Outstandingly Average

(Pictured: dudes with bagpipes, for which there was room on 70s Top 40 radio playlists.)

A few years ago I wrote about listening to the radio in the summer of 1971, and how it was like going to school. I began trying to figure out what the WLS DJs were doing and why they were doing it, because they were what I wanted to be. By the summer of 1972, I was a more advanced student. In any study of any thing, once you get the basics down, you start to concern yourself with the nuances. On WLS, I had a great set of teachers: Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, John Landecker, and all the other guys.

I was not listening to American Top 40 in 1972, but had I been, I could have learned a lot from it, too. Every time I hear a 1972 show today, I like it. The music mix walks the line between eclectic and schizophrenic, but it’s Casey I’m responding to. He’s at his most natural; now that the show has figured out what it’s supposed to be, he’s less stiff than during 1970 and 1971. More important, he’s less mannered and announcer-y than he would become. I suspect the latter was because the show was still being recorded in real time for much of 1972, as opposed to being pieced together from voicetracks, a practice that began after Dick Clark guest-hosted a show that year. Casey’s pre-voicetrack shows have an immediacy that the later shows don’t. That doesn’t mean the later shows are inferior—only different.

The show from June 24, 1972, starts off with a bang: Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” debuts at #40. The first hit by a new group, the Eagles, is new at #35: “Take It Easy.” The highest-debuting song of the week is all the way up at #19: “I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram, zooming in from #41. “Tumbling Dice” at #24 and “Layla” at #23 make for a fine segment. There is the customary ration of dreck: at #28, a song I don’t recognize starts with a Philly-soul style orchestra but turns out to be Donny Osmond’s helium-huffing cover of Nat King Cole’s “Too Young.” And David Cassidy’s cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure” (#26) is a mess. But the Top 20 is mostly pure AM-radio pleasure: “Morning Has Broken,” “I Saw the Light,” “Rocket Man,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” “Lean on Me,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Outa Space.” True, the #1 and #2 songs in the land are “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. and “Song Sung Blue” by Neil Diamond, but the show’s so good up until then that you have to forgive it.

During the early years of AT40, Casey occasionally explained that an individual station’s playlist was tailored to the taste of its own market, which is why some songs heard locally never made AT40, and vice versa. A shining example of one of those songs sat at #12 on the 6/24/72 show: “Amazing Grace” by the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scotch Dragoon Guards. (It would peak at #11 on the Hot 100 the next week.) According to ARSA, it made #1 in various outposts of the British Empire, including Vancouver and Toronto, and it was a Top-10 hit on WCFL in Chicago. But WLS didn’t chart it, and I am guessing that many other radio stations around the country felt that fking bagpipe music didn’t fit their format.

Casey told the story of the band’s formation, which was long and involved and ultimately not very interesting. He concluded by noting that the band had recently passed its military inspection with a grade of “outstandingly average.” That’s a grade we can relate to around here.

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