General Managers and Program Directors are careful to work within the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. If they fail to do so, the station can be charged a hefty fine, or in extreme cases, lose their license to broadcast. Back in the 1960's, the broadcast of obscene or indecent material was strictly prohibited. Unfortunately, the definition of those words was not clearly defined in the rules. To some extent, that's still true today, which is why you hear "cleaned up" versions of many hit songs on the radio that are marked on iTunes with "Explicit" tags. Some people who listen to the radio to hear the latest hits, but never actually buy the songs for themselves, may not even be aware that these alternate versions exist. If you think Cee Lo Green did a song called Forget You, or that Pink did a song called Less Than Perfect, or that Enrique Iglesias and Ludacris did a song called Tonight I'm Lovin' You, then you're in for a shock. Go to iTunes and sample the versions of these songs that say [Explicit] next to them!
Over time, we seem to keep pushing the envelope of what's considered "decent" on the radio. Back in the 1960's, lyrics that would seem harmlessly innocent by today's standards were often considered too risque to play. For example, I recall a radio station in Cleveland playing a version of Let's Spend The Night Together by the Rolling Stones that someone had edited to change the hook to, "Let's spend the to-night 'gether." Of course, the kids all knew what the song was about. This cat-and-mouse game between the FCC and the radio stations seemed a bit silly, even back then. But, if they didn't do this, the station would usually get a handful of letters of complaint. I'm sure many Program Directors decided to err on the side of "better safe than sorry."
Offensive lyrics weren't limited to sexual innuendo. Implying that drug use was cool could also get a station in trouble. We're not talking about extremes either, like some of today's rap songs that openly glorify murder, rape, or drug and alcohol abuse. Back then, the mere mention of a street drug could keep a record off the air, and off the charts. Today we'll explore one such song and learn how it was cleaned up enough to just manage to crack the Billboard Top 40 back in 1973.
Gun Hill Road is a street in the Bronx, New York City. In 1971, a group of musicians from New York City named Glenn Leopold, Steven Goldrich and Gil Roman got together to form a rock band. They were good friends with the owner of The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Paul Colby. Using the name Gun Hill Road, they signed with Mercury Records to release an album called First Stop, which was produced by Jay Leer. It's not a bad album, but it didn't get much national attention. One single was issued from that album that featured a song called 42nd Street (not the one from the musical of the same name).
Source: Billboard Magazine ad 22 May 1971
They changed their name to Gunhill Road to release a second album on Mercury in 1972, also called Gunhill Road, with all songs written by Glenn Leopold. That album was produced by Kenny Rogers, the garage rock hippie who turned into a Country legend. The album included a fun track called Back When My Hair Was Short, which featured Gil Roman on lead vocals and 12-string guitar, Glenn Leopold on backing vocals and 6-string guitar, Steven Goldrich on backing vocals and piano, Bill Perry on bass, and Larry Brown on drums and percussion. The lyrics talked about how life had evolved for teenagers from when they grew up in the 1950s with short hair to become long-haired hippies in the 1960s who attended college and took drugs, including the "alphabet" variety: LSD, THC, and STP.
The band was then picked up by Kama Sutra Records and their second album was reissued on that label. Neil Bogart, the guy who ran Kama Sutra Records at the time, felt that Back When My Hair Was Short had hit potential, but only with a bit faster tempo and less offensive lyrics. Neil gave the band's new producer, Kenny Kerner, some really simple instructions, "Here's all I am going to tell you; I want it to be really bouncy and really pop." They went into the studio, picked up the tempo just a bit, and cut a new version of the song, along with several other songs on the album. A second pressing of the album was made using the updated tracks, and a single was released for the new version of Back When My Hair Was Short.
Here's the original version of Back When My Hair Was Short by Gunhill Road on Mercury LP SR-61341 from 1972, complete with the "offensive" drug references:
Here's the revised version of the song that made its debut on Billboard's Hot 100 on 31 March 1973, stayed there for fifteen weeks, and peaked at #40. By June 1973, the band would be performing it on American Bandstand:
According to trade magazines at the time, Back When My Hair Was Short had the unique distinction of hitting the top ten at different times in several different markets around the country. Paul Reisch replaced lead vocalist Gil Roman in 1973.
Just after making this record, producer Kenny Kerner picked up a demo tape that Neil Bogart left outside his office for him to review. It was made by some local kids who had been playing clubs in a band they called Wicked Lester. The five-songs were recorded at the Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village (built by Jimi Hendrix) and supervised by a producer Kenny knew named Eddie Kramer. Upon hearing the tape, Kenny Kerner was blown away, and the four guys who now called themselves KISS would soon become superstars. Neil Bogart launched the Casablanca label in November 1973 and KISS was the first act he signed.
Neil Bogart, born Neil Bogatz on 3 February 1943 in the housing projects in Brooklyn, passed away on 8 May 1982 at age 39 after suffering with cancer and lymphoma. He had recorded several Teener records back in the 1960s using the name Neil Scott, including this odd teenage angst tear-jerking ditty called Bobby on Portrait 102 from 1961, which actually climbed to #58 on Billboard's Hot 100, and did much better in Chicago where it topped out at #8 on the WLS Silver Dollar Survey:
Neil Bogart in 1975
Kenny Kerner has continued in the music business for over four decades as a producer, writer, director, publicist, magazine editor and director of a music business program at the Musicians Institute in his home town of Hollywood, California.
Glenn Leopold became a film producer working on cartoons for Hanna-Barbera. He's been involed as writer, editor, and character creator on several projects and was nominated for an Emmy in 1994 for his work on The Town That Santa Forgot.
Gil Roman is still around and living in California. He's still playing bass, and did so as one of dozens of musicians who have sat in on the strange band called The Stupeds.
Steven Goldrich, who also plays Calliope, Harpsichord, Organ and Piano, is probably still active in the music business, but I haven't been able to track him down.
If you know where I can get in touch with any of these guys, or you ARE one of these guys, please drop me a note. I'd love to speak with you on the phone!
MusicMaster Oldies is not only where you'll hear all your favorite hits from the 1950's and 1960's, it's also where you'll hear the ORIGINAL versions of several hits, including this one. In fact, there are currently over 1,300 "original" versions waiting for you to discover there!