Impossibly Long Ago

(It’s not my intent for this blog to become all American Top 40 all the time, but I suppose I could do worse. And I probably will.)

About a year ago, I wrote about an American Top 40 show from 1972 that made me feel as if I were listening to Emile Berliner explain how the gramophone works. The show and the world in which it was first heard seemed remarkably far removed from everything we are and everything we know today. Recently, Casey did it again, with the show from August 12, 1972.

Part of the way I reacted has to do in part with the way the late summer of 1972 lives on in my head. Songs from that season remain remarkably vivid—I must have had the radio on 18 hours a day in those two or three weeks before school started, hearing the top hits over and over and over again until they made a mark time can’t wash away. Not every season of the 70s is like this, but the late summer/early fall of 1972 definitely is. I can reach back and touch it in a way I can’t do with other periods in my past. So some of the stuff Casey said on the August 12, 1972, show is jarring in 2014 because it makes clear, in a way the music alone does not, just how impossibly long ago 1972 is.

Early in the show, Casey tells about a multi-talented star who had won a Tony, several Grammys, an Emmy, and a Best Actress Oscar, who was nevertheless blackballed when she tried to buy a $240,000 co-op apartment in New York City. The other owners feared that she would bring the wrong element into their building, which was home to Wall Street types and their high society wives. An era in which Barbra Streisand (pictured above) is considered too questionable a sort to hobnob with the Park Avenue swells has to be more than 42 years ago, doesn’t it?

Later, Casey plays Bobby Vinton’s remake of “Sealed With a Kiss,” the teenage summertime anthem that had been a #3 hit for Brian Hyland in 1962. As I listened, with a device in my pocket that can connect me to anyone anywhere in the world in a number of different ways, the lament of a boy separated from his sweetheart for three months and able to communicate only through letters seemed impossibly quaint. Did we ever really live like that?

Still later, Casey refers to Karen Carpenter as “a modern-day Patti Page.” While the metaphor would zoom over the heads of modern listeners on the repeat, it would have resonated with many AT40 listeners in 1972. Page charted her first hit in 1948 and scored steadily from 1950 through about 1963, and in 1972 was only seven years removed from her most recent Top 10 hit, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” So to compare her to a contemporary singer in 1972 was little different than comparing somebody who was consistently popular from the late 80s to the early oughts with one of today’s stars. And it’s a fine comparison, really—like Karen Carpenter, Page in her prime had a remarkably pure tone: just listen to her spectacular 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod.” But here in 2014, the comparison knocked me sideways for a second. If this show comes from a time when Patti Page was still relevant, just how long ago a time are we talking about here?

Come August, I am prone to feeling my age. As much as I love fall, the weeks before the seasons change can be hard to take. Maybe it’s a hangover from those days when we’d go back to school late in August and the calendar of life seemed to turn over with a hard and definite click. The clicks seem to come faster now, and there’s been an awful lot of them.

Some Kind of Wonderful

(Pictured: Grand Funk, whose “Some Kind of Wonderful” was #6 for all of 1975, equaling the year-end position of “The Locomotion” in 1974. You want trivia, you got it.)

The second half of the American Top 40 year-end countdown for 1975 was officially scheduled for the week of January 3, 1976. Like the first part, it was a special four-hour show. A station running it back then would have had to find an extra hour for it. Not until 1978 would the show go to four hours regularly.

If your local AT40 affiliate repeated the 1975 countdown today, it could be cut up strangely. When Premiere Radio Networks sends four-hour 70s shows to affiliates today, the first hour contains no national commercials, so stations are not obligated to run it. If an affiliate airs the show in a three-hour window, they pick it up at the beginning of the second hour, and the first hour goes unheard. So if a station with a three-hour window were rebroadcasting the eight-hour Top 100 of 1975 show over two weeks, they’d have started the countdown at #88 (the beginning of hour #2) and carried it through to #51, then picked it up again the next week at #36 (the beginning of hour #6).

I made some observations about the first half of this show in an earlier post. Here are a few thoughts about the second half:

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Robin Williams on Records

(Pictured: Gene Simmons, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, and Ace Frehley, at a taping of Klein’s radio show in 1979.)

(Couple of late edits below.)

Many of us get breaking news now by reading our Twitter timelines in reverse-chronological order—and when a celebrity’s name appears out of the blue a couple of times, we immediately start fearing the worst. So it was when Robin Williams’ death was announced the other night. Because I am old enough to remember when the comedy album was a thing, it didn’t take me long to start thinking about Williams’ work as it was heard on flat black pieces of plastic.

When The Mrs. and I merged our record collections, Williams’ 1979 album Reality . . . What a Concept was one of hers. At the time it was recorded (at live shows in New York and San Francisco), Williams was best known as the star of Mork and Mindy. If you’ve seen his 1978 HBO On Location special, some of the material will be familiar. On the album, as in the special, Williams bounces off the walls of the theater—he’s clearly got a structured performance in mind, but he ad-libs wildly before, during, and after each bit. It’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes it’s as exhausting to watch as it must have been to perform. (The fact that Williams was coked to the eyeballs contributed to the mania.) You can hear the whole Reality . . . What a Concept album here, although if you’d like a smaller bite, click here for “Come Inside My Mind,” in which Williams explains the workings of the brain of an actor who’s bombing on stage. The album was a remarkably big hit for a spoken-word/comedy recording, reaching #10 on the Billboard 200 in a 22-week run that began in July 1979. At the same time, Williams’ label, Casablanca, released a radio-only sampler called 44 Lines. My guess is that it’s just what the title implies: 44 lines from Reality . . . What a Concept that DJs could drop into their shows.

Williams won the Best Comedy Recording Grammy in 1980, but it would be three years before he made another full album. In the interim, he would continue to star in Mork and Mindy as well as in the movies Popeye (1980; a couple of flop singles were released featuring songs from the soundtrack) and The World According to Garp (1982; still my favorite performance of his). He did a second HBO special, An Evening With Robin Williams, recorded in San Francisco and representing the apex of his coke-fueled standup era. Several performances from that period ended up on his 1983 album Throbbing Python of Love. Casablanca also released a seven-inch sampler from the album to radio stations. (I’ve got a copy.) It includes “Elmer Fudd Sings Bruce Springsteen” and Williams’ impersonation of Jack Nicholson doing Hamlet (“To be or not to goddamn be . . . whether ’tis nobler to take the ca-ca or sling it right back at ‘em”). Throbbing Python of Love made the Billboard album chart, reaching #119 in a nine-week run beginning in April 1983. It also received a Grammy nomination, but didn’t win.

From that point on, Williams had more success at the Grammy awards than on the album chart. Live at the Met (1988) and Live 2002 (2003) both won for Best Comedy Recording. (Williams also won a comedy Grammy for his work in Good Morning Vietnam.) In 2009, the soundtrack from another HBO special, Weapons of Self Destruction, was released as a DVD and CD. It became the only Williams album not nominated for a Grammy. (Late edit: wrong. It got nominated too.) According to his discography at Allmusic.com, Williams also narrated a couple of kids’ albums, Pecos Bill (1988, with music by Ry Cooder; late edit: also a Grammy winner, for Best Children’s Recording) and The Fool and the Flying Ship (1991). The latter was from a PBS children’s series that featured a number of prominent actors narrating animated folktales.

I am not a person who believes in heaven. I believe that this life is all there is, and when we’re dead, we’re done. Nevertheless, I like to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, reunited after her death just yesterday, having to move to a different table in the bar because Williams, Richard Pryor (who gave Williams one of his first breaks in showbiz), and George Carlin are laughing too loud at the next table.

One Day in Your Life: August 8, 1974

(Pictured: Stills, Young, Nash, and Crosby onstage in the summer of 1974.)

August 8, 1974, was a Thursday. Britain, Greece, and Turkey begin a second round of negotiations in Geneva over the fate of Cyprus, which had been invaded by Turkey last month after a Greek-backed coup overthrew the island nation’s government. New Yorkers are buzzing about stuntman Phillippe Petit, who eluded security at the World Trade Center and walked a tightrope between the two towers yesterday. In Wenatchee, Washington, investigation and cleanup continue after a railroad tank car explosion killed two and injured 66 on Tuesday. Illinois governor Dan Walker draws the first winning numbers in the new Illinois State Lottery at the State Fair in Springfield. In Georgia, Savannah State College holds its 110th commencement exercises.

Howie Pollet, star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1940s, dies at age 53, and Nuremberg defendant Baldur von Schirach, one-time head of the Hitler Youth, dies at age 66. Future MMA fighter Mike Budnik is born. National Football League players continue a strike that began last month over a rule restricting player movement from team to team. The inaugural season of the World Football League continues; reports today claim that the league’s robust attendance figures are inflated and the vast majority of fans get in free; tonight in Jacksonville, over 43,000 watch the hometown Sharks get a last-second win over the Hawaiians 21-14. In today’s Peanuts strip, Sally channels Theodore Roosevelt to ward off a playground bully. The People’s Republic of Congo issues a stamp commemorating the joint Apollo-Soyuz space mission that will take place in 1975.

In Washington, the design of what will become the Hart Senate Office Building is approved. Vice-President Gerald Ford awards the Congressional Medal of Honor to Army Lieutenant Loren Hagen of Fargo, North Dakota; Hagen was killed in action in 1971 and his father accepts the medal. President Nixon is up before 4AM meeting with aides and making phone calls. He arrives in the Oval Office at 9AM, gets a haircut at 10:15, and spends the rest of the day in brief meetings and calls with staffers, attorneys, and members of Congress, pausing at 5:30 to veto an ag bill. At 8 in the evening, he meets with a large congressional delegation, and at 9:01 goes on TV to announce that he will resign the next day. Network primetime schedules are disrupted by the resignation news; earlier in the day, the three broadcast networks aired 18 game shows and 13 soap operas.

Liza Minnelli plays the Great Allentown Fair in Allentown, Pennsylvania; her show is delayed so that Nixon’s resignation speech can be broadcast over the sound system. Joni Mitchell plays Pine Knob Music Theater in suburban Detroit, where she announces Nixon’s resignation to the crowd. Johnny Cash plays Las Vegas, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young play Jersey City, New Jersey. An unknown California rock band called Van Halen plays another of its regular gigs at Gazzari’s in West Hollywood.  At WCFL in Chicago, “Annie’s Song” by John Denver is #1, knocking “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae to #3. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John is at #2. The hottest record on the chart is “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, leaping to #5 from #16. Also new in the top 10: “Wild Thing” by Fancy at #10. Also making a big move: “Machine Gun” by the Commodores, from #24 to #14. The #1 album at WCFL is Elton John’s Caribou. WCFL afternoon jock Larry Lujack is pictured on the back of the station’s survey alongside ads for Cruz Garcia Real Sangria and Unguentine aerosol for sunburn.

Perspective From the Present: I spent much of the resignation week with my grandparents, who had sold their farm and moved to town earlier in the year. I devoured the newspapers and watched everything that was on TV, including Nixon’s speech on the night of the 8th and the coverage of his departure the next day. Although I was only 14, I knew that what I was seeing was like nothing else in American history, traumatic and sad but at the same time an example of the way the world is supposed to work: great wrongs do not go unpunished; those who perpetrate them get the comeuppance they deserve, one way or another. It doesn’t work that way anymore, and it didn’t always work that way then, either. Forty years ago today, however, it did.

Never Can Say Goodbye

(Pictured: 70s revelers see in a new year, while geeky teenagers stay home and listen to the countdown.)

American Top 40‘s year-end countdowns varied in length between 1970 and 1973—the top 80 in 1970 and 1972, the top 40 in 1971 and 1973—but by 1974, Casey and company had settled on the top 100, broadcast in two parts, eight hours in all, over two weekends around Christmas and New Year’s. I have been listening to the year-end countdown from 1975 lately, and it might be my favorite edition of AT40 ever. It’s almost all killer and no filler. The crazed variety that made Top 40 radio so much fun in the 70s is clearly evident, and clunkers are few. In addition, although one of the strengths of AT40 in any given week is the balance between Casey and the music, the 1975 countdown seems especially well-constructed: anecdotes are brief, mostly recaps of a record’s chart performance or a quick bit of trivia about the artist’s career, and then it’s back to the hits. There are no lengthy stories or extras to slow the show’s momentum.

A few other observations:

—The survey year covered November to November, so a few key hits from the preceding year would always appear, and some from late in the current year would be missing. Casey reminds the audience of this repeatedly—I lost count after he mentioned it a half-dozen times.

—In compiling the top 100, Billboard listed several ties for year-end positions: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by BTO and “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces at #97, “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor and “Cut the Cake” by AWB at #71, and others. This strikes me weird, and it makes me wonder about the methodology used to compile the chart. If there had been a tie for #1, I am guessing they would have found a way to resolve it, but maybe not.

—And how is it that “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” which hit #1, comes in well behind other songs, some of which failed to make the top 10 at all?

—When playing John Denver’s “I’m Sorry” and “Calypso,” the two-sided hit from that summer, Casey notes a survey taken among Miss USA contestants in 1975. They were asked to pick the “best man in the world.” The winner, with eight votes: Henry Kissinger. (Dear sweet naïve days of the 1970s, we miss you so.) In second place, with three votes: then-president Gerald Ford. In third place, with two votes each, a tie: Billy Graham and John Denver.

—At one point in the countdown, Casey remarks that 250 different songs made the Top 40 in 1975. The top 100 therefore represents 40 percent of the year’s radio music—a larger percentage than I would have guessed.

—At #63, Casey introduces “Only Women” by Alice Cooper by saying that it’s a change from Cooper’s usual brand of outrageousness, mock executions and so forth. Casey calls the song “a touching tribute to women.” And that is a monumental misreading of Cooper’s intentions. The song’s actual title is “Only Women Bleed,” but when it was issued as a single, Cooper’s record label titled it “Only Women,” and that’s how it was known during its run on the radio. By 1975 standards, it’s pretty graphic in its description of the life of an abused wife (“slaps you once in a while and you live in love and pain”, “black eyes all of the time . . . come watch me bleed”). It has the feel of a ballad, but Cooper’s delivery is more creepy than touching, and in fact, “Only Women Bleed” is as much a horror show as “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “I Love the Dead,” or Cooper’s other transgressive songs. Casey was not alone in misreading it: in 1975, almost everybody really really really wanted to believe it was about something other than it is.

I’ll have more about the 1975 year-end countdown in a future installment, probably.

Frankenstein Meets Brenda Lee

(Pictured: Tracey Dey, protege of Four Seasons’ producer Bob Crewe, who recorded a handful of singles 50 years ago, and whose appearance here proves that Getty Images has something on almost everybody.)

The first week of August 1964 was a momentous one. It was the week of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the famous Congressional resolution it inspired, which led to the escalation of the Vietnam War. The bodies of murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were discovered in Mississippi. The Ranger VII spacecraft had just sent back the first close-up pictures of the moon’s surface. A country superstar died in a plane crash (about which more below). Some of the most famous music of the 1960s was on the radio, as we noted on Friday.

That post could have been twice as long if I’d spent time looking at the 35 songs that made up the Bubbling Under chart for the week of August 1, 1964. Some of the songs bubbling under 50 years ago this week became legitimate hits: the Newbeats’ “Bread and Butter” (#115) and “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett (#116), while “Haunted House” by Jumpin’ Gene Simmons (#131) and “20-75″ by Willie Mitchell (#132) are mainly of interest to the kind of geek who reads this blog.

If you are that kind of geek, you should see what’s on the flip.

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