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babalu’s getting married

It begins, “Where’s everybody runnin’? Look at everybody go.” Well technically it begins with “Bom, bom, bom,” a bass voice setting up the scenario to follow. What’s all the fuss?, the lead singer wants to know. It’s the story of Babalu, and from the lack of context, it seems as though this is someone we already should know. He is, the Eternals tell us, getting married, and this is a big deal. Everyone’s pretty jazzed about it. But this surreal celebration has more to tell us. It gets stranger and stranger.

The Eternals were a vocal group from the Bronx, New York. They’re known, in a minor way, for their 1959 single “Rockin’ in the Jungle” (I first discovered that one on an oldies compilation, one of the LPs that had bikers on the cover in the tradition of the trailblazing The Paragons Meet the Jesters), and for their follow-up, “Babalu’s Wedding Day.” The saga of Babalu, as told to us in this song, is that he met a woman at baseball game “playing second base for the Milwaukee Braves,” but there some syntactical fuzziness going on here. It’s more probable, of course, that Babalu is the person covering second base for the Braves, so let’s go with that, but maybe the woman is? He asks her for an autograph. When, as a child, I heard this record, I thought the Eternals were saying that the woman’s name was Hoskie Babalena, but most lyric websites say it’s “Husky,” which is an unkind nickname if true.

OK, what else do we learn about this Babalu person, before King Curtis comes in to wail some saxophone? Babalu is broke: he tries to borrow a dime from a friend so he (Babalu) can get to the wedding ceremony. He also has a monkey, or had a monkey, and he and the monkey made some money (Babalu was the organ grinder), but the monkey made off with the loot. So poor Babalu. But let’s pause and marvel at the circumstances that made it possible for him to meet a girl with the surname Babalena. Surely the odds against that were considerable. By the end, the wedding is still scheduled.

“Babalu’s Wedding Day” achieved a kind of secondary immortality when the Eternals modified it as a jingle for deejay Bob Lewis on WABC in New York. It is so damned catchy — “Babalu, Babalu-lu-lu” — and the whole story is so fractured and funny. Like a lot of Bronx vocal group records, it has a carefree exuberance, a delight in verbal nonsense. It’s a thing of joy, ultimately, despite all the obstacles, the money situation, the dastardly monkey (he’s like the one in the Coasters’ “Run, Red, Run,” turning on his owner). The bride, Miss Babalena, is waiting at the altar. It sounds like a perfect day for Babalu’s wedding. Somehow, he’ll make it there.

why tom petty was the ultimate rock fan

Note: Some months back, I wrote this piece for the website Music Aficionado, and MA has been kind enough to let me post it here. Still miss Tom Petty…

Every night, on what was never supposed to be their last tour, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened the show with side one, track one of their debut album, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” as vintage footage of the band was projected on the big arena screens behind them. It was a flashback, and a statement of purpose, a manifesto: This is what we do, the song promised; we’re in this thing together. It forged a bond between performer and audience that this band had always lived up to for four decades. You knew, whether you saw them near the start of it all, as I did, on the bill with Roger McGuinn at the Bottom Line in 1977, or on the final swing that ended forty years later, that they were there, as they say on reality TV, for the right reasons.

“Rockin’ Around (With You”)—not the only such declaration on the first album; they also had a song called “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Petty was determined to get “roll” back in the rock game)—is the simplest song imaginable. It could have been a ’50s record by Ricky Nelson or Gene Vincent, a ’60s song by the early Kinks or Mitch Ryder. “I was waiting, you came through,” Petty sings in that instantly distinctive emphatic drawl, and it felt new and classic. “I dig rockin’ around with you.” Is there a lyric more fundamental to the premise of rock? Here, right now, is where you want to be. This night, this moment, with this band.

In a Los Angeles Times interview given shortly before his death, Petty said, “We’re a real rock ’n’ roll band—always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce, it wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater.” That fervor, the sense that this was a band with a clear sense of purpose, was evident from the beginning, even though it wasn’t clear to everyone exactly what they were up to. Were they revivalists (they covered Chuck Berry and “Shout”)? A new wave band (they were included on an early import compilation Geef Voor New Wave alongside the Sex Pistols and the Adverts)? Petty wore a leather jacket on the cover of the first album: were they like the Ramones, perhaps? Really, as Petty admitted, it was simple. They were a real rock ’n’ roll band. And at a time when mainstream rock was having something of an identity crisis, Petty and the Heartbreakers were trying to press the reset button.

Petty was one of a generation of musicians whose early childhood coincided with the rise of rock ’n’ roll and whose adolescence was in the post-Beatles ’60s. They were around to see Elvis Presley (Petty actually met him on the Florida set of the movie Follow That Dream), to experience the British Invasion firsthand, to grow up on the wildly varied sound of American top 40 radio. They heard everything—rockabilly, girl-group pop, surf music, R&B, garage rock, folk-rock—and soaked it all up. Those kids, born smack in the center of the 20th century, 1949 through 1951, had a common frame of reference, coming of age when popular music wasn’t carved up into competing categories.

Petty (1951), Bruce Springsteen (1949), John Mellencamp (1951), Joey Ramone (1951), David Johansen of the New York Dolls (1950), Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders (1951), Billy Joel (1949), Alex Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star (1950), Eric Carmen of the Raspberries (1949), Willy DeVille (1950) … they all had overlapping influences, drew on some of the same sources and took them in different directions. Petty, Springsteen, and Johansen all covered the Animals; Petty and the Ramones each did the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” and the Dave Clark 5’s “Anyway You Want it.” Petty, Chilton, and Hynde have dipped into the Ray Davies songbook.

You can tell they were all listening at the same time to the same Stones, Beatles, and Dylan albums, were all glued into radio stations that played frat-rock one-offs and early soul. The Heartbreakers’ guitarist, Mike Campbell, who was at Petty’s side since they were teenagers in Gainesville, Florida, told Mojo magazine, “We would get all the records as soon as they came out. … I’d go over to Tom’s and he would put on a record, and then turn it over and play it again and again, totally enamored.” They learned from those records, and picked up songs from the Stones (you can bet they heard Bert Berns’s “Cry to Me” on Out of Our Heads). Their own band was a synthesis of so much of what they heard: the defiant growl of the Animals (“Breakdown” copped a good deal from “Cheating” on Animalization), the exhilarating lilt of the Byrds, the motorvatin’ Chuck-and-Bo momentum of the Yardbirds, the pop crunch of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

It came through vividly in Petty’s music, that level of devotion to what he considered the true values of rock ’n’ roll. What he, Campbell, keyboard player Benmont Tench, bassists Ron Blair and Howie Epstein, and drummers Stan Lynch and Steve Ferrone did over their entire career, always felt like a calling. Like, if we aren’t going to do this, who will? Someone’s got to. And they did it without any heavy self-mythologizing, without going out of their way to demonstrate how hard-working they were. You got the sense that they considered themselves lucky, and why wouldn’t they? Can you picture Petty at 14, 15 years old, playing in his first band, starting to sing, write, play guitar, and if he could have looked into the future, seeing his band back up Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash? Seeing himself in a group with George Harrison and Roy Orbison, or producing Del Shannon and the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, playing alongside Buffalo Springfield the night he inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? He never lost touch with his inner fan, and for those of us of a certain age, he was a surrogate: we had heroes in common, and record collections, and cultural touchstones, but Petty had the talent to superimpose himself into the scene.

Certainly, he was among the most gifted songwriters of his Born-In-Midcentury Generation. But many of his most resonant moments on stage and on record came when he turned to songs he didn’t write, when he and his remarkably adept and adaptable band pulled an unexpected cover out of their vast memory bank, doing John Barry’s theme from Goldfinger as a moody surf instrumental, unearthing an oddball oldie like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” or the Music Explosion’s “A Little Bit o’ Soul,” romping through “Route 66” or “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.” Petty was aware of the place those songs held in his narrative. When he compiled The Live Anthology, a boxed set that should be a model for any career-spanning live collection, he made sure to include a batch of them, and explained his decision in the liner notes: “Sometimes the covers we played revealed more about who the Heartbreakers are and how we think musically than the songs that became hits. The covers revealed something special, and we always took them as seriously as anything else we played.”

Petty’s death is deeply sad for many reasons, but one is that he was a keeper of the flame; he wanted to be a constant, present reminder of what came before him, of how rock ’n’ roll began and persisted and thrived, what it meant. His SiriusXM show, Buried Treasure, where he played records mostly from the ’50s and ’60s, was his way of saying: Pay attention, you need to know about this music. In interviews, he could get a little cranky, bemoaning the state of the music business, the decline of radio, the pernicious effect of TV talent shows. He’d be as pissed off as anyone that the Heartbreakers lost their lead singer and songwriter, because that leaves such a void, breaks a connective thread. This list of a dozen records just scratches the surface of all the ways Petty and the Heartbreakers kept the spirit of rock ’n’ roll alive through songs Petty didn’t write, and artists he owed so much to.

Don’t Bring Me Down

It can’t be overstated how significant the records by the Animals were to so many members of Petty’s musical peer group: songs like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “It’s My Life” were pitch-black, insolent anthems, and if you were between 14 and 16 when those singles came out, they were likely the soundtrack of your frustration. Every time someone like Springsteen, Mellencamp, or Petty (or even Billy Joel in his more truculent mood) wrote a fist-raising song about breakin’ loose, not backin’ down, and standin’ your ground, there were Animal echoes. When Springsteen and Petty (and Dylan) shared a stage in 1990, the Animals’ “I’m Cryin’” was one of the songs they did together. “Don’t Bring Me Down,” written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, was a perfect fit for the Heartbreakers; it rumbles ominously and slowly, then erupts on the chorus, a trick Petty used quite a bit on his own songs. The song is a desperate plea, a man asking for a little support, while his self-confidence is chipped away:

When you complain and criticize 
I feel I’m nothing in your eyes
It makes me feel like givin’ up 
Because my best just ain’t good enough

I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better

There were always Byrds-Heartbreakers comparisons, and they made sense: the guitars that jingle-jangled, and the fact that Petty’s voice sometimes had the nasal tone of Roger McGuinn’s. Early on, the story goes, McGuinn heard “American Girl” on the radio and thought it was something he’d cut before and forgotten about (he promptly went ahead and recorded it). “American Girl” wasn’t even the most Byrdlike of the Heartbreakers’ early songs (Petty acknowledged that “Listen to Her Heart” had more of a Byrds and Searchers influence). The band included “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” in their set (Campbell’s guitar incorporated elements of “Eight Miles High”), and on his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, Petty went back to the Byrds’ debut album for Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” His version doesn’t deviate much from the original. It doesn’t have to. It was always perfect.

Wooden Heart

The first album Petty owned was the soundtrack from the movie Elvis Presley made when he got out of the Army,G.I. Blues. “Wooden Heart” comes from that LP, with a melody that sounds like something from an antique music box, simple and hummable. Although there were times, on other records, where Petty’s vocal was an aural match for Presley’s curled lip, on this track, backed mostly by Tench, he actually sings a little bit like Buddy Holly on “Everyday,” soft and reflective, his voice higher and sweeter than usual. In the book Conversations with Petty by Paul Zollo, Petty says it was knocked off in only one take. “I love our record of that,” he told Zollo. “When I hear that, I’m really touched by it, because it reminds me of being young and listening to those records.”


Somethin’ Else

Eddie Cochran was a rock ’n’ roll archetype: the kid eager for action, hitting roadblocks. The summer job that kept him from getting out and having fun, the flight of stairs that made him too tired to “rock” when he hit the top floor. On “Somethin’ Else” (written by Sharon Sheely and Eddie’s brother Bob Cochran), there’s a car he has his eye on, and a girl he’d like to know better, but one is too pricey and the other ignores him. He doesn’t get the exact car he wants, but he does get the girl. The song is sleek and sharp—it’s about what you can compromise on, and what you can’t—and Petty and his band used to jump into it gleefully. “Lookathere!” Petty slurs, “Here she comes!” (he means the girl, but he’s just as jazzed about the automobile) and you can feel his eyes light up.

Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

Petty and the Heartbreakers went on the road in 1986 and 1987 as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and although it was kind of a shambles—it was not Dylan’s most inspired period—how could they have turned down that chance? Not only did they get to play Dylan’s songs night after night, but he was as likely to play unexpected covers as they were: the sets included Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” most nights, and the country standard “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” and there was even, a couple of times, a Chuck Berry tune (“Bye Bye Johnny”). In 1992, Petty and the band were part of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden, and one of the songs they chose to do was Blonde on Blonde’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” only they approached it as if it were a track on Highway 61 Revisited, with Mike Campbell playing some searing Mike Bloomfield-esque guitar phrases. It gave the song a whole different texture, and everyone was happy, including the audience that still got to shout out “Everybody must get stoned!”

Born in Chicago

“Born in Chicago” was a spontaneous choice for a cover, cooked up when the band was in the song’s namesake city for a taping of the television show Soundstage in 2003. You might not think of the Heartbreakers as a blues band, but like so many musicians from their era, they found their path into the blues through groups like the Stones (the Heartbreakers have done “Little Red Rooster,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and other songs the Stones adopted) and, in this particular case, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose ’65 debut album was like a gateway drug to electric blues. This edition of the Heartbreakers, with Ron Blair on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums, and Scott Thurston, here on harmonica, blasted confidently through the hastily rehearsed song, but as Petty admits in the liner notes of The Live Anthology, “We tried to play it again a few days later and couldn’t play it to save our lives.”

I Want You Back Again

Writing about the Zombies for the boxed set Zombie Heaven, Petty said, “Their music was ethereal, with a groove from somewhere else, with a voice of rough velvet.” There was always an elusiveness about the Zombies, like you were overhearing the music and couldn’t exactly grasp all its mysteries. It was just out of reach. Picking any number of their songs to cover would have given Benmont Tench a chance to shine, and surely audiences would have been more familiar with “She’s Not There” or “Tell Her No.” But Rod Argent’s haunting “I Want You Back Again” feels exactly right. Petty recalled hearing it on the radio just once when it came out, and then not again for years, but remembering it. “It’s a jazzy kind of rhythm and chord sequence. Ben just rips it to pieces when he gets to his thing.” He knew the crowd wouldn’t know the song, but he trusted they’d get into it, and they did.

Six Days on the Road – Mudcrutch

Before Petty formed the Heartbreakers, he and Campbell (and a little later, Tench) were in a Gainesville band called Mudcrutch; they cut a single for Shelter Records in 1975 and broke up not long after that. They tilted more in a Southern/country-rock direction, with elements of the Byrds (naturally), Buffalo Springfield, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Maybe some Little Feat as well. Flash-forward to 2007, and Petty decided to get the old band back together; he, Tench, and Campbell were joined by Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh. Their reunion/debut album was mostly written by Petty, but among the other tracks were one by the later-day Byrds (“Lover of the Bayou”) and the country-trucker standard “Six Days on the Road,” made famous by Dave Dudley, but it was quite likely the Burritos’ version that prompted Mudcrutch’s rendition. Somehow, the Heartbreakers find a springy Chuck Berry song inside this ode to the open road and amphetamines.

Runaway – the Traveling Wilburys

It made so much sense that Petty would be a fan of Del Shannon’s. Listen to those Shannon records, “Keep Searchin’,” “Stranger in Town,” the cornered urgency of them, like Del is driving through dark backroads, a character out of film noir. Famously, Petty referenced “Runaway” in 1989’s “Running Down a Dream,” nearly a decade after he produced Shannon’s album Drop Down and Get Me. That should have been a comeback album, but it slipped away, and Shannon never got the commercial resurgence he deserved; he committed suicide before the release of Rock On, an album that Mike Campbell co-produced with Jeff Lynne, and that Petty and most of the Heartbeakers played on. When Roy Orbison passed away, there was some chatter that Petty, Lynne, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan were thinking about recruiting Shannon as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, but that feels like wishful thinking. The Wilburys did, however, record a very faithful version of “Runaway” (Jeff Lynne on lead vocal) that surfaced as a bonus track on their second album.

The Running Kind – Johnny Cash

None of Tom Petty’s albums ever won a Grammy (he won a few in other categories, like Best Rock Vocal Performance and Best Long Form Music Video). But he and the Heartbreakers were the backing band on a winner of the award for Best Country Album. Producer Rick Rubin asked them to play on American II: Unchained. As Petty told Paul Zollo, “These are the things that are the real bonus to being in the Heartbreakers. When you get to do something like that … That record is certainly some of the best playing the Heartbreakers ever did.” It’s remarkable how easily they lock into the project, how fluid they are in Cash’s musical language. It is, in some ways, the best of Cash’s albums with Rubin, the most varied (it goes from Beck to Dean Martin to the Louvin Brothers to Soundgarden, and Cash does a touching version of Petty’s “Southern Accents”) and steady-handed. On an outtake released on Unearthed, Cash and Petty do a duet on Merle Haggard’s “The Running Kind,” a song about rootlessness and restlessness, about not being able to escape your inner prison.

Here She Comes Again – Chris Hillman

Time and again, Petty paid his respects to how much the Byrds informed his music, giving Roger McGuinn the song “King of the Hill” for his 1991 album Back From Rio (and appearing on the track), backing McGuinn on “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the Dylan 30th anniversary bash, and, not long before he died, producing a lovely album, Bidin’ My Time, for founding Byrd (and Flying Burritos) member Chris Hillman. It was the last Petty-related album released in his lifetime, and it feels autumnal and reflective in context, with remakes of early Byrds songs (“Bells of Rhymney,” Gene Clark’s “She Don’t Care About Time”), an Everly Brothers cover (“Walk Right Back’), a version of Petty’s “Wildflowers.” A high point of the album is a rare McGuinn-Hillman song, “Here She Comes Again,” that evokes the sound of mid-’60s Byrds, with McGuinn on 12-string guitar, Petty on guitar, Tench on organ, Ferrone on drums, and Herb Pedersen on very Byrds-reminiscent harmony vocals. It’s as though Petty was trying to conjure up a memory, make it his own, and make himself a part of it. He became a Byrd.

Stories We Could Tell

Petty and the Heartbreakers closed out their first live album, 1985’s Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, with a lesser-known John Sebastian (the Lovin’ Spoonful) song that had also been recorded by the Everly Brothers. “Stories We Could Tell” is a traveling-musician song, but it’s more than that. It reminds us to savor every experience, take everything in. I thought about the song when I’d heard that Tom Petty had died. I hadn’t seen him live in many years, but I’d taken a field trip to Philadelphia to catch him on the 40th anniversary tour, and the show was a reminder of how deep my affection for him and his band is, how you have to catch these people while you can, because you never know.

If you’re on the road trackin’ down your every night
Singin’ for a livin’ ’neath the brightly colored lights
And if you ever wonder why you ride this carousel
You did it for the stories you could tell

something awful nice

I’m not one of those dedicated diggers for rare vocal group records from the fifties and early sixties, those guys who show up at record fairs with their own portable players, inspect the inner grooves of 45s to see what plants they were pressed in, immediately spot bogus copies. I’m not one of those guys, but I know them. Not personally. But I recognize them when I see them, and I relate: The urge to acquire, to discover, to find something you’ve never seen before in your decades of record collecting, that’s all part of my make-up. And my familiarity with what was never called doo wop when it was just part of rock ‘n’ roll, but is now, so we just have to deal with that, is pretty vast. For a while, I was trying to do a book proposal about that genre and that era, with the astonishingly knowledgeable Kenny Vance, and we spent hours talking about which group lead singers we loved, what records give us chills to this day.

I remember all the nights I spent listening to Gus Gossert on the radio, paying rapt attention, learning about groups who had eluded me. He had a particular affection for records from the late ‘50s with high-tenor leads, the offspring of Frankie Lymon, all those boys whose voices were filled with yearning and wonder and heartbreak. It was a New York City sound, for the most part, and Gossert was an encyclopedic guide. So is it possible I never heard a record by a group called the Escorts (there were a bunch of groups called the Escorts, which makes this even more entangled) called, perfectly, “There’s Something Awful Nice About You”? A couple of weeks ago, my head turned when a commercial came on, for a company called Jet.com, and the song in the spot was familiar, but not. It’s a pure Gossert-type record, dreamy and earnest. Was it Frankie singing? His brother Lewis Lymon with the Teenchords? Maybe the Students? Some B-side that I have on a vocal group anthology somewhere? Why couldn’t I place it?

I don’t know very much more now, but some. The internet can be your friend. It turns out that these particular Escorts recorded “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” for Old Town Records – that great NYC indie label — in 1959, and it remained unreleased for decades, finally popping up in 1993 on an Ace Records compilation of Old Town stuff (Volume 2 of Old Town Doo Wop), where it sits alongside tracks by the Fiestas, the Solitares, the Harptones, the Chimes…Typing those names conjures up not just the nights listening to Gossert, but years before that, when Murray the K would play them as “Blasts from the Past” and songs for “Submarine Race Watching.” I caught the tail end of that era; the first rock ‘n’ roll show I saw featured the Marcels, the Capris, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs, Rosie from the Originals, Ben E. King from the Drifters. It’s part of the sound of my childhood.

One day in 1959, a bunch of kids found themselves in an actual recording studio, and it must have been a dream they had when they were harmonizing in their schoolyard, or on the street at night. They cut a couple of songs (let’s say, because every single had a flip side), “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” and the up-tempo “Why Does the World Go Round” (which was kind of “Every Day of the Week” crossed with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”), and they waited. It took decades, and then one of those tracks found its way onto a CD. More waiting, another quarter-century! Someone finds “There’s Something Awful Nice About You” and decides to build a TV campaign featuring it, and people (like me) are bopping around online trying to get to the bottom of this, and they’re finding the song on YouTube and on Spotify. Are any of the Escorts still around to be mystified by this circle of fate? To hear their voices on television a few times a day? To tell their grandchildren about when they thought they were going to be played on the radio, or be on the bill at the Brooklyn Paramount? The song is an oldie that was never really new, so it’s new now, and ancient at the same time.

going negative

Someone I’m friends with on Facebook asked, quite sincerely I suspect, whether there’s any chance that the band Greta Van Fleet is in on the joke. That they know full well how absurd the music they make is, and that their awfulness is in fact deliberate. Which would be amazing if it were the case, a prank worthy of Andy Kaufman. But sadly, that would be giving them too much credit. I poked around in their blessedly scant discography, listened to songs like “Highway Tune,” “Black Smoke Rising,” “Flower Power” and their cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (now that takes a staggering degree of chutzpah), and to their new album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, and I admit it did make me laugh. Give them credit for plowing through songs like “Age of Man,” “Brave New World,” “Mountain of the Sun” and, inevitably, “Anthem,” as though these ideas just popped into their heads! No, they cannot possibly be kidding. Tufnel & St. Hubbins could not come up with words like this: “Where is the music/A tune to free the soul/A simple lyric to unite us all, you know.” It’s that “You know” that elevates this, the laziest fake rhyme for “the soul” imaginable. Why bother to come up with something better when “you know” will do fine? “The world is only what the world is made of.” And I used to make fun of Uriah Heep and Sir Lord Baltimore. I apologize.

Everyone mentions how much GVF draws from Led Zeppelin, and that’s true, but I don’t see that as a problem so much. As touchstones go, this young band could do a lot worse; they could have gone full-prog (they do have some prog-ish tendencies), and considering how many artists Led Zep liberally stole from, it’s fair game. It does bug me a bit that this is the band some of my rock-centric acquaintances are pointing to as evidence that rock will never die. See?? Kids still dig loud guitars, screamy voices and dumb lyrics, just like in olden times. It’s cute how needy for relevance rock fans are that they will cling to Greta Van Fleet. I’d been hearing about them for a year or so, but I never felt the impetus to pay attention until recently when the band was critically decimated by a Pitchfork review. Like, dismissed with extreme prejudice. And I needed – see how clickbait works? – to hear for myself what got the reviewer so ired up.

As pans go, it’s pretty savage. For these days, that is. What struck me wasn’t that the review was mean, but that there was so much shock at a negative assessment of an album. That had to be part of the reason for publishing it; a mediocre review wouldn’t have generated any outrage. But there seemed to be surprise that Pitchfork was so unsparing. It was as though some protocol was breached. There just isn’t that much thumbs-down to music anymore. And that’s a shame, because what made rock criticism so much fun, and so vital, was that there was a streak of what would now be considered cruelty. Creem, the magazine I wrote the most for, mocked many, many artists and the albums they sent out into the world. Professor Robert Christgau handed out “D”s and “Must to Avoid”s regularly. The first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide (the red one that Dave Marsh and John Swenson edited), had pages of one-star reviews. The album GTR was reviewed in Musician magazine thusly: “SHT.” Greil Marcus famously knocked Dylan in Rolling Stone, who once upon a time would even run not-so-thrilled notices of albums by the Beatles and the Stones. Now, of course, even the most substandard of efforts by Jann’s pantheon of artists are instant classics.

Very few high-profile albums, no matter how bad, are slammed. Why isn’t that the case with movies? Most critics agree that things like Collateral Beauty (14% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes) and Life Itself (12%) are a complete waste of time, and you might think that Anthem of the Peaceful Army is the Collateral Beauty of rock albums, but over on Metacritic, a slim majority (58%) has given it a passing grade. And that’s really low for Metacritic. No current albums you might have heard of has below 50% OK. Bad TV shows like Insatiable (11%) and The Four: Battle for Stardom (17%) are called out on their badness. When was the last time you saw an album on a major label (or with any kind of public profile), get near-uniformly awful reviews? Only one new album in the November issue of Mojo earned fewer than three stars. How is that possible, unless the policy is, why bother at all with telling readers why something is terrible when there is so much three-stars-or-better music out there?

That’s why I got a kick out of the Pitchfork 1.6 rating for Greta Van Fleet. It reminded me that sometimes an album just needs to be punched in the mouth.

a.k.a. flip cartridge

In 1977, the year I started scribbling copy in Arista Records’ publicity department, Clive Davis hired Billy Meshel to run Arista’s new music publishing company, and I’d see Billy once in a while, especially when I needed info on a press release announcing a new songwriter signing. He was a gregarious, enthusiastic guy. What I didn’t know, and wish I had, was that he had written songs that were recorded by Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, Dion & the Belmonts, Reparata & the Delrons, Lloyd Price, Cliff Richard, the Brady Bunch. And that he’d made his own records under his own and different names (one pseudonym he used was Flip Cartridge, and how utterly perfect is that?). Had I been aware that Meshel was the author or co-author of such songs as “L. David Sloane,” “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” “Dear Mrs. Applebee” and “I Blew It,” and the B-side of Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry” (“Don’t Gild the Lily, Lily”), and “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon,” I’m sure I’d have peppered him with questions about being a songwriter-on-the-make in the 1960s, about having his compositions cut by John Davidson and Michele Lee, about his own album The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel.

His songs weren’t exactly “novelty” songs, but they had the far-fetched, gimmicky lyrics, and sprightly melodies, of pop songs that were reminiscent of early-20th-century vaudeville and English music hall, but with a modern spin. They had characters – “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” “Take a Bow, Rufus Humfry” — and little scenarios (“I Didn’t Come to NY to Meet a Girl from My Hometown”). Like a lot of writers from his era, he tried his hand at sappy teen ballads (there is an especially unfortunate one he sings under the name Billy Mitchum, “Twelve and Three Quarters”), girl-group records (the Fortune Cookies, the Royalettes), whatever was hot at the moment (“The Heartbreaking Truth” by Don & Juan is a Righteous Brothers soundalike). You can check more than thirty of them out on the compilation Paradise Found: the Songs of Billy Meshel, but that “Early Years” CD doesn’t have some of his oddest and most Meshelish efforts. For those, YouTube is particularly helpful, but not comprehensive.

Take “I Blew It”: it was released as a single (on Roulette) in 1967 by a group called the Vacant Lot, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that “the Vacant Lot” was another Meshel secret identity (the singer sounds suspiciously like him). “I’m never gonna have a happy ending,” the narrator complains, “like in the paperbacks when the sad and lonely couple strike oil in the backyard and the landlord goes to prison forever.” “I Blew It” is quintessential Meshel, and his version (or let’s say the version released under his name, because who knows?) on the A. Wilbur Meshel album actually got some FM airplay in NY when it came out as a single in 1969. The album also has “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” which had been done by Gene Pitney, Reparata & the Delrons, and previously by Meshel as Flip Cartridge. What sends men to the Bowery? “Great disappointments from beautiful girls.” Meshel paints a picture of an army of forgotten men, exiled to downtown Manhattan (this is pre-gentrification; pre-CBGB’s, even) by romantic rejection.

Flip Cartridge’s “Dear Mrs. Applebee” (think a variation on “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”) was another miss for Meshel as a recording artist (WMCA spun it for a little while), but became a hit in the U.K. by David Garrick, who also cut Meshel’s “The Man Who Took the Valise Off the Floor at Grand Central Station at Noon” (other versions: Lloyd Price – the original – on his short-lived stint on Reprise Records, the U.K. girl-band She Trinity, and the kazoo-based GoZoo Band on Columbia). “Valise” – I just can’t type it out again – tells the tale of poor Mary Lou, whose luggage fell into the hands of someone else, and what a shame, because it was packed for her honeymoon (a polka-dot dress, a bikini or two, a brand new strawberry hat, a pink chemise). Meshel’s biggest U.S. hit was Michele Lee’s “L. David Sloane” (in England, the single was by Kay Garner, and there was an instrumental 45 by the Electric Junkyard), a jaunty kiss-off: she just wants to be left alone so she isn’t tempted (“I’m at a point where my resistance can be destroyed by your insistence”). Lee’s LP also had her doing Meshel’s “I Didn’t Come to New York to Meet a Guy from My Hometown.”

It never occurred to me to buy The Love Song of A. Wilbur Meshel when it came out in 1969; it was difficult to figure out what it was. The cover was a photo of a schlubby Meshel sitting woefully in a park, eating a sandwich, one bench over from a happy couple. “Written and performed by Billy Meshel” didn’t ring any bells, the liner notes were kind of baffling. But a few days ago I was flipping (see what I did there?) through some vinyl at Academy and there it was. Now I knew “Loserville” (Dion & the Belmonts did it on their Together Again reunion album), “That’s What Sends Men to the Bowery,” and I vaguely remembered “If You Could Put That in a Bottle” (I think the version by a group called The Minimum Daily Requirements, but maybe by John Davidson). When the single from A. Wilbur Meshel, “(It Ain’t Easy Being) Shirley Newman’s Boyfriend,” was issued in 1969, Billboard tipped it as “right in today’s sales market and it could prove a big one.” It wasn’t. “I’ve got to stand there,” Meshel sings, “while everybody calls her nasty, dirty names.” You can hear on his album touches of Nilsson, Biff Rose, Rupert Holmes, writers who twisted pop songs in whimsical, unexpected ways. It’s a shame I never poked my head into his office and asked him, “What on earth were you thinking?”

gazing on waterloo sunset

In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a reclusive singer-songwriter is coaxed into performing at a seaside town’s museum exhibition, but he doesn’t sing something he wrote; he sings something he wishes he’d written, Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” The Kinks’ record also pops up on the soundtrack of the documentary My Generation, an impressionistic flashback to ‘60s London, guided by Michael Caine. I happened to see both films on the same day, and earlier in the morning, I’d played the song on Spotify, by request. So it was, from sun-up to nighttime, a period where that most hauntingly cinematic of songs circled in the air. Unlike so many other artifacts from the summer of 1967, “Waterloo Sunset” seems, somehow, disconnected from its moment.

Maybe it would feel different to me if it had been as big a hit single in America as it was in the U.K.; maybe, if it accompanied me everywhere on the radio when it was released, it would be more tethered to that summer the way a lot of records are. “Groovin’,” say, or “Somebody to Love,” or “Light My Fire.” “Waterloo Sunset” exists in its own universe, befitting a song that is quietly, privately observant. The singer sits by his window. He doesn’t need friends, just his view of the dirty old river in eveningtime. We don’t even know if “Terry and Julie” are real, or in a movie in his mind – they are named after famous British actors – that has the companionship and romance that his life lacks.

Did I even hear “Waterloo Sunset” when it was released, or did I not discover it until it closed out the album Something Else by the Kinks, months later (it didn’t hit the U.S. until early in 1968)? I was obsessed by that album, as I was by The Who Sell Out, two British rock albums that, it seems to me, are more resonant and timeless than that most celebrated and venerated album from ’67 by the Beatles. How would it have reached me? Maybe I read about it in Rave magazine? Maybe someone published a U.K. singles chart? Something Else didn’t make much of a dent in America, but my friends and I could not stop playing it. The Kinks weren’t on pop radio in ’67-‘68, and they were prohibited from playing live in the U.S., so being a fan involved a certain level of alertness: Something Else snuck into record stores, and onto the Billboard album chart in the lower quarter of the top 200 for a meager two weeks.

It felt, compared to so much of the music that swirled around it, modest, finely detailed, filled with lovely details. There were portraits of characters, short stories, melancholy ruminations, all concluding with “Waterloo Sunset,” a song so perfect and so touching. When the character Tucker Crowe in the Juliet, Naked film is at Waterloo Station with his young son, the song pops into his head, as it does in mine every time I visit London and enter that tube stop. “Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.” If it happens to be a Friday, you look around, maybe, and feel a part of the continuing life of Davies’ vivid sketch.

It’s a marvel, the way the song’s camera dollys in to Davies’ flat — he’s looking out his window, singing as though to himself, making little notes about what he sees – and then switches perspective; there are Terry and Julie (you picture Stamp and Christie, of course), and the narrator simply notes their meeting before coming back to his own isolation. He stays at home gazing at the sunset, and it’s “paradise,” but a paradise of solitude. Then back outside, to all the people swarming around, and the camera zooms in one last time on Terry and Julie, who have only each other, escaping the tumult. They gaze at the same sunset. The music, starting with Pete Quaife’s loping bass line and Dave Davies’ statement of melodic theme, is steady and unhurried, there are spaces in it; the melody is lilting and graceful.

It’s all so quintessentially Kinkslike; it’s a song that couldn’t belong to anyone else. And yet so many artists, like the fictional cinematic Tucker Crowe, can’t help but be drawn to it: Bowie, Paul Weller, Elliott Smith, Peter Gabriel, Rhett Miller. Odd bedsitfellows Def Leppard. Twiggy, who figures prominently in My Generation, herself has covered it, as have the Pretenders and the charming duo First Aid Kit. It’s understandable, because it sounds like a modern standard, like a mid-‘60s British version of something like “Georgia On My Mind” or “Moonlight in Vermont.” It has geographical specificity, but a universal theme of wistful longing. Is the lyric a memory, perhaps? In Terry and Julie, is he remembering a lost love of his own, does the Waterloo sunset represent paradise lost, and is that where he wants to live? I could listen to this song forever, and probably will.

no deceit in the cauliflower

“Elaine May directed it, Neil Simon wrote it, Bruce Jay Friedman conceived it.” That was how the movie studio marketed The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, not in terms of storyline, or cast, or any thematic elements, but as the product of three marquee names behind the camera. It was based on Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan” about a newlywed who, while on his honeymoon, gets romantically sidetracked by a beautiful girl who makes him rethink his very recent life decision. Simon was on fire commercially: The Last of the Red Hot Lovers was running on Broadway (and the film adaptation was released earlier in ’72), with The Sunshine Boys opening on stage, but the movie versions of his plays had been directed by Gene Saks and Arthur Hiller, and they were flat and workmanlike, elevated by their performers and Simon’s assured comic rhythms. People do love The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners, but there’s a creakiness about them. The Heartbreak Kid was different; it was darker, zippier, more surprising and offbeat. The jokes are still there, only without the rat-a-tat; some of the scenes have the loopy improvised tone of the best Mike Nichols and Elaine May routines. It’s one of the few Neil Simon-scripted films I can watch without wishing for considerably more of a modern directorial point of view (The Sunshine Boys has some wonderful moments, but boy, is it pokey and stagey).

Elaine May at that point had only directed one film, 1971’s A New Leaf, an amiable, sometimes inspired comedy that was radically edited by the studio and half-heartedly marketed, and Bruce Jay Friedman was known as a novelist and short-story writer (A Mother’s Kisses – the most painfully funny book about the Jewish Mother until Portnoy’s Complaint – and Far From the City of Class, among others), and playwright (Scuba Duba, Steambath). The Heartbreak Kid could have easily become a clash of sensibilities, but instead it was an early example of the comedy of discomfort, long scenes that make you squirm, elaborate set-pieces where Charles Grodin (the new groom) makes excuses to sneak off on Jeannie Berlin to spend time with Cybill Shepherd, a tantrum over pecan pie, Grodin trying to impress Shepherd’s Midwestern-WASP family with riffs on the honesty of the food at the dinner table (“There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in the cauliflower”). Simon’s writing has a looser vibe than usual, and May keeps the camera zeroed in on the layers of bemusement and disbelief as Grodin spins his escalating nonsense. From The Heartbreak Kid it’s a twisted line to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office (and to the Farrelly Brothers, who botched a Ben Stiller-starring remake, Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow).

What I found myself wishing for in Neil Simon’s work was the kind of nutty spritz he must have brought to the writers’ room when he was on Sid Caesar’s staff, a wildness and unpredictability. “Neil Simon was a clutch hitter,” Mel Brooks tweeted (that’s a phrase I never thought I’d type) when Simon passed away. “When we needed the punchline on Your Show of Shows he delivered.” I have no doubt. For pure throw-it-against-the-wall funniness, there’s 1978’s The Cheap Detective, which is pretty close to a movie-length Caesar sketch with Peter Falk doing a full-tilt Bogart homage. (It came the year after The Goodbye Girl, which was Simon as too-sentimental joke-machine.) And there’s a messy anarchy about his first film script, After the Fox (written with Cesare Zavattini, directed by Vittorio De Sica, starring Peter Sellers, music by Burt Bacharach).

Most of Simon’s on-screen work, regrettably, was done with directors who were asleep at the switch (not that material like Seems Like Old Times, Only When I Laugh and I Ought to Be in Pictures could have been elevated all that much), until he worked with Mike Nichols on Biloxi Blues. Maybe that assessment is ungenerous; maybe to really appreciate the crowd-pleasing talents of Neil Simon you had to have seen his plays in the ‘60s and ‘70s on Broadway and been delighted by his confident comic voice, honed — like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen and Norman Lear — in the first golden age of television comedy. And I would like to mention that I’d really love to see Betty White and Cloris Leachman in a production of The Sunshine Girls, so someone please make that happen.

and when the night falls…

About three-quarters through the new Whitney Houston documentary – the second in the past year – director Kevin Macdonald drops the much-chattered-about bombshell about young Whitney being sexually molested by a relative (Dee Dee Warwick). There’s something off-key about the moment of revelation, like it’s supposed to be the “Rosebud” of Whitney, but by that point in the film we’ve been introduced to so many villains, enablers, suspects that we’re just exhausted. Isn’t this a summer film? Where is the superhero (Kevin Costner pops in to congratulate himself on the colorblind casting of The Bodyguard, and good for him, but he didn’t whisk her away in real life and shield her)? Not many people come off well here, not her family, certainly, not Bobby Brown or L.A. Reid (who ran Arista in the early 2000’s, when Whitney was in horrendous shape, but who claims on camera to have been unaware of her drug problem). The woman who seems to have cared the most about Whitney, Robyn Crawford, isn’t interviewed on screen, but is the subject of some nasty homophobia, and how about some blame for the state of affairs where Whitney was pressured to deny what was perhaps her healthiest relationship?

Whitney is crushingly sad, of course. And cinematically effective, if what you mean by that is that it keeps you in knots wishing there were something you could do to stop the relentless downward spiral. There are a lot of familiar scenes here: the incandescent TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show, the cascade of boos at the Soul Train Awards, the epic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the catastrophic interview with Diane Sawyer. Macdonald seems to be in an awful hurry to get to the juicy stuff, like “yeah, yeah, all those hit records and awards and Hollywood, got it.” There’s not a lot of delving into her recording career which, you might think, would be kind of important. The first three Arista albums zip by in one of those montages that zoom in on the names of songs sprinting up the Billboard charts, like the singles were train stops in an old movie on TCM where a vaudeville act hits the road. One minute she’s on the Griffin show doing the song “Home” from The Wiz, and snap! she’s the biggest pop artist on the planet. How did that happen? Macdonald doesn’t say, really. She had a great voice and she was real pretty, I guess.

Whitney is in its way a valuable piece of the saga, thorough and definitive about how drugs derailed her; there’s some footage that is so raw and invasive that it’d have been nice if someone had tapped a cameraman on the shoulder and lead him into a hallway. But what Whitney is going to need at some point is a biographer to do for her what Peter Guralnick did for Elvis Presley, dig into the music and the cultural influences that shaped her, separate the accepted version of her story from the truth. What we’re always told is that the record label that signed her (confession for those who might not know: I worked there, was involved in her early publicity and marketing campaigns, and later was on Clive Davis’s A&R staff that searched for Whitney songs; one of the songs I suggested is in the movie) transformed her into a pop diva, steering her away from music that was too “black.”

Which is nonsense. If anyone was grooming Whitney Houston for a mainstream audience, it was her mom. There was some Mama Rose in Gypsy stuff going on (“Sing out, Whitney!!”), with an idea of what was classy, how a young lady in show biz should behave. When the labels started showing up at Cissy’s gigs to see what her teenaged daughter was up to, the younger Houston was all dolled up, and singing songs from The Wiz and Dreamgirls. And “The Greatest Love of All,” which she sang beautifully: it’s a song about self-belief and autonomy (“If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe”), not walking in anyone else’s shadow, keeping one’s dignity, all that Oprahbabble. For better or worse, ok worse, that song came to define her before it was supplanted as her anthem by the Anthem, and by “I Will Always Love You.”

If anything, one mandate at Arista was to muss her up a bit, make her less pristine, more youthful. She may have walked in the door with “The Greatest Love of All,” and there were those other Michael Masser “All” ballads that followed – “Saving All My Love For You,” “All at Once,” Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (and “All the Man That I Need” which is not by Masser but might as well be) – but the records that have stuck the most engagingly are “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “So Emotional.” Whitney in the throes of infatuation, ready to break loose, cause some mischief. The playful Whitney is sometimes forgotten, because the ballads are so show-boaty, so filled with the drama we now associate with her life. But I loved that Whitney, the girlish one on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” looking for a little bit of excitement: “When the night falls,” she sang, “my lonely heart calls.” You just wanted to take her hand, rescue her.

better hurry up and put my tie on…

Tick-tock. Listen to the clock. It’s five o’clock, but the singer, Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five from Brooklyn, New York, is already geared up, projecting three hours into the future. He has a date, and what you hear in his voice is all the pent-up anticipation and anxiety that leads to that instant when the girl opens the door and the rest of the night is stretched out in front of you, all the possibilities. Three hours to go, and then two, then one: the record marches forward, the group reminding Pitt, keeping track for him, like they’re in the room with him as he’s dabbing the Brylcreem and slapping on Old Spice. “Better hurry up,” they tell him in the bridge, and he realizes he needs to put his tie on; he wants to make a good impression. Tick-tock; his heart beats to that rhythm, or maybe quicker. Finally, it’s time for love. Does any vocal group R&B record capture the urgency, the drama of waiting? What is she going to be wearing? Where will the evening end? “What Time Is It,” by the team of Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy”), is one of the high points of the early ‘60s vocal group resurgence, Eugene Pitt’s crowning moment.

Eugene Pitt passed away this week. Coincidentally, I’d just been talking about the Jive Five with a friend the day before, raving about their I’m a Happy Man LP on United Artists. They are fading away, all those voices, the singers who expressed all our longings and desires. The other night, at a book promotion event for his memoir, Seymour Stein teared up when he sang a line from the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember),” and if that music – which, I keep reminding people, was never called doo wop when it was new, or even when the songs were being played as “oldies but goodies” – meant anything to you when you were young, it only takes a few bars to make you misty. I remember being ten years old and hearing the Jive Five’s “My True Story” on the radio and wondering, what is happening here? What is the singer (Pitt) so broken up about? “Cry, cry, cry,” was the constant refrain (the words “My True Story” are nowhere in the song), and the characters, Sue, Earl, Lorraine, how were they entangled? “Names have been changed dear,” Pitt confesses at the end, “to protect you and I.” There was mystery in it. What wasn’t he telling us?

I could riff on other records Pitt was at the center of, going back to the Genies’ “Who’s That Knocking,” flashing forward to the UA period of “I’m a Happy Man,” then to their incarnation as the Jyve Fyve. To their cover of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time” on Avco, and their endearing 1982 album Here We Are! on Ambient Sound Records, with guests Arlene Smith’s Chantels on “Don’t Believe Him Donna,” and an odd stab at Fagen and Becker’s “Hey Nineteen.” I have a strong affection for “Hully Gully Calling Time” (“Do the Frank Sinatra!!”) and F-G-G’s “Rain” (and their “Every Day Is Like a Year” that came out as a Pitt solo single on Beltone), and I know I’ll be pumping “Do You Hear Wedding Bells” when I tie the knot in the fall, because there aren’t too many records from that era that so giddily celebrate the prospect of marriage. But the one I keep returning to is “What Time Is It” from the summer of 1962, when I was too young to even contemplate what it would be like to ask a girl out, let alone put on a tie and summon up the courage to ring her doorbell. Tick-tock, listen to the clock. Eugene Pitt was taking that brave leap, so nervous that he has to ask the other four guys the time every hour. How much longer? How much longer now? The record builds: “The moment’s here at last,” and as his friends swoon behind him, he leaves them behind. He’ll take it from here.

“Petticoats of Portugal” and other non-hits of 1956

“Marty on Planet Mars (Parts 1 & 2”) by Marty on Novelty Records. The El Venos (from Pittsburgh) singing “Now We’re Together” (Groove Records). “I Wanna Be Seventeen All of My Life” by the Silver Sisters. The Dawn Breakers doing “Boy with the Be-Bop Glasses (and the Suede Shoes,” on Coral Records. You probably never heard of any of those records. I certainly hadn’t, and now I’m wondering what “be-bop glasses” were, what that Marty single might be like (it must be a combination of the character from the Delbert Mann film and the trend of break-in “Flying Saucer” records, right?), and what the advantages of what being seventeen forever might be. Never graduating high school? Avoiding the draft? Carrying around a fake I.D. forever? I really want to hear “Broadway at Basin Street” by The Four Beards on ABC-Paramount. They were a Brooklyn group, apparently, whose record only cracked the top 10 on WKXY in Sarasota, Florida. There has to be a backstory there.

Every once in a while over the last few days I’ve been picking up the 80-page book Cash Box Regional Hits 1956, presented by chart scholar Joel Whitburn, just combing the columns of names of 45s, artists and labels from that pivotal year, records that failed to make any of the national singles charts but had a moment of success on radio stations and juke boxes and in record stores in local areas, as reported in Cash Box magazine. We learn, for example, that the Dawn Breakers record was #5 on WKBW in Buffalo, NY, and was being played by the dj Herb Knight.

Nearly every page has something odd and fascinating. In November ’56, the Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” was top 10 on WWIN in Baltimore. There were a lot of records of songs from My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella. Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was top 10 in about a dozen local markets, and top 5 on the national R&B chart, but never crossed over to the pop singles chart. Columbia Records released a single by Joan Weber called “Goodbye Lollipops, Hello Lipstick (I’m Not a Baby Anymore),” a top 4 hit on Greenville, MS’s WGVM. 1956 is generally regarded as the year rock’n’roll made its Big Move, with the explosion of Elvis, and what these 1270 non-hits show us is that the music business was a crazy jumble, with labels large and small throwing everything out there: instrumentals (a lot of them), novelty records – like “Love is) The $64,000 Question” by Tony Travis on RCA Victor — vocal group R&B, rockabilly. There were great records on Atlantic (The Clovers, The Drifters, Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter) and Sun (Carl Perkins, Warren Smith), all now considered classics in their genre, but at the time falling short of the primary pop charts.

Steve Lawrence, on Coral, put out a cover of the Cadillacs’ “Speedo” (#6, WSAI Cincinnatti), and something called “Ethel, Baby” (#9, WAVZ New Haven). There were a lot of odd celebrity records: Steve Allen’s “What is a Freem?,” Jayne and Audrey Meadows’ “Dungaree Dan and Chino Sue,” Andy Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants,” Danny Thomas’ “Nobody Knows But the Lord,” and “In the Middle of the House” by Milton Berle. The book helpfully tells is that Uncle Miltie was “the biggest TV star of the 1950s,” but who doesn’t know that? (Famous Berle joke: A comic kept challenging Berle to a size contest, and finally, fed up with the pestering, someone told Milton to “just take out enough to win.”)

It was a nutty year, with all those “Flying Saucer” rip-offs, tributes to James Dean, those twinkling instrumentals like “Petticoats of Portugal,” so many drippy ballads. But what you take away from Cash Box Regional Hits 1956 is all the excitement that was churning up below (literally: beneath the lists of official hits) the surface. Flip the pages, and the narrative starts to emerge, the local hits on non-major labels that are about to crack American music in half, from Lee Allen’s “Rockin’ at Cosmo’s” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (that wasn’t a national hit??) to the Dells’ “Oh What a Nite” (top 5 R&B, but only Arnie Ginsburg at WBOS Boston reported it as top 5 in pop world), Smiley Lewis’ “One Night.”

There’s a randomness to this book, and there’s no way you can interpret it as being statistically reliable; as Whitburn says in the introduction, there were 42 dj, 21 retail, and 21 juke box top 10 reports published in Cash Box each week, so it was really a spin of the wheel which 45s got mentioned in any given issue. There was likely some payola involved, some favors called in. But the randomness makes total pop sense. You could imagine an entirely different book of a thousand 1956 singles on small record labels that got airplay for a week or so in some market and then faded into even more complete obscurity. Look at the labels on the cover: Balboa Records, Pep Records, Turquoise Records, Selma Records, Buddy Records…each record representing an idea that the three minutes of music captured on it will be heard everywhere. Some of the singles in this book have reverberated for six decades, most were relatively invisible even then. That’s a key story of American pop, and I can’t wait for the 1957 volume