On Elvis, Tentative Steps, Ampersands & Wings

On August 16, 1977, a little more than a month after my 12th birthday, I survived the SooperDooperLooper at Hershey Park. Most of my memories of the day itself long ago faded to black, but what I do recall: the ride home. My father was at the wheel, my mother beside him in the front passenger seat and my older brother beside me in the back. It was there, somewhere on the Pennsylvania turnpike, that we learned of Elvis Presley’s death via my father’s favorite radio station, Philadelphia’s WWDB, 96.5 FM. It was all-talk and, to my young ears, always all-boring. This night, however, the host played Elvis songs and took calls from listeners, many of whom were quite upset.

Mind you, up until that point, for me Elvis was just a name occasionally tossed out on one of my favorite TV shows, Happy Days. I had no clue as to who he was or what he represented – but learned fast. A week later, I scrawled in my rarely used desk diary, “I might order an Elvis Presley record. He was the king of rock ’n roll!” (Then – as now – I had a knack for stating the obvious.) As it turned out, however, while shopping for school supplies not long thereafter, my mom saved me a few bucks and bought me Elvis’ Golden Records.

Other records followed. I picked up a few cut-rate/Pickwick compilations of Elvis’ movie music over the next few months for no other reason than they were priced right. And I enjoyed both halves of the Donny & Marie ampersand enough to sell some of my treasured comic books, which I’d painstakingly collected over the preceding few years, in order to afford The Osmonds’ Greatest Hits. Marie’s rendition of “Paper Roses” was sublime, I thought.

I also bought the soundtrack to The Spy Who Loved Me based on the theme song and because of my ignorance. I didn’t know the difference between LPs and singles.

That Christmas, though it may have been the Christmas before, my brother and I both received Radio Shack/Realistic compact stereos – a turntable and radio in one. An inexpensive model, to be sure, but far from cheap. There was always something magical about lowering the needle to the vinyl.

Tentative steps – that best describes those initial forays into popular music. I’ve written about it before – here and here – and will undoubtedly do so again, but, really, all one needs to know for now is this: I had no clue as to what I was doing. I listened to Mike St. Johns’ “Saturday Night Oldies” show on WPEN-AM. Bought a few Jan & Dean singles. And spent most of my time focused on schoolwork, football, pro wrestling and comic books.

A TV commercial, of all things, upended that order of things. Paul McCartney and Wings released London Town on March 31st of 1978, and Capitol Records put together a spot advertising it – possibly this one:

The snippet of “With a Little Luck” therein took hold of my 12-year-old brain and before long I had the 45, then the album, then another Wings LP, and then another, and then someone – my father or mother, more than likely – told me about his previous band. You know, the Beatles. As I remember it, I listened to nothing but McCartney, Wings and the Beatles for the next few years. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Soon I was enjoying Grease, Olivia Newton-John, WIFI-92 and such 45s as Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

Venus and Mars was one of the “another” Wings LPs mentioned above, bought over the summer with cash I received for my 13th birthday, if my memory is correct. I loved it from the get-go. The one-two punch of “Venus and Mars” and “Rock Show” set the stage for what followed on the LP, which was laid out somewhat like a concert. The songs included such catchy bon mots as the comic-book romp “Magneto and Titanium Man,” guitar-heavy “Letting Go,” bluesy “Call Me Back Again” and poppy “Listen to What the Man Said.”


Earlier this month, I received the deluxe edition of the remastered Venus and Mars – part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection series. In addition to the original album, it comes with a CD of bonus material (including “Junior’s Farm” and “My Carnival”); a DVD of assorted video clips and live footage; a coffee table-sized book that delves deep into the recording of the album; and downloads of the high-resolution audio (96kHz/24 bit). Sonically speaking, there’s no comparison to the original 1987 CD release. That sounded distant and flat; this sounds like you’re in the control room.

What strikes me now: It’s not as good as my 13-year-old self thought (small surprise there), yet remains thoroughly enjoyable. I still love the songs I mentioned above, plus a few (“Love in Song,” “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”) that I used to find boring, and sing along with most of them while driving in my car. For me, they’re high-octane nostalgia fodder, conjuring the days of bell-bottom jeans, loud shirts, long hair and little worries beyond the weather.

29 thoughts

  1. The year that Elvis died, some kid brought the issue of the National Enquirer with Pic of the King laying in his coffin to school. Like every other magazine or comic or toy or anything not strictly school oriented, it was confiscated and held til year’s end by our home room teacher.

    On last half-day of school, after we had provided free labor by cleaning our desks, lockers and cubbies, she began to return our long lost treasures. I remember that year, I “lost” an issue of What If? (Marvel comic) the day after I got it, so I was glad to get it back but the reality of attending a school with other Air Force dependents was you never finished the year with who you started with and so there was a lot of unclaimed stuff she gave to whoever wanted it and if more than one person wanted it, we had to do multiplication flash cards with first correct answer declared winner.

    Anyway, that issue of the Enquirer was one such unclaimed item; the kid ending up moving like a month before school got out in May 1978. I raised my hand for it but so did a girl. So we went head to head – for twelve rounds – before I finally answered before her – only to give the issue to her as we both walked home.

    Fifth grade, man.

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  2. My mother was a Presley fan, and generally liked the ’50s rock of her youth–she fondly recalled seeing Aretha Franklin on her first secular tour opining for Joe Turner, whom my mother was there to see, but she didn’t have much if any of her album collection with her, as her younger sister had stolen when not also scratched up her albums from the ’50s…The Atlantic JOE TURNER Rock ‘N’ Roll LP collection was the only one to survive to the period when I would dive into my parents LP collection, mostly jazz and classical on my father’s side, mostly dance music and Peggy Lee and other pop/jazz line-striders on my mother’s…they had both largely given up listening to good music in favor of the 101 Strings and other Muzak fodder by the time I was five or six, but I dug into their collections, and dug “Honey Hush” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll” as well as the Lee as much as I did the Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan and Edgard Varese my Dad had snagged in their better listening days. Then we started picking up our Pickwick records at the discount stores….my mother picked up a Glenn Miller pop big band (rolling down the middle between jazz and sweet) antholgy, and soon after bought me a Beach Boys, my first rock album, and herself an AMERICAN GRAFFITI-inspired mixture of ‘latter ’50s and scattered ’60s hits…all good by me, aside from such clunkers on the last as “Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens. I’d already picked up “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” by Brownsville Station as my first single (presaging my openness to punk) and my other first albums were another Basie, an Audio-Fidelity poorly packaged classical collection featuring Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION, David Steinberg’s comedy LP DISGUISED AS A NORMAL PERSON–all cut-outs from the same Grant’s and K-Marts and such. But I also doubled down on new jazz, even accidentally when I showed my father a Pablo recording, a new one, by Joe Turner as a possible gift for Mom. Then added more rock to the set of jazz, classical, folk and blues records I’d buy, along with comedy, not least the Firesign Theater, though I would mostly borrow samples of all of those from libraries first…

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