Every radio jock has regulars who call his show, or his station. Some of them make requests, but many don’t want a specific song, they just want to talk to the friendly voice on the air. They can be annoying—they don’t always understand that we’re working—but they’re usually harmless. Thirty-two years ago this spring, a musical valentine from one of these callers was rising up the American charts.
“Pilot of the Airwaves” was one of the most unusual records I—and lots of other people in the spring of 1980—had ever heard. In those pre-Internet days, nobody knew who the hell Charlie Dore was. When the record first hit, there was confusion over whether Dore was a girl or a guy. The record raced up the charts and fell right back down again, and if I’m recalling correctly, it was rarely heard very much after that: no long stay in the category radio stations call “recurrents,” and no honored place in the “gold” category.
Dore, who was raised in Elton John’s hometown of Pinner, Middlesex, England, wanted to be an actress. She went to drama school and eventually landed roles onstage and on TV. A musician friend asked her to take over a regular gig of his; she decided to form a band as a result. They played mostly bluegrass, country, and Western swing, and went through several names, including Prairie Oyster and Charlie Dore’s Back Pocket. Several lineups, too: one member, Pick Withers, played with Dore and in the still-unknown Dire Straits at the same time.
In 1978, Island Records impresario Chris Blackwell signed her and sent her to Nashville, thinking she could be the UK’s answer to Emmylou Harris. Her first album, Where to Now, was recorded with some of Nashville’s top studio players—but Blackwell was dissatisfied with it. “Too country,” he said. (What did he expect?) So some tracks were remixed and others re-recorded, including “Pilot of the Airwaves,” which would reach #13 on the Hot 100 and #66 in the UK. Dore’s second album was also rejected and recut (with most of the members of Toto backing her), but failed to produce a hit anywhere. Dore revived her acting career after that, although she continued to write songs. (Sheena Easton’s “Strut” is one she co-wrote with one of her first bandmates.) She’s made new albums steadily since the 1990s, most recently in 2011.
But “Pilot of the Airwaves,” damn. The version above is the from the album, and it ends with a long instrumental fadeout. When the song was released as a single, the decision was made to repeat the arresting acappella opening at the end, which turns the thing into radio perfection. Its failure to endure has much to do with the time in which it appeared—there was an odd little pocket in 1980 and 1981 where so much radio pop was out of time, with neither a 70s vibe nor what we would come to know as an 80s feel, and the songs sound odd when we hear them now. Nevertheless, nobody who ever heard “Pilot of the Airwaves” has ever been able to forget it.
As a pilot of the airwaves myself, I’m naturally disposed to love this record, particularly because it says nice things about the brotherhood. Each of us has taken many phone calls from people who are listening to our show on the radio. In a future installment, we’ll talk about those people.
A post from 2008 about “Pilot of the Airwaves” is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog. Welcome back, Googlers.