BLITZ MAGAZINE CELEBRATES
FOUR DECADES OF CHANGE
“I am no longer singing with the legendary Teenagers. After knowing and working with Herman Santiago for over sixty years, the time has come for me to move on to other things, as my Lord and Saviour Jesus directs. For it is He, the Creator of all things, including doo wop, that brought me this far in life and blessed me to be an original, founding member of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Therefore, I’ll always be a Teenager as His servant.”
With those words, rock and roll great Jimmy Merchant announced on 27 April 2015 his retirement after six decades as a member of one of rock and roll’s most respected and enduring pioneer vocal groups. And while the news of yet one more legend being removed from the roster of active performers is most disconcerting in and of itself, Merchant’s farewell benediction nonetheless addresses two key points that remain front and center in the overall world of music.
On one hand, the fact that Merchant (who since that time seems to have recanted his retirement to a degree and continues to participate in the occasional live performance) has had the option to bow out on his own terms makes him blessed in relation to a number of his fellow visionaries. To wit, the current year to date alone has seen the untimely passing of such beloved giants of music as Ernie Maresca, Ben E. King, Val Doonican, Jim Ed Brown, Jean Ritchie, B.B. King, Johnny Gimble, Guy Carawan, James Last, jazz greats Marcus Belgrave and Ornette Coleman, songwriters Red Lane, Will Holt and Buddy Buie, the Scot Richard Case’s Gary Quackenbush, the Kingsmen’s Jack Ely, Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown, the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, and Yes bassist Chris Squire, to name but a few.
Furthermore, with his proclamation of faith, Merchant has articulated a major concern within the industry that nonetheless resonates with believers and non-believers alike. The fact that the attrition rate amongst musicians has continued at an alarmingly high rate in recent years has given many pause for concern, as well as the incentive to reassess their priorities.
One time Guess Who front man and keyboardsman Burton Lorne Cummings has reiterated as much in his ongoing series of online journals over the past few years. Amongst other things, the highly prolific and remarkably gifted vocalist and songwriter has observed that, as a lifelong musicologist, musician and record collector, he has had ample opportunity to accumulate rather large archives of various recorded works during his more than a half century in the spotlight.
But in turn, Cummings has noted upon occasion that the whirlwind of activity in which he frequently finds himself has left him with relatively little time to appreciate those acquisitions to any significant degree. To underscore the point, he recently noted that he was just getting around to re-evaluating and enjoying once again the catalog of the veteran instrumental band, Johnny and the Hurricanes, the bulk of whose work was done more than a half century ago.
The communal gathering places for the faithful, such as record collectors conventions and record retailers have reflected these developments accordingly. It is becoming increasingly commonplace in such settings to encounter conversations that are less concerned with, “I just found this rare record” and instead leaning towards mutual acquaintances having passed away, admitted to hospital, in a nursing home, and the like.
Like it or not, such is the inevitable fate for each and every of us who profess to love music. To wit, a few years ago, one prolific collector passed away suddenly at the age of fifty-nine, leaving the fruits of his decades of record collecting behind to relatives who had minimal interest in the subject. Within a month of his passing, his lifetime of work was being arbitrarily divided and offered in a backyard estate sale at prices of less than one dollar per item. A short term bonus for the fellow collector with a focus on the immediate circumstances, to be certain. But doubtlessly not at all what that late collector may have envisioned for his legacy, not to mention his due diligence.
With his focus primarily directed towards his faith, Jimmy Merchant most assuredly has his priorities in order. But whether or not one shares Merchant’s perspective on that particular issue, there is nonetheless much that we as the collective representation of musicologists, musicians, record collectors and industry professionals can learn from his resolve and determination.
When Blitz Magazine made its debut as a mimeographed newsletter in August 1975, the world of record collecting was very much in its infancy. In turn, the reissue and anthology division of the industry was striving to find its own footing. With the rise to prominence of the internet more than two decades away, research involved no small amount of physical effort, and relied more often that not on the personal recollections and presumptions of third party observers.
However, one concurrent development came along that helped propel Blitz and literally hundreds of other like minded publications from cottage industry status to voices of consequence for a sizable yet long disenfranchised segment of the overall demographic. In 1975, the mainstream recording industry had been in the waning stages of a protracted aesthetic slump that came about in part as the result of the AM/FM wars of the late 1960s and the shifting emphasis by the industry powers that be onto such periphery as chronology and social/political developments. While such moves may have served some purpose in providing a backdrop for a given agenda in that respect, it nonetheless often did so by relegating the music to a support role for that agenda, and occasionally at the expense of artistic integrity.
Such developments resulted in an ever increasing discontentment with the status quo amongst the faithful. Yet seemingly in defiance of the limited options for networking and/or communications available at the time, the faithful managed to rise to the occasion by mid-decade in two respects. One way was by taking a stand for artistic integrity and seeking to unite like minded individuals. This was often done through the medium of independent publishing, such as Blitz Magazine did. The other was to utilize whatever musical skills that one had been blessed with and commit them to record with original material that championed a return to the basics, with renewed artistic integrity experiencing exponential growth in the process.
As such, by the mid-1970s, the resultant, so-called punk/new wave movement and the burgeoning independent publishing industry found themselves united in purpose and growing in impact and influence. Not surprisingly, the indifference and/or resistance from the mainstream media was both fast and furious. Nonetheless, four decades after the fact, what was once regarded as a fringe movement is now an integral component of the overall entertainment culture.
Within short order, Blitz Magazine resolved to increase its presence and impact in that respect. In late 1976, after a brief meeting with renowned graphic artist Dennis Loren (who had offered his services in that capacity accordingly), Blitz Magazine took the risky yet inevitable step of graduating from four page mimeographed newsletter to a full sized, full length magazine. Blitz Magazine number eighteen (featuring my lengthy cover interviews with Jan and Dean, as well as numerous reviews of various ambitious new vinyl releases) followed suit in January 1977. The musical revolution and its independent press were both in full swing, and there was no turning back.
As we all learned in short order, publishing was not a task for the casual participant. The thrill of championing the betterment of the art was often tempered by the realities of production. In those pre-internet days, stories were composed and edited on a typewriter (and Blitz was blessed at the time to have access to the then state of the art IBM Selectric II model) with a bottle of Liquid Paper nearby at all times. In turn, typesetting was done on a cumbersome and costly behemoth of a machine called a Compugraphic.
While we engaged a variety of typesetting services in the early days of Blitz, among the most memorable were the several issues that were typeset by long time fellow musicologist, social commentator and one-time MC5 manager, John Sinclair. Blitz’s production team spent many a long night in Sinclair’s home offices, enjoying his vast and diverse record collection while he typeset, I proofread and Dennis Loren meticulously designed each page by hand on his light table.
By 1980, with the punk/new wave movement continuing to break new ground and assert itself as the prominent voice in the music industry, Blitz Magazine had relocated from suburban Detroit to Los Angeles, California. It was a move that was a long time in the making, and one that was done with few regrets.
With respect to the latter category, it sadly meant parting professional company with Dennis Loren, as the ongoing high demand for his services in the area prevented him from making such a move at the time. Meanwhile, Blitz continued to sustain its momentum in Southern California by engaging the services of a series of gifted graphic artists that included Heather Johnson, Spencer Eldridge, Greg Shaw and Tom Alford.
Not surprisingly, Loren’s graphic design business continues to the present day, with stops at Del-Fi and Vanguard Records along the way to his credit, as well as key project collaborations with such diverse artists as Tag Team and Brian Wilson. However, Blitz by that time had also developed and nurtured a world class roster of staff writers (including Jerry Schollenberger, Mary Anne Cassata, Sean Ross, John Mars and Jeff Lemlich), all of whom were able to continue in that capacity by mailing in their contributions prior to each deadline.
Ultimately, the timing of the move could not have been more perfect. Southern California had embraced the new musical developments unconditionally, and had the rare blessing of ongoing radio support in that respect from Long Beach’s KNAC-FM and Pasadena’s KROQ-FM. A variety of diverse bands had availed themselves accordingly, and Blitz Magazine was there to cover all of it. The Heaters, the Blasters, the Rain Parade, Black Flag, Elton Duck, the Long Ryders, X, the Minutemen, the Dream Syndicate, the Unclaimed, the Three O’Clock and the Last were among the many who graced our pages throughout those adventurous days.
In the process, our relocation to Southern California also afforded Blitz greater access to many of the still active pioneers of the movement. We were immeasurably blessed to have featured lengthy interviews with such beloved greats as the Monkees, Roy Brown, Herman’s Hermits, the Creation, the Beach Boys, the Four Preps, Lou Christie, Canned Heat, Rick Nelson, the Beau Brummels, Mary Wells, Del Shannon, Spanky and Our Gang, the Seeds and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (amongst numerous others) within our pages.
Concurrently, the reissue arm of the recording industry was rapidly gaining ground, commensurate with the ongoing interest in high quality pioneering work amongst both musicologists and record collectors, as well as the front line amongst the newer musicians. Inevitably, Blitz Magazine joined forces for a season with such record labels as Rhino and Sundazed, who commissioned Blitz to conduct research and/or compose sleeve notes for a series of reissues and anthologies by such diverse artists as the Chocolate Watchband, the New Colony Six, Dionne Warwick, Freddy Cannon, the Vogues, Brenton Wood, Mitch Ryder, the Diamonds, Joe Tex, Bill Deal and the Rhondels, the Olympics and Bobby Day, to name but a few.
That momentum continued unabated well into the 1980s. But abruptly in mid-1988, not long after the release of our fifty-eighth issue, a series of circumstances (including my pursuit of multiple degrees in theology, which involved a semester of study in Jerusalem, Israel) regrettably necessitated placing Blitz on sabbatical for a brief season.
That so-called brief season continued until January 1996, when (to the best of our knowledge) Blitz Magazine re-emerged as the very first such magazine of its kind to have adapted an entirely online presence. Blitz Magazine of course continues in that capacity to the present day, with our web site regularly supplemented by our ongoing active participation in both the Facebook and Twitter communities.
In the interim, changes in the industry had continued at a frantic pace, with both positive and negative consequences. By the mid-1990s, the internet had become an increasing presence in the overall culture. And while the industry’s endeavors to find its footing in that new medium took the better part of the ensuing decade to develop, the internet ultimately brought significant changes in the way that the industry viewed itself.
At risk initially were the intellectual and creative property rights of the artists involved. With much of their work suddenly available on various sites or as downloads, sales of compact discs and vinyl (which paradoxically has rebounded exponentially in the current decade) began to be affected adversely. The sense of entitlement expressed by many at the time underscored just how ingrained in mass culture was the notion that an artist was not necessarily to be fairly compensated for their services.
This double standard ironically carried over for a season into the realm of the physical product, which had long been a key source for the sustainability of the careers of many an artist. The impact was particularly felt in the early 2000s in the United Kingdom, with changes in copyright laws resulting in a season of decreased accountability for record labels with respect to artist royalties. Due in part to the valiant and ongoing efforts of such still active veteran greats as Bobby Rydell and Sir Cliff Richard, those concerns have begun to be addressed, if not entirely rectified.
The issue at large was exacerbated in part by the return to a protracted aesthetic slump in the mainstream that began in the early 1990s. After the so-called New Traditionalist movement in country music (arguably the last collective gasp of consequence in the industry at large) had run its course by the midpoint of that decade, no real profession of solidarity and/or unity came from any one camp to carry the torch forward into the new millennium. As such, artists at the independent label level again turned to their respective creative muses. The result was a great deal of excellent material that admittedly takes a bit more due diligence (aided and abetted by the ongoing support from Blitz, as well as numerous others of similar intent) to locate and appreciate. Nonetheless, the results at hand suggest that doing so remains well worth the effort.
While the vastness of scope offered by the internet can make the pursuit of the new and promising of a particular genre or point of interest a bit more challenging, it in turn has likewise (and somewhat unwittingly) been of benefit towards the reissue movement, which has since grown to be one of the largest segments of the recording industry at large.
The rapid expansion of interest in the reissue movement has in part been responsible for the healthy return to prominence of the vinyl release in recent years. Not only do such heretofore technically conscious retail chains as Target, HMV, Best Buy, Books A Million and Barnes and Noble now stock extensive selections of vinyl albums in their various outlets, they have in the process attracted the support of a much younger demographic with no first hand experience of the original impact that vinyl had in its developing stages. To be certain, with respect to the concerns about the necessity of passing the torch, this is a most encouraging step in the right direction.
Concurrently, the explosive growth of reissues and anthologies has had significant impact in terms of the compact disc. The sonic advantages of the medium (minimal surface and/or background noise, space for additional tracks, et al) have served the expansion movement well, with deluxe editions of many a classic release offering what the vinyl medium simply cannot deliver, in the form of bonus and unreleased tracks, supplemental hardware (session data, discographies, extensive sleeve notes or artist biographies, reproductions of artifacts and the like) and a more comprehensive artist portrait in a relatively convenient and compact setting (the latter being an increasing necessity amongst those with substantial musical archives and minimal storage space).
Conversely, the rise of the internet has also seen a somewhat curious increase in the industry equivalent of the so-called “armchair quarterback”, who is referred to in some circles as the “keyboard warrior”. While the difficulties of research in the early days of the reissue industry meant that available information in general was often more challenging to procure a decade after the fact than it now is a half century after the fact, those involved in the production process have discovered that instead of having to rely on the information at hand to get the job done, they now often find themselves encountering (and in some cases challenged by) a seemingly endless stream of self-proclaimed “experts”.
In one respect, it is indeed gratifying to be able to experience the camaraderie of like minded individuals, who share enthusiasm for a given genre or the work of a particular artist, and whose personal research and experience ultimately contributes to the wealth of knowledge that is now readily available in the industry at large; both online and in the results of the countless reissue projects that are currently available.
However, as many an executive at some of the leading reissue companies will readily attest, their respective relationships with the various keyboard warriors is often a mixed blessing. Some do indeed contribute in the way of providing access to rare archival material, as well as documented expertise and insights based on personal testimony and experience, which of course is all well and good.
Nonetheless, there are some within those circles who seem determined to take the late, great Rick Nelson’s landmark 1972 maxim of, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” out of context. Just as the armchair quarterback will frequently wax indignantly on the performance of a given athlete whose abilities they could not possibly duplicate, the keyboard warrior is often given to finding fault with many a reissue project, summarily dismissing the entire work out of hand if it includes too many tracks, not enough tracks, monaural over stereo (or vice versa), alternate takes, studio dialogue, and the like.
In the process, the keyboard warrior often defends their actions by presenting themselves as watchdogs of sorts. They frequently do so by invoking an all too familiar tactic that is also common to modern day partisan politics, which is to put the perceived “opposition” on the defensive by questioning their motives (and indeed, if the participants in the medium of communication most engaged by artists to fellowship with their audience are perceived as “opposition”, then the ultimate agendas of such “watchdogs” must certainly be called into question), their presumed interest in profit over art, and even the legality of their respective venture.
By going that route, the keyboard warrior demonstrates (at least to the seasoned industry insider) just how out of touch they are with the realities of the process. Many a representative of the various reissue labels whose specialty is the rare and obscure release have found themselves on the receiving end of such invective, and are quick to point out the fallibility of such arguments.
Of the dozen or so leading labels whose CD reissues fall into that category, more than half pursue their respective mission statements as a labor of love, with profits barely meeting production expenses (and indeed, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in I Corinthians 9:1-18, a double standard persists which infers that those plying their trades in certain professions are believed by some to not be entitled to compensation for their endeavors). And any such suggestion that the finished product is bereft of merit in that respect simply does not take into consideration the enormous amount of work involved in production, remastering, graphic design, research and promotion.
Furthermore, with the rights for release more often than not falling under the jurisdiction of relatively more established corporations which have marginal (if any) interest in the material at hand, the independent label is doing both artist and musicologist a tremendous service by making this rare material once again readily available. And while most such labels at least make a concerted effort to pay statutory royalties to all concerned, virtually all have affirmed that they would be willing to work out terms with a given artist if said artist were to contact them. It is a potential win-win situation for all concerned.
Furthermore, the keyboard warrior frequently also comes with their own professed ideology that at times appears to be self-contradictory. For all of their perceived insights and observations with respect to the industry at large and their seemingly inevitable proclamations regarding the infallibility of their own perspective, many of them nonetheless remain determined to cling to the infrastructure of the mainstream industry that they so often profess to disdain.
To that effect, a roundtable discussion about the aesthetic merits of a given musical work will almost invariably produce one of two responses amongst the participants; either “I can’t believe that single only peaked at number sixty-eight on the national charts” or “It’s an injustice that this artist is not in the hall of fame”.
Indeed, if such observers are so determined to champion independent thinking, then their continuing deference to the perceived authority of such mainstream entities is a malfeasance of logic.
In terms of the latter, the so-called hall of fame (and its east coast-based decision making committee) has no public mandate to operate in that capacity, and no more authority in that respect than that which they have bestowed upon themselves. No artist of aesthetic merit needs confirmation from them to affirm their worth as musicians. The faithful are fully aware of what these beloved artists are capable of, and continue to support them accordingly. It is that support which has continued to sustain them in the long run. Yet many an observer continues to deem a pat on the head from the so-called hall as essential for them to fall into lockstep with their own accolades.
Even more curious is their frequent insistence upon measuring an artist’s legacy by their performance on a so-called national chart. While such mathematical data may be of some merit in terms of professional sports (although a case could also be made against such logic when one takes into consideration the entertainment value and off the field altruism that a given athlete often provides), it nonetheless defies reason and in reality is not supported by fact in terms of a given record’s artistic viability.
By the admission of the various sources that continue to produce them, the so-called national charts are solely intended to reflect the performance of a given musical work over the previous seven day period. By definition, that automatically makes the margin for error substantial, especially when taking into consideration the phenomenon known as the regional hit that prevailed through much of rock and roll’s most productive years.
For example, the 1966 cover of Don Harris and Dewey Terry’s Farmer John on the S.V.R. label by the Michigan band, the Tidal Waves was a sizable hit in many markets across North America, although not concurrently. In other words, it did well in a given city during one week, then in another a few weeks later, and in still other even a couple of months later.
Much of that of course had to do with the challenges of distribution faced by label President Jack Chekaway, who ultimately leased the single to the somewhat more established HBR label. When all was said and done, the Tidal Waves’ definitive rendition of Farmer John had sold an impressive 900,000 copies; a figure confirmed by both label and artist. But since that single’s peak activity did not take place within a lone seven day period, its performance by definition could not be chronicled accordingly in the national charts. Ultimately, it barely made a dent there, which a record with such impressive sales figures should have made. Rightfully so, that Tidal Waves’ single is nonetheless regarded today as a hallmark of first generation garage rock.
An even more obvious example would be the Beau Brummels’ classic May 1965 single, Just A Little. True to form, the legendary WKNR Keener 13 radio in Dearborn, Michigan (which at the time served as a national test station of sorts; breaking singles weeks and sometimes months before they went on to acclaim elsewhere) was an early supporter of this sublime release, with Just A Little ultimately peaking at number one on the Keener Music Guide before month’s end. That Autumn label single went on to enjoy similar acclaim in roughly a dozen other markets nationwide over the next two months. But again, since those accolades did not occur concurrently, Just A Little ultimately topped out at a relatively modest number eight on the so-called national charts.
The resultant dichotomies evidenced in such activity continue to produce an endless stream of “what if” cries in those roundtable discussions. Yet one continues to wonder, for all of their professions of indignancy when it comes to their music of choice, why the opinions and findings of such sources would continue to impact their beliefs to such a degree. Indeed, if inclusion in a so-called hall of fame or performance on a national chart is the be all and the end all of a given artist’s merits, then the keyboard warriors are again contradicting themselves by their ongoing professions of admiration for the works of such acclaimed musical visionaries and giants as the Chocolate Watchband, Charlie Feathers, the Pretty Things, Ronnie Self and Gino Washington, none of whom made any significant impact in either respect throughout prolific careers that spanned roughly a half century per artist.
Given the inevitable consequences of the passage of time, coupled with the most encouraging interest expressed in the medium by a well intended (although - - for the moment - - modestly informed) up and coming demographic, it is incumbent upon all of us to utilize whatever resources we have been blessed with, be it recorded archives, musicianship, first hand experience, journalistic skills and/or historical acumen, to pass the torch to those in the apprentice stages through both encouragement and the sharing of such expertise.
And such are the interesting times in which we find ourselves, as Blitz Magazine gratefully celebrates the completion of its fourth decade. If nothing else, what the past forty years have taught us is that no matter how long we persevere at this labor of love, it remains a learning process. For while the necessity of due diligence made such endeavors a significant challenge in the early days of publication, the large network of support and the resultant wealth of knowledge now available continues to underscore just how much that each and every one of us can learn and benefit from the camaraderie and the sharing of lifetimes of experience and discovery. As Jimmy Merchant noted, it is indeed a blessing from the Lord for which we give thanks to Him, as well as to all of you for your ongoing love, support and encouragement.