Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Road Not Taken

It wasn't a completely crazy idea. He was on a major roll back in 1978. Everything he touched turned to gold. And we really really loved his stuff and thought it would be cool if he was the first to break through the ceiling. Also, we thought he deserved better than what he was getting in the press. And granted, he already had a ton of people doing the job (actually authorized to do the job) but what harm could a little grass roots action do? And lets face it, we were bored (i'm pretty sure the first discussions happened in 6th hour study hall, although it could have just as easily been 5th hour English)

So one of my best friends and I decided we were going to be (non-paid, non-cocaine user) A&R people for Barry Manilow. We were determined to make "Leaving in the Morning" off the EVEN NOW album become a hit, and give Barry Manilow a 5th hit single off an album, something that up to that point, had never been done (at least in our Casey Kasem'ed experience....I'm sure the Beatles had frequently achieved that feat, but those were the OLDEN days, we were talking the modern 1978 era!)

Now you really have to cast your memory back to the time (and shed your aversion to all things Barry Manilow....i promise you this doesn't require you to listen to or like his music....and you definitely need to shed your image of the botoxed, facelifted, vaseline on the camera, this can't actually be his face Manilow that you have now....this is the 1978, very famous, almost verging on super stardom, tv specialed, regular top fortied, dude is kind of average looking and is unlikely to get any better looking, and what is with the long hair, but hey he puts on a great concert Manilow) and remember a time when you'd hear hit after hit from Mr. Manilow, "Can't Smile Without You," "Copacabana," (i dare you to hate that song), "Even Now," (which debuted in the top forty at #19...i was completely stunned, because i hadn't even heard it on the radio up until Casey said "And this week's highest debuting song is "Even Now"....although "Copacabana became a run away hit and left "Even Now" essentially DOA on the charts), and (later) "Somewhere in the Night". There was even a movie soundtrack in there, with "Ready to Take a Chance Again".

His run of hits was unprecedented (again, we didn't have a ton of history to draw on, just America's Top Forty from grade 5 to grade 8). Hell, we thought, anything off that album could be a hit. So to cement his claim as the greatest act of the 70's we decided to make him another hit and keep the ball rolling. But even at this point, there were plenty of options left.

"Sunrise" (one of my favorites) had already been a b-side. "A Linda Song" was just a little too schmaltzy for me (and i couldn't hear the song without hearing a skip that was on my vinyl, i still hear an imaginary skip at the same place when i listen to the song on cd) although that linda song was a favorite of my friend. "Losing Touch" and "Starting Again" were pleasant album filler, but we both felt they were just too slight to be accorded the 5th hit single off a multiple platinum album status. So we were down to "Where Do We Go From Here," "I Was a Fool (To Let You Go)," and "Leavin' in the Morning". (I have no idea why we never talked about "I Just Want to be the One in Your Life." It was quite frankly, the most Manilow-esque of the ballads on that album. Perhaps there was some b-side action back then that I can't remember now. Or perhaps we were trying to avoid being obvious and give those damn critics even MOR ammunition against our hero.

"I Was a Fool" was quickly tossed out. We both loved it (need i say that we both pretty much loved everything on that album?) but felt it was too unusual for radio (see how A&R Promotions we were, using our collected radio listening acumen to de-select for listeners?) and even more so, new that we would be alienating the Manilow fandom with this bluesey done me wrong song. "Where Do We Go From Here" sounded like a hit, but it also sounded a lot like "Somewhere in the Night" (please refrain from comments about how similar all Manilow hits are, I already hear your snarky remark, also, please refrain from fronting on the dancefloor) so we didn't like the odds of following up SitN with WDWGfH. So that left one last option, "Leavin' in the Morning" and I'm not kidding when I say that was our preferred song anyway.

I promised you didn't need to listen to Manilow or even care about the songs in order to read (enjoy?) this, and i'm not stepping back on that. But I feel like i have to say a little bit about the song. You can feel free to jump ahead to the next graph if you have to. I will understand. First off, this song starts with electric guitar. ELECTRIC GUITAR! On a Manilow song. in fact, that little guitar riff (or hook if you'd prefer) is the backbone of the song. So yeah, this song rocks! (rocks as much as Manilow could ever rock, which is just a little less than Sheryl Crow rocks) Then the versus kick in with a nice little melody, and even better is the catchy chorus with a cool key change (at least i think there is, my music theory isn't the strongest) Then there is a fantastic bridge (starting with the "I waited too long") in the song (nothing like a little C to break up the verse chorus verse) Then we come to the big crescendo (more key changes) before we repeat chorus and fade. Pure Pop Perfections (for power people and bored 8th graders too).

With song selected, we made our plans to make it a hit. After some fantasies about unlimited budget and unrealistic objectives (i think there was travel involved and i vaguely remember discussions about creating our own vinyl single of the song (backed with the disco version of Copacabana), we settled on a carpet bombing local radio stations with song requests approach. We figured once people heard the song once or twice, the telephone lines would light up with requests for the song, and of course, the djs would love the tune and slap themselves on the forehead and think, "How could we not have noticed this song before! Oh what fools we are to have missed this hit! And how genius are these two kids from Colfax to promote this undiscovered gem!" Clearly, in our minds this approach was destined for success. Skyrocketing success! We would probably end up a little story on America's Top Forty and Casey would be talking about us!

Our first target was the local Menomonie radio station (WMEQ, 93 something on the FM dial). Neither of us particularly listened to that station (unless by default) because we both preferred the Eau Claire stations. My friend was into WBIZ-Z100 (which would NEVER in a hundred years play Manilow), and i had moved on from the AM 830 WEAU station, to its FM counterpart, I-94 (I forget the call letters) but Eau Claire was long distance and there was no way my mom was signing off on that promotions budget (although i once won a contest by calling into an Eau Claire radio station contest---i think it was tickets to the roller skating arena--- and she didn't complain about that) but I wasn't trying my luck. And even though my friend was the doctor's son, I don't think he was any more interested in trying to rationalize to his mom why he need to call long distance to an Eau Claire radio station. Menomonie was local and free, plus they took requests (Z-100 was practically an automated radio station, they barely had DJs much less took requests). So, so what if we didn't always (rarely) listen. Plus we did know that they played Manilow so how hard could it be to get them to play the greatest unheard song off the album.

We decided my friend would hit up the radio station the first night. He would call and i would listen (just in case he got his request taken live on the air) We settled on 7pm for his call, so i could be sure to be done with my farm chores (and also, i could listen in the barn, unimpeded (undistracted) by my nosy brothers and sisters). I'm sure my dad wondered what the hell i was doing hanging around in the barn after the cows were milked and all the chores were done (my brother and i usually were bat out of hell out of there once the work was done), but i just said i just wanted to listen to the radio and he just nodded and told me to turn off the lights and shut the door when i was done (i think he's already long since given up trying to understand me, or maybe he understood me perfectly). And with that i sat and listened to the radio and waited for our song to be played. And I waited. and waited. Then by 8pm, i started to wonder what was going on (also, i was getting hungry for my evening snack....we ate supper before we'd go out to do the evening milking). I picked up the barn phone (yes, we had a phone in the barn....high class living I tell ya) to call my friend, but of course someone was on the line. So I just turned out the lights, shut the door (I was always very responsible) and headed for the house (i'm sure i had a bowl of ice cream for the evening snack)

Next day at school, i caught up with my friend before first hour. He had a terrible time trying to get in on the request line he said. It was either busy or the phone just rang and rang with no one picking it up (in retrospect, i just figure the DJ was out having a smoke). Finally, he got through and requested "Leavin' in the Morning". However, the DJ was recalcitrant (or as we thought it then, stupid). "Do you mean 'Copacabana'," he asked my friend. "Or 'Can't Smile Without You'?" When my friend said no, we wanted a track off the Even Now album, he was utterly uninterested. "Can't play it if it isn't a single" he basically said and hung up the phone (not unkindly it should be noted). Well....that was an entirely new kettle of fish for us. We determined to brainstorm through this new set of information independently and reconvene at 6th hour study hall with solutions (ahhh....i can see you being all Olympics of the Mind and problem solving practice here, and i can't deny it, music was the fulcrum upon which all my education was levered).

Unfortunately, by the time 6th hour came around, we were still stymied. I had one pitiful idea that we thought had a little potential so for lack of something better we decided to go with that approach. I would make the call at 7pm and see if I had better luck. Same story as the previous evening, with my dad giving me a funny smile as he headed up to the house. 7pm and i nervously dial the numbers (thankfully, nobody was using the phone, although with a party line you could never be sure who might be listening in, just for shits and giggles. It took forever to dial those damn numbers on the rotary phone. i swear to god the wheel was particularly slow that evening (and it could be true because it was cold and the humidity from all the cows in the barn would gum up the phone sometimes. Finally, number is dialed and the lines are click clacking and it's ringing at the radio station. Ring one, ring two, ring three, "WMEQ radio," came the voice. I froze. I didn't know how to respond. Oh why oh why did i not write a script. by now i knew well the occasional stage fright, brain lock i could get, and here i was, starting my new career, and i couldn't get a whimper out. sheesh. "WMEA Radio," he said again, "Can i help you?" Nothing from me but sheer panic. I hung up.

Ok, Ok, I told myself, calm down. (keep calm and carry on if it was 30+ years later) I walked the barn walk, up and down, up and down (the barn walk was the slab of concrete that ran from one end of the barn to the other. the cows, at least the back ends of them, lined the walk) After a couple circuits I was ready to try again. Dial, Dial, Dial....Ring, Ring, Ring...."WMEQ radio" I manned up.
"I'd like to request a song please," i said, hoping a cow wouldn't suddenly moo (and keeping in mind that all dialogue is paraphrased, it's not like i was taking notes, although the events are pretty firmly burnished in my memory).

"What song would you like", the DJ asked.

"Could you play Barry Manilow's "Leavin' in the Morning?," I asked. "It's from his Even Now album."

"Say, aren't you the kid who asked me to play that song last night," he said. (Oh shit, we hadn't counted on the DJ REMEMBERING!)

"No," I said, in all honesty, "I've never called in a request before. Could you play the song please?"

"It's not on my playlist," he said. "Are you sure you didn't call in last night?"

"Yes, i'm sure." Completely honest me. "I dunno if it's on your playlist, but i did hear it on I-94 a couple nights ago and was just wondering if i could hear it again." Dishonest me and my big brainstorm of the day. (when you are stuck for a solution, just lie, but hey, how much more promo man could i possibly be?)

"I don't know what they are playing, or why you want to hear it, but it's not on our playlist so i can't play it."

"ah, ok," i went, hoping maybe my glumness will somehow get me a song played. However, the DJ was once again unmoved (unfeeling bastard) and he hung up the phone, disappointed. I thought about calling my friend and letting him know how it went, but i was bummed and figured he could listen to the radio for an hour, unfulfilled just like i had the previous night (way to take it out on a friend).

Next morning I shared the recap (like television without pity, but without the snark). "Do you think we should maybe just try Eau Claire stations," my friend asked. "I can ask my mom if I can call long distance to request a song." He was such a gamer, I admired him, even if I thought it was useless. "Nah," i said, if they won't play it in Menomonie, they aren't going to play it in Eau Claire. I don't think this is going to work. If it was on a playlist, maybe, but they just aren't going to play anything off an album."

And off to class we went. 6th hour was kinda slow that day. Maybe slow the rest of that week, but i'm sure it was back to normal by the middle of the next week and we'd moved on to something new, forgetting all about our short careers as promo people. Funny thing is, Manilow could have used us. Oh sure, he had another top ten hit with "Ships" but that was pretty much it after that. Oh what a difference it would have made if he had pulled 5 top forty hits off that Even Now album.

1 comment:

  1. Hook? What's a hook?
    Seriously, this is remarkable and personal and beautiful. I could read a lot more about Manilow (and I never thought I'd say it and, in fact, already hate myself for saying it).