Riding High

(Pictured: kids in America, summer 1976.)

In Buffalo, New York, WYSL still exists today, still on AM at 1040 (and on FM at 92.1), running mostly conservative talk. The 50,000-watt signal on AM 1520 isn’t called WKBW anymore; it’s WWKB, and it carries ESPN Radio. Each station has a colorful history, and the Top 40 days we discussed in a previous post are a big part of it. (You can read about WKBW here and WYSL here.)

Although the two stations offered their 1976 listeners two different experiences, in one significant way, they were highly similar. No matter which station you had in your ear all day every day, each one gave the summer of 1976 three signature songs.

One was a Hot 100 monster: “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band. I’ve written about this song several times over the years (most thoroughly here), and I suspect that regular readers of this pondwater might be able to predict what I’d say about it were I to try to write about it again. So go watch this VH1 clip to see a bit of their short-lived TV variety show (with David Letterman), from which I learned that one member of the group is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s keyboard player today. I didn’t realize it was the same guy.

Another of western New York’s summer of ’76 signature songs is a Hot 100 oddball: “A Little Bit More” by Dr. Hook. The song would become a significant national hit, but not in the summer—it wouldn’t hit its Hot 100 peak of #11 until October, but it did a long stretch at #1 in Buffalo starting in late June, long before it ever got onto American Top 40. It occasionally shows up on worst-songs-of-the-70s lists, mostly for some pretty unsexy images, including “When your body’s had enough of me / And I’m layin’ flat out on the floor.”  But at a certain point, a good performance can sell anything: lead singer Dennis Locorriere makes “We’d better get it on now / Cause we’ve got a whole life to live through” sound like a beautiful declaration of love.

Then again, it was on my radio every couple of hours in October 1976, so I might not be the most credible authority on it.

(Digression: somewhere in my archives I have the tape of an interview a couple of us did with Locorriere and Ray Sawyer at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, before Dr. Hook appeared at the Stephenson County Fair in 1980. I expect it was pretty terrible, although I can remember one funny line: Sawyer said that his famous eye-patch is real. “I lost my eye in a car accident,” he told us. “I went back later and tried to find it, though.”)

The third signature hit of the Buffalo summer of 1976 is a song most people today don’t know at all: “Listen to the Buddha” by Ozo. Apart from a couple of stray surveys from WBBF in Rochester, New York, the two Buffalo stations are the only ones at ARSA showing this semi-hypnotic reggae number, and both stations have it riding high throughout July. It will reach #4 on both by the end of the month. Buffalo might be singlehandedly responsible for getting it onto the Hot 100: it would go #99-98-96 and out during a three-week run during the last half of August.

I wonder if any of the oldies stations up there are playing it today.

The General

(Late edit: added a link.)

I worked for KDTH and KFMD in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1979 to 1983, and in those years, Dubuque was insular to the point of weirdness. If you weren’t born there, Dubuquers would consider you an outsider, and therefore not qualified to opine on anything going on in the city. But there were strong personalities at KDTH who cut through all that. Newsman Gordon Kilgore, whom I’ve written about here in the past, was one of them. George Lipper, who was general manager of the stations during my time there, was another. A native of Massachusetts, he never entirely lost his accent (which some of my colleagues liked to imitate), but he was as utterly committed to Dubuque as if his family had founded the place. He frequently delivered editorials on KDTH, and they pushed citizens and city fathers to move forward. He was a great believer in highways as the engine of economic development, and is credited for the building of the Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge that improved transportation access to the city.

After I’d become a fulltime jock at KDTH and was about to get fired—unjustly, I felt—I went to him to argue my case. He listened kindly but was ultimately noncommittal. After I got fired, I felt as though he hadn’t done enough to save me. I got a job in Macomb, Illinois, and life went on.

It was only a few months later that George came to Macomb in his capacity as head of acquisitions for the company that owned KDTH. While the company decided not to buy WKAI—the station that competed with the one I was working for—George did. I have told the story before, so there’s no need to repeat it here. Short version: I ended up doing what I had not intended to do, and I became George’s program director.

George’s guiding philosophy was simple: do good in your community and do good radio—not “good enough for a small town,” but simply “good.” So he took a personal interest in the news department and hired a farm reporter, in an attempt to turn what had been a bad country-music jukebox into a full-service AM station like KDTH had been. It was his idea to put a Top-40 format on the FM side. He also brought in a take-no-prisoners sales manager who transformed the sales staff from order-takers into marketers. And he surprised city fathers and holdover staff at the stations—but not me—by doing editorials that urged the community forward.

He didn’t own the stations for long, however. He sold them in 1986, but he stuck around, and later that year ran for the Illinois legislature as a Democrat in a district that had been Republican since the Depression. I produced his radio ads, including one that used an audio clip of his opponent at a time when that was not commonplace, and the reaction to it was overwhelmingly negative. It didn’t cost him the election—the margin was too great for that—but even though he got trounced, he pulled more votes than any Democrat in years. (Two years later, a Democrat won the seat.)

George returned to Iowa then and took a job with the Department of Economic Development. I saw him only once after that, sometime around 1994. I was at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, in some dark gallery in the basement of the place, when a man walked by. We made eye contact and walked on, but then each of us turned in recognition at about the same moment. It was a brief conversation, but one I like to remember.

George Lipper died last week at the age of 80. I remember him one of those people who, if they ever had moments of doubt, never let them show—but not in a negative, bravado-filled way. He conveyed an air of self-assurance that made you want to follow him. It’s probably the same sort of thing great generals have. George wasn’t asking anybody to die, but he wanted your best work and expected you to deliver it. He believed so strongly that you could do it, and would do it, that you could not bear to let him down.

Elton’s Test Tube

Elton John’s first album, Empty Sky, was released in the UK in 1969, and it bombed. First released in the States in 1975, less than three months after Greatest Hits, at the very beginning of Elton’s most epic year, it rose to #6 in an 18-week chart run. When it reached the top 10 in February, it was one of four Elton albums on the Billboard 200along with Greatest Hits, Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And it is not remotely as good as any of the others. Elton himself has said as much, calling it “naive” while at the same time feeling quite nostalgic about the circumstances under which it was made. But knowing what we do about Elton, and about the long arc of his career, it’s fairly interesting to listen to just the same. The whole album is here. While you listen, I’ll break it down song by song.

The album opens with the title song, which is like nothing else Elton John would ever do. It’s apparently something he’d had in his back pocket since his days with Bluesology, a stretched-out jam that owes more than a little to the Rolling Stones. It has one of the stronger lyrics on the album, mostly because Bernie Taupin doesn’t try too hard. But that would not be the case for too long. The next track, “Val-hala,” lays the Viking references on thick and gets some of them wrong (no, Bernie, their ships were not called “galleons”), but Elton’s melody and the song’s arrangement are lovely enough so that it doesn’t matter.

“Western Ford Gateway” is probably the earliest example of Bernie’s fascination with cowboy mythology and the American West, while “Hymn 2000″ is the earliest example of his ability to write poetic nonsense:

She chose the soft centre
And took it to bed with her mother
And the ideal confusion was just an illusion
To gain further news of her brother

“Hymn 2000″ is redeemed a little by the line about “collecting submarine numbers on the main street of the sea,” which isn’t much more meaningful but has more art in it.

On the album’s rockers, young Elton sounds like Elton in his prime, but on the ballads, such as “Lady What’s Tomorrow,” he sings in a soft, nasal tone that’s almost as hard to abide as the rasp his voice has become today. “Lady What’s Tomorrow” is pretty, though. “Sails” is pretty too—as in “pretty much a disaster.” The hook is built on the leaden lines “While the seagulls were screaming / Lucy was eating.” The image of Lucy and her lunch is supposed to represent . . . something. It wouldn’t matter if the song were more compelling, but it just sits there for 3:45 and never really goes anywhere.

There are two songs on Empty Sky that would have made fine singles. “The Scaffold” might be Elton’s first great melody, although once again, he sings it in a way that listeners in 1975 would have found odd. “Skyline Pigeon” would become the album’s most famous song, but not until Elton befriended Ryan White, the famous young AIDS patient, in the late 80s. The 1969 original is magnificent, with Elton on harpsichord and organ, and without the soft nasal vocal.

The 1975 release of the album closes the way it opened—with something utterly unlike anything else in Elton’s future catalog. “Gulliver” is a solid song spoiled by gimmickry—it abruptly cuts to a cheesy instrumental called “Hay Chewed,” which gives way to a montage of clips from all the songs on the album. It was different, if not a particularly good idea. The deluxe CD reissue adds four songs Elton released on singles. “Lady Samantha” is the most famous; “It’s Me That You Need” is a pretty obvious bid for a hit single, if not by Elton, than by whomever his music publisher could sell it to. The others, “All Across the Havens” and “Just Like Strange Rain” are nothing special. In fact, the covers of famous pop songs Elton was recording anonymously at the same time for British “as seen on TV” compilation albums (eventually released in a couple of different configurations, including Chartbusters Go Pop!) are more compelling.

Heard in 1969, Empty Sky would have marked Elton John as a talent to watch. In 1975 it provided—as it does today—a fascinating glimpse of the ingredients of his fame, all mixed up in the test tube before they were poured out.

Python Forever

(Pictured, L to R: Jeff Beck, Robert Plant, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; the Pythons’ rock-star friends helped fund Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and George Harrison famously founded Handmade Films so the group could make Life of Brian.)

The five surviving members of Monty Python concluded a run of shows at London’s O2 Arena yesterday with a worldwide live broadcast. What follows is a reboot of some stuff I wrote about them in 2009.

The members of Python first met in 1966 and appeared on a couple of British TV shows, but they also have roots in radio: John Cleese appeared on the long-running BBC Radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, where Graham Chapman was a writer; some of the other Pythons also appeared on or wrote for radio shows in the mid-to-late 60s. Python’s radio roots are never clearer than on the series of record albums they released.  So here’s my list of the Top 5 Python albums.

(Late edit: it occurs to me that Cleese and Chapman would have met at Cambridge University in 1963; the six Pythons would have all met one another by sometime in ’66.)

5. Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972). This album was their first to contain sketches that never appeared on TV, and one that came from an unusual TV source. “The Tale of Happy Valley” is based on a sketch first produced for Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. The Pythons wrote all-new material for both shows, performing the first one in phonetic German but having the second one dubbed. The material was not seen in the States until some of it surfaced during the 1982 American shows that resulted in the movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (and pieces of it were included in this month’s reunion shows).

4. Another Monty Python Record (1971). Python’s earliest albums often modified TV sketches to work without accompanying visuals, and a friend of mine adored this album for years before she ever saw the TV sketches. Highlights: theater-of-the-mind on “Royal Festival Hall” and a version of “The Piranha Brothers” that’s better than the one seen on the TV show.

3. Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (1980). This album is the source of several of the songs featured in the reunion show—the album is mostly musical and contains only a couple of sketches. The group performed one of them, “Four Yorkshiremen,” at the reunion show, and it was a staple of the live shows they performed in the 70s. It actually dates back to At Last the 1948 Show, a 1967 TV program featuring Cleese and Chapman.

2. Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973). If, as George Harrison is supposed to have said, the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 1970s, Matching Tie and Handkerchief is their Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious than their earlier material. With no track listing, it was meant to surprise listeners, and it did. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle. (Listen to medieval agriculture collide with mid-70s British pop music on “The Background to History.”)

1. The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). If Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then this is their Sgt. Pepper, if by Sgt. Pepper we mean the group’s single greatest recorded achievement. The album is a fully realized comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made. (Opening segment here; others available at YouTube.)

If, as seems likely with all of the members in their 70s now, the 2014 reunion marks the end of Python’s career, the group will remain eternally ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. In that way, they’re also very much like the Beatles. The best tribute to Python’s innovation, and to the difficulty in describing precisely what they did, is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: “Beatlesque” and “Pythonesque.” Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.

Listening to Buffalo

(Pictured: just another day in America’s bicentennial year.)

One day recently I decided it might be interesting to compare two radio surveys from the same city for the same week. I picked WKBW and WYSL in Buffalo, New York, and I chose a week in July 1976 because of course I did. The project got a little bigger than I planned—I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet tracking the chart action on both stations plus the Billboard Hot 100 for the whole month.

And I intend to use it, on the flip.

Continue reading →

Moon Walk

Forty-five years ago this morning, Apollo 11 took off for the moon. (The farther in time we get from the mission, the more surreal it seems, that we actually went so far with technology so primitive compared to what we’ve got now—the cell phone in your pocket has vastly more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969.) Apollo 11 left footprints in more places than the moon. Shortly after the flight, references to Apollo 11 started turning up in pop songs.

—The most timely was probably the Dickie Goodman cut-in record “Luna Trip,” which spent a couple of weeks on the Hot 100 in September 1969, reaching #95. Like most Goodman hits, the clips used for the cut-ins provide a good summary of the big hits of the moment.

—On The Ballad of Easy Rider, which was being recorded during the Apollo 11 summer, the Byrds did “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins,” a brief throwaway that nevertheless would have felt highly meaningful when the album came out that fall.

—Late in 1969, Joe Simon cut “Moon Walk (Parts 1 and 2).” It was recorded in Nashville with several of the city’s top studio cats and produced by influential DJ John R (Richbourg). It’s incredibly damn funky, although its connection to the Apollo mission is fairly tenuous at first—Joe tells his lady he can’t stop loving her while saying she’s got him doing the moon walk, whatever that means. Only later do things get a bit more explicit, when Joe explains the step and finally says, “Here come some rocks / A little of that moon dust  / Put it in your bag / Walk home with me now.” “Moon Walk” reached #54 on the Hot 100 in an eight-week run starting in January 1970.

—Also in 1969, a Belgian group called the Tenderfoot Kids recorded a song called “Apollo 11,” one of several singles they made in 1969 and 1970. The Internet knows precious little about it, and neither do I. I can’t make out much of the lyric, although the last of it seems to include an airport PA announcement of some sort. If the YouTuber who posted it is accurate, it reads (translated to English), “All those passengers to the space flight number one, please go to gate number12 for immediate embarkation.” Whoever the Tenderfoot Kids were, they must have listened to their share of Cream records, because “Apollo 11″ sounds just like it should be one. It didn’t chart in the States, and may never have been released here.

—Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull used lunar module pilot Michael Collins as a metaphor for loneliness in “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me,” which appeared on Benefit, released in 1970: “It’s on my mind I’m left behind / When I should have been walking with you.”

—The best of the Apollo-themed songs was written by John Stewart (of Kingston Trio/Bombs Away Dream Babies fame) and first recorded by Reg Lindsay, an Australian country singer. (When I mentioned this song a few years ago, I said erroneously that Lindsay wrote it, because this is not a very good blog, really.) By the end of the 60s, Lindsay was dividing his time between Oz and Nashville, where he appeared several times at the Grand Ole Opry. His 1971 version of Stewart’s “Armstrong” was his first radio hit in Australia. In 1974, Lobo covered “Armstrong” for his album Just a Singer. It’s a touching song about the way the whole world stopped to watch the moon walk—which it did.

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