Looking Over My Shoulder

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Aimee Mann of Til Tuesday, in the mid-80s.) 

I have fallen out of the former habit of looking at the Bottom 60 of every American Top 40 show I write about, so let’s try and get back into that. First up, a few songs from the week of September 12, 1970.

43. “That’s Where I Went Wrong”/Poppy Family. A very autumnal record that has been a favorite of this website since always.

45. “Indiana Wants Me”/R. Dean Taylor. Up from #86 in its second week on. Taylor had a gift for weirdly intense melodrama, which “Indiana Wants Me” surely is. See also “Candy Apple Red,” in which jilted lover R. Dean commits suicide in a church.

58. “Sunday Morning Coming Down”/Johnny Cash
82. “For the Good Times”/Ray Price
Both of these Kris Kristofferson songs reward repeated listening. Cash carries (yeah I said it) “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the authority in his voice; “For the Good Times” has a beautiful arrangement by Nashville veteran Cam Mullins.

83. “Fire and Rain”/James Taylor
84. “We’ve Only Just Begun”/Carpenters
Both of these debut on the Hot 100 in this week, signaling that the soft-rock 70s had begun.

88. “Montego Bay”/Bobby Bloom
105. “God, Love, and Rock and Roll”/Teegarden and Van Winkle
Two of the first 45s I ever owned; if I’m recalling correctly, Santa Claus brought ’em in December.

91. “Monster Mash”/Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. Here’s the first return of the 1962 #1 hit; it would be back and bigger in 1973, when it made the Billboard Top 10—in the middle of the summer.

96. “Border Song”/Elton John. This was Elton’s first American chart single, a couple of weeks after his debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. It charted briefly at WMCA in New York and became a Top-10 hit in Memphis, but would peak at #92 on the Hot 100. “Your Song” was not far behind.

100. “Loving You’s a Natural Thing”/Ronnie Milsap. While he was coming up, Milsap made several records in an R&B style. “Loving You’s a Natural Thing” moves him toward the country sound that would make him a superstar before long.

102. “Holy Man”/Diane Kolby. Behold this Christian rock song of praise in which Kolby sings to Jesus like one would to a lover, aroused by the idea that “you’re the one who knows when I will die, die, die.”

And now, the Bottom 60 from another week I’ve discussed here recently: August 31, 1985, with links to music videos from the time:

41. “Do You Want Crying”/Katrina and the Waves
43. “Spanish Eddie”/Laura Branigan
Both of the videos for “Do You Want Crying” and “Spanish Eddie” are very very 80s (and both songs sounded great on the radio back then), but what’s striking as I watch them is how both Katrina Leskanich and Laura Branigan look like the kind of woman you’d run into at the grocery store, and I mean that in a positive way. Nikki Minaj they ain’t.

52. “Four in the Morning”/Night Ranger
63. “Sentimental Street”/Night Ranger
“Four in the Morning” and “Sentimental Street” are bombastic, overblown hogwash that also sounded great on the radio. Like Night Ranger’s stuff generally.

61. “You Look Marvelous”/Billy Crystal. The 1984-85 season of Saturday Night Live featured a great cast, including Crystal, Christopher Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Belushi, Rich Hall, and Martin Short. Although few involved remember the season very fondly today, it featured some great characters, including Crystal’s Latin lover Fernando. I am mildly surprised to have found a copy of Crystal’s album Mahvelous! on a shelf in my office.

66. “Looking Over My Shoulder”/Til Tuesday
73. “Voices Carry”/Til Tuesday
Like Katrina and the Waves, Til Tuesday deserved better than to be a one-hit wonder, although “Looking Over My Shoulder” isn’t as memorable as “Do You Want Crying.”

Another Thing Entirely: on my early-morning Internet rounds today I found a fabulous story about Chicago DJ Dex Card and the rock clubs and concerts he promoted in the Chicago area and southeastern Wisconsin during the late 60s and early 70s. It’s actually the third post in a series. Another tells the story of the Majestic Hills Music Theater near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, an outdoor venue that attracted top artists of 50 years ago, before the more famous Alpine Valley Music Theater was built. Still another charts the frequent appearances of the Buffalo Springfield in the area during their 1967 heyday. The posts are on Kenosha [Wisconsin] Potpourri, which is maintained by local historian Steve Marovich, and is the kind of site every community ought to have. If you’re in Wisconsin, you’ll dig it, and maybe even if you’re not.

/jingle out/

Express Yourself

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: B. J. Thomas, 1970.)

A couple of years ago I wrote about the American Top 40 show from September 5, 1970, and described Casey Kasem’s performance as “ragged and weird.” So I listened to the show from the next week to see if that continued, or if things got better.

40. “Lola”/Kinks. In its earliest days, AT40 was recorded in real time, essentially a live radio show on tape. Fixing a mistake meant re-recording a whole segment. So if Casey launched an odd ad lib over an intro, like “Lola rhymes with cola,” and did so while being half drowned-out by the music, they were inclined to leave it in.

39. “Express Yourself”/Charles Wright
35. “Out in the Country”/Three Dog Night
33. “Closer to Home”/Grand Funk Railroad
31. “Long Long Time”/Linda Ronstadt
30. “Joanne”/Michael Nesmith
Casey introduces “Closer to Home” with a story about GFR’s block-long, hundred-thousand dollar billboard in New York City, says something nearly inaudible about Linda Ronstadt and Tucson over the intro of her song, and calls Michael Nesmith “a nice guy.” Although there are other candidates later on, any one of these could be the best song on the show.

37. “I Want to Take You Higher”/Ike and Tina Turner
36. “Tell It All Brother”/Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
34. “Peace Will Come”/Melanie
32. “Sex Machine”/James Brown
Elsewhere in the first hour, the contrasts between hard R&B and lame hippie twaddle can give a guy whiplash.

29. “Neanderthal Man”/Hotlegs. This website recently suggested that Godley and Creme’s 1985 hit “Cry” should be shot into the sun. It would like to suggest the same destination for Godley and Creme’s 1970 hit “Neanderthal Man.”

26. “All Right Now”/Free
25. “It’s a Shame”/Spinners
24. “I Just Can’t Help Believing”/B. J. Thomas
23. “Why Can’t I Touch You”/Ronnie Dyson
22. “Cracklin’ Rosie”/Neil Diamond
21. “Solitary Man”/Neil Diamond
20. “Groovy Situation”/Gene Chandler

This is a solid 20 minutes. “All Right Now” would become one of the most-played songs in the history of radio, although there was little reason to think so in September 1970. “It’s a Shame” is produced by Stevie Wonder, who also plays all the instruments. “Why Can’t I Touch You” and “Groovy Situation” have been favorites of this website since always. “I Just Can’t Help Believing” is always welcome, and the two Neil Diamond songs are probably the six best minutes of the whole 20.

19. “Hi-De-Ho”/Blood Sweat and Tears
13. “Signed Sealed Delivered”/Stevie Wonder
In which Casey gets off a couple of nice bits of jock-craft, talking around the horn fanfare that opens “Hi-De-Ho” and getting out of the way of Stevie’s verbalizing in the intro of “Signed Sealed Delivered.”

18. “Rubber Duckie”/Ernie (Jim Henson)
17. “Hand Me Down World”/Guess Who
16. “I Know I’m Losing You”/Rare Earth
We all love the Muppets, but sweet mama “Rubber Duckie” is intolerable. Thank goodness the Guess Who and Rare Earth are here to hose out the bathtub afterward.

15. “I (Who Have Nothing)”/Tom Jones. On early AT40s, Casey sometimes made cringeworthy remarks about Jones’ effect on the ladies, although he didn’t do it here. My favorite, which would come on the September 26 show, is “Something happens to a woman over 35 when she hears the voice of Tom Jones.”

11. “Candida”/Dawn
10. “Spill the Wine”/Eric Burdon and War
9. “Make It With You”/Bread
8. “Close to You”/Carpenters
7. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman
Casey had started the third hour with an awkward tease about an artist who was discovered at a Hollywood party attended by Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Roddy McDowall, and Sal Mineo. Seven songs later, he got to the artist in question: Bobby Sherman.

From #11 on up to #1, this is where it all begins for me, songs I heard during my first few weeks as a listener, the ones that quite literally changed my life.

6. “Patches”/Clarence Carter
5. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”/CCR
4. “25 or 6 to 4″/Chicago
3. “In the Summertime”/Mungo Jerry
2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross
1. “War”/Edwin Starr
Casey refers to “In the Summertime” as “reggae fron England.” His engineer lays the “Billboard‘s number one” jingle over the drum-roll intro of “War,” but the level is too low and it gets buried.

Working out the obvious technical bugs (and there were several others) would be critical to the show’s development. So would a greater emphasis on scripting and timing. At this point, 10 episodes in, the staff was relying mostly on Casey’s radio skills and his gift of gab to carry the show, but it wouldn’t be long before they figured out the advantages of more rigorous preparation. As I wrote two years ago, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show became The Show and the man became The Man only after that.”

One Thing Right

Embed from Getty Images

This is the second part of a thing. Read the first part here.

It must be true for other careers, not just radio: when you choose it as a young kid, when it becomes the dream of your life, you idealize it. I certainly did. When I pretended to be on the radio, up in my boyhood bedroom talking over the songs on WLS or WCFL, I had all the fun of being a radio jock—cracking wise, hitting the post, just generally sounding cool—without all of the reality I would eventually learn about.

To wit: off-air responsibilities, sometimes tedious or unrewarding. Weird working hours that put you out of sync with other people in your life. Weekends and holidays on the air, which can do the same. Difficult colleagues. Clueless bosses. Small paychecks. Playing music you don’t particularly like. The ratings. Wondering if your talent is enough. The feeling that nobody, listeners or management, understands or cares about the effort you’re putting in.

Practically nobody ever quits radio because they hate being on the air. What drives out most of those who leave is overwhelmingly the other stuff. But being behind the studio door, headphones on, microphone cracked, talking to the people—the process and the feeling of making a show—that’s what keeps us coming back to work every day, and to the industry itself if ever we leave it, in spite of the other stuff.

For a radio lifer, being on the air can be like chasing the dragon. You want the rush you get when it feels like it feels when you dream of how it should feel. You won’t get it every time and probably not even very often, but when you do, it’s like nothing else. The specifics depend on who you are: music jock, talk host, play-by-play announcer. But the realization is the same: you’re an addict, and you know you’ll never kick.

I was on the air a couple of Saturday nights back, doing my 70s music show. I was talking over the introduction of a record, delivering the bit I had scripted a few minutes before. I hadn’t thought about it in advance, but as I spoke, I found myself instinctively reaching for the post I knew was in the intro, hitting it, and then finishing the bit right as the vocal began, with my best boss-jock flourish. And as I did it, I flashed on the way I had done that very thing 50 years before, upstairs in my bedroom at home, while I was pretending to be on the radio, probably with that very same song.

In that moment, I caught the dragon.

Anyone who is even halfway self-aware, no matter who they are or what they do, sometimes has doubts about the choices they’ve made. About a career, or a particular aspect of that career. About a relationship. About how they responded to a situation or answered a question. Lying awake at night, or during those long hours behind the wheel when the mind wanders, we wonder: did I do the right thing? What if I got it wrong? Should I be doing this thing that I am doing? Or should I be doing something else?

In 2011, I wrote this:

We have moments in which we see our lives whole. The dreams we had and the way they came true—or didn’t. The ways in which we have succeeded, and in which we have failed. What we have done, and what we have left undone. We see the faces and hear the voices of those we love and those we have lost. Everything that was, everything that is—and, perhaps, everything that is going to be—rushes in on us all at once.

That Saturday night, everything that was, everything that is, and everything that is going to be rushed in on me, all at once. I was reminded that in my life, amidst all the missteps and regrets and better roads not taken, I got at least one thing right.

Hi Bob

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart banter at the Emmys in 2002. She died in 2008; he celebrated his 93rd birthday earlier this month.) 

Fifty years ago tonight, on Saturday, September 16, 1972, The Bob Newhart Show premiered on CBS. It was in a comfortable slot, following The Mary Tyler Moore Show and preceding Mission: Impossible. (The Carol Burnett Show would not move to the 9PM Central timeslot until December of ’72.) I have been rewatching it lately, and it’s better than I remember. The show changed a lot between the pilot and the debut. The pilot aired as the ninth episode in November 1972 and it’s vastly different: Bob and Emily are trying to have a baby (something Newhart himself would veto later in the series’ run) and Emily is a ditzy sitcom wife, and not Bob’s intellectual equal, as she would become. The show that emerged afterward is a much better one. The first episode that aired is one of the series’ best-remembered: Emily joins Bob’s fear-of-flying group.

(Premiering on the same night as The Bob Newhart Show was Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about newlyweds played by Meredith Baxter and David Birney, who later married in real life. She’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, and comedy flows from the clash of cultures. Slotted between All in the Family, the #1 show on television, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it became a smash hit. But Bridget Loves Bernie faced criticism from Jewish groups almost immediately, and one of them organized an advertiser boycott. Although it ended up #5 in the ratings for the entire 1972-1973 TV season, CBS canceled it. I have seen a couple of episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie in recent years but have not deliberately sought them out. My suspicion is that after all this time, what offended religious leaders in 1972 would look pretty tame now.)

The next night, on Sunday, September 17, 1972, another new show premiered on CBS: M*A*S*H. It aired at 7PM Central, between Anna and the King, with Yul Brynner in a sitcom adaptation of The King and I, and The Sandy Duncan Show, a retooled version of Duncan’s 1971 series Funny Face. I wonder if the CBS scheduling people understood what the network had bought. The first episode, in which the surgeons raffle off a trip to Tokyo with a nurse, is remarkably raunchy for its time; it would have presented a jarring contrast with Anna and the King‘s comedy of manners and Sandy Duncan’s wacky cuteness. The first three seasons of M*A*S*H are filled with the same dark, cutting comedy. Certain episodes from those seasons do a better job of conveying the meaning and meaninglessness of war than later, more acclaimed episodes that more consciously strove to do that. I have seen some of the earliest episodes 20 or 30 times, and the best of them still hold up.

(Earlier in the same week, CBS also premiered Maude and The Waltons. The network’s development department had a very good year in 1972.)

M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and The Carol Burnett Show are still running, on broadcast TV outlets, cable channels, and streamers, 40 years and more after leaving the air. (Maude and The Waltons too, although they’re a bit harder to find.) They are not merely old, but “classic.” Fans of each were part of a mass audience sharing a communal viewing experience that lasted several years, even after the shows left network air, and the shows and their characters still resonate today.

That doesn’t really happen anymore, and to the extent it does, it’s on a much smaller scale. There’s just too much TV now, and audiences are splintered. Nothing can achieve the mass audience that old-fashioned “classic” status requires. In the 70s, hit shows routinely attracted 20 million viewers or more. Last month, Better Call Saul had the most talked-about series finale of the last several years, but the talk translated to 2.7 million viewers. (Ask a random person at your office if they saw it. Odds are they didn’t.)

In the future, there will still be “old” shows, and they are likely to find a home on some streaming service years after they go out of production. But they will not be classic in the sense that we apply to many beloved shows of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Songs and Stories

Embed from Getty Images

My radio station went all-70s on Saturdays in 1989. The details changed over the years (start time, end time, American Top 40 shows came and went), but it remained essentially an all-day thing, until the first Saturday of 2022, when management dropped the all-day 70s program and put it on from seven til midnight only.

That first day, with Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa playing all day instead of Elton John and Donna Summer, caused the station’s Facebook page and studio e-mail box to melt down. I wasn’t especially surprised by the volume of the response, only at the harshness of a lot of it. This went on for six or eight weeks before things calmed down. Now those “what happened to 70s music” e-mails have become infrequent, whenever the occasional coma victim wakes up.

Every now and then a message or a phone call would come in from somebody who seemed sincerely interested in the reasoning behind the decision, so I would try to explain. It comes down to the passage of time, I said. Our radio station has always been targeted at people aged 25 to 49. In 1989, that meant people born between 1940 and 1964, people whose formative music years were essentially from the mid 1950s to the late 80s. Seventies music falls right in the middle of that. In 2022, people in the target audience are born between 1973 and 1997. Their formative music years run from the late 80s to, well, right now. I said to one woman, “70s music means as much to our target audience today as 40s music did to us when we were 30.”

“Oh,” she responded. “I get it now.”

The decision to put the 70s show on from seven til midnight was coupled with another one: to make me the sole host and producer of the show. I have probably gotten too old and tired and jaded to fully appreciate what management did: they handed me five hours of airtime and said, “Play 70s music, and do it any way you want.”

Some of you are thinking, “Wow, I’d love that.” But consider this: free-form radio is harder than anybody imagines. Anybody reading this could probably program a decent five-hour 70s music show—one time. Doing it a second and third and fourth and nineteenth time, when you have to change it up again and again, is far more difficult, especially if you don’t want to turn it into a wank-fest for your own amusement. I have no desire to work that hard. So I’m still letting the music software schedule most of the show, although the lineup always has to be edited by hand, because the human touch can’t be removed from radio programming no matter how hard the industry tries to make it so.

I went through the library and recategorized a lot of songs. We were regularly playing only about half of the 70s songs in the library, with a vast number of classics collecting dust for some reason. I’m still trying to get the category rotations tweaked to my satisfaction. I have replaced some edited songs with better full-length versions, and I have also added a few songs that seemed like howling omissions. (No “Mr. Blue Sky”? Seriously?) And I will confess to having put in a couple of songs just because I want to hear how they sound on the show. (Coming up one night soon: the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation.”)

This doesn’t mean that the show as it was built and nurtured through the 90s, 00s, and 10s was wrong or bad. My approach is a difference in philosophy. It’s a different kind of specialty show now, more concentrated, and not all-day wallpaper. The audience that has followed the show to Saturday nights likely has a greater interest in stories about the artists and songs, and in hearing a greater variety of music. I’m giving them both.

I do the show live most of the time, although I could easily take advantage of the technology and record it in advance. I do it live because I feel like it’s important to actually be there for the listeners (and to play requests, because how better to boost listener loyalty?), and because The Mrs. and I never go anywhere on Saturday nights anyway. And because it’s fun. And for one other related reason, which will require a future post to discuss.

No Lookin’ Back

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the hottest mom in the neighborhood, circa 1985. Hang on, I’m being told that’s Pat Benatar.)

I wasn’t really gonna tap out of the American Top 40 show from August 31, 1985, so here’s the rest of it:

40. “No Lookin’ Back”/Michael McDonald
37. “Every Step of the Way”/John Waite
36. “Live Every Moment”/REO Speedwagon
34. “State of the Heart”/Rick Springfield
27. “There Must Be an Angel”/Eurythmics
24. “Mystery Lady”/Billy Ocean
16. “Dare Me”/Pointer Sisters
14. “Freedom”/Wham
9. “You’re Only Human”/Billy Joel
4. “We Don’t Need Another Hero”/Tina Turner

Many artists with iconic records are on this show, but with songs that either aren’t all that great, or are largely forgotten.

35. “When Your Heart Is Weak”/Cock Robin. “When Your Heart Is Weak” didn’t do much for me in 1985, but hearing it again for the first time in a long time, it sounded a lot better.

32. “Glory Days”/Bruce Springsteen
31. “Saving All My Love for You”/Whitney Houston
11. “Don’t Lose My Number”/Phil Collins

10. “Money for Nothing”/Dire Straits
8. “Cherish”/Kool and the Gang
3. “Freeway of Love”/Aretha Franklin

Here are some icons being iconic. “Saving All My Love for You” might be the best of Whitney’s 80s singles, although its jingly keyboards and luxuriant saxophone make it sound dated now. “Don’t Lose My Number” is probably the most Phil Collins-y of all his 80s hits. I’m not sure anybody needs to hear “Money for Nothing” again, but there hasn’t been anything that sounds like it since.

29. “Cry”/Godley and Creme
26. “Oh Sheila”/Ready for the World
I’m indifferent to most of what’s on this show, but I actively dislike some of it. “Oh Sheila” is boring as hell but would end up #1 anyway. “Cry” stops any radio show’s momentum dead, and its octave-jumping conclusion should be shot into the sun.

28. “Take on Me”/a-ha
19. “Every Time You Go Away”/Paul Young
7. “Never Surrender”/Corey Hart
One of these could be the best record on the show, but keep reading.

25. “Shame”/The Motels. Which Casey introduces with a long and not-all-that-interesting feature on lead singer Martha Davis, in which he casually mentions that she got married when she was 15 and now, at the age of 34, has daughters who are 19 and 17.

17. “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”/Motley Crue. A bad and unnecessary but inevitable remake, which Casey follows with a feature on the 1955 hit “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” I might have put the feature nearly anywhere else in the show.

15. “What About Love”/Heart. “The two-woman, three-man band formed in 1972 in Seattle, and that’s where they’re based, Seattle, Washington.” Later in the show Casey will say, “Here’s Aretha, Aretha Franklin, with “Freeway of Love.” The repetition is a bit, right? It’s gotta be a bit.

12. “Invincible”/Pat Benatar. Casey introduces “Invincible” with a lengthy story about how Benatar was discovered, which repeats her name unnecessarily only once and is written in clear and direct English.

LDD: “Count on Me”/Jefferson Starship
LDD: “One Hundred Ways”/Quincy Jones with James Ingram
Casey believed that apart from the music, the Long Distance Dedications were the most valuable thing on the show, although there were dissenting opinions on his own staff. If we’ve got to sit through the sort of mawkish letters featured on this show (one of which contains details that sound fake), it helps if the songs are good. In fact, it’s “One Hundred Ways” that’s the best thing on the show.

6. “Shout”/Tears for Fears. At the end of the show, when Casey reviews the #1 songs on the other charts, he notes that a disco remix of “Shout” is #1 on the dance chart this week. “These are the things I can do without”? Yeah, I’d say so.

5. “Summer of ’69″/Bryan Adams. “Summer of ’69” is probably the single most enduring record on this show, unless it’s “Take on Me” or the song at #1. Casey introduces it with clips of the five songs that hit #1 in the summer of 1969: “Get Back,” Henry Mancini’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “In the Year 2525,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Sugar Sugar.”

1. “The Power of Love”/Huey Lewis and the News. If Huey never had another hit, we’d still be playing this one on the radio several times a week today because it’s perfect: seriously, you can’t name a single thing that would improve it. It was featured in the perfect place (Back to the Future) and at the perfect time, blasting out of radios across a hot-and-happening American summer.

Looking back across the whole show, however, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. Mid-80s Casey is hard to take, with his announcer-y delivery. And despite 1984 to 1986 being my Top-40 radio years, I find myself decades later respecting a lot of the music, but loving very little of it.