For the Very First Time

(Pictured: Madonna, touring in support of Like a Virgin, circa 1985. What the hell are those extra hands doing?)

In the winter of 1985, I was program director of a Top 40 station. In retrospect, the actual job was less glamorous than the title makes it sound. I wasn’t doing much programming, really. Our station was run by a roomful of automation equipment playing back tapes from a syndicator. I wasn’t doing a regular airshift yet, either. But it was by-god rock ‘n’ roll radio, it was mine, and that was something. I’d sit at my desk in the same room with all that equipment, bathed in machine noise and music, and I felt like I had arrived.

(Digression: with all of the reel-to-reel decks and cartridge machines broadcast automation required, the whir of motors never stopped, even when the station wasn’t broadcasting. In the early 90s, my station replaced its equipment with the first generation of digital automation, and for the longest time after the changeover it was positively disorienting for me to walk into that room. An utter lack of sound had always equated to catastrophic mechanical failure to an old radio hand such as I, and it took a while to get over it.)

(Digression from the digression: room-size automation systems such as ours had a large beeping alarm called a “silence sensor,” which would go off if a period of seconds went by with no audio. It could be heard from anywhere in the building, and when it sounded, it was a drop-everything-and-run-to-fix emergency. At one of my stations, the silence sensor beep was exactly the same as the beep on the french-fry machine at McDonalds. More than once I involuntarily, automatically jumped up and got ready to run in mid-bite at lunchtime.

The American Top 40 show from February 23, 1985, contained some songs that vividly took me back to that first rockin’ winter, as described on the flip, with links to the official music videos for each.

39. “Tragedy”/John Hunter. We didn’t play this for very long—nobody did, as #39 was its chart peak. But holy smokes, what a hook monster “Tragedy” was. If you can keep from playing air keyboards while you listen, you’re not me.

38. “Tenderness”/General Public. If “Tenderness” doesn’t have the butt-ugliest lead vocal ever put to wax, it’s in the semifinals.

36. “Ooh Ooh Song”/Pat Benatar. I had completely forgotten about “Ooh Ooh Song,” which is an odd combination of feathery vocal harmonies and a headache-inducing instrumental track with as much dynamic range as the dial tone.

33. “Just Another Night”/Mick Jagger. From Mick’s first solo album, She’s the Boss, “Just Another Night” sounds nothing like the Rolling Stones, which I suppose is the point. It does sound like every other record made in the 80s, however.

31. “Keepin’ the Faith”/Billy Joel. I am mentioning this here because of the video, which is every video made in the 80s rolled into one: an introductory scene, dancers, gratuitous cleavage, sunglasses, a hot car, a familiar character actor in a supporting role plus a more famous celebrity cameo, and a rock star who can’t act to save his life. The only things missing are a shattering mirror and fire.

30. “High on You”/Survivor. Survivor doing that Survivor thing: “High on You” has an intro that sounds insanely great on the radio, big drums, and a singalong refrain. Along with Night Ranger, they pretty much cornered the 80s market on pop-rock anthems.

28. “Like a Virgin”/Madonna. I had not heard “Like a Virgin” in a long time before it came up on this show, and I had forgotten what a spectacularly great record it is. Madonna’s chirpy vocal is the weakest thing about it, but thanks to producer Nile Rodgers, her band puts down a track so tight it could make the Funk Brothers say “day-um.”

There’s more to discuss about this show, and we’ll get to it eventually.

8 responses

  1. It’s quite possible that I haven’t heard “Tragedy” since February 23, 1985, but I remembered it instantly, and man, what a great single.
    Happy birthday!

  2. I was also listening to this countdown over the weekend. I had not heard the John Hunter track…probably since the week it dropped off the countdown in 1985! Wow. It was great to hear it again. The Pat Benatar track sucks. Never liked it then either and I’ll bet Casey hated saying the name of it too (much like he probably hated saying “Kajagoogoo” too). Loved the Jagger track – always thought that was an excellent song. I agree with you on the Madonna track too – my ears had not heard that song in 30 years. Overall though, a pretty solid countdown.

  3. Hey JB,

    You seemed to have identified the exact pivot point when my encyclopedic knowledge of Top 40 music made a precipitous dive on the graph. Prior to about this time, I could tell you at least a little something about every hit of the Rock Era– at least label, writer, producer, etc.

    But for me, musically, the Eighties sucked more than any decade prior or since, although the Top 40 chart has never ever recovered. Like radio itself, it has never again been the semi-democratic “tasting room” of multiple music genres as it was in its heyday.

    By ’85, my time spent on the radio dial was split between alt-rock, oldies and country (country radio’s last great gasp, incidentally).

    Prior to this post, I had never heard these records by John Hunter, General Public or even Pat Benatar, despite having multiple best-of comps on her.

    Heavy-handed synths, flammable hair-dos and MTV sure made my popular music experience far more circumscribed.

    Regards,

    Scott

  4. I am usually not a joiner but a) the John Hunter record was better than I remembered, b) the Benatar record was far worse, and c) have a happy, leapy birthday!!!!

  5. “High on You” possessed a hook so catchy it bordered on criminal.

  6. […] show from February 23, 1985, but the music is good enough to make up for it, as we discovered in an earlier installment. More of the songs, with links to videos, are on the […]

  7. Wow, as we share both an uncommon last name and similar taste in music, Scott and I may be twins separated at birth.

    Watching those linked videos I’d forgotten how monkeys, mimes and drinks thrown in faces were standard fare. And that Benatar tune was better than I remembered; it took her band about eight years to catch up to the sound of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, progress nonetheless. Extra points for the harmonica solo and false ending.

  8. Porky, you’re a Paton? Pleased to meet you, cousin! Of course, if we reach back far enough, we’re all related– despite race, citizenship and even (gulp!) political affiliation. That’s currently a tough one.

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