(Pictured: the beach near Fire Island. The sky was spectacular, the water was wild, and since I was wearing dress shoes like Richard Nixon, this was as close as I got.)
Since last Tuesday, I have traveled from Long Island to northern Massachusetts to the Hudson Valley of New York to where I am now, in New Jersey, a bit closer to Trenton than I am to New York City. This part of the trip was iffy while we waited for Hurricane Joaquin to decide where he was going, but here I am.
A Wisconsin boy should see the ocean, so one afternoon I went down to Fire Island Beach, New York’s hippie paradise during the 1960s, and then drove Ocean Parkway on the southern edge of Long Island. You take the Robert Moses Causeway to get down to the ocean, named for the fabled New York city planner, crossing two high bridges to reach the spit of land where Ocean Parkway runs. At the end of the causeway is a stone obelisk, a monument to Moses, in the middle of a roundabout. It’s easy to imagine, centuries hence, travelers from elsewhere drawing up on the coast of the ruined North American continent and confronting that obelisk, an enigma on the shore.
On a day off, I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt home, presidential library, and museum in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt is a political hero of mine, the man who saved the country during the Great Depression, and whose political vision, of an activist federal government taking strong and concrete steps to ensure the public good, is the only thing that can save us now. (“The test of our progress,” he said, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little,” which is pretty much the exact opposite of what our current political system is designed to do.) That said, his home was less impressive than Teddy Roosevelt’s—it was easy to magine TR stomping around Sagamore Hill; the FDR of Springwood, as his home is known, was more elusive.
I did plenty of dial surfing in the car. I especially enjoyed a Boston station called the River, an adult alternative station whose playlist ranged from Otis Redding and Johnny Cash to Dire Straits and Billy Idol to Florence and the Machine and Jason Isbell. They turned me on to Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whose “S.O.B.” is going to end up the theme song of this trip, and to George Ezra, who despite his remarkably old-soul voice, is all of 22 years old. (Humorous video for Ezra’s “Listen to the Man,” co-starring a famous guest, is here.)
In New York, I listened to Hudson Valley Public Radio, actually a network that spans as far afield as northeastern Pennsylvania, which was gently swingin’ and pretty laid back. If it hadn’t been raining most of the time, I would have wanted something a bit more lively, but in the rain, it was awesome. The network’s weekend host is Bill Hillgrove, a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster who is far better known as the play-by-play voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football. But he’s a lifelong jazz fan, too.
On this trip, I have also learned what tricky tray is. There are yard signs for tricky tray fundraisers all over rural New Jersey.
The best part of the trip (at least until I get off the last airplane in Madison this Friday) was meeting my longtime Internet friends Kurt Blumenau (yesterday) and Larry Grogan (today) in the real world. I’ve been doing this blog thing long enough to remember when people worried that the Internet would make us strangers to one another, sitting solitary at our computers, never developing personal connections with others. But in fact, it’s created connections that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, and I’m grateful for all of mine.
I have been listening to the radio while I’m on Long Island, bouncing back and forth between two radio stations in the car—a classic rocker licensed to Bay Shore that calls itself 103.1 MAX FM, and the legendary WCBS-FM. And here are some things I have observed.
MAX FM’s music mix doesn’t have very many surprises—their tagline is “Hits of the 70s, 80s, and more,” which means the occasional late 60s or early 90s hit mixed in. It’s a very adult version of classic rock—they may play AC/DC’s “TNT,” but it’s not going to be at 2:00 in the afternoon, because a suburban station needs to stay in the middle of the road to attract office listeners and small-town advertisers.
The only one of their jocks I’ve heard for any length of time is the afternoon guy, who talked over the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” the other day. That’s just not done. The only other jock I’ve ever heard talk over it was Casey Kasem. (Topic for further investigation: how and when the “Stairway” intro became sacrosanct.)
What I heard mostly was tons and tons of commercials, and good for them if the station is selling well. But when you’re a stranger in town, commercial breaks tend to zoom by—you aren’t in need of whatever they’re selling, and you don’t know where the advertisers are located anyhow. If you don’t tune out entirely, you find yourself listening to the scripts and the production. The majority of ads were of a type we have discussed before at this blog: like billboards, as opposed to messages identifying specific problems and offering to solve them. Some were well-produced, and others sounded churned out in a single take.
WCBS-FM was the first oldies station, throwing the switch in 1972, although today it describes itself as an adult hits station, playing music from 1964 through 1995. Scott Shannon, one of the most successful personalities in New York radio history, does mornings. Dan Taylor, who did mornings from 2007 until Shannon arrived in 2014, is on middays. Broadway Bill Lee has been on the air in New York since 1986, and has done afternoons on CBS-FM since 2007. He’s also heard on Sirius/XM. I heard only a bit of the night guy and a couple of breaks on the weekend.
I do not know how the CBS-FM jocks are being coached. I have frequently been told, and I agree, that less can be more. Sometimes all you need is time and temperature or title and artist. A couple of sentences about an upcoming station event or contest is fine; so is a sentence or two about the song you’re playing. Use 15 seconds of a 23-second intro and let the music breathe. But on CBS-FM, if a jock has 23 seconds available, he’s going to fill all of it. Not only that, practically everything’s a bit—something that sounds like it came straight from the pages of one of those show-prep services that so many jocks depended on in the days before the Internet.
Such bits are usually scripted with a mild joke—often a very mild one—at the end. My rule is that it’s OK to laugh at something another person says to you on the air (like a partner or a caller), but you do not laugh at your own jokes. Deliver your punchline and shut up. It’s up to the listener to find it funny. It’s not your job to tell him it is. So when I hear a jock on one of the most famous stations in the country’s biggest market chuckling at the barely humorous jape he just delivered while rushing to get done before Madonna started singing, it drives me straight up the wall. And I heard it several times this week.
But that may be what they’re going for, the feel of an old-fashioned wisecrack-a-minute radio station. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In the August 2015 ratings, they were ranked second in persons 6-plus with a 6.8 share, just behind market leader 106.7 Lite FM.
And I’m a Wisconsin dumb-ass just passing through.
(Pictured: a plaque at Theodore Roosevelt’s gravesite. Insert your own Casey Kasem joke here cuz I got nothin’.)
From time to time over the years I have mentioned my seasonal teaching job, which requires me to travel a few times a year. This is one of those times, and how. I left home this past Friday and will be gone for two weeks. It’s the longest trip I’ve had in as long as I’ve been doing this. Right now, I’m on Long Island. Later this week I will drive up into Massachusetts before swinging back south (to New Jersey) on the coming weekend, then back north into New Hampshire next week to conclude the trip.
Yeah, whoever mapped it out wasn’t having their best day. I am hoping that New England’s fall colors, which should be coming out this week and next, will compensate for the inconvenience of my schedule.
What follows on the flip are some observations from the trip so far.
(Pictured: Helen Reddy, who was quite a big star by the middle of the 1970s when this photo was taken. In 1971, she scored her first hits on the American chart.)
After writing about the AT40 show from September 18, 1971, earlier this week, I looked up the full Billboard Hot 100 for that week. Holy smokes there was some interesting stuff beyond the Top 40. (For the chart, see page 66 at this link.)
41. “All Day Music”/War. This would reach only to #35 on the Hot 100 in October, but it peaked at #4 in mid-September on WLS. As a result, “All Day Music” is one of my most indelible memories of the fall of ’71. If you aren’t completely sucked into that easy groove, check your pulse to make sure you ain’t dead.
43. “Marianne”/Stephen Stills. The theme of this post is apparently going to be “songs that vastly outperformed their national number on WLS.” “Marianne” would hit #42 on the Hot 100 but #6 in Chicago.
44. “Go Down Gamblin'”/Blood Sweat and Tears. Just fallen out of the Top 40, “Go Down Gamblin’” kicks your ass and the asses of your neighbors before going out to flag down random asses on the Interstate and kick them too.
45. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe. A bubblegum version of the most notorious murder ballad in the history of the blues? Sure, gimme that.
47. “Lovin’ Her Was Easier”/Kris Kristofferson. Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser had more famous recordings of “Lovin’ Her Was Easier,” but Kristofferson, who wrote the song, does a pretty good version.
49. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart. This is a record we have dug around here since always. “Easy Loving” would reach the pop Top 20 late in 1971 and win the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award for both 1971 and 1972. You could loop the first 11 seconds of it and I’d listen to it for an hour.
51. “Crazy Love”/Helen Reddy. A version of the Van Morrison song from Moondance. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
53. “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”/Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. Any list of great Motown choruses had better include “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready.” It sounds a lot like “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.
57. “Annabella”/Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds. The followup to “Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Annabella” is a fine singalong ballad that made #46 on the Hot 100, although WLS charted it as high as #23 in a three-week chart run.
61. “Gimme Shelter”/Grand Funk Railroad. More volume, less subtlety. This version of “Gimme Shelter” is mostly an historical curiosity.
63. “How Can I Unlove You”/Lynn Anderson. For listeners who enjoyed her smash hit “Rose Garden” earlier in 1971, here it is again. Anderson died earlier this summer at the age of 67.
67. “Think His Name”/Johnny Rivers. Co-credited to the Guru Ram Das Ashram Singers, “Think His Name” is nevertheless a straight-up Jesus-rock number of the sort you might have been taught by an enthusiastic revival leader or church camp counselor. Needs to be 2:10, lasts 4:40.
74. “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll”/Long John Baldry. What you want more than the song itself is the story with which Baldry introduces it, about the British bobby who busted him for playing “boojie woojie music.”
81. “Charity Ball”/Fanny. Another record we have dug around here since always. Despite reaching only #40 on the Hot 100, “Charity Ball” would go to #3 at WLS in November and kick whatever asses remained unkicked by “Go Down Gamblin’.”
98. “It’s for You”/Springwell. “It’s for You” is a psychedelic freak-out version of the Lennon and McCartney song originally written for Cilla Black. Springwell was a Detroit-area band that shared bills with Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, and other Motor City acts in the early 70s.
The week of September 18, 1971, was a pretty solid week of hits from #1 to #100, all told. Well, maybe from #2 to #100.
(Pictured: Young Rod Stewart, performing with Faces in London on September 18, 1971.)
When I was a kid, I rode the school bus for over an hour every morning. If I go out and lose myself on those town roads now, I can find places that were on the route, but I have never been able to reconstruct the whole thing. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t really paying attention. That long morning bus ride is a critical part of my personal mythology, because in the fall of 1970, I started sitting under the radio speaker every morning, absorbing WLS like a sponge. By the time I got back on the bus in the fall of 1971, I knew that listening to the radio wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to be on the radio.
American Top 40 recently repeated the show from September 18, 1971, and as I listened, I found myself looking out the window of the bus. That, and being fairly impressed by just a remarkable list of songs. It’s as close to all killer and no filler as any AT40 ever gets. It’s loaded with soul classics: “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” James Brown’s “Make It Funky,” Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” “Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, plus “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Spanish Harlem.” Apart from those, the radio was rockin’ in that bygone late-summer week. Some notables are on the flip.
(Pictured: Pink Floyd, 1972.)
Earlier this year, Stephen Thompson of NPR Music tried answering the question, “Will we remember today’s pop stars in 50 years?” You should read the piece for yourself, although I can give you the short version: what we remember is what we keep hearing year after year after year, and so it’s guaranteed that some songs that have hit over the last couple of years will still be of interest to listeners in 2065.
Thompson says, “If you want a sense of whose music people remember, look no further than the artists who never actually have to go away.” He notes that Taylor Swift has been around for nearly a decade already, and Beyoncé scored her first hits at the end of the previous millennium. The pertinent list is far longer than that, of course: the first Four Seasons hit was in 1962, but Frankie Valli is still on the road. The Rolling Stones remain a going concern after 51 years. James Taylor and the Eagles are still filling halls and selling albums more than 40 years on. Just recently, Dave Davies of the Kinks talked about a possible reunion, more than half a century since “You Really Got Me.” The long afterlives of Pink Floyd and the Doors show no sign of waning, either.
One issue Thompson didn’t address is the change in the way we experience popular music now. In any given city, people aren’t getting all of their music from a small handful of mass-appeal radio stations anymore. Now they can choose from a contemporary hits station (CHR), rhythmic CHR, hip-hop, soft adult contemporary, rhythmic adult contemporary, modern rock, active rock, classic rock, plus Pandora, Spotify, Beats 1, YouTube, and other sources teenagers know and adults don’t. And so a particular song can become a big hit with a particular segment of the audience without making an impact elsewhere. My sense of the 70s and 80s is that the smaller number of outlets made the experience of a big hit song far more communal than it is today. Today, only a handful of songs break through into anything like truly mass consciousness (“Happy,” “Uptown Funk,” “Call Me Maybe”), where even people who don’t listen to much contemporary music can’t help but hear them.
A handful of individual works seem to have a chance to stick around (comparatively) forever. Every generation discovers “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it will be a long time before Dark Side of the Moon fades into obscurity. I don’t know which individual hits by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or some staggeringly popular one-off might be equally long-lived. (“Happy”? “Uptown Funk”? “Call Me Maybe”?) Recent massive one-off smashes like “Somebody That I Used to Know” and this summer’s hit “Cheerleader” don’t seem to fit the bill, but who would have guessed in 1976 that “Bohemian Rhapsody” would endure for so long?
(Perhaps it’s just that I want you darn kids to get off my lawn, but to me, “Cheerleader” is the most over-praised record since . . . “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Both sound like they were written in about 10 minutes and recorded in 10 more; “Somebody That I Used to Know” doesn’t even sound like it’s finished. That audiences should go nuts over such flimsy stuff is nothing new. The odd thing is not that we sell our attention to the highest bidder, but that we sell it so cheaply.)
All of this is just my opinion. I could be wrong. What do you think makes music endure? Which artists and songs popular in the last 50 years are still going to matter 50 years from now? Which stars and songs of the last decade or so?