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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Mall Of 1974 by Mall Music Muzak

Remember real shopping music? Before the music over shopping mall PA systems became a mishmash of Adult Contemporary recurrents and tired, overplayed '80s oldies?

The music was always more welcoming because it was agnostic. It wasn't someone's favorite music. Or anyone's. It was that stuff that you heard just slightly below the general din of a typical day inside a shopping mall.

You don't know headaches until you've just heard Bon Jovi music playing in the echo chamber of an empty shopping mall. You just don't.

Because the malls acoustically are/were the worst places for contemporary pop/rock music of ANY kind. I soon realized this after the malls started changing their background music from easy listening to pop music from 1987 to 1990. And I soon had a renewed appreciation for orchestras with pianos and lots of big brassy instruments. 

Photo: Long Island '70s Kid
Because shopping malls have/had hard surfaces. The glass storefronts, marble floors and walls, fountains, the weird metal abstract art sculptures and high vaulted courtyard ceilings all reflect sound. Acoustically, they were just better tempered for low volume Percy Faith than mid-volume Paula Abdul. Pop/rock booms in malls with a cathedral-like echo that's sometimes disorienting. Some people can't process that and the person next to them talking through the echo as well as the older easy listening and I'm one of them. Now get off my lawn.

But now you can relive that golden sound as you browse through the Amazon app on your smartphone! Mall Of 1974 is essentially a nifty compilation of classic mall PA music. But also with added echo and reverb to simulate the sound of a shopping mall, circa 1970s/early '80s.


Monday, April 29, 2019

The WGY Food Stores

Photo: Hoxie!
If there's one thing that pairs up with a great cup of coffee, it's great radio. And for a few glorious decades from the 1930s to the 1950s, people in the Capital Region of New York got both from the legendary WGY Radio.

WGY is one of the pioneering radio stations in America. Broadcasting continuously since 1922, it was home to many firsts in broadcasting, including the first remote broadcasts, the first radio dramas, the first high powered broadcasts, the first experimental TV station and one of the very first FM radio stations, among them. It's local reputation as a media powerhouse also lent itself to some unusual diversifications.

With the blessing of WGY's ownership (General Electric), WGY Food Stores was launched in the 1920s.

How WGY entered the grocery business isn't like how you would expect. WGY Radio itself never directly handled the grocery business. Instead, they licensed their "brand" (i.e. their call letters) to a local distributor and chain operator for a cut of the profits or a set fee.

This arrangement, plus the chain's whopping 130 stores in the full blast of it's signal (a full 75 miles around Schenectady!), gave both operators an advantage. The grocer had an instantly identifiable brand and the radio station had instant free advertising and a great promotional asset.

Because radio was a marvel for people in the 1920s and it's tie-in with anything sold well.

Photo: Hoxie!

Though best known for it's coffee (as evidenced by the many WGY coffee tins that circulate in the antique underground) WGY Food Stores also offered other branded products, such as canned evaporated milk (as mentioned in the ad above), fruits and vegetables, spices and tea. There were likely other WGY branded products as well.

WGY was still operating in the grocery business as late as 1958. But with the 1960s came the first waves of distributor consolidation and grocery stores became supermarkets. But the WGY stores seemed to be smaller stores, which were fading away to the supermarkets.

WGY Coffee jar, 1940-50s
But WGY could be considered the Amazon of it's day. It's one of the earliest examples of how one could get both their staples and entertainment from the same source (in name.)

Today, WGY has been long out of the grocery business. But still broadcasting to to the Capital Region.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Philosophy of The World by The Shaggs (Third World Recordings, 1969)

If you've never heard of this album, you might not be ready for it.

You may have grown up in the 1960s and thought you heard everything the 1960s had to offer. But if you haven't heard this album, you still haven't heard it all.

The Shaggs were Dorothy "Dot" Wiggin, Helen Wiggin and Betty Wiggin (and later, Rachel Wiggin), four sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire. They were formed as a group not under their own initiative, but by their dad, Austin Wiggin Jr.. His mother predicted Austin would marry a strawberry blonde woman and they would have daughters who would become a world famous music group.

The first two predictions came true. Austin married a strawberry blonde woman, Annie. And they had daughters. So Austin Wiggin Jr. set about making the third come true. He bought his daughters a drum kit and two guitars. And that was it. No formal lessons in playing or singing. They were on their own musically.

As a result, The Shaggs evolved, um, differently....

The Shaggs played live around the Fremont area. But the audiences weren't exactly thrilled by what they heard and often threw things at the band. It didn't matter. Austin Wiggin was going to make his girls stars. So he took the next step; Recording an album.

Austin Wiggin pulled out most of his savings to finance the album. They went to Boston and recorded Philosophy of The World on the independent Third World Recordings label. They pressed 1,000 copies of Philosophy of The World.

And 900 of them promptly disappeared. As with the head of Third World Recordings. Most of the remaining 100 copies went to radio stations, some of which escaped into the wild (as radio promo copies of albums often did.) Only one single was released, "My Pal Foot-Foot"(Foot-Foot was the name of Dot Wiggin's cat.)

To this day, no one knows what happened to those 900 missing album copies (or Foot-Foot.)

Or (as some wonder) if they were even printed.


Philosophy of The World has been called one of the worst records of all time. But Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain called Philosophy of The World one of their favorite albums of all time. But who would even unleash such an album? Beat timing? Song structure? Performing on key? Big production? Artistic lyrics? FAH! Overrated.

But the reality was the Wiggin girls only went with what they honestly knew, which wasn't much. But they made the best of it to appease their father (although one could imagine the conflicts that must have went on between the girls and their dad at times were as bad as their music.) And the fact they weren't pretentious or egotistical lyrically (the song topics were about pets, sports cars, Halloween and random musings) made them just as inspiring. They became the godmothers of DIY punk and outsider music.

It's been said The Velvet Underground and Nico had 30,000 initial copies pressed and everyone who bought a copy started a band. The Shaggs pressed 1,000 copies of Philosophy of The World, lost 900 of them and still had the same effect. But Philosophy of The World, by all odds should never have survived.

The few copies that escaped quickly became collector's items initially not for their value, but for their weirdness. And their rarity has made the original LPs extremely valuable.

The Shaggs stayed together as an act until 1975. They did make an unreleased second album and on this one, there was studio help at last Their act had become famous once again when Boston rock station WBCN began playing tracks from Philosophy of The World as a joke, the album began getting renewed interest. Comedy radio host Dr. Demento also played tracks from Philosophy of The World on his syndicated radio show, which further interested/shocked listeners. When the jazz group NRBQ discovered them, they talked the Shaggs into re-releasing Philosophy of The World in 1980.

It was released on CD in 1999 on RCA Records. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Unscoped Radio Aircheck: KMSC 102.1 Clear Lake City, TX August 17, 1968

This is most likely not Ellen, the DJ you hear on the aircheck below (I picked the photo because the studio equipment was period-correct for live operated FM radio stations of 1968...And she looked cool.)
There's a certain indescribable beauty to an unscoped radio aircheck.

Hold up, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself; What's an unscoped radio aircheck?

An unscoped radio aircheck is a complete, unedited recording of an over the air radio or TV broadcast. For example, have you ever popped a blank cassette in your tape deck, hit record and just let the tape roll until it ends, capturing DJ talk, commercials, music, jingles, everything? Congratulations! You just made an unscoped aircheck! Without even knowing what you were doing was even professionally called!

They're like aural snapshots back in time. To a time and/or place we may or may not remember. For however long the tape lasts, you get to virtually relive that time again. But in a non-intrusive way, where you can go about doing other things while enjoying the soundtrack. 

KMSC 102.1 was a "popular, semi-classical, and semi-jazz music and news" (i.e. Easy Listening) radio station in the Houston area. With studios in the pre-fab city of Clear Lake City, TX  (which was annexed into Houston proper in the '70s) It's still home to the Manned Spacecraft Center (which was renamed into the Johnson Space Center in 1973.)

Recorded at around 4:18am on Saturday morning, August 17, 1968. On this tape, you'll hear Ellen play space-age jazz, the kind of stuff you'd probably expect in a master-planned bedroom community full of astronauts and engineers. The DJ, Ellen, is young, groovy, her Texas accent pure and uncompromised. The music is directly from vinyl, as evidenced by the surface noise and occasional skip or stuck groove.

KMSC continued until 1975. 102.1 FM in Houston has been the legendary KMJQ "Majic 102" since 1977.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Tisch Bumbass

"Yes, you read right! This is the world-famous "Tisch-Bumbass". a real cool one man jazz band that requires absolutely no talent to play ---- just nerve....Beautifully hand-carved in Germany and made of the finest materials, your 'Tisch-Bum-bass' will survive the wildest parties." - Escapade Magazine, August 1962.
The wildest parties. (You know? The ones with pretzels?)

This was Escapade Magazine, August 1962. I was born in 1968. So my takeaway from reading this was teasers like her in 1962 were hopelessly drawn to guys who can play the pie pan. tambourine, bicycle horn, cedar block, and cowbell simultaneously. It must've been a magical time. Like hair metal. Until the Beatles showed up....

A tisch (or "table") bumbass (also known as a Stumpf Fiddle or Devil's Stick) is a smaller version of a Medieval European headache-on-a-stick. It's essentially How Many Noisemakers Can You Put On One Thing? You might have seen it at carnivals and circuses (or wherever clog dancing is allowed.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The Story of Tuna Twist

"Tastes as fresh as a garden! New Nabisco Tuna Twist has everything that tastes best with tuna; great garden vegetables, herbs and seasonings. Turns 4 sandwiches into 6! Tuna Twist contains nourishing natural vegetable protein, so you get two extra sandwiches from every can of tuna. Takes 1 bowl, 1 minute! Just add a pouchful of Tuna Twist to your tuna and mayonnaise. Try Onion, Cheddar Cheese or Italian! Each delicious flavor turns your tuna into sandwiches or salads that taste fresh as a garden!" Photo: Gone, But Not Forgotten Groceries
In the '70s, inflation became a problem. So more housewives were working outside the house to help make ends meet. But the extra work meant something also had to give, namely kitchen meal prep time. This led to a rise in boxed mix and canned food sales for all types of meals. Microwavable meals were still in the experimental stage and wouldn't become widely available until the 1980s. So Hamburger and Tuna Helper, Shake & Bake, Kraft Mac & Cheese. Chef Boy-Ar-dee pizza and Stir & Frost cake were among the huge sellers of the '70s

And then there was Tuna Twist.

Introduced in 1976, Tuna Twist did more than liven up lowly tuna fish, it expanded it. It gave you 6 sandwiches for the amount of tuna as 4.

Now some of you who read the ad copy above with 2019 eyes might have spotted something many housewives with 1976 eyes did not. I mean, just look at all the garden vegetable goodness in this stuff. It's all it talks about, right?

From the first glance, you'd think it was just loaded with veggies. And that's what made up the difference, right?

What actually made Tuna Twist stretch to 6 sandwiches was "natural vegetable protein" (i.e. tofu/soy) But that little detail was, as you can see, obscured by the glowing mentions of garden vegetables, underlines, exclamation marks and superlatives.

What wasn't understood were soy allergies.

Soy or TVP (textured vegetable protein) is an additive to most commercially processed foods because it's extending filler and absorbs the taste of whatever else you make it with. Most people can process soy based foods normally. But others simply cannot. In fact, there were a lot of food allergies corporate food giants were tone deaf about in the '70s (and some still are.) However, many processed foods now have labeling to alert consumers of certain allergy risks.

But after a few months on the market, Tuna Twist was recalled. Because people with soy allergies were getting sick en masse. It never came back.

Photo: Gone, But Not Forgotten Groceries

Monday, April 08, 2019

The 1972 Xerox Alto: The Worlds First Internet PC

Photo: Michael Hick/Flickr
The year was 1972 and everything was perfectly normal. People sent text messages through snail mail, watched 3-5 local channels on broadcast TV. Movies on demand were viewed in theaters, mostly paid for things in cash at places called "retail stores" you had to physically get to, listened to music on tiny AM pocket radios with earphones and "downloaded" the latest pop singles from something called a "record store" on 7" polystyrene discs. Social media was done over the telephone. Perfectly normal.

Or was it? (I can't tell anymore. 47 years of change can do that.)

Computers as we know them today were mostly things you saw on science fiction TV shows and movies. And endless "World of Tomorrow" promotional films and magazine/newspaper articles.

But in reality, most computers back then were giant, cumbersome mainframe things that took up a very sizable portion of a very large room.

"GET OFF THE INTERNET!! I NEED TO USE THE PHONE!!" Photo: neweggbusiness.com
But at Xerox laboratories in Palo Alto, CA, a revolution was happening. It was our second major step in what would become the modern PC of today. The first was the development of ARPANET by the US government for the military in 1969, the genesis of the modern internet.

The second was the Xerox Alto.

It boasted the first e-mail, ethernet, local networking with printer and outside networks to other Alto computers via dial-up and even radio networking. Even ARPANET. It had the very first graphical user interface (GUI) and even the first mouse. Years before Apple even existed. It ran using a 5.8 MHz CPU, 128kb of RAM memory and 14" 2.5 MB removable cartridge hard drives

The software selection included:

- The first word processing programs.
- The first e-mail clients
- The first bitmap (photo) editors and paint/drawing programs
- FTP and chat (This was the earliest internet, so it was nearly all text. Graphics were few, in black and white and highly primitive and low quality. There was little audio support. Or anything really resembling social media outside a circle of super rich geeks.)  
- Games including Pinball, Chess, Othello and even the first network based, multi-person video game, Alto Trek
- OfficeTalk, the first computer generated office forms system.
- Support for many early computer programming languages.

Oddly, there were no spreadsheet programs. The first, VisiCalc, wasn't invented until 1979.

The Xerox Alto was destined to revolutionize the world. Or at least the 1974 TV commercial for it looked good.

You were probably thinking looking at the first photo "Where's the big beige tower for this thing?". Here it is, the size of a mini-refrigerator, it took 14" 2.5 MB "disk" cartridges a little bigger than the size of an LP record. Photo: history-computer.com
It first went on sale in 1973.

So why didn't the Xerox Alto launch us into the internet age in the 1970s?

Mouse for the Xerox Alto.
First, it was far from perfected for average commercial home consumer use. So it never really left experimental status.

Second, the price of one of these units was $100,000 in 1973 money. That works out to about $570,000 in 2019 money. The average 3 bedroom family home costed roughly around $25,000 in 1973.

Third, only about 2,000 were made.

And finally, only high end computer labs, corporations and government were able to get an Alto. Or afford one.

But it left an impression on Apple's Steve Jobs, who visited Xerox in 1979 and quickly began to design a system that would first be called the Apple Lisa, then the Macintosh (or Mac) which was the first home computer to incorporate a GUI interface and mouse. Jobs also hired away several key Xerox employees to help design his system.

Xerox also got into the home computing game in 1981. But their lowest price home computer, the Xerox 820 lacked the GUI interface and mouse of the Alto. It was a major opportunity squandered in favor of a lower consumer price and manufacturing cost.

But home computing was still a comparatively rare (and very expensive) thing. And would be throughout most of the 1980s. And by the time Xerox got into the home computing market, several competitors were already established, including Apple. Xerox soon realized how late they were and eventually abandoned the home computing market to focus on other products.

How To Get The Alto Experience in 2019

The easiest way is through the online ContrAlto emulator. Bear in mind this takes 20-30 seconds to boot and load programs (it really is an emulator, right down to original speed.) It is buggy on Firefox 66.02, although I haven't tried it on Chrome.

This was about as far as I got.
You can find a Windows emulator program for Alto here. The site also has the C# source code. Another, SALTO, looks more promising to Linux users.