Golden Ages

(Pictured: Kenny Loggins in the “Danger Zone” video.)

If you are a friend on Facebook or you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I drove 10 hours each way to visit friends in Kentucky. As spectacular as the eclipse itself was, sharing it with those people made it even better. I wrote about the experience for my radio station, and you can read that piece here.

I packed a bag of CDs for the trip, including a couple of American Top 40 shows from the 1980s. The summer of 1984 was a golden age for the Top 40, and the August 18, 1984, AT40 is pretty strong from top to bottom—in other words, from “Ghostbusters” to Bruce Springsteen’s second single from Born in the USA, “Cover Me,” which debuts at #40. A few notes follow:

—Slade’s “My Oh My” is at #37. Although the group’s Noddy Holder and Jim Lea take songwriting credits, “My Oh My” sounds exactly like “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a communion hymn I hear when my Lutheran relatives drag me to church.

—Fewer hits from 1984 have gone farther down the memory hole than “Alibis” by Sergio Mendes, his first major chart entry since “Never Gonna Let You Go” the year before. “Never Gonna Let You Go” has long since disappeared from radio playlists itself, although it was the distilled essence of adult radio pop in 1983.

—Casey corrects an error on an earlier broadcast, in which Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” was omitted from a list of foreign acts who had hit #1 on the soul chart. Given that “Fly Robin Fly” hit #1 on the pop chart, that strikes me as a rather big mistake. Casey blamed himself, although the researcher who actually messed it up was taken out beneath the Hollywood sign and beheaded.

Casey is hard to listen to this week. I’ve written about it before—how his 1984 delivery is extremely slow and announcer-y, often unnecessarily repetitive, every syllable carefully enunciated, pretty much the opposite of the way all of us in radio are taught to communicate, and in the aggregate annoying as hell. Casey had broken himself of this habit by August 9, 1986, the second show I took along for the ride. Although he’s still The Most Famous Voice in America, he’s not nearly so stiff and mannered.

The music mix isn’t quite as strong on the 1986 show—there are some now-forgotten records pretty far up the chart, like “Suzanne” by Journey, “All the Love in the World” by the Outfield, and “Rumors” by the Timex Social Club, and it includes one of the worst records Rod Stewart ever made, “Love Touch,” all the way up at #6. But just as the 1984 show has “When Doves Cry” and “Dancing in the Dark” and “Missing You” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and other classics, the 1986 show has its share of songs that haven’t been off the radio in over 30 years: “Sledgehammer” and “Higher Love” and “Take My Breath Away” and “Invisible Touch” and “Danger Zone.”

Someday I’m going to write about the golden age of the movie song, which the 1984-1986 period certainly is. Movies and MTV had a synergistic relationship: put a song that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie over the closing credits (like “Love Touch” in the Robert Redford movie Legal Eagles), make a video with scenes from the movie (like “Love Touch”), and everybody profits. I count at least four movie songs in the 1984 show and eight in 1986, and that’s not counting songs that were featured in movies after their chart runs were through. In the week of the 1986 show, the Top Gun soundtrack was #1 on the album chart.

Coming Friday: in the summer of 1977, CBS aired a music-related TV show that few have ever seen. I watched the whole thing, and I lived to tell the tale.

What’s the News?

On a recent morning, I was on news duty at the radio station. It was the day after Trump tweeted his directive that transgender soldiers no longer be permitted to serve, and on that day, the Senate was getting ready to vote again on repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The Associated Press radio wire moved a couple of versions of the same story on transgender soldiers, and it was in the classic Associated Press form. It quoted two military veterans serving in Congress, one a Democrat and one a Republican, expressing contrasting views. The AP’s stories on the healthcare vote were even sketchier—“another vote is expected today as the GOP tries again to repeal Obamacare after recent failed attempts,” basically. That’s true as far as it goes, but it barely qualified as news on that morning. It’s as if the AP reported that the sun had risen in the East.

Thank you for reading this far. I have now arrived at the point I want to make: during the same couple hours that morning, while the AP was reporting in perfunctory fashion on two critically important stories—and repeating the same basic story without additional information in several consecutive hourly updates—the agency moved four different, updated versions of a story about a European soccer league’s corruption scandal.

On any given day, it’s clear that the AP is most comfortable with breaking stories: new developments in a scandal, a carnival accident or bus crash, the government’s release of monthly economic indicators. There was a time when being a well-informed citizen required little more than being up on breaking news. But that time is past. The world is exponentially more complicated than it used to be. Knowing only the headlines means that you know very little about what matters. Complex stories with profound effects on millions of people, such as those involving LGBTQ issues or the healthcare debate, are hard to fit into the AP’s headline-service template—so you end up with binary, he-said/she-said reporting offering a single sentence to two contrasting views, as on the transgender military story, which simplifies the story to the point of distorting it.

Here’s another example of how headlines distort reality: during debate on the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives last spring, it was reported that Republicans were stalling passage of a bill many of them had promised to support. The he-said/she-said template left a listener with the impression that those opposed to the new bill must naturally support the status quo. Therefore, it was big news if Republicans preferred Obamacare to their own party’s bill. But that was not what was happening. The Republicans opposed to their party’s bill were against it not because they preferred Obamacare, but because the new bill didn’t go far enough in demolishing Obamacare and salting the earth where once it stood.

The problem today is that context is perceived as bias. For a news outlet to report that Republicans in Congress want their healthcare bill to be even harder on the poor and the needy, even if it can be proven by quotes from the legislators’ own mouths, would be considered a partisan act. The context problem becomes even more severe when journalists are required to deal with obvious lies. Call something bullshit, even if it irrefutably is, and you commit what is perceived by the liars as a partisan act. So media outlets don’t do it. They report the lie and the truth side-by-side and hope the audience can tell the difference—which, as we know all too well, it often cannot.

What the solution is, I do not know. The AP radio wire and its sketchy, context-free service meets the needs of most member stations quite nicely, since so many want little beyond 60 seconds of headlines and a few sports scores every morning. Which is part of the reason we’re in the trouble we’re in, I guess. People don’t want to know what’s really going on, and if they do, it’s an awful lot of work to find out.

Family Vacation

(Pictured: Henry Ford’s original factory building, preserved at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, the site of many a Midwestern family vacation.)

I have written a lot about the summer of 1971 at this blog, and I’ve been listening to it again via the American Top 40 show dated August 7, 1971. Much of that week’s music is pretty great: a treasure chest of soul performances (Aretha, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Jean Knight), singer/songwriter pop (James Taylor, Carole King), and radio-ready records (“Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Sooner or Later,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”) that jumped out of the box and have stayed there nearly half-a-century now.

The summer of 1971 was the first one I ever lived through with the radio on. Because I was not yet old enough to be press-ganged into farm work (that would be the next summer), I could devote 100 percent of my attention to various kid adventures, playing baseball, learning the saxophone, and listening to WLS. After absorbing the station religiously for only a few months, I knew that I wanted to do that. I didn’t know how, I only knew what, and it would be over 20 years before I would think about doing anything else.

One of that summer’s adventures was a family vacation. It’s a wonder that we were able to take them at all: Dad was a dairy farmer, and dairy farming means you milk cows twice a day, seven days a week. Before we could go, Dad would have to find somebody to help Grandpa with the milking, as he was past 70 and it was more than he could manage by himself. In those days, people who knew how to milk cows generally had cows of their own, but Dad found a young guy he could trust, and he milked for us more than once in the early 70s.

We kids would eagerly count down the days before we left, and the night before, we’d be so charged up that we couldn’t sleep. We’d get up too early the next morning and help pack the car. The logistics involved in getting several days’ worth of clothing and provisions for a family of five into the trunk of a 1965 Mercury Comet could be tricky. Provisions included a big metal ice chest with sandwiches and drinks, because we liked to stop at roadside picnic tables for lunch. Mother also packed a treat box that she opened during the ride. She took special care to pack surprises, so we discovered types of candy we never knew before, and travel games too. We counted license plates and gas stations and played “I’m thinking of something,” which was one of Mother’s simple games, in which she would describe an object and we had to guess what it was. It occurs to me now that her training as a schoolteacher came out strongly on these trips—the way she kept us entertained but sneaked learning by us at the same time, and refereed the inevitable kid squabbles.

And on the subject of learning: we did not go on trips to hang out at the beach or be lazy; we went to see stuff, and we covered lots of miles doing it. During those late 60s and early 70s summers, we visited the Mark Twain sites in Hannibal, Missouri, Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home in New Salem, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Dells. We went up to the Iron Range in Minnesota and toured the harbor at Duluth. We went to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Mackinac Island in Michigan. And in August 1971—and it must have been August because the songs tell me so—we packed the car and went to Detroit. We toured the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and I remember one other thing: at some point on the trip, I picked up a radio survey (for I was collecting them by then) from WKNR, the fabled Keener 13. Because I insisted we find the station on the car radio, I heard the same songs on our trip that I had been hearing on WLS at home.

Forty-six summers later, I have been listening to those songs again, and they have been telling me the story not only of that specific vacation, but of all the vacations we took together, and the gift our parents gave us through them, a gift of places and experiences but also the gift of family itself. We were lucky to have what we did, and the songs won’t let me forget.

Burning Love

(Pictured: Elvis in the 70s.)

On the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, we present 40 things about Elvis, observations personal and otherwise:

1.  We heard about the death of Elvis while on our last-ever family vacation.
2.  I didn’t want to go, but there was no way I was going to be left unchaperoned for a week with my girlfriend just back from Europe.
3.  The public brouhaha surrounding the death of Elvis looks familiar now, but in 1977, it was something new.
4.  Elvis’ death was not mentioned in People magazine until three weeks later.
5.  There are a lot of people who think he’s not really dead.

6.  In 1954, when young Elvis was interviewed on WHBQ in Memphis, one of the most important questions concerned what high school he attended.
7.  When he said, “Humes,” the audience instantly knew that Elvis was white.

8.  Elvis’ first national TV appearances were on the The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, six times between January and March 1956, followed by two appearances with Milton Berle.
9.  He appeared on The Steve Allen Show in July 1956, when Allen made him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound wearing a tuxedo, the sort of dick move for which Allen was famous.
10.  January 6, 1957, the night Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and was shot only from the waist up, was the day my wife’s parents got married.
11.  The 1/6/57 show was Elvis’ third appearance on Sullivan in four months.
12.  The opening track of his Christmas album, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” was pretty strong stuff for 1957, although the moaning, heavy breathing, and other lascivious noises some critics claimed to hear throughout the album just aren’t there.
13.  The oft-told tale that Irving Berlin hated the Elvis version of “White Christmas” and tried to get it banned is apparently false.

14.  The only Elvis movie I have seen start-to-finish is Girl Happy.
15.  It’s terrible, all except for Shelley Fabares, who is perfection.
16.  Throughout the 1960s, long as Elvis’ movies laid golden eggs, Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t kill the goose, even when Elvis began to object.
17.  Imagine if he’d been managed by a forward-looking businessman like Brian Epstein.
18.  All of Elvis’ most famous songs of the 50s were enormous country hits, but he was entirely absent from the country charts during the movie years between 1961 and 1970.

19.  Between the summer of 1969 and the fall of 1970, Elvis hit the pop Top 10 with “In the Ghetto,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “The Wonder of You,” and #1 with “Suspicious Minds.”
20.  During this period, “Kentucky Rain” made it only to #16. If you are surprised by anything you are reading here, that might be it.
21.  “The Wonder of You” is the first Elvis record I can remember hearing on the radio.
22.  This was not long before Elvis made his famous visit to the White House.
23.  “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” which charted early in 1971, is one of my favorite Elvis performances, but “Suspicious Minds” is #1.
24.  During the week of October 28, 1972,  “Burning Love” was kept out of the #1 spot on the Hot 100 by Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.”
25.  Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” was in the Top 10 the same week, a good one for 50s icons.

26.  On June 25, 1977, Elvis hit the Hot 100 with “Way Down,” which was listed along with its B-side, “Pledging My Love.”
27.  The record hit #40 on July 16, then went 36-35-31-31 before falling to #47 on the chart dated August 20, four days after Elvis died.
28.  Because Billboard was always behind the street, “Way Down” fell to #53 on August 27, but zoomed back to #35 on September 3.
29.  During the week of September 10, the two hottest records within the Top 40 were “Way Down” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” both up 11 spots.
30.  “Way Down” peaked at #18 on September 24 and remained in the Hot 100 until November.
31.  It hit #1 on the Billboard country chart of August 20, 1977.
32.  The first Elvis tribute record, “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell, debuted on September 10 and reached #13 on the Hot 100 at the end of October.
33.  The greatest of all Elvis tribute songs, however, is Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis Is Everywhere.”

34.  During a 1977 visit to my town, Madison, Wisconsin, Elvis saw two guys fighting outside a gas station and got out of his limo to stop it.
35.  There’s a historical marker on the site.

36.  If you have not read Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, you must.
37.  Also worth reading today: Professor O’Kelly talks about seeing the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue; Any Major Dude With Half a Heart has two Elvis posts with music: one featuring Elvis covers and another featuring movie songs.
38.  The second post in the history of this blog was about Elvis.
39.  One of the few music pieces I ever sold was about our 1997 visit to Graceland (first part here, second part here, third part here).
40.  As I argue in my Graceland piece, Elvis represents both what Americans dream of and what we fear. If he had not existed, we’d have had to invent him.

Things

Ten years ago this past weekend was the first Vinyl Record Day observance at this blog. VRD was created by some foundation (one guy on the Internet, I suspect) to celebrate the vinyl medium on August 12, the date in 1877 on which Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. In 2007, I coordinated the efforts of several like-minded music bloggers around the world to mark the day. In 2008, I did something similar. It wasn’t long, however, before Vinyl Record Day was superseded by Record Store Day, and although the VRD website still exists, it hasn’t been updated in many years.

This post started out to be about my relationship to vinyl today, and I guess it ended up that way. But it ended up being about something bigger, too, as you’ll see on the flip.

Continue reading →

Resurrection Dance

(Pictured: Ashton, Gardner, Dyke, and Liber, circa 1971.)

“Resurrection Shuffle,” a 1971 single by Ashton, Gardner and Dyke, is one of our all-time favorite bangers. But “Resurrection Shuffle”—the song written by Tony Ashton, as distinct from the record he made with his mates Kim Gardner, Roy Dyke, and the also-appearing Mick Liber—was popular in more ways that one that summer.

After Tom Jones hit #2 with “She’s a Lady” in March 1971, his next single on the Parrot label was “Puppet Man.” It hit the Hot 100 in May and climbed to #26 for the week of June 26. The original release was Parrot 40062, and the B-side was called “Every Mile.” But on the Hot 100 dated July 3, Jones’ current hit, down to #29, is shown under a different catalog number, Parrot 40064, and is listed as “Puppet Man”/“Resurrection Shuffle.” On July 3, Ashton, Gardner, and Dyke’s version of “Resurrection Shuffle” was in its third week on the Hot 100, sitting at #63. Clearly Parrot, a subsidiary of London Records, had seen a chance to capitalize on the rising popularity of the song, and the fact that Tom Jones was a much better-known commodity than Ashton, Gardner and Dyke.

Starting on July 10, 1971, the two versions of “Resurrection Shuffle” danced at arm’s length on the Hot 100. That week, Jones’ double-A sided release was at #29 and AGD sat at #50. On July 17, Billboard flipped the listing and showed “Resurrection Shuffle”/”Puppet Man” at #38 with AGD at #42. (On that week’s American Top 40 show, Casey played “Puppet Man,” as he’d done every week since June 12, and not “Resurrection Shuffle.”) The two Shuffles moved past one another during the week of July 24, with AGD moving to #41 as Jones fell to #47. During the week of July 31, “Puppet Man” disappeared from the listing and Jones’ “Resurrection Shuffle” alone was shown at #50 while AGD held at #41. For the week of August 7, 1971, 46 years ago this week, Ashton, Gardner and Dyke finally cracked the Top 40, but only for a week. That same week, the Tom Jones version of “Resurrection Shuffle” was gone from the Hot 100. AGD wouldn’t be around much longer themselves—on August 14, their “Resurrection Shuffle” fell to #45, then to #73, and then out.

The AGD version outperformed its national chart number in lots of places, and even hit #1 at KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa, but it peaked as early as July in some cities and as late as September in others. In Chicago, WLS took it all the way to #5, but not until the week of August 30. It reached #8 at crosstown rival WCFL in the same week. So it never achieved the sort of critical mass it needed to rise higher up the national chart. But if it was big on WLS, that was good enough for me. I bought the 45 sometime in August, and it’s still around here somewhere.

Ashton, Gardner and Dyke have a Beatles connection. Dyke was the drummer for the Liverpool group the Remo Four, and Ashton eventually joined as a singer and organist. Dyke and Ashton backed George Harrison on his album Wonderwall Music; he returned the favor by playing guitar on “I’m Your Spiritual Breadman,” which eventually became the B-side of “Resurrection Shuffle.”

“Resurrection Shuffle” was covered by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers in 1983, and that version kicks ass all day. But Ashton, Gardner and Dyke’s version is the one that’s still in my head, another indelible artifact of a long-ago summer.

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