Posts Tagged ‘Pacific Gas & Electric’

Summer Songs, Part One

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The RealPlayer hummed along the other day as I did a little housekeeping in the study, trying to do something more substantial than simply move stacks of books, paper and 45 rpm records from one flat surface to another. Not much got accomplished, especially after the RealPlayer settled on “Where Is The Love” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.

For just a few moments, it was the summer of 1972: A half-time janitor gig on campus, my sister’s wedding, my first car and a road trip to Winnipeg. While there are other records that bring back portions of that summer – “Alone Again, Naturally” has me cleaning venetian blinds and “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” has me driving north to Canada – there’s something about the Flack/Hathaway single that somehow sums up the feel of the whole summer. The record was inescapable (though I never wanted to escape it) as it went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 1 on the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts.

As the mp3 played, I found the video above and posted it at Facebook and then sat and wondered what other records have such visceral connections with specific summers of my younger days. It seemed worth some digging, both in reference books and memory.

Paging through the Sixties, no records really say “Summer!” until I get to 1968. I wasn’t listening to Top 40 at home yet, but that was the first summer I worked as a setter at the state trap shoot, spending about ten hours a day for four days straight placing clay targets on a scary machine. As did the other setters, I brought a radio, and my semi-subterranean corner of the world was filled with KDWB’s Top 40 most of the day and Minnesota Twins baseball for a couple of hours in the afternoons.

Four records trigger memories as I page through Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits and look at a late July 1968 survey from WDGY, KDWB’s main competitor: “Indian Lake” by the Cowsills, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams, “Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues and “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. The Vogues’ single has a niche of its own in my memory, but the 1968 record that to this day says “trap shoot” (and thus “Summer of ’68”) is “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors, which spent two weeks at No. 1 in early August that year.

Looking back to 1969, the memories of my RCA radio at the trap shoot have to compete with the memories of the radio in the training room at St. Cloud Tech, as the last weeks of summer were my first weeks of being both a manager for the Tigers football team and a dedicated Top 40 listener. But checking Bronson and a late July survey from KDWB, it’s the trap shoot that wins. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & The Shondells are in the running, but nothing says “Summer 1969” for good or ill – and many folks will think it ill – like “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” by Zager & Evans, a record that sat atop the Hot 100 for six weeks and on top of the AC chart for two weeks.

The summer of 1970 was my third and final trap shoot summer, but by the time the four-day event rolled around, I’d been listening to Top 40 for nearly a year. That means there are many more songs I recall from that summer with only a little help needed from Bronson’s book or a KDWB survey. Near the top of the list (in memory and quality) are Bread’s “Make It With You,” Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,”  “Ride, Captain, Ride” by Blues Image, “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & War and the 5 Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” But the top spot  in my Summer of ’70 list goes to a record that I’ve mentioned numerous times in six-plus years of blogging: “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas & Electric. The record peaked in the Hot 100 at No. 14.

That’s a good place to stop. We’ll pick up this slender thread next week and see – beyond “Where Is The Love” – which records defined summers after my high school days. In the meantime, any readers who wish can answer this question:

What are your summer records?

Garage Paintin’ Music

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I suppose it might have been in July, but I think it was a sunny morning in August 1970 when my dad presented me with a couple of paintbrushes, some turpentine, some rags and a couple of gallons of white paint. The west side of the garage needed painting.

Actually, I imagine the entire garage needed painting and he was presenting me with the west side as a test: The south side of the garage was fronted by rose bushes, the east side held a door and a window and had a begonia bed in front of it, and the north side had the overhead door. If I could handle a blank wall without mishap, I might be trustworthy enough to be let loose on one of the other three sides. I was not, one might guess, particularly adept at handyman-type chores.

Why do I think it was August? Because as well as the paint, the brushes, the turpentine and the rags, I took with me out to the garage that morning my RCA radio, the one that had been my grandfather’s, the one I’d brought up from the basement about a year earlier as I answered the siren call of Top 40 music. I opened the overhead door, ran an extension cord around to the back of the garage and provided myself with some entertainment as I painted.

And one of the records I heard that morning on the Twin Cities’ KDWB was one of my favorites at the time, a record that was sitting at No. 19 forty-two years ago this week: the “Overture From Tommy” by the Assembled Multitude. (It still is a favorite of mine; when it popped up the other week on the mp3 player in the kitchen, I found myself doing one of my unorthodox kitchen dances, using a soup ladle as a mallet for air chimes when the real chimes come in at the forty-nine second mark.)

I recall bobbing my head to the record as I painted that morning, happily refraining from using my paint-laden brush as an air chimes mallet or a conductor’s baton. I was trying to be responsible and careful as I worked. Nevertheless, by the end of the morning, when I had finished the job, there were a few spatters of white paint on the radio’s brown casing, spots that were still there when the radio was removed from the basement (where I placed it after getting an AM/FM radio) in 2004.

Along with checking where “Overture From Tommy” sat forty-two years ago this week, I took a deeper look this morning at the Billboard Hot 100 from August 15, 1970. Usually, of course, I’m looking for obscure singles, records that pretty much stayed at the bottom of the chart. But this morning, I thought I’d look for records that were favorites of mine at the time, records I was likely to have heard that morning as I painted the garage.

Heading down only a little to No. 22, we find “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas & Electric. I’ve mentioned the record numerous times during the past five-plus years, but it’s here again because it mattered to me. I’d be a high school senior in less than a month, and the following summer, after I graduated, I knew my folks would expect me to find some kind of summer job. Yes, I was doing chores during that summer of 1970, and I did spend four days working at the state trap shoot at the nearby gun club, but for the most part, that summer was mine. And “Are You Ready” is a record that over the years has come to be a defining sound of that last free summer.

At the time, being a relatively recent convert to the Church of 45s, I don’t know that I’d ever heard of “Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler’s classic No. 1 hit from 1962. Early in my senior year, I would come across a slender paperback, The Poetry of Rock, in which Richard Goldstein gathered and commented on rock and pop lyrics he thought significant. Among the lyrics in that book were those to “Duke of Earl.” But it took me years to connect the Gene Chandler mentioned as the singer of “Duke of Earl” in Goldstein’s book to the Gene Chandler whose “Groovy Situation” was sitting at No. 36 as I painted, heading to No. 11 on the pop chart (and No. 8 on the R&B chart, about which I know I was utterly unaware). I had much to learn. But I liked “Groovy Situation,” and that was a start.

Despite being clueless about the origins and background of much of the music I heard coming from that old RCA radio, I was developing – via the commentary of my friends, a little bit of reading in music magazines and the shifting sands of my own tastes – a sense not only of what I liked but of what was, for the lack of a better word at the moment, valuable. I knew the difference between Bob Dylan and Bobby Sherman, and I would spend much of my life digging into the work of the former and forgetting about the latter. Nevertheless, one of the records I was glad to hear coming out of the radio that morning was “Julie, Do Ya Love Me” by Bobby Sherman, which was sitting at No. 38 on its way to No. 5. Why? Well, it was romantic adolescent pop, and I was a romantic adolescent. In memory, it doesn’t hurt that there would actually be a Julie during my senior year, one whose charms I noticed but whose interest in me I absolutely missed.

The concept of groups covering other performers’ earlier hits was also something I had to assimilate. The previous autumn – as I’ve related here before – I quite liked “Birthday,” the No. 26 hit by Underground Sunshine, and when confronted some months later by the Beatles’ version from the White Album, I wondered  (without, thankfully, expressing the thought to my friends) why the Beatles had recorded another group’s song. With some exceptions, my knowledge of pop music as I painted the garage still started with the late summer of 1969. So if Rare Earth’s trippy cover of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” came through the speakers that sunny morning, I would have had no awareness that there had been an earlier, earthier version of the song that had gone to No. 8 (No. 1 R&B) in 1966. All I knew was that I liked the record, which was sitting at No. 47 that week, on its way to No. 7, and I certainly didn’t realize that the trippiness I liked would eventually trap Rare Earth’s “(I Know) I’m Losing You” in that specific time.

In the song “Yellow River,” Tony Christie – billed on the label as just Christie – sings about coming home from war:

So long, boy, you can take my place
Got my papers, I got my pay
So pack my bags and I’ll be on my way to Yellow River

Put my gun down, the war is won
Fill my glass high, the time has come
I’m going back to the place that I love: Yellow River

A note at Wikipedia says that Christie wrote the song from the viewpoint of a Confederate soldier returning from the U.S. Civil War, but I have a sense that a lot of folks who listened to Christie’s words in 1970 heard the story of a soldier coming home from Vietnam instead. “Yellow River” was sitting at No. 80 forty-two years ago this week and would eventually climb to No. 23, and as often as I would hear the song that late summer and autumn, I don’t think I ever listened closely enough to hear either the story that Christie intended nor the parallel tale that must have echoed in the record’s chords for thousands of Americans who were not all that much older than I was when I was painting the garage.

Of ‘Miracles’ and Miracles

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Five of the six songs in this week’s installment of the Ultimate Jukebox take me places, which is probably not a surprise, as those five fall temporally into what I imagine could be called my “sweet spot,” after the place on a baseball player’s bat that makes the ball soar. My sweet spot is the years 1970 through 1975, a time when music was just about the most important thing in my life. And if there were events and people that were more important during those years, then their passages through my life were marked by records.

The sixth record in this set, which is actually the oldest, has no real time or place associations for me, as it came out when I was five years old and I didn’t hear it until I was much older than that. It’s a great record, or it wouldn’t be here, but my connection to it is less visceral.

What intrigued me about the other five records when I first looked at the random selection for this week was that, even though they do come from a relatively brief span of time, hearing them now puts me in five different places. One of them puts me in the shelter of my bedroom, listening to my old RCA radio on an early spring day. Another puts me in one of the trap houses at the gun club that I mentioned in my most recent post, with the same RCA radio keeping me company as I earn part of my sixty dollars.

By the time the third of the five records in question was released, I’d just started my second year of college, and the tune places me in Atwood Center, which is a little odd, as I didn’t start spending a lot of time there until a bit later than that. And then the fourth record drops me down in one of the strangest places any record puts me: It’s a sticky summer evening, and I’m with Rick and our occasional pal Gary, standing in line at the Dairy Queen. (There are in fact, two records that put me in that moment, and I can only assume that we heard them from a radio or from speakers in the ceiling as we waited in line; the other Dairy Queen record did not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox.)

In a little bit, I’ll untangle any mysteries about which of those four records puts me where. But before I do, I’ll look at the fifth of those records, which is probably the most powerful in its association with its time. The very first, almost tentative strains of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” whirl me back to the autumn of 1975, a season I’ve written about many times before. The place is the tree-lined wide sidewalk between Centennial Hall and Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State. I’m heading from Centennial, where I work at the periodicals counter, to Stewart, where the mass communications department has its offices and where most of my classes take place. To my immediate left is Atwood Center, where my friends and I gather at The Table.

It must be October, as the leaves on the trees are yellow. (That makes sense, as the single – an edit of the album track – entered the Top 40 in late September and hung around for thirteen weeks, peaking at No. 3.) And I’m thinking as I walk – and as I did numerous times during that autumn – that miracles do happen. I was alive, I had good friends and I liked my classes. I hadn’t yet found the romantic miracle that Marty Balin was singing about, but in time, I hoped, that would come. For the moment, I was thriving, and that was miracle enough.

There are plenty of passionate listeners and critics who over the years have derided Grace Slick, Marty Balin and company for selling out at one time or another in pursuit of hit records. Did that happen with Red Octopus in 1975? Or later, with Earth or Nuclear Furniture? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I liked the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers, and I didn’t care much for some of the rest of the Airplane’s catalog. I liked Red Octopus and didn’t care much for a lot of the stuff that followed (though for sentimental reasons, “Sara” from 1986 can tug at me).

So what does all that have to do with the price of cookies in Tonga? I’m not entirely sure, but I think what I’m nibbling at is the weight of expectations and demand that a storied past can put on performers.  No, Red Octopus did not sound like Surrealistic Pillow, but then, 1975 did not sound like, or feel like, 1967. I do think that as Starship, the performers we’re talking about here lost their ways and ended up producing boring records. But the problem to me was that the records were boring, not that the records didn’t sound like 1967 or 1969 or whatever year one might have in mind. And I think that over the years, lots of people have carped at Red Octopus because it didn’t sound like classic Airplane.

Well, how could it? The times had changed, and so had the group. And I think Red Octopus holds up pretty well as an album: There are a couple of clinkers, yes, but there is also a cluster of good tracks and, of course, one genuine miracle.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 24
“Rave On” by Buddy Holly, Coral 61985 [1958]
“Reflections of My Life” by Marmalade, London 20058 [1970]
“Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, Columbia 45154 [1970]
“You’re Still A Young Man” by Tower of Power from Bump City [1972]
“Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts from Diamond Girl [1973]
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus [1975]

A friend of mine and I once talked about putting together a book and website about the history of rock music using the metaphor of a forest. The story of rock, we thought, would stem from the performers we were calling the Five Big Trees. It was a horribly simplistic idea, and I think I knew that at the time, which may be why the project never went anywhere. To begin, any reasonable forest of rock ’n’ roll would of course have more than five big trees. But one of the things we got right was naming Buddy Holly as one of those big trees. First, the music he released in his tragically short career remains interesting and vital today. It should also be noted that he pretty much invented the idea of a group that not only wrote its own songs but also had a great deal of influence over the production of its records in the studio. “Rave On” was one of Holly’s lesser hits – it went to No. 37 in the summer of 1958 – but to me, it holds all of the virtues of Holly’s music: a good beat, cogent lyrics, a strong melody and that idiosyncratic hiccup:

Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” is the song that puts me in my room with my radio. I remember sitting up on my bed reading when these simple and melancholy chords came out of the speaker, followed by drums, a liquid bass line and some of the saddest lyrics I’d ever heard. A Scottish group, Marmalade released albums through the 1970s and on into the ’80s, but until a couple of years ago, I don’t know that I’d ever heard anything by the band but its one hit. “Reflections of My Life” went to No. 10 in the spring of 1970 and, beyond the trigger of memory, still sounds interesting today. (I find it odd that All-Music Guide begins its entry with the statement: “Marmalade is . . . best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.” That’s not the universe I live in; is it that way for anyone else?)

I’ve written about Pacific Gas & Electric’s single “Are You Ready” a couple of times: I noted that hearing it in my bunker was one of the indelible memories of working at the trap shoot in 1970, and I detailed the difficulty of finding the short version of the song, which was evidently issued only as a disk jockey release. (Thanks again, Yah Shure!) The long version was interesting the first couple of times I heard it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.  The short version, the one I heard coming out of my radio, still kicks:

The horn section for Tower of Power is renowned not only for its work on the group’s albums but also for its session and guest work. And it’s always amazing when listening to Tower of Power’s work to hear how well that horn section is integrated into an R&B/funk context. (My first hearing of that integration sometime in the early 1970s wouldn’t have been such a surprise, of course, if I’d ever really listened to James Brown.) I’m not sure that “You’re Still A Young Man” contains the best work that the TOP horns ever did, but the song’s opening cascade of horns is to me one of the classic moments in the group’s history. The record earned TOP the first of its three hits, going to No. 29 in the late summer of 1972. And all I can figure is that I heard the record at least once on the jukebox at Atwood Center, because when those horns start their intro, there I am.

James Seals and Dash Crofts first hit the charts in 1972, after fourteen years of playing together either in bands or as a duo. And for a time, the duo was so successful that it’s hard to say whether their sound fit the times or whether it in some ways defined the times. I know that for several years back then, every nightspot I went to that offered live music regularly booked singer-songwriter duos with guitars and tight harmonies. And Seals & Crofts’ early hits were – and still are – great records: melodic, with great hooks and good lyrics (though those lyrics could get over-wrought; the best example might be “Hummingbird”). Two of their singles will show up in this project; today’s selection, “Diamond Girl,” is the record that puts me in line at the Dairy Queen during the summer of 1973, waiting for a frozen treat and preparing to leave home. Whatever the reason for the song staying with me, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The single – an edit of the album track – went to No. 6 that summer.