From the Valley: Flashback, Part 3.

I seem to spend a lot of time lately complaining about music I don’t like.

There is a great quote credited to Jerry Garcia that I would do well to remember: “Even the worst, most ill-thought-of music in the world doesn’t hurt anybody.”

And yet, another From the Valley flashback post has me sharpening the rough side of my tongue again.

A few months ago I looked at old local airplay charts from Allentown’s WAEB-FM, formerly the top hit-radio station in the Lehigh Valley, now a talk-radio station. I wrote about charts from 1968 and 1970, both preserved online by the marvelous ARSA database.

Whaddya think I found but another WAEB local airplay chart, from this week in 1960.

And … well, it hurts to look at.

Because it just drips with the marshmallowy, string-laden, soulless, sweatless, sexless, grooveless music that owned the world between the fall of Chuck Berry and the rise of the Beatles.

The Four Preps? Steve Lawrence? Jimmy Clanton? Bobby Rydell? Mitch Miller? Frankie Avalon? A teen-tragedy record? All present and accounted for.

Here are a couple of examples. See if you can sit all the way through them. First, this week’s WAEB Number One, Dion and the Belmonts with “Where or When”:

And up a notch this week to Number Six, the Four Preps with “Down By The Station”:

Sure, there are a couple of worthwhile records here.

Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is part of the Great American Country Songbook. I know reasonable adults who like Bobby Darin’s version of “Beyond The Sea.” And if you look carefully, you’ll see a young James Brown at the bottom of the chart, under the nom de plume of Nat Kendrick and the Swans.

But I think the whole thing is summed up in the Big Six Pix of the Week, which I’m guessing is a list of “bubbling under” hitbound singles that hadn’t made the main list yet.

What was moving up this week in 1960 but “Onward Christian Soldiers,” performed by the Harry Simeone Chorale?

Imagine a couple parked on Lovers’ Lane in Allentown, wherever that was, in February 1960. (Or, since it can get cold here in February, maybe they are parked on a couch in a house that has helpfully been left unattended.)

The radio is playing low and the light is shining in their eyes as the boy reaches over and draws his sweetheart’s lips to his …

… and then the Harry Simeone Chorale comes on the radio singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and the moment is ruined, and the boy and girl dispiritedly get out the Mille-Bornes deck and start playing because what the hell else is there to do in a world that feeds you “Onward Christian Soldiers” at every opportunity?

It’s almost as if this music was forced on the youth of America as a placebo to keep them well-behaved and compliant.

No wonder songs like “Satisfaction” flipped people out so much. Just five years before, everything on the radio had been so clean, so chaste, so inoffensive, so soft-edged.

(Unreliable narrator alert: A number of religious songs made the charts in the ’70s, too. You could move the frustrated teenage couple forward about 15 years, and the radio might be playing “My Sweet Lord” or “The Lord’s Prayer” or “Day By Day” or “Morning Has Broken.” So what made 1960 so much worse than 1974? The impenetrable wall of vanilla surrounding the hymns in 1960, I’d argue. But I could be seeing things just the way I want to see them. Wouldn’t be the first time.)

If there’s a silver lining in this countdown, it’s that the development of pop music must seem like a continual wonder to my parents’ generation — those unfortunate kids who had to sit through Bobby Rydell and Jimmy Clanton when they were young.

Every time someone of that generation hears something new and creative that grooves them — whether it be the Beatles, or Aretha, or Al Green, or the Sex Pistols, or U2, or Radiohead, or you name it — it must feel like they survived the famine and are now seated at a lavish buffet.

I feel that way just reading this chart.

From the Valley: Flashback, Part 2.

A couple days ago, I wrote about the playlist for WAEB-AM, formerly the Lehigh Valley’s favorite Top 40 station, this week in 1968.

The ARSA database also happens to have WAEB’s playlist of top records for this week in 1970. It seemed like an interesting comparison to see how a region’s tastes, and the offerings of its hit-radio stations, could change in two short years.

Let’s have a look, then:

– Bubblegum and light pop still makes up the bulk of WAEB’s playlist, but it’s a heavier station that it had been in 1968. Note Free, the Who, Joe Cocker and Canned Heat on the Top 20, with Chicago, Eric Clapton and Steppenwolf bubbling under.

– As in 1968, there’s a clutch of soul records on the bottom half of the surveywhich represents an improvement, I suppose, since there are only 20 songs on the list this time around instead of 40. I would have liked to hear “I Think I Love You” and “Super Bad (Parts 1 & 2)” back to back.

– The album chart also shows a move toward heaviness, or at least seriousness: The Band, Led Zeppelin, Santana and Joe Cocker are all scoring big in the Valley.

– But the No. 1 album (assuming that the first album listed is also the most popular) is a weird one: The Artie Kornfeld Tree‘s A Time To Remember!

Kornfeld is probably best remembered as one of the guiding lights behind the Woodstock festival. He was also a musician, though the interwebs suggest that this was his only album.

A Time To Remember! shows up on only two local airplay charts in the ARSA database, with the other mention coming roughly a month earlier at a station in Denver.

I can only wonder what accounted for his brief burst of local popularity. Perhaps he played a concert here?

– Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdowns had been airing for four months in November 1970. Thanks to this excellent site, we can compare the hottest records in the Lehigh Valley to the hottest records nationwide.

I notice that several of the songs just arriving as “New Power Sounds” on WAEB’s airwaves (Clapton, Chicago, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder) are already on the national 40. That suggests that WAEB took a little longer to get on them than other stations.

On the other hand, the Carpenters’ saccharine “We’ve Only Just Begun” was No. 2 nationwide but only No. 9 in the Lehigh Valley. (It was down from No. 8 the week before, suggesting it might already have peaked as a hit in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.)

For the most part, the charts are pretty similar once you get up into the Top 10.

Both charts share the same Number One, the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” and the same Number Three, the Jax 5ive’s “I’ll Be There.” And most of the other records don’t differ all that much in chart positions.

In this particular week, anyway, the tastes of the Lehigh Valley were pretty similar to those of the nation as a whole.

– For what it’s worth, I have at least a passing familiarity with every performer on the 1970 WAEB countdown … whereas the 1968 countdown boasts a number of acts I couldn’t tell you Fact One about. (To name a few: Unifics, Singing Ork. Circus, Pop Corn Generation, Rene & Rene, Autry Inman, Magic Lantern, Billy Harner and the Ethics.)

At first I thought that might be a sign of the growing heterogeneousness of Top 40 radio — i.e., that it was harder for a local or regional band to get airplay in 1970 than it had been two years before.

But I think the relative unfamiliarity of the acts of 1968 can be explained by two other reasons:

1) There were something like 50 acts on the ’68 survey, and only 30 two years later, so there was more room in 1968 for regional heroes and one-shot wonders.

2) I’m simply less familiar with ’60s pop than I am with ’70s and ’80s. Maybe there’s no trend at all between the acts on the two surveys; it’s just my ignorance that accounts for the difference.

From the Valley: Flashback, Part I.

Not our usual From the Valley content. But, it’s local and it’s about music, so I’m calling it what I want. The local music reviews will be back soon enough.

The Lehigh Valley is heavily influenced by larger, more culturally active cities nearby. The people who live here watch the network TV stations from Philadelphia, and go to New York City for museums, art and other High Culture.

By and large, we listen to radio stations from around here — though, in an age of corporate ownership, that doesn’t mean as much as it used to. For instance, WAEB-FM, the Valley’s Top 40 station, and WAEB-AM, a mostly conservative talk-radio station, are both Clear Channel stations now.

Back in the day, WAEB-AM was the Valley’s hit-radio station, one of a small chain of stations owned by Lehigh University graduate Bill Rust.

Like similar stations in countless other cities, its playlists would have reflected listener preferences and decisions made locally or, at very least, regionally. What was being played in Hartford or Denver or Tallahassee wouldn’t have figured into the mix.

The invaluable ARSA database preserves a number of WAEB’s weekly most-played music lists — including two from this very week, one in 1968 and the other in 1970.

We’ll take 1968 first, and get back to 1970 soon.

What, then, was the Lehigh Valley listening to 45 years ago this week? If you’d gone into the halls of Dieruff or Becahi or Nazareth Area High School, what would the kids have been buzzing about?

Here’s the full survey; I’ll pick out some of the highlights:

– Apple Records — at that moment, the most buzzed-about new label in the business — holds the 1 and 2 spots with its first two single releases, Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

– There’s a lot of fairly lightweight pop on the countdown, whether it be straight-up teenybopper bubblegum (note “Bang-Shang-a-Lang” and “Chewy, Chewy” back-to-back, as well as the Cowsills coming up as the next Sure Shot) or marginally more grown-up productions (Johnny Nash, the Turtles, the Union Gap).

– Cream’s “White Room” at No. 20 is kinda funny. Because of the band’s reputation as Heavy Musicians, and because the song was a classic-rock radio staple when I was a kid, I never thought of it as a pop song.

But, seen through the lens of this countdown, I could imagine “White Room” appealing to the same kids who bought, say, “Green Tambourine” or “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” It’s oblique, it’s psychedelic, it’s catchy … sure, why not?

(It is harder-edged than most of the songs I just mentioned. Especially at the end, after they play the bolero rhythm for the last time, and hold that one chord a little longer than usual, and Eric Clapton lets just a touch of feedback creep through. Feedback is electronic devilsong. It works well here.)

– Big Brother’s “Piece of My Heart” and Sinatra’s “Cycles” at Nos. 28 and 29 is priceless. Talk about two diametrically opposed but beloved American voices. Wonder if WAEB ever actually played them back to back?

– Bobby Womack cut “Fly Me To The Moon”? I didn’t know that. Hey, it works OK.

– Another tune I was unfamiliar with and had to look up: Petula Clark’s “American Boys,” at No. 33.

Even after groups like the Supremes had embraced topicality (viz. “Love Child,” No. 6 on the WAEB Fabulous Forty), Ms. Clark was still cutting bouncy advice-to-the-single-girl records like it was 1964 all over again.

It is either charming or sort of sad to think that — in a world where the White Album and Beggars Banquet and Music from Big Pink and God knows what else existed — somebody was still dishing out this kind of froth.

– A nice cold shot of soul at Nos. 36-38 with Eddie Floyd’s “Bring It On Home,” Johnnie Taylor’s decidedly adult “Who’s Making Love” (bet that sounded good next to “Chewy, Chewy”) and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life.”

Of course, it was followed by the Chipmunks and Engelbert Humperdinck … so it’s safe to say that WAEB was not the standard-bearer of soul in the Lehigh Valley. (Or, perhaps, that the Lehigh Valley was not the standard-bearer of soul in the U.S. Maybe that was something else you looked to Philly or New York for.)

– The New Music Power Sounds list, again, is mostly forgettable pop (Nancy Sinatra? The Osmond Brothers? The Pop Corn Generation, whatever that was?) with a weird interloper in the form of Jefferson Airplane’s “Lather,” the bitter-edged, willfully bizarre story of a man-child who refuses to grow up.

So there you have it. It’s not my favorite 50 or so songs. But it was the Lehigh Valley’s favorite 50 or so songs — not Hartford’s or Denver’s or Tallahassee’s. And in that, it is noteworthy.