Tag: Billboard

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 936: Number One With An Irreverent Bullet

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Here’s the part where the guy twitching in the hungry crosshairs of 40 tells you how the music topping the charts these days won’t inspire so much as a quiver of his trigger finger. But really, who cares? The purveyors of popular song have no interest in capturing my iTunes money. Just as my parents wondered desperately who on earth would want anyone to Rock Them Amadeus, I can’t fathom why Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, a piece of simplistic monotony with a Clueless rip-off video, spent a month this summer at #1.

Ever since the end of the halcyon days of 80’s pop, the soundtrack that flipped the pages of my childhood, I have paid scant attention to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While MC Hammer’s parachute pants flapped in the raucous wind of his success, my high school friends and I were discovering the mystical quests within the grooves of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. So I guess I haven’t been hip in about twenty-five years. I’m okay with that.

I’d always been a trifle suspicious of this chart anyway. What is it counting? Sales? Radio airplay? Likelihood of ending up as a parody on Weird Al’s next album? There is actually some math to this madness, and it’s far too complex for my mid-week brain to tabulate without a nap under its belt. But I’ll do my best.

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For almost two decades prior to the Hot 100’s debut in the pages of Billboard (yes kids, Billboard was and is an actual magazine. A magazine is kind of like Buzzfeed.com made out of trees), the chart tabulators kept track of three separate stats: the best-sellers, the songs most played by disc jockeys and the songs most played in jukeboxes. That last one was key, as a disgraceful clump of radio stations were refusing to play rock ‘n roll in the mid-1950’s. Billboard had to track what was big with the kids. Read more…

Day 833: Tales From The Motown Snakepit

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The music that roared through the stucco and plaster of Hitsville U.S.A. to become the Motown sound that defined soul music in the 1960’s was crafted by some of the most formidable talent the music world has ever cradled. Unfortunately, while stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves are free to bask in the wondrous afterglow of their landmark careers, some of Motown’s elite suffered a premature closing curtain.

Mary Wells, the one-time Queen of Motown who helped to launch the label into the mainstream suffered from an unfairly tragic end, while the unappreciated fuel that fed the funk-tank, James Jamerson, is anything but a household name today. Both deserve to have their story told, if not within the fiery glow of a major studio bio-pic at least with the delicate and reverent touch of a kilograph written by an eternal fan.

By the time I was born, each of these individuals had already ridden the crest of their relative stardom. That means nothing to me – I grew up in an era when people paid actual money to own “We Built This City” on vinyl. The music industry, which has always been a pit of snakes and scammers, had become a wretched den of Milli-Vanillified lies. That’s why the music that rocked my youth was mostly culled from an era I’d never seen. And it’s fair to say that no one rocked my innards quite as much as James Jamerson.

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James moved from Edisto Island, South Carolina to Detroit with his mother when he was a teenager, and he learned to play stand-up bass in high school. On nights and weekends he began playing in local jazz and blues clubs, which led to a steady gig at Barry Gordy Jr.’s studio in 1959. I don’t feel it is any measure of exaggeration when I say that James’ bass playing, which appeared on roughly 95% of Motown’s recordings between 1962 and 1968, was the most fundamental ingredient in the label’s extraordinary, genre-defining success. Read more…

Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History.

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Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change.

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.

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First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. Read more…

Day 687: The *INDISPUTABLE* Big Box O’ Juke – 80’s Edition

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I have, in the past, been accused of acute music snobbery, mostly by people whose names I never bothered to commit to memory. Yes, as an employee of Music World for the summer of 1993 I would regularly look down on customers who purchased music that I deemed to be weak and unworthy of sharing the New Release rack with the 20th anniversary re-issue of Dark Side of the Moon. But I’d only do so in my head and to co-workers after those customers had left the premises. Usually.

And while I hold my own artistic opinion as a more accurate barometer of objective quality than that of the Billboard chart-driven display of ludicrous public embracement, I would be the last to declare my tastes to be definitively correct. I am a child of the 1980’s, an era when music didn’t have to be musicologically intricate – or even necessarily good – to be a terrific record. I’m okay with this – if someone whose sense of auditory aesthetics tells me that Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days” is a crap single, I will quietly acknowledge a perfectly valid crevice of opinion, even if I feel they are wrong.

But there are some songs that seem to be objectively inarguable – purely and unavoidably great pieces of music. These are tracks that even the neo-hipsters of that decade will tap their feet to, the ones that truly warrant the moniker of ‘classic’. I’ve written about 80’s music before, but with these songs I can’t imagine any dissent. Or, you could comment below and prove me wrong.

But you won’t.

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In 1984 there was no under-bed hidey-hole so remote it could not be penetrated by some portion of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album. It still holds the record (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller) for having spawned seven top-10 hit singles; that’s seven massive hits off a twelve-track LP. And while perhaps you could uncover some twisted soul who’ll stick up their noses at “Dancing In The Dark” or “Glory Days”, I simply cannot fathom not cranking up the volume to “Cover Me.” Read more…

Day 648: A Legend With An Asterisk

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It is quite possibly the single most iconic moment in sports history. More so than Gretzky scoring his 50th goal in 39 games, more than Tiger winning his first major, even more so than David Tyree’s helmet-catch that helped the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Though that last one still makes me smile.

No, this is bigger. If the world of sports as a whole was granted one iconic postage stamp, it would undoubtedly feature the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the most iconic player in baseball’s history, pointing into the outfield right before smacking a home run along the same trajectory. Just thinking about it sends a little marimba shimmer up and down my spine, and I’m not even a huge baseball fan. But this is an athlete exerting the perfect champion’s swagger, then delivering on it.

Or did he? Babe Ruth’s quintessential display of brashness may or may not have happened. There was no NBSEE-IT slow-mo camera, no myriad of fans live-tweeting the game. And while reality threatens this balloon of legend with the tentative pin-prick of conflicting perspectives, the whole thing might be worth a closer look.

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It was the 1932 World Series, a battle between two cities in need of a spiritual lift from the murky depths of the Depression. The National League’s Chicago Cubs had finished four games ahead of the second-place Pirates, while the American League’s New York Yankees were riding the bejeweled wave of a magnificent era, featuring stars like Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Lefty Gomez – people that non-baseball-lovers like me have actually heard of. New York cleaned up in the first two games. But game 3 was in Wrigley Field – enemy territory. Read more…

Day 588: 15 Minutes Of Fame… And Counting

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I have made no secret about the fact that the Kardashians, the most unredeemably useless potholes along the seedy boulevard of our popular culture, will never be the focus of an article here. They serve no purpose, except to draw ratings away from people who actually work for a living to produce television content aimed at something above the lowest common denominator of drek-slurping zombies.

Yet despite my inherent loathing, I am nonetheless fascinated – not by the sisters themselves, but by a culture that would allow such talentless cuntery to blossom into a royal-esque adulation. Radio personality and cultural philosopher Ralph Garman once pointed out that despite Kim Kardashian’s rise to fame via a sex-tape, she doesn’t even deserve the title of ‘porn actress’, because at least porn actresses actually work for their paychecks.

She’s a celebutard, a tragic deviation from our one-time unmitigated respect for actors, musicians and even politicians who have made a positive difference in the world. But neither Kim nor her vacuous sister of the small screen, Paris Hilton, can lay claim to being the first model of fame for fame’s sake.

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The term ‘celebutante’, a portmanteau of ‘celebrity’ and ‘debutante’ was first ascribed to Boston-area heiress Brenda Frazier. She was young and beautiful, and deviously clever enough to ensure that her photo was taken at every society function she attended. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell used to write about her, launching her into some weird orbit of fame that not even Brenda could have predicted. Along with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt and Doris Duke, she became famous simply because she existed. Read more…

Day 574: The Big Box O’ Juke – 60s Edition

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The day after writing about someone’s horribly-botched circumcision and subsequent medical torture, I really need to punch that gearshift into a new socket and spend this gloriously overcast day in a happier, more uplifting place.

It is for this reason that we order up a shake, pull out that roll of quarters from our pocket that proves we’re not happy to see anybody, and saunter back over to the Big ol’ Box O’ Juke for another mini-binge on some of the great songs in history. Having jumped through the 70’s, the 80’s and the 90’s, I’m going to point my Flux Capacitor at the decade which produced the greatest classics-to-pap ratio in modern music history: the 1960’s.

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We may as well start at the beginning, with this attractive group who were known for deeply admiring mysterious things to their immediate left. That is, of course, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and the single that smashed its bubbly Dom over the hull of Motown, christening the label and launching it into the Billboard stratosphere was called “Shop Around.”

Smokey wrote the song with Motown honcho Barry Gordy, recording a slower, bluesier version that found itself dispatched through Detroit airwaves, receiving a fairly solid response from the locals. But Gordy had his sights set on conquering the world, so one night at 3:00AM he brought the Miracles in to record the more upbeat pop number we all know. Presumably members of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band that never received any credit from the Motown PR corps, despite their performances having truly defined the label’s signature sound, were also called in to the session. Read more…

Day 543: Twenty-One Things I Learned About Billy’s Fire

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To be perfectly honest, reading through the Wikipedian entry for Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was one of the more fun quarter-hours I’ve spent mired in that site’s seemingly infinite text. It was also educational.

The song itself is a hit-or-miss affair. Some people love it, others find it to be one of Billy Joel’s low points – which is something in a musical career that was not known for having a lot of low points. Ever the historical trivia lover, I’ve always kind of liked the song. It was released on my fifteenth birthday, and even though I probably didn’t know half the song’s historical references at the time, I thought it was a novel idea for a pop song.

Still, it doesn’t hold up as well as “Uptown Girl.”

But “Uptown Girl” doesn’t get its own article, at least it hasn’t yet. Here’s twenty-one things I didn’t know about the song:

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–       First of all, Billy Joel isn’t a fan. He hates performing it live, since slipping up on just one word in the verse would send the performance off the rails. “It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written,” Joel was quoted as saying. I’d have to agree; the guy built his reputation on some of the catchiest melodies in all of pop music. This one doesn’t hold up.

–       Despite his lack of reverence for the number, Billy has earned a crap-ton of royalties from it. It was only his third #1 hit, which I find incredible (“It’s Still Rock ‘N Roll To Me” and “Tell Her About It” were the others). Read more…

Day 473 – The Big Box O’ Juke – 90s Edition

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Once again it’s time to twist that volume knob all the way to the right, wrap yourself in your favorite flannel shirt, bring your old Tamagotchi back to life, and ease into the latest batch of vintage tuneage from the Big Box ‘O Juke. Today we’re dipping into the music of the 1990’s, a decade that brought us mainstream music we called “alternative”, the death of so many record stores who sold actual records, and the birth of the mighty mp3.

The 90’s was the end of populist popular music. Where once a band like the Scorpions could share the same top-ten audience as Cyndi Lauper, now listeners were becoming more fragmented. Rock music hit a wall it still has yet to climb over – apart from a handful of trends (like the forgettable rap-rock phase), guitar-based rock, or at least the stuff that hit the radio, simply stopped growing.

Pop music became computer-based, and the best stuff was wading through an increasingly deeper pool of pap and fluff. But it was still out there. Depending on your tastes, this may or may not be a sampling of some of it.

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I don’t think it’s a shameful confession, but I was never really a fan of Meat Loaf. Nothing against the guy, but his sense of musical-theatre-rock drama just never hit me in my groovocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories of the funky licks that get one’s boogie on. His song “I’ll Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was a monster hit for him in ’93, the first single off that Bat Out Of Hell II album I had to play ad nauseum when I worked at MusicWorld. Read more…