The first radio countdown I ever heard was the WLS Big 89 of 1970. I’d already discovered the station’s weekly Hit Parade surveys by then, but the idea of playing survey songs on the radio in reverse order was new to me. (Hearing the whole year’s top songs on a single show was riveting.) If WLS ever regularly counted down its weekly survey, I never heard it, although its great competitor WCFL did—for a brief time, Larry Lujack did it on his Friday afternoon show. I used to rush home from school to hear the end of it, and at least once, I gave my little brother instructions on how to tape it for me. And there was always American Top 40, when I could catch it.
Certain countdown moments remain remarkably sharp: seconds of reaction remembered an unconscionable number of years later. Shock when “You’re So Vain” topped the Big 89 of 1972, terrible disappointment when Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” clocked in way down at Number 65 on the Big 89 of 1974, and downright anger when “Philadelphia Freedom” came in at Number 5 for 1975 and not Number One, as I expected. (“Love Will Keep Us Together”? Are you shitting me?)
To listen to any countdown week to week is to experience the life cycle of hit records in their natural habitat. You can’t do it with the weekly rebroadcasts of American Top 40, because the shows skip around from week to week, but also because the life cycle of the records on those shows is settled history. But when the countdown is truly new each week, like the Casey shows were back in the day, the chart habitat is as unpredictable as nature itself. In the summer of 1976, I rooted for “I’ll Be Good to You” by the Brothers Johnson as it rose up the chart, and I still remember the disappointment when, after three weeks at Number 3, Casey announced that it had fallen back to Number 9. I knew in that moment that it would never hit the top. Survival of the fittest.
Tom Wilmeth is a writer in the Milwaukee area, a longtime countdown addict who still listens to them today—a surprising number of them, across a surprising variety of formats. Rock ‘n’ Rap Confidential sent along Tom’s latest blog post in its intermittent e-mail missive last week, and if you’ve ever loved a countdown, you should go read it now.
Other Recommended Reading: If you’re interested in a virtual tour of the radio complex where I work, click here. Mid-West Family Broadcasting was recently featured as Tower Site of the Week by Fybush.com. (They are, among other things, the people who run the fabulous Tophour.com.) You’ll learn more than you might care to know about transmitters and stuff, but you’ll see that I work in a beautiful facility for a company with a distinguished history. (H/t to our friend Yah Shure, who loves all that transmitter stuff.)
A few words about the football are on the flip, if you care.
The most foolish thing a fan can do is to count on a championship before all the games are played. Preseason prognosticators and midseason analysts can’t account for the interlocking ripples of cause and effect, whereby something that happened in one place during September has an effect on something that happens elsewhere four months later, much less the impact of luck, good and bad, as a team tries to climb the mountain. The longer you watch sports, the more deeply you understand how steep the mountain is, and the most you dare permit yourself is cautious optimism, leavened with good old-fashioned hope. You make no guarantees and you accept none. It makes the winning all the sweeter when it happens.
I suspect that I am not the only Packer fan who feels as though yesterday was our Super Bowl. It might be the first time I’ve ever been glad to have the off-week—I think all of us, the team included, need time to process yesterday’s win over the Bears and get our heads on straight for the Steelers.
What a game it was.