Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bruce Cockburn: Stealing Fire

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to feature a number of personal firsts on this blog.

There are still a few firsts I have to cover and one of those is today’s feature – my first CD. In 1984, I had just taken over the reins as program director of WOAY-FM. While the station had an excellent format under its previous operations manager, the Album Oriented Rock format never generated that much in advertising dollars despite the fact there were numerous listeners to the station. Charlie Jennings, my predecessor as PD, and the person who hired me to do mornings in 1983 really deserves the credit for his Adult Rock format. In addition, the station had a number of talented announcers that were well liked in the market.

My task was to transform it from and AOR station into a Contemporary Hit Radio or CHR station and go head to head with my former employer WCIR-FM. The spring Arbitron ratings were quite favorable to us and this netted the station Parallel Three (small market) CHR/Top 40 reporting status in Radio & Records, Billboard, and Cashbox. The station had already been reporting to Radio & Records as an AOR station; however, CHR received more notice from the record companies and concert promoters and it was thought that this format change would net more in sales. The formula worked for a while.

Because we were in a transitional phase in 1984, I was receiving product from the record companies that included both AOR and CHR releases. Often the (non dance mix) 12 inch singles were issued to AOR radio to generate initial interest; therefore, we had a slight advantage in this regard. During that summer, A&M (who was distributing Gold Mountain Records) sent me the latest Bruce Cockburn (pronounced – CO-burn) release in three formats: vinyl, high quality cassette, and CD. Additionally, the singles from the LP were issued in 7 inch and 12 inch formats.

Cockburn’s “Stealing Fire” has the distinction of being my first CD. In 1984, the station didn’t have a CD player (and didn’t have one by the time I left in 1987) and neither did I. I got my first CD player a year later when I placed 21st in the Active Industry Research’s fourth “Pick the Hits” contest. I placed in the winners’ circle five times receiving both cash and prizes. Until I received that CD player, I was content to listen to the cassette. Five months after my promotion, I purchased a new 1984 Chevy Cavalier. It was my first car with a cassette player and “Stealing Fire” was the first cassette played.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time

While the first single, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” had greater commercial appeal and a more mainstream sound, it failed to chart in the US. It peaked at #24 in Canada, but that success did not translate across the 49th parallel and the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you look closely in the video, you’ll notice that Fergus Marsh of Cockburn’s band is playing a Chapman Stick®. This instrument is used throughout the LP and is responsible for giving the album its signature sound.

Making Contact

I’m not sure if the second single, “Making Contact” was released in the US – if so, it performed as poorly as the first – but it still is an excellent song. Even in his native country, the song failed to break the Top 40 and landed at #80. Here’s a live version from a 1986 concert in Munich.

If I had a Rocket Launcher

The third single was an MTV favorite and “(If I had a) Rocket Launcher” had enough angst that its album radio airplay carried it to 88 while in Canada it just bubbled under the top 40 at 49. Like much of the album, the lyrical content dealt with the horrors and tragedies that Cockburn witnessed firsthand while on humanitarian trips to Central America.

Maybe the Poet

I truly believe that Bruce Cockburn is one of the more introspective songwriters of the last 35 years. It is unfortunate that he is not as well known in the US as he should be. Additionally, there is a dearth of material from this album on YouTube. I had planned to use “Sahara Gold” as one of the cuts, but YouTube removed it this week. Therefore, I will leave you with one final cut: “Maybe the Poet.”

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