Thanks to Max, aka “Badfinger” for giving me the chance to write something for his site today! He’s likewise written something cool about the band from which he took his screen-name, for my site, A Sound Day, (http://soundday.wordpress.com today) One of the best things about writing a blog, for about four years now, has been getting to know other bloggers with similar interests and read their posts. Of those, Badfinger has been a favorite of mine almost since I came to WordPress. I’m amazed that he and I are similar in age and have very similar tastes in music, and in baseball as well. So, needless to say he’s a pretty cool guy!
What I do at A Sound Day is post daily articles generally involving things which have happened on that calendar day in the world of music – album releases, records hitting #1, musicians having birthdays, that sort of thing. A simple enough idea, and one which I must admit wasn’t entirely original. A decade or so back, ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) ran a short syndicated radio bit called “A Rotten Day” which did the same basically, but in headline form delivered in his characteristically snarky persona. So, it’s not a unique idea, but I try to go beyond the headlines and tell a story. Make it interesting. For example, we pretty much all know the song “Midnight Train to Georgia”, but how many knew it was indirectly inspired by a Mississippi songwriter talking to Farrah Fawcett? Lots of us like London Calling, but do we know that the big hit single on it, “Train in Vain” wasn’t included on the track listing printed on the record because it wasn’t supposed to be on the album? How about an avant garde new wave rocker who has a successful second career writing books about archaeology? It’s the details that make the stories interesting and I try to find them… and remind people of some great music that they might have forgotten. Or introduce them to music I love that they might not have even heard. Grudgingly, I sometimes even cover music that, well, didn’t really get my motor running but was important in its own way, and try to listen to it with a fresh ear. If it was rock, or pop, or maybe even occasionally country, and it was from the ’60s to the end of the century, I’ve probably given it a look. That’s kind of an overview of what I do there, but let me tell you a bit about why.
Music has always been important to me. A big part of my memories… so much so that it can be an almost Rainman-like, frustrating ability. I can barely remember the names of my teachers or classmates from 1974, for example, but I can probably name two-thirds of the #1 songs of that year without ever looking to Google or Wiki. I couldn’t tell you the name of a girl I might have danced with at a junior high dance, but I can still recall the song was “Car Wash” by Rose Royce.
Mind you, there weren’t a lot of dances for young me. I was rather ill a lot of the time, and had by 1970s standards, a very over-protective mother…although by today’s standards, she was pretty lax. At least I walked or cycled to school myself instead of being driven to the door. But if it was raining, or cold, I probably wouldn’t be going out with friends to hang out on the weekend – “you’d get sick.” So I was home (with chain-smoking adults) and prone to lots of asthma attacks and bouts of pneumonia. Things like reading, looking outside at the birds coming to the feeder and music took on an import to me that many wouldn’t be able to relate to. Music especially.
Both my parents liked music, and every vague memory I have of being very young seems to have included music somewhere in the background. One of my first memories was listening to Sgt.Pepper and marveling in the weird but delightful sounds coming from the big wooden-cabinet stereo in the living room, while being dazzled by the funny-looking cover of the record. I can’t say whether it was my Mom or my brother who had the album… my Mom loved the Beatles and my older brother was a rocker as long as I can remember. One time just after he was old enough to drive, my Dad let him drive the car home most of the way from a family Florida vacation. He played Wish You Were Here on 8-track for almost the entire ride. It took some years for me to be able to listen to that with happy ears, I can tell you! Pop, Beatles, Glen Campbell, some old-school country now and again… there always seemed to be music on in the house when I was little.
Around when I was five, I was given a little transistor radio. Might have been for my birthday, might have been for Christmas. I can’t remember. What I do remember is that little black plastic, mono radio with its’ rotating dial and tiny earbud let me listen to my own music…and life was never the same. And here, I feel very lucky because I grew up near Toronto, Canada… so I got to mature listening to two of the coolest radio stations on the continent…CHUM when I was a kid, and CFNY as I grew towards adulthood.
The first station I seemed to find on that little transistor was 1050 CHUM. A Toronto “hits” station that was by far the most-listened to station in the entire country at the time. It had been around since, well about since Noah went looking for two giraffes and two hornets ( did you really have to take them…but I digress!) but one which had switched to rock and pop before the curve, in 1957. “All Shook Up” was the first song they played apparently, and their first #1 song. Madonna’s “Live to Tell” was its final one, 29 years later before it changed formats (the station still exists but is now talk sports apparently) so it covered my early school and junior high years. My tuner rarely swayed back then, even though my radios got better and better through the ’70s, to a big transistor with a big built-in speaker to one of those only-in-the-70s white, plastic stereos with rounded corners and a turntable on top. And I put that to use; while other kids were spending their allowances on chocolate bars or comic books, I was saving my coins til we went to the mall and I could buy “Chevy Van” or “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” as singles. I still remember the first LP I bought – Elton John’s Greatest Hits. Nearly 50 years later, that still seems like a pretty decent place to start.
CHUM was a pretty conventional “top 40” station, even though it actually had a “top 30”. And a cool thing about that was they actually published it weekly… I’d stop by the basement of Eatons and go to the records and pick up a little folder with the top 30 songs listed inside, as the picture shows. And take a look at that, a fairly typical example of one. Rock – how ’bout BTO or Rick Derringer? Country, dare you say? Umm, Tom T. Hall, John Denver. Cool pop? Elton John, Wings. Disco? It’s there. In fact, CHUM let us hear pretty much everything that was hot in the decade from Motown to Meco to McCartney. It was one of the great things about the decade, its music (which Max nicely reminded us last week with his 70s AM Radio series) and radio before it became too formulated and narrow in playlists. Plus, it mixed in a fair bit of Canadian content. That helped the homegrown artists and let us hear even more of a range of music. The world knew Anne Murray and BTO but we knew Wednesday (from my hometown, their biggest hit being a cover of “Last Kiss”) and Edward Bear too. Years before he was writing “Black Velvet” for his girlfriend Alannah Myles, we knew Christopher Ward as a decent singer of soft-rock ballads (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E1VgsoS6i4 ) thanks to CHUM.
One thing Toronto was great for – many say best in North America – was being open to new sounds and “obscure” British music. By 1980, CHUM’s list of #1 songs included some classic rock mega-names – Led Zeppelin, John Lennon, Pink Floyd – but also things like “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors and “Making Plans for Nigel” by XTC. That might have been inspired a bit by the second great station that I lived with – CFNY.
CFNY-FM was a station started in the late-’70s in “the little yellow farmhouse” in the outer suburbs. It’s reach was only a few miles at first; it’s nickname “the Spirit of Radio”… yes the one and the same name Rush wrote a song about. It concentrated on finding and playing great music other stations ignored. If you were going to hear the Damned, solo Peter Gabriel or Depeche Mode years before other people would in Canada, it was going to be on CFNY. As time went by though the station relocated, bought more powerful transmistors and was broadcasting to half a million regular listeners from the CN Tower. And making bands like the Psychedelic Furs and The Smths huge, arena-selling artists in Toronto. Such was their sway in the area that soon other stations began copying them to some degree. Not many hard rock stations were playing A Flock of Seagulls or “music at work” stations The Stranglers, but in Toronto they were. They had to to compete. Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually liked Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, even Madonna and I did hear them, once in awhile turning over to a hit station, or watching Much Music (our version of MTV) but by listening to so much CFNY I found incredible music by artists most elsewhere in North America never heard of – It’s Immaterial, Black (Liverpool singer Colin Vearncombe), (www.youtube.com/watch?v=koRT3HEmre4 )
Sinead O’Connor long before she flipped her wig and became a Saturday Night Live punchline. And as with CHUM, CFNY highlighted a lot of great Canadian acts. A couple of them went on to become national heroes with a lengthy string of platinum records at home… while remaining anonymous outside the Great White North. Blue Rodeo and Tragically Hip. The latter had very Canadian-oriented lyrics that made them so endeared the Prime Minister attended their final concert… which was televised nationwide on the national network! The former mixed country and rock seamlessly to create a great music that at the time defied labels – alt country? Country rock? Later it would probably be described as one of the early examples of “Americana” music (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mqa4YzKPrFw ), following the traditions of The Band before them. Something we took to by the millions up there… but wouldn’t likely have ever heard were it not for that one station championing them in the early days. See an example of one of their year-end charts below.
When I was six or seven, and coughing and my parents were fighting, I could be in my room listening to Jim Gold or the Doobie Brothers on that transistor radio…and feel kind of happy. A decade or so later, I didn’t fit in that well in many places but when I went to the indie record store and picked up the latest import 12” Depeche Mode single, I was everyone else’s equal… the equivalent of a Sheldon in Stuart’s comic book shop on Big Bang Theory. Music was my friend.
It still is, and I feel priviledged to be able to help you discover some of it, and make some human friends all the while doing so. Thanks again Max, for giving me this space today.