WMEX

Transistor Heaven 2: February Made Me Shiver

img180

“A long long time ago, I can still remember how that music made me smile.” I know, right? What I have more trouble recalling is whether or not I had one of my several boyhood paper routes (as described in Part One) during that winter when Don McLean’s middlebrow magnum opus “American Pie” topped the charts. The pensive introduction to this 8-minte rock-history metaphor recalls his own days as a newspaper slinger, especially the heartbroken morning when the news told of the plane-crash deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. “The Day the Music Died” was February 3rd, 1959, a day after my first birthday. Exactly thirteen years later on Feb. 4th, it was me side-arming the papers into snowbanks (presumably, anyway) and digging the tunes on my beloved WMEX in Boston. Thing is, like paper routes, classic pop music for me seemed to largely exist in some vaguely-defined eternal summer, with only a minority of favorite songs associated with cold weather. Even songs released in October or March became mentally backdated or fast-tracked into a heat wave. Or that is how it seems as I look back down the “foggy ruins of time” with apologies to the so-called Jester. Despite this meteorological-based selective memory, here were the songs counting down on the great 1510 on the 13th anniversary of that terrible crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

“Without You” Harry Nilsson. This plainitive and despondent big ballad was catnip to those young ones carrying a classroom crush into 1972. Nilsson’s versatile vocal abilities were perfect for this Badfinger song featuring hushed verses and an anguished wail of a chorus. Unfortunately, the specter of untimely death looms over this as well. Badfinger co-writers Pete Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide over the next decade and the hard-living Nilsson died in 1994 at age 52.


Speaking of 1994, that was the year Pariah Carey tried to ruin this song for everyone.

“Let’s Stay Together” Al Green. Some sweet soul cajoling by the Reverend and another one destined for a long shelf live on classic-hits radio. “Hurting Each Other” the Carpenters. Another hit arriving right on schedule for the brother-sister team with the honeyed contralto of future pop martyr Karen sounding particularly sad. “Heart of Gold” Neil Young. The only national #1 hit for Neil but Top 40 success seemed an ill-fit for the Laurel Canyon maverick and he was soon releasing the astringent concert LP “Time Fades Away” and recording material that would later end up on the junkie polemic “Tonight’s the Night.” “My World” the Bee Gees. Not to worry, guys. Disco is only a few years up the road. “Precious and Few” Climax. I LOVE this song. There, I said it. Sure it’s sappy and sounds like it was made five years before but it did the trick for those of us who didn’t want to quite give up their association with the Association, whose sound this recalls. “Everything I Own” Bread. And I’m doubling down on this one. Bread had a hit song about every three months from the summer of 1970 to early 1973, tapping the market for us young teens with budding romantic longings, though the tone struck by David Gates and Co. was always more adult-seeming than that. “Drowning in a Sea of Love” Joe Simon. Right behind Bread at #8 was a smoldering chunk of primo early 70s R&B that no one will feel shy about admitting to liking.

“Softly Whispering I Love You” English Congregation. Every so often, Transistor Heaven takes a side trip to hell. “Sweet Seasons” Carole King. Her mega-successful “Tapestry” album practically defined 1971 and was just cooling off when this first single off the follow-up took hold. It was an appealing, mid-tempo number that nudged listeners’ expectations towards springtime, not a bad mission for a winter hit. “Mother and Child Reunion” Paul Simon. Jumping up ten spots this week, the first of many Top 40 hits for Simon sans Garfunkel and definitely a winter song since the first time I heard it was driving thru the snow with my old man. “Clean up Woman” Betty Wright. Another in this era’s long line of great hits by lesser known woman soul singers, a list that would also include Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”, Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”

“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” New Seekers. Come back, English Congregation, all is forgiven. This vacuous sub-kindergarten sing-along paved the way for corporate takeover of the peace-and-love ethos. At least the pie-in-the-sky lyrics were minutely tolerable in its original form, but when a diabetes-peddling company called Coca-Cola hired a gang of Stepford Youth to sing the revised words from an idyllic hilltop, you knew the Sixties were over for real. #13 in the charts and #666 in the boardroom. “Never Been to Spain” 3 Dog Night. The hits keep on coming for these Top 40 titans, with another quirky Hoyt Axton tune (“Joy to the World” was the first) and one notable for confusing Oklahoma with heaven. “The Witchqueen of New Orleans” Redbone. This danceable Cajun-influenced rocker from the Native American band was their first hit, followed two years later by the perennial “Come and Get Your Love” revived last year by its prominent place in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack. “Rock and Roll Lullaby” B.J. Thomas. Some would think that the terms “rock and roll” and “lullaby” are a bit on the mutually exclusive side, but it seems on YouTube many boomers love this now as parents. Who am I to hate on it?

“Lonesome Mary” Chiliwack. I remember a WMEX DJ quipping that this trio came from so far up in Canada that their drummer was a grizzly bear. Ba-boom. Actually this band was from relatively civilized Vancouver (hello there, Canuck fans!) and singer-guitarist Bill Henderson is still going strong. Chiliwack wouldn’t hit the U.S. Top 40 until their more New Wavey incarnation in the early 80s but I absolutely loved this early power-trio outing that hit at least as high as #10 in Boston.

“Changes” David Bowie. My radio introduction to the wonderful world of rock’s great chameleon as the earlier “Space Oddity” only became a hit with its 1973 re-release. An awakening to adult concerns was no doubt part of this single’s appeal, reminding us that “pretty soon now you’re going to get older.” But what a trip it would be tracing time with Bowie thru the years starting now. “Bang a Gong” T. Rex. Marc Bolan’s group seemed to be coming up thru the ranks right along with his friend David Bowie, though this radio staple would be their only big stateside hit before Bolan’s tragic death in a 1977 car crash. “Down By the Lazy River” the Osmonds. Pass.

“Handbags and Gladrags” Rod Stewart. This bittersweet ballad written by Mike d’Abo was first heard on Rod’s first solo album, released exactly two years previous, but it seems it was pressed into service as a single in the lull between his monster LP “Every Picture Tells a Story” and the follow-up to hit the stores in the upcoming summer. A definite winter song this one, as an old man casts a cold eye on the trendy ways of his school-skipping granddaughter.

“American Pie” Don McLean. After three months on the local survey, Donnie’s anthem slipped thirteen places, out of the Top Ten to #22. Its impact was still pervasive. (8th grade English teacher: “That part ’I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news,’ that’s about Janis Joplin.” Class: “We know that!!”) “Stay With Me” the Faces. Here’s Rod again, with his old mates and a raucous stomp about a lady of easy virtue, well loved by us boys in that 8th grade class. “Ring the Living Bell” Melanie. I had completely forgotten this one from the Woodstock poster girl and when I looked it up all I could find was 5-minute LP version, which was about three minutes too long for me. “We’ve Got to Get It on Again” Adrisi Brothers. The pride of Winthrop, Mass. (the flyover town next to Boston’s Logan Airport) and another Association association, as these guys wrote “Never My Love” once cited by BMI as the second most played songs ever, with over 7 million airings, just ahead of “Yesterday.” “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” Bobby Womack. The classic slow-burner by the recently passed-on R&B legend. I loved when it was slow dance time on Soul Train.

“Two by Two” Steve Martin. A great but nearly forgotten single by the former Left Banke lead singer. “A Horse with No Name” America. According to Randy Newman, a song “about a kid who thinks he’s taken LSD”. More on the greatest of all folk-rock army brat trios in the third and final Transistor Heaven installment this summer. “Glory Bound” the Grassroots. The second-to-last national Top 40 hit for these guys, who were still mining their classic sound amid a sea change that was less favorable to pure pop bands and more so to singer-songwriters or heavier groups. “Vahevella” Loggins and Messina. At first you would think this is more a summer song, but a sailing tour of the Caribbean had just the right touch of February escapism.

img181

The pick of the litter for the hitbounds this week has to be “Caroline Goodbye” by former (and future) Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone. As in Part One, the Top 15 albums show a pretty good smattering of classics. Interestingly, at #4 (and hot on the heels of the “American Pie” LP) was “Jamming With Edwards” (sic), the ramshackle jam album featuring Mick, Charlie and Bill from the Stones as well as Ry Cooder and Nicky Hopkins. Jagger has admitted the record was cobbled together one morning while waiting for Keith Richards to get out of bed. Elsewhere, there seems to be a Christmas season hangover, with double-album best-of offerings from both the Stones and Bob Dylan and the 3-LP “Bangla Desh” box set from George Harrison and friends. Not to be out done, Chicago upped the ante with a four-disc live set. Ah, but those were bigger times.

Now if you’ll excuse, I have another new snowfall to shovel, “bad news on the doorstep” of another kind.

Transistor Heaven: The Secret History of a Top 30 Countdown, 1971

img850

At 13 years old, you’re old enough to leave the house and mess about on your own, but not quite old enough for a real summer job once school vacation rolled around. Back in 1971, a paper route or mowing the odd lawn would be enough to keep you in cream sodas and 45s for the time being. It was the type of singles below that would infatuate us later baby boomers either on our record players or over the humid airwaves on stations like the old WMEX 1510 AM, whose playlists I once collected and managed never to lose. With the transistor radio pressed to the left ear with one hand, while the other flung copies of the old Boston Evening Globe at suburban ranch houses, here is how it went down 43 years ago today—a typically great countdown of the post-Woodstock, pre-disco age.

“Maggie May” Rod Stewart. Rod the Mod’s breakout solo hit dominated the local charts that whole summer, as did the album as a whole. Maybe us young’uns were in awe of a singer who would happen to know a seducing older woman who would actually “wreck the bed.” But by late August, the inevitable backlash set in, with some WMEX DJs grousing about its overexposure. But it was nothing like the backlash from his old rock fans when he dropped “Do You Think I’m Sexy” some seven years later. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” The Who. Another classic that hasn’t left the radio since its ’71 debut. But here you’d be listening to the lean-and-mean single version, which clocked in at 3:37, a full five minutes shorter than what was on Who’s Next. This edit, which blows by like a bullet train, pre-figures punk rock and was matched with a great B-side as well (“I Don’t Even Know Myself”). “Color My World” Chicago. With its drowsy six-note piano motif and Hallmark lyrics, this song was the inevitable slow dance choice at school cafeteria mixers. Awkward! It was also an early indicator that Chicago as a band would soon go from cool to clueless. “Signs” Five Man Electrical Band. The Sixties may have ended but that didn’t mean we had to stop getting up in the grill of The Man, as this Ottawa quintet so righteously proved. C’mon, all together, “If God were here he’d tell it to your face/Man, you’re some kind of sinner!” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” Joan Baez. Like a surprise cavalry attack, Joan’s dilettante version of the Band’s masterful Civil War drama charged into the Top 5 before anyone could react in time. As Janet Maslin (then a Rolling Stone record reviewer) pointed out, the original Robbie Robertson lyrics were printed right inside her own album jacket, making inexcusable such gaffes as singing “so much cavalry” instead of “Stoneman’s cavalry” and declaring “there goes the Robert E. Lee” as if the narrator were watching a riverboat and not the legendary Confederate general in the flesh. “Smiling Faces Sometimes” Undisputed Truth. Blue-chip advice on dealing with frenemies from this R&B vocal trio from the Motor City. Hear them out; they’re “only trying to school ya.”

“Reason to Believe” Rod Stewart. Back to the Summer of Rod. His pensive take on the great Tim Hardin ballad was originally the A side but Maggie was not to “B” denied. “So Far Away” Carole King. It was also the Summer of Carole, who assured us that the age of the woman singer-songwriter had well and truly arrived with the blockbuster Tapestry album. “So Far Away” and “I Feel the Earth Move” (at #8 and #11) followed up “It’s Too Late” which had been #1 nationally for five weeks that spring. “Ain’t Got Time Anymore” Glass Bottle. One-hit wonders who harkened back to the AM pop style of the later 60s. “Ain’t No Sunshine” Bill Withers. Two “ain’t” songs in a row? What would your 7th grade English teacher think? Withers’ brooding acoustic-soul classic made the biggest leap up the chart this week. “Deep Blue” George Harrison. The flip side to the “Bangla Desh” single made it much higher in the survey, helped no doubt by WMEX’s quirky methodology.

“If Not for You” Olivia Newton-John. If not for this limp Dylan cover, the Top 30 would be a much better place. “Beginnings” Chicago. A damn sight better than “Color My World” though it was a bit odd that Columbia Records was going back to the first album for hits even though Chicago III was already in the stores. “I’d Love to Change the World” Ten Years After. The only hit single by Britain’s blues-rock titans, who had wowed the hippie hordes at Wodstock exactly two years earlier. “Rain Dance” Guess Who. Eccentric later hit by Burton Cummings and Co. and much appreciated by future hipster kids in our subdivision. “Story in Your Eyes” the Moody Blues. Gateway prog for the same group as above. “Stop, Look, Listen” Stylistics. The first of many elegant U.S. Top 40 hits for one of the premier Philly Soul groups. “One Fine Morning” Lighthouse. Kick-ass Canadian brass rock which also featured some blazing lead guitar, which you could hear in full if you caught it on an FM station, something we were catching wind of by then.

“I Just Wanna Celebrate” Rare Earth. The first successful white band to record for Motown (who named a label imprint after them) and this song, famous for its count-off and thunderous beat, had a refrain that made it popular in commercials and soundtracks ever since. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” the Bee Gees. After three months on the survey, plenty of us were tired of hearing Robin Gibb’s tremulous rhetorical question, but it wasn’t going without a fight, barely getting pushed out of the top 20 this week. “Sweet City Woman” the Stampeders. Those Canadians keep right on coming. It’s Instant Summer once you hear that triple-time banjo strum, cowbell and lyrics filled with romantic anticipation—the biggest hit for the Calgary-based trio. “Baba O’Riley” the Who. If the ‘MEX staff wanted a great album track on the countdown then on it went, though I wondered how a song that was debuting at #23 could have been on the charts for five weeks. “All Day Music” War. The first post-Eric Burdon hit for the multi-ethnic Long Beach band, and one of several associated with the warmest of seasons.

“Friends of Mine” McGuiness Flint. These appealing and unassuming folk-rockers probably couldn’t get played nowadays unless they owned a radio station. For shame. “Ride a White Swan” T. Rex. If you listened to the New Music Authority on 1510AM you wouldn’t have to wait around for “Bang a Gong” to get hip to Marc Bolan and his elfin ways. Of course, the first of many HUGE hits for him in the U.K. “Sooner or Later” the Grass Roots. One of the latter-day smashes for these AM pop princes. I’m pretty sure Creedy had left the band by then. “Go Away Little Girl” Donny Osmond. You know, I always thought that this ditty should have had an answer song from the fairer sex. There would be a mid-song spoken word part where the girl would say “Why don’t you go away first, Donny, and we’ll call it even.” “Wedding Song” Paul Stookey. Wow, two clunkers in a row. I said it was a great Top 30, not a perfect one. “Imagine” John Lennon. This actually didn’t become a hit until the fall and an international anthem after that. But that didn’t stop the new Music guys, though the progressive AM business model would not hold and as we young teens grew up and it was quickly onto WBCN and other FM rock outlets, including college radio in the 80s and beyond.

img851

Well, I’m not sure what, if anything, happened to Lodi—though album-oriented groups like Yes were quickly migrated to the FM band. Speaking of albums, this top 15 list (with a few exceptions) is like a veritable Mt. Rushmore of classic rock LPs. But those aged 11 or under at the time get a pass if the first of these you owned was Sound Magazine.