0:00 and Counting

(The response to this post has been so much fun to read that I’m leaving it up over the weekend. Whatever I was going to put here on Friday will appear some other time.)

The other night on the air, I got to play what I believe to be the single greatest top-of-the-hour song of all time. I mentioned this on Twitter before I did it, and some of my friends and followers chimed in with guesses and suggestions. It occurs to me, however, that there are lots of people to whom the concept means nothing. “Top-of-the-hour song? What’s so special about the top of the hour?”

The top of the hour, :00 on the clock or close to it, is traditionally where stations identify themselves with their call letters and city of license. In days of yore, this often involved an elaborate piece of production such as a jingle or a sweeper, and was usually followed by one of the stronger records in the music library, which could be either an oldie or a current hit depending on the station’s preference. I’ve seen the goal of the top-of-the-hour presentation expressed this way, although I forget where I heard it or who said it: You’re trying to propel the listener irresistibly forward into the next hour, and make it hard for them to turn off the radio.

A station can play anything at the top of the hour, of course. But to me, a good top-of-the-hour song has a couple of key characteristics. It should be uptempo, and it helps if it comes blasting in at a 100 percent level. No fade-ins; it’s gotta hit like a hammer, because it’s going to follow that ID jingle/sweeper, which usually has some power of its own.

Even though listeners tune in and out at all points of the clock, the top of the hour is a big deal to me. It’s where my show begins—and where it begins anew every 60 minutes. The right song at the top of the hour can set the tone for what comes after, sometimes for the whole show, or what’s left of it. More times than I can count, I have found myself in a studio feeling tired and uninspired, only to get jacked up by the first song or two I play at the start of an hour.

Here are some especially good top-of-the-hour songs, in alphabetical order. If you can start your whole show with one of ’em, so much the better.

“Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor (comes close to violating the uptempo rule, but it’s my rule, so there)
“Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”/Chicago (also not exactly uptempo, but such a powerful opening makes up for it)
“Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel”/Tavares (cue it in seven seconds, past the drum-and-cymbal breakdown)
“Rockin’ Roll Baby”/Stylistics (of all the songs on this list, this one’s intro is the most fun to talk over)
“Saturday in the Park”/Chicago (or maybe it’s this one)
“Signs”/Five Man Electrical Band (the long version with the long intro)
“Still the One”/Orleans (in stereo, this one hits a little softly, so you gotta crank up the level)
“You Little Trustmaker”/Tymes (be ready or the train will leave without you)

Some of the suggestions from Twitter the other night included the Grass Roots’ “Sooner or Later,” which definitely belongs, and is also a blast to talk over; “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor, also a good one; Free’s “All Right Now,” “Sky High” by Jigsaw, and Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla.”

But which song is the greatest top-of-the-hour song of all time? Do you really have to ask?

Find some examples of how the top of the hour sounded on various radio stations of the 1970s and 1980s here. Please add your own choices for great top-of-the-hour songs in the comments.

19 responses

  1. See – I prefer this one SECOND in the hour. Top of hour song plays, then the jock jingle (which you talk after – a Chicago tradition!) , and then you have that great intro with multiple starts and stops in it.

  2. In the 80s, as corproate as it was Starship’s We Built This City seems tailor made as a top of the hour song.

    The only other ones that jump out at me right now are:

    Golden Earring – Twilight Zone (it seems this would be a fun one to talk over)
    Aerosmith – Walk This Way

    I’m sure there are plenty more I’m not thinking of.

  3. China Grove or Love The One You’re With always bring great energy to a new hour.

    Saturday in the Park coming up at the top of the 3pm today, by the way. :)

  4. J.A. Bartlett | Reply

    @Len: You’re right about that–any of these songs would also work nicely in the second slot, where you can talk ’em up.

    @Perplexio: I once used “We Built This City” as a station ID announcement. A little work with the razor blade gave me a nice, attention-grabbing vocal intro followed by a bed to announce the call letters and city of license. In my best boss jock voice, of course—such as it was in the days of my youth.

  5. I agree that it’s preferable to start an hour with an upbeat/uptempo song. Even in the era of legal IDs being buried in the :50 spot break, a TOH station liner (with or without a legal ID) leaning into an uptempo track in the best way to go, IMO. For CHRs, a relatively new uptempo current is probably the best bet — going with a track that has lots of burn runs the risk of irritating the core audience at a pivotal listening moment.

    Think of songs that would garner a loud “crowd pop”, one where the first few notes draw a strong (and hopefully positive) reaction as top choices. As an example from an older track, “Hypnotize” by Notorious B.I.G. is a great option. The bouncy-sounding beat strikes out of the box and the song kicks in right away. You can’t talk it up, but out of a recorded element it works very well.

    On tophour.com there is a great example in the Cincinnati section of how a recorded legal ID element can fit very well in conjunction with a song with a proper amount of instrumental lead-in. Listen to the ID of 1360 WSAI from April 1974, where the guitar intro of “Let It Ride” by Bachman Turner Overdrive (during its run on the Top 40 chart) served as a de facto music bed for the ID element.

  6. “Go All the Way” is a great choice. A couple that come to mind: The Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” (a little soft perhaps, but those strings do pull you in).

  7. “da da-da Music radio WLS Chi-ca-go…” into “Dancing Queen” by Abba (slam that downslide piano chord right out of the jingle and away you go!). “Go All the Way” and “Brown Sugar” are also excellent choices. “Radar Love” by Golden Earring is another great way to start the hour.

    1. Agreed on “Radar Love” — it’s a very strong way to start out an hour for a classic rock station.

  8. Another vote for “Go All The Way,” although “I Wanna Be With You” works equally well and is a lot more fun to cue up with the backwards rat-a-tats.

    +1 for “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and speaking of brassy intros:
    “Upfield” – Billy Bragg.

    Still more:

    “Rockin’ Pneumonia-Boogie Woogie Flu” – Johnny Rivers
    “Star Baby” – Guess Who
    “Magic” – Pilot
    “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” – Bob Seger
    “Funk #49” – James Gang (the sped-up 45 version)
    “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – Johnny Winter (45 version.) What better way to open an hour than with a bellowing “ROCK AND ROLLLLLLLLLL!”?

  9. In Houston alot of stations would open with “Sweet Home Alabama” when it was riding high. “We’re An American Band” would fit the bill also. “Cat Scratch Fever” and on and on….

  10. “A Hard Day’s Night”?
    “Good Times” by Chic? (That’s my favorite intro of the moment, though it might not be quite as grabby as some others listed here.)
    Or, if it suited your format, “Sweet Soul Music” by Arthur Conley.

  11. I like “This Beat Goes on/Switchin’ To Glide” by The Kings. It really gets the hour started off with a bang.

  12. Some songs lend themselves better to a live ID over the intro, others need to hit tight out of the ID jingle. Somewhere in the stack of tapes still needing to be digitized I have a 1978 TOH jingle of “The Best Rock…W…S…U…P…Platteville!” going into “Feels Like the First Time” by Foreigner.

  13. J.A. Bartlett | Reply

    @kblumenau: Whatever that noise is at the start of “Good Times” is awesome.

    @TCW: That WSUP legal ID jingle is one of the greats, with that long tailing note on “Plattevilllllllllle.” I once heard somebody (you?) play Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Lovin’ Fun” out of it, timing the “tick-tick-tick” on the high hat so that the “thump” hit for maximum impact at the end of the jingle. Made me weak in the knees, it did.

    Somebody on Facebook mentioned Faces’ “Stay With Me” and “Tears of a Clown” also.

    1. It sounds to me a little like a piano chord played backwards, maybe with some phasing added for the whooshing effect.
      I can’t remember if I actually read that once, or if that’s just an uneducated guess on my part.

      Rodgers and Edwards came up with some neat subtle intros — I also like that quick moment of chucking guitar that opens Diana Ross’ “Upside Down,” though to a DJ it’s probably just another second to talk over.

  14. “Magic” by Pilot. Also, did you notice the similarity between the intros of “Signs” and “Stay With Me?”

    Look, I’ve always loved the Raspberries but Carmen’s rock-star face-pulling on that video is almost too much to take.

  15. Thanks for that link, Jim. How could I have forgotten about the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”? That station’s TOH with that song was, as Billy Ocean would say, simply awesome.

  16. My all-time favorite top-of-the-hour song is my theme song from my days at WSUP. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon at WSUP, Platteville with Black Sabbath.” Then, I would play “Iron Man.” Delicious!

  17. I very much agree with all of the suggestions above. Here’s more I am thinking of as I sit here.

    Doobie Brothers – Long Train’ Runnin’
    Bill Withers – Use Me
    Three Dog Night – Joy To The World
    Raspberries – I Wanna Be With You
    Grass Roots – Temptation Eyes
    Main Ingredient – Everybody Plays The Fool
    Wings – Hi Hi Hi
    Devo – Whip It

    Oh, I could go on for weeks, haha.

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