Riding the Storm Out

Thirty-five years ago today, on March 4, 1976 (which was a Thursday), an ice storm smashed into southern Wisconsin. Rain began falling during the morning commute; as the day went on, the rainfall continued, eventually setting a record, while the temperature hovered right around freezing. Up to five inches of ice coated tree branches and power lines, causing them to break. Ice-covered electrical transformers exploded, as shown in a dramatic photo on the front page of the Madison Capital Times on Friday, March 5. Strong winds on Thursday night and Friday brought down more trees and power lines. Even worse than the lack of light and heat was the shortage of water, as pumping stations powered by electricity shut down.

An hour to the south of Madison, the mayor of Monroe declared a state of emergency on Thursday, telling reporters that half the mature trees in the city were down or damaged. City crews cleared broken branches from the streets with snowplows. Up to half the homes in the city were without power. Shelters were set up at the Armory and City Hall.

At our farm southwest of Monroe, we lost the lights at about 11:30 on Thursday morning. It was a common occurrence in those days—the power would go out a few times each summer during thunderstorms, although it was rare for it to happen in the winter. If I’m recalling correctly, my father had a generator by this time, purchased after the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965. It would provide enough power to milk his cows, but the generator was never used to power the house. We had to hunker down and ride it out. For a while it seemed like an adventure, until we kids realized that our well had an electric pump, and water was about to get scarce. I can still remember how my mother went off when one of us flushed a toilet by force of habit at some point on Thursday evening. That, and the sound of the wind howling around the dark, cold farmhouse.

By Friday evening, the power situation was getting better; the winds had died down a little, permitting crews to repair some lines, but it would be a long time before all of the darkened rural areas would get power back. (Ours wouldn’t return until Sunday afternoon.) And so my brothers and I were packed off to stay with friends in town. Travel conditions had improved enough so that my high school’s basketball team could play its regional tournament game in Platteville, an hour away; the friend I was staying with went to the game, but for some reason I didn’t. (It was just as well—Monroe lost 73-39 to Madison West.)

The basketball game showed that even in the face of an historic event, the day-to-day stuff of life continued. Some of that stuff is on the flip.

Continue reading “Riding the Storm Out”

What We Were

One of the very best things about the Internet is the way it makes possible the preservation and celebration of the ephemera of our culture—the intended-to-be-disposable stuff that used to disappear into attics, landfills, and/or oblivion before there was a place to put it. One celebrant I’ve been enjoying recently is Retroland. This week’s posts span a spectrum from the original McDonaldland cookies to KISS hype, including a promotional film for their 1978 movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. And I have mentioned Plaid Stallions before—a site whose mission is to relive the 70s one catalog page at a time. I find myself perpetually enchanted by some of the clothes people wore back then. The pink bell-bottom number here is strangely awesome, and I actually owned a turtleneck like this.

Retroland’s tagline is “You Are What You Were.” I like that a lot, even though I know it isn’t true. I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’d known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Coming tomorrow, we will, predictably enough, visit 1976 yet again. As an appetizer, here’s a song that was on the radio 35 years ago this week. It hasn’t changed in that time, but I have—and the song sounds a lot better to me now than it ever did back then. This video is another matter: It looks like it was shot through a lens covered in Vaseline and directed by Randy Meisner’s mom, but it’s a relatively rare opportunity to see—well, OK, mostly hear—the Eagles performing live in their prime.

Top 5: Gonna Come Back Around

It’s the first day of October. Regular readers of this pondwater will find today’s post entirely predictable.

Here’s a set of call letters dozens of stations wish they had: WHOT, which have been in Youngstown, Ohio, since 1955, and still are. Those calls are not the only entity associated with Youngstown for a good long time—morning man A. C. McCullough has been on WHOT since at least 1970, and the “A.C. and Kelly” morning show has been on the air since 1989. But we’re interested in the week of September 27, 1976, and five songs from the WHOT Hot 30.

2. “Lowdown”/Boz Scaggs (holding at 2). Still one of the songs that is most evocative to me of the fall of ’76, despite the fact that it first charted in May and first peaked early in September. Just the other night I watched the Saturday Night Live episode from September 25, 1976, on which Boz performed “Lowdown,” and it’s one of the greatest musical performances I’ve ever seen on SNL, but then again, I’m a fan.

14. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers (up from 18). It’s the eternal fate of bubblegum: to be considered sappy and disposable in its time, and only later to be recognized for its artistry. A long lineage is audible in the Rollers’ mid-70s singles, incorporating Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the hook-laden singles of Tony Burrows, and a little glam-rock flash. “I Only Want to Be With You” is also highly evocative of its time to me, for reasons having nothing to do with how it sounds.

25. “Nadia’s Theme”/Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. (debut). Earlier in the summer, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci did something no one had ever done before—at the Montreal Olympics, she scored perfect 10s on the uneven parallel bars. ABC set her performances to music, backing them with a song originally titled “Cotton’s Dream,” which started as a piece of incidental music in a 1971 film, but had been more famously used since 1973 as the theme for the CBS soap The Young and the Restless. On the strength of all this exposure, “Nadia’s Theme” became an off-the-wall Top 10 hit.

28. “It’s OK”/Beach Boys (down from 25). The Beach Boys had their best year in a long time in 1976, and August was their best month of that year. The smash single “Rock and Roll Music” returned them to the Top 10 for the first time since 1966, and their first album of all-new material in three years, 15 Big Ones, produced by Brian Wilson, hit the Top 10 on the album chart. Also in August, they starred in an NBC-TV special called It’s OK with guest stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. “It’s OK” is just OK, missing the spark of energy that might lifted it beyond the ordinary.

30. “Cumba Luigi for President”/Paisano Quartet (debut). A Youngstown group recorded on the Tammy label, based in Youngstown, undoubtedly topical given the ongoing Ford/Carter battle for the presidency. Beyond that, however, I know nothing.

Will we return to October 1976 before October 2010 is through? Was Lincoln a car?

“Lowdown” (live)/Boz Scaggs (From a bootleg that’s tagged “Live Silk 1976,” which means it could be from the oft-bootlegged show at the Roxy in West Hollywood on April 7, 1976—but maybe not. From the crowd reaction to “Lowdown,” perhaps this recording is from later in the year, after the song was on the radio. In any case, it captures a vibe similar to the SNL performance.) (buy Boz here)

Casey Country

In my post about the repeat broadcasts of original 70s-vintage American Top 40 a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of the show, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.

I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at Number 36  with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-Ten hit on the country charts. Up next at Number 35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although  he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”

May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from Number 83.

After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at Number 34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to Number 33.

By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.

Up at Number 24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers. As I listen, I remember that four years ago this spring, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.

Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.

Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at Number 35 and “Union Man” would hold at 24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to Number 96 and out. And 34 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.

If You Make Your Request, the DJ Will Do His Best

Instead of spending another post ruminating about October songs, I think I’ll just be a DJ and play five of ’em, on the radio this week in 1976, of course. This one was recorded live at a show on December 31, 1976:

(Check out a version of “Lido Shuffle” from the same show here.)

Someday I’m going to write a whole post about the Bay City Rollers, who scored four straight hit singles in 1976—“Saturday Night,” “Money Honey,” “Rock and Roll Love Letter,” and “I Only Want to Be With You”—all of which are pretty good as long as you remember who we’re talking about. “I Only Want to Be With You” is a particular favorite of mine, because it features an instrumental break in the middle that sounds like the 101 Strings on a caffeine high.

Recently somewhere—I thought it was in the comments here, but maybe it was on Facebook, or maybe I’ve hallucinated the whole thing—we were discussing little moments in songs that we particularly love. A moment that makes what’s left of my hair stand on end starts at the 2:33 mark of this video, where the medley of mid-70s disco hits ends and the record returns to the main theme.

And then there’s this, which is all kinds of awesome, although I can’t explain why. Is it Cliff’s shag, his medals, the long johns he appears to be wearing, the same damn video effect repeated for 3 1/2 minutes . . . or what?

Programming note on the following: The awesomeness does not truly begin until they bust out the rubber bands.

I think five’s enough for today . . . but tomorrow’s another day.

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)