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This One’s For the Birds

Ah, It’s Springtime, the season of flowers, ample sunshine (well at least some of the time) and many active birds. In fact, on just a couple of our recent walks along the river near our house, we’ve either seen or heard about 20 different species of birds. This has included the tufted titmouse, black capped chickadee, nuthatch, American robin, cardinal, blue jay, mourning dove, crow, Canadian goose, gull, wood duck, mallard, baltimore oriole, bluebird, red-winged blackbird, blue heron, white egret, among others that I have forgotten. So in honor of our fine-feathered friends, I thought I would create a list of my favorite songs with “birds” or bird types in the title. Per usual, it includes my strong preference for those rock and pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s. So here is a list of twenty-five favorites with songs alphabetically by bird type with generic bird songs last:

  1. “Albatross” -Fleetwood Mac (1968) – A nice guitar-led, instrumental rock song from the early years of Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green on guitar) before Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joined the group. Originally a single,  “Albatross” was later included on a UK compilation album, fittingly entitled The Pious Bird of Good Omen.
  2. “Bat Out of Hell”- Meatloaf (1978)- Ok, I can hear you saying, “Doesn’t Bruce know that a bat is NOT a bird?” Well, I like this rock song a lot so I have decided to stretch the definition to include flying rodents too.
  3. “Blackbird” -Beatles (1968) – One of McCartney’s best solo composition while with the Beatles. Beautiful and haunting.
  4. “Bluebird”- Paul McCartney (1973) –  With the Wings group in shambles during the Band on the Run recording sessions (only Paul, Linda and Denny Laine were left as members), this song was a nice breezy pop song by Paul with very nice harmonies from Linda and Denny.
  5. “Bluebird”- Buffalo Springfield (1967) – Same title but a very different, up-tempo, melodious rock song written by Stephen Stills.
  6. “Voices in the Sky” – Moody Blues (1968) – Bluebird flying high, tell me what you say” – A nice composition and great vocal by Justin Hayward. Though bluebird is not in the title, I made an understandable exception for the Moody Blues.
  7. “Blue Jay Way” – Beatles (1967)– This George Harrison composition thought not his best, was interesting and fit right in with the psychedelic sound of much of the rest of Magical Mystery Tour album particularly the avant-garde “I Am the Walrus”
  8. “Dixie Chicken”- Little Feat(1973) – This is the signature song of this group which spanned most of the 1970s. A pretty good song as well.
  9. When Doves Cry” – Prince (1984) – Prince’s most popular song of his long career from the movie Purple Rain. Not my favorite by him, I prefer “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy”, but still a very good song.
  10. “Edge of Seventeen (Just Like The White Winged Dove)” – Stevie Nicks (1982) – I must admit when I finally saw the record I was surprised it wasn’t called “white winged dove”, though it does make it into the parentheses of the official song title. It’s my favorite solo effort by Stevie Nicks.
  11. “Fly Like an Eagle” – Steve Miller (1977)- One of Steve Miller’s most popular songs with music that literally soars like an eagle.
  12. “Hummingbird” -Seals and Crofts (1972) – My favorite song by Seals and Crofts combines an exquisite tune with excellent harmonies. Not only that but it’s about one of my favorite birds which I love watching on our back deck. (Anne, please get the hummingbird feeder out!)
  13. “Mockingbird”- James Taylor and Carly Simon (1974) – The original by Inez and Charlie Foxx is also good, but always loved this duet from pop music’s top couple of the 1970s.
  14. Skyline Pigeon -Elton John (1972) – Another excellent piano song by Elton which I only recently rediscovered when I finally decided to buy Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player album.
  15. “Fly Robin Fly” – Silver Convention (1975)- Though I generally dislike disco music, this very popular song was not that bad and the chorus seems to always come to mind when I see a robin in flight.
  16. “Rockin’ Robin” – Bobby Day(1958)- Michael Jackson’s remake is better known, but I prefer Bobby Day’s original. Hard to see the robins congregating on our lawn and not think of this tune.
  17. “Little Red Rooster”Rolling Stones (1965) – An interesting blues song from “The Rolling Stones Now” album (1965). The song is a remake of a Willie Dixon original blues song first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961.
  18. “Cold Turkey” -Plastic Ono Band (1969) – A great hard rocker by Lennon with an important assist from Eric Clapton on guitar. Naturally, the song wasn’t about a turkey at all but rather the pain of kicking drugs “cold turkey”. However, one could be forgiven if upon hearing it three days after Thanksgiving one believed that the song was also about getting tired of eating cold turkey sandwiches.
  19. “The Vultures Fly High” – Renaissance (1975) – Though I prefer the group’s Turn of the Cards album, this short song from their Scheherazade album is also excellent. And as always Annie Haslam’s exquisite vocals soar!
  20. “White Bird”- Its a Beautiful Day (1969)  – In a similar vein as Renaissance, It’s a Beautiful Day was a progressive rock band that used orchestral sounds, electric violin and classical-style compositions. Both their best and best known song is “White Bird”, a beautiful soft rock classic.
  21. “Yellow Bird” – Mills Brothers (1959) – This Caribbean standard has been performed or recorded by countless folk, calypso and other pop groups and reached  #4 on the pop charts in 1961 in Arthur Lyman’s instrumental vibraphone version. However, it was the Mills Brothers who sang it the best. “Did your lady friend leave the nest again? That is very sad makes me feel so bad”.
  22. “Free Bird” -Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974) – Written as a tribute to Duane Allman after his death. A rock anthem and rock jam classic.
  23. “Songbird” – Fleetwood Mac (1977) – A beautiful Christine McVie love song, one of her best. “And the songbirds keep singing, like they know the score…”
  24. “Surfin’ Bird” – The Trashmen (1963) – I love this garage rock classic. “Bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word”!
  25. “The Birds and Bees”- Jewel Akins (1965)- “Let me tell you about the birds and the bees and the flowers and trees and the moon up above…”

Honorable Mention– “Birds”- Neil Young (1970), “Songbird”-Kenny G (1987), Night Owls – Little River Band (1981), “Rubber Duckie”- Ernie (1970)

Honorable Group Mentions– The Eagles, The Flamingoes, The Byrds, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows

Dishonorable Mention: Disco Duck- Rick Dees (1976)

 

 

“I’ve Got the Music in Me” Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed by OSU senior Matt Baugher on his radio show on rock music re: my book “I’ve Got The Music in Me” Hope you enjoy!

 

“Oh, Canada”

With winter’s grip still upon us here in Columbus, it reminded me of cold and snowy Canada.  In addition, I owe it to my former Palo Alto condo roommate, landlord and long time friend Steve Fung to choose my top ten rock and pop artists from Canada during the 1960s and 1970s. Steve originally hails from Vancouver and has always reminded me of the greatness of all things Canadian. (As you will see from the list, I struggled to come up with 10 artists which perhaps suggests that Canadian musical “greatness” is a bit overrated, at least during the 60s and 70s.)

To qualify for this esteemed list, the group or artist must have had some significant part of its output from the 1960s and 1970s (so no Barenaked Ladies I’m afraid) and the majority of the group’s members must hail from Canada. So herewith is my list in approximate order:

  1. Neil Young– “Southern Man” “Down by the River” “Heart of Gold” “Cinnamon Girl”-Is there any doubt that Neil Young is the greatest Canadian rock artist ever? His styles range from soft, socially conscious folk-rock (e.g. “The Needle and the Damage Done”) to hard guitar rock “Down by the River” with everything in between. His songs are brilliantly written with infectious melodies and he is a pretty darn good guitarist too.
  2. Rush– “Fly by Night”; “Closer to the Heart”, “Limelight” “Tom Sawyer”- This Toronto based group became the preeminent progressive Canadian rock band courtesy of some brilliant rock songs. Admittedly some of their best output was in the early 1980s but they still had many good songs in the 1970s so they definitely qualify.
  3. The Guess Who- “American Woman”, “No Sugar Tonight” “These Eyes” “Undun” – During the late 1960s and early 1970s, this Winnipeg based group rose to the top of the pop charts and were quite good, featuring Randy Bachman on guitar and Burton Cummings as a superb lead vocalist. It was a relatively short-lived success. During 1969-70 the group had six top twenty hits. Randy Bachman left in late 1970 and after that the group had only one top ten, the not-very-good “Clap for the Wolfman” in 1974. The group disbanded shortly thereafter.
  4. Bachman Turner Overdrive-“Taking Care of Business” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” “Roll on Down the Highway” “Hey You” – After the early 1970s demise of the Guess Who, Randy Bachman and fellow Canadian Fred Turner formed Bachman-Turner Overdrive in Vancouver. Between early 1974 and mid-1975, the group had their biggest hits with a nice hard rockin’ sound. However, they faded into obscurity soon thereafter.
  5. The Band “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Shape I’m In”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – The Band was formed in Woodstock, New York in 1968 but with the exception of drummer/vocalist Levon Helm (born in Arkansas), the group members were all from Ontario. I always liked their mellow rock sound. They produced a number of good songs in their career which ended in 1976 with their last concert documented by Martin Scorsese in the movie The Last Waltz.
  6. Steppenwolf – “Born to be Wild” “Magic Carpet Ride” “Rock Me” “The Pusher”- After an unsuccessful career as The Sparrows, three members of this Ontario group went to LA and recruited two Americans and formed the group Steppenwolf in 1967. They had their breakthrough success with “Born to Be Wild” in mid-1968, but their last good single and last top 40 (“Hey Lawdy Mama”) was only two years later. They were the first hard rock group to come from Canada.
  7. Gordon Lightfoot “If You Could Read My Mind” “Sundown” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – While I don’t know much of Gordon Lightfoot’s music beyond his three big hits, those songs alone are good enough to qualify him. An excellent folk singer from Ontario, Lightfoot wrote great music with wonderful lyrics.
  8. Joni Mitchell- “Help Me” “Big Yellow Taxi” “California”- I have very mixed feelings about Joni Mitchell. Some of her songs are great, but many seem so dreary to me that overall I am not much of a fan. Nonetheless, she certainly qualifies as one of the top ten Canadian artists of the 60s and 70s.
  9. Anne Murray- “Snowbird” “You Won’t See Me” “Danny’s Song”. Anne Murray might rank as the top pop artist ever to hail from Nova Scotia. She has a very nice voice, but her country/soft pop style and her constant focus on covers of others songs never did much for me. But since she is one of Steve’s favorite artists ever I had to include in the top 10!
  10. Five Man Electrical Band, Stampeders, and Lighthouse – These three groups came from Ottawa, Calgary and Toronto respectively. They are best known for only one hit each: “Signs” (“and the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply”), “Sweet City Woman” and “One Fine Morning” respectively. Fortunately, all three songs are excellent (and interestingly all of them came out in 1971). Of note, Howard Shore who played the saxophone for Lighthouse ended up being the first music director of SNL (Saturday Night Live) in 1975.

Dishonorable Mention: The Poppy Family (incl. the execrable solo #2 hit “Seasons in the Sun” by group member Terry Jacks, as well as unmemorable solo compositions by his wife Susan ) and Paul Anka (Known for such saccharin hits as “Puppy Love” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and the truly awful “You’re Having My Baby”).

 

1979 “We Will Still Come Thru In the Long Run”

Forty years ago at the beginning of 1979, I was hard at work at Stanford Business School finishing up the first-year core curriculum. ( ‘Cost Accounting’ ugh!). Meanwhile in 1979, popular music still was dominated by disco particularly in the first half of 1979 including the  The BeeGees “Tragedy” (#1 Mar.) and “Love You Inside Out” (#1 Jun), Rod Stewart “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (#1 Feb.), Gloria Gaynor “I Will Survive” (#1 Mar.), Anita Ward‘s “Ring My Bell” (#1 Jun.) Amii Stewart‘s “Knock on Wood” (#1 Apr.), and disco queen Donna Summer “Hot Stuff” (#1 Jun.) and “Bad Girls (#1 Jul.). Though some of these songs were OK when the mood was right, I definitely preferred rock music. (Only the Village People‘s “In the Navy” (#3 Jun.) and “YMCA” (#2 Feb.) were remotely fun to listen to.)

Rock had inauspicious beginnings in 1979. It was to be an off-year for the Who and the Rolling Stones after successful albums in 1978. The four former Beatles had no new albums. Likewise there was nothing new from the Moody Blues or Yes which might have been a good development given how inadequate their 1978 albums were. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Steely Dan were also on studio hiatus.

In fact there was really only one rock album (released at the very end of 1978) that dominated my attention in early 1979, the Doobie BrothersMinute by Minute (Dec. ’78). But it was an album that I had decidedly mixed feelings about. The Doobies had evolved considerably since the early to mid 1970s and was no longer the group that produced such brilliant songs as “China Grove”, “Listen to the Music” or “Black Water”. Founder, lead singer and major songwriter Tom Johnston was forced to quit the group in 1975 owing to health problems and former Steely Dan member Michael McDonald became his replacement. In the 1976 album Taking it to the Streets the Doobies sound changed radically as the two hit songs from the album: the title track and “It Keeps You Running” – were both soulful songs by McDonald. With Minute by Minute this transformation was virtually complete. The album was dominated by Michael McDonald’s blue-eyed soul with six of the ten songs written by McDonald and most of them with his lead vocals.

The most famous track on the album “What a Fool Believes” (#1 Apr.) later won the Grammy for song and record of the year in 1979. It was an outstanding song, perhaps the best of the year. However, lyrically, it became a centerpiece of my bouts of temporary depression in early 1979 as the newness and excitement of California and new friends/classmates had worn off to some degree and my loneliness and yearning for my lost love only a year or so earlier. Lyrics such as “She had a place in his life, he never made her think twice. As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know. He’s watching her go”. spoke to my yearning for what had come and gone. Fortunately, this winter blues was quite temporary and other songs on the album did not evoke such memories. The whole first side of the record was quite good with “Here to Love You” a nice opening track, the aforementioned “What a Fool Believes”, the very interesting and soulful “Minute by Minute” (#14 Jul.), and more traditional sounding Doobies hit song “Depending on You” (#25 Sep.) a shared McDonald-Patrick Simmons composition and Simmons “Don’t Stop To Watch the Wheels”. Side 2 was not as strong but still included an excellent bluegrass instrumental composition by Simmons “Steamer Lane Breakdown” and another strong McDonald lead vocal “How Do Fools Survive?” co-written by Carole Bayer Sayer.

Fortunately, there were at least a few other rock and pop songs that were good as well that winter:

  • “Hold the Line”- Toto (#5 Jan.) – released in late 1978, a new group from LA had their first single be a major success with this catchy rocker.
  • Robert Palmer– “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” (#13 Mar.)was the first Robert Palmer song I can remember hearing and a pretty good start to his career.
  • The Babys had their first hit since 1977’s “Isn’t it Time” with “Every Time I Think of You (#13 Mar.) a nice soft rock ballad.

Summer in DC

By the late Spring/early summer, rock albums improved immensely as did my outlook and mood. One of my favorites was The Cars Candy O (June 1979). Though not quite as good as the group’s outstanding debut album in 1978, Candy O was still one of the best rock albums of the year. Side One of the album starts off with a bang fittingly with the excellent techno-rocker “Lets Go” (#14 Sep.) (“I like the night life baby”). The pace diminishes (but not the quality) with the next two yearning love songs  “Since I Held You” (“It’s been a long time”) and the outstanding “It’s All I Can Do” (#41 Nov.) (“To keep waiting for you”). The pace quickens again with another good song, the lyrically interesting “Double Life” (“It takes a fast car lady to lead a double life“). “Shoo-Be-Doo” livens things up further and nicely leads into the title track, the up tempo “Candy-O”. Side Two is not as good as Side One but still include three very strong tracks “You Can’t Hold Out Too Long” , the frenetic “Got a Lot on My Head” and closing with my favorite song on the album “Dangerous Type” (“She’s a lot like you“). Candy-0 was one of the first albums I bought when returning to Stanford/ Palo Alto in the fall. I eventually recorded the album onto cassette and it became a staple on my drive with my friend Kirk to and from Oregon on a short-lived ski trip ( I broke my leg on the first run down Bachelor Mt.) in early December of that year.

Breakfast in America (March 1979) by Supertramp was also all over the airwaves by the summer of 1979, a summer which I spent commuting by car from our group house rental in Chevy Chase, MD to US EPA headquarters in Southwest DC (401 M Street) for my internship for the Chief of the Economic Analysis Division. Thirty minutes in the car both directions meant I spent considerable time listening to DC 101 and other FM rock stations in DC and three songs in particular were played constantly “The Logical Song” (#6 June), “Goodbye Stranger” (#15 Aug.) and my favorite on the album and one of my favorites of the year “Take the Long Way Home” (#10 Dec.). In addition, another favorite “Breakfast in America” (“take a jumbo across the water, going to see America“) received significant airplay. Supertramp’s sound was pretty unique but unfortunately wore thin over time. This was to be their peak of popularity. Roger Hodgson (lead singer and group leader) left the group in 1983 and by the mid-1980s Supertramp was done.

Meanwhile, James TaylorFlag (June) was also on the airwaves during that DC summer.  An enjoyable album by Taylor featured one of my all-time favorite covers “Up on the Roof”(#28 July) and two “lively” rockers (by Taylor standards) “Brother Trucker” (“You got to roll, roll, roll Brother Trucker”) and “Johnny Come Back”. Also of note were the two more conventional folk rock songs “I Will Not Lie for You” and “Rainy Day Man”.

By the end of the summer Led Zeppelin returned with a new studio album, their first in almost 3 1/2 years, – In Through the Out Door (Aug. ’79). It was to be the group’s final studio album. (In 1980, John Bonham the group’s drummer died and Led Zeppelin officially called it quits. ) While not quite up to the standards of the group’s early 1970s albums (and particularly the superb Led Zeppelin IV), it still boasted three excellent Zeppelin songs: (1) the hard rocking “In the Evening” (in which Jimmy Page plays his guitar with a violin bow making that unique sound in the opening part of the song) (2) “All My Love” and (3) the calypso sounding “Fool in the Rain” (#21 Jan. ’80) which employs Samba rhythms. I never bought the album, but heard these three songs on the progressive rock station by late that summer in DC and then more often back in Palo Alto in the fall.

Neil Young and Crazy HorseRust Never Sleeps (June ’79) was most noteworthy for two excellent tracks recorded live and overdubbed in the studio: the acoustic “My, My, Hey, Hey” (“Out of the Blue”)  and the lengthier hard rocking’ version of the same song “Hey, Hey, My My” (“Into the Black”)(#79 Oct.).

Meanwhile, the summer boasted a number of other very good rock and pop singles:

  • “Dance the Night Away” (#15 Jul.)by Van Halen was one of my favorites by the group from the group’s highly successful Van Halen II album.
  • Bad Company “Rock N Roll Fantasy” (#13 Jun.) was another solid rock song from this British quartet and their biggest single since their 1975 smash “Feel Like Makin’ Love”.
  • Bob Seger “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” (#28 June) was a nice up tempo rocker much like “Hollywood Nights” from the year earlier (both from Seger’s  highly popular “78 album Stranger in Town ). 
  • Cheap Trick had their first big hit with the excellent live rocker “I Want You to Want Me” (#7 Jul.). Later in the year, two more trademark songs were to reach the top 40, the unique cover of Fats Domino‘s “Ain’t That Shame” (#35 Sep.) and the interesting “Dream Police” (#26 Nov.).
  • The most popular rock hit of the summer and the year was “My Sharona” (#1 Aug.) by The Knack.  Like many, I tired quickly of the song as it was played constantly, but it was catchy tune and had a nice rock beat ( Hmm. Its sounds like I am one of those teenage reviewers on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in the 1960s).
  • In the more jazzy realm, Ricky Lee Jones‘ “Chuck E’s in Love” (#4 Jul.) was a nice mellow tune which seemed to be played often in the various DC bars I visited during that summer (of course only occasionally :) ).
  • “We Are Family” (#3 Jun.) Sister Sledge was also a favorite. Perhaps this was because it was more of dance song than disco. Or more likely, it was because it became the theme song for the Pittsburg Pirates winning the pennant and World Series, then my favorite NL team.

By early September, I gathered my belongings and headed back across country in my Toyota Corolla and unlike my previous two trips when I shared the driving with two different friends from Brown (Dave Dorsey Summer ’78, John Lum June ’79), this trip was a solo expedition. I stopped in Shaker Heights, Ohio where I had dinner with my eventual stepfather Ted Frost. Two nights later I stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska staying overnight with my friend Marty Michael’s parents (from the Stanford GSB). I remember going out for a run when I arrived despite the 98 degree heat. (Marty’s parents correctly thought that I was completely insane!). Next it was on to Denver visiting with the Grant family (second cousins of my mother’s side of the family) and then a special treat to go up and stay at their cabin at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Forest the next night on my own.

After an interesting and harrowing back-road drive thru the Mountains the next day, (the map did say it was the most direct route!) and eventually a reconnection to Highway 70, I arrived in Glenwood Springs to stay two nights with classmate and friend K.C. Branscomb and her parents at their home about 20 miles from Aspen. This included an interesting hike to the summit of 12965 ft. Mt. Sopris with KC the next day, where I stupidly (in retrospect) pushed on to the open rock summit (leaving KC some 500 ft. below in the woods) during a sudden afternoon thunderstorm. This included my unintentional attempt at replicating Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiments by carrying my ice ax sticking straight out of the top of my day pack.

My trip finished with two more marathon drives from Glenwood Springs, CO to Ely, Nevada and from Ely all the way to Palo Alto. Throughout these last two long driving days, my tape deck was up at full volume – blaring out songs from the rock panoply of hits and artists from the 60s and 70s.

In addition to a happy social life in the Fall of ’79, Stanford GSB work was much more enjoyable as the core curriculum courses were largely over and I could focus on what I really liked Economics, Investments, Public Policy etc. Meanwhile, several of the best albums of the year were released during the fall of 1979.

  • Eagles –The Long Run (Sep. 1979)- represented the sixth and last studio album by the group (until 2007) with the group breaking up in 1980 and not reforming until 1994. It was the first new album by the group in almost 3 years since Hotel California (Dec. ’76). Though not as good as the stellar Hotel California, it still boasted three very good songs: the rocking Heartache Tonight (#1 Dec.), The Long Run (#8 Feb. ’80) and the sad love song, “I Can’t Tell You Why” (#8 May ’80). Two other strong rockers Joe Walsh’s “In the City” and Henley-Frey-Felder’s “Those Shoes” nicely round out the album.
  • Tom PettyDamn the Torpedos (Oct. 1979) was also an excellent album and was Petty’s best until he released Full Moon Fever a decade later. It contains four of Petty’s best songs with “Refugee” (#15 Apr. ’80) “Even the Losers” ‘Here Comes My Girl’ (#59 June ’80) “Don’t Do Me Like That” (#10 Jan. ’80).
  • Though not as good as their first album, the PoliceRegatta de Blanc (Oct. 1979) was still not bad. The highlights were the US single  “Message in a Bottle” (#74 Dec.) (“I’ll send my SOS to you“) and the UK single “Walking on the Moon”.

The fall of 1979 also saw the release of another memorable album Fleetwood MacTusk (October 1979). I’ll admit that this album became a favorite because it coincided with beginning of my now almost 40-year relationship with the love-of-my-life Anne.  I met her thru my condo mate Steve’s girlfriend Maureen who just happened to live with Anne in the same condominium complex in Palo Alto. Songs such as “Sara” (“Drowning in the sea of love”) became synonymous with my relationship with Anne and create fond romantic memories to this day. Having said this, Tusk still paled in comparison to Fleetwood Mac’s two previous stellar albums. Like many successful rock groups, Fleetwood Mac suffered from the dreaded disease, “double-album-itis”. The double album really contained about a single album’s worth of good songs, with the other half the album mediocre to bad. This was exacerbated by the fact that Lindsay Buckingham wanted to make the album very “experimental” and a bit more like the new wave/punk sound. Unfortunately like many research experiments, there were many bad results as a consequence. The exception is the excellent and totally fun “Tusk” (#8 Dec.) which even features the USC marching band. However, none of Buckingham’s other eight compositions are particularly noteworthy and only “The Ledge” is good.

Fortunately, the double album is bailed out to a degree by some excellent compositions and singing by Christine McVie and several very good songs by Stevie Nicks. Side One was the best and not coincidentally contains the most clicks and scratches on my vinyl version. “Over and Over” was a nice mellow McVie composition featuring her beautiful soothing voice to start the side. Next up is “The Ledge” Buckingham’s first experimental composition, and it works mostly this time. The third track is a stellar McVie composition “Think About Me” ( #20 May ’80) which is one of the three best tracks on the album. “Save Me a Place” another Buckingham composition is mediocre but fortunately short. The final track is the Stevie Nicks’ beautiful “Sara” (#7 Feb. ’80) which nicely rounds out Side 1. Side 4 is also good with “Honey Hi” and “Never Forget” both nice tracks from McVie and “Beautiful Child” an OK track from Nicks and Buckingham’s best composition the aforementioned “Tusk”.

Just in time for Christmas shopping season, Pink Floyd released their double album The Wall (November 1979). Unlike Tusk however, the album is still very good despite it’s one hour and twenty-minute length. The album’s tells the semi-autobiographical story  of a rocker named Pink (based in part on group leader Roger Waters early life as well as former Floyd member Syd Barrett). Pink loses his father during WWII, deals with abuse by teachers and an overprotective mother and eventually becomes isolated from society as signified by the Wall (“just another brick in the wall“). While many of the tracks are designed to tell this story including dialogue interspersed with music, the album is anchored by several outstanding rock compositions starting on Side One– “In the Flesh?” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1” a nice linkage with “The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ and then “Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2” (#1 Mar. ’80)(“We don’t need no education“), Side Two is not as strong but does have one of my favorite tracks on the album the rare Gilmour composition “Young Lust” (“Oooh I need a dirty woman”) as well as the very moody, acoustic and interesting “Goodbye Blue Sky”. Side Three starts off with the brilliant and eerie rocker “Hey You” (“Out there in the cold, getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me?“), the nice acoustic, mostly instrumental  “Is There Anybody Out There?” and the sad “Nobody Home”. The side finishes with the outstanding “Comfortably Numb” (“Hello, Hello. Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me”) perhaps one of the best progressive rock songs of all time and certainly one of the most popular among progressive rock listeners. Side 4 features a lengthier reprise of “In the Flesh” which nicely leads into to the excellent rocker “Run Like Hell” (#53 Jun ’80).

The fall/early winter also featured a number of very good rock songs:

  • While ELO’s new album Discovery was heavily influenced by disco much to its detriment, it did boast one excellent song, one of my favorites of the year “Don’t Bring Me Down” (#4 Sep.). (I’ll admit I might be biased because it is one of those rare songs that constantly mentions my first name. “Don’t bring me down, Bruce!”).
  • Jefferson Starship– Jane (#14 Dec.) was the group’s first hit featuring new lead singer Mickey Thomas after Marty Balin left the group in late 1978. Though certainly not a work of art, it is very catchy, uptempo rocker and became one of my favorites of the year.
  • Styx had their first and only #1 hit, the ballad “Babe” (#1 Dec.), but I liked their earlier in the year rocker “Renegade” (#16 Jun.) even better.
  • Journey– “Lovin’, Touchin’ and Squeezin'” (#16 Oct.) was the first top twenty hit for this San Francisco group that would become a mainstay of early ’80s rock music featuring the soaring and unique vocals of Steve Perry.
  • John Mellencamp “I Need a Lover” (#28 Dec.)was the Indiana native’s first single and a pretty good one at that. Dubbed “John Cougar’ by David Bowie’s manager David DeFries, he recorded under that name until the mid-1980s.
  • Though AC/DC album Highway to Hell came out in the summer, I don’t remember hearing the interesting hard rocking title track “Highway to Hell”(#47 Dec.) until later in the year when the single was released. Too bad as it would have been a perfect driving song thru the very hot and humid Midwest late that summer. (“I’m on a highway to hell!”)
  • “This is It” (#11 Dec.) was Kenny Loggins best solo effort to date, though he would surpass it during the 1980s with “I’m Alright”, “Footloose” and “Danger Zone”.
  • Queen “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (#1 Feb. 80) was initially released in October 1979 and became the first Queen song to hit number one in the US. This is just another of the many excellent Queen rock songs beginning with “Killer Queen” in 1975. (As well documented in the wonderful 2018 film “Bohemian Rhapsody“). Queen had many more to come with the release of the The Game in 1980 and its second #1 single “Another One Bites the Dust”.
  • London new wave rockers The Clash released the London Calling double album in December 1979. While I wasn’t much of a fan of their brand of new wave at the time, I did like two songs from the album the title track “London Calling” and my favorite “Train in Vain” (#23 May ’80) (“Did you stand by me. No, not at all“).
  • Fear of Music Talking Heads new album featured very unique rhythms and yes even weird sounds, but had one stellar song “Life During Wartime” (#80 Nov.).
  • Soft rockers, Little River Band had two nice pop hits “Lonesome Loser” (#6 Oct.) as well as earlier in the year, “Lady” (#10 Apr.).

R&B, Jazz and Country

While I largely listened to rock, there were some excellent R&B, jazz and even country music that also commanded my attention during 1979:

  • Earth, Wind and Fire had two great songs during 1979 with the up tempo and lively “Boogie Wonderland” (#6 July) and the slow soulful ballad “After the Love Has Gone”(#2 Sept.).
  • Michael Jackson – began his independent solo career with the release of Off the Wall ( Aug.) and its first two singles the dance songs “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (#1 Oct.) (which Michael wrote), and “Rock with You” (#1 Jan. ’80). While this wasn’t his first solo album, (he had four previous albums with Motown under the Jackson V franchise), it was the first released under the Epic record label where he had true creative control. Michael wrote three of the songs himself (including “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”) and co-produced them with Quincy Jones.
  • Charlie Daniels Band had the country song of the year with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (#3 Sep.). Even though I wasn’t much of a country music fan, it was hard not to like the up-tempo fiddling and instrumentation and of course the interesting lyrics.
  • The jazzy “Rise” (#1 Nov.) by Herb Alpert was the best instrumental of the year.

**********

While 1979 was not one of the better years for rock music, it did close out nicely with the Eagles, Tom Petty, the Police, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd among others contributing some excellent new material. And 1980 was to bring my graduation and the beginning of my 16 year consulting career at ICF in Washington, DC. It also ushered in some interesting new music and artists. As always, rock and pop music were evolving and I was happy to go along for the ride.

 

Not Another Auld Lang Syne Redux

For many January is the time of the year for New Year’s Resolutions. Last year, I was derailed from my traditional New Year’s blog post by a bad case of the flu ( See my thebrainetrust.com post from one year ago “Not Another Auld Lang Syne…Because “In-Flew-Enza”  January 2018) but this year I have no such excuse. Instead, I merely note that every year that I have made resolutions, no matter how low I set the bar, I end up not keeping them.

So instead of foolishly listing a series of resolutions that won’t be kept, I thought I’d mirror what I did last year  which is to pull together a list of good things about the month of February (instead of January as I did last year) since we are only about one week away.

#10 The days are getting longer and the sun is setting later. By the end of January the sun sets at 5:49 PM in Columbus (or 30 minutes later than Jan. 1) BUT by the end of February it sets at 6:22 PM which means for those of us in the geriatric set its sets during or even after dinner!.

#9 In Columbus, on average, there are fewer cloudy days in February (18 out of 28) vs  January (21 out of 31 days). Makes you want to break out the sunglasses!

#8 George Washington’s Birthday is in February –“George Washington, George Washington… He Was a Great Man”

#7 Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday is also in February – sadly they now combine the two birthdays together into a “President’s Day” kind of a rip off for our two greatest Presidents.

#6 My Mom’s Birthday is in February (note it is higher up on my list that either Lincoln or Washington as it is clearly the most important of the February Birthdays). Happy Birthday Mom!

#5 Groundhog Day is in February. This “CAN” be good if the Groundhog doesn’t see his shadow and therefore Spring is coming. If he does see his shadow then we have six more weeks of winter, per the poem below:

“If ground-hog day was bright and fair,
The beast came forth, but not to stay;
His shadow turned him to his lair,
Where six weeks more, he dormant lay
Secure in subterranean hold—
So wondrous weatherwise was he—
Against six weeks of ice and cold,
Which, very certain, there would be…
~H.L. Fisher, “Popular Superstitions,” Olden Times: or, Pennsylvania Rural Life, Some Fifty Years Ago, and Other Poems, 1888

I guess this always confuses me. If it is sunny and he sees his shadow wouldn’t any self-respecting groundhog say to himself “Hmm its sunny and nice out here. I think I am staying outside!”

#4 Feb-BREW-ary is a month for beer lovers. Made that one up, but count me in!

#3 Febru-AIRY is a light and “airy” month when we all feel relaxed and free. JanNOAIRY is the opposite.

#2 Febulous February! Febtastic February! 

#1 By the end of February, March 21 the Spring Equinox is only three weeks away. This is the official beginning of Spring HOORAY!

So enjoy the rest of January and look forward to February. To quote those wise prophets of Fleetwood Mac “It’ll be here better than before, yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Redux

Hard to believe I haven’t posted in 6 months, but I plead being too busy in “retirement”. But now that the papers and exams have all been graded and the final grades have been posted , I thought I’d get back to blogging again. My last post was on the debt and the need to reform Social Security as one part of avoid economic Armageddon. Pt. 2 was to be about Medicaid, Medicare and other government health expenditures and taxes. However, with the holiday season upon us, I thought this would be a bit too dreary a topic.

Instead, in the spirit of Christmas, I started thinking about the famous and interminably repetitive song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The earliest known version of the lyrics was published in London under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”, as part of a 1780 children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. (My source is “Wikipedia”). To those who have forgotten or have understandably tried to block it out, the current version of the last verse of the Twelve Days of Christmas is as follows:

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

12 drummers drumming

11 pipers piping

10 lords a leaping

9 ladies dancing

8 maids a-milking

7 swans a-swimming

6 geese a-laying

5 GOLD RINGS

4 calling birds

3 french hens

2 turtle doves 

And a partridge in a pear tree. “

This is not only repetitive but pretty ancient circa 18th/19th century England. So in the spirit of improving this age old classic, I have updated the lyrics for the 21st century with a set of lyrics focused around food which we usually eat to excess around the holiday season:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, 

12 Chocolate Candies

11 Lady Fingers

10 gallons ice cream

9 shrimps a sizzling

8 burgers broiling

7 steaks a searing

6 cheeses in bacon

5 COLD WINGS

4 roasting hens

3 French Fries

2 Turtle Soups

And a kilo of a rare brie.

 

So the next time, you are listening to the Twelve Days of Christmas imagine you are listening to these delicious food lyrics instead.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All!

 

“How Long to the Point of Know Return?”

Can we finally talk about the $21 Trillion Elephant in the Room? I know its been an entertaining/incredible/painful/awful (pick your adjective) l7 months since Trump office between the Russia investigation, immigration dysfunction, the hush money payouts to a former porn star, the trade wars, the interminable tweets from the White House etc. But maybe we can actually do something that will shape this country’s future– whether marked by a worldwide depression of unprecedented levels or one where at least there continues to be improving growth in incomes and employment.? Federal debt outstanding totals an eye-popping $21.2 trillion with state and local debt totaling an additional $3.1 trillion.

In addition, total debt in the US has soared to over $70 trillion (almost 3 times the debt burden in 2000). which includes federal debt at $21 trillion, state and local debt at $3 trillion, personal debt (mortgage/ credit card/student loans primarily) of $19 trillion. In other words as bad as the government being awash in red ink is–and it is clearly our worst financial problem–individual debt is also soaring.

The US debt time bomb is still ticking. In fact now it is ticking even louder and faster, but is still silent to most Americans, Congress and the Presidency. The CBO released its ten-year budget projections in April which included the new tax law enacted by Congress at the end of 2017.

  • On the positive side, the projections show a steady growth in tax revenues from $3.33 trillion in 2018 to $5.52 trillion in 2028 or an average of 5.2% per year.
  • On the negative side, total government spending or outlays will grow much faster from $4.1 trillion in 2018 to more than $7 trillion in 2028! 
  • As a result, the projections show the annual budget deficit growing once again from our current estimated “low” levels of about $665 billion  in 2017 to about $1 trillion in 2020 and $1.4 trillion by 2027.
  • The national  debt is currently $21.2 trillion or 105% of US GDP. (See usdebtclock.org if you really want to get depressed!). According to CBO figures, this debt burden will grow to approximately $24 trillion by 2022 and to about $32 Trillion by the end of 2028 or a growth in our US debt of about 50% in the next decade. This means that the total US debt will more than triple in the 20 years between 2007 and 2027 ($31 Trillion vs. $9 trillion in US debt in 2007) and will more than quintuple from 2000 to 2027 ( $31 Trillion vs. $5.6 Trillion in 2000).
  • In a few cases, the CBO projections are overly pessimistic. For example, while real GDP grows at about a 3% rate during 2018 and 2019, it falls to 2% in 2020 and grows only 1.5% to 1.8% thereafter. With the stimulus of the tax cuts and particularly the likely capital spending and associated productivity gains associated with allowing expensing of capital investment under tax reform, along with the large deficit spending projected for a number of years in the future, I think real GDP will probably grow faster than this and this means tax revenues should also grow faster.
  • On the other hand, on the spending side, the CBO projections are in my view VERY optimistic. They assume almost no increase in inflation from current roughly 2% levels. (CPI grows to 2.4% from current levels of 2.2% per year). They also assume that the interest on long-term treasury debt will only increase to about 3.7% (from today’s 3.0%) in the next 10 years which is still well-below normal levels. This assumption is particularly important as federal outlays on just paying interest on debt are very likely to exceed $1 trillion per year by the middle of next decade assuming we move to more “normal” interest rates. Even the CBO’s conservative interest assumptions result in it reaching $0.9 trillion in 2028  ( I would estimate about $1.3 Trillion in 2028). Still even with CBO’s comparatively low-interest rate assumptions interest on the debt will become the 3rd largest budget item for the federal government, passing defense spending of $0.8 trillion and after Social Security $1.8 Trillion and Medicare’s $1.5 Trillion in 2028.

So why doesn’t anybody seem to care?

First, there is the ridiculous misnomer of comparing our total GDP to total federal debt as if this comparison is meaningful. The comparison suggests that somehow we have “covered” our debt with our total economic output. But as economist and investment advisor Bob Wiedemer points out, the correct comparison is annual federal revenues vs total federal debt. Thus our true debt coverage ratio is much scarier –only 15%. (vs the roughly 100% coverage using the fallacious GDP to total debt ratio). To put this into perspective, imagine someone who makes $60,000 per year deciding to go on a luxury 6 month around-the-world vacation costing $400,000 and trying to do so with no money down thru a $400,000 unsecured loan. Would any banker or finance company make this loan?

Of course, our federal debt situation is a bit better because the federal government controls the printing of money which means as we did during most of the Obama years we can monetize the debt. The Fed buys treasury bonds by printing money, simultaneously keeping interest rates lower and financing some of the debt. But printing money is a temporary solution at best and one that is fraught with risk (most notably much higher inflation) that we have managed to dodge at least for now. But greater and greater debt levels and rising interest rates likely will have even more dire consequences for the economy and the deficit in the future, making even more money printing likely and rapid inflation/economic depression a very likely consequence.

Second, there is a political situation in this country that is unprecedented. We have a two-party system where neither party seems to be able to even agree on the most basic of economic issues. Republicans generally believe that greater economic growth will lead to increasing tax revenues which will eventually allow deficits to disappear or at least diminish its significance. Tax cuts and reform (i.e. the Tax Reform Act of 2017) and reduced regulations are the Republican “Supply-Siders” main methods for increasing growth. Also, Republicans view that discretionary non-Defense domestic spending  can be reined in and cut to help control the long-term spending. In contrast, Democrats are generally against spending cuts, except for Defense, and Democrats are also for tax increases (though mostly on the wealthy few) and are generally against tax cuts. My own view is that to get us out of this mess we need to take the best of both sets of solutions in order to get us out of this mess.

Third, with elections in November and the polarized political environment NO ONE is willing to talk about either Social Security or Medicare (or for that matter Medicaid). Excluding interest on the debt, in 2028, CBO projects $4.5 trillion of the $6.1 trillion of government expenditures or nearly THREE QUARTERS of all government expenditures will be spent on Social Security ($1.8 Trillion), Medicare ($1.5 Trillion) and Medicaid ($0.6 Trillion) or other government/veterans retirement and income programs ($0.6 Trillion). But any Republican who dares talk about possible cuts or changes in these programs will be almost certainly punished in the elections, while any Democrat who talks about payroll or other tax increases to fund the difference fears the same retribution from voters.

Bottom line, I don’t see any current actions that will change the CBO dire forecast very much and if anything I think the situation will likely be even worse, when you factor the strong likelihood of a recession and perhaps a major depression in the next 3-5 years. The problem of course is the greater the debt the more likely we will see increases in inflation, interest rates and ultimately a major stock market decline and crash, which will in turn will result in a major decline in the dollar value, further increase $ inflation, further exacerbating the deficit and debt problems greatly increasing unemployment, and lowering incomes.

So what do we do to prevent this nightmare from coming true? Clearly, we must start doing something NOW to deal with our burgeoning deficit and debt to give the markets some assurance that the US will eventually pay down some of its large federal debt, BEFORE the markets lose confidence in US treasuries and the stock market. I have in mind a multi-faceted strategy on Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and discretionary government spending. For this blog, I will post about the “easiest” to deal with Social Security and leave the more difficult Medicare/Medicaid discussion for later.

Social Security

Social Security is inherently the most fixable of our current bankrupt government programs and it can be done by spreading the pain across a few of the main categories of funding and benefits. I believe it can also be done without changing the monthly benefits that current and future retirees are depending on, though it would mean somewhat more taxes on current workers and retirees as well as a delay of the official retirement age:

  • Raise the Full Benefit Retirement Age – With Americans who make it to their 60s increasing living past age 90, Currently the last Social Security law (passed in 1983) is gradually increasing the full benefit retirement age from 66 years gradually to 67 years over the next few years but this still means that Social Security is being paid to many for 20-25 years or even more. This of course is far longer than originally intended with the law designed to cover the last 10-15 years of life. Notably, more Americans are working into their late 60s and even their 70s than ever before. One possible change would be to accelerate full retirement age to 70 in five years and to 72 in 10 years.
  • Increase Taxation of Social Security Benefits for middle and upper-middle income retirees. – Currently, social security income is tax exempt for lower-income recipients(for married couples those whose “other income” totals less than $32,000 and 50% of benefits are taxable for those with “other income” between $32,000 and $44000. Above $44000, 85% of Social security benefits are taxable. (The actual formulas are actually more complicated than this….hey its the IRS!…but this gives you the general idea.) Because the new tax law significantly reduces the tax rates for lower and middle-income brackets, this means there will be less revenue from federal income taxes on social security benefits. One way to raise back some of these lost revenues is to make 100% of benefits taxable at the $44,000 threshold.
  • Increase Payroll Tax Limits for Social Security -In 2018, there is a 6.2% payroll tax for employees and employers for the first $128,400 in income with this income limit rising by inflation every year. Clearly, this is no longer enough to fund social security recipients as it once was, particularly with the increasing retirement of baby boomers over the next decade. One way to plug this gap would be to raise the tax limit to $150,000 in 2020 and then by $20,000 per year between 2020-25 until one reaches $250,000 in 2025. These tax limits would be indexed to inflation per the current law.

In 2018, Social Security Tax Receipts are estimated at about $0.9 trillion which are already less than  $1.0 trillion in total Soc. Security outlays. But without changes in the system, tax receipts in 2028 will total $1.4 trillion while outlays will swell to over $1.8 trillion in 2028 – a funding gap of more than $0.4 Trillion. I estimate that the changes noted above would eliminate this future funding gap by reducing outlays (due to fewer recipients in 2028 by raising the retirement age) paid to $1.6 trillion and increase tax receipts to $1.6- $1.7 trillion. (NOTE: My estimates are very rough because I don’t have access to all the data the CBO or the Administration has in making their projections, however, they are accurate enough I believe). Further they can be fine tuned to those actually doing detailed studies of the data. In addition, there are other levers at our disposal that I haven’t included above. For example, one would be to raise the payroll tax % on all income (say from 6.2% to 8% on both employees and employers), another would involve reducing future benefits slightly by using CPI inflation -1% for indexing. The point is there are a number of solutions that can spread the burden across younger workers and retirees and put the Social Security system back on a financially viable footing.

Though politically difficult, I actually believe Social Security is the best program to tackle first for Congress. For one, reasonable things can be done to bring the system in balance and have it start building up a trust fund again. And just getting SOMETHING done on the long-term budget and debt issue will hopefully be enough to settle (for a time) the increasing concerns of the markets over the total burgeoning US debt. In other words, it’s a good place to start. Will we? I think it depends not on Congress but the voters. If we demand a bipartisan solution now, we are much more likely to see one in the foreseeable future. Lets hope so, because we are getting closer to the “point of know (no) return”.