- June 1st, 2012
Earlier this spring, I had an opportunity to write a proposal for the esteemed 33 1/3 book series. Each book in the series is a short volume written about a specific record album. I proposed writing a book on the 1974 K-tel compilation, Dynamite!, which was one of the first albums I owned.
A total of 471 book proposals were submitted and today the first cut happened taking that number down to 91. Sadly, Dynamite! didn't make the short list.
While I'm feeling a twinge of disappointment, I am happy that I got the proposal together and submitted it. It got me thinking (and writing) about something that I care about and that is always a good thing.
Thanks to Ed and Donna, the Columbia Hotel K-tel Symposium members and to Mark Eichelberger, who is directly responsible for the last sentence in the first paragraph, "I'll just have to let those dice fall where they may."
But enough of my yakking. Here is my proposed first chapter of Dynamite!.
I’m drinking Paul Masson Rose wine out of a Pokémon Squirtle glass and listening to a 38-year-old K-tel International compilation album. This may not end well. On the other hand, it may turn out very well. I’ll just have to let those dice fall where they may.
What exactly am I doing here?
Am I trying to crack an integral code of my childhood? That's a possibility,
though it's not just my childhood. It's the collective childhood of nearly
every kid who grew up in the United States (and many other countries) in
Am I trying to work through some kind of midlife crisis? (I will soon be 47
years old, after all). This is the type of midlife crisis that manifests itself not
with an interest in sports cars and much younger women, but in an
obsession with old K-tel albums and the nonfiction books about UFOs and
other mysterious events that I used to read as a kid. If this is true, it is
either the coolest or the lamest midlife crisis of all-time. In typical midlife
crisis fashion, I can't decide which it is.
Am I trying to find some point in my distant past at which I can stop, pause
for a minute and recalibrate, after a complicated decade in which words
like “cancer” and “autism” became a much more regular part of my
vocabulary than they had ever been before? A K-tel album that I know by
heart could be a strangely effective key to an uncluttered mind.
Am I trying to work out how a K-tel album—pick your own personal
favorite, but I have one specific record in mind—can tell you as much
about the 1970's as any "real" album by Joni Mitchell or Elton John or Led
Am I’m trying to get inside the heads of the people who compiled K-tel
albums, just to figure out what they were thinking when they juxtaposed
the maudlin “Seasons in the Sun” with the salacious “Rock’n’Roll Hoochie
Or is this all just a bunch of post-baby boomer/pre Gen X-er nostalgia? (I
kind of hope not; I’m somewhat allergic to the concept of nostalgia.)
I suspect the answer lies in a combination of all of this.
I have had K-tel revivals before, but let me tell you how this latest one began.
One Saturday night in January 2012, six middle-aged pop music fans, basking in the pure pop glow of an intimate Marshall Crenshaw show at the Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, headed down Bridge Street for a nightcap in the Columbia Hotel bar. There, over the course of the next hour, an impromptu symposium occurred. The subject: K-tel albums.
While no official paper has yet been published as a result of this gathering,
several important topics were clearly discussed:
1. The cheerful gaudiness of K-tel commercials, with the scrolling lists of
songs/artists and the promise of “20 Original Hits! 20 Original Stars!
Available at Korvettes!”
2. The ubiquity of hairdresser-turned-proto-disco-idol Disco Tex, who could most often be found “truckin’ with his Sex-O-Lettes.”
3. The K-Tel/Casey Kasem connection, particularly as it related to the
formation of young impressionable pop music consumers circa 1974-1980.
4. The fact that “these kids today” don’t know a thing about K-tel, even as
they’ve grown up with K-tel’s inevitable descendents, the NOW That’s
What I Call Music CDs.
As a result of this First Annual K-Tel Album Appreciation Symposium, I pulled out the collection of “As Seen On TV” records I’ve been compiling over a lifetime devoted to odd record collecting. I’m talking about K-tel records, of course, but Ronco and Adam-VIII collections as well. I vowed that I’d listen to each of these records, beginning to end. Of course, since this is the 21st century, I’d then blog about them, reviewing each record and rating the songs to come up with a composite score for each album. Then maybe I’d pit them against each other in some kind of March Music Madness bracket competition.
Trouble is, I kept getting hung up on one particular K-Tel album.
Dynamite. 20 Explosive Hits!
Released sometime in 1974, Dynamite is a record album filled with songs that concern themselves with the following: Crime. Business. Travel. Gratitude.
Justice. Hollywood. Parties gone bad. More travel. Sex. Class. Death. Drugs.
Forbidden romance. Dancing. Relationships. God. Love. More sex. Even more
sex. And less forbidden romance, which just had to lead to some sweet
lovemaking because, hell, the Stylistics are singing about it and practically
everything the Stylistics sing about leads to sweet lovemaking. Or ought to.
Mostly though, Dynamite is about music. 20 Original Songs. 20 Original Artists.
Dynamite is one of the first albums I ever owned. Still own it, in fact. After 38 years, I still have my original copy of Dynamite. In all the trawling through record stores and thrift shops I’ve done throughout my life, I don’t believe I ever seen another copy of Dynamite, other than my own, though of course they’ve got to be out there somewhere.
Dynamite opens with perhaps the most grating intro to a Billboard Top 40 #1 hit song ever: the wailing sirens leading to Paper Lace’s wildly fictional Al Capone story song, “The Night Chicago Died.” It ends with the quiet balladry of the aforementioned Stylistics, imploring “Let’s Put It All Together,” in a way that does indeed tie the album together nicely.
In those songs and the other 18, a careful listener can find all kinds of musical and cultural clues to what life was like in 1974. And I can certainly find some hints about my life as an eight-year-old Catholic kid living in the Philadelphia suburbs.
While an exact release date might not be known, sometime during the year Richard Nixon left the White House and Gerald Ford took his place, a commercial began popping up, probably at seriously annoying intervals, inviting music fans to purchase Dynamite for just $5.99 for the LP, $6.99 for the 8-track tape. I can picture myself now, eight years old, sitting on the green couch in the living room and watching Speed Racer on UHF stations late in the afternoons,
with Speed’s adventures being periodically interrupted by the clarion call of K-tel:
“20 Original Songs! 20 Original Artists!”
I don’t know whether I specifically asked for Dynamite but I believe the album fell into my hands that Christmas. My memory has eroded to the point that I needed to speak to family members to recall any details they might have on how I received the LP. My initial thought was that “Santa Claus” brought the album, along with a variety of board games, books and G.I. Joe paraphenalia.
However, my sister Lisa provided a different, entirely plausible scenario: that Santa, as was his custom in those years, actually left Dynamite at my
grandmother’s house, where I came to collect it, along with a smallish collection
of other goodies, on Christmas night. While I don’t specifically remember it
happening this way, for some reason, this story resonates with me as indeed the
true story of how Dynamite first hit me.
Dynamite is, for me, an early part of a musical continuum. I already had a little stack of 45s, passed down from my young aunts. These included Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay,” the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” and a handful of Tom Jones’ Parrot label hits. From a very young age, I enjoyed playing them on a toy record player and they left a deep impression, to the point where “Dock of the Bay” is still my favorite song ever.
I had a few hand-me-down LPs, which included polka and honky-tonk piano records. I even had a beat-up American version of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the track listing of which still makes infinitely more sense to me than the “official” British release.
And, of course, I had a couple early Sesame Street albums, though I would be in my 40s before I'd acquire the elusive My Name is Roosevelt Franklin LP.
Other, more “important” records followed in the wake of Dynamite: Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Blondie's Parallel Lines. R.E.M.'s Murmur. The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime. And many more.
But Dynamite is essentially where all of this began for me.
Of course, I can’t necessarily talk about how it felt to be listening to Dynamite for the first time because I honestly don’t remember tearing away the shrink wrap and placing the needle on the record for the first time. At that moment, as the record began to play, how many of the songs had I already heard during their runs up the pop charts earlier in the year?
While of course I was familiar with “The Night Chicago Died,” it is doubtful I knew anything about “Meet Me on the Corner Down at Joe’s Café,” by former
Herman’s Hermits vocalist Peter Noone, or Nazareth’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s
“This Flight Today,” the first time I heard them on Dynamite. In fact, decades later,
I can’t say I’ve ever heard either of those songs outside the context of Dynamite.
And, as it turns out, context is what K-tel is all about, though I’m not sure that’s what the folks at K-tel intended when they threw these 20 original hits together.
I converted my Dynamite LP to a set of 20 Original MP3s! 20 Original Stars! in the wake of the Columbia Hotel symposium. I’ve listened to it several times since then. The years have been relatively kind to the record’s physical condition: while it sounds crunchy throughout, there is only one song where I actually had to run over to the turntable and lift the needle during the MP3 conversion process. That song is, inexplicably, “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the DeFranco Family Featuring Tony DeFranco. I can’t see myself playing that one to death back in ‘74/’75, but Tony and Family’s Drifters’ cover is creased with a huge gash on my album.
The music on Dynamite was mine, in a way that music had not been mine before. While I grew up with parents who enjoyed and played music around the house—Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and bluegrass band The Seldom Scene for Dad, Jim Croce, Mac Davis and Willie Nelson for Mom—Dynamite was what I’d listen to when I’d retreat to my upstairs bedroom.
This might have been why I clicked out the letters R I C H on my DYMO label maker and placed my name, backed by a groovy ‘70s design, at a jaunty angle on the label of side two. Ostensibly I applied this label on the record so no one would steal it, or otherwise think it belonged to them, but ultimately I was making a statement. Saying, for the first time in my life: “This is my music!”
Philip Kives, the man behind K-tel, relates the history of his company on the K-tel website (www.ktel.com) Born in Oungre, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1929, Kives grew up in a poor, rural environment. Kives showed an early entrepreneurial streak, when, as an eight-year-old, he set up a trap line and began to sell his own furs.
Eventually, Kives began selling a variety of items door-to-door. He was good at it and in 1965, he sold one million “Feather-Touch Knives” through a television ad in Australia. Kives progressed from knives and other household implements to music, hitting it big with a 25 Polka Classics album in the late 1960s that paved the way for the K-tel deluge of the ‘70s.
Kives was essentially out to make few bucks, and apparently he did. But did he ever contemplate the way he was shaping the musical tastes of his young record buyers?
I am going to examine Dynamite song by song, in the order in which the K-tel International presented it to us in 1974. That is to say, I’m going to listen to it in listen to it in sequence, they way we’d listen to a proper album by the Beatles or Pink Floyd or any other artist in the canon. In this way, we can contemplate the songs and artists who created them; the way each song fit into the mid-1970s template of pop music and pop culture; the way the songs interact with each other, if in fact they do; how each track may have sounded to an eight-year-old boy and how they sound to a 47-year-old man; and perhaps even the Nature of
Life, as filtered through a randomly (?) sequenced set of pop songs that are now
nearly 40 years old.
I’d love for you to sit down with me here in Phoenixville, as I listen to Dynamite. I’d even pour you some Paul Masson wine, though sadly, I have only one Pokémon glass. Since that’s not practical though, I’ll try to describe the experience as best I can.
As the needle drops, the first sound we hear are sirens embedded within the ancient vinyl’s scratchiness. It must be the night Chicago died…