Sunday, April 28, 2019

Joe Dowell – "Those Darn Inflation Blues" (1973)

After scoring a #1 pop hit with "Wooden Heart" in 1961, Joe Dowell had a hard time sustaining his recording career. His follow-up singles for Smash Records were minor hits at best, and a move to Monument Records ended after only one single. Although he had some success with writing and recording commercial jingles thereafter, he finally resorted to releasing his own records. His first self-released single, "Those Darn Inflation Blues," was uncharacteristic in every way: It was topical, humorous, countrified, a collaborative composition, and—apart from the chorus—a recitation.

Dowell must have had some faith in this tune, because it was the first commercial release on his own Journey Records label. (He previously used the Journey Records imprint on "Christmas in Ann Arbor," a 1972-73 single that was issued as a freebie for customers of Ann Arbor Federal Savings.) Joe would continue to use Journey into the 1980s as a channel for occasional singles and one album.

Dowell usually wrote by himself, but he wrote "Those Darn Inflation Blues" with a collaborator, James G. Schneider. The song is Schneider's only composition in the BMI database.

Two versions of the single were released, both of which have the same catalog number. One is a promo copy for radio that has "Those Darn Inflation Blues" on both sides. The other is a stock copy with a picture sleeve and has one of Dowell's religious originals, "Jesus in the Midst of My Day," on the flip side. (Joe later re-recorded this song for his religious album, Of Earth & Heaven.)

The photo on the picture sleeve was taken at the Walden S. Fabry studio in Peoria, Illinois. Fabry specialized in photographing country music stars, and many thousands of his photos are now archived in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The extent of Dowell's songwriting collaboration with Schneider is unknown, but one or both of them obviously put a lot of effort into crafting the lyrics, which complain about taxes and the rising cost of living and various other hardships in a very general and good-natured way that carefully avoids taking any political positions or voicing any opinions that listeners might disagree with.

The song's topic was timely, though, because the inflation rate was spiking at the time. And because of the oil crisis, drivers often had to wait in line to buy gas. The economic situation was so dire that even nonpolitical Joe Dowell felt compelled to sing about it.

The song recalls earlier political recitations in country music, like Jim Nesbitt's "Lookin' for More in '64" (1964) and Guy Drake's "Welfare Cadillac" (1970), but "Those Darn Inflation Blues" offers a more middle-of-the-road kind of commentary in comparison to those songs.

Dowell had never styled himself as a country artist before; he began as a teen idol, released a folk album, and then settled into a vaguely folksy adult-contemporary pop style for the remainder of his career.

Dowell also had never exhibited a sense of humor in his original music before. He'd had a moderate hit with the humorous novelty song "Little Red Rented Rowboat" in 1962, but that was a song that his label, Smash Records, foisted on him, and he seemed ambivalent about it in retrospect, even though it was his most successful single after "Wooden Heart." The song was mildly controversial because of its line about girls wearing bikinis "way down to here," and Joe was a deeply religious man who didn't want to be associated with anything that might be considered unsavory.

But "Those Darn Inflation Blues" is meant to be funny. It was produced by John Darnall, who produced a number of Christian records in the 1970s, and the single was picked up by Nationwide Sound Distributors (NDS) in Nashville. NSD was run by Joe Gibson from Chart Records, the label that had put out those political Jim Nesbitt records in the 1960s. NSD handled national sales and promotion for countless small independent labels, and their address appears in the trade ad for "Those Darn Inflation Blues" that is pictured at the top of this page.

The song was published through Pat Boone's Cooga Music Corporation. I wish I knew the story behind that.

Despite all of Joe's efforts, "Those Darn Inflation Blues" didn't give him the follow-up hit he earnestly hoped for (and continued to hope for when I met him in the 2000s). I could find no evidence that it received substantial airplay anywhere, and it didn't reach any sales charts, although it did appear in Record World's "Spins & Sales" list in the October 6, 1973, issue.

The following year, Joe went back to the drawing board and returned with more characteristic material, the original "Two Hearts," which he again released on his Journey label.

Listen to "Those Darn Inflation Blues" and its B-side, the original recording of "Jesus in the Midst of My Day," below: 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"The Cube," a 1982 country hit about the Rubik's Cube

How popular was the Rubik's Cube puzzle toy in the early 1980s? Forbes said in 1981 that it was "possibly the hottest new toy since the Hula Hoop." Reader's Digest declared 1981 "the Year of the Cube." And in 1982, it even became the unlikely topic of a minor country hit.

The label of "The Cube" promo 45.
A stock copy was issued too.
Credited to Bob Jenkins (& 3 Year Old Daughter Mandy), the song, "The Cube," registered on the lower rungs of the Billboard country chart at the same time that "Pac Man Fever" was riding high on the pop chart. But while "Pac Man Fever" went on to become a Top 10 pop hit, "The Cube" dropped off the country chart after three weeks, peaking at a modest #76. On the Cash Box country chart it fared better, spending seven weeks on the chart and reaching #70.

(Interestingly, Buckner & Garcia, the one-hit wonders behind "Pac Man Fever," also had some country-chart success in 1981 as the producers and songwriters of "Footprints in the Sand," a hit for fellow one-hit wonder Edgel Groves. The song isn't the one that Cristy Lane popularized but a different adaptation of the same public-domain poem.)

"The Cube" took a wry look at the Rubik's Cube phenomenon, humorously commenting on how popular, how frustrating, and what a waste of time the toy was. It also touched on the competitive aspect of the puzzle, as people raced to see who could solve it the fastest. (The world record is a mind-blowing 3.47 seconds.) Three-year-old daughter Mandy sings a single line in the song. The chorus goes:

Big kids, little kids, everybody's kids are trying to solve Mr. Rubik's Cube
Oh, it sure seems funny to see a big old dummy got nothin' better to do
If you ever stop tryin' then you'll go to cryin'—nobody wants to lose
Gonna sit right here till I solve Mr. Rubik's Cube

Jenkins performing "The Cube" at an event
for WPNX in Phenix City, Alabama 

Although he never charted as high as they did, Jenkins did one better than Buckner & Garcia and Edgel Groves in that he scored not one but two hits. His second hit debuted on the Billboard county chart just two weeks after "The Cube." Titled "Workin' in a Coalmine," it was an original song, not a remake of the similarly titled "Workin' in the Coal Mine" by Lee Dorsey. 

This song was released on Jenkins' own Picap Records label, which was based in Jenkins' hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee. It spent two weeks on the chart, peaking at #86. The song was probably released only as a promo for DJs; I've never heard it or even seen a copy of the 45 for sale online.

Jenkins in the 1970s
Jenkins wasn't new to the music business when these two songs became hits. Back in the 1970s he had recorded an album, Bob Jenkins Sings, for 20th Century Records, in a soft country-rock, singer-songwriter style similar to James Taylor or Jonathan Edwards. The album's single, "South Side of the Rio Grande," didn't chart, but the album itself appeared on Billboard's FM Action chart.

After "The Cube" and "Workin' in a Coalmine," Jenkins continued to run his Picap label, which released songs that he produced and often wrote for other artists, such as Steve Mantelli, who charted four minor country hits for Picap in 1982-83—two on the Billboard chart and two completely different songs on the Cash Box chart.

As a songwriter, Jenkins was prolific. He registered nearly 200 songs with ASCAP and BMI, some of which were recorded by major country artists such as Hank Williams Jr., Lynn Anderson, David Houston, Jack Greene, Sandy Posey, Del McCoury, and Cristy Lane

He also ran three music publishing companies and a production company called Inside Music City and released a self-titled album that was sold through his website Nashville Country Showcase. That site also has a number of photos of Jenkins with various country, rock, and Hollywood celebrities. 

Jenkins later became an author too, writing a children's book and a memoir about his teenage years in Beverly Hills before passing away in in 2017.

For those who lived through the early 1980s and probably didn't hear "The Cube" at the time, listening to it now is a fun reminder of the intensity of the Rubik's Cube craze as well as the brief eruption of novelty songs about games. Listen to "The Cube" below. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

New device makes Blu-rays and DVDs look like VHS?

An ad on Facebook today announced the introduction of a device that makes DVDs, Blu-rays, and UHD discs look like VHS tapes or grindhouse films, presumably by adding fake lines, scratches, and tracking errors to approximate the look of worn film reels and old videocassettes.

Don't groan yourself to death just yet—the ad was only an April Fools' Day joke.

But the idea actually seems marketable when you consider that many indie horror films are filtered to simulate the grindhouse look, many old and new indie horror films are still being released on VHS, and VHS collecting has hit the mainstream.

If you haven't been following the VHS revival, then you might be surprised to learn that VHS collecting has grown in popularity alongside the resurgence of other old physical media formats such as audio cassettes and vinyl. The cult of VHS isn't new, though; the documentaries Adjust Your Tracking (2013) and VHS Massacre (2016) examined the phenomenon years ago.

Clothing chain Urban Outfitters even got into the act by selling random five-packs of used VHS tapes for $40 each to customers who have indiscriminating taste and don't live near a thrift shop, where you can usually buy used videocassettes for a buck each.

The fictional MK1-Ultra device, by making high-quality images look worse than they really are, is essentially the opposite of the Marseille mCable Cinema Edition, which makes poor-quality images look better than they really are. This product is an HDMI cable with a built-in microprocessor that upscales standard-definition video from DVDs and 1080p video from Blu-rays so that it looks smoother and less pixelated on 4K UHD TVs. The resulting video isn't true to the source, since the microprocessor applies an algorithm that predicts and supplies missing information on the basis of the surrounding pixels, but the results are pretty convincing.

I tried out one of these hundred-dollar cables myself and was impressed by the improvement in image quality when I played DVDs. Unfortunately, the cable stopped working after 10 minutes, but it was cool while it lasted.

The idea that consumers would intentionally decrease the quality of their audio-visual content with a device like the MK1-Ultra, especially after investing in UHD technology, might seem silly, but many music fans have done something similar by ripping their 20-bit mastered CDs to 128 and 160 kbps MP3s. Granted, they do that for the sake of convenience rather than for nostalgia or to intentionally produce a particular audio effect, but who knows? Maybe MP3 nostalgia will one day lead music listeners to purposely down-res their audio for aesthetic reasons. It already happened in the 1990s with lo-fi indie rock.

I'm surprised that no one created a device like the MK1-Ultra to add the snaps, crackles, and pops of worn vinyl and the muffled playback and tape dropouts of cheap cassettes to compact discs. It could've been an audio mode on home audio amps, which would not be very different from the arena and cathedral reverb settings that some units already have.

The time for this idea has probably passed, though, since people aren't buying CDs and home audio systems the way they used to. By the time the wave of CD nostalgia hits—and it inevitably will—I assume that people will appreciate CDs for being CDs and won't want to make them sound like records or tapes anymore.