(Hey, we got pictures now. Here’s why.)
At Christmas 1984, when Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” became a worldwide smash, it became inevitable that American stars would do something similar for famine relief. The story of “We Are the World” is fairly well known. One of the more interesting things about it now is the list of participating artists: three of the songwriters, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, all got solos, as did Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. But other members of the group are definitely out of the mid-80s time capsule: James Ingram, Tina Turner, Al Jarreau, Steve Perry, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Huey Lewis, the Pointer Sisters. (And what in the actual fk is Dan Aykroyd doing on it?) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was on the air in the UK within days of its recording. It took USA for Africa over a month to get “We Are the World” out, 29 years ago today, on March 7, 1985.
Billboard‘s chart methodology was not as sophisticated in 1985 as it is now, and the charts lagged behind the streets. The first charts at ARSA show it on March 15, but “We Are the World” did not hit the Hot 100 until two weeks after its release, on March 23, when it entered at #21—astoundingly high by the standards of the time. It went to #5 the next week—the first single to reach the top 5 within two weeks since “Let It Be” 15 years before. For the week of April 6, it went to #2, held out of the top spot by Phil Collins’ “One More Night,” which was spending its second week at #1.
“We Are the World” finally reached #1 for the week of April 13, 1985. It topped the charts for four weeks, until Madonna’s “Crazy for You” bumped it to #2 for the week of May 11. It would remain in the Top 40 for four weeks after that (falling 8 to 14 to 24 to 29), and would trickle out of the Hot 100 after five more weeks. The song also appeared on Billboard‘s Rock Tracks and Hot Country Singles charts. According to Joel Whitburn’s accounting, it was the #2 single of 1985 behind Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.” It would reach #1 in 15 other countries.
That spring, I was program director of an automated Top 40 station. Our music was shipped to us from a programming service, and I had been told that based on the company’s production and schedules, “We Are the World” wouldn’t be added to our regular rotation until early April. This was simply not good enough, so I went down to our local record store and bought a copy. When I brought it back to the office and set it on my desk, it promptly snapped in two, the only time in my life I’ve ever broken a record that way. So I went and got another one, and I had it on the air within 15 minutes, sometime during that first week of its release.
Playing “We Are the World” was exhilarating the first few times. You knew you were part of an enormous cultural phenomenon, you were giving your listeners exactly what they wanted to hear (for they were caught up in the phenomenon too), and you even felt like you were personally helping feed starving Ethiopians. On April 5, over 8,000 radio stations around the world (including mine) joined in a simultaneous airing of “We Are the World.” At that moment, it was hot like nothing since “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The feeling didn’t last, however. Something so hyped and pervasive naturally burns out quickly. By the time it fell off the charts in July after over four months of ubiquity, radio stations were ready to be rid of it. Although it would win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Group Performance, and Best Short Form Video at the Grammys, by the time it collected those awards in early 1986, it rarely got much airplay anymore.
But for those few weeks in the spring and early summer of 1985, “We Are the World” was it. Although some critics trashed it for not being political enough, it was barely political at all, except for the degree to which helping the less fortunate is a political issue. (In 1985, “let ‘em starve” wasn’t something decent people said out loud.) However tame it was, there remains a plausible argument that “We Are the World” represented the last gasp of 60s-inspired rock-star activism. Stars would—and do—still speak out for causes, but they would never again attract the attention of tens of millions while doing so.
As we’ve noted here before, the turn of the 1970s was a golden age for rock on TV, as stars like the Smothers Brothers, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Tom Jones welcomed big names to their eponymous variety shows. They accepted rock performers on their own terms as artists, unlike the variety shows of just a few years before (Ed Sullivan, Hollywood Palace, and the like), which brought on rock bands for the eyeballs they would attract, without much of a feel for the artistry on display. Many of the performances on the Smothers, Cash, and Jones shows (and Sullivan too) have been preserved on DVD. Others have either been lost or exist in contractual limbo, with rights in dispute or permissions difficult to obtain. Some were briefly available but not anymore.
In September 1969, ABC launched a series called The Music Scene, squeezed into an oddball 45-minute time period on Monday nights, partly opposite Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC and Gunsmoke on CBS. It featured performances taped especially for the show as well as antediluvian music videos—and its genesis was a bit strange. In the summer of 1969, ABC produced promos for the show with members of the comedy troupe the Committee (who were slated to host) clowning around with the Rolling Stones, although by the time the show premiered in the fall, the Committee members were nowhere in sight, and the Stones would never actually appear. They might have, had the show been on the air longer—advertisers embraced neither the show’s young audience nor its weird timeslot, and it was dumped in January 1970. Two volumes of highlights were released on DVD around 2000, but both are out of print. Several years ago, the indispensable Dangerous Minds compiled the Stones promos and a number of clips from the show, and there are other clips at YouTube.
Even more obscure is Something Else, which ran during the 1970-1971 TV season. It was syndicated to local stations, sponsored by the American Dairy Association, and hosted by comedian and impressionist John Byner, whose face you will recognize. Something Else was taped at various locations around the country (including one show shot somewhere in Wisconsin), and it featured a wide variety of rock, pop, and country acts, from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Taj Mahal to the Grass Roots and the Classics IV to Roy Clark and Conway Twitty. The acts usually lip-synced their songs, although performances were often staged and shot inventively. (Several of the clips, including Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” were memorable enough to have been featured at an animation festival in Los Angeles last month.) The show also included comedy bits and dance numbers. A handful of clips from Something Else are at YouTube: one featuring the show’s opening and Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back” is here; the Ides of March doing “Vehicle” is here; Richie Havens’ terrific version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is here.
Something Else comes off in these clips as trippy and frenetic, in the style of The Monkees, or Laugh-In after a handful of amphetamines. It has the feel of something that would have worked nicely on a Saturday, either in the afternoon following the morning cartoons, leading into primetime, or after the late local news. There were 34 episodes produced, although it appears Byner turned over hosting duties to frequent guest John Hartford for the last few shows. (Hartford appears in the Havens clip above.) A company called Research Video apparently holds the rights to the surviving video, but they’re willing to license it only to documentary producers and not to collectors or fans. So for nearly all of us, Something Else is going to stay buried, and probably for the duration.
On Friday we started listening to the American Top 40 show from February 26, 1972, and we left off in the middle. Here’s the rest.
19. “Anticipation”/Carly Simon. I like this much better now than I did in 1972, when I had no way to understand what Carly was singing about.
17. “Day After Day”/Badfinger and 16. “My World”/Bee Gees. Dang, there were a lot of pretty records on the radio back then.
Before playing “Day After Day” Casey answers a trivia question: which song debuted the highest on the Hot 100 but never got any higher than its debut position? Turns out it was a 1957 record by the Mello-Tones called “Rosie Lee,” which came on at #24 and immediately started down. (Surely the mark has been broken since, but I don’t know.) Before playing “My World,” Casey remarks that AT40 is heard in “15 foreign cities” and on over 350 Armed Forces Radio Network outlets. Not bad for a show about 18 months old.
The extra that closes out the second hour is “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor, and it includes a story about Taylor’s prize pig Mona, which won ribbons at a show on Martha’s Vineyard. This seemed so absurd that I had to look into it, but sure enough, it really happened—and in 2013, a tragic dimension of the story was revealed.
14. “Bang a Gong”/T. Rex and 13. “Heart of Gold”/Neil Young. Casey reports on a T. Rex concert that sent 33 crazed fans to the hospital and suggests that T. Rex mania is reaching Beatles/Stones proportions in England. Meanwhile back at home, I was buying another T. Rex single, having snagged “Hot Love” the previous summer. I bought “Heart of Gold,” too, and lots of other singles that winter. I count six of the top 20 that I owned on 45s.
10. “Sweet Seasons”/Carole King. I can’t remember a time, in 1972 or anytime since, when I didn’t love hearing this song.
7. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”/Robert John. My brother and I used to go around our house approximating Robert John’s yodel. Our mother must have been so pleased.
5. “Down by the Lazy River”/Osmonds. The week I am turning 12, I already know that I want to be on the radio—and that a hot-sounding record with a cold opening sounds insanely great off a jingle.
3. “Precious and Few”/Climax. The week I am turning 12, I already am writer enough to admire “Quiet and blue like the sky / I’m hung over you.”
Before “Precious and Few,” Casey answers a listener question about the most non-American acts ever to appear in the Top 10 in the same week. It’s the week of May 8, 1965. With the British Invasion in full rage, nine of the top 10 are by foreign acts: Herman’s Hermits (who have two), the Beatles, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Seekers, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Rolling Stones, and Sounds Orchestral. What Casey doesn’t mention is the outsider at the party, the lone American group, an example of the sort of trivia that will interest me many years hence: Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
1. “Without You”/Nilsson. Gary Wright’s opening piano is timid and stately at the same time, like someone shyly stepping into a cathedral. But that’s the last timid thing about the record.
The end of February 1972 was the second semester of sixth grade. I might have had a birthday party at some point that month, or maybe I got to have a friend or two come out to the farm and stay overnight. The details are lost. Only the music endures.
(Please visit this blog’s companion Tumblr site for good stuff not seen at this blog.)
American Top 40 offered another ancient show to its affiliates recently—the one from February 26, 1972. As that was the week of my 12th birthday and the day has rolled around again, here are a few notes about that long-gone show.
40. “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”/Charley Pride. Compared to today’s country, full of frat boys singing about moonshine and dirt roads despite having grown up in the suburbs, this is the absolute truth—and it did 11 weeks on AT40 in the winter of ’72.
38. “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”/James Brown. Casey misidentifies this as the second of six debut songs this week when it’s actually the first. It’s another Brown joint to sneak into the lower reaches of the survey while going unplayed by many Top 40 stations.
36. “The Nickel Song”/Melanie. Casey notes that Melanie has three songs in the Top 40 this week, two from her own label (“Ring the Living Bell,” which debuts at #34, and the former #1 “Brand New Key,” still around at #24.) and “The Nickel Song,” from the label that originally signed her. Casey will wonder later if Melanie will be the star in 1972 that Carole King had in 1971. Yes and no. Not even King had three Top 40 hits at the same time, but Tapestry would remain on the charts for years while Melanie’s three singles would be packed away with the macrame owls within six weeks.
35. “Runnin’ Away”/Sly and the Family Stone. Although WLS charted “Runnin’ Away” for four weeks, I can’t remember hearing it before I started playing it on Saturday at the 70s.
32. “Rock and Roll Lullaby”/B. J. Thomas. Casey mentions that members of the Crystals, Ronettes, and Diamonds, along with Duane Eddy, appear on this, and that it was assembled in the studio from sessions recorded in various places around the country. The result was, and is, spectacular—“Rock and Roll Lullaby” is one of the most beautiful performances ever to hit the Top 40 and I ain’t joking.
Numbers 31 through 28 create a remarkable train wreck: “I Gotcha” by Joe Tex brings the hard R&B; I am not sure what “Softly Whispering I Love You” by the English Congregation is supposed to be, with its feathery chorale giving way to a Michael Boltonesque lead vocal (and not to be confused with the Mike Curb Congregation); “Footstompin’ Music” by Grand Funk Railroad (which Casey introduces with a story about producer/manager Terry Knight that credits him exclusively for the band’s success); and “Fire and Water” by Wilson Pickett, a burnin’ R&B number with a guitar lead played by Dennis Coffey.
I would not have heard either “Softly Whispering I Love You” or “Footstompin’ Music” in 1972 because WLS didn’t chart either one. The station charted “Fire and Water” for only a week. “I Gotcha,” on the other hand, was around 13 weeks, and seemed to be on the air every hour later that spring.
21. “Black Dog”/Led Zeppelin and 20. “Stay With Me”/Faces. Your AM radio could indeed kick ass in 1972, although Casey introduces “Stay With Me” in the late-night FM-radio mode he sometimes used on the early AT40s. From this point through the rest of the show, Casey is unusually soft-spoken, so much so that he’s occasionally drowned out by the music. I wonder if he was coming down with something on the day the show was recorded.
We’ll listen to the second half of the show, which includes a couple of pretty strong pieces of trivia, on Monday.
My college radio station, WSUP in Platteville, Wisconsin, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Apart from an open house today, it doesn’t sound like they’re planning anything extravagant—although some of the alumni got invited to call in with birthday greetings.
When I called, I was surprised to be handed off immediately to somebody who was prepared to record me (as opposed to making an appointment for later, which is what I expected). I visited for a moment with a very pleasant young woman while she fiddled with whatever she was using to record me. When she asked me to do my bit a second time because she’d had a problem with her machine, I laughed and said, “You know, in my day we’d just back up the tape and start over.” She chuckled. Then I said, “I’ll bet there’s not a single tape machine anywhere down there anymore.” She thought for a moment and said, “I think there’s one, but nobody knows how to work it.”
This doesn’t make me feel as old as it could—there are only a couple of tape machines at my radio stations today, and lots of people there couldn’t work them, either.
WSUP collected celebrity greetings for the station’s 13th birthday, back in 1977, a couple of years before I got there. The station got celebrities including Walter Cronkite, Wisconsin’s then-Senator William Proxmire and other politicians, some of the DJs from WLS in Chicago, and various musicians, “all just by pestering them into doing it for Wisconsin’s oldest student radio station,” according to one of the guys who helped collect them. Some of them were used on succeeding birthdays—and a tape of them still exists. (The owner of the tape says he has nothing to play it on.)
I have a collection of old pictures somebody pulled together for the 40th anniversary celebration, covering mostly the 60s and 70s. It’s surprising to see the number of women on staff, several in management positions, at the very beginning. It is not surprising to see the remarkable amounts of hair on many of us by the late 70s.
I have blogged about my various experiences at WSUP occasionally over the years, so I’m not going to rehash them here. There were some very good times and some very bad ones; I learned a lot, although I didn’t know as much as I thought I did when I left in 1982. It’s been many years since I’ve been back inside that place, but it’s always inside of me.
Recent Highlights From the Twitter Machine: Somebody has analyzed the most common rhymes used in popular songs and broken them down by rhyme and by artist. The process involved mining the lyrics from every song to make Billboard‘s year-end Top 100 from 1960 through 2013. (You can tell they didn’t go back much farther, because “moon” and “June” don’t make the list.) The results are broken down in a myriad of ways, and you can probably kill an hour just wading through it. While doing so, listen to the isolated guitar and vocals from “Layla,” in which the naked vocal makes the desperation of Eric Clapton’s yet-to-be-requited love for Pattie Boyd much easier to hear. Then turn your ears in the direction of this inspirational dot-matrix printer.
After that, go see what’s new on the fabulous Hits Just Keep on Comin’ companion Tumblr site.
We can’t fathom, at a distance of 50 years, just how all-encompassing was Beatlemania during the middle of the 1960s. The Beatles charted a staggering 30 songs in the States between February 1, 1964, and January 2, 1965. And beginning in January 1965, the Beatles would score nine straight #1 albums over the next four years. Nine albums in four years is a lot by modern standards. What’s even more astounding by modern standards is the dozen Beatles albums that charted in 1964 alone. Six of them are relatively famous: Meet the Beatles, Introducing the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, A Hard Day’s Night, Something New, and Beatles ’65. But what about the six other Beatles albums to land on the album charts that year? With one exception, they represent attempts by record labels other than Capitol, the Beatles’ main label, to cash in on the phenomenon. Here they are, in chronological order:
—The Beatles With Tony Sheridan and Their Guests. An MGM release with four songs by Tony Sheridan, backed by the Beatles: My Bonnie, Cry for a Shadow, Why, and The Saints, a version of When the Saints Go Marching In, all dating back to Hamburg. The album contains other tracks by Sheridan with the Beat Brothers—who are not the Beatles on these recordings, although My Bonnie was released as a single in some countries as Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers—and filler from a band called the Titans.
—Jolly What! The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage. This was one of several attempts by the Chicago label Vee-Jay, which had released the first Beatles records in the States, to cash in before its rights expired. It’s an insane coupling of four Beatles tracks already released as singles by Vee-Jay with eight songs by Frank Ifield, a British singer who had scored a couple of minor American hits. Despite the title, none of the songs are live performances.
—The American Tour With Ed Rudy. Like several others, Ed Rudy, reporter for something called Radio Pulsebeat News, claimed to be the Fifth Beatle. He also said he was the only reporter to accompany the Beatles for all of their first 1964 tour, which he probably was not. His album is a broadcast documentary consisting of “interviews” with the Beatles, often Rudy shouting questions in the various press gaggles the band held on the road. A second documentary album failed to chart.
—The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons. Another Vee-Jay cash-in, “The international battle of the century . . . each group delivering their greatest vocal punches.” The gatefold album package contained a score sheet and was emblazoned with the words, “You be the judge and jury!” It was Introducing the Beatles, Vee-Jay’s lone Beatles album, packaged with Golden Hits of the Four Seasons, without changing the labels on either disc to reflect the title of the album package.
—Songs, Pictures, and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles. Yet another Vee-Jay reissue of Introducing the Beatles, in yet another cover. Charted three weeks after The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons.
—The Beatles’ Story. An official Capitol release, this is a two-disc documentary album about the band featuring interviews, press conferences, and bits of music.
There’s one other early release of note before Beatles’ releases settle down into a more consistent pattern. In the spring of 1965, Capitol charted with The Early Beatles—their own reissue of the Vee-Jay material that had been put out so many times before.
One wonders how many people bought Jolly What!, Introducing the Beatles, The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons, Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles, and The Early Beatles, getting the same music over and over again. Anyone who did, and who has kept the albums may be having the last laugh today. The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons and Songs, Pictures and Stories have become pricey collectibles. Pressings of Jolly What!, with a drawing of the four Beatles on the cover, are among the most valuable collectibles in recording history. A sealed copy was offered for sale a few years ago at $25,000.
(From the archives of my work for the now-defunct WNEW.com, slightly edited.)