Friday, October 4, 2013

Nick Lowe -- "Switchboard Susan" (1979)

Switchboard Susan, can we be friends?
After six, at weekends?

"Switchboard Susan" is not just a great pop song -- it's a history lesson to boot.

Do you remember when long-distance calls cost less at night and on weekends?  If so, you probably also remember when a quarter would buy you a McDonald's cheeseburger, a gallon of gas, or three songs on a jukebox.

As I recall, calls were most expensive between 7 AM and 5 PM on weekdays.  Rates went down after 5 PM, and calls were even cheaper after 11 PM.  Rates were low on Saturdays and Sundays, too.

When I went to college, my family and I devised a very elaborate ritual for my once-a-week calls home on Sunday afternoons.  First, I would have an operator dial my grandmother's number, collect -- except I would call person-to-person for myself.

Back in the day, you could call person-to-person (instead of station-to-station) if you only wanted to speak with one particular person.  It was more expensive than a regular call, but you didn't have to pay if someone else answered because the person you were calling was out.

You could also call collect if you wanted the recipient of the call to pay for it.  That person could refuse the call, of course -- which is what my grandmother would do when I called collect for myself and wasn't there (which would have been an obvious impossibility, unless I had been a character on Star Trek or perhaps The Twilight Zone).  

If a collect call was accepted, the recipient had to pay a much higher per-minute rate than you paid for a call you dialed yourself -- after all, non-direct-dial calls involved a human operator, and someone had to pay for her (or his) salary, health insurance, defined-benefit pension plan, and so on.  (AT&T had very good benefits in those days.)

My grandmother only lived a couple of blocks from my parents, so she would drive over to their house after I went through my little collect-call-to-myself dance.  I'd wait 15 or 20 minutes to give her time, and then place a direct-dial call to my parents -- no collect or person-to-person or other operator-assisted shenanigans required.

This all might seem like a lot of trouble, but my family was always willing to trade time for money. 

Let's review the bidding.  I was able to speak to my parents and my grandmother (who would listen on the bedroom extension phone) at the same time -- one call instead of two.  And that call took place when the rates were cheapest.  

I'm not sure that this strategy is strictly ethical, but in 1970 very few people were sympathetic to AT&T -- which had a monopoly on long-distance calling in those days.  And there were plenty of people who were blatantly ripping off the phone company.

For examples, I remember Ramparts -- a far-left magazine whose contributors included Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, and Cesar Chavez -- advising its readers to place long-distance calls from pay phones, taking advantage of something called third-party billing to charge the calls to others.  (The theory was that the people who were charged for your calls would contact the phone company and demand that the charges be taken off their bills.  In the view of Ramparts, this made the tactic a victimless crime.)

In 1972, Ramparts ran an article that explained how to build a simple "phone phreak box" that enabled you to make free long-distance calls.  The phone company sued Ramparts, which was ordered to pull the issue off newsstands, but thousands of copies had already been delivered to subscribers.

Before area codes were invented and direct-dialing of long-distance calls was possible, all long-distance calls had to be placed through an operator.  This excerpt from an episode of Dragnet demonstrates what people had to go through to make long-distance calls sixty years ago:

Given all that, it might have been easier for Sgt. Friday and his partner just to hop in a black-and-white and drive to Idaho.  

It's no wonder most regular folks (like my parents) reserved long-distance calls for births, deaths, and other special occasions.

Of course, none of this necessary today.  Cell phone plans don't distinguish between local calls and long-distance calls, and most people today have unlimited calling plans.  You can place as many calls as you want, to any place you want (at least within the United States), and talk as long as you want -- all for one monthly fee. 

If you go back in time far enough, even local calls had to be handled through an operator -- there was no direct-dialing at all.  You'd pick up your phone, wait for an operator like the heroine of "Switchboard Susan" to come on the line, and give her your party's number.

Switchboard Susan, won't you give me a line?
I need a doctor, give me nine-nine-nine

("999" is the number you dial for emergencies in the UK.  It's the equivalent of the American "911.")

Nick Lowe then
"Switchboard Susan" is full of telephone-related references:

First time I picked up the telephone
I fell in love with your ringing tone

I'm a long-distance romancer
I'll keep on trying till I get an answer

When I'm with you, girl, I get an extension
And I don't mean Alexander Graham Bell's invention

(Oh behave, Nick Lowe!)

Nick Lowe now
As regular 2 or 3 lines readers know, I currently have three children who are betrothed to be married, and my sentient iPod has been dishing up engagement-related songs all week.  "Switchboard Susan" is no exception:

Switchboard Susan, you're all the rage
Come on, Susan, let's get engaged!

Nick Lowe is an influential English new wave singer-songwriter who is best known for two songs he wrote that were big hits for two of his mates: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" (a hit for Elvis Costello) and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)" ( a hit for Dave Edmunds).

Lowe was also a renowned producer -- he masterminded Elvis Costello's first five albums, and also produced records for The Pretenders, Graham Parker, the Damned, and Johnny Cash's stepdaughter, Carlene Carter (who was Lowe's wife at the time).

"Switchboard Susan" is from Lowe's fabulous 1979 solo album, Labour of Lust.

Here's "Switchboard Susan":

Click here to order the song from Amazon:

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