Sunday, August 26, 2007

The 50 Music Project - AM Radio Rules!

Last night was the party for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. I'd been nervous about it for a while, because the expectations were so high, but as it turned out I needn't have worried. It was a wonderful night, one of those that remains with you for a lifetime. It was emotional, because in all likelihood, it was the last time that this particular group of people will ever be in the same place, at the same time. There were moments of sadness for those people you wished could have been there, and those for whom age has taken a toll. But all of that was outweighed by the sheer joy that you could feel in the room. A wonderful night.

Right up to the last minute, I was putting the finishing touches on the "liner notes" to accompany my present for my parents, the 50th Anniversary Music Project. In a way, I'm almost sad that it's over - it was a lot of work, but it was truly a labor of love, in all respects.

This next section was one of my favorites to put together, because it was really the first time where my memories of these songs and the role that they played in our lives was crystal clear.

XV. AM Radio 1969-72: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, and Back Again

For a kid growing up in Sacramento in the late 1960s, AM Radio meant 1240 KROY, and if you were a budding music freak like me and some of my buddies, that meant that you went so far as to have arguments about which disc jockey was the best – was it Bob Sherwood, Chuck Roy, Gene Lane, or the Wonder Rabbit? And why in the world was he called the Wonder Rabbit? And why did he always say “eat a banana?”

There’s no doubt in my mind that listening to AM radio for as long as I did – even when the “cool” 8th graders (if there is such a thing) were defecting to KZAP on the FM side of the dial, I stuck with AM – contributed to the diversity of my tastes. Because on any given day during the heyday of AM radio (at least the heyday as far as I was concerned), you could hear everything from some of the greatest rock songs ever created to some of the worst crap ever released on vinyl. Nothing in this section falls into the truly, hideously awful category, but I tried to include several songs, mostly one-hit wonders, that skirted the edges. But the great thing is that, mixed with all of the greatness, those songs sound great as well. In the end, it’s up to the listener to make up his/her mind.

Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, The Fifth Dimension

The Fifth Dimension record on which this song appeared was in heavy, heavy rotation at the Vaca household for more than a year. I also remember sitting at the radio on Friday afternoons, breathlessly waiting for it to appear on that week’s Top 5.

Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley
Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum

Yummy Yummy Yummy, Ohio Express

So…dad walks in after work one day, and starts talking about this song he heard for the first time on the radio: “I swear to God, they were saying, ‘yummy yummy yummy, I got a baby in my tummy.’” Close, but no cigar.

Incense and Peppermints, Strawberry Alarm Clock

Man, when I was in 4th grade, we thought this song was as cool as you could possibly get.

Wichita Lineman, Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell was a ‘rilly big thing’ for a few years, and what ended up getting lost in his cornpone vaudeville act was the fact that he was a hell of a musician. This is one of several songs that Jimmy Webb penned for Glen, and it became the huge hit that it deserved to be.

Good Morning Starshine, Cast of “Hair”

Nearly forty years later, it’s hard to imagine that anyone took Hair – billed as “The first American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” – seriously. But at the time, there were nine simultaneous productions in U.S. cities, followed by an extensive national tour. According to producer Michael Butler, the reason for this was to “try and influence public opinion against the Vietnam War and end it as soon as possible.” O-kay; try to read that one out loud and keep from laughing.

Dumb as many of them may seem now, the songs remain wildly entertaining, though it would be difficult to find a more patently ridiculous lyric sheet. This song is probably the worst offender; for the bridge alone the lyricists (Rado and Ragni) should probably have been found guilty of a misdemeanor:

Gliddy glub gloopy
Nibby nabby noopy
La la la lo lo
Sabba sibby sabba
Nooby abba nabba
Le le lo lo
Tooby ooby walla
Nooby abba naba
Early morning singing song

But I defy anyone to listen to this song, and be able to get it out of their mind. Try it. Good luck!

Lay Lady Lay, Bob Dylan

How he got his voice to sound like this, we may never know. It certainly never happened before this, nor since.

Spinning Wheel, Blood, Sweat and Tears
Sugar, Sugar, The Archies
Hitchin’ A Ride, Blues Image
Little Green Bag, Norman Baker Selection

In the Year 2525, Zager & Evans

The greatest one-hit wonder in the history of Top 40 radio. Difficult though it may be to believe, their follow-up single, “Mr. Turnkey,” was a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the wall as punishment for his crime. I can’t imagine why that one failed to chart.

Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye, Steam

Dizzy, Tommy Roe
What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel
I Think I Love You, The Partridge Family
Imagine, John Lennon

This group of songs absolutely epitomizes what was so wonderful about the AM era. Conceivably, you could have heard these five songs in succession on any given day. One absolute soul classic, one of the great crooner songs of all time, and one of the most legendary songs ever written. And two pieces of glorious, fun, dreck. Yet, those songs absolutely belonged. And that, folks, was AM radio.

Maggie May, Rod Stewart
Fire and Rain, James Taylor
It’s Too Late, Carole King
If You Could Read My Mind, Gordon Lightfoot
Theme from “Shaft”, Isaac Hayes
Joy to the World, Three Dog Night
Brown Sugar, The Rolling Stones
Truckin, The Grateful Dead

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