As I was completing “45 RPM (Recollections Per Minute): The Morrell Archives Volume 3,” I happened to watch “La Ronde,” the 1950 film directed by Max Ophüls and based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play of the same name. The master of ceremonies asks, “And me? What part do I play in the story…The author? An accomplice? A passerby? I am you. That is, any one of you. I am the personification of your desire to know everything.”
He goes on to tell us, “I see all sides…because I see in the round.”
With this book, I hope to show you sides you haven’t seen of an industry that romances and seduces you into giving up your soul. It twists and whirls your senses with overwhelmingly fantabulous music.
It’s always New Year’s Eve.
We worked around the clock, eight days a week and only the strong survived. The others were blown to smithereens.
Just where are we?
Backstage at Max’s Kansas City?
In the Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria?
On air at WNEW-FM?
We are on a street.
We are in New York City.
From an office on 56th Street, we gain a panoramic view of the music industry, supersizing the excesses of the era. Chasing stiffs as if they were hits, paying shady indie promotion figures big spiffs (bonuses) and nearly bungling mega records like Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
The phone rings… It has been weaponized by the rumpdogs. They are spinning, spinning, spinning out of control in a circular building located almost 3,000 miles away – the Capitol Records Tower.
One boss has a cattle prod in his office. Another favors sledgehammers.
They have some select words for the promotion staff, charged with getting radio stations to play the label’s singles.
“Bring in the kneepads, bring in a baseball bat! We need stations on this record.”
“Bob Seger’s ‘Like A Rock’ is a goddamn embarrassment! We gotta go top 10!!”
“Give away all the Beatles records you need to get the job done!”
“For fuck’s sake, what the hell is going on out there!”
“Don’t tell me you got dinner plans or some shit! Get on the road!”
“Go sell your soul to the Devil! I don’t care. We have to have 10 adds!”
“It’s countdown time to losing your jobs!”
The staff takes the beatdown and reaches for a bump up. It’s the 80’s – decades before bigwigs have to worry about the fallout of a toxic work culture. My characters turn…and turn…and turn.
Hanging Up the Hit 45s
The district manager, seated across the desk from me at Capitol Records’ Manhattan office, looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you smoke pot?”
I froze. Should I lie?
I leaned forward and whispered, “Yes.”
“Good!” he yelled. “You’re in! Can you get to Hollywood tomorrow? I want you to meet your new boss.”
In eight years, I’d gone from being Assistant Stock Boy in the eight-track tape department at the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic warehouse distribution center in New Jersey to working 45s at top 40 radio for Warner Bros. and RCA Records. Now Capitol Records – the label that introduced the Beatles to America – wanted me to work their albums at rock radio. I was 26 years old.
It was time for me to hang up the old 45.
Back in the Old West, a 45 could stop you in your tracks. In 1964 “She Loves You” stopped me and the rest of the world in our tracks!
I had been working the 45 since I arrived on the promotion scene in 1972. I’d had a hand in breaking hits like, “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Muldaur, “Tin Man” by America and “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot.
Working top 40 was a bitch. It was hard. I had to deal with New York City, where stations paid massive amounts of money for research. There was no getting around it. If you weren’t in the top 30 with sales in the market, it would be tough to get WABC to look at your record. Sure, there were a few flukes like “MacArthur Park,” which you knew in one listen was a hit. “American Pie” was like that and, come to think of it, both songs were longer than most 45s.
WABC always wanted records that were under three minutes. One time we brought “Dueling Banjos” up there, but it was a little over 3 minutes. Instead of editing, we just changed the time on the record. Once the PD caught on, he told us he wasn’t going to play it if we didn’t cut it. We went back to the studio but instead of editing, we just speeded it up! It worked!! They never caught on until we brought the original guys up to the station to play the song in the PD’s office. As they were dueling it out, the PD was clapping his hands and stamping his feet, yelling “FASTER!!!”
When I worked the 45, I had to spend a tremendous amount of energy hyping the stores with tickets and t-shirts to get them to tell the radio station MY SINGLES WERE SELLING! I hated that end of the business.
At WABC I learned that a few of the jocks were in the music meetings, so I tried to find out who they were. I figured the guy that got off the air at 10 a.m. was probably asked to attend, but the guy on the air wouldn’t be in the meeting. With that thought process, I’d call the morning guy on the request line and ask for a song I knew they weren’t playing. He’d ask me if I heard it on the station and I’d tell him I hear it everywhere! I figured if my song was in the music meeting, he’d pipe up and say he was getting requests!
While I was driving myself crazy coming up with schemes to get songs added at top 40, the album guy at Warner was hosting DJs at the office, giving away free albums and smoking pot all day! Of course, he needed to have great knowledge of the personal tastes of all the DJs that are on the air – so he was constantly taking them out to breakfast, lunch or dinner. It seemed like a pretty sweet gig.
Now I would be the album guy at Capitol, required only to work rock albums to rock stations and deal only with rock programmers. One Capitol boss would call the few of us that worked rock stations “wine and cheese party planners.” After years of working top 40, it sure wasn’t offensive to me. I looked forward to it!