Times of Storm

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(Pictured: Dick Nixon celebrates at his inaugural ball on January 20, 1973.)

I turned 10 in 1970 and 20 in 1980, so the 70s were quite neatly the decade I grew up in. Each year of the decade has a narrative I can relate to you: 1970, year of discovery; 1971, last year of full-time childhood before other people started putting in a claim on my time; 1972, going to junior high, with all the discoveries that entailed; 1974, freshman year of high school; 1975, first date; 1976, learned to drive and fell good and truly in love for the first time; 1977, got my first paying jobs off the farm and discovered that work is not always an easy thing, nor love either; 1978, graduated from high school and went to college; 1979, started my radio career and met the woman who is now my wife.

But 1973 is more absent than present in my personal history. I know I was there, but my memories of it are jumbled and random. I suspect this is because turning 13, for a boy at least, is accompanied by a form of insanity. Our bodies go haywire and our brains struggle to keep up. Everything we thought we knew is transformed, and we’re forced to deal with shit we never saw coming. Narrative is hard to maintain when every day is reset to something new.

Because it’s been 45 years now since 1973, that’s round number enough to make me think this blog should take a closer look at 1973, to see if all that time permits me to see what I missed. Maybe I’ll find that the music is better than I generally remember it. (It’s always been my least-favorite year for 70s music.) Maybe I’ll find a narrative for the year beyond the complete lack of one.

What follows is the first installment of what will be an intermittent series for as long as it takes, or as long as it lasts, which is not exactly the same thing. Maybe it will drive you around the bend with 180-proof solipsism, but I’ve already taken my best shot at that and you’re still here, so maybe not.

We’ll start with the American Top 40 show dated January 20, 1973. That was a remarkable week in American history. On Saturday the 20th, President Richard Nixon was sworn in for a second term. On Tuesday the 22nd, the Supreme Court announced the Roe v. Wade decision, former president Lyndon Johnson died, and George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier (with sportscaster Howard Cosell famously shouting, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”) to win the heavyweight boxing championship. On Wednesday the 23rd, Nixon announced an agreement to end the war in Vietnam, and on Saturday the 27th, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. And among the big radio hits were these:

40. “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Times of Storm)”/Luther Ingram. Before hearing this show I would have bet my house that Ingram had only one Top 40 hit, the 1972 smash “I Don’t Want to Be Right.” But here he is, spending his first of two weeks at #40 with “I’ll Be Your Shelter,” which is good old 60s Southern soul emotion, even as the backing track looks forward into the 70s.

39.  “The Relay”/The Who. A non-album single known in the UK as simply “Relay,” it was originally intended for Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project. It’s in the second of its two weeks at #39.

38.  “You Ought to Be With Me”/Al Green. In which Casey name-checks producer Willie Mitchell and the congregation say “Amen.”

37.  “Harry Hippie”/Bobby Womack. The hippie ideal of dropping out of materialistic modern society did not resonate much with African Americans. Their struggle was to become part of the American mainstream the kids were rejecting, and to get their share of the postwar economic bonanza the hippies believed they could live without. In “Harry Hippie,” Bobby Womack is happy to let Harry do his own thing, but not willing to do for Harry what he believes Harry should be doing for himself.

31.  “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”/Spinners and 22. “Dancing in the Moonlight”/King Harvest. Just as they have always done, these songs zap me back to the winter of 1973. I was in seventh grade. I was equipment manager of the basketball team. I would have told you then it was because I wanted to be around the games and I knew I couldn’t play. But also, the coach was my favorite teacher—who would turn out to be one of my favorite teachers of them all, one of the people who made me a writer—and that may have been the main reason.

Read more about the 1/20/73 AT40 show on Monday.


Melodies of Love

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(Pictured: Bobby Vinton, 1974.)

Between 1962 and 1964, pop stars did not come bigger than Bobby Vinton. He scored four #1 singles and hit the Top 10 on two other occasions. If you don’t know “Roses Are Red,” “There! I’ve Said It Again,” “Blue on Blue,” or “Blue Velvet” by title, you would if you heard them. When oldies stations still played 50s and 60s music, they were on a lot. His style of romantic pop seems like the kind of thing that would have become untenable once the Beatles showed up, and I’ve written as much now and then.

But here’s the thing: that style of romantic pop didn’t die. On December 12, 1964, at the conclusion of a year that supposedly changed everything, the #1 song in America was Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” a straight-up weeper in which Vinton’s voice breaks while he’s singing. It was not a hip harbinger of the future, not like the Beatles, Zombies, Kinks, Stones, Supremes, and Beach Boys, with whom Vinton shared the Top 10 in that week.

Amidst the changing fashions, some of Vinton’s mid-60s singles took on a folk-rock sound and/or socially conscious lyrics, such as “What Color (Is a Man)” in 1965. “Coming Home Soldier,” which hit #11 in 1967, sounded as old-fashioned as his early 60s hits, but its lyric resonated in that Vietnam year. But at the end of ’67, Bobby Vinton returned to the Top 10 with more of what had made him a star a half-decade before: “Please Love Me Forever” spent three weeks at #6 in November and December 1967, sharing the airwaves with “Soul Man,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Daydream Believer,” and “Incense and Peppermints.” A year later he did it again: “I Love How You Love Me” peaked at #9 for three weeks in December 1968, alongside “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Hey Jude,” and “Magic Carpet Ride.”

Vinton’s tally for the post-British Invasion 60s is pretty remarkable: 18 Hot 100 hits from 1965 through 1969, 12 of them in the Top 40, and two in the Top 10. Things would slow down a bit after that, but only a bit. Vinton would miss the Top 40 in 1970 for the first time since his career began, although he hit the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart twice. He’d be back in the Top 40 in 1972 with “Every Day of My Life,” another throwback, which got to #24 in the spring and was by some accounting the most-played jukebox record of the year. His cover of “Sealed With a Kiss” got to #19 in Billboard that summer.

With all the trouble in the world during 1974, radio playlists stuffed with disco, novelty records, nostalgic covers, and/or nostalgic styles went a long way toward helping people escape those troubles. But given his track record, that might not even have been necessary for Bobby Vinton to score big with “My Melody of Love,” a pop song not lacking in cheese, including a refrain that alternates between English and Polish. It cracked the Top 40 on October 12, 1974, and made its big leap on November 9 when it went from #17 to #6. It would peak at #3 the week after that and hold for a second week before falling to #7 for two more weeks. “My Melody of Love” was Bobby Vinton’s biggest hit since “Mr Lonely” exactly 10 years before, as was the album Melodies of Love. The song hit #1 at WABC in New York City and WCFL in Chicago, and at WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, it ranked #1 for the entire year. Vinton, who was of Polish extraction, quickly earned the nickname “The Polish Prince,” and became as big a star as American popular culture produced as 1974 turned to 1975. Later that year, he got his own variety show produced in Canada and syndicated to American stations through 1978.

Vinton’s next single could have happened only in the 1970s: a version of “Beer Barrel Polka” that made #33 on the Hot 100 and was a big Adult Contemporary hit early in 1975. Although “Beer Barrel Polka” contained a couple of disco flourishes, Vinton didn’t go all the way until 1979, when “Disco Polka” got some adult-contemporary play. (It was based on Frankie Yankovic’s “Pennsylvania Polka” from the 1940s with revised lyrics: at one point, Pennsylvania native Vinton sings, “Everybody has the mania / To do the disco from Pennsylvania.”)

Bobby Vinton’s last chart appearance came on the AC chart in 1981. He opened a theater in Branson, Missouri, sometime after that, although it’s unclear to me whether it still exists, or whether Vinton himself is still performing. If not, he’s entitled to a comfortable retirement. This spring, he’ll celebrate his 83rd birthday.

Yesterday’s Heroes

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(Pictured: In December 1975, Bob Dylan did a series of benefits for imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, during which he was joined onstage by Joan Baez, Roberta Flack, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. I think I see a couple of Eagles in there too.)

Coming home from the Twin Cities the other night, I reached into the CD bag and pulled out something labeled “January 1976.” Here’s some stuff about some of the songs on it.

“Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers. On January 21, 1976, New York radio legend Dan Ingram treated his WABC listeners to what he called an outtake from a recent visit by the Rollers to the studio, on which the band has trouble spelling “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y.” Today, you could create such a production on your laptop; in 1976, it required you to cut and splice tiny bits of recording tape. So we salute, as Ingram does, Engineer Mike, “who has a bad case of spliceman’s thumb this morning.”

“Convoy”/C. W McCall and “Hurricane”/Bob Dylan. A few years back, I tried making a link between these two very opposite-seeming records. You’ll have to tell me if it worked.

“Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac. In country radio right now there’s an absolute plague of records that fade in. I presume there’s an iPod- or Spotify-related reason for this, but if you still value the dying-if-not-dead art of good radio board work, these fades complicate your work immensely. For “Over My Head” to become an AM radio hit in 1976, it had to jump out, so it was remixed to create an introduction that replaced the fade-in heard on the album version. And jump it does—unlike the current batch of fade-in country records, which kill forward momentum only to have to try and start it up again.

“I Cheat the Hangman”/Doobie Brothers. I wonder why the Doobies’ label thought “I Cheat the Hangman” was a likely single. As good as it is, it’s just too much for AM radio, although it got to #60 on the Hot 100.

“Theme from Mahogany“/Diana Ross. Listening the other night I was struck by the similarities between this record and one that would top the charts almost exactly one year later: “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand—big movie songs sung by multimedia superstars, and quiet little interludes during otherwise noisy seasons.

“I Love Music”/O’Jays. I don’t need all of “I Love Music” to get me back to the winter of 1976; the bongos that lead into its chugging Philly soul beat are more than enough.

“Rock and Roll All Nite”/KISS. I did not enlist in the KISS Army. They were too much of a cartoon for teenage me. Today, their ability to ride minimal chops and hideously bad taste straight to immortality looks like the quintessential American success story.

“Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. Another casualty of our Spotify/song-skipping way of listening to music is the instrumental intro. They’re getting shorter and shorter, as producers figure that people want to hear Ed Sheeran sing, so let ’em hear Ed Sheeran sing rather than having to wait through 14 seconds of Ed’s band playing before Ed starts up. (This is the same line of thinking that has killed the mid-song instrumental solo.) But the instrumental intro is the radio jock’s canvas; take it away from me and I can’t do my job. “Winners and Losers” starts with 13 seconds of glory that requires a jock to be awesome.

“Yesterday’s Hero”/John Paul Young. The Bay City Rollers recorded “Yesterday’s Hero” on their 1976 album Dedication, and some people probably have heard John Paul Young’s version thinking it was the Rollers. But Young did it first, and over two years before hitting with “Love Is in the Air.”

“Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players. My CD contains the long version of this, which runs 4:50, tightens the groove, and rocks like crazy.

“Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection. It was the 70s. We couldn’t help ourselves.

“Break Away”/Art Garfunkel. The album Breakaway (note that its title is one word while the title song, written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, is two) is gorgeously produced by Richard Perry. I’d like to live inside the sound of it.

“Back to the Island”/Leon Russell. The lazy seaside vibe of “Back to the Island” sounded pretty good on the radio in the depths of that bygone winter.

I have a whole series of CDs devoted to 1976 because of course I do. I have lots of car time in my future over the next few weeks, so maybe I’ll write about them after I’ve listened to them.

The Story of Rock

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(Pictured: Prince and friends burn down the theater at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004.)

On our recent vacation, we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A few random observations follow.

—Like the best rock and roll shows, the Hall will overload your senses. Music and video blast in nearly every exhibit area, and when areas are close together, the collision of sounds is cacophonous. I actually found it a little hard to concentrate sometimes.

—Concentration is needed because the Hall is a text-heavy experience. Objects displayed in museums require context, but curators and exhibit designers usually try to keep the text providing that context as succinct as possible. My sense is that the Hall does not concern itself overmuch with that goal. Exhibits are introduced with lots of text on walls; exhibit labels offer a significant amount of detail about the artifacts on display. Some of the artifacts themselves are text-heavy: letters, contracts, lyrics, etc.

—The first gallery you visit honors early influences: those artists who predate the rock era but who helped to shape it. It includes Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, and others, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who goes in this year. But it also includes a couple of perplexing honorees, chief among them Nat King Cole, who made no secret of his dislike for rock ‘n’ roll, and who would wonder why he was there.

—Elvis Presley gets the biggest gallery. The Beatles share one with the Rolling Stones. On the day we visited, however, a gallery devoted to the career of John Mellencamp dwarfed them all. The Mellencamp exhibit is temporary, on display only until early February.

—John Mellencamp has long been #1 on my list of Hall honorees who don’t belong. He didn’t do anything groundbreaking; he isn’t an exemplar of any particular style; he has no lasting influence on artists in his wake. His records sell, but his greatest achievement is Scarecrow, recorded over three decades ago, and it’s been over 20 years since his last single of any consequence. But if the giant building on the lakeshore in Cleveland was the Hall of Sold a Lot of Records, or the Hall of Sticking to Your Job for a Long Time, you’d put Mellencamp (and lots of other inductees) in right away.

—We made it a point to visit the Alan Freed Studio, where jocks on the Sirius/XM Classic Vinyl and Deep Tracks channels do regular shifts. There’s a separate exhibit hall devoted to Freed and his early years in Cleveland. He shares the gallery with Sam Phillips and Les Paul as innovators, and with an exhibit on the history of musical technology. Altogether, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the museum.

—Critics of the Hall are often critics of Rolling Stone founder and Hall impresario Jann Wenner, suggesting that the honorees’ list reflects Wenner’s taste as much as it reflects the inductees’ place in history. Wennerphobes will be neither surprised nor pleased to learn that right now, two entire floors of the museum are devoted to an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of Rolling StoneRolling Stone‘s significance from the 60s to the 90s can’t be overstated; its significance since the 90s probably can be. But there’s no way the Hall was going to ignore the magazine’s 50th, so it’s fine.

—The best part of the museum is the last film Jonathan Demme directed before his death in 2017: the short Power of Rock, which is shown with audio at concert level in a theater dedicated for the purpose. It features performances from various Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, all-star jam sessions that in some cases have become legendary. The single longest segment in the film is from Prince’s induction in 2004, when he was joined by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on which Prince shows himself the equal of the greatest dudes who ever strapped on a guitar, Hendrix, Clapton, anybody. At one point, Petty is seen whispering to Prince, “You ready to wrap it up?”, to which Prince responds, “No,” and continues to wail.

If you read this blog, you should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not really necessary for me to say that; chances are that if you read this blog, you’ve either already been there or it’s on your bucket list. And on the day you cross it off, you’ll be glad you did.

The Best of AC and Country, 2017

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(Pictured: Miranda Lambert onstage in 2017.)

I don’t see Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart every week of the year. I suppose I could look at it, but I haven’t got the habit. So when the year-end chart comes out, I often find myself surprised by the results. This past year, for example, I expected Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” to be #1—but it came in at #2 behind Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know.” The Maroon 5 record is fine, although it’s neither quantitatively nor qualitatively different from every other single they’ve released in the last four or five years. That’s not to say I prefer “Shape of You.” The overwhelming impression I get from listening to Ed Sheeran songs, especially those on his latest album Divide, is that for as popular as they are, they should be a lot more distinctive. For example, on the autobiographical “Castle on the Hill” (#19), he’s obviously trying to tell a poignant story about the crowd he ran with as a kid and how their lives have worked out, or not, in the years since. The raw material is there, but in the execution it just kind of spools out for four minutes without ever getting anywhere.

My favorite songs of the year include Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge” (#3) and “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” (#11), Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” (#20), which feels like an old-school soul joint, and Niall Horan’s “This Town” (#21), which is as emotional and engaging as Ed Sheeran’s records want to be. Two records that threaten to drown in synthesizers and/or auto-tune, “Something Just Like This” by the Chainsmokers with Coldplay (#10) and “Life’s About to Get Good” by Shania Twain (#40), both qualify as guilty pleasures. A couple of hits that didn’t make the Top 50 are worth mentioning, too: “Wish I Knew You” by the Revivalists was first released in 2015 but didn’t become an AC hit until this year. The killer hook of the year belonged to “Feel It Still” by Portugal The Man: “I’m a rebel just for kicks now / I been feelin’ it since 1966 now.”

(I was tempted to dock “Feel It Still” a few points for the band’s remarkably bad name, which is even worse for being officially styled with a period after “Portugal,” an affectation I refuse to cotton to.  I haven’t hated an extraneous punctuation mark so much since Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.”)

Similarly, some of the best country songs of the year didn’t make the top 70 compiled by Country Aircheck magazine, including Drake White’s “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” which he delivers with the savvy of a soul singer twice his age, and two Miranda Lambert singles from her acclaimed album The Weight of These Wings, “Tin Man” and “We Should Be Friends.” My favorite country song of the year did make the Top 70, however: “It Ain’t My Fault” by the Brothers Osborne (#43), which, if you transported it back to 1979, would sound just fine on a classic-rock station, just like Lynryd Skynyrd did next to Led Zeppelin. (The #1 country song of 2017 was “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt, and the less I say about it, the better.)

But back to Miranda Lambert for a second. When I first heard her in 2010, she was firmly trading on being your crazy ex-girlfriend—which was also the title of her third album, released in 2007. With her Grammy-winning #1 hit “The House That Built Me” in 2010, she showed herself much deeper than merely that. For the next several years, her singles could be smart and touching (“Over You”, “Automatic”) or bring the crazy (“Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon”—which is the worst record she ever made—and “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood that NBC modified for its Sunday Night Football theme). But then came The Weight of These Wings. First single “Vice” was a substantial hit on momentum; “We Should Be Friends” and “Tin Man” did less well, as it seemed to dawn on people that the crazy ex-girlfriend has left town for good. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s next album, whenever it comes out, is a hit with the alt-country and Americana crowd and barely registers in the mainstream.

If there’s something you particularly liked in 2017, on a chart or not, share it with the whole class in the comments.

January Job

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I often say that certain repeat posts are “rebooted,” meaning that I have tweaked them a bit to add or remove content, or to make cosmetic changes. This post is a straight-up repeat, as it appeared on January 5, 2010, eight years ago today. Only the title is different.

They say that people with terminal diseases tend to hang on through the holidays and then expire in January. I don’t doubt it. Before the holidays, you move through your days with a lightness of spirit. You feel like giving and forgiving. After the holidays, you’re back on the treadmill, and everything reminds you of the various traps you’re in. December snow is magical; in January, it’s just something that can damn well get you killed if enough of it falls.

When I was in radio full-time, January had a couple of defining characteristics beyond free-floating misery. As the slowest advertising month of the year, January meant less time spent writing or producing commercials, which freed up more time for tasks that were often neglected the rest of the year. What I called “January jobs” included throwing out old tapes that were no longer needed, catching up on filing, or maybe just trying to find the surface of my desk underneath the debris of the past year. The best thing about the January jobs is that they required relatively little concentrated attention, and they left plenty of time for two-hour lunches.

Frequently January would bring a boat show or a bridal show. The best kind were the ones that the station did not have to plan, where we could just promote them and do a remote broadcast or two. Such broadcasts should not be confused with entertainment, however. Unless a listener is immediately interested in buying a boat or getting married, the live broadcast from the boat show or the bridal show can be spectacularly dull. And there’s something vaguely obscene about encouraging people to drop 20 large on a boat or a wedding, particularly during those periods when the economy’s gone to hell—which, in small-town Iowa during the 1980s and early 90s, was every year.

Many stations do a January promotion geared to the Super Bowl. At a couple of the places I worked, this involved giving away a catered Super Bowl party for 12 or 20 people along with a big-screen TV rental for the day, back when big-screen TVs were monstrosities few people owned, and not something you could hang on a wall, as they are today. That’s a pretty good prize by the standards of small-market radio, but the winners weren’t necessarily immunized against the misery of January. One year, our winner was extremely unhappy about getting the big TV for only one day, even though the contest promos and official rules had made it very clear. Eventually, she made us feel like she was doing us a favor by accepting the prize, and I wanted to have the sponsor deliver the damn thing to my house.

People can be surprisingly petty when they’re getting something for nothing. One of my stations gave away a ski weekend in Colorado once—airfare to and from Denver, transportation to the resort, weekend accommodations, ski equipment, a package so great we wondered how we’d ever gotten it to give away in the first place—only to have the winner complain that it didn’t include the 10-minute ride from his house to our local airport. “You mean I have to get to the airport on my own?”

But maybe the cantankerous contest winners were cantankerous because it’s January. This month sucks.

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