Thursday, October 30, 2008

Condensed Pop Starts Now

Hello and welcome to Condensed Pop. This is Kevin Walsh, webmaster of Forgotten New York. For the past ten years FNY has been pointing out the things in New York City that the guidebooks don't care about and most people don't notice. In January 2004 the process got started that turned FNY into a book, as I worked together with HarperCollins to publish a book in September 2006 that I'm very proud of and was reviewed generally favorably, and sold moderately well.

Condensed Pop is my bid for another one. For several decades, I've been fascinated with the pop music I grew up with, which I'll consider between the years of 1960 and 1992 -- the years I listened to the radio and discovered the hits I liked, as well as the ones I didn't. Since I've always been a list fanatic, I tuned into the various countdown shows on local stations like WMCA (the Good Guys) and WABC (the All Americans) and have always loved the buzz and energy that was produced by the deejays, who were as much into the music as the listerners were -- and if they weren't, they did a great job faking it. Later, I tuned into Casey Kasem's countdowns, and as slick as Casey could be, his shows were tremendously paced. On Kasem's shows, you heard the hits that New York Top 40 stations wouldn't touch, for one reason or another.

On Condensed Pop, I'll do a countdown myself -- I'll take a year and describe between one and five hits a day -- who wrote it, who performed it, and provide any observations I have about it, if any. I'll begin with the Number One hit of the year and count back to the lowest hit of the year. Should be fun and this project, along with Forgotten New York, will keep me out of trouble for the foreseeable future. If the site is successful enough, perhaps a second book will happen down the road somewhere.

Let's begin with ... say... 1966, shall we?

The #1 hit that year was...

Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler's The Ballad of the Green Berets 

Sadler was in the Special Forces himself and served in Vietnam and, after falling into a booby trap while on patrol, was recuperating in the States and wrote this song (along with songwriter/author Robin Moore) concerning a wife who is waiting to hear the fate of her Green Beret husband. Years later, Sadler died with his boots on: in 1988 he was shot in Guatemala while training anti-Communist guerrilla fighters and died from his injuries.

It's unthinkable that The Ballad of the Green Berets could have been a hit, say, two or three years later, as the mood of the country had shifted and public sentiment turned away from what was, by then, perceived as an unwinnable conflict. And, even in 1966, Sadler was in rather disparate company, as accompanying him in the Top Five the week in March that his hit rose to the top were Nancy Sinatra, Lou Christie, Herman's Hermits, and the Mamas and the Papas.

In school, our teacher marked the words of the song on the blackboard and had us memorize and sing the song. She wouldn't do that for Lightnin' Strikes.

New Vaudeville Band, Winchester Cathedral

There's a strain of 1960-70s music that looked back to the 1920s  and 1930s -- see Paul McCartney's Honey Pie or You Gave Me The Answer, or more eclectically, the Purple Gang's Granny Takes a Trip or H.P. Lovecraft's Time Machine. Winchester Cathedral looked back to the days when Rudy Vallee crooned into a megaphone wearing a raccoon coat. 

Geoff Stephens, a BBC songwriter in London, wrote the song after regarding a calendar featuring, that particular month, a picture of the Cathedral. The song itself seems to allude to the British story of Dick Whittington, a lad who after first failing to make his fortune in medieval-era London, is about to leave town when the Bow Bells call him back.

Stephens, who sang the song himself through a megaphone on the recording,  assembled the New Vaudeville Band when the song became a big hit, and toured on its strength for awhile. Years later, another Stephens composition, The Crying Game, was revived as the title of a 1992 film starring Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker and Jaye Davidson.