Archive for the ‘Sister Sledge’ Category

It’s been a few months since I blasted into the past, and the long break makes it all the more mind-blowing to think that I wasn’t just alive 40 years ago this day, but was fully cognizant of the world around me – well, as fully cognizant as a 13-going-on-14-year-old can be. 

To better set the mood for this particular post: It was a Saturday, and the weather in my Delaware Valley neighborhood was, in a word, wondrous: The temperature peaked at 84 Fahrenheit degrees in the afternoon, and the blue sky was mostly free of clouds.

The biggest news of the day, as indicated by the above screenshot from the Philadelphia Inquirer, was the decision of Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, to back a 3-cent-per-gallon gas tax to fund PennDOT (aka the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation). Then, as now, potholes needed to be filled! Another, even more steep increase in fuel costs was hidden further down the front page, however: Coffee prices were expected to rise by 40 cents due to a recent frost in Brazil.

Desmond Ryan, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s movie critic, reviews the new film “Walk Proud” on Page 5A; it’s a movie I’ve never heard of but, apparently, earned some notoriety for casting white-bread Robby Benson as a Chicano gang leader. That’s not why I’m highlighting the movie section, however. This tidbit, from Ryan’s “On Movies” column, is:

Allan Carr’s “Discoland,” for those willfully ignorant of yesteryear kitsch culture, found its way into the movie theaters the following June as “Can’t Stop the Music,” and the new title proved oxymoronic given that the disco beats on the soundtrack had plummeted from popularity by then. Not that this week’s charts hint at the downfall.

Closer to home: I’ve revisited this stretch of months before, so won’t delve too deep into the intricacies of my life. (If you’re interested in an in-depth flashback, click here.) My days in eighth grade had just wrapped, and – aside from an upcoming visit to an uncle’s farm – was looking forward to sleeping late, hanging with friends, enjoying matinee movies, and listening to lots of music – either selections from my growing LP/45 collection, Michael St. John’s weekend oldie show on WPEN-AM, or my favorite station, WIFI-92, which was a Top 40-oriented station that played pretty much anything that was a hit. Disco, rock, pop, country, R&B – so long as it was hot, it made the playlist. 

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: June 16th, 1979 (via Weekly Top 40): 

1) Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff.” Holding tight to the No. 1 slot for the second week in the row is this taut pop-rock track, which was the lead single from Donna’s Bad Girls album. Former Steely Dan and Doobie Brother guitarist – and future Defense Department consultant – Jeff “Skunk” Baxter handles the incendiary guitar break.

2) Sister Sledge – “We Are Family.” Nipping at the heels of “Hot Stuff” is the soon-to-be Pittsburgh Pirates anthem, which was and remains a catchy tune that only a Music Grinch could dislike. Here’s some trivia: It’s the first song written and produced by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards for a non-Chic act.

3) Anita Ward – “Ring My Bell.” Written by former Stax artist Frederick Knight (“I’ve Been Lonely for So Long”) for 11-year-old Stacy Lattisaw to sing, this tune wound up being reworked for Memphis-born Anita Ward, a former schoolteacher who held a degree in psychology. She initially rejected it, but Knight – whose label she was recording for – insisted; and, thus, a future No. 1 hit was born.

4) Randy VanWarmer – “Just When I Needed You Most.” The No. 4 song of the week is this sensitive, soft-rock classic, which was inspired not by a girl, but – a la Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” – a beloved car. In the years since, it’s been covered by a wide range of artists, including Tim McGraw, Skeeter Davis and Bob Dylan. 

5) Donna Summer – “Bad Girls.” Jumping into the Top 5 is this propulsive number, the second single from Summer’s double-LP of the same name.

And two bonuses…

6) Supertramp – “The Logical Song.” Odd, I just discussed this song with a coworker last week and here it is, at the pinnacle of its popularity. For whatever reason, it just takes me back to many a late-spring/early summer/late-summer day, when friends and I played in the middle of the never-busy street in front of someone’s house. On a less personal front, no less than Paul McCartney cited it as his favorite song of 1979…

7) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Yeah, I’ve featured this exact clip in another 1979 Top 5. Maybe two. It’s such a blast of effervescent fun, however, how could I not feature it again? (For the record, it clocks in at No. 7 this week.)

Once upon a long ago, aka the late ‘70s, children searched for treasure. We pedaled banana-seat bikes to discount department stores – a K-Mart or Montgomery Ward, say – in hopes of striking gold in the record bins. Everything was cheaper there, but the titles were sparse, so in time we rode instead to a nearby music shop whose proprietor let us browse for what seemed like hours on end. And when we settled on a simple single, he thanked us for our purchase and wished us a good day. Later, we set out up a long and steep hill for a rinky-dink mall that housed a Sam Goody’s. The worker-clerks were more gruff and dismissive, and never thanked us for our cash, but it stocked a wider selection. 

In short, we sought the sounds we heard on the radio. Some stations were formatted Top 40, others rock, disco and R&B/soul. It never mattered. We turned the radio dial and were enthralled by almost everything we heard. We were lost in music. Caught in a trap…

“We” is me, of course, just as I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Everything I heard, even the old, was new or new-to-me. But children grow into teens, 10-speeds replace banana seats, and the appetite for more (on the cheap, as we had limited budgets) led us to used-record stores.

But my record buying notwithstanding, in the late ‘70s and early ’80s the music industry suffered a major slump. Hand in hand with the downward spiral, radio retrenched. Few new artists were featured, and those who were – Dire Straits, for example – often sounded like the old. For the most part, punk and new wave could only be read about, not heard via the airwaves, on this shore. And though I liked much of the old, as this blog attests, I also wanted to hear a lot of the new.

That’s when the days of buying albums from reviews alone began.

About the same time, in the late ‘70s, I stumbled upon ITV’s The Kenny Everett Video Show. A British program, it aired throughout the U.S. thanks to the magic of syndication – in the Philly area, it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon. In addition to his outlandish (and not always funny) comedy, Everett – a British deejay by trade – featured a who’s who of established and rising British musicians. Paul McCartney & Wings were in the same episode as the Boomtown Rats, for example.

Yeah, listening to that song now, it sounds more Springsteen-esque than new wave, but that’s not the point. It was new. Everett’s show ran the gamut of cool to kitsch, mind you, but at least most of what he featured was different. Kate Bush, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Rachel Sweet and the Pretenders were among the showcased acts

That clip of the Pretenders, by the way, hails from March 15, 1979 – nine months prior to their self-titled debut album being released in the U.K. and 10 months before it was issued in the U.S.

The Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert were among the other outlets for music on TV, though – like rock radio – they focused primarily on the tried and true, not the new and untested. Solid Gold was for the hits. America’s Top 10, too. Slump or not, the music industry had become a Big Business, and Big Business is often short-sighted when it comes to seeding future growth. 

Unless they’re an upstart. Like MTV. 

The channel began life on August 1, 1981, but at first was only available in a handful of markets (aka the swamps of Jersey). Many viewers, including myself, didn’t actually experience it until the following spring or summer, thanks in part to a smart public relations campaign.

My aunt visited us that summer of ‘82, and I remember her commenting about how the TV – thanks to 16-year-old me – was usually tuned to MTV.

Now, MTV received its share of criticism at the time  – and some of it was deserved. The biggest issue: The lack of artists of color, which its programmers claimed was due to its AOR-like format. (AOR, of course, is album-oriented rock; and about the only artist of color featured in that format at the time was Jimi Hendrix.) 

The reality, however, was that MTV’s approach to AOR wasn’t in keeping with AOR radio. Far from it. Duran Duran, for example, broke big in the U.S. because MTV played – and played, and played, and played – the videos for “Hungry Like a Wolf” and “Rio” in late ’82. Here’s the former:

I never heard that song on Philly’s twin pillars of rock radio, WMMR and WYSP. Only MTV. As the years progressed, however, they cast their net wider and began to reflect music fans like me, who enjoyed pretty much everything.

At the same time, MTV also deserves some credit. It played quite a few artists who didn’t get much (if any) play elsewhere. Here’s one example: Romeo Void, whose “Never Say Never” was a staple of its early days.

Joan Jett, the Go-Go’s, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Van Halen, and the Bangles are just a handful of the artists and acts whose success (or mega-success, in some cases) can be traced to their videos being placed in heavy rotation. John Cougar’s another.

Spicing the non-AOR AOR format: the “veejays” who introduced the clips.

The original five consisted of the always cool J.J. Jackson, formerly of WCBN in Boston and KLOS in L.A.; hip Mark Goodman, formerly of WMMR in Philadelphia and WPLJ in New York; struggling actor Alan Hunter, who appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video; actor-model Nina Blackwood; and my favorite of the bunch, Martha Quinn, who once appeared in a McDonald’s commercial and later was cast as Bobby Brady’s wife in the short-lived The Bradys comedy-drama. (Fun fact: Like me, Martha spun folk records on college radio.)

All of which leads to this: In March or April 1983, I sent a letter to Martha. Maybe it was to share a piece of trivia. Or maybe it was to ask that one of my many favorites get more play. In turn, she wrote back…

Do kids still write fan letters? Do they get autographed keepsakes – for free – in return? So much has changed since 1983 – some for the better, some for the worse. The digitalization of memories, for instance, has its pluses, as everything is in the cloud just waiting to be browsed. But here’s a downside: Young folks today will never know the pleasure of coming across a long-forgotten autographed picture inside a manila envelope…