Choruses of Angels

I have a friend who’s a church organist. The other day she posted an article on Facebook listing 20 Hymns Your Kids Should Know, which suggested that certain religious classics aren’t heard all that much anymore, and which inspired this post.

As a practical matter, religious belief is useless to me. Religion still holds some interest as a cultural expression, however, and that’s a subject I have written about before. Modern translations of the Bible, which are intended to be truer to the original texts and more relevant to modern readers, have removed the poetry, the mystery—the very artistry—that used to be intrinsic to the Bible. Thus, a great deal of the Bible’s appeal is removed, too.

Church music been rendered similarly modern. Dragged to church one Sunday, I heard a band made up of church members clatter through their repertoire of Christian rock covers so poorly that it barely qualified as a joyful noise. But church music doesn’t just sound different than it used to—its depiction of the relationship between God and man is different, too. In a world where we can customize and personalize everything exactly the way we want it, religious belief and religious custom are not exempt. In a more democratic age, less comfortable with arbitrary authority, people want God to be less imposing: not so much the Lord Most High but a Kindly Sky Grandpa. And it’s not just that. Lots of modern religious music is concerned with how you fit God into your plans. More traditional music, especially the old hymns that are falling out of fashion, is concerned with the opposite: about how you fit into God’s plans.

The church I grew up in (which still stands today) was built in 1916, with three floors and a million steps—concrete ones outside and creaky wooden ones inside—and two tiny bathrooms for a congregation of over 1200. It was probably the first public place I ever visited, as a babe in arms. I was baptized there and confirmed there. It was, until I became a teenager and could extricate myself from the requirement of regular churchgoing, a significant site of my social life, second only to school. And it occurs to me that a number of my memories of the place have to do with those old hymns.

The church had a gigantic organ. If there were pipes, I never knew where they were, but whatever and wherever it was, the thing was loud. The organist, Mrs. Seaton, was a virtuoso, and way into playing it. Sometimes, when we reached the final verse of a particularly powerful closing hymn, she’d jump an octave as if she were summoning up a chorus of angels, thus bringing the service to a rousing conclusion. I knew enough about music to know I loved the way that sounded, although certain members of the congregation were not so impressed. “She plays like we’re in a rented cathedral,” one of them groused, although it’s not clear to me precisely what he meant.

When I was very little, we were EUBs (Evangelical United Brethren), but we became Methodists after the EUBs and the Methodists merged in 1968. And in church, we sang Old Hundred after the offertory, all the great carols at Christmas, and Protestantism’s greatest hits the rest of the year: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “Holy Holy Holy.” Writers of traditional hymnody intended their works to be an offering suitable to the Lord Most High. Such inspiration is where the melodies get their power and the lyrics get their punch: “Father all glorious / O’er all victorious / Come and reign over us / Ancient of days” or “Let every kind and every tribe / On this terrestrial ball / To Him all majesty ascribe / And crown Him Lord of all.”

Nobody writes like that anymore, and a lot of churches don’t sing like that anymore. Theological considerations aside, it seems like a net loss to the culture, when some of the most powerful and inventive music of the last 300 years is replaced by something more appealing to the palate but less nutritious to the soul.

Don’t Wanna Live Without It

(Pictured: the hairy dudes of Pablo Cruise.)

I have to admit that it’s been damn hard coming up with stuff to write about this month, October or no October. But because I don’t want a Friday to go by without posting something, let’s try this: a selection of songs that were sitting at #40 on the Billboard Hot 100 on this date, or a date to close to it, in years gone by. We’ll cover 1964 through 1986 because that is how we roll.

Week of 10/24/64: “You Really Got Me”/Kinks. I am probably wrong about this, but I suspect that “You Really Got Me” might contain one of the first iconic guitar riffs in rock history. What would be some earlier ones? In 1964 alone, the Beatles did “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Earlier than that, “Jailhouse Rock,” maybe. But I can’t think of any others just now.

Week of 10/23/65: “Dawn of Correction”/Spokesmen. It’s easy to characterize this as the reactionary response to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”—and it gives the game away in its first lines, “The western world has a common dedication / To keep free people from Red domination”—but it makes some valid points, too. Voter registration was up, the Peace Corps was making a difference, the United Nations was a vehicle for hope.

Week of 10/22/66: “Rain on the Roof”/Lovin’ Spoonful. The world of 1966 was neither sweet nor simple, but sweet, simple songs like this make it seem as though it must have been. (Compared to 2016, in which America is going collectively mad in slow motion, it almost certainly was.)

Week of 10/23/71: I’m Comin’ Home”/Tommy James. In which Tommy James hooks his pop music mastery to his growing religiosity and I’ll be damned (see what I did there?) if it doesn’t sound just great.

Week of 10/21/72: “From the Beginning”/Emerson Lake & Palmer. Their only Top 40 hit, because “Lucky Man” stalled out at #48.

Week of 10/19/74: “When Will I See You Again”/Three Degrees. This song is so beautiful that at certain moments (which often occur in the fall of the year) I can barely stand to listen to it.

Week of 10/21/78: “Don’t Want to Live Without It”/Pablo Cruise. This was a great radio song from a band that knew how to make them, even if the public didn’t always buy them in large amounts.

Week of 10/20/79: “Rainbow Connection”/Kermit (Jim Henson). During the first autumn of the 1970s, Henson was on the singles chart as a Sesame Street character, Ernie, doing the intolerable “Rubber Duckie.” During the last autumn of the 70s, he was back as a more versatile and enduring character, Kermit the Frog, and a far better song.

Week of 10/25/80: “Never Be the Same”/Christopher Cross. I occasionally annoyed my college radio colleagues by wanting to play certain records I liked that were straight-up pop radio cheese. Like “Never Be the Same.”

Week of 10/17/81: “Burnin’ for You”/Blue Oyster Cult. Although “Burnin’ for You” never got higher than #40, it has been a classic-rock radio essential for 35 years now. The album Fire of Unknown Origin got a lot of play on our college radio station, especially the bizarro track “Joan Crawford,” with a video containing a great deal of fked-up Catholic schoolgirl imagery.

Week of 10/23/82: “Get Closer”/Linda Ronstadt. I am pretty sure that I hadn’t heard this song in over 30 years before I listened it while writing this post. It’s far, far better than I remember. (And in the video, Linda is just smokin’ hot.)

Week of 10/18/86: “The Way It Is”/Bruce Hornsby and the Range. There had never been anything that sounded quite like this, with that rippling, rolling, powerful piano. When I got to the elevator-music station early in 1987, we had a version of it with all the vocals edited out.

The link in the last paragraph goes to a blog post by Len O’Kelly, who came to the elevator-music station, KRVR in Davenport, Iowa, shortly before all of us got sacked in a format change. It captures the essence of the place extremely well. If you enjoy the pondwater you find at this blog, odds are pretty good that you’ll like Len’s blog, too.

Welcome to Korea

mash_title-card_cropped(Pictured: the rarely seen title card that opens the first episode of M*A*S*H.)

We own the first six seasons of M*A*S*H on DVD, but that hasn’t stopped us from developing a new dinner-hour habit these last few weeks: watching M*A*S*H repeats on MeTV. They’re edited (MeTV’s own edits, it looks like, and not the familiar syndication versions) and the commercial breaks are interminable, but as something you can turn on and pay attention to with half an ear while eating dinner and discussing the day with your spouse, you can’t beat ’em.

M*A*S*H was so omnipresent on TV for so long, 11 seasons on the air and an eternal life in syndication, that it takes some effort to imagine it as a new show, back there in the fall of 1972. That fall, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible were still on the air, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Show—which bracketed M*A*S*H on Sunday nights that first season—or The Little People, or Banyon, which premiered on other networks? Three new shows that fall would earn the status of television classic: M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Bob Newhart Show; The Rookies had a successful run for several years, and Kung Fu would become a cult favorite. I haven’t done the research to determine what sort of batting average that is, but it strikes me as decent.

M*A*S*H is based on the 1970 Robert Altman film, and when the series begins, its Altmanesque roots are perceptible. The M*A*S*H pilot, about a fundraising raffle to send the surgeons’ houseboy to college in America, is remarkably vulgar for 1972 (and on Sunday night to boot), as if the new frankness of the movies at the dawn of the 70s was finally making inroads into TV. M*A*S*H would never again be so gleefully transgressive, however, and whatever Altman influence the show had at first quickly faded.

At the beginning of Season 3, a new group of writers came aboard, and while they continued to sand off the show’s rougher edges, they also added a character that felt like a retroactive nod to Altman: Captain Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III.

The Spalding character, seen in three episodes, was another surgeon at the 4077th, but his main dramatic function was to sing songs that commented on the action of the episodes in which he appeared. “North Korean Blues” is seen and heard in the episode “Rainbow Bridge.” The episode “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse,” in which all female personnel are evacuated from the unit, features an untitled song containing the refrain, “I wonder if they miss us / Now wouldn’t that be funny / Now that we’re without them / We can hardly stand ourselves.” That same episode is framed by “Unrequited to the Nth Degree,” which would appear on a Wainwright album in 1975. “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse” ends with Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast singing the song while dancing across the compound. For his last appearance, in the episode “Big Mac,” Wainwright wrote “Five Gold Stars” on demand, in two hours. (In 2008, he told an interviewer that the experience taught him he could be “a songslinger for hire.”)

Wainwright has told various interviewers over the years that he doesn’t know why he was never called back for further appearances (but he appreciates the royalty checks that continue to come his way). It strikes me that the Spalding character wouldn’t have been a good fit with the less jaded tone of the series after Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell replaced McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers for Season 4—and maybe that’s what executive producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart thought, too.

The end of Season 3 marks the point after which M*A*S*H is never the same. The first two Morgan/Farrell seasons, with Larry Linville still in the cast as Frank Burns, are fine. But in Season 6, with David Ogden Stiers joining the cast as Yoko Ono, I start losing interest, and in the final seasons, when the show is frequently drowning in sanctimony, I can’t watch at all.

MeTV is somewhere in the fourth season now, so we’ll be watching at dinnertime for a while yet.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post at Popdose, but largely new.)

From One to the Other

(Pictured: Is this a good time for a picture of Linda Ronstadt? Hell yes it is always a good time for a picture of Linda Ronstadt.)

This past week, man . . . you don’t want to know. To provide fresh content so you don’t give up on this Internet feature, here’s a quick rundown of some interesting stuff that’s passed through my Twitter feed recently. It’s the best post I can do under the circumstances.

The best thing I’ve read lately is this excerpt from a forthcoming book on rock music and race relations discussing how the Rolling Stones, despite being considered an R&B band (late edit: at least at the start), despite their well-publicized love for the blues, were the engine that drove the racial segregation of rock. Telling statistic about that segregation: when New York classic-rock station Q104.3 (which I listened to a lot during a recent trip to the area) picked its top 1043 songs of all time, only 22 of them were by black artists, and 16 of them were by Jimi Hendrix.

Those of us who live in the North often dismiss the South as a redneck redoubt that’s stuck in the Jim Crow Era, where people strut like their side won the Civil War. (Or maybe that’s just me, the three-greats grandson of a Union veteran wounded on Missionary Ridge who lives in a state governed by a gaggle of neo-Confederate politicians who are working to turn my state into Mississippi without the accent.) But the New York Times published a useful corrective about the political progressive-ism of a number of Southern musicians, including Drive-By Truckers and Shovels and Rope. Perhaps a younger generation will save us from the sins of our fathers after all.

It’s important to differentiate between “rock ‘n’ roll,” the genre that was born in the middle of the 1950s from the marriage of R&B and country, and straight up “rock,” which was born in the 1960s out of youth culture’s new seriousness. An NPR piece about the new Jon Savage and David Hepworth books about 1966 and 1971, respectively, discusses the transition from one to the other.

Someday somebody will make a movie about the soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac. The epic dysfunction of the Rumours era is well-known, but when the group reconvened in 1981 to make Mirage, things were no less dramatic.

If you have ever seen the video for Hall and Oates’ 1976 hit “She’s Gone,” you’ll probably remember it, even though it was never broadcast anywhere until the Internet era. Daryl Hall (who turned 70 earlier this week) says, “They thought we were completely insane.”

Although it never made it onto your typical good times/great oldies radio station, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is one of the landmark hits of the 60s. Clark and writer/producer Tony Hatch recently told the story of its creation.

Tom Cox is the author of several hilarious and charming books about his cats and his life in rural England, most recently Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. He also hosts an online radio show that focuses on 60s and 70s folk rock, and he wrote an insightful appreciation of the early Linda Ronstadt that is also a lot of fun to read.

Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” is widely considered to be one of the greatest comedy sketches ever put on record. And it’s funny even when performed by two voice synthesizers, one of whom sounds like Stephen Hawking.

That’s all I’ve got today. Please visit again sometime, when I may have more.

I Think I Love You Still

(Pictured: A still from The Partridge Family shows Laurie wearing a chastity belt, apparently.)

We recently passed the anniversary of the debut of The Partridge Family in 1970. In 2010, I wrote a 40th anniversary tribute for Popdose. Here’s a reboot.

In September 1970, I was 10 years old, with the taste of a 10-year-old kid. And so my first favorite songs were light and happy and catchy and easy to sing. And that made me, and people like me, the prime target for The Partridge Family. For many boys of the ’70s, Shirley Jones would become their first MILF, and for many girls, David Cassidy would be their first celebrity love.

Years later, much of the music featured on the show still sounds mighty good, because many of their songs were written by the biggest cats in pop. The Partridge Family’s recordings were made by the group of Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Most of the voices were provided by the Ron Hicklin Singers, heard on hundreds of hit songs, movie soundtracks, TV themes, commercials, and radio jingles.

In honor of the anniversary, here’s one fan’s top five Partridge Family songs. Turn up your speakers until you can smell the polyester.

Continue reading →

A Cup of Tea With Rod Stewart

(Pictured: L to R, Ian McLagen, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane, and Kenney Jones onstage, circa 1971.)

On October 2, 1971, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” hit #1 on the Hot 100, and Every Picture Tells a Story reached the top of the Billboard 200 album chart, nudging Carole King’s Tapestry to #2 after 15 weeks. It was the cream of a remarkable crop of albums. Also in the Top 10 during October 1971: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, the Shaft soundtrack, Paul and Linda’s Ram, Who’s Next, The Carpenters, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Sound Magazine by the Partridge Family (the latter three back-to back-to-back for the week of October 2 and damn, do I love the 70s), Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens, Santana III, and John Lennon’s Imagine, which would take over the #1 slot on October 30.

On a gray and rainy morning not long ago, Every Picture Tells a Story was a very good companion on a long car trip. You can listen to it yourself while I’m ranking the tracks.

8. “That’s All Right”/”Amazing Grace.” Elvis owns “That’s All Right” and nobody else should mess with it. Rod’s “Amazing Grace,” which is not listed on the album jacket, is lovely, though.

7. “I Know I’m Losing You.” This thing rocks like crazy and you can hear how much Rod is into it, whooping and yelling as the band burns the joint down. I’m ranking it here because it doesn’t fit the intimate, unplugged vibe of the rest of the album.

6. “Seems Like a Long Time.” This is a beautiful song that ranks here because other stuff has to rank higher.

5.  “Every Picture Tells a Story.” The hilariously rockin’ tale of a young world traveler who’s seen some wild shit, man: “I was arrested for inciting a peaceful riot / When all I wanted was a cup of tea.”

4.  “Reason to Believe.” There was never anything else that sounded like this, with its piano chords tolling out the years like church bells; the violin, credited to London jazz musician Dick Powell, gives it a seriousness that few other AM radio hits could match.

3. “Maggie May.” Here’s how much this song means in my life: I have no children, but any daughter of mine would have been named Maggie May.

2  “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” Elvis put this Bob Dylan song on the Spinout soundtrack in 1966 (although it’s not in the movie); Dylan himself didn’t release a version of it until 2010, and that was released a live performance of it from 1963 in 1971. (Corrected thanks to commenter David; I misread a source.) Rod’s version is breathtaking; Powell’s violin is magnificent.

1.  “Mandolin Wind.” This song has everything that’s great about Rod Stewart’s first four albums in five-and-a-half minutes. The best of those albums were an English take on what the Band was doing at about the same time, which was Americana before the term existed. On “Mandolin Wind,” Rod’s singing is sensitive and heartfelt and even funny. (“I ain’t got much but what I’ve got is yours / Except of course my steel guitar.”) The band is similarly sensitive, but they rock the hell out of it at the end. Oddly, the identity of the mandolin player on “Mandolin Wind” is unclear. Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne claimed to be the guy; he played on “Maggie May” too, but Rod, having forgotten his name, credited him only as “the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.”

Several years ago, I put together a mix tape to help a young friend appreciate the genius of the early Rod. (She knew him only as a People magazine bon vivant, Great American Songbook plunderer, and impregnator of supermodels.) The tape wasn’t necessary, though. All she really needed to hear was Every Picture Tells a Story.

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