Category Archives: American Top 40

Chart Action

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(Pictured: Melanie, on stage in 1971.)

When Casey Kasem introduced the American Top 40 show from January 29, 1972, by saying, “There’s not a lot of chart action this week,” I thought, “If you want to make people listen, you should probably think of something else to say.” And as I listened, that teaser seemed even stranger.

Not a lot of chart action? Six new songs debuted on the 40 in that week. Three of them would become sizable hits: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert John, “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex, and “Down by the Lazy River” by the Osmonds. One sticks in history (my version of history, at least) as a notable oddball: “Floy Joy” by the Supremes, in which Jean Terrell continues to sound exactly like Diana Ross and delivers a monster earworm. One had a longer afterlife in classic rock than on Top 40, “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, and one didn’t last much beyond its chart run, “Together Let’s Find Love” by the Fifth Dimension.

Not a lot of chart action? Several songs took enormous drops within the 40: “Once You Understand” by Think (a record we’ve written about before and that must be heard to be believed) was down 12 to #35; “Hey Big Brother” by Rare Earth was down #15 to 34. Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There” was down 12 to #31 and “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by Honey Cone was down 13 to #30. The double-sided hit “Hey Girl” and “I Knew You When” by Donny Osmond was down 10 to #26. (And of the six songs that fell out of the 40, four fell clear out of the Hot 100.)

Not a lot of chart action? The single biggest mover in the countdown was an absolute rocket: “Hurting Each Other” by the Carpenters had hit the Hot 100 just two weeks before at #76; it went to #38 for the week of January 22 and was at #13 this week. And at #15 and #16 sat “Joy” by Apollo 100 and “Precious and Few” by Climax, up 20 and 18 places respectively.

But the truth of Casey’s tease became apparent as the countdown reached the Top 10. Seven of the 10 were in the same positions as the week before, including the top 5. The top 4, “American Pie,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, and “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards, remained locked in those positions for a third consecutive week. “Brand New Key” had done three weeks at #1 starting in late December; it would be either the #1 or #2 song on the Hot 100 for seven straight weeks; “American Pie,” with four weeks at #1 in January, would be #1 or #2 for seven weeks in a row as well.

Some other factoids:

On this show, Casey plays two versions of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The New Seekers’ version is at #12 and the Hillside Singers’ version is at #19, both on the way down. In an AT40 Facebook group run by show historian Pete Battistini, he recently noted that when two versions of the spoken-word hit “The Americans” were in the Top 40 in early 1974, Casey eventually started playing only one of them. In March 1971, three versions of the theme from the movie Love Story spent three straight weeks in the Top 40, by Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, and Francis Lai. From looking at the original cue sheets for those shows, it’s not clear to me whether Casey played all three every week, or whether he played just a clip from one or more of them from time to time.

The 1/29/72 show features one of the all-time great AT40 train-wrecks: at #23, Casey plays Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” which is immediately followed by Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” at #22. On the original show, a commercial break followed Pride; the next segment opened with #21, “Stay With Me” by Rod Stewart and Faces. If forced to defend my love for Top 40 radio and Top 40 music of the 1970s, that three-set right there might be the hill I’d die on.

No radio jock likes every song that he or she plays. We don’t usually come right out and tell you, although you can sometimes pick it up. Casey rarely betrayed it, but I suspect he disliked Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” which was down to #18 on this week’s show. When it hit #1 the previous December, he’d announced it with a weirdly flat affect, and on this show, I thought I heard something in his voice again.

You can listen to American Top 40 in its totality, or you can listen for the little things. Either way, it’s three hours of fascinating chart action, guaranteed.

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A Long Afterlife

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(Pictured: Julian Lennon with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, December 1984.)

Behold the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of January 26, 1985:

1.  “Like a Virgin”/Madonna
2.  “I Want to Know What Love Is”/Foreigner
3.  “You’re the Inspiration”/Chicago
4  “Easy Lover”/Philip Bailey and Phil Collins
5.  “Careless Whisper”/Wham
6.  “All I Need”/Jack Wagner
7.  “Run to You”/Bryan Adams
8.  “The Boys of Summer”/Don Henley
9.  “Loverboy”/Billy Ocean
10. “I Would Die 4 U”/Prince

That is pretty dang solid right there. The Foreigner, Chicago, Adams, and Henley records haven’t been off the radio a single day in 33 years, and even the ones you don’t hear so much anymore had a long afterlife, if not as long as those four. Casey Kasem counted ’em down on a recent American Top 40 repeat, and it made for a mighty entertaining show. Some other notes follow:

11.  “Born in the USA”/Bruce Springsteen. That Springsteen made this sound like a patriotic anthem, with those majestic, ringing chords and shouts of “Born in the USA,” was a remarkably subversive act, especially in the middle of the Reagan 80s. As brazen as the current White House crowd is, somebody’s liable to mistake it for what it isn’t any day now, and then claim that the plain meaning of the words on the page is wrong.

13.  “Neutron Dance”/Pointer Sisters. Sweet mama “Neutron Dance” still sounds hotter than hell to me. January 1985 was early in my days as program director of a Top 40 station, and I loved hearing it on my air.

17.  “Do They Know It’s Christmas”/Band Aid. Still on the air on a month after Christmas and as welcome as stale fruitcake. This edition of AT40 aired during the same week that a gaggle of American stars assembled to record “We Are the World.”

18.  “Cool It Now” and 35. “Mr. Telephone Man”/New Edition. In 1985, hip-hop was still several years away from conquering the world, but the new jack swing of “Cool It Now” helped point the way. On the other hand, “Mr. Telephone Man,” produced by Ray Parker Jr., points in the opposite direction.

24.  “Sea of Love” and 39. “Rockin’ at Midnight”/Honeydrippers. “Sea of Love” became a Top-10 hit on sheer oddity value; “Rockin’ at Midnight” wasn’t going to match it, although it did prompt Casey to name-check Louis Jordan and other jump blues stars of the 1940s.

28.  “Valotte”/Julian Lennon. I don’t know how I missed knowing this, either back in the day or in all the years since, but according to Casey, the “Valotte” video was one of the last projects of ultra-violent film director Sam Peckinpah before his death in December 1984. Peckinpah also directed Julian’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” video.

32.  “Money Changes Everything”/Cyndi Lauper. Casey says that while several male acts have scored five Top 40 hits from a single album, Lauper becomes the first female to do so with “Money Changes Everything,” but holy smokes, it’s just awful. What Cyndi was going for with that alternately slurred and grating vocal I cannot imagine, and the production—first-generation Moog synthesizer and somebody beating the living hell out of a drum—gives me a headache.

33.  “California Girls”/David Lee Roth. This song and its iconic video became the epitome of Top 40 hipness by the early spring of 1985. I liked hearing it on my air because people thought it was cool, and if it was on my air, it made me seem cool by association. (This is precisely how you think when you’re not cool.)

36.  “Mistake No. 3″/Culture Club. Until I heard it on this show, I had almost entirely forgotten “Mistake No. 3,” a ballad after Culture Club’s long string of uptempo records. It wasn’t a big success.

38.  “In Neon”/Elton John. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” had been big hits in 1984 and “Nikita” would do big business later in 1985. But Elton’s singles were stiffing more often than they used to, and “In Neon,” which peaked at #38, is nothing special.

While counting down the Top 10 during this show, Casey paused for a feature on 50s crooner Johnnie Ray, the first singer to top both the pop and soul charts with the same record, his 1952 hit “Cry.” Casey played a clip from the song, and as I marveled at the change in styles from 1952 to 1985, I did the math. In 1985, it was as far back to 1952 as it is from 2018 back to 1985. It doesn’t seem like styles have changed as much in the latter period of time as they did between 1952 and 1985, but perhaps you and I aren’t the ones to judge.

This Song Is About You

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(Pictured: Carly Simon, 1972.)

We continue here with a rundown of the American Top 40 show from the week of January 20, 1973, at the beginning of an intermittent series about 1973.

26.  “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend”/Lobo. All of the elementary schools in our town fed into a single junior high, so when I got to seventh grade, there were lots of new people to meet, and many of them were girls. I wrote about one of them in 2006.

She had all the necessary attributes—short brown hair framing a pretty round face, a body that curved in all the best places and a wardrobe that proved it. From the moment I saw her in math class, I was head-over-heels in like. However, if I had developed a crush on someone from another planet, I’d have had about the same chance I had with [her]. Never mind the gulf between us in terms of social class. . . . My immediate problem was that I knew that even if I lived to be 100, I was never going to work up the courage to talk to her. 

She eventually faded out of the picture, as crushes do. A friend who searches for former classmates on Facebook told me recently that he had found her. I am not sorry to say I went and stalked her profile. I don’t think I would have recognized her, but I can’t be sure. I am not tempted to friend her, though. Not even a little bit.

(I notice I haven’t said anything about “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend.” Or have I?)

For a brief time in 1972 and 1973, when Casey name-checked affiliate radio stations, he gave their call letters as if they were words. Sometimes this worked fine, as with KERN in Bakersfield, California. On this show, Casey mentioned “wixy in Madison, Wisconsin,” and it took me a moment to remember he was referring to WYXE, which was actually licensed to suburban Sun Prairie. It put a Top 40 format on the air in 1972 and was an FM competitor for market leader WISM-AM. The station did indeed refer to itself as “wixy” occasionally, as on this aircheck of overnight guy Bob Billings from March 1973.

18.  “Do It Again”/Steely Dan
17.  “I Wanna Be With You”/Raspberries
16.  “Keeper of the Castle”/Four Tops
15.  “The World Is a Ghetto”/War
14.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”/James Taylor
13.  “Trouble Man”/Marvin Gaye
12.  “Hi Hi Hi”/Wings

Here’s another stretch of songs that bring home the remarkable variety of music on the radio in those days, and how much fun it was to listen. Depending on you feel about “Funny Face” by Donna Fargo at #11 (which I do not dislike, but it’s weird in this company), you could extend the streak even farther:

10.  “Oh Babe What Would You Say”/Hurricane Smith
9.  “Why Can’t We Live Together”/Timmy Thomas
8.  “Superfly”/Curtis Mayfield 

In the midst of all this, Casey answers a listener question about which day of the week is mentioned in the greatest number of song titles. This is something that would have taken a great deal of effort to find in the days before searchable electronic databases—and the AT40 staff apparently didn’t invest too much. Casey says that they don’t have exact figures, but that there are “about 12” songs mentioning Saturday and “about 20” mentioning Sunday. I would have bet on Monday, myself.

6.  “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”/Johnny Rivers. Casey flubs his introduction, saying the record is at #7 and then correcting himself to say #6. Several months after guest host Dick Clark proposed the idea of voice-tracking the show instead of doing it live on tape, the idea hadn’t taken hold yet.

4.  “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John. During this very week in 1973 (January 26th, to be exact), Elton released Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. It’s not as good as Honky Chateau or the four studio albums that would follow it, but it’s not bad, either. Today, nobody needs to hear “Crocodile Rock” again, but it sounded pretty good in the winter of ’73.

3.  “Me and Mrs. Jones”/Billy Paul
2.  “Superstition”/Stevie Wonder
1.  “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon

The top three are unchanged from the previous week; Carly and former #1 Billy hold their positions for the third week in a row while Stevie holds at #2 for a second week. “Superstition” will go to #1 the next week. “You’re So Vain” will spend the next four weeks at #2.

I have said that 1973 is my least-favorite year for 70s music, but you couldn’t tell it by this list. There’s some serious AM radio pleasure here. Nearly all of it first charted in 1972, but still.

Times of Storm

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(Pictured: Dick Nixon celebrates at his inaugural ball on January 20, 1973.)

I turned 10 in 1970 and 20 in 1980, so the 70s were quite neatly the decade I grew up in. Each year of the decade has a narrative I can relate to you: 1970, year of discovery; 1971, last year of full-time childhood before other people started putting in a claim on my time; 1972, going to junior high, with all the discoveries that entailed; 1974, freshman year of high school; 1975, first date; 1976, learned to drive and fell good and truly in love for the first time; 1977, got my first paying jobs off the farm and discovered that work is not always an easy thing, nor love either; 1978, graduated from high school and went to college; 1979, started my radio career and met the woman who is now my wife.

But 1973 is more absent than present in my personal history. I know I was there, but my memories of it are jumbled and random. I suspect this is because turning 13, for a boy at least, is accompanied by a form of insanity. Our bodies go haywire and our brains struggle to keep up. Everything we thought we knew is transformed, and we’re forced to deal with shit we never saw coming. Narrative is hard to maintain when every day is reset to something new.

Because it’s been 45 years now since 1973, that’s round number enough to make me think this blog should take a closer look at 1973, to see if all that time permits me to see what I missed. Maybe I’ll find that the music is better than I generally remember it. (It’s always been my least-favorite year for 70s music.) Maybe I’ll find a narrative for the year beyond the complete lack of one.

What follows is the first installment of what will be an intermittent series for as long as it takes, or as long as it lasts, which is not exactly the same thing. Maybe it will drive you around the bend with 180-proof solipsism, but I’ve already taken my best shot at that and you’re still here, so maybe not.

We’ll start with the American Top 40 show dated January 20, 1973. That was a remarkable week in American history. On Saturday the 20th, President Richard Nixon was sworn in for a second term. On Tuesday the 22nd, the Supreme Court announced the Roe v. Wade decision, former president Lyndon Johnson died, and George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier (with sportscaster Howard Cosell famously shouting, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”) to win the heavyweight boxing championship. On Wednesday the 23rd, Nixon announced an agreement to end the war in Vietnam, and on Saturday the 27th, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. And among the big radio hits were these:

40. “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Times of Storm)”/Luther Ingram. Before hearing this show I would have bet my house that Ingram had only one Top 40 hit, the 1972 smash “I Don’t Want to Be Right.” But here he is, spending his first of two weeks at #40 with “I’ll Be Your Shelter,” which is good old 60s Southern soul emotion, even as the backing track looks forward into the 70s.

39.  “The Relay”/The Who. A non-album single known in the UK as simply “Relay,” it was originally intended for Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project. It’s in the second of its two weeks at #39.

38.  “You Ought to Be With Me”/Al Green. In which Casey name-checks producer Willie Mitchell and the congregation say “Amen.”

37.  “Harry Hippie”/Bobby Womack. The hippie ideal of dropping out of materialistic modern society did not resonate much with African Americans. Their struggle was to become part of the American mainstream the kids were rejecting, and to get their share of the postwar economic bonanza the hippies believed they could live without. In “Harry Hippie,” Bobby Womack is happy to let Harry do his own thing, but not willing to do for Harry what he believes Harry should be doing for himself.

31.  “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”/Spinners and 22. “Dancing in the Moonlight”/King Harvest. Just as they have always done, these songs zap me back to the winter of 1973. I was in seventh grade. I was equipment manager of the basketball team. I would have told you then it was because I wanted to be around the games and I knew I couldn’t play. But also, the coach was my favorite teacher—who would turn out to be one of my favorite teachers of them all, one of the people who made me a writer—and that may have been the main reason.

Read more about the 1/20/73 AT40 show on Monday.

Another Year Bites the Dust

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(Pictured: Freddie Mercury of Queen, onstage in Chicago, 1980.)

I had quite a backlog of American Top 40 shows from December to listen to, and I spent the month gradually working my way through them.

The show from December 9, 1972, represented one of the great weeks in soul music history, with the Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Al Green, Billy Paul, and the Stylistics all in the Top 10 with classic records. It’s a week one can cite to give the lie to the tired idea that 70s music was consistently inferior to that of the 60s, and not just because of all the soul music: the twosome of Jim Croce’s “Operator” (#17) and Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me” (#16) might represent some kind of high point for forlorn singer/songwriter pop. (Re-listening to this particular point in the show represented some kind of high point for Jim singing along in the car.)

At #20 on the 12/9/72 show, “Sweet Surrender” by Bread contains the line “you keep your rights, I’ll take your nights.” I can’t decide: it’s either an open and progressive attitude toward the woman in question at a time of change, or another example of the ham-fisted sexism of a time we like to believe is long gone but clearly is not. It’s either “be yourself and love me too” or “having dignity and independence is your thing, now let me unhook your bra.” Meanwhile, up at #1, introducing 31-year-old Helen Reddy’s liberation anthem, “I Am Woman,” Casey refers to her as a “pretty girl.” So maybe we can figure out what Bread’s attitude was after all.

The show from December 7, 1974, comes from the time when I first discovered FM radio but was still mostly an AM kid. I would switch back and forth from band to band depending on where I was listening, upstairs in my room, downstairs on the console stereo, or in the car when I could commandeer the radio. It wasn’t long before I noticed how Fancy’s “Touch Me,” “Everlasting Love” by Carl Carlton, and “Junior’s Farm” by Wings—among many others—were clearer on FM but hotter on AM.

The show from December 13, 1975, had seven debut songs, three of which are still on the radio 42 years later: “Evil Woman” by ELO, “Over My Head” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Singasong” by Earth Wind and Fire. The highest debut of the week, way up at #29, was “Convoy” by C. W. McCall. The CB radio novelty had hit the Hot 100 the previous week at #82 and would go 14-7-6 and finally to #1 for the week of January 10, 1976. Also among the debuts: “Winners and Losers” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, which would get only to #21 in January. It’s basically the #1 hit “Fallin’ in Love” played faster, but it gains awesomeness points for its radio-perfect 14-second intro, and for whoever’s playing piano on it.

The show from December 13, 1980, was the one on which John Lennon was memorialized, even though he was murdered after the show had already been mailed to affiliates. (I wrote about it last month for Magic 98; hear Casey’s heartfelt memorial here.) Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” spent the fifth of what would be six weeks at #1, a record that got caught in the changing tides of history. Within a couple of years, after the rise of the MTV bands, Michael Jackson, and Prince, “Lady” (and similar lush adult ballads) would no longer be suitable for Top 40 radio. Also high on the chart that week: Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” which I hadn’t heard in a long while before I heard it on this show. Most people would pick “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Queen’s greatest achievement, but “Another One Bites the Dust” is just as great, for the way it packs one hook on top of another and never lets up for a full 3:32.

With this post, we embark on another calendar year at this blog. I wrote a lot more in 2017 than I expected to at this time last year. We’ll see if that pace continues in 2018.

Razor-Blade Mania

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(Pictured: the Isley Brothers, prepared to fight the power in 1975.)

American Top 40 wasn’t particularly shy about editing songs. The producers would snip a verse occasionally for timing purposes, figuring that a particular song would air again in a few hours anyway, and most people would barely notice. Some edits were made for content purposes, however. The show from September 20, 1975, contained a little bit of both.

When I heard “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers on the radio back in the day, the word “bullshit” in the refrain was bleeped: “I get knocked on the ground / By all this bull [bleep] goin’ down.” One version of the single posted at YouTube simply blanks the word.  The 9/20/75 AT40 plays a version that splices in an “ooh” from elsewhere in the song. It’s arguable that by its awkwardness,  the “ooh” edit calls as much attention to the word as leaving it alone might have done, and the blank is even worse. (I have heard the “ooh” version outside of AT40, so I wonder whether the label released it that way, or if radio stations did their own homemade edits.)

Debuting that week was Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” an eventual #1. I have previously mentioned AT40‘s edit of the song, in which the word “bitch” from the line “the bitch is in the smile” is replaced with “promises” from elsewhere in the song. I don’t recall hearing this version anywhere else—certainly not in 1975, when all the radio stations I listened to let the bitch ride. If it was controversial then, I didn’t know it. Without listening to an original 1975 pressing of the show, I can’t say for sure whether that edit dates back that far, or if it’s something the show’s modern-day producers have chosen to do, in a world more easily outraged than it used to be.

I suspect that the modern-day producers make occasional edits for time, but it’s likely that most of the ones we hear date back to the original shows. Sometimes they’re very well done, and sometimes they’re a little bit clunky. They rarely alter the meaning of the song, although that happened on the 9/20/75 show. “Rocky” by Austin Roberts is a jaunty little story-song in which Rocky meets, falls in love with, and impregnates a girl who contracts a fatal disease in the last verse. The song has a recurring motif, in which the girl says “Rocky, I never fell in love before / Don’t know if I can do it,” then “Rocky, I never had a baby before,” and finally “Rocky, I never had to die before.” You might be able to guess where this is going. We get the pregnant verse: “With so much love for just two / Soon we found there’d be one more” and then an edit to “Rocky, I never had to die before.”

All I’m saying is that perhaps I’d have done it differently.

Each week’s AT40 repeat contains one optional “extra” per hour, which stations can air to fill unsold commercial time. Extras on the early 70s shows are sometimes oldies removed from the original broadcasts, but most are future hits, on the Hot 100 during the week of the show but not yet within the 40. These are modern-day productions voiced by show announcer Larry Morgan. The razor-blade mania of the 9/20/75 show even extended to one of these: Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be” got snipped to about 90 seconds.

The September 20, 1975, show was a lot of fun in its full, weird glory. It’s topped by David Bowie’s “Fame,” which knocked Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” to #2 after two weeks at the top. These two men would be considered titans 42 years hence in a way they were not in 1975. Janis Ian’s morose “At Seventeen,” a record I find myself liking less as time goes by, is at #3. David Geddes’ “Run Joey Run” is at #7, a success so absurd you can scarcely believe it was real unless you were there to hear it. “Ballroom Blitz” by the Sweet and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company are a finely matched pair at #11 and #10, but then Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” comes on at #9. The hottest record of the week? “Mr. Jaws,” a Dickie Goodman break-in record, another vivid reminder that this was the 70s, and we couldn’t help ourselves.

(Programming note: This blog’s companion, One Day in Your Life, will be a busy place during October, as I have a lot of October days to draw from. If you enjoy that kind of thing, head over and subscribe.)

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