Author Archive: jb

Stick ‘Em in Your Ear

(Pictured: the Cars, 1979.)

One night just after school started in 1979, I was on the air at the college radio station when the studio telephone rang. It was the associate editor of the campus newspaper. “We’d like somebody to write a music column for the paper every week,” she said, “and I can’t think of anyone better qualified to do it than you.”

The editor happened to be a former girlfriend of mine, and that was my main qualification for the gig. I had no other legitimate credentials at that point. I’d been on the campus station for less than a year, and I had neither a recognizable on-air style that made me unique nor a golden ear for picking the hits. What I did have was passion for music and the ability to cobble together strings of sentences in English. It was this that she remembered, and so “Stick ‘Em In Your Ear” was born.

Working at a radio station gave me access to new music, concert news, and the occasional concert ticket. Because the station was populated by other music freaks, we often talked, and more often argued, about our preferences and prejudices. As a result, my opinions came to be passionately held and in my columns, bluntly expressed.

I still have clips of these columns somewhere, but I am not proud of them. The young man who wrote them comes across as pompous and arrogant, utterly convinced of his own rectitude and completely lacking empathy for anyone else. Also, the writing is pretty rough. Even the best columns have a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness feel to them, because that’s how I wrote in those days. When you think you’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t bother to edit.

Thirty-seven years ago this week, the paper published its last edition of the calendar year. In my column that week, I listed my top albums and singles of 1979. Here’s the album list:

1.  Candy-O/Cars
2.  The Long Run/Eagles
3.  Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4.  In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5.  52nd Street/Billy Joel
6.  Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7.  Rickie Lee Jones
8.  Get the Knack
9.  Time Passages/Al Stewart
10.  Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees

And the singles:

1.  “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2.  “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3.  “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4.  “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5.  “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6.  “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7.  “Let’s Go”/Cars
8.  “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9.  “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10.  “Sail On”/Commodores

It strikes me that those aren’t bad lists, even after all this time. On the singles list, I overrated “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and I liked “Heart of Glass” a lot more then than I do now. (If I were ranking these 10 songs now, “Sail On” might be #1.) About Candy-O, I wrote, “It typifies what the late 70s have been about, rockwise.” I don’t agree with that now. Candy-O is actually a break with 70s styles and a precursor of the polished, chilly, danceable 80s rock that MTV would make famous. Including the Bee Gees on both lists was an act of reverse iconoclasm, in which I praised an act most of my readers would have hated—although I still think the dramatic “Tragedy” is pretty good.

What’s missing from these lists is what was missing from our radio station: punk and new wave, with the exception of Blondie and Nick Lowe, whom we considered new-wavey. Also missing: the kind of adventuresome music associated with college radio. We were Top-40 and album-rock fans, as well as aspiring disc jockeys. We wanted to play the hits by the bands we loved, the ones we heard on the radio. Our station played a few songs by new, below-the-radar bands, but most of them left most of us cold. (If we’d paid better attention, we might have realized they resembled the Cars more than they did the Eagles or Doobies.)

About the time this list was published, I was elected program director of the campus radio station, which gave me an entirely new way to inflict my vanity, egotism, and lack of empathy on other people. But that’s a story I’ve told before.

(Rebooted from a post that first appeared on December 6, 2005. Hot damn, I’ve been at this a long time.)

One Day in Your Life: December 2, 1976

(Pictured: the Sex Pistols on stage in December 1976.)

December 2, 1976, was a Thursday. The weather across the Midwest and the Northeast is bitterly cold with heavy snow in some areas. Fidel Castro, who has been prime minister of Cuba since 1957, becomes president of Cuba, a position he will hold until 2008. A Utah judge has ordered the firing-squad execution of Gary Gilmore be carried out on Monday after Gilmore turned down a further stay of execution. Sentenced to death in October for two murders, Gilmore has waived all appeals and wants his execution to go forward. (It will, but not until January.) The state of Illinois holds a legislative hearing on a proposal to reinstate the death penalty. An amendment has already been stripped from the bill that would require legislators who vote for the death penalty to witness executions. President Ford holds meetings with the National Security Council, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and the chairman of a commission on governmental salaries. He also holds a budget meeting. Ford’s half-brother, Bud King, is killed in a traffic accident in Tennessee. Former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, who won two World Series titles with the team and retired at the close of the 1976 season, dies of a stroke at age 59. In Britain, the country is abuzz over a TV interview yesterday in which members of the Sex Pistols used obscene language while talking with interviewer Bill Grundy. The Chicago Tribune reports on a study suggesting that young people who consume popular food additives such as caffeine and monosodium glutamate may be risking their health. Hanley-Dawson Cadillac in Chicago will sell you a new 1977 Coupe de Ville for $7,995. In today’s Peanuts strip, Linus discusses his grandfather.

On daytime TV, guests on Dinah! with Dinah Shore include Orson Welles, Dyan Cannon, and Rob Reiner. On TV tonight, the ABC lineup includes Welcome Back Kotter, the holiday special Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, and The Streets of San Francisco. CBS airs The Waltons, Hawaii Five-0, and Barnaby Jones.  NBC has the first episode of the nine-hour miniseries Once an Eagle, about two soldiers and their experiences in the World Wars. The Jacksons are on the cover of Jet and Linda Ronstadt is on the cover of Rolling Stone. Linda and her manager strongly dislike some of the sexy Annie Leibovitz photos that accompany the cover story. Lynryd Skynyrd plays St. Paul, Minnesota, KISS plays Memphis, and Elvis Presley opens an 11-night stand at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Bee Gees play Madison Square Garden in New York, Aerosmith wraps up a two-night engagement in Detroit, and Black Sabbath plays Providence, Rhode Island, with opening act Montrose.

At WLS in Chicago, “Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart spends the second of what will be five weeks at #1. “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tennille holds at #2. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” “Disco Duck,” and “You Are the Woman” by Firefall round out the Top 5. “Beth” by KISS is the only new song in the Top 10, moving from #11 to #8. “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., and “Livin’ Thing” by ELO are all up seven spots, from #23 to #16, #29 to #22, and #33 to #26 respectively. Two other songs farther down the chart make eight-place moves: “Love Ballad” by L.T.D. (#38 to #30) and “Baby Boy” by Mary Kay Place, singing as aspiring country singer Loretta Haggers, her character from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (#39 to #31). On the album chart, the top three hold their places from the week before: Frampton Comes Alive at #1, Boston at #2, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life at #3. The fastest-moving albums of the week are Elton John’s Blue Moves (#20 to #14) and the debut album by Firefall (#29 to #23).

Perspective From the Present: WLS never had a stronger lineup than it did in 1976, with Larry Lujack and his newscaster Lyle Dean in the morning, Tommy Edwards on middays, Bob Sirott in the afternoon, John Landecker and Steve King at night, and Yvonne Daniels on overnights. You can hear the last part of Daniels’ show and a bit of Sirott filling in for Lujack on the morning show on December 2, 1976, here.

Three in a Row

(Pictured: David Bowie, 1973, in the middle of a good run.)

This morning I tweeted an Ultimate Classic Rock story about the anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and asked if any band other than the Beatles ever released three albums in a row better than Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. I got several suggestions, and here are some of them:

From a couple of people, including friend of the blog Bean Baxter at KROQ in Los Angeles: Springsteen’s Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.

From Tim Rolls: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane.

From Trey Andrews: Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur.

From Sly_3 and Derrick Hinton: Radiohead’s The Bends, Kid A, and OK Computer.

From J. Daniel Rollins: Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Skull and Roses by the Grateful Dead.

From Patrick Kelleher: Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy by Pearl Jam.

From Citylife80: U2’s War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree.

What I do not know about rap and hip-hop music is, well, everything. Steven named Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Cardigan Spumante suggested the 1997-2002 run of The Untouchable, Last of a Dying Breed, and The Fix by Scarface. Another person suggested three by Ice Cube: Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator. Another suggested any three albums by Insane Clown Posse, which I suspect may be arguable. A different suggestion about which I don’t know enough to comment included the first three albums by Creed (My Own Prison, Human Clay, and Weathered).

Sportswriter Doug Farrar (to whom I wave hello and say “love your work”) suggested a pair of threesomes: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix and Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who’s Next by the Who. This led another person to suggest that Quadrophenia would make that four in a row by the Who.

Others also suggested four in a row. Friend of the blog Brian Rostron and music writer David Cantwell (one of my favorite writers and a follower I’m pleased to have) both suggested that my list of Stones albums should be expanded, adding Beggar’s Banquet before Let It Bleed. Similarly, Patrick Orr would add Nebraska to the list of Springsteen albums. And on the subject of four-album runs, JMRF nominates Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.

Nick Beck suggested a run of five: Led Zeppelin’s first four plus Houses of the Holy. And the CD Project suggests the Miles Davis period from 1959 through 1970, which covers 13 albums, from Porgy and Bess through Bitches Brew.

A few of respondents named performers without naming albums: Prince, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Outkast. Regarding Steely Dan, my three would be Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja, but you could persuade me that it should be Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic. I presume the Joni threesome would be Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark. My guess for Prince would be 1999, Purple Rain, and Around the World in a Day. With Outkast, you’d have to tell me.

I should probably Storify all of the tweets I got, but that’s going to take longer than I have today. If you’d like to add your own run of three (or more) albums that you think can rival Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, please put it in the comments.

Christmas the Way It’s Supposed to Feel

I like Christmas music. I always have. And I listen to a lot of it between Black Friday and Christmas Day. What follows is a list of my 10 most-listened-to albums, according to play information from Media Jukebox, my laptop music player.

10.  A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector/Various Artists. Originally released on November 22, 1963, and now as familiar as the weather—which is the most appealing characteristic of Christmas music. It’s music we already know. It takes us to places we have been and places we want to go again.

9.  The Spirit of Christmas/Ray Charles. Released in 1985. Who’s gonna say no to Brother Ray singing holiday tunes?

8.  Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas/Kenny Burrell. An album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, and one for the short list of holiday albums that sound good in July. Burrell, a guitarist who turned 85 this year, still teaches jazz at UCLA.

7.  In the Christmas Spirit/Booker T and the MGs. Another album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. I’m not the first person to marvel at the economy of this band, and this record. Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson never play one more note than they need to, and the ones they do play could not be improved upon. (Hear the whole thing here.)

6.  Winter Wonderland/Earl Grant. If you know Earl Grant at all, it’s from his 1958 hit record “The End.” Winter Wonderland features a mix of vocals and instrumentals with Grant on piano and organ. It was released in 1969, just months before Grant’s death in a traffic accident at age 39. (Hear the whole thing here.)

5.  Christmas Variations/Rick Wakeman. On which Wakeman applies a filigree of piano, synth, and Mellotron to change up familiar seasonal music, hence the “variations” in the title. A positively lovely record, released in 2000. (Hear the whole thing here.)

4.  Merry Ole Soul/Duke Pearson. On the list of life’s great stuff, classic Blue Note Records small-combo jazz is right up there. Merry Ole Soul, released in 1969, is one of the best examples of the style, regardless of the season. (Whole album here.)

3.  Holiday Soul/Bobby Timmons. Holiday Soul came out in 1964, when soul jazz was growing in popularity, and Timmons was right on time. This thing swings. (Somewhat scratchy vinyl version of the whole thing here.)

2. MoJazz Christmas/Various Artists. Motown made several forays into jazz. The subsidiary label Workshop Jazz released a few albums in the early 60s, including some of the first recordings by the Four Tops. In 1969, a jazz single by Funk Brother Jack Ashford was the only release on the Blaze imprint. And in the 1990s, Motown founded MoJazz. Among its most prolific artists were drummer/vocalist Norman Connors (whose single “You Are My Starship” made the Top 40 in 1976), ex-basketball star and bassist Wayman Tisdale, guitarist Norman Brown, and saxophonist J. Spencer. The label also reissued albums by the Crusaders, Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington Jr., and even Stevie Wonder’s instrumental album, which he recorded in 1968 under the name Eivets Rednow. Brown and Spencer are heard on MoJazz Christmas, which is pleasant enough when it pops up on shuffle but not something I’m going to put on deliberately. (But you can. The whole thing is here.)

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas/Vince Guaraldi Trio. Some albums simply wear out on us. We loved them for years, we listened to them a million times, we know they’re great and/or historically important, but we simply don’t need to hear them anymore. But for me, A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t there yet. It makes the Christmas season feel the way it’s supposed to feel, and nothing else does it quite the same way.

Honorable Mention: The Spirit of Christmas With the Living StringsWhy my laptop music player doesn’t show this among my 10 most-played Christmas albums I do not know, but it certainly belongs on the list because it’s been a part of every Christmas in my life since my parents brought it home way back when. It, too, makes Christmas feel the way it’s supposed to feel. (Full album here.)

Everybody’s Daddy for a While

(Pictured: on November 20, 1975, Gerald Ford meets a Thanksgiving turkey.)

So now then: barring some sort of drama in the Electoral College, or barring him deciding to say before January 20th, “Screw it, I won, but it’s all yours, Governor Pence, and I’m outta here,” Donald Trump is gonna be president. Recently on Twitter, music writer Stephen Erlewine suggested we try to imagine him pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, or attending the Kennedy Center Honors, or presiding over the Easter Egg Roll. But it’s farcical to think that this vulgar cartoon of a human being might plausibly perform those very American functions we expect of our presidents. Even Richard Nixon, the most painfully awkward public man of the 20th century, was able to do such things. But Trump? Come on.

It’s also difficult to see Trump as a family man, despite the role his three oldest children played in the campaign. Five kids by three different women does not conjure up images of breakfast around the family table. It’s easier with Nixon. He doted on his daughters, although Mrs. Nixon was sometimes more political prop than partner. (In the White House, he occasionally communicated with her by sending memos via his staff.)

In 1969, songwriter Jeff Barry and singer Andy Kim, contemplating the new family in the White House, wrote and recorded “Tricia Tell Your Daddy,” which imagined a breakfast scene “On a family Sunday morning / When he comes downstairs a-yawning / From his bed.” The song (also recorded by Jay and the Americans) asks the First Daughter to speak to her father about his great responsibility, about peace and poverty, and about love.

Tell him he’s the man, Tricia
The world’s in his hands, Tricia
Tell him that you’re not his only child
He’s everybody’s daddy for a while

“Tricia Tell Your Daddy” isn’t a protest song, exactly. It’s more a plea for understanding and a song of hope.

Forty-eight years later, asking this incoming president for understanding seems like a waste of breath. And while there’s hope among Trump’s constituency, that hope is almost certainly destined to be shattered. He’s not building a Mexican wall, he’s not deporting 11 million Muslims, and he’s not going to throw Hillary in jail. The sad likelihood is that the only people who’ll get exactly they want from a Trump presidency are those who want to gut public institutions and persecute gays and lesbians—and of course the American Nazi Party, the KKK, and other retrograde morons.

One of the more wrongheaded bits of analysis I saw in the wake of the election appeared on the morning after: “Trump’s election is going to be really good for artists.” Somebody even suggested it was the best thing to happen to punk rock in decades. But the future of art is not among the futures many of us are considering right now. It’s a stretch to presume that in a culture as atomized as this one, Trump might have a broad impact on art. While punk bands might be moved to rage, there’s not much evidence to suggest that mainstream musicians will respond to Trumpism in their work. Recently, consultant Fred Jacobs wrote about the general failure of rockers to engage as activists, and it’s no wonder. Everybody remembers what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, and Jacobs reported that in more recent years even a star as big as Bruce Springsteen has been harshly punished by radio audiences for his activism. The most visible rock activist in the 2016 election cycle was probably Ted Nugent, but he had neither radio airplay or record sales to lose. There’s little reason to believe the risk of speaking out will be any less in Trump’s America than it was in Obama’s.

It’s possible, I guess, that I could be totally wrong about this. Maybe art will flower, songs of protest will ring out on the radio, and the next four years will be some kind of new artistic Renaissance. Stuff currently impossible to imagine may actually happen.

Because it already has.

The staff and management of this blog wish you and yours as happy a Thanksgiving as possible under the circumstances.

Horror Show

(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)

This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.

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