Before I started this blog, I posted about songs from old AT40s on Facebook, January-July 2017. I’ll be moving them here over time. This entry has been edited a bit from the original.
Hot Chocolate is best known for “You Sexy Thing,” but this song, which depending on your POV is either pretty moving or overly maudlin (I vote for the former), was their first American hit. It’s debuting at #36 and would reach #8. Errol Brown, their leader and vocalist, died in May 15.
Several years ago a friend pointed me to a cover version by the Sisters of Mercy; while I may prefer the original, it’s quite striking in their hands.
I don’t go to very many concerts these days, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go with Martha on Friday to see Neko Case when she made a stop in my neck of the woods. A little over a decade ago, I was completely blown away by her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Since then I’ve checked out some of her other work, both from before and after.
The show was near downtown Lexington, at the relatively new and newly-renovated Manchester Music Hall. The building’s history goes back over a century, beginning as a distillery warehouse; most recently it had been Buster’s, a billiards/bar/concert spot. Security was fairly tight, as we had to show ID, empty our pockets, and submit to being wanded before we could enter (for all I know, this is standard operating procedure these days). The space behind the bar is large and wide open, with an elevated stage in the very back. While standing is not my favorite way to watch a show, it was fine. The acoustics were overall more than acceptable.
As for the music, I’ll start with the reason why we went. Case’s voice is a force of nature. She belted out just shy of two dozen songs over roughly ninety minutes and sounded just as strong at the end as when she started. Her voice is perfectly tailored for the alt-country/folk rock she favors on her solo works, but she also makes it fit right in when she’s hanging with the New Pornographers, the A.C. Newman-fronted group she’s been with for about two decades. Despite this being the next-to-last show in a 15-gigs-in-17-nights tour, she was playful, buoyant, and affable.
Neko was joined on stage by a guitarist who played a dizzying range of instruments, from steel guitar to banjo, a bassist who bounced between guitar and double bass (sorry I didn’t catch their names), and two female backups: Kelly Hogan, who’s worked with Case for years and occasionally contributed handheld percussion, and Nora O’Connor, who also contributed acoustic guitar. The harmonies were fantastic and the musicianship was top-notch. Neko played guitar on 40-50% of the pieces.
I had at least a passing familiarity with about half to two-thirds of the songs. She did five from Fox Confessor, including faves “Margaret vs. Pauline,” “The Needle Has Landed,” and “Hold On, Hold On,” though not “Star Witness,” the one I like best. She mentioned that she’ll have a new disk coming out later this year; I’m looking forward to it.
The opening act was Mt. Joy, a quintet whose leaders grew up in Philly. Two guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. They describe themselves as indie folk, and played about eight songs over thirty-forty minutes. Matt Quinn, the front man, has some presence, but on the whole I didn’t find all that much that stood out—in particular, none of the keyboards, drumming, or back-up vocals made themselves felt. I liked the opening and closing numbers well enough, but the songwriting could use some work: they did one cover, Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and the contrast in the quality of the lyrics was, well, I’ll leave it at decidedly noticeable. They’re recording their first album and playing SXSW in six weeks, though, so maybe I don’t know anything. I get that they’re still trying to figure things out.
I had a great time, and I think Martha enjoyed herself, too. Here’s another one from Fox Confessor that Neko sang at the show. It’s actually the first song of hers I encountered; I came across it on a blog I used to read, so maybe in some way I’m trying to pay it forward. If she’s new to you, I hope you’ll give her a spin.
Like I suspect was true of many other folks, I sorta wondered if this was Journey the first time or two I heard it. Greg Giuffria, the band’s namesake, is the guy on keyboards, not the vocalist (that’s David Eisley who’s sounding more than a little like Steve Perry). I don’t think I ever saw this clip back in early 85, else I might have nominated it for Worst Video in our year-end awards show on WTLX. The hair! The fashion, from fake animalskin pants to biceps bracelets! The wind machines! The pouting attempt to imitate Keith Emerson and/or Geoff Downes with their manly approaches to playing two keyboards simultaneously! One of the YouTube commenters wonders if this isn’t meant to be parody—you’ve got to consider the possibility. I know these guys were just trying to break through, but this is a pretty low budget affair, and it shows. Nonetheless, I liked the song fairly well; it’s #22 this week and would climb to #15.
A couple of side notes:
(1) The weekend before this countdown was the coldest it got in Lexington during my college years: officially, the low was -18°F on Sunday morning, which was abnormal even back then. It climbed to a high of about 0; unfortunately, Sunday dinner was the one meal during the week when the Transy cafeteria was closed, so we had to bundle up and hope that our cars would start so we could go out and forage for fast food.
(2) Also on this countdown, at #27, is the latest by Kool and the Gang. There was a freshman DJ at WTLX that winter who clearly was befuddled as to how to pronounce its title. I don’t recall which of us it was now, but someone among my fellow jocks was tuned in when the poor fellow used a long i sound for the second letter, a z sound for the third, and transposed the fourth and fifth…
Classical music has certainly been known to provide the inspiration for pop hits. The three biggest adaptations/incorporations of classics in the 70s were the #1 “A Fifth of Beethoven” in the summer/fall of 76, by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, and two songs that peaked at #2: Deodato’s take on Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in spring 73 and Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” (Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2) three years later (Carmen also took the line from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2, third movement, for his follow-up, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”).
Another song with such a provenance is this week’s #15 tune (it’d get to #6). Apollo 100 was essentially a British studio creation. I first remember hearing this peppy, happy adaptation of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in early 2005, after I bought a used copy of a CD of 70s instrumental hits (it also contains the Walter Murphy and the Deodato). It’s certainly possible it had been on the radio within earshot around the time I was turning 8, though. No pun intended, but it’s a joy; the fade-in is a nice effect.
Before I started this blog, I posted about songs from old AT40s on Facebook, January-July 2017. I’ll be moving them here over time. This entry has been edited from the original.
This countdown came two days after the great 78 blizzard that hit the Cincinnati area. Forty years ago today, one of the two fiercest snowstorms I’ve experienced walloped us (the other was in January 94). I remember watching Tony Sands, Channel 5’s veteran meteorologist, tell us about the remarkably low pressure accompanying the storm. I think we got about a foot of white stuff.
That’s not happening today, but we can pretend we’re snowbound and get down to some funk by the Commodores, from before they went all ballad-y. This was the follow-up to “Brickhouse;” it’s at #29, and would climb to #24.
I don’t think there was any album rocking my world more at the end of 87/beginning of 88 than Sinéad O’Connor’s debut release. It feels like this is another one that came to my attention via Rolling Stone, but who knows for sure. That winter, John and I took to calling her the “bald Irish woman.” She knew how to grab your attention with her appearance, but it was the music that held it.
I’ve listened to this album more than I have the ones from Jane Siberry and Basia, so I’m more familiar with the tracks from The Lion and the Cobra that I didn’t include on this tape than the corresponding tunes from The Walking and Time and Tide. That makes this the one place where I’m sorta second-guessing myself about song selection: even though “Troy” is one of O’Connor’s more notable songs, if I had the chance for a do-over, I might swap that and something from Basia out for “Jackie” and “Just Call Me Joe.”
It’s a stunning recording overall, particularly in light of Sinéad being only 20 and serving as her own producer. The raw emotion, the combination of confidence and naiveté, and that voice all come together to crash over the listener in waves. I didn’t drown, and I kept going back for more.
I picked up the follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, shortly after it came out in 90. Yes, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a star turn, but outside of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “I Am Stretched Out on Your Grave,” I just wasn’t able to get much into it. It could be that I seek out musical talent like I do fantasy baseball players—always looking for the up-and-comer as opposed to the established star. Once O’Connor had that mega #1 song, I shuffled off looking for who might be next. She did herself no favors in terms of public regard with her behavior, almost from the beginning, though I recognize that abuse and mental illness are in play. I’ve not kept up with her music at all since the mid 90s, but I’m glad that she’s been able to continue recording.
I started with probably my second-favorite track, “Jerusalem.” It gives a solid overview of her vocal range; listen to how she sings the title, in what passes for a chorus.
Despite what I said above, “Troy” is a masterful, emotional piece. It strikes me as very personal/autobiographical, with her youth showing through maybe just a little too much.
While the opening song “Jackie” really does grab your attention, it wasn’t hard to hear the possibility of a hit record when it ended and “Mandinka” fired up. I still hear it on the radio every so often. I love, love, love it, and wish it’d become a bigger thing.
One gift I got from my parents at Christmas 87 was a key fob that beeped (three sets of six beeps) when you whistled–I had the well-earned reputation for losing track of my keys. Apparently, the notes O’Connor hit toward the very end of “Just Like U Said It Would B” (that title may have indicated it was inevitable that she’d record a Prince song someday, huh?) were right at the frequency of the fob’s sensor. I can still hear the fob going off–twice, maybe thrice, each time I played this on my turntable–as she’s wailing the title over and over in those final 45 seconds. It was a great concluding song for the tape.
My paternal grandparents owned a farm that straddled US 42 just a little on the Gallatin Co. side of the Gallatin/Boone border. Willie, my grandfather Harris, owned some cows and ran a bit of a dairy operation for a number of years. When it came to giving the farm a name, Willie chose one whose initials were the same as that of my father: Idly Rolling Hills. According to Dad, coming up with “Idly” had taken some thought. He proudly had it painted on the side of the barn. The photo above is probably from the 70s, after enough time had passed for the paint to begin fading. It’s an 8 by 10; my memory is it appeared in the Gallatin County News as part of their “scenes from around the county” beat and that Dad then requested a copy of it.
I can remember being in the farmhouse just a few times when I was very young; the strongest memory is of a holiday dinner, gathering around the dining room table. Grandma moved out of it and into her sister’s house in the very early 70s after a break-in occurred while visiting us in Stanford. Dad always maintained that event was the beginning of her decline. We then passed by it when we would travel to Aunt Birdie’s–that dairy barn was always a landmark on the way home to Walton.
The land was reasonably hilly overall, and lots of cedars grew on the untended parts (after my grandfather died the only tended parts were tobacco fields). One year–I think it was 76–Dad and I trekked over from Walton and cut down the tree we put up for Christmas.
In 83 Dad decided to sell the farm. The house had just sat there for more than a decade and the only activity going on had come from Dad arranging with men he knew to grow tobacco on a few fields and house it in the tobacco barn on the other side of the road. I went with him a couple of times as he prepared to clear out the house, but most of those duties fell to Mom and him.
Whoever bought it subdivided and resold parts of it. The section on the river side of 42 got a liquor store built on it (Dad knew his parents would have been horrified at that outcome). The barn and corncrib on the other, larger side quickly came down and several small ranch houses sprung up in their place. The farmhouse is still standing; I assume someone lives there.
Now that both of my parents are gone I don’t have all that much occasion to travel that stretch of highway. When I go to Warsaw now, my usual route emerges on 42 by the river, a few miles to the southwest. It was still on the way between Florence and Warsaw, though, and it was fitting to have to drive by it going to and from Dad’s funeral in December 13. I believe I remember thinking about him as we zipped past, a bit of snow remaining on the ground from the storm that had gone through the day he died.
The spring of 81 gets a lot of bad-mouthing on a message board devoted to all things old-school AT40 that I read frequently, largely because of the adult-contemporary turn the charts were taking around then. I have a much more positive feeling for that period, though, and there are many tunes from then that remain favorites. On the leading front of that wave was Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,” which hit the last weekend of February.
At that point I doubt I was aware of Winwood’s storied history with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith, though I’d learn soon enough. It’s his 80s output that means most to me. I really liked the follow-up single, “Arc of a Diver,” and thought highly of “Still in the Game” when it came out the following year, even if both of them stalled in the upper 40s on the Hot 100 (they each made my weekly Top 50 for a short while, as well). A couple of years later, I bought a cassette of the 82 release, Talking Back to the Night, and played it often enough that I still recognized most of the songs when listening again this past week. Aside from “Still in the Game,” the one that stood out was the lead track, “Valerie.” I know now that it made #70 at the end of 82 but I don’t believe I heard it then.
Winwood blew up in 86 with his next album, Back in the High Life, which came out right after I graduated from Transy. “Higher Love” is a legitimately great song, and the album earned basically all of its accolades. In late 87 came a retrospective, Chronicles. Even with a makeover, I immediately recognized the first single, deservedly a sizable hit this time (though honestly, I favor the original—they got a little too happy with the drum machine on the remix—so I’m embedding the 82 version). It’s down to #38 in this countdown, after peaking at #9.
Even though I bought Roll with It when it was released, my interest in keeping up with Winwood’s new music was then starting to wane. Its title track is the answer to a Casey Kasem fanatic’s trivia question, however—it was the last song Casey played on his original 18-year stint as the host of AT40 (#1 on 8/6/88).
A few months ago I mentioned that my sister was quite the speedster when we were growing up. She was fiercely competitive in pretty much all phases of her life and that served her well on the cross-country course and basketball court throughout high school (and in the case of hoops, college). But her greatest success came from running track, where she focused on the sprints.
Her coaches recognized her talent immediately, while she was in 7th grade. So, it was on a Saturday in early February of 79, before her 8th grade track campaign had begun in earnest, that Amy found herself at Freedom Hall in Louisville. She was there to compete in the 60-yard dash in the Mason-Dixon Games, then a pre-eminent indoor track and field meet for both high schoolers and collegians. Rosie, a junior who ran the hurdles, was also on hand to give it a go. Dad and I drove in a separate vehicle to watch.
Nothing special happened for Amy that day; she hadn’t been training for track, and it was a BIG event with fairly stiff competition. (I remember roaming the concourse and watching all the activity going on—it was impressive.) But her coaches weren’t wrong about her promise. In ninth grade, she finished 2nd at the state meet in both the 220 and 440, as well as 3rd in the 100 in Class A (the lowest of three classifications, for the smallest schools). Injuries and the maturation of her body took their toll on her performance as a sophomore, but she managed a great comeback as a junior, qualifying again for state in those same three races. She was a marvel to watch.
As often happened back in the day, events in my life, both small and large, had a song associated with them. For that trip to the Mason-Dixon Games, it was “Take Me to the River” (#30, heading toward #26); it was on replay in my noggin throughout the day and I can only assume it’d been on the radio in the car as we were en route. It would be five years before my appreciation for the Heads would really bloom—while I know I heard “Life During Wartime” occasionally in the interim, I’m not sure I can say the same for “Psycho Killer.” Looking back, though, I take my active digging of “River” as a sign of where my musical tastes were ultimately head…, er, going.
One of the Illinois math faculty who regularly showed up at Coslow’s on Friday afternoons in the second half of the 80s was Jerry Uhl, an analyst. Prof. Uhl was certainly one of the more memorable mathematicians in the department in those days. He had a quick wit and a voice (as well as vocal mannerisms) that easily lent to imitation—my officemate Will was known to do a not-too-shabby Uhl impersonation from time to time. I never took a class from him but he was one of the interrogators on my second try at passing a real analysis oral comprehensive exam; though I’m sure I stumbled and fumbled over the course of that hour, he and his colleague agreed I’d done acceptably. One of his advisees during my time there was the sister of recently-deposed Yankees manager Joe Girardi.
It’s fair to say that Uhl both worked hard and played hard. During my years in C-U, he lived by himself in a log home several miles east of Urbana and twice a year he invited the math department, including grad students, out for big, extended parties (once in May right after the year was over, and the other in the fall). I went to a few of these, particularly in my first three years. Yes, there was always plenty of beer, but we also had ample opportunity for outdoor games (I got my first exposure to bocce ball at one of these shindigs), strolling the grounds, and even talking some math.
I feel fairly certain it was the Saturday of Uhl’s May 88 party that I became enamored of “Time and Tide,” by Polish chanteuse Basia Trzetrzelewska. I must have come across it on VH-1, even though it wouldn’t hit the Top 40 until a few months later. It didn’t take long for me to go out and get the disk and play the title track over and over. It’s a pretty sweet album overall, with lots of jazzy touches. I enjoyed it enough that summer to put five of its tracks on the mix tape that Jane Siberry opened—the side change comes between the second and third of them. I jumped all around again in my sequencing; these are songs 3, 8, 2, 10, and 1.
I was too timid/reserved to really get to know Jerry Uhl—he and I had almost polar opposite personalities—but it’s clear that he was warm and gracious to many, many people. For a better idea about him, here’s a link to the talk that Bruce Reznick, my dissertation advisor, gave at Uhl’s memorial service after he succumbed to cancer toward the end of 2010.