What follows is rebooted from something I wrote in 2007 about being a wedding-reception DJ, which The Mrs. and I were for a couple of years in the early 90s.
Consider the wedding-reception DJ. Next to the clergyman who performs the ceremony, he’s in the most public role of all the hired help. He’s an entertainer, but he’s not supposed to make himself the center of attention, either. Most of the guests probably won’t notice him at all, unless he does something one of them doesn’t like. And in any room of 250 people, that’s almost inevitable.
Some couples take great pains to come up with a list of songs they want at the reception. But here’s a little secret that some of my brethren in the wedding-DJ biz must surely share: I will ignore many of your suggestions. You simply don’t want me playing album cuts by REM at a party attended by 400 people, including both your six-year-old niece and your 89-year-old grandmother, even if REM is the groom’s favorite band. I’d be falling down on the job if I didn’t give you the benefit of the party-making expertise I possess. The bride and groom are the clients, but the guests are the audience, and the DJ owes them the best show he can put on.
One night I played, at the bride’s request, “YMCA,” which I always followed with KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It.” I made the segue and absolutely nobody left the packed dance floor—except the bride, who came blazing over to angrily tell me that I was ruining her party by playing disco. Which, to her, apparently, “YMCA” was not.
If you can tolerate one more damn tornado-related thing, here’s part of a post I wrote back in 2006 about covering severe weather on the radio, lightly edited for 2015.
It wasn’t until I got to college and watched some of the more experienced people at the campus radio station covering a severe weather outbreak that I realized a fundamental truth of broadcasting—on most days, you’re just playing records and cracking wise. You don’t actually live your station’s commitment to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity until you’re on a full severe-weather alert.
In those days, many small-to-medium market stations had the goal of owning severe weather coverage—to be the station that everybody tuned to when the skies turned dark. In Dubuque, KDTH was that station. Even though it may have been late at night or their day off, news department staffers would materialize when watches were issued, and they set a standard for the way to do severe weather right. They knew what information people needed, who to call or where to go to get it, and how to ad-lib off the radar screen, as well as how to do it while staying cool, even when the newsroom behind the studio door was chaotic. You knew—although we never faced it while I was there—that if a tornado were bearing down on the station’s very building, they’d stay on the air no matter what. I learned a lot at KDTH, and by the time I got to my next radio job, on tornado alley in western Illinois, I considered myself an expert on how to cover severe weather.
One of my jobs there was public-service director, which meant I was responsible for the box of 3-by-5 cards with “community calendar” information for jocks to read, and for the public-service announcements jocks could play to fill time. That first spring, I planned to do a series of PSAs for Tornado Awareness Week, but management vetoed them. We can’t let you do it, they said, because it might start a panic.
Honest to God, that’s what they told me, and I still can’t fathom their logic. But they fired me a few weeks later (not for the tornado PSAs, but for something equally loony) and I went to the other station in town. As it turned out, that station was about to be purchased by the guy who had been the general manager at KDTH, so I was sure my weather expertise would be appreciated there, and it was.
Within a few years, severe weather coverage, especially on music radio stations and extra-especially in large markets, started going out of fashion. In the late 80s, a jock in Dallas was famously fired for breaking his station’s format rules to read a tornado warning for the area. At about the same time, I was driving home in a horizontal rainstorm driven by 50MPH winds and listening to a station in my town when I heard the jock say, “A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of our listening area. If you want to know the details, call me on the listener line.”
Honest to God, that’s what he said. If he’d been working for me, I’d have fired him on the spot. To this day, it might still be the single worst thing I’ve ever heard on the radio—although he was probably just doing what he’d been told to do.
By the early 90s, I was working for an owner whose commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity matched my own. The station was located in a little prefab house on a hill just outside of town. During the first bout of bad weather that spring, I wasn’t entirely up on the local geography. “Hey,” I said to one of the news people, “We’ve got a warning here that says a tornado is on the ground seven miles southeast of Miles, Iowa. Where is that?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “That’s . . . here.” Instead of heading for shelter in the basement, I immediately ran outside to look for the tornado.
I didn’t see it.
Today, I’m pleased that my stations have a commitment to cover severe weather, and they’ll pay us to come in after hours to do it if necessary. It’s part of the reason they have the license in the first place. Without that commitment, they’re just playing records and cracking wise.
(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.”
(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.