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.

3 thoughts on “Rock This Town

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.