Thursday, December 18, 2014

Radio Memoirs: Superjock

Published in 1975, Larry Lujack's Superjock captures him freshly arrived at the top of Chicago's Top 40 airwaves. He was working the afternoon drive shift at WCFL ("The Voice of Labor") when this came out, a few years after the station, programmed by the brilliant John Rook, had managed to outpace the ratings of powerful WLS (where Lujack had previously worked until 1972). This would all come undone by 1976, though, when CFL switched formats to "The World's Most Beautiful Music," prompting Lujack, a few months later, to move back to WLS, where he'd stay until 1987.  (You can hear Lujack handling the 1976 format transition on YouTube, playing Reunion's "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" and following it up with ocean sounds.)

Although music programming philosophy is the side of radio history that interests me most, I still gobble up books like these and wish that every notable radio jock would write one. Superjock alternates between memoir and zinger-filled on-air/off-mic dialogues between Lujack and his producer/engineer "Spacey Dave," who's got a thing for records by Rare Earth. Like Don Imus, Lujack was one of the best of the new breed of early '70s Top 40 DJs who came across as the over-caffeinated grouch, seemingly hungover from the exuberance of the "boss radio" years. He'd pepper the playlists with two-to-three minute "Animal Stories," "The Klunk Letter of the Day," "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and other features, projecting a resigned sense of "can you believe this?" This crucial attitude accompanies the irreverent material in Superjock and makes it funny. The loudmouth approach to today's morning drive time radio, which mostly comes across as spiteful and is done at the expense of music airtime, is both an unfortunate legacy for Lujack (who passed away in December 2013) and a testament of his influence.

Some tidbits from the book:

"Any kid of mine who wanted to be a disk jockey, I'd kick his head in" (p. 22).

"A DJ's life is ... accurately portrayed by Harry Chapin in the song about radio staton 'WOLD,' a very depressing story about the rise and fall of a Top 40 jock: the drinkin', divorce, and driftin'. You mothers who don't want your infant son to waste his life by becoming a rock jock the kid a copy of that record and make him listen to it over and over" (p. 29).

"In the late sixties and early seventies, when objections were raised to songs on the radio with drug-oriented lyrics, the popular radio cop-out was 'Well, we're not endorsing the stuff, nor are we encouraging its use. We're simply playing the music that reflects what's happening in today's society, the music the public wants to hear.' What crap! By playing those songs we endorsed it; we made drugs seem 'in,' hip, sophisticated. We helped make martyrs of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They weren't heroes, just ignorant people" (p. 33).

"A few years back there was a girl singer who reportedly made the rounds of all the big radio stations in the large markets offering her sexual favors to music directors and DJs in return for airplay of her first record. I say reportedly because I didn't happen to be there the day she dropped by the station I was working at then. But the story came from all over the country; so it must have been true. It worked. The record sold several million and established her as a major nightclub performer" (p. 61; I have my theories).

Lujack describes Janis Joplin as the "absolute snottiest person" he ever met (p. 79), Nancy Sinatra's behavior as being similar to a "pizza waitress," and the Monkees as juvenile, "silly little f*cks" (pp. 79-84). Tiny Tim, on the other hand, is described as a "very intelligent guy, one of the nicest people I've ever met in this business and really fun to talk to" (p. 84).

And this, from his real-life American Grafitti teenage years in Idaho:

"The biggest hood at Caldwell High School [Lujack's alma mater] was two years ahead of me. His first name was Revere. He was in a gang called the 'Nemows' (pronounced with a long 'e' and a long 'o': rhymes with Creamo). The derivation of the name? I'll give you a hint. It concerns something the gang was always in search of. You might as well give up; you'll never get it. Leave off the 's' and spell it backward.

"The Nemows were incredible idiots. At basketball games they would gather outside and wait till everyone was seated and the game had begun. Midway through the first quarter they would make their grand entrance. Twenty guys all wearing Levis and identical leather jackets would march single file all the way around the gym and then back out the door. They didn't give a sh*t about the game. They just wanted to make sure everybody saw them and noticed how cool they were.

"You'd look at Revere and think, 'No way is that sonofab*tch ever going to amount to anything. He'll end up doing either 20 years for armed robbery or life for murder.' So guess who the blond guy was who played piano for Paul  Revere and the Raiders, one of the biggest rock bands in the early and middle sixties?" (p. 98).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

God Rock Sunday: Two Early '70s Charting Versions of "Amazing Grace"

Judy Collins - "Amazing Grace" (Billboard #15, entered 12/12/70). Arranged and Adapted by Judy Collins. Produced by Mark Abramson. 45: "Amazing Grace"/"Nightingale I" (Elektra 1970). LP: Whales and Nightingales (Elektra 1970).

The Pipes and Drums and  Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards -"Amazing Grace" (Billboard #11, entered 5/20/72). Written by (Traditional; the UK and other international versions credit "Collins"). Produced by Pete Kerr. 45: "Amazing Grace"/"Cornet Carillon" (RCA Victor 1972). LP: Farewell to the Greys (RCA Victor 1972).

Often pointed to as evidence of early '70s radio listeners' quirky tastes, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' 1972 version of "Amazing Grace" caught fire in the UK on late night BBC radio after which it marched into the American Top 40. Less of a reflection on any public hankering for bagpipe music, the record had everything to do with the Jesus Movement, which would send an unprecedented number of religion-themed songs to the top of the charts. (Efforts by the Scotsmen to advance on the Harry Simeon Chorale's traditional Christmas chart turf with their own version of "Little Drummer Boy" fell short.)

The words for "Amazing Grace" were written by English poet and Christian clergyman John Newton and first published in 1779. In 1829, an American Baptist song leader named William Walker merged Newton's words with the familiar melody "New Britain," and it was under this title that certain 19th century versions of "Amazing Grace" were published.  It's tempting to connect the "New Britain" title with the song's stirring suitability for bagpipe music and assume British origins, but no evidence seems to take it farther than the USA.

In late 1970, folk singer Judy Collins paved the way for the Royal Scots' invasion by releasing an a cappella version of the song backed by a choir which she took to #15. ("Amazing Grace" had become a staple among sixties folk revivalists.) It appeared on her Whales and Nightingales album, which also included her human voice + humpback whale version of the British folk song "Farewell to Tarwathie," backed by humpback whales. The unique relationship of the Judy Collins and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recordings of "Amazing Grace," one being voice-only and the other being music-only, begs for a mashup. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chart Song Cinema: Lost Horizon (1973)

I don't know if "cursed" is the right word, but Lost Horizon, the 1973 musical remake of the classic '30s film, was a critical and financial failure that represented the end of the road for a number of things. It was arguably the last gasp of the epic and earnest movie musical genre. It was the final film production the once-prolific Ross Hunter would ever undertake.  It was the last consecutive project Burt Bacharach and Hal David would work on together as the indomitable songwriting duo that generated some 70+ charting classics throughout the sixties and early seventies. And the movie's three charting songs would be "lasts" for the artists who recorded them: Shawn Phillips's "Lost Horizon" was his last song to reach Billboard's Hot 100; the 5th Dimension's "Living Together, Growing Together" was their last Top 40 hit; and Tony Bennett's version of the same song was his very last charting single. (It was the second-to-last for the Mike Curb Congregation, who shared the single's billing.)

At one of my readings someone from the audience asked me what had happened to the old conception of the "Great American Songbook," the body of songs written by well-loved tunesmiths that artists would all rush to record. I did happen to address this in my book, in which I talk about the advent of Elvis, and how singular personalities and recordings put to test the dated notion of "the song not the singer" by the late fifties (as did the Beatles in the sixties, whose oft-covered oeuvre reflected their magnetic personae as much as their songcraft). This made choral performances of hits like "Hound Dog" and "Tutti Frutti" on Your Hit Parade sound ridiculous. The answer that leapt off my tongue for this question, though, was "Lost Horizon."

It was a good answer - in late '72 and early '73, before the film debuted, artists like Ed Ames, Ronnie Aldrich, 101 Strings, Hugo Montenegro and Guy Chandler, along with the previously mentioned Tony Bennett and 5th Dimension, made noise on Billboard with Lost Horizon renditions and high hopes, only to cower in embarrassment after the film spontaneously combusted in public. Never again would a "songbook" be ransacked in such a way. Such a bomb was Lost Horizon that it scorched both the Bacharach-David hit-making dynasty and damaged the songwriters' relationship. "The movie was so personally embarrassing that it almost destroyed me," says Bacharach in his Anyone Who Had a Heart memoir. "The day after it opened, I got in the car and drove down to Del Mar to escape because I thought nobody down there would know me" (p. 159).

Did Lost Horizon singlehandedly kill all these careers and entertainment industry templates? No, it just made a production, so to speak, out of their illnesses. It also misjudged the early '70s zeitgeist, asking it to accept a sunny, youth-preserving shangri-la nestled among frigid mountains with none of the science or theory that was turning books like Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth into bestsellers.  It asked civil rights-conscious viewers to buy into a paradise in which Caucasian colonizers enjoyed the servitude of Sherpas. And it asked moviegoers to savor its sophisticated songs but to forgive its low grade vocals and choreography.

My own view of Lost Horizon - and I'm not being coy here - is that it should be understood as a horror film. It's the perfect twin bill for The Wicker Man, a British film that also came out in 1973 and similarly dealt with an isolated society that brings in a chosen outsider. If one embraces the unsettling aspects of Lost Horizon as intentional, the movie begins to make sense, taking on an air of offbeat darkness. Here Sally Kellerman's strained vocals and awkward dance moves become edgy and appropriately unhinged. Liv Ullman's "The World Is a Circle" number, and also "Living Together, Growing Together," with all of the flailing arms and reproductive language, make them compelling companion pieces to the Wicker Man's pagan maypole and "leap fire" numbers. Yes - I believe that if Lost Horizon was, in fact, cursed, it's because it had a horror flick genetic code that wasn't treated properly by Columbia Pictures marketing. Had the salesmanship been thusly attended to, beguiling Bacharach-David melodies and words like "Share the Joy" might have been as readily remembered today as the Exorcist theme or the lullaby from Rosemary's Baby.

Tony Bennett with the Mike Curb Congregation - "Living Together, Growing Together" (Billboard #111, entered 12/9/72). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Mike Curb and Don Costa. 45: "Living Together, Growing Together"/"The Good Things in Life" (MGM/Verve 1972). LP: Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits Vol. 7 (MGM 1973).

It must have stung Bacharach and David to have written a racial equality song for a film that ended up being roundly criticized for racial inequality.

Lost Horizon curse: This would be Bennett's final charting hit.

The 5th Dimension - "Living Together, Growing Together" (Billboard #32, entered 1/6/73). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Bones Howe. 45: "Living Together, Growing Together"/"What Do I Need to Be Me" (Bell 1973). LP: Living Together, Growing Together (Bell 1973).

Lost Horizon curse: This would be the 5th Dimension's final Top 40 hit.

Shawn Phillips - "Lost Horizon" (Billboard #69, entered 2/10/73). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Burt Bacharach. 45: "Lost Horizon"/"Landscape" (A&M 1973). LP: Lost Horizon (A&M 1973).

Lost Horizon curse: This would be Shawn Phillips's final Hot 100 hit (although two more would "bubble under" in 1973 and 1975.)