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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

The Unified Field Theory of Music

I don’t get the enjoyment out of music I used to. Perhaps when you are an adult, you put away childish things.

Forget that, that’s not it.

I used to make money at music. Like the cobbler’s children that go shoeless, I don’t have much interest in music when I’m not making it. Do pediatricians get home in the evening, open the door, kiss their wife and look at their children and think, “God, not another one of those!” Do veterinarians beat their dogs? I don’t know.

I listen to sports talk radio. People who remember me as a musician are agog to learn that. It’s not that I’m that interested in sports, exactly; my interest in it is more along the lines of a man visiting the zoo, while being very careful never to put his fingers in the cages. It’s just profoundly amusing to hear a guy driving a cab call up and explain how he wouldn’t run a 750-million-dollar franchise like that. He reminds the owners of the teams he follows — who aren’t listening — and his fellow sports enthusiasts — who are listening but aren’t paying attention, because the opposite of talking for them is waiting — and the hosts, who are eating cold pizza and reading the racing form with one eye on the clock and their thumb on the cough button, that if that owner doesn’t know enough to trade all his bad players to the other team for all their good players, he’s a dope.

You can listen to that, any time, all the time, if you want to. I remember when sports talk was on for 30 minutes on Sunday nights only. There was a time that the radio was a unifying force in America, as was the television. When I was lad, the television wasn’t really a novelty (mechanical dishwashers were, though) and the radio was ubiquitous.
There was a sense of shared experience about what was on television, mostly because there wasn’t much on it. What was on, was on at very regular and predictable intervals, and everybody saw the same things, more or less, if they saw anything. When Walter Kronkite said things, everybody heard them, and they discussed them the next day. When the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show in the winter of 1964, if you had a pulse and a teenager in your house, believe me, you saw them.

The radio was AM then, and kinda iffy. The signal would drift, and crackle, and get mingled with some rogue frequency for a moment with people barking in Portuguese or French, and then return to its fabulous tinny treble warble.

There really weren’t very many stations, and what there were were very uniform from one to another, and they were marvelous. They were marvelous because they were everything. The shared experience of radio popularity meant you’d hear country, blues, rock, Motown, pop, broadway, big band, jazz, doo-wop, and just plain whatever — whatever the A and R man had in his briefcase along with the bag of money for the disc jockey. You’d hear it all in a great big wonderful mess.

The shared experience is gone from this now, like so many other things, because our circumstances are a lot better than they used to be. We’re all insanely lucky and wealthy and overrun with fistfuls of choices of every entertainment delicacy imaginable. There are some cable channels where the previously unimaginable is performed too, and they don’t always scramble them any more. People only object if the animals get hurt.

Beware people that are nostalgic for times when we were all in the same boat — solidarity brother! — because everything was dreadful, and life was hard. It can be very convivial to wait in line for your coupons to get rationed food, but there’s no law that says you can’t be friends when times get better, too. I don’t want to turn back the clock and listen to AM radio so we can all sing the lyrics to The Candy Man in unison because we were all forced to listen to it 14 times a day for four weeks whether we liked it or not. Pick your own poison.

But beware never venturing too far from your little sphere. You can construct a cocoon for yourself with minutely atomized choices in your entertainment, to the point where you’ve never heard anything other than Def Leppard covers of Styx songs, or something else as crabbily calibrated to keep you from hearing anything different. How would I know how much I’d enjoy hearing Roger Miller sing King of The Road again after all these years, if I didn’t hear it sandwiched between The Dave Clark Five and Ray Charles when we listened to the car radio on the way home from the supermarket in 1965?

You can make your own shared experience now, and it’s better. You can share it, easily, with people anywhere on the planet, instantly. I have many acquaintances, some I call my friends, who I’ve never met and never will. Technology killed the AM radio and Walter Kronkite newscasts, but it had a thousand children to take their place. It’s all good.

Get out you iPod. I’m going to take you to 1966, with a list of Billboard Top Forty Hits. Get your hands on every one of these, don’t skimp or say, “Hey, that’s not Def Leppard.” Listen to all of them, and you’ll know what it was like to be an eight year old boy, drowsing with your cheek on the cool vinyl in the back seat of the car, as your father fiddles with the big chrome knobs on the Rambler Wagon radio like a submarine radio operator, trying to keep the signal.

Some of it’s awful good. Some of it’s godawful. It was all awfully good fun:

SSgt Barry Sadler- Ballad Of The Green Berets
Diana Ross And The Supremes- You Can’t Hurry Love
Frank Sinatra- Strangers In The Night
The Young Rascals- Good Lovin’
The Four Tops- I’ll Be There
The Monkees- Last Train To Clarksville
The Association- Cherish
The Beatles- We Can Work It Out
The Byrds- Turn! Turn! Turn!
The Mamas And The Papas- Monday, Monday
Statler Brothers- Flowers On The Wall
The Righteous Brothers- Soul And Inspiration
Simon And Garfunkel- Sounds Of Silence
The Mamas And The Papas- California Dreamin’
The Lovin Spoonful- Summer In The City
Herb Alpert- Taste Of Honey
Roger Williams- Born Free (Okay, maybe you can skip this one)
Lou Christie- Lightin’ Strikes Again
The Rolling Stones- Paint It Black
The Happenings- See You In September
The Cyrkle- Rubber Ball
Question Mark and the Mysterians- 96 Tears
Tommy James- Hanky Panky
Diana Ross And The Supremes- You Keep Me Hangin On
The Rolling Stones- 19Th Nervous Breakdown
Nancy Sinatra- These Boots Are Made For Walking
New Vaudeville Band- Winchester Cathedral
The Troggs- Wild Thing
The Mindbenders- A Groovy Kind Of A Love
Sam The Sham and the Pharoahs- Li’l Red Riding Hood
The Left Banke- Walk Away Renee
The Beach Boys- Sloop John B
The Beatles- Nowhere Man
The Kinks- Well Respected Man
Bobby Hebb- Sunny
Percy Sledge- When A Man Loves A Woman
The Four Seasons- Let’s Hang On
The Beach Boys- Good Vibrations
Donovan- Sunshine Superman
The Beatles- Paperback Writer
Diana Ross And The Supremes- I Hear A Symphony

29 Responses

  1. Hi Sippican! Thanks for your kind words over on Althouse – they were sweet!

    I love the Momas and the Papas. They are one of the bands that sends Mr. Geoduck in to the depths of dispair when it comes up on my i-Tunes list. (Although I think he is the most dismayed at Joan Baez’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

    Oh – I just asked him which song most appalls him in my music list. It is “Gypsys Tramps and Thieves” by Cher. I asked him why, and he told me, “Because it’s a horrible song!”

    Hmmmm…Methinks he doesn’t have any room to talk when he made me listen to the DayGlo Abortions last night! (“Proud to Be A Canadian” was the song he insisted that he introduce to me.)

    I’ve enjoyed talking about music with you – This whole discussion has been fun. Last night Mr. Geo and I were laughing quite hysterically reading the DayGlo lyrics to each other.

    And I’ll be sure to torture him a bit tonight by playing the Mamas and the Papas.

    Have a good night! Say hello to Mrs. Sippican and your little three year old.

  2. Don’t know what year these are, but they are absolute Torch Songs, for whatever the year:

    Julie London—Wives and Lovers
    Julie London—Nightlife
    Keely Smith—What is this thing, called Love?
    Pink Floyd—Great Gig In The Sky
    Isley Brothers—Voyage To Atlantis
    Isley Brothers—Summer Dreams
    Kool And The Gang—Summer Madness
    Marvin Gaye—Shadow Of Your Smile
    Marvin Gaye—After The Dance
    Marvin Gaye—Ain’t That Peculiar
    Buddy Greco—After the Lights Go Down Low
    Jerry Vale—Moonglow
    Matt Monro—Laura
    Vic Damone—Little Girl

  3. Ok, are you as knowledgeable (sp?) about music, as your are about architectural details? Good! Because I need your help.

    1. Is it possible to take old albums from the 40s, 50s….in mono….remaster them, and put them into stereo?

    2. Why is that some material that says “remastered” still has that fuzzy 1940s sound? Is it because they leave a little static in for effect/mood?

    3. Are there any artists, today, who still record in mono? I know Madeline Pyroux’s material sounds very static-y, very Billie Holliday-ish…..but I don’t know if it’s mono, or if they just add in static to give it that 1940s Billie Holliday feel.

    I think of mono, as a sort of black and white. And, once “high-fidelity” (color) came into fashion….it was all the rage.

    Some of the singers of yesteryear, Doris Day in particular don’t sound right in anything but stereo.

    Peace, Maxine

  4. When you were stuck in the pits, the absolute pits, and your (single) local radio station was terminally unhip, you could wait until late and the local station went off the air. When the ionosphere reformed, you could pick up KOMA in Oklahoma City. 50000 watts that could reach you in Flea Breath, Idaho; or Tent Flap, Iowa; or down near Teec Nos Pos AZ on 1000-mile drives in the pink, ’56 Buick. It was a lifeline to teen tribalism.

  5. Amazingly enough, I was an eight-year old boy in 1966, although we had a Buick Wildcat, (blue, black top) to torpedo around in, not a Rambler. But why should cue up this 40-year old song list again when I’ve heard it all so many times, the opening notes played in my head when I read each name on your list? For to appreciate them, they have to go away, for at least awhile, maybe for good!

    No matter how good a steak tasted 40 years ago, you can’t have the same dinner over and over again. The hamburger you eat right now means more, because you need it now!

    It’s impossible for me to know how to evaluate the items of the past, if they get too wrapped up in my past. And I don’t want to constrict the possiblity of loving something that comes along tomorrow because I have to listen to “Red Rubber Ball” for the umptygajillonth time.

    All things considered…nice list.

  6. Hi geo- I saw Levon Helm sing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down once, live. He was the drummer in The Band of course. But that night, he had two other drummers with him too; Ringo Starr and Max Weinberg. Levon sings that song the best.

    Bad Songs are fun. Your song reminds me of: The Day the World Turned Dayglo, by exene cervenka and X-Ray Spex(mrs aragorn)

    Maxine- They remaster old records all the time now, but there’s no way to make mono into stereo really. They split it into two tracks and it kinda whooshes back and forth from channel to channel, but it’s not really stereo and I find it distracting. They do clean them up nicely now, though, and get rid of the hiss and pop. The reason there’s a limit to what they can do with them, ultimately, is that the rango of frequency of the recording equipment 50 years ago was much smaller. The highs and lows are truncated.

    The list of songs you offered is weird and wonderful and fun. Ain’t That Peculiar is a wonderful Marvin Gaye song, and one of my favorites. Not many People appreciate the Isleys, or know they recorded Twist and Shout first. I love them.

    The Keely Smith song is wonderful, if it’s the version with her husband, Louis Prima. We listen to it all the time.

    Amba (and Ron, a little) might be missing my point, just slightly. The list is just billboard’s top forty list for the year. They’re not my favorites. I don’t listen to oldies stations much. But I don’t mind the great broad swath of american landscape covered by it as much as some. I like pop music, in general, to be ephemeral and disposable.

    Simon- Oh, I remember late night radio too- I used to get odd signals from over the atlantic at night. I still remember the time I first heard Desmond Dekker play reggae, and thought they were playing the record sideways, or backwards or something. Wonderful.

  7. 96 Tears, man, I haven’t thought about that song in an age and a half. I was only 2 for most of 1966, but as the youngest of many older siblings, you can bet I heard all these songs throughout my childhood.

    Geo: I have a soft spot for Cher. I know all those songs are really horrid, but boy could she belt them out.

  8. The list is just billboard’s top forty list for the year. They’re not my favorites. I don’t listen to oldies stations much. But I don’t mind the great broad swath of american landscape covered by it as much as some. I like pop music, in general, to be ephemeral and disposable.

    I’m in total agreement with these sentiments. Ephemerality and Disposability are important!

    I’m reading through more of your posts, and I like them a lot!

  9. Thanks, Ron- That’s a wonderful guitar you’re holding in the picture. John Lennony, I think.

    Rock on!

  10. Although it’s hard to see from the pic, the guitar nerd who’s taking the picture is trying to get my hand to be in the correct position for the opening chord to “Hard Days Night!”

  11. Hi Ron- The Beatles played odd and interesting instruments.

    Lennon’s Rickenbacker spawned a million imitators. Byrds, anyone?

    George’s Gretsch Country Gentlemen-still a really nice guitar.

    Ringo’s “mother of toilet seat” Ludwig trap set. I hope they pay him royalties. Everyone had one until 1980

    Paul’s Hofner bass-

    The hofner bass might be the worst musical instrument I’ve ever played. It’s hollow, so you have to stuff a towel in it to keep it from feeding back; neck heavy, you have to support it in your palm, which tires you out. It’s as fuzzy as an angora sweater tonewise. His solid body Rickenbacker wasn’t much better. But then again, he was like a tuba player in music hall band; it was perfect for what he played.

  12. For the past few years, I’ve been putting together “Soundtrack of My Life” CD mixes/iPod playlists, to sort of “focus” my music collection. I started from 1964, which is the earliest I can remember. I was 9 and it was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

    I’ve been using the surveys here as a guide and inspiration:

    Sure, the familiar ones are there, the ones we’ve heard sixty million times on the oldies stations for the past 25 years. But there was a lot of stuff that I hadn’t heard in 40 years and had nearly forgotten.

    Oh, and the only place you can get “96 Tears” now is either on a “? an the Mysterians Greatest” compilation, or the Cameo Parkway box set. I just bought the box set. Geez, am I a geek!

  13. melinda- when I went looking for a top 40 playlist for the essay, I had the one I linked to, and the WABC version you linked to, and one from a huge AM station in Detroit to choose from. I also have a Billboard Top 40 Book of lists.

    The lists were all almost identical, which I found interesting. It reinforced my idea of a shared culture in 1966. A few years later, the most popular song on many people’s rock lists wouldn’t even appear on a top 100 singles list, like Stairway to Heaven. The pool got deeper and wider after a while.

  14. I know living in the musical past is enormously attractive, but frankly why? My theory is that the nostalgia is driven by the preponderance of crap being played on the radio in “the now.”

    Let’s face it, if today’s radio rocked way beyond the old AM in ’66, you would have written this as a paragraph, not as a page.

    So, what we need to do is find great radio today, and support it and consume it and pass it on. And, I would think that the internet is our only hope for the pass-along part.

    To that end, try KUT out of Austin, Texas. Listen to the radio shows of Larry Monroe (Phil Music) or Paul Ray (Twine Time). Try KGSR out of Austin, Texas. Listen to Jody Denberg’s shows, and sometimes there’s a great female DJ on Thursday nights whose mix will just leave you panting.

    There are other towns with great radio. I remember Memphis, Tennessee, where I would leave work at lunch, sit in the rental car in the parking lot and eat sandwiches with the FM dial in the low numbers… WEVL 89.9.

    I’ve heard folks say New Orleans is another special radio place.

    Throw those radio stations into Google, and schedule some listen-on-line time. There’s no need to go back in time to be swept away by great music.

    Get it now.


  15. paul- thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

    It might interest you to know that I don’t own one piece of music on that list. I have no interest, same as you, in defining a palatable era in music and sticking with it. My interests are so odd as to be exotic, so I don’t talk about them that much.

    I did think that that was the last time I could identify something like a uniformity of content in popular music.

    Like I said:
    “I don’t want you to turn back the clock and listen to AM radio so we can all sing the lyrics to The Candy Man in unison because we were all forced to listen to it 14 times a day for four weeks whether we liked it or not. Pick your own poison.”

    The list was meant to encapsulate a certain time in my life, that’s all. I hope it did.

    Entertainment was passive then. I applaud, as you do, the fact that you can choose all sorts of things now.

    You know I’ll have to find those stations you mentioned, don’t you?

  16. Sippican have you seen the book, “Beatles Gear”? Good descriptions, great pictures, of du instruments du Fab.

    I am a bit of a Beatles nerd; I sent my “Beatles Recording Sessions” book off to George Martin for him to sign…

  17. Hi Ron- No I haven’t seen that book. Did George sign it?

    When I was younger, I told my older brother, who is a very talented musician, that I wished to learn to play guitar.

    He plopped “Beatles Compleat” in front of me. “Learn that.” End of lesson.

  18. Hello as well from Althouse!

    Funny how the something as crass as a payola-era top 40 managed to achieve the kind of diversity something like Slutfest bends over backward trying to contrive. Also how it took 40 years of technological progress for the shuffle on my mp3 player to produce juxtapositions of the Barry Sadler/ Donovan type.

  19. Yes, Sir George Martin did put a nice inscription in the book, and I had a nice letter exchange with his aide. Mr. Martin also talked up his involvement with a new talent website, (looks, can’t find it offhand!) in a seperate note as well!

  20. Hey townleybob- Welcome. Everyone’s been making mix tapes of the bizarre kinds of things they like, going back to reel to reel, haven’t they? All ipods did was take the frustration out of the procedure. Look at the people commenting on the other end of this link at althouse: Mozart and the Sex Pistols and Keith Jarret cheek by jowl. Marvelous.

    Bring back payola!

  21. Ron- I like it when books are inscribed by the people who write them or are in them — but I don’t understand autographs. I can’t think of anyone involved with the Beatles more interesting than George Martin.

    By the way, did you like The Rutles?

  22. Yes, I do like the Rutles! I even used to have a collection of Rutles covers done by bands like Shonen Knife and Bikini Kill! Until it went out on “loan”…

  23. My baby son watches the Rutles “play songs only” over and over. When they recreate the stop motion fire escape running scene, he runs around the house like a penguin.

    My older son heard Get Back on the radio once. He said to his mother: “This sounds a little like the Rutles.”

    Yes son, it does.

  24. I know living in the musical past is enormously attractive, but frankly why? My theory is that the nostalgia is driven by the preponderance of crap being played on the radio in “the now.”

    Exactly. What was right with the past is that artists could do what they wanted and not have to conform to some label’s idea of what’s marketable. Look at the variety on that list. That’s what I miss about AM radio.

  25. Sir Siippican said: “My interests are so odd as to be exotic, so I don’t talk about them that much.”

    Well, let’s do something about that; please write more about them. Odd interests make the blog grow fonder.

  26. Wonderful comments about this topic.

    Mikey- You’ve pointed out something interesting there: Music used to be a cottage industry. People would often lament that artists didn’t make much money on music they made in the fifties and early sixties, for example; eventually, they became big sellers for the companies that bought the rights for a pittance.

    But the artists signed those rights over generally because they never thought they’d be worth much, and the people that bought them had no reason to believe so either.

    I’m fascinated by the history of Stax/Volt records, and of course Detroit Motown, and when you see pictures of the guy running it in a cheap office with paneling, a battered desk, a phone and chalkboard behind him with his entire business plan scrawled on it, you know it’s mom and pop.

    The threshold to entry was low, and lots of stuff got in under the radar. Fabulous. Sort of like the internet now.

    Paul- You’re right.(again)It’s the odd detail that lends interest, isn’t it? Did I tell you about the time I played bass with Pinetop Perkins in a cathouse in Rhode Island…?

  27. Sippican — I’m a bit leery of thinking past eras weren’t as greedy as the present. Perhaps they were just as greedy in different ways! I was struck by seeing Lucille Ball and Desi made money on Desilu by wresting the rights to shows away from the network that paid for them. (after they were shown once!) It’s not like those big networks were generous or naive; they just didn’t see the path ahead. And this may be true today as well, in a different fashion.

  28. Interesting and unpredictable things happen when no-one know precisely what they’e doing.

    -Pagan Roman Empire adopts Christianity
    -Holland decides lending money at interest might OK after all
    -Agrarian Britain ignores Luddism and Industrializes
    -America decides to let anybody with four wooden stakes own whatever land’s inside them when they pound them into the ground.
    -Berry Gordy thinks he might be able to make some sweet moolah selling some records
    -Guys with tape on their glasses think transistors might be handy for more than AM radios
    -That internet thingie …

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