My man Jim Bartlett recently wrote a post about an American Top 40 countdown in which Casey Kasem played fast, loose and/or inaccurate with some of the stories he was so fond of telling.
I’ve learned that these sorts of flubs were not uncommon on ’70s AT40s … like the time Casey brought George Harrison’s mother back from the dead, or the time he shorted Grand Funk three Top 40 singles (out of five) in a recap of their career, or the time(s) he teased a story and then forgot to tell it after the commercial.
It’s kinda droll to think about all the kids (and maybe a few adults) hanging on Casey’s word every week, thinking he was the One True Source for pop music information … only to find out years later that he’d booted an anecdote, a link or a chart placement they’d taken as gospel.
Of course, a few inaccuracies in a radio show are no big deal in the long run. It ain’t brain surgery or world peace. It’s only jukebox music.
And, it’s been rumored that Billboard magazine cooked the charts from time to time anyway — like the week in December 1974 that all four ex-Beatles just happened to have Top 40 hits, thanks to one of them showing remarkable staying power around No. 39. So it’s not like the Top 40 was a golden and infallible entity to begin with.
Still, Casey was the face of the charts, and it’s his mistakes that got noticed — and still do.
I was listening the other day to the June 29, 1974, AT40, another countdown with a memorable flub.
AT40 historian Pete Battistini says Casey recorded the program early — perhaps as early as June 13 — so he could go to Hawaii and appear in an episode of Hawaii Five-0. The chart placements given for the week ending June 29 were based on estimates made well ahead of time by the program’s staff.
And that was how Casey ended up playing a “debut record” at No. 33 that actually topped out at No. 41 — never quite cracking the real Top 40 as compiled by Billboard.
It’s a shame this particular record never actually made it onto the 40.
Because, while it seems like an overplayed classic-rock warhorse to 2013 ears, it’s actually a cool, distinctive, even kinda weird little tune when you stop to think about it.
For starters, how often do you hear a John Lee Hooker-style boogie on commercial radio? We all know the rhythm, sure, but how often does someone mine it for popular music? That’s cool and unique in and of itself.
Billy Gibbons’ lecherous, mesquite-smoked croak is no one’s idea of a perfect pop-radio vocal, either. It may have been “La Grange” that inspired some long-ago critic to compare Gibbons’ singing to the sound of a zipper being forced open.
But he owns it, and it’s authentic, and it works. Indeed, try to imagine the song without it.
Imagine some hambone like David Coverdale singing it. Imagine Paul McCartney singing it, or Peter Frampton, or Mark Farner, or … you get the idea. No go.
And then there’s the song’s dirt-simple structure.
There’s the loose, conversational sung intro … the one and only verse (no chorus, thanks) … some solos by Gibbons … then a quick boogie breakdown, and then some more solos by Gibbons.
And that’s it. Like the ’55 Fender Strat Gibbons used to record it, “La Grange” doesn’t have any parts it doesn’t need.
The economical, bare-bones streak running through rock n’ roll might be the music’s saving grace — think Creedence, or the Basement Tapes, or Sun Records Elvis. ZZ Top knew how to tap that streak, and on “La Grange” they did it for neither the first nor last time.
(Speaking of Fender Strats, Gibbons’ tone is a wonder. Check out that second solo, chock full of pinch harmonics that sizzle like drops of water on a cast-iron skillet.)
ZZ Top would go on to make considerably more successful music than “La Grange” — much of it in the mid-’80s, when I was old enough to listen to American Top 40.
Some of that music still stands up. I’d argue that none of it, though, has quite the same spark that made the uncommercial, no-frills “La Grange” a long-running radio staple.