Alex Chambers: Malcolm takes his comic book collecting very seriously.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: We have a room dedicated to it. It's got white controls, atmosphere controls, safes and other things in it.
Alex Chambers: And I've got to say, that dedication; it's something akin to love. This week on Inner States, Malcolm MMobutu Smith on finding that diamond in the rough. Then we talk with Bill Carroll who's using the quantitative skills he developed as a Chemist to analyze the billboard charts of the 1960s and 70s. That's all coming up on Inner States, right after this.
Alex Chambers: By all accounts, Walter Benjamin was a pretty obsessive book collector. Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher and writer in the first half of the twentieth century. One time, not long before France fell to the Third Reich, he almost traded his five volume collected works of Franz Kafka for a few first editions of Kafka's early writings. Crazy, right? Okay. Maybe that's a little hard to connect with if you're not a collector like he was. But if you ever collected baseball cards or Magic the Gathering or Pokemon, maybe you have an inkling. Maybe like me, you've loved books your whole life. Maybe you too wanted to live in a library when you grew up. Maybe you've even collected a few special editions yourself.
Alex Chambers: Years ago, I worked at a used book store and a modern library edition of Joseph Heller's Catch 22 came through. Those modern library editions are so satisfying. They're small, easy to hold in your hands. Their pages are like silk. This Catch 22 has a red cover with a cartoon-like drawing of a giant hand whose thumb is pressing down on a man's head while the man thumbs his nose back at the hand. According to the Internet, this copy might be worth a couple hundred dollars now. I got it for about five bucks. But as satisfying as it is to talk about the steal, collecting isn't about the money. It's about the having. I'm not selling this book any time soon. It's staying on my shelf. I might even look at it again in another couple of years.
Alex Chambers: Benjamin understood that desire; to hold and to have a particular book. Down to his bones, he understood it. Was it connected to being a Jew in Germany in those first decades of the twentieth century? He wrote an essay about book collecting and he didn't answer that question. The essay is called Unpacking My Library and it sounds like he was actually surrounded by boxes of books; shelves empty and waiting when he sat down and wrote it. Benjamin said collecting connected him with the past.
Aaron Cain (Voice of Walter Benjamin): There is a Spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.
Alex Chambers: I don't remember the moment that copy of Catch 22 came into my hands, but that book does bring me back to the store and the months I worked there. I'd just graduated college. I was a little lost. I wanted to write books or make radio but I was short on ideas. But, surrounded by all those books, I could dream. And dreaming, it turns out, can be a kind of comfort. Like memory. For Benjamin, you collect your collecting memories. It looks like books on your shelves but it's nostalgia. Nostalgia isn't something you normally create on purpose. But I think that's part of what a collector is doing. Nostalgia for the moment they found the object. Maybe it was lying forgotten in a dusty corner of an antique shop.
Alex Chambers: And nostalgia for the period in life when objects could glow with meaning, like a comic book collector being taken back to that childhood excitement of falling into a superhero story. More on that in a minute. First, you should know that Benjamin says this other thing. It's probably true for all collectors and it might raise some eyebrows, if not actual hackles. Especially in the age of the Internet where we sometimes feel like we shouldn't even have to go the library to read a book.
Aaron Cain (Voice of Walter Benjamin): To a book collector, you see that true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
Alex Chambers: Not something you'd expect from a Marxist philosopher who wrote elsewhere that--
Aaron Cain (Voice of Walter Benjamin): The struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge.
Alex Chambers: You'd think if he had a special book; a book you couldn't find anywhere else, that he would want to make it available to everyone. It's a fair point. But there might be something to be said for that book being loved, even coveted. You can't really love a library book in the same way as a book you own. Maybe the object can't feel love, but it's good for the person to have a place to put that love. Even if it's just on a shelf.
Alex Chambers: This is Inner States, by the way, from WFIW in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. We're gonna talk with two people today; both about collecting. Both like to hold on to certain details from twentieth century pop culture. One collects comic books and the other... if he collects something, it's information about the pop charts of the 60s and 70s. Let's get to it. Malcolm Mobutu Smith is a Professor of Ceramics here at Indiana University and, more importantly for our purposes here, he's also a dedicated comics collector. He's got an exhibit from his collection up right now on the IU Bloomington Campus. It's called The Deep End: Golden Age Comics. It focuses on underwater imagery from 1938 to 1961.
Alex Chambers: Malcolm's early interest in art and comics went hand in hand.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Both my parents are artists and have degrees in art from Michigan State University and art's been an indelible part of my entire life. And so it was a relatively easy leap for me to overlay the art and design that I saw even as a young person about what was going on in comic books and popular media and say this is a valuable thing to do, or to pursue. And so I thought about fantasies of becoming a comic book artist at the same time as I was developing my other serious interests in fine art, and eventually in ceramics.
Alex Chambers: Were you into comics as a kid?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: I was. Yes, indeed. Very much, my memory is about an MPR, or a public radio broadcast, that was in Michigan. Driving around in the car with my mother, probably in 1978, 79. I was nine years old and I distinctly remember a segment like this maybe, talking about Michigan State's Campus library collection which had, at that time, the largest repository of comics of any university anywhere. 300,000 things and my mind was just blown away. And I said "I know I've got some comics in my toy chest at home". And that day, I went down and pulled the few that were in the bottom of that out and from that moment forward, I was a collector. I've been doing it ever since.
Alex Chambers: So how much of it was about reading versus collecting?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Well, they were always exciting. I remember many of the stories in the earliest comic books I have. I don't have memories of them as comic books. I was basically transported into the panels. I remember them almost like TV shows. And so the pacing of them and even the framing. You get absorbed into them and you lose touch with the rest of reality. There's one title, which is The Incredible Hulk Annual Number Seven, which is written very much at the same time that the TV show airing in the late 70s. And it has the same feel and pacing of the television version, but I remember it more as a moving picture than I do as a still images. And I have multiples copies of that book and it's one of my cherished pieces. It was probably one of the ones that was in that toy chest as well.
Alex Chambers: So you were transported into it and then you also decided you just wanted to start collecting them?
Alex Chambers: Collecting them, yes. I amassed them, I took to school with me every day to the point that eventually, the stack got so large but I insisted on bringing them and putting them on my school desk every day. And the teacher tolerated it for a while but once it got to 50 or 60 and they were in two different paper bags, she said "You can't keep bringing these in all the time", but I didn't want to be away from them. I needed them near me. And so that's when I graduated to my first comic book box, probably in fourth grade.
Alex Chambers: Tell me about the comic book box.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: I purchased an official box that was designed to hold comics and that meant that now I was even more legit. From then on, it became a downward spiral, I started studying the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide probably more than I was doing school work. I can remember the column page my memory, of what title occurred where in the book and we're talking about a book that's 900 pages long.
Alex Chambers: Amazing. Were you collecting partly in order to sell them, or was it mainly just the satisfaction of just amassing this archive?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: I didn't want to sell them so much. The value was interesting to me and another level of the intrigue is that treasure hunting. Are you going to find that great diamond in the rough somewhere? Or a lot of diamonds in the rough in somebody's collection that they're selling at a garage sale? I still have those excitements when I drive around the neighborhood now. I want to stop and find those things. But no, it was amassing more; I wanted to have all of this or all of that. Specifically, The Hulk was my first drug of choice when it came to comics. I wanted to have every Hulk comic book that there was and I've achieved that long ago.
Alex Chambers: Was there a particular find that you especially remember?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Oh yes. When I was Junior High, I worked my way into an antique book shop in Berwyn, Pennsylvania and just made myself a frequent visitor. And the owner was great. It was one of these amazing, stereotypically dusty, funky old places and I would just start organizing things for him without being asked. Just so I could have a place to hang out and be around this old stuff. Old Life Magazines, pulp things, ancient bibles and all kinds. It all fascinated me; that history. The fact that you're touching something that was from a different era. And in one of those boxes that I helped organize was a couple of loose comics and he gave them to me. I timidly asked if I could have these and eventually he even paid me a little bit for some of my work that I did there.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: But he gave me these two books and one of them happened to be Superman Number Two, cover-less. And that was just tantalizing. I wish I still had that point. At a later point, I traded it away for things that I thought I was more interested in at the time. But you always have those losses that you want back.
Alex Chambers: It's time for a quick break. When we come back, Artist and comic book collector, Malcolm Mobutu Smith says finding the space for all those comic books isn't easy. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Malcolm Smith says "Like any life, the life of a collector involves loss". Luckily for a collector, sometimes those losses aren't permanent.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: It's part of the hobby actually. We buy and sell and then we buy back the things we wish we hadn't sold. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: So here's a practical question. As someone who hasn't really been a collector, especially like that; although I've definitely had moments of seeing the appeal. So you were carrying them with you, you couldn't fit them at school, you bought the box in fourth grade and you've been collecting ever since. Do you have to create space in your house? How do you have room for all the stuff.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Thanks to my family, they tolerate my amazing amount of stuff. We have a room dedicated to it. It is a significant amount of material. I'm the one that organizes it and lugs it around most of the time. In our current home it's occupied three different rooms in the last ten years, having moved things around or getting situated. And it's gone from the top floor, the middle floor and now it's in a finished basement. It's got white controls, atmosphere controls, safes and other things in it.
Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS] Amazing. Do you ever bring people in to show off the collection?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: I bring my good friends, my colleagues, people that I would like to share that with. It's a special thing. They're kept behind a curtain and it's a big reveal when I bring people down there. I don't think you're prepared for what this room is like and then I open it up. It's now bleeding out into the main part of our basement so it's a problem. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS] Okay, so the collection consists of comic books and other things related?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Oh yes. Comic books, toys; anything that has The Hulk on it. Any kind of piece of memorabilia, toy, napkin. There's soap that was produced in the late 70s; figural soap. Toilet paper, a toilet paper printed on each of the panels.
Alex Chambers: Oh my God.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Oh yeah. But the cool thing about that is the box. The graphics on the box are the impressive part but you could use it. The more esoteric it is with the memorabilia, the more interesting. I have Big Little books which predate comic books; they are another form of cartoon imagery that are tiny, little three inch by two inch, both text and picture, books. Magazines, pulp fiction magazines, toys. I have reference books; hundreds and hundreds of reference books on comics and cartoons. Lunch boxes. The metal lunch boxes from the dawn of that era to when they basically ended. When they outlawed them in schools in 1985. They've come back since then but the last lunch box was the Rambo one, which is also graphically the most uninteresting. But I've got the first lunch box with the litho image on it which is Hopalong Cassidy and I've got probably almost three or 400 more. Both metal and plastic.
Alex Chambers: That's awesome. I didn't know they outlawed it. I would have just been starting school in 85. So I didn't know they outlawed them.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Yeah, they claimed that they were being used as weapons; the metal things could be brandished and hit people with them so they said it was a no-go.
Alex Chambers: It sounds like a moral panic to me.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Yeah, moral panic.
Alex Chambers: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What made you decide to do this particular exhibition?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Well, once I became more sophisticated in my collecting, which happened pretty quickly in Junior High and High School. I started going after the scent of the older books; books that were giving me a peek at what the origins of comic book illustration was like and it's tantalizing in its crudeness. The drawings, the kinds of characters that were invented. Everybody trying to strike gold, like Superman, so between 38 and 45 there were dozens and dozens of copycat superheroes which most people never know even the first name of. Who's the Blue Blaze? Who's Dynamo? Who's Flexo? All these superheroes that were trying to make their owners of those companies a lot of money. And so I was more intrigued by those. I wanted to get the rarer, more obscure Golden Age things and I found a lot of them, even in High School.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: I had the books taped up like wallpaper in my room, to the point that there was no room left for those. And along the way, getting those books, getting Golden Age superhero books is amazing and it's very difficult; it's expensive. And one of them happened to be an underwater image and it just struck me as profoundly awesome. And this happened late in life; this is 25, 26 years ago when I was living in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I had a job at that point, I was beginning the first part of my teaching career at Western Kentucky University and I had the ability to spend more money on books. And I found this book. Whiz Comics, number 19 has Captain Marvel; otherwise known as Shazam with the shark in a headlock. And the very, very beginning of this title's origin. So Issue 19 is about two years into the existence of Whiz Comics. And Whiz Comics is the parent or the sister, cousin to Action Comics and Captain Marvel, in fact, was more popular than Superman. Sold more issues, month by month, than Superman did.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: And yet, they were willing to risk the graphic layout of this thing; the shark's tail obscures the branding of Whiz Comics significantly. Probably a third of the letters are obstructed by the tail. The diegetic space of what the action is happening in the picture plain then incorporates itself into the graphic space of the title in a weird way. All this stuff fascinates me about comics. Their design, their layout, why they were set up that way to sit on the newsstands so that you could see the mast head, but also in some cases you would see the artwork first, depending on how the newsstand was laid out. And so the designers of these covers would position information in certain ways but they were willing to obstruct all that for the sake of this exciting image.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: And then I noticed that what's going on in these underwater images is unique amongst all the stuff that gets designed in comics, in that the challenge, or the problem, that each of these different artists have to confront is how do we show with the limitations of graphic systems: line, four color printing. A material substance of what people are in. So when Superman's flying, you draw a cityscape, you draw him above the cityscape, you draw him in Outer Space or whatever, but you don't have to confront the material of air. But here, every single iteration of underwater covers, each artist across the spectrum of the time period that I'm choosing, in their own way has to deal with how am I going to represent liquid space? Liquid water, graphically?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: It fascinated me enough and for almost 30 years now I've been trying to amass every single example so that I could do a comparative study and learn something about the innovation and the decision making based on this single limitation. Or the single opportunity. It's not so much a limitation, it's an opportunity to do things. And it became a playground for different kinds of ways of using color to show an aqueous space. Showing things that interrupt the characters in front, that show water waviness. And behind; they look like they're floating in amber sometimes because there's a weightlessness that needs to be depicted. All of this is fascinating and I don't see it happening in the other titles or other kinds of subject matter. So the theme just fascinates me and I put myself in the obsessive collector mode and said I want all of them.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: So then I had to figure out where they were, or which ones they were. So you have to sit and do research like well, what are these covers I need to find?
Alex Chambers: Yeah, and how would you figure that out without being able to see them, necessarily?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: So the Overstreet Comic Price Guide, for most of its existence; the first printed one was in 1970. They would list the books in alphabetical order but they would also give you values for different grades. They would also publish a few images. And it became part of their system to have a sort of a gallery in the front of the book and the back of the book that were full color. A few pages that they spent extra money on to show full color books that you just didn't see. They might have the number there in the listing: Oh, there's Pep Comic, number five, but you don't know what the cover is. And then if that one year they decided to publish the cover of Pep five, you're like "Oh wow, I want that book". Right, because you see it. Well, up until 1992 there was no unified, easy access version of seeing this stuff. Some fanzines would publish reproductions, black and white things of old books.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: But Ernest and Mary Gerber went on this long photograph research journey in the 80s and published a two volume, massive tome, research thing. It's 40,000 images of hopefully every Golden Age book. 40,000 books, and they went to collectors all over the country and literally photographed and then printed this gorgeous two volume book. And I had to have that. And it was right on the cusp of the Internet. So as soon as it came out, it almost became irrelevant. Now, the database that now exists on the Internet wasn't there right in 92 or 93. But it became quickly irrelevant. And then Ebay came about and books that were thought to be either obscure or non-existent starting popping up there with that new system. And then every other kind of auction house that now exists, more and more access to images to come out.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: And so my list would get bigger. But really I went through every page of the photo journal guide and I was looking at little postage stamp sized images of all of these books and going "Oh, that's an underwater, oh, that's an underwater. Oh, that's one". And I would add it to the list. Or as I'm searching Ebay, something would pop up and I'd be like "Wait. I didn't know there was a Mutt and Jeff that had an underwater". And then I have a whole new title; I've got to look at every Mutt and Jeff book and say "How many did they do underwater?". And so it never ends. And even last week, my son who knows I'm putting this show together, says "I'm going to find another one. I'm going to find another one you don't have yet". And he found one.
Alex Chambers: So you're a ceramicist, professionally. And you've been collecting all these comic books and thinking about this underwater thing in particular. And water is really important in ceramics too. Do you feel like there's been any overlap in thinking about the underwater images and how it's made you think about your ceramics?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: My artwork, whether it's ceramic or otherwise, has long pulled from the graphic inspiration of print media like comics. And because I've lived with comics the whole time I've been a clay artist, I think it's only natural that that's just one of the influences in the background of my life. I study it and so it populates my thinking when I'm designing, when I'm drawing, when I'm starting to glaze a piece. But even glazing, the more I've been thinking about it, the liquid presence of dipping a pot in glaze is submerging aspects of it. So in my works I do a lot of carving and layering of information and then there's times when I'll put a glaze over the top of it trapping, like amber, an image underneath that. And it's not me directly trying to pull in the underwater theme into this, it's just a circumstantial similarity that there are.
Sometimes you can dip a pot or a vessel and it gets a horizon line of where the glaze stops. And it becomes like the edge of the water or the shore line. But more recently, in the last ten years, I've been using some of the more negative parts of history and racial stereotyping that existed in print media like comic books. And I've been pulling from those sources literally, and I'm putting them into my ceramic sculptures. So I've made an umbilical to this other part of my life that's directly feeding it. So I have an opportunity to study that stuff as I'm making my clay work.
Alex Chambers: Reproducing those images then brings a kind of ironic or critical view of them?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Yeah, it's definitely a sardonic and critical take on how far we haven't really come. And so I think although they are not acceptable now, they haven't gone away, unfortunately; these attitudes and images and so I felt the need to point my artistic lens toward that and I'm continuing to do that in my current work. And so it overlaps my collecting, but I think it's only circumstantial in that way.
Alex Chambers: How is the Golden Age of comics still relevant for us today?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Well, all comics or any media from the past is relevant because it becomes a time capsule of advertising, attitudes, information that's lost to us on a daily basis. Like how much did a piece of gum cost? Well you look at the ad in the back and you can see chewing gum that you're connected to because Wrigley's existed back then and you go "Oh, I can get Wrigley's today". And you can see these things and you can start to get a sense of what it was like to live back then. But also some of those sense of what it was like to live back then weren't necessarily always pretty or good. And then we have to learn from that. And so I think they're tantalizing artifacts of a bygone era, but they aren't bygone and so maybe we need to be more aware. And they work. This was low level entertainment and ubiquitous and it was being fed to people without much critical analysis whatsoever of what this means or why do we think it's okay to do this?
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: And so I have this sort of weird fascination. It might be a little masochistic; I don't know about looking at these times that portrayed a kind of uglier history about race politics, the attitudes towards women. Most of the stories from the 40s till, I'm sorry to say, the early 70s, have really, really weird attitudes about race politics and gender, which are fascinating. It's just interesting; I just love it.
Alex Chambers: Yeah. There's just such an interesting tension, I think, in looking at those older things and like you already saying; noticing how the baldness of the misogyny or the racism would be more likely to be avoided today. But then today, if you think about it not that hard, you see the ways that maybe all we've done is kind of painted over that.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Or there's a new baldness that we are ignorant of because it's so close to us that we don't recognize. What are we letting go as normalized, that was normalized then? We see it now and in hindsight it doesn't look so normal. But it was then. And it was just given to kids for a dime and these comics were chewed up and read and thrown away like a piece of candy. And now they're rare because of that and they have value, but they have value culturally, historically and otherwise which I find interesting. And I hope everybody else does too.
Alex Chambers: Malcolm, thank you so much for coming in.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: Thanks for having me, Alex. I appreciate it.
Alex Chambers: Malcolm's exhibit of underwater imagery from his personal collection is up at the Grunwald Gallery on the Indiana University Campus until March 4th. And by the way, he wants you to come see it.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith: It's just going to be awesome. Come look and then enjoy. This is a singular moment to see so many things side by side in a unique performance of this material. I don't think you'd be able to get access to this in a library, you wouldn't be able to get access to this in a comic in this way or even a convention. I mean you can go to conventions to see thousands of comics, but not under one theme and side by side.
Alex Chambers: Malcolm Mobutu Smith teaches ceramics as the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design and collects comic books wherever and whenever he can.
Alex Chambers: Alright, that music's coming on so I think it's time for a break. When we come back, what can we learn from the pop charts of the 1960s and 70s? Can we determine once and for all which song was most popular? We'll dig in after the break.
Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers. Think back to the time before Spotify. Before Napster, before mix CDs yes, even before mix tapes. If you wanted to hear the new hit, you could either sit by the radio and hope it would come on, or you could go the record store and spend your special paper route money to buy a whole album. Would the rest of the songs be any good? No way to know, till you brought it home. Or you could just buy the single itself. But even that was a bit of an investment. How to know which songs were worth listening to. That's where the charts came in. There were three big ones: Billboard, Cashbox and Record World. And each told a slightly different story. Our own John Bailey made a call to find out more.
John Bailey: I'm speaking with Bill Carroll is an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University. And who, from his home in Dallas, has long enjoyed a second life as a student of the pop charts. He's the author of a number of books, including Ranking The 70s, Ranking the 80s, Ranking the Albums spanning the stereo LP era from 1963 through the 80s. And Ranking the Rock Writers and published an article titled "Did Billboard, Cashbox and Record World Charts tell the same story? Perception and Reality, 1960 to 1979". Bill Carroll, thank you for being here to talk about your work.
Bill Carroll: John, it's great to be with you.
John Bailey: So you'll be tracing the period of 62 to 72; huge period of change. Would it be reductive to say that albums started out that period as really being products for adults? And 45s were more nearly the province of teenagers or kids? But then teenagers and kids began to discover albums because something more was being delivered to them?
Bill Carroll: Sure. Absolutely, and there's one other small dynamic going on that, at least, mattered to me. In 1963, if I was going to the record store, there was an economic decision to be made with what I was going to do with my money. And I didn't have that much of it. And if I was going to the record store, I'm buying a single because I know I want what's on the A side. I might be able to learn to like what's on the B side. But if I'm buying an album, I've got no idea what the rest of that is. And it's $4. I mean it's a lot of money. So I think part of it was, kids growing up; my generation, got older, had more money, could dispose of it different and were treating their music differently. So by the end of the 60s it wasn't such an economic big deal to buy an album.
Bill Carroll: Many of us have these stories about the album that got away. I can't tell you the number of times in Blanchard's Record Store in Crown Point, Indiana. I sat there looking at All Summer Long by The Beach Boys, thinking "Looks like I would really like this album but man, there's nine cuts on there that I don't know and I've got no way of finding out". There was no Spotify. I can't figure that out. So yeah, I think you're right. I think it's driven by kids.
John Bailey: About 15 years ago, maybe at the height of the download era, the band Radiohead put out a record called In Rainbows. And they made it available on their website, I believe, for a download at the price of the downloader's choosing. They put in how much money they wanted to pay; each downloader did. And they had the option of paying nothing and some people did. Other people paid way more than might have been expected. But Radiohead discovered that people on average were willing to pay about a dollar a song. It was as if the old, classic singles era had returned. A song was worth about a dollar. And that's still true, to the extent that people are downloading, but people really aren't buying music the way they used to. Which leads me to wonder with sales and airplay still factors in the charts to some extent, but with sales so marginalized in favor of people renting music basically, through Spotify.
John Bailey: What does it mean to have a hit single now?
Bill Carroll: Well it's all streams. And what it means is, there is no economic component to your choice of music. In the 60s and 70s, if you wanted to hear a record, you could buy it or you could wait for it to come up on one of two radio stations in town. But you didn't have the option to dictate when that would happen unless you called your favorite DJ and he would play it for you. So if you wanted to hear a record when you wanted to hear it, it was an economic decision. These days, it's not an economic decision. You've paid your ten bucks for Spotify or whatever maybe it didn't even do that and you live through the commercials. So you can listen to anything any time you want to, any place. So it takes the economic component out of it. It simply means what is it that you like to listen to right now. And so this is why I would find it daunting, if not impossible, to try to draw comparisons between the chart dynamics of the 60s and 70s and the chart dynamics of today.
Bill Carroll: Today it's not that uncommon to have a record stay in the chart for over a year. And that absolutely never, ever, ever came close to happening in the 60s and 70s. I think for the longest time, Paul Davis' I Go Crazy had about 40 weeks in the chart and that just seemed to be forever. Or Soft Cell's Tainted Love. It may have been the first one that got a 50 week caliber. That's early 80s, right? So it was changing then, but today I don't have a good concept of how I would normalize results from the 1960s with the 20 teens or 2020s. That's a hard question. So you could ask yourself the question: "So what constitutes a truly transcendent record in these days?". And I am sure you would get odd results over the eras. But you could still probably apply something that sounds like that sort of thought. And I'm looking for the strongest outlier and normalize that.
John Bailey: You're a quantifier.
Bill Carroll: I am a quant, that is for sure.
John Bailey: Talk a little bit about how you go about quantifying retrospectively how popular a given record was.
Bill Carroll: So here's what you can't do. You really don't have sales data and you really don't have airplay data. All you have are the charts, which was in some fashion derived from sales data and airplay data. If you look at those rankings versus time, it kind of describes a curve, almost like you threw a ball up in their. Like an inverse parabola. And the way most people who do this come into it is to start with taking the ranking that a record has in a week and giving it a certain number of points, alright? So number one gets 100 points, number 100 gets one point and we're fine.
Bill Carroll: The difficulty is that doesn't work very well because the difference between one and two is the same as the difference between 99 and 100. So the next thing that you do is elongate that scale and go from 1000 down to one, with some bigger chunks of the tub. But it's still not quite right because the charts change over time.
John Bailey: And you do all that not knowing for sure exactly what the secret sauce is in terms of the chart methodologies. You know they changed over time, you know there was some mix of airplay and sales going into it but there was a lot of tweaking going on. Maybe you don't know exactly when in all cases, but what did you learn from looking through the charts from those three publications from the 60s and 70s?
Bill Carroll: So the prejudice going into this which heard particularly from artists who cared deeply about where their records; they felt that the three magazines did different things. And maybe to just throw a broad brush at it, they felt Cashbox was more interested in sales, Record World might be more interested in airplay. Billboard, being the biggest of the three was probably something of a follower. But there are some artists; Tommy James was one of them and he published this in his booked called "Me, the Mob and the Music" which was a pretty interesting book. And he expressed just exactly that thought. So my question was okay, that's a testable hypothesis. Is there any difference among the way these magazines treated the records?
Bill Carroll: And the answer is at the broadest level, no. They all tell the same story. Statistically there are small differences, but you wouldn't know it because they're well less than a fraction of a week. On the other hand, they treated different records very differently in certain cases.
John Bailey: Is it possible that some of that disparate treatment owed to who was being sampled? Is it possible Cashbox or Record World results were skewed by the stations and the stores they surveyed? 'Cause at the time Nielsen SoundScan didn't exist yet, so there was no real comprehensive accounting for sales. They were sampling activity at stores and at radio stations around the country.
Bill Carroll: And in fact the state of charts gathering data in the 60s and 70s was something like the state of medicine about the Year 1000. It was very crude. The only way we know what the secret sauce was was by a very few number of publications. For sales they would send out a poll to wholesalers and retailers in 22 cities and have them say what records they felt were selling well. And they simply took the radio station play list and they took the top 30 from that play list and weighted them. There was a fair amount of chicanery associated with this. But remember, all these magazines were trying to do was to transmit to people who was listening to what and what was selling. It was very different than today where the general public or the listening public pays attention to them.
Bill Carroll: Even as something as simple as this. I think sometimes the editors may have fallen in love with a record themselves. Or they had a bias in favor of momentum.
John Bailey: When you think about artists who never reached poll position, never made it number one. You've got classic artists in there. Bob Dylan never made it, at least on the Hot 100. Bruce Springsteen, Credence Clearwater Revival. Classic songs in the space of a few years in the 60s and 70s, all numbers twos and best. Do you think there are any meaningful, inherent differences fundamentally between a number one song and a number two song?
Bill Carroll: Think about a song like "Can't Buy Me, Love" by The Beatles. It got to number one in about four weeks. It shot up like a sky rocket. Now you can only go as high as number one. But what if there were higher numbers? You could imagine this thing rocketing way up in the next two weeks and being totally above everything else. And there's no way of keeping track of that. So what gets something to number one; it's really hard to say. And the interesting thing is you can see this consensus in some eras and not in others. If you go to the 1980s and you look at the ranking of songs through the 1980s, no song that hit the charts after 1984 got as high as number 50 for the decade. In other words, all of the truly high charting songs happened in the first five years of the decade.
Bill Carroll: And one way of looking at that would be to say in the first part of the decade, it was common to see records at number one for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, six weeks. In the last half of the decade, maybe one or two got to three weeks at number one. There's a constant churn of what was going on. It's like people were looking for the next shiny object. The way I account for it is first of all, it was not about one magazine. The same thing happened both in Billboard and Cashbox. So it's not magazine dependent. And it's also just about singles and not about albums because that behavior you only saw in the singles charts and not on the albums charts. And what I attribute it to is that we're a consensus. But also what it means is in the 1986 to 1990 time period, there was no dominant genre.
Bill Carroll: Think about the late 1970s, wherein the dominant genre was disco. So there was some consensus about what was good now. And it was that kind of stuff.
John Bailey: Records by the 80s though, were staying on the charts about twice as long. About 13 weeks on average, compared with about seven weeks in the 60s. How do you account for that?
Bill Carroll: In the 60s, singles came first. So you would go into the studio to record a single. By the 80s, most people wouldn't do that. By the 80s, most people would go in to record an album. For the production costs, for promotion costs, for the underlying costs. By the time you get to the 1980s, we couldn't waste that. They were just pure singles. And you wanted to milk them more. You wanted to get more out of individual singles and then, as far as albums were concerned, you wanted to get more out of what you'd invested in doing that album product. And that changeover, you could start to see it happen by the late 70s.
John Bailey: For your next book, I understand you are actively delving into the first decade of what might be called the album era, starting in the early 60s. Looking at 62-ish to 72. Our culture changed a deal during that time. Maybe in part, led by the music of the time which really flourished in the post-Beatles years, for sure. How did LPs change during that time?
Bill Carroll: If you put yourself in the context of 1962, the albums you would buy were soundtracks, original cast, comedy, classical. Things that were inherently long form. And precious little rock. By 1972, it had totally flipped. The song styles were largely gone, people were writing their own music. That was to the point where you'd buy an album for one cut. And I have a number of those. And the rest of the cuts were rather weak. And clearly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones; many of the mid 60s acts that didn't just go into the studio and record their own version of Strangers in the Night, were writing their own stuff, putting it on their records. And something else was happening. The albums themselves, they were just afterthoughts for the pop music market for the most part.
Bill Carroll: And when it came to the point where you would go out and look for an album, you'd look for Sergeant Pepper's or you'd look for Abbey Road or Exile on Main Street. That's another thing that changed is the double album. By the time you got to 1970, there's a large number of double albums. It's like what changed? Everything. Just everything.
John Bailey: What has surprised you the most over the course of all your record chart research?
Bill Carroll: Looking back at previous eras, when you think of what the really strong, enduring records were, they are not the ones that were wildly popular in their day. They were not the transcendent songs in their time. If music can take you back High School, then that song puts you at a very specific point in time and that's what piques your memory. It doesn't necessarily mean that that becomes your favorite song for all time, although it might mature into that. But how do you explain that "Judy in Disguise"? We're not talking about music that will last. A thousand years from now, I don't know that we're going to be playing "Judy in Disguise" and yet, big song in its day and if you happened to be living through that, you can put yourself exactly where you were when that record was popular. So I think it's the difference between what charted strong in its day and what endured. It's the surprise. Look at the records that had been played most often on the air in the previous century; in the 1900s. And the winner was "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers.
Bill Carroll: Now it was a big song. It wasn't that big a song by comparison and yet, that's what wound up getting played more often in its lifetime from 1960s on. So things matured differently and you look at them differently and I think that's probably my biggest surprise. All I can say is, this continues to be fascinating work for me John. When you're trained in the sciences, what you're trained to do is go out, find interesting topics, research them, write them up and publish this work for other people. It's why, even after a 37 year career in industry, I still feel like what I was taught in Grad school about what you're supposed to do as a scientist; it's still important. It's just that now, this database that I have with all this record chart data, that's my lab now. But it's fun to devise experiments, to go in and do those experiments.
Bill Carroll: Somebody said once the old line about Archimedes when he sat in the bathtub and said Eureka. Eureka is not the word that scientists use when they've discovered something. The words are "Hmm, that's funny". And it's really true. When you look at something and it surprises you, you say "Why in the world would that happen?"
Alex Chambers: Bill Carroll in conversation with WFIU's John Bailey. You can find all the details on Bill Carroll's website ranking.rocks. Bill Carroll, I've got to hand it to you, ranking does rock.
Alex Chambers: Alright, that's it for this show today. You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at wfiu.org/innerstates. Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits.
Alex Chambers: Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Malcolm Mobutu Smith, Bill Carroll and my colleague Aaron Cain for being the radio voice of Walter Benjamin.
Alex Chambers: Alright, time for some found sound.
Alex Chambers: That was a walk to work in wet snow. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.