June 26 – Sensible Time For A Little ‘Happy Talk,’ Wot?

In times like these, seems like we could all use a little bit of “Happy Talk.” Today we deliver! Captain Sensible put out his very sensible first solo single, “Happy Talk” on this day in 1982.

So we have a punk rocker with a beret prancing around with a decidedly giddy big Broadway musical number. Nothing unusual here…

Sensible is Ray Burns, the bassist for The Damned, a band some would claim was the first real Brit punk band. Remarkably, only six years prior, they played their first gig in ’76, opening for the Sex Pistols and had arguably the first Brit punk hit record with “New Rose.”

By ’82 though he seemed to be bored with the punk scene and decided to step out on his own with a solo album, Women & Captains First. As allmusic put it, his aim was “to show he could do more than just straight-forward punk rock and there’s no arguing – he succeeded.” With song titles like “Yanks with Guns” and “A Nice Cup Of Tea”, there was little doubting that Sensible had a bit of a wacky side too!

The album didn’t sell in any huge quantities, but garnered decent reviews. Sensible wrote ten of the twelve songs, with only this one – from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific – and a 1924 tune called “Nobody’s Sweetheart” being the exceptions. He says he found a copy of South Pacific when looking through his parents’ record collection and recorded it when “exceedingly drunk.” It wasn’t his pick as a single, but again we see how little artists know about their own records appeal! The song went to #1 in the UK, and was the biggest single he ever had, with or without The Damned. Although the single didn’t get noticed much here, the follow-up, the equally quirky “Wot!” got decent video play in Canada and helped the album hit the top 50 year-end charts on Toronto’s CFNY-FM.

Ever the cryptic type who’s hard to get a read on, Sensible formed a political party in Britain in 2006 because watching Tony Blair on TV made him want to “put a brick through” the screen. Not surprisingly, the party was a mix of whimsy (banning idolization of Paris Hilton or the Spice Girls) and serious (they put forward a real and intelligent document on things such as Middle Eastern policy and the Iran war.) He also turned vegetarian in the ’80s and followed up “Wot!” with a single called “Wot! No Meat?”.

Looking at the news today, it’s hard to know what to think of Ray Burns. But it’s not a bad day for some “Happy Talk”. And looking at our political arena, a vote for the Captain might just be “sensible”!

June 10 – #1 Hit Left A Bitter Taste In Davis’ Mouth

Isn’t that sweet? After being a star for three decades and being dubbed “Mr. Show Business”, Sammy Davis Jr. finally had a #1 hit song this day in 1972. A song he hated. “The Candy Man” was on top of the charts 50 years ago.

By then Davis was an entertainment rarity in every way. He was a movie star and popular singer, a Las Vegas fixture and a household name sort of celebrity in an era when such people were few and far between. To top it off, he’d risen to the top as a Black man during the tumultuous times of the Civil Rights protests. He was a member of the so-called “Rat Pack”, hanging with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and starring in movies like Oceans 11 with them. And like them, he’d been recording for years, his first album coming out in 1955. He spent most of the ’60s recording for Sinatra’s Reprise Records, though by the early-’70s he’d been lured away by MGM Records. He’d scored some popular songs with his takes on mostly Broadway-style standards, but by ’72 his star was falling, musically at least. His last taste of success had been 1968’s “I Gotta Be Me”, which hit #11in the States.

Perhaps that’s why he was persuaded to record this song which he clearly disliked, considering it “too saccharine.” The song had been written by the team of Anthony Newley  and Leslie Bricusse (who’d co-written “Goldfinger”) . They wrote “The Candy Man”  for the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the bizarre adaptation of the Roald Dahl kids book featuring Gene Wilder. Which in the context of the story, makes the song make total sense. In the film, it’s sung by candy store owner Aubrey Woods.

However, almost no one liked the way Woods sang it; it’s said Newley had requested to record it himself instead at his own expense but was refused. So there was a catchy, if silly, singalong ditty from a hit movie but one no one figured could sell on its own. Enter MGM who somehow got Davis to do it.

Davis sang about making everything he bakes satisfying and delicious with a satisfied gusto, backed by the Mike Curb Congregation, about as easy-listening and vanilla-sounding group of voices as one could find. When it was done, apparently it left a bitter taste in Sammy’s mouth. “This record is going straight down the toilet,” he told friends, “and it may pull my whole career down with it!”

That it did not, even though at least a few naysayers probably thought it would have had just cause to do so. The song rocketed up the charts like nothing else he’d sung, and spent three weeks at #1, ending up winning him a gold single and it finishing in the top 5 of the entire year. It’s popularity extended to Canada and Australia as well, where it got to #2 and #3 respectively. It even got him a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Male; we’re glad to announce he ended up losing to Nilsson and his “Without You” though. Perhaps in the long run Davis was right with his bathroom prophecy though; he never again had a hit song.

The Candy Man” lives on in a number of TV shows and movies, sometimes in the original Davis version, sometimes in goofy parodies…with a song that made the Osmonds sound punkish by comparison and lyrics about eating the dishes, it’s easy to see why that happened. One of the more noteworthy remakes was by Barry Manilow who sampled Davis’ voice in 2013 to make a duet with the by-then deceased Vegas star.

Interestingly, it was one of the things scrapped when it came time to remake the movie in 2005. Danny Elfman who did the soundtrack for the Johnny Depp-starring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chose to come up with all new music for the film. “I had no trouble divorcing myself from those songs,” he said when asked why it didn’t make a reappearance behind Depp.

June 9 – Not Every Rocker Wanted A Cadillac Or Mercedes Benz

Pa” had a good reason to drink 48 years ago… that kid was still driving that “Hot Rod Lincoln.” And this day in 1972, the Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen had it parked at a peak of #9 in the U.S. It also hit #7 in Canada, but didn’t drag up other land’s charts too well. Maybe the driving on the wrong side of the road thing…

The retro-sounding song sounded that way for good reason. It was actually a cover version of a 1955 Charlie Ryan song, which itself was a follow-up to an earlier Arkie Shibley song, “Hot Rod Race” about a a Ford and a Mercury street racing and being overtaken by a souped-up Lincoln. In this one, it’s the Lincoln driver singing, with his friends telling him “slow down – I see spots! The lines on the roads all look like dots” and his dad telling him he was gonna “drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop driving that Hot Rod Lincoln!”

Commander Cody was actually boogie-woogie piano player/singer George Frayne, who adopted his nickname from a ’50s sci-fi film hero. Frayne was born in Boise, but formed his band in Ann Arbor, Michigan after getting his arts degree at the University of Michigan. A multi-threat artistically, Frayne also painted and sculpted and even taught art in universities later on. His love for his own style of rockabilly-country-boogie music has stayed with him through over 30 albums, and continued until his death in 2021. His final album, Bear’s Sonic Journals came out in 2020. However, the public only loved it the one time, with the top 10 song about drag racers. Nonetheless, 50 years later that Lincoln is a classic antique!

April 14 – The ‘Gnome’nclature Of Kicking Off A Big Career

What a difference a few – or 16- years makes! Today it’s all about The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Starman…aka David Bowie.

On this day in 1983, he put out his smash Let’s Dance, the biggest-selling record of his career. But…it was on this day back in 1967 Bowie put out his first album. That might seem appropriate given his talent and stature in rock history and given that year’s prominence in developing the sound with the likes of Sgt. Pepper… and the emergence of The Doors. Only Bowie’s entry to the scene wasn’t quite that celebrated. In fact, it’s probably fair to say it was pretty bad! Just prior to the album release, his single, “The Laughing Gnome” came out. You’re forgiven if you’re not that familiar with it. It isn’t up there with “Fame” or “A Space Oddity” when it comes to recurrent radio play!

The song was a very odd, “whimsical” tune about, well, a jolly gnome. Bowie sang the regular parts , with reference to “his tiny hands on his tummy” and so forth, as well as the gnome bits. The latter were accomplished by speeding up his voice until it was chipmunk-like, assuring listeners he was the laughing gnome, “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee.” The song would have been buried in the annals of forgettable music had Bowie not gone on to bigger and better. When his star was on the rise, his label re-released it as a single in 1973 in Europe (when “A Space Oddity” , also a re-release, was riding high over here) and remarkably, it got to #6 in the UK! A copy of that 1973 release, by the way, might fetch you something like $20 online but if you have a copy of the original Deram Records , 7” single from 1967, you might ask yourself why? Nonetheless, your surprising taste in music over 50 years back could pay off as apparently there are people who will buy it for around $300, the going rate.

His biographer David Buckley thought it was a “supremely catchy children’s song” but most agreed with the NME which called it the most embarrassing bit of his career.” We expect Bowie agreed with that assessment; when he had a fan vote in 1990 to see what song they wanted added to his “Sound + Vision” concerts, this song was leading. So he scrapped the vote. Seems Bowie got the last laugh, not the gnome

March 27 – Frog Brought Joy To 3DN’s Bank

One of many stories of a band having a smash hit that they didn’t think much of. Three Dog Night hit the top 40 this day in 1971 with the biggest single of the year in North America, “Joy To The World”.

The band was at that point one of the biggest around, with their first three albums all going gold in the U.S. and with a #1 song the year before, with the Randy Newman tune “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” Hoyt Axton, a country artist, had written the song for an animated TV show, which never ended up being made. A successful songwriter, he decided to get it recorded anyway and presented it to the California band. They didn’t like it much, but they needed another song to quickly finish up their Naturally album and Chuck Negron (one of the band’s singers) thought they could use a “silly song”, although years later he’d admit it “Wasn’t even close to our best record.” Axton (who also wrote “The Pusher” for Steppenwolf, and later “Never Been To Spain”, another hit for Three Dog Night) didn’t think the classic opening line “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” was great either, he said it was a temporary lyric he wanted to re-write but they just went ahead and recorded it before he could.

The song, which some figured was about the prophet Jeremiah and others just thought was a song about a talking and drinking frog ended up staying at #1 for six weeks, going gold in the U.S. and selling over a million copies in Canada, making it one of the biggest 45s of all-time there. they seemed to have a particularly strong following there, landing 13-straight top 10 hits just between 1969-73. This one though, almost didn’t make that list. Their label picked “”One Man Band” as the first single from Naturally. “Joy to the World” probably wouldn’t have ever been noticed much, let alone released as a single, were it not for just one DJ. As we mentioned before when discussing “Black Water” , in the ’70s, DJs had a lot of power over what they played. For Three Dog Night, their hero was Larry Bergman, a Seattle radio jock. “I was working at KISW-FM at the time,” he recalls, “that was when AMs were more popular than FMs.” The FM station had an AM twin, and the difference was in tracks they played. “My job was to select odd cuts from albums by popular artists…for on-air use.” He picked that one from Naturally and as soon as it was on air, the phones

started ringing at the station. An AM radio DJ noticed and started playing it too and within a short period, it was the #1 song in Seattle. The rest of the continent wasn’t too far behind, although it only rose to #24 in the UK where they weren’t ever a big deal. The band continues to this day, although they’ve gone through 29 band members through the years and haven’t done much recording lately. No word on whether they still have the person dressed up as a giant frog as a mascot as they did back then.

March 2 – Stafford Crawled Up The Charts

Spring is in the air, which means certain “creepy crawlies” will be out on the ground. Which leads to today’s hit … Jim Stafford‘s kinda comedy, kinda country “Spiders and Snakes” which topped out at #3 in the U.S. on this day in 1974. It would actually rise to #1 in Canada a week later.

Stafford was at the time pushing 30 and a self-taught guitarist/banjo player/pianist/fiddler from Florida who was riding high on his debut album, a self-titled affair that also spawned two more , slightly less-successful, semi-humorous singles, “My Girl Bill” and “Wildwood Weed”. That one was about a weed that grew up on his property that he found he could smoke and which drew the attention of the feds. “Spiders and Snakes”, on the other hand, deals with, presumably, a high school boy who loves a gal but tries to win her affection by giving her spiders and snakes. It was a likeable enough little country-esque ditty that went gold in the U.S. and helped his album hit the country top 10. It was also representative of the times. With Watergate, Nixon, gas-shortages and inflation, the public was more than ready for a little humor and levity in their lives, and this single, Ray Stevens “The Streak”, Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”, and a little later, C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” demonstrated that across the airwaves. 

While Stafford would only put out a couple more, less successful albums, he did quite alright and made some influential friends. The debut album was co-produced by Roland LaVoie, aka “Lobo”, who’d had some success on his own with early-’70s hits like “I’d Love You To Want Me” and “Me and You And A Dog Named Boo.” The two of them had at one time been in a band together in Florida with another decent musician- Gram Parsons. And while the song wasn’t a blockbuster hit, it, with his personality mixed in got him his own variety show briefly (hey, if the Captain and Tennille can do it…) where he met lovely Bobbie Gentry, whom he married and had a son with.

Until recently, Stafford had his own theater in Branson, MO and played there a few nights a week. However, it was shut permanently in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

By the way, a little more spiders-and-snakes music trivia for today… Lou Reed, New York’s musical bard and lead singer in the Velvet Underground, who was born 80 years ago today (and passed away in 2013) has a European spider named after him. The scientist who found it was inspired to name it as such because it had a velvety body, and lived largely underground!

July 9 – Forgotten Gems – Dead Milkmen

It’s a Friday… anyone venturing out to the dance halls tonight?

In the early-’80s, “there were all these serious, ultra no-fun bands who wanted people to take them seriously. We sorta switched that around.” So lies the backdrop behind today’s Forgotten Gem artist – the Dead Milkmen, according to singer Rodney Linderman, better known to their fans as Rodney Anonymous. The Philadelphia band begun in 1983 could play their instruments and write songs… but they absolutely didn’t want people taking them too seriously. And with song titles like “Watching Scotty Die,” “Surfin’ Cow” and their almost-hit “Bitchin’ Camaro,” there’s probably little chance of that. Not to mention today’s song, 1987‘s “Instant Club Hit.”

Instant Club Hit” was the single off their third album, Bucky Fellini. Although signed to Enigma Records, who also had the Smithereens and Berlin at times during the ’80s, it was an under-the-radar kind of release mostly heard only on college radio, and Toronto’s CFNY (where it was actually the 71st biggest record of the year.) Little wonder perhaps, because as the Orlando Sentinel pointed out then, “unfortunately a comic bent lends to the labeling of bands as a novelty act, a commercial death trap.” The single, sometimes referred to as “You’ll Dance to Anything” with its intentionally-ironic simple dance beat spoofs the discos of the day and their inhabitants, delivering classic skewers like “80 pounds of makeup on your art school skin, 80 points of IQ located within” and knocking music by “any bunch of stupid bunch of Europeans who come over here with their big hairdos.” All the more ironic, it became a minor hit in those very dance clubs. “Maybe it’ll start a trend where people stop wearing black clothing and all the girls stop looking like Siouxsie Sioux,” Rodney suggested.

He says he got the idea in his hometown. “I hung out at this club in Philly. I have…no sense of rhythm. I wouldn’t dance at this club, I’d just sit there at the bar and drink and growl.”

Although some critics loved the album – the Toronto Star, for instance, called it a “sarcastic masterpiece” and even People magazine noticed it and declared the Milkmen “aren’t as stupid as they’d like to be” – it was far from an instant hit. It topped out at #163 on Billboard.

The Dead Milkmen are still alive, and kicking subjects they find dumb, with their most recent release being Pretty Music for Pretty People in 2014.

May 13 – Public Were Excitable Hearing Warren’s Ode To Werewolves

It was before Rupert Holmes made pina coladas trendy and decades after people had thought about Lon Chaney. Yes, Halloween came early in 1978 Warren Zevon‘s classic, “Werewolves of London” peaked at a surprisingly low #21 on Billboard this day 43 years ago. Or given its importance in his career, perhaps for Warren, it was Christmas come early!

Zevon was well-connected and very well-respected in California as a singer/songwriter and pianist and had all the right friends – he hung out with Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac (he at one time roomed with Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham!) and Jackson Browne. He was signed to the Asylum label Browne had been the original performer on. But none of it mattered much to the record-buying public, his first album on that label in 1976 (seven years after another unremarkable release on a different label) barely scraped into the top 200 at a time when some of his friends were beginning to dominate American radio. That all changed though with that instantly recognizable piano intro and the catchy song about stylish werewolves who love Chinese food and drinking pina coladas at Trader Vic’s. It became his only American top 40 hit (and a top 20 in Canada) months after Linda Ronstadt had a top 40 hit with “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, a song Warren wrote. And it helped his album Excitable Boy make the top 10 and earn him his only platinum record.

He wrote the song with session guitarist Waddy Wachtel (who plays guitar on the record… Mick Fleetwood is the drummer, John McVie bassist and it was produced by Jackson Browne.) years earlier at the offhand suggestion of their friends the Everly Brothers. It got finished off in the form we know with help of veteran songwriter Leroy Martinell, who said the royalties off it let him buy a place in Italy and spend half the year on the Riviera. Royalties got bumped up even more when Kid Rock sampled the piano for his 2008 hit “All Summer Long.”

Audiences loved the song so much that Zevon spoofed it in an episode of Larry Sanders Show, relating to Sanders’ sidekick how much he hated playing that song and being pleased to showcase some other work… which of course led Sanders to tell him to play “Werewolves”. Critics as usual loved it; Rolling Stone didn’t specifically write about the song in their review of his album but called Excitable Boy the “Best American album since Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run” and added that the decade had introduced “three major” American acts to that point- Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Zevon.

Although it was only a reasonably big hit at the time, its stature has grown through the years so much that Zevon, who passed away in 2003, is still a household name and the song which never made the top 20 now may be among the top 20 most played songs from the ’70s on “oldies” radio.

By the way, if you were wondering- Lon Chaney was one of Hollywood’s earliest stars, being in B&W classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and his son, Lon Chaney Jr., followed in his footsteps, starring in various horror movies including one in which he played “the wolfman”.

December 26 – TV Comics ‘Rush’ed To Chart Top

Comedy albums seldom sell really large quantities and equally-seldom get a lot of airplay on rock radio, but for every rule, there’s an exception. On this day in 1981, the exception was Bob and Doug McKenzie of the SCTV  show, who had the #1 album in Canada (and a top 10 hit in the U.S.) with The Great White North.

The McKenzie’s, aka Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas turned their Canadian background and Canuck broadcasting rules into gold with the comedy record that spawned a (dubious) Christmas classic with their take on the Twelve Days of Christmas and the hit single (which they introduce as the “hit single part of the record”) “Take Off”, featuring Rush’s Geddy Lee singing the chorus.

The skit-show which introduced the likes of Catherine O’Hara, John Candy and Eugene Levy to the world was a hit in Canada before NBC picked it up for the American market and despite being shot in Canada with Canadian actors and writers, CBC-TV thought it lacked enough Canadian content. The result was Bob and Doug who mocked every Canadian stereotype known to man and got to sit around drinking real beer, eating real bacon as they improvised the 41 skits. SCTV had regular ties to music, being that somewhat similarly to Saturday Night Live, they often had musical guests which included the likes of The Tubes, Boomtown Rats , Wendy O. Williams and Canada’s own Rough Trade.

Lee’s involvement with the record goes back to his friendship with Moranis; they went to grade school together in Toronto.

December 13 – McCall Rode Semi Trucks To Fame And Fortune

Ten-four good buddy, CW McCall hit it big the same day Patti Smith put out her debut we looked at already today. For McCall, it was with the song that either capitalized on, or started, the CB radio fad – “Convoy.”

The song hit the Top 40 this day in 1975 and rolled on up the highway (chart) to #1 in the U.S., Canada and Australia. For those too young to remember, in the pre-celphone era, people had to rely on shortwave radios -using Citizen’s Band frequencies, hence “CB” – in cars and trucks to communicate while on the road.

The song full of colorful lingo and characters was the offshoot of the singer’s work in advertising – his real name is William Fries, but he created his trucker character for a bread company’s ad campaign! The CB radios and song enjoyed popularity through the decade: in 1978 the tune was made into a Hollywood movie with Kris Kristofferson that raked in $45 million. Fries is still alive at 92 and was the mayor of Ouray, Colorado in the 1980s. Although he briefly enjoyed success on country music radio in the latter part of the ’70s (with a #2 hit on country charts, the tearjerker “Roses for Mama”) he never delivered another chart-topper after “Convoy.”