Transistor Heaven: The Next Generation

I guess that September of 1972 was a big time for me. It was my first month of high school and first time at a non-parochial school if you don’t count kindergarten. I had been liberated from the yoke of the educational nunnery and free to live out the remainder of my days as a secular humanist. In truth, they hadn’t been all that bad the last couple of years, what with their folk masses and the stamp of approval they gave to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Yes, there was a recent infiltration of “messiah rock” into the charts—–think “Spirit in the Sky” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (even “King Herod’s Song” from JCS was a minor hit at least in my area). But in the larger musical world (in those days for me that meant WMEX 1510, Boston’s “NEW Music Authority”) reflected the wider temporal world of big ideas, big ideals and multi-culturalism, not dogma. The variety of styles in the Top 30 songs of their countdown for the week of September ’72 was impressive: along with about ten classic R&B numbers there was power pop, adult contemporary, prog rock, folk rock, an Elvis song and even a novelty instrumental with “Popcorn.” As music reflects the era, the times felt expansive instead of the strangely insular vibe that comes with our more “interconnected” 21st century.

This is an idea that I’ve tried to relate to my now 17 year-old son. While he is more open-minded than a lot of others, he still has the instinctive need to make fun of dad’s “stoner rock” even though he has wistfully acknowledged its superiority in an unguarded moment. I was good about it, not claiming victory and running out to buy a “I May Be Old But At Least I Saw All The Cool Bands” t-shirt. When I was driving the Ry-man every day this summer to his seasonal job at a day camp, we had the old radio tug-of-war game going. It was a Snapchat pop station (as I would call it) vs. the Classic Hits morning drive team. I had sorta raised him on the latter so we were all good to go on that (though I had a problem finding any redeeming value in the former) and we reached radio symbiosis one morning in July when the slinky introduction to the O’Jays song that was #1 in Boston 45 years ago this week. I was all ready with the opening cry of “What they do?” Ryan was soon joining in with “Backstabbers” in that full-throated way of his–he’s on his high-school A-Capella team. It became such a favorite that I was compelled to dig up my best-of O’jays CD.

The O’Jays smooth but muscular arrangement and the pointed vocal about your so-called friends trying hit on your old lady (even showing up when you’re not home!) is but one example of the imagination, creative verve and sheer variety of the records that made up that week’s survey on WMEX. At #5, the Main Ingredient (featuring lead singer Cuba Gooding, Sr.) delivers one of the all-time great “advice songs,” that informal genre that started to fade as the Me Decade took hold earnest. The Beatles were experts at this with such songs as “She Loves You,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and “Hey Jude.” Many R&B artists were just as adept at this form of lyrical magnanimity.


The Main Ingredient, introduced by the late Don Cornelius on “Soul Train. The fact that they’re lip-syncing to the record can’t hide the smooth charisma of Cuba Gooding Sr.

“OK, so your heart’s broken,” concedes Gooding on the tune’s memorable spoken intro. After calming down his extremely distressed friend (“You say you even talking about dying?”), he convincingly assures his pal, and the rest of us, that even though “Everybody Plays the Fool” sometimes before you know it the shoe will be on the other foot. A similar heart-to-heart dialogue opens “Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, the Stax Records cousin act who had hit the U.S. Top Ten three years earlier with the euphemistic “Backfield in Motion.” Well-articulated hopes of romantic reconciliation also informed the 5th Dimension’s “If I Could Reach You” and Rod Stewart’s “You Wear it Well.” Other lyrical gambits ranged from lava-lamp philosophizing (“Nights in White Satin”), to space-program satirizing (Nilsson’s “Spaceman”), to early midlife reconciling (the lost classic “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Dan O’Keefe).

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, the diversity of just this small sample exposes the cultural banalities of today’s “woke” generation. But us baby boomers (esp. those of us that are radio programmers) could also learn a little bit about variety these days. Ryan’s musical horizons would probably widen considerably if Dad’s station weren’t basically rotating the same few dozen songs all the time. I note my own pencil notches next to long-overplayed hits like the Raspberries “Go All the Way” and the Doobies’ “Listen to the Music.” Even back then a prescient Rolling Stone reviewer said that the latter song changed from a “volume-raiser” to a “station-switcher” in record time. A quick scan of the Top 30 suggests infusing fresh blood into the classic-hits format would not be difficult. A few I would nominate off the top of my head: Presley’s lusty “Burning Love” which still sounds as vital as it did when recorded during the King’s comeback era. How about “Freddie’s Dead” from Curtis Mayfield’s superb Superfly soundtrack (which was #1 on the album survey)? Maybe even “Loving You Just Crossed My Mind” by the nearly-forgotten singer-songwriter Sam Neely, though I’m sure that’s asking too much. Even the inclusion of “Witchy Woman” by the too-big-to-fail Eagles would ease the stress of hearing “Take it Easy” for the eight millionth time.
WHAT SONGS FROM THE SURVEY WOULD YOU LIKE COMMERCIAL RADIO TO PLAY MORE OFTEN?

There are many to choose from and even more if you scan the list of a dozen hitbound songs (“1st on 1510″) where, among the more familiar material, there are couple of nice outliers: the infectious “Stop” by the Newark singing group The Lorelei (a favorite record of the Northern Soul gang in England) and “No” by the Rascals spinoff group Bulldog. However, the inclusion here of the frivolous Dutch duo Mouth and MacNeal reminded me of the notion that there’s always a little bit of hell in Transistor Heaven. So I must mention the perversely naïve “Playground in My Mind” where Clint Holmes imagines marrying off a bunch of little kids as he watches them on the swing set. If released today, this song would be borderline prosecutable. And don’t even get me started on the Wayne Newton song that snuck in at #29. “Can’t You Hear the Music”?? Sure, I can hear it—that’s the whole problem!

But I’d like to finish with the now-obscure “American City Suite” which back 45 years ago was holding down the middle spot in the Top 30. Even then it was a bit of an anomaly, an 8-minute three-part bittersweet ode to the New York City. Songwriter Terry Cashman, half of this folk duo called Cashman & West, is better known for his later solo hit “Talkin’ Baseball.” So if this song were Willie Mays, it would start with his spectacular back-to-the-plate catch in the deepest recesses of the Polo Grounds outfield in the 1954 World Series and end across town in 1973 with him falling down after striking out for the Mets in 1973, his last season. This song may get a bit melodramatic as it traces a tendentious timeline from doo-wop and friendly neighbors on front stoops to the depressed Panic in Needle Park days of the early 70s. But with today’s current events, it’s hard not to be a little moved at the end of an epic song with “American” in its title while hearing, “They tell me that a friend is dying/And there is nothing in the world I can do.”

So I’ll try to guide my son in part by turning him onto what he may benefit from in terms of the musical olden times, while recognizing that it’s got to be his world going forward. But I still say he got his old soul from Dad. When our local Radio Shack was about to close its doors for the last time, it was he who encouraged me to get a spare transistor radio before it was too late. I owned one concurrently since the days I brought one along on my afternoon paper route (see Transistor Heaven, Part One). Today, my old transistor sits on the kitchen window sill, ready for Red Sox games or the classical station as none of the oldies stations can ever match the variety and pleasure of my own collection. But in case that little palm-sized device ever goes kaput, I’ve got a spare one ready to take me into my golden years, thanks to the chip off the old block.

7 comments

  1. Gosh Rick – That is a surprise seeing Back Stabbers right up there at the top spot 45 years ago and certainly a bit of synchronicity that I chose to write about that song so recently. I too love reviewing old chart listings and revel in the fact that there was such diversity at that time – I too feel as if I’m a bit of a fuddy duddy when it comes to current chart stuff but seriously, how people do you have to “feature” nowadays to make a record?

    Glad your son has taken on board some of your choices and I know this has been mentioned before but my daughter is the same at 21. I really enjoy that because of our record collection, she is familiar with such a broad range of acts from decades before she was thought of. (And, how do they remember all the lyrics to these songs? – Young brains I imagine.) Great post and I have something similar in the pipeline so hope you’ll catch it.

    1. Thanks, Alyson! It seems like a banner week for the good ol’ O’Jays in the blogosphere. I have seen your new post and will check it out later. My son’s adventures in musical diversity is ongoing. His latest find is “Rock the Casbah” which is cool because the Clash are my 2nd favorite group ever after the Kinks. Sometimes he sings this Weird Al-style, that is “Lock the Cash Bar”!!

    1. Yeah, “Signs” was another fave of mine back then, I still have the 45 (from 1971). I like how he ends up in church by the third verse! The “Jesus thing” was very prevalent then but not in a dogmatic way, which is good.

  2. Popcorn! Somehow that played on the radio every time I was in art class in 7th grade. We met twice a week. Also that, Frankenstein and Lucky Man planted the seeds of “go spend all of your money one day on really expensive analog synthesizersssssss….”

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