29 August 2006

I never missed Glenn A. Baker's Rock'n'Roll Trivia Show

Someone who thought they were emailing Glenn A. Baker has sent me a message from the Contact page at the website. That was a compliment, since I'm a long way from being Rock Brain of Southeastern Queensland, let alone of the Universe.

The evening before, I'd seen Glenn A. Baker on Talking Heads (ABC-TV Internet Archive has the transcript on line, and it's as good a source as any for an outline of his life and career). It was nice to hear his enthusiast's voice again, that friendly treble that sounds as if it's about to break into laughter.

For a couple of years in the late 70s I never missed Glenn A. Baker's Rock'n'Roll Trivia Show. I picked it up from Sydney late on Sunday nights on 2JJ, the ABC's AM station that later went FM and became the national youth network Triple J. I even had a little lapel button that said I NEVER MISS GLENN A. BAKER'S ROCK'N'ROLL TRIVIA SHOW. (It's a historical artefact now, listed at the Powerhouse Museum, though I think mine was an earlier version.)

I found the Trivia Show when I was cruising the dial and heard The Martian Hop, a song I hadn't heard on radio for ages and hadn't really expected to hear at all. I thought, any friend of stuff like that is a friend of mine.

The Trivia Show turned out to be a rich source of lost and obscure pop. The emphasis was often in the Brill Building-girl group-Phil Spector area (Glenn would've been at home at Spectropop), and it could easily have been called the Pop Trivia Show. The celebration of well-crafted pop reminded me Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom (The Story of Pop), that exhilarating guidebook written by another enthusiast, Nik Cohn.

I liked the way Glenn highlighted the work of songwriters, who he believed provided the underlying structure of pop history. On Talking Heads, he spoke about looking at the finer detail on record labels, examining those words...within the brackets, something I'd always done too. One of my aims at the website is to give credit to songwriters, who are often - along with arrangers - the unsung heroes of popular music.

The stroke of genius behind the Trivia Show was the way it blended oldies with current music that fitted the same sensibility. This didn't mean anything as obvious as featuring revivalist bands like Showaddywaddy or Darts (although they would pop up sometimes, as did Glenn's own proteges Ol' 55). It did mean, though, that you could hear Glenn interview Del Shannon one week and Ric Ocasek of the Cars another week.

It meant that when Glenn mentioned the girl group sound he could just as easily play The Cake's sublime Baby That's Me (1967, an oldie I discovered through the Trivia Show) or Kirsty McColl's maddeningly infectious debut single They Don't Know (1979).

Dave Edmunds, who owed heaps to rockabilly and Chuck Berry and Spector, but recast it all for the times, was often on the Trivia Show. I have a feeling one of the first times I heard XTC was on the Trivia Show: could it have been Life Begins At The Hop?

If there was ever some song from the 60s that I longed to hear, I would write a letter, in an envelope with a stamp, to Glenn A. Baker: this was before instant downloads and vast catalogues of reissues ordered on the Net. He would usually play them, usually with enthusiastic approval. I remember him playing my requests for The Righteous Brothers' On This Side Of Goodbye, Leslie Gore's That's The Way Boys Are and Alan Price's I Put A Spell On You. [Listen to Glenn playing my requests at this follow-up post]

Well, oh well, early in 1980 we moved to another town where I could no longer pick up 2JJ on Sunday nights, and that was the end of that. But Glenn A. Baker's Rock'n'Roll Trivia Show, with its building of bridges between old style pop and late-70s New Wave and power pop had been part of my reawakening of interest in current popular music.

Which was nice.

Where was I in the 70s?

In some ways the 70s passed me by musically. Born mid-century, a child of Buddy Holly, Brill Building and British Invasion, I rapidly became a 20something curmudgeon, battened down with my Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Simon & Garfunkel LPs and my stack of 45s from my teen years, appalled by what was on the radio.

Like what? Well, disco for a start, which seemed formulaic and mannered and I never really got it anyway; teenyboppers like The Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy who enraged me with their lame recyclings of great pop songs from my recent past; and try-hard pop artists with big heels and hair and gold chains on their chests who seemed to have lost the spark of the 60s and just couldn't reignite it. There were bits I liked: ELO and early Elton John, both of which I grudgingly related to as an extension of the 60s. Oh, maybe J.J. Cale, individual songs like Boys Are Back In Town or All The Young Dudes... my mind's a blank.

Looking back, I can see I was too much of a curmudgeon. I probably relied too much on Top 40 radio, and there would've been things to discover if I'd got out more. Somehow I let Led Zeppelin pass me by for contrary reasons, something to do with preferring the Yardbirds, or something: who knows what prejudice was driving me (until the late 90s when my kids started playing them and I realised what I'd missed out on). If I'd stepped sideways from disco I might've discovered some of the funk that I'm only hearing now through some of the classier mp3 blogs, and there was all that jazz if I'd known where to start.

What snapped me out of my torpour wasn't raw punk of the Sex Pistols' variety, but what came to be known as New Wave. That's a catch-all phrase, easily dismissed, but something was going on in the late 70s at the time I started noticing the likes of Elvis Costello and XTC: it sounded to me as if music had been asleep and had woken up with a start and taken up where it had left off in the late 60s.

I don't know if that stands up musicologically, but that's how it seemed in the musical history in my head, as I headed for my thirtieth birthday. I bought the soundtrack to a film called That Summer (1979). I knew nothing about the film, but the tape included such joyous rocky-pop as The Only Ones' Another Girl Another Planet and Eddie & The Hot Rods' Do Anything You Want To Do.

I wandered into a little record shop above a hardware store in Tenterfield, a country town in NSW, and found an audiocassette of XTC's Drums & Wires: I'd heard Making Plans For Nigel on the telly, and the album was startling in its innovativeness and musicality, and its nutty, off-kilter view of things.

I'd bought a tape of Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True by mail, through a record club (Watching The Detectives and Alison had been on the radio a lot) . When it went haywire on me I sent it back, and received an apology and a replacement, "another tape by the same artist": Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas. Some folks in record sales hadn't caught up with what was going on.