Dance Like an Egyptian, or Don’t

(Pictured: For two centuries, southern Illinois has sometimes been referred to as “Egypt.” To find out what that has to do with anything, read on.)

Fifty years ago, Martha and the Vandellas released “Dancing in the Street.” It first charted in August 1964 and reached #2 on the Hot 100 for the week of October 17, tucked in behind “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann. But it was #1 in many places, according to ARSA: New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Washington among them. It was widely recognized at the time as an emblem of the new consciousness of young people, especially young African Americans. Today’s it’s considered one of the pivotal recordings of the 60s, and is the subject of a pretty good new book.

But as we continue our monthly look back at 1964 as it was heard on WOKY in Milwaukee, we find that “Dancing in the Street” did not make #1 there. Neither did it reach #2. “Dancing in the Street” never appears on a WOKY chart, not even for a week. I’d love to know why.

Also not appearing on the WOKY survey, at least for the week of October 10, 1964: the Beatles. It’s the second Fab-free week in a row; “Matchbox” and “Slow Down” appeared on the September 26 survey but were gone on October 3. Such a thing isn’t unprecedented: the Beatles were absent from the WOKY surveys dated June 27 and July 4 as well—the first weeks without the Beatles since “I Want to Hold Your Hand” debuted on the survey January 11. The Billboard Hot 100, always a bit behind the street, shows “Matchbox” at #18 and “Slow Down” at #25 for the week of October 10. “A Hard Day’s Night,” which departed the WOKY survey after the week of September 19, falls to #50 from #24. But that’s all for the Beatles, unless you count George Martin and His Orchestra with “I Should Have Known Better,” from the American soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night, which is bubbling under at #111.

The British Invasion continues, however. At WOKY, Manfred Mann, Chad & Jeremy (“A Summer Song”), and the Honeycombs (“Have I the Right”) are all in the Top 10; the Nashville Teens (“Tobacco Road”), Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, the Dave Clark Five, and Peter & Gordon are farther down the survey. On the Hot 100, “House of the Rising Sun” is still in the Top 20, and Gerry & the Pacemakers (“I Like It”) are at #41. “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks moves from #81 to #60, and the Zombies are at #101 with “She’s Not There.” Herman’s Hermits and Cilla Black are bubbling under, too.

Since July, the WOKY survey has been topped by a series of timeless classics: “Memphis,” “Rag Doll,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Oh Pretty Woman.” But during the entire month of October, the #1 song in Milwaukee was not quite so titanic: “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Only “I Want to Hold Your Hand” stayed longer at #1 to this point in 1964 (five weeks) and only the double whammy of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman” would equal its four weeks, later in the year.

All of this is introductory to what we really want to talk about: five other records on the WOKY survey that tell us something interesting 50 years later.

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All About SA

(Pictured: When I first heard Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” this is not how I guessed she would look.)

I spent last week in San Antonio, Texas. It is still summer down there—temperatures were well into the 90s for the first part of the week before moderating some Thursday through Saturday, but it was still necessary to run the hotel air conditioner continuously. I was told that it’s not all that unusual for it to be that hot in October—“we really have only two seasons.” That is: hot summer and a cool winter, where it must occasionally get cold enough for the bridges to freeze, because every bridge on every highway has a sign warning of it. Autumn, in which the trees change color, is not one of San Antonio’s seasons. As my flight approached Madison yesterday, it was lovely to see it again.

A former colleague of mine does mornings on a hot AC station in San Antonio, so I listened to her station a bit, and something struck me about contemporary pop music that I had never noticed before: the guitar is no longer an important instrument. You might catch one strumming here and there, but old-fashioned guitar solos are gone. In fact, mid-song instrumental breaks of any kind have grown rare. This isn’t so obvious on a station like one I work for, Magic 98, which plays a lot of 70s and 80s music and does not consider its brand of AC to be “hot.” But based on evidence of my friend’s station, where it was two days before I heard anything older than “Call Me Maybe,” the typical pop record is drum-driven now. Nearly everything has a pronounced, pounding beat, even records that are ostensibly ballads.

And here’s something else: although critics of pop music from the Beatles on forward made fun of all the yeah-yeah-yeahs, it seems to me there’s more of that now than ever before. It’s as if songwriters are going for hooks you can shout along with, all whoa-whoa-whoa or oh-oh-oh, with nothing like meaning to get in the way. Or is it that lyricists have so little to say that words aren’t even required?

I am a guy in his 50s, so I am not the target audience for hot adult contemporary. I’m not supposed to like it. But just as fish don’t know that they’re wet, the hot AC target audience, women aged 18 to 35, may not even realize how much has changed over the last couple of decades. For somebody like me, whose paradigm for music is vastly different, it wears thin in about an hour.

But it wasn’t terrible. I’m proud of my former colleague, who got a great break and is working hard to keep it. And I finally got to hear “All About That Bass,” a hook monster that’s the best new thing I’ve heard in years.

I spent most of my time in San Antonio listening to an oldies station, because of course I did. This one was exclusively 70s and 80s, pretty clearly aimed at a female audience, with lots of rhythmic pop and disco records. But if that’s what led to them playing “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” on back-to-back days when I happened to be listening, then it’s all good.

I did a bit of sightseeing when I wasn’t working. I went to the Alamo, because if you visit San Antonio and don’t go voluntarily, you’ll be arrested and taken there. On a day off, I drove up to Johnson City to visit President Lyndon Johnson’s birthplace, boyhood home, his ranch, and the fabled Texas White House. And I drank all the Texas-made beer I could hold: any list of good beer towns that doesn’t include San Antonio is a weak and sorry thing.

And now I’m back home, back in the embrace of a Wisconsin October, which is the only place I ever really want to be.

Country Hop

(Pictured: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line. Not your mama’s country singers.)

Country music has always been a battleground of styles. The following badly oversimplifies the history, but here we go: Country fans of the 50s had little use for the softer “countrypolitan” sound that dominated the 60s and early 70s, and many rejoiced when the outlaw movement of the mid-70s brought more traditional sounds back. But outlaw country didn’t transform anything for good, and a good deal of country music remained heavily pop-oriented until late in the 80s, when new traditionalists like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett gained popularity. But in the 90s, first Garth Brooks and later Shania Twain (and her producer/husband Mutt Lange, who had guided the careers of Foreigner and Def Leppard) redefined what mainstream country meant. In the early oughts, pop-oriented guys like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley charted alongside throwbacks like Alan Jackson. No matter the level of creative tension, however, you were always able to draw a line from the contemporary stars back to the people on whose shoulders they stood, whether that was Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, or stars from even earlier days.

But in recent years there’s come a remarkable break in the history of country music. In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” became the first major hit to incorporate rhythmically spoken verses, a style incongruously imported from hip-hop and rap music. It wasn’t long before Aldean released a version on which he collaborated with Ludacris, and it started a flood of country songs with hip-hop elements. This has resulted in some pretty odd music, and it’s not just younger stars making it. In 2013, Tim McGraw, who began as a thoroughly mainstream country singer in the mid 90s, released “Southern Girl,” on which he slathered himself in levels of auto-tune generally heard only on rap records.

Break number two: the 2012 single “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Apart from the vocal—an exaggerated drawl—and an ostentatious banjo, there’s nothing country about “Cruise.” It’s a loud, riff-heavy record aimed at young listeners—and aggressively putting off older ones. “Cruise” arrived at the precise moment Billboard modified its chart rules to give extra credit to records that cross over. The change seems nutty, boosting a record higher up the country chart based on how well it does on other, non-country charts—but the net result was to make “Cruise” the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.

The success of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Cruise” had the effect of freeing country singers, songwriters, and record labels from stylistic limitations—and from country’s history. Blake Shelton famously claimed this was natural evolution that only “old farts” would resist, but it represents much more than that. Country music has become whatever country labels release and country radio stations will play, no matter what it sounds like. This trend began in the oughts with Carrie Underwood (even though the most country thing about her was that she dated the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys) and continued with Taylor Swift. But it’s only within the last two years that the trend has become the norm. Sam Hunt’s current hit “Leave the Night On” might have been released to adult contemporary radio five years ago without changing one thing about it. It’s on country radio in 2014 because country is the mass-appeal pop format of the moment.

As a sometime-country DJ and a card-carrying old fart, I like some of what I’m hearing right now. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and the Zac Brown Band are remarkably good. Shelton and Toby Keith can be, when they choose good songs, but they don’t always. Gary Allan would have been a star in any decade. Despite what I’ve said about it here, I even like “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I often find myself wishing country would stop chasing fads and ignoring its history. And maybe also pick up a damn fiddle now and then.

Great on the Radio

(Pictured: Rick Dees, which rhymes with cheese.)

I was driving the other morning, golden September light all around me, listening to an American Top 40 show from September 1976. I was not really paying attention, I have to say—there are other things on my mind this September, with more than enough weight in the here and now to make it less attractive to deliberately take on the weight of the past. I was distracted enough so that only a few bits of the show were able to break through.

—On that September weekend, eight new stations had joined the AT40 family, including WINO in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. WINO, of course, was the call sign in George Carlin’s famous Top 40 parody, “Wonderful WINO,” such an indelible performance that it seems strange for any real-world radio station to have those call letters. It turns out that Casey’s new affiliate was a student station at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, but I have learned nothing else about it.

—The Rick Dees novelty “Disco Duck” was on its way to #1 in September 1976. A couple of years ago at Popdose, I described it like this: “It’s just a guy singing about turning into a duck and then, another guy who can do a duck voice speaks in a duck voice.” But the first 10 seconds sound insanely great on the radio, and the record is rich with Memphis connections. Dees worked for a Memphis radio station when he recorded it; it was produced by Bobby Manuel, who had been a studio musician at Stax and became a business partner of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart after Stax went broke. Before it was picked up by RSO Records, it was released on the local Fretone label, owned by the other Stax co-founder, Estelle Axton. So dim as it is, there are several reasons it sounds as good as it does.

—There are different schools of thought on how DJs should handle their levels. My preference is to run the music hot and my microphone hotter, so that the music is always very, very present. If a record is mastered to be really loud—as many records are nowadays—I drop the level of the music a little, but only a little. Other jocks will start with the music up, turn it way down when they talk, then quickly crank it back up to 100 percent. Casey’s producers liked to mix him with his voice at 100 percent and the music barely audible behind him. Only when he’s done talking does the music zoom up to 100 percent. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet place, but not in the car. Unless you make an effort, you often can’t tell what he’s playing until he stops talking. It sounds somewhat better on the radio, where audio is processed to smooth out the dynamics, but on a CD in the noisy audio environment of the car, not so much.

—Also on the radio in September ’76 was the group Silver. It featured a future Grateful Dead member, Brent Mydland, on keyboards; singer/guitarist John Batdorf had been one-half of Batdorf and Rodney, known primarily to denizens of the cutout racks; bassist Tom Leadon was the brother of founding Eagle Bernie Leadon; the other dudes in the band were known only to their friends and family. The most famous person associated with the group turned out to be future comic actor Phil Hartman, who designed the cover of the band’s lone album during his days as a freelance graphic designer. The band’s lone hit, “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang,)” riding the chart in September 1976, is one of the most splendiferously 70s records there is, from the opening drum pickup and the big fat lead guitar to the sunny 70s harmonies and the singalong refrain. And it has one other distinctly 70s thing:

Now that it’s said and we both understand
Let’s say our goodbyes before it gets out of hand

It’s about keeping a one-night wham-bam from becoming more than that.

The Man Who Took an Interest

The old lions of broadcasting are passing in the way old lions do, but the inevitability of losing them doesn’t make the losses any easier to take: Larry Lujack, Roy Leonard, George Lipper—and now, another one is gone. Don Davenport died earlier this month at the age of 78.

I first heard Don on WEKZ, my hometown radio station, probably before I had a radio of my own, but he spent most of the 1970s at WIBA in Madison. I can’t say I knew him well apart from the radio. His son was one of my brother’s close friends. As a result, I knew the younger Davenport well and his mother, Don’s first wife, a little—enough to recognize her when she and I found ourselves in the same summer-school class at Platteville years later. But once Don found out I was interested in radio, he took an interest in me.

I still vividly remember a day during Christmas vacation as 1977 turned to 1978. Don was doing a mid-morning shift on WIBA then, and he invited me up to watch him do his show. I found my way to the station, then located in the country south of Madison (in an area now completely urbanized). He explained what he was doing and patiently answered my questions, even putting headphones on me so I could hear what was happening when the microphone was on. I remember being deeply impressed that he played artists like Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac at a time when WIBA was more likely to play Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

(Don had one of those deep, resonant, impossible voices you rarely hear on the radio anymore. The story was told that he once got a check cashed with no identification apart from that voice.)

At the time of my visit, I was just as interested in WIBA-FM, which was then a free-form progressive rock station. That morning, I looked with fascination into the adjacent FM studio, lit by strategically placed spotlights even at 10AM. Don told me some scandalous tales involving WIBA-FM, one of which I can repeat: during the early 70s, if he found himself on WIBA against his will on a Saturday afternoon, he’d sometimes put on NBC Radio’s Monitor program service and go next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.

When I say that Don “took an interest” in me, I don’t mean he encouraged me. He did not fill me with illusions about radio, and was very honest about how difficult it could be to make a living at it. It occurs to me now that as 1977 turned to 1978, he was probably getting close to burnout and ready to make a change. Fortunately for him, he did. He became a successful freelance writer and photographer, specializing in travel pieces.

The last time I saw Don was at our wedding, way back in 1983. That he was kind enough to come meant a great deal to me. As he was leaving the reception, the last thing he said to me was, “If you have any sense at all, you’ll get back to the farm.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mentors and inspirations are good like that.

The Good Stuff

(Pictured: Jeff Lynne played his first show in 28 years last weekend. If you followed the author of this blog on Twitter, you’d have the bootleg already.)

My typically half-assed research efforts indicate that a relatively small percentage of you use Twitter, which is too bad, because I tweet a lot of stuff that I know will interest you. I show my Twitter feed in the right-hand column of this blog in the hope that you’ll see it. But the feed turns over quickly sometimes, and things disappear. So here’s a brief rundown of some of the better things I’ve tweeted within the last couple of weeks.

The Guardian has a feature called “The Music That Changed My Life.” Last week, I tweeted a piece that pretty much blows the doors off any other example of the music-as-memoir genre: “Phil Collins saved me from suicide.”

—I am on the radio all the damn time, and it never really occurred to me that the fade-out, once a common way for records to end, has just about vanished. Somebody at Slate noticed, however, and wrote a fascinating article about the reasons why.

—Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a band we have loved around here since always. One of the cool things about them is their eclectic selection of covers. Last weekend at their annual Grand Point North Festival in Vermont, they did Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with help from singer/songwriter Rayland Baxter, and it’s definitely worth four minutes of your time.

—Saving Country Music is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It’s where you can learn about Billboard‘s new “consumption” chart, which seems likely to replace the Billboard 200 album chart in coming years. (That name, “consumption chart,” makes its own commentary on the music business in 2014: we don’t listen or experience art as much as we suck it down, and that’s not a compliment.)

—Saving Country Music also wrote recently about the unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali and Waylon Jennings.

—On September 16, 1964, Shindig! premiered on ABC. Ultimate Classic Rock presented an interesting oral history of the show that brought straight-up rock music to American TV for the first time.

—When the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati came out on DVD several years ago, there was widespread disappointment over the fact that much of the original music was missing. Now, Shout! Factory is giving WKRP a complete-series DVD issue with most of the original music intact. It will be out on October 28th.

—Last weekend, Jeff Lynne did his first live show since 1986 in London’s Hyde Park. You can get the whole show from ROIO, and if you dig ELO, you’ll want to.

—Listen to 100 of pop, rock, and soul’s most famous bass lines played in a single 17-minute take, be gobsmacked long thereafter.

—Watch the trailer for I Am What I Play, a forthcoming documentary profiling four legendary album-rock DJs and their 40-plus years in the biz.

—Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles were on their second tour of the States. I tweeted a story about the DJ who introduced their Milwaukee show as well as a great piece about their show in Pittsburgh 10 days later.

—The Beatles cartoon series, which premiered in September 1965, is now up in its entirety at YouTube.

—Neither music nor radio-related, but interesting anyhow: way back in the pre-Internet days, a filmmaker did a mashup of Winnie the Pooh with Apocalypse Now, and it’s pretty great.

That’s plenty. If you want the rest of the good stuff in real time, you know what to do.

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