Peace of Mind: Celebrating the Armistice Pals Project

Peace of Mind: Celebrating the Armistice Pals Project.

A wonderful post from my husband’s blog. This is an amazing project for peace, featuring a stellar cast of folk musicians. Legendary fiddler Dave Swarbrick provides nice touches to this powerful new version of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone?


How American Top 40 Expanded My Musical Horizons: A Reply to Scott Timberg

Since Casey Kasem’s death on June 15, media of all sorts have been flooded with pieces celebrating his work on American Top 40. Perhaps the most intriguing is the provocatively titled Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and music’s 1 percent: Artificial “popularity” is not democracy penned by Scott Timberg for

He takes issue with a common theme in the pieces about Casey and AT40, arguing that the show was fundamentally a mouthpiece for the music industry and not an effective representation of what music had to offer. It’s a well-written, thought-provoking piece, and I encourage anyone interested in music and chart history to read it here. That said, Timberg runs away with his thesis and makes a fundamentally flawed assumption. I tried to craft a comment to reply on the Salon site, but realized that I needed more space to explore my objections — hence this post.

Timberg makes three basic points. The first two are pretty straightforward. First, the “best” music is not necessarily the most popular. I certainly agree with that, although his implication that popularity and quality are mutually exclusive doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. (Four lads from Liverpool rather effectively debunk that theory…) I will point out that Casey never claimed to present the best music, however, relying on phrases like “the biggest hits,” “best-selling,” and “most played.”

His second, most central point is that best-seller lists — which is what AT40 fundamentally was — are inherently corporate publicity tools. Again, there is some real truth to that. Companies promote what they think will sell, so it was easier for Elton John to make the Top 20 in 1982 than Haircut 100. I would argue that the relationship is a bit more nuanced than Timberg allows. Take Eurythmics haunting debut single, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). It had limited corporate backing until it’s long, slow chart climb proved the duo were promotable. Even conservative industries are looking for the next big thing as well as the sure-fire draw.

The conclusion that Timberg draws from these two points, however, rings completely false. This passage from the latter part of the article sums his point up nicely:

The heyday of Kasem’s show may’ve been, as most remember it, a sweet passage in their youth. It certainly was for mine. But “American Top 40” worked – like the best-seller lists and the now-ubiquitous Monday-morning movie box office reports, Reagan’s tax cuts, and “American Idol,” whose Ryan Seacrest now helms Kasem’s old show — as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society. It shines attention on the artists and the songs who need it least, and ignores those who need it most.

It is fundamentally untrue that AT40 played no role in opening up new musical doors for its listeners. I’m the perfect example.

My radio listening options were extremely limited and conservative. I was a casually regular AT40 listener from 1973 to some time in 1980 and became what could best be described as obsessive from 1980 to the fall of 1984 when I headed to college. During that time, every chart week included at least five or six songs that I only heard on AT40. Many of these became favorites and led me to seek out the source albums, expanding my musical experience even further. A couple of examples nicely underscore the disconnect between my daily listening options and my chart-based window to broader horizons.

The first time I ever heard Rick James was Super Freak [#16, 1981] on AT40. I’m not a fan of the song anymore — the fact that it’s one of his least misogynistic songs is damning it with the faintest of praise — but it was a massive hit that has been included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I actively requested that my local station play it, I was given the classic “not on our playlist” line. I even asked why and was told that it was “too urban” for the market. It doesn’t take much effort to decode that reasoning and to imagine what other music wasn’t going to show up on my airwaves.

Let’s take a look at two bands that Timberg specifically mentions as mistreated by the AT40 model, the Clash and Talking Heads. For weeks, the only place I heard the biggest hit by either band — Rock the Casbah [#8, 1983] and Burning Down the House [#9, 1983] respectively — was Casey’s countdown. Sure, Casbah’s source album, Combat Rock is no London Calling, but I only learned about — and bought — the classic album because I learned about the Clash on AT40.

In the long run all three of these songs eventually got airplay in my hometown, but only after they broke into the Top 20. Previous Top 30 hits by all three acts never made the cut and my less consistent chart listening kept me from ever hearing them when they were singles. Many other songs that tickled the Top 40 never got that extra push and were only available to me once a week.

I come from a solid middle-class background. I grew up in a mid-sized town (population around 30,000 when I graduated high school) with a large public university less than 20 minutes away. Despite these relative advantages I had very limited listening options. I lived outside of town, surrounded by farmland, so we didn’t have cable TV and the moderate advantages of MTV access. I can only imagine what kids in smaller, more isolated towns must have faced when looking for music. In my case, American Top 40 was a lifeline, opening a door to a lifelong love of music of all sorts.

Timberg is careful not to blame Casey for what he sees as the corporate awfulness of AT40, which is kind. But in assuming that every radio listener had equal access to a broad range of options, he ignores his own relative privilege and demeans the real value that the show offered to thousands of kids like me. His list of alternative sources of musical information are wonderful:

The other side of things – old-school rock critics, college radio, smaller independent stations where the jocks pick their own music, record stores where the clerks pushed the stuff they loved, zines and alternative weeklies – helped build a parallel track in the early ‘80s that allowed a more expansive range of music to flourish.

But none of that matters if you don’t have access to it. An “alternative” record store finally came to town my senior year, but I only knew where to start because of the musical education I got from AT40.

My feet were already firmly on the ground. For four hours a week the musical diversity I got from Casey — however limited it may have been — helped me reach for the stars.

Casey Kasem Signs Off For the Last Time

My Date Every Weekend

Farewell, Casey

Broadcasting lost a legend today. Radio, TV and voiceover star Casey Kasem — best known as the heart, soul, and voice of American Top 40 — died in Gig Harbor, WA at the age of 82.

Kemal Kasem was born in Detroit in 1932. He built a solid career in radio and voiceover work. He worked at KRLA in Los Angeles for seven years before launching the program that changed the face of pop music history and trivia. American Top 40 debuted in 1970. Casey created the show with Don Bustany, Tom Rounds, and Ron Jacobs. His love of music, soothing voice, and sense of whimsy perfectly anchored the show. I remember listening to him from as early as 1971 (when I was five). I became fascinated with the stories that went along with the music. My obsession with research and trivia started with my family’s natural curiosity and grew with Casey’s clever use of anecdote, history, and statistics.

Me during the early days of AT40

Me during the early days of AT40

A major media presence, Casey voiced many commercials, provided voices for Sesame Street characters, and voiced cartoons. I was shocked when I found out that he was the man behind Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, one of my favorite cartoons. He was also the voice of Robin, the Boy Wonder on Super Friends. Given my obsession with Robin, my fondness for Casey only grew. I was anchored to the radio almost every Saturday of my teen years, enjoying the wonders of pop music. Casey hosted AT40 until 1988, leaving just as I graduated college and stopped listening to pop radio.

Casey retired from broadcasting about five years ago, enjoying a quiet life with his wife, actress Jean Kasem. He was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a condition similar to Parkinson’s, last year. The disease silenced his mighty voice and he died peacefully today.

I’ll sign off with Casey’s inspirational AT40 closing: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Farewell, Casey, and thank you.

The John Peel Centre says “T is for Tabor”

John Peel

Few people had as much impact on music in the 20th century as legendary British DJ John Peel. John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, OBE, was renowned for his eclectic taste, his insistence on sharing new and unknown talent, and his uncanny knack for finding the next big thing without even trying. He was also famous for the Peel Sessions, broadcasts of four (give or take) tracks performed live in the studio by acts as diverse as his tastes. These sessions are prized for their breadth and for the way Peel would encourage his guests to stretch.

Peel died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004; he was only 65. Since then his wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, has worked with a number of organizations to operate the John Peel Centre for the Creative Arts. One project of the Centre is John Peel’s Record Collection, an overview of his enviable collection of music with a focus on his particular favorites; it includes a special alphabet of some of the finest aspects of the collection.

June Tabor remembers Peel

With the letter T, Ravenscroft introduces one of my favorites, the unparalleled singer June Tabor, calling her a “constant on John’s programmes.” T is for Tabor is a lovely overview of her long, brilliant career as well as a nice tribute to Peel. Tabor recalls her first appearance on his show, singing The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. She also gives him due credit for her work with Oysterband, performing unexpected covers of songs like All Along the Watchtower; she says simply, “It was all John’s fault.”

Tabor is delightful and humble. She recalls the earliest beginnings of her career and the decision at nearly 40 to take on singing full time. (She had also juggled time as a librarian and a restaurateur with her earlier singing work.) Celebrating her recent success in reuniting with Oysterband, she mentions the numerous awards their 2011 album, Ragged Kingdom, has won. The 64-year-old says simply,

Old people do win things sometimes.

Indeed. Going strong and hardly old, Tabor still has a remarkable gift and a joy in performing. What a delight to see her celebrated by the Peel Centre in this wonderful way.

New Release: Peace Becomes You by Holly Near

Singer and social change activist Holly Near presents her newest release, Peace Becomes You, a two-disc set including 28 songs. Recorded after a short sabbatical from the studio, it features eleven Near originals and a wonderful mix of standards and covers. As always, the heart of the album is Holly’s sense of justice and activism.  Joining Holly is a group of 22 outstanding musicians and vocalists. Each brings their own sense of sound and style while staying true to Holly’s vision for this project. She builds on a lifetime of performing and recording experience, bringing her leadership and inspiration to this singular musical collaboration.

My husband, Michael, and I have had the pleasure of talking with Holly about this great new recording. You can find his interview with her onTSM today; my review of this great album is available on The album is available through CDBaby and Amazon. Holly will also be touring in support of the album starting this fall.

The Ten Worst Album Covers Ever

My friend Brad recently posted a truly horrific album cover on his Facebook page, inspiring me to create this list of the top (or bottom) ten. I found many similar lists online, none of which contained all of my examples. To finalize a list of ten, I ruled out a few categories of covers that appear on many other lists.

OBSCURITIES: With one exception, I ruled out covers by truly obscure artists. They tend to be awful for a variety of reasons (low budgets being the primary one) but seldom sink to the level that big-budget performers can achieve. This one is weirdly charming but serves as a good bad example.
BAD TITLES: I disqualified albums that had truly horrific or badly conceived titles but not really awful covers. My favorite example is this howler.
NUDITY: There are waaaay too many covers that feature nude performers, most of which are just weird or sad rather than truly horrifying, so I eliminated this category. The one example that might deserve dishonorable mention is this unfortunate Prince cover.
BARBARIANS AND DOMINATRICES: Again, there are simply too many of these to pick a single one that is worst enough to be on the list. Here are three great examples out of dozens.
Now that you’ve seen what didn’t qualify, I hope you’re ready for the winners…
10. Born Again by Black Sabbath. Bad colors, cheap graphic, paint-on claws. Scary, yes, but not in the way they intended, I suspect.
9. No More Mr. Nice Guy by Pat Boone. Setting aside the fact that this racist homophobe was never really a nice guy, the leather gear and the weird eye glint earn this one a place of dishonor.
8. Bubbling Over by Dolly Parton. I love Dolly, but this was a colossal mistake. Scary floating head fountain? Which she seems to be enjoying (from a safe distance)? Nooo!!
7. Weasels Ripped My Flesh by the Mothers of Invention. Yes, I know this is inteded to lampoon 50s advertising images, but it’s just too visceral for me.
6. Satan Is Real by the Louvin Brothers. Is he? Not based on this picture. And dig the cheap TV preacher outfits!
5. Life In A Tin Can by the Bee Gees. This one belongs on the “worst titles” list, too. One question: Why did anyone pull the top off this can?
4. Live It Up by Crosby Stills & Nash. Forget the frying egg, kids. This is your brain on drugs.
3. Julie’s Sixteenth Birthday by John Bult. This is the one obscurity that I put on the list. It was just too creepy not to include.
2. Back to the S­­_ _t by Millie Jackson. This is the cover that Brad posted. He put it best, simply asking, “What was she thinking?”
1. Send In the Clowns by Sarah Vaughan. Another favorite artist making a terrible mistake. This one gives me nightmares. It’s also the only one on the list that was so bad the label replaced it on later releases.

There you have it. It was fairly easy finding 25 or so covers. Once I filtered out the handful of broad categories, getting it to 10 wasn’t too hard. I’m sure I overlooked something, though. Feel free to comment with your favorites!

Richard Thompson, OBE

RT, OBE with daughter Kami at the Investiture

Congratulations to Richard Thompson! My favorite musician was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) as part of the 2011 Honours List. The honor was bestowed today as part of the Queen’s official birthday celebration.

Richard was recognized for “Services to music.” This well-deserved honor recognizes his singular talent as a singer and songwriter, interpreter of British traditional and folk music, and musical historian.

As a special celebration, here are two of my favorite songs from the opposite ends of his solo career (so far).


With Honour in Hand

The Angels Took My Racehorse Away from 1972’s brilliant if long-overlooked starring as Henry the Human Fly

Let It Blow from 2005’s amazing Front Parlour Ballads

Freddie Mercury’s Ghost Haunts Palin’s Home Town

This song will corrupt your children!

There must be something in the water in Wasilla, Alaska. As if their former mayor weren’t wacky enough, now we learn that the principal of Wasilla High School tried to practice a particularly nasty bit of censorship.

The school’s symphonic jazz choir was preparing to perform Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. After a parental complaint, Principal Dwight Probasco told the choir they could not perform the song because of the late Freddie Mercury’s sexual orientation. What?!?

That’s right, Freddie was gay, so the song must carry secret gay messages! I guess the drama club won’t be able to perform West Side Story; who knows what secret bisexual messages Leonard Bernstein hid in that one?

Fortunately, the students were not willing to take this censorship without a fight. Junior Casey Hight contacted the ACLU. Said Hight,

I felt like the school was discriminating for sexual orientation and I felt it was wrong. It’s so stupid because there’s nothing sexual in the song. There aren’t even any cuss words.

The mere threat of the ACLU caused Principal Probasco to back down, as most bullies will do if one stands up to them. Bravo to the students for standing up for their rights and opposing blatant discrimination and censorship. Somewhere out there, Freddie is smiling.

(h/t – Just Out)
(cross-posted from my husband’s blog, The Solipsistic Me)


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