Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the typical purchaser of what was then high-end audio equipment was not a kid who wanted it to listen to his Buddy Holly or Beatles records. It was his older brother, or perhaps his father, who had been weaned on the pop music of an earlier era or on classical music. For this reason, lushly orchestrated pop and classical albums were popular among audiophiles, and producing them became big business. The craze for “mood music” began with 101 Strings in the late 50s, but eventually, each of the major record labels had its own string brand: RCA had the Living Strings, the Hollyridge Strings were Capitol’s, Vee Jay had the Castaway Strings, Warner Brothers had the Londonderry Strings, and even the famous blues and R&B label, Chess, had the Soulful Strings. The Hollyridge Strings were quite successful, charting five albums between 1964 and 1966, covering the Beatles (making the Hot 100 with a version of “Love Me Do”), the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Nat King Cole. So were the Soulful Strings, who made the Billboard 200 album chart five times between 1967 and 1969, covering mostly R&B and jazz hits. Their single “Burning Spear” was a Hot 100 hit in 1968. The Living Strings charted but two albums, both in 1961. Of the major string brands, only 101 Strings managed a Top-10 album: The Soul of Spain in 1959.
The string brands were indeed brands rather than bands. The 101 Strings set the template, hiring European orchestras on the cheap and releasing the results under the brand name. The record-label string brands took the same tack. Recordings issued under the name of the Living Strings, for example, were often made by either the BBC Symphony or the London Symphony Orchestra. These albums were calculated to attract record-shop browsers, adorned with splashy covers (sometimes featuring scantily clad women) and often budget priced. And while only a few of them charted, they represented a pretty solid income stream for their labels—and they gained a good deal of airplay, too. But as the 70s wore on, the music made by these string brands faded from general popularity. The last of their recordings to go, however, were their Christmas records.
Thirty years ago today, I became a real Top 40 radio guy for the first time. Ten years ago, I blogged about it. Here’s a portion of that post, lightly edited.
By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I’d come in with the station’s new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of ’84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station’s program director. . . .
I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. But he was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his town as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism—and that I was the kid with the spray paint.
For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn’t, because I thought it cluttered the station’s sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, “What about blind people?”
We never really understood one another. . . .
Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn’t shop around—we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music—lighter during the day, on the assumption that we’d be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) And in the early hours of format-change day—September 1, 1984—after the station signed off at midnight, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we’d mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station’s computer wiz. We polished off a case of beer watching the reels of tape turn and eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon. . . .
Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format: “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of “Candida.” I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin’. While “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that “Rock and Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with “10-9-8″ by Face to Face—not exactly one of the strong current hits I’d been plugging in promos for the new format—and another Huey Lewis tune, “If This Is It.” Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn’t occur to us then.) After that it was “Sexy Girl” by Glenn Frey, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with “low 12.9 percent financing available.” Then it was “When Doves Cry,” and that’s where my tape of the changeover ends.
I am unable to get my brain around the idea that these events are now 30 years in the past. It really does feel like it was just yesterday.
(Return with us now to events of precisely 35 years ago this week, rebooted from a post that originally appeared on October 30, 2006.)
I was hanging around the campus radio station one day in late August 1979. I may have been getting ready to go on the air, or I may have just come off, or I may have been there simply because I’d missed it over the summer. I’d worked a lot of radio since my first shift eight months before, and I was already making plans to run for program director in the elections later that fall. I’d also managed to snag a paying part-time gig. In short, I felt like I had radio, and life, pretty much by the tail. At the start of my sophomore year, I was a much different person than I’d been the previous fall.
So, late August 1979. I’m hanging out with a few friends at WSUP. New freshmen interested in radio have been coming in to check the place out. On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. “Holy crap,” I said to my friends. “Who’s that?” And then: “I have an overwhelming desire to go over and ask her out.” I didn’t, of course, because that is not how I rolled back in those days.
I did find out that Sweater Girl’s name was Ann. And when I found out she was going to be reading news on Tuesday nights, I did what any radio guy shy around women would do—I signed up to host the Tuesday evening show. I also found out she already had a boyfriend, but I asked her out for drinks after the show a couple of times anyhow, and she accepted. She seemed to like me, but she kept dating this other guy, too.
At the end of October, the radio station hosted a Halloween party in the student center bar. It was a rager—legend has it that the party marked the last time $1 pitchers of beer were ever offered on campus because beer consumption broke some sort of record. Ann came with her boyfriend, but she also hung around the table full of radio people, and after about two beers, I wrapped my arm firmly around her waist and didn’t let go of her for the entire night. (Except, it is said, for the brief time I climbed up on the table to do the bump with one of the sports guys.)
I am not sure what became of the boyfriend on that particular night, but even after all that, she still didn’t officially dump him.
Every year in the late fall, the radio station held a banquet. It was ostensibly a time to hand out awards and to honor the outgoing heads of various station departments, but it was mostly an excuse to dress up and drink. I asked Ann if she would like to go with me—not as a date, but as a couple of colleagues going to the same function, since I had a car and she didn’t. (Christ, was I smooth.) But after I dropped her at her dorm room at the end of the night, I asked if I could kiss her goodnight, and she said yes. I arranged to have roses delivered to her a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, and the boyfriend was out of the picture soon after that. I had actually won the girl.
There’s more to the story I could tell, but I’m going to skip ahead. Ann became The Mrs. in 1983, and is still The Mrs. today.
The red-and-white sweater is hanging in the closet in my office.
One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.
The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.
Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)
At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.
(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.
(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.
Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)
It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my WNEW.com archives.)