Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grammy Night - 1975

...Or, The Night I Caught the Funk

The Grammy awards were on last Sunday and I didn’t watch them.  I haven’t watched them in ages.  It’s not that I have anything against the Grammies themselves; it has more to do with the state of modern music.  I don’t like very much of it.

Yes, I know, it’s generational thing and everyone get off my lawn.  It’s the same battle every aging person has with the generations that follow.  “No one makes good music like they used to any more.”

It hurts me to say that because I dedicated a giant portion of my life to popular music.  I worked 13 years in the record business for the sole reason of staying involved with music.  (It sure wasn’t because of the pay or the hours.)  Before that, I hung out at record stores for hours, devouring every detail that the record covers and backs could show me.  I was always the kid in the neighborhood who knew who sang what song, even when the DJ didn’t mention it.  So I take my music cred pretty seriously.

I think it all started to get away from me in the late 80s.  Even when I was working in the business, my tastes separated from what was popular to those things for which I had cultivated a taste.  I may have been able to wheel and deal in Top 40, but I rarely listened to it.  Instead I followed the blues and remained on the lookout for good old no frills rock and roll, the louder the better.  But it had to have a hook.

I turn on the radio these days and it disgusts me.  All I hear are talentless auto-tuned star wannabees clamoring for their time on TV or YouTube, backed by programmed beats and atonal keyboards… I have issues with any album that says in the credits: “Drums programmed by…” Drums should be beaten, not programmed.  And in my day, if you couldn’t sing, you screamed.  (See Tyler, Steven.)  And if you couldn’t at least do that, then you didn’t make freakin’ records!

It doesn’t get any better when I listen to rock radio.  Seems to be all thrashing and wailing, but no hooks.  I hear a big indistinguishable wash of guitar noise, but no groove.

In my later years in the business, the Grammies only mattered when it came to our store promotions.  Whoever won a Grammy, or looked good performing, would be a big seller that week.  So we had to be on our toes.

I think I gave up actually watching the show the year after the famous Jethro Tull debacle.  That was the first year they had a “Heavy Metal” category and the geniuses in the Academy voted for Jethro Tull as the winner, who were neither heavy, nor metal.  Tull beat out Metallica, AC/DC and other legitimate metal bands.  I can only imagine what the voters’ thought process was there…

Hey, remember that song “Bungle in the Jungle?”  I liked that; I’ll vote for Jethro Tull.”

It wasn’t always like that for me.  Back in my formative years in the early 70s, the Grammies were still relevant.  In fact, they were vital!  It was the one reliable way that you could see the popular groups perform.

Time check: No cable TV, no MTV, no SNL, no computers or YouTube.  There were very few avenues to see the top stars.  You had American Bandstand or Soul Train.  You had the Midnight Special (for which I was not allowed to stay up, until my teenage years.)  You had the afternoon talk shows like Dinah Shore or Mike Douglas.  You saw in the TV Guide that someone was performing on one of those shows, or you had to go to a concert.  (No one I knew ever went to concerts, again, until I was well into teenhood.)

So Grammy night was a big deal because not only were the top artists going to perform, but also present, which meant you got to see what they looked and talked like.  Remember, if there wasn’t a good picture on an album cover, you might not know anything about how an artist looked.  (Unless they were from the Tiger Beat/Girls fanzine crowd.)

I remember watching the American Music Awards one night (or some non-Grammy music award show) and Elton John hosted.  At that time, I was a huge EJ fan and was eating up his first Greatest Hits album.  But it wasn’t until I saw that show that I even knew he was English!  Seeing up standing up there being all clever and witty with his British accent just impressed the hell out of me and probably laid the groundwork for my future appreciation of Monty Python.

OK, back to the Grammies and the story I intended to tell with this post.  (Yes, I know I do take the long way ‘round sometimes.)

I will never forget the night I first saw Stevie Wonder play: Grammy night, 1975.  The prior summer Stevie Wonder release “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and the single “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” reached #1.  While it’s not his most recognized single now, it was my gateway to The Funk.  I loved that sound he had.  I had no idea if it was a guitar or a keyboard or what… (which I now know to be a synthesizer).

So Stevie took the stage and played “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and just rocked the place.  I was in awe.  Stevie was up there with his dark shades on, his shoulders rockin and beads in his hair swingin’.  The entire audience was on their feet, dancing in their seats.  I remember the camera panning over to show Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Pips looked like they were doing their act.  They were getting D.O.W.N.  I went out and used my meager allowance money that next week to go buy the single.

Eyes newly opened, I began paying attention to some of the other Stevie Wonder songs that the radio started playing again.  Both Higher Ground and Superstition were getting airplay, even though they came from his prior two albums.  Both had that same plucky synthesizer sound I loved.  I couldn’t find either one as a single though, so one afternoon when we were out shopping I whined and pleaded so unrelentingly to my mother, she gave me the money to buy the full album “Talking Book,” which contained “Superstition.”  That was my first record album.  Not AC/DC, not BTO, not Aerosmith… freakin’ Stevie Wonder.

After that, it seemed like every year, Stevie Wonder was on TV winning Grammies and playing his ass off.  “Songs in the Key of Life” came next, which produced two more #1 singles, “Sir Duke,” and the incredible “I Wish.” 

I Wish” was the Shit.  What a groove!  From the opening that layers synth line upon synth line to the down home slice of life lyrics, when it comes on, you can’t help but start to move your shoulders.

Not too many years ago I saw a show on the making of that album, which featured various other stars and musicians talking about the songs.  I remember the rap artist Coolio talking about being at junior high school dance, with the boys holding up one wall the girls holding up the other.  But he said when the DJ put on “I Wish,” the groove defeated the inherent awkwardness of the situation and everyone just had to get off the wall and dance.

In fact, I just found that clip… check it out if you’d like to see how the song was made and hear some people talking about it.

I know that there are still talented musicians working out there.  Sure would be nice to hear some funk that was more than a bass beat.  Or a rock song that didn’t sound like it was produced by factory machinery.

This is me, not holding my breath.

17 comments:

  1. You still have rock stations in Baltimore? Or Pittsburgh? Man, you're lucky! They got rid of KRock here in NJ/NY so they could spew out another top 40 Gaga-thon. Now there are no rock stations left in our area. ZERO. Ugh.

    I'm with you Bluz, music today is just awful. And I'm 31. I'm too young to sound this old! But I can't help it. The Grammies and top 40 radio and whatever's left of mTV have been playing the same kind of manufactured pop and (once in a while) uninspired rock 'music' for the past few years.

    Remember when MTV used to play Duran Duran and Madonna and Def Leppard and Lionel Richie and Billy Joel and Guns N' Roses and Run DMC and Metallica in the same HOUR? That was back when viewers/listeners were given a choice: "we'll play a little bit of everything and you tell us what you like". Now the radio/TV stations play what they want and force it on us 24/7. Don't like Katy Perry? How about Beyonce? Don't like Beyonce? Well you're shit outta luck!

    Which is why I laughed when Arcade Fire won the Grammy for album of the year last year. It seemed like the Grammies were giving top 40 the finger.

    I'll get off my soapbox now (can you tell this is something I've been meaning to rant about?) but I hope you caught Dave Grohl's speech about how real music is made. That man might yet save rock n' roll.

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    1. Welcome aboard the Grumpy Old Man Train, Insomniac...

      Yeah, there is still a rock station here, "98-Rock." I listen to their morning show only because they don't play any music. If I absolutely must listen to the radio, I search out the classic rock stations. But even then I can't listen very long, because it doesn't take too long before even THEY begin repeating themselves. You'd think that if you had 3 decades of music to call upon, you could go months before repeating a song. But no, they run them just like the pop music stations. Same old shit, over and over.

      That's why I have always played my own music... first on mix tapes, then CDs, now on a flash drive. Guaranteed that I love every song that comes on.

      Remember when MTV used to play music videos... PERIOD???

      No, I didn't see Dave Grohl's speech, because I stopped watching the Grammies 20 years ago.

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    2. Yeah, I don't watch the Grammy awards anymore either (not sure I ever did...maybe in 97 when Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins were nominated for album of the year) but this was all over the internet and the news. It's well worth a watch:

      http://www.grammy.com/videos/foo-fighters-win-best-rock-performance

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    3. Thanks for the link. Grohl hit it right on the head. Real people playing real instruments, who have learned how to play real music... that's what it should be all about. Long live the Garage Band.

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  2. It's so crazy to think about times before MP3's when you had to go out and physically search for a single. As you pointed out, the whole way music is consumed has changed. And your comment about Steven Tyler made me laugh. Man can certainly scream though!

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    1. I love the fact that music stores have become marginalized now. The record business was one of the dirtiest, ugliest, most corrupt businesses out there and I love the fact that they're getting their asses handed to them now. That'll teach them for laying me off in the 90s, and replacing my experience with cheaper labor.

      If they had embraced the digital revolution instead of fighting tooth and nail to protect their nut, they would still be viable today.

      Every time I go to Amazon and download a song for 99 cents, I think, "Fuck'em" and giggle as I press the "Buy" button.

      The music world, as it is now? Would have been a giant wet dream for me, back when I was young. Being able to sample every track on an album and only buy the songs I liked? Unbelievable.

      Being able to listen to a snippet of a highly reviewed song before popping for the whole album? Priceless.

      Screw the whole business for being penny wise and pound foolish.

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  3. It was crazy how few albums in the 70s had pictures of the artists. I think it was because it was the pre-video age and most of them were not lookers. Today, you have to look hot to make it, unless you have Adele's pipes.

    This year, the show really trended older. I was pretty shocked. I figure someone at CBS wanted something the "60 Minutes" crowd would tune in for. Opened with Springsteen, then, had The Beach Boys, Joe Walsh, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Glen Campbell, and Bonnie Raitt. I know, not all of them are on your iPod, but still. Of course, they had to let wife-beater Chris Brown have two songs. That was strange.

    The end was great. During the guitar solo on The Beatles' The End, McCartney had a six-way guitar jam with Springsteen, Joe Walsh, Dave Grohl, and McCartney's two other guitar players. It was at the very end, but worth checking out on You Tube.

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    1. You know, that sounds really good. I’d have liked that. Maybe they’ve been taking notes from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions.

      Note: I have something from all of those artists on my MP3 player except Tony Bennett. (And I have one of his CDs on the rack.) Yes, even Glen Campbell, believe it or not. In fact, it just came up today on my way in to work.

      Back in the mid 70s, we got Mom the single of “Southern Nights” as a joke because she said it was the hokiest song she’d ever heard. But the B-side was a version of the William Tell Overture with GC on guitar, backed by a full orchestra and a drummer. That’s what’s on my MP3. I tell you, he was no joke as a picker.

      As far as the ‘lookers’ go, it’s sad to think that in this day an age, BTO would never become a hit, or even get signed.

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  4. One bright spot is a Grammy award for a children's album on bullies. Michael DeMaria, three time nominee from Gulf Breeze, contributed a segment called Joyful Haikus which he wrote and set to music, sung by a children's chorus.
    Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder can do "I WISH" until real music comes again.

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    1. You must have been so relieved that it was Stevie Wonder I was clamoring after, rather than something like KISS or Black Sabbath.

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  5. Do you like The Black Keys?

    The only reason we were going to watch the Grammys this year was for that Foster the People/Beach Boys thing (the Foster the People album is surprisingly good, and Kam loves the Boys), but then two more important things started recording on the DVR, and we said we'd watch it on YouTube later. Oh, Internet.

    I haven't ever really cared about the Grammys, but after the "Who the fuck is Arcade Fire?" debacle of last year, I actively hated them.

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    1. Never heard the Black Keys. There are so many more white ones, how can they play anything?

      Have no idea who Arcade Fire is either.

      Geez, what is my belt doing up over my navel?

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    2. This is exactly what I'm talking about. If the radio/video stations stopped playing the same five pop/R&B artists for five minutes -- or if there were actual rock stations that played *current* rock music you would know why Arcade Fire deserved to win.... or you'd at least know who the fuck they are!

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  6. Are you serious about KISS and BLACK SABBATH? If so, so be it.
    (O where did I go wrong)

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    1. You're missing the point. I never liked anything like that, for which I'd expect you'd be grateful. I liked quality stuff!

      I never liked KISS until they took off their clown makeup in the 80s.

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  7. Showing my age here, I was in the music business in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s and I haven't heard much that can match that music since. It is generational, but there does seem to be a significantly larger about of crap to get through to find something good. I do love Adele. Who doesn't? And Pink write some interesting tunes. I even like some of Gaga's stuff. But the Grammy show itself? Nicki Manaj? Shoot me. No. Wait. Shoot her.

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    1. Sounds like you have another book in you, about your music experiences back in the day.

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