Category Archives: American Top 40

If I’m Honest

(Pictured: Night Ranger, motorin’ on American Bandstand.)

I have linked many times over the years to a Salon piece that posited Christmas week 1969 as the single greatest week in rock history, with an incredible variety of legendary albums and singles on the radio, music that endures today as foundation stones of the rock canon. Last summer, I argued that a particular week in June 1977 deserves a similar place concerning the classic-rock radio canon, when some of the format’s most enduring warhorses were at their radio peaks.

I have been listening recently to the American Top 40 show from July 7, 1984, and it occurs to me that one could argue for that week as one in which the pop-rock canon for the 80s was being laid down. The top two singles of the week were “When Doves Cry” by Prince and “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen. Also in the Top 10: “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, ZZ Top’s “Legs,” and “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News. (You might argue either way for the canon-worthiness of “Almost Paradise” by Mike Reno and Ann Wilson or “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol, also in the Top 10.) Below the Top 10 are “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams, “Magic” by the Cars, Madonna’s “Borderline,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” by Elton John, and “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry, which would also rightfully be in the argument, were you making a list of 80s essentials. So might Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Sunglasses at Night” by Corey Hart, which were on the climb, and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, on the way down.

(The hook in “Sister Christian”—“You’re motorin’ / What’s your price for flight / In finding Mr. Right” strikes a perfect balance between dumb and awesome. I leave it to the readership to contribute other examples of gourmet cheese, where something that should be laughable actually turns out pretty great.)

Other Matters: Country music’s A-list couple, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, broke up last year. Shelton’s most recent album, If I’m Honest, could not help but be marketed as his response to the divorce (even though he wrote only one of the songs, a collaboration with Gwen Stefani). The first single, “Came Here to Forget” is your basic post-breakup lament as presently constructed by the Nashville machine, with references to drinking and texting. (One of the most tiresome tropes in country music right now is the cellphone, surpassed only by the pickup truck as a lifestyle signifier.) The second one, “She’s Got a Way With Words,” is different:

Little words like “I” and “do”
Lying, cheating, screwed
Yeah all the words I thought I knew
They got a brand new meaning now

At the time of the breakup, Shelton and Lambert both said all the right things about being sad and sorry and hoping to remain friends. Which makes “She’s Got a Way With Words” problematical. Either the stuff about being sad and sorry was BS, or “She’s Got a Way With Words” is an attempt to cash in on the breakup, and a crass, unsubtle one at that. My money is on the latter; for all his success, Blake Shelton doesn’t seem especially bright; my guess is somebody pitched him this song, he said hell yeah, never thought for a moment about how it would look, and that was that.

Miranda Lambert has yet to do a song about the breakup. Given the way she has enthusiastically embraced the crazy-ex role in many of her other songs, I am guessing that she’ll use a razor to greater effect than Blake uses a sledgehammer.

Other Other Matters: I am grateful to Mark, proprietor of My Favorite Decade, for sending me a package of 1976 memorabilia last week: two Falstaff Bicentennial beer cans and one of those bowls made from an old vinyl record (Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles). In 12 years, this blog thing has led to several relationships, real and electronic, that I value a great deal. If I’m honest, I have to say that I have been more on the receiving end of kindnesses than the sending end, but I hope to work on that.

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.

A Little Bit Hard

(Pictured: country/pop singer Juice Newton onstage in 1981.)

What follows is a string of random observations made while listening to the American Top 40 show from May 29, 1982, which was not always easy to listen to.

The number of bland adult-contemporary records is somewhat smaller than one year earlier, although “Friends in Love” by Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis (#40), “When He Shines” by Sheena Easton (#32), and “Making Love” by Roberta Flack (#19) fit the bill. The country crossovers on the chart are similarly bland, unrecognizable as country apart from the names of the artists attached to them: “I Don’t Know Where to Start” by Eddie Rabbitt (#36), “Any Day Now” by Ronnie Milsap (#34), and “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson (#8). “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard on Me” by Juice Newton (#26), which is not very country either, is the liveliest one of the lot.

Juice Newton got double the airplay on the 5/29/82 show: her hit from earlier in 1982, “The Sweetest Thing,” also featured in a long-distance dedication. It occurs to me that if Premiere’s modern-day producers want to cut time from the repeats, they could snip the dedication songs to a verse and a chorus. There would still be the endless letters—the one that went with “The Sweetest Thing” took at least two leaden minutes for Casey to read—but they were what made the feature popular, not the music.

There are some decent rock records sprinkled throughout: Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” is still hanging on at #37. “Caught Up in You” by .38 Special, “When It’s Over” by Loverboy, and “Hurts So Good” by John Cougar Mellencamp make a pretty good threesome at #31, #30, and #29 respectively, and “Rosanna” by Toto (#16)  doesn’t sound like anything else on the chart. There are some solid pop tunes as well: either “Only the Lonely” by the Motels (#39) or “Man on Your Mind” by the Little River Band (#14) might be the best thing on the show, if it’s not “Did It in a Minute” by Hall and Oates (#9). Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down on It” (#10) still sounds pretty good to me, even though it basically repeats the same eight measures for three minutes, and although it doesn’t get much airplay anymore, Rick Springfield’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers” (#2) holds up fairly well.

On the other hand, there’s “The Beatles Movie Medley” (#20), the only official Beatles release never to get a CD reissue, as far as I know. It’s a stitched-together medley of seven songs heard in various Beatles films that manages to leach all the excitement out of them. (Passable-quality YouTube video here.) Queen demonstrated conclusively that they were out of ideas with “Body Language,” which is scarcely a complete song and a terrible one. But even “Body Language” (#21) is better than Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” (#18). Details that ring false and rhymes that make you wince are sung in a plaintive whine, making “Run for the Roses” the absolute bottom of the Fogel-barrel. (It makes “Same Old Lang Syne” sound like Dylan.) Also better than “Run for the Roses”—but only by a nose—“I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene, which somehow holds another week at #3. Joan Jett’s bludgeoning of “Crimson and Clover” is at #17.

With “Don’t You Want Me” at #7, Casey quotes Human League’s producer Martin Rushent talking about how guitars are boring and synthesizers are the coming thing. His comments ended up quite prescient: as he suggested 34 years ago, it’s now possible to make nearly any sound you want electronically. The advance we’ve made is that keyboard-produced sound can be plausibly warm and recognizably human, something “Don’t You Want Me” is not. Neither is “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell at #33.

The Top 10 of this chart is all over the road. In addition to Kool and the Gang, Hall and Oates, Willie, Human League, Charlene, and Rick Springfield, there’s “’65 Love Affair” by Paul Davis (#6), which sounds like it should have come out in 1976, Ray Parker Jr.’s “The Other Woman” (#5), which defies classification as either a pop record or a soul record, and Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” (#4).

The top six songs are in the same positions as the week before. The #1 song—in its third of an eventual seven-week run at the top—is “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. This record was an incredibly big deal in the spring and summer of 1982, although now all we can hear is how dated it sounds, like something from another century. Which, come to think of it, it is.

Black is Back

(Pictured: country-pop singer Jeanne Black poses with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, July 9, 1960.)

Last week, I wrote about the American Top 40 show from May 22, 1976, in which Casey answered a listener letter about the most successful answer song in history. It was Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” which was an answer to Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go.” Both were sizable pop and country hits in 1960, although Reeves’ original remained in the country radio canon for the next quarter of a century while Black became the answer to a trivia question on American Top 40.

The day after my post appeared, The Mrs. and I were in the car, listening to the AT40 show from May 29, 1976—the very next week. And in the final hour of the show, Casey teased the same question from the same listener, and one song later, gave the very same answer.

I do my best to get facts right at this blog, but for various reasons, I don’t, always. It’s mortifying to get stuff wrong, but it’s destined to happen now and then. But if I had gotten the May 22 post wrong—if I had some how mixed up two weeks’ worth of AT40 shows in my memory—it would be a WTF moment for all time.

I told myself that I simply could not have gotten it wrong. I could not have commingled the two shows, because to my knowledge, I hadn’t heard the May 29 show, at least not since it originally ran in 1976. I vividly remember listening to the May 22 show a few years ago, when I wrote the post on which last week’s was based, and the post describes what I heard, moment by moment. But how in the hell could the same letter be on the show two weeks in a row? Had Premiere, the latter-day syndicator of the show, swapped out a letter and replaced it with a different one for some arcane reason? But that couldn’t be—Casey’s tease of the letter on the May 29 show was seamless and couldn’t have been a replacement. “I have last week’s show in my archives,” I said to Ann, “but this is gonna drive me nuts until we get home.”

When we did, I cued up the May 22 show, which unfolded exactly as I described it in my post. So it had undeniably happened: 40 years ago, Casey read the same letter and did the same trivia bit on two consecutive shows. As it turns out, the explanation is fairly prosaic: it was, according to AT40 historian Pete Battistini, a good old-fashioned production error. They simply used the same bit two weeks in a row, and nobody caught it. I’m not sure how, but nobody did.

The 5/29/76 show is notable for other reasons: it features the debut of “Crazy on You,” the first chart single by a new band called Heart, as well as Hall and Oates cracking the Top 10 with their first chart hit, “Sara Smile.” Themes from two of the top TV shows of the moment, Welcome Back Kotter and Happy Days, sit back-to-back in the Top 10, and are separated on the show by an AT40 extra, “The Twist” by Chubby Checker. “The Twist” adds more padding to a show that’s already heavily padded despite the presence of two lengthy records, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Jimmy Dean’s spoken-word tribute to Mom, “IOU”—there’s a feature on “Waltzing Matilda” being named the Australian national anthem and a “whatever happened to” feature on Bobby Lewis that includes his lone claim to fame, the 1961 rager “Tossin’ and Turnin’.”

As I noted above, I am fairly sure I listened to this particular show when it aired 40 years ago. AT40 was rarely on the station I listened to primarily; I always had to go looking for it. WROK in Rockford, Illinois, carried it on Sunday nights, but their FCC-mandated power cut at sunset often caused me to lose the very end of the show, and I’d sit there trying to pick it out through the static on the high end of the dial. And I expect that’s what I did on Memorial Day weekend of 1976.

Casey Country

(Pictured: Johnny Cash as Grand Marshall of the Grand Bicentennial Parade in Washington, July 4, 1976.)

(Before we begin: watch this space on Memorial Day Monday for a special programming announcement.)

I have often written here how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of many American Top 40 repeats, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.

I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at #36 with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-10 hit on the country charts. Up next at #35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”

May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from #83.

After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at #34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to #33: “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash.

By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.

Up at #24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers, not a country song but one with the working-man sensibility country audiences would recognize. As I listen, I remember that in 2006, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.

Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.

Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at #35 and “Union Man” would hold at #24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to #96 and out. And 40 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.

(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2010.)

Can’t Fight This Feeling

(Pictured: Kevin Cronin and Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon, on stage at Live Aid in 1985. You forgot they played that show, didn’t you?)

I have written before about how off-putting I find Casey Kasem’s style on AT40 shows from the middle of the 1980s. He speaks at a noticeably slow pace, as if he’s always trying to stretch, and rather than just talking to the audience, he sounds like he’s announcing at them. He’s doing both on the 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 flip.

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