Yesterday’s Heroes

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(Pictured: In December 1975, Bob Dylan did a series of benefits for imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, during which he was joined onstage by Joan Baez, Roberta Flack, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. I think I see a couple of Eagles in there too.)

Coming home from the Twin Cities the other night, I reached into the CD bag and pulled out something labeled “January 1976.” Here’s some stuff about some of the songs on it.

“Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers. On January 21, 1976, New York radio legend Dan Ingram treated his WABC listeners to what he called an outtake from a recent visit by the Rollers to the studio, on which the band has trouble spelling “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y.” Today, you could create such a production on your laptop; in 1976, it required you to cut and splice tiny bits of recording tape. So we salute, as Ingram does, Engineer Mike, “who has a bad case of spliceman’s thumb this morning.”

“Convoy”/C. W McCall and “Hurricane”/Bob Dylan. A few years back, I tried making a link between these two very opposite-seeming records. You’ll have to tell me if it worked.

“Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac. In country radio right now there’s an absolute plague of records that fade in. I presume there’s an iPod- or Spotify-related reason for this, but if you still value the dying-if-not-dead art of good radio board work, these fades complicate your work immensely. For “Over My Head” to become an AM radio hit in 1976, it had to jump out, so it was remixed to create an introduction that replaced the fade-in heard on the album version. And jump it does—unlike the current batch of fade-in country records, which kill forward momentum only to have to try and start it up again.

“I Cheat the Hangman”/Doobie Brothers. I wonder why the Doobies’ label thought “I Cheat the Hangman” was a likely single. As good as it is, it’s just too much for AM radio, although it got to #60 on the Hot 100.

“Theme from Mahogany“/Diana Ross. Listening the other night I was struck by the similarities between this record and one that would top the charts almost exactly one year later: “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand—big movie songs sung by multimedia superstars, and quiet little interludes during otherwise noisy seasons.

“I Love Music”/O’Jays. I don’t need all of “I Love Music” to get me back to the winter of 1976; the bongos that lead into its chugging Philly soul beat are more than enough.

“Rock and Roll All Nite”/KISS. I did not enlist in the KISS Army. They were too much of a cartoon for teenage me. Today, their ability to ride minimal chops and hideously bad taste straight to immortality looks like the quintessential American success story.

“Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. Another casualty of our Spotify/song-skipping way of listening to music is the instrumental intro. They’re getting shorter and shorter, as producers figure that people want to hear Ed Sheeran sing, so let ’em hear Ed Sheeran sing rather than having to wait through 14 seconds of Ed’s band playing before Ed starts up. (This is the same line of thinking that has killed the mid-song instrumental solo.) But the instrumental intro is the radio jock’s canvas; take it away from me and I can’t do my job. “Winners and Losers” starts with 13 seconds of glory that requires a jock to be awesome.

“Yesterday’s Hero”/John Paul Young. The Bay City Rollers recorded “Yesterday’s Hero” on their 1976 album Dedication, and some people probably have heard John Paul Young’s version thinking it was the Rollers. But Young did it first, and over two years before hitting with “Love Is in the Air.”

“Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players. My CD contains the long version of this, which runs 4:50, tightens the groove, and rocks like crazy.

“Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection. It was the 70s. We couldn’t help ourselves.

“Break Away”/Art Garfunkel. The album Breakaway (note that its title is one word while the title song, written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, is two) is gorgeously produced by Richard Perry. I’d like to live inside the sound of it.

“Back to the Island”/Leon Russell. The lazy seaside vibe of “Back to the Island” sounded pretty good on the radio in the depths of that bygone winter.

I have a whole series of CDs devoted to 1976 because of course I do. I have lots of car time in my future over the next few weeks, so maybe I’ll write about them after I’ve listened to them.

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The Story of Rock

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(Pictured: Prince and friends burn down the theater at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004.)

On our recent vacation, we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A few random observations follow.

—Like the best rock and roll shows, the Hall will overload your senses. Music and video blast in nearly every exhibit area, and when areas are close together, the collision of sounds is cacophonous. I actually found it a little hard to concentrate sometimes.

—Concentration is needed because the Hall is a text-heavy experience. Objects displayed in museums require context, but curators and exhibit designers usually try to keep the text providing that context as succinct as possible. My sense is that the Hall does not concern itself overmuch with that goal. Exhibits are introduced with lots of text on walls; exhibit labels offer a significant amount of detail about the artifacts on display. Some of the artifacts themselves are text-heavy: letters, contracts, lyrics, etc.

—The first gallery you visit honors early influences: those artists who predate the rock era but who helped to shape it. It includes Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, and others, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who goes in this year. But it also includes a couple of perplexing honorees, chief among them Nat King Cole, who made no secret of his dislike for rock ‘n’ roll, and who would wonder why he was there.

—Elvis Presley gets the biggest gallery. The Beatles share one with the Rolling Stones. On the day we visited, however, a gallery devoted to the career of John Mellencamp dwarfed them all. The Mellencamp exhibit is temporary, on display only until early February.

—John Mellencamp has long been #1 on my list of Hall honorees who don’t belong. He didn’t do anything groundbreaking; he isn’t an exemplar of any particular style; he has no lasting influence on artists in his wake. His records sell, but his greatest achievement is Scarecrow, recorded over three decades ago, and it’s been over 20 years since his last single of any consequence. But if the giant building on the lakeshore in Cleveland was the Hall of Sold a Lot of Records, or the Hall of Sticking to Your Job for a Long Time, you’d put Mellencamp (and lots of other inductees) in right away.

—We made it a point to visit the Alan Freed Studio, where jocks on the Sirius/XM Classic Vinyl and Deep Tracks channels do regular shifts. There’s a separate exhibit hall devoted to Freed and his early years in Cleveland. He shares the gallery with Sam Phillips and Les Paul as innovators, and with an exhibit on the history of musical technology. Altogether, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the museum.

—Critics of the Hall are often critics of Rolling Stone founder and Hall impresario Jann Wenner, suggesting that the honorees’ list reflects Wenner’s taste as much as it reflects the inductees’ place in history. Wennerphobes will be neither surprised nor pleased to learn that right now, two entire floors of the museum are devoted to an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of Rolling StoneRolling Stone‘s significance from the 60s to the 90s can’t be overstated; its significance since the 90s probably can be. But there’s no way the Hall was going to ignore the magazine’s 50th, so it’s fine.

—The best part of the museum is the last film Jonathan Demme directed before his death in 2017: the short Power of Rock, which is shown with audio at concert level in a theater dedicated for the purpose. It features performances from various Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, all-star jam sessions that in some cases have become legendary. The single longest segment in the film is from Prince’s induction in 2004, when he was joined by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on which Prince shows himself the equal of the greatest dudes who ever strapped on a guitar, Hendrix, Clapton, anybody. At one point, Petty is seen whispering to Prince, “You ready to wrap it up?”, to which Prince responds, “No,” and continues to wail.

If you read this blog, you should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not really necessary for me to say that; chances are that if you read this blog, you’ve either already been there or it’s on your bucket list. And on the day you cross it off, you’ll be glad you did.

The Best of AC and Country, 2017

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(Pictured: Miranda Lambert onstage in 2017.)

I don’t see Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart every week of the year. I suppose I could look at it, but I haven’t got the habit. So when the year-end chart comes out, I often find myself surprised by the results. This past year, for example, I expected Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” to be #1—but it came in at #2 behind Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know.” The Maroon 5 record is fine, although it’s neither quantitatively nor qualitatively different from every other single they’ve released in the last four or five years. That’s not to say I prefer “Shape of You.” The overwhelming impression I get from listening to Ed Sheeran songs, especially those on his latest album Divide, is that for as popular as they are, they should be a lot more distinctive. For example, on the autobiographical “Castle on the Hill” (#19), he’s obviously trying to tell a poignant story about the crowd he ran with as a kid and how their lives have worked out, or not, in the years since. The raw material is there, but in the execution it just kind of spools out for four minutes without ever getting anywhere.

My favorite songs of the year include Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge” (#3) and “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” (#11), Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” (#20), which feels like an old-school soul joint, and Niall Horan’s “This Town” (#21), which is as emotional and engaging as Ed Sheeran’s records want to be. Two records that threaten to drown in synthesizers and/or auto-tune, “Something Just Like This” by the Chainsmokers with Coldplay (#10) and “Life’s About to Get Good” by Shania Twain (#40), both qualify as guilty pleasures. A couple of hits that didn’t make the Top 50 are worth mentioning, too: “Wish I Knew You” by the Revivalists was first released in 2015 but didn’t become an AC hit until this year. The killer hook of the year belonged to “Feel It Still” by Portugal The Man: “I’m a rebel just for kicks now / I been feelin’ it since 1966 now.”

(I was tempted to dock “Feel It Still” a few points for the band’s remarkably bad name, which is even worse for being officially styled with a period after “Portugal,” an affectation I refuse to cotton to.  I haven’t hated an extraneous punctuation mark so much since Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.”)

Similarly, some of the best country songs of the year didn’t make the top 70 compiled by Country Aircheck magazine, including Drake White’s “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” which he delivers with the savvy of a soul singer twice his age, and two Miranda Lambert singles from her acclaimed album The Weight of These Wings, “Tin Man” and “We Should Be Friends.” My favorite country song of the year did make the Top 70, however: “It Ain’t My Fault” by the Brothers Osborne (#43), which, if you transported it back to 1979, would sound just fine on a classic-rock station, just like Lynryd Skynyrd did next to Led Zeppelin. (The #1 country song of 2017 was “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt, and the less I say about it, the better.)

But back to Miranda Lambert for a second. When I first heard her in 2010, she was firmly trading on being your crazy ex-girlfriend—which was also the title of her third album, released in 2007. With her Grammy-winning #1 hit “The House That Built Me” in 2010, she showed herself much deeper than merely that. For the next several years, her singles could be smart and touching (“Over You”, “Automatic”) or bring the crazy (“Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon”—which is the worst record she ever made—and “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood that NBC modified for its Sunday Night Football theme). But then came The Weight of These Wings. First single “Vice” was a substantial hit on momentum; “We Should Be Friends” and “Tin Man” did less well, as it seemed to dawn on people that the crazy ex-girlfriend has left town for good. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s next album, whenever it comes out, is a hit with the alt-country and Americana crowd and barely registers in the mainstream.

If there’s something you particularly liked in 2017, on a chart or not, share it with the whole class in the comments.

January Job

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I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.

They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.

When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.

Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.

Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.

People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”

But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.

Another Year Bites the Dust

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(Pictured: Freddie Mercury of Queen, onstage in Chicago, 1980.)

I had quite a backlog of American Top 40 shows from December to listen to, and I spent the month gradually working my way through them.

The show from December 9, 1972, represented one of the great weeks in soul music history, with the Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Al Green, Billy Paul, and the Stylistics all in the Top 10 with classic records. It’s a week one can cite to give the lie to the tired idea that 70s music was consistently inferior to that of the 60s, and not just because of all the soul music: the twosome of Jim Croce’s “Operator” (#17) and Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me” (#16) might represent some kind of high point for forlorn singer/songwriter pop. (Re-listening to this particular point in the show represented some kind of high point for Jim singing along in the car.)

At #20 on the 12/9/72 show, “Sweet Surrender” by Bread contains the line “you keep your rights, I’ll take your nights.” I can’t decide: it’s either an open and progressive attitude toward the woman in question at a time of change, or another example of the ham-fisted sexism of a time we like to believe is long gone but clearly is not. It’s either “be yourself and love me too” or “having dignity and independence is your thing, now let me unhook your bra.” Meanwhile, up at #1, introducing 31-year-old Helen Reddy’s liberation anthem, “I Am Woman,” Casey refers to her as a “pretty girl.” So maybe we can figure out what Bread’s attitude was after all.

The show from December 7, 1974, comes from the time when I first discovered FM radio but was still mostly an AM kid. I would switch back and forth from band to band depending on where I was listening, upstairs in my room, downstairs on the console stereo, or in the car when I could commandeer the radio. It wasn’t long before I noticed how Fancy’s “Touch Me,” “Everlasting Love” by Carl Carlton, and “Junior’s Farm” by Wings—among many others—were clearer on FM but hotter on AM.

The show from December 13, 1975, had seven debut songs, three of which are still on the radio 42 years later: “Evil Woman” by ELO, “Over My Head” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Singasong” by Earth Wind and Fire. The highest debut of the week, way up at #29, was “Convoy” by C. W. McCall. The CB radio novelty had hit the Hot 100 the previous week at #82 and would go 14-7-6 and finally to #1 for the week of January 10, 1976. Also among the debuts: “Winners and Losers” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, which would get only to #21 in January. It’s basically the #1 hit “Fallin’ in Love” played faster, but it gains awesomeness points for its radio-perfect 14-second intro, and for whoever’s playing piano on it.

The show from December 13, 1980, was the one on which John Lennon was memorialized, even though he was murdered after the show had already been mailed to affiliates. (I wrote about it last month for Magic 98; hear Casey’s heartfelt memorial here.) Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” spent the fifth of what would be six weeks at #1, a record that got caught in the changing tides of history. Within a couple of years, after the rise of the MTV bands, Michael Jackson, and Prince, “Lady” (and similar lush adult ballads) would no longer be suitable for Top 40 radio. Also high on the chart that week: Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” which I hadn’t heard in a long while before I heard it on this show. Most people would pick “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Queen’s greatest achievement, but “Another One Bites the Dust” is just as great, for the way it packs one hook on top of another and never lets up for a full 3:32.

With this post, we embark on another calendar year at this blog. I wrote a lot more in 2017 than I expected to at this time last year. We’ll see if that pace continues in 2018.

Remember

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Here’s another Christmas post from the past, specifically 2009, slightly edited.

There’s no time of the year when the shades of the past crowd around us like they do on Christmas. People we’ve loved and lost, memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us, moments we can’t forget—they’re all coming back this weekend, if they haven’t come back already.

I remember . . . when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. In our town, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide donated by the local mobile home dealer and parked on the town square. One night my brother and me, maybe aged six and four at the time, shyly walked in with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name: “Well, it’s Jim and Dan Bartlett!” Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf’s existence.

I remember . . . that first magical radio Christmas, the one that changed everything.

I remember . . . when I sent a half-dozen roses to a girl I was trying to lure away from another guy, making sure they’d arrive on Christmas Eve. It worked. Three years later she moved in with me just before Christmas, and we went to the local discount store to buy Christmas decorations for the apartment. We bought a “first Christmas together” ornament that we still have, 35 years later.

I remember . . . the year I picked up my brother and his girlfriend at the airport on Christmas Eve. When I arrived, there was a crisis. When the luggage came off the plane, one piece was missing: the carrier with her dog. It turned out that instead of running him through the baggage carousel, they put him out at a different door nearby. He wasn’t missing for more than a few minutes, but they were some long and upsetting minutes.

I remember . . . waking up with the flu one Christmas morning. That was the year my grandfather was in the hospital, and my grandmother was staying at our house. So in my misery on that day, I was ministered to not only by The Mrs., but also by my mother and my grandmother. If you have to get sick, that’s definitely the way to go.

That Christmas was the last one with my grandfather, who died the next summer. The rest of my grandparents have followed him now. They were always such an important part of the holiday, Christmas Eve with my father’s parents and Christmas Day with my mother’s, that in certain ways the holidays have never felt right without them. But life requires us to adjust, and so we have. Year by year, we’ve made new memories. They may not seem as vivid as the memories from earlier years, but give ’em time.

To bring this discussion back to the ostensible subject of this blog: “Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson made the Billboard and Cash Box charts in late December 1972 and stuck around well into January ’73. It lasted that long partly because the lyrics don’t mention the word “Christmas” or contain any sort of holiday imagery. But it’s a Christmas song nevertheless, because it’s all about calling up the shades that crowd around. The people we’ve loved and lost. Memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us. Moments we can’t forget.

They’re all coming back this weekend.

Listen . . . they’re here now.

(Note to patrons: I’ll be on Magic 98 for a little slice of “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” on Sunday between 9AM and noon. This feature will be on hiatus until the New Year unless somebody important dies (rest well, Dick Enberg, one of the voices that will forever echo in the ears of sports fans my age). New posts will appear at One Day in Your Life tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and on New Year’s Day, so be sure to stop over there.

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