On Melvin Road

One of the more striking numbers in Van Morrison’s catalog is called “On Hyndford Street,” a memory of childhood spoken over ambient music. On the flip is something similar, about a single summer day from no specific year, but many years ago. I can’t decide if it’s off-topic for this blog or squarely on it.

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Breakdown Dead Ahead

(Pictured: There are lots of pictures of attractive women on the Internet. A significant percentage are of Blondie’s Debbie Harry.)

We’ll wrap up this week of posts about 1980 with the American Top 40 show from the week of May 24, 1980, which was the week after I started rockin’ the night shift at WXXQ. We were an album-rock station, although you would have heard some of the week’s Top 40 hits on our air. Some of them listed below (with a couple of additions for cause).

40. “Love Stinks”/J. Geils Band. Later in the summer, I’d try to make a hit out of “Just Can’t Wait” from the same album.

38. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”/Billy Joel. Not merely debuting in the 40, but on the Hot 100 at this lofty position.

28. “The Seduction”/James Last. Not on our playlist that summer, but mentioned here because James Last, famed more in Europe than here for lushly orchestrated easy-listening music, died a couple of days ago at age 85. “The Seduction” was from the American Gigolo soundtrack, which also included Blondie’s “Call Me.”

24. “Pilot of the Airwaves”/Charlie Dore. We didn’t play this either, but Charlie Dore was the subject of an interesting interview with a British journalist earlier in the week, so go read it. As a radio guy I’m prejudiced, but “Pilot of the Airwaves” is the best thing on this countdown.

23. “Train in Vain”/The Clash. “Train in Vain” was not listed on either the label or the jacket of London Calling, so at the college radio station, we hand-labeled it. But one of the jocks just couldn’t figure it out. He’d play the wrong track every damn time.

22. ‘You May Be Right”/Billy Joel. Insert your own opinion here. I got nothin’.

17. “Another Brick in the Wall”/Pink Floyd. Casey introduces this by reading a letter from a guidance counselor who objects strongly to it, from the sentiments it expresses, to the ominous sound of it, to the way it makes teachers feel bad, all in the aggrieved tone of somebody who still thinks Guy Lombardo is the shit. Casey mentions that “the song’s creator” (Roger Waters, name not mentioned) wrote it as part of a larger work (The Wall, title not mentioned) that is critical of conformity and oppression in general, not just in schools. I am sure that wouldn’t have satisfied the letter writer. I am also sure I detected a wee touch of mockery in Casey’s tone as he read the letter.

16. “Breakdown Dead Ahead”/Boz Scaggs. Casey reports that listeners to a San Francisco radio station had recently voted the Boz track “Loan Me a Dime” as the song they’d most want to have on a desert island. You could do worse than to take “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” the hardest-rockin’ single Boz ever made. (Unintentionally hilarious video at that link.)

15. “Brass in Pocket”/Pretenders. I liked this when I heard it the other day, but I can’t remember having an opinion about it one way or the other in 1980.

14. “Coming Up”/Paul McCartney. Casey plays the studio version, on which Paul’s voice is processed almost to unrecognizability. He mentions that it’s a double-sided hit, but doesn’t say that the other side is the live version, which is far better.

11. “Against the Wind”/Bob Seger. By this point in the countdown I am starting to feel as if this show will never end—a common problem with the four-hour shows—and the repetitive blandness of the music doesn’t help. (See also #4, #13, #18, #19, #21, #26, #28, #30, #31, #34, #37, #39, and this old post about a different week in the summer of ’80.) The liveliest things on the show are the extras, which are disco hits from the summer of 1979. I never thought I’d be glad to hear “Ring My Bell” and “Bad Girls.”

10. “Cars”/Gary Numan. The single weirdest thing in my vinyl library might be the picture-disc 45 of Numan’s earlier single “Are Friends Electric?”

5. “Sexy Eyes”/Dr. Hook. We didn’t play this either, but I’m including it because you can’t name another Top 5 hit that’s gone further down the memory hole.

1. “Call Me”/Blondie. In its sixth and final week at the top. I don’t think we played this song on WXXQ either, but listening to the countdown the other day, I was so happy to hear something uptempo amidst all the adult-contemporary schlock that it almost sounded good to me.

This post isn’t very good, I fear. It is the summer 1980 Top 40 of posts.

Godspeed You, Boy

(Pictured: How we imagined our typical listener. Like every other memory, this one is subject to error.)

Here are a few more random recollections about being the album-rock night guy at WXXQ in Freeport in the summer of 1980.

—One of the interesting characters on the staff was a newsman named Bud. Bud seemed old, although it occurs to me he now may have been 60. He had a somewhat irreverent attitude toward his job that occasionally crept through on the air. He once referred to a particularly heavy rainstorm as a “toad strangler,” which is a term I have used myself ever since.

—When you turned on the microphone in the news studio, it automatically triggered a continuous tape loop that played a teletype sound effect (something like this), intended to provide the ambiance of a busy newsroom underneath the newscast. The real wire machine sat right outside my studio window. I remember ripping and reading the story about Richard Pryor setting himself on fire, 35 years ago yesterday.

—I would occasionally bring the small portable TV from the newsroom into my studio and set it up under the control board to watch the Cubs while I worked. I also had it on when Ronald Reagan very nearly chose former president Gerald Ford to be his running mate at the Republican convention that summer.

—The jock who was on before me was a guy I had listened to when the station was in its previous incarnation as a Top 40 blowtorch. He had a stalker, a young woman who was quite profoundly in love with him, she said. She’d call the studio line at 6:05 and ask if Jeff was there. I’d look right at him and say no he wasn’t. Did I know where Jeff was going ? No I didn’t.

—The station had an AM sister that operated only during daytime hours. At the start of the summer, the evening shift, 6:00 until sign-off, was split between a couple of high-school girls. One of them seemed to have potential; she’d ask questions of me—the grizzled veteran in the next studio, with 18 whole months of on-air experience—and take the answers to heart. But the other had a nice voice with nary a thought in her head. On those nights when the weather went sideways, I collected the warnings off the wire and took the pertinent ones to the AM studio. One night was especially busy, with several warnings in effect at once. I took the latest one into the studio and found the girl just sitting there, dead air, stricken look on her face, overwhelmed by the requirements of her job on that particular night. In memory, I manage to gently coax her into doing her job. In actuality, I probably yelled at her to get something on the air goddammit and then read this warning. It wasn’t long before she quit (or was fired). The other girl was demoted to weekends.

—I wasn’t officially the station’s music director—Jeff was. But it wasn’t long before he was letting me pick new songs for airplay and set up the rotations, figuring that if I wanted to do what he considered tedious clerical work without getting paid extra for it, then godspeed you, boy. I tried making a hit out of Billy Joel’s “Sleeping With the Television On,” but I’m still waiting.

—In August, we did a promotion with the local Dr. Pepper bottler to sponsor self-propelled paddleboat races on the Pecatonica River. We promoted the thing to death, encouraging our listeners to enter and race, only to have maybe a dozen people show up on the day of the event. It was a disaster. I can still see myself in one of the paddleboats, trying to muster up some sort of excitement among the dozen, and in myself. Not long after that, my week of shows at the Winnebago County Fair bombed, too. Perhaps our promotional strategy was not very well thought out.

I wish I could remember more about that job in the summer of 1980. It was exactly the kind of experience every young broadcaster should have, thrown in and and expected to swim, but in a safely shallow pool. I was lucky to have had it.

The Way Life’s Meant to Be

(Welcome to 1980 week. The link above is an optional soundtrack for this post.)

Thirty-five years ago this summer, I was working my first full-time radio job. I got the gig through a college friend, and from May to August 1980 I was on the air from 6 to midnight, Sunday through Friday, on WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois. Several of my colleagues that summer were people I had heard when I was still just dreaming of radio. Because of my hours, I rarely saw any of them, but it was enough to know they were there. And that I was one of them.

My nightly routine rarely changed. It was my last summer living in Mom and Dad’s house, and I could get to work in about a half-hour. So I’d leave about 5:00, park in the lot of the State Bank building in downtown Freeport, and ride the elevator up to the 12th floor. The station ran an album-rock format, and since the format was very new, we were turning over the strongest songs in our library very, very quickly, so that anybody sampling us stood a good chance of hearing something they’d like. I would sometimes play “Stairway to Heaven” or “Aqualung” twice in a six-hour shift—and I complained about that all summer.

My show did not have a lot of commercials. The first hour, technically a part of afternoon drive-time, usually did, but after 7:00, there wasn’t much, mostly ads for Pepsi products or other ads placed by regional ad agencies that could get the time for next to nothing. But on some nights, especially Sundays, even next-to-nothing was too expensive. More than once I went into the break at 6:50 by saying, “We’ll roll five hours commercial-free right after this.”

After the station signed off at midnight, I would occasionally have a bit of production to do, either recording a script over a music bed or dubbing some produced spots for use on the air. That kind of work happened just infrequently enough to be a treat. More often, however, I’d be in the parking lot by 12:05. On an occasional Friday night, I’d meet up with the two college friends who worked at the station and lived in Freeport. We’d split a pizza, have a beer or two, and talk about the stuff 20-year-old guys talk about. But on most other nights, I’d simply back out of my parking space, get on Highway 26, and drive north.

As I think back on that summer now, the most vivid memories involve the drive home. Having just listened to six hours of music, I wanted to hear voices, so I would listen to WBBM, the all-news station from Chicago. By August, I could have driven home with my eyes closed, navigating by what was on WBBM at any given moment, knowing I was in Cedarville or Orangeville or Oneco based on what I was hearing, up familiar hills and around familiar curves, bugs whacking the windshield. I would roll into the driveway at home between 12:35 and 12:40, let myself into the darkened house and rummage in the refrigerator, where I would sometimes find a plate of whatever the family had for dinner, carefully wrapped up for me to microwave if I chose. Sometimes I’d go immediately to bed, but other times I would stay up for a while, reading and listening to the radio, or watching whatever one might find on broadcast TV in the middle of the night, in the days of the three-channel universe. And in the morning, at 10 or 11 or noon, I’d get up for another day.

I have some letters I wrote that summer, and they reveal that I experienced the same regular workaday frustrations that come with any job—colleagues who seemed dense, rules that seemed arbitrary. I missed my girlfriend and I occasionally chafed at my parents’ expectations. But those are the incidents that will be left out of the story when I tell it years later, the story of a radio man doing radio, blissfully ignorant of what I didn’t know, making $135 a week.

Feels Like the First Time

(Pictured: Foreigner in 1977.)

We all recognize that certain seasons of certain years retain a hold on the imagination forever after. There are certain weeks like that, too. The single greatest piece of music writing I’ve ever read was Eric Boehlert’s Salon article about Christmas week of 1969, and the epic variety of music on both major charts that week, legendary songs, albums, and stars that both epitomize and shape the history of rock. In this blog’s first autumn, I wrote about a week in November 1976 loaded with what would become classic-rock radio standards. Recently I have been listening to the American Top 40 show from May 28, 1977, and that particular week was even better. Dig it:

4. “Dreams”/Fleetwood Mac
7. “Couldn’t Get It Right”/Climax Blues Band
10. “Feels Like the First Time”/Foreigner
11. “Hotel California”/Eagles
17. “Heard It in a Love Song”/Marshall Tucker Band
18. “Lido Shuffle”/Boz Scaggs
20. “Jet Airliner”/Steve Miller Band
21. “So In to You”/Atlanta Rhythm Section
24. “Margaritaville”/Jimmy Buffett
25. “Mainstreet”/Bob Seger
28. “Life in the Fast Lane”/Eagles

You might debate which of those are Image cuts and which are mere Gold (to use some jargon from deep in my program-director past), but either way they’d be among the first into the library if you were building a classic-rock format from scratch. And there are more further down the Hot 100:

42. “On the Border”/Al Stewart
43. “Spirit in the Night”/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
52. “Peace of Mind”/Boston
56. “You and Me”/Alice Cooper
68. “I’m in You”/Peter Frampton
69. “Cinderella”/Firefall
71. “The Pretender”/Jackson Browne
73. “Back in the Saddle”/Aerosmith
74. “Solsbury Hill”/Peter Gabriel
83. “Burnin’ Sky”/Bad Company
84. “Barracuda”/Heart
86. “Just a Song Before I Go”/Crosby Stills and Nash
96. “Ridin’ the Storm Out”/REO Speedwagon

A pretty good mixtape, yes?

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Livin’ on the Air

(Pictured: Cincinnati. Let’s pretend that WKRP was located in one of these buildings.)

We have been watching the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, from the box set that restored most of the music and replaced some of the ridiculous cuts that were made on the Season 1 release a few years ago.

The show was originally scheduled opposite Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie in the fall of 1978, and the ratings were awful—so poor, in fact, that the show was pulled in November, after only eight episodes. One of those episodes, “Turkeys Away,” is the WKRP episode everybody remembers—but despite its Thanksgiving theme, it actually aired on October 30, three weeks before the holiday. When the show returned to the air in January, it had the single best time slot on CBS, immediately following M*A*S*H. The first episode after its hiatus was a clip show intended to bring new viewers up to speed on the story.

WKRP was a different show after its first-season hiatus. Most of the first eight stories focused on radio—a punk band comes to town, Bailey gets her own show, Johnny does a remote broadcast that goes wrong, and so on. The switch to the post-M*A*S*H time slot ostensibly freed creator Hugh Wilson and his writing staff to tell more character-based stories, and to focus less on wacky radio hijinx. The remainder of the first season is a little uneven, with storylines that had become stale years before:  Johnny tries to adopt a foundling left on the station’s doorstep, Mr. Carlson has trouble relating to his preteen son, Herb breaks up with his wife and his friends try to get them back together. Much better: Johnny leaves the station for a job in Los Angeles, the mysterious Venus Flytrap gets his backstory, and a funeral home makes an enormous ad buy and the WKRP staff sings the jingle.

Next to “Turkeys Away,” the best-remembered episode of the first season is probably “Fish Story.” It’s the one where Johnny and Venus get drunk on the air as part of a public-service promotion, and Herb, dressed as the new station mascot (a carp), gets into a fight with the mascot from crosstown station WPIG. Wilson wrote the episode under pressure from CBS to do more physical comedy, and he hated it so much that he took his name off of it—only to see it become the highest-rated episode of the entire series.

WKRP went on the air during my first semester at college, and I started watching it at the same time I started working at the campus radio station. Honesty compels me to report that the further we get into the series, the less familiar the episodes become, so I don’t think I watched it regularly after the first few episodes. This might be due to the fact that CBS moved the show all over its schedule during its four years on the air and it was hard to find. It’s arguable that the show didn’t gain true popularity until after its network run, when it started airing in after-school, prime-time access, or late-night slots five days a week, where viewers could actually find it.

We’ve just started the second season, by which time Loni Anderson has become the show’s breakout star, so Jennifer and her Jessica Rabbit style are prominently featured in most episodes. The best thing about the second season, however, is that Bailey starts wearing those glasses. The perfect WKRP episode would be 24 minutes of Bailey and her glasses. No doubt about it.

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