Monday, December 24, 2012

Silence Night

So let me see if I got this straight: Back in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel released their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., which contained a spare little track called "The Sounds of Silence." The record stiffed, S&G went to England for a while, and, as everyone knows, Dylan producer Tom Wilson invented the remix by overdubbing a rock band onto the original acoustic track. This version became a hit, so much so that it became the title track of the next S&G album.

Well, almost. That album was called Sounds of Silence, with no The. That's not such a huge change, but still.... Can you think of any other albums that are almost named after the hit single? I can't.

But Paul Simon (I presume) wasn't done tinkering with the title. By the time of 1972's Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, the name of the song had been tweaked as well, and was now listed as "The Sound of Silence." It's also listed that way on the track listing for 1982's The Concert in Central Park. According to the official Simon and Garfunkel Web site, the phrase "sound of silence" is used three times in the song, while "sounds of silence" is used but once. So that would explain it.

I guess that's more or less the official title now. The single sleeve you see above is completely obsolete.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's a Long, Long Road

One morning last week, I was listening to an American standards station out of Garland, Texas - many of you probably were as well - when the announcer noted that the date was the anniversary of the opening of Boys Town, the home for orphans in Nebraska, back in 1917. (The town it's in is actually now known as Boys Town, Nebraska, just outside of Omaha.)

The announcer went on to describe a scene in the 1938 Spencer Tracy movie, in which a boy carried his little brother for miles to bring him to the home. When he arrived, someone - possibly even Spencer Tracy, although I haven't seen the movie - asked the boy if it was difficult to carry the boy all that way. He replied, "He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

Now, you probably recognize that as the title of a popular song recorded by the Hollies, which went to Number Seven in 1970. Did you know that phrase dated back to Boys Town? I sure didn't, although there are many things in this world that I do not know. I apologize if I'm telling you something familiar. The phrase fits in well with that 1970, Room 222, hippie generation; those people loved to sling around words like "heavy" and "brother."

Most of the Hollies' early hits has been written by Graham Nash, but he had departed by that point, to be replaced as lead singer by Terry Sylvester of the Swinging Blue Jeans. "He Ain't Heavy" was written by the team of Bobby Scott (who had earlier composed "A Taste of Honey") and Bob Russell, who had primarily written lyrics for songs used in films. Russell was no hippie; he was 55 by the time the Hollies recorded his song, and dead before it came off the charts. Elton John played piano on the track, which I find hard to believe, but there you go.

Neil Diamond took his own version to Number 20 later that same year. But it was the Hollies' version that sounded so sweet coming out of the AM radio on a cool Texas morning:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Babys by the Numbers

Number of Top Forty Hits for the Babys: 3

Total Number of Words in the Titles of Those Hits: 14

Average Length of Those Words, in Letters: 3.36

Length of the Longest Word in Any Babys Hit-Song Title: 5 (in alphabetical order, "Again," "Every" and "Think")

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Roxy Music Album Covers, As Ranked (in Inverse Order) by the Intensity of the Model's Relationship With Bryan Ferry

Manifesto (1978) Model: They're just mannequins.

Flesh + Blood (1980) Models: Apparently, no one knows who they are. They were just models hired by the photographer, and the cover was designed by Peter Saville with no input from Ferry.

Roxy Music (1972) Model: Kari-Ann Muller. No relationship with Ferry that I can find, although she later married Mick Jagger's little brother.

Country Life (1974) Models: Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald. Incredibly, had no personal relationship with Ferry other than to help him translate some lyrics into German for the song "Bitter-Sweet."

Stranded (1973) Model: Marilyn Cole. Ferry had noticed her when she was Playboy's Playmate of the Month for January 1972, and they dated briefly after the shoot. She is now a boxing writer. No, I am not making that up.

For Your Pleasure (1973) Model: Amanda Lear. She was briefly engaged to Ferry, according to Wikipedia, with the affair apparently starting after she had been asked to pose for the cover. This was all in between affairs with Brian Jones(she was the inspiration for "Miss Amanda Jones" on Between the Buttons) and David Bowie, and she also served as a longtime muse for Salvador Dali. Also, may have been born male, which if it's true, the surgeons did a good job.

Siren (1975) Model: Jerry Hall. During the cover shoot, Ferry gallantly held an umbrella over the 19-year-old's body to keep her blue body paint from melting off. She fell for it. Five months later, Ferry proposed to her. The following year, Mick Jagger invited the two of them out for dinner, and later chased her around a Ping Pong table trying to steal a kiss until Ferry ran him off. But in 1977, with Ferry away on tour, Jerry found herself at Studio 54, seated between Mick and Warren Beatty. Mick won, and Jerry dumped Ferry. He never spoke to her again.

Avalon (1982) Model: Lucy Helmore. You can't even see her face, but she was the keeper: She married Bryan Ferry in 1982, and they had four sons together. (Lucy, by the way, is not the dancing socialite in the "Avalon" video.) One of them, Otis Ferry, is a pro-hunting activist in Great Britain. I wonder if he hunts falcons.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Wrath of Cons

Mark and I started watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the other night. It was especially interesting to me because I had never seen any of the original Shatner-Nimoy group of Star Trek movies. Nor have I seen any episodes from the original Shatner-Nimoy series. I haven’t seen the recent J.J. Abrams reboot movie, either. Nor have I seen any episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or any of the feature films therefrom. Or Star Trek: Enterprise. Or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If there are any other iterations of Star Trek, I haven’t seen them either.

I had heard that The Wrath of Khan was the best of the Star Trek movies, but to me it didn’t seem like anything more special than an episode from a TV series. Yes, Shatner is kind of a genius, and the young Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan apprentice captain is pretty easy on the eyes. Montalban has a great time with Khan, whom he had played on the original series and agreed to portray again for the meager sum of $100,000.  But every time there was an explosion or the Enterprise got hit by some sort of enemy fire, there was just a puff of white smoke and the crew sort of threw themselves across the room. Maybe it gets better, but it felt pretty cheesy to me.

One thing that struck me was that the film featured not one, not two, but three actors who had recently played killers on Columbo. William Shatner was a murderous actor, Leonard Nimoy was a murderous doctor, and Ricardo Montalban was a murderous ex-bullfighter. That has to be a record, no? What other film stars three washed-up alpha males?

And we haven’t even finished watching it. Maybe Robert Culp shows up as a Klingon in the last reel.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Nine Tonight

To the best of my knowledge, there were never more than about five people in Wings, which brings up the question of why there are nine suit-clad figures with cutesy pointing-gun fingers on the cover of Band on the Run. The answer is that Paul McCartney wanted to mix in some of the stars of the day in addition to the band members, as sort of a low-rent Sgt. Pepper's cover, for what he called "a bit of a laugh." A very little bit.

Unfortunately, old Paulie's conception of who is and who isn't a star is probably quite different from yours or mine. The only really recognizable face on there belongs, at the top, to Schlitz Light spokesman James Coburn. The others are from left to right:

Michael Parkinson A Thames talk-show host who supposedly agreed to appear on the cover in exchange for an interview with McCartney. McCartney didn't give him the interview until 2001.

Kenny Lynch British singer and game-show host who had a hit in the U.K. with "Up on the Roof"

Paul McCartney Bassist for Wings

Clement Freud (with beard) Broadcaster, writer chef, Liberal politician and grandson of Sigmund

Linda McCartney (sans beard) Keyboardist for Wings

Christopher Lee Horror-movie staple

Denny Laine (kneeling) Former Moody Blue, jack of all trades for Wings. His government name is Brian Hines.

John Conteh Liverpudlian light-heavyweight boxer

Don't let the cover dissuade you from listening to the album, though. It's real good.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Whole Platter

 For those of us who grew up with the option to listen to music either on AM/FM radio, a vinyl long-player or an audiotape cassette, it's pretty heady to realize how many options we have these days, even if most of us never listen to anything other than our phones. I recently discovered a new option, one I have been taking great advantage of: listening to entire albums on YouTube.

The album as a sequential art form is more or less dead at this point. If we don't shuffle through them on our iPods, we stick a CD into the car's dashboard and pick through the songs we want to hear. When I want to hear a record in its original entirety, I generally have to make the necessary adjustments on my iPod, and even then it's not foolproof. For some reason, the stupid thing seems to think that "Baby Stop Crying" is the leadoff track on Street-Legal.

But when you listen to a whole album on YouTube, you listen to the whole thing, straight through, no picking up the needle and putting it down after "Wild Honey Pie" is blessedly over. Your choice is to hear the whole record, as the artist intended, or to stop listening altogether.

It doesn't seem natural to me at all that people would post entire albums to YouTube, so I don't know how the whole thing started. But there are quite a few of them out there now, mostly of the classic rock variety. It sure is fun to listen to something that you might have passed over for the subsequent greatest-hits package, or something that somehow never made it onto your iPod. Or that you just haven’t heard for a long time. Like After the Gold Rush, maybe, or Music From Big Pink. Or Remain in Light, which deserves to be heard in a single sitting.

And there's some great obscurities out there, ones that I bet aren't in your collection. All four of Brian Eno's ambient-music series are available, even though the first one, Music for Airports, is the only one you need. Eno and Fripp's Air Structures is also on there, and well worth hearing. And that stuff sounds great when you're forced to listen to it all the way through.

I don't pretend to know how YouTube works, so I don't know why these things have waivers from the traditional YouTube ten-minute limit. But that allows me to watch old-timey football games on there, so I’m not complaining.

I encourage you to give it a try, listen to What's Going On all the way through - I'm sure you haven't done that in decades. And tell me what else you find out there.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Songs from the White Album That Don't Feature a Quorum of the Beatles

"Wild Honey Pie" (Paul only)

"Martha My Dear" (Paul only)

"Blackbird" (Paul only)

"Don't Pass Me By" (Ringo and Paul)

"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" (Paul and Ringo)

"Julia" (John only)

"Mother Nature's Son" (Paul only)

"Revolution 9" (John and George supposedly both have vocals in there)

"Good Night" (Ringo only)

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Greatest Name in Rock & Roll

The greatest name in the history of rock & roll – and I will brook no disagreement on this – is clearly Randy California of the 1960s-1970s band Spirit, most famed for their hit “I Got a Line on You.” It’s original, euphonious, evocative, distinctive, and unlike the closest competitors in this contest – Tre Cool of Green Day, Lee Ving of Fear, Blackie Onassis of Urge Overkill – you could actually believe for a few seconds, if you didn’t think about it too hard, that Randy California was his real name.  

It’s not just that last name of “California” that is so gorgeous. Let’s face it: Bob California or Eustace California wouldn’t have worked. Randy is a perfect name for a late-1960s American rock star, conjuring up visions of long ringlets and cutoff shorts. And it was so contemporary; none of Bill Haley’s Comets were named “Randy.”

California got the name when he was in Jimi Hendrix’s band the Blue Flame for three months circa 1966. There was another Randy in there as well, and Jimi distinguished them by calling one Randy Texas and the other Randy California. He tells the story starting at 4:22 on this clip, thoughtfully provided to yours truly by Debris Slider Eric Banks:

Randy California died, tragically, in 1995, while trying to save his 12-year-old son from drowning off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii. The boy survived. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ron Palillo, 1949-2012

He taught us that Horshack meant "The cattle are dying," which has become sadly prophetic all too soon. Godspeed, Ron Palillo, and if I didn't spell that right, notice that he couldn't spell it either.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let the "Good Times" Roll

The other day on the treadmill at the gym, I happened across an episode of "Good Times" airing on something called Antenna TV, a division of Tribune Broadcasting that is available on "digital subchannels" of regular stations across the country. I don't know how that works, but apparently, my gym does.

I hadn't seen "Good Times" in years, maybe even decades - I would say that it's remarkable how young Jimmie Walker looked, except that he hasn't been seen in public since like 1982. One thing I love about coming across ancient TV shows is how much of their current-day culture they project, in ways that weren't apparent to us back in the day. The plot of the "Good Times" I saw (which, I see now, was the second episode in the series' run) revolved around a painting J.J. had done of "Black Jesus." As soon as the Evans family hung the portrait in their living room, they embarked on a remarkable string of good luck. James got an unexpected refund from the IRS, for instance, but my favorite was that Thelma got asked by a boy to attend an Isaac Hayes concert with him. I can't imagine a single TV show that wouldn't be improved by sending the characters to an Isaac Hayes concert. Jim Rockford should have gone to an Isaac Hayes concert. The Golden Girls should have gone to an Isaac Hayes concert.

There was also an IRS-fueled joke, in which Florida said that the president (not named, but it was Nixon, on his last legs) probably got a tax deduction for taking Israel to lunch. I was struck both by the sophistication afforded to Florida and the level of knowledge required to fully get the joke (which I admit, I don't). You don't see that kind of political humor in sitcoms anymore, and you especially don't see people taking such strong political sides in sitcoms.

Just as striking as the content was the form that the episode's storyline took. Florida wants to take down Black Jesus, because she thinks everyone is just falling for silly superstition, but James, who has a job interview the following day, wants to keep the picture up at least until then, to keep the good luck rolling. Then J.J. enters, dejected because a local art competition didn't accept his portrait done in the style of Ernie Barnes, who did the famed mural of all the dancing people shown over the end credits of "Good Times."  James suggests he take Black Jesus to the competition instead. J.J. demurs, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize the family's run of good fortune, but James insists, saying that this is J.J.'s best chance to win the contest, and he should run with it. J.J. finally accepts. End of episode.

We don't find out if J.J. wins the competition. We don't find out if James gets the job. We don't even find out if taking Black Jesus off the wall ends the string of good luck, although I suspect that it did. Most modern sitcoms would try to tie up every last one of those loose ends, I think. "Good Times" thought it was sufficient to end the story with the father making a sacrifice on behalf of his son. It's probably better that way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Brief History on Why Hiring Mariah Carey is the Greatest Decision American Idol Has Ever Made

Mariah Carey is the new American Idol judge! Officially! Mariah Carey! I don’t think America can fully appreciate the enormity of this announcement. She is a megastar. Like, a legitimate League of Extraordinary Divas co-founder and lifetime board member. Singer extraordinaire, and songwriter to boot. The type of untouchable legend the likes of which the American Idol judging booth has never known. This is major.

Let’s be clear about one thing: American Idol doesn’t deserve Mariah Carey. At all. It has done nothing and produced no one since at least Carrie Underwood circa 2005 who can even remotely be considered a star. Adam Lambert? Talented? Yes. Do I like him? Yes. But superstar quality? Not quite. Kris Allen? Snore. Lee DeWyze? Who?

Mariah though. Damn. I mean, talk about bringing in a producer’s fantasy. (Sorry. Couldn’t help it.) I don’t care if you’re a fan or not: Her resume is impeccable. The top-charting and top-selling Billboard artist of the 1990s. Over 200 million albums sold worldwide. Five Grammys. A five-octave vocal range. She still holds a 1996 record for most weeks at Number One (16) for “One Sweet Day.” She is second only to the Beatles in Number One hits. After a few years out of the limelight, she came out with one of the most successful comeback albums ever (The Emancipation of Mimi. Do yourself a favor and buy it immediately). Forbes estimates her net worth at $500 million. I could go on and on. Oh, and she’s the singer and songwriter of the single greatest modern Christmas classic of all time.

Also, she’s a goldmine of unscripted antics. Mariah's recent appearances on QVC are the kind of daytime candy you can only pray for. Her MTV Cribs appearance alone, the most watched episode of that show ever, should have netted her a permanent television gig years ago: Mariah gave viewers a tour of her lingerie closet, put on said lingerie and took it off to take a bath, changed outfits approximately five times, did some reps on the StairMaster while wearing a micro-mini and stilettos...the list goes on and on. The woman has a lounge chair in her kitchen, and she owns more Hello Kitty t-shirts than my 8-year-old nieces combined. She spews gems like “There was a time in my life when I only had one pair of shoes. I saved those shoes, but I can’t find them now.” Absolute genius.

But I think the crux of American Idol hiring Mariah Carey now is an acknowledgement that 1) they need help and 2) the Paula Abdul method worked. Remember back when American Idol first debuted in the summer of 2002? Back then, America didn’t know she needed a voted-on pop singing idol – she just walked around buying Destiny's Child and Eminem albums at the FYE at the mall like a fool. Reality shows that involved weekly voting by the people weren’t a thing yet. Back in its infancy, the judge’s table consisted of Simon, Paula and Randy. Randy Jackson (who was not, unfortunately, Michael’s baby brother, but some bassist/record producer who had some credits on songs people had maybe heard of) made his presence known by adding “dawg” to every phrase that came out of his mouth. There was Simon Cowell, who, at the time, no one knew shit about, but he seemed like a good foil to that “You’re the weakest link, goodbye” lady, and America loves a foreigner with an accent who will crush dreams, so he was a win.

And then there was Paula. Everyone loved Paula Abdul. Paula was an absurdly talented little pixie choreographer who had made her bedazzled-blazer mark on pop music and had straight-up won our hearts a decade before this whole judging thing came up. She was the real star on the panel. No wanna-be contestants are going to show up singing Simon or Randy songs – those don't exist. They’re going to sing Paula!

But then, somewhere after years of reality dominance, Paula – sweet, babbling, confusingly complimentary Paula – needed a break, and she left the fold. Simon fumbled and kept adding people to the judge’s table who were not certified pop superstars: Songwriter Kara DioGuardi’s greatest co-contributions are Christina’s “Ain’t No Other Man” and Pink’s “Sober” (both excellent, neither worthy of a judge’s seat); and Ellen DeGeneres, who, as enjoyable as it is to watch her dance, has just as many Top 40 hits as your mom. Then, a breakthrough! Simon gets bored of his own show and leaves to re-launch an American version of his other hit show, the one where the audience votes on the best prospective pop star! (That Simon Cowell: A man of many insults, but few original ideas.)

In the wake of Simon’s absence, Idol had a renaissance. They hired veteran badass rock star Steven Tyler to lend some credibility (what the man lacks in fully functioning brain cells he makes up for in notoriety and hilarious jibber-jabber) and sexy sexypants Jennifer Lopez, who desperately needed a career boost after years of succumbing to husband Marc Anthony’s desexification program, also known as “covering up her assets because J.Lo gets way more attention in public than skeletor does.”

Anyway. Steven started talking to his bandmates again and J.Lo lost the wraith, got her groove back and got herself back on the Billboard charts, so they both decided to hit the road. And then American Idol won the megastar diva lottery and scored Mariah Carey. I don’t know how. A miracle. A goddamned deal-with-the-devil miracle. This is a show that has steadily lost viewership. It fell behind Sunday Night Football this past season. And they just lost their two star judges? Sure, Randy Jackson is still there, but really, has anyone ever really cared what he said? AI was on life support, and Mariah Carey just swooped in with her angelic voice and 7.5 million Twitter “lambs” and saved the day. And honestly? She’s worth every penny of that $18 million they’re giving her. 

Mariah Carey isn’t a case of a forgotten star looking for people to remember her greatness. She still has a career; she’s put out three albums in the past four years. We Belong Together” was named song of the decade by Billboard. She had a whirlwind romance and wedding to Nick Cannon (who, I might note, knows a thing or two about the reality TV game, as he’s been hosting America’s Got Talent for four seasons), and got plenty of tabloid covers based on their relationship, her longest pregnancy ever, and her naming #dembabies Moroccan and Monroe (Note: Go re-watch Cribs if you want some explanation on the names). Then, Mimi and Nick nicknamed the twins Roc and Roe, which 1) Is better than everyone expected (like, say, Sparkle Kitty and Lollipop Discocharm, which seemed like contenders) and 2) I TOTALLY CALLED THOSE NICKNAMES BEFORE THEY MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT. And while odds of her upcoming album and single (conveniently due next month) doing well were already high, history suggests that AI will boost Mariah’s sales figures far more than it will any of the contestants who are vying for votes and contracts. Her judging gig will expand her fanbase while broadening Idol’s. Win win.

And I have no doubt that Mimi will throw some serious shade at anyone who attempts “Hero” or “Fantasy” or thinks they understand the virtues of melisma. She may be sweet as honey, but the woman knows the business, knows the music, and knows when to lay down the law. Pop music critic Sean Daly once described contestants during the early days of Idol as breaking down into three categories: “1) The Talented Kids, 2) The Weird Kids, and 3) The Mariahs.” He noted that, “The Mariahs are the hardest ones to watch, mainly because most of them think they’re reeeaaally good. [They] plant themselves in front of the judges and proceed to stretch, break and mutilate every note of a song, often Mariah’s ‘Hero,’ a tune that has ruined more throats than smoker’s cough.” Word. If your name isn’t Mariah Fucking Carey, you don’t get to sing that song. And she knows it. Do you think she's going to listen to a William Hung butcher her song? No. No she is not. She’s going to own this show. Simon is off crying in a corner because he didn't think of this earlier.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Adult Education

I got to wondering the other day about the Adult Contemporary charts, and how often it was that big hits there don’t make any sort of splash on the regular pop charts. AC hits have pretty much dominated the pop charts for long stretches of time, unlike, say, C&W hits. It's hard to think of an adult-contemporary single that would get no traction at all on Top Forty radio, at least until recent years. 

I figured there were some Number One AC hits that didn’t reach the Top Forty, but they would at least make the Hot 100, right? So I went through my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Adult Contemporary 1961-2001, looking for any AC Number Ones that didn’t make it to the pop Top Forty. And just maybe, there would be a song somewhere that went all the way to Number One without even Bubbling Under. Because if I don’t do this kind of thing, who will?

OK, here’s my list of all the AC Number Ones (from 1961 to 2001) that failed to crest the Top Forty:

“In the Arms of Love,” Andy Williams, 1966, peaked at No. 49 on the pop chart

“Time, Time,” Ed Ames, 1967, No. 61

Here I thought the only thing Ed Ames ever did was throw a tomahawk on the annual Johnny Carson anniversary special, but it turns out he had three No. 1 AC hits in 1967 alone.

“Stop! And Think It Over,” Perry Como, 1967, No. 92
“It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” Andy Russell, 1967, No. 119

Not bad for a Steelers linebacker. This one, you can see, never made it past Bubbling Under on the Hot 100, but we’ll encounter other songs that didn’t even make it that far.

“More Than the Eye Can See,” Al Martino, 1967, No. 54

He had another No. 1 AC hit that year with “Mary in the Morning,” later covered by Elvis.

“When the Snow Is on the Roses,” Ed Ames, 1967, did not make the pop chart.

Our first non-charting No. 1.

“Cold,” John Gary, 1967, did not make the pop chart.

Our second one, which directly followed Ed Ames in the AC No. 1 slot.

“Chattanooga Choo Choo,” Harpers Bizarre, 1968, No. 45

The same twee vocal group that had a big pop hit with a cover of Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Their lead member was future Van Halen and Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman, which amuses me to no end.

“In the Misty Moonlight,” Dean Martin, 1968, No. 60

These last two are the first two No. 1 AC hits, chronologically, from 1968, which gives us a sequence of 14 consecutive AC No. 1s in which eight of them never reached the pop Top Forty. I almost wonder if they weren’t tracking the AC charts differently in those days. Or maybe with the Beatles and Stones at their peak, the charts just diverged wildly. As you’ll see, this is highly unusual – and it stopped, dead cold, without warning.

“When There’s No You,” Engelbert Humperdinck, 1971, No. 45
“I’m Coming Home,” Johnny Mathis, 1973, No. 75
"99 Miles From L.A.," Albert Hammond,  1975, No. 91

Co-written with Hal David, this song also appeared later that year on Art Garfunkel’s 'Breakaway,' which is where I know it from. Plus, you all know Albert Hammond Jr. And "It Never Rains in Southern California."

“Wonderful Baby,” Don McLean, 1975, No. 93
“Venus (disco version),” Frankie Avalon, 1976, No. 46

The original went to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1959.

“This Moment in Time,” Engelbert Humperdinck, 1978, No. 58
“I Never Said I Love You,” Orsa Lia, 1979, No. 84
“Believe in Me,” Dan Fogelberg, 1984, No. 48
“As Long as You Follow,” Fleetwood Mac, 1988, No. 43
“Cuts Both Ways,” Gloria Estefan, 1990, No. 44

It’s hard to believe this never made the Top Forty, since I still got sick of it anyway.

“You Gotta Love Someone,” Elton John, 1990, No. 43
“Tell Me What You Dream,” Restless Heart featuring Warren Hill, 1993, No. 43
“Here in My Heart,” Chicago, 1997, No. 59

I'm sure Kurt Blumenau knows this one. I don't, but I have no doubt that it sucks.

“For the First Time,” Kenny Loggins, 1997, No. 60
“Taking You Home,” Don Henley, 2000, No. 58
“The Christmas Shoes,” Newsong, 2000, No. 42


“Cruisin’,” Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow, 2000, No. 109

I bet you didn’t expect to see Gwyneth Paltrow on this list.

“Simple Things,” Jim Brickman, 2001, did not make the pop chart

Our third and final Did Not Chart. If I were more conscientious about this stuff, I’d check to see of this trend from 2000-2001 continued; I suspect it did, with the Top Forty becoming more dance/urban/R&B-oriented over the past decade.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Andy, Elvis and the Fourth of July

Very special thanks to my Aunt Colleen, Debris Slide's biggest fan, for sending over the following poster, which appeared in the Tampa Tribune yesterday as a tribute to the late Andy Griffith. As you can see, Andy headlined a power-packed lineup of country music stars, all of which you could indulge in for the low, low price of a buck and a quarter - fifty cents for the kids! The date of the show was July 31, 1955, and I bet you anything Andy did "What It Was, Was Football."

Lots of fun stuff to note here: This may be the first appearance of the title "The Andy Griffith Show," but it was far from the last. And Ferlin Husky was a pretty big star by then, with the Number One country hit "A Dear John Letter" under his belt - c'mon, guys, can't you spell his name right? Simon Crum, by the way, was also Ferlin Husky - it was his cornpone alter ego, the Chris Gaines of his day.

Also, at the bottom of the bill, note that there's a 20-year-old truck driver from Memphis, appearing "by popular demand." It was fifty-eight years ago today, on the evening of the Fourth of July, that Elvis first sat down with Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see if they could work up some material together. They went down to Sun Studios to lay down their first tracks the next day, July 5, 1954.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


I saw this highly unusual item from 1975 recently, from an odd source - Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks) tweeted it. It's a poster advertising the imminent debut of a new late-night comedy show on NBC:

There's a lot of fun stuff in there; for instance, Billy Crystal is listed as appearing, even though he got cut after dress rehearsal and took a lonely train ride home to Long Island. Albert Brooks is the second-leading draw, after Carlin. And I don't know what channel 20 in New York City was - the whole time I lived there, channel 4 was the only NBC station.

But what's really wacky is the title of the show. As you probably know, Lorne Michaels wanted to call his show "Saturday Night Live," but Howard Cosell beat him to the punch with his own show of that title several months earlier. So when Lorne's show went on the air, it was called "NBC's Saturday Night."

Contrary to what the poster reads, to my knowledge, at no time was the show ever called "NBC Saturday Night - Live." It's possible that some zealous adman thought the show was called "NBC Saturday Night" and then added the "Live" to emphasize that aspect, but then the "Live" shouldn't have been in the quote marks. And it was always "NBC's," not "NBC."

Is it possible that the show had this tentative title at some point prior to its initial airing? I doubt it - since the poster says "tonight's host," it couldn't have been printed much before the show's debut, long after they would have settled on a title. I think it's just another example of advertising people not paying attention.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Top Three Paul McCartney Songs About Dogs

1. "Hey Bulldog"
2. "Jet"
3. "Martha, My Dear"

Yes, I know "Hey Bulldog" was mostly written by John Lennon, so it arguably doesn't belong here. But it was originally called "Hey Bullfrog," until McCartney started barking up a storm on the outro, at which point they changed the title. So Paul is responsible for whatever canine leanings that song has.

You know how that song came about, right? The Beatles went into the studio to film a promo clip for "Lady Madonna" just before they went to India, and "Paul said we should do a real song in the studio, to save wasting time," Lennon said later. So while they were being filmed allegedly playing "Lady Madonna," they were in reality laying down "Hey Bulldog." Some bright boy recently had the idea of going back into that footage and recutting it to show the song the band was really playing. Here it is:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bob Welch, 1945-2012

Bob Welch, singer-guitarist for the pre-Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac and solo artist in his own right, dead at the age of 65. Welch grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of the producer of several Hope-Crosby movies. After graduating from high school, he moved to Paris supposedly to attend the Sorbonne, but in reality he "mostly smoked hash with bearded guys five years older," he said later. He went back to California to attend UCLA for a while, joining an unsuccessful band called the Seven Souls, then settled in Paris. After spending two years "living on rice and beans and sleeping on the floor" and befriending Ed Bradley, Welch was asked to join Fleetwood Mac upon the departure of guitarists Jeremy Spencer, who found Jesus, and Peter Green, who went nuts. Supposedly, the Mac asked  Welch to join without ever hearing him play, which I don't quite believe.

Fleetwood Mac had churned through a lot of personnel in its early years, and the band was already three years old when Welch joined in 1971. In fact, two months after the first album in which he appeared, Future Games, CBS released the first Fleetwood Mac greatest hits compilation. He was instrumental from the get-go, writing the title track to that album, and his "Sentimental Lady" appeared on the next Mac LP, Bare Trees. His FM-radio staple "Hypnotized" appeared on 1973's Mystery to Me, and Welch wrote most of the 1974 Heroes Are Hard to Find. But even though he engineered a move of the band's base to his hometown of Los Angeles, Welch claimed that he felt alienated from the other, British members of the group, and quit the band in December 1974.

He couldn't have been too alienated, since Mick Fleetwood was reportedly still his manager as Welch embarked on a solo career. After leaving the Mac, Welch formed a power trio called Paris, which released a couple of quickly forgotten LPs. His first proper solo album, 1977's French Kiss, contained a re-recording of "Sentimental Lady" produced by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (who had never even been in a band with Welch), with Christine McVie on backing vocals and Mick Fleetwood on drums. It sounded Fleetwood Mackier than the version he had cut with Fleetwood Mac, and went to Number Eight on the pop charts very early in 1978. (The single's cover art, a detail of the French Kiss cover complete with that Mary Tyler Moore Show font, was kinda gross, if you ask me.) French Kiss had two follow-ups that also made the Top Forty, "Ebony Eyes" and "Hot Love, Cold World."

Welch's next album, 1979's Three Hearts, contained another hit in "Precious Love," which creased the Top 20 in the spring of that year. He continued to release solo albums throughout the 1980s, to diminishing returns. Eventually, he also released two albums worth of re-recorded Fleetwood Mac material.

In 1998, Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The five Rumours-era members were all included, as were Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan.  Bob Welch, who was a key songwriter, guitarist and vocalist through five Mac albums, was not. I have no idea who makes this kind of decision, but it kinda sucks.

Bob Welch died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I wish I could say I find this surprising, but I don't; we live in a time when meaning falls in splinters from our lives. Bob Welch's fame and success (and possibly his money) all happened a long time ago, and there were stories that his health was poor. After years of being a full-on rock star, I'm sure it's hard to go back to living on rice and beans and sleeping on the floor.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap!! A Birthday Salute to Mike Myers

All of us here at Debris Slide wish a very happy birthday to Mike Myers, one of the foremost comic minds of this or any other generation. As with Jonathan Richman, I first saw Mike Myers in Chicago in the 1980s, when he was performing onstage with the Second City E.T.C., the second string for that venerable show. (Since I now seem obligated to offer birthday tributes for people I first saw in Chicago in the 1980s, I probably ought to look up Ron Kittle's birthday.) I recall he did an improv as a Jamaican toaster, soliciting suggestions from the audience and incorporating them into his rap. Someone had thrown out "Pop-Tarts," and Myers made mention of Milton the Toaster, which was not only a pun but a highly impressive reference for a Canadian.

I've been thinking about Mike Myers lately because all the episodes of "Saturday Night Live" from the 1990s are now available on Netflix Streaming, and I've been plowing through them. After the early years, this was probably the most impressive era for the show; it was certainly the most talented post-1980 cast. At the time, it seemed to me that Dana Carvey was touted as the breakout member, but his work doesn't stand up as well of that of some other members:

* Phil Hartman was just devastatingly funny, deadpan and note-perfect in the commercial parodies while also serving as maybe the best straight man the show ever had.  Watching the show now, I can see Carvey letting the audience in on the joke far too often, especially in his overcooked impersonation of Bush the Elder, but Phil Hartman is always completely within his characters. (Carvey's Bush got very insufferable very fast, but in his defense, it was probably easier to take seeing it once a week rather than having to deal with it a couple times a day, as I have been lately.)

* Victoria Jackson was perhaps the most underrated cast member ever. She seemed to be hired to play the  blonde bimbo, but she had a sparkling quality that elevated every sketch she was in, even when it was just as wallpaper (which happened far too often). Every line reading was fresh and unexpected. I find myself often hoping she'll turn up in every domestic sequence, just because she's such a pleasure to have around. And her Roseanne Barr/Arnold was hilarious.

* With all due respect to Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Norm Macdonald and Tina Fey, Dennis Miller was the best Weekend Update anchor ever. Things were pretty freewheeling back then, and he'd do anything from his trademark abstruse allusions to one-liners in reference to wacky news photos. He was very smart and always seemed like he was having a great time up there, which helps.

* And there's Mike Myers. I am astonished at how well he could create a fully rounded character in even throwaway skits like All Things Scottish, the store whose motto was "If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap." (He basically played the same guy in So I Married an Axe Murderer.) You can see this most clearly in "Wayne's World" and the subsequent movies: Dana Carvey is playing a caricature, while Myers is playing a character. You would no more want to see an entire movie about Garth than you would want to see an entire movie about Pat, but it's always nice to spend time with Wayne. Mike Myers is also the only cast member who was able to translate incredible sketch-comedy skills  into a long and fruitful movie career, as opposed to people like Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, who ended up just playing themselves.

It couldn't last, of course: Miller left in the spring of 1991, to be replaced by the horrible Kevin Nealon. Nealon brought nothing to the table; it wasn't just that he had no spin or personality to put on the news, he often couldn't get through the jokes without stumbling over some words. At some points, he seemed to be racing through the items just in order to get them out with mispronouncing something. The audience sometimes didn't even know where the joke was supposed to be.

Victoria Jackson, whose tenure at SNL was reportedly not happy, left at the end of the 1991-92 season. Her replacements were undistinguished, to say the least, including the remarkable Beth Cahill, surely the least talented performer ever to appear on the show, with her weak voice, lack of stage presence and penchant for looking around for the cue cards. She starred in the short-lived Delta Delta Delta series of skits alongside Siobhan Fallon and Melanie Hutsell, and while those two were hardly Jane, Laraine and Gilda, Cahill might as well have not been on the stage for all the impression she made. If you didn't know  better, you'd think Cahill had won some sort of contest in which random civilians were invited to appear in one of the shows.

The show would soon be taken over by the likes of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. And while those guys could be pretty funny - Sandler was to East Coast working-class goombahs what Bill Murray had been to Chicagoland working-class goombahs - it's no surprise that they went on to make a series of movies targeted at 15-year-old boys.

But if I were to put together a dream SNL cast, probably half of it would be from circa 1990. Here's a first pass at it, with an appropriate mix of gender, race, and comedic skills:

John Belushi
Jimmy Fallon
Phil Hartman
Jan Hooks
Victoria Jackson
Dennis Miller
Eddie Murphy
Bill Murray
Mike Myers
Gilda Radner
Chris Rock

I'd watch that show.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Top Ten Rock Hits With a Trombone Solo

1. "Let 'Em In," by Wings (1976)
2. "A Message to You, Rudy," by the Specials (1979)
3. "Wrong Way," by Sublime (1996)

Well, I guess that's all I got. Make that "Top Three Rock Hits With a Trombone Solo."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jonathan Richman: There's Somethin' About That Sound

I first saw Jonathan Richman, who turns 61 today, at Chicago's legendary Lounge Ax back at the tail end of the 1980s. I had literally never heard his music before (although I remembered a hugely fun-sounding review of his 1985 album Rockin' and Romance in Rolling Stone, which ended "Has there ever been a cheesier-looking album cover?"). My impetus for going was a rave preview in the Chicago Reader, which briefly encapsulated Jonathan's career and concluded, "Live, he's just great."

And he was. We had spent the earlier part of the evening seeing the Kingston Trio on the lawn of some elementary school in the south suburbs, and they were terrific, but Jonathan was even better, onstage with just his hollow-body guitar. I went out the very next day and bought Jonathan Richman: The Best of the Beserkely Years, and have never looked back. That CD had a selection of songs from The Modern Lovers and the great one-shot "Government Center" as well as some of his later child-like songs, such as "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm a Little Dinosaur." Surely, I thought, this is what Bob Dylan sounded like in the third grade.

Jonathan's lack of pretension is a big part of what makes him so endearing. The last time I saw him, at Maxwell's in Hoboken (accompanied by just his hollow-body guitar, as always), he played a song for us that he said we hadn't heard before, because the last time he had come through, he hadn't made it up yet. Jonathan doesn't "write" songs, much less "compose" them; he makes them up. God, I love that.

Jonathan has always had a small but extremely enthusiastic cult following. Back in the early 1990s, the cast of "Saturday Night Live" guest-edited an issue of Spin magazine, and the one contribution from Julia Sweeney was a rare interview with Jonathan Richman. David Bowie, Iggy Pop and John Cale have all (separately) covered "Pablo Picasso." He's probably best known for his appearance as the troubadour in There's Something About Mary, directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, two other guys who love New England. I certainly hope Jonathan got a nice check for that, because he deserves it. The Modern Lovers showed up at Number 381 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although it's surely one of the more obscure titles on that list. (I am proud to say I wrote the entry on that record.)  

Jonathan (no one in the history of the world has ever referred to him as "Richman") encapsulates something I am constantly seeking out, the ability of art to illuminate the truth and beauty in the quotidian details of life. From "cruisin past the Stop 'n Shop" in "Roadrunner" to an entire song about a "Crummy Little Chewing Gum Wrapper" to the beauty of his wife wearing "something from the hardware store" in "Everyday Clothes," he has always noticed the tiny things that make his life richer, and I'll bet they make your life richer too.

Not that he misses out on larger emotional truths, too; in fact, that probably makes him more receptive to emotional truths. In one of his greatest songs, "That Summer Feeling," Jonathan gets wistful about a little girl he dated back in grade school, then asks, "Do you long for her, or for the way you were?"

I don't know, Jonathan. But I do know you were right: That summer feeling was gonna haunt me one day in my life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Love You "Live"

There's been a great deal of hoo-ha over the fact that Mick Jagger is hosting the season finale of "Saturday Night Live" next weekend, including this article in Billboard. Jagger sort-of hosted back in the first episode of the fourth season, in 1978, when the Rolling Stones were the (terrible) musical guest and there was no official host, although Jagger appeared in a few sketches.

But the relationship between Jagger and SNL producer Lorne Michaels goes back even further than that. Lorne Michaels has always been a man who knows which side of his toast has been buttered, and he was tight with Jagger before SNL was even on the air, at a time when Jagger was possibly the biggest star in the world. In the book Live From New York, writer and filmmaker Tom Schiller recalled this scene from the early days:

When I first arrived in New York, I slept on the couch in Lorne's apartment. He would entertain people like Mick Jagger at the apartment, and Jagger would be sitting on the very couch that I was going to sleep on. I just couldn't wait for him to leave, because the second he got up, I would go to sleep.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A "Quincy" Mystery

Episodes of "Quincy, M.E." recently appeared available for viewing on Netflix Instant, so of course, I have begun watching them. One thing has always puzzled me about the "Quincy" ensemble, and that has to do with the appearance of Joseph Roman as Sgt. Brill. If Brill ever had more than two lines in any one episode, I haven't seen it, but there he is, every time. According to the IMDB, Brill appeared in 146 out of a possible 148 episodes. As the Scottish say, nae Brill, nae Monahan, nae Quincy.

Danny never had more than one or two scenes in a show either, but at least Danny served a purpose, giving the other regulars a place to repair to where they could talk over that week's case and drink heavily. But what was the point of Brill? You'd think sooner or later the producers would have said, "You know, Monahan is already a supporting character, so I don't think he needs a sidekick."

Until someone tells me otherwise, I'm going to assume that Joseph Roman was a guy that Jack Klugman owed a huge gambling debt to, and this was Klugman's way of repaying it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bad Lyric of the Week

We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside in each other's wounds 
  - From "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," written and performed by Melanie Safka


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sale of the Century

Do you know what the biggest-selling album released in this century is? It was rather alarming to me to learn that the answer is 1, by the Beatles, which came out on November 13, 2000. It has sold, according to Wikipedia, around 31 million copies worldwide. That an album of material that was all 30-plus years old at the time of its release could be the biggest seller of its time may seem highly unorthodox, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.

First of all, the tunes are all real good. For another thing, the Beatles, for reasons I never understood, were rather late to convert to the CD era. Their original albums weren't released on compact discs until 1987, and they never bothered with the compilation albums. The Red and Blue albums came out on CD in 2010; Hey Jude never did come out on disc, and doesn't really exist any more. When 1 was released, it was the first Beatles compilation to be available on CD. So there was a lot of pent-up demand, especially among casual Beatle fans, to have those songs on compact disc.

The other half of the story is that iTunes was foisted on the public on January 9, 2001, just two months after the release of 1. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that since January 10, 2001, no one has bought a CD. The other best-selling albums from this century are all also from 2000: The Backstreet Boys' Black and Blue and Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory have both sold 24 million copies, and Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP sold 22 million. The biggest-selling album released in the past ten years is Adele's 21, which has sold 20 million copies worldwide.

1 is, at this point, the second-biggest Beatles album of all time; the best seller remains Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, despite the lack of a hit single, has moved 32 million units, as they like to say in Billboard.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

Here's another way to measure the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's snubbing of Carole King, which I wrote about last weekend. Tapestry, of course, is one of the best-selling albums of all time - 25 million copies around the world, 10 million here in the U.S. of A. - and also widely considered one of the best. When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Tapestry finished 36th.

For the 35 albums listed above Tapestry, every single eligible artist has been inducted into the R&R HoF as a performer, with the sole exception of Robert Johnson, who is in as an early influence. Miles Davis is in the Hall as a performer, and he wasn't even a rock & roller. Nirvana is the one artist on the list that's not been inducted yet, but they will be as soon as they're eligible.

So apparently, the key to being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is: Make an album that's better than Tapestry.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Home News

I am thrilled to announce that Erika Berlin has agreed to begin contributing posts here at Debris Slide. Currently an editor at Rolling Stone, Erika is young, smart, passionate about music, and fairly throbbing with Midwestern values - she's from St. Joe, Missouri (I've never heard her refer to it as "St. Joseph"), which if memory serves is the geographic center of the lower 48.

Mostly, I asked her to start posting here because I'm eager to read whatever she has to say. I think you'll enjoy her work as well.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ladies Sing the Blues

You would not know it from the press coverage leading up to tonight's ceremony, but there are acts other than Guns n' Roses being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this evening. One of the other inductees is the late Laura Nyro, who is an odd choice for several reasons. Nyro was a very highly regarded songwriter, with hits recorded by the likes of the Fifth Dimension ("Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic"), Blood, Sweat & Tears ("And When I Die"), and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming"). But she never had any hits of her own.

Nyro's only appearance in the Hot 100 was her cover of "Up on the Roof," which peaked at Number 92. I'd never heard her own records before today, which are highly regarded but hardly considered legendary. Frankly, I don't have a problem with putting someone in the R&R HoF almost entirely on the basis of their songwriting - I think songwriting is the crucial element of pop music - but I can see how some people might. She's being inducted as a performer, after all.

She's also being inducted as a woman, and as my friend Erika Berlin loudly pointed out to me not long ago, the Hall of Fame is woefully short of women. (And you thought I was drunk and not paying attention, didn't you?) There are roughly 25 women or female-led groups among the Hall's 279 inducted artists, depending on how you want to count acts like Blondie or Fleetwood Mac or the Mamas and the Papas or the Pretenders. No matter how you count 'em, though, you can't get 'em up past 10 percent.

Which female artists have been overlooked? A bunch, I'd say:

1. Janet Jackson Analogous male inductee: Rick Nelson Really, Janet is absurdly overqualified for the Hall of Fame, with 28 Top Ten hits and ten Number Ones. She has the most Top Tens of any eligible artist not in the Hall. She's won both the MTV Video Vanguard award and the mtvICON award. She's been one of the most famous and popular stars in the world of music for decades. The one knock against Jackson is that she's been dependent on other writers and producers, most notably Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but on the 16-track Design of a Decade career retrospective, Janet has at least a co-writing credit on 13 of the songs. And it's been a long time since anyone said she wasn't in control. (No, I don't think Nipplegate has anything to do with her exclusion.)

2. Linda Ronstadt Analogous male inductee: Rod Stewart She was the dominant female pop star of the mid-1970s, with five Top Five hits from 1975 to 1977 alone, and 21 Top Forty hits overall. Like Johnny Rivers, Ronstadt specialized in not just covers but covers that had been hits for well-recognized artists, and she had enough juice to make them her own, like the Everlys' "When Will I Be Loved" and Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou." When her pop-hit days were over, Linda genre-hopped through well-received albums of torch songs, Mexican folk songs, movie music and country standards with a facility that David Bowie would envy.

3. The Go-Go's Analogous male inductee: The Lovin' Spoonful As the Spoonful did with jug-band music, the Go-Go's turned surf punk into pop hits, although most of the Go-Go's hits have held up better. Both groups lasted only about four years, but were among the biggest stars in music during that period. And the Go-Go's made one of the great Rolling Stone covers of all time:

Plenty of female musicians had posed in their underwear before, of course. But Carly Simon looked like she was driven to do so by urges she could never name; Linda Ronstadt looked like someone threatened her into doing it. The Go-Go's were the first female rocks stars who looked like they posed in their underwear because it was fun. This, I would suggest, was a great leap forward not only for the girls but for us boys as well.

4. The Chantels Analogous male inductee: The Dells The Dells got in on the basis of one hit, "Oh, What a Night": The Chantels' "Maybe" is a better record than that, and they managed three other To Forty hits as well. Head Chantel Arlene Smith even wrote "Maybe," although she was cheated out of credit for it when the single was first pressed.

5. Carole King Analogous male inductee: Curtis Mayfield King was inducted along with Gerry Goffin in the non-performer category, and rightfully so. But she also had the biggest-selling album of all time for a long time, which ought to count for something, and went on to have a slew of post-Tapestry hits as well. If Laura Nyro belongs as a performer, Carole King does, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cold War Kids

Over at the Popdose site, friend of Debris Slide J.A. "Jim" Bartlett has a post up on Sting's "Russians," as part of a series on the World's Worst Pop Songs. "Russians" is part of an unlikely group of anti-nuclear war hits that flourished in the early to mid-1980s, and while "Russians" is certainly Not Good, it's also a long way from the worst of the lot.

I never quite understood why nuclear paranoia made such a heady comeback in those days, but it was all the rage there for a while. And a lot of artists seemed convinced that we could skirt the problem if they could just convince enough people that a nuclear war would be extremely unpleasant. I don't just mean pop stars; there was a very famous, highly regarded book of the time called The Fate of the Earth, by a writer for The New Yorker named Jonathan Schell, that was entirely about how bad a nuclear war would be. (Spoiler alert: Pretty frickin' bad.) I never read The Fate of the Earth, but I have read and enjoyed Michael Kinsley's evisceration of it in Harper's several times - maybe my all-time favorite Kinsley piece.

Everywhere you turned, everyone wanted to talk about the destructiveness of a nuclear war, although it's a pretty short conversation, since we'd all just die, period end of sentence. I was in high school in those days, and in English class we were assigned as an essay topic, "Should students have to study nuclear war?" The teacher told me I was the only student who answered that question in the negative. Why should we have? If it happened, we were all goners anyway, whether we knew how many megatons the Soviets had aimed at New Orleans or not. Time magazine had a cover story on all of this, called "Thinking the Unthinkable." My uncle was visiting our house at the time and asked me if I had read the article, and I said, "No, I try not to think about it." Which was true, and made him laugh - the funniest things are always true - although making him laugh had the unfortunate side effect of leading me to think I was funny and, eventually, to my writing snarky comments about pop songs for the as-yet-uninvented weblog.

Anyway, pop stars of the time, just like Jonathan Schell, thought they could help avert nuclear war if people would just stop for a second and realize how terrible it would all be. So in the summer of 1983, Men at Work released "It's a Mistake," an all-too-accurately titled bit of fluff that, you know, taught us all a valuable lesson. At the end of the song's video, the singer stubbed out his cigarette on the nuclear button. My bad! "It's a Mistake" ended up being Men at Work's last Top Ten hit.

This same trope was used in the video for Genesis' 1986 hit "Land of Confusion," which was, as Phil Collins helpfully pointed out, "a political song about the mess we have landed in." The video was based on the satirical British TV show Spitting Image, which used puppets made up like famous personages of the day for humorous purposes, although you couldn't prove that by the video. At the end, the Reagan puppet, given two buttons that read "Nurse" and "Nuke," pushed the wrong one. That's so satirical!

But the absolute bottom of the Cold War barrel was Dweezil Zappa's "Let's Talk About It," off his all-too-accurately titled 1986 album Havin' a Bad Day. This song was so important that Jane Fonda agreed to appear in the video, making sandwiches. Poor, sweet Moon Unit was forced to sing - well, more like "recite" - lyrics like "Capitalism, communism, freedom/They're all words/Do we know what they mean?"

They're all words. Think about it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Headlining the New York City Scuzz Festival

The other night I watched a film called Jennifer on My Mind, which was so bad it should have been introduced by Leonard Pinth-Garnell. Softheaded in its conception, amateurish in its execution, it told the story of a doomed young couple in Manhattan in the early 1970s. Jennifer is a rich young heroin addict, Marcus is a wealthy young grandson of a Jewish mobster, and that’s the sum and substance of their characterizations. She dies of a heroin overdose – which isn’t a spoiler, since she’s dead in the opening scene - and the film flashes back and forth between Marcus' attempt to dispose of her body and the tragic tale of their courtship. Why Marcus thinks it would be less suspicious to be discovered with a dead body in his car trunk than to have a girl OD in his apartment is never explained.

Maybe the thing that drove me most crazy was that neither Jennifer nor Marcus had anything else going on in their lives, nothing that would either get in the way of their love story or turn them into actual human beings. They’re both rich enough to not need to work, old enough to not need to go to school, and blissfully free of parental involvement – his are dead, hers are absent. Al Pacino didn’t have a job in The Panic in Needle Park, either, but he also didn’t have food much of the time. Jennifer and Marcus are so free of constraints of any kind that they meet in Venice, hang out in New York for a while, then decide to go back to Venice, for no real reason. The whole setup struck me as incredibly lazy.

That kind of fuzzy thinking was matched by the ineptness of the filmmakers. There’s a scene where Marcus is running with a friend through Central Park and discussing how to get rid of Jennifer’s corpse, still moldering in his apartment while he takes timeout for a jog. Hey, removing dead bodies is important, but so’s staying in good shape. The whole scene is dubbed so poorly that it’s often hard to tell which character is talking. It’s like watching a cheapo Italian horror movie.

The film is most notable for an early appearance by Robert De Niro as a speed-freak gypsy cabdriver. He’s in the movie for about two minutes, and is the closest the film ever comes to a recognizable human being. (Incidentally, while I saw this thing on Netflix Streaming, the whole movie appears to be available on YouTube as well. Help yourself.)

It’s all my own fault, of course. I am a sucker for any movie shot in New York City in the early to mid-1970s, roughly from Midnight Cowboy to Taxi Driver. Not only do I have an unhealthy interest in and great affection for the culture of the early 1970s, but I love seeing the city in all its filthy glory, with the dirty blocks of nothing but bodegas and wig shops, all encased in metal bars. (The French Connection is especially good with this kind of scene.)

Jennifer on My Mind
does not skimp on these things, with that scene of a lovely, unkempt Central Park. Plus at one point Marcus decides to move across the Hudson to a high-rise in Union City – no, it doesn’t make sense, since he was living in a huge Manhattan apartment all by himself before - and there’s a gorgeous vista of the West Side from his balcony.

So I’ve had kind of a long-running New York City Scuzzfest going on, with another heroin-facing obscurity cued up for me on Netflix Streaming: Born to Win, from 1971, with George Segal, Paula Prentiss, and the inescapable Robert De Niro. Drug/crime movies tend to work best for this sort of thing, since they want to portray the city in all its unruly grime, not unlike the opening titles to "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Here’s a list of the movies I’ve seen over the past few years that fall into this category; Marshall tells me The Hot Rock belongs here as well. Feel free to add your own choices to the festival:

Midnight Cowboy
The Landlord
The Panic in Needle Park
The French Connection
Mean Streets
The Godfather
Across 110th Street
Death Wish
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Dog Day Afternoon
Marathon Man
Taxi Driver

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bad Lyric of the Week

My sister got lucky
Married a yuppie

- from "Yer So Bad," by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne

Hey, Tom, I bet that yuppie makes like ten percent of your annual income, you old populist, you.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

For Every Hung-Up Person in the Whole Wide Universe

Bob Dylan came out 50 years ago today, launching the most remarkable career in modern music history. The recently released Chimes of Freedom four-CD set, featuring nearly 80 Dylan covers by fans, friends, acolytes and people I've never heard of, pays tribute to the breadth of that career.

As a measure of the rise and fall of Dylan's songwriting muse, I've made note of the album that each of those songs represent, to see when Dylan was writing his most fabled compositions. This is the first appearance on an official Dylan LP for each, so that "The Mighty Quinn" is not listed on The Basement Tapes, when it was first recorded, but on Self-Portrait, which is always nice to stick up for. Albums without any songs on Chimes of Freedom aren't listed; sorry, Knocked Out Loaded.

The biggest upset is that there are more songs from Street-Legal (3) than from Highway 61 Revisited (2). There's even one song that's never been released on a Dylan album - or even recorded by Dylan, I don't think. But we'll get to that.

Bob Dylan: 1 ("Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," by Marianne Faithfull [!])
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: 5
The Times They Are a-Changin': 7 (That's seven out of ten total.)
Another Side of Bob Dylan: 3
Bringing It All Back Home: 7
Highway 61 Revisited: 2
Blonde on Blonde: 6
John Wesley Harding: 2
Nashville Skyline: 2
Self-Portrait: 1
New Morning: 1
Greatest Hits Vol. 2: 3
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: 1
Planet Waves: 1
Blood on the Tracks: 4
The Basement Tapes: 1 (Other songs from The Basement Tapes appear on the package, but the only one that got its first release on a Dylan LP here was "This Wheel's on Fire.")
Desire: 1
Street-Legal: 3
Slow Train Coming: 1
Shot of Love: 2
Infidels: 2
Empire Burlesque: 1
Biograph: 2
Oh Mercy: 3
Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3: 4
MTV Unplugged: 1 ("John Brown." Believe it or not.)
Time Out of Mind: 4
Never released: 1

That never-released song is "I'd Have You Anytime," which Dylan wrote with George Harrison and appeared as the opening track on All Things Must Pass.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Come, Mr. Yossarian, Tally Me Bananas

Alan Arkin, longtime actor and Academy Award winner for Little Miss Sunshine, is often credited as the coauthor of Harry Belafonte's classic hit "Banana Boat (Day-O)," which was a huge hit back in 1957. See, for instance, here. Alan Arkin, right? It seems too good to be true.

And it isn't - true, that is. Arkin was a member of a folk trio called the Tarriers, alongside Erik Darling, who was later in both the Weavers and the Rooftop Singers of "Walk Right In" fame. The Tarriers also recorded "Banana Boat," and even had a hit with it. In fact their version went to Number Four, while Belafonte's only went to Number Five, in what seems to have been a Pat Boone/Fats Domino kind of thing. But the song had been around for a while; it's often described as a Jamaican folk song, and had been recorded as early as 1952 by a Trinidadian singer named Edric O'Connor. All the sources I can find say that the Tarriers got the song from the folk singer Bob Gibson.

Nevertheless, the label of the Tarriers' single does credit them with writing the song. Here, see for yourself:

Weird, right? I can think of three reasons why this would happen:

* The Tarriers would get more money if they claimed they wrote the song, as opposed to just crediting it to Trad.
* Songwriting credits in those days were subject to notoriously unscrupulous factors.
* The Tarriers' version also interpolated part of another tune, a traditional Jamaican folk song called "Hill and Gully Rider." So in one sense, it was an original creation.

I can't find a copy of the label of Harry Belafonte's single, but I have seen a piece of sheet music that credits the song to Irving Burgie and William Attaway. And who knows, they may have had something to do with the creation of the song as well. But they ain't Alan Arkin.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Game of Clue

If you don’t do word puzzles on a regular basis, you probably don’t appreciate what a skill cluing is, and you may not realize that Mike Shenk is currently the best cluer in the business. Shenk edits the word puzzles in the Wall Street Journal, and constructs several of the puzzles as well, including the Acrostic, as appeared today. I’ve always enjoyed acrostic puzzles, but Shenk’s acrostics leave my jaw dropped in wonder at the brilliance of his cluing.

A good acrostic clue is like a good trivia question: The answer should not be well-known or obvious, but you should be able to suss it out, or at least home in on a possible answer. That’s the way Shenk’s clues are, and they often have the added benefit of teaching you something about the answer. (You can find and solve the puzzle for yourself here; there are no out-and-out spoilers in this post, although there are several hints. If you've never done an acrostic because you find them too daunting, this post might help you get started.)

Let’s look at some of the clues Shenk used in today’s puzzle:

• The first one I got was “U. Popular name for the Queen’s Yeomen Warders.” Ten letters. I’d never heard the term "Yeomen Warders" before, but that didn’t deter me. In fact, this was the first answer I filled in. What group does the Queen have, known by a nickname, who do something that could be construed as yeomen warding? C’mon, this isn’t hard.

• "Q. 1955 courtroom drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29 (3 wds.)” This shows how the seeming minutia around the meat of a clue are often the key signal to what the answer is. If it had said, “Drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29,” I would have had no idea. I’d have had to crack open the Bible. But a courtroom drama from the 1950s with a three-word biblical-sounding title? Once I assumed it wasn’t “Twelve Angry Man,” it was a snap.

• “T. Her first novel was 1920’s ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.'” Again, if the clue had been “Author of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles,'” I would have been utterly lost. But we know it’s a woman, who started her writing career in the 1920s, and wrote more than one novel, at least one of which dealt with mystery. The title of that first novel, which appears on first glance to be the crux of the clue, is almost irrelevant. Another gimme.

• “L. Prime minister whose education secretary was Margaret Thatcher.” “British prime minister from 19whatever to 19whatever” would have been perfectly acceptable, but look how much more this clue does for us. We now know that it’s a prime minister prior to Mrs. Thatcher – probably not immediately prior, since it presumably takes a while to rise from education secretary to the Big Cheddar, but no more than a decade or two prior, either. Plus we learn that Mrs. Thatcher was someone’s education secretary, which I didn’t know. (Note too that Shenk never has to use the word “British.”)

• “J. Networking service launched July 15, 2006.” “Networking service” is pretty nebulous, but the key here is that it’s some kind of connecting thing that has been operational for less than six years, but in that time has grown famous enough to be used as the answer in a Wall Street Journal acrostic. In retrospect, I should have gotten this a lot quicker than I did. When you know the answer, you can see that Shenk could have gone a hundred different ways with this one, but I can't say that any other way would have been better.

There’s lots more, 23 clues and answers in all. A crossword puzzle can’t have this kind of involved cluing, since there are three or four times as many clues. Only an acrostic or other kind of puzzle with fewer, longer answers calls for cluing this elegant and indirect, and Mike Shenk shows, time after time, that he’s up to the challenge. Well done, Mr. Shenk.