Music

R.I.P. Alan O’Day (1940-2013), “Undercover Angel” Singer/Songwriter

alanodayIt is with sadness that I learned of the death of musician, songwriter, and Southern California native, Alan O’Day from brain cancer this weekend.

O’Day covered a lot of ground in the music industry, from playing in garage bands in the 1950s and 60s to writing songs for television in the 1980s and 90s, but he is best known for the string of hit singles he wrote for other artists in the 1970s, and for writing and recording one particular song that made him the One-Hit Wonder of 1977.

O’Day’s songwriting credits include “The Drum,” recorded by Bobby Sherman, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” recorded by the Righteous Brothers, and perhaps his best song, “Angie Baby,” recorded and taken to No. 1 in Dec. 1974 by Helen Reddy.

However, Alan O’Day achieved his greatest level of fame when his quirky (some would say novelty) song, “Undercover Angel,” released with little fanfare in early 1977, unexpectedly shot to the top of the Billboard charts by the summer of that year.

1977 was the year I started my long relationship with music radio, and I placed extraordinary importance in the value of the weekly Top 40 countdown then, keeping careful track of which songs gained ground over the previous week and which ones lost ground. When a song reached the No. 1 position, it was a big deal, guaranteeing that both the song and its performer would be enshrined in the pantheon of immortals, not unlike the various Presidents of the United States, some of whom are regarded more highly than others, but all of whom had reached a level of paramount greatness and immortality by dint of joining the ranks of the select few who had attained the highest office in the land.

Because Alan O’Day ruled the charts at the time I started following the charts, his legacy, not to mention his one-hit wonder “Undercover Angel,” have stayed relevant to me until this very day, never fading from memory as they did for the general public. Also, O’Day spent his early childhood years in the L.A. neighborhood of Mount Washington, the same place I lived as a child when “Undercover Angel” was all over the charts.

O’Day’s songs could be described as novelty-esque, stemming from what might be called an eccentric or at least whimsical view of the world. He suffered from bronchial pneumonia for much of his childhood and had to remain indoors and alone a lot. At the same time he developed a keen interest in exotic instruments like the xylophone and ukulele and became “hooked” (in his words) on Spike Jones’ combination of music and humorous noise.

“Angie Baby” is regarded as a “serious” song, a haunting look at mental illness with a hint of stranger danger thrown into the mix, while “Undercover Angel” is pure whimsy. Yet, the two songs really describe the same basic scenario: A grey zone between fantasy and reality where a lonely person in her/his bedroom is visited by a strange apparition of the opposite gender, and life-altering drama ensues. “Angie” is the story told in a minor key, while “Angel” is the story told in a major key.

O’Day had always been a natural studio whiz, and his follow-up single to “Undercover Angel” was “Skinny Girls,” a catchy tune that Spike Jones might have written had he had access to a synthesizer and other 1980 music studio accoutrements. Unlike O’Day’s previous single, “Skinny Girls” never made it beyond the Dr. Demento show.

In the 1980’s, O’Day transitioned to television, where he co-wrote over 100 songs for the “Muppet Babies” program.

Here is a link to a 2012 Helen Reddy performance, in which Reddy calls up her friend Alan O’Day from the audience to help her with some of the lyrics to “Angie Baby.”

I’ll refrain from mentioning that if you believe in rock and roll heaven, they just gained a hell of a gadget man. Instead, if you really want to appreciate the world of Alan O’Day, look up “Skinny Girls” and give it a listen.

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Categories: 1970s, Music, Obituaries | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great interview w/Huey Lewis on Marc Maron’s podcast

I used to blame half of what was wrong with the 1980s on Huey Lewis, and the other half on Phil Collins. Huey Lewis’ music may be cheesy, but his life’s story isn’t. Great Bay Area and 1960s references here.

 

Episode 384 – Huey Lewis.

Categories: 1980s, Music, San Francisco | Leave a comment

TV Invented the Rock Star (Part 2)

(In Part I of this essay, we examined the origins of the rock star figure in Western culture, starting with Elvis and leaving off with the Beatles’ triumph on The Ed Sullivan Show.)

To be sure, America’s youth had been using jazz as liberation theology a full generation before rock music appeared. Big band music was the rock and roll of the radio era.

Just don’t say that to a Hepcat. 1940s hipsters hated the new generational preference for rock and roll with a passion. Jazz was complex, sophisticated, groove-able, while rock was crude and obvious.

And therein lies the difference between the youth music of the radio era and the youth music of the TV era. In television, the visual replaces the aural. The looks and moves of the front man replace the bandleader’s role of conductor. The punch of the drums and guitar are turned up in the mix while the harmony of the brass and woodwinds are eliminated entirely. Four guys do what two-dozen used to.

***

The rock pioneers who grew up in the pre-Elvis era talk about picking up obscure radio stations broadcasting out of the Mississippi Delta states and of being unable to ascertain whether a given artist was white or black. This miscegenation was indeed the original sin (as some saw it) that spawned rock and roll. Television eliminated the racial guesswork, and a narrower flavor of rock ensued.

TV, in fact, created the rock star right about then. Rock and roll would have gone on had there been no television, but it would have remained underground, taking place in dark, crowded clubs that violated local noise ordinances, not to mention segregation laws. But Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan one Sunday night, the Rock Star was born, and the rest is history.

***

Elvis was an entertainer when he went on The Ed Sullivan Show, as were the Beatles. The persona of the singer/songwriter hadn’t permeated the rock and roll pantheon just yet. But things took a serendipitous turn when the Fab Four retired from the road to become dedicated studio artists.

By the early 60s, rock’s original pioneers were either dead (Buddy Holly), jailed (Chuck Berry), drafted (Elvis Presley), disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis), or in bible college (Little Richard). The hits kept coming, but it was a producer’s game now. Record labels called the shots and musicians served as hired talent.

The intellectually curious of the early ’60s gravitated towards the folk movement. Rock and roll was high school, folk music was college. And folk had produced a star in his own right, the baby-faced Bob Dylan. Whether very directly or only somewhat directly, Dylan’s songwriting had a big influence on the Beatles, as did their introduction to weed.

Folk music and grass. In essence, the four working-class lads from Liverpoool were seduced by the college scene of the 1960s. Lennon and McCartney were like Pinto from “Animal House” in Prof. Jennings’ bathroom. “Can I buy some pot from you?”

The trend was set.

***

1967 is known as The Summer of Love, but it should really be called The Year of the Album. By then, most of the baby boomers who screamed Beatlemania into existence four school years earlier were becoming college-aged (or draftable).

***

A day in the life of The Summer of Love consisted of drawing the shades, smoking banana peels, and listening to album sides as the album’s cover is passed around and gaped at like a sacred object to be inspected for hidden truths.

In 1967, records were tailored for this very thing. Liner notes and jackets became part of the album package rather than just the packaging. Consider some of the records that came out that year: Strange Days, Surrealistic Pillow, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Are You Experienced, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Disraeli Gears, Days of Future Passed, Forever Changes, Axis: Bold As Love, Procol Harum, and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, among others.

Rock and roll had outgrown the family room TV and entered liberated dorm space and crash pads. The album had become the highest form of artistic expression and would remain so for a very long time.

Alongside the concept album, the advent of commercial FM radio in the late ’60s, with its superor sound quality to AM, provided an ideal vehicle for this new format of album oriented rock to expand into.

Categories: 1950s, 1960s, Music, television, The Age of Television | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

RIP Chrissy Amphlett of the Divinyls

Saddened to hear of the passing of Chrissy Amphlett at 53. She seemed like the real deal. The Divinyls, known mostly for their single, “(When I Think About You) I Touch Myself,” never quite got the recognition they deserved.
Chrissy Amphlett, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was diagnosed with breast cancer but was unable to receive chemotherapy or radiation due to her MS.

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TV Invented the Rock Star (Part I)

Rock stars.

Is there even such a thing anymore?

The answer seems to be no, at least not in the traditional sense. There are YouTube sensations and American Idol winners, but they’re more like karaoke performers with choreography. Beyond that, the up and comers who sell out arenas and bring out the crowds seem to be DJs.

DJs! I don’t even know how to spell it right: Is it deejay or DJ? I’ll go with the latter since it’s fewer keystrokes. I have no right to judge, but the world I grew up in had certain immutable laws, one of which was that rock and roll would always be king. No one challenged this monolithic truth besides a small number of Anita Bryant types in Seventies news clips.

The only time you ever pondered the genre’s mortality was during the quiet part of The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” when Daltrey intones “rock is dead” three times slowly. Of course, that lyric was just meant as a warning to remind you of what could happen if you let them take your rock away. It was an affirmation. And the affirmation that trickled down to teenage America was that even though you’re just a minor, you could contribute your own dollars, along with your heart and soul, to help keep rock and roll alive.

The century progressed and new generations of teenagers came of age. Trends rose and fell, but rock and roll was still the mother ship to which they all returned. Oh sure, DJs were already on the scene, but few took them seriously as rivals to actual rock stars. They worked the occasional dance club, but their natural purview was bar mitzvahs and wedding parties, not headlining arenas and stadiums.

When the notion of rock star-level DJs did eventually surface in public media, there was no reason not to believe that soon enough the kids’ enthusiasm for the fad would quickly max out and they would drop it like a moldy potato. That’s what happened with hair-rock and every other fanciful trend that took rock and roll too far away from its roots. The youth culture would quickly and aggressively self-correct this trend, it always did. These DJs would get bounced to the curb with the spandexed hair-rockers soon enough.

But in the 2000s, a strange thing happened. The correction never came. Instead, the digital realm began to completely displace rock and roll’s analogue roots. Analogue, in fact, became obsolete. Tapes, records, even CDs were rendered superfluous. Musical instruments themselves became unnecessary. In theory, with the swipe of a finger, one kid with one Ipad could mash and tweak every note ever recorded in the history of man to create masterpieces that Beethoven and the Beatles could only dream of. In theory.

We all know that there’s more to making music than generating a sequence of sound waves. And we all know that actual musical ability isn’t always at the top of the list of what makes an actual rock star. There are reasons we love the Beatles and Hendrix while remaining indifferent to the multitude of dedicated note-for-note Beatles and Hendrix cover artists.

So what are those reasons?

To understand the rock and roll phenomenon a little better, we need to go back to Year Zero, where it all began.

* * *

Who was the first rock star, anyway?

Why, Elvis, of course.

The harder question is why?

Was it Elvis’ ability to channel race music to a white audience? Was it the opportunity he had to work with the hit-makers of the Sun Records crew? Was it the pompadour and the pelvis?

Most people would agree that it was some sort of combination of all three. But in doing so, they omit the most crucial ingredient of all.

Television.

The Age of Television.

The Age of Television.

There is no Elvis without television, not the Elvis we know, which begs the question, how much of rock and roll itself is the result of television?

Is it any coincidence that the era of rock stars more or less matches up with the era of TV?

A milestone was reached with the first-ever televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. If you listened to the debate on the radio, you likely thought Nixon beat Kennedy. If you watched the debate on television, you probably thought Kennedy was the winner.

Guess who ended up taking that first election in the live television era?

The power of television is that strong.

***

The Nixon-Kennedy debate occurred halfway between two other major television events: the first Elvis appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the first Beatles appearance on that program.

Would there have been Elvis as we know him without television? Would the Beatles have had their mania without television?

People like to credit the ascent of rock and roll to some sort of collective generational awakening, as if the fingers of teenage America all magically walked themselves over to the sweet spot on the Ouija board together at the same time. But what if the answer was far more mundane? What if rock and roll initially became the coolest thing ever because it was on television Sunday night at 8:00?

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The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1964.

Movies enabled performers to be seen on multiple screens across all across the nation. Radio allowed them to be heard live in people’s living rooms simultaneously all across the country. But television marked the first time entertainers could be seen live in your living room nationwide and simultaneously. Rock and roll as we know it begins with this visual being seen by hundreds of millions of eyeballs in their living rooms at the same time.

It’s ironic that an aural experience like music would depend on a visual medium like television to gain traction, but maybe that tells us something about the essence of rock and roll, or lack thereof.

Elvis already had four gold records by the time he got on Sullivan. People knew what he sounded like, and they liked (or hated) it. What was different about a live appearance was the chance to get a look at Elvis himselvis, and just as importantly if not more so, to get a look at the audience. Check out all those screaming teens.

In a way, THAT was the sound that reverberated most strongly with us, not the performances of Elvis or the Beatles. Listen to that sound. It was like nothing ever before heard in the annals of Western Civilization. Teenage girls were succumbing to their hormones while the adults in the room pretended not to notice. But in hindsight it seems obvious that they sensed a loss of control over this marketed-to, largest generation in American history.

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Beatles fan overcome with emotion.

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More emotion

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And more emotion.

***

Throughout the pre-Woodstock era, the shifting norms of American society played out in the triangulation between Ed Sullivan, his audience, and the performers on the show. It was a Sunday night ritual.

Sullivan, the stiffest possible authority figure left of Nixon, introduces the act and then stands back while the kids go crazy. Sullivan then returns to the stage after the performance to comment on the audience’s behavior and to banter with the talent. Sullivan rarely gets what all the hubbub is about, but he’s powerless to stop it. You could see the generation gap itself acted out in those little vignettes. Little did they know at the time just how thoroughly these nascent Baby-Boomers would overturn the status quo in America or how soon.

1964, the year the Beatles debuted on Sullivan, was a Presidential election year. By the next election cycle, 1968, these teenagers would take over campuses, political conventions, and make serious grabs at the levers of power. Society itself would cross over the cultural Rubicon that year, with rock music as its unlikely masthead. (Part two of this piece will follow next week.)

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Excited young American during “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” from the Beatles’ debut performance on Ed Sullivan in 1964. What would she be up to in 1968?

Categories: 1950s, 1960s, counterculture, Music, television, The Age of Television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Quick Obituary for Ed Cassidy

RIP Ed Cassidy, 60s icon and drummer of LA psychedelic band, Spirit.
He was born in 1923, a full generation older than everyone else on the scene. He played in swing bands in the 30s, served in the navy in WW2, and played in Spirit with his stepson, Randy California. He had a shaved head even in the 1960s, which was unique. He was an experienced showman and gave effusive performances.

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Soundwise, there are times in his solos where you expect the drums to spring forward, but instead they fall back, behind the beat. I came to see this style as the missing link between the psychedelic rockers of the 60s and the cool stylings of the jazz musicians favored by the Beatniks who preceded the hippies. Ed Cassidy was basically inserting cool jazz riffs of the b&w Kerouac/Ginsberg era into electric kool-aid acid rock, and he wore all black.
If you ever wondered what it would sound like if a vanful of hippies went back in time and crossed paths with their immediate counterculture ancestors, the Beatniks, take a close listen to some of Ed Cassidy’s drum parts from Spirit’s earlier albums, especially “The Family That Plays Together (other than the album’s hit single, “I Got A Line On You.”)

 

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The End of the 80s As We Know It

Yeah, I hated high school, but so did a lot of people. What’s unique about me is that I also hated college. Not too many hate both, only a special few.

America and the artistic community love to root for the kid who can’t fit in at high school, but puts it all together at college. That’s the kind of story we like. Similarly, we can empathize with the kid who had it easy all through high school, but then has a hard time at college.

But to hate high school and then to hate college, that really means you hate something about yourself, or should.

Hey doc, do you have a couch I can lay back on?…Some ink blots I can stare at?….Thank you, that’s much better….

You know, all this talk takes me right back there, senior year of college, 1987-88. That was the year REM released “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

I really thought REM would be megastars after that. But it didn’t happen until nearly four years later with the shiny happy people album.

Way back in 1987, when “It’s the End of the World” surfaced, MTV-nation was already signaling a new preference for a more sensitive, introspective brand of music, a shift away from soulless 80s neon towards what would become the “alternative” sound of the 90s.

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It was the end of the 80s as we knew it, and that felt fine. The new taste in music was already manifest with the 1987 breakout success of 10,000 Maniacs, and would continue in 1988 with Tracy Chapman, and 1989 with the Indigo Girls.

With the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a raging Reagan hangover, “The End of the World As We Know It” seemed especially prescient, signaling that it was now okay for bands like They Might Be Giants to have mainstream success and for the 90s to begin in earnest.

And then there was that video.

I’m told that “End of the World” was one of REM’s first professionally produced music vids, but that the band still refused to lip-synch on camera as convention demanded. Instead, they opted for the kid with the skateboard tooling around inside the trashed house.

The kid with the skateboard

In the 90s, it was all about the kid with the skateboard: We fell in love again with slackers, heshers, and grungesters of all kinds; we looked to them for the answers after 80s culture crashed and burned.

Truth is, I’ve always been kind of disappointed with that kid on the skateboard. I expected that kid to do big things in the 90s. It seemed like all the stars were all lined up for him to cross a diamond with a pearl and turn it on the world, but instead he punted on third down.

He skated and moped and moved to Seattle, where he spent the rest of the decade staring down at his shoes and lining up the buttonholes of his lumberjack shirt until the Stiffler generation stepped in and took over.

Categories: 1980s, 1990s, Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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