Low-rent amateur historians such as myself are frequently challenged by the fact that we know how stuff turned out, and that knowledge sometimes colors the way we look at events. Take the record charts from the spring of 1981. Looking at them now, we seem to see that pop music was ripe for the changes that MTV would bring within the next couple of years. But what did we think back then, living in that spring? Did it actually feel like the music we were hearing on the radio every day was flaccid and dull? Did we think to ourselves, “Damn, I wish something more interesting would come along?” Or were we just listening like we always had, because we always had?
Look at the Cash Box chart dated April 25, 1981. Within the Top 20, how much of it would you really like to hear right now? Do you even remember “Angel of the Morning,” “Somebody’s Knockin’,” “I Can’t Stand It,” or “Don’t Stop the Music”? I can’t decide if the amount of crossover country—at least a dozen of the top 100, depending on how you count them—is a commentary on the artistry of country music at the time, or an admission by record labels and pop programmers that pop was out of ideas.
All that said, I will now respond to the challenge of finding five records on this chart of sufficient interest to keep you reading for another 30 seconds or so.
26. “Sweetheart”/Franke & the Knockouts (up from 28). A fondly remembered record that still makes the phone ring at radio stations when it plays today. It’s been out of print for a while, but a new compilation of the band’s material is being released next month.
42. “Mister Sandman”/Emmylou Harris (down from 37). Harris had cut a version of the vocal-group classic “Mister Sandman” with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1978 but couldn’t get it released, so she recut it, singing three-part harmony with herself. It works, although as evidence of the weirdness of the pop scene in 1981, you can scarcely do better.
61. “Hearts on Fire”/Randy Meisner (down from 50). Just the thing for people who were mourning the then-recent demise of the Eagles. Here’s a live performance from ABC-TV’s Fridays show, broadcast February 27, 1981:
78. “Time”/Alan Parsons Project (up from 87). Slow “Time” down by 25 percent, put a giant guitar solo in the middle of it, and it’s a Pink Floyd song. Which I guess was the knock on it back then.
86. “Seven Year Ache”/Rosanne Cash (up from 95). The eventual success of “Seven Year Ache,” which would hit the Top 20, has kept Rosanne singing it for 30 years, even though it wouldn’t rank among the best 50 songs she’s ever recorded.
The fact that I have picked two country crossover records and a country-rock song we played on KDTH, which was ostensibly a country station in 1981, should probably tell me something. If only I were smart enough to figure out what it is.
Recommended Reading: Bob Seger gives an odd interview to Rolling Stone, in which he complains about his age and his various physical ailments like somebody’s cranky old grandfather, and gives a completely unsatisfying answer regarding the reason why his early albums remain out of print. In other words: the next volume of Early Seger is going to be another disappointment.