Forty Years Later

(If you stare at this long enough, it becomes 1973 again.)

Around the turn of the 1970s, a band from Mt. Vernon, New York, called Gun Hill Road played the Bitter End in New York City. The club’s owner, Paul Colby, was sufficiently impressed by them to become their manager. They got a record deal at Mercury and made an album called First Stop in 1971. It got a bit of radio airplay in a few places (and the song “42nd Street” was apparently big in New York City), but the album was nothing like a hit. It had done well enough, however, for Buddah Records to take them on for another one, to be released on the Kama Sutra label. It would be produced by Kenny Rogers, recently of the First Edition. The album, Gunhill Road (reflecting a slight change in the band’s name), came out early in 1973.

Buddah impresario Neil Bogart heard something in Gunhill Road’s brand of folkish pop music, particularly in the song “Back When My Hair Was Short.” But he knew that in the radio environment of 1973, “Back When My Hair Was Short” would never fly as it originally appeared, with its references to reading Screw magazine, using LSD, and dealing pot. So Bogart brought in producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who would later produce the first two albums by KISS, to rework some of the songs, including “Back When My Hair Was Short.”(You can compare the lyrics of the two versions here.)

Once their revised song hit the radio, Gunhill Road (a trio: Glenn Leopold, Steve Goldrich, and Gil Roman) played American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and shared bills with acts including Jim Croce, Poco, Harry Chapin, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Charlie Daniels. They also opened for an impressive list of comics, including Robert Klein, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Martin Mull, and Andy Kaufman. Sometime during this period, Roman, who had sung lead on “Back When My Hair Was Short,”was replaced by Paul Reisch.

“Back When My Hair Was Short” peaked at #40 on the Hot 100 for the week of June 2, 1973, although it ranked higher in both Cash Box and Record World. Billboard noted that it was “top 10 in more different markets at more different times than any other record that year,” so its diffuse chart action kept it from rising higher on the national chart. ARSA only shows a few top 10s, however: at KUDL in Kansas City in March (where it looks to have stayed for two solid months) and at WIXY in Cleveland in May before it reached its Hot 100 peak, and at KOMA in Oklahoma City toward the end of July.

But when no second hit materialized and the touring opportunities dried up, the young men of Gunhill Road got on with separate lives. Glenn Leopold wrote scripts and music for dozens of kids’ TV shows. Goldrich and Reisch went into business and left professional music careers behind. And Gunhill Road was remembered, if they were remembered at all, as a one-hit wonder. Their song appeared on one of the volumes of Rhino’s Have a Nice Day series of 70s hits, and it got some play on oldies stations, including the Sirius/XM 70s channels.

In 2011, their eponymous second album got a CD release, and about the same time, they were invited to play at a benefit for Paul Colby. The older men of Gunhill Road enjoyed the experience so much that they started talking about making a third album. In the fall of 2013, Leopold, Goldrich, and Reisch went back into the studio and recorded 19 songs, some of which had been in the can since the early 70s. Those songs are now out on an album called Every Forty Years.

It’s one of the more unlikely comebacks ever. It has some nice moments, especially “Everything Passes,” “Selling Apples” (being pushed as a single), and “Bridgeport Monochrome.” Nineteen songs might be more Gunhill Road than we need at this point, but their enjoyment at playing together again is easy to hear. You can listen to the band members talk about their history, their band’s rebirth, and their new album here. Listen to some of the new tracks at the band’s website, which is  here.

Reboot

(Pictured: England’s North Yorkshire Moors National Park at sunrise. The picture is probably going to be the best part of this post, which is another collection of fragments from my draft pile.)

A bit of trivia from American Top 40:

Casey answered a listener question about the group with the largest number of members to hit the Top 40 in the rock era. His answer was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with 375 members, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” hit #13 in 1959. He didn’t go beyond the rock era, but I will. In 1925, Columbia released a recording of “Adeste Fideles” backed with a traditional British song called “John Peel” under the name Associated Glee Clubs of America. According to Joel Whitburn, it was also the first electric recording to become a significant hit. Electric recording, in which microphones and amplifiers replaced the old process of cutting soundwaves directly into some physical medium via a recording horn, greatly improved fidelity and brought an end to the Pioneer Era of Recording. Greatly improved fidelity was required for the recording; the Associated Glee Clubs of America had 850 members, and the 4,000 members of the audience at the performance where the recording was made joined in the singing for a total of over 4,800 voices.

Not every post idea about a 70s icon turns into anything:

How come, in a media landscape that continually plunders its past for material even when it’s a terrible idea to do so, nobody has tried to reboot Match Game? By “nobody,” I mean “nobody in the United States,” because there is/was apparently a Match Game reboot on Canadian TV. You’d think that Game Show Network, at the very least, would have revisited the concept. Yet apart from the ill-fated Match Game/Hollywood Squares show in the late 90s, it’s never been tried. Perhaps it’s because Match Game outside the 1970s would not, could not, be Match Game at all. From the garish orange shag-carpeted set to the synth-and-wah-wah-heavy theme music to its particular sort of TV celebrity on the panel, Match Game was as much a product of its era as any show ever made.

After a Sunday morning on the couch with an old movie:

Despite its reputation as one of the premiere chick flicks of all time, the 1939 Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights is one I like a lot, the story of Catherine and Heathcliff and their doomed love, set among the Yorkshire moors, a love that survives beyond the grave. And although I joke about the syrupy music and how old movie heroines always get more beautiful while dying, the ending remains profoundly moving every time I see it. But it’s an earlier scene that sticks with me.

Catherine: Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change, and you and I never change.

Heathcliff: The moors and I will never change. Don’t you, Cathy.

Catherine: I can’t. I can’t. No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me, now, standing on this hill with you. This is me forever.

“No matter what I ever do or say, this is me, now . . . This is me forever.” From the planet Tralfamadore, the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut nods in agreement.

And finally, a single sentence that pleases me, from a post I wrote but you’re not going to see:

One of those cherished old songs instantly gutted me like some sorry fish, and I couldn’t get the radio off fast enough.

The Depths of Obsession

(Pictured: Skip James, who recorded a handful of blues records in the early 30s and then slipped back into obscurity until he was rediscovered by young blues fans in the 1960s.)

Right now, you can go over to iTunes and pay 99 cents for an mp3 of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, one of the most famous performances in acoustic Delta blues. But what if you want a physical object? You could buy any one of the compilations on which “Devil Got My Woman” has appeared. (I saw it alongside “Monster Mash” on a cheap disc of “Halloween hits” at the drug store not long ago.) Or you could get it on the album of the same name that James recorded in 1967, when he was 64 years old. But what if you want an original 78 RPM copy of the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman,” recorded in the unlikely location of Grafton, Wisconsin, for the Paramount label? There are only four of those in the world, all in the hands of collectors. (That mp3 you can buy is likely to have been sourced from one of them.)

The pursuit of the physical object is the subject of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, a new book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich. She introduces readers to some of the big names in the world of 78 collecting, past and present, and tries to plumb the depths of their obsession.

Petrusich observes that 78 collectors do not preserve and chronicle a single true “history” as much as they create a particular narrative. The records they value the most are the rarest and hardest to find in the wild—which sparks interest in obscure artists who made only a handful of recordings before vanishing into the void from whence they came. Fascination with James, Robert Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, Blind Blake, and other Delta figures makes it seem like the only music from the 30s that matters is their brand of acoustic blues. A collector will dismiss a trove of non-rare recordings as unimportant—but the very fact of the recordings’ not-rare-ness is due to so many copies having survived for so long, which indicates that more of them were made in the first place, which indicates in turn that they were fairly popular in their time. Certainly more so than a recording for which only four copies have survived. (Petrusich mentions one veteran collector who has a weirdly vehement dislike for country singer Vernon Dalhart, a star of the 1920s who is credited with the first million-seller, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It’s not clear what the man has against Dalhart, although being tired of tripping over “The Prisoner’s Song” on buying excursions might have something to do with it.)

That’s not to say that the rare recordings the collectors want most aren’t good strictly as music; they are, and the fact that the collectors have saved them from oblivion is commendable. But in his excellent book Escaping the Delta, Elijah Ward observes that even in the 30s, what got recorded by Paramount and others was what would they knew they could sell—and there was a market for original Delta blues numbers. When he played juke joints, Robert Johnson probably sang hymns and pop tunes his audience would have known from the radio, but nobody wanted to record those. So the world of popular music evoked by the prewar blues collectors is only tangent to the reality of that world.

(I have a particular fascination with Paramount’s story, the odd circumstance by which a furniture company based in Wisconsin brought black blues players from the Deep South to a makeshift studio on the banks of the Milwaukee River, to record 78s to sell along with its line of record players. To me, the best part of the book involves three chapters in which Petrusich chases down the history of Paramount. The story is told that when demand for particular Paramount recordings slackened, company employees frisbeed the surplus copies into the river, and that later, even metal masters were dumped there. So Petrusich went scuba-diving in the river, but to find out what she came up with, you’ll have to read the book.)

Some of the collectors in Do Not Sell at Any Price would not make good dinner companions, but if you wanted to know everything knowable about prewar blues, you couldn’t do better. And if you’re a crate-digger yourself, you might even recognize yourself in their personalities, and their stories.

Not There

(Pictured: Johnny Cash at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1964.)

Fifty years ago this week, the Beatles continued their absence from the weekly music survey at WOKY in Milwaukee. We noted the beginning of this absence in our last monthly check of the charts; the Fabs had been off since last appearing during the week of September 26th. The drought would continue for eight weeks in all, until the week of November 28, when “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman” hit in Milwaukee. The Beatles were similarly absent from the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of November 7, 1964, unless you count the Chipmunks’ version of “All My Loving” that was bubbling way under at #134. “Matchbox” had spent its last week on the Hot 100 during the week of October 24th; the chart of October 31 was the first without a Beatles song since January 11, the week before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” debuted. Their Hot 100 absence would continue for another month.

The top of the WOKY chart dated November 7, 1964, is resolutely American (with Jay and the Americans at #1): a British act doesn’t appear until “Have I the Right” by the Honeycombs at #7. “Time Is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones is new in the top 10, and “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks moves up to #14. “She’s Not There” (#17) and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (#21) are still around, as are lesser hits by the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, and Peter and Gordon. On the Hot 100, the Nashville Teens (“Tobacco Road”) and Gerry and the Pacemakers (“I Like It”) hold in the Top 40, while Herman’s Hermits (“I’m Into Something Good”) sit at #41.

Here are five other records on WOKY 50 years ago this week that are worthy of note for one reason or another:

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Links and Notes

(Pictured: Taylor Swift at the Grammys. There’s a plausible argument that she’s about to be as transformative in her time as Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles were in theirs.)

Time for another collection of worthwhile links I’ve recently noted on the Twitter machine:

—There’s a new vintage WLS aircheck from 1973 at Airchexx.com featuring Charlie Van Dyke, Fred Winston, John Landecker, J. J. Jeffrey, and Bill Bailey. It’s a style of radio nobody does anymore and most modern listeners wouldn’t like much, I don’t think—it’s fast and frantic and often pretty silly. If your ears are sharp, you’ll hear some oldies that may surprise you.

—Jim Booth, author of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, reviews Rod Stewart’s autobiography and finds both more and less than he expected.

—“Crystal Blue Persuasion” as performed by the cast of Breaking Bad is stellar; so is Republican Bruce Springsteen.

—Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 represents a cultural earthquake of the kind that just doesn’t happen with music anymore. Saving Country Music posted an extensive review and commentary that will take you a while to get through and even longer to unpack, but it’s worth it.

—Between last week and this week, dozens of radio stations across the country have gone all-Christmas. Before this year’s blizzard began, the New York Times wrote about the phenomenon, in which stations beat the hell out of a 300-cut library for two solid months—and watch their ratings go through the roof.

—After Philadelphia’s WXPN counted down its top 885 songs of all time recently, it counted down its listeners’ picks of the 88 worst songs of all time. In Billboard, Sean Ross pondered just what “worst” means to people when the subject is music.

—In the fall of 1964, after seven months of raging Beatlemania, Playboy magazine sent author and radio host Jean Shepherd (famed now for A Christmas Story) to interview the Beatles. Why this isn’t a more famous piece of writing about the Beatles I cannot imagine.

And now, some additional notes: First, this blog has a companion Tumblr site, and I’m going to keep flogging it until you go there. I put up some fabulous pictures on it just this morning.

Second, this week marks the 10th anniversary of Funky16Corners, the funk and soul blog maintained by Larry Grogan. I am mildly surprised to learn that Larry’s site is a bit younger than mine, although he ran it as a fanzine for a while before that. Larry is a living encyclopedia of funk and soul (and of garage rock too, at Iron Leg) and he has been über-generous in sharing both music and knowledge, on his blog and in private communication, year in and year out. My bucket list doesn’t have much on it, but it includes being in the club someday when Larry is working the wheels of steel from his collection.

Third, Q106, the country station for which I toil, ranked #1 in persons 12-plus for the summer ratings period here in Madison. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, given that few people would characterize Madison as a country-music kind of town. But great things happen when a station has a clear vision and a plan for achieving it, and people with the focus and commitment to execute the plan. It’s my good fortune to be part of the team at Q106, and at Magic 98, which has also topped Madison in persons 12-plus within the last year. We’re proving that live, local radio still matters—and that it will beat the pants off the canned, out-of-market variety almost every time. Q is not touting its success on the air, however. As we frequently remind ourselves, what we do is not about us: the listener is the star.

Halloween ’66

(Pictured: the first pop-culture obsession of mine that I can remember was Batman. At Halloween 1966, there was no way I have gone as anything else.)

On Tumblr, user instereo007 has been posting remarkably evocative vintage Halloween pictures for a couple of weeks now. Many of them include the sort of costumes kids wore from the 60s into the 80s, those Ben Cooper things you could buy for three bucks featuring every pop culture character imaginable. (At Halloween in 1966, I wore a Ben Cooper Batman costume, and my brother, then four years old, went as an astronaut. Somewhere, there’s a home movie of us in those getups.) Lots of stories this week are noting how expensive Halloween costumes can be today—turn your kid into a character from Frozen for just $85—and although you get a more sophisticated look, it’s doubtful whether the wearer gets more pleasure than we did nearly 50 (!) years ago.

Because we grew up on a farm, Halloween was not quite the big deal it was for our friends who lived in town. Our costumes were mainly for the school Halloween party; our trick-or-treating was generally limited to our grandparents’ house on the other end of the farm. If we were feeling especially brave, we would occasionally visit our neighbors down the road—my mother knew they had a passel of nieces and nephews who lived nearby, so a couple more trick-or-treaters wouldn’t strain their candy budget. But the idea of going into town to trick-or-treat with our friends was never broached, and may never have occurred to us.

To bring this discussion back to the ostensible topic of this blog, and since I’ve already mentioned 1966, here are five songs from the WLS Hit Parade dated October 28, 1966:

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