(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:
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.)
On April 24, 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels did his famous on-air bit inviting the Beatles to reunite on the show for $3,000. Michaels didn’t think they’d really show up, but he also stationed a young staffer at the front door of 30 Rock just in case, fearing that the elderly security guard on the Saturday night detail might not recognize the band members. Nobody knew then that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were watching the show at Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota—or that for a few minutes, they discussed grabbing a cab and heading to the studio.
I don’t remember whether I was watching SNL on that particular night. I’d like to think I was, though, because it makes for an attractive memory: upstairs in my room, late at night, the house is quiet, the windows are open with a spring breeze bringing sounds of the farm in from outside, and the old black-and-white TV lights up the room. (That particular set was one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends. My parents bought it for the basement when I was maybe 10, and it survived long enough to take its place in my first post-college apartment.)
In the end, John and Paul reacted just like regular people often do when confronted with one of those late-night, wild-hair, wouldn’t-it-be-something-if-we-did-it opportunities—they decided they were too tired and didn’t. That’s reassuring, in a way. Not so much that they could be a lot like us, but that we could be a lot like them.
Later that fall, after SNL began its second season, they got one of the Beatles to appear.
The second-season episode of Saturday Night Live that aired on November 20, 1976, is nothing special as comedy. Apart from the opening of the show, which features host Paul Simon in a turkey outfit, and a famous commercial for Quarry, the cereal made from stone, the sketches are among the least clever or interesting in SNL‘s brief history up to that point. It’s the music that makes the show a landmark, and specifically, the musical guest: George Harrison.
Early in the show, Simon and Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” (above), two unique voices blending with acoustic guitars that is one of the series’ loveliest musical moments. George’s verse on “Homeward Bound” is especially beautiful. The sequence looked great, too, shot through a filter that softened the video and made it seem almost dreamlike.
For the first time, the show began with an announcement that portions of it were prerecorded—later, Simon mentions that Harrison has “brought two films with him.” In a few years, we’d call them videos, for songs from George’s then-new album Thirty Three and 1/3. “Crackerbox Palace” was directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. (See if you can spot Idle’s cameo. You’ll have to be very quick.) “This Song” would have been on the radio the night of the SNL broadcast. The video features a cameo by Ron Wood as a female juror.
November 20, 1976, represented the moment at which Saturday Night Live completed the arc from buzzworthy new show to must-see to cultural icon. When they could get a Beatle, instead of simply joking about paying them $3,000 to appear, it wasn’t just a TV show anymore.
(Rebooted from a couple of ancient posts.)
In 1965, ABC launched The Beatles, a cartoon series based on the most famous musical group in the world. Because no good idea ever goes without being imitated, a series called The Beagles premiered on CBS 50 years ago this weekend, on September 10, 1966. It centered around two singing dogs and their manager, who came up with crazy schemes to make them famous. Although the songs performed in each episode bore a striking resemblance to Beatles tunes, the characters of Stringer and Tubby were not modeled after real Beatles. (Stringer’s speaking voice may remind you a little of Bing Crosby.)
In 1960, New York ad men W. Watts “Buck” Biggers and Chet Stover created the cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects to sell cereal for General Mills. With its success, they left Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and formed Total TeleVision with Treadwell Covington, another ad man, and Joe Harris, a character designer and storyboard artist. Over the next several years, Total TeleVision created anthology shows featuring several different cartoon elements. Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and The Beagles all appeared on network schedules, but each included episodes of The World of Commander McBragg, Klondike Cat, Tooter Turtle, and/or Go-Go Gophers, as well as King Leonardo. They were animated by Gamma Productions (which also did the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows at the same time), and had a look that was cheap, but distinctive. Like other Total TeleVision shows, The Beagles featured the voice talents of Kenny Delmar, a veteran radio actor who had played Senator Claghorne with Fred Allen in the 40s; Allen Swift, who had been a voice actor and writer on Howdy Doody; and Sandy Becker, another veteran of old-time radio and 1950s TV.
The Beagles ran for two years, one season on CBS and one on ABC, before going off the air in 1968. For a long time, the original masters of the show were believed lost, although Biggers told an interviewer in 2007 that nine episodes (which is all that were made) still existed, but not in complete form. They would have to be reassembled from pieces before they could be reissued. As of 2007, the rights to the show were owned by Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video.
In 1967, the Harmony label, a Columbia subsidiary, released 10 songs on Here Come the Beagles (pictured above). As you might expect, it’s pretty rare. (In 1995, the songs were reissued along with songs by another made-for-TV group, the Banana Splits, but in a thousand-copy limited edition.) The identities of the musicians who performed as the Beagles are long lost. The songs were arranged by Charles Fox, who would go on to score dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s possible that Fox sang on them, although that’s unclear. The four principals in Total TeleVision are credited as songwriters. Biggers died in 2013; his obituary indicates that he wrote the songs and shared the credits with his three partners.
The show’s main theme, “Looking for the Beagles,” has an oddly downcast lyric for such a silly show: “Lookin’ for the Beagles / Not where rich men go / Rich is for the regals / Woe is all the Beagles know.” Many of the Beagles’ songs sound like straight-up garage rock, such as “Humpty Dumpty,” heard in this existing clip from the show. Some add a flute, which seems a little incongruous, as on “I’d Join the Foreign Legion,” which you can hear in the clip here. But the gem among the Beagles’ songs is “Thanks to the Man in the Moon,” on which the anonymous lead singer nails his John Lennon impression. Any resemblance to “This Boy” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is almost certainly intentional. You can hear some of it, and see a toy commercial from 1966 to boot, in this clip.
Whoever they were, the musicians behind the Beagles (thanks to the songwriting talents of Buck Biggers) managed to channel the sound of the British Invasion and the Beatles themselves into a handful of well-crafted pop tunes. And whoever they were, they would likely be surprised to learn that a half-century later, a few people are still listening to them.
(Based on a 2008 post, but mostly new.)
(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.