‘What Good’s A Metronome . . .?’

I’ve been thinking about my high school pal Mike recently. He’s living in Arizona now – he moved there from Northern Minnesota a few years ago – and he’s been dealing with extremely high temperatures, drought and the impact of flash flooding in his area (though thankfully the floods seem not to have come too close to Casa Mike.) And he’s said that he’ll be unable to get back to Minnesota for the fifty-year reunion of the St. Cloud Tech and Apollo high school classes of 1971 this autumn. So he, and this piece from 2008 came to mind this week. I’ve altered it just a bit.

One of my companions as I began my exploration of the world of Top 40 during the 1969-70 school year was a fellow named Mike, someone who’s shown up in this space rarely. (He’s not to be confused with Janitor Mike, with whom I scrubbed floors at St. Cloud State during the summer of 1971.) Mike lived on the north side of St. Cloud – within a few blocks of where the Texas Gal and I now live – and had gone to a different junior high school; we met when we were sophomores at St. Cloud Tech, and for two years were pretty good friends, sharing our love of music and working together as managers for the football team as juniors.

One Saturday in 1970, Mike made his way from the north side over to our place with a bunch of singles he’d found in one of his recent excursions to Musicland. I’m not sure there was anything new there, nothing I hadn’t heard on the radio, but of course, the sound quality of the stereo was better, and yakking while listening to music was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning. And then Mike put on a novelty record.

It was funny and raucous, and we laughed as only high school juniors can as it spun on the stereo. I’d heard it before, on the radio, but it never failed to amuse me. So I grabbed my cassette recorder and a new tape. My taping method back in 1970 was crude. There was no output plug on the stereo, so I’d lay my recorder on the carpet on the middle of the basement floor, aim the microphone as well as I could toward the stereo and tape the sound coming from the speakers. Our first attempt was interrupted by the sound of my father whistling as he came downstairs to get something from the storage room. The second ended when I sneezed. On our third take, we were barely seconds from the end when someone outside pounded twice on the basement window. That was Rick, coming from across the street, giving me his usual signal that he was heading to the back door. With Rick joining us, we got the song recorded on the fourth take. (By that time, my mother, upstairs in the kitchen, was heartily tired of the song.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten tired of the record, though I no longer listen to it more than once at a time. It turns out, though, that I’d heard the main performer’s voice many times. His name was Tony Burrows, and during the early 1970s, he was one of the more active and successful studio singers in Britain. He might, in fact, qualify for the title of King of the One-Hit Wonders, having sung lead on Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” White Plains’ “My Baby Loves Lovin’,” “Beach Baby” by First Class, the Brotherhood of Man’s “United We Stand” and the record I’m pondering today (on which Burrows partnered with Roger Greenaway). I’d heard and liked the Edison Lighthouse, White Plains and Brotherhood of Man singles (“Beach Baby” was still four years in the future), but I had no clue that Saturday morning that the same voice had sung on all of them. Nor did I imagine that the single Mike and I were laughing at that morning featured the same person as well.

The record in question made it into the Top Ten that summer, peaking at No. 9 on the July 18, 1970, Billboard Hot 100. And it’s not entirely forgotten; it gets a bit of airplay on the oldies stations, though not nearly as much play as Tony Burrows’ other singles have gotten over the years.

Mike and I didn’t see each other much after that summer. The St. Cloud school district opened Apollo High School in the autumn of 1970: Mike went there while I stayed at Tech. And I was not welcome at his home; during the summer of 1970, I brought a Beatles album over one evening and learned that Mike’s mom had never gotten past John Lennon’s 1966 comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. After high school, I headed to college while Mike went into the Army and then went to St. Cloud State for a brief time in the middle of my years there. We’ve seen each other a couple of times in the last ten years – once, sadly, at a memorial service for a college friend and then one Saturday when he stopped by the house for a couple of hours – and we keep up on Facebook.

I long ago lost the tape we made that Saturday morning. But when I got my computer in early 2000 and began creating a collection of mp3s, I imagine that the novelty record Mike brought over that long-ago morning was one of the first couple hundred songs I secured. And I imagine that as I heard the record in 2000 for the first time in years, I laughed again, though probably not as hard as a high school junior might have.

Here’s “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins.

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