Saturday, April 17, 2010

K-Tel Hell

One obscure little aspect of music lying around the house were some of those album collections of the hit songs of the day, compiled and packaged and even hawked on TV by your friends at K-Tel and Ronco. We had a half-dozen or so of those things, and sometimes they were played all the way through, or just a few select cuts were played with any regularity.
Some of the album covers were entertaining or funny, sometimes (in the case of one album) with a sticker promising KC and Andy Gibb POSTERS!--INSIDE!.

Some songs were great, some were utter garbage, and some were just plain embarrassing (and I'm speaking of the turn of the '70s into the '80s). Like, for every good song by Elton John or Linda Ronstadt, there would be cuts by KC and the Sunshine Band or Rick Dees. I seem to remember the first time hearing Black Sabbath anywhere was from a collection called Power Rock, and sure enough, there was "Paranoid" on it.

As the years went on, the song selection on these records could be interesting. One was called Rock 80, with new cuts by Cheap Trick, the Ramones, The Pretenders, Gary Numan and others. There was another called Radio Active, with new hits by the Police, the Who, Genesis and others of the new MTV era.

There were a few compilations with songs that were just fun to listen to, mostly from the Ronco label, some of them even endorsed by Don Kirshner himself (!). I began to hear songs like Dr. Hook's "The Cover Of The Rolling Stone" and "Wildwood Weed" by Jim Stafford, each containing references that I was way too young to understand, but just hearing the voices on the records was hilarious enough. Thanks to this kind of upbringing, I knew about Cheech & Chong and Hudson & Landry as much as I did about Ernie & Bert!

One favorite of my sister's was Don Kirshner presents FUN ROCK, which featured mostly a lot of top-40 hits from the bubblegum period of the early '70s, but she liked it a lot. It had stuff from Ray Stevens, Sam The Sham, the Archies, the Lemon Pipers, and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Pure corn, in retrospect, but it grew on me, and it was fine enough for someone who wasn't even in school yet.

One day, my sister was at school, but the record player was on that morning, and I recognized "Winchester Cathedral" from what I thought was FUN ROCK playing. When it ended, I knew that "Woolly Bully" was coming up next, right? No. It was another K-Tel album playing, one called Best of Britain, which I hadn't heard yet.
And what song came on after that...?


Holy shit! I though Satan himself was behind me in the living room, bellowing at me...but, no, it was Arthur Brown with the song "Fire", which frightened the life out of me, and then excited me. I had never heard such a frantic mix of menacing vocals and organ before, but I loved it as soon as it was over, and couldn't wait to hear it again. Later on, on the same album side, I got to hear cuts by the Kinks and the Zombies that would also make a strong impression on me.

But there was one song on another collection that never did, and one that I really, really hated. It was "Playground In My Mind" by Clint Holmes, with that nauseating chorus in the song that goes "My name is Michael, I got a nickel...". You know the rest (I sure wish I could forget it). I would literally leave the room whenever I heard the song playing.

So, for every good song, there was a really bad one.

But, the seed had been sown.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Night Flight

In late 1983 or so, we discovered another cool music-video show on the USA Network called Night Flight. It was a four-hour show that featured music videos, state-of-the-art/computer animation, clips from old and new movies, old and sometimes very obscure cartoons and film shorts, standup comedy routines, music-video countdowns, and classic and obscure music videos and concert films.

And, very often, this was typical of just one night's show. Sometimes, there'd be a sort of "theme" night; like, say, drugs. They would intertwine standup comedy routines about cocaine and smoking grass with an old silent-comedy film about the evils of doing cocaine (in the middle of one such film, they dubbed in the song "Footloose" when the main guys were shooting the stuff into their veins and dancing like madmen).

Another staple of the show was the 1936 classic "Reefer Madness", with always a short clip of it shown somewhere during the course of the show. That, and clips of W.C. Fields, The Three Stooges and very obscure Looney Tunes shorts were pasted in there as well (that's where I first saw the infamous clip of Porky Pig slamming his thumb with a hammer and stammering "Son of a b-b-bi-bi-bi!"). Another theme was the latest in clay animation, where they showed John Fogerty's "Vanz Kant Danz", Frank Zappa's "Inca Roads", a clip from Fantasia, and other arty new-wave videos with the latest in animation and claymation.

In a way, "Night Flight" was what MTV should have been. Music, plus comedy and cartoons and wacky films and God knows what else that would fit into the pot. A lot of people remember the show as a sort of "MTV for stoners", which wouldn't be far from the truth.

The music videos were always great. One night, they had a "Tribute To Pink Floyd", showing some new videos from The Final Cut, which I had never seen anywhere else, and then capped it off with a couple of segments from Live At Pompeii, which I had never even knew about. I remember being totally blown away by that. Just the four guys, playing in an ancient, empty Roman amphitheater. Whoaaa...!

Another night, they showed clips from a Black Sabbath concert from 1978, and another night, recent clips from a Ten Years After reunion concert at the Marquee in 1983, which was bitchin'. They would also show films such as The Doors Are Open and the Rolling Stones' Sympathy For The Devil.

Another thing on the show that made me a devout fan were the music videos from the German music show Beat Club , primarily from 1967 to about 1973; some in black-and-white, some in color, and some of them in lysergic mind-melting color. Knowing a lot about music from that era, even back then, it was amazing to see videos from bands I knew about, but never saw in action. A handful I remember seeing were by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Canned Heat, Yes, the Who, the Small Faces (before I knew who they were), very young Bee Gees, and "This Wheel's On Fire" by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity. I've been a fan and collector of footage from that show ever since.

I think this was more than half the reason we got this thing called a Video Cassette Recorder in mid-1984, in order to record a bunch of stuff from Night Flight. After all, that's among some of the earliest stuff we recorded on it. We caught a cool Frank Zappa special that he had compiled especially for the show in 1987. Still have that on tape, as well as some other parts of shows we taped in the mid-'80s.

Like all great things, it continued over the years, but grew shorter and shorter and less interesting as time went on. I think they ran out of cool stuff to show, or out of ideas, and the show wasn't as interesting as it once was. The last time I remember seeing the show anywhere was New Year's Eve of 1995, on a local channel that was carrying the sad remains of it, but at least with two gems to behold: a short film called "Suspicious Circumstances", and the classic Lenny Bruce animated short "Thank You Mask Man".

Pop Clips (1980)

Back in 1980, when I was four, we were the only ones on the block with a new thing called Cable TV. A lot of the neighbors would want to come over to watch TV shows they couldn't get anywhere else, or movies, or just see things with better reception than at home. One of the cable channels was called Nickelodeon, which I frequently tuned into in the mornings, as they had a two-hour sort of poor man's Sesame Street type of show, called Pinwheel.

Later on in the week or maybe on the weekend, at around 9:30 PM, there was a music-video show called Pop Clips, and Dad used to let me stay up to watch it with him. My sister would either be in her room, or at a friend's house overnight, but my Dad and I would see videos from the newer bands of the day, or old favorites still going strong.

Among the videos I remember seeing were "Love Stinks" by the J. Geils Band, "Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?" by the Ramones, "Play The Game" by Queen, "Fish Heads" by Barnes & Barnes, plus cuts by newer bands like Cheap Trick, the Police, the Knack and the Shoes. One particular favorite was "One Step Beyond" by a nutty bunch of guys called Madness, with a bunch of funny-looking guys doing all kinds of hilarious dances throughout the song. We would just crack up watching this one! I would get to brag to my sister the next morning about all the cool videos I got to see.

I don't remember how long the show was on, but it was interesting and fun to watch, and--yes--it was the precursor to MTV. One other thing that amazed me about the show later was finding out that it was created by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees.
After the show was over, as was the channel's broadcasting day, there was a clip of a mime-type character would wave goodbye and then turn out a light, with the Nickelodeon logo across the bottom of the screen. I didn't know what a nickelodeon was at that time, so I assumed that it was the name of the guy onscreen, and maybe that he was the channel's mascot.