Small Ambitions

(Pictured: REO Speedwagon sometime around 1981. Their jazz-hands pose has them looking like the band that played the Homecoming dance at your high school, which 10 years before, they might have been.)

The summer of 1981, which was the subject of a post earlier this week, was the last one I spent living the life of a student, the only life I had known since I went off to kindergarten. Even so, it was different—I had left home for good after the summer of 1980, and I spent the summer of ’81 in my college apartment, working my part-time job and taking a couple of classes. A few of us kept the campus radio station on the air on an intermittent schedule, broadcasting mostly to ourselves.

We were an album-rock station, so we would not have been playing much of the stuff on the Top 40 then, apart from the Moody Blues, Alan Parsons Project, Pure Prairie League, John Lennon, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Styx, REO, and George Harrison. But what else would we have been playing? Here’s the Billboard Top 10 from a typical midsummer week:

1. Mistaken Identity/Kim Carnes
2. Hi Infidelity/REO Speedwagon
3. Long Distance Voyager/Moody Blues
4. Paradise Theater/Styx
5. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap/AC-DC
6. Hard Promises/Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
7. Face Value/Phil Collins
8. Street Songs/Rick James
9. Stars on Long Play/Stars on Long Play
10. Zebop/Santana

The top of the album chart was less wimpy than the singles chart, thank the gods: some long-established acts, some poised on the brink of long careers, and some ephemeral oddballs powered by inescapable singles—and a pretty representative set of then-current album-rockers in the middle. Below the top 10 were some other rock album we were playing plenty that summer: Moving Pictures by Rush, Van Halen’s Fair Warning, and Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood, plus albums by Joe Walsh, Billy Squier, Ozzy Osbourne, and .38 Special. (Osborne’s Blizzard of Ozz included “Crazy Train,” a song we played a little. That it’s become an icon in the years since would have surprised us back then.)

Apart from Rick James jumping into the Top 10 with a bullet, the list of top albums is largely static compared to the previous week, and stasis is a pretty good metaphor for the music world at large in the summer of 1981. According to a front-page article in the July 11, 1981, edition of Billboard, record dealers and distributors had been complaining about soft sales, but they were hopeful that a spate of high-profile releases scheduled for the third quarter would help, including big names of the moment such as the Rolling Stones, Pat Benatar, ELO, Foreigner, Hall and Oates, Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, Stevie Nicks, and the Pretenders. Some of them, including Tattoo You, Foreigner 4, and Bella Donna, would indeed be monsters that stayed on the radio for months and flew out of record stores.

But did they creatively revitalize rock music? No they did not. Retailers wouldn’t care one way or the other, but some listeners did.

Several years ago, in another post about 1981, two of our regular commenters disagreed widely over the merits of the summer of 1981. One had kind things to say about that year’s corporate, major-label rock—a category that would encompass all of Billboard‘s ballyhooed new releases in the third quarter of 1981—while another insisted that the album chart proved that rock’s biggest stars were out of ideas, and that true creativity was happening elsewhere. In 1981, I would have signed off on the former view—unlike a lot of college radio types, we were not much interested in discovery, and we wanted to play the stuff we heard on our favorite radio stations. Today, I am more likely to adopt the other view—the main evidence of 1981 is that popular music was destined to broaden its ambitions, which had become very, very small over the half-decade in which the 70s blurred into the 80s.

In the 70s, economist Herb Stein formulated Stein’s Law, which is simply this: things that can’t go on forever, don’t. And it’s pretty clear now, in a way that was not so clear then (in the way that historical tides are rarely perceived accurately by those caught in them), that by 1981, what made pop music popular would have to change, new styles would have to emerge, new stars would have to replace the old ones. Something was going to happen. Within 18 months of the summer of 1981, it would.

3 responses

  1. Yeah, but he’s probably referring to Thriller.

  2. You still hear stuff from 1981 like “Start me Up” from the Rolling Stones, “Urgent” from Foreigner, and “Centerfold” from the J. Geils Band on the radio today. The trouble is, you still hear that stuff from 1981 on the radio today. Every day. Has radio become THAT stale? Indeed, it has. Today’s corporate radio refuses to recognize that there were other good songs on the radio back then, thus, you hear the same SAFE songs over and over for the past 33 years.

    At least the music of 1981 drove disco out of the picture.

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