(Pictured: Billy Joel strikes an out-of-the-ordinary pose, 1994.)
The other day on Twitter, Ultimate Classic Rock asked followers, “Which classic rock album actually p___ed you off when it came out?” The first one that came to my mind was Kilroy Was Here by Styx. As cold and mechanical as the robotic world it claimed to decry, it’s one of the most unpleasant listening experiences you can have, and I hated the presumption Styx showed by expecting radio stations to play such twaddle. When I went back into my blog archives, I was surprised to note that I hadn’t put Kilroy in a 2006 post I wrote about albums I really hated by people I generally like. Here’s that list, with the text edited a bit.
Fundamental/Bonnie Raitt (1998). Bonnie Raitt’s 1990s comeback was guided by Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw, and Longing in Their Hearts, with spectacular results. Bonnie tried changing things up on Fundamental, turning to the hot producers of that moment, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Well, there’s avant garde, which is what Froom and Blake purportedly were, and there’s just plain clueless, which they demonstrably were. Some of the songs are as good as anything Raitt wrote for her previous three albums, but the production is so incompetent that the album is painful to listen to. Froom and Blake sound like they don’t know how to place a microphone or run a mixer.
Time Sex Love/Mary Chapin Carpenter (2001). At the time, this was MCC’s first new album in over four years, and as a result, I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t then, and I don’t now. There’s almost nothing on this record that’s as affecting as the weakest cuts on Stones in the Road, her best album. Plus, MCC spoils the effect of the album’s loveliest track, “Late for Your Life,” by following it with a hidden outtake, which features she and the band melting down in laughter. This sort of self-indulgent piffle is why hiring an outside producer isn’t a bad thing. Unless it’s Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.
Clues/Robert Palmer (1980). After a superb series of blue-eyed soul records that were exactly the kind of thing I adored, Palmer went new-wave on Clues, collaborating with Gary Numan, an artist I didn’t understand and could barely tolerate, and I hated the album like poison. I think maybe you have to be 20 years old to feel betrayed by an album, because I know now that Clues isn’t worth that kind of passionate dislike. And in retrospect, some of it (“Sulky Girl,” “Johnny and Mary”) really is a lot better than it sounded to me then.
River of Dreams/Billy Joel (1993). The title song of this album blew me away, and still sounds pretty good. The rest of the album is shrill and hectoring. For example, the second big single, “All About Soul,” goes on for six minutes, and by the end, you feel like you’ve been beaten over the head for that long. Even the ballads have a disturbing darkness to them. If this really was Billy Joel’s last pop album, it was a memorable exit for all the wrong reasons.
I can’t claim to have actively hated very many albums recently. Perhaps it’s a function of age, or maybe it’s the sheer volume of music I listen to—if something awful pops up on shuffle, there’s always something better coming along in a little while. Perhaps I’d rather focus on stuff I like than stuff I don’t.
Surely some artist you like has made an album that really ticked you off. If so, please share it with the whole class.
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers act took a long time getting together. They had appeared in utero January 19, 1976—39 years ago tonight—during Saturday Night Live‘s first season, doing “I’m a King Bee” in bee costumes, but with their trademark fedoras and sunglasses. Later, Aykroyd and Belushi often warmed up SNL audiences with the Brothers before the show. Their first official appearance on the air was on April 22, 1978, on what I believe to be the greatest single SNL episode of all time.
At first, audiences weren’t sure how to take them. I remember my own reaction when seeing them for the first time in the spring of ’78—is that supposed to be a joke, or are they serious? Today, we see the Blues Brothers as icons and Aykroyd and Belushi as major figures in the history of American comedy, but that came later. Confusion about what the Brothers were supposed to be lingered for quite a while. After a couple of appearances late in the 1977-78 season of SNL, they played some shows around the country that summer and recorded Briefcase Full of Blues. The album went to #1 in the fall of 1978, much to the consternation of blues purists and rock critics. They didn’t care that the album was seriously intended by Belushi and Aykroyd to be a tribute to their blues heroes, or that it featured Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, who were in fact heroes.
Two years later, the movie was similarly dissed by many critics, although Roger Ebert liked it. His erstwhile partner, Gene Siskel, called it the best movie ever made in Chicago. Big box-office aside, the soundtrack album was also a smash—“Gimme Some Lovin'” was the lead single, and both “Jailhouse Rock” and “Sweet Home Chicago” got considerable airplay.
Shortly after the movie came out in the summer of 1980, my brother and I, with our respective girlfriends, drove an hour from our hometown to see it at the Orpheum Theater here in Madison. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Blues Brothers from start to finish since. And whenever I surf past it on cable, I tend to watch it to conclusion—so I have seen the concluding car chase dozens of times over the years. If forced to pick one, it’s my favorite movie of all time, and it’s got my favorite line, about 106 miles to Chicago. I have no idea what it means, precisely, but in that scene, Joliet Jake and Elwood were (and are) the Coolest Guys on Earth.
Blues Brothers 2000, Aykroyd’s sequel released in 1998, is not nearly so cool. The story, which revolves around the reunited band going to a blues contest in New Orleans, is nearly a carbon copy of the original. It’s docked points for including a wisecracking child, and for declaring the Blues Brothers Band the winners of the contest even though their butts are clearly kicked by the Louisiana Gator Boys, led by B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Indeed, the Gator Boys are on the two best numbers from the soundtrack (which is generally excellent), “How Blue Can You Get?” and “New Orleans.” (If you’ve never seen “New Orleans,” you’ll be boggled by the Gator Boys’ lineup. Plus, the clip distills everything that’s great and terrible about Blues Brothers 2000 into four minutes.)
The great thing about the original movie is that it’s dated hardly at all, despite its age. The bit with the American Nazis is clearly out of 1980, but other than that, the rest of the movie is timeless. And any movie that features Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, and “Sweet Home Chicago” amped to a level Robert Johnson could never have imagined is something that deserves to be seen again and again for the next hundred years, at least.
(Originally posted at the Daily Aneurysm on June 21, 2005, and edited a bit here.)
Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the typical purchaser of what was then high-end audio equipment was not a kid who wanted it to listen to his Buddy Holly or Beatles records. It was his older brother, or perhaps his father, who had been weaned on the pop music of an earlier era or on classical music. For this reason, lushly orchestrated pop and classical albums were popular among audiophiles, and producing them became big business. The craze for “mood music” began with 101 Strings in the late 50s, but eventually, each of the major record labels had its own string brand: RCA had the Living Strings, the Hollyridge Strings were Capitol’s, Vee Jay had the Castaway Strings, Warner Brothers had the Londonderry Strings, and even the famous blues and R&B label, Chess, had the Soulful Strings. The Hollyridge Strings were quite successful, charting five albums between 1964 and 1966, covering the Beatles (making the Hot 100 with a version of “Love Me Do”), the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Nat King Cole. So were the Soulful Strings, who made the Billboard 200 album chart five times between 1967 and 1969, covering mostly R&B and jazz hits. Their single “Burning Spear” was a Hot 100 hit in 1968. The Living Strings charted but two albums, both in 1961. Of the major string brands, only 101 Strings managed a Top-10 album: The Soul of Spain in 1959.
The string brands were indeed brands rather than bands. The 101 Strings set the template, hiring European orchestras on the cheap and releasing the results under the brand name. The record-label string brands took the same tack. Recordings issued under the name of the Living Strings, for example, were often made by either the BBC Symphony or the London Symphony Orchestra. These albums were calculated to attract record-shop browsers, adorned with splashy covers (sometimes featuring scantily clad women) and often budget priced. And while only a few of them charted, they represented a pretty solid income stream for their labels—and they gained a good deal of airplay, too. But as the 70s wore on, the music made by these string brands faded from general popularity. The last of their recordings to go, however, were their Christmas records.
Thirty years ago today, I became a real Top 40 radio guy for the first time. Ten years ago, I blogged about it. Here’s a portion of that post, lightly edited.
By 1984, The Mrs. and I had moved on to Macomb, Illinois, where I had joined WKAI-AM and FM. I’d come in with the station’s new owner that spring. Because Macomb is the home of Western Illinois University, it seemed obvious to us that a Top 40 format on our FM would be a sure winner. So throughout the summer of ’84, we planned the switch. I was going to be the station’s program director. . . .
I sometimes think that the changes at the station were terribly hard for the operations manager, who had been with the company over 20 years at the time. We shared an office, which must have been hard too, given that he was organized and fastidious while my idea of filing was piling. But he was a soft-spoken and gentle man, impossible to dislike, and as utterly devoted to his stations and his town as anyone I ever knew in the broadcasting industry. Because he had originally put the FM on the air in 1966, I think he felt like the Top 40 changeover was vandalism—and that I was the kid with the spray paint.
For example: In those days, stations like ours, which were run entirely by computer, often used a recording that would periodically announce the correct time. One day he asked me if I was going to use the time-announce on the new format. I told him I wasn’t, because I thought it cluttered the station’s sound and was unnecessary anyhow. He looked at me for a second and said, “What about blind people?”
We never really understood one another. . . .
Stations like ours purchased a music service from a syndicator. We didn’t shop around—we already had a contract with an outfit called Century 21, so we stuck with them. We opted for a version of their Top 40 format that allowed us to heavily daypart our music—lighter during the day, on the assumption that we’d be more appealing to in-office and in-store listeners, but harder at night when the kids would be our primary audience. (It was standard Top 40-era thinking, although in later years I sometimes wished we had ignored it.) And in the early hours of format-change day—September 1, 1984—after the station signed off at midnight, some of the staffers assembled for a dry run, just to see if the computer sequence we’d mapped out for the format would work, and to hear how the thing sounded. The Mrs. and I were there, along with the general manager, the sales manager, a couple of the sales reps, and the poor old operations manager, who doubled as the station’s computer wiz. We polished off a case of beer watching the reels of tape turn and eagerly anticipating the format change, which would officially happen at noon. . . .
Just before noon, we played the last song on the old format: “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I had found a recording of a synthesized voice counting backwards from 10, so we rolled that out of “Candida.” I did a station ID in my best Top 40-voice (terribly high and nasal, it sounds to me now), and then kicked into “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. I will never forget the electric thrill of hearing the studio monitors actually rockin’. While “The Heart of Rock and Roll” was playing, I noticed, completely by accident, that “Rock and Roll Fantasy” by Bad Company and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett were cued up and ready to play, so I jumped the computer sequence to program them in. Thus, we played three songs in a row on the new format before stopping so I could do the weather forecast. (It was going to be 100 degrees that day.) We followed that with “10-9-8″ by Face to Face—not exactly one of the strong current hits I’d been plugging in promos for the new format—and another Huey Lewis tune, “If This Is It.” Then we stopped for our regular noon-hour newscast, which contained a full commercial load and stopped the music for six momentum-killing minutes. (Today, when stations change format, they sometimes play hundreds or even thousands of songs in a row before the first interruption. This didn’t occur to us then.) After that it was “Sexy Girl” by Glenn Frey, Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” and another commercial break, in which the local Chrysler dealer advertised a clearance on brand-new 1984s, with “low 12.9 percent financing available.” Then it was “When Doves Cry,” and that’s where my tape of the changeover ends.
I am unable to get my brain around the idea that these events are now 30 years in the past. It really does feel like it was just yesterday.
(Return with us now to events of precisely 35 years ago this week, rebooted from a post that originally appeared on October 30, 2006.)
I was hanging around the campus radio station one day in late August 1979. I may have been getting ready to go on the air, or I may have just come off, or I may have been there simply because I’d missed it over the summer. I’d worked a lot of radio since my first shift eight months before, and I was already making plans to run for program director in the elections later that fall. I’d also managed to snag a paying part-time gig. In short, I felt like I had radio, and life, pretty much by the tail. At the start of my sophomore year, I was a much different person than I’d been the previous fall.
So, late August 1979. I’m hanging out with a few friends at WSUP. New freshmen interested in radio have been coming in to check the place out. On this particular afternoon, a girl walked in and started looking around. She was wearing a red-and-white striped sweater—which she filled out extreeeemely well—and had long dark hair down to her waist, dark eyes, and a distinctive nose. “Holy crap,” I said to my friends. “Who’s that?” And then: “I have an overwhelming desire to go over and ask her out.” I didn’t, of course, because that is not how I rolled back in those days.
I did find out that Sweater Girl’s name was Ann. And when I found out she was going to be reading news on Tuesday nights, I did what any radio guy shy around women would do—I signed up to host the Tuesday evening show. I also found out she already had a boyfriend, but I asked her out for drinks after the show a couple of times anyhow, and she accepted. She seemed to like me, but she kept dating this other guy, too.
At the end of October, the radio station hosted a Halloween party in the student center bar. It was a rager—legend has it that the party marked the last time $1 pitchers of beer were ever offered on campus because beer consumption broke some sort of record. Ann came with her boyfriend, but she also hung around the table full of radio people, and after about two beers, I wrapped my arm firmly around her waist and didn’t let go of her for the entire night. (Except, it is said, for the brief time I climbed up on the table to do the bump with one of the sports guys.)
I am not sure what became of the boyfriend on that particular night, but even after all that, she still didn’t officially dump him.
Every year in the late fall, the radio station held a banquet. It was ostensibly a time to hand out awards and to honor the outgoing heads of various station departments, but it was mostly an excuse to dress up and drink. I asked Ann if she would like to go with me—not as a date, but as a couple of colleagues going to the same function, since I had a car and she didn’t. (Christ, was I smooth.) But after I dropped her at her dorm room at the end of the night, I asked if I could kiss her goodnight, and she said yes. I arranged to have roses delivered to her a few weeks later on Christmas Eve, and the boyfriend was out of the picture soon after that. I had actually won the girl.
There’s more to the story I could tell, but I’m going to skip ahead. Ann became The Mrs. in 1983, and is still The Mrs. today.
The red-and-white sweater is hanging in the closet in my office.
One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.
The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.
Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)
At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.