K-Tel, Top 40 Radio & Me, Vince Tinguely

K-Tel, Top 40 Radio & Me,  Vince Tinguely
from Vol. 2, No. 4

If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you
Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio

– Joni Mitchell, You Turn Me On I’m A Radio, 1972

This past April I was celebrating spring by trolling for more cheap vinyl at Geant Du Livre. One of the records I bought was the K-Tel compilation Believe In Music, which features, surprise surprise, the feel-good throwaway pop of I Believe In Music by Gallery. It’s got a great cover, like most K-Tel albums: a grainy generic crowd shot of some summer concert, with folks in cut-off shorts and floppy sun hats, shot through with gold, amber, red and purple rays and the album title boldly splashed across in bright yellow.
22 original hits, 22 original stars! I can still hear the TV ads. Saturation television advertising was the key behind K-Tel’s bright seventies mega-success story, which featured not only the records, but also gems like the Patty Stacker, which allowed you to make a stack of perfectly uniform hamburger patties. The ads were the acme of high pressure salesmanship, with flashy, grainy shots of bands badly lip-synching their hits, song titles and soundbytes zipping past, and the announcer’s nasal, mile-a-minute patter. That high speed rap became such a cliché that Second City’s Dave Thomas created a character, Harvey K-Tel, based on it.
Believe In Music doesn’t have a release date anywhere, but with a bit of detective work I figured out it was pressed some time in 1972. That’s just about the time I moved from Kingston, Ontario to Ottawa with my nomadic military nuclear family, a time which marked the end of a grand era of innocence, The Era of Top 40 AM Radio. Somehow, Kingston and Top 40 have become synonymous in my mind – I can pretend to myself that CKWS is still pumping out the hits, following American Woman by The Guess Who with Hot Pants by James Brown, pairing Imagine by John Lennon with Brand New Key by Melanie, Hot Fun In The Summertime and Heart Of Gold. Of course, if CKWS still exists at all, and it sounds anything like it did back in the early 70s, it’s only because it’s an oldies station.
But I’m not just waxing nostalgic for the oldies here, or else why would my eyes glaze over after only half an hour of exposure to Oldies 990? These days, even the oldies stations are planned down to the last second. Each and every song has been tested out on dozens of marketing focus groups, with one aim in mind, keeping your ear tuned to the station long enough for it to lob a few ads at you. Back in 1971, the stations were certainly crassly commercial, but on CKWS in Kingston and on hundreds of stations across Canada and the U.S.A., the top 40 playlist was determined by record sales and listener response. So if a record was selling like hotcakes, it didn’t matter if it was about transvestites (The Kinks’ Lola), junkies (Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead), transvestites and junkies (Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side), Jesus (Ocean’s Put Your Hand In The Hand), Satan (Don McLean’s American Pie), the shooting of students at Kent State (Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), racism (The Chi-Lites, We Are Neighbours, Brother Louie by Stories), the environment (Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi), war, (Edwin Starr’s War [RIP! He died just as the Iraq war began. –Ed.], Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance); it could even be about completely stupid stuff like Troglodyte by The Jimmy Castor Bunch, Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road by Loudon Wainwright III, or The Streak by Ray Stevens. It all got played, and played often.
What this meant was that at the point when I got my first transistor radio, I was exposed to the widest possible range of music. I wasn’t exposed to what some marketing jerk wanted me to hear, I was exposed to what people were asking for en masse, and this had a profound determining effect on my understanding of the world. When I turned on my radio, I not only heard jingles for Simpsons-Sears and A&W, news weather sports and the latest hits. When I turned on my radio, I tapped into a whole philosophical realm of debate. It was totally incoherent: Melanie singing, “They’re only putting in a nickel, but they want a dollar song,” on one hand, and on the other, The Osmonds asserting that “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” Maureen McGovern declaring, “There’s got to be a morning after, if we can hold on through the night,” and David Bowie crooning, “Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.” The listeners were free to pick and choose whatever songs, ideas, and styles they liked. If I want to find the roadmap of my sexual awareness, the roots of my political philosophy, the yin-yang balance of nihilism and optimism I’ve ‘always’ known, much of it comes from Top 40 radio of the early 70s.
My family was so technologically-backward that we didn’t have a record player at the time, and so I never owned a K-Tel record when the Winnipeg-based K-Tel empire was at its peak. But since K-Tel records merely echoed what was already on Top 40 radio, any time I play a K-Tel record today I’m smacked instantly with waves of syrupy nostalgia. There’s never a first time with K-Tel. I seem to recall my friend Danny had a few K-Tel collections back then. Whenever I look at the insanely garish pop art covers of Fantastic, 22 Explosive Hits, or Dynamite, there’s a vague sense of having sat around in his parents’ living room looking at the covers, listening to the songs, experiencing them right around the time when they were originally released. I can’t really trust this memory, though. I could be remembering the television ads for the albums, and not the albums at all. Pop cultural memory is like a sucking bog.
K-Tel would strategically release collections of songs that had been occupying the charts just weeks before. For kids on limited budgets, it was a lot cheaper to buy a K-Tel album than to buy a whole bunch of singles. Each K-Tel record had to be listened to selectively, of course; nobody bought them for all of the songs. Indeed, there were some songs – anything by Donny Osmond, for instance – that could instantly send Danny and I into fits of rage if we happened to hear them on the radio. A single dose of shit like If You Go Away by Terry Jacks, or Rocky by Austin Roberts, Candy Man by Sammy Davis Jr., The Lord’s Prayer by Sister Janet Mead, or Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree by Dawn (featuring Tony Orlando) was enough to send any normal human being to the dark side of the moon. But at the time, these songs were played to death, over and over and over again – Top 40 meant just that, 40 songs in rotation, day in and day out, and the top 10 were in heavy rotation. So, when you bought a K-Tel album, you got the bad with the good, and the good with the indifferent.
The trick was to sit with the record player, like Danny and I did, and play the ‘good’ songs over and over again, and never listen to the ‘bad’ ones (except possibly at the wrong speed). This method wasn’t unique to me and my pal by any means. My copy of Dynamite  bears the marks of an amateur critic named Joan. She scrawled her capsule reviews in pen right beside the song titles: a simple check mark signified approval. A mediocre track rated, “not bad,” while crappy stuff was “no good.” If they were really no good – i.e. Billy, Don’t Be A Hero by Paper Lace – she’d scratch the song title right out.
K-Tel albums had one quirk which made them less than perfect reflections of Top 40 radio play of the time. While you might find some of the big stars like Elton John, Nazareth, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and James Brown on K-Tel albums, there were many major Top 40 stars you’d never find: Lennon, McCartney, Bowie, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Kinks, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, etc. There might’ve been a certain amount of censorship involved. K-Tel was targeting a teeny-bopper market, one that wouldn’t be too fussy about minor details like horrible sound quality (because so many tracks were crammed onto one record), and songs edited to fit the format (hey, where’d the guitar solo go?!). It’s possible they wanted to shield their young listeners from the more ‘adult’ songs. But I think it was a simple matter of cost: some artists wanted more money than K-Tel was willing to shell out. (Eventually, K-Tel did release ‘exclusive’ collections of Bowie and the Stones, among others.)
So because it was cheaper to put more obscure hit singles on their records, old K-Tel albums are repositories for a parade of tasty and obscure one- or two-hit pop wonders: The Amboy Dukes (Ted Nugent’s first band), Abraham’s Children, Argent, The Blackbyrds, Brighter Side Of Darkness, B.T. Express, Tony Camillo’s Bazuka, Cannibal & The Headhunters, Chakachas, Don Covay, Crazy Elephant, The Delfonics, The Detroit Emeralds, William DeVaughn, Dyke & The Blazers, Ecstasy, Passion & Pain, Eruption, The Five Stairsteps, Foxy, Gainsborough Gallery, Danyel Gerard, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, High Inergy, The Incredible Bongo Band, The Jaggerz, The Joe Jeffrey Group, The Lemon Pipers, Lisle, The Love Unlimited Orchestra, Madrigal, Barbara Mason, George McCrae, Gwen McCrae, Mocedades, Dorothy Moore, Motherlode, The Music Explosion, New York City, Ron Nigrini, 100 Proof Aged In Soul, The Original Caste, Pacific Gas & Electric, Freda Payne, Prelude, The Presidents, Professor Morrison’s Lollipop, The Soul Survivors, The Raspberries, Rene & Rene, Merrily Rush, Shocking Blue, Foster Sylvers, The Tee Set, The Three Degrees, Tinker’s Moon, Johnny Wakelin & The Kinshasa Band … to name only a few.
Why did Top 40 eventually die? It seems people started buying fewer singles and more albums in the seventies. I certainly wasn’t into singles. There was also the normal consumer reaction to Top 40 – that at least half the songs sucked to any given listener. Other, more sinister marketing forces also might have led to the demise of the format. Consultants started preaching the ‘target audience’ gospel, which created categories like ‘soft rock’ and ‘album-oriented rock’. (This condemned Black musicians to the disco ghetto for a while, and then eliminated them from the airwaves altogether until the rise of ‘urban’ music stations.) Radio sounded more and more like an exclusive club for hair bands as the seventies wore on – especially if you lived anywhere outside of the big city markets of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. It isn’t simply that Trooper, Teaze and Toronto were terrible bands – it’s also that there was nothing else on the radio!
All I know is, after I moved to Ottawa in 1972, AM radio started to suck big time. It stopped being such a crazed mosaic of all conceivable styles, and began to sound more and more homogenous. It’s like that Joni Mitchell song says: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” For the next six or seven years I barely paid attention to the radio. I’d missed out on the brief period when big city stations like CHOM FM featured a free-form commercial ‘underground’ sound that ranged from all-night Beefheart and Zappa sessions to on-air Tarot readings. There was some exposure to Album Oriented Rock on Ottawa’s CHEZ FM in the mid-seventies, where I first heard Tom Waits, Bob Marley, Bob Seger and Fleetwood Mac, and where they seemed to play Riders On The Storm by the Doors an awful lot. But I didn’t rediscover bizarre, across-the-board genre-busting programming like Top 40 until campus-community radio stations started to hit the airwaves in the late seventies and early eighties. The thing with campus-community radio, however, is that often individual shows focus on very narrow categories and styles – reggae, hip-hop, techno, or rock – in the same way commercial stations narrow-cast at a particular demographic. Not too many of them mash it all up in a Top 40 style.
It was in the early eighties, during the waning years of my pot-smoking university student daze, that I rediscovered K-Tel. I was a typical Trouser Press- reading alterna-music nerd trying to impress the chicks with my new Gang of Four album, Entertainment!, when one ‘chick’ asked, “Have you got any funk?” I didn’t even know what she was talking about. She shimmied her hips at me and said, “You know, funk. Like, James Brown?” I was ashamed to say my record collection was overwhelmingly white. A little later on, avoiding school work by hanging around the downtown Woolco, I chanced upon a stack of K-Tel Super Bad Is Back albums on sale for the low, low price of 88 cents. Not only did it suit my budget, but there was a James Brown song on it! I gave that copy to my ‘chick’ friend, abandoned a second copy on the street when I had to make a sudden move out of town in the late eighties, and picked up my third copy only recently. It’s an unbeatable collection of early seventies funk and soul, with Theme From Cleopatra Jones by Joe Simon, and tracks by Mandrill, Fred Wesley & The J.B.s, Kool & The Gang, The Chi-Lites, and The O’Jays. Where else are you going to find this kind of stuff for a buck?
Buying K-Tel records has become a pretty regular activity in my life. Here it is, thirty years since the albums came out, and you can still find them for next to nothing. Their ever-intensifying kitsch value, the lurid covers, the weird time-capsule quality of all those hippie-infected songs of peace, love and joy, easily outweighs the poor sound quality and the heavy-handed editing that can make a simple story song like Uneasy Rider by the Charlie Daniels Band seem more like a cut-up by William S. Burroughs. My collection includes 24 Happening Hits, 24 Dynamic Hits and 24 Solid Hits, some of the very earliest albums (dating from the late sixties) released by the pre-K-Tel company Syndicate Products. Syndicate morphed into K-Tel International at about the same time the records went from one-colour and two-colour to full-colour album jackets, and when they bit the bullet and cut back from 24 to a mere 20 hits per record. The most recent disc I have is Hot Tracks from 1984, but I saw a used K-Tel CD from 1996 in a store not very long ago; it featured various tracks (like Happy Together by The Turtles) first featured on those early Syndicate collections.
Long exposure to these K-Tel collections has changed my approach to music. It’s become less personal, in a way, as I’ve become more and more appreciative of the democratic qualities of having all these different songs gathered together in one place. That’s what democracy is supposed to be about, after all, allowing contradictory philosophies to co-exist in a pluralistic society. The loss of such an open radio format seems to me like a loss of a Golden Age in popular culture, and I feel at least partially responsible, since I used to be so down on Donny Osmond when I was eleven.