Author Archive: jb

Get Down Tonight

(Pictured: KC and the Sunshine Band in action. Get down tonight, baby.)

Here we go with the second half of the American Top 40 show from August 23, 1975.

19. “That’s the Way of the World”/Earth Wind & Fire and 18. “Holdin’ on to Yesterday”/Ambrosia. About as classy as the Top 40 got in the 70s.

17. “Feel Like Makin’ Love”/Bad Company. After which Casey does a “where are they now” feature on Dee Dee Sharp, who had hit in the early 60s with “Mashed Potato Time.” She was married to Philadelphia mogul Kenny Gamble by 1975 and was preparing to make her first record in 10 years. What Color Is Love was released in 1977.

Extra: “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield. I will never fail to be impressed whenever anybody busts out this record, although AT40 announcer Larry Morgan botched the definition of “bullet” and missed an opportunity to mention that during one week in November 1975, “Eighteen With a Bullet” was actually #18 with a bullet on the Hot 100.

13. “Love Will Keep Us Together”/Captain and Tennille. In 1975, 35 different records would reach #1. In such a volatile era, “Love Will Keep Us Together” staying four straight weeks at the top back in June and July was a remarkable accomplishment.

12. “Midnight Blue”/Melissa Manchester. I could listen to the first nine seconds of “Midnight Blue” on a loop for about an hour, but that would delay the gratification that comes from hearing the rest of the song.

11. “Fight the Power”/Isley Brothers. With which Casey corrects an error that was caught by a listener. The previous month, Casey had said that the Miracles had the longest current span on the charts, going back to 1959. But a radio station GM in South Carolina wrote to say that the Isley Brothers had put their first hit on the chart two weeks before the Miracles’ first hit, which gave them the longest span. That’s an impressive fact to command, especially in an era when it was necessary to dig into actual issues of Billboard to do such research.

10. “Please Mr. Please”/Olivia Newton-John. In its eighth consecutive week in the Top 10. It was the 1970s. We couldn’t help ourselves.

6. “Why Can’t We Be Friends”/War. Like “Black Superman,” this is another record that never fails to amuse me.

4. “Jive Talkin'”/Bee Gees. Last week’s #1. It’s worth remembering that this was a modest comeback record for the Bee Gees, who hadn’t scored a big hit in the States since “Run to Me” nearly three years before, and a major change from their Beatle-inspired acoustic style. It wasn’t Saturday Night Fever yet, but that was coming.

Extra: “Miracles”/Jefferson Starship. Three minutes of crazy-good sex, happening right there on your radio. Seven minutes if you get A) the album version or B) lucky.

3. “Get Down Tonight”/KC and the Sunshine Band. Reporting that this record made a mighty leap from #12 to #3, Casey says that it looks like it’s headed for #1, and it would get there the next week. It’s no wonder, really—the Sunshine Band lays down a smokin’ hot groove, and KC sounds like he’s got all he can do to escape the party so he can sing.

2. “One of These Nights”/Eagles. From the #1 album in the country for a fifth week. In a piece earlier this month in Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe said that one of the proposed titles for the album was Wallet on the Snare, after a production trick Philadelphia super-producer Thom Bell is said to have used. Glenn Frey read that Bell would get the sound he wanted by having the drummer set his wallet on the snare drum. In a radio interview clip found on the Eagles Selected Works box set, Frey tells a DJ the same thing.

1. “Fallin’ in Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. Casey reports that Tommy Reynolds is no longer in the group, replaced by Alan Dennison, but that the group continues to use Reynolds’ name “with Tommy’s permission.” And why not? “Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds” is the single most euphonious group name in pop history.

Last Days

(Pictured: James Garner and Joe Santos in The Rockford Files.)

In my hometown, school is starting before Labor Day this year. That used to be the norm, but not anymore; Wisconsin obliged the tourism industry’s workforce requirements a few years ago by passing an idiotic law forbidding school to start before September 1, apparently without realizing that it takes only a couple of snow days before schools are in session until Father’s Day. In most years, it’s September 4th or 5th before schools open. But Labor Day is as late as it can be this year, so kids go can go back next Tuesday.

I was always ready to go back in the fall. Before I had a driver’s license, I saw very little of my friends during the summer because I was out on the farm, and I missed them. The opening of school also got me out of having to do farm work, which I mostly hated.

So: 40 years ago this week, I was about to begin my sophomore year in high school. I was listening to the radio all the time during the last days of summer, but I don’t recall whether I listened to American Top 40 in that season. I don’t think so; it was never on one of my primary radio stations, so I had to go looking for it, and I don’t remember doing so. The odds are good that I was hearing the August 23, 1975, show for the first time when it was a recent rerun. Some notable tunes are on the flip.

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Machines and Music

supervan_14

(Pictured: still from the 1977 movie Supervan, which spent thousands customizing said van and 98 cents on special effects.)

My Twitter feed occasionally gets bogged down in beer and half-assed philosophizing (not to mention football, which is revving up again so get ready). But I also use it to pass along worthwhile articles I find on my Internet travels, and it’s time for another collection from the last month or so.

—I recently read but didn’t write about Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, but Jim Booth did, and you should read his review. The book reveals that Wings was aptly named: for much of the 1970s, Paul was making up a life and a career on the fly, often in remarkably naive ways.

—Rebeat Magazine has become one of my regular must-reads. They recently retweeted a 2014 series reviewing a comprehensive box set devoted to the post-Motown career of the production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Start with this list of HDH tunes and navigate to the rest of the articles in the series from there. Rebeat also recently posted a series of articles about a memoir written by Louise Harrison, George’s sister, who has spent much of her life living in central Illinois. Although it’s titled My Kid Brother’s Band, it’s not George’s story nearly as much as it’s hers, which is quite interesting on its own.

—For all the success Elvis Presley achieved, Colonel Tom Parker never stopped viewing him as a carnival attraction that he could use to fleece the rubes. Thus Having Fun With Elvis on Stage, an album made up entirely of between-song banter sans music, released in 1974, and widely considered the worst album this side of Metal Machine Music. Nick Greene of Mental Floss listened to the whole thing so we don’t have to.

—On the anniversary of the King’s death, Michele Catalano wrote about Elvis and her mother.

—Thousands of gallons of ink (and billions of Internet pixels) have been spilled on the importance of Motown and Stax to the history of R&B. Much less has been devoted to Chess, the Chicago label that recorded Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and released “Rocket 88,” sometimes considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Annoy your neighbors and satisfy your soul with 10 important Chess singles.

—I spent a couple of days earlier this month at YouTube listening to Disco Purrfection remixes of hits from the 70s and early 80s. Some of them are a little awkward, but many more are interesting re-inventions that give you much more of what you came in the door for, like seven clavinet-heavy minutes of Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently,” a full 12 minutes of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” and the mashup of “Ghostbusters” and “I Want a New Drug” that the world’s been waiting 30 years to hear.

—On another day, I went down a different YouTube rabbit hole and watched a 1977 movie called Supervan, which is the Citizen Kane of movies about the tricked-out van culture of the 1970s, if Citizen Kane were made entirely out of Cheez Whiz. It’s part road movie, part teenage exploitation flick, and part science fiction—the titular van is a George Barris custom job equipped with lasers.

More one-liners:

—These vintage print ads featuring musicians range from odd (Dave Brubeck for Sears appliances) to awesome (Rod Stewart in an ad for boots that are overshadowed by a bizarre sweater/leg-warmer combo).

—At some point in the 1980s, Judas Priest cut a version of the Stylistics’ ethereal 1971 love song “You Are Everything.” It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

—The Billboard Hot 100 celebrated its 57th anniversary earlier this month. Atlas Obscura (a highly recommended site) put together an interesting history.

And I believe that takes us back to the last time we did this. If you’re on Twitter, you should follow me. If you’re not on Twitter, you should be.

A Summer in Six More Songs

(Pictured: Peter Frampton and his fabulous hair, 1976.)

Earlier this month, in “A Summer in Six Songs,” I suggested that I could probably write the same post about the same summer with six different songs. Keeping in mind that sequels rarely live up to the original, here are six more songs plucked from the WLS survey dated August 21, 1976.

“The Boys Are Back in Town”/Thin Lizzy. In the summer of 1976 I remember now, I am in the car by myself, listening to the radio by myself, on the tractor by myself. I didn’t run with a gang of friends, apart from the softball team, and I only remember a few of their names today. The all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie of “The Boys Are Back in Town” was yet to come.

“More, More, More”/Andrea True Connection. The sweaty business Andrea True was getting up to remained theoretical to me in the summer of 1976. I knew what it was, but how I’d contrive to get into some, I couldn’t quite see. It wouldn’t be long.

“You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”/Lou Rawls. I did not grow up among the kind of people who joined the Klan, but in a place that was 100 percent white, where the vast majority had never even spoken to a black person. It led to a casual racism that came from ignorance rather than malice, and I was as ignorant as everybody else. But I loved soul music, too, and I would like to think that somewhere within me, I understood that people capable of such magnificent art were worthy of everyone’s respect.

“Baby I Love Your Way”/Peter Frampton. My wife grew up in two different houses; her parents moved away from her hometown when she was in college, so when she visited them ever after, she wasn’t “going home.” To this day, my parents are in the same house I grew up in, which has been their home since 1959. Let “Baby I Love Your Way,” and its strong images of sunsets, falling shadows, fireflies, and moonlight, stand for the place that anchors each of us, ancient or recent, wherever it might be.

“Young Hearts Run Free”/Candi Staton. A middle-class upbringing, then as now, continually pushes teenagers forward in time. Decide what you want to be. Make good grades so you can get into college. Put some money away. Be in a damn big hurry to get wherever you’re going. But Candi Staton says hold on a minute. Although she’s speaking specifically to young women, telling them not to be quick to tie themselves down with a man and a family, she’s saying to everyone that there will be time enough to accept the mantle of adulthood and the self-sacrifice that inevitably comes with it. While you’re young, be young.

“If You Know What I Mean”/Neil Diamond. “Here’s to the songs we used to sing / And here’s to the times we used to know / It’s hard to hold them in our arms again but hard to let them go.”

True dat.

The Mirror

(Pictured: the King, 1968.)

Here’s the third and final part of something I wrote in 1997 after touring Graceland. As we walked through the house, I thought not just about Elvis the man but the multiple Elvises that made up his legendary career, and what they mean to us now.

We imagine a mansion as having thousands of square feet of living space, airy rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts, and scenes of grandeur. We expect to find that kind of mansion at Graceland, but what we actually find is different. It’s a lovely home, but small—almost too small for the legend we picture prowling the Jungle Room. Even the Meditation Garden, which we have seen on TV and expect to be large and lush, is small, awkwardly tucked away off a corner of the house, and near the front. Whenever Elvis relaxed there, alone with his thoughts, the traffic on the street that bears his name was only a few hundred yards away.

When we compare our expectations with the reality of Graceland, we gain a bit of insight into Elvis Presley’s character. If, as the Graceland story goes, Elvis wanted only to be rich enough to buy a nice house for his mother, he succeeded. If, as the story goes, Elvis remained at heart a country boy with a fondness for simple pleasures, the public face of Graceland seems to confirm it. While it is certainly true that the place conceals almost as much of the private Elvis as it reveals (and keeping the upper floor closed to the public makes this easier), what it reveals is surprising enough: Graceland’s hagiography may tell a story more truthful than fictional.

All four Elvises live on at Graceland. Graceland celebrates Rockin’ Elvis first and last, and just in time for the 20th anniversary of his passing, a brand-new collection of previously-unreleased demos and works-in-progress has just been released. It’s the latest in a collection of CD boxed sets released in recent years which have done more to restore Elvis’ reputation as an artist than anything since his death. (It is, of course, available in the gift shop).

Graceland is also a monument to Movie Elvis. In his early films, he was nothing short of beautiful—a realization which strikes both women and men even now. Then and later, movie viewers saw him as a giant presence in the dark and could not ignore him…

Graceland speaks of Fat Elvis in whispers, the Elvis with an insatiable appetite for prescription drugs, whose peculiarities were indulged and encouraged by his “friends,” whose livelihoods depended on pleasing him. These friends have chosen to remember him as a saint. But if that is untrue (and it surely is), the other extreme—Elvis as debauched monster—must be equally untrue. Graceland is of two minds about Fat Elvis—unable to deny the historical record, but unwilling to explore it in any detail.

Graceland does far more to perpetuate Dead Elvis than its keepers might wish to admit. While it attempts to hold the worst excesses of the Dead Elvis phenomenon in check—no velvet paintings are officially licensed by the Presley estate—700,000 visitors a year make Elvis wealthier dead than he ever was alive.

Finally, the biggest surprise about a visit to Graceland is how hard it is to leave. You may even go back a second time, just to look at those famous gates and up the hill at the mansion, to take one more picture.

And as you drive back down Elvis Presley Boulevard, you realize that Elvis is more than a rocker, an actor, a fat guy, a pet rock, a ghost on the fringes of popular culture. Elvis is an American type, a person we recognize as the embodiment of one or more of the things we are as a people—a mirror and ideal.

Here’s why. America encourages dreamers, like the young Elvis, because we believe that anyone can become famous beyond his wildest imaginings, like Rockin’ Elvis and Movie Elvis did. We see in Movie Elvis’ 1968 abandonment of Hollywood and return to his rock and roll roots something of our own continuing desire to get back to the basic values we believe in most. We see in Fat Elvis our own predisposition for overindulgence and laziness, our own tendency to stray too far from what made us great in the first place. We see in his too-young death the price that can be paid for going down a bad path. Dead Elvis shows us something of ourselves as Americans too. We cannot escape our history, but no matter how fat, silly, decadent, and lost we may become at times, America’s greatness still endures, contradictions and all.

That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of our different Elvises. Still, it fits. If he were anything less, his legend would not endure and continue to grow. Every society needs a mythic figure—a mirror and ideal. Twenty years after his death, the greatest tribute we can pay to Elvis Presley might be that if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

A Regular Guy in His Regular House

(Pictured: Graceland. It’s a nice place.)

Here’s the second part of a 1997 piece I wrote about Elvis after a visit to Graceland.

“Sure we’re going to Graceland,” you say. “Gonna have a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the Jungle Room.” You’re prepared for a pop-culture hoot primarily because of the cheesiness of Dead Elvis, and at the start of your tour, you see nothing to dissuade you from that notion.

Graceland is located on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a busy commercial street in Memphis. You park the car and buy your ticket: $10 to tour the mansion, $18.50 if you also want to see Elvis’ cars, airplanes, and an exhibit of his personal effects. You get a tape player and cassette, and hop on a tour bus for the ride to the mansion itself. The tour is narrated on tape to accommodate the dozen or so languages most visitors might understand. It makes for a rather weird effect—visitors walk silently, not speaking to one another, listening carefully on headphones.

The first rooms you see are the formal living and dining rooms. The living room is the kind you’d see at a maiden aunt’s house—plush furniture, white carpets, a big piano, a TV in the room—which is never used for living. The dining room is set as it would be for a typical dinner. On the tape, you hear Priscilla Presley waxing nostalgic about dinnertime at Graceland, when Elvis and his friends (at Graceland they’re always referred to as “friends,” where elsewhere they’re called “the entourage” or “hangers-on”) would engage in good-natured fun and eat wholesome, down-home cooking.

You move next into the kitchen. It’s large and functional, filled with 70s vintage appliances in avocado green and harvest gold, which were used until 1993 by Elvis’ elderly aunt, who lived upstairs at Graceland until her death. From there, it’s downstairs to the TV room, painted a loud blue-and-gold, with a bank of three TV sets and Elvis’ famous slogan and symbol, TCB, on the wall. TCB, and the lightning bolt logo which accompanies it, referred to “taking care of business in a flash.” As you are constantly reminded, it’s what Elvis and his friends did for one another, and for others.

Next it’s the pool room, walls covered entirely in fabric, dim lighting, the felt of the pool table displaying a tear where one of Elvis’ friends supposedly tried a trick shot that failed. The tour narration reminds you once again that Elvis was just a regular guy with regular friends who did regular things in his regular house.

From this point, you go back upstairs to the famous Jungle Room. You have always imagined this room was in a secluded part of the house behind an unmarked door, but it’s right on the other side of the kitchen, no more than ten steps from the foyer. It features a small indoor waterfall and rustic furniture that looks as if it were hewn directly from fallen trees. The room is carpeted, floor and ceiling, in an unforgettable multi-tone green shag. You want to linger here; this is where the Elvis of legend is easiest to picture. But you are hustled out the back door. (The upper floor of the house, including the bathroom in which Elvis died, is not part of the tour.)

From the Jungle Room on, there’s a sense of anti-climax. You see the office where Vernon Presley managed his son’s personal affairs, the pasture where Elvis kept his horses, and the “Hall of Gold,” a converted outbuilding filled with gold records, awards, and other memorabilia. You spend more time in this building than any other on the tour, until the parade of honors becomes mind-numbing. From there, you go to an indoor racquetball court which is being remodeled into another gold-record display and where, you are told, Elvis spent the last night of his life playing racquetball and later, singing gospel songs with his friends. And finally you go outside once again, to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried side-by-side. “Elvis loved the garden,” Priscilla says in your ear. “It was his place to relax and think.” Then it’s back on the bus. You turn in your tape machine and are disgorged in front of the souvenir shop.

A few minutes later, you sit on a bench writing the postcards you bought, with the famous photo of Elvis meeting Dick Nixon. You start thinking about the different Elvises and how they intertwine, and the conclusions you reach surprise you.

Said conclusions in the next installment.

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