What to Do Right and How to Do It Wrong

I read not long ago that the average blog lasts only four months. Somehow this one has lasted 12 years as of today, which is both remarkable longevity and a phenomenal waste of time. Here’s a rundown of my favorite posts since last July 11th. (You can see other such lists from previous years here.)

I reprinted the first piece of music writing I ever got paid for, about a trip to Graceland in 1997. It required three installments to get it all in—first one here, second one here, third one here. I got paid for a story about a young boy’s life-altering visit to a juke joint in 1938 Mississippi. (Part one here, part two here.) It’s one of the few pieces of fiction I’ve written that wasn’t terrible. A nonfiction piece, Playing Games With Names, seemed worthy of purchase by somebody, although no one would, so I gave it to you for free.

A post called Adventures on the B-Side, whose topic is easy enough to discern from the title alone, ended up one of the most-commented-upon in the history of this blog. Another well-commented post was Key Changes, topic also easy to discern. Oddly, practically nobody chose to comment on a post about which songs and stars of the last 50 years are still going to be popular 50 years from now. One of the best comments that any post ever got came in response to The Board Operator, a radio story about being at the bottom of the broadcasting food chain. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

I had to create a new post category for tributes, with the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, and Merle Haggard. (And Bob Elliott, and Muhammad Ali, and Prince, and Billy Paul and . . . .) On the subject of categories, visit One Week in the 40 for a now-concluded series of posts that ran from December through June about songs that spent a single week in Billboard‘s Top 40. And of course, there’s The 1976 Project, revisiting old posts and occasionally putting up new ones about this blog’s favorite year. A lot of them are worthy of inclusion on this list, but there’s not room, so here’s one I’m particularly proud of.

I had a brief enthusiasm this past spring for ranking songs on albums, including Rumours and Some Girls, along with a collection of pop covers Elton John made as an anonymous session singer. I also ranked tracks on the Eagles’ two greatest hits albums from bottom to top. (First album here, second album here.) Also concerning the Eagles: while many artists have successfully opened the vaults to expand and improve upon classic releases, their only foray into releasing the previously unreleased was largely a farce.

This blog contains thousands of words (maybe millions by now) about listening to music, but far fewer about my attempts at being a musician. That’s because I wasn’t very good at it, and my career ended up a disappointment. A radio story about modest moments of fame achieved by more successful high-school musicians is here.

Ultimately, this whole blog is an ongoing road trip through the times of our lives, although I got briefly tired of traveling in a post called The Old Country. Last fall, in New Jersey, I looked for some places Bruce Springsteen made famous. In Minnesota, I went searching for something to eat but found something else entirely.

Quick hits:

—You can learn a lot just by listening to the radio—about what to do right and how to do it wrong—as shown in a post about two different American Top 40 shows recorded 11 years apart.

—A lot of what I do on the air I learned from the best newsman I ever knew.

—Another radio tale was written for the 30th anniversary of the day I started doing the morning show on a Top-40 station.

—History is written by the victors, but songs are written about the losers, which is why there have been so many songs involving the Chicago Cubs.

—Cheap Trick got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I was forced to surrender.

—One day when it popped up on shuffle, I live-blogged “We Are the World.”

—We noted the 50th anniversary of one of the most broad-based hit records of all time, a multi-format smash that came at a pivotal moment in history.

I am grateful to the ever-dwindling number of you who read this blog regularly. Thanks for your continued patronage.

Outstandingly Average

(Pictured: dudes with bagpipes, for which there was room on 70s Top 40 radio playlists.)

A few years ago I wrote about listening to the radio in the summer of 1971, and how it was like going to school. I began trying to figure out what the WLS DJs were doing and why they were doing it, because they were what I wanted to be. By the summer of 1972, I was a more advanced student. In any study of any thing, once you get the basics down, you start to concern yourself with the nuances. On WLS, I had a great set of teachers: Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, John Landecker, and all the other guys.

I was not listening to American Top 40 in 1972, but had I been, I could have learned a lot from it, too. Every time I hear a 1972 show today, I like it. The music mix walks the line between eclectic and schizophrenic, but it’s Casey I’m responding to. He’s at his most natural; now that the show has figured out what it’s supposed to be, he’s less stiff than during 1970 and 1971. More important, he’s less mannered and announcer-y than he would become. I suspect the latter was because the show was still being recorded in real time for much of 1972, as opposed to being pieced together from voicetracks, a practice that began after Dick Clark guest-hosted a show that year. Casey’s pre-voicetrack shows have an immediacy that the later shows don’t. That doesn’t mean the later shows are inferior—only different.

The show from June 24, 1972, starts off with a bang: Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” debuts at #40. The first hit by a new group, the Eagles, is new at #35: “Take It Easy.” The highest-debuting song of the week is all the way up at #19: “I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram, zooming in from #41. “Tumbling Dice” at #24 and “Layla” at #23 make for a fine segment. There is the customary ration of dreck: at #28, a song I don’t recognize starts with a Philly-soul style orchestra but turns out to be Donny Osmond’s helium-huffing cover of Nat King Cole’s “Too Young.” And David Cassidy’s cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” (#26) is a mess. But the Top 20 is mostly pure AM-radio pleasure: “Morning Has Broken,” “I Saw the Light,” “Rocket Man,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” “Lean on Me,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Outa Space.” True, the #1 and #2 songs in the land are “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. and “Song Sung Blue” by Neil Diamond, but the show’s so good up until then that you have to forgive it.

During the early years of AT40, Casey occasionally explained that an individual station’s playlist was tailored to the taste of its own market, which is why some songs heard locally never made AT40, and vice versa. A shining example of one of those songs sat at #12 on the 6/24/72 show: “Amazing Grace” by the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scotch Dragoon Guards. (It would peak at #11 on the Hot 100 the next week.) According to ARSA, it made #1 in various outposts of the British Empire, including Vancouver and Toronto, and it was a Top-10 hit on WCFL in Chicago. But WLS didn’t chart it, and I am guessing that many other radio stations around the country felt that fking bagpipe music didn’t fit their format.

Casey told the story of the band’s formation, which was long and involved and ultimately not very interesting. He concluded by noting that the band had recently passed its military inspection with a grade of “outstandingly average.” That’s a grade we can relate to around here.

July 5, 1976

bicentennial plate_croppedForty years ago today, July 5, 1976, was a Monday, the legal holiday celebrating Independence Day and America’s Bicentennial. But on July 5, the Bicentennial was a balloon with a slow leak. Although CBS continued to broadcast its primetime Bicentennial Minutes through the end of the year, the observance, which had begun two years before, started to seem threadbare and seedy. Within weeks, Bicentennial merchandise (such as the commemorative plate pictured here, which hangs on the wall in my office) was on clearance.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate Bicentennial celebration that began on July 4, 1976. Some of the most storied and significant events of the American Revolution were still in the future on July 4, 1776, including Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and his defeat of the British at Trenton, the American victory at Saratoga, the winter at Valley Forge, and the alliance with France. It was those events that sealed the destiny of the new nation, far more than the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia. We might easily have commemorated them as their bicentennials occurred over the next two years.

We didn’t do that, of course. A government commission began planning Bicentennial celebrations in 1973 and quickly gave the event an official logo. The Bicentennial Minutes began on July 4, 1974; the U.S. Mint issued Bicentennial quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins beginning in the summer of 1975, and some states issued Bicentennial license plates. Marketing and merchandising hype, which is the primary way Americans celebrate every holiday, was at full boil in 1975, resulting in an astonishing variety of Bicentennial-themed products, and criticism of the commercialism of the event.

But the Bicentennial wasn’t all cheesy, despite the way we remember it. The celebration prompted many communities around the country to spruce up, especially their sites with historic value. There was a boom in local history, a subject sadly neglected (then and now) by social studies classes, as people thirsted to learn how their community fit into the larger national drama. Some communities buried time capsules as a way to speak to the future about what mattered to 1976, just as they imagined the patriots of 1776 might speak to them 200 years later.

Cynicism isn’t a 21st century phenomenon, and lots of 1976 Americans believed the whole thing was a bad hype. In their defense, it could be hard to see past the horrid state of the nation in that summer—racked by recession, lacking confidence in elected officials, and in an uncomfortable transition to an unknown future. (Never mind the Bicentennial beer cans and toilet paper.) But the vast majority of Americans took the Bicentennial for what it appeared to be: the opportunity to be proud of what their country had accomplished in 200 years. And what it had accomplished was pretty remarkable: it had become the world’s economic engine, first at the turn of the 20th century and later after World War II; it had exported its form of democracy (successfully or not) around the world; it had mobilized its military against despotism and won; it had become the world’s cultural hub. All of which would have seemed pretty unlikely on July 4, 1776.

But by July 4, 1976, we’d been living with the Bicentennial for nearly two years. When the day was past, we were ready to put the celebration out at the curb like a dried-out Christmas tree. Like the Bicentennial itself, that, too, is distinctly American. Although we claim to venerate our history, we are descended from people who were perpetually making new starts (Davy Crockett: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas”) and reinventing themselves—a trait that persists in the way our political classes insist on rewriting history to serve their present purposes, and the way we mis-remember and distort the events of our own lives. We are much better at moving forward and imagining new futures than we are at looking back and learning from where we have been.

So it’s no wonder we tossed the Bicentennial away quickly. It’s what we always did, and what we continue to do today, 40 years later.

(If you’re interested in how the world looked on the day after the Bicentennial, the ABC Evening News from July 5, 1976, is at YouTube. Part 1 is here.)

July 4, 1976

(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.

Measuring Up

(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.)

The End of the Opus

I have written here previously that I no longer have a turntable hooked up at my house. Even before I unhooked it, I hadn’t used it for several years. I still have all my vinyl, however, taking up space here in the office. It’s still here mostly because I can’t think of a good way to get rid of it—and I would get rid of it. I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects—MP3s are fine with me.

We also have a substantial collection of cassettes. The Mrs. was a cassette buyer during her high-school days, and virtually all of the pre-recorded cassettes that are boxed up somewhere in the basement are hers. Over many years, I recorded a lot of albums (and later CDs) onto cassettes, and although I occasionally played them in the house, they got most of their play in the car.

Sometime in high school, I started making compilation tapes—8-tracks at first, then reel-to-reel tapes in college, and finally on cassette. In the early 90s, when I had a lengthy commute to and from work each day, I hit upon the idea of putting songs in chronological order. I started with 1976 because of course I did, but over the next few years, I assembled what I called the Magnum Opus. It eventually covered January 1969 through December 1979 and included every radio hit I could lay my hands on, from CD, vinyl, or cassette. I don’t recall how many tapes there were, mostly C-90s with a few C-60s mixed in (never C-120s—too fragile), but I am guessing I could have driven to Hawaii and back without repeating one. As I added missing songs to my vinyl and CD collections, I re-recorded sections of the Magnum Opus to fit them in.

During the 90s and 00s, I killed countless evenings and weekend afternoons working on it. Making a tape had to be done in real time, so it took a couple of hours to do a C-90.  It required physical manipulation of the source media, removing albums or singles from sleeves, putting them on the turntable and lowering the tonearm in the proper spot; unboxing and cueing up a source cassette to the right spot; that kind of thing. If several songs in a row came from CDs, I could program the CD changer to do the heavy lifting for me. My first cassette deck did not have a digital readout like my later ones, so as I got toward the end of each side of the tape, it was guesswork to see if a particular song was going to fit.

After I got a CD burner, I did not try to recreate all of the Magnum Opus on CD (although I did one year’s worth—guess which one). I do not have digital files for all of the vinyl and/or cassettes, and every time I think about going out to YouTube and trying to fill in the gaps, it scares me off. And compared to the analog/real-time tape-making experience, burning a CD feels like cheating.

My current car, which I bought in 2013, has no cassette deck. I own two different home-stereo decks, but neither one of them works anymore, and I haven’t seen the need to get them fixed. So there’s really no point in hanging on to the cassettes. They’re merely taking up space, and as I said at the top of this post, I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects that contain the music. So the other day, the Magnum Opus—however many cassettes it was, however many songs, from “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations through “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, which kept me company over tens of thousands of miles and something like 20 years—went out to the curb.

It was painful to do, and after I dumped them into the bin, I thought a couple of times about digging them back out. But our firetrap of a condo has too many physical objects in it to begin with, and while getting rid of the Magnum Opus won’t solve the problem, at least it doesn’t make it any worse. Everything dies, and for the Magnum Opus, it was time.

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