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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Before They Were Stars: Billy Joel

In 1970, just three years before his solo commercial breakthrough with Piano Man, Billy Joel released a psychedelic hard rock album on Epic Records with partner Jon Smalls under the name Attila.

With Joel on Hammond organ and Smalls on drums (there were no guitarists or bassists on this album) and everything cranked to 12, nothing could possibly go wrong.

Besides everything.


Attila was not only a massive flop, going nowhere on the charts. Billy Joel himself hated the record, calling it "psychedelic bullshit". AllMusic even called it the "worst record ever made".

Accolades like that make this an automatic classic here at History's Dumpster.

Alas, we would never see a follow up to Attila, Billy Joel ran off with Jon Smalls' wife, whom he later married (which usually puts a wrinkle in things, creatively.) But the two later made up and Smalls produced two of Joel's later concert albums.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

10-10 Dial-Around Numbers

In the late 1990s, before cell phone service became affordable and nearly ubiquitous for nearly everyone, there were dozens of phone numbers offering super cheap long distance and other gimmicks via a 10-10 prefix number for land line phones. (Image: Chris Stewart/The San Francisco Chronicle)  
The 1990s were the last decade where home land line phones were still dominant. Cell phones were still prohibitively expensive, very few people had them and they had no features. Just voice.

In the 1990s, there was no unlimited talk, text messaging was still mostly unheard of and there was no mobile web/data access either. Charges for voice calls were still by the minute and at the rate of $2 per minute, they added up real fast. Plus you needed a perfect credit score or a massively huge deposit to even get cell phone service.

So the land line phone was status quo for most people. Which meant if you had to call someone in a different area code, you had to pay by the minute for it, often at the rate of 25¢ to as high as $1.00 per minute (or more!) for international calls. However after 7pm local time and on weekends, these rates came down, but not by much.

In 2015, with the concept of area codes considered nearly obsolete (I live in the Seattle area and my cell phone number has a 415 - that's San Francisco, area code - long story, but no problems thus far) and nearly unlimited everything on your smartphone and zillions of apps you can do nearly everything with for around $30 month, it's hard for most younger people to imagine such a backwards and expensive system. But that's really how it was back in the day.

But to get a further glimpse into our topic, you need to go back even farther.

Making a long distance call in most of the 20th century was a complicated procedure. On top of expensive. Plus, there was only one provider of cross country long distance. It was called The Bell System (it's also been referred to as "Ma Bell" because of the ubiquitously female phone operators and automated voices. Plus it was the "mother" of the entire American phone system and dated all the way back to the very first telephone system in the 1870s.)

There were a few companies that provided local and regional phone service, such as GTE (the predecessor to today's Verizon.) But most long distance calls went through The Bell System.

But in spite of the Bell System's snazzy, friendly commercials and happy brochures, they could charge whatever they wanted if your call went through their lines. Because screw you. That's why. They were a monopoly, they set the rates, they provided the means of communication. There was no competition. So whaddya gonna do about it? Punk.

It frustrated millions of Americans who longed for some level of competition and better rates. So if you wanted to cheaply talk to friends and family across the miles in the days long before the internet, email and social media and today's smartphone services, you had to rely on old fashioned snail mail. Which took days or even weeks to arrive. And breaking family news and emergencies just couldn't wait. But more than anything else, people just wanted to hear the voices of their loved ones far away.

In 1984, the U.S. Justice Department ruled what everyone knew for over 100 years, that the Bell System was indeed a monopoly and ordered the break up of Ma Bell. This led to a flurry of complicated and strange new providers such as US Sprint (later just Sprint) and the now defunct MCI. And Ma Bell became AT&T.

This did lead to more competitive rates, but barely. The initial long distance rates of these new providers were in reality not much different than Ma Bell's. And sometimes, depending on where you were calling, they were even more expensive. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to yet even further fragmenting to the land line telephone systems.

A typical landline phone of the '90s. By this time, cordless phones had begun to overtake corded models.
The 10-10 numbers were created by the newly minted sub-long distance provider US Telecom (then a subsidiary of MCI, now operated by Verizon) as a workaround to your regular home long distance provider. Offering rates as low as 10¢ per minute. Which was actually not a bad rate for 1998 home long distance. Plus they were the same rate, 24/7. No need to wait until after hours.

But by 2004, these services themselves were becoming increasingly antiquated  as cell phone services became more and more affordable and offered far more than the standard land line could provide. And even the 10-10 numbers began increasing rates to compensate. First to 18¢ and now at 30¢.

Surprisingly, some of these 10-10 dial-around land line services are still in business today, even as the use of land lines has dropped dramatically and land lines today are mostly used by businesses, the elderly and the vision and hearing impaired today. But 30¢ is a crazy rate to pay per minute for domestic long distance in 2015 when most people don't even pay for it at all. It just comes gratis with their cell phone service.

More on the 10-10 dial-around numbers 

(Note: I know I'm probably going to hear from those who still have land lines about their virtues and yes, they do have clearer sound and one major benefit. When power is out, the phone lines - with corded phones - usually still work as their source of power is within the phone line itself and in areas that are disaster prone, that's a major benefit. But Seattle rarely has extreme weather or natural disasters. So I can live without one. Just the thought of having to go back to the Luddite old system just gives me the creeps - L.W.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

"Up With People" Up With People (1965)

When I was a kid, I hated this record. Like smash this record to atoms, melt it into an unrecognizable blob, jump on it, toss it into a woodchipper, melt it back down into another blob, toss it into a lead barrel, seal it with concrete and launch it into deep space hate this record.

Up With People is a musical troupe that goes around the country (and even the world) trying to bridge cultural differences and create global understanding through public service. And musicals. They released several albums (all including this song) from the 1960s to the 1980s. Actress Glenn Close was a member in the '60s

Good intentions and wholesomeness aside, UWP became infamous for four years as being the selected Super Bowl halftime act from 1976 to 1986. They were lambasted as utterly the worst Super Bowl halftime act ever and, well, here. Take a look.

UWP's incredibly choreographed and cheerful singing and dancing acts were remarkable visually. No sleazy "wardrobe malfunctions", hard rock music, hip-hop or anything remotely disturbing to heartland American sensibilities. They were as threatening as milk and cookies. 

But in spite of it as time wore on, Up With People's brand of entertainment had become increasingly stale and dated. Halftime became the time you made a run to the 7-Eleven for more beer, chips and ranch dip. It wasn't until 1987 when they were permanently dropped from the halftime act roster and were replaced by hipper, edgier pop acts and commercials you just have to see.

They returned as the pre-game act in 1991, but that would be their last Super Bowl appearance.

While some people may look at Up With People as some pseudo-hippie musical act about peace, love and understanding, I look at them as just one big, if somewhat creepily happy glee club.

However, They've received corporate funding, including from Halliburton (cue Jaws theme), General Motors, Exxon, Searle Pharmaceuticals - major progressive no-nos. Leading to criticism that they are more closely linked to right wing politics than they let on. They've also received praise from John Wayne, Pat Boone and Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, not exactly the most liberal statesmen.

In 2009, a documentary was made on Up With People called Smile 'Til it Hurts: The Up With People Story.

Up With People are now in their 50th year. Not doing Super Bowl halftime shows, but still very much active.