All Those Years Ago

It was 1970 when I heard my first New Year’s Eve radio countdown, and it was transfixing—hearing all the best songs of the year ranked in order of popularity appealed to the same part of my kid brain that poured over the agate type on the sports pages. I can remember listening to radio countdowns on the last night of several years during the first half of the 1970s. By the end of the decade, I was partying with my friends on New Year’s Eve, but the countdown likely would have been on the radio wherever we were.

Only once did I ever host the New Year’s Eve countdown on the radio, 30 years ago, at KDTH in Dubuque. I have forgotten most of the details—how many records were on the list, how long the countdown took, how the list was compiled, or what our top song of 1981 was—it’s all gone down the memory hole. The only thing I do remember is that at midnight, the board operator on the other station in the building came over to my studio with a split of champagne, which we shared.

It’s understandable why a person might forget the top songs of 1981. Take a look at the Cash Box magazine singles chart for the year and tell me there’s anything you’d really care to hear again this instant. (I count only two among the top 40—“Who’s Crying Now” by Journey, which might be the best thing they ever did, and “All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison.) The chart is overflowing with limp R&B ballads and vapid country crossovers, and much of what still gets played on the radio today has been played to death. (If you hear “Private Eyes,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” or “Take It on the Run” today, that’s three or four minutes you’ll want back when you’re on your deathbed.) Air Supply, Christopher Cross, Sheena Easton, Neil Diamond—somebody smarter than me will have to figure out why our thirst for tasteful adult ballads and other forms of colorless pop music (limp R&B ballads and vapid country crossovers, for example) reached a peak in 1981, higher than it had been since the early 60s. Reaction against the anything-goes 1970s? The squeaky-clean values of the nascent Reagan era? The existential cry of anguish that caused the universe to birth MTV?

The album chart for the year rocks harder, although it’s easy to see why the early 80s are sometimes disparaged as the years of “corporate rock.” Among the top albums of the year are radio-friendly records by superstar brand names REO Speedwagon, Styx, Foreigner, and Journey. Several other highly polished and carefully calculated albums are in the upper reaches of the chart as well, by Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, the Police, and Phil Collins. But a couple of survivors of the pre-corporate age, the Moody Blues and the Rolling Stones, make the Top 10, and Steve Winwood sneaks into the Top 20. (And John Lennon, no longer a survivor in 1981, ranks in the Top 10 as well.) The point is that although there was still room among the year’s top albums for Diamond and Barbra Streisand, album buyers were not quite so infected by whatever wuss virus had struck Top 40 buyers and listeners in 1981. Rush and AC/DC appear in the Top 20, and AC/DC’s Back in Black nearly made it, at #22.

If I go through the top 100 singles and disqualify everything overplayed, dull, or trivial, I’m left with only a bare handful of songs. Here’s the best of the lot.

Posting will continue to be light here into next week. Happy New Year to all, and thanks for your continuing—albeit occasionally baffling because it sucks a lot of the time—support for this Internet feature.

10 responses

  1. Here’s another instance of that approximate decade between our ages coming into play. I turned 11 that year, and I can’t think of anything on the Cash Box singles list I’d turn off were they to pop on the radio (though I admit time has softened my stance on “Endless Love”). “Bette Davis Eyes” and the Stars on 45 medley were oft-rotated singles on our patio jukebox that summer. If I glean anything negative from the survey, it’s my personal memories of starting junior high and Catholic school in one fell swoop (a new kid and a non-Catholic made for turbo-charged bully fuel).

    As for 1981 in best-selling albums, I see a few that figure in the collection to this day, among them Abacab, Shake It Up (both initial Columbia House purchases), Gaucho, Moving Pictures, and my first two pre-recorded cassettes: Double Fantasy and Autoamerican. I wouldn’t hear my favorite long-player of the year until January of ’86: Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which peaked at #44 in Billboard (no Cash Box data immediately available).

    No argument about your top single, though. I told a customer purchasing Law and Order just the other day, if I ever land on that proverbial desert island, the jukebox better have “Trouble”.

    Happy Gnu Year, Jim. Thanks for letting me disagree and ramble.

  2. “Start Me Up,” like “Honky Tonk Women,” does not age to me; it pretty much always sounds like a rusty knife cutting through the crap that surrounds it.
    The last truly indispensable Rolling Stones tune? Maybe.

  3. Happy New Year to you as well!

    “Trouble” has always been a weird one for me — the chorus is so evocative, so memorable, so instantly recognizable. And everything else about the song is completely and totally forgettable and generic to me.

    As for the rest of the singles, I’d still stop and listen to “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” any day of the week…

  4. I think I’m a year or two older than you. During most of the spring and summer of 1981, I had a job I enjoyed in a basement computer lab. The songs you mentioned were my soundtrack, and I still taste Fifth Avenue bars dipped in hot coffee when I hear them. I’ve either got lousy taste or that was a really nice job.

    Have you ever seen Mark Felton’s AliveTV documentary “MTV: The Reagan Years”?

  5. Like several others who have commented, I was thirteen, just really beinning to care about music, and, thus, for better or for worse, I have some affection for even the most grievous transgressions on the charts, at the time.

    I always loved “Trouble,” and, though I knew Fleetwood Mac, I don’t think that I knew of Lindsey Buckingham’s association to that band in 1981. I just thought he was some cat with a goofy name.

    And, the song has the same effect on the Mrs. as “Desperado” had on the Carl Farber-obssessed guy Elaine dated (which makes sense to anyone who watched a lot of “Seinfeld”).

    Personally, it’s always a pleasant surprise to come by here and find a new post or an older one I might have missed.

  6. I’ll second “Start Me Up,” and “Trouble” is a fine single, but for me, the best record on that Cash Box list is Gary U.S. Bonds’ “This Little Girl.”

  7. I played the year-end countdown for 1995 when I was working at a country station. There was actually a note placed in the studio saying that were not to let anybody know what the final placement of any song was until AFTER it played. This was a four-hour shift, and during the first one, a listener called in and wanted to know where a certain song was (it hit #2), Since I wasn’t supposed to tell him, I simply replied that he was going to have to wait a while…but it definitely wasn’t the #1 song.

    That led to him calling the station about every three songs and complaining that he still hadn’t heard it yet.Each time, he was getting angrier about it. By the second hour of this, I was somewhere between hanging up on him once I heard his voice and curious to see just how far he was going to go with his rage. I was even trying to figure out if there was some way that I could somehow skip #2 altogether just to enrage him further.

    In the end, my professional nature won out. He called for the last time at song #3…and wasn’t kind enough to call me after the song to say thanks for the conversation.

  8. too late to play Scrooge? It took me a while but by 1981 I discovered that one did not have to accept crap like Foreigner, Styx, REO etc. Hang around the right (or wrong) people and you could discover whole new worlds of music existing in a parallel universe. Those who were in their pre or early teens, well no one questioned listening toTop 40; that’s what you do at that age.

    And Jim somewhere I have an old Certron cassette of a WLS countdown taped by pointing the mic at the speakers; yes my sibs and I nerded out that way on New Year’s Eve.

  9. There are several songs on that list I’m always happy to hear again: “Jessie’s Girl,” “Queen of Hearts” (yes, country crossover, but it’s so catchy), “Harden My Heart,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (which still sounds fascinating 30 years later), “The Waiting” (one of my favorites by Tom Petty) and in particular “Her Town Too,” which is so wonderfully moving in its understated lyric about the breakup of a longtime romance. But I’m reminded again that 1981 was a valley in terms of memorable singles for me. 1980 and 1982 each rank much higher.

  10. Yarons ago as Ops Mgr of an AM-FM duo, the FM PD sold me on the idea of simply running a countdown of the year’s significant “music news” as produced by The Source (remember THAT division of NBC?). I believe George Taylor Morriss assembled and narrated the program, which was supplied on several vinyl discs. What I do remember clearly is that the station got inundated with requests from listeners to run the program again….so they could tape it!

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