Razor-Blade Mania

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(Pictured: the Isley Brothers, prepared to fight the power in 1975.)

American Top 40 wasn’t particularly shy about editing songs. The producers would snip a verse occasionally for timing purposes, figuring that a particular song would air again in a few hours anyway, and most people would barely notice. Some edits were made for content purposes, however. The show from September 20, 1975, contained a little bit of both.

When I heard “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers on the radio back in the day, the word “bullshit” in the refrain was bleeped: “I get knocked on the ground / By all this bull [bleep] goin’ down.” One version of the single posted at YouTube simply blanks the word.  The 9/20/75 AT40 plays a version that splices in an “ooh” from elsewhere in the song. It’s arguable that by its awkwardness,  the “ooh” edit calls as much attention to the word as leaving it alone might have done, and the blank is even worse. (I have heard the “ooh” version outside of AT40, so I wonder whether the label released it that way, or if radio stations did their own homemade edits.)

Debuting that week was Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” an eventual #1. I have previously mentioned AT40‘s edit of the song, in which the word “bitch” from the line “the bitch is in the smile” is replaced with “promises” from elsewhere in the song. I don’t recall hearing this version anywhere else—certainly not in 1975, when all the radio stations I listened to let the bitch ride. If it was controversial then, I didn’t know it. Without listening to an original 1975 pressing of the show, I can’t say for sure whether that edit dates back that far, or if it’s something the show’s modern-day producers have chosen to do, in a world more easily outraged than it used to be.

I suspect that the modern-day producers make occasional edits for time, but it’s likely that most of the ones we hear date back to the original shows. Sometimes they’re very well done, and sometimes they’re a little bit clunky. They rarely alter the meaning of the song, although that happened on the 9/20/75 show. “Rocky” by Austin Roberts is a jaunty little story-song in which Rocky meets, falls in love with, and impregnates a girl who contracts a fatal disease in the last verse. The song has a recurring motif, in which the girl says “Rocky, I never fell in love before / Don’t know if I can do it,” then “Rocky, I never had a baby before,” and finally “Rocky, I never had to die before.” You might be able to guess where this is going. We get the pregnant verse: “With so much love for just two / Soon we found there’d be one more” and then an edit to “Rocky, I never had to die before.”

All I’m saying is that perhaps I’d have done it differently.

Each week’s AT40 repeat contains one optional “extra” per hour, which stations can air to fill unsold commercial time. Extras on the early 70s shows are sometimes oldies removed from the original broadcasts, but most are future hits, on the Hot 100 during the week of the show but not yet within the 40. These are modern-day productions voiced by show announcer Larry Morgan. The razor-blade mania of the 9/20/75 show even extended to one of these: Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be” got snipped to about 90 seconds.

The September 20, 1975, show was a lot of fun in its full, weird glory. It’s topped by David Bowie’s “Fame,” which knocked Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” to #2 after two weeks at the top. These two men would be considered titans 42 years hence in a way they were not in 1975. Janis Ian’s morose “At Seventeen,” a record I find myself liking less as time goes by, is at #3. David Geddes’ “Run Joey Run” is at #7, a success so absurd you can scarcely believe it was real unless you were there to hear it. “Ballroom Blitz” by the Sweet and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company are a finely matched pair at #11 and #10, but then Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” comes on at #9. The hottest record of the week? “Mr. Jaws,” a Dickie Goodman break-in record, another vivid reminder that this was the 70s, and we couldn’t help ourselves.

(Programming note: This blog’s companion, One Day in Your Life, will be a busy place during October, as I have a lot of October days to draw from. If you enjoy that kind of thing, head over and subscribe.)

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12 responses

  1. You are right–this was a really enjoyable show, just about from top to bottom. I’d never heard the Tony Orlando and Dawn version of “You’re All I Need To Get By” before, and my initial reaction is that it was much better than a lot of their other late-career stuff. The edit on “Rocky” was indeed completely egregious–I’ve heard a different edit on at least one other 75 show from Premiere that made more sense that what happened this time.

  2. I don’t have a 45 of “Fight The Power”, but the folks on the Pat Downey board determined there were three separate US promo 45s issued. The first was a short (3:17) bleeped “short version,” backed with an uncensored 5:05 “long version” on the flip.

    One “DJ Reservice” promo had a bleeped 4:55 “long version” on both sides, while the second DJ Reservice had a 3:18 version on both sides, with the word “bullshit” removed, beat and all, with a razor blade. That last one indicated “short version” and “long version” sides, but actually contained the same 3:18 short version on both.

    Basically, T Neck cut different promo 45s to address whatever specific airplay objection radio raised. However, none of those DJ seven-inchers simply silenced the offending word. The audio playing on that youtube clip doesn’t match what’s on the actual promo 45 of the label it’s displaying. I know, I know… big surprise.

    Meanwhile, the stock 45 went out uncensored. Either the jukebox operators didn’t get many complaints, or CBS ran out of blank lacquers after cutting all those promos.

  3. I bought the original “Fight the Power, Pt. 1″ 45 when it came out in 1975. It was the edited version…”with all this ugh, OOH! goin’ down…”. I wasn’t even aware it was an edit at the time.

    Weird that AT40 would edit “bitch” out of “Bad Blood”. What did they do with Elton’s hit “The Bitch is Back” from the year before?

    1. if I recall our local AM station, WIRL could play “The Bitch is Back” but they couldn’t announce the title on the air. “That was the latest from Elton John.” Their local survey you could pick up at the record store had the b-side “Cold Highway” listed in its place. If memory serves……

  4. I stole my edit for “Fight the Power” from Don Elliott, who was Production Director at KKDJ, Los Angeles at the time—record it onto a reel to reel at 15 ips (30 if you’ve got it), make vertical cuts instead of diagonal, cut out the offending word, flip the tape the other way, splice it back in…and the Isleys sing “tihsllub”…there’s no loud beep, no weird silence and the song doesn’t miss a beat.

    Used it every single time I needed to edit for language from then on.

  5. The edit in the Isley’s “Fight The Power” that you heard, J.B., was executed by Tom Rounds, the president of AT40’s parent company, Watermark. By the time TR co-founded the firm in 1970, he’d already had a great run as a deejay (KPOI – Hawaii, KFRC – San Francisco, et al) and concert promoter (Miami Pop Festival and what is widely-acknowledged as the first rock music festival: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-untold-and-deeply-stoned-story-of-the-first-u-s-rock-festival-20140617).

    Although running the business aspects of Watermark was a full-time concern, TR still loved getting his hands dirty in the studio. He directed Casey Kasem’s Thursday morning tracking session for AT40 almost every week, and he’d occasionally do production work on the show and some of the company’s other offerings, including Robert W. Morgan’s “Special of the Week” and “Soundtrack of the ’60s.” But like most of us that ever put razor blade to tape, he loved to do edits when required by time constraints or content.

    His edit of “Fight The Power” pre-dated my arrival at Watermark by several months, but I was a regular AT40 listener, and when that splice came up in the song, my reaction was “Huh?” I seem to recall it being a double “Ooh” or “Wooh, wooh,” but it has been 42 years since I heard it. Evidently, others took note and wrote in, ’cause the AT40 staff and TR himself was still talking about it long after I landed in their midst. Whenever a song lyric suggested a possible censor-oriented edit, we’d hold a pow-wow and, if the consensus was affirmative, TR would excise the offending word or passage. But he’d always make a self-deprecating reference to the Isleys’ “Fight The Power” and express the hope that his edit wouldn’t launch another wave of listener mail.

    TR’s favorite task was to edit together a fast montage of the hooks of every Number One single of the preceding 12 months for the year-end show. In ’77 or ’78, one of the chart-toppers slipped from Number One for a week or two and then re-assumed the peak position. (I don’t remember the specific song; check your Billboard chart books!) For the year-end montage, TR initially played the record’s snippet backwards to suggest its return. But it sounded weird, so he polled the staff for our individual opinions. A universal thumbs-down confirmed his instinct and, with a hint of resignation, he turned those couple of inches tape back around.

    Tom Rounds was my first mentor and, ultimately, a very dear friend. We lost him two and-a-half years ago and he is sorely missed by many. Your post elicited some cherished memories, JB, so –as always– thanks for your dispatch.

  6. AT40 had no trouble playing Rich Girl 2 years later or Ain’t Love A Bitch two years after that. But 12 years after Bad Blood, Casey & AT40 refused to front-or-back announce I Want Your Sex.
    Also I heard AT40 actually played an unedited version of Fight The Power when it first hit the Top 40. Can anyone confirm that? I’ve heard the July 12th, 1975 broadcast and they just edit out ‘shit’ so Ron sings “all this Bull [silence] going down.”

    1. Yes, Hall & Oates and Rod Stewart avoided the razor blade. And I wouldn’t doubt that “Fight The Power” initially eluded detection and, later, also underwent more than one edit.

  7. Speaking of edits, the album version of “At Seventeen” has a fairly long French horn (!) solo.

    1. …because when you don’t get picked for basketball, you go home and practice your French horn lessons…

  8. There was a local A/C in 1977, WRIE, that played a custom edit of Rich Girl from 3WE in Cleveland. When I’d hang at the station, I remember a tape box with the 3WE logo in the Music Director’s office. They just repeated the “You’re A Rich Girl” line over the “It’s A Bitch Girl” part as I recall.

  9. Glad I’m not the only one who cringed at the “Rocky” edit. It always galls me when story songs get the slash-and-burn treatment …

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