I Listened to the Yacht Rock Channel and I Have Thoughts

(Pictured: Michael McDonald, the patron saint of yacht rock, on stage as a Doobie Brother in 1982.)

(Before we begin: there’s a brand-new, never-seen-anywhere-before post at One Day in Your Life today.)

We spent some time this weekend listening to the Sirius/XM Yacht Rock Channel. (It occurs to me that we have written about yacht rock in the past, although we didn’t call it that.) Yacht rock is the tasteful, sometimes jazzy adult rock of the late 70s and early 80s.

The yacht rock format is built on Steely Dan, Michael McDonald (with the Doobie Brothers and solo), Christopher Cross, and Toto; although Kenny Loggins and Hall and Oates are considered canon, we didn’t hear them. Despite its occasionally jazzy leanings, it’s an extremely white format; most African-American artists we heard were either duetting with or backing up white folks (James Ingram with McD on their hit “Yah Mo B There”; Cheryl Lynn with Toto on “Georgy Porgy,” which might be the quintessential yacht rock performance). We did hear “Sail On” by the Commodores, but it really didn’t seem to fit.

The Yacht Rock Channel is clearly programmed with the assumption that people aren’t going to listen very long. We heard “Baby Come Back” by Player and “Rosanna” by Toto on Friday afternoon, and when we dropped back in three hours later, there they were again. On Saturday morning, about 18 hours after we’d first listened, we heard exactly the same songs we’d heard Friday afternoon.

Like many S/XM channels that run without DJs, the Yacht Rock Channel plays two or three songs in a row before identifying. The sweepers feature a deep, smarmy voice doing lines about fabulous hair and beards, and vans painted with eagles or dragons on the side—in other words, easy 70s clichés that are exactly what someone listening to this channel might expect to hear.

Perhaps I’m hearing something that isn’t there, or overreacting to what is there, but I wonder just who this channel is intended to reach. I suspect it may not be dudes in their 50s who can remember when this stuff was popular. I wonder if it isn’t aimed at people (of any age) whose default outlook is ironic detachment. The channel and its presentation seem to say, “don’t take this seriously; all of this is silly; aren’t you clever for being in on the joke?” Which is kind of insulting to those of us who do remember the late 70s and early 80s, and who don’t necessarily see this style of music as something to make a joke of.

Much of the music on the Yacht Rock channel was hip back in the day, taken seriously as art by the people who made it and by those of us who listened. Let’s take Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” for example. Sure, it’s possible to listen to it as a goof: perhaps the lyrics are a bit too earnest in spots, the saxophone is just too perfect, the groove is just too smooth. But Aja changed my life, goddammit—it’s the album that made Steely Dan my favorite band, which they still are today. The night I crossed a Steely Dan show off my bucket list, “Deacon Blues” was the emotional high point of the show and the climax of many years of fandom. It—and a lot of the other stuff on the Yacht Rock Channel—is music I return to again and again because it means something to me.

If you’re laughing at that, you’re laughing at me, and you can fk right off, actually.

An Anniversary: Twenty years ago this past weekend was my first day at the publishing company in Iowa City, a job I took when I couldn’t find a teaching job after finishing at the University of Iowa. Although I had fancied myself a writer since at least the seventh grade, this was going pro. I have never worked in an office that had a better, more collegial atmosphere; I have never known people who taught me more, about writing and about life. Many of them are still friends and colleagues today, even though I’ve been gone from Iowa City for 17 years and the company we worked for doesn’t exist anymore. This blog wouldn’t exist without that experience. I’d be a totally different person without that experience—and those people—and I will never stop being grateful for it, and for them.

Hold Her Tight

(Pictured: The Osmonds, whose 1972 single “Hold Her Tight” is a rager based on a Led Zeppelin riff, and an unlikely acquaintance.)

Here’s a whole bunch of music trivia, culled from the Billboard Hot 100 dated July 8, 1972:

In this week, there are seven songs new to the Top 40, which is kind of a lot: “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent, “Hold Her Tight” by the Osmonds (zooming to #39 from #76 the week before), “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Wings, “Sealed With a Kiss” by Bobby Vinton, Donna Fargo’s “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” Nilsson’s “Coconut,” and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies, which debuts up at #30.

In an idle moment the other day, I decided to see which songs had fallen out of the 40, and I found something quite interesting. Of the seven drop-outs, six of them fell out entirely out of the Hot 100.

“Morning Has Broken”/Cat Stevens (from #24)
“Walking in the Rain With the One I Love”/Love Unlimited (from #31)
“Tumbling Dice”/Rolling Stones (from #33)
“It’s Going to Take Some Time”/Carpenters (from #35)
“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”/Roberta Flack (from #36)
“Immigration Man”/Graham Nash and David Crosby (from #40)

Only Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” exited the 40 and remained on the Hot 100, down to #54 from #37.

Somebody with a more searchable and sortable database (as opposed to my half-assed eyeball technique) could probably determine how unusual this is. Not so much that a song should fall from the 40 into oblivion, but that so many should do it in the same week.

Several other hits that will indelibly stamp the late summer and early fall of 1972 sit just outside the Top 40 during the week of July 8, 1972. The most famous are Jim Croce’s debut single, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” at #50 in its second week on, and at #57 in its first week on, “I’m Still in Love With You” by Al Green. Others less well-remembered but just as vivid (at least to me) include Joey Heatherton’s “Gone,” “Motorcycle Mama” by Sailcat, and the Detroit Emeralds’ “Baby Let Me Take You.”

“In a Broken Dream” by Python Lee Jackson is at #60 in its seventh week on. In 1968, the Australian band had recorded a version they didn’t particularly like, believing it needed a stronger lead vocal. So they hired a session singer from England named Rod Stewart to give it a try. Although it stiffed on its original release in 1970—before Stewart got famous—it did better in 1972, reaching #56 in the States.

A couple of future monsters lurk further below: “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” by Mac Davis, which will spend the entire month of September at #1, is at #73 in its second week on; “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, is at #97 in its third week on. “I Am Woman” is a slow starter: it will fall out of the Hot 100 the next week, but will re-enter in September, break the Top 40 in October, and hit #1 on December 9, 1972.

Two very different examples of glorious 70s radio music sit side-by-side: the singalong soul of “Starting All Over Again” by Mel and Tim is at #83 in its first week on; “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries, burning with teenage lust, is at #84 in its second week on. Also found down toward the bottom: Bob Seger’s version of “If I Were a Carpenter” at #87 and David Bowie’s “Starman” at #96, both in their second week on. “If I Were a Carpenter,” yet another example of the accomplished artistry everybody but Seger himself hears in his early work, would reach #76; “Starman” would get to #65.

Sitting at #99 in its first week on is “When You Say Love” by Sonny and Cher. Based on the Budweiser jingle, “when you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all, “When You Say Love” was a smash country hit for Bob Luman before Sonny and Cher covered it. Their version eventually crept into the Hot 100 at #32. “The Bud Song,” as it is known here in Wisconsin, is a staple of University of Wisconsin sporting events: “when you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all.”

How Do You Do?

It’s a pleasant July evening, only a year or two ago. I have just finished a little speech I had to give when a man walks up to me. “Jim?”

I clap on the smile a radio guy claps on when he’s doing an appearance and somebody wants to meet him. “Hi!”

The man extends his hand to shake mine. A moment passes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I had met Tim when he started attending my school in fifth grade. I don’t remember when I first met Alan. I may have known Randy since kindergarten. We played football, basketball, and softball at recess and we often sat together in the cafeteria, and although each of us moved within a larger circle of friends, the four of us had a bond.

Alan lived in a small subdivision on the edge of town where the houses backed up to farmland. One night in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, we decided to go camping in the woods behind Alan’s house. We rounded up a couple of pup tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, and a stash of 12-year-old-kid food—plus a radio, provided by me. And late on a Friday afternoon, we carried our load into the woods.

We had trouble finding a good spot for a campsite, or at least that’s what we told ourselves. It’s just as likely that we found the woods, which were pretty thick, to be a bit less than hospitable. So we set up our tents in a cleared hay field just beyond the trees. We wanted very badly to build a fire, but Alan’s parents had told him that was out of the question. Fortunately, it was the height of hot summertime, so staying warm that night wasn’t going to be a problem. (Alan’s parents knew that warmth is not the main reason 12-year-old boys are interested in fire anyway.)

After we set up our campsite, we went exploring. I expect that we also brought a ball and gloves, or maybe a football to toss. As evening turned into night and it got too dark to risk one of us failing to catch the ball, we started talking: about sports, about school, about our friends, and eventually, about girls we liked. This was a big step for guys our age. Each of us knew that the others were interested in girls in the general sense, but singling out specific ones was risky. If you didn’t trust your friends to keep your secret, it was likely to get onto the grapevine, and then everyone would know.

We didn’t fall asleep until very, very, very late that night. I remember hearing the overnight jock on WLS, a guy I had never heard before. Because the radio was on the whole time, some songs we heard that night will remind me of it forever after: “Lean on Me” and “How Do You Do,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Where Is the Love.”

I woke up early on Saturday morning and crawled out of the tent to take a leak, wondering if the guys in the other tent were awake yet. It couldn’t have been much past 6AM before everybody was up, and we decided pretty quickly that we’d had enough camping. We folded up the tents, packed our stuff, and went back to Alan’s house to get some breakfast.

And the years passed.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He introduces himself, tells me about his job, about his family, grown children and a grandbaby on the way. The conversation lasts only a minute or two. As we part, I picture pup tents in a field and 12-year-olds telling secrets. I hear a radio that stayed on all night. And I think about how long ago it was, but how close it still seems.

Doing the Same Stuff

(Whenever we can’t find another picture that seems appropriate, we’re gonna post one of Linda Ronstadt.)

This blog began on July 11, 2004. That makes today its 13th anniversary. As is customary, here’s a list of some favorite posts since last July 11. (Find other anniversary greatest-hits posts here.)

—Every one of us, whether we work in radio or not, was once a starry-eyed beginner on our first day. Later, some of us become victims of job burnout. And some of us get fired. Those who are still working in radio need to to answer the following question: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” And every small-town radio station needs to ask itself, “Why are we doing the same stuff today we did in 1974?”

—A couple of posts about former Los Angeles radio jock Humble Harve Miller (here and here) continue to get lots of hits from people searching for information about the scandalous events that derailed his career and sent him to prison. A post about hosting an all-request radio show became the most commented-on post in months. Also popular amongst the readership were two posts answering radio questions (here and here). If you have a question, send it in.

—The summer of 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “a celebration of the Beatles before the drugs took hold.” Three years before the release of that album, the Beatles stormed the charts in their first official compilations. And six years before that, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, an album that required Top 40 stations to make some decisions, because it had no single.

—I reviewed a biography of Tiny Tim that tried too hard to turn its subject into someone more important than he was, and a Steely Dan reference book that tested the patience of a super-fan. Joel Selvin’s book about Altamont was a million times better than either one.

—Several posts ranked the tracks on certain famous albums, including Boston, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, and Hotel California. A tweet of mine about whether anyone had ever made three albums in a row as good as Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street got a lot of response.

—This blog has a TV category, and we’re not afraid to use it. I wrote about the music of M*A*S*H and some impressions of the last half-dozen seasons of the show after watching them for the first time in many years. Other posts discussed Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, watching 38 K-Tel record album commercials in a row, and an obscure animated series of the 60s with some good music.

A post about The Partridge Family that originally appeared at Popdose is one of my favorite posts I ever wrote for anybody.

—American Top 40 shows provide a lot of the ideas for this blog. I wrote about the show’s tradition of July 4 weekend specials, and the 1974 show that helped me put the “idiot” into “idiot savant.” Another show inspired a post about a family tableau that’s almost certainly a lie, and another discussed the single biggest whopper Casey Kasem ever told.

—The long-running feature One Day in Your Life became its own blog in January of this year. The last ODIYL post to appear here looked back to December 23, 1966. Also during the Christmas season, we paid tribute to one of “one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century.”

—So far in 2017, we have had to write fewer tribute posts than we did in 2016. Here’s one about Chuck Berry, one about the J. Geils Band, and one about Adam West.

—I wrote about rediscovering a compilation CD I made and then forgot about, about Watergate songs, and about the songs that woke up the astronauts. I imagined a 1972 kitchen-table scene in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Louisiana Sunday in December 1941. And I wondered how, or whether, the children of this era will listen to their music 40 or 50 years from now.

—If I had asked her the question I couldn’t bring myself to ask her, she would probably have said yes.

The future of this blog is that it will continue to hump onward pretty much like it does now. To each of you amongst the readership, my many thanks.

Confess Your Unpopular Opinion

(Pictured: Rita Coolidge.)

(There is a new post at One Day in Your Life today, and there will be another new one on Sunday.)

“Confess your unpopular opinion” is a hashtag game people play on Twitter sometimes. What follows are several potentially unpopular opinions, inspired by the American Top 40 show from June 25, 1977.

Shaun Cassidy’s version of “Da Doo Ron Ron” is far better than you remember. It helps to hear it in its natural habitat, on the radio, amidst jocks and jingles. (Or to remember having heard it that way.) It’s got one of those introductions that requires a self-respecting DJ to bring it: you don’t just read the weather forecast over something that hot.

One does not listen to Barry Manilow for the words, but one should. “Looks Like We Made It,” a future #1 hit with lyrics by Will Jennings, is a short story in three minutes: old lovers meet for the first time in years, claiming they’re pleased to have gotten over one another and fallen in love with others, only to realize that the two of them aren’t past their old feelings at all. A year later, Manilow would add another, more devastating chapter on “Even Now,” a #19 hit with lyrics by Marty Panzer: what sounds like the same guy, long married now, spending every day longing for the woman he really loves, suffering eternal romantic damnation. Barry Manilow, people. Who knew?

The Rita Coolidge version of “Higher and Higher” is a great record. The key to hearing it that way is not thinking about the original. It may be easier for me than it is for some people; when this was a hit, I’d didn’t know Jackie Wilson’s joyous, electrifying version. Compared to that, anybody would sound flat. But Rita’s version was arranged by Booker T. Jones, who doesn’t make junk, and he does some great stuff with it, including the interplay between the guitarist and the drummer and the way he sweeps a string section in from nowhere. But the best part (if it’s not his own solo on the organ) is the way he handles the key changes. Of course “Higher and Higher” should get higher and higher.

The Bill Conti/original soundtrack version of “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky is inferior to Maynard Ferguson’s version. Listen to the Ferguson version, which peaked at #28, and you’ll hear it. Conti’s version is contemporary enough, although whoever arranged the chorus vocals made them sound stiff and white and weird. Ferguson’s is square in the pocket for 1977, with a disco beat, sassy singers, and Ferguson’s way-up-there trumpet soloing. (He played a gig at my college sometime around 1979, and “Gonna Fly Now” nearly blew the roof off.) Nevertheless, it was Conti’s version that would get to #1, having gone 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 to reach the top, 40 years ago this week.

A couple of other observations about the 6/25/77 chart:

—My general fondness for this summer’s music is always tempered by the presence of Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille,” which I disliked in 1977 and still don’t care for today. I suspect it rose to #5 (and #1 in the UK, believe it or not) wholly on its earworm of a refrain, which you can most likely sing to yourself right now:  “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / With four hungry children and a crop in the field”.

—10cc’s “People in Love” spent the week of 6/25/77 at #40, its lone week on the chart. It was followed by the crazy-good threesome of the Commodores’ “Easy,” Boston’s “Peace of Mind” (heard it its 45RPM configuration), and “Couldn’t Get It Right” by the Climax Blues Band. There’s another fine stretch later on: Ferguson’s Rocky theme, ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, and “Higher and Higher.”

All of this is another reminder, as we have noted before, how much damn fun it could be listening to the radio during the glory days of Top 40.

Maybe you don’t hear it like I do. Maybe you had to be there. In the summer of 1977, more than in most seasons, I’m grateful that I was.

Book of Records

(Pictured: Diana Ross onstage, 1982.)

American Top 40 debuted on the weekend of July 4, 1970. Starting in 1972, it became customary for AT40 to air a special countdown sometime around the Fourth. Such shows could be recorded in advance, giving Casey Kasem and his staff the chance to take some time off.

—The first summer special ran on the weekend of July 1, 1972, and charted the top 40 songs of the rock era. Your top three: “The Twist,” “Hey Jude,” and Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” The latter two did nine weeks each at #1; “The Twist” had two separate runs to the top.

—On the weekend of July 7, 1973, AT40 counted down the Top 40 one-hit wonders of the rock era, including some fabulously obscure records. The list is topped by Zager and Evans’ 1969 hit “In the Year 2525.”

—On the weekend of July 6, 1974, the show featured the top singles artists of the 1970s. Top three were the Carpenters, the Jackson Five, and Three Dog Night. This was the week following the infamous show that counted down AT40‘s own estimate of what the chart would be, and not the actual Billboard Top 40.

—On the weekend of July 5, 1975, to celebrate the show’s fifth anniversary, the summer special was a repeat of the first AT40 show.

—On the Bicentennial weekend of July 3, 1976, AT40 featured the #1 songs on the Fourth of July from 1937 through 1976, starting with “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane” by Guy Lombardo. The show also featured Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, the Ink Spots, and Perry Como before the rock era arrived with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” from 1955. The show gradually makes its way to July 4, 1976, and “Silly Love Songs.” I think I heard at least part of this show back then, but I can’t remember. (This is one that AT40 geeks long to hear repeated, but never, ever will.)

—The 1977 summer special, “The 40 Most Popular Girls of the Rock Era,” aired on the weekend of July 2, playing the top songs with girls’ names in the titles, based on chart performance of each record. If you peruse the list, you may find #1 to be as big a fizzle as I did.

—On the weekend of July 1, 1978, the summer special was the Top 40 hits of the 1970s, which might be the single greatest all-killer, no-filler edition of AT40 ever. (It was offered to stations around the country this July 4th weekend as an alternate show.) In 1987, the summer special would cover the Top 40 hits of the 80s, and it’s just as solid.

—The Top 40 hits of the disco era was the entirely predictable topic for the weekend of July 7, 1979. A memo from executive producer Tom Rounds, attached to the cue sheet for the week, asks stations to keep the special on hand after the weekend as an emergency show, in case the regular weekly program fails to arrive in the mail. (Old emergency shows became obsolete when the show went from three hours to four the previous October.)

—On the weekend of July 5, 1980, Casey looked into the AT40 Book of Records, maybe the most unconventional edition in the show’s history. It was the subject of a recent series at My Favorite Decade.

—On the weekend of July 4, 1981, the summer special featured the 40 biggest hits of the Beatles, together and separately. Your top five: “Hey Jude,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Silly Love Songs,” and “My Sweet Lord.” (Poor Ringo’s highest-rated hit was “You’re Sixteen,” down at #20.) This one is also rock solid from beginning to end.

—There was no July 4 weekend special in 1982, 1984, or 1985 that I can find. On the weekend of July 2, 1983, the show featured “The Top 40 Acts of the 80s So Far.” Your top three: #1 Hall and Oates, #2 Diana Ross, and #3 Air Supply, which you probably did not see coming. In 1986, it looks to me as though AT40 produced a regular countdown for the July 4 weekend as well as a special based on a poll of DJs around the world regarding the most influential artists of all time. The show was anchored by Pink Floyd, the Four Tops, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and concluded with the Beatles at #1, followed by Elvis and the Rolling Stones.

The tradition of summer specials continued through the end of Casey’s run at American Top 40 in 1995. If you’re interested in later years or other specials, look for them in the archive of weekly AT40 cue sheets at Charis Music Group, which is an excellent time-waster, on a holiday weekend or any other day.

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