Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I know no one other than me is interested in these old NFL games on YouTube - I'm currently watching a Buccaneers/Falcons game from 1979, which has me questioning my own sanity - but there's a lot of cultural detritus to be found in these telecasts, especially if you're fortunate enough to find one with all the commercials intact. It's a real window into what the 1970s were really like, much moreso than, say, listening to Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic. Or into what my 1970s were like, anyway.

For instance, in the early 1970s, did you know that there were still a lot of cigar ads on TV? If you wanted to give someone White Owls for Christmas, there was an ad giving you your range of possibilities. There was even the occasional spot for pipe tobacco. You don't see that much anymore.

Even within the broadcasts, there are all sorts of great little nuggets. I've seen CBS games from consecutive weeks in 1979, and they're pimping pretty hard the "Battle of the NFL Cheerleaders," to be seen on the upcoming Saturday's CBS Sports Spectacular. I haven't seen it, but I'm assuming this battle was fought with poleaxes and maces, World of Warcraft-style.

At one point, there's a graphic showing the evening's CBS lineup, including The Jefferson's [sic], which is only slightly less embarrassing than the fact that that series was preceded by Alice, surely the worst sitcom ever produced in the free world. C'mon, guys, don't you know how to use an apostrophe? Tiffany Network, my left buttcheek.

It was much better when they promoed the Monday lineup, and erstwhile Golden Boy Paul Hornung squeals, with obvious delight, "Then it's my man, Dr. Johnny Fever! On WKRP in Cincinnati!" BOOGER!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Heart of Monday Night

As I often do this time of year, I've been watching a lot of old NFL games from the 1970s on YouTube. The stash gets periodically refreshed after the NFL, in its infinite humorlessness, goes through and forces people to bring down the video they've posted, and at the moment there are, for whatever reason, a lot of Monday Night Football games out there.

It's hard to overstate how culturally significant these were to sports fans of the early 1970s; it was almost literally like the circus coming to town. The fans at the stadia hung banners; the fans at home talked about how much they hated Howard Cosell even as they hung on his every word. With the wisdom of distance, I thought it might be worth assessing how these guys were simply as sportscasters.

Frank Gifford: The Giffer's mind had not yet been melted by overexposure to Kathie Lee, and he was surprisingly good - fluent, smooth, professional, unflappable. He had a voice that went down easy on TV and a way of ignoring the carnival barkers around him to remain focused on the game. Plus, he offered more analysis than your standard play-by-play man.

Gifford's weakness was in the more technical aspects; he often neglected to give us the down and distance, or the time remaining in the quarter, notable omissions in an era when there wasn't a constant box on the screen reminding us of these things. Actually, I blame the producer, who should have been telling the booth to offer up the down and distance, as much as the Giffer.

Don Meredith: The Danderoo was the real revelation to me. Despite his reputation as a singing buffoon, he combined an enormously likable personality with real insight into the game. I watched a Cardinals-Cowboys game from 1972, and Meredith apologized early on because he admitted he was hoping for a Cowboys win, and wouldn't be objective about the game. But he was terrific, thoroughly knowledgeable about the Cowboys and clear-eyed about their shortcomings (they played horribly in the game). The fact that Meredith is honest about his feelings toward his old team makes him more endearing, and more effective.

And the level of his analysis could be shockingly precise: When the Cowboys completed an out pass, he noted that the Cardinal cornerback who had blown the coverage was better at going in than going out. I get the sense that as time went on, Dandy Don forgot about the insight and became more of a personality, but in the earlier games I've been watching, I have no complaints about his performance.

Alex Karras: Karras replaced Meredith from 1974 to 1976 when Dandy Don went to NBC (technically, he replaced Fred "the Hammer" Williamson, who handled the preseason games in 1974 but was found not to be up to the job; both Karras and Williamson were natives of Gary, Indiana). He was pretty good, wryly funny and occasionally incisive on matters of line play. Karras' biggest problem was that he projected zero personality, an odd failing for someone in the middle of a journey from famously violent defensive tackle to a star on Webster. His voice was weak, and he rarely sounded enthusiastic about the games. And he wasn't that funny, although he did later host Saturday Night Live, in 1985, with Tina Turner as the musical guest.

Howard Cosell: Cosell did some things well; he came to the games well-prepared, and had reports from the coaches or a key player or two to offer during the game. He was good about providing context for the players and plays, noting that a certain rush was reminiscent of something O.J. Simpson had done a few weeks earlier. He twice referred to one running back, I can't recall which one, as a speedier Don Nottingham, if you can dig that. And he was good on the halftime highlights, although I did hear him repeatedly refer to a second-year Chargers quarterback as "Don Fouts." (One thing I've noticed about the halftime highlights, which I missed the first time around, was that they had phony crowd noise edited into them. One dead giveaway is that the fans cheer as loudly for the visitors as they do for the home team.)

Aside from that, though, he was terrible. His sense of game time was awful, so that he'd start telling one of his boring stories at a bad moment and have to pick it up again half a quarter afterward. A direct quote: "Should they have declined that penalty, Alex? Answer the question later - we're back to the action now." I don't believe Alex ever bothered to answer the question.

He had a habit of asking his ex-player colleagues questions that were half-needling, half-genuine, like after a pass was thrown by a wide receiver: "You threw a lot of passes like that, right, Giffer?" Mercifully, his ex-player colleagues usually chose not to answer these ridiculous queries. Cosell apparently thought he was being clever, but he was never funny, at all. Occasionally, celebs would show up in the booth, and Cosell would interview them, and he was awful at that, too. He'd ask them questions that provided all the necessary information, leaving the celeb with nothing to say but "That's right, Howard."

And then of course, there was Cosell's famous linguistic perspicacity. He'd toss out words like "revivify" and "truculent" in a way that accomplished nothing but draw attention to Cosell's vocabulary. At least Walt "Clyde" Fraizer would rhyme these things, say "truculent and succulent" and make the whole thing a little fun. Cosell wasn't fun. My favorite exchange in this area came when Cosell described a crowd as "quiescent," to which Don Meredith responded, "What? They're just quiet." Quiet doesn't mean exactly the same thing as quiescent, but then again, quiet would have been a better descriptor of the crowd.

My guess is that ABC set this up as a clash of opposites, the New York intellectual vs. the dumb jock from Texas, but Meredith was as smart as Cosell. And a much better announcer, to boot.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I Almost Forgot....

Now that I've seen all the original episodes of Columbo - all the installments from NBC's Sunday Night Mystery Movie from 1971-78, plus the two pilot movies that were made - what strikes me is that this was really the last of the great anthology series. Sure, the character brilliantly portrayed by Peter Falk towers over each episode, but that's basically the only bit of connective tissue.

Since we never see Columbo at his office or even (with very rare exceptions) at police headquarters, and we certainly never see him at his home, we're never on the same set twice. The effect is of everything being shot on location, with new venues being explored in every episode. The cast is also fresh with every episode. Bob Dishy appears twice as Sgt. Wilson (IMDB says he had a different first name in the two episodes, though), and Bruce Kirby (father of Bruno, who also shows up a time or two) makes four appearances as Sgt. Kramer - but he also makes appearances as other characters as well, such as a TV repairman, so the effect is more that of his being part of the repertory company than of playing a recurring character.

The only true recurring character is Columbo's nameless dog: "Sometimes we call him 'Hey,' sometimes we call him 'Dog,' sometimes we just whistle. It don't matter what we call him, because he never comes anyway." And again, with very rare exceptions, Columbo himself doesn't even appear until the second or third act. So for the first 20 minutes or so of every installment, we had an entirely fresh set of characters, stories, settings - it was all new.

Because of this, Columbo gives a much truer picture of the 1970s than the series that, at the time, seemed much more pegged into the zeitgeist, like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But with their limited roster of cast members and sets, those shows, seen today, capture the mores of the 1970s very well but give very little insight into what those times looked and felt like.

In contrast, consider a Columbo episode like "An Exercise in Fatality," with Robert Conrad (who runs around for long stretches wearing only tight shorts) as the murderous owner of a string of gyms. The idea of a health club, as you probably know, was pretty new in the 1970s, and one of the benefits of this show is that we get to see exactly what they looked like: dank, cramped, covered with gold lame wallpaper, nothing at all like today's airy, high-ceilinged monstrosities. The treadmills all appear to be heading uphill. One gym even had a Ping Pong table in the middle of an otherwise empty room.

Stephen Bowie fave Collin Wilcox steals this episode as Conrad's alcoholic yet somehow dignified ex-wife; you watch her scenes and immediately want to rewind them and watch her again. Incidentally, if you're at all interested in this stuff, you need to be reading Bowie's blog. He has been writing about Kojak lately and has pointed out how 1970s police dramas have been largely overlooked as cultural touchstones in favor of the (admittedly outstanding) sitcoms of that era. Similarly, Mark Marquardt has been writing about The Rockford Files and its portrayal of 1970s-style grimy masculinity.

The director of "An Exercise in Fatality," Bernard Kowalski, probably wasn't intending to give us a slice of mid-1970s life, and certainly didn't consider the notion that people might be watching this show in 2011. But I for one am very happy to have it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ugliest Band In History Nomination

A few weeks ago, Tom was telling us about the journey of Quinn the Eskimo from the basement of 2188 Stoll Road in West Saugerties, New York, around the world. YouTube is packed with Quinn covers, including the 1910 Fruitgum Company (surprisingly good and garage-y), and the Beatles doodling around on “I Got A Feeling” and slipping into a few Eskimo chords. But as Tom pointed out, it was Manfred Mann who took it top ten in the U.S. (No. 1 in the U.K.), introducing impressionable youngsters to the idea that you could like your sugar sweet and still be discerning about what, or who, was your preferred cup of meat.

All of which sent me back to Lo and Behold, a Manfred Mann-produced 1973 one-off collection of then-unreleased Dylan songs from a bunch of Brits who may well have the distinction of being the ugliest band in rock history, or at least the ugliest good band in rock history. Tom McGuinness played bass and guitar for Manfred Mann; Hughie Flint played drums for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers when their guitarist was still Eric Clapton. Together they formed McGuinness-Flint with singer-keyboardist Dennis Coulson and two songwriters, Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, who had been in-house at Apple (and who can also claim to have written the title track for Art Garfunkel’s 1975 solo album, Breakaway). McGuinness-Flint had a U.K. Christmas No. 2 with their first single, a bouncy mandolin-driven thing with some Christmas-y kazoo and the not very Christmas-y title “When I’m Dead and Gone.” (Even less Christmas-y: a Wikipedia contributor deduces it’s about Robert Johnson from the line “Hey there, ladies, Johnson’s free.” Said case is not bolstered by said Wikipedia contributor transcribing the line incorrectly.)

Anyway: Coulson Dean McGuiness Flint. Excellent album! Cowbell, glammed-up guitar, country honks, polyphonic New Orleans horn marches, sitars, and English girls trying to be gospel singers. Plus their version of “Odds and Ends” cops the guitar lick of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” for an outro, a neat way of playing up all ghosts of ‘50s rock that danced around Robbie Robertson’s guitar strings.

But just look at them! It’s as though Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem have been joined by a guy auditioning to play Lemmy in a Motorhead cover band. Never have leather and denim been so misused, abused, confused and wrongly accused. On the right, McGuinness and Flint are doing their best to project the aloof cool of guys who’ve had a few hit singles, but come off like a would-be hipster high-school teacher and biker who’s never ridden a motorcycle; on the left, Coulson and Dean look like drunk guys who’ve just hatched a plan to steal 50 pounds of cotton candy from a local fair. (They will later find out it has no resale value.) Today, when even bearded yabos like My Morning Jacket have access to a stylist and a groomer, does any band look this slovenly and goofy on their album cover?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Schoolhouse Light R&B

Back in 1970, on their album Portrait, the Fifth Dimension recorded a song called "The Declaration," which was nothing more than the Declaration of Independence set to music. As you'll recall from your sophomore year of high school, the Declaration of Independence doesn't scan or rhyme or do any of the things that normal, successful song lyrics do. So the song ends up as just a meandering little essay, with the Fifth Dimension adding their special blend of sassafras and moonshine.

Actually, "The Declaration" is technically part of a medley with "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "People Got to Be Free," but each song is presented in full, so that the whole thing runs 10:12. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is credited to Sam Cooke; "People Got to Be Free" is credited to those rascals Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati. "The Declaration" is credited to Rene DeKnight, a longtime jazz pianist who later served as the Fifth Dimension's music director, and Julianne R. Johnson, about whom I could find nothing. That was apparently her only songwriting credit, and although there's a Julianne R. Johnson credited with some vocals on a Dandy Warhols album, I have no way of knowing if it's the same person. I kind of doubt it.

Anyway, isn't there a songwriter we're missing here? One Thos. Jefferson, of the same Virginia that spawned Missy Elliot and Timbaland? He would seem to have written the lyrics for "The Declaration." "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)" is officially credited to the Book of Ecclesiastes, although we don't really know who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes, which means, I think, that a Trad. would have sufficed. But we definitely know who wrote the Declaration of Independence, at least the first draft, and poor old Jefferson doesn't even get a Trad.

The Declaration has long since fallen into the public domain, so the Jefferson family (or the Hemings family) isn't due any royalties from the Portrait album or the single - "The Declaration" was issued as the B-side to the medley of the other two songs it's affixed to on the album. But it would be nice to throw some propers at Jefferson and change the album credits. Let's get right on this, Marilyn McCoo.