(Pictured: Goldie Hawn, painted up for Laugh-In‘s “Mod Mod World” segment.)
The single best thing that has happened since the disaster on Election Day might be that the Decades channel has started showing Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on weeknights. These are not the edited half-hours that played in syndication in the 90s, most famously on Nick at Nite; they’re full episodes, although some of the content is doubtlessly missing thanks to the commercial load Decades airs.
From its debut in January 1968 (after a one-shot special in the summer of 1967), Laugh-In got a reputation for being subversive. It really wasn’t, as Kliph Nesteroff documented years ago: “It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors.” Head writer Paul Keyes had worked for Richard Nixon during the 1962 California governor’s race, and was on his payroll during the ’68 campaign. Once Nixon was elected, their relationship kept Laugh-In from suffering the same fate as the Smothers Brothers. (In early episodes, Dick Martin frequently jokes about stuff their show does, or doesn’t do, that the Smothers Brothers couldn’t do, or do.)
The topical humor of Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers made the splash that it did because American network entertainment shows simply didn’t do much topical, political humor before then. Cop and doctor shows often told topical stories, although they frequently moralized about cultural rot and reinforced the values of the Greatest Generation. (Late 60s sitcoms and variety shows had precious little to do with real life at all.) When the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In joked about Lyndon Johnson, the military, sex, or the generation gap, they threw open a window that had previously been opened only a crack. But Laugh-In producer George Schlatter says Keyes used his influence in the writers’ room to keep the show from going too far left, and Dan Rowan himself was a Republican. Apart from casual references to getting high, Laugh-In‘s jokes were more likely to reinforce the Greatest Generation’s values than to criticize them (which is partly what got the Smothers Brothers canceled), but the show’s rapid-fire irreverence worked to hide it. Laugh-In‘s commitment to showbiz values of old is clear in Martin’s leering playboy schtick, which isn’t qualitatively different from what he might have done on a nightclub stage in 1958, and in the old-fashioned production numbers that were part of each week’s show.
Laugh-In looked to the future, however, with early music videos by groups including the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Bee Gees. It’s possible that there may have been more of these during the show’s original run than we’ll see today; this kind of thing is notoriously hard to clear for repeats, and such performances are often omitted from reruns and DVDs. Several musicians, including Ringo Starr and the Monkees, were guests on the show but didn’t sing.
Nixon is probably the single most famous guest (“sock it to me?”), and he is said to have believed his appearance helped him get elected president in 1968. (The producers offered equal time to Hubert Humphrey, but he turned them down, fearing harm to his dignity.) But the show also attracted showbiz royalty: Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Carol Channing, Michael Caine, and Milton Berle, among others. Sports figures such as Joe Namath, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain made cameos, too.
The biggest star to emerge from the regular Laugh-In cast, Goldie Hawn, is ridiculously fun to watch. She plays the perpetually confused ditz with a sly self-awareness I was too young to notice during the show’s network run, and I’m not sure I caught it when watching the 90s reruns, either. Longtime regulars Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson are pretty great, too. Buzzi is up for anything and usually kills when she does it. Johnson created a stable of memorable characters out of one-liners: the German soldier (“verrrry interestink”), the Russian Mr. Rosmenko, and Tyrone F. Horneigh, who unsuccessfully pursues Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby while possessing the best character name to ever get past the censor.
I have read articles recently suggesting that Laugh-In simply isn’t funny anymore. Some of it isn’t. By definition, topical humor has a short shelf-life—certainly not 50 years. But humor based on characters as indelible as Buzzi’s and Johnson’s, or the long parade of catch-phrases from “here come the judge” on down, can still get laughs today. From me, anyhow.
(Pictured: country singer Cam. As I have said on the air several times, if you would like her to be your girlfriend, get in line.)
If you’re a radio DJ and you like a certain song, you can say so on the air. If you think it sucks, you keep that to yourself. It makes sense, of course—the theory is that every song a station plays could or should be someone’s favorite. You as an individual jock (and you as a radio station) shouldn’t tell them their taste is lousy.
Sometimes you can get away with something if you do it obliquely. I have played David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up on Us” in the spring and suggested it is appropriate for a season in which the sap is rising. I justify this by saying that even people who like “Don’t Give Up on Us” know it’s sappy, and that more people will find the wisecrack funny than offensive. I once back-announced a country song that recycled every cliché of the last five years—pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check, and no original idea in the whole three minutes—by saying, “That’s new . . . although it sounds strangely familiar.”
Given the fact that listeners of my radio stations read this blog (or they can, theoretically—I am not sure how many of them do), the same rules apply here. I can tell you which of the Billboard Top 50 adult contemporary hits of 2016 I like. Same for Country Aircheck‘s Top 70 of the year. If you want to know which ones I’d like to kill with fire, you’ll have to talk to me in a bar.
On the AC chart, the best of the Top 50 are the three singles by Adele: “Hello” (#4), “Send My Love to Your New Lover” (#12), and “When We Were Young” (#16). I really like “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King (#6) because it strays a long way from the young-woman-shouting template that so many singers default to. Pink’s “Just Like Fire” (#9) is her best single in years. Bucking a couple of the last decade’s trends, it’s got some actual dynamics—soft parts and loud parts—plus the version we’re playing clocks in at a compact 2:57. The surprise of the year is probably “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay (#29), the most un-self-conscious (and best) record they’ve ever made. They finally stopped worrying about being tasteful and just got down.
(I’m not going to link to all of these, as they’re easy enough to find at YouTube.)
On the country chart, 2016 was a year in which bro-country (pickup truck, girl in a ball cap, liquor brand name-check) continued to wane, although it was also a year in which the most successful male acts continued to borrow more from Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars than from the legacy artists of their own genre. The best of the year’s top 70 are still recognizable as country: “Stay a Little Longer” by the Brothers Osborne (#8), “Record Year” by Eric Church (at #19, a song that made nearly every respectable critic’s list of the best country songs of 2016), “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (at #28, the lone single to appear on both the country and AC year-end charts), “My Church” by Maren Morris (#41, and my favorite record of the year, either AC or country, by a mile), and “Burning House” by Cam (#54, which also crossed over to AC but not enough to crack the year’s top 50).
A major difference between the AC and country charts is that the worst junk on the AC chart doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for the people who perform it. The worst records among country’s top 70 are all stupid in unique ways, but their performers share an obliviousness that’s remarkable. A couple of veteran acts commit to hideously bad songs like they were “Stand By Your Man” or “Ring of Fire,” while younger offenders may be too dumb or too beholden to a team of producers to know the difference, or making too much money to care.
I hadn’t been in radio long before realizing that at any given moment, whatever format I’m doing, I’m gonna find that one-third of the songs will be OK to good, one-third will be OK to not good, and one-third will leave little impression one way or the other. After nearly 40 years in the biz, those proportions still seem about right to me.
Here’s something you don’t know: the future of this blog has been in doubt the last few months.
I have been repeating myself for quite a while. Over the last year or two, it has become progressively harder to come up with new material. The feeling of shouting into the void has rarely been stronger than lately, and if you saw my traffic statistics, you’d understand why. I actually wrote a farewell post over a year ago, and I’ve had it scheduled since sometime last summer, thinking that the end of 2016 would be a good time to quit.
I’m not going to quit, though. I am pretty sure that if I did, it wouldn’t be long before I came crawling back because I found something I wanted to write about.
My compromise position is to stop listening to the nagging little voice that has always urged me to feed the content monster on Mondays, Wednesdays, and/or Fridays. I’ll post here when I’ve got something worthwhile to write about, and not because it’s a particular day. That means postings here will be less frequent in the future, unless and until the muse starts putting in overtime.
Also: I have decided to spin off One Day in Your Life into a separate blog, to be called—wait for it—One Day in Your Life. The first post at the new site is up right now. It’s not going to be as labor-intensive as this blog has been. It will consist mostly of rebooted One Day in Your Life posts from here, revised and updated as required. However: because One Day in Your Life is my single favorite thing to write, I plan to write new ones from time to time, which will appear only at that blog. Because I have a finite amount of stuff to reboot, the One Day in Your Life blog will have a limited lifespan, and will likely fizzle out sometime in 2018.
(As all of us might, if we’re fortunate enough to last that long here on Planet Trump.)
So that’s a map of the new road I’m taking in the new year. Traveling this old road has been a far more rewarding experience than I could have imagined when I started the journey on July 11, 2004. That’s entirely because of the readership, many of whom I know only through usernames and unique points of view, but some of whom I have gotten to know in the real world. I hope all of you will continue to patronize this blog, such as it is, and that you will visit the new one, such as it is.
(Pictured: while Tennille mugs for the camera, the Captain writes down an idea before it can get away.)
We here conclude an annotated list of the Top 56 hits of 1976 from WIND in Chicago.
12. “Shop Around”/Captain and Tennille. When the Miracles recorded “Shop Around” in 1960, Smokey Robinson sang it as a young man getting dating advice from his mother, who tells him to play the field instead of setting down with one girl too soon, which is advice no red-blooded American boy really needs. The Captain and Tennille’s version drops the mama references and switches gender, and that simple flip turns the song into timely advice from an older woman to a younger one that self-worth doesn’t have to be tied to whether you belong to a man.
11. “Welcome Back”/John Sebastian. I have been on a 70s TV kick this year, rewatching several dramas and sitcoms of the time. What I enjoy about them, apart from the durable style of storytelling and their well-drawn characters, is their un-selfconsciousness. Many current network TV shows seem to labor at trying to show how clever and/or edgy they are. TV shows of the 70s were what they purported to be. Welcome Back Kotter promised big broad laffs from goofy characters, with occasional moments of hugging and learning. It’s not a show I feel like I need to rewatch along the others, but I’m glad it existed.
10. “If You Leave Me Now”/Chicago. Chicago had scored big with soft-rock love songs before (“Wishing You Were Here” and “Call on Me” both hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart), but “If You Leave Me Now” seemed a little fluffier than the others. That’s not a bad thing, just an observation.
9. “Lonely Night (Angel Face)”/Captain and Tennille. While Tennille takes care of business out front, the real fun is in the back, with all sorts of interesting musical noises going on behind her. The Captain played everything except drums, which were provided by the towering Hal Blaine.
8. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. Songwriters don’t really care to tell stories anymore. Not even in country music, where only Carrie Underwood does it regularly, but tells the same story—woman gets revenge on the guy who wronged her—in nearly every song. What made “Convoy” a hit, as much as its timeliness at the height of the CB craze, was the fact that it’s a well-constructed story, with rising action, a stirring climax (“we crashed the gate doing 98”), falling action, and strong characterizations. Just like the ones you studied in English class.
7. “Afternoon Delight”/Starland Vocal Band. If I ever think of anything new to say about this song, you’ll be the first to know.
6. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons. The story is told that “December 1963” was written as “December 1933,” and was originally about the repeal of Prohibition. But since love just as well as liquor can give you a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder, spinning your head around and taking your body under, it couldn’t have been that hard to update.
5. “Disco Duck”/Rick Dees. I can tolerate this, should it pop up on shuffle, but only once a year.
4. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”/Elton John and Kiki Dee. Songs from 1976 almost always take me back there in my head. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” however, has never done that for me. Figuring out why would probably require me to undergo deep psychoanalysis—which is not a bad idea, actually.
3. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Only a handful of stations ranked “Bohemian Rhapsody” among their Top 10 hits of the year, as WIND did. WKBW in Buffalo and WDRC in Hartford had it at #1. Billboard ranked it at #18. The verdict of history is that it will be on the list of songs, and Queen will be on the list of bands, that every new generation discovers, and that will always be cool.
2. “Silly Love Songs”/Wings. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny the gift of McCartney’s songcraft—to take something as lightweight as this and turn it into such a powerful earworm.
1. “Tonight’s the Night”/Rod Stewart. Billboard‘s chart year ran from November to November, so the eight weeks “Tonight’s the Night” spent at #1, from November 13, 1976, to January 8, 1977, counts entirely in the 1977 chart year. So Billboard‘s declaration that it’s the #1 single of 1977 is an accounting anomaly. “Tonight’s the Night” clearly belongs precisely where WIND ranked it—as the most successful single of 1976.
Coming tomorrow, in the last post of 2016: a programming announcement.
(Pictured: Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers signs an autograph for the distilled essence of Rollergirl fanhood, 1976.)
Here’s the next part of our countdown of the top 56 hits of 1976, as listed by WIND in Chicago, 560 on your AM dial, then and now.
36. “Love Hangover”/Diana Ross. Although Diana was Oscar-nominated for Lady Sings the Blues, her performance on this—woozy, erotic, and on the edge of losing control without ever going over—is her best acting job.
35. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers. Thunderous.
34. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston. For a long time, I could take this or leave it. As the years go by, however, I find myself not only wanting to take it, but to hold onto it.
33. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players. The single version of this starts with 16 seconds of introductory goodness that practically dares a radio jock to be awesome.
32. “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”/England Dan & John Ford Coley. That line about a warm wind blowing the stars around is a nice bit of writing.
31. “Let ‘Em In”/Wings. Paul McCartney tossed off Wings at the Speed of Sound in a hurry so he’d have something new to play on Wings’ 1976 tour of America. The best song on the album is neither “Let ‘Em In” nor “Silly Love Songs,” however. It’s the flip side of the “Let ‘Em In” single, “Beware My Love.”
30. “You Are the Woman”/Firefall. Another great radio record; it runs 2:35, which is all it needs.
29. “Get Up and Boogie”/Silver Convention. “Get Up and Boogie” was a #2 hit because of the first two seconds, and the way those two seconds sound on the radio next to whatever they’re next do. All the rest of the song is extra.
28. “A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy. I’m probably wrong about this, but it strikes me that “A Fifth of Beethoven” marked the end of pop music’s wholesale plundering of classical music for themes and melodies, which had been commonplace since the Jazz Age.
27. “Rock and Roll Music”/Beach Boys. Many retrospectives written this year about the music of 1976 share one thing in common: strong dislike for this record. It was the 70s, it was the summer, it was the Beach Boys. Don’t think too hard about it, kids.
26. “Get Closer”/Seals and Crofts. Another iteration of the age-old axiom: you gotta give a little to get a little. Although in a more sexist age than ours, the singer was actually saying that he hadda get a little to give a little.
25. “Dream On”/Aerosmith. Unlike KISS on “Beth,” Aerosmith doesn’t seem to be faking it here.
24. “Theme From ‘SWAT'”/Rhythm Heritage. And not just SWAT, but the theme from nearly every cop show in the 70s.
23. “Muskrat Love”/Captain and Tennille. I have told this story before, but it’s worth repeating: credit (or blame) for this goes in part to Madison radio legend Jonathan Little, who played the Captain and Tennille’s version on WISM before everybody else and encouraged its release as a single.
22. “Right Back Where We Started From”/Maxine Nightingale. “We’re gonna get right back to where we started from.” Sounds like a blog with which you might be familiar.
21. “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles. A comeback like no other.
20. “Devil Woman”/Cliff Richard. Perfect timing for Richard’s first significant American hit, as Halloween closed in.
19. “Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor. Your mileage may vary, but I find this to be one of the few songs with the word disco in the title that doesn’t sound embarrassing now. One thing is certain, though: it’s another intro that makes radio jocks want to show off.
18. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon. In which the universe makes a subtle joke at humankind’s expense by sending this to #1 on Valentine’s Day.
17. “Shannon”/Henry Gross. It took 40 years, but I finally hear the cheese in this record that some people heard in 1976.
16. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers. Every teenage rage aspires to be considered respectable. Covering a classic is one way to do it, as long as you do it well, which the Rollers did.
15. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry. Certain records are woven into the fabric of their times.
14. “Boogie Fever”/Sylvers. And some are not.
13. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow. In which music speaks to us and says “When I look out through your eyes / I’m young again even though I’m very old.” Those of us who listen hope for a similar blessing.
Coming in a future installment: WIND’s top 12 hits of 1976.
(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band, 1976.)
Traditionally, the last couple of posts of each year at this blog have been reviews of one or more year-end radio surveys. Here we go with this year’s entirely predictable feature.
One of the presets on my car radio in 1976 was WIND from Chicago at 560 on the AM dial. Today, it’s a right-wing talk station. Forty years ago, it was a hybrid that permitted it to survive in a market where a more famous station did not. The great Top 40 war between WLS and WCFL had ended in March with WCFL’s fabled format change, but 5,000-watt WIND soldiered on, playing a lot of the same music as its 50,000-watt competitors. WIND’s wrinkle was heavy doses of talk, especially at night. Clark Weber, who had spent the 60s on the morning show at WLS and did time at other major Chicago stations after that, hosted a talk show called Contact from 10 til midnight; overnights were occupied by talker Eddie Schwartz, who spent nearly a decade at WIND before moving to WGN, where he spent another 10 years. In 1976, former Contact host Dave Baum had moved to mornings on WIND; he was known mainly as a talk host.
But from 10AM through 10PM, WIND played a lot of music. Midday jock Chuck Benson had come to WIND in 1968 to replace veteran Chicago morning star Howard Miller; evening host Connie Szerszen was the first female rock jock on Chicago radio; afternoon guy Stu Collins is still doing radio today, on a station in my hometown, using his real name, which is not Stu Collins.
And at the end of 1976, WIND published its list of the year’s top 56 hits, briefly annotated below.
56.-55. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and “All By Myself”/Eric Carmen. Although neither of these has worn very well with me these last 40 years, it was clear from the first note in the winter of ’76 that “All By Myself” was going to be a monster.
54. “Fox on the Run”/The Sweet. Might sound better on the radio than “Ballroom Blitz,” which is really sayin’ something.
53. “Rubberband Man”/Spinners. Joyous.
52. “Nadia’s Theme”/Barry DeVorzon & Perry Botkin Jr. Radio craftsman geek alert: this sounded great coming out of a jingle, with solo piano notes falling like single snowflakes out of a gray sky.
51. “You Should Be Dancing”/Bee Gees. Receives special citation for excellent cowbell deployment.
50. “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”/Leo Sayer. Wouldn’t hit #1 in Billboard until January 1977, but big enough in ’76 to rank here.
49. “Beth”/KISS. I like this much less now than I did then. All I hear today is a band straining to be the opposite of everything they really are.
48. “Let Your Love Flow”/Bellamy Brothers. Never made the good times/great oldies pantheon despite hitting #1 in Billboard.
47. “The Boys Are Back in Town”/Thin Lizzy. A perfect summertime rock ‘n’ roll record, and the best guitar riff of the year, Peter Frampton notwithstanding.
46. “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”/Lou Rawls. Lou Rawls was a damn national treasure, and not enough people believed that.
45. “Let Her In”/John Travolta. No, up your nose with a rubber hose.
44. “Love to Love You Baby”/Donna Summer. Jeez, lady, tone it down a little, can ya?
43. “Rock’n Me”/Steve Miller Band. The best music is often the simplest.
42 “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”/Gordon Lightfoot. The best stories are often the true ones.
41. “Dream Weaver”/Gary Wright. Flying away to the bright side of the moon seems like a pretty good idea most days.
40. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”/Neil Sedaka. I have said before that this song should have been a ballad in the first place, instead of a cheesy dance-rocker.
39. “Shake Your Booty”/KC and the Sunshine Band. Can you remember hearing the word booty as a synonym for backside before this record hit?
38. “More More More”/Andrea True Connection. Whenever I hear this, it’s summer in my head.
37. “Happy Days”/Pratt & McClain. “Rock ‘n’ roll with all my friends / Hopin’ the music never ends.” Thank goodness it hasn’t ended yet.
That seems like a good place to pause in the countdown. Look for more in a future installment.