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Herb’s golden world.

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This week in 1967: Peaches & Herb crack the top 10 here in the Lehigh Valley (specifically on WEEX-AM, Easton) with “Close Your Eyes.”

This week in 1979: Peaches & Herb sit comfortably in the No. 1 spot on Lehigh Valley radio (specifically, WKAP-AM in Allentown) with “Reunited.”

In the time between, Peaches & Herb would go nine years without a record in the U.S. Top 100. For about six of those years, the act didn’t even exist at all while frontman Herb Fame (government name: Feemster) left showbiz for a job with the Washington, D.C., police department. (When he returned, he had a different Peaches in tow; like Doctor Who, the job opens up every once in a while.)

Still, to amuse myself, I’m imagining an alternate universe where P&H stayed together all those years, and kept clicking with a hit or two per year, and made themselves synonymous with limousines and glamour.

In this world, P&H kept nudging aside the Beatles, the singer-songwriters and the discomaniacs to make sure they got paid, year after year.

There was a variety show, for sure, and a Live at the Sahara Tahoe album, and photo spreads in magazines in which they lolled on shag carpet and smiled at each other, and maybe even TV ads for orange juice that pop up intermittently on 21st-century social media as examples of pure lovable ’70s cheese.

Seems to me that this all could have happened: P&H’s middle-of-the-road soul and balladry certainly weren’t going to offend anybody.

If anything, their career arc may be a reminder of the thin line between success and failure — of what happens when some aspect of the formula (right act meets right song and right producer at right time) breaks down, and then what happens when everything lands back in the right place again.

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And now a word from …

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I genuinely wonder what the hell I would do with my time if there were no Internet.

The latest wormhole I’ve fallen down involves the archives of Sponsor magazine, as made available by the Media History Digital Library. There are other industry publications there too — some of them probably just as interesting — but I haven’t gotten there yet.

Sponsor was (and for all I know still is) a weekly publication devoted to TV and radio advertising. If you were trying to move more Pabst beer in Des Moines or more ladies’ umbrellas in Syracuse, you probably read Sponsor. Accordingly, the back issues have that charming/cheesy Fifties-Sixties overtone of sell-sell-sell.

(The people who wanted to move more aluminum Christmas trees in wherever the hell Charlie Brown lived probably subscribed to Sponsor, too.)

You’ll also find interesting cultural tidbits in among the reports on major ad campaigns and industry trends. Thumb through the first issue of October 1964, just to pick one at random, and you’ll see:

– A mention of Johnny Carson’s second anniversary as host of The Tonight Show.

– A suggestion that networks may not be able to extensively cover the January 1965 presidential inauguration, and might instead institute a pooling system of coverage, due to a backlash against media scrums following the Lee Harvey Oswald assassination (which was attended by a crush of newsmen).

– An announcement from cigarette maker Philip Morris, which planned to launch the heaviest network TV ad campaign in its history. (Another maker of gaspers, Brown & Williamson, reserved sponsorship rights for one network’s national broadcast of Presidential election results.)

– A full page of discussion on the nascent cable (“pay TV”) industry.

– A lengthy interview with legendary composer Raymond Scott.

– A mention of the first low-calorie salad dressing mix on the American market, Good Seasons Low Calorie Italian (to be advertised on I’ve Got a Secret and The Danny Thomas Show, dontcha know.)

– The launch of a new TV station in Boston, WIHS, operated by the Boston Catholic Television Center. (It was WSBK when I went to college in Boston 25 years ago — The Movie Loft with Dana Hersey for the win! — and it’s still WSBK now.)

Scattered amidst these nuggets are ads — sometimes cool, sometimes cheesy — for local TV and radio stations, larger broadcast networks, and the bookers who handled their advertising.

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November 1964. A young man named Les Crane enjoys his achievements, as well as his plans.

Reading Sponsor also made me confront a few of my biases and assumptions, however briefly.

I feel a certain warmth toward the first half of the Sixties (I think it predates the portrayals of Mad Men, though that didn’t hurt any) — that period where men wore short hair and drove boxy cars, and drank whiskey and chain-smoked, and conducted America’s business in tall sleek buildings in New York that shone gorgeously in the nighttime hours.

(For maximum period punch, some of the Sixties issues of Sponsor carry mailing labels addressed to an NBC employee at 30 Rockefeller Center.)

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Not necessarily only in New York, either. Giant new skyscrapers! Who couldn’t love giant new skyscrapers?

But as I read, I found myself asking why I find that period so attractive, and I can’t really come up with a reason.

There were plenty of Americans — women, minorities, and parents of special-needs kids, just to name a couple — who would tell you that 1960 through 1964 were not particularly tremendous years to be pushing their rocks uphill, and the period carries no golden glow when considered in retrospect.

And as for those men who actually rode the sell-train, no amount of whiskey could have washed away the pressures of life at the office and the constant demands to move ever higher quantities of consumer goods — and to the right people, to boot. How much fun do you think those jobs actually were?

Seen from that angle, there’s an incipient coronary somewhere on every single page of Sponsor … or at least an overwhelmed and smoke-grayed man, massaging his temples, trying to figure out what he’s going to do if the good people of New Haven don’t start leaving the grocery store with more cans of diced tomatoes.

The high hopes hailla ball.

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“We have passed several musical milestones from 1973 already this year, including the releases of Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy. Let other bloggers write about those.”
– Jim Bartlett

You got it, mate.

In my rabid high-school Zep phase, I repeatedly proclaimed Houses to be the finest of the band’s albums.

Most of what I said back then was nonsense, but I think this particular statement might have had some truth to it. Zeppelin’s fifth album found the band stepping away from overwrought and/or plagiarized power-blues, developing a more melodic sound that still hits hard when it wants to. I still think it stands as a balance of the best the band had to offer.

(By contrast, I listened some months ago to Zep II — a classic 16-year-old-boy album — for the first time in years and was pretty well underwhelmed. It still sounds good, but there’s no brain, heart, or sense of humor behind the blitzkrieg.)

I don’t play Zep of any stripe very often nowadays, as the musical world is much wider than it was when I was 16.

But in honor of Houses’ anniversary-ending-in-five, here’s my ranking of the album’s eight songs, from worst to best.

8. “The Rain Song.” Pretty, but dreary and overlong — especially given the galloping exuberance of the song that comes directly before it. Pacing is an art, and I think another fast one in the second slot might have worked better; “The Rain Song” feels mainly like something you have to endure to get to the really good stuff. This is the mystery of the quotient, as the man says.

7. “No Quarter.” Yeah, both the murky slow songs come in at the bottom of my list. Another song that’s not bad, perfectly OK, but just takes up too much real estate. To its credit, it does summon up images of guys in cloaked hoods doing battle with broadswords on foggy moors of Olde Albion, which is all part of the Zep mystique. (Better that than squeezed lemons, anyway.)

6. “D’yer Mak’er.” This song drove me nuts when I was 16, especially Jimmy Page’s limp excuse for a solo. I enjoy it somewhat more now, if only because it’s fun to hear the ham-fisted Zep work a groove; and if left to my own devices nowadays, I let it play all the way through. But in the end, this one joins “Hot Dog” on the list of genre exercises that were funnier to the band than they were to anybody else. (This one stumbled into the U.S. Top 40, where its name gave DJs fits.)

5. “Dancing Days.” In which Page integrates his Middle Eastern/Indian jawn into a power-rock context without beating the listener over the head with it. (The widescreen epic that was “Kashmir” has its place, but you can also incorporate your influences more subtly.) A solid album track that doesn’t overstay its welcome and packs a little bit of earworminess.

(FYI, if they’d actually put the song “Houses of the Holy” on the album that bears its name instead of holding it for the next one, it would rank here.)

4. “The Ocean.” My cadre of high-school buddies with guitars and drums used to jam the hell out of the odd-tempo main lick here. In fact, I believe I even played this at a high school talent show once, in the company of a very good guitarist and drummer and a pretty good singer. We came in second to a bunch of guys from the football team doing some sort of mass rap, an injustice that still rankles mightily.

This is a good example of Zep doing music that’s heavy without being misogynistic or totally brain-dead. And while the Fifties revivalism of “D’yer Mak’er” do’es’n’t d’o i’t for me, the last minute or so of this tune — what an old friend of mine used to call “the Elvis section” — carries the album to its close in spirited fashion. For the first time in Zep’s recorded history, when Robert Plant exclaims, “Awwwww, it’s so good!,” it doesn’t sound like heavy-handed double-entendre; one suspects he’s honestly having a good time.

3. “Over the Hills And Far Away.” When I was 16, I would have put this at least at No. 2, and it’s probably still a coin flip. The only thing that keeps this at No. 3 is the extended harpsichord coda — one of the few points on Houses where the group seems to paste in something diverse and unexpected just for the sake of having something diverse and unexpected. Plant’s lyrics are endlessly quotable, while the interplay of Page’s electric and acoustic guitars is about as good as anyone’s ever done it.

2. “The Song Remains The Same.” Starts the album with a pure adrenaline jolt, then deftly alternates fast and slow throughout in an unforced way. Plant is on pretty good form again; plus, you can’t beat the title for sloganeering. When I listen to this it makes me think of some indefatigable world traveler, scarf flying, on a jet to Saudi Arabia or Tangiers or Stockholm or someplace. Zep had a history at the time of opening their records with overheated brain-beating machismo — “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog” — and it was high time they broke out and did something that added a little thought to their raw power.

1. “The Crunge.” Yup. This is my list, and on my list, this bizarre and completely unexpected send-up of the James Brown sound is the best song on Houses.

I have never gotten tired of it. In fact, John Paul Jones’s cheesy synth motif, Page’s grinding, off-kilter rhythm guitar, and Plant’s tossed-off, punch-drunk vocal (“IaintgonnatellyounothinIaintgonnatellyounomoooooore, no!”) retain the capacity to make me laugh out loud after all these years.

While it’s commonly described as a “piss-take” or somesuch, I’ve never interpreted it as open mockery of James Brown. Instead, it sounds like Page started playing a funk riff after everybody’d had a couple of lagers, and a few hours later, something crazed and unique and hilarious occupied a space in the universe that was waiting to be filled.

If Wiki is to be believed, this is one of Jones’s favourite Zeppelin songs, which is endorsement enough for me, since he was and is Zep’s coolest member.

(The song has a little bit of music-geek credibility, too: “The Crunge”‘s deceptively simple exterior masks an absurd number of time-signature shifts. Try counting it.)

City in my head, heaven in my body.

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Remember when reunion tours were looked upon as a joke? Like, basically cash grabs for beer-company sponsorship money?

I’m either lucky or I’ve chosen well, because the reunion tours I’ve seen have all been lights-out. The list includes Steely Dan in 1993 (first tour in 19 years); Graham Parker and the Rumour in 2013 (supporting their first album in 33 years) … and, as of last night, Todd Rundgren and Utopia.

The length of time between Utopia gigs depends a little on how you slice it, but after a little Wiki research, I’d call it the first tour by this edition of the band since 1992.

And this would be the first show of the reunion tour, at Penn’s Peak, a friendly barnlike building in the wooded hills of eastern Pennsylvania. Rundgren played there on his own last year and must have decided it would be a good place for a shakedown cruise.

Utopia started as a progressive-rock band before migrating to more conventional pop. And that’s how the show was structured — a first set going heavier on prog stuff, and a second set of shorter, poppier songs.

Starting with the complex stuff has its ups and downs.

On one hand, the music — both stately and energetic — speaks of loftier things than simple three-minute pop songs, and sets a grander tone. Hearing the band take the twists and turns of the 14-minute “Utopia Theme” made for an ambitious and memorable opening. Other notable parts of the prog set included “Freedom Fighters,” a condensed version of “The Ikon,” and “Communion With The Sun.”

(A few more words about “Utopia Theme”: I’d first encountered that song on a college radio station, many years ago, while running an errand … it turned out to be the kind of errand where you get lost in the song, drive until the song is over, and then return to your business. I never really expected to see anybody perform it live, so it made an especially wonderful scene-setter last night.)

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On the other hand, starting off a show with complicated multi-part material requires you to be on top of your game right out of the dressing room. It’s like being a former world-class hurdler and starting your comeback at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

I was surprised to notice several instances in the first set when Rundgren’s left hand landed a fret or two — sometimes more — away from where it was supposed to be. My (very) distant impression of TR as a bandleader is that he doesn’t look that kindly on mistakes, so it was an interesting turn of events to see him fall short of the rest of the band.

(Utopia’s other members — bassist Kasim Sulton, drummer Willie Wilcox and new-guy keyboardist Gil Assayas — were rock-solid throughout on instruments and vocals. It’s a shame that former keyboardist Ralph Shuckett couldn’t make the tour as intended, but Assayas has the parts more than capably covered.)

After one especially noticeable cock-up, Rundgren told the crowd: “First night … OK, let’s play something simple, then.” Whereupon they launched into a perfect, blunt-instrument version of the Move’s “Do Ya,” as performed on the Another Live album.

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A storming “Last of the New Wave Riders” ended the first set. The second set featured a slightly different stage setup, with Wilcox’s drums taken down off a riser and placed at the back of the stage — where Rundgren, in one of his wandering moments, almost tripped over them.

Rundgren and Sulton also did a lot of instrument-swapping, and each of them at one point received an instrument that hadn’t been correctly plugged in — requiring two songs to be waved to a stop after thirty seconds and started again. Roadies have first-night jitters too, it seems.

But that was about all the fault to be found with the second set, which kicked off with a strong “The Road to Utopia” and built from there. Rundgren’s playing was flawless; everybody save Assayas took a turn singing lead; and songs like “Set Me Free,” “Love In Action” and “Princess of the Universe” were tight, memorable and assured.

(I’m having trouble remembering whether “Trapped” and “Back on the Street” were in the first or second set — I suspect first; I wasn’t taking notes — but those were well-performed as well.)

The second set ended perfectly, with “Love Is the Answer” and an upbeat “One World” to close. “Love Is the Answer” was heartfelt without being histrionic, with a guitarless Rundgren roaming the stage and firing up the crowd. (Scoff at England Dan, John Ford Coley and yacht-rock all you want — I still say this is a marvelous song.)

And the encore, “Just One Victory,” remains a soaring, heartwarming white-soul underdog anthem.

In a different world, I suppose this and not “Bang The Drum All Day” would be the Todd Rundgren song you’d hear at sports games and on sitcoms. But that’s just as well; it’s avoided being overplayed and remains a gem for the faithful, a song to send you buzzing on your way home.

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I haven’t gotten any sense that this reunion will last beyond the current tour’s run or lead to any additional records. Given Rundgren’s celebrated unpredictability, he may well move on to a record of Vietnamese folksongs once the tour winds up. And he may be so used to independence by now that he doesn’t want to go back to a democratic band setup where everyone writes and sings.

Still, if this reunion is all the Utopia the world gets, it was a nice place to visit for a couple of hours.

Me and my uncle.

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Whenever my cell phone starts singing “Mama Tried,” I get concerned.

I’ve made themed Grateful Dead ringtones for everyone in my contact list, and the Dead’s version of Merle Haggard’s classic weeper is what plays when my mom calls. But my folks almost always call using my dad’s phone … so when “Mama Tried” comes up, something unusual is afoot.

This afternoon it was indeed bad news: My Uncle T.J., my mom’s younger brother, was found dead in his home earlier this weekend. If I do the math correctly, he was 71.

(Frequent flyers on the old Hope Street blog might remember Uncle T.J. playing football for Stamford’s old Rippowam High School. Or, maybe not. A lot of people came and went over there.)

Unfortunately, Uncle T.J. kinda stopped crossing into my orbit around the time I was in high school. So I never really connected with him on an adult level as a parent, a homeowner or a fellow American working stiff. He was always a grown-up in the room and I was always a kid.

Might have been interesting to have that other perspective on him … but, so be it.

(T.J., who spent his life in blue-collar pursuits, might have read Adult Me as a callow white-collar jackass; a money counter; a Hooper to his Quint. He might have been right.)

I do have a couple memories of Uncle T.J. that I’ll share here. Can’t be less interesting than my ramblings on any other subject…

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My brother and I called our maternal grandfather Pool Boy because he had a pool table in his basement. But it was actually my uncle’s table.

I can’t come up with a picture of it. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to imagine my uncle leaning over it, breaking authoritatively to start a fresh game, and probably smoking a cigarette.

He also had a stereo set up in the room, with a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Maybe there were other records; The Wall is the only one I remember.)

To my recollection, the record never got put on when we were there — which is just as well, as I’ve never much liked it. Usually, in deference to his visitors, my uncle would let my dad put on a jazz station out of New York City.

(Edit: Uncle T.J. liked to call my dad Kodak,”  “Eastman,” though he’d known my dad before my dad ever worked at Eastman Kodak. I never really unpacked the possible meanings behind that as a kid, and I guess I won’t start now.)

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My uncle also owned a clapped-out old station wagon that apparently breathed its last at my grandparents’ house. It reposed in the grass next to their driveway for rather a long time, until somebody finally arranged to get it towed away.

I was fascinated by cars for a good part of my childhood. So there was no better toy than a real-life car that was guaranteed not to go anywhere, no matter what I did when I was sitting behind the wheel.

I spent quite a bit of time sitting in its cluttered confines, navigating highways in my mind.

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I don’t know if I ever thanked my uncle for parking it there (or my grandpa for patiently letting it sit as long as it did). But in retrospect it seems like one of those quirky-but-perfect gifts only an aunt or an uncle can come up with.

In an alternate universe, after my high school band’s first two records went gold, I found a ’71 Volvo wagon in a chop-lot outside Schenectady and gave somebody a whole bunch of David Geffen’s money to rebuild it for me.

It purrs like a kitten to this day.

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Uncle T.J. gets credit for introducing me to a classic New England expression — one I use maybe once a year nowadays, generally to the complete befuddlement of the Pennsylvanians who surround me.

The expression is “stove in.” It means caved in, and it can be used either as a verb (When the tree fell, it stove in my roof) or an adjective (That old barn’s got a stove roof.)

It all started on a long-ago Thanksgiving Day at my maternal grandparents’ in Stamford, watching football.

The New York Giants — my grandpa’s favorite team, and probably my uncle’s as well — were playing. Lawrence Taylor, then a ferocious young linebacker for Big Blue, absolutely collapsed some hapless offensive lineman before storming in to assault the other team’s quarterback.

My uncle, a former offensive lineman himself, nodded sagely at the replay. “Stove ‘im right in,” he said.

Some months ago, I discovered this exact same play on YouTube. It was the first of a series of plays in which Taylor pretty much singlehandedly bent the outcome of the game in his team’s favor, the way that really great players can.

The year was 1982. The opposing lineman was no patsy, but an experienced pro — Karl Baldischwiler of the Detroit Lions, as it happens.

And my uncle, as you’ll see, was spot-on: Taylor stove ‘im right in.

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Finally, there’s this picture. It was taken by my maternal grandpa four years before I was born, so it shows a more youthful Uncle T.J. than I ever knew.

I don’t know who the other guy in the pic was — a friend of the family from central Massachusetts, I think — and I obviously don’t know who won the game.

But I think it’s a great picture of a concentrated moment in time. Is the old man schooling the young upstart? Or is the young upstart about to teach a new trick to the older man?

Either way, it seems like a good place to leave off.

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Listen now, class.

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Our man Jim Bartlett has gotten us thinking, not for the first or last time.

This time it involves a post about radio coverage of Martin Luther King’s assassination, which JB thinks he remembers hearing as a boy but can’t be sure about.

The thing that got me started was a comment from a reader ID’d only as Gary, who said he didn’t remember the MLK assassination but remembered the death of John F. Kennedy clearly.

Seems that Gary was in a third-grade class in Wisconsin that listened to a public-radio educational program called “Book Trails” every Friday at 1 p.m. On that particular Friday in November 1963, the class turned on the radio expecting to hear “Book Trails” but instead got breaking news coverage of the JFK assassination.

You can always count on me to find the weird tangent to go off on … and in this case I was transported by the gloriously bygone idea of radio as a classroom educational tool.

Public television was very much present in the classrooms of my childhood, particularly the first half of the journey — we’ll say late ’70s to mid-’80s.

I’m pretty sure I saw Letter People in the classroom, not just at home, when I was at an age to learn letters.

And long-running current-events show Assignment: The World, produced by station WXXI right there in Rochester, was a classroom fixture a few years later. (No prizes for guessing where on the dial you could find WXXI, back in those analog/UHF days.)

But radio as a learning tool? I can’t remember a teacher ever turning on a radio to deliver an educational message.

Nor can I remember a class ever sitting still for a radio lesson, spellbound and dutiful at the sound of a disembodied voice … though that’s a very pleasant image, isn’t it?

(Part of my reverie involves the voices who made educational radio happen. It must have been cool to sit in a studio somewhere, making tape for “Book Trails,” and thinking about all the kids in all the classrooms all over the state who would presumably sit hanging on your every word. I bet some of those kids can still hear “Book Trails” in their heads if they think a little bit.)

I think I must have come along a little too late for educational radio. I can’t imagine New York state never made use of it; I’m guessing it had simply fallen out of favor by 1980 or so.

All educational formats rise and fall. Filmstrips were already on their way out by the time I graduated, and the VHS and Beta tapes I watched in high school classes are long gone. It seems a shame somehow to group radio in with those other formats, but it’s probably true enough.

I’m gonna have to do some Googling, though. I wonder if I can’t find some mp3s out there someplace — of “Book Trails,” or similar programs from other states.

I don’t really need more stuff to listen to. But I’m curious to see if some classic educational radio doesn’t bring a hush to the classroom between my ears.

Burning.

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One of my goals for this long weekend almost past was to get a bunch of music off my hard drive and into a form I can listen to when not at the computer.

Yup.

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The pictured stack of CDs includes:

Six entire Grateful Dead shows, plus a Jerry Garcia Band show.

Five partial Grateful Dead shows. Some are concert recordings for which only one set circulates, while others are “shortlists” distilled by the excellent Save Your Face website.

A one-disc collection of Elvis Costello tunes from the 1990s and 2000s, perfect for a listener who (ahem) more or less tuned him out after his first split with the Attractions.

Lightnin’ Hopkins performing in 1977.

Pharoah Sanders performing in July 1968.

Wayne Shorter performing at New York’s Village Gate in August 1965.

The J. Geils Band performing in Detroit in November 1974.

Little Feat performing in August 1977 in Washington, D.C. (songs recorded but not used for the Waiting for Columbus album).

The Flying Burrito Brothers performing someplace – already forgot where; not sure it matters – in April 1969. (Never have dipped my toes all the way into Gram Parsons. I guess it’s gotta happen sometime.)

Van Morrison performing in a Marin County club in February 1973.

Iannis Xenakis’ “Pleiades,” a piece for six percussionists, as performed in 1979.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, Gregor Piatigorsky, cello, as performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, 1946.

Two Goon Shows from fall 1955.

The BBC’s long-running Choral Evensong program, as recorded at Chichester Cathedral and originally broadcast June 7, 1972.

(A few other things I burned after taking the picture: A Tom Moulton disco mix from 1974; Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast album; and a Houston Astros radio broadcast from 1976.)

This ought to keep me busy for a while. Hopefully I won’t get halfway through the first Dead show and decide I want to hear Dream Police again.