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Monthly Archives: March 2012

We must write about our Alma Mater.

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Hey, here’s a question.

On the old pop charts — like, in the pre-download days — was the success of Top 40 singles a function of the time of year?

Here’s why I ask:

Chuck Berry came to town a couple of months ago, and by all accounts, it was a train wreck. Chuck didn’t sing so much as recite, and he played heedlessly out of tune for the first 45 minutes until his son (who also happens to be his rhythm guitarist) took away Chuck’s guitar and gave him his own.

As you all know, this coming October marks the 40th anniversary of Chuck’s only U.S. Number One pop hit, the unfortunate “My Ding-A-Ling.”

I’ve had 1972 on the brain lately, for some reason. And the combination of having 1972 and Chuck Berry simultaneously on my mind led me to ponder what must be one of the 10 worst hit singles of the Seventies.

I know the Seventies were a fertile time for novelty hit singles; and some of their success I understand.

“Disco Duck” had a reasonably catchy backing track. “Rubber Duckie” and “Rainbow Connection” were charming enough. “Convoy,” “The White Knight,” “Convention ’72” and “Mr. Jaws” played on current events and cultural fascinations. And so, I suppose, did “Wildwood Weed.”

I have no such explanation for the success of “My Ding-A-Ling.” A good double entendre is timeless, of course. But that’s not usually enough to lift them onto the Top 40, much less vault them over the likes of Elvis Presley, the Moody Blues and Curtis Mayfield.

Which leads me to my seasonal theory. Could it be that novelty singles were more successful during the school year, when the older teenagers who would ordinarily have affected the charts by buying better and/or more adult songs weren’t working and didn’t have as much money?

———–

My theory posits the following:

— People over 21 didn’t buy the single of “My Ding-A-Ling,” and probably not that many singles of any kind, because teenyboppers bought singles. If they wanted the song, they probably bought the full LP, which went Top Ten.

— People between, say, 17 and 20 bought some copies of “My Ding-A-Ling,” along with a seasonally decreased number of the other singles on the countdown. (Not nearly enough copies of Chi Coltrane’s “Thunder and Lightning,” but that’s another story.)

The people in this group who bought “My Ding-A-Ling” did so because their senses of humor were on the far-juvenile end of the scale; because they were students of rock history and wanted to buy a record by one of its founding fathers; or because they wanted to play the record specifically to piss off a parent or friend.

— Kids between, say, 11 and 16 bought “My Ding-A-Ling” in larger numbers because it made them guffaw (and, in some markets, because their local program directors wouldn’t play it on the radio, making it forbidden fruit.)

Their singles-buying income was largely based on allowances, rather than jobs, and thus would not have diminished as significantly at the start of the school year. They also purchased other singles on the countdown, as well.

———–

It’s been a while since I heard one of the Casey Kasem ’70s American Top 40 rebroadcasts. But I remember Casey explaining on early countdowns that the charts were based on sales at 100 record stores across the country.

He made no indication of any attempt to gauge airplay popularity. That would have been a boon to “My Ding-A-Ling,” which some stations refused to play even as part of Casey’s weekly countdowns.

Even if airplay wasn’t part of the chart picture, the ARSA database of local charts from hit radio stations around the country kindasorta supports my theory too, just by providing a timeline for the spread of the song’s popularity.

With the exception of one market (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) where the single hit Number One at the end of July, “My Ding-A-Ling” caught fire in most cities right after Labor Day. Clicking through the database, you can see it spread like a fever in September and October, going Top Ten in Hartford and Phoenix and Fresno and Akron and Rochester.

Presumably, the period of peak airplay is also the period of peak sales. In this case, it also happens to coincide with the time of the year when many older teens’ disposable income drops.

Not all teens gave up their summer jobs in late August and early September. Some worked year-round and still do. But the majority of older teens probably found themselves around that time of year with less spending money — especially those who had just shelled out for some fresh threads for the new school year.

As older teens have less money, they buy fewer singles, clearing the way for their younger brothers¬† — and, who knows, maybe sisters — to exert more chart power of their own.

I notice also that the single had surprising (to me, anyway) staying power, remaining on the Top 40 through the week ending Nov. 25.

That could also be interpreted as an indication that younger buyers were driving its popularity. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, anyone with an ounce of maturity (especially those living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania) must have been thoroughly sick of Chuck’s single double entendre.

To keep that song in the Forty that late into its chart run, somebody had to still want to hear it an awful lot.

I should know better than to overestimate America’s level of sophistication; there were probably still adults chuckling over it that late in the game. I’m not sure they were the ones actually going out and paying for the opportunity to take it home, though.

———

I’m sure someone better-informed than me has already figured out the success of “My Ding-A-Ling.” If you know the answer, by all means let me know.

I’ve enjoyed shoveling out my theory, though.

And that, folks, is roughly 968 more words than I ever thought I’d write about “My Ding-A-Ling.”

The mysterious traveller from Carupano.

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I’m starting to get quietly jazzed (as I’ve mentioned before) about the approach of another baseball season.

Part of that involves re-immersing myself in baseball lore — all the people and places and incidents that make the game’s history as rich as it is.

Like the story of a lefty-swinging journeyman who came from nowhere 40 years ago and became, for a month-and-a-half, a useful contributor to a World Series-winning team.

His name was Gonzalo Marquez, and the Kansas City A’s had signed him early in 1966 as a 19-year-old first baseman and outfielder.

He spent five years working his way up the A’s minor-league system, hitting .341 at Triple-A Iowa in 1970 before vanishing from the radar for the entire 1971 season. I’m going to guess he either seriously hurt himself or left to play ball in some other country, because it’s a mystery to me how someone can hit that well at Triple-A and not get a call-up.

Marquez came back to Oakland’s minor-league system in ’72 and hit well enough to earn a big-league promotion in August, where manager Dick Williams used him almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter.

He began his career 1-for-6, including a strikeout in his first at-bat. But something started to click for him on Sept. 10, when his single began a game-tying rally in a game Oakland eventually won.

From there on out, Marquez hit .467 with four RBIs in spot duty. On the last day of the regular season, he made his only start of the year, and posted a single and stolen base against Nolan Ryan in another A’s win. He closed the year with a .381 average in 23 games.

On the day Marquez joined the A’s, they held a narrow one-game lead over the upstart Chicago White Sox. They ended the year as division champs, with a more comfortable five-and-a-half-game lead.

It would be absurd to credit that late-season surge to a pinch-hitter, of course. But it seems that Marquez was usually able to provide a solid at-bat when his team needed one. And since games can turn on a single at-bat, a reliable pinch-hitter is a valuable weapon to have.

Marquez’ bat grew still hotter in the postseason. He went 2-for-3 with an RBI in the AL Championship Series against Detroit, then went 3-for-5 with another RBI in the World Series against Cincinnati. Most memorable was his appearance in Game Four on Oct. 19: His ninth-inning single was the first of four straight Oakland hits that lifted the A’s from a 2-1 deficit to a 3-2 win.

1973 found Marquez in pinch-hitting duty again, and he was hitting .385 at the end of April. But then the hits dried up: He got only one in the entire month of May, and was farmed out on June 4 hitting .261.

On Aug. 29, Oakland traded him to the Chicago Cubs, who were only two-and-a-half games out of first and perhaps hoping for a little of their own Marquez magic. Cubs manager Whitey Lockman went so far as to install Marquez as his starting first baseman.

But Marquez hit only .224 in 19 games with the Cubs, during which time the team played under-.500 ball and backslid to fifth place. (Marquez did manage to hit his only big-league home run off Montreal’s Steve Rogers on Sept. 21.)

In 1974, Marquez’ big-league career petered out in ignominious fashion: 11 games with Chicago; 11 pinch-hit at bats; and no hits. In his final big-league game, on June 5, Marquez grounded to short against San Diego’s Lowell Palmer. And that was all.

Marquez went on to play in the Mexican League and the Venezuelan Winter League. If his Wikipedia page is correct, he was still active in the Venezuelan league when he was killed in a car accident in December 1984. Of course, his Wiki page lists two birthdates for him — one 1940, one 1946 — so its information might not be trustworthy.

(Retrosheet and Baseball Reference both list his birthdate as March 31, 1946. His New York Times obit gives his age as 38 and confirms that he was active as a player-coach at the time of his death, but gives an incorrect batting line for his 1974 season.)

The story of Gonzalo Marquez captures the ups and downs of baseball pretty well. If you don’t produce, the big-league ride ends quickly. But if you do produce — even in a limited niche — you can help a team win it all.

I don’t follow spring-training news all that closely; I pay a lot more attention when the games start counting for real.

I like to imagine, though, that there is a Gonzalo Marquez type in somebody’s major-league camp, swinging a hot bat and just waiting to be dropped into the right situation. Maybe we’ll see him in August … and October.

On the frozen tundra of Meriden.

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I’ve been on a bit of a YouTube football jag the past day or two.

It’s the fault of one of my blog-idols, Tom Nawrocki, whose passion for watching grainy old gridiron footage has even given birth to a blog all its own.

I already knew that a fair amount of wonderfully funky NFL Films footage can be found on YouTube. I’ve even sat through one or two of the old Monday Night Football games that occasionally pop up in their entirety before the copyright lawyers run them off.

I hadn’t realized how much amateur and youth-league footage there is out there, though.

And when you combine authentically vintage film with grandiose NFL Films-style orchestrations, you get … this.

I admit, the joke gets kind of old after a while. There’s really no need to watch this beyond the four-and-a-half-minute mark. But for a while, anyway, the combination of stentorian music and skinny 11-year-old kids strikes me as comic gold.

It works especially well when the camera actually captures a scrap of action — a sack, a gang-tackle, an interception.

The catch at about 13 seconds in, for instance, is so marvelously (if accidentally) synched to the accompanying music that I instantly heard John Facenda in my head: “But then a timely interception by Sammy Strinczak turned the tide and ended the Junior Panthers’ rally.”

This being the Meriden Junior Football League, I wonder if all the kids went out afterward for steamed cheeseburgers.

The fat man and the faithful.

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Y’know, I wonder whatever happened to all those scarves and sweaty towels Elvis Presley threw into the audience over the years.

Are they sitting at the bottom of steamer trunks? Lovingly framed on walls? Clogging up landfills? Fetching hefty prices on eBay — when and if they can be verified as authentic?

Thirty-five years ago this spring and summer, the Elvis roadshow was reaching its denouement in venues across America. I got to thinking about those final months last night after I pulled a bootleg recording off my shelf and gave it a listen.

(Disclosure: I went through a phase a couple years ago when I downloaded a bunch of live concert bootlegs off the ‘Net. I don’t do it any more; and no, I won’t burn you a copy.)

The boot in question is called “Coming On Strong,” and it compiles the second halves of two early-’77 shows (Feb. 13 in West Palm Beach, and Feb. 16 in Montgomery, Alabama) in nice soundboard quality.

If you can overlook the fact that seven or eight songs are repeated (I can, given what I paid for it), “Coming On Strong” is a pretty good document of Elvis’ final months. It brings together in one place the full range of performances Elvis was capable of at the end.

On a few songs, he’s in a relatively good mood and what passed for full voice — though the disappearance of his singing technique is depressing. Even at his strongest, when he is able to take in a good lungful of air and project, he is too numb, too high or too out of shape to move between notes and lines with skill and assurance.

On other songs, he seems scarcely able to draw enough breath to squeak out each line. His singing becomes completely powerless, and not even a crackerjack band can push him forward.

That’s pretty damn depressing too, come to think of it, and also a little scary.

This man has no place being anywhere else in the world but a closely watched private bed in a detox hospital. But he is an Event; he has consented to appear; people have paid to see him; so out from the wings he stumbles.

In the end, “Coming On Strong” made me think more about the other 15,000 people in the building than about Elvis.

We all know his story, after all. We all know the image of the lonely, drug-addled fat man in the jumpsuit, tossing off songs in a slurred gasp in which “Everybody, let’s rock!” becomes “Err’buhy le’roh’!”

But what of the squealers? What of the women (doesn’t sound like too many men among ’em) who yell and scream and carry on like teenagers during “And I Love You So” and “Teddy Bear”?

Who were the people in West Palm Beach who applauded Elvis’ forty-five-second version of “Blueberry Hill,” and what were they thinking?

I imagine these people were either:
— willfully blind to what was going on in front of them and trying to ignore its implications, such as the passage of time and the fading of their own youths; or
— greedily importuning their hero for a scarf or a towel. (Or more: Elvis tossed his guitar into the crowd at least once.)

On these recordings and others, when Elvis’ voice trails off for a few seconds and he starts mumbling to the crowd, he’s clearly in the process of distributing souvenirs. Apparently, what he had already given the public over the course of the previous 20 years didn’t suffice.

(It would have been ballsy, just once, to hear him drawl: “Hey! You people in the front row! You want a gift from me? Go buy ‘The Sun Sessions.’¬† Most goddamn revolutionary record you’ll ever hear in your life. We got real, real gone for a change. That’s your gift. Thank me later.”)

I suppose Elvis had only himself to blame for the scarf-groupies. Throw stuff into a crowd and a lot of things can happen, most of them bad.

But when you look out into the front rows, and everyone’s waving and squealing while you’re trying to sing … well, that doesn’t really incent you to care much about your singing, does it? Kinda makes the performance, and maybe even the performer, seem … incidental.

I imagine the audience members I have branded “willfully blind,” the ones who didn’t want to believe what they were seeing, went home feeling thoroughly disillusioned and more than a little old.

I am not sure what the squealers and the scarf-catchers thought at the end of the show, or what they think now.

I hope the ones who left with a trophy still savor it. They got their scarf or towel for the price of a third-row ticket.

But it might have cost a lot of other people — including Elvis — a whole lot more.

A night-bridge over prowling waters.

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My man Jim Bartlett was kind enough today to link to my recent “For Those About To Rock” post in his own post about learning to like, or at least accept, AC/DC.

(Jim’s description of his first exposure to the band is particularly priceless. I had some of the same reaction upon hearing the “Dirty Deeds” album — particularly the seven-and-a-half minutes of moron-drool that is “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round To Be a Millionaire.)” )

I agree with Jim’s contention that the Bon Scott era of the band was vastly superior to the Brian Johnson era.

One of the main reasons — the above song not included — was that the young AC/DC actually employed some minimal command of dynamics. They recognized that there were times to play loud, and times to play soft, and they actually did both. Scott would do the same thing with his vocals, slipping into a leer or a spoken aside to mix up the feel of the song.

Johnson-era AC/DC, on the other hand, seems to tackle every single song at the same volume level and the same midtempo plod, starting with the same hammering blues-based rhythm riff. Even Angus Young’s solos don’t seem to take things higher.

Yes, dynamics matter. Which brings me to what I really meant to write about tonight — two great songs that reach their peaks just a little too early.

The first is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

At the end of the second verse, when Art Garfunkel goes up for the phrase “And pain is all around,” he just sort of cuts loose for an instant, before reeling himself back in for the phrase “like a bridge over troubled water.” That’s the line that makes the hair on my arms stand up.

The song features the obligatory Big Ending with Simon, strings and big soggy drums, not to mention lyrics that abandon the personal for the oblique (“Sail on, silvergirl,” etc.) But it’s so overdone and mushy that the air just kinda farts out of it like a leaky balloon.

The heart of the song, and its most unforgettable moment, is just Art and a couple of overdubbed Larry Knechtels on piano, vowing in clear and certain terms to be there when all light and pleasure are gone.

Tonight’s other example — and the one that led me down this path in the first place — is “Night Prowler,” from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” album, chronologically the final album track to feature Bon Scott.

Scott’s vocal on the first verse starts in understated fashion, then builds. He invokes rats in alleys, chills down the spine, graves and darkness. And then there’s this, in a frayed, full-throated roar:

“And no one’s gonna warn ya / And no one’s gonna yell ‘attack’ / And you don’t feel the steel / ‘Til it’s hangin’ out your back.”

Like Art Garfunkel’s big line, there is no artifice here — Scott is bringing the words from someplace deeper than a lyric sheet.

And, like Garfunkel’s big line, there is nowhere to go from peak. After getting knifed in the back, we get another four minutes of song, featuring a second verse; some overheated Angus soloing; and a playful joke from Scott on the fade. But they could have closed up shop at about the 2:30 mark without losing the real meat of the record.

These songs are really mirror images of each other: One is uplifting, the other foreboding. One is sung by an earnest young man from Queens with an angel’s countertenor and a math degree. The other features a scrappy ex-shipyard worker, from Scotland by way of Sydney, with a lusty snarl that would have made voice teachers faint cold away.

Neither of these songs, while memorable, quite gets it right in terms of pacing, building and peaking.

But they both give me goosebumps … something Brian Johnson, for all the gold and platinum on his wall, does not do.

No pop culture or baseball content!

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Remember the Monopoly card that says “bank error in your favor”?

On Sunday I got a clock error in my favor, I think.

I ran a St. Patrick’s Day 5K in Allentown …

felt slow and heavy throughout …

mustered absolutely no finishing kick (I am usually good for picking up two or three places in the last quarter-mile; this time I gave four or five away) …

and ended up running probably my fastest time in the past three or four years. I beat my time from this same race last year by a good minute-and-a-half.

No idea what the hell happened but I’ll take it.

(I should note that the race is very well organized, and I doubt they actually forgot to start the clock on time. And the course was the same as last year so it wasn’t any shorter. I must actually have run faster. Christ knows how.)

Here is me in action – I’m the fat guy in the bandana running up some poor woman’s back.

I started running in high school, more than 25 years ago. Haven’t been doing it continuously since, but I’ve been doing it more or less continuously for the past five or six years, with a few months off here or there for the odd nagging injury caused by my caveman-level running technique.

I don’t read Runners World or hang out on running websites. I don’t run with an iPod — I’m paranoid; I like to hear what’s going on around me. I still do most of my running in cotton T-shirts, not those fancy sweat-wicking fabrics that make up 95 percent of every other runner’s wardrobe. I don’t even own a watch.

Maybe that’s why I like it. Since I started running, I have graduated from high school, graduated from college, changed jobs probably a half-dozen times, changed addresses even more frequently, gotten married, had kids and gone gray.

I run the same way I did in 1986, though.

Slower and more ponderously, of course. But I haven’t had to learn or relearn a damn thing, really. I just lace ’em up; walk a little to warm up; and then start running. Sometimes it’s uplifting, and sometimes it’s slow and painful. But it’s pretty rare that I regret doing it, either way.

I will endeavour to keep on keepin’ it simple, stupid, for as long as I can.

Every once in a while, the fat man in the bandana surprises himself.

Five For The Record: AC/DC, “For Those About To Rock We Salute You”

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A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: 1981 album by Australian hard-rock quintet. Follow-up to the massively successful “Back In Black” album. Reached Number One in the States and spawned two Top 20 singles in the U.K.

And here’s what makes it great …

1. It’s one for the faithful. Everybody knows “Back In Black.” It’s sold roughly 20 squidillion copies worldwide. Even chicks sometimes buy “Back In Black” — which is quite a feat in the he-man woman-haters’ world that AC/DC occupies.

The downside of that, though, is that the songs on “Back In Black” are so inescapable to the average suburban teen (at least in my day, and in my neighborhood) that they come to wear thin. I was getting tired of “Back In Black” before I was old enough to register for Selective Service. And in the past 20 years I doubt I’ve played the album three times.

“For Those About To Rock” is different. You don’t hear “Snowballed” or “Let’s Get It Up” as pump-’em-up music at sporting events. And you certainly don’t hear “Night Of The Long Knives” or “C.O.D.” on rock radio of any stripe.

“FTATRWSY” (as it shall henceforth be known — the record’s not worth getting tendonitis for) is by no means an obscure album. It became AC/DC’s first U.S. Number One album as 1981 turned to 1982, and has sold something like seven million copies worldwide.

But it’s not a phenomenon or a cultural presence in the same way as, say, “Frampton Comes Alive” — or “Back In Black,” for that matter. It’s a decent to very good bedrock hard-rock album, one you probably don’t know well unless you really like the band.

In other words — for all the platinum it’s racked up — “FTATRWSY” is a slightly more secret and exclusive club than “Back In Black,” without giving much ground in the way of earthshaking riffs or single-entendre lyrics.

And really, isn’t finding your way into a more secret and exclusive club what pop culture is all about?

2. The cannon on the cover. They haven’t done as much as they could to exploit it … but few bands have ever stumbled upon as perfect an exemplar of their sound as AC/DC’s cannon.

A cannon is a big, heavy, ponderous, graceless piece of ordnance, capable of plowing a smoking chunk of metal great distances through the air and straight into somebody’s gut.

Ask anyone who saw AC/DC from the cheap seats in Providence in December ’81 how that description compares to their experience.

Of course, now that we make missiles that see their way through windows and down chimneys, a cannon is also an outdated relic. You see missile launchers on battlefields; you see cannons in graveyards.

(I imagine AC/DC prefers to think of itself as “deep-rooted” or “consistent.” Those are nicer than “obsolete.”)

3. Angus Young reads? According to Wikipedia — not that I couldn’t have guessed — the album’s title was inspired by a book Angus Young read about the Roman gladiators who said, “Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.” (They were almost as good at sloganeering as the Young-Young-Johnson songwriting team.)

It came as a surprise to think of Angus Young reading for pleasure. AC/DC’s public persona — Angus’ schoolboy uniform aside — has never betrayed any literary aspirations. And since the band has always been relatively media-shy, their public image has always been pretty well defined by what they’ve put down on vinyl.

It’s kinda funny to imagine Angus’ other cultural interests. It could be that he raises heirloom roses, or collects Titians.

I think any comparisons between Venus of Urbino and “Whole Lotta Rosie” are strictly coincidental, though.

4. “Breakin’ The Rules.” Like many pop-culture bloggers of my approximate age, height, weight and life experience, I am torn between two opposing personalities.

There’s the 16-year-old longhair who gleefully and guilelessly enjoys the music handed him by large corporations that buy vinyl and cardboard by the ton. And then there’s the jaded 38-year-old who sees pretty much all mass-market entertainment as a shuck to some greater or lesser degree.

“FTATRWSY”‘s eighth track, “Breakin’ The Rules,” brings these diverse personalities together to hold hands and headbang like few other songs can.

The 38-year-old enjoys it as a feast of delicious irony. He knows that million-selling major-label hard-rock bands don’t break rules, unless they’re jaywalking from their hotel to the convenience store across the street for a late-night Pepsi.

And he knows that, if any band were to break rules, it wouldn’t be AC/DC — who have been firmly locked since 1974 into a stylistic blueprint so rigid it makes the Reinheitsgebot look liberal. These guys don’t even allow the use of wah-wah pedals, for Christ’s sake.

The 16-year-old, meanwhile, hears the mid-tempo stomp and the anthemic chorus and Malcolm Young’s beefy, insistent rhythm guitar and Angus Young soloing with that tight, distinctive Angus finger vibrato.

And he says the only thing appropriate to the situation: “Fuck yeah.”

Ain’t understanding mellow?

5. Phil Rudd. It is no great coincidence that AC/DC’s finest albums feature the former Philip Rudzevecuis on drums.

Nor is it a shock that, after his acrimonious departure in 1983, the band pretty much descended into complete pointlessness for the remainder of the decade. (Some might argue they’ve never made it back out.)

And it’s no surprise that the Young brothers rehired Rudd in the mid-’90s after he straightened out some personal problems.

Bands don’t often praise people they’re firing. But when they made way for Rudd’s return, AC/DC said departing hired-gun drummer Chris Slade was a superb musician with only one weakness: He wasn’t Phil Rudd.

Rudd, anyway, is one of those dirt-simple, not-a-stroke-wasted drummers, sort of the Charlie Watts of hard rock. He is absolutely and completely the ideal drummer for his band. And he’s in fine form throughout “FTATRWSY” — as solid and unassuming as a stone wall.

You won’t listen to the record just to hear Phil Rudd, the way I sometimes listen to “Quadrophenia” just to hear John Entwistle. But after you’ve heard enough of Brian Johnson’s wail and Angus’ soloing, you’ll start to recognize who’s really loading AC/DC’s cannon.