By Ken Zurski
The end of the 1970’s, specifically the end of 1979, was both a very good and very bad time for music lovers.
First the good. Two albums – both double disc packages – were released only weeks apart from each other that even today are still considered two of the most influential albums of all time. But the end of the decade was also a tragic and sad one for the music industry when a deadly incident at a rock concert both shocked and angered a nation.
The two albums were both indirectly involved in the grief and healing that would follow.
Released in the final months of 1979, and due to their late arrival that year, both albums are widely considered to be successes in the 1980’s instead. (Note: “London Calling” was released in the UK in December 1979; in the US it was released on January 10, 1980). Regardless of which decade they belong, both have a place in rock n roll history and both deserve recognition for being musically experimental and risky too – after all they were double albums, meaning you got double the music in one package.
In retrospect, the timing was perfect. The 70’s was a turbulent decade for music. While hard rock and arena rock gained prominence in the 70’s, the rise of disco was eventually seen as a threat to rock fans, whose mainstay bands like the Rolling Stones dabbled in the genre of dance music (“Miss You”). The decade started with the break up of the Beatles and ended tragically with that unimaginable and deadly concert disaster.
Despite this, the 80’s was looming and rock needed a boost.
It came from the two albums by The Clash and Pink Floyd, respectively.
On December 14, 1979, the British group The Clash released their third album titled “London Calling.” The album cover itself was striking. It featured an action shot of bassist Paul Simonon holding a guitar by the neck and ready to smash it to pieces. It captured a moment of pure rock n roll explosiveness. It also conveyed the group’s reputation as rebellious and unflinching.
The album sold as expected, reaching #27 on the US Billboard charts, and doing even better overseas. Critics adored it calling it a “masterpiece” and placing it on Top Ten lists of the year for both 1979 and 1980.
As albums go, before the digital age, it is considered a work of genius, conceptually too. Most double albums seemed overextended and unnecessary. “London Calling” was different. It was a complete work of art, from the music to the package. And that cover? Iconic. And although music itself is always subjective, most rock historians agree, “London Calling’ is a classic in the true sense of the word. Today, it is the 6th most ranked record on critics’ lists of the all-time greatest albums according to Acclaimed Music. The Clash would go on to have bigger selling albums and singles, but for both musicianship and inventiveness, “London Calling’s” legacy is solid.
Before “London Calling” dropped, however, another double album was released. Unlike the Clash’s dramatic action shot on the cover, the front of this album was simple in design: a drawing of a white brick wall. But that was it. There was no writing on the wall, so to speak. If not for a transparent naming sticker attached to the cover, there was no other way of knowing who was responsible until you turned the album around.
The band, of course, was Pink Floyd and the work was appropriately titled, “The Wall.”
Pink Floyd was an established band, known for its conceptual albums and “The Wall,” their 11th release, was no exception. It was however, their first double LP and the reaction to its apparent expansiveness was mixed. “I’m not sure whether it’s brilliant or terrible, but I find it utterly compelling,” was the response from Melody Maker.
Despite the tepid response from critics, the album was a instant best seller, topping the charts in multiple countries, including the US.
Today, it is considered a classic that has stood the test of time. Several songs like “Another Brick in The Wall Part II” and “Comfortably Numb,” are rock radio staples and a movie of the album’s concept about a drugged out rock n roller who figuratively builds a wall around his troubled life, was released in 1982. Recent year tours of “The Wall,” with varying members of the band participating, are huge successes It still has legs, they say in the business.
The album’s initial release in late November, however was marred by tragedy when on December 3, 1979, eleven people were killed, crushed to death in a stampede, before a Who concert in Cincinnati. Just days before, in reviews, the comparisons of the dark and satirical “The Wall” to the Who’s classic double album rock opera “Tommy” was justified, but purely coincidental, considering the circumstances.
The Who were not held directly responsible for the deaths of the concertgoers, but it didn’t matter. The industry as a whole took a hit. After the tragedy, the rock world paused to mourn, reflect, regroup, and eventually move on.
Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was a part of that.
A week later, on December 14, The Clash’s “London Calling” was released.
Bring on the 80’s.
A Christmas Song written by a US Presidential Candidate and Once Covered by Gene Autry is Forever Immortalized in a Cartoon Short
By Ken Zurski
In 1951, cowboy crooner Gene Autry released a song titled “The Three Little Dwarfs,” that playfully told the story of three “helpers” trusted by Santa to “drive” his sleigh on Christmas Eve.
The song was written by Stuart Hamblen, a singer, songwriter and politician who ran for President of the United States in 1952 on the Prohibition Party ticket. “A cowboy singer, former racehorse owner and converted alcoholic,” Time magazine wrote that year about Hamblen who picked up 73,000 votes, second most by a third party candidate.
Before politics, the Texas born Hamblen was known for being one of the first singing cowboys and in the 1930’s hosted a popular radio show called “Family Album.”
Hamblen wrote several hits for country radio but nothing quite as enduring as “The Three Little Dwarfs.”
The most famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry recorded the song and released it as a single with a B side tune titled “32 feet – 8 Little Tails.” In December 1951, Columbia Records ran an ad in Billboard listing the label’s “best sellers.” Autry’s “The Three Little Dwarfs” was listed just ahead of his version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Today, Autry’s version of “Rudolph” is considered a holiday staple, while “The Three Little Dwarfs” is mostly forgotten.
The song itself however is not.
It was immortalized in a two-minute stop-animation cartoon titled “The Three Little Dwarfs,” but more commonly known as “Hardrock , Coco and Joe.”
Donner and Blitzen, away, away
I’m Hardrock! I’m Coco! I’m Joe!
The short premiered on Chicago’s WGN-TV on Christmas Eve 1956.
Autry’s song was not the one used in the short. The tune was re-recorded and reworked. For instance, a narrator is used to speak some of words rather than sing them.
But the most recognizable difference was in Joe’s line. In Autry’s rendition, Joe is sung in a high-pitched voice rather than the distinctive and memorable deep bass of “I’m Joe” featured in the animated version.
By Ken Zurski
In 1902, psychologist and chemist, William Thomas Sedgwick released a book titled Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Heath which was a compilation of lectures he gave as a professor of biological sciences at MIT. In it, Sedgwick extolled the virtues of good personal hygiene to keep infectious diseases away. “The absence of dirt,” he urged, “is not merely an aesthetic adornment.”
Basically, he was telling everyone to clean up. In essence, please take a bath.
Sedgwick was onto something. Until then taking a bath, for example, was an option most people chose to ignore. That’s because for centuries, cleanliness was seen as a sign of weakness or impurity. In some ancient religious philosophy’s, being wet, or letting the water touch you, was akin to allowing the devil enter your body. And in other circles, bathing was considered a sign of sexual mischievousness. Queen Isabella of Castile bragged that she took a bath only twice in her life, on her birth day and her wedding night. And Saint Benedict, an English monk who lived a solitary and monastic life, said “bathing shall seldom be permitted.”
Of course that was a long time ago when attitudes were based on god fearing principles, not logic. But even at the turn of the 20th century, personal hygiene was still somewhat taboo.
Sedgwick though wasn’t the first to encourage others to get well by getting clean. Benjamin Franklin, a man of many titles, was also an early advocate of good hygiene habits.
As America’s first diplomat in France, Franklin thoroughly enjoyed the pleasures of taking a bath, a European luxury, although his desires may have been influenced more by the pretty French maids who administered it. “I have never remembered to have seen my grandfather in better health,” William Temple Franklin wrote to a relative. “The warm bath three times a week have made quite a young man out of him [Franklin was in his 70’s at the time]. His pleasing gaiety makes everybody love him, especially the ladies, who permit him always to kiss him.” Regardless of his reasons for actually taking a bath, Franklin couldn’t help but get clean, right?
However, when a large tub of warm water wasn’t present, Franklin liked to take what he called “air baths.” Franklin thought being inside and cooped up in a germ infested, walled, and shuttered space, was the reason he got colds. So to keep from getting sick, Franklin would open the windows and stand completely naked in front of it. Ventilation was the key to prevention, he explained, although others likely weren’t so emboldened.
In the mid 19th century, bathtubs were heavy and costly and those who could afford it used it as much for decoration as for its intended purpose.
Before indoor plumbing, a large tub may have been made of sheet lead and anchored in a box the size of a coffin. Later bathtubs became more portable. Some were made of canvas and folded; others were hidden away and pulled down like a Murphy Bed. They were called “bath saucers.”
It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath. It was just a chore to do so. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly; then dumped. Oftentimes families would use the same bath water in a pecking order that surely forced the last in line to take a much quicker dip than the first.
In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more common, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak, but stationary. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.
Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as something other than just a cleaning vessel. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked. After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.
Getting people to actually use it, however, that was another matter.
Sedgwick had medical reasons to back up his claims. As an epidemiologist, he studied diseases caused by poor drinking water and inferior sanitation practices. Good scientific research, he implied, should be all the proof needed. But attitudes and decades old habits needed to change too. “It follows as a matter of principle,” Sedgwick wrote, “that personal cleanliness is more important than public cleanliness.” He had a point. Largely populated cities were dirty messes, full of billowing black smoke from factories, coal dust, and discarded garbage and waste. Affixing blame for such conditions was more popular than actually doing something about it. Sedgwick focused on self-awareness to make his point. “A clean body is more important than a clean street,” he stressed.”Sanitation alone cannot hope to effect these changes. They must come from scientific hygiene carefully applied throughout long generations.”
People, it seemed, had to literally be scared into taking a bath.
Something Sedgwick understood, but fought to amend.
“Cleanness,” he wrote in concession, ”was an acquired taste.”
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1958, physicist William Higinbotham was part of a research team at New York’s Brookhaven Laboratory when he came up with an idea that had nothing to do with nuclear science.
A nuclear weapons specialist during the war, Higinbotham or “Willy” as his friends called him, was instrumental in helping develop the first nuclear bomb. Now a decade later, “Willy” and others were studying the application of nuclear energy in more practical and peaceful means. Higinbotham had lost his two brothers in the war.
To show off their work, every year, the Institute held an open house – or Visitor’s Days. And every year the scientists tried to find ways to make the visit more exciting for their less than scientific-minded guests.
So Higinbotham looked around for inspiration. The laboratory had several analog computers and “a book which tells you how to do a bouncing ball and some other things,” Higinbotham explained. “I look at it and say, well, obviously, with this machine I can fix it so instead of having it pre-programmed, people can control it.”
Within two days he created what some people believe to be the very first video game.
Tennis for Two, as it was called it, was played on an oscilloscope and used an electrical charge to show the path of a bouncing ball. “Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racket’s swing.”
“It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working,” Higinbotham said. Even though the screen was small – about 5 inches in diameter, “Everybody stood in line to play. It was a big hit.”
In context, Andrew Ervin, author of Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our Lives, explains it this way: “Imagine trying to create a playable version of Minecraft on a contraption made out of Lincoln Logs, wires, and a few 9-volt batteries hooked up to an Etch A Sketch.”
The next year in 1959 during another Visitor’s Day, Higinbotham displayed an improved model of Tennis for Two. It had “a larger monitor, a button to increase the force of a serve and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet.” But that was all for the game. The following year it was gone without explanation. Higinbotham later said he focused on other projects instead.
Today, some argue the game had no video signal, only electric voltage, so the “video” tag might be a stretch. Others disagree, like Ervin who puts Higinbotham and Steve Russell, the inventor of Spacewar! in 1961, together as the “two dads” of video game history. “They are the true creative pioneers,” Ervin explains.
Regardless of who gets credit for the introduction of video games, Higinbotham found no use for his creation. He never patented Tennis for Two, a mistake he would later regret. “Even if I had [patented it], the game would’ve belonged to the government,” he said. “I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Years later, in 1972, one company was smart enough to take a variation of Higinbotham’s idea and market it.
That company’s name was Atari and the video game was called Pong!
By Ken Zurski
On June 24, 1899, on the one year anniversary of the Battle of Las Gusaimas, about a hundred soldiers who called themselves the Rough Riders gathered together to celebrate victory in the Spanish-American War. Where they gathered wasn’t as important as why. But when it came time to organize such an event only one Old West town seemed appropriate: Las Vegas.
Yes, Las Vegas.
Only this was not the Las Vegas built in the middle of the Nevada desert. That town’s reputation was still several decades away.
No, this was the City of Las Vegas in the New Mexico territory.
Why this Las Vegas? Well, there wasn’t anything particularly glamorous or glitzy about New Mexico’s Las Vegas, but there was a train track and a depot built in 1880. Many of the recruited Rough Riders had boarded the train there to depart on to their destiny with war.
As usual, for a town like Las Vegas, the accessibility of a railroad stop also brought it’s share of shady characters. Some of its more notable visitors are famously known, like Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. “Murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, vagrants, and tramps poured in, transforming the eastern side of the settlement into a virtually lawless brawl,” was one article’s assessment.
The article goes on claim in it’s title that Las Vegas was “as wicked as Dodge City.” One can argue that. But the point being that before Las Vegas, Nevada, Las Vegas, New Mexico was the place to go for a rip-roaring party, good or bad.
Now in 1889, a handful of Rough Riders came to Las Vegas, New Mexico to celebrate.
Some were returning, others came for the first time. Many were there to to see old friends and honor their leader, a man whose reputation had been cemented by stories of a valiant charge up a hill. Now as Governor of New York and on a pathway to the White House, the corporal, Teddy Roosevelt, came to Las Vegas to accept the rewards and thanks from his soldiers; a band of misfits ranging from good horse riders, lawyers and Ivy League men Roosevelt recruited. Roosevelt had whipped this rag tag bunch into a fighting force and despite some discourse among the ranks, in part to an unexpected drought of imported smoking and chewing tobacco, the Rough Riders defeated the Mexican army and saved the border territories for the U.S.
Roosevelt arrived in Las Vegas to find not only his men waving their hats in unison for him, but nearly ten-thousand adoring spectators too. They greeted the governor – who wore his old military uniform – with hearty cheers and sincere thanks. According to author Mark Gardner Lee, “there were plenty of medals and medal ceremonies.”
Among the most decorated was Roosevelt of course, who received what Lee describes as a lapel made of solid gold. “The elaborate medal featured the New Mexico ‘coat of arms,’ crossed sabers, and, raised in relief, a highly detailed eagle with outstretched wings.”
The festivities were not without its circuses, however. Several displays and depictions recreated the battles including the infamous charge of San Juan Hill. There were speeches, brass bands and in the evening elaborate firework displays. The highlight was a mile-long parade through town. “A Hot Time in Las Vegas,” the papers reported. “Teddy and his terrors renew the bonds of Comradeship.”
Roosevelt’s speeches were grandiose: “I am proud of you because you never flinched. When you went to war you knew you would not have an easy time; you expected to encounter hardships and you took them without a murmur.”
Roosevelt told them that only a reunion with his old regiment could him take him away form his duties in New York City. “For that purpose,” he expounded, “I would have gone to Alaska or anywhere else, for the bond that unites us one to another is as close as any bond of human friendship can be.”
New Mexico, the territory, was the perfect setting for a reunion of soldiers in the Spanish-American War. Even the New Mexico Governor Miguel Antonio Otero got an honorary member award. Although it was only symbolic, this rankled a few of the more hardened veterans who felt one should have served with the others before receiving such a distinction. Nevertheless, Otero humbly accepted the “membership” and as the papers noted, “the society almost closed its role by agreeing that honorary members must hereafter be men who were under fire with the regiment in Cuba.”
By the early 20th century, thanks to the success of the Rough Riders gathering, Las Vegas, New Mexico became known for its cowboy reunions. The brash affairs were sponsored by the Las Vegas Cowboy Reunion Association and complete with a slogan: “Git Fer Vegas Cowboy.” Thousands of ranchers and farm hands attended the events with ran annually from 1910 until 1931.
Ironically, the cowboy reunions ended a year after the Hoover Dam in Nevada was built. Thanks to the new power supply created by the massive man made dam, a small establishment nearby opened its first gambling house.
The town already had a name: Las Vegas
(Sources: Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt , his Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge of San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner; “New Mexico Legends – Las Vegas – As Wicked as Dodge City”. Legends of America. Retrieved 2012-07-13; The Los Angeles Times June 25, 1899.)
By Ken Zurski
On July 4, 1900, at the newly opened World’s Fair in Paris, France, after another rousing rendition of “The Stars and Striped Forever,”conductor John Philip Sousa and several of his band members donned a baggy pair of trousers, hat and glove and went out to play an exhibition game of baseball.
Sousa. known as the “March King” for his inspiring and mostly patriotic musical marches, was in Europe for an extended concert tour, the first ever for a band its size.
But like music, Sousa also had a passion for baseball.
So he gathered up the band and formed a team.
Sousa was said to be an excellent pitcher and started most games on the mound. He threw competitively until his skills waned with age. “If baseball has a drawback,” he once wrote, “it is the early time of life at which the player is forced to retire and give way to younger blood.”
Back home in America, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis took advantage of Sousa’s love for baseball and asked him to compose a march for the 50th anniversary of the National League. In 1925, Sousa delivered with the composition called “The National Game.” He appropriately dedicated the piece to the sport.
However, despite the connection to Sousa, even today the song is not well known or as widely played as other tunes associated with baseball, like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
In fact, sadly Sousa’s baseball march is mostly forgotten.
But it was not a song, but a day, July 4, 1900, that Sousa remembers the most.
That day in Paris, Sousa and the band’s team played “a group of nines” against the American Guards.
“What could have been more appropriate for two American organizations in a foreign land to do on the glorious Fourth?” Sousa proudly proclaimed.
By Ken Zurski
In the 1930’s, the Llewellyn setter known as “Jim the Wonder Dog” correctly picked the winner of seven Kentucky Derby’s in a row. An improbable feat even for the most adapt handicapper, but Jim’s owner Sam Van Arsdale insisted there was nothing deceitful about his dog’s apparent ability to predict the outcome of the prestigious race year after year.
Here’s how it worked: Van Arsdale would set down sealed envelopes each containing the name of a horse in the race. Jim would walk up to one and put his paw on it. The envelope was then stored in a locked safe. After the race, the envelope was reopened revealing the winning horse each time. The soft spoken Van Arsdale never wanted to profit off his prized pooch so he turned down all offers to reveal the contents of the envelopes before the race.
Jim is also credited with accurately guessing the gender of unborn children and in 1936 correctly picked the New York Yankees to win the World Series.
Skeptics and doubters were aplenty, but Van Arsdale insisted it was no trick
Jim died in 1937 at the age of 12.