Thursday, July 30, 2009

A trip back home

I will be back home in Illinois the next few days. As Jenn noted on her blog, my mother spent the weekend in the hospital. She has been diagnosed with cancer in her shoulder and breast. The doctors have determined that this is a type of cancer that can be controlled by restricting her body's supply of estrogen, so they have given her pills for that purpose. They hope that this approach will be sufficient, and that additional treatment, such as chemotherapy and/or radiation, will not be necessary. Mom is tired, but in otherwise good spirits. I had been planning this trip anyway, as I have tickets to a Cardinals game Saturday, but this makes my visit a more serious occasion. Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers, and I'll see you in a few days.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Uncle Walt, Chet, and David

The most trusted man in America.

The passing of Walter Cronkite last week marked the end of an era in broadcast journalism. Cronkite was the epitome of the TV news anchor, and millions of Americans relied on him every evening to keep them abreast of events in his straightforward yet reassuring manner. It comes as no surprise that the last week has been filled with remembrances of Cronkite by a generation that grew up with his voice and image coming from their parents' TV sets night after night. I can offer few firsthand memories of Cronkite, as my father preferred to get his news from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

It seems today that my dad was the only man in America watching Huntley and Brinkley. Hard as it is to believe today, NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report was actually the most-watched evening news broadcast for most of the period between 1956 and 1966, with CBS and Cronkite not taking the ratings lead until 1968, maintaining it until Cronkite's retirement in 1981. Cronkite earned his position as TV's most-trusted journalist.

Huntley and Brinkley's newscast launched in the fall of 1956, replacing the venerable John Cameron Swayze. Swayze had been slipping in the ratings, and NBC executives hoped that a change in personalities would bolster viewership. NBC executives Ben Park and Bill McAndrew suggested teaming up Huntley and Brinkley, who had earned praise for their work at the 1956 political conventions. The network came up with the unique arrangement of basing Huntley in New York and Brinkley in Washington. Neither man cared much for this approach at first, as both were hoping to host their own program. Their producer, Reuven Frank, was also skeptical, but on the broadcast's first night he wrote the closing lines - "Goodnight, Chet." "Goodnight, David. And good night for NBC News." Huntley and Brinkley didn't care for this at first, either, but it became one of the era's most enduring catchphrases.

The rugged Westerner Huntley possessed an authoritative voice considered among the best in TV, and the witty, erudite Brinkley was an excellent foil. The Huntley-Brinkley Report got off to a slow start - ratings remained low at first, and President Eisenhower complained to NBC brass about the new pairing. Although the duo seldom saw each other in person, their chemistry was unmistakable, and by the end of 1958 theirs was the highest-rated news program on TV.

The Huntley-Brinkley Report also had the coolest theme music of any network news program:

In the early 60's Huntley and Brinkley were TV's most prominent journalists. As it often happens, their enhanced reputations led to accusations of editorializing the news, and their egos had become bigger than the stories they presented. Huntley was even once accused of editorializing by moving his eyebrows. Yet by this point they had gained a nightly audience of over 20 million viewers, and Frank Sinatra even sang a ditty about them. Ratings at rival CBS declined accordingly, and by 1962 the network deemed it necessary to replace their anchor Douglas Edwards, himself a legend of early broadcasting.

Walter Cronkite was a product of St. Joseph, Missouri, growing up in a Midwestern small-town environment where the neighbors sat on the front porch to discuss the day's events while the kids chased fireflies in the yard. While Huntley and Brinkley were the dedicated pros, Cronkite came across as the neighbor who kept up with everything in town, letting you in on the day's events. Despite his folksy demeanor, Cronkite had already compiled an impressive resume by the time he came to the anchor's desk. He began as a print reporter in 1935, and took his first broadcasting job with WKY in Oklahoma City the next year. He distinguished himself with his work in covering World War II for United Press, and joined the fledgling CBS TV news division in 1950. Over the next decade he stood out as one of the network's top political reporters, and also made a name for himself hosting the popular historical program You Are There. On April 16, 1962, he succeeded Edwards as host of The CBS Evening News.

The next year, Cronkite was praised for his respectful, dignified coverage of President Kennedy's assassination. Yet, as with Huntley and Brinkley, Cronkite was slow to gain an audience at first. Disappointed with his low ratings, CBS replaced Cronkite with Roger Mudd for their coverage of the 1964 conventions. In return, CBS received over 11,000 letters of protest from viewers asking that Cronkite be reinstated. Cronkite returned to convention coverage in 1968; more importantly, CBS discovered that their anchor had struck a deep chord with the American public.

Cronkite's popularity continued to build, and by the mid-60's CBS was in a position to overtake NBC as the nation's top news network. Several factors led to CBS and Cronkite's ultimate preeminence. One key was the decision by RCA, NBC's parent corporation, to cut funding to its news division, leaving the better-funded CBS with the resources to produce higher-quality stories. America's fascination with space exploration in the 60's also contributed to CBS' rise. Cronkite had a keen interest in science and technology, and often approached the space missions with a boyish enthusiasm. Huntley and Brinkley, on the other hand, were little interested in the exploits of the astronauts. An AFTRA strike in 1967 also hurt the duo's reputation. Brinkley honored the pickets, but Huntley continued to work - he considered himself "a reporter, not a performer".

By the end of the decade, CBS was firmly established as the nation's #1 news network, and Walter Cronkite was well on his way to becoming a legend. More than any other news reporter ever had, Cronkite earned the trust of America with his genial, knowledgeable demeanor, and he became known for a catch-phrase of his own- "And that's the way it is." His voice was so respected that he could make world leaders sit up and take notice. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his coverage of the Vietnam War. His disapproving editorial following the Tet Offensive carried so much weight that it was a factor in Lyndon Johnson declining to seek re-election in 1968.

Huntley and Brinkley said goodnight one last time on February 16, 1970. Chet Huntley returned to his Montana ranch, and died of cancer in 1974. His early passing has made Huntley something of a forgotten man among the early TV journalism greats. David Brinkley is better remembered today, mostly for moving on to ABC in the early 80's and hosting This Week With David Brinkley, an opinion show that along with the rise of Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson, and Ted Koppel finally put ABC News on a par with the other two networks. Walter Cronkite continued as CBS' main anchor until he retired in 1981, and he would continue to contribute to news specials for many years afterward, specializing in his passions of politics, science, and technology. Yet for all the major stories that Cronkite witnessed in his long, distinguished career, the one he wanted to be most remembered for was his role in bringing The Beatles to America. Sharon Cobb tells the story of Cronkite's role in this part of pop cultural history.

Times were different then. News reporters had the money to do their jobs properly. Coverage had yet to emphasize feelings over facts. News was not yet considered to be merely another form of entertainment. We may never see the likes of these men again. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were masters of their craft. Walter Cronkite was the granddaddy of them all - more than just defining the role of the TV news anchor, he became for many, the voice of America. And that's the way it is.

Goodnight, Chet.

Goodnight, David.

Goodnight, Walter.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Album project: B obscure

Barclay James Harvest, Everyone Is Everybody Else (1974): John Lees, Les Holroyd, Mel Prichard, and Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme formed Barclay James Harvest in 1967. They arrived at their name from pulling it out of a hat containing various suggestions. Over the next several years the band developed a progressive rock sound in the vein of Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues, later recording a song, "Poor Man's Moody Blues" in response to criticisms comparing BJH to that group. They slowly but steadily put together a respectable following in Great Britain and Europe, though never quite breaking through in the States.

They recorded Everyone Is Everybody Else, their fifth LP, with veteran producer Rodger Bain. Bain was best known as a producer of hard rock and heavy metal acts, most notably the early Black Sabbath, and he did not get along well with the band members while recording the album. In the end, the group was not totally satisfied with the sound of the disc. Nevertheless, Everyone Is Everybody Else turned out to be one of BJH's better-regarded efforts.

"Child Of The Universe", with its heavier rock sound, gained some UK radio airplay. The last three tracks, which segue into one another, were the most popular with US progressive rock radio. The suite starts with the surprisingly country-ish "Poor Boy Blues". This leads into the darker folk of "Mill Boys", before concluding with "For No One", which returns to the more typical BJH sound. The gloomy, synthesizer-heavy track is a cry for peace to an alienated world:

Everyone's a loner till he needs a helping hand
Everyone is everybody else
Everyone's a no-one till he wants to make a stand
God alone knows how we will survive

As backing to these images from the Iraq War, "For No One" presents a powerful anti-war message.

The original Barclay James Harvest broke up in 1998. Today Lees and Holroyd each lead groups using the name, with Wolstenholme performing with Lees' outfit. Mel Prichard passed away in 2004.

Bare Jr., Boo-Tay (1998): Bobby Bare Jr., the son of the legendary country performer, earned a Grammy nomination at age 8 when he recorded "Daddy What If" with his father. In the late 90's he put together a group that briefly contended for the Nashville country-punk throne established by Jason And The Scorchers.

Boo-Tay, the group's debut, features a fair number of earnestly-rocking tracks like "Tobacco Spit", "Faker", and "Love-Less" that combine a cheeky DIY spirit with just the right amount of twang. Often reminiscent of the aforementioned Scorchers, in their more settled moments Bare Jr. starts to head in the direction of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The raucous "You Blew Me Off" (embedding not permitted) almost became a national hit.

Bare Jr. released one more LP, Brainwashed, prior to breaking up in 2000. Bobby Bare Jr. has since released several solo albums, as well as efforts with his Young Criminals Starvation League. Bare has had a tough time sustaining momentum; from what I hear around town his fellow musicians consider Bare to be a difficult man to work with. Former Bare Jr. guitarist Mike Grimes today owns Grimey's, one of Nashville's best indie record stores. The staff of Grimey's is by far the most knowledgeable in town.

Skip Battin, Skip Battin (1972): Clyde "Skip" Battin's career dates back to the 50's. With Gary Paxton, he formed the duo Skip & Flip that enjoyed Top 20 hits with "Cherry Pie" and "It Was I". As their fortunes declined, they made some singles with Los Angeles producer/impresario/BS artist Kim Fowley, who became Battin's main songwriting collaborator and good friend.

Battin's most prominent gig came between 1970 and 1973 as a latter-day member of The Byrds. With the Byrds, Battin was noted for his quirky songwriting, usually working with Fowley, and for his strong work on bass guitar. An underrated bassist, Battin's playing was well respected by the LA musical establishment, and in the later 70's and 80's he would go on to work with The New Riders Of The Purple Sage and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He passed away in 2003.

All of the songs on Skip Battin were co-written by Battin and Kim Fowley. I would likely have never heard of this one had it not been for "The St. Louis Browns", a folk tale of the hapless baseball team that became a radio favorite in St. Louis, and still occasionally pops up on the airwaves there today. That song alone was well worth the $2 I paid for the album when I saw it in a Wichita used record store some years later.

Be Bop Deluxe, The Best Of and The Rest Of Be Bop Deluxe (1978): Another British progressive rock outfit, Be Bop Deluxe was led by Bill Nelson (pictured at left), one of the 70's most unsung guitar heroes. Through six mid-70's albums, the group combined glam-rock style with a futuristic vision, with lyrics often drawn from science fiction. Their sound was defined by Nelson's often-amazing guitar playing, featuring his distinctive tone and nimble lead work. To get some idea of what Be Bop Deluxe was about, imagine David Bowie working with Robert Fripp as his lead guitarist.

For all their talent and effort, Be Bop Deluxe never caught on with the general public. One minor UK hit, "Ships In The Night", was all they had to show for their efforts in the marketplace when they broke up in 1979. Perhaps they were a bit ahead of their time; a number of 80's new-wavers and techno-rockers, including Gary Numan and Julian Cope, have expressed their admiration for the group. Numan's career, in fact, seems to have picked up where Be Bop Deluxe's left off.

Nelson went on to form Bill Nelson's Red Noise, but that group only recorded one LP before dispersing. Since 1980, Nelson has worked solo, giving him the leeway for a great deal of experimentation. He has been prolific - his Wikipedia entry lists almost 70(!) solo discs recorded over the last three decades. Many of these appear to be limited-edition experimental works, recorded in his home studio and marketed through his own label. An annual event called Nelsonica is held in York, England, which brings legions of Nelson's admirers from all over the world together to listen to live performances from their hero and other Nelson-inspired acts. Nelson also records a limited-edition CD for the event each year.

"Ships In The Night" was Be Bop Deluxe's best-known track, but I prefer the shorter, punchier "Maid In Heaven".

I guess you know who's coming up next.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


This comes as no surprise to us who have cats:

Instead of loud miaowing when they want food, behaviour likely to have them ejected from the bedroom, some cats disguise their cries for attention within an otherwise pleasant purr. The result, according to a study published tonight in the journal Current Biology, is a complex "solicitation" purr with a high-frequency element that triggers a sense of urgency in the human brain. Owners find it irritating, but not irritating enough to kick the cat out, and feel driven to respond.

Dr Karen McComb, a specialist in mammal vocal communication at the University of Sussex, said that by employing an embedded cry, cats appear to be exploiting innate tendencies that humans have for nurturing offspring.

"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response – and solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing," she said.

Several of my cat-owning friends have remarked on how their companions' cries reminded them of human babies. Our kittens, Alvin and Shasta, have yet to learn such feline subtleties. But when we had Maltese, Tara, and Desiree, our first cat generation, overnight visitors would sometimes wake up insisting that we had a baby in the house.

Maltese, our male, would only engage in gentle persuasion for so long. If he felt you were being slow in getting up to feed him his breakfast, he would jump up into bed and bite you on the nose.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Album project: The Bangles

The Bangles, All Over The Place (1984): Susannah Hoffs and sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson united to form The Bangs in late 1980. The Bangs became a part of LA's "Paisley Underground" scene, bands whose sound harked back to 60's psychedelia, while also drawing from more recent garage/punk influences. Changing their name to The Bangles due to copyright issues, they released a lackluster debut EP in 1982. The next year, original bassist Annette Zilinskas left and was replaced by Michael Steele. This lineup recorded All Over The Place, as fine a collection of power pop as can be found anywhere.

The album opens strongly with "Hero Takes A Fall", also the first single. "Hero" reflects the band's 60's British roots as well as drawing power from 80's West Coast punk. Lyrically, it sets the tone for the rest of the disc - these are independent women who mean business. "Hero Takes A Fall" deserved to be a hit, but The Bangles would make up for it in the years to come.

"Live", a cover of a track from 60's psychedelics The Merry-Go-Round, shows off the band's influences in that area. "James" shows an ability for jangle-pop, while tracks like "Dover Beach" and their cover of Kimberley Rew's "Going Down To Liverpool" recall the Beatles of the Rubber Soul and Revolver era. The Bangles also prove their ability to rock out on tracks like "All About You", "Tell Me", and "Silent Treatment".

Vicki Peterson contributes fine guitar work throughout, as well as taking the role of principal songwriter. Drummer Debbi Peterson and bassist Michael Steele give the music a solid foundation. Hoffs and the Petersons share in lead vocals, as CBS hadn't yet begun to push Hoffs out front as the "star" of the group. The three and four-part harmonies throughout the record would become a Bangles signature. The other Bangles LP's of the 80's contain some fine music, but All Over The Place is overall still their finest, most balanced effort, and remains criminally overlooked to this day.

The one that got away.

The Bangles, Different Light (1986): Although not as consistent as All Over The Place, Different Light has its strengths, also producing four hit singles that were some of pop music's better moments from 1986-87.

By this time, Prince had taken an interest in the band's career. Everything Prince touched in the mid-80's seemed to turn to gold, and his "Manic Monday", penned under the pseudonym "Christopher", was no exception. Combining Monday morning melancholy with some nice harmonies, "Manic Monday" climbed to #2 in the US and UK charts, giving the group its breakthrough. Different Light's best track, Jules Shear's gorgeous "If She Knew What She Wants", gave the group a second hit. This was followed by the quirky, poppy "Walk Like An Egyptian", The Bangles' first chart-topper. "Walking Down Your Street" made it into the Top 20 as well.

All four hits were written in whole or in part outside the band. The disc's weakness is that the band's original compositions are not up to that standard, apart from the rockers "Different Light" and "Let It Go". Overall, Different Light is a decent second effort, and seemed to portend a bright future for the group.

A killer cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade Of Winter", from the movie Less Than Zero, reached #2 and kept The Bangles in the spotlight through 1987. But their next LP release, Everything was disappointing artistically if not commercially. Dominated by the treacly ballad "Eternal Flame", the group's second #1 hit, the album lacked the musical edginess of the previous Bangles releases. The group was also losing its cohesiveness, due in part to CBS pressuring lead vocalist Susannah Hoffs into starting a solo career. The pressures led to the breakup of the band in 1989.

Susannah Hoffs embarked on a less-than-successful solo career, while Vicki Peterson joined psychedelic folkies The Continental Drifters and Debbi Peterson married. The Bangles reunited in 2001 and released the LP Doll Revolution; Elvis Costello wrote the title track. The group remains together to this day. Michael Steele left in 2005. Abby Travis replaced Steele for live performances, although she is not considered an official member of the group.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The bell tolls twice more

Allen Klein: The infamous music executive who once managed the affairs of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones passed away Saturday at age 77.

Klein's original interest was in accounting, but encouraged by his friend Don Kirshner, he became involved in the music business. He quickly gained a reputation as a hard-nosed sleuth who found his clients thousands of dollars worth of unpaid royalties. Klein did this job so well for Bobby Darin and Sam Cooke that they asked him to become their manager. He was able to negotiate a very favorable deal for Cooke that gave the artist an unusually high royalty rate for the time as well as the rights to his recordings. He also made inroads into the British music scene, striking a management deal with producer Mickie Most that gave Klein access to many of the top British Invasion acts. With his earnings, he bought the Cameo-Parkway label out of bankruptcy, changing the label's name to ABKCO and acquiring the rights to their recordings.

His reputation was such that in 1965 Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham hired Klein to look after the band's business affairs. The tough-talking Klein impressed the Stones from the outset - Mick Jagger said, “Andrew sold him to us as a gangster figure, someone outside the establishment. We found that rather attractive.” Klein eventually bought out Oldham's share of the Stones' management, then proceeded to anger his clients by buying the rights to their publishing. Years of lawsuits followed, with the last one finally settled in 1984. The Stones won the right to set up their own management company, but Klein retained the rights to their music prior to 1971.

After acquiring the Stones' management, Klein set his sights on the biggest prize in the music business - The Beatles. After the death of Brian Epstein, the Fab Four's business affairs fell into chaos. Paul McCartney suggested that his father-in-law Lee Eastman step in as their manager, but this did not sit well with the other three Beatles. After Klein read a statement by John Lennon to the press that they would be broke in six months if their current situation continued, he informed Lennon of his interest in managing them. When the two met, Lennon was impressed with Klein's knowledge of their music, and he convinced George Harrison and Ringo Starr that Klein was the man for the job. Klein was able to negotiate a substantially high royalty rate for the group, but was unable to prevent the sale of their publishing to ATV. He never did win the trust of Paul McCartney, he alienated many of the group's long-time employees used to a more relaxed management style, and he generally aggravated the already-strained relations between the band members. After the breakup of The Beatles, Klein continued to work with Lennon and Harrison until his questionable handling of the proceeds from the Concert For Bangladesh led to another round of lawsuits that drug on for years.

Klein was convicted of tax fraud in 1979, but only served two months in prison. Although mostly inactive in his later years, he guaranteed himself a healthy income through his ownership of the rights to the music of the early Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, and many other artists.

Steve McNair: The former all-star NFL quarterback and league MVP was found murdered in his condo Saturday afternooon. He was only 36.

McNair first came to notice during a stellar collegiate career at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, where he rewrote the school's record book. In his senior year, "Air" McNair gained over 6000 yards in combined passing and rushing, and accounted for 53 touchdowns. The then-Houston Oilers chose him with the third overall pick in the 1995 draft.

McNair sat and watched his first two seasons, then took over at starting quarterback in 1997 as the Oilers played in their temporary home in Memphis. Over the next two seasons, McNair's throwing and running blended with Eddie George's hard-nosed ballcarrying to form the heart of the team's offense. In 1999, the renamed Tennessee Titans, now at home in Nashville, reached the Super Bowl with McNair confidently at the helm. In Super Bowl XXXIV, McNair led the Titans back from a 16-0 deficit against the St. Louis Rams to tie the score in the fourth quarter. Rams quarterback Kurt Warner threw a touchdown pass to give the Rams a 23-16 lead. With time for one more drive, McNair led the Titans to the one-yard line before a game-saving tackle as time ran out won the game for the Rams.

With Eddie George on the decline, the Titans relied on McNair to pass the ball more frequently, and he responded in 2002 and 2003 with the best seasons of his career statistically, and leading the Titans to the playoffs both seasons. In 2003 he threw 24 touchdown passes and shared the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award with Peyton Manning. But McNair's gritty style of play was begining to take its toll on his body. He missed the second half of the 2004 season with a bruised sternum, struggled with leg and shoulder problems from earlier seasons, and after an inefective 2005 left the Titans for the Baltimore Ravens. He stayed healthy in 2006 and led Baltimore to the AFC North title, but after an injury-plagued 2007 McNair announced his retirement.

McNair wwas found dead in his condo from multiple gunshot wounds. A female companion, Sahel Kazemi, was also found dead from a single gunshot wound at the scene.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Independence Day

I don't have a lot more to say on it this year. Just don't get hurt playing with fireworks.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

In poor taste

In order to provide a break from the recent spate of celebrity deaths, Pole Hill brings you... cannibalism! (Via Mixter's Mix.)

What would you taste like to a cannibal?

Created by Recipe Star

Or maybe not. The excellent Karl Malden passed away today. He was 97.