Popular Enough

(Pictured: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing what they do.)

I tweeted a Salon piece the other day titled “10 Classic Rock Songs That Radio Stations Need to Stop Playing Right Now.” Pieces like this are fairly common around the Interwebs, and whenever I click one, I always check on the identity of the author. Every young rock writer does one sooner or later, happily slagging music they have no natural affinity for, as if generating aggrieved comments from olds were a journalistic rite of passage. So give credit to the author of the Salon article, Annie Zaleski, who appears to be in her mid 30s. Even though the headline and subhead sound like they were written by a callow young intern, the substance of her piece is mostly right on.

I could add a few songs to Zaleski’s list:

—“Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers (replace with “Melissa” or “Blue Sky”)

—“Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company (replace with “Live for the Music” or “Silver, Blue and Gold”)

—Nearly all singles by Billy Joel, but especially “Movin’ Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Big Shot,” and “Piano Man” (replace with “Stiletto,” “Everybody Has a Dream, “Get it Right the First Time,” and of course, “Sleeping With the Television On”)

—“Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger (replace it with anything, just as long as you don’t play “Old Time Rock and Roll” anymore)

—“Born to Run” and “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen (replace with extreme deep cuts “Thundercrack” from the Tracks box and “Wreck on the Highway” from The River)

—“Just What I Needed” by the Cars (replace with “Dangerous Type” from Candy-O)

—“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton (see “Old Time Rock and Roll”)

—“All Right Now” by Free (replace with “The Stealer”)

—“Magic Man” by Heart (replace with “Kick It Out,” “Bebe Le Strange,” or even “Dog and Butterfly”)

—“The Load Out/Stay” by Jackson Browne (replace with “You Love the Thunder”)

—Anything you’re tempted to play from Led Zeppelin IV except “Going to California” (replace with “The Rain Song,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “Boogie With Stu”; if there were a classic-rock station that played “Boogie With Stu” as much as most of them play “Stairway to Heaven,” I’d listen to it all the time)

—“Take It on the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon (replace with “Golden Country” and the mighty “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight”)

—“Angie” by the Rolling Stones (replace with “Waiting on a Friend”)

—“Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan (replace with “Midnight Cruiser”)

—“The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band (replace with “The Stake”)

—“Hold the Line” by Toto (replace with “99”)

Although there’s research to suggest that radio can still be a powerful force for new music discovery, many radio programmers and ownership groups are highly resistant to change. As a result, the songs on Zaleski’s list aren’t going anywhere. And it’s not just programming conservatism. People like those songs. I’ve written about this before: you might wonder why anybody wants or needs to hear “Hotel California” or “Sweet Home Alabama” again, but hundreds of thousands of other people whose relationship with music isn’t strong enough to make them fans of a low-rent blog such as this one like ’em just fine.

Plausibly Related: A reader asked earlier this week why Led Zeppelin’s officially untitled fourth album was in the Top 20 on WLS in April 1976 when it was originally released in November 1971. My strictly anecdotal explanation for this is as follows: although album-rock stations played “Stairway to Heaven” from the very beginning, it wasn’t until the middle of the 70s that Top 40 stations like WLS began playing it, and when they did, it found an entirely new audience. By the spring of 1976, “Stairway” was popular enough among the general run of teenagers to be the prom theme at my high school, and I’m sure we weren’t the only one.

Show Me the Way

(Pictured: a driver’s ed student practices parallel parking, 1976.)

Forty years ago today—April 13, 1976—I got my driver’s license.

It was the culmination of a process that started in the fall of 1975 when I took the required one-semester driver’s ed course. It seemed easy to the point of ridiculousness—but it couldn’t have been too easy, since my report card from that semester shows I got a B for the first nine weeks. The course was taught by a man who taught only driver education in addition to proctoring a couple of study halls. Just as nobody grows up wanting to be a middle-relief pitcher, I suspect this guy didn’t go off to college nurturing the desire to teach barely respectful sophomores the rules of the road, but a job is a job.

After completing the classroom course, the next step was to take behind-the-wheel instruction. You’d drive with an instructor in the passenger seat, and share your hour with a partner. My partner was a girl I barely knew. We didn’t even know the same people, so we had quite literally nothing in common, and as a result we barely spoke, either in the car or out of it.

I remember only two things about my behind-the-wheel test. One, that I was not asked to parallel park, which is something that had kept more than one of my friends from passing on the first try. (Since I never had to learn to do it right, I have never done it well.) And two, the smile I eventually got from the cop who had ridden along with me. After I parked outside the local DMV office and watched him calmly making notes on his clipboard, the suspense was killing me. I finally asked, “Did I make it?” “Yeah, you passed.”

(I was spared the fate of one classmate, who had apparently aced the behind-the-wheel test until she ran into a parked car while returning to the lot.)

On the radio that week, the #1 song on WLS was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in its second of five weeks at the top. Holding at #2 was “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” by the Captain and Tennille, a record I like more now than I did then. The hottest song on the chart was at #3: the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” which took a mighty leap from #12 the week before. The glorious variety of 70s Top 40 music was on display within the Top 10, where Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” and Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” sat alongside the Four Seasons (“December 1963”), Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) and Dr. Hook (“Only Sixteen”). Besides “Boogie Fever,” only one other song was new among the week’s top 10: “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which went from #18 to #9. Other big movers on the WLS survey included “Lorelei” by Styx (#17 to #11), “Baby Face” by the Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps, a disco version of a hit from the 1920s (#31 to #21), and “Show Me the Way” by Peter Frampton (#45 to #28).

Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 by the Eagles held at #1 on the album chart; fast movers included the Captain and Tennille’s Song of Joy (#14 to #5), Fool for the City by Foghat (#15 to #9), and Frampton Comes Alive (#17 to #11). Notables on the album chart include two Aerosmith albums in the top five (Aerosmith and Toys in the Attic), a listing that reads Runes (Led Zeppelin IV), which moved from #20 to #19, and Robin Trower Live debuting at #31. The list is actually pretty solid, with a bunch of greatest-hits compilations and plenty of classics: A Night at the Opera, Desire, Still Crazy After All These Years, Fleetwood Mac, One of These Nights.

After I passed the test and tucked the license safely into my wallet, my father let me drive the family car—the banana-yellow ’73 Mercury Montego—home in triumph. With the radio on, of course.

April 9, 1976

(Pictured: Helen Reddy, circa 1976.)

(This is a repost from 2014. Perspective at the end is from 2016.)

April 9, 1976, is a Friday. Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area invite you in for fish fillets tonight with fries, salad, and a roll for $1.60. It’s the second day of the major-league baseball season, but only two games were played yesterday; 16 teams open their seasons today, including the Chicago Cubs, who lose to the Cardinals 5-0 in St. Louis. On a trip to Texas, President Ford visits the Alamo in San Antonio during the morning and then goes to Dallas. He throws out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ season opener, staying only for the first inning. In the first pro sports event at the new Seattle Kingdome, Pele scores two goals as the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders in pro soccer, 2-1. Folksinger Phil Ochs, most famous for “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” hangs himself; he was 35. A strong earthquake kills eight people in Ecuador. In Nagoya, Japan, a 13-year-old boy takes a series of photos that seem to show a UFO. In Syracuse, New York, the Onondaga County Public Library unveils its new logo. In Madison, Wisconsin, the first edition of a new weekly newspaper, Isthmus, is laid out in the living room of one of its co-founders.

New movies in theaters include All the President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. On daytime TV, Foster Brooks ends a week co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; guests today include Gloria Swanson, Frankie Valli, and Geraldo Rivera. The Merv Griffin Show welcomes Kaye Ballard, Jack Jones, comedian Charlie Callas and impressionist Marilyn Michaels. In prime time, the animated special The First Easter Rabbit, featuring the voices of Burl Ives and Robert Morse, airs on NBC, and so does The Rockford Files. CBS airs an episode of Sara, starring Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in an 1870 Colorado town. She will be nominated for an Emmy, but the show will end after 13 episodes.

Rush plays the Indianapolis Coliseum with special guests Ted Nugent and the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. On separate bills, Genesis and Donovan play New York City. The Electric Light Orchestra and Journey play Huntsville, Alabama. Bruce Springsteen plays Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

The Midnight Special airs on NBC following Johnny Carson. Host Helen Reddy welcomes Fleetwood Mac, who perform a blazing version of their new hit “Rhiannon.” Also on the show, Gary Wright, Barry Manilow, Queen, and Hamilton Joe Frank & Reynolds, who perform “Fallin’ in Love” with Reddy and their recent hit “Winners and Losers,” and then come back for a second spot doing “Every Day Without You.”

Perspective From the Present: I was equipment manager of the high school baseball team, and we had a scrimmage on that Friday after school. That night, a couple of friends and I went to the local drive-in theater for what I recall as some terrible movies (although I don’t remember what they were), killing time until midnight. The Key Club at my high school was putting on a marathon basketball game that weekend, in which teams signed up to play for an hour at a time from Friday afternoon through Sunday night. I was on a team scheduled to play at midnight and again at 5AM, so the night of April 9 and 10, 1976, marked the first time I ever stayed up all night. Spring break (known to us then as Easter vacation) started on Monday the 12th. On the Tuesday the 13th, I passed my behind-the-wheel test and got my driver’s license; on Wednesday the 14th, the local radio station said they’d hire me for the summer—although they didn’t follow through on that.

An eventful few days, for sure. And now 40 years behind us.

If We Make It

(Pictured: Merle Haggard, 1993.)

(I wasn’t planning to post again until Saturday, but stuff happens.)

Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will choose his pumpkin patch because of its sincerity. “Everywhere you look, there’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” If that seems quaint, it’s because we can no longer tell the difference between the two. In fact, we don’t care. The appearance of sincerity is enough for us.

Looking like you care is often every bit as useful as actual concern. It’s a guise you take on, and then take off when people are no longer watching. I do it myself, and so do you. We are often required to demonstrate concern about things that don’t really matter to us. We do it to please an employer, a customer, a spouse, or a family member when we wouldn’t give it a second thought otherwise. To navigate these situations, the appearance of sincerity is usually enough. (It’s certainly less emotionally taxing than maintaining the real thing.)

But when many of us are projecting an image that may not reflect what’s in our hearts—from the workplace to the marriage bed to wherever the hell—real sincerity lands like a punch in the face. Honest emotion and true wisdom legitimately earned are to the appearance of sincerity what a glass of straight Kentucky whiskey is to one of those fruit-flavored Bud Light concoctions. You’re knocked square on your ass; you realize that your phony bullshit is just playacting, and there’s a whole ‘nother level of real out there.

As I write this, it’s been about two hours since I learned of the death of Merle Haggard. Oddly, this loss hurts me more than the recent deaths of Glenn Frey and Keith Emerson, even though the music of the Eagles and Emerson Lake and Palmer ranks far higher on my personal hit list than that of Hag. Losing Haggard is painful because the truth-tellers are going, and they’re making damn few new ones. When they’re gone, we’ll lose whatever chance we have at knowing what’s real and what isn’t.

Merle Haggard did not project the appearance of sincerity. He sang with authority. He wasn’t acting like a country singer, like those dudes singing about dirt roads and skinny-dippin’ in the crick despite having a suburban upbringing and a college education. He was doing the only thing he could do, based on who he really was, on the places he’d really come from, on a life he lived a day at a time.

“I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole / No one could steer me right but mama tried,” goes one of his most famous songs. I remember being horrified by that image when I first heard it as a kid—even more so when I realized that Haggard had done time, that he must have known boys just like the one in “Mama Tried”—and probably could have ended up as such a boy. Years later, at a time supposed to be “morning in America,” he wondered aloud whether the good times were over for good. And as I played that record on the radio, a young man in his early 20s just starting out, I worried that he might be right.

When authority speaks, you’d best pay attention.

Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.

Merle Haggard sang about that, at the end of 1973, a recession-wracked year that was just the beginning of an awful time in America’s national life, in the only way he could: with mingled pain and hope, and a willingness to face the future even though it comes with no guarantees. He sang with sincerity, honest emotion, and true wisdom legitimately earned.

“If We Make It Through December” was Merle Haggard’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching #28 on January 19, 1974; it spent four weeks at#1 on the country chart in December 1973 and 1974, and is his second-biggest country hit of all time behind only “Okie From Muskogee.” I haven’t seen it mentioned much amongst the many Haggard tributes online since yesterday, but to me, it’s his monument.

Respectable

(Pictured: the Rolling Stones, circa 1978.)

When I’m working in my office at home, I have the laptop music stash on shuffle, and I have to admit that the music often goes unheard if I’m engrossed in something. It’s different in the car. On a long car trip, there’s not much to do except listen. On a recent trip, I decided to revisit a couple of albums I’ve heard a million times to see how they sound right now. The first was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, discussed in an earlier post. Now we’re up to the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, and a ranking of the 10 tracks on the original album, least to best.

10. “Some Girls.” Decadent, depraved sleaze is part of what makes the Stones great. But the very same thing can make them unlikable when taken to an extreme.

8. (tie) “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Lies.” I am pretty sure these two are the same song, as are about half of the bonus tracks on the 2011 deluxe reissue.

7. “Just My Imagination.” I’d say this and “Beast of Burden” were the same song too, if “Just My Imagination” wasn’t already famous long before the Stones got to it.

6.  “Before They Make Me Run.” Possibly the best Keith Richards vocal this side of “Happy,” although the bonus track “We Had It All” is pretty good, too.

5.  “Respectable.” I am half-sure Charlie Watts laid down one drum track at the start of the Some Girls sessions and then spent the rest of the time lying by the pool while the engineers recycled it for a half-dozen different songs. For that reason, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to lump “Respectable” with “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Lies,” but I like “Respectable” better for reasons I am not able to articulate. (If you aren’t satisfied by that, get your own blog.)

4. “Miss You.” In which the Stones embrace the nascent disco era, although the bass guitar line that sounded very contemporary in 1978 is badly dated now. The album version of “Miss You” clocks in at 4:48, but it’s edited down from a far longer performance with an extra verse and additional harp-honking by session man Sugar Blue.

3.  “Beast of Burden.” England’s punk rockers had already branded the Stones as tired old dinosaurs by 1978; on “Beast of Burden,” it’s like the Stones are responding, “Yeah, but we’re sleeping every night on a pile of money that reaches to the sky, so rave on.”

2.  “Shattered.” In which they give the lie to all the dinosaur talk. They hadn’t sounded this committed since Exile on Main Street.

1.  “Far Away Eyes.” A country song, with pedal steel guitar by Ron Wood and a hilarious lyric that Mick Jagger says was based on his actual experience driving through rural California near dawn with the radio on. Although I don’t think I’ve heard it, there’s a bootleg version sung by Keef that stands a chance of being even funnier.

When I started listening, I intended to rank the bonus tracks from the 2011 reissue alongside the original album, but there’s not enough difference among them to make the exercise worthwhile. Only a couple of them are worthy of bumping one of the original album’s tracks: the aforementioned “We Had It All,” which had been a country hit for Waylon Jennings, and the Chicago-style grinder “Keep Up Blues.”

(“Keep Up Blues” is an instrumental track from the late 70s with a vocal written and recorded by Mick in 2011 especially for the Some Girls reissue. Several other bonus tracks were similarly finished by Mick, Keef, and producer Don Was, just as they’d done for the Exile reissue. That seems like a bit of a cheat to me, but “Keep Up Blues” remains a damn good song.)

Some Girls was the seventh of nine straight #1 albums the Stones scored in the States between 1971 and 1981. It’s the largest seller of them all. Here in 2016, I still respect it, although I like it less than I did in 1978. But that’s true of many things.

(This is the 2000th published post in the history of this blog. My thanks to all who are still bothering to read them. Post number 2001 will appear on Saturday of this week.)

So Very Happy

(Pictured: Motown singer Brenda Holloway, in an unconventional shot.)

Since before Christmas, we’ve been listening to records that spent a single week in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1964 and 1986. This installment is starting beyond that time frame, however.

During the week of June 22, 1959, “Tall Cool One” by the Wailers rose to #36 for a single week before dropping out of the 40. Almost exactly five years later, during the week of May 30, 1964, the very same recording of “Tall Cool One” entered the Top 40 for another single week, hitting #38 before dropping out again. So they may not belong here at all—or they may deserve extra-special recognition. Either way, the Wailers occupy their own special niche in music history. Backing a fellow Washington state singer named Rockin’ Robin Roberts, they cut the prototype version of “Louie, Louie” in 1961, and are considered one of the first garage bands.

The Viscounts, an instrumental group from New Jersey, also re-charted an earlier hit to make this list. Early in 1960, they hit #52 with “Harlem Nocturne.” Six years later, the same recording made the Top 40—#39, to be precise, for the week of January 1, 1966.

Another fabled garage band, the Shadows of Knight, recorded a version of “Gloria” that hit #10, far eclipsing the original version by Van Morrison’s group Them. They had four other Hot 100 hits in 1966 alone, but only one made the Top 40 and stayed but a week, “Oh Yeah,” at #39 for the week of July 2, 1966. The Five Americans, a group of Oklahomans who formed officially in Dallas, are also considered a garage band. They hit the Top 40 four times, most famously with “Western Union” in 1967. “Zip Code” hit #36 for the week of September 17, 1967. Zip codes were relatively new back then, and the writer of the song had a little trouble with the concept, referring to the zip code “one double-oh-three six-oh-eleven.” Still, if the Postal Service never tried to turn it into a public-service announcement, they failed at their job.

Dionne Warwick, who charted many, many Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs, took their “Are You There (With Another Girl)” to #39 for the week of January 22, 1966. One week later, Fontella Bass, best known for “Rescue Me,” hit #37 with her followup single, “Recovery.”

“Rescue Me” is the best Motown single not to appear on Motown. Brenda Holloway, who actually did appear on Motown, hit #39 with the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which she co-wrote, on December 4, 1967. Two weeks later, it would be gone from the Hot 100, and about as quickly, Holloway would be gone from Motown.

Just as Dionne Warwick recorded plenty of Bacharach/David songs, the Fifth Dimension recorded several by Jimmy Webb. After making an indelible smash of “Up Up and Away,” they released Webb’s “Paper Cup,” which Allmusic.com describes as Webb’s tribute to the Beatles, seeming to borrow from “Getting Better” and “Penny Lane.” It bounced from #44 to #34 and back to #44 again, reaching its peak for the week of December 9, 1967.

Other adult pop stars are on our list. Dean Martin made it with “Come Running Back,” which made #35 for the week of June 11, 1966. So did Vikki Carr, who followed her #3 smash “It Must Be Him” with “The Lesson,” which hit #34 for the week of January 27, 1968. Petula Clark hit the Top 40 with 15 straight singles between 1965 and 1968. The last one, “Don’t Give Up,” made #37 for the week of August 24, 1968. (“Don’t Give Up” is a song I didn’t know I remembered; it must have gotten a lot of airplay on our hometown radio station and I absorbed it by accident.) Engelbert Humperdinck was a regular visitor to the Top 40 during about the same time; “I’m a Better Man,” another Bacharach/David joint, made #38 for the week of September 27, 1969. All four of these hits made the Top 10 on the Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart; “The Lesson” was #1.

If I’m counting correctly (always a questionable proposition), we have 28 songs remaining on this list, so future installments of this feature are guaranteed—as much as anything is guaranteed in a world such as this.

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