According to Plan

(Pictured: Melanie, archetypal hippie chick.)

(Here we are at the end of September in 1970 for the second post in a row. Quelle surprise.)

I am starting to think that my favorite American Top 40 shows are the earliest ones, because they’re so odd compared to the way the show would sound by the time it was heard around the world a few years hence.

The 12th show, for the week of September 26, 1970, is weirdly paced. Casey goes quickly from point to point, often barely even pausing as he back-announces one song and front-announces another, like he’s hurrying to shave off a second here or a second there. His inflections change from song to song, punching into boss-jock mode sometimes and dipping down to FM-radio whisperer at other times. The latter is unintentionally hilarious when he uses it at one point to say, “Something happens to a woman over 35 when she hears the voice of Tom Jones.”

It wouldn’t be long before the shows were entirely scripted, but there are moments in the 1970 shows that feel like a guy winging it on live radio, throwing in bits on the fly. For example, on the 9/26/70 show, introducing “Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt, Casey offhandedly mentions that she will be singing the theme to Andy Griffith’s new TV series that fall. In 1970, Griffith, two years removed from playing Sheriff Andy Taylor, starred in The Headmaster. The show was a 30-minute drama in which Griffith played the headmaster of a private school in California, a role intended to be far removed from the kindly North Carolina dude he played throughout the 60s. It was not a hit, roundly spanked by another new show airing that fall, The Partridge Family, and barely made it to January, At that point, it was retooled as The New Andy Griffith Show, in which he went back to playing a kindly North Carolina dude—and it bombed, too.

Long story short: Linda did indeed sing the Headmaster theme, a song called “Just a Man.” It’s not particularly good, but you can hear a bit of it here.

During the first year of American Top 40, Casey occasionally refers to songs moving up or down on the chart by specific number of “points,” which is a word I’ve not heard anyone else use when talking about chart positions. On the 9/26/70 show, two records went up a remarkable number of points. Casey mentions that since their debut in 1969, the Jackson Five have never failed to make #1. Their latest hit, “I’ll Be There,” certainly seems destined to reach the summit, having debuted the previous week at #40 before moving up 21 points to #19. But they have company: another debut from the previous week, “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf, is also up 21 points, from #39 to #18.

Certain records on this chart make me wish I could get inside the heads of radio station music directors and find out what they were thinking. Melanie’s “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)” is hippie drivel, but there it is at #35 in the nation anyhow. (Melanie was 23 years old in 1970, but she sings like a 75-year-old woman.) “Neanderthal Man” by Hotlegs is a record we’ve noted before, little more than a drum track with the vocal barely intelligible in the mix and positively interminable, yet there is is up five points to #22. And at #19, it’s “Rubber Duckie” by Ernie, the Sesame Street character, which is just painful.

On the twin subjects of “what were you thinking?” and “sweet mama that’s painful,” one of the extras heard on the original version of the show in 1970 was “Old Rivers” by Walter Brennan, in which the famous Western actor recites the story of a poor farmer’s mule. (It had reached #5 on the Hot 100 in 1962, which is more evidence that the British Invasion had to happen.) “Old Rivers” was snipped from the recent syndicated repeat, along with “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis and “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan. All three were offered to current affiliates as optional fillers. The repeat included another extra, “Your Precious Love” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, fitting given that the top two hits of the week were both Motown hits: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross at #1 and “War” by Edwin Starr at #2.

I’ve said it before: it’s fascinating to eavesdrop as Casey Kasem and his producers figure out what American Top 40 is supposed to be, in real time, a week at a time.

4 responses

  1. “Old Rivers” is the greatest spoken-word hit of all time. It doesn’t have an awful lot of competition for this distinction, but still, I will not brook any disparagement of this piece of art. (Also, Old Rivers isn’t the mule, but the farmhand. The mule’s name was Midnight.)

    1. OK, now I have to research spoken-word hits and make that list. Unless you want to do it, Tom.

  2. “Neanderthal Man” is such a weird recording, mainly because it was intended as a goof to test out recording equipment(!). Then again, considering most pop music today is just rhythm tracks with tossed-off vocals, Hotlegs was an unwitting pioneer.

  3. I love Melanie and Peace Will Come. Should have even placed higher on the charts. I hope I sound even a tenth as good at 75.

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