Author Archive: jb

“WOW”

(Pictured: Kiki Dee and Elton John, circa 1977.)

Here’s more about my 1976 daybook, from a series of posts that originally appeared in 2009. The first two have already been rebooted this summer as part of The 1976 Project, here and here.

In memory, July 1976 builds to a peak on July 31, which seems now like the hinge on which my whole life turns. On that day, my favorite summer slowly begins giving way to what will be the single most memorable season of my life.

I couldn’t possibly have perceived it that way back then, although in the daybook, it surely looks as if life is intensifying—each day’s entry is crowded with more and more stuff, most of it trivial now. I spent a few days at my grandparents’ house toward the end of July, and a few more days at the county fair, which ended on August 1. August 9 through 11 I spent with my cousin, which means that I am wrong to remember that my last vacation spent with him here in Madison was in 1975. Thursday of that week (August 12), our family went to Chicago; Friday we went to the State Fair in Milwaukee. After that, only one full week of summer remained—my note on Wednesday, August 25 says “school starts.” I would be a junior.

That year dawned with a shocker. My high school’s football team, which had won one and lost eight in each of my first two years in high school, won its first two games of the season. We wouldn’t win again until the last game of the season, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

October 1976 began on Friday the 1st with the football team getting killed on homecoming, 28-to-6. I noted that American Top 40 had a special countdown that weekend, but didn’t say what it was. (Turns out it was the 40 biggest hits of the Beatle years.) But the rest of the month is, yet again, maddeningly unspecific about my own life. On Monday the 11th, the family went out for dinner to celebrate my parents’ 18th wedding anniversary, and the football team kept losing, but there’s precious little else recorded. On Friday the 22nd, I wrote down only the football score, even though what happened later that night was far more memorable. And as October turned to November turned to December, the daybook almost completely fails to note what was really important to me: I was in love, and nothing greater had ever happened to me.

Thursday November 11th: “Got letter jacket and 1st copy of Stereo Review.” Friday November 19th: “Bought WEKZ privilege for $6.25.” (I was determined to get on the radio even if I had to pay for it.) With the coming of the basketball and wrestling seasons, most of my notes become sports scores again. But not all. On Tuesday December 14, along with the trivia (which seems not merely pointless but incredibly stupid after looking at more than 11 months of it) is the single word “WOW.” Chivalry requires, even at a distance of many years, that the precise reason for the “WOW” be left to your imagination.

And over the last two weeks of December, the year just sort of peters out. On New Year’s Eve I wrote, “Top 89, 6-Midnight” and “‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ is #1.” I don’t remember where I listened to the countdown, but I know I did. And on Sunday January 2, 1977, I put the completed book aside. I had no such book for the new year that I can remember; if I ever did, it’s long gone.

Coming in the next installment, which will appear next week: a favorite topic of mine, then and now: What It All Means.

Teenage Wasteland

(Pictured: Entwistle, Moon, Townshend, and Daltrey in the summer of 1971.)

In the fall of 1971, I bought the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on a 45. As a young record buyer, I’d memorize the details not just of the songs but the labels, and my copy of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” said that the song was from the motion picture Lifehouse. Lifehouse, of course, is one of rock’s most famous failed projects—as David Hepworth puts it in Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year That Rock Exploded, Lifehouse “was supposed to be a film, a multimedia epic, a unique collaboration between performer and audience, and, on some level, a ‘crowd-sourced’ piece of art in which the band would facilitate the audience in reaching a new level of consciousness.” Even accounting for Hepworth’s tendency to snark, his description of Lifehouse seems pretty accurate based on what I’ve read about it—yet very much in keeping with one spirit afoot in the moment.

Elsewhere in Hepworth’s book, he tells of the gentle, confessional, personal music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor (in early 1971, Tapestry and Blue were recorded in adjacent studios at A&M in Los Angeles, and Taylor was working on Mud Slide Slim just down the street), refitting the hippie idyll for those who were growing older, starting families and/or contemplating single adulthood, and coming to grips with the 70s as a different place than the 60s had been. But in other precincts, rock was reaching for grandiosity. Led Zeppelin’s rock-godliness certainly was; Alice Cooper’s theatrics were the same thing, only different. Similarly, Hepworth writes, Lifehouse was the product of a feeling that the art of rock could and should transcend mere singles and albums in favor of prestigious long-form works. The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, was a fan of classical music, even more committed to long-form than Pete Townshend was. Tommy had been a success in 1969 and Jesus Christ Superstar was the rage of 1970, so why would the Who want to take a step backward in 1971?

But the Who was in a volatile position at that same moment. Hepworth quotes Roger Daltrey as saying the band was never closer to breaking up than at the dawn of the 70s. Townshend felt the pressure of producing a whole ‘nother rock opera, but at the same time, Hepworth says, “he had too many ideas rather than not enough.” Lifehouse may have “seemed the only proper vehicle for [Townshend’s] seriousness,” but not if it never got off the ground.

Enter producer/engineer Glyn Johns. He’d made many great singles in the 60s, including the Who’s own “My Generation,” so Lambert invited him to work with the Who on Lifehouse. One of the first things he did was to tell Townshend that nobody would ever get the Lifehouse idea (Hepworth says neither the rest of the Who nor Lambert fully understood it themselves), and they should just make an album. They repurposed some of the songs from Lifehouse, went to work in a studio in New York, and the result was Who’s Next. Hepworth writes, “Who’s Next is way better than Lifehouse could ever have hoped to be,” and people are still listening to it and stealing from it “long after the likes of Tommy and Quadrophenia have grown tiresome.” He considers it “the best recording in the best year in the history of recording.”

Hepworth reserves a couple of paragraphs for “Baba O’Riley,” a song written for Lifehouse, as a remarkable innovation in its use of a synthesizer, as well as a click track to keep Keith Moon steadily on the beat. (“In years to come all records would be made like this.”) He notes how perfectly it stands directly between the psychedelic 1960s and what the 1970s were about to become.

Although “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” were the singles in the UK and US, “Baba O’Riley” is the best thing on the album, and despite years of play and overplay on classic-rock radio, millions of people still love it—even if they have no idea what it’s really called. On the campus radio station circa 1980, we rotated our music with a card file, one 3-by-5 card for each song in the library’s various categories. On the “Baba O’Riley” card, someone helpfully wrote, “Often requested as ‘Teenage Wasteland,'” which it universally was. And, I am guessing, it still frequently is.

110 Percent

Veteran radio consultant Fred Jacobs has a blog that’s pretty good reading for those in the industry or interested in it. Last fall, he wrote about a member of the Detroit Tigers who’d been sent home by the team before the end of the season for “a lack of effort.” Jacobs used the incident to talk about effort as it relates to broadcasters. “If radio is your chosen profession, it’s your obligation to work your butt off,” he wrote. And also: “Who’s walking in the station every day, giving it the old 110% on good days and bad ones? Who’s a cancer in the building, fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia?”

There are people in every office—not just in radio stations—who are happy to be there, who find their jobs a continuing source of joy and fulfillment, who are energized simply by walking in the door. And there are people who are not—those who radiate negativity, by accident or by design.

There are degrees of negativity, and some are more harmful than others. No diverse group of individuals who gather to achieve a common purpose will ever operate in complete harmony; organizations with any degree of bureaucracy at all will occasionally get snagged in the machinery. It’s not just radio, it’s every workplace. Things happen, decisions get made, people act or react in particular ways that make you shake your head or grin ruefully—but then you go on about the day. Head-shaking and brief commiseration with your fellow sufferers is completely normal, and even therapeutic. It’s scarcely worth describing with the term “negativity.”

A more damaging type of negativity is the kind Jacobs mentions: a cancer in the building. This person might be a straight-up asshole who takes pleasure in messing with people, or who pits them them against each other to watch the fireworks. He or she might be somebody dissatisfied with colleagues or management, and who actively tries to bring others over to the dark side by “fanning the flames of dissent and paranoia.”

There is also a type of negativity somewhere in the middle—the burnout case, somebody who’s long past their expiration date. Somebody who’s unable to “give the old 110 percent,” either because they’ve made the decision not to, or they’re simply unable to.

I have been that person, who goes to work with no energy, sleepwalks through his off-air duties, ends his airshift happy if he hasn’t butchered more than a couple of breaks, goes home exhausted, and starts dreading the next day the moment he hits the couch. A person who can’t do the job his employer expects of him, or the job he expects of himself. A person who can’t give 110 percent—not even close.

I once got fired precisely because my employer recognized the person I had become. I also quit a job once because I recognized it in myself. The latter was not an easy thing to do, but I hope I earned some good karma by recognizing the fix I was in and getting out before it got worse . . . for everybody.

In a good radio station, Fred Jacobs says, “There are too many people working too hard and giving their all.” If you can’t be one of them, you shouldn’t be there.

One Day in Your Life: July 22, 1948

(Pictured L to R: singer Harry Babbitt and bandleader Kay Kyser, who were enjoying a big hit in the summer of 1948.)

Reader Ken commented recently that he doesn’t think we’re interested in the 1940s. Not exactly true. I just haven’t found a reason to write about the 40s—until now.

July 22, 1948, was a Thursday. President Harry Truman holds a news conference in which he’s asked first about the situation in Berlin. The Soviet Union has blockaded the city, but the Allies have responded with an airlift of food and other necessities. Truman is asked about the November election and the economy, among other topics. The Associated Press reports that 3,603 polio cases have been reported so far this year in the United States, over a thousand more than the same period in 1946, which was the worst polio year on record. The Chicago Tribune prints the story on the same page as a story about the discovery of a new antibiotic, aureomycin, and next to a report about 132 people departing from Chicago to a shrine to the Virgin Mary at St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, seeking cures for various ailments. In Newfoundland, voters decide by referendum to join the Canadian confederation. It was the second vote in two months; an earlier vote failed when neither Canadian union, continued union with Britain, nor independence reached 50 percent. Although it wasn’t on the ballot, some Newfoundlanders favored becoming an American possession.

Ten big-league baseball games are played, including three doubleheaders. In one of them, the Pittsburgh Pirates take the first game from the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3, but the second is called on account of darkness, tied 1-1. In New York, the Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 6-5; Bob Feller pitches five innings and gets the loss; he’s lifted for a pinch hitter and is replaced in the sixth by Satchel Paige. Joe DiMaggio has a home run and four RBIs for the Yankees. Among the spectators is an eight-year-old Ohio boy named Jack Nicklaus, who is attending his first major-league game. Future novelist S. E. Hinton, who will write The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, among others, is born. Author Shirley Jackson, whose short story “The Lottery” has become controversial since it was published in The New Yorker last month, tells the San Francisco Chronicle that she hoped to shock readers with “a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

The current edition of The Billboard reports on recent TV coverage of the Republican National Convention, suggesting that politicians will quickly need to learn how to adapt their personal styles to the new medium. On the same page, readers learn that NBC will begin sending kinescopes of its programming to affiliates not connected by coaxial cable, to make network shows more widely available. NBC advises that not all programs will be kinescoped, and there will obviously be a time lag between the original broadcast and the kinescoped repeats. The lag may be greater in some cases due to the economizing practice of “bicycling,” in which one station receives the kinescope film, broadcasts it, and then sends it on to another station for broadcast there.

The Billboard also contains its weekly Honor Roll of Hits. The #1 song on the list is last week’s #2, “Woody Woodpecker,” inspired by the popular cartoon character and available in four different versions. The Kay Kyser version is the most popular. The previous week’s #1, “You Can’t Be True, Dear,” falls to #2. It’s available in at least 13 versions. Organist Ken Griffin’s instrumental version is the most popular at the moment, although the same recording with overdubbed vocals by Jerry Wayne was a hit in the spring. Holding at #3 is “My Happiness.” Buyers can choose from 11 different versions. A duet by Jon and Sondra Steele is the most popular, just nosing out versions by the Pied Pipers (a vocal group who have performed with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and its singer, Frank Sinatra) and Ella Fitzgerald. Four days earlier, a 13-year-old named Elvis Presley recorded himself singing “My Happiness” at the Memphis Recording Service as a gift for his mother.

Perspective From the Present: I am unable to find detailed TV listings for the summer of 1948, but my guess is that early adopters (only 0.4 percent of the population had sets in 1948) saw a lot of test patterns. During the 1947-48 TV season, only NBC and DuMont offered network primetime programming, and then for only a couple of hours a night at most. Summer might have been even quieter. Come fall, however, ABC and CBS would begin primetime programming, and the TV boom would be on.

The Economics of Stardom

(Pictured: this early Led Zeppelin shot gives you an idea of how small were the venues they played between 1969 and 1971.)

I have been reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, and I could blog about it until approximately Christmas. Better you read it yourself—even if you are as passionate about the history of popular music as I am, you will find yourself surprised by some of the stories of 1971, and interested in Hepworth’s insights.

One of his early chapters discusses the unique nature of British rock touring at the time. Only the Beatles had been able to fill stadiums, and they hadn’t toured since 1966. Typical concert venues at the turn of the 70s were clubs or concert halls that seated only a few hundred people; the biggest and most prestigious, the Royal Albert Hall in London, seated only 4,000. Bands made most of their money from touring and not record sales, so it wasn’t unusual for a band to work all week, recording or at day jobs, and then play several shows on the weekend. Led Zeppelin was the first act to break out of the small halls and into larger arenas, where the financial take would be bigger.

Here in the 21st century, the circle has come back around: record sales are sufficiently low and streaming revenue such a relative pittance that stars make most of their money on the road once again. But the economics of touring are different now; Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, hosted a remarkable variety of stars from the 60s to the 80s, acts that would often play here and then play the next night in Milwaukee, 90 miles away. Now, however, major Madison shows are extremely rare; the arena that hosted them back in the day, the Dane County Coliseum, seats maybe 11,000 for concerts, which is not big enough anymore. Big stars are more likely to skip Madison and play in Milwaukee, where the Bradley Center can seat around 19,000. And Milwaukee doesn’t get acts like it used to, either.

The new economics of stardom are particularly visible in country music. Every major star hits the road in the summer as part of a package. Sometimes two A-listers go out together, as Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert are doing on a few dates this year, and as Chesney and Jason Aldean did last year. More often it’s one big star packaged with acts of lesser stature. This summer, for example, Luke Bryan is headlining a tour with Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch. “Lesser stature” is relative, however: both LBT and Lynch have scored #1 hits within the last year.

Lynch is indicative of a relatively new phenomenon in country, one that hasn’t really translated to pop music yet as far as I can tell: country artists are releasing singles that are intended to get a reaction from the concert audience. Lynch’s recent single “Hell of a Night” is built on a riff that owes more to Lynryd Skynyrd or Def Leppard than to anything from Nashville. The record itself is forgettable, but that big riff is going to sound awesome on the stage, which is the point. Aldean’s current single, “Lights Come On,” is even more unsubtle—powered by a giant riff but otherwise generic, “Lights Come On” is a country checklist song (blue collar/Budweiser/Friday night) that’s mostly about attending a Jason Aldean concert, and the song is absolutely intended to be a show opener. Even in mainstream country marketing and promotion, this level of calculation is remarkable.

There is a defense, for this kind of thing, though. The Nashville suits behind Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean, and the artists themselves, are no more interested in making bank than Led Zeppelin and their legendary manager Peter Grant were 45 years ago. (Hepworth makes this very point when discussing Zeppelin’s work ethic.) The main difference is the amount of bank there is to make. And if some fans today believe that the hype surrounding an act, and the falling for said hype, is just as important a part of the experience as listening to the music, that’s not new, either. Hepworth notes that bands as big as Roxy Music were interested in redefining art as a plastic commodity as early as 1971.

But all of this just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

I’m Not in Love

If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. I got off the farm just as soon as I could. I got a job in town when I was 17 and I never looked back.

Like many farm kids, I joined 4H as soon as I was old enough—nine, I think. I don’t recall any discussion about it; my parents had been active in 4H when they were kids. In fact, I have found from reading old newspapers that both of them were 4H superstars, highly decorated with prestigious awards. So we kids had no choice in the matter, not that we wanted one.

For a 4H kid, the highlight of the year was the county fair, at which you would exhibit the projects you had presumably spent the whole year working on. Presumably. For some 4H kids, their projects were their passions. I liked 4H well enough, but I didn’t burn with interest in the projects I had chosen. For me, they were just things I had to do. As a result, the fair would sneak up on me, and the projects I entered were often slapdash or worse.

The worst of it was taking a calf into the show ring. The idea was that you’d care for the animal practically from birth, tame it, train it to be led calmly with a halter, groom it, and then show it at the fair. The reality was me putting off the whole process until a month before the fair, picking out a calf from the selection in Dad’s herd, and hurriedly, half-assedly training it. Then I’d drag it into the show ring for several terrifying minutes before the skittish animal and I were put out of our misery with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst we could do.

Once that was over, however, the fun of fair week began, hanging out in the barns with our friends and dodging our parents, who had other things they wanted us to do, because there’s always work on a farm in the summertime.

The real rock stars at the fair were not 4H kids; they were the family farmers who competed in the open class show. They’d bring several animals from their herds to be judged each year. These families had enough children involved so that the labor of training, showing, and caring for the animals was divided. And they were fiercely competitive. The same families would duke it out for the blue ribbons and the grand champions year after year. For all I know, some of them still do.

Because the animals represented a significant investment and could be worth thousands of dollars each, the families who owned them were not always content to leave them alone at night, watched only by the handful of cops who prowled the fairgrounds after closing time. One or more herdsmen—family members or others—were therefore deputized to sleep in the barns. And despite my general disinterest in farm stuff, that seemed like a grand adventure. And so, 41 years ago this month, I spent the night at the fair, with a friend whose family showed open-class every year.

It was not quite like I had imagined. We did not have the run of the fairgrounds after closing, free to roam a fantasyland denied to mere mortals; we were quite literally put to bed by the cops handling security, who made sure we were in our sleeping bags at midnight and that we stayed there. We were, however, permitted to keep the radio on all night, which was only fitting because we also kept the radio on all day, blasting WLS or WCFL. You could walk from barn to barn and hear them. In the last week of July in 1975 it was “Listen to What the Man Said” and “The Hustle” and “One of These Nights” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “I’m Not in Love” and “Jive Talkin'” and all the others, over and over again.

The 2016 Green County Fair opens this week. Times change, but the fair doesn’t, not much. If you go, you still hear the occasional radio in the barns, or see 4H kids with earbuds in. Because times change, but the music never ends.

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