Big in Oshkosh

(Pictured: Peggy Lipton with her Mod Squad co-stars Michael Cole (L) and Clarence Williams III (R). Lipton was a singer as well as an actress, and one of her singles was on a few radios 45 years ago this week.)

OK, this is just fantastic: the Fun One Plus 49 survey from WOSH in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1490 on your AM dial, dated February 1, 1970. The top of the chart includes the big national hits of the moment (Shocking Blue, the Guess Who, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mark Lindsay, the Hollies, Sly and the Family Stone, etc.), a dollop of adult-contemporary flavor (Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the fabulously trippy “Midnight Cowboy” by Ferrante and Teicher), the Johnny Cash version of “If I Were a Carpenter” right next to “Whole Lotta Love,” and the chart debut of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It also includes the sort of forgotten singles we really dig around these parts. A few of them appear on the flip.

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A Terrible Place

Forty years ago, in the winter of 1975, I was a freshman in high school. My first girlfriend and I were falling for each other, and on Valentine’s Day, we would pledge our devotion. I had discovered FM radio the previous fall, and so I frequently listened to my new favorite stations on Mom and Dad’s gigantic console stereo. I know I must have had day-to-day concerns, but they’re forgotten now. All that remains is another treasured season of my childhood, safe and protected in a world that seemed manageable, and that held out to me the promise that I could do and be whatever I chose. There were a lot of seasons like that in the middle of the 1970s. Collectively, they were the Best Time of My Life.

Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is the second of a trilogy that will ultimately tell the story of the unraveling of the post-World War II liberal consensus and the more fractious, more conservative state that arose in its wake. (Perlstein’s first book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, covers the years 1965 through 1972; a future volume will tell about the Carter years and Ronald Reagan’s eventual election to the presidency.) The Invisible Bridge is a political history of the period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, but it also paints a vivid picture of American culture in the middle of the 1970s.

And in the middle of the 1970s, Americans weren’t just in a terrible place—America was a terrible place. Culture wars threatened to crack society wide open, over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston, to name but two places where liberal notions about progress were coming into direct conflict with people who had no desire for that kind of progress. Crime rates rose. The economy shuddered and shook—food and energy prices skyrocketed, growth stopped, unemployment rose, and President Ford (pictured) told New York to drop dead. The superpower that had once stood astride the world was forced out of Vietnam with its tail between its legs. Between 1973 and 1976, Americans came face-to-face with the likelihood that its best days were behind it.

The Invisible Bridge traces Ronald Reagan’s life story from his Illinois boyhood to Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and afterward, when he used a nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column to argue that no, America’s best days were not behind it, and ultimately, that his leadership could restore America’s greatness. The climax of the book involves Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. After Ford was defeated by Carter, most commentators believed Reagan’s political career was over. But as we know, it was not. Reagan would harness the resentments unleashed in the middle of the 1970s—and, to be fair, the hopes of Americans battered by the cultural and economic storms—and ride into the White House four years later.

I have said, and may even have written here, that I always felt as though nothing bad would happen while Jerry Ford was in office; in Perlstein’s telling, Ford was a well-meaning man for whom the presidency was probably too much. In other words, a lot of bad stuff really did happen, and we were lucky there wasn’t more. Even though I heard the news on the radio every day, watched it on TV every night, and read the paper most days, the creeping awfulness of that time somehow escaped me then. What The Invisible Bridge made clear to me that the Best Time of My Life was not nearly so safe and secure as I felt it to be.

Forty years ago this week, a record called “Please Mr. President,” written (apparently) by a news reporter at CKLW in Detroit and recorded by a 10-year-old girl named Paula Webb, debuted on the Hot 100. It would reach #60 in a four-week run. Little Paula explains how times are hard for her family, and she asks Ford to do something to help her unemployed father get his job back. It’s probably a more truthful snapshot of American reality in February 1975 than anything you’re going to read from me.

The Whole Show

One of the more fascinating incidents in Elton John’s landmark-stuffed year of 1975 was the all-day concert he headlined at Wembley Stadium on June 21st. Supporting acts included Rufus, Joe Walsh, the Eagles (of which Walsh was not yet a member), and the Beach Boys. On that fine afternoon, the Beach Boys gave the crowd all the summertime they could handle—and set the bar almost too high for Elton to clear. Elton’s decision to play all of his then-new album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy caused many in the crowd to leave before the headliner was finished.

Almost 10 years ago, the live performance of Captain Fantastic got an official release as the second disc of a deluxe edition of the original album. The live disc also included performances of “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” from Wembley. The deluxe edition gives the impression that Captain Fantastic was the whole show, beginning with BBC Radio DJ Johnnie Walker introducing Elton, and Elton taking over to introduce his new album. We hear him apologize for the high price of it in English record shops, and then he warns that some people might be bored by hearing the whole thing but they’re going to play it anyway.

There was much more to Elton’s set that day, however. Before playing Captain Fantastic in its entirety, Elton packed a set with hit songs from the previous couple of years: “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The set included a couple of off-the-wall choices: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, and “Chameleon,” a song that would appear on the 1976 album Blue Moves. Elton even brought back “I Saw Her Standing There,” which he’d famously performed with John Lennon in New York the previous November. Only then did he and the band play Captain Fantastic start to finish.

A bootleg of the full Wembley show recently turned up at The Ultimate Bootleg Experience, but it’s not really the bonanza it appears to be. It opens with the Walker intro from the deluxe edition, then cuts to a pretty terrible audience recording of the first set: you can hear Elton and his piano but you can’t make out much else. The Captain Fantastic performance comes straight from the deluxe edition CD in copyright-infringing full-fidelity stereo. Still, it’s good to hear the whole thing (as much as it’s possible with such a crappy recording), and it makes it more understandable why Elton’s fans might have decided to pack it in before the show was over. You’ve been out in the sun all day and you’ve heard a lot of music. Elton’s played all of his hits, but the next 45 minutes is going to be stuff you don’t know, so why not call the day good enough and go beat the traffic?

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that Elton had recently fired almost all of his band, some of whom had been playing with him since he still lived in his parents’ house. Only guitarist Davey Johnstone was retained, although several of the new players were musicians Elton had known and played with years before. The Wembley show was their first official gig together. At about the same time, the new band was recording the followup to Captain Fantastic. Rock of the Westies was being recorded mostly in Colorado (hence its name), so the band was zipping back and forth across the Atlantic that summer like most people go to the office.

Somebody should write a book about Elton’s remarkable 1975. I’m not the one to write it, but I’d definitely read it.

Gimme Some More

(Pictured: James Brown, photographed in 1968 by Walter Iooss Jr., who did much of his most famous shooting for Sports Illustrated.)

Most of the music surveys at the fabulous Airheads Radio Survey Archive are from Top 40 stations. The ones from other formats open an interesting window into music history. Take the one from WWRL in New York City dated January 27, 1972. The R&B station ranks its top 16 songs (because its frequency was 1600 on AM), but its survey also includes listings of top-selling albums and singles from four different music distributors doing business in the New York area. Since there are so many to choose from, let’s pick 10 instead of our customary five, in no particular order.

“Son of Shaft”/Barkays, “Shaft”/Joe Bataan, and “Shaft”/Chosen Few. Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” had fallen out of the Hot 100 a couple of weeks before, but other acts were taking advantage of its enormous popularity. On “Son of Shaft,” Hayes’ Stax labelmates re-purposed his scratchy rhythm guitar, heavy beat, horny horns, and cooing background singers. Although the whole thing tends to lose its way at around the two-minute mark, it’s easy to see the appeal to many listeners who dug “Theme From Shaft.” But not as many, as it made only #53 on the pop chart. Joe Bataan’s “Shaft” is a straight-up cover that feels about half again as fast as the original. Bataan, a native New Yorker, would go on to co-found the Salsoul label later in the decade. The Chosen Few version is a reggae take by a Jamaican band that looks to have made a career out of cover songs.

“Gimme Some More”/JBs, “Keep on Doin'”/Bobby Byrd, and “Talking Loud”/James Brown. Besides Shaft, the other major cultural force in early ’72 R&B was James Brown. The JBs were Brown’s band and Byrd his longtime collaborator. “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing (Part 1)” would reach #27 on the pop chart, another in the long string of Brown’s ferocious funk joints that would make it onto American Top 40 without being played by many of the show’s affiliates.

“Taurus”/Dennis Coffey. I did not expect to see Melanie, Rod Stewart, and the Osmond Brothers on this survey, but for a white guy, Dennis Coffey clearly belongs. He’d already scored on the pop and R&B charts with “Scorpio” late in 1971 and played on sessions for everyone, including Motown’s Funk Brothers. Coffey rocks like crazy on “Taurus,”  as if he were trying to hold off the Great Mellowing of the 70s all by himself. Dude is on fire.

“The Day I Found Myself”/Honey Cone. The year 1971 had been good to Honey Cone, with “Want Ads” (#1 pop), “Stick-Up” (#11), and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (#15). “The Day I Found Myself” is spectacular girl-group soul and should have done as well, or better.

“I Think About Loving You”/Earth Wind & Fire. Two years before their first Top 40 hit (“Mighty Mighty”) and three years before “Shining Star,” EW&F were getting the sound. “I Think About Loving You,” from the group’s second album The Need of Love, didn’t make the pop chart. The horn and organ backing track has some great breaks, and the whole record has a mellow vibe that you can get lost in.

“Chitlins and Cuchifritos”/Joe Thomas. Our friend Larry Grogan pulled this out of his crates about a year ago, so go read his post to learn more about it. For those of you who may be white people of northern European extraction, cuchifritos are Puerto Rican fried dishes containing various pork parts: ears, stomachs, tails, and so forth.

WWRL went on the air in 1926 and had studios at the same location for 79 years. It’s still on the air today with the same call letters, still on 1600. It programmed mostly to an African-American audience until 2006 when it became the New York affiliate of the Air America talk network. In 2014, it went all-Spanish.

Love You, Hate That

(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.

One Day in Your Life: January 23, 1986

(Pictured: the space shuttle Challenger peers through the fog as it awaits launch.)

January 23, 1986, is a Thursday. In men’s college basketball, Minnesota beats Wisconsin 67-65 in Madison. Tomorrow, three Minnesota players will be arrested for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman at a hotel after the game. Minnesota will forfeit its scheduled game against Northwestern on Sunday, and coach Jim Dutcher will resign over the incident. Scientists examining photos of Uranus taken by the Voyager II spacecraft discover a new moon orbiting the planet, which will be named Bianca. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger is postponed for a second straight day. It will be postponed three more times before being launched on Monday, Tuesday, when it will explode 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew. The New York Times reports that claims by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos that he was a guerrilla resistance leader during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines are false. The federal government reported yesterday that the economy grew in 1985 at the slowest rate since the recession year of 1982. In Gainesville, Florida, police dog Gero is killed in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. In today’s Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin tries a new plan to get out of going to school.

In Los Angeles, Luther Vandross has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after a crash earlier this month that killed one person and injured four others. In December, he will plead no contest and get probation. The first class is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Alan Freed, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, and John Hammond. The Beatles are ineligible because by rule, inductees must be at least 25 years removed from their first hit record. Three days before the Super Bowl, the opposing quarterbacks, Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears and Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, appear on the Today Show along with NFL wives and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On TV tonight, ABC airs the movie Grease 2 and 20/20; NBC’s lineup includes The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, and Hill Street Blues; CBS airs Magnum P. I., Simon and Simon, and Knots Landing.

AC/DC plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and Hot Tuna plays Boston. Motley Crue plays Essen, Germany, and KISS plays St. Louis. Aerosmith plays Reno, Nevada, and Stevie Ray Vaughan plays Utica, New York. At WKTI in Milwaukee, the station’s new music survey comes out tomorrow. “Burning Heart” by Survivor leaps to #1, displacing “Goodbye” by Night Ranger. The biggest mover in the Top 10 is “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston, moving from #7 to #2. New in the Top 10 are “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean at #8 and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister at #9. The biggest mover within the station’s Top 30 is “These Dreams” by Heart (#26 to #19). Also moving up big are “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy (to #12 from #18) and “Nikita” by Elton John (to #23 from #29). The highest debuting new song of the week is “The Sweetest Taboo” by Sade at #26.

Perspective From the Present: In January 1986, I had just begun doing the morning show on WKAI. I pushed the buttons on a 90-minute farm and news block from 5:30 to 7AM, then did what was intended to be a wacky morning show from 7 to 10. As I have noted before, my partner and I weren’t being coached by anybody, and whatever entertaining stuff we came up with was mostly by accident. My working day was usually over between 12:30 and 1:00. The Mrs. was selling advertising for a regional magazine, so I’d get home in the afternoon to a quiet house and usually take a nap. Because I was program director, I was on call 24/7, so my naps were frequently interrupted. In January, I would have still put up with those interruptions. It wasn’t until spring that I started taking my phone off the hook. In later years I’ve realized that my career was never the same after that. I was never again as obsessed with radio as I had been until then.

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