(Pictured: eye candy, from an episode of Charlie’s Angels broadcast on 12/8/76.)
When I found my 1976 daybook in 2009, I hoped it would be the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the mysteries of 1976, including the Big Why: why a part of me continues to live in that year despite all the other years that have passed since then. The fact that it was no such thing was a great disappointment to me.
The daybook, 40 years on, feels like a piece of performance art for an audience of one. Back then, I fancied myself a master of trivia and a student of the arcane, and so I kept a daybook full of the sort of arcana that would impress someone like myself. I couldn’t repress entirely the more useful impulses I had, which accounts for the news headlines and family milestones, but I buried them under the trappings of the character I was trying to be. As a result, the far-older me, who would like to see his former self clearly, is mighty frustrated with his former self.
But I’ve got to forgive him, too, because there’s a lot in him that’s admirable, and some in him that I wish I still had. I used to say that I admired his confidence, but I don’t think you could rightly call what he had confidence. Rather, it was a willingness to accept who and what he was. He didn’t shop around for a personality like some 16-year-olds do. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with who he was—he hated being paralyzed in the presence of girls, and he wished he were a better athlete—but he knew there wasn’t much to be done about it, so he tried to proudly embrace his geekitude. He didn’t doubt that he had found his calling in life—radio—and he pursued it as best he could. His obsessions ran deep, but his interests were broad; he tried reading Milton and Proust, and he watched the news every night because he felt it was important to know what the world was about.
None of this is in the daybook. Traces of it are there amidst the fog, but I can barely see them. So I’m left to guess about 1976, like I’ve always done before. And here’s what I think I think:
When I got my driver’s license in the spring, I achieved freedom of mobility. Once you get that, you’ve crossed a bright line into fuller participation (and greater responsibility) in the wider world. But at the same time, I had yet to cut the cord that bound me to the childhood security that was the only life I could remember. So although I was out in the world more fully than before, that independence was measured in baby steps, and it came with a safety net. Also, what I remember of the ed psych I took tells me that adolescents often see themselves as players on a stage, and they believe the whole world is watching. They tend to dramatize themselves and their actions, and I was more self-dramatizing than most—everything seemed important because it was happening to me. And at the end of the year, I experienced the thrill of being chosen by a member of the opposite sex. Your family has to love you, or so you believe. But when another person chooses you? Mindblowing. So: I experienced 1976 as if the world were a giant stage I’d just stepped onto, with new roles to play. The audience was familiar—often it was only that perpetual audience of one—but the role-playing was exciting nevertheless.
As for the music of 1976, I can’t judge it apart from the experiences of the year. It’s not especially vivid because it’s empirically better than the music of any other year. It’s vivid because it’s the music I lived with 1976, and that makes all the difference.
I knew all of this before I found the daybook again. But absence of written evidence regarding the deeper meaning of 1976 might be evidence of something else. As my friend whiteray has said, “Some years are just magical.” So maybe I’ve been looking for something that’s not there—and doesn’t need to be.
(Rebooted from a series of 2009 posts.)
Forty years ago this week, “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck reached #3 on the Hot 100, where it would stay for two weeks. It had been inescapable on the radio long before that, however, having cracked the Top 10 in some markets around the country as early as mid-May. The record is as 70s as it gets, all Mini-Moog and marimba, with a singalong lyric about listening to the radio in the car by the water with a beautiful girl (who wears a “class of 7-4 gold ring,” meaning she would be around 60 years old now). While your mileage may vary, it has always sounded to me like the distilled essence of my favorite summer.
Five years ago, I struck up a Facebook chat with David Shaver, Starbuck’s keyboard player. (You can see him in the video above, a live performance on The Midnight Special; he’s the second keyboard player, not the lead singer.) What follows is taken from a post I wrote about our chat.
“I was not a member when the record was [made],” David told me. “There were so many Mini-Moog overdubs on the album that when ‘Moonlight’ started up the charts, they realized they needed to hire another keyboard player in order to reproduce the sounds live. I also played an ARP String Ensemble to reproduce all the string parts.” . . .
Once the record hit the charts (in April 1976), things began to move fast for Shaver and Starbuck. “Opening for Hall and Oates in Macon, Georgia, was the first show I played. They were huge at the time.” Other shows followed. “The biggest show we did was opening for Boston at the Hollywood Sportatorium in Florida. I heard the sound of 16,000 screaming vocal cords and at that moment I knew what Beatlemania felt like. We played with Styx at the Atlanta Omni for Toys for Tots.” (Based on information at a Styx fansite, that show was on December 5, 1976, and also featured Boston, the Manhattans, and Dr. Hook, which is a pretty damn good concert bill in any decade.)
David says, “It was certainly one of the most exciting times of my life. We were being treated like rock stars, where two months prior we were playing night clubs! I met Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Don Kirshner, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, Peter Marshall. Once on American Bandstand, some girls in the audience made a big fuss over me and the cameras zoomed in on me in my blue Hawaiian shirt. My one and only closeup. My big 15 minutes. I’d give anything for a copy of that video!” . . .
David Shaver is still playing today, years after his rock-star adventures. “I am very happy to be performing in a show band called Glow. We’re based out of Atlanta and have some of the best vocalists in the Southeast. We play every weekend! Concerts, weddings, corporate parties, and a few select dance clubs. We just opened for the Little River Band a few months back.” Because Glow is a show band, David says, “Our song choices are focused 100 percent on the dance floor,” so “Moonlight Feels Right” is not part of their regular repertoire. But he also says, “Back in 2004/2005 I played in a wedding band and we did a great version of “Moonlight.” I did my best at imitating the marimba solo on the keyboard. Not an easy task!”
David recently posted pictures on Facebook of rehearsals for a Starbuck reunion that’s happening in August. Forty years since “Moonlight Feels Right,” what he and I share is this: no matter how far 1976 recedes into the rearview mirror, that song will always bring it back.
(Pictured: Kiki Dee and Elton John, circa 1977.)
In memory, July 1976 builds to a peak on July 31, which seems now like the hinge on which my whole life turns. On that day, my favorite summer slowly begins giving way to what will be the single most memorable season of my life.
I couldn’t possibly have perceived it that way back then, although in the daybook, it surely looks as if life is intensifying—each day’s entry is crowded with more and more stuff, most of it trivial now. I spent a few days at my grandparents’ house toward the end of July, and a few more days at the county fair, which ended on August 1. August 9 through 11 I spent with my cousin, which means that I am wrong to remember that my last vacation spent with him here in Madison was in 1975. Thursday of that week (August 12), our family went to Chicago; Friday we went to the State Fair in Milwaukee. After that, only one full week of summer remained—my note on Wednesday, August 25 says “school starts.” I would be a junior.
That year dawned with a shocker. My high school’s football team, which had won one and lost eight in each of my first two years in high school, won its first two games of the season. We wouldn’t win again until the last game of the season, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
October 1976 began on Friday the 1st with the football team getting killed on homecoming, 28-to-6. I noted that American Top 40 had a special countdown that weekend, but didn’t say what it was. (Turns out it was the 40 biggest hits of the Beatle years.) But the rest of the month is, yet again, maddeningly unspecific about my own life. On Monday the 11th, the family went out for dinner to celebrate my parents’ 18th wedding anniversary, and the football team kept losing, but there’s precious little else recorded. On Friday the 22nd, I wrote down only the football score, even though what happened later that night was far more memorable. And as October turned to November turned to December, the daybook almost completely fails to note what was really important to me: I was in love, and nothing greater had ever happened to me.
Thursday November 11th: “Got letter jacket and 1st copy of Stereo Review.” Friday November 19th: “Bought WEKZ privilege for $6.25.” (I was determined to get on the radio even if I had to pay for it.) With the coming of the basketball and wrestling seasons, most of my notes become sports scores again. But not all. On Tuesday December 14, along with the trivia (which seems not merely pointless but incredibly stupid after looking at more than 11 months of it) is the single word “WOW.” Chivalry requires, even at a distance of many years, that the precise reason for the “WOW” be left to your imagination.
And over the last two weeks of December, the year just sort of peters out. On New Year’s Eve I wrote, “Top 89, 6-Midnight” and “‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ is #1.” I don’t remember where I listened to the countdown, but I know I did. And on Sunday January 2, 1977, I put the completed book aside. I had no such book for the new year that I can remember; if I ever did, it’s long gone.
Coming in the next installment, which will appear next week: a favorite topic of mine, then and now: What It All Means.
(Pictured: Bicentennial fireworks explode over the tall ships in New York Harbor, July 4, 1976.)
Over the years I have written many, many One Day in Your Life posts about days in 1976. I have resisted repeating every one of them for The 1976 Project, but I’m making an exception for this one, which first appeared in 2011.
July 4, 1976, is a Sunday. It is the American Bicentennial, a celebration that has been in the making for several years. President Gerald Ford visits Valley Forge and Philadelphia for activities marking the date. In suburban Philadelphia, the NFL Eagles open training camp. New coach Dick Vermeil, annoyed by the fireworks he can hear bursting around the city, tells an aide, “I don’t care whose birthday it is, tell them to turn it off.” After Philadelphia, Ford heads to New York for Operation Sail, the flotilla of ships from around the world sailing in New York Harbor, before returning to the White House. Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter spends the day in Westville, Georgia, dedicating a new courthouse. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service officially lists the bald eagle as an endangered species. In Uganda, Israeli forces rescue Jewish hostages held by terrorists at Entebbe Airport. The National Air and Space Museum opens at the Smithsonian. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall suffers a heart attack, leading to speculation that he might resign his seat. A power plant malfunction in Wyoming leaves about a million people in Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah without power for as much as six hours.
In the first game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Tim McCarver hits a grand-slam home run, but is called out for passing teammate Garry Maddox on the bases. The Phillies win the game anyway, but the Pirates take the nightcap. It’s one of four doubleheaders scheduled in the majors today. Cale Yarborough wins the NASCAR Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
At the Roundhouse in London, the Ramones play their first British gig, opening for the Flamin’ Groovies. The Sex Pistols play the Black Swan in Sheffield, England; opening for them is a newly formed band called the Clash. A musician named Tom Petty writes a song called “American Girl.” In future years, it will be rumored that the song is about a girl who committed suicide jumping from a dormitory tower at the University of Florida, but Petty won’t say, and researchers will find little confirming information. Elvis Presley’s tour continues in Tulsa. Elton John plays Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and Fleetwood Mac plays Tampa. On a special edition of American Top 40 heard around the country this weekend, Casey Kasem plays each song that was Number One in America on July 4 from 1937 through 1976. Still topping the nation’s singles chart on this day: “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings, for a fifth week. “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band is right behind. The only new song in the Billboard Top 10 is Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive.” The biggest mover in the Top 40 is “Let Her In” by John Travolta, leaping from 26 to 13. New in the Top 40 are “I Need to Be in Love” by the Carpenters, “Silver Star” by the Four Seasons, and “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy.
In Wisconsin, a 16-year-old AT40 fan doesn’t listen to the radio much on this Bicentennial day, although last night, he was up late listening. WMAQ, a country station in Chicago, counted down its top songs of all time. Number One was “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich. Today, he spends most of the day at a family picnic, although is able to watch some of the TV coverage of bicentennial events. That night, he and his family will go to their traditional spot to watch the hometown fireworks. It seems to him as though life is going on as it always had. Years from now, however, he will understand that the summer of 1976 is not just different. It’s eternal.
(Pictured: a young man examines a display in the “Think Metric” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1975.)
In December 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which set up the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate a voluntary transition to the metric system. (It was to be complete by the end of 1992.) Some industries—particularly those doing business worldwide—switched over; many more did not. You probably could have predicted that Americans would in general resist the metric system, but at the time, we weren’t quite as cynical as we are now. And so there was a concerted and completely serious public effort to get people on board with the metric system.
One of the most interesting artifacts I’ve ever seen from this era is on a radio station survey from WLAC in Nashville, dated June 21, 1976. It’s headed “Metro Music Metric Survey” and “Hits That Measured Up,” and that’s only the beginning. On the front cover, on either side of the obligatory DJ photo, are a pair of rulers, one showing inches and one showing centimeters. Across the page from the hit list, there’s a chart showing how to convert length, area, mass, volume, and temperature—although the table shows how to convert from metric to English units and not vice versa, which might have been more useful for teaching purposes. WLAC apparently did this for a while in 1976—a survey from April has the same metric extras. But by sometime in late ’76 or 1977, WLAC would drop the metric stuff from their surveys.
I have written a million times about the songs at the top of this survey, so let’s listen to some of the obscurities further down:
18. “The Hungry Years”/Wayne Newton (up from 19). This was the title song of the album that brought Neil Sedaka back to prominence in 1975, and I can remember hearing his version of the title song on the radio back then. Newton’s version was his first chart hit in over three years and made it to #82 on the Hot 100.
19. “Good Vibrations”/Todd Rundgren (up from 23). In 1976, Rundgren released Faithful, which included a side of songs from 1966, not merely covers but recreations of the originals as closely as possible. (Also included were songs by the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and two by the Beatles, “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) Critics liked the originals on side 2 much better, but you can judge for yourself: listen to the whole album right here.
20. “Lonely Teardrops”/Narvel Felts (up from 22). Besides possessing one of the countriest names in country, Narvel Felts did pretty well for himself in the middle of the 1970s by covering familiar hits: Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” the blues standard “Reconsider Me,” and “Lonely Teardrops,” originally made famous by Jackie Wilson, were all Top-10 hits on the country chart. “Lonely Teardrops” made #62 on the Hot 100.
22. “Framed”/Cheech and Chong (up from 25). From the album Sleeping Beauty, “Framed” is better remembered for its appearance in the duo’s first movie, Up in Smoke.
29. “Yes, Yes, Yes”/Bill Cosby (down from 10). Apart from his long string of very successful and very funny comedy albums, Cosby hit the Hot 100 with five singles, including the 1967 Top-10 hit “Little Ole Man,” a parody of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.” “Yes Yes Yes” is a Barry White/Isaac Hayes parody; it made #46 on the Hot 100 and was Cosby’s last Hot 100 single. The album from which it came, Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days, was his first in three years, and is made up entirely of musical parodies.
The Metric Conversion Act was modified by later acts of Congress and executive orders, and the Metric Board went out of business sometime in the 80s. However, it’s still the official position of the U.S. government that we’re going to switch to the metric system eventually, even though it’s clear to the rest of us that absent an invasion and takeover by some metric power, we never will.
(Partially rebooted from a 2008 post, but mostly new. Imagine that.)
(Pictured: Johnny Cash as Grand Marshall of the Grand Bicentennial Parade in Washington, July 4, 1976.)
(Before we begin: watch this space on Memorial Day Monday for a special programming announcement.)
I have often written here how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of many American Top 40 repeats, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.
I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at #36 with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-10 hit on the country charts. Up next at #35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”
May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from #83.
After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at #34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to #33: “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash.
By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.
Up at #24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers, not a country song but one with the working-man sensibility country audiences would recognize. As I listen, I remember that in 2006, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.
Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose
YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.
Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at #35 and “Union Man” would hold at #24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to #96 and out. And 40 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.
(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2010.)