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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: "On Broadway"

An infinite number of rockin' pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!



THE DRIFTERS: "On Broadway"

A pop song as the clarion call for the free world? Well, of course!

If you were an American kid of a certain age, the image remains indelible: a TV commercial for Radio Free Europe, showing an expatriate Hungarian DJ on his way to a radio studio on the right side of the Iron Curtain, settling into his shift to broadcast the Voice Of Freedom to oppressed souls on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. He starts his show, rattles off some thickly-accented Eastern European patter, and introduces the record: "On Broadvay."

"Information with a beat." The record plays. And you believe in the promise of the West. You believe it with all your heart.

The song itself seems an unlikely candidate for use as a shill for capitalist society. It's kind of a downer, really, with its protagonist shuffling along under the gaudy glitter of elusive dreams: They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway/They say there's always magic in the air. But our hero's fate is not secure: he's hungry; he's broke; he's alone in a big, heartless city. The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere.

This is not exactly a ringing embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way.

Or is it? A consistent theme within the American identity and American pop culture is the rags-to-riches story, the tale of the undeterred young man (always a man, never a woman, but that's a rant for another day) who overcomes humble origin to become the biggest, the best, the richest, the most famous. Calling it the American Success Story is redundant--the American Story is the Success Story, and vice versa. Never mind how small a percentage can ever really achieve this slippery, hard-sought goal; a prevailing belief in the attainability of success has been the driving force of American dreams for generations.

"On Broadway" grounds its tale in modest trappings, and contrasts our young hopeful's big dreams with the scorn of naysayers who insist that he won't last too long on Broadway. Legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil crafted many a pretty pop tune in their day, but they were also responsible for some grittier ditties, as well; The Crystals' "Uptown," The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," Bonnie & the Treasures' "Home Of The Brave," and even The Vogues' "Magic Town" and "Hungry" by Paul Revere & the Raiders reveal hints of racial inequality, the desperation of poverty, the suffocating effect of compulsory conformity, and the never-ending struggle of the working class. Of these, only "Uptown" predates "On Broadway." And "On Broadway" began as a bit more happy-go-lucky in its earliest versions (by The Cookies and The Crystals); it was only when the song was offered to The Drifters that it transformed into something more. Something magic in the air.

The Drifters' records were produced by another legendary songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When the song was offered to them in 1963, Leiber and Stoller may have felt that this bouncy "On Broadway" wasn't an appropriate vehicle for The Drifters; that's hard to imagine now, maybe, but if you'd only heard the Cookies or Crystals versions, you might not see a potential Greatest Record Ever Made in those particular grooves. Mann, Weil, Leiber, and Stoller worked together to revamp the song, recasting it from a frilly, flighty confection into a brooding, hungry, single-minded pop masterpiece. The voices of The Drifters gave it substance, and the music's urban feel made the chipped sidewalks appear beneath your worn and weary feet as you listened: you lowered your head, squared your jaw, and moved forward with a fire in your belly you couldn't quite articulate, but which you knew--dammit, you knew--was real.  

Mann and Weil would later write another song for The Drifters. "Only In America" was intended as a pointed social commentary, with lyrics like "Only in America do they make you ride in the back of a bus." The record company wanted hits, and there was no way a single like that was getting released in 1963 America. Tamer lyrics were devised, but still the notion of a black group singing "Only in America/Can a guy without a cent/Get a break and maybe grow up to be President" was likely too radical for easy pop acceptance. The Drifters' version was shelved, and the song was given instead to Jay & the Americans, whose sprightly (and, frankly, still irresistible) hit rendition was dismissed by Mann as sounding like a Coca-Cola commercial.

One wonders if Jay & the Americans' "Only In America" would have ever been considered for use in that Radio Free Europe ad. Too obvious? Perhaps. Instead, we're left with this striking, unforgettable image of The Drifters, walking in exhaustion and determination beneath these bright neon lights on Broadway--where the girls are something else, where there's always magic in the air--and knowing that doubters are dead wrong. We know they are. 

That is the voice of freedom. That's the allure of promise and possibility. And we won't quit 'til we're all stars on Broadway. The Iron Curtain never stood a chance.



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