January 7 – Checking If That Store Needs Some Fixin’ With The Milkmen

This was the day the modern rock charts got a little levity in 1989; the Dead Milkmen entered it for the first time with “Punk Rock Girl” a song that eventually would go to #11 on Billboard‘s alternative chart and be a mainstay on American college radio and Toronto’s CFNY at the end of the decade.

Formed in Philadelphia in 1979, the Milkmen (who took their name from a character in a Toni Morrison novel) were always something of the class clowns of the alt rock community, writing songs with names like “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Jellyfish Heaven”. They’d gained some success a year or two earlier with “Instant Club Hit” which spoofed trendy club-going kids with lines like “80 pounds of makeup on your art school skin/ 80 points of IQ located within!” . For “Punk Rock Girl”, they said they wanted to write a “punk rock nursery rhyme”; they succeeded and managed to put in a reference to another quirky underground artist, Mojo Nixon (‘if you ain’t got Mojo Nixon, then your store needs some fixin’!”)

With album titles like Not Richard But Dick and Big Lizard in My Backyard! one might gather that they always liked to have a bit of fun with it all. The band called it quits in ’95 due to laggins sales and tendinitis in bassist Dave Schulthise’s hand. However, they reunited for a new album in 2011 and have sporadically played together since.

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December 4 – An Enigma Wrapped In A Moustache

“One of a kind” is an over-used phrase, but in this case it applied. One of the most unique and colorful characters in modern music left us this day in 1993. Frank Zappa died of cancer at age 52.

Zappa was a unique artist and uniquely difficult to characterize. No wonder, as Song Talk point out, besides his satiric and humorous radio near-hits like “Dancing Fool”, he “also wrote chamber music, orhchestral suites, ballets, jazz compositions, concertos, symphonies and more.” Thus his music has been variously described as “rock”, “jazz”, “comedy”, “psychedelia” and more. As the L.A. Times put it upon his passing, his music was a “frothy stew of ’50s doo-wop, R&B, serious experimental jazz and avant garde classical strains, often heaped high with perverse, often scatalogical lyrics.”

The difficulty pigeon-holing his material is perhaps not surprising since he released some 62 albums during his lifetime, and left behind enough material for several dozen albums to be released posthumously! He said of the craft “music can be anything and everything that a composer can imagine”, and when he got an idea he could translate it to music “any way. I can think of them in my head, I can do it on a keyboard, I can do it on a guitar,I can do it on a marimba.”

A talented guitarist and writer, he’s cited as a major influence by artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weird Al Yankovic. Surprisingly, he only had one Top 10 album in the UK and none in his own U.S., but is well remembered for quirky songs like “Montana”, “Bobby Brown” ( a major hit in Scandinavia if nowhere else) and “Valley Girl”, the closest thing he had to a hit single domestically. That one, as we remember, harpooned the youth sub-culture that revered shopping and – ohmygawd! – exuded brainlessness featured his own daughter, Moon Unit singing with him.

He’s also remembered for his outspokenness. He testified against Tipper Gore to the U.S. Senate, calling her plan to label records akin to “treating dandruff by decapitation” and was made an ambassador to the west by Czech president Vaclav Hamel, a fan. And who can forget that moustache? There’s even an African spider named for him due to its abdomenol markings which look like Zappa’s lip-warmer! Love him or hate him, Frank was a one of a kind who didn’t care much either way. “I write because I am personally amused by what I do,” he said. “If other people are amused by it, it’s fine. If they’re not, that’s also fine.” Which when you think of it, is probably a fine attitude for any of us.

November 29 – The Ode To The Golden Age Of The Silver Screen

Yesterday we talked about J.Geils Band who hit the charts this week in 1981; if you were wondering, at the time “Physical” by Olivia Newton John had the #1 spot in the U.S. but the Canadian chart-topper was something more unusual – the cinematic “Friends of Mr. Cairo” by Jon and Vangelis.

The duo were Jon Anderson, singer of Yes (although on leave from that band at the time) and composer, keyboardist Vangelis – Evangelos Papathanassiou – best known for his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire soundtrack that same year. They’d met when Vangelis tried out, unsuccessfully, for Yes some seven years earlier.

The single was the title track to their second album together. The quirky song, edited down from a 12-minute piece on the album, pays homage to the film noirs of the ’30s and ’40s – “Mr. Cairo” was a character in The Maltese Falcon, appropriately enough. It features not only Anderson’s trademark high-pitched voice narrating but a number of his impersonations of old-time movie stars and the sound of an old movie projector running to complete the effect. Apparently, it came about coincidentally. Anderson said in a 2012 interview they “started every song spontaneously. when Vangelis played it, it sounded like an old-style movie” and so he started doing Douglas Fairbanks impressions for a laugh. They found it worked so he kept going with it! The song apparently inspired Michael Jackson to add the Vincent Price bits to “Thriller” a couple of years later and captivated Canuck ears. The single hit #1 there, and the album went platinum, but was only really a big hit elsewhere in Switzerland. In Britain, the title track was ignored but the song “I’ll Find My Way Home” – which allmusic single out as “breathtaking”- was a top 10 hit. Two years later, Anderson would find some American success with his return to Yes and their 90125 album.

October 16 – The Duck Was Big But Lacked Wings

Some people think that pop music jumped the shark with the disco craze in the ’70s. Whether or not that’s correct, disco itself probably jumped the shark on this day in 1976. That was the day that the woefully-unforgettable “Disco Duck” hit #1 on Billboard.

Although disco’s biggest (and perhaps finest) record – Saturday Night Fever – hadn’t yet arrived, disco was all over the radio by the Bicentennial year and soon everyone and his dog – or duck – would be jumping on the bandwagon. The chart hit by Rick Dees & his Cast of Idiots was a prime example. For those too young to remember, it was a rather monotonous disco tune amped up by a chatty Donald Duck-sound-alike. Disney has always been quick to point out that it wasn’t the “real” Donald Duck, but rather Dees friend (or former one… he apparently sued Rick over unpaid royalties not far down the road) Ken Pruitt. Among the cast of “idiots” surprisingly, was Stax Records co-founder Estelle Axton on guitar.

Dees was at the time a 26 year old Floridian working as a well-loved rock DJ in Memphis. He saw the musical trend and in an age when Pet Rocks were a big thing, saw the opportunity to cash in a little. Which he did. The record hit #1 in his country as well as Canada, where it was the third-biggest single of the year. It was one of the unusual records where Billboard and the then-rival publication, Cashbox varied greatly. While the two typically showed up rather similar chart positions and sales ranks, “Disco Duck” barely made the year end top 100 on Billboard but was #4 on Cashbox.

Either way, Dees rode the duck’s tail to fame and fortune, even though it cost him his job. He was forbidden to play his own record on air at the Memphis station, because of potential conflict-of-interest, and while he followed that, he apparently griped too frequently to his listeners that he had a smash hit but was not permitted to spin it.

Management angered and showed him the door; in a few weeks a rival rock station in town hired him and from there he soon moved to what was rumored to be the most profitable radio station in the country, KIIS-FM in L.A. By the mid-’80s he’d started his own syndicated chart hit show to take on Casy Kasem, “Rick Dees Weekly Top 40″, apparently something of a Kasem show with “funny bits,” parodies and in all likelihood, talking ducks. Dees had a gig on TV hosting Solid Gold and is honored in the National Radio Hall of Fame.

A few more notes on his single. It came out on the RSO label, the Bee Gees one that dominated 1977-78. Not surprisingly then, a snippet of the song is heard in the movie Saturday Night Fever, even though it didn’t make the double album soundtrack. Although it did win the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Song, not unhappily (to this listener at least), when the duck flew south it probably took with it listeners craving for spoof, novelty songs. Although the ’70s had its share, and several had hit #1 including “My Dingaling” by Chuck Berry in 1972, Ray Stevens “The Streak” and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” in ’74 and C.W. McCall’s truckin’ “Convoy” earlier in ’76, “Disco Duck” was the last one of note to top Billboard and his follow-up… “Dis-go-rilla” failed to even make the top 40.

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!