Turns Me Upside Down

There’s no point in me attempting to recap the life and times of Ric Ocasek and the Cars–others have much more knowledge and insight, and whatever I’d say would be redundant besides. Instead, as is my wont, you get snippets of personal experience and random thoughts, plus a list.

–The Cars’ heyday–which I consider to run through their mid-80s Greatest Hits–lined up precisely with my HS and college years, perhaps the sweet spot in the formation and shaping of my musical tastes. I was really big on virtually all the singles from their first five albums (“Touch and Go” was just okay) but didn’t buy any of their LPS until I started going after 12″ vinyl in earnest in 84. Heartbeat City was the only one I ever purchased new, including CDs.

–From day one of my exposure to them, Ocasek was always (and rightly so) presented as the band’s leader. That misled me into thinking for a good while that he was their only vocalist. Other folks have been making the observation that Benjamin Orr’s voice did bear a strong resemblance to Ocasek’s, with which I very much agree. Alas, this may have had the unfortunate side effect of me further minimizing Orr’s contributions initially. So I’ll take a moment to raise up some of those songs from the first three albums that the gone-far-too-early Orr made memorable: “Just What I Needed” and the epic final trio of tunes on The Cars (am I the only one who thinks “All Mixed Up” makes the list of Top 10 Cars Songs?); both singles from Candy-O; and my favorite from Panorama, “Don’t Tell Me No.” I guess the way I figure out who was on vocals now is, if I’m not certain that it’s Ocasek, it has to be Orr.

–Here’s what I’m claiming today are my five fave Cars tunes featuring Ocasek on lead vocals:

#5: “Hello Again”
It was well into the summer of 84 before I bought Heartbeat City. I was blown away by its lead-off track the first time I put needle to record; their signature jerkiness and quirkiness are both dialed up to 10. The Warhol vid doesn’t do all that much for me, but I was glad nonetheless  “Hello Again” became a single.

 

#4: “My Best Friend’s Girl”
Were we just not fully ready for music like this in 78? Peaks of just #27, #35, and #41 for “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll”? Of those three, this is the one with the best (and most classic) song structure and musicianship.

 

#3: “Magic”
One of a very few 45s I bought after hearing the song just once. Not quite sure how to take Ric portrayed as a Jesus figure–I noted on Twitter the other night that the walking-on-water payoff takes too long to arrive (it’s pretty easy to guess it’s coming, too, though I get why they try to wait until the first chorus for the big reveal). On the other hand, bonus points get awarded for the sounds following the line “How far can you take it?” that make me think of “Spirit in the Sky.”

 

For the top two, just scenes from one time I heard them.

#2: “Since You’re Gone”
April 82. I’ve jumped in our 81 Chevy Citation to drive to school on a promising spring morning and cranked the engine. On comes WLAP-FM, which I’ve only recently started tuning in regularly. I’m not even out of the driveway when that distinctive intro fires up.

 

#1: “Dangerous Type”
Mid-July 81. A bunch of us from my church youth group are in Louisville, having just completed the second leg of a three-day, 200+-mile biking excursion around the Erlanger-Lexington-Louisville triangle. Our youth director’s grandmother lives in town and we’re taking her car to Chi-Chi’s for a well-earned dinner to be topped off with fried ice cream. The radio’s quickly switched over WQMF, the local AOR station. We’re on the Watterson, a beltway around the southern edge of the city. Amidst tracks from REO Speedwagon and the Sherbs, on it comes.

 

–Prior to this, there hadn’t been all that much mention of the Cars or Ocasek here at the blog–“Dangerous Type” was on the mix tape series that kicked things off, “Something To Grab For” made my first Songs Casey Never Played post, a couple of their singles received brief mention other times. This greatly understates the degree to which I appreciated them back in the day. I have strong and fond memories other than those sketched out here, particularly for “Good Times Roll” and “Let’s Go,” but I’ve gone on long enough as it is. They were easily among my five favorite bands for quite a while, and more than deserved their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

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American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/19/81: Silver Condor, “You Could Take My Heart Away”

Lots of folks in the music blogosphere are writing awesome stuff about the lives and work of Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek, who both passed away this past weekend (Money on Saturday at age 70, Ocasek on Sunday at age 75). I expect I’ll chime in a bit about them later in the week (for one thing, Money will be appearing on this coming weekend’s 80s show), but in the meantime, more regular programming…

When WTLX began broadcasting in March of 83, toward the end of my first year at college, the other jocks and I finally got our chance to comb through the station’s vinyl collection. There was a whole closetful of LPs, though there weren’t all that many I wanted to pull out and slap on the turntable too often (part of that was limited knowledge on my part–Warren uncovered a number of small treasures when he arrived the following fall). Selection might have been even sparser on the 45 side of things. I have no idea what kind of budget there was for acquisitions, but my recollection is we had maybe a dozen or so current-ish singles, along with a couple of small stacks from a year or three before. (I imagine I had brought my own 45s to campus by this point to supplement.)

Who knows why I remember what I do, but there were two now-obscure singles from the first quarter of the 9/19/81 show in the WTLX collection: Elton John’s “Chloe” and Silver Condor’s “You Could Take My Heart Away.” They’re both peaking and in their last week on the countdown (#34 and #32, respectively). I’d liked them at the time of their modest hit-dom (the Silver Condor was a particular fave) and probably hadn’t heard either in the almost eighteen months between this show and my discovery of them at the station. Needless to say, they both got play from me that spring.

The two best-known participants on “You Could Take My Heart Away” were vocalist Joe Cerisano and guitarist Earl Slick .  The self-titled debut album didn’t do all that well, and a follow-up album by Cerisano and a whole new crew did even worse. Digging around this morning, I found Cerisano’s website, complete with bio. Maybe you already know this, but here are three nuggets about Joe and his career:
–he grew up in West Virginia but cut his musical teeth in New Jersey with a group called the R-Band, whose lineup included future Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres;
–he is the vocalist on “Hands Across America,” the #65-peaking theme song for the May 86 event of the same name;
–he also contributed vox to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s second album and toured with them for a few years at the beginning of this century.

I listened to Silver Condor earlier today. Cerisano laments on his website that there were better choices to release as singles (“You Could Take My Breath Away” is the only song on the album he didn’t have a hand in writing). I don’t currently agree, though maybe subsequent listens will change my mind. It’s not a bad disk–it feels very much of the mid-81 album rock scene–but I’d score one up for the suits this time.

 

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/11/76: Ohio Players, “Who’d She Coo”

In the fall of 77, my 8th grade English teacher passed out a small, bound booklet with around fifty blank 5.5″ by 8.5″ pages to everyone in the class. The assignment: assemble a “creative notebook.” We were to come up with ten articles on topics of our choosing, enliven them with illustrations or photos, and decorate the cover as we saw fit. My awesome title: The Past, Present, and Future of William Richard Harris. Included are a one-page sci-fi story, an editorial (“Students Should Eat Their Lunch!”), a diatribe on “What I Would Do To Improve the World” (apparently, I would crack down on pollution yet encourage energy companies to drill for more oil to avert an energy crisis), a reflective piece on “How I Look To Others,” and an ode to My Favorite Person, my father. (I didn’t ignore the rest of the family–the notebook was dedicated to Mom, Sis, and our dog Friskie.)

My AT40 obsession is on display in other articles. “Life of an American Top 40 Song” provides a week-by-week accounting of the path Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” took as it climbed to and fell from its #8 peak earlier in 77. “What I Hope To Be Doing 10 Years From Now” is, well, let me just show you the first paragraph:

CreativeNotebookTenYearsFromNow

The things 13-year-olds write…

Finally, there was “The Top 40 Coincidences,” which spells out in detail the two times I found new AT40 stations just as WSAI in Cincinnati was changing its schedule. The first was the weekend of 9/11/76: early that Sunday morning, I heard Casey announcing “Who’d She Coo” at #20 as I flipped my trusty transistor radio past WAKY, a well-known AM station in Louisville. I scribbled the titles down in the same little spiral notebook I’d used to track The National Album Countdown during the summer, at least through #11 (I could get the Top 10 out of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer). It was good to have found another option for catching some of the show, and it got even better later than evening, when it became apparent that WSAI had discontinued AT40. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t hear full shows or resume chart-keeping until 10/16, when WSAI brought Kasem back. There exists a half-hearted accounting of the portion of the 9/11 show I did hear:

AT40091176

(For the sake of completeness: the second ‘coincidence’ occurred in early February 77, when WSAI moved the show from evening to morning on Sundays, in conflict with church attendance. The following Saturday night, I found AT40 on WLAP-AM in Lexington–perhaps that explains my interest in future employment there.)

I knew the Ohio Players, out of Dayton, best for “Love Rollercoaster,” their #1 hit from earlier in 76. Like so many others, I was aware at the time of the false rumor that the scream one hears about halfway through was that of a woman being murdered in the studio during recording. The groovy, funky “Who’d She Coo” was the eighth and would be the final song of theirs to make the countdown. It wound up climbing just a couple of spots higher from where I heard it that September Sunday morning.

Forgotten Albums: Texas, Southside

By the end of the 80s, the easiest way for a new(-ish) act to grab my attention–and my dollars–was for it to feature a female vocalist. I’m repeating myself, but at this point on the solo side I was into Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, Marti Jones, Sinéad O’Connor, Basia, and Jane Siberry, among others (looks like I need to do a Marti write-up someday!). Women-led groups may have been a little sparser in my collection (10,000 ManiacsLone Justice, Cocteau Twins, and ’til Tuesday were there, but it was still a while before fave shoegaze acts like Lush and My Bloody Valentine appeared on the radar). Here’s another that popped up just before the 90s hit.

Somewhere around the time fall classes began again in Illinois I started seeing a video supporting a fivefour-some that featured Sharleen Spiteri, a guitar-slinging 21-year-old brunette with a powerful alto. “I Don’t Want a Lover” doesn’t exactly strike me as late 80s VH-1 fare now, though odds are that’s where I encountered it.  It wasn’t long before I secured a CD copy of Southside, the debut disk from the Glasgow-based Texas and stuck it on a cassette for trips in the car.

“I Don’t Want a Lover” went Top 10 in England and reached #77 in their only US Hot 100 appearance (it debuted on the 9/9/89 chart). I’m bummed that the video I saw thirty years ago isn’t available on YouTube, even if it is just a performance clip. Still the best song on the disk.

 

The next two selections follow a similar formula: two rounds of verse/chorus, solo, bridge, return to the chorus to the fade-out. “Everyday Now” and “Thrill Has Gone” were the third and second UK singles, respectively. Nice to see a real video for “Thrill Has Gone,” which had just the right amount of country vibe for me back then.

 

 

My second favorite track then was and probably still is “Fool for Love.” Our narrator’s letting her former lover know of his new status, and maybe the reasons why.

 

They chose the right song for the closer. “Future Is Promises” is a slower, more somber piece about trying to pry away a girlfriend’s boyfriend. The bridge expresses equivocation, though: “Take the chance and make the move/But don’t think that I will approve/For once I’ve finally realized/Being with her wasted your life.”

 

Southside is one of the CDs I moved over to my office several years ago in a spasm of reorganization, right around the time I brought a bunch of disks home from my parents’ house after cleaning it out. I don’t listen to it all that often anymore, but still think it’s a solid offering. Over the next four or so years, I picked Texas’s follow-up albums Mothers Heaven and Rick’s Road; neither wound up appealing the way Southside did.

And I think that was pretty much it for Texas on this side of the pond. Over in Britain, however, Spiteri and company became stars with their next two releases, White on Blonde (97) and The Hush (99). Both went to #1 there, each spawning multiple Top 10 singles. I’ve got a feeling I know what I’m going to be checking out this afternoon.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/7/85: a-ha, “Take On Me”

This was the first weekend of my senior year of college, classes likely having started on Wednesday. I was taking courses in math, physics, computer science, history, and French, plus my usual quarter-credit for tooting on the trombone. Easily the most enjoyable class that semester was History of England to 1660; James and Stacey were among the others in the class. We read engaging books on pivotal moments such as the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, and the Spanish Armada (the last of these was especially good) and then slammed out two-page papers and the occasional essay exam for Dr. Binford. I kinda wish now I’d had room to take the second half of the sequence in the winter. While I’ve yet to travel to Great Britain, I suppose it’s not too late.

By this point I’d pretty well settled on a post-baccalaureate plan. I imagine graduate study of some sort was always in the cards. Three years earlier I would have told you that computer science was by far the most likely subject for further investigation, but along the way I had slowly turned toward mathematics. I realize CS would have been the sounder choice from a financial perspective (I don’t even need to add a phrase like ‘in retrospect’ to that–it had to have been obvious at the time). Even though I still like to noodle around with programming, there are zero complaints about the path I wound up following. I’d spend a chunk of the fall semester beginning the process of identifying potential next destinations, taking the GRE, etc. Mark H was also planning on graduate school, though in CS; we wound up considering some of the same places.

When casting around for a song from this show that reflects some part of where I was in my social life at that moment, I found two diametrically opposite positions to take. The harder view is represented by Sting’s “Fortress Around Your Heart.” At the beginning of 85 I’d written a diary entry claiming as a result of a particular experience the year before I’d “stashed…emotions in an ice box somewhere far down” and that I was “colder than I used to be.” It’s not clear this was remotely true, but knowing I was leaving Lexington in less than a year (UK wasn’t really on my radar for grad school) did make me loath to seek out a dating relationship.

On the much brighter side, I was already in love with a-ha’s “Take On Me” and its striking, magical video. Watching vocalist Morten Harket and his then-girlfriend Bunty Bailey (who’s just three months younger than I) act out those moments when you first meet a potentially special someone…well, I guess it gave a 21-year-old hope. The future #1 song was hanging out at #21 on this show.

Perhaps you can tell we’re going with optimism today–I’m a sucker for a happy ending, I suppose.

One other note: I immediately knew the source of the ending for the vid of “Take On Me” the first time I saw it. I’d gone on a double date with a friend early in 81 to see the William Hurt/Blair Brown flick Altered States. (You can find a clip of the film’s final scene on YouTube, but it’s NSFW.) Given the R rating, the folks at the cinema must not have been enforcing the rules the night we were there–maybe I’d just turned 17, but my date was younger.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 8/31/74: Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris”

My friend Warren really hates Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” We’re talking heat-of-ten-thousand-blue-giant-suns hatred–I mean, he even had the protagonist in his novel remark on how awful it is. Warren’s not big on Seger anyway, but he has absolutely no patience for complaints about how tough it is to be a rock musician. If you don’t like it, just don’t do it, I imagine him thinking whenever the song comes on the radio within his hearing.

(As for me, I like “Turn the Page” well enough; perhaps I’m more sympathetic to articulating the sucky aspects of being on the road? Besides, one of my best friends in HS absolutely loved it, so I guess there are sufficient back-in-the-day memories so that it’s hard to get too down on it.)

Anyhow, I can’t help but wonder if Warren feels similarly about Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” This time, we’re treated to Mitchell relaying what she heard in David Geffen’s laments about the downsides of being a record company executive, and in his pleasures in traveling to the City of Lights. On the whole, I get it–people being nice to you solely because they want something from you is draining (I could get into spending a bunch of time in Paris, too). And as far as “if you don’t like it, just don’t do it” goes, well, Geffen kinda did that after awhile, essentially taking off the last half of the 70s from the music biz.

Court and Spark has become one of my go-to albums this decade, and “Free Man in Paris” is one of the really amazing songs on it–it’d definitely be worth trying out at karaoke. Sitting at #30 this week on its way to #22, it became the last studio recording of Mitchell’s to get played on AT40 (a live take on “Big Yellow Taxi” made it a few months after this).

Beaten To The Punch

We got a satellite dish in 2005, not long after returning to KY from our year in upstate NY. Our package included a number of pre-merger Sirius radio channels, and it didn’t me take long to discover the 70s station. On Sunday nights, after Ben was down for the night, I’d listen to Dave Hoeffel’s Satellite Survey, in which he played the top 30 songs on Billboard‘s pop chart from the corresponding week of some year in the 70s. After close to two years of moderately faithful listening, I came to realize that Hoeffel recycled the same fifty countdowns (five from each year of the decade), which took a little of the fun away; additionally, the station apparently didn’t have copies of all the songs–there’d be occasions when, say, #27 wasn’t available, so the first four played would actually be #31-#28. Sometime after the 2007 merger between Sirius and XM, Hoeffel moved to the 60s channel and genuine AT40 70s shows began being rebroadcast.

The Satellite Survey lives on in 60s form, however, still hosted by Hoeffel.  Martha and I have been listening to Channel 6 in the car a little more recently, and caught most of this past weekend’s Survey after leaving Ben at college. Hoeffel kept saying he was playing tunes from August of 1962, but I found after getting back home that the rankings came from Billboard‘s 9/15/62 Hot 100. It doesn’t exactly feel fair for me to critique music that’s older than I am, but I was definitely struck by any number of things while the hits were rolling, so here we go.

–There were long stretches of songs with which I was unfamiliar, and that’s a very good thing; while decade-based stations by definition have a finite number of options, they sure seem to have playlists that are far too short. That’s not to say there weren’t some welcome classics to be heard. Outside the Top 10 we got “If I Had a Hammer,” (#35), “Surfin’ Safari” (#30), and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (#11), and the Top 5 all were in the very-good-to-outstanding range: “Green Onions,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Sheila,” and “Sherry.”

–On the other hand, after a while there was a certain sameness to the songs. Very little of it rocked, and treacly ballads abounded. Even if I hadn’t been told the year, it was easy to tell we were listening to music pre-dating the British Invasion. As it happens, it was less than eighteen months prior to the Beatles and their compatriots sweeping much of this style away.

–Some lowlights:
#23: Bobby Bare, “Shame on Me”
#17: Johnny Tillotson, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On”
#16: Marty Robbins, “Devil Woman”
#9: Dickey Lee, “Patches”

I’m coming out fighting here, as all four of these fellows had lengthy and successful careers (in most cases more so on the Country charts); I just didn’t find any of these songs engaging. “Shame on Me” is told by a guy regretting a brief bout of cheatin’, with a couple of loooong mournful spoken word segments. Tillotson has a wonderful, pure voice, and “Pillow” is considered a country classic according to Wikipedia, but the sentiments expressed didn’t impress me even slightly. The protagonist in “Devil Woman” denies all agency and puts everything on his “temptress”–I can’t begin to imagine why Mary even wants to take him back. Pass, even though Robbins also has a magnificent voice. And “Patches” could be the worst of the bunch, a soppy tale of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks who kill themselves after the boy’s parents forbid him from seeing/marrying shanty-town-dwelling Patches. I know tragedy has always sold, but still…

–On the brighter side:
#27: Brook Benton, “Lie To Me”
#22: The Springfields, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
#14: Claudine Clark, “Party Lights”
#12: Mary Wells, “You Beat Me To the Punch”
#8: Ray Charles, “You Don’t Know Me”

What little I knew of Benton’s work–“Rainy Night in Georgia” and a couple of duets with Dinah Washington–indicated I need to dig into his catalog. “Lie To Me” does nothing to change that.

 

“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” was easily my favorite discovery on Saturday. I knew the song to a smallish extent, but hadn’t heard the version by the trio of Dusty Springfield, her brother Tom, and Mike Hurst. I’m reading that this was the first song by a British group ever to break into the U.S. Top 20. The Springfields didn’t have the original version, but were the first to have a hit with it. It’s been subsequently covered many times, including by my father’s high school classmate Skeeter Davis, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and the trio of Dolly, Tammy, and Loretta.

 

Claudine Clark was a true one-hit wonder, but “Party Lights,” about a teenage girl’s wish to join in on the action across the street, is pretty sweet.

 

“You Beat Me To the Punch” sounds just like a Smokey Robinson joint, so it’s no surprise that he co-wrote and produced this one for Wells. Her understated approach serves the song extremely well.

 

And Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is another one to add to my pile of albums to seek out. The arrangement on “You Don’t Know Me” sounds of its time, but Charles’s vocals are impeccable.

 

–Finally, a quick word about three instrumentals on the show:
#26: Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra, “A Swingin’ Safari”
#18: Bent Fabric and His Piano, “Alley Cat”
#10: Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, “Rinky Dink”

Jim Bartlett wrote about Vaughn back in June, and you should definitely go there to read about “A Swingin’ Safari” and other Vaughn hits. You likely know the Grammy Award-winning “Alley Cat,” even if not by name; Fabric, from Denmark, is apparently still around, now in his mid 90s. This was the second and last Top 40 hit for Cortez–his other, “The Happy Organ,” was a #1 hit three years earlier. “Rinky Dink” sounds like it was written with the roller rink in mind.

–Why write about all this? Throughout my life, songs have regularly gotten tied down to a specific time and place. Sheerly by accident, these have become the tunes I’ll always associate with the cool, cloudy Saturday ride home through Indiana after handing Ben over to his future.

As I noted above, it doesn’t feel quite right to cast aspersions on songs I didn’t experience in real time. Looking through comments this weekend on the YouTube videos to which I’ve linked, I saw so many folks, perhaps now around 70 years old, noting the memories that come rushing back when they hear them again, even “Shame on Me” and “Patches.” If I were 12-15 years older, that could well be what I would say. As it is, I might not really want folks born a dozen or so years after I was to go browsing through my 45 collection from the late 70s…