Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TMFW 125 - Real-Life Horror, #1 on the Pop Charts

Brenda Ann Spencer was 16 years old in 1979, living in challenging circumstances with her father at 6356 Lake Atlin Avenue in San Diego.  Her house, which was across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School, was strewn with empty alcohol bottles.  She slept on a mattress laid on the living room floor. 

By all accounts, Spencer had an unhappy life.  After her parents divorced when she was 9 or 10 years old, she became withdrawn.  She was frequently truant at school, and spent time in a special facility for problem kids.  At 16, she was already abusing alcohol and using drugs. Though there is some doubt, later in her life she would claim that she was both physically and sexually abused by her father.

In the summer of 1978, Spencer was arrested for burglary and (maybe) for shoplifting, and separately for breaking some windows at the elementary school by shooting them with a BB gun.  By December, things had gotten worse.  Staff at her school told Spencer's dad that she was suicidal, and after a psychiatric evaluation a doctor recommended admission to a mental hospital due to depression.  But Spencer's dad refused to give permission.  Instead, for Christmas 1978, he bought Spencer a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and several hundred rounds of ammunition.  Shortly after that, Spencer started to boast to her classmates that she was going to "do something big to get on TV."

Against that background, it is perhaps not surprising what happened next.  At around 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning, January 29, 1979 - 36 years ago this week - Spencer opened a window in the front of her house and, using her new Christmas present, started shooting.  When some children went down after being hit, the school principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar went outside to help.  Spencer shot and killed both of them.  When a police officer arrived on the scene, Spencer shot him in the neck.  Finally, after about 30 rounds and 20 minutes, another responding officer "borrowed" a garbage truck and parked it between the school and Spencer's window.  Having no more targets, Spencer barricaded herself inside her house.

In the midst of the standoff, Spencer took a call from a reporter at The San Diego Tribune, who had looked up the telephone number for the address listed by police as the shooter's and made a cold call.  The reporter asked Spencer if she knew where the shots were coming from, and Spencer gave the address.  When the reporter answered that the address was her own house, Spencer retorted "yeah, who do you think is doing the shooting?"  

After some discussion, the reporter asked Spencer why she had shot at the children and their teachers. Spencer replied: "I just did it for the fun of it. I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."  Then she cut the call short with "I have to go now.  I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more.  I'm having too much fun."

After several hours, Spencer surrendered to police.  All told, she had killed two school employees, critically injured a police officer, and had shot and injured eight children.  It was not the first mass shooting at a school - not even close - but the bizarre circumstances and Spencer's cavalier conversation with the reporter made it an almost immediate national story.

Later that afternoon, all the way across the country in Georgia, Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers of the Irish band The Boomtown Rats were doing a radio interview at WRAS, the famous college station for Georgia State University in Atlanta.  During the interview, a telex machine spit out the day's news, including the story of Ms. Spencer's shooting spree.  Geldof was struck by Spencer's nonchalant reasoning and turned her quote into the song "I Don't Like Mondays."

Featuring lyrics that describe the shooting pretty directly, the song was released less than six months later in July 1979.  It was a worldwide hit, reaching #1 in the UK and Australia (and allegedly 30 other countries as well), and making top-5 in Canada and New Zealand.  But in the US, there was understandable sensitivity to the song and it reached only #73.  (That it was such a worldwide hit is remarkable - one can only imagine the modern reaction if a pop band were to write a song almost nakedly celebrating a school shooting.)

Geldof, who in the face of criticism of the song insisted that "it wasn't an attempt to exploit tragedy," explained and defended his inspiration to Smash Hits magazine in 1979: "I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta [] and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out...Not liking Mondays for a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel, and I just said 'silicone chip inside her head had switched to overload' and wrote that down...It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it."

So there's your TMFW for today: The Boomtown Rats' biggest single was inspired by (and pretty directly describes) a mass shooting that killed two people and wounded 9 others. It sounds a bit different with that backstory, doesn't it?


BONUS FACT:  Brenda Spencer was tried as an adult, and she pled guilty to two counts of murder.  She has been in jail since, and has been denied parole four times.  Her next opportunity will be in 2019.  Remarkably, Spencer's father still lives in the house where the shooting took place.

BONUS FACT 2:  These days, Bob Geldof is most famous for being a founding organizer of the Live Aid series of concerts, which have raised over £150 million for aid in Africa and earned Geldof an honorary knighthood.  (I have a future TMFW in mind about Live Aid so let's just leave it there.)

BONUS FACT 2.5:  At the 2006 NME Awards (a British music awards show similar in tenor to the MTV Video Music Awards), the presenter was the British comedian Russell Brand.  Brand was characteristically brash in his hosting duties, which included him announcing Geldof as the winner of Best DVD for Live 8 as "Sir Bobby Gandalf."  Geldof was not amused, and started his speech with "Russell Brand, what a cunt."  When it was his turn at the mic, Brand retorted "really it's no surprise he's such an expert on famine, he has after all been dining out on 'I Don't Like Mondays' for 30 years." 

BONUS FACT 3:  One of the newspaper articles linked above (here it is again) is a contemporary account of the shooting that was written up in the January 30, 1979 edition of The Milwaukee Journal.  Look at the bottom right of that page; it's a Delta Airlines ad that touts their nonstop service to Florida, featuring champagne on all flights (even in tourist! even at Super Saver Fares!) and a dinner of "charcoal broiled" filet mignon, "a crisp, fresh salad," fresh vegetable, baked potato and a roll, and a dessert of "tempting pastries."  Times were different then.

BONUS FACT 3.5:  Before I started this entry a few weeks ago, I had never heard of coach or economy class being called "tourist."  Then just this week, the actress Andie MacDowell had a mini-meltdown on Twitter when she was downgraded from first class to "tourist" on a flight because they wouldn't let her dog sit with her in a bulkhead seat.  That was a fun coincidence.

BONUS FACT 4:  As the WRAS link above notes, the Georgia State radio station (which broadcasts at 88.5 FM) also in
spired Paul Westerberg to write the Replacements song "Left of the Dial."

BONUS FACT 4.5:  I was a onetime college DJ for the "voice of the Fighting Irish," 640 AM WVFI in South Bend, Indiana. But I never got to interview a famous band or anything like that.  In fact, during one of our shows, my co-DJ and I had a CD to give away and we announced that the tenth caller would get it.  After no calls came in for a few minutes, we revised the contest to the first caller.  By the time we signed off, the prize was still on offer.  I called my roommate and had him call back to "win," and I just took the CD home with me. I liked being a DJ but it was a pretty depressing reality check that literally nobody was listening to us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

TMFW 124 - Q. Man, What Are You Doing Here? A. It's a Legal Thing.

Today's TMFW is the story of how a recording screw-up helped launch Billy Joel's career. 

Before we get into that, let's pause for a moment to appreciate Mr. Joel's body of work.  Starting with The Stranger in 1977, which reached #2 on the album chart and is a 10x platinum record, every one of his eight studio records until 1993 was a top-10 hit and every one was certified multi-platinum.  Four of the albums reached #1, and he's had 33 top-40 singles and 7 top-5s (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7).  Respect to Billy Joel.

Joel played in rock-and-roll bands from a young age; he joined his first group The Echoes when he was just 16.  He left the Echoes (then called the Lost Souls) at 18 to join The Hassles.  After two failed records with The Hassles, at 20 he formed the hard rock/psychedelic duo Attila.  The duo featured just drums and a distorted Hammond organ, and their music wasn't the best.  They put out a record and that was a failure too (but check out the album cover with them dressed like Huns and hanging out in a meat locker - holy cow.)

Against that backdrop, you'd think Billy Joel was a grizzled industry veteran by the time he went solo.  But he was also only 22 years old and was undiscovered as a singer-songwriter.  Joel signed his first solo contract with Family Productions, a label owned by the producer Artie Ripp. Ripp took every advantage for himself in that contract, which required Joel to make 10 albums and gave Ripp's label ownership of masters and publishing rights. 

In July 1971, Joel recorded his first album for Family Productions.  Titled Cold Spring Harbor after a town near where he grew up in New York, the record featured ten original songs written by Joel.  Artie Ripp oversaw the mastering of the album, and something went wrong during the process.  The result was an entire record that played just a bit too fast and sounded a bit off. The odd pitch is evident right from the first track: an early version of "She's Got a Way," which later reached the top-40 with a (non-Chipmunk) live version in 1982

Though it was clearly messed up, Family Productions released the album anyway in November 1971.  Like Joel's previous efforts, the record failed, but he toured in support of it and opened up for big-at-the-time acts like J. Geils Band and The Beach Boys.  That touring - specifically, a live "radio concert" recording of his song "Captain Jack" in April 1972 - got him noticed by Columbia Records.

Joel was understandably angry with Artie Ripp for wrecking his first solo album, and so he was more than happy to jump to Columbia in 1972.  The only problem: that 10 album contract (with publishing rights) that he'd signed the year before.  Columbia's lawyers needed to figure out how to get him out from under it; in the meantime Joel's career was stalled.

That's where today's TMFW comes in.  Needing to bide his time while the legal details got worked out, Joel moved to LA with his wife.  She took a job as a waitress at the Executive Room bar, which despite its name looks like it was a bit shabby.  Joel worked there too: using the stage name Bill Martin, he played piano at the bar for six months until he was clear to record for Columbia. 

You see where this is going by now, of course.  While at the Executive Room, Joel's wife the waitress was "practicing politics," and Joel was getting to the know the characters that came in and out of the bar.  John at the bar really was a friend of his, and Paul really was a real estate agent who was working on the next great American novel (a/k/a a "real-estate novelist.")  It is unclear from my research whether Davy, who at that time was reported to still be in the Navy, was real or just a convenient rhyme.  Joel's experience of working at that LA piano bar while record lawyers worked out a deal became "Piano Man."  When he got back into the studio - to get out from his old contract Columbia had to cut Artie Ripp in on royalties for the next decade-plus! - "Piano Man" became his first single and gave its name to the album, too.  Though at the time it reached only #25 on the Hot 100, it is now rightfully regarded as has signature song.

One wonders whether Billy Joel would have become Billy Joel if his first producer didn't screw up so badly and he had stayed a Family Productions artist.   Perhaps he would just be "that guy from Attila."


BONUS FACT:  For as good of a musician as he is, Billy Joel has had almost equally bad luck as a businessperson.  This Spy magazine piece from 1991 details his troubles: after Artie Ripp screwed him out of 10+ years of royalties, he made an extremely friendly divorce settlement with his first wife (who was also his business manager), and then to replace her he hired her brother (yes, his newly-ex-brother-in-law) as his new manager.  At the time of the article, Joel has just filed a $90 million fraud suit against him, and the brother-in-law had just filed bankruptcy.  Oof.

BONUS FACT 2:  Between 2012 and 2014, the actor Adam Scott made four installments of a series called "The Greatest Event in Television History."  Each episode culminated in a lovingly-detailed, shot-for-shot remake of an '80s television intro.  (Here are Simon and Simon (with a side-by-side comparison to the original), Too Close for Comfort (with comparison), and Hart to Hart (with comparison).)  It's a stupid and pointless idea that is wonderful and great.  I love everything about it.

The last in the series was Bosom Buddies (with comparison).  The original intro for the show featured Billy Joel's song "My Life," but to save a bit of money the theme was done with a "sound-alike."  For the Greatest Evemt in Television History version, Billy Joel made a good-sported cameo (his bit starts at 4:31) and provided the soundtrack himself. 

BONUS FACT 3:  In a 2014 interview, Joel explained that he does not sell the front row at his concerts, and instead sends his road crew out before each show to "upgrade" fans who are sitting in the cheap seats.  He explained: "For years, the scalpers got the tickets and would scalp the front row for ridiculous amounts of money...I'd look down and see rich people sitting there...puffing on a cigar, 'entertain me, piano man.' They don't stand up, make noise, sit there with their bouffant haired girlfriend lookin' like a big shot. I kinda got sick of that, who the hell are these people, where are the real fans? It turns out the real fans were always in the back of the room in the worst seats. We now hold those tickets, and I send my road crew out to the back of the room when the audience comes in and they get people from the worst seats and bring 'em in to the front rows." 

BONUS FACT 4:  Billy Joel struggled with depression as a young man, and after the failure of Attila he tried at age 21 to commit suicide by drinking furniture polish (he had his choice between that and bleach, and said that he thought the polish would "probably taste better than the bleach."). His experience with depression helped inspire the songs "Tomorrow is Today" (from Cold Springs Harbor; here is the original with the goofy mastering) and "You're Only Human (Second Wind)."  In the case of the latter song, Joel pledged all of the song's royalties to a suicide prevention charity.

BONUS FACT 4.5:  Starting at around 2:03 of the video for "You're Only Human (Second Wind)," a young man is pulled from the ocean and saved from drowning.  It is a young, pre-Mythbusters Adam Savage.

BONUS FACT 5:  Anticipating today's entry, last night I asked my wife if she knew any good True Music Facts about Billy Joel.  Off the top of her head, she said "Christie Brinkley painted the album cover for River of Dreams."  And it turns out she did!  That's pretty cool (both the painting itself and that my wife has been carrying around a nugget of Billy Joel trivia since 1993.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TMFW 123 - You Wouldn't Know It, It Lives in Canada

Today's TMFW is the story of the 1974 musical film The Phantom of the Paradise, which had the odd distinction of being both a box office flop and a giant hit.  

The movie, directed by Brian De Palma (who went on to direct CarrieScarface, and The Untouchables, among others), is a "musical horror film" and music business satire.  It is loosely based on Phantom of the Opera, with references to Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure.  Characters include the singularly-named Swan, and Phoenix, and Beef.  The plot, as written up in Wikipedia, features a disfigured music composer, a "satanic record producer," a character framed for drug dealing, experimental tooth extractions in a prison (?), doo wop and surf groups called The Juicy Fruits and the Beach Bums, an on-stage electrocution, a stabbing, and a deal with the devil that can only be undone by destruction of a videotape.  (I read it several times and am still not sure I get it.)    

The movie was campy and bright and intentionally over-the-top. (You can hear the whole soundtrack here, which is pretty cool and earned Oscar and Golden Globes nominations.)  In many ways, it resembled The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came just 10 months afterwards.  But instead of finding success or becoming a cult classic like the latter film, The Phantom of the Paradise fell right on its face.  It was a box office flop everywhere it played.

Everywhere, that is, except Winnipeg.  In Winnipeg, it killed.  

The story is told in detail on this Canadian Phantom of the Paradise fan site.  For reasons nobody can explain, though the film lasted only one week in other big Canadian cities like Vancouver and Edmonton and Calgary, it ran for 18 weeks in Winnipeg from December 1974 to May 1975.  That's 2 weeks longer than the 1975 box office champ Jaws.  Local sales of the soundtrack - estimated to be 20,000 records in Winnipeg alone - propelled the record to gold status.  (In Canada, it takes 50,000 records to hit gold.  That means that Winnipeg, a city that at that time made up about 2.5% of Canada's total population, accounted for 40% of the certification.  Holy cow.) 

Since its initial run, The Phantom of the Paradise has enjoyed continuous success in the City, with sold-out appearances by cast members, occasional midnight showings, an IMAX run, and even an every-other-year Phantom-palooza that celebrates the movie and what it means to Winnipeggers.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  


BONUS FACT: Though it was a box-office flop overall, The Phantom of the Paradise has found a good deal of respect and appreciation since then.  As time has gone on, the film has gotten a lot of love from critics and audiences.  The arts blog The Dissolve did a series of posts on the film last year (including one entry on the unlikely success in Winnipeg), Rotten Tomatoes gives it a critics score of 95% and an audience score of 84%, and the special-edition Blu-Ray on Amazon has 4.5 stars across over 350 glowing reviews.  This New York Times write-up from the summer of 2014 nicely lays out just how goofy, and now how beloved, it is.  Winnipeggers are probably wondering what took everybody so long to figure it out.

BONUS FACT 2:  The inspiration for today's title is the cultural trope of the "fake girlfriend in Canada," used (to me, anyway) for the first time in The Breakfast Club.  It most recently appeared in the Pixar movie Inside Out.  Here's a quick, fun little article from GQ offering some theories about why Canada is the place with such a large (imaginary) population.

BONUS FACT 3:  One other quirky distinction of Winnipeg is their love of Slurpees.  Despite an average winter temperature (that's over three months) of 10 degrees F, last year Manitoba was named the "Slurpee Capital of the World" for the 16th (!!!) straight year.  Their feat got them written up in the Wall Street Journal.

BONUS FACT 4:  I can't write a whole music post about Winnipeg without linking to The Weakerthans' fantastic lament/celebration of their hometown: "One Great City!"  It features the remarkably straightforward (and yet somehow sweet and complex) refrain "I hate Winnipeg."

BONUS OBSERVATION 4.5: The first line of the song is "Late afternoon another day is nearly done; a darker gray is breaking through a lighter one."  Having spent a fair amount of time in Winnipeg (I did a deal there several years ago), that visual perfectly describes the transition of day to night in winter.  Dark gray overcomes light gray, and it's time to pack up and leave the office.

BONUS FACT 4.75:  The song also features the great line "The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway," seeming to anticipate and dismiss any defense of what makes the City cool.  On a 2007 tour, The Weakerthans played that song and sang that line in Winnipeg, at the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts.  Burton Cummings is the lead singer and principal songwriter of the Guess Who.  I enjoy that.

BONUS FACT 5:  Not to pile on Winnipeg, which is actually quite a nice place in the summertime, but The Simpsons had a good gag in a Season 16 episode where Homer visits a Canadian pharmacy to smuggle prescription drugs back to the US.  The entry to Winnipeg has a sign reading "NOW ENTERING WINNIPEG.  WE WERE BORN HERE, WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?"

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

TMFW 122 - The One-Hit Wonder (Six Different Times)

(NOTE:  For this week's entry, I had a story that I like a lot, but I ran out of time.  So you will probably see it next week.  In its place is a pretty fun, but much more straightforward, story.

In 1967, The Flower Pot Men had a hit with "Let's Go to San Francisco," which reached #4 in the UK.  They never had another song in the top-40 on the UK or US charts.

In January 1970, Edison Lighthouse had a hit with "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes," which reached #1 in the UK and #5 in the US.  They never had another song in the top-40 on the UK or US charts.

In February 1970, Edison Lighthouse was joined in the UK Top-10 by White Plains, who had a hit with "My Baby Loves Lovin'."  It reached #9 in the UK and #13 in the US.  White Plains had a respectable four other top-40 singles in the UK, but never had another top-40 on the US charts.

Also in February of 1970, The Brotherhood of Man had a hit with "United We Stand," which hit #10 in the UK and #13 in the US.  That incarnation of The Brotherhood of Man reached #22 in the UK with its next single, but never charted in the UK or US again.

In the summer of 1970, The Pipkins had a hit with the novelty song "Gimme Dat Ding," which reached #6 in the UK and #9 in the US.  (It also inspired "Gimme Dat Ring," a custom version made to advertise the new "pull top" ring on Coca-Cola cans.)  They never had another song in the top-40 on the UK or US charts.

Finally, in 1974 The First Class had a hit with "Beach Baby," which reached #13 in the UK and #4 in the US.  They never had another song in the top-40 on the UK or US charts.

There were lots (and lots and lots) of one-hit wonders, of course, but what makes these worthy of a TMFW is that the lead vocals on all six of the songs above were done by the same guy: prolific British session musician Tony Burrows.  In nearly all of the cases, the "bands" in question were put together by songwriters or producers who wanted to get a single recorded and released, and used session musicians to do it.  Because a record needs an artist, a band name was contrived and slapped on. 

This six-minute BBC clip from The One Show is a nice overview of Burrows, who had the distinction in February 1970 of having three songs in the top 10, with three different bands.  He seems like a good dude.  As he notes in the clip, the songs were recorded several months apart, and it was just a matter of coincidence that they were released and found success so close to each other.

Ironically, through the 1970s Burrows released 12 singles under his own name.  The best he ever did on the Hot 100 was his song "Melanie Makes Me Smile," which hit #84 in 1970.  That's a pretty good gag.

So there's your TMFW for today: one singer felt the joy, and frustration, of being a "One Hit Wonder" with six different bands.


BONUS FACT:  For four weeks in 1970, including three consecutive weeks from February 12 to February 26, Burrows performed live on the UK show "Top of the Pops" with two of his three hit bands.  Edison Lighthouse (performing "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes") played all four weeks, while Brotherhood of Man (performing "United We Stand") shared the bill on January 29 and February 19 and White Plains (performing "My Baby Loves Lovin'") shared the bill on February 12 and February 26.  As Burrows notes in the interview linked above, he changed clothes between performances and thinks that the crowd may not have even recognized that he was the lead singer of both groups.

BONUS FACT 2:  Starting in 1976, Brotherhood of Man had three #1 songs in the UK, with "Save Your Kisses for Me," "Angelo," and "Figaro."  But by that time every single one of the original members had changed, without even any overlap.  So in effect, they were two fully separate bands, with the only thing shared in common a producer and a name.  That's how they did it back then.