(Pictured: Elvis in 1971, still a big deal.)
Back in the day, it was common for radio stations to do a year-end countdown based on their dial positions. For example, WLS, at 890 on the AM dial, counted down its Top 89 every year. At ARSA not long ago, I found one of the more ambitious year-end lists I’ve ever seen: from WCRV in Washington, New Jersey, 1580 on your AM dial, listing the top 158 hits of 1971.
It’s even bigger than that: the survey actually lists 167 songs in 158 positions: eight double-sided hit singles are included (although not Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe,” which strikes me weird), along with three versions of the theme from Love Story (Francis Lai, Andy Williams, and Henry Mancini).
The top of the chart reflects the top national hits of the year: “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night is #1, “Maggie May” is #2, and “Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond is #3. But those songs are just the tip of a 167-song iceberg.
(Pictured: the hairy dudes of Pablo Cruise.)
I have to admit that it’s been damn hard coming up with stuff to write about this month, October or no October. But because I don’t want a Friday to go by without posting something, let’s try this: a selection of songs that were sitting at #40 on the Billboard Hot 100 on this date, or a date to close to it, in years gone by. We’ll cover 1964 through 1986 because that is how we roll.
Week of 10/24/64: “You Really Got Me”/Kinks. I am probably wrong about this, but I suspect that “You Really Got Me” might contain one of the first iconic guitar riffs in rock history. What would be some earlier ones? In 1964 alone, the Beatles did “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Earlier than that, “Jailhouse Rock,” maybe. But I can’t think of any others just now.
Week of 10/23/65: “Dawn of Correction”/Spokesmen. It’s easy to characterize this as the reactionary response to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”—and it gives the game away in its first lines, “The western world has a common dedication / To keep free people from Red domination”—but it makes some valid points, too. Voter registration was up, the Peace Corps was making a difference, the United Nations was a vehicle for hope.
Week of 10/22/66: “Rain on the Roof”/Lovin’ Spoonful. The world of 1966 was neither sweet nor simple, but sweet, simple songs like this make it seem as though it must have been. (Compared to 2016, in which America is going collectively mad in slow motion, it almost certainly was.)
Week of 10/23/71: “I’m Comin’ Home”/Tommy James. In which Tommy James hooks his pop music mastery to his growing religiosity and I’ll be damned (see what I did there?) if it doesn’t sound just great.
Week of 10/21/72: “From the Beginning”/Emerson Lake & Palmer. Their only Top 40 hit, because “Lucky Man” stalled out at #48.
Week of 10/19/74: “When Will I See You Again”/Three Degrees. This song is so beautiful that at certain moments (which often occur in the fall of the year) I can barely stand to listen to it.
Week of 10/21/78: “Don’t Want to Live Without It”/Pablo Cruise. This was a great radio song from a band that knew how to make them, even if the public didn’t always buy them in large amounts.
Week of 10/20/79: “Rainbow Connection”/Kermit (Jim Henson). During the first autumn of the 1970s, Henson was on the singles chart as a Sesame Street character, Ernie, doing the intolerable “Rubber Duckie.” During the last autumn of the 70s, he was back as a more versatile and enduring character, Kermit the Frog, and a far better song.
Week of 10/25/80: “Never Be the Same”/Christopher Cross. I occasionally annoyed my college radio colleagues by wanting to play certain records I liked that were straight-up pop radio cheese. Like “Never Be the Same.”
Week of 10/17/81: “Burnin’ for You”/Blue Oyster Cult. Although “Burnin’ for You” never got higher than #40, it has been a classic-rock radio essential for 35 years now. The album Fire of Unknown Origin got a lot of play on our college radio station, especially the bizarro track “Joan Crawford,” with a video containing a great deal of fked-up Catholic schoolgirl imagery.
Week of 10/23/82: “Get Closer”/Linda Ronstadt. I am pretty sure that I hadn’t heard this song in over 30 years before I listened it while writing this post. It’s far, far better than I remember. (And in the video, Linda is just smokin’ hot.)
Week of 10/18/86: “The Way It Is”/Bruce Hornsby and the Range. There had never been anything that sounded quite like this, with that rippling, rolling, powerful piano. When I got to the elevator-music station early in 1987, we had a version of it with all the vocals edited out.
The link in the last paragraph goes to a blog post by Len O’Kelly, who came to the elevator-music station, KRVR in Davenport, Iowa, shortly before all of us got sacked in a format change. It captures the essence of the place extremely well. If you enjoy the pondwater you find at this blog, odds are pretty good that you’ll like Len’s blog, too.
(Pictured: Louise Lasser, star of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Chevy Chase, doing a bit for Saturday Night Live. Lasser’s 1976 hosting gig was one of the most notorious in SNL history.)
September 25th is One-Hit Wonder Day. I usually forget to observe it, because every day is some kind of day and the good ones get lost in the shuffle. But here, a day late, is a list of one-hit wonders from 1976. It’s not the complete list for the year, but each one is the only chart entry for that artist.
“Junk Food Junkie”/Larry Groce. If I were still teaching social studies, I’d use “Junk Food Junkie” as a snapshot from the Me Decade because it rings so true. Idealism has its limits today, and it did back in the 70s, too. Groce has continued to record since the 70s and has been a host on West Virginia Public Radio since 1983. (Chart peak: #13, March 20)
“Baby Face”/Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps. The Corps was a studio group assembled by Harold Wheeler, who had been Burt Bacharach’s musical director in the 60s and would go on to a long career working in movies and TV, including many years as musical director of Dancing With the Stars. “Baby Face” is a disco version of a song made famous by Al Jolson in the 20s, if you think that’s something you need. (Chart peak: #14, March 6)
“Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang)”/Silver. The distilled essence of 70s radio music and one of the glorious frozen moments from the fall of ’76. (Chart peak: #16, October 2)
“I’m Easy”/Keith Carradine. Oscar-winning song from Nashville. (Chart peak: #17, August 7)
“Street Singin'”/Lady Flash. A female trio who backed Barry Manilow during the last half of the 70s. Their lone hit is not as interesting as the story of one member. Lorraine “Reparata” Mazzola had joined Reparata and the Delrons (a group better known for their name than their music) in 1969. Although she wasn’t the original Reparata, she was happy to let people think she was. The original Reparata, Mary O’Leary, sued Mazzola and won her case when Mazzola didn’t show up for court. But Mazzola then legally changed her first name from Lorraine to Reparata, and continued to let people believe she had been lead singer of the Delrons. According to Wikipedia, that is, so who the hell knows. (Chart peak: #27, September 18)
“Roots, Rock, Reggae”/Bob Marley and the Wailers. Their only American chart single, from their most successful American album, Rastaman Vibration. (Not counting the back-catalog compilation Legend, which is one of the great success stories in pop music history. (Chart peak: #51, July 17.)
“BLT”/Lee Oskar. Oskar’s harmonica gave War its distinctive sound until he left the band in 1992. He’s been selling his own line of harmonicas ever since. (Chart peak: #59, July 24)
“You to Me Are Everything”/The Real Thing and “Mighty High”/Mighty Clouds of Joy. The question we often ask about one-hit wonders is how they could be so good yet manage to hit only once. In the case of the Real Thing, “You to Me Are Everything” was hamstrung by two competing versions in the marketplace at the same time. As for the Mighty Clouds of Joy, who knows? They were a gospel group who made the transition to pop in the 70s, and “Mighty High” is a rager. (Chart peak for the Real Thing: #64, August 28; for Mighty Clouds of Joy: #69, March 27.
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”/Deadly Nightshade. Soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, premiered in January 1976 and was one of the TV sensations of the year, syndicated around the country and running at all different times. It was supposed to be a comedy and sometimes it was, but it could be strange and disturbing, too. Members of the Deadly Nightshade had been playing together in rock bands since the 60s, but because they were all women, major labels didn’t take their groups seriously. Their disco version of the Hartman theme comes from an album called Funky and Western. (Chart peak: #79, July 31)
“The Game Is Over”/Brown Sugar. This Philly soul trio’s lone hit was written and produced by Vince Montana, who had been a member of MFSB and founded the Salsoul Orchestra—and it’s really good. (Chart peak: #79, March 13)
You can read about many more one-hit wonders if you revisit my Down in the Bottom series from a few years ago, in which I wrote about all of them to peak on the Hot 100 between #90 and #100 from 1955 through 1986.
(Pictured: Danny O’Keefe, who Gets It.)
Yesterday was the first day of fall. So let’s look at a few Billboard Hot 100s and what was at #40 on some autumnal equinoxes gone by, just to see what there is to hear.
1961: “Let’s Get Together”/Hayley Mills & Hayley Mills (up from #69, third week on). That’s how the record was listed in Billboard; in the movie The Parent Trap, it’s sung as a duet between the twins Mills played in the film. It would reach #8 in October, and sweet mama it’s terrible.
1964: “Let It Be Me”/Betty Everett & Jerry Butler (up from #54, third week on). The Everly Brothers had taken “Let It Be Me” into the Top 10 in 1960, and this duet would make the Top 10 as well. It would chart again in years to come . . . as you’ll see.
1966: “God Only Knows”/Beach Boys (up from #42, sixth week on). If Brian Wilson felt as though he was in competition with the Beatles after Rubber Soul and Revolver, he bested them with this. Paul McCartney admired it, perhaps because as gifted as he was, he couldn’t do anything like it.
1967: “Pleasant Valley Sunday”/Monkees (down from #25, 10th week on). In 1967, social consciousness popped up in the most unlikely places.
1970: “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five (debut). New on the Hot 100 at this lofty position, and a miracle that will last forever.
1971: “Yo Yo”/Osmonds (up from #85, second week on). Similarities between the Osmonds and the Jackson Five abound. When ABC launched an Osmonds cartoon series in the fall of 1972, the production company reused some of the animations from the Jackson Five series, figuring that dancing kids were dancing kids.
1972: “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”/Danny O’Keefe (up from #51, fourth week on). A beautiful, world-weary song we’ve always dug around here, and the world-wearier we get, the more we dig it.
1975: “Who Loves You”/Four Seasons (up from #50, fifth week on). Not every group from the 60s, particularly a group as distinctive as the Four Seasons, could comfortably update their sound for the 70s, but the Seasons did it as well as I can imagine.
1976: “Sunrise”/Eric Carmen (up from #43, sixth week on). “All By Myself” was an epic power ballad, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” a standard pop weeper. On “Sunrise,” after a brief interlude of overwrought guitar, Eric Carmen gets his Raspberries on.
1977: “The King Is Gone”/Ronnie McDowell (up from #89, second week on). McDowell’s tribute to Elvis was on the radio within three weeks of the King’s passing. “The King Is Gone” would rise to #13 on both the pop and country charts. It started McDowell’s career, although he took a while to find his stride. Between 1981 and 1986, he would put 17 straight singles into the country Top 10, and an 18th would peak at #11.
1982: “Let It Be Me”/Willie Nelson (up from #45, seventh week on). Ever since Stardust in 1978, Willie sprinkled his list of single releases with classic pop songs. Willie’s version of “Let It Be Me” would peak at #40 on the Hot 100 but reach #2 country.
1983: “Suddenly Last Summer”/The Motels (up from #44, third week on). There has never been anything else that sounds like this.
1984: “Strut”/Sheena Easton (up from #45, fifth week on). In which Sheena, who had been mostly a virginal pop balladeer up to this point, gets her swagger on. “Strut” is a great radio record.
1985: “Sunset Grill”/Don Henley (up from #42, fourth week on). Where the Eagles’ “The Sad Cafe” is a place for sweet nostalgia and even hope, “Sunset Grill” is on a dead-end street, where everything’s a little bit sleazy and people stay because they can’t think of a good reason to leave.
1987: “Bad”/Michael Jackson (debut). Me, 2012: “To Jackson’s credit, he didn’t try to make Thriller II. Bad is supposed to be the next thing, on its own. Maybe Bad sounds [less exciting than Thriller] because Thriller changed the world and Bad merely lived in the new world that Thriller had changed.”
1989: “The End of the Innocence”/Don Henley (down from #23, 14th week on). As the Reagan Era shades into the new decade of the 90s, everything’s a little bit sleazy and people stay because they’re too exhausted to leave.
That feels like an appropriate ending to this post, except to add that sometime this week, we passed the threshold of 800,000 hits on this blog since 2007. I am grateful for all of them.
(Pictured: a young man examines a display in the “Think Metric” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1975.)
In December 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which set up the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate a voluntary transition to the metric system. (It was to be complete by the end of 1992.) Some industries—particularly those doing business worldwide—switched over; many more did not. You probably could have predicted that Americans would in general resist the metric system, but at the time, we weren’t quite as cynical as we are now. And so there was a concerted and completely serious public effort to get people on board with the metric system.
One of the most interesting artifacts I’ve ever seen from this era is on a radio station survey from WLAC in Nashville, dated June 21, 1976. It’s headed “Metro Music Metric Survey” and “Hits That Measured Up,” and that’s only the beginning. On the front cover, on either side of the obligatory DJ photo, are a pair of rulers, one showing inches and one showing centimeters. Across the page from the hit list, there’s a chart showing how to convert length, area, mass, volume, and temperature—although the table shows how to convert from metric to English units and not vice versa, which might have been more useful for teaching purposes. WLAC apparently did this for a while in 1976—a survey from April has the same metric extras. But by sometime in late ’76 or 1977, WLAC would drop the metric stuff from their surveys.
I have written a million times about the songs at the top of this survey, so let’s listen to some of the obscurities further down:
18. “The Hungry Years”/Wayne Newton (up from 19). This was the title song of the album that brought Neil Sedaka back to prominence in 1975, and I can remember hearing his version of the title song on the radio back then. Newton’s version was his first chart hit in over three years and made it to #82 on the Hot 100.
19. “Good Vibrations”/Todd Rundgren (up from 23). In 1976, Rundgren released Faithful, which included a side of songs from 1966, not merely covers but recreations of the originals as closely as possible. (Also included were songs by the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and two by the Beatles, “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) Critics liked the originals on side 2 much better, but you can judge for yourself: listen to the whole album right here.
20. “Lonely Teardrops”/Narvel Felts (up from 22). Besides possessing one of the countriest names in country, Narvel Felts did pretty well for himself in the middle of the 1970s by covering familiar hits: Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” the blues standard “Reconsider Me,” and “Lonely Teardrops,” originally made famous by Jackie Wilson, were all Top-10 hits on the country chart. “Lonely Teardrops” made #62 on the Hot 100.
22. “Framed”/Cheech and Chong (up from 25). From the album Sleeping Beauty, “Framed” is better remembered for its appearance in the duo’s first movie, Up in Smoke.
29. “Yes, Yes, Yes”/Bill Cosby (down from 10). Apart from his long string of very successful and very funny comedy albums, Cosby hit the Hot 100 with five singles, including the 1967 Top-10 hit “Little Ole Man,” a parody of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.” “Yes Yes Yes” is a Barry White/Isaac Hayes parody; it made #46 on the Hot 100 and was Cosby’s last Hot 100 single. The album from which it came, Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days, was his first in three years, and is made up entirely of musical parodies.
The Metric Conversion Act was modified by later acts of Congress and executive orders, and the Metric Board went out of business sometime in the 80s. However, it’s still the official position of the U.S. government that we’re going to switch to the metric system eventually, even though it’s clear to the rest of us that absent an invasion and takeover by some metric power, we never will.
(Partially rebooted from a 2008 post, but mostly new. Imagine that.)
(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.