Friday, October 23, 2015

The days the music died: Premature pronouncements of the death of music

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," music could say. 

Today on Music Weird, we'll survey some premature pronouncements of the death of music.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Is Destroying Music

At the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, the audience nearly rioted. Carl Van Vechten said that part of the audience considered the performance a "blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art" and became "swept away with wrath."  Nevertheless, the ballet went on to become famous and was subsequently performed without incident. 

Motion Pictures Are Killing Music

The 1924 hearings of the U.S House of Representatives' Committee on Patents included some remarks on the role of motion pictures in killing music. A transcript of the hearings noted that "there was a great deal said about how radio as well as this terrible thing, the moving pictures, is killing the music business." The belief was that if you broadcast a song a few times—via radio or film—then it's dead to the copyright owner.

Radio Is Killing Music

In 1933, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, issued a pamphlet that was titled The Murder of Music. What was murdering music in 1933? Radio.

Sheet music publishers and record labels were certain that the rise of radio could destroy their industry. After all, who would pay for a record or for sheet music if you could hear the music for free on the radio? In later years, labels would come to realize that radio could play an important role in promoting records and recording artists, but in the 1930s, radio was killing music.

Television Is Killing Music

In 1949, ASCAP's Television Committee dived into music rights issues related to television.The rights organization was concerned about whether or not its members were being fairly compensated for music when it was used on the growing medium of television. ASCAP's concern was that "TV would kill off other sources of income [for musicians], and therefore TV would have to pay for this," as Billboard reported on March 19, 1949. 

Hillbilly Interpretations of Rock 'n' Roll Songs Are Killing Music

In 1956, the Maddox Bros. & Rose—possibly the greatest country music combo of all time—recorded a crazed hillbilly version of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" and titled it "The Death of Rock and Roll."

Premature Deaths of Musicians Are Killing Music

Don McLean's song "American Pie" links the death of music to the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. 

Elvis Joining the Army and Chuck Berry Going to Prison Are Killing Music

A common narrative in rock criticism is that music died when Elvis joined the Army and Chuck Berry went to prison on statutory rape charges. According to this story, music wasn't revived until the Beatles came along.

An example of this oft-repeated story appeared in the LA Times in 2014, in an article that claimed that within "a few years' time" of the advent of rock 'n' roll, "the industry tamed rock 'n' roll. Elvis went to the Army. Chuck Berry went to prison. Bobby Vinton went to No. 1."

The article goes on to say that not a single #1 hit in 1963 contained an electric guitar solo, even though the first #1 hit of 1963, the Tornadoes' "Telstar," is a guitar instrumental.

Teenagers and Lack of Copyright Protection for Record Labels Are Killing Music

In 1965, Capitol Records president Alan Livingston testified for a House subcommittee when a copyright revision bill was introduced. He argued that the lack of fair compensation for record labels under the current law forced labels to give the public what it would buy rather than what it wants to hear but not necessarily buy. It was a strange argument that seemed to be rooted in a disdain for the teenage consumer. Livingston told the House subcommittee:
[Capitol Records is forced to] concentrate mostly on meeting that mass buying public of teenagers, who are buying the Beatles, who happen to be on Capitol Records, who are buying the Beach Boys, who are buying what the current hot artist is today. Next week it is another hot artist, and we move so fast and so furiously that really what the public wants to hear and use, and what is being used out of our catalog, goes forgotten, and I don't really know how long record companies, such as Capitol, Victor and Columbia can stay in business.

Disco Is Killing Music

Nelson George, in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, said that "on playlists nationwide white dance records in the disco style replaced songs by black artists." 

The disco backlash, which was exemplified by "disco sucks" t-shirts and the infamous Disco Demolition Night promotion in 1979, is often conflated with the rise of punk rock. Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped Our Culture says that "punk rock helped to finish off disco's excess," even though the two styles of music reached and served different audiences. 

Rap and Hip-Hop Are Killing Music

Many music fans and commentators, including Bill O'Reilly, have accused rap of "destroying" music. Some, including Ray Charles, have even said that rap isn't music at all.

Sampling Is Killing Music

Sampling has helped to kill music, critics say, because the "music" "creators" who use it can't play their own instruments or create original works—they only rip off and appropriate the work of others. The debate, as The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies summarizes, involves "the concepts and legal definitions of musical creativity and originality, intellectual property, and copyright" and "the moral responsibility of music producers in the exchange, appropriation, or 'rip off' of sounds."

Video Killed the Radio Star

Countless articles have decried MTV's role in killing music in the '80s and beyond, and the Buggles' 1979 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star"—the first video ever aired on MTV—has come to symbolize the effect of MTV on music as a whole. 

A common argument against MTV was that the visual medium of video shifted the focus away from song craft and musical performance and toward visual spectacle. According to this interpretation, the quality of the music—or lack thereof—had become irrelevant as long as the song had a cool video.

In Jon Goodman's book, The King of Novelty: Dickie Goodman, he says that "video did kill the radio star and no one will know until they read this book." Well, now we know. 

Home Taping Is Killing Music

Remember this slogan from the 1980s? The music industry was so bent out of shape about blank cassettes potentially destroying the sale of prerecorded music that there was even talk of imposing a preemptive royalty—to be paid to record labels—on the sale of blank tapes.

Overpaying Artists Is Killing Music

In 1997, the vice president of BMG China, Landow Lee, attributed the decline of the industry to artists getting too much money: "We all want artists to have their fair share, but overpaying them is destroying the music scene."

File Sharing Is Killing Music

Gene Simmons of KISS recently made this claim that file sharing is killing music. Simmons told Esquire magazine that file sharing has made a career in music "almost impossible":
It's very sad for new bands. My heart goes out to them. They just don't have a chance. If you play guitar, it's almost impossible. You're better off not even learning how to play guitar or write songs and just singing in the shower and auditioning for The X Factor.

Auto-Tune Is Killing Music

In 2010, Mother Jones ran an article titled "Is Auto-Tune Killing Pop Music?" The implication was yes, it is.

Lack of Education and Culture Is Killing Music

In 2003, the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported the death of classical music:
Welcome to the death of music, or that genre of it we define as classical. For more than a century it has captured the hearts and minds of millions, inspired the building of great concert halls in hundreds of cities, sustained thousands of musicians and created a discography that seemed timeless and enduring in its appeal. Well, timeless and enduring until now. For, despite private patronage and lashings of public funds, concert performance and ticket sales are in free fall.
The article went on to say:
Image from the Slate article "Classical Music in America Is Dead."
The thesis of the death of music is scarcely new, but seldom has the
speed and scale of the decline been more evident than now. And this
time it is being felt across every major orchestra right to the top.
Indeed, it is not at all lurid or fanciful to suggest that the
conventional classical music concert will die out within the next decade, unable to outlive the ageing demography of today's
That was written just over a decade ago, and yet my local university still has a robust classical music concert schedule.

Steve Jobs and Digital Media Are Killing Music

"Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business," said Jon Bon Jovi in 2011. How did he do it? With—as The Register reported—his "singlehanded transformation of music from vinyl to digital."

Bon Jovi explained, "Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album." He must not have heard about the vinyl resurgence. 

Fans Are Killing Music

Digital Music News said in 2013 that fans are killing music, but their argument was really that file sharing was killing music.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The original "Lollipop" by Ronald & Ruby (1958)

The Chordettes' big 1958 hit "Lollipop" continues to be a familiar and popular song a half-century after its release. It has been featured in numerous movies and television shows, including Stand By Me, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Whip It, Chicken Little, and The Simpsons. It has appeared in commercials for Dell computers and Life Savers candy. But few listeners are familiar with the story behind the song and its original version by the interracial duo Ronald & Ruby. Today on Music Weird, we'll look at Ronald & Ruby's original "Lollipop" and why it didn't become the familiar version of this instantly recognizable song.

"Lollipop" was written by Beverly Ross and Julius Dixson. Ross was a young, white, Jewish songwriter from New York, and Dixson was an older black songwriter and record label executive. The two of them had previously written Bill Haley's 1954 hit "Dim, Dim the Lights."

"Lollipop" was a sure-fire hit—it was infectious, memorable, and suggestive. It had the sound of a guileless children's song but also had some sexual innuendo, like many of the later bubblegum hits of the '60s and '70s. (Ross told Village Voice in 1958, "In this country it is taboo to express sexuality, and our adolescent population is very inhibited. The music brings some outlet to them. They need this. It is a medium in which they can express themselves....")

Beverly Ross
In her 2013 memoir I Was the First Woman Phil Spector Killed!, Ross says that she was inspired to write "Lollipop" after Dixson (she spells his name "Dixon") showed up at a songwriting session with a story about his daughter getting a lollipop stuck in her hair. Ross takes credit for most of the song, saying that she wrote the "first verse, hook, chorus ... and bridge within moments." She also takes credit for the way that the harmonies in the song build, because Dixson, in her words, "wrote Harlem cabaret blues with four chords, and never ventured into this genre...."

After Ross and Dixson wrote the song, Ross took it to a couple of song publishers, but they turned her down. She was mystified, because she thought that the song had obvious commercial appeal. So she persisted and took it to song plugger Arnold Shaw, who was more enthusiastic. "That's a smash," Shaw said. Shaw, in his 1974 book The Rockin' 50s, said that he was "so flipped by the rhythm ballad" that he had his secretary "instantly phone a recording studio and book time ... to cut a demo." 

In the studio, Ross herself recorded the song with a 13- or 14-year-old African-American guy named Ronald Gumm, who was Dixson's neighbor. Ross was primarily a songwriter but could sing pretty well and later recorded an unsuccessful solo single for Columbia, "Stop Laughing at Me."

"Lollipop" was recorded with only guitar, bass, piano, and drums, because of the short notice. The entire session cost only $55, if you believe Shaw, or $27, if you believe Ross.

Shaw used the demo to pitch the song to labels, but Archie Bleyer at Cadence Records wanted to release Ross and Gumm's demo recording as a commercial single. Releasing this demo as a master presented a few problems, though. For one thing, Gumm wasn't under contract, so the recording couldn't be licensed. For another, Gumm was a minor, so any contract with him would have to be worked out with his parents. And finally, Ross and Gumm were an interracial duo, which the music biz didn't regard warmly at that time.

Shaw, still trying to place the song rather than the demo, took it to Steve Sholes at RCA Victor. But Bleyer was in a frenzy for the song, because his teenage daughter loved it—a certain indication that it would be a hit! Bleyer told Shaw that if he didn't have a licensing deal for the Ronald & Ruby recording by the next day, then he was going to record the song with the Chordettes. 

Bleyer didn't have a deal the next day, so he recorded the song with the Chordettes. Shaw didn't really care. He was a song plugger, after all, not an agent for unknown recording artists.

Nevertheless, Shaw went ahead and negotiated a deal with Steve Sholes so that RCA Victor could release the Ronald & Ruby demo as a single. Billboard must have thought that the single was hit material, because it said in its April 7, 1958, issue that buying the demo was a "wise move" on RCA's part. RCA's ads, one of which is pictured at the top of this page, featured cartoon depictions of the artists instead of photographs in order to sidestep the race issue. Ross claims that her mother was the one who suggested that the record be released pseudonymously "for safety reasons" so that Ross' name wouldn't be associated with an interracial single.

The Ronald & Ruby version wasn't a big hit. It peaked at #20 in Billboard and #63 in Music Vendor. In Cash Box, it was ranked at #2 on the pop chart, but that's because Cash Box lumped together all the versions of the song. 

Bleyer's version with the Chordettes was the one that really swept the charts. Shaw said that "Lollipop" was the fastest-breaking single of his career as a song plugger, but even at that, the Chordettes weren't able to knock the Champs' "Tequila" out of the #1 spot. 

Ronald & Ruby's version was successful enough to merit a follow-up single ("Lovebirds"), but the follow up was even less successful than the first single. Some sources say that Ronald & Ruby's television and radio appearances were canceled when the duo's interracial composition came to light, but if that were true, why would RCA release another Ronald & Ruby single? Because—supposedly—Ross was replaced by a black singer. The image below is said to be a photo of the all-black Ronald & Ruby. I don't know if that's true or not.

The alleged all-black incarnation of Ronald & Ruby

After "Lollipop," Ross had some other hits and notable songs, including Elvis Presley's "The Girl of My Best Friend," the Earls' "Remember Then," and Lesley Gore's "Judy's Turn to Cry," and then had a late-career renaissance as a Nashville songwriter in country music.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Winter Vacation: A retrospective and interview with David Yourdon

In the 1990s-2000s, a kind of brainy, ramshackle American indiepop music existed that doesn't seem to be around anymore. Or if it is, I'm not finding it. David Yourdon's one-man band, Winter Vacation, is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. 

Some of the hallmarks of this music are thoughtful and earnest lyrics, boy-next-door vocals, and no-frills production values. Other artists in a similar vein are Pants Yell!, Wimp Factor 14, the Gazetteers, Vehicle Flips, and sometimes Tullycraft. 

Yourdon is probably better known for his recordings with the Pathways than with Winter Vacation, but Winter Vacation has a passionate following too. He released three Winter Vacation albums from 2001-2008, and all of them are good. A commenter on Discogs praised the Winter Vacation album Detectives as "one of my favourite albums of all time." Reviewer David Greenwald described The Netherlands, 1980 as "sincere, catchy and completely adorable." And the blog Doom & Gloom from the Tomb described Blue Coaching as "dreamy, slightly lo-fi bedroom pop, filled with sharp songwriting, clever arrangements and wistful lyrics." All true.

Winter Vacation and the Pathways have been quiet for some time, so Music Weird caught up with Yourdon on Oct. 3, 2015, to see what's happening, and to see what happened.

Did Winter Vacation have any releases other than Detectives; The Netherlands, 1980; and Blue Coaching?

Those are the only albums I would consider "real." I made a handful of album-like thingies before Detectives, but they were only distributed to a few friends. Then again, Blue Coaching was only distributed to a few friends, so perhaps if it's to be considered an album, those other ones should be considered albums too. For your records, the early ones were called: Winter Vacation (self-titled), Winter Vacation Strikes Again!, and Old Friends.

Where are you from and what did you do before Winter Vacation?

I'm from New York City originally. Before Winter Vacation, I was a senior in my first semester of high school, so I guess I was taking midterms!

When did you start recording/performing as Winter Vacation, and what was the inspiration behind the name?

The first recordings under the name Winter Vacation happened during winter vacation of my senior year. I was in a couple bands at the time, but they were both dormant, and I had nothing to do for a few weeks, so I recorded a dozen songs and put them on a cassette.

Who else played on the Winter Vacation records? It is described as your solo project, but was it a band?

The recordings are mostly just me. A couple friends play on songs that appear on the Asaurus compilation (You Already Have Way Too Many CD-Rs), but that might be it for guest stars. I almost got a guest accordion player for the song "The Greenest Age," but that fell through, so I artlessly stabbed a toy accordion instead.

Did Winter Vacation perform live? If so, how often did you perform and how far (distance-wise) did you go? How did the shows go?

Winter Vacation shows have been few and far between. There was one tour back in 2001, which had Evan from the Pathways on guitar and the entirely-new-to-drumming Keith on drums. (Way to go, Keith!) The best show of that tour was in Cleveland. We played with Wolfie and Churchbuilder, which had Patrick Carney, now of the Black Keys, on guitar. The worst show was in New Orleans. We played with a band called Swamp Witch. It was not a match.

There was also a show at a house in Portland in 2009 (featuring my friends Mike and Dan, and a ragtag cover of "Dancing in the Dark"), a show at a bar in Brooklyn, and a solo show at the University of Chicago. Oh, and there was a one-off show in Sweden, at a festival called Mitt Nasta Liv. That was a good one.

The fact that I can list most of the shows tells you how few there were.

How did the first album end up on Dutch Courage Records?

Cory [McClure], who ran Dutch Courage, was a DJ at WHPK, as was I, and he somehow heard my music and offered to put out my next album. To save money, we printed only the CDs and the artwork, and we used the jewel cases from discarded radio station CDs.

Cory also got a song of mine on a Swedish compilation, which led to the Mitt Nasta Liv festival, so I owe him for that experience!

The Pathways' recordings seem different to me from the Winter Vacation recordings. Did you approach the two projects differently? If so, in what way?

The Pathways was an actual band, and the songs, especially on the last two albums, were true collaborations. My friend Evan, who was the other principal songwriter, and I would exchange tapes with song fragments—generally just a guitar riff or a keyboard part over a drum machine—and the other person would fill out the song. So if you hear me singing a Pathways song, it probably began as an Evan riff, and vice versa. That process forced us to merge our sensibilities.

You said that you don't like Detectives anymore. Were you happy with it when it was new? What changed?

I'm sure I was happy enough with it when it was new, but in hindsight, it seems simultaneously precious and not too thought out for a "concept album." On a technical level, I had just bought a fancy new microphone, and I didn't know how to use it, so the recordings are super trebly, most notably my voice. I think I managed to fix the technical issues by the time the Pathways made Boat of Confidence, which was recorded with the same equipment. And I think the early Pathways "fragments" experiments helped my attempts at self-collaboration on The Netherlands, 1980 and made that album less stuffy than Detectives.

Are all of the Winter Vacation albums concept albums? If so, how would you describe the thread that ties each album together?

No, not really. The Netherlands, 1980 might be a "theme album" about travel, but it probably doesn't merit the label "concept album." I don't recall if Blue Coaching had an explicit theme. All I really remember about the approach to that album is wanting each song to have a single, simple idea that was summarized by its title and articulated cleanly in the lyrics. Sort of like Shirelles songs.

Will you ever make new Winter Vacation recordings?

Yes! Making a new album is looking like it will top my New Year's resolutions for 2016. I already have one guitar part. 99 to go.

Would you like to add anything else?

How about some relevant recommendations? I mentioned Churchbuilder above. Their song "Snow in April" is pretty great. And I really like the album Notion Free by Ever Ending Kicks.

Winter Vacation discography

Winter Vacation (no label)

Winter Vacation Strikes Again! (no label)

Old Friends (no label)

Detectives (Dutch Courage Records DCR-10, 2001)
  • Goodbye Big City/Driving into Town/Stranger Things Have Happened/Most Afternoons/All I See Is Mary/It's Snowing!/The Great Rainstorm/An Arsonist/Red Jacket/When the World Ends/Northern Settlers/Search Party

The Netherlands, 1980 (Asaurus Records, 2005)
  • Sightseeing/The Greenest Age/On a Ski Slope/My Country Friends/Denver Diner/Fake Swim/Rained on Together/Life Imitates Arthur/Upstate Estate/Balloon Township/Walk Signs/Aimless/World Color War/The Alps

Blue Coaching (no label, 2008)
  • Fates/First Night/The Girl With Only Guy Friends/Arm's Length/Jeanette Wants Manhattan/Widow's Walk/Letter to Carter/Elsewhere/My Best Friend's Wedding

Compilation appearances

Hit Music Only (Heavenly Pop Hits POPH01, 2002)
  • Includes the Winter Vacation song "Weekend Travel"

You Already Have Way Too Many CD-Rs: Three Years of Asaurus Records (Asaurus Records, 2005)
  • Includes the Winter Vacation songs "Should I Get a Dog and Move to Pittsburgh?," "Rain on Our Parade," "Little Liam," and "Kate"