Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vinyl Meltdown: The Incendiary Spawn of Three Mile Island

By now most of you know that last weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in US history (not counting the Peach Bottom reactor employees who slept on the job, right here in York County), and all the hullabaloo that surrounded it. Well, just in case you weren't around back then, here in Central PA we were terrified that we'd be swallowed by a huge cloud of radioactive gas as soon as the reactor blew. Well, that never happened, but a huge cloud of gas did erupt from the populace by way of several ambitious attempts to tell the story in a musical format. The results in some cases are quite laughable and are laudable if only for the effort, while other offer biting social commentary with a catchy tune! Naturally, this short survey involves only efforts by those directly affected by the disaster; hence, an unvarnished opinion by those who live here.

Of course, our first record up does come from a little bit outside of York County, and we only have Myerstown to blame for Al Shade and his wretched song "(Potter County Was Made By the Hand of God, But the Devil Made)Three Mile Island". Using all the tricks in his book (except for yodeling and the Pennsylvania Dutch ABC's) Al crowbars his two favorite topics, Jesus and Potter County, into a tuneless ditty started by an angelic choir and driven home by Al's PA Dutch brogue. Yes, blaming the devil seems like the easy way out and Al seems to be saying our part of the state was made by the devil! Last time I checked. God made our whole state. Maybe Al was talking about the Redneck God!

I mean, this is a guy who's career highpoint was recording his self-promoting "Im A Star on WLBR" , and we see where that got him! And did he really have to trot out Potter County again? There was the Potter County Was Made by the Hand of God" LP, and, of course, My Potter County Mountain Home! and so on. Mr. Shade was so fond of this tune he issued it on 45 and also as a title cut for an LP! These thoughtful lyrics deserve quoting:

Should the bubble burst
May the devil be cursed
Was the cry heard
Throughout all this land!

Nuclear power (pronounced "par") and hydrogen gas in reactor #2
Should they escape,
what would be our fate?
May Jesus pull us thru!

Well, I guess Al prayer's might have helped, maybe. My prayers were answered when I took the needle off his record! You have to give the guy some extra points for the crude cover with the devil standing atop the Middletown sign, and a cowboy(Mexican?) driving a tractor and emptying radioactive milk into, as Al says it, the Suskeyhanna! But still, to fully grasp our pain and suffering, you have to hear from those inside the 5 mile radius.

Enter the Tyme-Aires who sing "Three Mile Island's a stones throw away from me, I can see those towers plain as a bird can see." Nothing like a local perspective from the small town of Etters with that rough basic country sound and a flat singer imparting his wisdom. True to the slow pace of life in that part of the county, the Tyme-Aires sing:

There's no need to run
no need to hide just yet
But I'm ready to roll
and head for the hills you bet.

Unlike Al Shade who's waiting for Jesus to help, this guy has an exit plan---"There's a pistol-packing mama waiting in the hills for me" we are informed(four times in fact). He's ready to boogie though he says he "aint goin nowhere till the coast is clear". I think he's more flummoxed to write a song that actually makes sense! Add some more silly lyrics about the people making a stand and thanking the lord for his role in this, and even a poorly recorded and played steel guitar solo, and a cool pic of the cooling towers on the 45, and you've got a diamond in the rough, you bet!

Thankfully, the area musical contributions were not all country, and Maxwell laid down some funky grooves with "Radiation Funk". The snappy tune features driving horn lines, popping bass, some great moog sirens, and even some old school rappin' (do you know what you're facin'? Half a state of radiation!) As you would expect from a funk song, Maxwell stays pretty basic: "radiation funk, sho' aint no junk" and the tunes bounces along to a Bootsy/P-Funk beat as the singer boasts "I got the bubble in my backyard!" All things considered, it seems that this racially mixed band just wanted to party and get in the groove and the result is enjoyable and not preachy. Quite possibly the most famous TMI song and a good tune as well! This excerpt of "Radiation Funk ", courtesy of the reformed Maxwell, is from a live recording a few years back.

While the above records simply used the accident, as an excuse for a song, and even though Maxwell did make a solid attempt to go nuclear with excellent musicianship and funny lines, still, the actual chance that we could be fried seemed to only be addressed by the unheralded Gary Punch and the Outriders. With "Goodbye, TMI" their Delta Records 45, Gary Punch and the Outriders deliver a knockout blow in the tradition of topical songs like "Blowin In the Wind" and "Eve Of Destruction." Its a rocked out tune based on the melody of "Runaround Sue"("here's my story, it's sad but true") which has some verve, and major indignation, as Gary calls out the plant operators, Met-Ed, for lying. The garagy folk-rock sends the doom filled message home:

It happened on March 28
and left us in the hands of fate
Goodbye, Goodbye
to your lies, TMI

We're breathing radioactive air,
and the world is well aware
We've been the top story on the news for weeks,
because of what they called a minor leak.

We started hearing about evacuation
they even said it on Face The Nation
Now the say they got the whole thing under control
But God knows what we still don't know!

Gary punches out "we shouldn't have to listen to another lie!" as he effortlessly merges group harmony, social protest, and spirited rock and roll, not to mention rhyming "evacuation" with "Face the Nation". Could we have had our homegrown Dylan and never realized it? I know nothing of the band and only suspect they are from York County, maybe even the town of Delta, like their label. The flip is a swell outlaw country tune, "Fallen Angels" that tells the story of a "broken-hearted man who od'ed on LSD," and evens mentions beer and a bar in its first line. A two-sided winner of true PA angst, a real people record for sure.

Yes, the world hasn't quite forgotten the TMI accident, but the unique perspective of a few iconoclasts remains but a footnote to a near tragedy. Though humorous now, they shine a light on the people's concerns, as well as just how prevalent bad country 45s from PA are. Though these songs vary wildly in both thought and execution, they document a black mark in the history of nuclear power. I wouldn't evacuate without them, you bet!