A Happening Thing

(Pictured: the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, 1967.)

As we make our way through the 50th anniversary of 1967, looking back at the Billboard Hot 100 week by week is a mind-blowing experience: so many songs that remain imprinted on our DNA, so many acts that define what pop and rock music means to us, all appearing in what was then real time. The chart dated March 11, 1967, is almost too much to take in: “Ruby Tuesday,” “Kind of a Drag,” “Penny Lane,” “Happy Together,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “The Beat Goes On,” “I’m a Believer,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and others. You know them all.  Some notes follow:

—There’s remarkable volatility on the chart, at least by pre-Soundscan standards. “Penny Lane” jumps from #36 to #5 and “Strawberry Fields Forever” enters the Top 40 at #16 from #45 the week before. “Happy Together” leaps to #8 from #21, and “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Mamas and the Papas hits #10 from #26.

—Amidst the rock classics, middle-of-the-road pop continues to make a stand as Ed Ames’ “My Cup Runneth Over” moves into the Top 10. It’s a love song of remarkable power and poignancy, as we’ve noted before. Also among the Top 60 this week: Frankie Laine, Tom Jones (with the classic “Green Green Grass of Home”), Al Martino, Jack Jones, and Petula Clark.

—The Royal Guardsmen had spent four weeks at #2 in January with “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. ” They had sent a copy of the record to Charles Schulz hoping to get his blessing. According to group member Barry Winslow, Schulz’s lawyers suggested the record be renamed “Squeaky vs. the Black Knight.” Eventually, the Guardsmen got official permission to use the Snoopy character, in exchange for “a pretty healthy chunk of money.” Fifty years ago this week, “Return of the Red Baron” blasts into the Top 40 on its way to #15. Two more Snoopy-themed hits will follow. At the end of 1967, “Snoopy’s Christmas” will become one of the most successful holiday novelties ever. “Snoopy for President” will stall at #85 in the summer of ’68.

—“I Never Loved a Man” by Aretha Franklin is in its second week on the chart, moving from #80 to #52. It was the only song finished during Aretha’s January session at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals—which dissolved into chaos thanks to a racially charged dispute between Franklin’s husband/manager and some of the session musicians.

—The chart is studded with other classic soul performances: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” by Wilson Pickett, “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” by Sam and Dave, the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas, Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street.” Also appearing: Jerry Butler, Freddie Scott, Solomon Burke, James Brown, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, and Bo Diddley.

—Heads tuned to psychedelic rock can dig “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet,” and “It’s a Happening Thing” by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy this week. There are also plenty of pop songs sprinkled with trippy fairy dust: among them “Happy Together,” “Pretty Ballerina,” “98.6,” “Mairzy Doats” by the Innocence, and “That Acapulco Gold” by the Rainy Daze, whose chemical inspiration is right in the title.

—Besides “Kind of a Drag” at #2, the Buckinghams also score with “Laudy Miss Claudy” (badly misspelled by Billboard) at #98 and “Don’t You Care” at #100. “Kind of a Drag” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” were released on the Buckinghams’ original label, Chicago-based USA. “Don’t You Care” was the first release after the Buckinghams’ new deal with producer James William Guercio and Columbia Records, and it would blow “Clawdy” away, getting to #6 while “Clawdy” made only #41—although the fact that “Don’t You Care” is miles better had something to do with it too.

—Let’s find a reason to mention “Western Union” by the Five Americans (#58) and the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (#61).

We have occasionally noted the phenomenon of a great chart loaded with classic hits that ends up topped by a song that is neither great nor classic. The week of March 11, 1967, is one of those. “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” would be the weakest #1 song in the Supremes catalog if it wasn’t for “The Happening” later in 1967. But the songs behind it are so insanely great that it doesn’t matter.

(Promotional announcement: One Day in Your Life is now its own blog, mostly repeating posts that have previously appeared here—but this past week I wrote a brand-new one, so please go and read it.)

Wake Up, Mr. Radio

(Pictured: Al Jarreau on stage, 1985.)

For several years in the early 80s, I kept my own personally ranked lists of the best songs of each year. I went looking for them the other day and was disappointed to find only the one for 1983. I wrote it up as an annotated countdown, although I’m not including all of the annotations. It includes 27 songs because of course it does.

27.  “Two Less Lonely People”/Air Supply. Air Supply’s last gasp of innocent sweetness before hooking up with Jim “Try It Again, You’re Not Screaming Loud Enough” Steinman.

26.  “Don’t Run”/KC and the Sunshine Band
25.  “Penny for Your Thoughts”/Tavares. This isn’t as good as “It Only Takes a Minute” or “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” but possesses enough hypnotic soft soul to merit inclusion.

24.  “Islands in the Stream”/Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton. The most burnt-out record of 1983, and one of two records I added totally out-of-the-box at KDTH this year. I predicted it would be #1 the first time I heard it.

23.  “Delirious”/Prince
22.  “Stop in the Name of Love”/Hollies
21.  “Promises Promises”/Naked Eyes
20.  “I’m Still Standing”/Elton John
19.  “Tokyo Joe”/Bertie Higgins. This guy is trying so hard to write and record a song that will be remembered as a classic in 50 years that he gets carried away with silliness sometimes, but this record is a good example of something that will sell to people who have never been more than 50 miles away from where they were born. (Rarely does the young asshole I used to be come back to me so vividly, and in my own words. This is a remarkably stupid and bad and nonsensical remark, and never mind the inclusion of this godawful record on the list for some reason I can no longer remember.)

18.  “Take the Short Way Home”/Dionne Warwick. If we can’t have the Bee Gees, Lord, then let us have records like this. (That’s a distinction without a difference, sonny.)

17.  “Spice of Life”/Manhattan Transfer
16.  “Time (Clock of the Heart)”/Culture Club
15.  “Break My Stride”/Matthew Wilder. It’s like Men at Work meets somebody—but I don’t know who.

14.  “Every Breath You Take”/Police. They can quit now. They’ll never top this. From the writing to the performing to the production—this is perfect.

13.  “Try Again”/Champaign
12.  “Suddenly Last Summer”/Motels. Quite intelligent for a band some call “modern.” “Modern rock” is a red flag to me, which signals “beware—three-chord techno-pop stupidity ahead.” (Lo, the disdainful, ill-informed older brother of the MTV generation is heard from.)

11.  “True”/Spandau Ballet. Another record defying its “modern rock” label. The last minute or two of this are the best musical minutes of the year.

10. “Come Dancing”/Kinks. If anyone is qualified to reminisce, these old geezers are. Includes one of the hardest gee-tar solo breaks this side of Quiet Riot, who, you shall note, are absent from this survey. (“Geezers.” Christ.)

9.  “All This Love”/DeBarge. Well, maybe they do make ’em like they used to.

8.  “Come on Eileen”/Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I never thought his would make it, not in a million years.

7.  “Our House”/Madness
6.  “Heart and Soul”/Huey Lewis and the News
5.  “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”/Human League. The only song on the best of ’83 list that I first heard/saw on MTV. So much better than “Don’t You Want Me.”

4.  “Billie Jean”/Michael Jackson. Frighteningly good. If I really have to die, I want to hear a record so good it kills me. I damn near bit the weenie with this one. An epic. On Epic, even. (Oh, shut up, Jim.)

3.  “Electric Avenue”/Eddy Grant. There are some sounds on this that I’ve never heard anywhere before. A great record for annoying the neighbors.

2.  “Jeopardy”/Greg Kihn. Another great record for annoying the neighbors. Made me keep believing in rock and roll when Thomas Dolby was in the Top 10, woof woof.

1.  “Mornin'”/Al Jarreau. Jarreau never seems to take himself too seriously (how could you with a line like “mornin’, little Cheerios”?), the music jumps right out of the radio, it’s bright, happy, funky, and sweet. I liked it a little, yeah.

Oddly enough, I played “Mornin'” on the radio the day after Al Jarreau died, only to find this list, with “Mornin'” on top of it, three days later. I wouldn’t rank it as the best song of 1983 if I were ranking them now. It’s far more likely that #1 would be “Billie Jean,” “Jeopardy,” “Electric Avenue,” “Come Dancing,” or even “All This Love.”

As for the young man who ranked these songs, he was a work in progress who’s somewhat wiser now, thank the gods.

Farewell and Amen

mash_goodbye

After The Mrs. and I got our first VCR, in 1984, we started building a library of M*A*S*H episodes, taped off the air. So we’re fans from way back. In recent months, we have been watching the last few seasons of the show on MeTV. Not long ago, we reached the end, and I have thoughts.

—One of my main complaints with later seasons of M*A*S*H is that its characters speak in a hyper-jokey, pun-laced patois that makes me want to throw heavy objects at the TV. This phenomenon only lasts a couple of seasons, thank the gods—although it makes me sad to note that they are the seasons in which the esteemed Ken Levine and David Isaacs were running the show.

—I have never been fond of the Winchester character, but it occurs to me that my wisecrack in a post about the show last fall, referring to David Ogden Stiers as Yoko Ono, is unfair to him. The problem with the character is not the actor, but the writers. It takes them more than two seasons before they even attempt to humanize Winchester—but they never allow him to be consistently human. For every episode in which he displays a depth of character, there’s another one in which he’s the pompous cartoon he was at the very beginning. He grows less than any other character on the show apart from Frank Burns—the one-dimensional character he was intended to improve upon.

—Winchester is not the only character who’s written inconsistently; the show frequently loses its grip on other major characters, too. Hawkeye goes from sophisticate to sophomore and back episode by episode; Margaret is alternately a wise counselor and a shrewish prude. By the end of the series, B. J. is essentially a cipher; he’s supposed to be Hawkeye’s best friend, but by the end of the show, they occupy the same space without ever seeming to connect. Klinger and Potter have much better chemistry.

—The first three seasons of M*A*S*H remain laugh-out-loud funny to me, even after having watched some episodes literally dozens of times. As comedy, the later seasons suffer dreadfully in comparison. The jokes are mostly either tired or toothless, and in that context, wacky hijinx seem forced. But as drama, the late seasons far outclass the early ones. The show’s ongoing commentary on the insanity of war works better at the end than at the beginning. Late in its run, M*A*S*H was a dramedy before the word had been coined; the laugh track, which is remarkably obtrusive during the first half-dozen seasons, is entirely gone by the end.

—MeTV did not include the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” in its repeat cycle, so the series ended with “As Time Goes By,” an episode in which Margaret and Hawkeye clash over what should be in a 4077th time capsule. Although the episode contains a couple of satisfying fan-service callbacks to Radar and Henry Blake, it sputters to a close on a weak joke from the B-plot, which is a fine metaphor for the last couple of seasons.

—Today is the 34th anniversary of the original broadcast of “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”: a grave disappointment, with all of the show’s late-season faults blown up to quintuple length. The plotline involving Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown had me fulminating at the TV that night in 1983, and I still hate it passionately, as a betrayal of the character we spent 11 years getting to know. Much of the episode is spent on dead ends (Winchester and his Korean musicians, Klinger and his Korean wife) before we finally get to what everyone wants to see—these people saying goodbye to one another. There’s a brilliant 60-minute episode in there somewhere, but it was buried by a creative team that worked too hard to blow people’s minds and not hard enough on making an entertaining episode. I haven’t seen “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” since the night it was broadcast, and I can’t imagine sitting through it again.

Despite all I’ve said here, the last half of M*A*S*H is generally better than I remembered. Although I’ll never love it as much as I do the first half, most episodes are worth watching; only a few are complete failures. The final verdict is that whenever you happen to happen upon it, any random episode of M*A*S*H is likely better than most ways you could spend a half-hour watching TV.

Hopeless Romantics, Here We Go Again

(Pictured: the Eagles, circa 1977.)

A few years ago some Internet site I was reading suggested that your life’s theme song is the one that was #1 on your 18th birthday. But there is no goddamn way I’m accepting “Love Is Thicker Than Water” by Andy Gibb. I would, however, take the #1 song on my 17th birthday: “New Kid in Town” by the Eagles, which hit the top 40 years ago this weekend, on February 26, 1977.

“New Kid in Town” crashed into the Billboard Hot 100 at #48 during the week of December 18, 1976, although its first appearance at ARSA is on a survey from KHJ in Los Angeles dated November 30. During Christmas week, it zoomed to #20, where it remained a second week during Billboard‘s annual holiday chart freeze. The holiday seems to have slowed its momentum a little; it went 16-12-7-6-4-2-2 before hitting the top at the end of February. It didn’t stick around long after its single week at the top, going back to #2, then 14-27-51 (during the week of March 26) and out.

The hit music from the winter of 1977 is to me a wondrous thing, as I have written before. It’s the soundtrack of being in love for the first time (with somebody who loved me back), and every song is a snapshot pulling me vividly back to those days. She likes ABBA, and I like “Dancing Queen” because she likes “Dancing Queen.” Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” comes on the console stereo in her living room as we play board games at the nearby kitchen table. Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” will eternally put me in the front seat of her car, the radio blasting as we go on some Saturday afternoon adventure. And Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” plays as we fall into each other’s arms on the couch in her basement. “Night Moves,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Evergreen,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Crackerbox Palace”—these and others will echo through my life and hers for decades to come, though in 1977, neither of us can yet comprehend so much time.

On the record chart, the seasons are always changing, and songs that we’ll identify with an awakening spring are new in the Top 40 during this still-winter week, including “So In To You” by the Atlanta Rhythm Section and “Right Time of the Night” by Jennifer Warnes. A future #1 song, the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” is new on the Hot 100 at #72. (Three weeks from now, “Hotel California” and “New Kid in Town” will essentially swap positions in the Top 40, the former jumping from #35 to #19, the latter falling from #14 to #27.) Also new on the Hot 100 during the week of February 26 is Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You,” another future #1 song. In a season when I am completely irrational about the songs I love—love beyond understanding that is impossible to explain in words—I may be the most irrational about “When I Need You.”

But back to “New Kid in Town.” Then and now, I dig the easy-rockin’ feel of it (one of the Eagles’ loveliest melodies and arrangements), it feeds my electric piano jones, and Glenn Frey sings beautifully.

What I thought of the words back then, I don’t know. Now, they seem remarkably sad: you’ve had your moment, when you’re the one everybody wants, but your moment will someday pass. “They will never forget you til somebody new comes along.” And before you’ve had the chance to adjust to your obsolescence, it becomes even more devastating. Somebody notices that “he’s holding her, and you’re still around.”

You’re still around? Why do you stay when you’re no longer wanted?

I have learned plenty about obsolescence and disappointment in 40 years. But I have also learned that the Eagles got a big thing wrong in “New Kid in Town”: you don’t have to forget, nor be forgotten, just because somebody new comes along. Not as long as the music that soundtracks your life never stops playing.

Vince Taylor Used to Live Here

(Pictured: Vince Taylor at work.)

“Goin’ Down Geneva” is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. It opens his 1999 album Back on Top, and the groove is a killer. The words have been chosen more for sound than for sense (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as far as it’s about something, that something seems to be a bluesman’s lament about life on the road and a fear of being forgotten. At one point, Van sings, “Vince Taylor used to live here / Nobody’s even heard of him / Just who he was / Just where he fits in.”

Van’s right. It’s likely you don’t know who Vince Taylor was, or just where he fits in. He never had a hit in America; his best-known song, “Brand New Cadillac,” is famous for being covered by the Clash. Should you know one thing about him, it’s this: he is said to have been the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. “I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties,” David Bowie told a reporter in 1996, “and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.” But that was after Taylor has developed a famous taste for booze and acid.

Taylor was born Brian Holden in England in 1939, but his family emigrated to New Jersey and eventually to California, where he attended Hollywood High School. Like others in the late 50s, he was seduced by rock ‘n’ roll, adopting a performing style patterned after Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and played a few gigs in the Los Angeles area. On a trip to London, he met a couple of other musicians at a concert, and they impulsively decided to form the Playboys. It was at that point Holden ditched his birth name and became Vince Taylor, a leather-clad hip-shaker. This was a time when British “rockers” tended to be clean-cut boys a young girl could take home to Mother—your Tommy Steeles and Billy Furys—but Vince Taylor was a lot more kinetic, a lot more dangerous, a lot more everything.

It was never a smooth ride for Taylor and the Playboys—Taylor was famous for missing shows, leaving his bandmates to perform without their charismatic front man. (The original Playboys included Tony Sheridan, who would be backed by the Beatles within a few years, and Tony Meehan, later of the Shadows.) After the group split, Taylor went to Paris, where one memorable 1961 gig turned him into a star. He got a record deal from a French label and laid audiences dead in the aisles during the first half of the 60s. That he was called “the French Presley” should surprise nobody. He sang original songs, but his setlists were peppered with covers, including “Memphis Tennessee,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Tutti Frutti.”

In 1965, Taylor and his band opened for the Rolling Stones at a show in Paris, but his career was about to crash. He had discovered LSD earlier that year, and it wasn’t long before his drug habit was consuming most of his bankroll. A month after the Stones show, he went onstage claiming that he was a Biblical prophet, or the son of Jesus, or somebody, and nothing was ever the same after that. Although Taylor would continue to perform from the late 60s into the 80s, he was a classic acid casualty, often put on stage by unscrupulous promoters, and occasionally rumored to have died. He spent the last few years of his life as an airplane mechanic in Switzerland, and died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 52.

Honesty compels me to report that it’s a little hard to hear why Taylor drove the kids so nutty, at least from “Brand New Cadillac,” which has a rockabilly clatter that sounds pretty generic nearly 60 years later. (It was originally released as a B-side, so even Taylor and his label likely considered it a throwaway.) His appeal is easier to grasp when you can see him, as on this Scopitone performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” and a TV performance of “Shakin’ All Over.”

But even those clips fail to get at why Dangeous Minds described Taylor as “the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. He was Iggy before Iggy Pop.” For that you apparently had to be there. For those who were, as Morrison’s 1999 invocation of him indicates, Vince Taylor left an impression that lingered for years.

Drive All Night

The compilation I named “Drive All Night” was born more than 20 years ago, I bet. It began as a C-90 cassette but had to be cut in the CD era to 79 minutes. It’s made up of songs with lyrics that speak to me in some way, and/or songs that conjure up a contemplative and/or autumnal vibe.

Not long ago, I discovered a forgotten version of “Drive All Night.” In 2014, I expanded it to four CDs, 56 songs in all, everything from the original and other songs that fit with them. It’s possible I may never have listened to it—that I burned it, put it in a box, and forgot about it. But it’s been riding in the car with me these last few days, and I noticed something about it that I find quite interesting.

But before I can tell you that, I have to tell you this: I am a fortunate guy, really. I have been married for almost 34 years to a woman who had yet to murder me in my sleep as I so richly deserve. She has put up with the peregrinations of my career, up and down the radio dial when we were young, and more recently in the up-and-down world of the gig economy, all the while going to work at her own job every day to bring in a steady paycheck and carry the health insurance. We have a roof over our heads and money in the bank. We have friends we cherish, and while we have no children of our own, we have lots of nieces and nephews and honorary grandchildren, and it’s a lovely thing to watch them grow up.

But as I listen to “Drive All Night,” I notice that many of the songs, express a powerful sense of loss: Justin Hayward’s “Forever Autumn” (and the Moody Blues’ “December Snow,” “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” and “Your Wildest Dreams”), “I Was Only Joking” by Rod Stewart,” “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” by Gerry Rafferty, “The Last Resort” by the Eagles, and “The Pretender” by Jackson Browne, to name a few. There’s a desire to stop time or turn it back (“Time Passages” by Al Stewart, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” by Stevie Wonder, and “The Sad Cafe” by the Eagles), expressions of road-weariness and/or the urge to go home (“Philosopher’s Stone” by Van Morrison, “Memory Motel” by the Stones, “Run for Home” by Lindisfarne, and “Carey” by Joni Mitchell), and the ever-popular pining for love lost (“Lost Her in the Sun” by John Stewart, Crystal Gayle’s “I’ll Get Over You,” and Maria Muldaur’s “Oh Papa”).

So despite all of my good fortune, I like an awful lot of songs that wish what is lost would be found, or that what is past could return.

That’s not the whole thing, though. Gerry Rafferty’s “Days Gone Down” is about loving someone with whom you have traveled countless miles; in “I Believe in You,” Don Williams promises that when you can’t depend on anything else, you can depend on each other. Susan Tedeschi’s “Sweet Forgiveness” is about love that sees the worst in us and doesn’t give up on us, and Marc Cohn’s “True Companion” is about love that will not be dimmed by age, or even by death. Fleetwood Mac’s “Warm Ways” feels the way you do after you make love to someone you love, a languid vibe also evoked by Elton John’s “Blue Eyes” and “We’re All Alone” by Rita Coolidge. There are happy times, as on “All Day Music” by War and Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” and deeply romantic interludes, as on “When the Leaves Come Falling Down” by Van Morrison. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Late for Your Life” and “This Is Love” are hopeful songs about making the best hand you can out of whatever cards you’re dealt.

And there are other songs different enough from all of these to make it possible that my characterization of this compilation is totally wrong.

But first impressions mean something, so my first impression of “Drive All Night” must have some truth to it. My writing has always been about the difference between here and there, and between now and then. It is also about trying to recapture “there” and “then.” And what’s that, if not a wish for that which is lost—times, places, people, experiences?

I’m busted. You caught me.

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