Archive for the ‘1978’ Category

February 3rd, 1978, was a cold, cold Friday in the Delaware Valley, with highs in the mid-20s (Fahrenheit) and lows in the low teens. As anyone alive out there can confirm, that winter of 1977-78 was a rough string of months for much of the Midwest and Northeast, with extreme cold and snowstorms the norm. In the Philly area, for example, some 13-15 inches of snow paralyzed the region two weeks prior; and from Sunday the 5th through early Tuesday morning, we’d endure a repeat performance that dropped 14 more inches of the white stuff. 

I was 12 1/2 years of age and still adjusting to the realities of winter; just a few years earlier, I’d actually thought 60 degrees was freezing. (Life in a desert kingdom may not have been ideal, but at least we didn’t have snow or actual cold.) About the only relief: Escape via books, television and, increasingly, music. As I charted in this long-ago post, Elvis Presley’s death the previous August essentially kickstarted my interest in rock ’n’ roll.

My parents picked up the book-thick Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer early Saturday evening most weeks, and we would spend part of the night reading through it. At that juncture, Michael St. John’s oldies show on WPEN-AM, which I routinely listened to, was on Sunday night – but there were plenty of oldies to be had around the dial. (Oldies, back then, primarily meant the rock, pop and soul/R&B of the 1950s and early ‘60s.) My parents and older brother weren’t much into music, but indulged me. So, for at least an hour, the sounds of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Ronettes, Supremes and Beach Boys filled the living room.

On occasion, Jan & Dean rode the wild surf from California to the eastern seaboard… 

…I loved the songs of theirs that I heard on the radio, most likely because they were often catchy and funny. Over time, I bought three 45s that sported hits on each side (and, eventually, the cool two-LP Anthology) – and, this night, turned on our local CBS affiliate, Channel 10, to watch Deadman’s Curve, a made-for-TV movie about them.

My memory tells me that it was a dramatic, dark and ultimately uplifting film accented by top-notch performances. My memory is wrong. A while back, I stumbled upon a gray-market DVD of the movie while looking for the 1977-78 James at 15 TV series, ordered it and, last Wednesday, gave it a go. Wow. It’s almost as awful as the Inky calling Jan Berry “Jan Perry” in its TV highlights for this night…

The TV movie was inspired by a 1974 Rolling Stone article by Paul Morantz, who also helped with the screenplay. One problem: Jan is presented as a first-class jerk from the get-go, which begs the question: Why would anyone want to work with him? Also, his friendship with Brian Wilson, who cowrote “Surf City” and “Ride the Wild Surf,” isn’t mentioned, nor is Jan & Dean’s memorable stint hosting the T.A.M.I. Show

Still, the film is a product of its time and environs, as TV mores were not what they are today. If James at 15’s attempts to deal with teen life in an authentic manner were met with resistance, one can only imagine the hurdles faced by Deadman’s Curve. 

The film did help re-energize the duo’s career, however. As this L.A. Times article explains, they began by touring with the Beach Boys before venturing out on their own. Dean says, “I didn’t want to play for just the over-30 crowd, but I found out that teen-agers were coming out for the music. In 1978 Jan and I toured with the Beach Boys to test the waters. It went OK, and in ’79 we became Jan and Dean again.” (That article is well worth the read in full, I should mention.)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Jan & Dean.

1) “Surf City.” Where this video comes from, no idea, but it portrays their humor very well.

2) “Dead Man’s Curve.” 

3) “Honolulu Lulu”

4) “Sidewalk Surfin’” Dick Clark welcomes them to American Bandstand, where they lip sync to their latest release – and then Dean demonstrates his skateboard skills. 

5) “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” This hails from the T.A.M.I Show – a classic performance from a classic film, and yet another example of their humor.

On Monday September 5, 1977, NBC premiered James at 15, a TV movie about 15-year-old James Hunter (Lance Kerwin), whose life is upended when his family moves from Oregon to Boston in the middle of the school year. After a few days at his new high school, where fitting in proves difficult, he hits the road in hopes of reuniting with the girl he left behind, Lacey (Melissa Sue Anderson); and, along the way, he falls in with an art student (Kate Jackson) who teaches him the ways of the road (aka hitch hiking). It did well in the ratings – topped them, in fact – and, as a result, was turned into a TV series that debuted at the end of October.

For its era, both the TV movie and series were unusually frank. It was no Born Innocent, mind you, yet delved into the gradients of teenage life with as much honesty as the network censors would allow. (That interference caused the creator/showrunner, novelist Dan Wakefield, to resign midway through the season.) The series also broke stereotypes with James’ friends, who include aspiring anthropologist-psychologist Marlene (Susan Myers), whose dad is a working-class joe, and capitalist-in-the-making Sly (David Hubbard), a black kid whose straitlaced parents are into classical music. James and the supporting characters aren’t caricatures, in other words, but the kind of kids one might pass in the era’s high-school corridors. Likewise, James’ parents (Linden Chiles, Lynn Carlin) and sisters (Deirdre Berthrong, Kim Richards) come across as variants of the real thing.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. Some episodes veer into ABC Afterschool Special territory, teaching the (presumably) younger viewers life lessons from afar. One early episode, for example, finds James trying to woo a girl (Teri Nunn, who later found fame with the pop group Berlin) with a “bad” reputation only to discover she’s far from promiscuous. Another finds his best friend from Oregon visiting Boston in order to see cancer specialists; he dies, of course. Another possible love interest leads him to consider joining a cult. And, late in the season, he befriends a girl (Rosanna Arquette) who’s an alcoholic. Other stories venture into the “ick” territory, such as his older sister’s involvement with one of her college professors or his uncle “gifting” him with a prostitute for his 16th birthday (James declines, as he’s late for a date with a Swedish exchange student). Along the way, brief Walter Mitty-esque interludes punctuate the stories, but are far more annoying than humorous. 

Technically speaking, James – who celebrated his 16th birthday in February 1978, making his birth year 1962 – was a late addition to the Baby Boom generation. A “generation,” for those unsure of what one entails, is defined as people born during a specific stretch of years, though social scientists often quibble about when each begins and/or ends. Individual generations experience the same cultural and societal touchstones and/or upheavals; and those shared references, in turn, result in something akin to a hive-like mindset that plays out in pop culture, politics and societal shifts. In the case of the Baby Boomers, the years range from 1946 (some experts say ’43) to 1964; they experienced the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War and Woodstock, among other events. Generation X (1965-80), aka my generation, came next; I tend to think of us more as Generation Jan, however, as – like Jan Brady – we’re the middle child forever overshadowed by our older and younger siblings, the aforementioned Boomers and Millennials (1981-2000), most of whom came of age in the years following 9/11, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars raged.  

Which is to say, teenage James has more in common with first-wave Gen Xers like myself than first- or second-wave boomers, as the defining events of the 1960s would have been beyond his ken. That’s where “micro-generations” come in – subsets that bridge two generations. The ill-named Generation Jones (1954-65) and Xennials (late 1970s to early ‘80s) are two examples. James may have seen news reports on the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and Woodstock as a little kid, but the more mundane matters of childhood would have been foremost on his mind. Watergate, the Bicentennial and Bad News Bears would have all penetrated his consciousness, on the other hand, simply because he was older.

For any late-stage Boomer or first-wave Xer, James at 15/16 (it updated its title on his birthday) is worth watching, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It recalls, via its sensational yet soft-scrubbed stories, a time when kids dressed as we dressed, talked as we talked, and acted like we acted (though the lack of video-arcade scenes is a strike against it). That it’s yet to be officially released on DVD means second-hand recordings uploaded to YouTube or purchased via the bootleg market will have to do. So be it.

Released on March 31st, 1978, Wings’ London Town album wasn’t well received by the rock press at the time. Rolling Stone’s Janet Maslin described it as “so lighthearted that the album’s feeling of familial strength and affection is virtually the only thing that binds it to earth” in her review, for example, and – if my memory’s correct – Dave Marsh slammed it in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide a few years later.

Don’t believe the disses.

While not a five-star album from Paul McCartney and pals, the 14-song set features an enjoyable mix of soft rock, pop and light psychedelia. The keyboard-driven title track, which opens the album, is a good example, with its whimsical lyrics painting a colorful scene: “Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon/I was accosted by a barker playing a simple tune upon his flute/Toot, toot, toot, toot/Silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London town…” 

Musically, it eschews the new strains of rock bubbling up from the streets (aka punk and new wave), with the brief guitar break at 3:25 instead conjuring the old-school vibe of Abbey Road instead of, say, “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s an airy delight. The second track, “Cafe on the Left Bank,” continues the timeless sound; in some respects, it echoes Paul’s work on Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Just as McCartney sidesteps punk and new wave, the disco beats then heating up the pop charts are nowhere to be heard on the album. Instead, we’re treated to “I’m Carrying,” one of McCartney’s most unheralded love songs: 

I should back up for a second here to explain the album’s background: It began life in early 1977 when Wings regrouped in the studio after their mega-successful 1975-76 world tour. Reportedly, the plan was to record a new album and return to the road – but Linda’s unexpected pregnancy (with son James) caused the McCartneys to change their mind about touring again anytime soon. Instead, in the spring, they headed to the Virgin Islands, where they rented a few yachts, one of which they turned into a recording studio, and enjoyed a working holiday. (In a sense, you could say it’s actual “yacht rock.”) As Paul explained to Melody Maker that same year, “There was a nice free feeling. We’d swim in the day and record at night.”

It’s understandable, then, that the laidback recording sessions led to a laidback sound; and, as if he needed it, the notion of being a dad again likely buoyed Paul’s natural optimism, which is on full display in the album’s lead single, “With a Little Luck.”

The single fades out a minute-and-a-half earlier than the album version, however, and the coda on the album version is quite cool. (As I wrote long ago, this song is what led 12-year-old me to become a McCartney fan. First I bought the single, then the album. And when I heard the longer version, it blew my little mind.) How anyone can hear it and not be swept away by its unbridled hope is beyond me.

“I’ve Had Enough,” which closes Side 1, is an old-school rocker that could well have been written at any point in the preceding 15 years. Written and recorded during the yacht sessions, it protests everything from backseat drivers to the taxman: “I earn the money and you take it away/When I don’t know where you’re from/I should be worried but they say/It’ll pay for a bomb…”

Another of my favorites is “Deliver Your Children,” a driving folk-flavored number and one of five tracks written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine. In this instance, it was a song that Denny had been working on since the Venus & Mars sessions; Paul helped finish it.

“Girlfriend,” which McCartney wrote for Michael Jackson to record, is another highlight. (McCartney recorded it first, obviously, with MJ getting to it in 1979 on his Off the Wall album.)

Another track I enjoy, though some might not, is the closing “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose,” a sprawling, eccentric rocker in the mode of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; it’s also a broad hint of what’s to come on McCartney II. 

The bulk of the songs feature the classic Wings Mach II lineup: Paul, Linda, Denny, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English, although guitarist McCulloch and drummer English flew the coop midway through the sessions – McCulloch to the reformed Small Faces and the American-born English back to the States, as he’d grown homesick.

On the charts, the album didn’t do as well as expected (No. 2 in the U.S., though it did go platinum, and No. 4 in the U.K.), which set the stage for the following year’s Back to the Egg. But make no mistake: Despite a few stumbles (“Children Children” and “Famous Groupies”), it’s a solid set that’s sure to please all but the most hard-hearted. 

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So, years long ago, I worked in the TV listings department of the digest-sized TV GUIDE. As with my Wingspan piece, this essay – about a classic 1978 Austin City Limits episode that was slated to repeat on December 23, 2000 – came about due to me being the backup writer for the weekly Music Guide. PBS provided us with a videocassette, which I watched on a portable TV in my cubicle. I then wrote a summary for the column, a second summary for the stand-alone Close-Up, and – the week before air – was tapped to write an in-depth piece about it for the TV GUIDE Web site.

What follows is my final draft, but not the final version. I emailed it to one of several editors, who then scoured it for errors and – depending on his or her mood – may have rewritten portions of it. 

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A horn wails softly in the background. Smoke stabs the air. “When I was a kid, my dad had a 1957 station wagon. A Chevrolet. And, man, did I love that car! I used to go to the garage at night and turn out all of the lights and rub up against it. I think that was against the law….” Queued to the rap, a man’s silhouette leans against a gas pump, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s singer-songwriter Tom Waits, circa December 1978, his weathered, raspy voice echoing the boozy rhythms of “Burma Shave,” a slow, mesmerizing ode to lowlife losers stuck in a town not far from Route 66.

Watching this classic edition of Austin City—one of the most requested episodes in the series’ history—should be mandatory for wanna-be rock poets everywhere. Spinning story-songs focused on seedy yet sympathetic characters, he paints word-pictures that draw listeners in: “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue/scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town/Took the one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks/and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.” Although they ride atop the melody, the beat-inflected lyrics take on a life of their own. You could read ‘em at home and get a feel for the music’s rhythm, for the way the music seemingly meanders beneath Waits’ guttural growls before detouring back to the main drag in time to take the audience home.

The 50-minute set is filled with one stunner after another, from the exquisite “Annie’s Back In Town” (a gem found on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Paradise Alley) to “On the Nickel.” The latter is an aching lullaby for “little boys/who never say their prayers” and was inspired, he says during the introduction, by a Ralph Waite (yes, the actor from The Waltons) film about L.A.’s skid row. With a gorgeous, piano-based melody underpinning the story, Waits spins a heart-breaking tale about life on the other side of hope: “To never know how rich you are/you haven’t got a prayer/it’s head you wins/and tails they lose/on the nickel over there.”

Another highlight is “A Sweet Little Bullet (from a Pretty Blue Gun),” a tale about young girls heading for Hollywood “with nothing in their jeans/but sweet little wishes/and pretty blue dreams.” Soon, that quest for stardom transforms into a quest for escape: “I hear the sirens in the street/all the dreams are made of chrome/I have no way to get back home/I’d rather die before I wake/like Marilyn Monroe.” With his hat tipped forward, Waits jabs the strings of his guitar, pushing the rhythm into the audience’s face and forcing it to stare down the stark realities of society’s underbelly. 

It’s a masterstroke of masterstrokes, as is “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is framed by a weary rendition of “Silent Night.” Accompanying himself at the piano, Waits takes on the personae of an unmarried, pregnant woman talking to a past love. “And, hey, Charlie, I think about you/every time I pass a filling station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair.” It’s a humorous moment of several—but the laughs don’t last, as her bravado slowly breaks down and the sad truth spills out.

Suffice it to say, Waits is an acquired tasted, someone—due to his croaked vocals—whose songs have found greater chart success via cover versions; Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Jersey Girl” are but two examples. Yet, as this classic episode of Austin City demonstrates, Waits’ gruff voice is indeed the perfect lead instrument in all of his songs, the audio equivalent of each of the sad characters he sings about.