(Pictured: Rick Wakeman takes a bow after a performance of King Arthur on Ice, a real thing that happened in 1975.)
Forty years ago this spring, former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman continued his solo career with the release of the splendiferously titled The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was at a party when I heard it for the first time, and I was knocked sideways, gone, hooked. I raced out and bought a copy, which was rarely off the turntable for the next several years. My original copy perished in the early 80s after I accidentally left it in the sun over a long weekend, but I replaced it, and although I went for a long stretch in the 90s and 00s without listening to it much, I find myself frequently returning to it now, 40 years later.
The album is a rough biography of Arthur, starting with the stories of the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake. He encounters Merlin the Magician, is challenged for Guinevere’s love by Lancelot (who also does battle with the Black Knight), and he sends Sir Galahad on a quest. The story ends with “The Last Battle,” in which Arthur is slain by Mordred and shipped off to the Isle of Avalon, where he sleeps until, it is said, he will return, “to save Britain in the hour of its deadliest danger.” Like any good concept album, it has several main themes that recur throughout. The Arthur theme is a magnificent thing, so quintessentially English-glorious that the BBC uses it as the theme for its election night coverage. Merlin the Magician is invoked by themes both ominous and crazed. Guinevere is represented by precisely the sort of sweetly lyrical theme you’d expect for a woman as beloved as she.
Fooling around at YouTube recently, I found a video version of the King Arthur album. (The preceding paragraph contains links to segments of it.) I have not been able to track down much detail about it. It seems to have been made sometime in the late 90s or early 00s, and it mixes stills from the original album package and 1975 concert footage with clips from movies, including the 1981 Arthur movie Excalibur and an Italian film called The Church. Most of the concert footage comes from Wakeman’s 1975 King Arthur on Ice tour—yes, it was staged as an ice show, but you can’t tell from the clips used in the video. The concert footage is beautifully lit (beautifully treated in post-production, actually), and Wakeman, with his trademark long hair and caped, sparkly costume behind banks and banks of keyboards, is every inch the prog-rock god.
The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table rose to #21 on the Billboard album chart in a 15-week run that began in April 1975—one of seven Wakeman albums to chart between 1973 and 1979; only the 1974 release Journey to the Center of the Earth, which went all the way to #3, charted higher. In the intervening 40 years, Wakeman has remarkably prolific. His discography at Allmusic.com shows literally dozens of releases over the years. He’s also an amusing follow on Twitter.
It’s not surprising to me that I’d fall so hard for this album when I was 15, for at that time, I was obsessed with all things English. I am not sure where my Anglophilia began, but I could have told you the whole Arthur story (and many, many other tales from English history) long before I ever heard the album. I watched every British TV show on public television from Monty Python’s Flying Circus on down. I even considered my English accent as good as a native’s, which it certainly was not. As far as I was concerned, England was the center of the world.
But that was then. Now, I listen to the King Arthur album because it’s really, really good.
(Pictured: It was a day of showdowns—LBJ vs. George Wallace, UCLA vs. Michigan, and Matt Dillon vs. a bad guy. Perhaps not a day in your life, but definitely in mine.)
March 20, 1965, is a Saturday. Ahmadou Ahidjo is reelected president of Cameroon. In the United States, President Johnson announces that he will call up units of the Alabama National Guard to supervise a third civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery that is set to begin tomorrow. The first march two weeks ago turned violent when state troopers attacked marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. After making the announcement at the Texas White House, Johnson also discusses the situation in Vietnam and announces several federal appointments before taking questions from reporters. NASA continues preparations for tomorrow’s launch of Ranger 9, which will be the last of several probes sent to photograph the moon before intentionally being crashed into it. In today’s Peanuts strip, Lucy continues her weeklong battle against Linus’ security blanket. Inventor Leandro Malicay of Los Angeles files a patent application for a coconut shredding device. Fans of the the Chicago Cubs are mourning the death of play-by-play announcer Jack Quinlan, who died in a traffic accident last night in Arizona. He was 38, and had done Cubs games on radio since 1952. Actress Dorothy Malone of Peyton Place is on the cover of TV Guide.
Bonanza tops the primetime lineup on NBC tonight; CBS has episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke. In southern Wisconsin, regular programming on the local ABC affiliate is pre-empted by coverage of the state boys’ basketball tournament. Monroe completes an undefeated season by winning the championship 74-71 over Eau Claire Memorial. In Portland, Oregon, UCLA wins the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball championship over Michigan 91-80. It’s the second straight NCAA championship for UCLA. In the consolation game between losers of the national semifinals, Princeton beat Wichita State, 118-82. Princeton’s Bill Bradley is named the tournament’s most outstanding player. St. John’s defeats Villanova 55-51 to win the NIT.
Bob Dylan plays Buffalo, New York. The Motortown Revue, starring the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, and Stevie Wonder, begins its three-week tour of Europe at Astoria Hall in Finsbury Park, England. Judy Garland wraps up a week of appearances at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami. At WMCA in New York, B. Mitchel Reid does his last show before returning to KWFB in Los Angeles, from which he’d come two years before. “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes is #1 on the WMCA survey dated March 18; two other Motown songs are also in the Top 10: “Shotgun” by Junior Walker & the All-Stars at #7 and “My Girl” by the Temptations at #9. Three British Invasion stars are in the Top 10 also: the Beatles with “Eight Days a Week” at #3, Freddie and the Dreamers with “I’m Telling You Now” at #4, and Herman’s Hermits with “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” at #5. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” are also in the WMCA Top 10.
Perspective From the Present: Although Monroe has won state boys’ and girls’ basketball championships in more recent times, the 1965 team retains a great hold on the imagination of the locals. It was a one-class tournament back then, which meant that Monroe, a town of about 8,000 then, was competing against much bigger schools. (Monroe’s win came in the middle of a stretch in which Milwaukee Lincoln, a school that no longer exists, won four championships in seven years; one of the other schools qualifying for the 1965 tournament was the suburban Milwaukee school Wauwatosa East, my wife’s alma mater.) Thousands of fans greeted the champs when they returned to town on Sunday riding aboard a fire truck. The caravan of cars that greeted them as they came down Highway 69 is fondly remembered around town. Although I have no memory of it, my family was in one of them. Years later, the team picture of the 1965 champions would look down on us in the high school cafeteria every day.
(Pictured: the late 70s edition of Journey harmonizes during an appearance on The Midnight Special.)
Here’s part of a 2007 post, slightly edited, that I wrote about Journey in the wake of the last episode of The Sopranos, which famously used “Don’t Stop Believin'” in its climactic scene.
One of Tony Soprano’s little tics—chalk it up to David Chase’s gift for character development—is his taste for thoroughly mainstream classic rock. Play the show’s theme song, Alabama 3′s “Woke Up This Morning,” for Tony and he’d be likely to say, “Wut da hell is dis shit?” “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a brilliant dramatic choice by Chase for a lot of reasons, chief among them its complete averageness. It’s one of those records that’s just there (and for over 30 years now) without any particular reason to make it memorable or significant. Now, of course, fans of The Sopranos will be attaching significance to it, and speculating about what it meant to Tony at the second the screen went to black, until the end of time.
The fact that Journey is one of the more critically reviled bands of the classic-rock era makes its pivotal role in one of TV’s most talked-about episodes seem almost subversive. Journey’s Greatest Hits (originally released in 1988) was at Number 56 on Amazon.com this afternoon, right between Norah Jones and Brandi Carlile. Indeed, the disc does a pretty good job of summarizing the Journey that critics hated. (Some disc jockeys, too: If I had a vinyl copy, it would have trackwide scratches across “Open Arms” and “Faithfully.”) It largely ignores the five albums Journey made before 1980′s Departure in favor of several soundalike hits from the 1980s.
It could have redeemed itself a bit had it included “Just the Same Way” (from 1979′s Evolution) and “Line of Fire” (from Departure), two of the best tracks the group ever cut. Both can be found both on the double disc compilation from 2001, The Essential Journey. If you want to add some Journey to your collection, you’d be better off with that. Not that The Essential Journey is perfect—it includes the early track “Anytime” without its companion, “Feelin’ That Way,” even though most rock stations play them as a single song. And it’s got “Open Arms” and “Faithfully,” too. Neither compilation includes “Walks Like a Lady” or “Where Were You,” both from Departure, and both of which stomp probably 20 of the 32 cuts on The Essential Journey.
If you want to buy a Journey album with “Don’t Stop Believin’” on it and and you don’t want to pop for The Essential Journey, buy Escape. At the historical moment when the power ballad was becoming a necessary part of the teen-rock repertoire, Journey resisted going over the top like REO Speedwagon had done with “Keep on Lovin’ You”—at first. It’s easy to imagine how “Who’s Crying Now” might have gone desperately wrong—Steve Perry dialing the whine up to 11, guitarist Neal Schon playing the closing solo with his fist instead of his fingers—but none of that happens. It’s tasteful and intelligent and a highly non-annoying entry into the power-ballad sweepstakes. It didn’t last, of course—the song’s aesthetic opposite, “Open Arms,” was Escape’s closing track.
Yeah, I got issues with “Open Arms.”
(A typical studio shot from the 1970s, with those great old ITC cart machines on the right.)
We will call him Todd, because that is not his real name. Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world. So when he got to college, he got on the sports staff of the campus radio station. His first assignment was to produce and deliver the Friday night sports roundup, which aired at about 10:30. This was not a particularly desirable assignment—most people wanted to be out partying on Friday night, not organizing wire copy or gathering scores. But because Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world, he eagerly took the assignment.
Elsewhere in town, a bunch of Todd’s fellow broadcasters were at somebody’s apartment engaging in the usual beer-soaked Friday night ruckus and listening to the station with one ear. But when Todd started his sportscast, everyone snapped to full attention, for Todd was the worst-sounding broadcaster they had ever heard. He spoke with a strange inflection, he slurred words, and those he didn’t slur, he read too fast. The 10-minute sportscast seemed to last an eternity. The station’s sports director was embarrassed; the program director was livid. (Livid was his default setting a lot of the time.)
Over the ensuing weeks, people at the station worked with Todd, trying to get him to sound better. His reading improved, but the speech impediment that led to the inflection and the slurring wasn’t fixable. It became necessary to take Todd aside and tell him that he had no future speaking into a microphone. He could still work in radio or TV in some off-air role, but he wasn’t going to be a sportscaster.
Although we realized (as much as callow 20-year-olds can realize such things) that we were stomping on Todd’s dream, we also believed telling him the truth about his limitations was a kindness. There was no sense in the guy wasting his education trying to become an on-air personality or reporter. He didn’t have the voice for it.
Not everybody has the well-rounded, mellifluous tones of the professional announcer anymore. Today, on-air people are encouraged to talk, rather than to “announce,” and that leaves more room for deliveries that sound like regular people—so much room, in fact, that few people are ever told “you don’t have the voice for it” anymore.
But some people don’t.
Sales reps write a great deal of the copy you hear on your local station—and it’s a short leap from writing the copy to deciding you’ll deliver it, too. Some sales reps have good voices and know how to read copy, but others do not. Sometimes clients want to voice their own ads, and like sales reps, some sound good doing it and some do not. But since the sales rep and the client are the ultimate arbiters of whether an ad is acceptable, there’s nobody to tell them if it doesn’t sound good—when the delivery is poor or when the script is lousy (which is a topic for another time).
And it’s not just commercial voiceovers. I once worked at a station that hired a reporter fresh out of college who still sounded like a 14-year-old girl. As far as I know, nobody ever coached her to moderate her chirpy teenage voice, and the station’s credibility suffered every time she was on the air. You’ll sometimes hear DJs who sound too young, or who don’t speak clearly enough, or who don’t read well. Some of these problems can be ameliorated through coaching, but at a lot of stations, coaching runs the gamut from spotty to nonexistent. And without that coaching, lots of radio people are like high-wire walkers on a windy day—they’re going to fall off, but you don’t know when, or how big a splat they’re going to make.
Some people are simply unlucky, like Todd. Even with coaching, they have voices that just aren’t good enough. Not everybody on the radio needs to sound like Gary Owens or Alison Steele. But there are times when it would be better for everybody—stations, clients, prospective DJs, and listeners—if somebody would stand up and say “you don’t have the voice for it.”
(Pictured: How I remember my 16th birthday. There was cake, but the rest of it is hazy.)
Sooner or later, this blog always comes back to 1976. A couple of weekends ago, AT40 repeated the show from February 28, 1976—the week of my 16th birthday—and I’ve been listening to it in the car this week.
I remember coming down for breakfast on February 29th—a Sunday—and hearing my mother say, in the gently mocking tone she occasionally took with us when we were kids, “There’s Jim, sweet 16 and never been kissed.” I didn’t think she was particularly funny, however. I had been kissed by then, although not often enough to suit me, and not by anyone recently.
Mom would always make us a cake for our birthdays, or something other than a cake if we wanted it; one year she made me a fabulous chocolate pudding dessert with graham-cracker crust, and I think we put candles on a pizza for one of my brothers once. We were usually photographed holding our cakes, standing in the same general spot in the dining room every year, so a picture was probably taken that day. Birthday custom also permitted us to either request a favorite meal at home or to go out someplace to eat. I seem to recall that I chose dinner (which would have been the noon meal back then) at a little hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on the edge of town.
During the very week of my birthday—starting on Thursday and continuing through the next weekend—we’d experience an epic ice storm that remains one of my most vivid memories of growing up. But the Sunday of that week is mostly blank.
The February 28, 1976, edition of AT40 doesn’t help much. In fact, the show isn’t particularly memorable at all. It gets off to a slow start, with five songs in a row that were all relatively new, none of which became a significant hit then or is especially memorable now. The first hour ends with a backward-looking streak: the Salsoul Orchestra’s disco version of the 1942 Jimmy Dorsey hit “Tangerine,” Tony Orlando and Dawn covering Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Good Vibrations” as an extra, and Dr. Hook’s cover of Cooke’s “Only Sixteen.” Hour #2 starts better, with Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” ELO’s “Evil Woman” (heard in its rare 45 edit with what I think is an extra snip by the AT40 engineer) and Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Tracks of My Tears.” That’s followed by one of my favorite AT40 train wrecks, Foghat’s “Slow Ride” followed by Donny and Marie’s “Deep Purple.” Casey breaks them up with an anecdote about record mogul Mike Curb, noting that Curb can identify “all of the chart hits of the last 20 years by artist and record label.” Up at #21, listeners are once again forced to sit through the CB-themed novelty “The White Knight” by Cledus Maggard. (Everyone has some shameful things in their past that defy explanation, and the popularity of “The White Knight” is one of America’s.) At #15, Casey spends a minute or two sketching the career of singer/actor Al Jolson while introducing the disco version of “Baby Face,” a song first published in 1926 and made famous by Jolson in the early 30s. As always, the hits get bigger as the numbers get smaller. Some of the songs in the Top 10—“All By Myself,” “Dream Weaver,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”—are still capable of snapping me back to the ice storm, but not the Sunday before.
I suppose that the lesson is this: not everything we’d like to consider a totem is really a totem. Not every artifact is sacred. I’d like the AT40 show from my 16th birthday, back there in the year that means more than all the others, to be one of the treasures in the museum of my personal history. But it’s not going to be. Some things are just amusing old junk.