Are you ready?

Having written pop fantasies set in the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1975, we now go back to this time of year in 1970. I was too busy having a functional, pleasant visit with my family to get this written in time for Thanksgiving, but I like to imagine no one will really care.

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The mood in the three-bedroom ranch house has already been festering for months. There have been harsh words back and forth, and insults, and silent rejection, and tears.

It’s 11:30 on Thanksgiving morning — November 26, 1970, to be specific — and the teenage boy of the family still hasn’t made an appearance. His father begins to pace around the living room, an increasingly familiar anger building inside him; the relatives will be here soon.

Then, from the farthest room down the hall, a muffled, distorted din erupts … a sound that combines rolling tanks and roaring voices and mass frenzy.

Dad runs down the hall at a sprint and throws the door open, bringing the sound into point-blank trebly sharpness.

He has not heard a cacophony quite like it since he shouldered a rifle for Uncle Sam … and out of reflexive habit, he summons a voice he has not used since the last time he had to make himself heard over enemy fire.


His son, slumped on the bed in a pool of long hair, doesn’t say anything. He just lets his dad get an abrasive faceful of the noise.

And it sounds …

(this is the point in the story where you turn the speakers on your computer up real, real high)

… like this.

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Lester Bangs once described Metal Machine Music as “the all-time guaranteed lease breaker.” I believe Grand Funk’s altogether less heralded Live Album might have been — as described above — one of the all-time guaranteed Thanksgiving breakers.

Here are the ingredients that make up my theory:

The generation gap. It’s pretty well-established at this point that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

That’s not to overstate things — not every household was a generational war zone — but there were plenty of homes where parents and kids saw life from vastly different, and difficult-to-reconcile, perspectives.

The voice of teenage America. Every Grand Funk review I’ve read from the group’s first period of success (1969 to 1971) comments on the band’s remarkable connection with a youthful audience, and its complete inability to connect with anyone older. It’s as if Mark, Don and Mel broadcast on a frequency that didn’t come through clearly unless you were somewhere between 13 and 21.

So great was the disconnect that Lenny Kaye, reviewing Live Album for Rolling Stone, devoted 95 percent of his review to verbatim quotes from Grand Funk fans explaining why they liked the band — closing with the logic, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Or, take the aforementioned Lester Bangs, reviewing the Survival album in Rolling Stone later that same year:

“Grand Funk are one of the very few groups rising recently that do reflect the aspirations and attitudes of their audience in that most basic way. And they’ve achieved that vast consensus not only through hype but because they are that audience, are the rallying point for any sense of mass identity and community in Teenage America circa 1971.”

So, in a nation divided along generational lines (among others), Grand Funk carried the banner for one side about as strongly and divisively as any other American band.

Timing. After releasing three successful studio albums in a year’s time, GFR decided to commit its live show to vinyl. Two shows in Florida were recorded in June 1970, and the resultant live double album was released on Nov. 16 of that year — with no overdubs or other fancy sonic processing, according to the liner notes.

According to the RIAA’s searchable database of gold and platinum records, Live Album was certified gold on Nov. 23.

This suggests that a decent number of those American teens who’d tuned in to Grand Funk’s frequency had the record in their hands by Thanksgiving, and were primed and ready to give it a good loud spin if they wanted to.

Pure din. None of the above would have been an issue had Grand Funk gone back and neatly recut all their parts in the studio, the way major artists were already doing on their live albums in 1970. (GFR appears to have given in to the overdub temptation on its second live album, 1975’s well-manicured Caught In The Act.)

Instead, Live Album is — with a few exceptions — pretty much sheer jet takeoff from start to finish.

Grand Funk was never blessed with lyrical or melodic excellence. But they had amps enough to reach the back row of any festival, enough to make Nigel Tufnel look like Bert Jansch, and they didn’t believe in letting anyone in the same area code go home without getting the full experience.

Check out the version of “Paranoid” from Live Album — in particular, the point starting at about 3:40, when Mel Schacher’s overloaded-truck bass and Mark Farner’s thousand-pound-violin guitar get moments in the spotlight:

Out of concern that computer speakers do not do Live Album justice, I step in with a first-person testimonial, as someone who owns the record on original vinyl:

This is as grungy and simplistic as a major American rock band has ever gotten on record. And when played through a half-decent stereo system — or, even better, a deficient one — this is music to make the Sinatra generation feel like they’re passing through a garbage disposal, headfirst and slo-mo.

# # # # #

Which brings us back to our aggrieved father and his passive-aggressive son, in their ranch house in Agawam or Omaha or Fresno or wherever.

What they do in the short term — at very least a pulled power cord, at most a fistfight — doesn’t really matter that much.

Nor does what they do in the long run. (I like to imagine the kid grows up and gets a job on the line at the local brewery, and years later, before lung cancer kills the old man, they share six-packs and shake their heads at the emotions that used to feel so strong.)

Instead, we’ll leave the moment unresolved on the knife’s edge, with rage surging on both sides, family ties forgotten, and the clamor of festival-level tube-driven white noise claiming sensory primacy over the scent of roasting turkey.

A real celebration.

Longtime readers know of my deep fondess for the music of Chicago, in particular the band’s ’70s output. My dad played Chicago albums a lot around the house when I was small, and as a result, they are familiar and comfortable to me, the way Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or a Snoopy doll might be to other Seventies kids.

This being a Saturday and the Fourth of July, it seems an appropriate time to gather some thoughts on “Saturday In The Park,” which in my estimation is the definitive Seventies Chicago tune if you had to pick one. (This reflects my preference for Robert Lamm’s singing and songwriting above that of the other guys in the band.)

I’m sure I’ve tossed out some of these observations in other posts in other years; and I don’t guarantee any of them are worth anything, individually or together. But, here you go. Enjoy your Fourth, and any other Saturdays in the park you might come across.

– “Saturday In The Park,” despite being one of the great all-time pop songs to mention the Fourth of July, wasn’t actually a Fourth of July hit. The invaluable ARSA radio-play database shows the song beginning to pop up on local radio charts in late July 1972, and it would not reach its Top 40 chart peak until well after Labor Day.

Ironically, it could have been a Fourth of July hit. According to Wiki, the songs on the Chicago V album were recorded in late September of 1971, but were held in the can until the following summer to allow the band’s Live at Carnegie Hall album to run the charts.

Perhaps patriotic Fourth of July airplay would have helped “Saturday In The Park” get all the way to Number One, instead of stalling at Number Four. And maybe if it had, the Chicago sound would not have been so firmly defined by Peter Cetera — who succeeded in giving the band its first Number One single four years later, with “If You Leave Me Now.”

(Or maybe not. Number One for the week including July 4, 1972, was Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” not a song to be easily elbowed aside.)

– I’ve described this song in the past as a Norman Rockwell painting rendered by hippies, and I still find that charming.

Chicago, keep in mind, had dedicated an album just two years earlier to “the men and women of the revolution.” And on their previous studio album, released a year before “Saturday In The Park,” they’d appeared on a poster dramatizing the deaths of American combat soldiers throughout history.

“Saturday In The Park,” in contrast, finds them connecting with the eternal sunshine in the American bloodstream — flags and celebration, and people pouring into shared public areas just to experience a special day, and people free to tell stories their own way, and even people speaking different languages. (Lamm’s delightfully garbled line of mock-Italian deserves a blog post all to itself, but I’ll leave it be for now.)

There would be political and social comment on Chicago V — witness the superb “Dialogue (Parts I & II),” the follow-up single to “Saturday In The Park.”

But the album’s lead single seems to me to serve as a vote of confidence in the American spirit. It’s an anthem for the shared thread within us that comes together, without being maudlin or jingoistic, to recognize that we’ve got a good idea going; our forefathers came up with something special; and our great democratic experiment is worth continued support.

Some might see that as selling out or giving up. If I’d been a hippie in 1972 I might have felt that way.

From my perspective, I see it as a realistic vision … a realization that the republic had weathered any number of storms, and it would weather Vietnam and other Seventies downers as well, and that a core of something worth celebrating lingered under all the generational hassles.

– Speaking of political comment, it’s telling in retrospect to listen to the second side of Chicago V. The side opens with “While The City Sleeps,” a paranoid, vaguely heavy rocker about unseen forces (The Man?) plotting “new ways to kill us” and “tell us dirty lies.”

Then it moves into “Saturday In The Park,” as sturdy and charming as a deep-rooted oak on a New England town green.

Then it moves to “State of the Union,” a Lamm-written, Cetera-sung rocker whose fictional narrator gets arrested for his profane, public calls to tear the system down.

And then it moves to “Goodbye,” a song about failed interpersonal relationships set atop the background of a busy rock star (“the last three whole years have flashed by.”)

Seen in retrospect, it’s almost like you can watch Chicago’s young-revolutionary side doing battle with its mature L.A.-rock-star side for control of the band’s direction.

(Side II does not end with a clear victory for either faction. Rather, it ends with Terry Kath’s “Alma Mater,” a song that calls on the band members to hold it together now that they’re stars. A fitting close to a schizophrenic, if highly enjoyable, piece of work. Fans would have to wait for future albums to find out for sure which side won.)

– Kath, speaking of, is almost totally absent from this single. You have to listen closely to hear his guitar chanks on beats 2 and 4, and his voice is not noticeably present in the harmonies.

“Saturday In The Park” marks something of a turning point for Chicago’s self-taught guitarist, singer, songwriter and rock n’ roll force.

Of the band’s 11 singles released prior to “Saturday,” four featured partial or full lead vocals by Kath. Two were Top Ten hits — among the band’s best-known songs at the time — while a third dented the Top 20. (All chart info in this graf and the following is taken from this Wiki page.)

Of the 14 singles released by the band after “Saturday” and before Kath’s death in January 1978, he took full or partial lead on only four. Two of those singles missed the Top 40 entirely. A third, while a major hit, featured a Kath vocal appearance so subdued as to be virtually unrecognizable (“Wishing You Were Here”), and overshadowed in any event by the presence of several Beach Boys on support vocals.

Only “Dialogue,” the immediate follow-up single to “Saturday,” would find major chart success with Kath’s gravelly voice front and center.

It feels too dramatic to suggest that Kath’s downward spiral started here — that the evolution of Chicago starting around this time would lead up to the day when the guitarist would put a gun to his head, even in jest, and pull the trigger.

Still, Kath’s transformation from prominent lead voice to something more approaching a sideman seems to have begun around this time.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Cetera had the hot hand vocally, while Lamm, Cetera and James Pankow were shining as songwriters. But for those who enjoyed the early Chicago, it does mark a shift in the sound and dynamics of the group.

– The uplifting vocal chorus of “Listen, children, all is not lost / All is not lost / Oh, no, no” apparently fires up Lamm so much that he breaks into a momentary flourish of bluesy boogie-woogie piano.

(It’s audible at about 2:45 of the above clip … though, really, anyone still reading this has heard the song 15,000 times and knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

I love that because it supports the lyrical theme of doing your own thing. A bronze man still can tell stories his own way; and slow-motion riders can fly the colors of the day; and a brainy, somewhat disaffected young rock star can burst out with a clumsy bit of boogie, even if no one would normally confuse him with Johnnie Johnson.

(It could also be seen as a quick moment of Lamm putting his own stamp on his song. Most of “Saturday In The Park” is a vocal and/or instrumental duet between Lamm and Cetera — check out the latter’s McCartneyish bass link that starts the section about the slow-motion riders. But for one second in an otherwise smooth pop ensemble performance, Lamm pounds a little louder and throws in a little blues flavor. Why not?)

– Check out the way drummer Danny Seraphine turns the beat around in the last 10 seconds or so of the song, under Cetera’s vocal vamping … and how Cetera’s chronically underrated bass playing bounces imperturbably off it before meeting again at the finish. They didn’t just put the music on cruise control to the end.

– And dig the closing piano chord, which rings from sea to shining sea with an engaging sort of solidity. Chicago’s “A Day In The Life,” only with ennui replaced by optimism? Yeah, you could probably make an argument in that direction.

– In my limited 40-year-old suburban-dad knowledge, there are not that many killer hip-hop songs that sample Chicago. Robert Lamm and company just don’t bespeak bad-ass groove to producers, I guess.

But any discussion of “Saturday In The Park” ought to include De La Soul’s audacious “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’,” which includes a ghostly sample of Lamm and the Chicago horn section alongside several clips from the theme from “Grease.”

I’ve always loved the song — it’s like somebody took a bunch of Seventies signifiers, threw them into a blender and set a funky beat underneath.

Semi-Encore Performances: Did you break any glass?

This is based on a post that appeared on my old blog in January 2008. Some of the original YouTube links disappeared, so I’ve added new ones and done some additional writing.

The other day — stuck in a ’70s rut — I got to thinking about a song I haven’t heard in at least 15 years:
Never Been Any Reason” by Head East.
(You remember it: “Save my life, I’m going down for the last time / Woman with the sweet lovin’, better than a white line.”)

This song was huge on the local classic-rock station where I grew up.
I thought it was an entrenched national rock’n’roll staple, on the same level as “We’re An American Band” or “Start Me Up” or somesuch.
I was much surprised, years later, to discover that the band was relatively obscure, and their song never even cracked the Top 40.
(The Interwebs say it peaked at No. 68.)

It’s a truism of the ’70s rock scene that the big American bands, like Aerosmith, got big because they toured their skinny asses off and climbed the ladder rung by rung.
First they sold out the Allentowns of the world; then they toured the second-rank markets like Rochester and Buffalo again and again until they sold those out; and then they conquered New York City and LA.
The Head East saga reminds me that there were probably hundreds of bands that stalled in the second- and third-level markets … scored some regional hits, maybe opened for famous bands a few times, but never quite made it all the way.

Anyway, I went looking for the song on YouTube, and found all kinds of different versions — all the “Never Been Any Reason” a burned-out classic-rock expat could wish for.
Let’s stack some of ’em up:

* Here’s Buffalo bar band Cock Robin slamming it out.
(Their friend was awfully nice to bring his video camera to all those gigs.)
Cheesy as their name is, Cock Robin gets extra points for actually having a keyboard player — and for yelling “THANK YOU, BUFFALO!” at the very end.
If ever there was a song made for the exclamation, “THANK YOU, BUFFALO!,” this would be it.

* About that “actually having a keyboard player” thing:
The original song has prominent organ and synth parts, and doesn’t quite sound as imposing without them.
Here, bar-band Flat Stanley of Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, does its level best (“level best”? Flat Stanley? Geddit?) to make up for its keylessness.
I don’t quite think it works.
But, these guys get style points for being from Sault Ste. Marie, which I’ve always thought was a cool name. Wonder if any of ’em have day gigs at the Soo Locks?

* How often do you see someone credited for “lights and vocals”?
You can here, as a band called Tricks gets their “Never Been Any Reason” on in a “private videotaping session.”
(Which is the worse band name — Tricks, or Cock Robin?)
Love the drummer’s silly arm-pump thing … and the big sign that says “TRICKS.”
Though, in all fairness, they nail the song pretty nicely.

* Here’s Ferris Wheeler kicking out the jams at Four Stools Short in Wisconsin Rapids, WI.
I think “stool” is the operative word here.

(Was that an undeserved cheap shot? Yes. Are these guys as good as any other bar band? Sure. Is there anything remotely interesting about their version of “Never Been Any Reason”? No, sir, there isn’t.)

* If I told you about a band called the Wheezetones, in which two of the members are bald and a third wears a flat cap presumably to hide his baldness, you’d probably write them off as a boring cover band made up of middle-aged engineers who could never quite put their guitars down.

Well, that’s as may be. But for all that, they do a pretty convincing “Never Been Any Reason.” It ain’t just the champagne that has the New Year’s Eve crowd in Lincoln, Nebraska, moving on the dance floor.

And, in keeping with the previously established rule, they get extra points for yelling, “THANK YOU, LINCOLN!”

* Now THIS is krap: BobRocks grinds it out in Madison, Wisconsin.
The lead singer ain’t great, and his antics with the cowbell grow old fast.
Oh, and guys? If you use a fancy keyboard onstage, TUNE YOUR GUITARS TO IT.
That way, when the keyboardist gets his solo, he doesn’t sound like he’s a quarter-tone flat as compared to everyone else.
(2012 note: Whatever I was busting them for when I first wrote this, I don’t hear now.)

* These guys (they’re called Good Company) ain’t all that great either.
But the setting looks like some sort of bizarre hazy midnight disco ritual — now THAT’s a party I wish I’d been invited to.
It looks like the kind of bash where at least three people in the audience did something regrettable that people still talk about.
Plus their guitar player has a Flying V, the most visually distinctive and impractical guitar ever built, which is good for ultramega style points.

* “Did you see any action? Did you make any friends? Would you like some direction from the Son of Man?”

Yup — it’s “Never Been Any Reason” rewritten as a Christian-rock anthem. The guy in the red shirt is former Head East frontman John Schlitt. I will simply concur with the YouTube commenter who says: “Vastly prefer the original.”

* Kids can play “Never Been Any Reason” too. Or at least they can at the Baltimore School of Rock. I’m not particularly taken with this version but maybe someone will find it cute.

* Ah, we’ve saved the best for last:
Head East themselves — or at least, the 2010 version of same — playing their signature song aboard what looks like a burning aircraft carrier.
Most of the guys in the band do a good job with it.
But then there’s the guy with the keytar’s annoying vocal vamping …
and the guy with the keytar’s duck walk …
and the guy with the keytar swinging it up above his head …
and the guy, now relieved of his keytar, working the crowd. (Apparently he gets paid extra if he fills every single moment of free space with rock-singer jive.)

I guess I’ll give him a little credit for yelling, “THANK YOU, ALTON!” Fair is fair, after all.

Save my life, I’m going down for the last time …