Author Archive: jb

Lay It Down

(Pictured: the Los Angeles band Ratt. This is why they called it “hair metal.”)

If you are not as old as I (and some days, I feel like nobody is as old as I), allow me to take you back only as far as the 80s for the latest installment of One Week in the 40, a series about records to last a single week in the Billboard Top 40. See what’s on the flip.

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We’ll Find Out in the Long Run

(Pictured: the Eagles on stage, 1979.)

The Eagles disintegrated in ugly fashion in 1980, brawling after a concert, and then releasing Eagles Live, a two-disc set memorable for “Seven Bridges Road,” and for being the least spontaneous live album in history, reported to have been doctored extensively in the studio after the fact.

Two years later, with pop music on the brink of massive change thanks to MTV and Michael Jackson, the Eagles released Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2. Here’s a ranking of the album’s 10 tracks.

10. “After the Thrill Is Gone.” The only pre-Hotel California track on the album. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a substantial Hot 100 hit in 1978, would have been a far better choice, but it wouldn’t see an official re-release until 2000.

9. “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Timothy B. Schmit’s moment in the sun does not sound very Eagle-ish, except for the guitar solos.

8. “Seven Bridges Road.” This song had been in the Eagles’ repertoire from the beginning, so there must be bootlegs of it performed with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner in the band. I haven’t found one yet, however, and I would like to.

7. “The Long Run.” When the Eagles played this live, they referred to it as a tribute to the sound of Memphis. Not much of that sound gets onto the studio version, although the version on Eagles Live brings it.

6. “Life in the Fast Lane.” If you’re looking for a document of the coked-up 70s, you can scarcely do better. I liked it better in the hard-rockin’ summer of 1977 than I do now.

5. “Victim of Love.” Had the Eagles chosen to go more than three singles deep on Hotel California, “Victim of Love” would have made an excellent fourth. This is the sort of thing they never did before Joe Walsh came along.

4. “Heartache Tonight.” You’d probably have to go back to the Beatles to find a release that was as eagerly anticipated as this one in the fall of 1979.

3. “Hotel California.” This has become a polarizing record over four decades; to some people it signifies everything that’s wrong with classic rock as a radio format and dad rock as a genre. But as a creative accomplishment, it’s outdone by very little in the post-Beatles era. I know every note and nuance by heart, but I still dig it every time I hear it.

2. “The Sad Café.” This is a song I’ve written about before, as perfect a capper to the Eagles’ recorded career as side 2 of Abbey Road was for the Beatles.  Anyone who has ever loved something, lost it, and wished they could have it back for just a little while, can relate to “The Sad Café”—so that’s everybody.

(If you are keeping score, that’s three straight comparisons of the Eagles to the Beatles. I regret nothing.)

1. “New Kid in Town.” Critic Stephen Erlewine wrote about Glenn Frey’s solo work and made a point about “New Kid in Town” that never really occurred to me before: as a concept album, Hotel California is more effective without it. “New Kid in Town” is a wistful song about winners and losers, while the rest of the album is all cocaine fog. Frey never sang better than he does on the bridge and the last verse, especially:

There’s talk on the street, it’s there to remind you
It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you til somebody new comes along

Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2 reached only #52 on the Billboard 200. It and its gazillion-selling predecessor have been replaced, first by the sketchy Selected Works: 1972-1999, then by The Very Best of the Eagles, which was released in 2001 and updated in 2003. (Both Greatest Hits albums remain in print, however.)

(I brand Selected Works sketchy because each of its four discs runs about 60 minutes, so there’s room for more. It covers the band’s career from Eagles to Hell Freezes Over and includes a handful of previously unreleased tracks, two of which are cobbled-together bits of outtakes and not worth much. The fourth disc is from a show in Los Angeles on December 31, 1999, notable for a version of “Funky New Year” and “Take It to the Limit” sung by Frey.)

For most artists, an album that sells 11 million copies would not be a disappointment. Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume 2, did that many, yet it probably was.

I Get This Feeling I May Know You

(Pictured: the Eagles, at the height of the hairy 70s.)

Everybody with an interest in music can spin a theory for why Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by the Eagles, released 40 years ago this winter, became what the RIAA considers the #1 album of all time. Its popularity was remarkable: within a week of its release, it became the first album to be certified platinum, having sold at least a million copies in the United States. (It was not the first million-selling album, of course—merely the first to get the new platinum certification.) The album hit #1 on March 13, 1976, and stayed for four weeks; it would spend an additional week at the top starting on April 17th. Although it never topped the charts again, it would never stop selling, and it’s currently sitting at #11 on the Billboard 200 following the death of Glenn Frey.

I am not here today to spin a theory, however. This post is a ranking of the 10 songs on the album, with brief annotations.

10. “Desperado.” On an album where every song could be considered definitive of the band’s sound, something has to rank at the bottom. “Desperado” is a pretty song and a fine performance, but I’m ranking it here for radio geek reasons. A program director of mine said it’s one of the hardest records to schedule because it’s so slow and so sparse. “Desperado”: what radio jingles and sweepers are for.

9. “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” On the radio as 1972 turned to 1973, when it reached #22 on the Hot 100, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” helps me understand why certain critics and listeners hate the Eagles so much. It feels as if it were molded out of plastic, every note and every line calculated.

8. “Tequila Sunrise.” As unlikely as it seems, this was pretty much a stiff on its single release, getting only to #62 as the followup to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” It’s every bit as slick as its predecessor, but it ranks a notch above because it’s one of Glenn Frey’s best vocals.

7. “Witchy Woman.” The anti-“Desperado.” On the radio, it sounds great next to almost anything, with a killer introduction DJs love.

6. “Take It Easy.” The first song on side one of the first Eagles album, and from the first second, a fitting announcement of what was to come over the next eight years. (And the next 44.) The platonic ideal of country rock.

5. “One of These Nights.” There has never been another record, by the Eagles or anybody else, that sounds quite like this, from whatever Randy Meisner is doing to his bass on the intro to Don Felder’s highly distorted guitar to Don Henley’s falsetto, so high it it must have hurt to sing that way.

4. “Already Gone.” The Eagles were a straight-up country-rock band for only their first two albums; On the Border was the transitional album, and “Already Gone” the transitional track. You can still hear the country, but they’re clearly a rock band now.

3. “Lyin’ Eyes.” Had I been programming this album, I might have left “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It to the Limit” off, given that they were both still on the radio as 1975 turned to 1976. The main candidates for a replacement would have been “Outlaw Man,” a #59 single from Desperado, or “James Dean,” from On the Border, which peaked at #77.

2. “Take It to the Limit.” “Lyin’ Eyes” had gone recurrent by early 1976, but “Take It to the Limit” was in hot rotations when Their Greatest Hits was released. It’s one of those songs that didn’t mean all that much to me in the winter of 1976. But about the time I hit my mid-30s, it began rising up my chart. Its tone of weary resignation comes from the realization that you have to keep striving even though you’re tired and would like to give up—which is something you can’t understand when you’re 16.

1. “Best of My Love.” The most deeply romantic song they ever recorded, full of beautiful sounds, that wall of acoustic guitars and the shimmering electric. I am slain absolutely dead, every damn time, by the vocal harmonies on “oh, sweet darlin’.”

The Eagles went back to the greatest-hits well in 1982, but lightning did not strike again like it did the first time. Read about that in a future installment.

Members of the Brotherhood

(Pictured: Paul Kantner, circa 1991.)

Allow me to be the ten millionth writer to lead a piece by saying that 2016 has already been terribly hard on rock stars: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and now Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who died yesterday at age 74.

I never saw Bowie except on TV. I saw the Eagles live in 1980. But I had a closer encounter with Kantner.

At some point in the early 90s, Kantner, Jack Casady, and Papa John Creach, with some other musicians, went on the road as Jefferson Starship: the Next Generation. And one year they played a show at Riverboat Days in Clinton, Iowa. My job was to introduce the band onstage before the show, as local DJs have done from the dawn of time.

This task is often less glamorous than it appears. I introduced REO Speedwagon once, and although all the members were walking around backstage, I didn’t meet any of them. When I introduced Steppenwolf, I never set eyes on John Kay, who apparently stayed on the bus until 30 seconds before the show was to start.

But the Jefferson Starship show was different. I was introduced to Kantner, Casady, and Prairie Prince, former drummer from the Tubes, who was in the new band—and we spent a half-hour just hanging out backstage, listening to the opening act. It was so pleasant—and they were so normal—that I had to keep reminding myself that Kantner and Casady were practically present at the creation, San Francisco, Summer of Love, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, the whole bit, and here they were telling me about their lives on the road for these many years. Although I have seen stories this morning describing Kantner as “prickly,” he certainly wasn’t on that night.

The best part came when the opening act was finished. There’s often a gap between the local DJ introduction and the appearance of the band. For instance, Steppenwolf’s road manager had told me to say, “In a moment, John Kay and Steppenwolf”—but the moment lasted nearly 10 minutes. On this night, somebody from Riverboat Days came backstage and said, “OK, Jim, you’re on,” and I bid good night to Kantner, Casady, and Prince, and made ready to go do my schtick.

But as I was leaving, Kantner grabbed me by the sleeve and said, “Wait . . . go up with us.”

And so we all took the stage together, members of the rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood.

WSUP Update: My old college radio station has yet to decide whether to become a Wisconsin Public Radio affiliate. Wednesday night’s meeting did not reach a conclusion, although one staff member indicates that WPR affiliation is not imminent and may not happen at all.

I have learned a couple of things this week: WSUP approached WPR about affiliation, not the other way around, so it’s not a power grab of the type attempted in the 70s at WSUP and accomplished elsewhere in more recent times. The WPR regional manager who’s been involved in the discussions, Dean Kallenbach, was the WSUP student general manager when I got to Platteville (and he let me sleep on his couch in the summer of 1979 when I was a little baby DJ working weekends in Dubuque). He wrote an extensive post about the situation at the Facebook group discussing the change.

And also: WSUP is currently running on a shoestring. Where we had over 100 staff members, it currently has about 20. Most of us were radio-television majors, but that major doesn’t exist anymore. WSUP staffers are either media-studies majors or students with different majors entirely who do radio as a sideline. So what’s going on down there has little to do with student apathy—a conclusion several of us jumped to initially, and something we should be embarrassed about. It is, as I guessed in my post on Wednesday, mostly a sign of the times.

What WSUP’s management team is doing is the exact opposite of a sellout: they’re looking for a way to keep the place viable. Some college radio stations have had to surrender their licenses entirely, and WSUP, the oldest student-run station in the University of Wisconsin System, doesn’t want to be next.

WSUP’s Decision

Tonight, the management team at my college radio station, WSUP in Platteville, Wisconsin, will vote whether to start airing Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR programming from 5AM til 5PM each day, moving student-produced programming to online only before returning it to the air in evening and overnight hours.

I attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville from 1978 to 1982. I served three semesters as program director of WSUP in 1980 and 1981, and I won the Paul Gauger Service Award for my contributions. The hours I spent at WSUP are the most valuable of my life. (I met my wife there.) So this news is important to me.

I learned about the impending decision only last night when a friend added me to a Facebook group that’s discussing the change. I have read a few of the posts, but I still don’t know all the details. As best I can tell, WSUP has been struggling to staff the daytime hours and to produce public-affairs programming—but a broader issue seems to be that the station has gotten lost in the many restructurings of the university in recent years. Its advisor is no longer a broadcasting professor, apparently—it’s somebody from the English department.

Struggling to staff daytime hours isn’t a new phenomenon. We had the same problem during my term as program director. (I cannot tell you how many times I skipped a class to be on the air.) We, too, sometimes struggled with public affairs programming. Everybody wants to do a music show; not as many people want to interview the director of the food bank. Compounding the problem today is that there are simply fewer students in the broadcasting program then there used to be.

Something else that isn’t new, and is apparently a factor in the current situation, is that a vocal minority within the university community would prefer WSUP to be a Wisconsin Public Radio/NPR affiliate. Some want it for practical reasons: the current WPR signal isn’t very good in southwestern Wisconsin. Others are put off by student-run programming (specifically, that old devil rock ‘n’ roll), and they would be more comfortable with classical music and news. Such a minority existed at the turn of the 80s, but what also existed was a strong belief within what was then the College of Business, Industry, and Communication that the station should be exclusively student-run. (I suspect that part of the problem now is the lack of a strong advocate for WSUP within the university community.) Although there were rumblings—and there had been a serious effort earlier in the 70s to force classical music onto all campus stations in the University of Wisconsin System at the expense of student-run programming—WPR and/or NPR was never a legitimate threat to us.

Several alumni, from the early oughts and still further back in time, have posted their prescriptions for “saving” WSUP on the Facebook group. All of them boil down to “do it the way we did back in the day”—work harder, work smarter, recruit good people, train them, critique them, encourage them to be creative, maintain a strong focus on the campus community and southwestern Wisconsin, be local, be local, be local.

What I know comes from a cursory reading of a single Facebook group, but it sounds as though that ship sailed a long time ago. WSUP finds itself in this position as a result of factors that were falling into place when the current management team was still in grade school—hell, before they were born—and there’s no way to turn back the clock.

There’s an argument that the online vs. broadcast dichotomy matters less to the current generation of students than it does to elderly alumni, and that to them, WSUP online will still be WSUP. Students who burn for a career in the industry can still learn it even if their work isn’t disturbing the ether on a carrier wave. But turning daytime programming over to Wisconsin Public Radio and NPR homogenizes what has been a local voice for the university community. As such, it’s a blow to diversity on the dial. In addition, it’s a profound change to the station’s mission after nearly 52 years on the air.

I do not envy the members of the management team the meeting they’re having tonight. My suspicion is that it will be long, contentious, and emotional. Friendships will be tested, and some will be broken. It’s what happens when something you love is in trouble, and you disagree about how it should be saved.

Bird of Many Nations

(Pictured: Hans Bouwens, better known as George Baker.)

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head.

Take as an example the international smash that topped charts in a dozen-or-so countries (including the Easy Listening chart in America) beginning in 1975. Since then, it’s been covered by polka bands and Hispanic artists. Although its title is a Spanish phrase meaning “white bird,” the song is otherwise in English. It was written by a Dutchman about, he says, a South American farmer.

It’s the damn United Nations is what it is.

There is no justifying “Paloma Blanca” by the George Baker Selection, not really, except to say that it was the 1970s and we couldn’t help ourselves. That thumping bass line, the piccolo trills, and Baker’s heavily accented English, as well as the almost phonetic English of female singer Nelleke Brzoskowsky, who takes the last verse—there are lots of reasons why it never should have amounted to anything more than a novelty or curiosity in the United States. And yet there’s something irresistible about it nevertheless.

Lots of Dutch acts appeared on the American charts in the late 60s and 1970s, including the Shocking Blue (“Venus”), Mouth and MacNeal (“How Do You Do”), Golden Earring (“Radar Love”) and others I’m certainly forgetting. Baker himself had charted in 1969 with “Little Green Bag.”

“Paloma Blanca” was not just an easy-listening hit—it also made the Hot 100. It bubbled under for a couple of weeks in November 1975 before breaking in during the week of November 29. It cracked the Top 40 during the week of January 10, 1976, in the same quarter-hour of American Top 40 with “Slow Ride,” “Golden Years,” and “Squeeze Box.” (That week’s chart is one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s.) It reached its peak of #26 for the week of January 31 (the same week it reached #1 at WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama) and fell out of the 40 on February 14, although it spent the next three weeks trying to get back in, going from 44 to 42 to 41—just after it had gone to #1 on Easy Listening. “Paloma Blanca” also made an unlikely run up Billboard‘s country singles chart going 95, 84, 74, 66, 55, 45, 39, 39, 36, 33, 40, 44, 69, 82, and out, reaching its peak of #33 on March 20, 1976, shortly after it exited the Hot 100.

The country chart run of “Paloma Blanca” roughly corresponds with the period in which I was doing the behind-the-wheel part of driver education. We didn’t have a simulator at my school in those days; we did 12 hours with an instructor in a real car over the course of several weeks, often on Saturday mornings. One of the instructors kept Chicago country station WMAQ on in his car—even when his students were driving—so I have associated “Paloma Blanca” with driver’s ed ever since.

You live with a radio in your ear every hour you can, and some weird stuff is gonna get stuck in your head. Like a country station playing a polka written by a Dutchman about a South American farmer.

(Rebooted from a post that first appeared in January 2014.)

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