after all that. I’ve cooked up and discarded a whole string of metaphors describing what “Back to the River” sounds like (crappy example: “like ‘Run Through the Jungle’ done by Iron Butterfly, only without the organ”), so click the link, see if you can do better, and share in the comments

10. “No Matter What”/Badfinger (up from 15). Here’s a record that loses something in pristine stereo sound. It’s meant to be processed for AM radio and blasted, preferably from a few hundred miles away, into a little speaker you can hold in your hand. It was produced by Beatles’ road manager Mal Evans, and it should have made Phil Spector proud (although it more likely made him envious and bitter).

12. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”/Neil Young (down from 8). According to Young’s biographer, the After the Gold Rush album, from which this comes, was Young’s attempt to merge the sounds of Crazy Horse with Crosby Stills Nash and Young. If so, “Only Love” comes pretty close. Here’s Young with Graham Nash and David Crosby performing it live in 1970:

Plus, it’s a waltz, which you hardly ever got on the Top 40.

13. “You Better Think Twice”/Poco (down from 10). The clip below is from a TV series called Something Else, hosted by comedian/impressionist John Byner that ran in the early 70s. It featured an impressive array of then-current stars, many of whom didn’t appear on television much, including the Flying Burrito Brothers, Canned Heat, the Ides of March, Richie Havens, Melanie, the Turtles, CCR, Taj Mahal, and others. I’ve been able to find precious little about this show online, but I intend to keep looking.

19. “Be My Baby”/Andy Kim (up from 27). This is one of the greatest made-for-AM-radio productions of all time—the echo, the ringing piano chords, and the skittering bass guitar, and that’s just the first 10 seconds. And whatever’s playing the instrumental break before the final refrain—string section? Theremin?—came sizzling out of your little speaker and straight into your brain. I can’t hear it without thinking about how WLS sounded at night—or about the 10-year-old me, listening on one little speaker, 135 miles away.

“No Matter What”/Badfinger (buy it here)

Take Me, I’m Ready

I am having trouble finding September.

In most years, I have to remind myself in July or August not to rush it—that September will come in the fullness of time. But this year, I’m afraid it won’t. The leaves are starting to turn, and so are the afternoons, filling with that distinctive golden color only autumn light has. But September is a state of mind, too, and this year, it’s a state whose border remains elusive. Maybe it’s just work. My main gig, freelance writing and editorial work, has kept me me busier lately than it has all year, and I have days on which I barely find time to breathe. Or maybe it’s just ennui. This is my 50th September. I know this: If I’m going to find September before it disappears like Brigadoon, music will be the road map.

If I were trying to find October, I’d go back to 1974, 1975, 1976. To find September, I’ll have to go further—back to where time began. Back to 1970, and to 1971. They’re years when I’m still a full-time child, but I’ve already heard my calling. I haven’t recognized it yet in 1970, but by 1971, if you ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll point to the radio and say, “I want to do that.”

Here’s a quick five from the Cash Box chart dated September 19, 1970:

7. “Candida”/Dawn (up from 10). One of the touchstones of this blog, and the first record I ever loved.
16. “Groovy Situation”/Gene Chandler (up from 19). My lifelong interest in R&B started here.
19. “Joanne”/Michael Nesmith & the First National Band (up from 25). The Monkees were never like this.
25. “Out in the Country”/Three Dog Night (up from 35). Contains the first metaphor I ever admired: “before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime.”
34. “Closer to Home”/Grand Funk Railroad (up from 42). I couldn’t have imagined in 1970 that one day, 1970 itself would feel like home.

And five more from the Cash Box chart precisely one year later:

5. “Spanish Harlem”/Aretha Franklin. My first Aretha record, and still the one I love the most.
10. “Maggie May”/Rod Stewart (up from 18). “It’s late September and I really should be back at school.” Whenever I had the radio on, the school that mattered most was in session.
25. “The Wedding Song”/Paul Stookey (up from 29). There is a grace and dignity in this record that I couldn’t have understood back then; neither could I have fathomed it would be sung one day at my own wedding.
30. “All Day Music”/War (up from 36). As close as anyone has come, in my experience, of translating the feel of a late September afternoon into music.
46. “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”/Jr. Walker & the All Stars (down from 44). My first Jr. Walker record. I’d learn about “What Does It Take” and “Shotgun” later.

Some records were with us during the most important moments of our lives, and we can point to the memory and say yes, that’s the instant, right there, and here’s the song. None of these are like that. They’re memorable because they’re encoded with that September light from so long ago. And on this particular afternoon in 2009, they’re likely to find their way onto the box, because September is wasting, and I don’t want miss it.

“Joanne”/Michael Nesmith & the First National Band (buy it here)
“All Day Music”/War (buy it here)

Can’t Get Enough

All my life, there’s a sound I’ve associated with early fall. It’s the trilling of the tree frog. I have never actually seen a tree frog—in fact, I don’t even know if the sound is really made by tree frogs, or if it comes from something else. But my mother always called them tree frogs, and that’s good enough for me. When we’d start to hear them, she’d say, “Six weeks till frost.” That wasn’t always true, of course, but it was usually close. The tree frogs would come out in mid-to-late July, and our typical first frost up here in southern Wisconsin comes during the last week of September.

Maybe it’s a consequence of the weird summer weather we’ve had, or global warming, or something else, but I haven’t heard any tree frogs yet this year. As a result, September has sneaked up on me. Last June, after summer had sneaked up on me, we took a look at summers past, one song at a time. So let’s try it again with fall, grabbing the Number 40 song from the Hot 100 on Labor Days past to see what they can tell us about the season to come.

1970: “All Right Now”/Free (eventual peak: #4, October 17). The fall of 1970 is where time begins for me, and this was the hardest-rockin’ thing on the radio when I first started listening. One of the memories it brings back is an an odd one. We’re on our way back from Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’, I have cajoled my dad into turning on WLS while we drive home, and this is one of the first songs we hear. It’s not his cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine.

1974: “Can’t Get Enough”/Bad Company (eventual peak: #5, November 2). Sometime in the fall of 1974, I would discover FM radio, and switch my allegiance from WLS and WCFL to Madison’s Z104 and WACI from Freeport, Illinois. (I think I probably heard “Can’t Get Enough” for the first time on Z.) As a result, I would spend a lot of time that fall listening to my music on the big console stereo downstairs—better speakers—and would eventually retire the portable radio and record player I had in favor of my own stereo system.

1976: “Don’t Fear the Reaper”/Blue Oyster Cult (eventual peak: #12, November 6). That big console stereo was located in a little room on the front of our house that we called the sunporch. By 1976, it was equipped with a couple of comfortable chairs and upholstered with an unforgettable orange-and-yellow shag carpet. Although the console stereo and the shag carpeting are long gone, the sunporch is still one of the most pleasant rooms in the house I grew up in, although nobody spends much time there anymore.

1979: “Young Blood”/Rickie Lee Jones (peak position). My college radio station was under new management this fall. The program director and music director who had run the place during the first semester of the year had left school; the new guys installed an album-rock format lifted from a successful album-rocker in Milwaukee, where one of them had worked. I was paying close attention, and the semester wouldn’t be very far along before I decided I was going to run for program director in January.

1981: “The Night Owls”/Little River Band (eventual peak: #6, November 7). My term as program director was up in January 1981, and I didn’t go gracefully—I spent the next semester constantly criticizing everything the new regime did. During the summer, as one of the few students spending the whole summer at school, I anointed myself the de facto station PD—and found myself officially reappointed to the position that fall when the guy who had been elected in January quit. At the time, it seemed to me like a restoration of the natural order. In actuality, given the way I’d left, it was the most unlikely resurrection since the Resurrection.

(Speaking of resurrections, Echoes in the Wind will return to the Internets tomorrow. You can bookmark it here. A couple of our fellow bloggers have tried to pick up the slack during whiteray’s brief absence: AM, Then FM, and Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.)

Although I have played “All Right Now” 10,000 times on my own radio shows, it only sounds right to me in its remixed-and-shortened 45 version—which I don’t think I’ve ever played on the radio.

“All Right Now” (single version)/Free (buy it here)

Yesterday and Tomorrow

I spent most of Thursday evening writing a post about Michael Jackson for WNEW.com. I’m the resident historian over there (although a better way to describe my role might be that I’m the old geezer who’s always reminding the kids that things today aren’t the way they used to be), so I was focused on sketching the contours of Jackson’s career. My goal was to show readers who know only the tabloid version of him why his musical career mattered. I’m not the only writer doing that, because there’s a need for it. Now, however, I’m ready to reflect on a more personal level.

You’ll find lots of comparisons between Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson today, and here’s another. When Elvis died in 1977, it had been 15 years or so since he’d been the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He’d continued to record and perform, but his lifestyle had become extremely self-indulgent and his behavior downright odd. His appearance had changed greatly from what it had been. When he died, there was a whole generation of people who knew him only as a tabloid joke—“a fat guy who croaked on his toilet,” as one description had it at the time. When Michael died yesterday, it had been at least a dozen years since he’d been the King of Pop. He, too, remained part of the pop world, but his lifestyle, behavior, and appearance were what made headlines. And to the generation that’s come of age since the mid 1990s, he, too, is a tabloid joke.

That’s not to say older people never think of him that way. I was on the air yesterday when stories of Jackson’s death began to circulate, and I got a couple of phone calls that astounded me with their meanness: “One less freak in the world,” one person said, a note of glee in the voice. The callers spoke as though Jackson had finally gotten the death penalty he had deserved all along. What I said to them was that I’d rather focus on his music. The rest of it happened, yeah, and it’s irresistible to people who take pleasure in the suffering of others, or to people who enjoy seeing the mighty bought low (and to cable news channels, which are exemplars of both the latter and the former). But it’s not what made Michael Jackson famous, and it’s not why we should remember him.

Continue reading “Yesterday and Tomorrow”