Rock This Town

When I was a kid, the meaning of New Year’s Eve evolved over time. At first, it was simply my father’s birthday. Then, it became a football night, prelude to the even bigger football day of January 1. Then came 1970, when I discovered the New Year’s Eve countdown on the radio.

I grew up in a town too small to have its own rock-and-roll station, so I was weaned on Chicago’s legendary Top-40 blowtorch, WLS. Each year, “the Big 89” would countdown the top 89 hits of the year, based on their weekly survey of the Chicago market. The list did not usually parallel the national top-hits list–on only a handful of occasions was the WLS Number One for the year the same as the one on the Billboard chart, for example. So it was in the era before a shrinking pool of risk-averse consultants came to program more and more stations, and before corporate consolidation made every station sound like every other one.

If you were into music much at all, the New Year’s Eve countdown was an event, even if it was just a good soundtrack for whatever party you were at. No matter what station you listened to, the routine was usually the same. The countdown usually started at 6:00, and after reaching Number One at midnight (with a pause for “Auld Lang Syne” by Guy Lombardo, and in the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne”), the station would usually turn around and do it again. WLS added its own wrinkle–the “time sweep,” a montage of clips from every Number One song on its weekly chart from 1960 through the end of the year just completed, which the station would play at the stroke of midnight. (The 1984 time sweep is here, and it’s amazing.)

I went back into the archives and dug up the WLS Big 89 countdown lists from 1967, when the countdown began, through 1986, the last year the station did it. A brief summary of each year follows. In addition to simply listing the Number Ones, I’ve also included the Number 89s, just for kicks.

1: “Ode to Billie Joe”/Bobbie Gentry
89: “Silence Is Golden”/Tremeloes
Weirdest entry: “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen at Number 7.

1: “Hey Jude”-“Revolution”/Beatles
89: “I Need Love”/Third Booth
Comment: I never heard of Third Booth either; they were a Chicago-area garage band.

1: “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
89: “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'”/Crazy Elephant
Comment: Truly, 1969 was bubble gum’s finest hour. Four years ago, streamed this countdown in its entirety, with all the music, newscasts, and commercials intact, along with the godlike DJs of the classic era. Nothing I’ve ever found on the Internet gave me more joy, and it’s become one of the most requested airchecks at Reelradio. You might want to drop over to Reelradio during the New Year’s weekend to see whether they’re running it again, or if they’re featuring a different countdown from another place and time.

1: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”/Simon and Garfunkel
89: “The Wonder of You”/Elvis Presley
Comment: The times, they were a-changing, and this chart shows it.

1: “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night
89: “L.A. Goodbye”/Ides of March
Comment: Four songs by the Osmonds among the top 22, two by the brothers and two by Donny. The 60s were well and truly over.

1: “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”/Roberta Flack
89: “Play Me”/Neil Diamond
Weirdest segue: “Puppy Love” by Donny Osmond (#45) into “If Loving You Is Wrong” by Luther Ingram (#44). Talk about your two sides of love.

1: “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon
89: “Roll Over Beethoven”/Electric Light Orchestra
Comment: ELO was pretty progressive for AM radio in 1973.

1: “Seasons in the Sun”/Terry Jacks
89: “Stop and Smell the Roses”/Mac Davis
Weirdest entry: “One Tin Soldier” by Coven at Number 4; it had been more successful nationally in 1971, but the early 1974 re-release was a monster in Chicago.

1: “Love Will Keep Us Together”/Captain and Tennille
89: “Old Days”/Chicago
Comment: As I wrote last October, despite his failure to land the top spot on the countdown, Elton John owned 1975.

1: “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”/Elton John and Kiki Dee
89: “Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac
Best segue: “Theme from S.W.A.T” by Rhythm Heritage (#41) into “Get Up and Boogie” by Silver Convention (#40).

1: “You Light Up My Life”/Debby Boone
89: “You Make Loving Fun”/Fleetwood Mac
Weirdest entry: “Come Sail Away” by Styx at Number 26; because its chart run overlapped two different years, it would also be the Number 52 song of 1978. While there may have been other records to place in two different years off the same chart run, I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Had this song’s chart run been entirely confined to either 1977 or 1978, it would likely have been the Number One song of the year, because WLS played the hell out of it.

1: “Stayin’ Alive”/Bee Gees
89: “Hollywood Nights”/Bob Seger
Weirdest entry: “One Nation Under a Groove” by Funkadelic at Number 72.

1: “My Sharona”/The Knack
89: “Head Games”/Foreigner
Weirdest segue: “Head Games” into “You Decorated My Life” by Kenny Rogers (#88).

1: “Lost in Love”/Air Supply
89: “Whip It”/Devo
Weirdest entry: either “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel (#87) or “Stay in Time” by Off Broadway (#11). The inclusion of both signaled WLS’s shift to a more album-oriented format.

1: “Start Me Up”/Rolling Stones
89: “The Party’s Over”/Journey
Comment: This Big 89 chart rocks harder overall than any other. WLS aficionados will tell you that the early 80s was a late golden age for the station, when the music was continually surprising and the jocks–Larry Lujack, Brant Miller, Tommy Edwards, Jeff Davis, John Landecker–were legendary.

1: “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”/Chicago
89: “Crazy”/John Hall Band
Weirdest entry: “Loved by You” by the Kind at Number 71. Didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100.

1: “Every Breath You Take”/Police
89: “Rock This Town”/Stray Cats
Weirdest entry: “What About Me” by Moving Pictures at Number 9.

1: “Let’s Go Crazy”/Prince
89: “She Bop”/Cyndi Lauper
Most surprising entry: either “Go Insane” by Lindsey Buckingham (#76) or “Had A Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy)” by Roger Hodgson (#88).

1: “Sussudio”/Phil Collins
89: “Relax”/Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Comment: I’ve heard it said that 1984 was the best year for Top 40 in the 1980s. I’d pick 1985. There are precious few dogs on this chart.

1: “Sweet Freedom”/Michael McDonald
89: “Wild Wild Life”/Talking Heads
Comment: One song by Genesis and two by Mike and the Mechanics in the top four. And “Sweet Freedom” was the most unexpected and off-the-wall Number One since “You’re So Vain.” WLS abandoned the Big 89 countdowns after 1986, and by late summer of 1989, its 29-year run as a pop music station had ended with a switch to all-talk.

I won’t be listening to a countdown tonight (unless Reelradio has something like the WLS 1969 countdown playing), but somewhere back in time I’ll always be the kid with the pencil, trying to guess what song is coming next. Happy New Year to one and all, and thanks for reading.

The Countdown

I was a sports fan–the kind of kid who kept statistics while watching games on TV–before I was a music and radio fan. So once I discovered music and radio, it was only natural that I would become a chart freak. A record chart is like the weekly baseball stat sheet I used to pore over in the Sunday paper–who’s up, who’s down, who’s hot, who’s not. The yearend chart is something extra-special, and the yearend radio countdown of the top songs quickly became an important event in my life.

My first introduction to the concept came in 1970, when I stumbled across the Big 89 of 1970 on WLS from Chicago. By the next year, I am pretty sure I was listening when they counted down the Big 89 of 1971, although I don’t remember precisely. If I was listening that year, I almost certainly began the tradition of keeping track of the songs as they were played, just like scoring a baseball game at home. By 1972, I was definitely scoring at home, and wouldn’t miss a year until 1977, when going to a party on New Year’s Eve became more important than the countdown. Yet even then, we would often have somebody’s countdown on the radio while the party went on.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I actually hosted a yearend countdown on the radio, at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, but it would be almost 10 years before I did it again. By then, I was at a tiny station in a different Iowa town, and I did the countdown not on New Year’s Eve proper, but during my afternoon show on December 31. In fact, the last radio show I ever did as a full-timer in the biz was the 1993 yearend countdown, before I got sacked on the first working day of 1994 and decided my radio career was over.

Coming on Friday: Number Ones–and Number 89s–from the Big 89 countdowns, 1967-1986.

Christmas Wonders

On Christmas Eve, The Mrs. and I were in a small town in Michigan, celebrating with her brother and his family. As night fell, I took charge of the music in the family room and tried to find a radio station to provide background for dinner and the gift exchange. Now, I had in mind what I wanted–something like the music heard in the last scene of A Christmas Story, when Mother and the Old Man are watching the snow fall outside the living room window on Christmas Night after Ralphie and Randy have gone to bed. Or maybe, by some weird atmospheric phenomenon, the very Christmas 1970 broadcast I wrote about before we left for Michigan. (Who knows–maybe it’s been floating in the ether, waiting for the right set of ears to pick it up.) But it’s a radio desert up there, and the pickings were slim. I soon stopped on a station that was playing Nat King Cole and called it good enough.

Except it wasn’t. This particular station resolutely refused to give up the pounding between-records hype so common on pop and country stations nowadays, and I don’t believe they played more than two records in a row without stopping for sponsor greetings. And the music itself was a schizophrenic mix of classic recordings and Christmas cash-ins by contemporary artists, featuring a few staggeringly inappropriate choices. By all that is holy, I swear that it’s wrong to play “Funky New Year” by the Eagles on Christmas Eve.

We lived with it for a while until my sister-in-law couldn’t stand it anymore. “Let’s put on some CDs,” she said. The record that pushed her over the edge was a song by the Beach Boys called “Santa’s Beard”–and if she hadn’t reacted to it first, I would have. I wrote about this tune several years ago (in a piece not available online). It’s so astoundingly bad that it simply cannot be described, and in fact, it may be the single worst thing recorded, not just for Christmas but for any other reason, since Edison invented the phonograph. (If you think you can stand it, you can hear “Santa’s Beard” by clicking this link and scrolling down to find the title; then right-click the title, save it to your computer, and listen.)

The repeated failures of critical taste on the part of record producers, anthologizers, and radio programmers that have allowed “Santa’s Beard” to survive 40 years after it should have been strangled in its crib are a wonder to contemplate. Whoever said no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public wasn’t talking about Christmas music, but he could have been. After all, one of the top Christmas singles of all time is “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs.

If we had stuck with that Michigan station a while longer, I’m sure they would have played it.

The Gift

A few months ago, I put up a post here called “Why Time Begins in September,” in which I briefly explained how I was first seduced by radio and the music on it. But that is not the whole story. The next chapter, just as important, happened three months later. In 1995, I wrote a memoir about it.

It is Christmas Eve, 1970. I have just recently discovered rock and roll, as dispensed by Chicago’s WLS, the 50-thousand-watt flamethrower upon which many midwestern kids were weaned in those days before the wide usage of FM, in towns too small to have a rocker of their own. The number one song in America is Smokey Robinson’s epic “Tears of A Clown,” to be displaced in a couple of days by George Harrison’s epic “My Sweet Lord” (there are giants in the earth in these days).

Elsewhere in that week’s top ten are “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family and “Knock Three Times” by Dawn. Later this evening I will receive both of those records from my parents for Christmas, along with Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” a threesome guaranteed to shape a ten year old’s taste in a particular way—certainly in a different way than Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” “Let’s Work Together” by Canned Heat, and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”—also on the chart that same week—might have done.

I am utterly captivated by what I hear on the radio. I listen constantly, not just to the music but to the personalities who play it on the air. . . . In short, what is signified by that dial becomes my own personal universe, and the best toy I’ve ever discovered. I cannot discount the stirrings of a child’s typical desire to assert his independence from his parents, either. What makes my radio universe even better is precisely that it is not what my parents listen to. They’re fond of polkas and country music and our clunky hometown station. Rock and roll is my own music, in my own medium, a medium exciting, and so different from theirs.

So it’s Christmas Eve, a day of interminable waiting. . . . I turn on my radio, but what I hear is different: Smokey and George Harrison and the Partridge Family are gone. The on-air personalities are gone. I hear instead a voice, which says: “It’s three o’clock. . . Christmas Eve afternoon.” The voice goes on to describe the typical goings-on of families assembling, dinners on the stove—in short, the very thing going on at the other end of the hallway from my bedroom. The voice talks about the spirit of Christmas, family, home, and concludes by saying, “and it is in this spirit that WLS presents our Holiday Festival of Music.” He (it was always a male voice in those days) speaks those final words in a way that sounds as if they must be capitalized.

The words are followed by music—Christmas music, but like no Christmas music I’ve ever heard before. Not the Christmas music of my parents’ universe—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—but Christmas music from my universe. There’s an exuberant “Frosty the Snowman” sung by girls and a bright song in a strange language, featuring an odd repeated phrase that sounds to my 10-year-old self like “police tommyrot.” There’s a song I’ve never heard before, one that grabs my attention with a jolt, a distinctive voice singing “so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” There’s another, quieter song, about kids who know that Santa is on his way with lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh. I particularly like that one, because it sounds like truth to me—I have started to doubt the existence of St. Nick, but I am not willing to bet against him on Christmas Eve. There are hymns I recognize from church and many, many other songs that are utterly new to me. Interspersed among it all is the voice, with Christmas wishes and holiday greetings. . . .

“Frosty the Snowman” was the one by the Ronettes; the song in the strange language was “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano. The one that jolted me is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” which didn’t come out until 1971, so I couldn’t have heard it on that particular night, but I’m not sure it matters, really.

Later than evening, after the cows were milked, dinner was eaten, church attended, gifts opened, cookies sampled, torn wrapping paper picked up, and grandparents sent on their way back home, it was time to go to bed, and to begin the wait for Christmas morning. But before Santa arrived, I got something else that would end up being far more important than any gift he could have brought.

If there is a single moment that sealed my love affair with the radio, and made me choose it as the career I wanted, it may be the period of a few minutes shortly before 11:00 on Christmas Eve, 1970. My brother and I share a bedroom, across the hall from my parents’ room. The walls are yellow, the ceiling brown, with a bright overhead light fixture right in the middle. My bed is on the north wall (left-hand side as you come into the room), my brother’s on the south. Between the beds, up against the east wall, is a low toy chest. On top of it is my radio, a green plastic single band Westinghouse. [Editor’s Note: with tubes, even.]

As my brother and I lie in our beds waiting for our parents to turn out the overhead light—so we can begin the interminable night, with fitful sleeping, in anticipation of the loot the morning would bring—the radio plays that incredible Christmas music: “And every mother’s child is gonna spy/to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” The voice comes on with more holiday wishes, and I am overwhelmed with what I can only describe as a kind of one-ness with the radio. At that moment, I begin to want to be the voice, although I couldn’t have precisely articulated the thought at the time. As magical as it was to be a listener, at that moment something inside of me began to believe that to be on the other end of the transmission would be more magical still.

I don’t remember if I fell asleep that night with the radio on, but it doesn’t matter. In a way, I fell asleep with the radio inside of me. Such is the legacy of that Christmas Eve, 25 years ago.

It’s been eight years now since I was on the other end of the transmission on Christmas Eve, and every year I miss it a little. I guess it’s not surprising, given that you never forget your first love.

This blog will be on hiatus until after Christmas. I hope your celebration is merry, and that wherever you are, there’s at least one good radio station to listen to.

Christmas Tree Toppers

One of the major traditions of British pop music is the annual national guessing game over what will be the Number One single on Christmas Day. British bookies even take bets on it–but not this year, because it’s been a foregone conclusion for months (officially confirmed this week) that Band Aid 20’s new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” would grab the honor. This isn’t the second time that song has topped the British charts on Christmas Day–it’s the third; in addition to the 1984 original, there was a new version in 1989. The Beatles, Queen, Cliff Richard, Whitney Houston, and the Spice Girls have topped the British charts more than once on Christmas (Queen twice with “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Often the Christmas Number One is a novelty song, like the Bob the Builder TV theme song in 2000. In 2001, a duet between Robbie Williams (an absolute superstar over there who hasn’t made a ripple in the States) and Nicole Kidman was Number One. I can’t decide if that’s a novelty record or not.

In Britain, the Christmas Number One has been a Christmas-themed song on eight or nine occasions, depending on which chart you consult, since the British record industry began publishing charts in 1952. Going back to 1890, the beginning of recording history in the U.S., the American charts have been topped by a Christmas-themed song only seven times, and only twice on Christmas Day itself. In 1948, Spike Jones’ “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” was Number One, and in 1958, there was “The Chipmunk Song.” Jimmy Boyd’s putrid 1952 novelty, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” hit the top on the chart dated December 27, 1952. As for Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” it had three different runs at the top, at Christmas of 1942, 1945, and 1946, but never held the top spot on 12/25 itself. The seventh Christmas record to reach Number One is a bit of a ringer–Vaughn Monroe’s recording of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” which is not directly about Christmas but has come to be considered a Christmas song, was a hit at Christmas 1946, but didn’t reach Number One until January 1947.

Top 5: Betcha Wonder How I Knew

All-time marks for chart dominance by a single record company don’t mean what they used to, now that two major conglomerates control most of the music released in the United States. Not so back in the day. And so it was that beginning this week in 1968, Motown accomplished the greatest feat of chart domination until the conglomeration era, by nailing down the top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100 with three different performers. Here’s the Top Five from this week in December 1968, starting with the non-Motown stuff:

5. “Who’s Making Love”/Johnnie Taylor. A fine example of the sort of rough-hewn Southern soul that often topped the charts between about 1964 and about 1972. Taylor scored a lot of hits on the R&B charts during this period, but his biggest pop hit came afterward–in 1976, with the first 45 ever certified platinum, “Disco Lady,” which is far better than its title.

4. “Abraham, Martin and John”/Dion.
The sort of record that could only have happened in the 1960s, before our cynicism about idealism went terminal. And one of the prettiest songs you’ll ever hear.

3. “For Once in My Life”/Stevie Wonder. Stevie wrote dozens of songs that became hits, but this one had a life beyond its chart run. It may be the Stevie song most covered by other artists. Either that or “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

2. “Love Child”/Supremes. Many Motown artists released records that we’d have called “socially relevant” beginning around 1968. This was the first for the Supremes, and their first big hit not produced by Holland/Dozier/Holland.

1. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”/Marvin Gaye. In his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh picked it as number one, noting that it’s both more ambitious and utterly unlike anything else Motown ever attempted. “‘Grapevine’ would top the charts for seven weeks, making it the biggest Motown hit of all time, at least until “Endless Love” slurped down the pike in 1981.

Motown’s domination of the top three slots on the chart would continue for a month, as “For Once in My Life” dropped out and the Supremes/Temptations’ collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” moved in. And if you’re tempted to quibble, I know the Beatles had the top five slots during a single week in 1964. This is about domination by more than one artist from a label. I know also that that RSO Records had four of the top five during a single week of March 1978, but only the top two slots were held by RSO product (the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive”). So there.