Author Archive: jb

Windmills

(Pictured: Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.)

(Note to patrons: there’s a new, never-before-seen post at One Day in Your Life today for your holiday weekend delectation.)

Let’s do a thing we haven’t done for a while: look at the #40 hit from various weeks, covering Memorial Days and other early days of summer, to see what we can see, and hear what we can hear.

5/25/91: “You’re in Love”/Wilson Phillips (chart peak: #1, 4/20/91). Wilson Phillips had 3 #1 songs (this one, “Hold On,” and “Release Me”) plus a #4 (“Impulsive”) between April 1990 and April 1991. Yet I never got the feeling that they were all that serious about being rock stars, despite the fact that with a little effort they probably could kept it up for years.

5/22/82: “I Don’t Know Where to Start”/Eddie Rabbitt (chart peak: #35, 6/12/82; #2 country). Eddie Rabbitt kept it country despite having been born in Brooklyn and raised in East Orange, New Jersey. Before he was famous, he wrote “Kentucky Rain,” recorded by Elvis. He was a dominant star for a long time, with 34 straight singles in the country Top 10 between 1976 and 1990 and six Top 20 pop hits between 1979 and 1982, including the #1 pop hit “I Love a Rainy Night.” (Which is one of the worst #1 songs of all time, but still.)

5/24/78: “Stay”/Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (chart peak: #38, 6/10/78). On the Tuesday after Memorial Day in 1978, I graduated from high school, but I don’t think I want to talk about that this year.

5/29/77: “My Heart Belongs to Me”/Barbra Streisand (chart peak: #4, 7/30/77). This is, against all odds, a song that takes me vividly back to the summer of 1977, but I don’t think I want to talk about that, either.

5/29/76: “Still Crazy After All These Years”/Paul Simon (chart peak on this date). “Now I sit by my window and I watch the cars / I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day.” Nope, not talking.

5/24/75: “Misty”/Ray Stevens (chart peak: #14, 7/12/75; #3 country). Speaking of oddities: sped up and given a country twang, this version of one of the great torch songs of the piano-bar era is the second-highest-charting version of “Misty,” behind only the one by Johnny Mathis. It’s better than it has any right to be, although your mileage may vary.

5/27/72: “Rocket Man”/Elton John (chart peak: #6, 7/15/72). My adoration of Elton’s 1975 Captain Fantastic album is well known. What I’ve said less about is how much I love Honky Chateau. And “Rocket Man,” the first thing of Elton’s I ever bought, might be my single favorite Elton song.

5/29/71: “Lowdown”/Chicago (chart peak: #35, 6/12/71). This record did not chart at either WLS or WCFL in the band’s namesake town, although it was a Top-10 hit in Houston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Albany, Providence, and St. Charles, Missouri.

5/23/70: “Sugar Sugar”-“Cole, Cooke, and Redding”/Wilson Pickett (chart peak: #25, 7/4/70). Get yourself some real damn double-A-side soul music right here. “Sugar Sugar” is the song made famous by the Archies; “Cole, Cooke, and Redding” pays tribute to the soul music masters by using “Abraham, Martin, and John” as a template.

5/24/69: “The Windmills of Your Mind”/Dusty Springfield (chart peak: #31, 6/14/69). For a time around the turn of the 70s, the lines “Like a circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel” were widely familiar, and “The Windmills of Your Mind” threatened to become a standard. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song (from The Thomas Crown Affair) when the awards were announced in April of ’69; Atlantic Records rush-released Dusty’s version as the third single from Dusty in Memphis.

5/27/67: “Little Bit O’ Soul”/Music Explosion (chart peak: #2, 7/8/67). Hitting #40 from #73 the week before, “Little Bit O’ Soul” was just one of several memorable hits from the summer of ’67 that were blasting up the chart during Memorial Day week. “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang was at #49 from #98, and “Windy” by the Association was at #52 in its first week on. Also on their way up from outside the 40: Marvin and Tammi’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” by Frankie Valli, and “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie, the quintessential Summer of Love anthem, new at #98, although it would zoom to #55 the next week.

As the summer of 2017 begins, I hope that your Memorial Day weekend is relaxed and relaxing, with all the trouble in the world held at bay at least until Tuesday.

You Haven’t Done Nothin’

(Pictured: Stevie Wonder at work, 1974.)

On May 17, 1973, the Senate began televised hearings into the Watergate scandal. I was in Miss Alt’s seventh-grade social studies class that spring, and I can remember watching the hearings in class. I am not sure how well anybody understood what we were seeing. The scandal had been in the headlines for only a few weeks, even though the break-in happened the previous June. A kid such as I, obsessed with radio in an era when that meant I heard a newscast every hour, was probably better informed than many of my classmates, but I wouldn’t have been up on the nuances, either.

When we look back on the Vietnam Era, pop and rock music is inextricably a part of it. When the story of Watergate is told, there’s no obvious soundtrack, although the scandal inspired several songs.

—One of the first Watergate-themed songs was David Allan Coe’s May 1973 single “How High’s the Watergate, Martha” backed by “Tricky Dickey, the Only Son of Kung Fu.” Both songs name-check prominent Watergate figures, but “How High’s the Watergate” is the much better of the two.

—Tom T. Hall’s “Watergate Blues” came out in June 1973, made it up to #16 country, and bubbled under at #101. It’s not among Hall’s best songs, although it does contain one nice line, referring to Nixon’s 1972 landslide: “The USA bought a new used car.”

—Also in the summer of 1973, Chicago DJ John Landecker recorded “Make a Date With the Watergate,” based on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Early in 1974, Landecker did another political novelty, “Press My Conference,” a break-in record featuring clips of then-current hits and the voices of other WLS personalities. (Hear them both here.)

—Don Imus cut his own Watergate break-in record, “Son of Checkers,” in 1973, which is not at YouTube.

—On impressionist David Frye’s 1973 single “Nixon Meets the Godfather,” the embattled president consults Don Corleone for advice.

—Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” released in 1974, was overtly a protest song, a rewrite of Ochs’ song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”

—Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s put Watergate in two songs, neither of which had much to do with the scandal: the nominally anti-poverty 1973 release “You Can Have Watergate (Just Give Me Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight),” and 1974’s“Rockin’ Funky Watergate,” the entire lyric of which is the phrases “rockin’ Watergate” and “funky Watergate” over and over.

—Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is not so much a Watergate song as it’s a general indictment of Nixon. It hit the Hot 100 during the week of the resignation in August 1974 and slow-cooked its way to a single week at #1 in November.

—Running the chart with “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” was Lynryd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” with the lines “Now Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you?”

—Frank Zappa’s “Son of Orange County,” from the 1974 live album Roxy and Elsewhere, pegged Nixon as a megalomaniac and quotes his famous line “I am not a crook.” It came out in September, almost exactly a month after Nixon went home to San Clemente.

—In 1975, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes mentioned Nixon obliquely in “Bad Luck,” although you don’t hear it on the single. On the full-length version of the song, Teddy Pendergrass testifies about how he opened his newspaper and saw that the President of the United States “was gonna give it up.” “They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.”

—James Brown had been more slightly optimistic about Gerald Ford on “Funky President,” which peaked at #44 on the last chart of 1974.

During the 16 months when Watergate was at its peak, the pop charts were notable for their escapism. The most topical record of the times might have been “The Streak,” Ray Stevens’ #1 novelty hit. Compared to Vietnam, Watergate lagged far behind as an inspiration to artists.

Four decades later, the careful tuning of political radar makes it unlikely than an anti-Trump song could become a radio hit at all, let alone reach #1. And while we might hope that Trump will fall as Nixon did, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. In Nixon’s day, members of his own party declared that certain lines could not be crossed, which led to discussions of impeachment and Nixon’s eventual resignation. In contrast, today’s Congressional Republicans haven’t done nothin’.

Hey Mr. Spaceman

(Pictured: Atlantis blasts off for the final space shuttle mission, 2011.)

On January 19, 1974, the astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard Skylab were awakened by a medley of appropriate music. For the military men aboard, Commander Gerald Carr and pilot Bill Pogue, the ground crew relayed recordings of the Air Force song “Wild Blue Yonder” and the Navy standard “Anchors Aweigh.” For the civilian scientist, Ed Gibson, they played Steppenwolf’s “Earschplittenloudenboomer.”

Popular Mechanics recently published a fascinating story on the history of astronaut wakeup music, which you should read. The tradition began in 1965 during the mission of Gemini 6, when Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were awakened by a special version of “Hello Dolly,” modified to “Hello Wally,” and recorded by Jack Jones. Although not every crew was awakened by music every morning, the tradition continued through the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. An 89-page NASA report, compiled in 2015, lists all of the songs, which were generally selected by the leaders of the ground crew, who were astronauts themselves.

Often, the music had some connection to the flight crew, military songs or college fight songs, or they refer to some aspect of the mission. The music on the last day of one space shuttle mission was “The End” by the Doors; for another mission, Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” But the Doors actually made their first appearance in 1972, when “Light My Fire” was used to wake the astronauts aboard Apollo 17 on the day they made a rocket burn to leave lunar orbit. Some other surprising choices from the early years—surprising given that the astronauts would have been members of the pre-rock World War II/Korean War generation: “Eli’s Coming,” “Joy to the World,” and “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night, Jim Stafford’s “Spiders and Snakes,” “Paralyzed” by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (sent to the crew of Skylab in November 1973), and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Redneck Mother,” which awakened the American crew of the Apollo/Soyuz mission on July 24, 1975.

In November 1981, the crew of the second space shuttle mission was awakened by specially produced episodes of “Pigs in Space,” a feature from The Muppet Show. A vogue for humorous wakeups and parody songs continued for the next several years. In 1988, a Houston radio producer and part-time tour guide at the Johnson Space Center, Mike Cahill, put together a number of elaborate productions for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. Not long after, NASA issued an edict to cut the comedy, believing it made the shuttle program look frivolous. But the tradition of daily wakeup music continued. By the late 90s, the selections were often pretty hip—not surprising considering that one of the people selecting them was the esteemed Chris Hadfield, who would become the Internet’s favorite astronaut with his performance of “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station in 2013.

Some other cool tunes that awakened the astronauts: “Mr. Spaceman” and “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds (on a 1982 shuttle mission), Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (on numerous occasions starting in 1984), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1989), Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” (1992), “Starship Trooper” by Yes (1994), “Time for Me to Fly” by REO Speedwagon (1996), and “For Those About to Rock” by AC/DC (2001). A 2002 mission included “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, which, thanks to its inclusion in the movie Groundhog Day, became a regular wakeup song whenever a mission had to be extended due to bad weather on the ground, requiring astronauts to repeat their pre-landing routine an additional day. In 2005, Paul McCartney performed a live wakeup of “Good Day Sunshine” during a concert in Anaheim, California, which was beamed to the International Space Station and broadcast on NASA TV.

On July 21, 2011, the final day of the shuttle program, the Atlantis astronauts were awakened by Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America,” dedicated to all of the men and women of the three-decade shuttle program. By that time, however, the tradition of the musical space wakeup went back nearly 46 years.

The Things You Think Are Precious I Can’t Understand

(Pictured: Steely Dan on ABC-TV’s In Concert, 1973.)

When Steely Dan’s “Peg” hit the radio late in 1977, I fell in love. I got Aja for Christmas that year, and over the next few months, I bought all of the other Steely Dan albums. One of the first things I bought after I got my first CD player was the compilation A Decade of Steely Dan; I digitized the whole Dan library with Citizen Steely Dan in 1994. Seeing them live in 2000 was a bucket-list event; seeing them twice since then (plus Donald Fagen’s Dukes of September group with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald once) was icing on the cake. Counting the many bootlegs, I have something like 600 Steely Dan tracks in my music stash. They’re my favorite band of all time, is what I’m saying. And they have been my favorite band for nigh unto 40 years now.

So when I got the opportunity to write about a new book called Steely Dan FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About This Elusive Band, I leapt at it.

There are many, many volumes in the FAQ series, published by Backbeat Books. They are aimed at obsessive fans such as I, people who are presumably interested in “all that’s left to know,” beyond what we already know, about the bands we love. But because author Anthony Robustelli doesn’t try to prioritize what’s worth knowing about Steely Dan, his book ends up pushing even an obsessive fan over the brink of frustration.

Irrelevant tangents abound. For example: sometime around 1970, a friend of Becker and Fagen’s, Richard Lifschutz, got the idea of writing a musical that would have included some of the duo’s early songs, which existed at that time only as demos. He finished the book for the musical, Walt and Don read it, they didn’t pursue the idea, and that was that. But it takes Robustelli two pages to explain what I just did in two sentences. He includes an unnecessary detour into the history of rock operas (Tommy, Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar) and a followup on what became of Lifschutz, a guy whose life story would be of interest only to members of his family.

(Robustelli also makes the dubious contention that the unproduced musical, Ego, was actually the precursor to the current fad of musicals created from existing pop songs. Precursor in that it happened before others did, yes. Precursor in that Ego could have had the tiniest bit of influence leading to their creation, you gotta be kidding, dude.)

If you think you might want to read Steely Dan FAQ, be selective. The chapters on individual albums and tours are the most worthwhile. Your mileage may vary on the ones about Becker and Fagen’s early years—this is one place where pointillist detail is helpful in fleshing out character, but there might be too much for some readers. Skip the ones profiling session musicians, which cover absolutely everybody who ever played on a Steely Dan project in positively numbing detail. I flipped through the chapter detailing Becker and Fagen’s appearances as sidemen for other artists and took a hard pass. These chapters suffer most egregiously from the book’s main problem: a surfeit of detail, and an unwillingness, or an inability, to differentiate between what’s worth knowing and what isn’t.

If Steely Dan FAQ exasperated me—a Steely Dan super-fan—it’s likely to do the same to more casual fans, and even faster than it did it to me.

Do Your Thing

(Pictured: the man of the hour, turbanized.)

I have said before how much I like American Top 40 shows from 1972. Casey and his staff have figured out how they want the show to sound, and his delivery is easy and friendly, just a guy talking to the people and playing some tunes, as on the show from April 22, 1972.

—Introducing “Do Your Thing” at #39, Casey calls Isaac Hayes “the man of the hour.” The show would have aired less than two weeks after Hayes appeared on the Oscars, singing his award-winning “Theme From Shaft” in a shirt made of chain mail, a performance that left the whole country abuzz.

—Casey back-announces “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr., as “the happiest song in the countdown,” and misspeaks when he says it’s at #38, up five spots. It’s actually up five from #38 the week before. Since AT40 shows were still being recorded live on tape at this time, I’m not surprised that they left in such a minor fluff. Better that than having to re-record an entire segment of the show in real time.

—I don’t know if, or how often, the most egregiously out-of-time extras included in the original broadcasts are snipped from the modern-day repeats. On this show, listeners in 2017 are treated to “Wheel of Fortune” by Kay Starr—a perfectly fine record by the standards of 1952 (“the #1 hit of 20 years ago,” as Casey calls it), but one that seems egregiously out of time in 1972 as well, at least until the countdown gets to #25 and the resolutely old-fashioned “Every Day of My Life” by Bobby Vinton.

“Jump Into the Fire” by Nilsson is at #28, up two spots for the week. I have always pronounced the man’s name to rhyme with “Wilson,” which is how the WLS DJs pronounced it back in the day. In intervening years, I have heard it pronounced as if it were spelled “Nielsen.” Casey does it both ways, once introducing the record and once back-announcing it.

—The highest-debuting song of the week is “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens up at #27, featuring (not mentioned by Casey) Rick Wakeman, then of Yes, on piano. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Wakeman helped develop the distinctive piano opening and the instrumental break in the middle but didn’t receive a credit, or royalties beyond the 10 British pounds he was paid for the session.

—The two biggest movers within the 40 this week are “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites, up 15 spots to #20, and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers, up 14 spots to #23. Both will reach #1, “Oh Girl” on May 27 and “I’ll Take You There” on June 3, and both are on the short list of things in this life that are perfect. Also on that list: “Suavecito” by Malo, up five spots this week to #21.

—At three different points in the last half of the show, Casey does brief announcements encouraging young people to register and vote. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 had been ratified the previous July, but with the presidential primary campaign underway, such a reminder was especially timely.

—Casey was famous for what AT40 staffers called the “tease and hook,” which would keep listeners from tuning away during a commercial break. This show contains a near-perfect example involving a star who lost a trunk full of shoes while being mobbed after a show. Casey doesn’t reveal the star’s identity until the very end, and I found myself caught up in the story even though it turned out to be fairly trivial. (The shoes belonged to Al Green.)

—The top of this chart is pretty solid: “Doctor My Eyes” (#10), “Heart of Gold” (#8), and “A Horse With No Name” (#4) haven’t been off the radio in 45 years, and there’s soul music in several different flavors: Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” (#7), the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” (#6), the Dramatics’ “In the Rain” (#5),  “I Gotcha” by Joe Tex (#3), and “Rockin’ Robin” (#2).

—Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is in its second of six straight weeks at #1. Although Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” will spend six non-consecutive weeks at the top later in 1972, no song will have a longer uninterrupted run until Rod Stewart keeps “Tonight’s the Night” around for eight weeks at the end of 1976. Even though the 45 edit of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is only about a minute shorter than the original, it tightens the record considerably. What’s left is not as much romantic as it is erotic. Not that I could tell in 1972, but still.

(Edited since first posted to fix some stuff, because this is not a very good blog, really.)

Tryin’ to Hold On

(Pictured: Elton John listens at home, 1974.)

I said it in the very first post at this blog: the record charts, from about 1970 through about 1986, are the calendar of my life: name a date and I’ll give you a song; name a song and I’ll give you a date. I used to be able to tell you the #1 song on any given date of the 1970s, but some pages of the calendar are getting a little dim.

I was listening to the American Top 40 show from April 13, 1974. That’s the season in which I discovered AT40 as a listener, picking it out of the static on WROK from Rockford, Illinois. Several of my favorite songs that spring were ones I heard only on AT40, as none of my favorite stations were playing them. I had never heard anything like “The Payback” by James Brown, and I dug it. Neither WCFL or WLS in Chicago charted Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” WLS didn’t chart the Staple Singers’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” either; WCFL did, but they never played it as much as I wanted to hear it. Other obscure songs from that show still stick in my mind after all this time, including Lamont Dozier’s “Tryin’ to Hold on to My Woman” and the fabulous country soul of “Tell Me a Lie” by Sami Jo, another song I heard nowhere else.

As I listen, I’m on parallel tracks—geeky 14-year-old in the spring of eighth grade, making his own handwritten list of the hits, one song at a time, and geeky 57-year-old in the autumn of his life, remembering those songs and others he expects to hear. But this is where the calendar page gets dim.

As the show goes on, I start thinking, “Where’s ‘Band on the Run’?” The album hit #1 during the very April week of this AT40 show, and I keep expecting to hear the title song. When Casey gets to #14 and plays “Jet,” I realize that I must have misremembered when “Band on the Run” hit the radio. It wouldn’t reach the Hot 100 until the week of April 20, at #68. It would hit #41 the next week, blast onto AT40 at #22 during the week of May 4, and go 14-7-5-2 and finally to #1 on June 8, 1974.

(Digression: I would like to be able to tell you when “Band on the Run” first appears at ARSA, the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, but a recent update to the site has removed that functionality, in which you could click on a title and see all the listings for that title, an invaluable research aid. I have asked the site proprietor why, but have yet to hear back. I hope there’s an explanation. This is a serious loss to geeks such as I.)

By the time Casey reached the Top 5, I felt pretty confident in being able to predict what I was going to hear. It was the spring of 1974, I’d heard this show the first time it aired, and after 43 years I know the territory: “Come and Get Your Love,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “TSOP,” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”

That left only the week’s #1 hit. I was sitting at a stop sign when it came on: “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John. And I said out loud to nobody, “Where the fk is ‘The Streak’?” The answer: at #84, where it debuted during the week of April 13. It would go 84-54-19-6-2 before hitting #1 during the week of May 18, staying two weeks and remaining in the Top 10 til the end of June and in the Hot 100 until August.

So maybe those nights I remember, up there in my bedroom at home, trying to keep my radio locked on that sketchy AM signal from Rockford, were later in the spring than I thought. Perhaps May instead of April.

It seems like a small thing, being off by one month after 43 years. And besides, a man my age sees many of his abilities begin to decline. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting that this—my idiot-savant-like memory for record charts, something that defines who I am and what I care about—would be one of them.

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