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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Like a nuclear line on a static wire.

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My kids aren’t into albums, it seems.

I was enough of a music geek at a young age to sense that the album, as a collection of songs, was an art form to rival a novel.

They were (almost always) written, assembled, sequenced and illustrated for some kind of reason, which could be discussed and debated years after the fact.

(I think repeated listens to Sgt. Pepper’s as a boy taught me this. This was back in the mid-’80s, when it was still a thing for pop critics to label Sgt. Pepper’s the best album of all time. From them I picked up the aura of albums as self-contained, deliberate works. After that it was a short step to Tonight’s The Night, Exile on Main Street, Court and Spark, and a thousand other long-players with their own unique personalities.)

As far as I know, my older son — he’s heading into high school this fall — doesn’t really subscribe to the mystique of the album … or the CD, or the download, or whatever form in which music gets consumed these days.

He has a couple of CDs, Rush’s Moving Pictures probably foremost among them. But a discussion of the album as art form would leave him completely cold, I imagine.

I’ve written before about the difference between pop geeks and average music listeners, and how the average listeners might have it better than the obsessives who like to pick apart every single detail of their favorite recordings.

Could be my son has fallen on the other side of the divide … which might be just fine in the long run. I don’t want to force him into musical obsession. If he goes there, I want him to develop an interest and sort things out by himself.

I can dangle the occasional signpost, though, just for fun.

Last night, while I was cooking dinner, I put on side three (excuse me, side C) of Flight Log, a Jefferson Airplane best-of collection that I bought in my sophomore year of high school — when I was not tremendously older than my son is now.

It’s still probably my favorite compilation album. From romantic ballads to songs of interstellar exile to filthy back-porch blues, it collects everything that made the Airplane family circus so entertaining. Original editions also have a lavishly illustrated booklet that goes a long way to explain the Airplane ethos.

(Flight Log, I’m sad to say, was rendered “obsolete” in the CD age by at least one JA box set. Bollocks. Sometimes you don’t need four CDs littered with outtakes to grasp the soul of a band. Sometimes two thoughtfully chosen LPs do the job just fine.)

Anyhow, I was pleased to see my older son come in from shooting hoops and spend a couple minutes sitting intently in front of the stereo.

He might have been reading the booklet. Or, he might have been digging the tunes. Or maybe he was admiring how the entire package came together as a statement of purpose.

Either way, I hope his hmm-what’s-this? moment introduced him to something he didn’t already know or hadn’t already thought about.

One of Side C’s rampaging highlights is “Milk Train,” a Grace Slick feature originally from 1972’s Long John Silver album.

Grace gets all het up about a wayward but good-lovin’ man, while Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar and Papa John Creach’s violin spar for control of the space she leaves. It’s a nice biting piece of rock n’ roll from a band that didn’t have much left in it at that point.

Not sure what my son thought of it — there are plenty of hmm-what’s-this? moments embedded in the song for a young teenage boy to chew on. (“Dad, what does ‘Some men are absolutely rigid’ mean?”)

Maybe I’ll let him sort that out for himself as well.

You must be a Libra.

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One of the drollest things you can read on Wikipedia is Frank Zappa’s singles discography.

See, discography entries on Wikipedia follow a particular format. They show how each single or LP ranked on the pop charts of various nations.

If the song or album missed the charts altogether, a horizontal line appears — shorthand for a stiff, if you will.

Somehow, the listening publics of the U.S. and Europe failed to get behind such classic Zappa singles as “Who Are The Brain Police?” and “Peaches En Regalia.

So, Frank Zappa’s singles discography on Wikipedia consists of a long, barely broken series of horizontal stiff-lines spanning 25 years and six nations.

It’s a nice, understated representation of a lifetime of mutual hostility between Zappa and the average record-buyer.

singles

One of the few actual numbers to be seen on the full chart came from a fluke step into the mainstream 35 years ago around this time of year. And, whaddya know, there’s a minor Lehigh Valley angle to our story.

Zappa, ever alert to cultural fatuousness, parodied disco music as early as 1976 with the single “Disco Boy.” That one didn’t trouble Casey Kasem, peaking at No. 105 in the U.S.

Three years later, Americans were just starting to tire of the disco trend, and Zappa’s similarly themed (but catchier) “Dancin’ Fool” single began catching some unprecedented airplay.

The song’s chart placement might have been boosted by its performance on “Saturday Night Live” in October 1978, and by its inclusion the following year on Sheik Yerbouti, one of Zappa’s most popular LPs. Yerbouti reached No. 21 on the U.S. album charts, Zappa’s best placement on that chart since 1974 and a peak he would not reach again.

According to the Wiki chart, “Dancin’ Fool” topped out just short of the U.S. Top 40, peaking at No. 45.

It’s sort of an open secret that Billboard magazine cooked some of its singles charts in the Seventies.

I wonder if Zappa’s near-miss was legitimate, or whether somebody decided that the music industry’s most notorious iconoclast didn’t deserve to be on the Forty — especially while he was mocking the music industry’s hottest meal ticket.

(Either seems believable to me. Certainly, Zappa was never known for attracting mainstream radio play, so maybe he did fall just short. He eventually made the Forty for the first and only time with 1982’s “Valley Girl.”)

The invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts shows “Dancin’ Fool” getting spins in a handful of major markets, including San Francisco, New York and Minneapolis.

Oh … and Easton, Pennsylvania, the easternmost outpost of the Lehigh Valley.

For the week ending June 11, 1979, Easton’s WEEX-AM ranked “Dancin’ Fool” No. 23 in its local airplay ratings — riding alongside such uncut slices of disco as “Hot Stuff,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “Ring My Bell” and “Love You Inside Out.”

It heartens me to know that a local station that was probably living off disco in 1979 could also find some airtime to take the piss out of it.

WEEX is now one of two local stations simulcasting ESPN radio programming. Wonder if they’d give regular play today to something that openly mocked America’s sports-industrial complex and the people who worship it?

(Shame Zappa’s not around to take a whack at that.)

Father’s Day.

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My Father’s Day was a warm slow Sunday without any particular impetus to accomplish anything.

So in the early afternoon, I drove over to Northampton Area High School to watch a couple innings of Blue Mountain League baseball.

The BML is an amateur league for grownups — basically, for working stiffs who aren’t done playing baseball.

It’s been around for almost 70 years, and has enough of a sense of history to have posted its statistical archives online.

This allows the stat geeks among us to look up the likes of ? Youngkin, who hit .075 in 40 plate appearances with Easton in 1968 and apparently was too embarrassed about it to leave his first name with the scorer.

Only the hitting statistics are online, which suggests the BML might value hitting more than it does pitching.

I didn’t get a sense of that in person, though, watching the Northampton Giants and Martins Creek Creekers play two-and-a-half mostly hitless and totally scoreless innings.

The Giants wore orange jerseys like their major-league namesakes wore in the ’80s, while the Creekers’ red-white-and-blue caps gave their gray road unis a ’90s Montreal Expos feel.

The end result was like watching a jumbled Game of the Week from my childhood — the kind where it doesn’t seem realistic that the two teams played, but they must have, because there’s film of it.

Swing and a miss.

I enjoyed my brief visit with the Blue Mountain League, and went home untroubled by mascots, paid parking, assigned seats, or any knowledge of the score.

(Martins Creek won; whether it was 1-0, 10-0 or 10-9, only God and three guys in the bleachers know.)

Some pictures, inevitably:

Chat.

The pitch.

Runner's out at second trying to stretch a hit down the left-field line into a double.

Runner’s out at second trying to stretch a hit down the left-field line into a double.

Two out.

Long-distance operator.

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If I’ve learned anything in 40-plus years on earth, it’s that one of the worst things you can possibly be is a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

Here are a few examples to show you what I mean:

– I’ve got a couple of Beatles live recordings from 1964-65. Just about every one of them starts with a local DJ who admonishes the crowd at length to stay polite, stay quiet, and show everybody how much better an (Atlanta/Philadelphia/Sydney) audience behaves.

And then the lads come out, and it’s inevitable wall-to-wall jet-engine eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Those DJs might have ruled their time slots. They might have had the best ratings in town and all the local fame they could handle.

But for a few minutes in a packed stadium, wagging their fingers and lecturing on maturity, they were Clods In The Way Of The Music.

– From a once-local library, I long ago took out a jazz concert recording in which promoter-snob John Hammond made a series of obnoxious, intrusive between-song announcements.

The Interwebs tell me it was probably the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert. That legendary concert was released as an LP 20 years later — punctuated by newly recorded “stage announcements” taped specially for the album by Hammond. Now that’s going above and beyond to be a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

– On the Wattstax live album, the Bar-Kays’ histrionic but entertaining version of “Can’t Turn You Loose” gets cut off early by an emcee who ushers the band offstage because the show’s going overtime.

And to make it worse, he spends what seems like a solid minute calling for applause for the band he’s kicking off the stage: “Give it up for the Bar-Kays! The Bar-Kays! The Bar-Kays!”

That would be humiliating at an eighth-grade talent show, never mind a major concert with a big-name band.

Sure, it’s bad mojo to let the show run ’til 3 in the morning. But, better that than to be a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

– When I was growing up, I hated morning DJs. I was all about the tuneage, and I never heard a skit, a stunt or a line of patter that was a better use of airtime than Aerosmith.

As I’ve grown and been exposed to some of the great jocks, I’ve learned to appreciate how much fun a good morning DJ can be.

But when they’re bad, morning DJs are definitive examples of Clods In The Way Of The Music.

You get the picture, I think. It is better to be a squirrel in the way of a Greyhound bus than a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

# # # # #

It would have been easy for Casey Kasem to be a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

How? Well, let’s look at it through the eyes of an average radio listener in, say, 1975.

Your local station brings you the most popular tunes in your region, and you know the local personalities, and you like them OK.

But then, three hours a week, it hands over the reins to some guy from Hollywood. He plays some sort of national countdown whose songs don’t necessarily align with what you hear locally.

And in between, he tells all these stories about James Taylor’s pet pig, and the rise of the Moog synthesizer, and how the Raspberries’ scented album gave people seizures, and the Beatles … always the Beatles.

Who is this guy, you might have asked, and what makes him so special? What claim does he have to share the stage with the nation’s most popular songs?

It is a testament to Casey Kasem’s style and personality that he was rarely, if ever, a Clod In The Way Of The Music.

The expansion of “American Top 40” from three to four hours, in 1978, put him at risk from time to time. That extra hour was a lot of time to fill with flashbacks, stories, long-distance dedications and other sideshows.

Still, Casey didn’t make the show seem like it was about him.

For instance, his showbiz anecdotes — at least in the earlier years — were sourced from, and credited to, music publications like Billboard and Rolling Stone.

None of that “I stopped by Mark Farner’s farm in Michigan, and over a couple cold cans of Goebel’s, he told me …” routine for Casey.

The effect was to make Casey look like a big fan with access to lots of magazines, rather than a Hollywood personality in his own right.

It sounded like he cared so much about pop music that he’d set out to learn as much as he could about it, and share that with others who were just as fascinated as he was.

Ultimately, “American Top 40” was about the music, the people who made it, and the listeners who dug it, not the guy who happened to be spinning it.

Sure, Casey didn’t flee from fame. He did guest shots on TV shows, and acted in movies for a while. But in his AT40 guise, he served the music, and the fame he gained came from the welcoming warmth of his on-air persona, not self-promotion.

That charming quality, and not the tabloid drama of his last days, should be what people remember about Casey Kasem.

Five For The Record: Blue Oyster Cult, “Burnin’ For You.”

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

Today’s subject: 1981 single by veteran American hard-rock band, taken from the album Fire of Unknown Origin. Managed to become both a minor pop-radio hit and a staple of classic/hard-rock radio programming, at least back in the ’80s and early ’90s, when I still listened to classic/hard-rock radio.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The epic opening. The early to mid-’80s would not treat Seventies rock dinosaurs well. Some would slip off the charts, while others would adopt Eighties trappings in an attempt to stay relevant.

Set against that canvas, the opening of “Burnin’ For You” plays like one last shot of the old grandiose medicine.

Harmonized lead guitar, choral samples (at least, I assume that’s not a real choir) and rolling drum fills create a classic tense-yet-melodic hard-rock intro. Plus, there are no identifiably ’80s production touches, which means it ages well.

2. A private grumble. In the second verse, singer-guitarist Buck Dharma sings about “time everlasting,” followed by a clearly enunciated (perhaps even bitten-off) line: “Time. To. Play. B-Sides.” You can practically feel a nudge in the ribs as he sings it.

I have no idea what his complaint is; but clearly, he’s airing out some sort of private beef. Which I find kinda funny and entertaining.

Plus, he does it in the course of a hit song — so he got his dig in over a million American radios.

Whatever his behind-the-scenes argument was, I hope he won it.

3. Number Two. Speaking of hits, as indeed we were: “Burnin’ For You” reached the Top Forty by the skin of its teeth, placing at No. 40 for several weeks in October 1981.

This officially handed the BOC their ticket out of One-Hit Wonderland, thereby exempting them from all those snarky VH1 countdowns of Biggest One-Hit Wonders.

(The band’s first and biggest Top 40 hit, of course, was 1976’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” also written and sung by Senor Dharma.)

A band as catchy, sardonic and cool as Blue Oyster Cult doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Los Del Rio or the Singing Nun. And thanks to “Burnin’ For You,” it doesn’t have to be.

4. Call-and-response. Every good hit single has one or two instrumental details that catch the ear.

In “Burnin’ For You,” my favorite touch is the wry little guitar bend, low in the mix, that follows the fourth line of each verse (“Ain’t no home for me” in the first verse, “Got no time to slow” in the second.)

A close listen on my computer speakers suggests the bend is not being played by the same guitar that’s playing the crisp, tightly reverberant rhythm chords on beats two and four.

So now I’m imagining Dharma (one of my favorite rock-and-roll noms de guerre, by the way) doing an extra track of guitar overdub just to add those two bends.

It was worth his time.

4 1/2. Another cool production touch, if you wanted me to name one: The way Dharma’s lead guitar swoops in at about 2:49 to start the solo.

5. The epic ending. Well, sure, why not? You gotta get out of a song as stylishly as you got in.

To end “Burnin’ For You,” we get a last taste of that malevolent harmonized guitar lick, followed by the “choir” fading out on an ominous chord.

Not genuinely evil or scary — it’s only rock n’ roll, after all.

But at a time when hit-radio stations were playing Al Jarreau, Juice Newton, Quincy Jones with James Ingram, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Ronnie Milsap and Christopher Cross, “Burnin’ For You” might have been the only song in regular play with an edgy or mysterious touch … the only one that made the listener think, “What was that, and where did it come from?”

Rock n’ roll is all about that fire of unknown origin, after all … and we takes it where we finds it.

You can terraplane in the falling rain.

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Nothing really meaningful to say … just a quick stop to drop off an earworm.

I have a well-hidden fondness for the English glam-rock of the Seventies, as well as later music that audibly traces its roots there. (There’s a reason I own a vinyl copy of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Dress For Excess album, and it ain’t the songwriting.)

There’s something campy and and plastic and vainglorious about glam-rock that hooks me in — like the notion, in T. Rex’s case, that utter mumbo jumbo salted with a couple of tossed-off automotive metaphors is somehow Descriptive and Dangerous and Sexy.

Plus, the glam-rock songs of the Seventies tend to have hooks the size of Stonehenge, which are tough for a pop fan to resist. Quiet Riot knew what it was doing when it exhumed Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” which the American public slept on in ’72 but was just waiting to be shined up and rolled out again.

(The French TV video linked to above is yet another reason to enjoy glam-rock: It’s clear that these outlandishly dressed, ass-waggling young men are having a really good time as they barely pretend to lip-synch. Give me infectious enthusiasm over straight-faced singer-songwriter Pain and Suffering any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.)

I could watch that for a while, yeah … but that’s not the earworm I came here with, 230 words ago.

According to the local airplay charts in the ARSA database, not a single U.S. radio station in the fall of ’72 picked up on T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution,” even as it rose to No. 2 in its homeland.

There was some good stuff being spun here at the time, sure.

Check out the hit list of one randomly chosen AM hit-radio station (WAVZ in New Haven, to be specific), and you’ll see “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” “Back Stabbers,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Lean On Me,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Go All The Way, “School’s Out,” “Burning Love” and “Get On The Good Foot,” just to name a few.

(Indeed, September 1972 may have been just about as good, pound for pound, as Stateside Top 40 radio got in the Seventies.)

Still, it’s unfortunate that no one wanted to take a couple of plays away from Gilbert O’Sullivan or “My Ding-A-Ling” and give them to Marc Bolan at his stompy, spacey, mascara’d best.

Maybe the song was just too flaky. Or maybe, with the social and political heat of the Sixties just starting to cool, nobody wanted to spin a record with the word “revolution” in the title.

America’s loss, I think.

(PS: If you enjoyed that at all, check out the Scorpions’ regrettable cover from a few years ago. It takes more to carry off a successful glam-rock attitude than lots of high-gain pick-slides.)

Did I hear you say that there must be a catch?

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I’ve added something new to the list of Things I Know I Shouldn’t Want To Do But Might Anyway:

Badfinger is coming to town.

The band playing a free show in Bethlehem on Aug. 23 is really Badfinger in name only.

The original band’s main singers and songwriters, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, are long dead. The original fourth member, drummer Mike Gibbins, is more recently passed.

Whatever amalgamation currently calls itself Badfinger features only one original digit — rhythm guitarist and singer Joey Molland.

(I believe Molland is at far right of this photo. It should probably be illegal to advertise a 2014 band with a picture of its 1969 members, especially when most of them are dead. But it isn’t.)

So why do I want to go?

Well, because it’s free.

And because the original Badfinger was a wonderful pop band — they were scouted and signed by the Beatles for good reason — and hearing their songs played live by someone who knows how to play them should be at least a small pleasure.

And because I’m sorta curious about what sort of aging pop geeks (and how many) will come out of the woodwork on a hot August night to see a ghost band that last hit the Top 40 in 1972.

And because … well, who wouldn’t want to tell their grandkids they’d seen Badfinger?

And, lastly, because even if Molland and Co. blow chunks all over the stage, it won’t erase the original band’s legacy of great power pop songs.

Like this one: