In the summer of 1987, I was playing elevator music on the radio in Davenport, Iowa. This was a job I took to get to a bigger market, and I have debated with myself for years whether it was a good idea or not—but early on, it seemed like a pretty good job. The company had yet to be sold to the owner that would make the job not-so-good, and the program director and I had an excellent relationship. Management had seen the handwriting on the wall—that elevator music had to adapt or die—and so we were trying to expand the format’s sonic palette a little. In fact, we were playing three of the top 10 songs on the Cash Box chart dated June 6, 1987: Atlantic Starr’s “Always,” “The Lady in Red” by Chris De Burgh, and even “In Too Deep” by Genesis occasionally.
But I was only six months removed from being a Top 40 program director and morning-show host. So when I’d get off the air every night, I would punch up the local Top 40 station or tune in MTV, trying to stay hip. But the Top 40 seemed to be passing me by. There was precious little I liked, and plenty that I actively hated. Take, for example . . . .
7. “Wanted Dead or Alive”/Bon Jovi (up from 8). In which, after over a century of use in American popular culture, the cliché of the outlaw jumps the shark permanently. Jon Bon Jovi never sounded more like a poser than he does on this record. (Was it about this time that a writer in Rolling Stone suggested that “Jon Bon Jovi” was an anagram of “Ronald Reagan”?) Although I suppose if you were 15 at the time, “Wanted Dead or Alive” sounded like the coolest damn record on Earth.
17. “Songbird”/Kenny G (up from 23). This was the G-Man’s first hit single, back when his style was comparatively fresh, so I can’t admit to hating this right away, but damn, that soprano sax of his is like a freakin’ dentist drill to me now. We played “Songbird” on the elevator-music station, too.
35. “Funky Town”/Pseudo Echo (up from 46). I wonder what combination of synapses has to fire in a person’s head to make him believe a rock cover of the most annoying disco record of 1980 is a good idea. The song’s Wikipedia entry observes that it “expresses the pinings for a metaphorical place that keeps ‘me movin’, keeps me groovin’ with some energy.’” Thank you, Captain Obvious.
50. “I Want Your Sex”/George Michael (debut). Over the years, a lot of public figures have said stupid things that they couldn’t possibly believe, but one of the most ludicrous was George Michael’s assertion that “I Want Your Sex” was about the joys of monogamy. Even after he put the words “explore monogamy” in the video and titled one version of the record the “Monogamy mix,” you’d have to be pretty thick to believe him. Promotion of monogamy aside, Michael’s primary purpose was to score a honkin’ big hit, and he did. The record went all the way to Number Two on the Hot 100, kept out of the top spot by U2′s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” even though Casey Kasem wouldn’t say the title and plenty of stations refused to play it at all.
68. “Variety Tonight”/REO Speedwagon (down from 66). In which REO abandons its customary Midwestern boogie for an ill-fitting attempt at funk rock, right down to the sassy R&B-style chorus of female singers chirping along behind Kevin Cronin. “Variety Tonight” is also one of the worst titles ever, and the title is only the beginning. At one point Cronin sings, “love without hate is a little like light without heat,” which is not merely bad writing but also a remarkably stupid way of looking at human relationships. I love me some REO generally, but not this, not even a little bit. You can judge the merits of “Variety Tonight” for yourself with the video:
In the summer of 1987, the record charts and Top 40 radio had been the calendar of my life for nearly 17 years, but they wouldn’t be for much longer. There’s something a little bit sad about that, but life and time take their own paths, whether we like it or not. And besides, I had me some Swelling Strings Orchestra records to play.
Recommended Reading: The latest Chart Attack! at Popdose takes on the summer of 1975. One year earlier, one of the most ill-fated sports promotions of all time got totally out of hand. Deadspin remembers. And here’s an outrage that must not stand: The Grammys will no longer honor the polka.