(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.
(Pictured: Bryan Adams hangs out backstage, circa 1985.)
Here’s a chart from CILQ, an album-rock station in Toronto, dated May 18, 1985. There are some pretty familiar albums listed, and they contain songs that haven’t been off the radio since 1985: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Summer of ’69,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Boys of Summer.” And there’s also the stuff on the flip:
(Pictured: Potsie, Ralph, Richie, and the Fonz discuss vital issues of the day.)
Forty years ago this week, I was finishing up my sophomore year in high school by locking down my class schedule for the fall. For the first time, we were permitted to schedule classes ourselves instead of taking what they told us to take when they told us to take it. The baseball team, of which I was equipment manager, won one game and lost two. John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” was the new #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 dated May 8th, while the previous week’s #1, “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, plunged to #9. “Silly Love Songs” by Wings and Silver Convention’s “Get Up and Boogie” were new in the Top 10. The hottest record in the Top 40 was the Rolling Stones’ double-sided hit, “Fool to Cry” and “Hot Stuff,” which leaped from #46 to #20.
What’s at the top of that May 8th chart is the soundtrack of my life, and it plays in my head without the need for any other hardware. Down at the bottom, however, the going gets weird. That stuff is on the flip.
(Pictured: a driver’s ed student practices parallel parking, 1976.)
Forty years ago today—April 13, 1976—I got my driver’s license.
It was the culmination of a process that started in the fall of 1975 when I took the required one-semester driver’s ed course. It seemed easy to the point of ridiculousness—but it couldn’t have been too easy, since my report card from that semester shows I got a B for the first nine weeks. The course was taught by a man who taught only driver education in addition to proctoring a couple of study halls. Just as nobody grows up wanting to be a middle-relief pitcher, I suspect this guy didn’t go off to college nurturing the desire to teach barely respectful sophomores the rules of the road, but a job is a job.
After completing the classroom course, the next step was to take behind-the-wheel instruction. You’d drive with an instructor in the passenger seat, and share your hour with a partner. My partner was a girl I barely knew. We didn’t even know the same people, so we had quite literally nothing in common, and as a result we barely spoke, either in the car or out of it.
I remember only two things about my behind-the-wheel test. One, that I was not asked to parallel park, which is something that had kept more than one of my friends from passing on the first try. (Since I never had to learn to do it right, I have never done it well.) And two, the smile I eventually got from the cop who had ridden along with me. After I parked outside the local DMV office and watched him calmly making notes on his clipboard, the suspense was killing me. I finally asked, “Did I make it?” “Yeah, you passed.”
(I was spared the fate of one classmate, who had apparently aced the behind-the-wheel test until she ran into a parked car while returning to the lot.)
On the radio that week, the #1 song on WLS was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in its second of five weeks at the top. Holding at #2 was “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” by the Captain and Tennille, a record I like more now than I did then. The hottest song on the chart was at #3: the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” which took a mighty leap from #12 the week before. The glorious variety of 70s Top 40 music was on display within the Top 10, where Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” and Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” sat alongside the Four Seasons (“December 1963”), Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) and Dr. Hook (“Only Sixteen”). Besides “Boogie Fever,” only one other song was new among the week’s top 10: “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which went from #18 to #9. Other big movers on the WLS survey included “Lorelei” by Styx (#17 to #11), “Baby Face” by the Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps, a disco version of a hit from the 1920s (#31 to #21), and “Show Me the Way” by Peter Frampton (#45 to #28).
Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 by the Eagles held at #1 on the album chart; fast movers included the Captain and Tennille’s Song of Joy (#14 to #5), Fool for the City by Foghat (#15 to #9), and Frampton Comes Alive (#17 to #11). Notables on the album chart include two Aerosmith albums in the top five (Aerosmith and Toys in the Attic), a listing that reads Runes (Led Zeppelin IV), which moved from #20 to #19, and Robin Trower Live debuting at #31. The list is actually pretty solid, with a bunch of greatest-hits compilations and plenty of classics: A Night at the Opera, Desire, Still Crazy After All These Years, Fleetwood Mac, One of These Nights.
After I passed the test and tucked the license safely into my wallet, my father let me drive the family car—the banana-yellow ’73 Mercury Montego—home in triumph. With the radio on, of course.
(Pictured: Motown singer Brenda Holloway, in an unconventional shot.)
Since before Christmas, we’ve been listening to records that spent a single week in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1964 and 1986. This installment is starting beyond that time frame, however.
During the week of June 22, 1959, “Tall Cool One” by the Wailers rose to #36 for a single week before dropping out of the 40. Almost exactly five years later, during the week of May 30, 1964, the very same recording of “Tall Cool One” entered the Top 40 for another single week, hitting #38 before dropping out again. So they may not belong here at all—or they may deserve extra-special recognition. Either way, the Wailers occupy their own special niche in music history. Backing a fellow Washington state singer named Rockin’ Robin Roberts, they cut the prototype version of “Louie, Louie” in 1961, and are considered one of the first garage bands.
The Viscounts, an instrumental group from New Jersey, also re-charted an earlier hit to make this list. Early in 1960, they hit #52 with “Harlem Nocturne.” Six years later, the same recording made the Top 40—#39, to be precise, for the week of January 1, 1966.
Another fabled garage band, the Shadows of Knight, recorded a version of “Gloria” that hit #10, far eclipsing the original version by Van Morrison’s group Them. They had four other Hot 100 hits in 1966 alone, but only one made the Top 40 and stayed but a week, “Oh Yeah,” at #39 for the week of July 2, 1966. The Five Americans, a group of Oklahomans who formed officially in Dallas, are also considered a garage band. They hit the Top 40 four times, most famously with “Western Union” in 1967. “Zip Code” hit #36 for the week of September 17, 1967. Zip codes were relatively new back then, and the writer of the song had a little trouble with the concept, referring to the zip code “one double-oh-three six-oh-eleven.” Still, if the Postal Service never tried to turn it into a public-service announcement, they failed at their job.
Dionne Warwick, who charted many, many Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs, took their “Are You There (With Another Girl)” to #39 for the week of January 22, 1966. One week later, Fontella Bass, best known for “Rescue Me,” hit #37 with her followup single, “Recovery.”
“Rescue Me” is the best Motown single not to appear on Motown. Brenda Holloway, who actually did appear on Motown, hit #39 with the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which she co-wrote, on December 4, 1967. Two weeks later, it would be gone from the Hot 100, and about as quickly, Holloway would be gone from Motown.
Just as Dionne Warwick recorded plenty of Bacharach/David songs, the Fifth Dimension recorded several by Jimmy Webb. After making an indelible smash of “Up Up and Away,” they released Webb’s “Paper Cup,” which Allmusic.com describes as Webb’s tribute to the Beatles, seeming to borrow from “Getting Better” and “Penny Lane.” It bounced from #44 to #34 and back to #44 again, reaching its peak for the week of December 9, 1967.
Other adult pop stars are on our list. Dean Martin made it with “Come Running Back,” which made #35 for the week of June 11, 1966. So did Vikki Carr, who followed her #3 smash “It Must Be Him” with “The Lesson,” which hit #34 for the week of January 27, 1968. Petula Clark hit the Top 40 with 15 straight singles between 1965 and 1968. The last one, “Don’t Give Up,” made #37 for the week of August 24, 1968. (“Don’t Give Up” is a song I didn’t know I remembered; it must have gotten a lot of airplay on our hometown radio station and I absorbed it by accident.) Engelbert Humperdinck was a regular visitor to the Top 40 during about the same time; “I’m a Better Man,” another Bacharach/David joint, made #38 for the week of September 27, 1969. All four of these hits made the Top 10 on the Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart; “The Lesson” was #1.
If I’m counting correctly (always a questionable proposition), we have 28 songs remaining on this list, so future installments of this feature are guaranteed—as much as anything is guaranteed in a world such as this.