Top 5: Hard to Say

The decade you grow up in will always shine brighter in memory than the paler eras that follow, but as a 70s guy I try to be fair to the 1980s. That decade produced many memorable hits that have stood the test of time. Honesty compels me to report, however, that not many of them came from 1981, a year that threatened the chrome on trailer hitches everywhere.

In 1981, the nature of Top 40 music was changing before our ears—the stylistic juxtapositions that were easy to abide in the 70s (“I Want You Back” to “D’yer Maker” to “Torn Between Two Lovers,” for example) felt weirder in the 80s. Rock bands were rockin’ harder while tasteful adult balladeers were getting wimpier, but what’s oddest about the WLS survey dated September 26, 1981, is the almost complete absence of anything you could call R&B, apart from Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, the Pointer Sisters, Frankie Smith, and Kool and the Gang. Now it’s true that WLS was rockin’ harder in some dayparts by 1981 and that rock music is a largely white genre, but for comparison’s sake, the Cash Box chart from the same week looks only a bit less like the Republican National Convention. And some of those white people on the radio were really, really white.

1. “Endless Love”/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. (holding at 1, fourth week) How white was it in the early fall of 1981? This lugubrious mess was in the process of becoming the biggest single in Motown history, despite lacking the remotest trace of soul, and everything else that made Motown great.

8. “Theme From Greatest American Hero“/Joey Scarbury. (down from 4) Many of ABC’s shows in the 80s had the same relentlessly upbeat walking-on-air/living-my-dream lyric set to the same generic pop music, but to call this bland is an insult to everything else that’s bland. A more enjoyable version is here.

15. “Nicole”/Point Blank. (up from 16) In the wake of the Allman Brothers Band and Lynryd Skynyrd came a wave of generic Southern rock bands such as .38 Special, Blackfoot, and Point Blank, who managed a six-album career between 1976 and 1982. By this time, it was getting harder to tell precisely what was supposed to be Southern about a lot of Southern rockers apart from their zip codes, although the backing track on “Nicole” sounds like an outtake from an Atlanta Rhythm Section album, so maybe that’s it.

26. “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”/Ronnie Milsap (up from 42) I was going to say that the whiteness of this chart is making me blind, but that would be a terrible joke at this point. “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” was the single hottest record on the WLS chart, rising 16 spots; the second-largest leap belonged to another country crossover, Eddie Rabbitt’s “Step by Step,” moving from 44 to 34. I’d been doing country radio part-time for a couple of years by this time and considered myself a Milsap fan (my first date with The Mrs. would have been to a Milsap concert if it hadn’t been canceled and we went to the movies instead), but I found this excruciatingly dull. In 1981, that guaranteed a smash. It’s docked points for the dopey use of parentheses in the title.

36. “Hard to Say”/Dan Fogelberg. (debut) The first single from The Innocent Age, “Hard to Say” is produced so tastefully that it sounds hermetically sealed, and it contains another one of those ineffably dumb lyrics Fogelberg is famous for:

Lucky at love
Well maybe so
There’s still a lot of things you’ll never know
Like why each time the sky begins to snow, you cry

If you’ve forgotten how it sounds, here’s a performance from 1982. Listening to it again, it occurs to me that he sang it like he was tiptoeing through a cow pasture trying to keep from stepping in “Leader of the Band.”

By now I know what you’re thinking. “Jim, surely there must have been something on the radio this week in 1981 that didn’t suck.” That’s, uh, well, hard to say. I don’t object to “Start Me Up,” and “Who’s Crying Now” is one of the best things Journey ever did, but if forced to pick one:

10. “The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band (up from 12) In a season ruled by Sheena Easton, Christopher Cross, Kenny Rogers, and Air Supply, Greg Kihn showed up and took their lunch money in two minutes and 53 seconds of fine, crunchy rock ‘n’ roll. Good stuff? Hell and yes.

“Nicole”/Point Blank (buy it here)
“The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band (it looks to me like the entire Greg Kihn catalog is out of print, although “Jeopardy” is anthologized everywhere; find “The Breakup Song” here)

11 thoughts on “Top 5: Hard to Say

  1. I’d pretty well checked out of Top 40 by the time this chart came out, having fled to some jazz and then whatever Adult Pop mix KS95 in the Twin Cities was playing. But that was a pretty bad chart, indeed, and much of it oozed over into public currency, sad to say.

  2. John

    What’s with parentheses in song titles, anyway? It seems like an inability to commit. Either it’s part of the title or it isn’t. Where did this strange convention in titling come from?

  3. You hit the nail right on the head when you compare Point Blank to “sounds like an outtake from an Atlanta Rhythm Section album”! I used to play ARS relentlessly and never could get over the comparison to other bands at the time.

    I smell an idea brewing for my site.

  4. Shark

    While some observers look at 1981 as a terrible year for music, I consider a very good year. We had albums released by the Rolling Stones (“Tattoo You”), The Moody Blues (“Long Distance Voyager”),the J Geils Band (“Freeze Frame”), Foreigner (“4”), Journey (“Escape”), and Jefferson Starship (“Modern Times”) and all of those albums had bit hits, plus Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band released a live album, “Nine Tonight” with the hit “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You.”. We also had hits by the Greg Kihn Band, Loverboy, Phil Collins, Frankie & the Knockouts, .38 Special, Triumph, Rick Springfield, and Rush. Also don’t forget Kim Carnes with a Number One hit, “Bette Davis Eyes.” You also had hits from John Lennon early in 1981 from the 1980 album “Double Fantasy” and from AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

    It was a wierd year in music when you factor in the wimpy hits by Dan Fogelberg,Christopher Cross, Joey Scarbury, and Diana Roos & Lionel Ritchie as mentioned by JB. Add to that, the carryover hits from 1980 which included some of the worst music ever produced by Styx (“Paradise Theatre”), and REO Speedwagon (“HIgh Infidelity”). Bruce Springsteen released “The River” in late 1980 which produced the hit “Hungry Heart” but the rest of the album failed to deliver a big hit 1981. The Cars also released “Panorama” with the single “Touch and Go” and it tanked after a few weeks.

  5. With no offense intended at all, that first paragraph to me convincingly hammers home the notion that 1981 was a terrible year, at least for top 40 radio. The first sentence alone… when 1981 albums by the Moody Blues and Jefferson Starship are in the first half dozen albums mentioned — which actually makes Journey look good by comparison — that’s an awful year. I like Foreigner quite a bit and J. Geils Band a little bit, but if that’s the best… you see what I mean.

    Outside of American top 40 radio, though, 1981 was a great year. Just confining it to singles:

    The Specials, “Ghost Town”
    R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe”
    The Jam, “That’s Entertainment”
    Kraftwerk, “The Model”
    The Gun Club, “Sex Beat”
    Laurie Anderson, “O Superman”
    Gang of Four, “To Hell with Poverty”
    Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “Too Drunk to Fuck”
    The Swingers, “Counting the Beat”
    The Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love”
    Kate Bush, “Sat in Your Lap”
    U2, “I Will Follow”
    Adam & the Ants, “Stand and Deliver”
    Rick James, “Super Freak”
    The Plimsouls, “A Million Miles Away”
    Depeche Mode, “Just Can’t Get Enough”
    Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Spellbound”
    Madness, “Grey Day” and “It Must Be Love”
    Flipper, “Sexbomb”
    The Birthday Party, “Release the Bats” and “Nick the Stripper”
    Pigbag, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag”
    Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty in Pink” (the original, not the awful re-recording for the movie)
    The Cure, “Primary”
    Wire, “Our Swimmer”
    Altered Images, “I Could Be Happy”
    Zounds, “Demystification”
    Heaven 17, “We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang”
    Pylon, “Crazy”
    Soft Cell, “Sex Dwarf”
    Echo & the Bunnymen, “A Promise”
    Split Enz, “History Never Repeats”
    Ultravox, “All Stood Still”
    Pete Shelley, “Homosapien”
    XTC, “Respectable Street”
    Lene Lovich, “New Toy”
    Thomas Dolby, “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and “Radio Silence”
    The Teardrop Explodes, “Passionate Friend”
    Grace Jones, “Walking in the Rain”
    Television Personalities, “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives”
    UB40, “One in Ten”
    The dB’s, “Judy”

    I could go on.

  6. “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider
    “Pull Up to the Bumper” by Grace Jones
    “Is That Love?” by Squeeze
    “The Weakness in Me” by Joan Armatrading
    “Only the Stones Remain” by the Soft Boys
    “Work” by Blue Orchids
    “Follow the Leaders” by Killing Joke
    “Penthouse and Pavement” by Heaven 17
    “Eisiger Wind” by Liliput
    “It’s Going to Happen!” by the Undertones
    “Watch Your Step” by Elvis Costello
    “Not Happy” by Pere Ubu
    “About the Weather” by Magazine
    “Grass” by Robert Wyatt
    “Sense of Purpose” by the Sound
    “Johnnie Are You Queer?” by Josie Cotton
    “Bob Hope Takes Risks” by Rip Rig & Panic
    “You’re No Good” by ESG
    “Inconvenience” by Au Pairs
    “Politics” by Girls at Our Best
    “Swords of a Thousand Men” by Tenpole Tudor
    “Hungry So Angry” by Medium Medium
    “Spasticus Autisticus” by Ian Dury
    “Chihuahua” by Bow Wow Wow
    “Ten Don’ts for Honeymooners” by the Monochrome Set
    “Up All Night” by the Boomtown Rats
    “Doors of Your Heart” by the English Beat
    “Talk To Ya Later” by the Tubes
    “Tonight” by the Mo-dettes

    I’ll stop. Seriously, I think 1981 is one of the best years for singles ever. And while most of the stuff I’ve listed wasn’t getting played on top 40 radio, there was a brief boom of “new wave” radio in the U.S., and I heard most of these songs on the radio.

  7. As I’ve noted before, those of us in the relatively rural Midwest (and Shark and I were at the same college in 1981) lived in a world where punk and new wave never happened. Apart from “Lunatic Fringe,” “Super Freak” and “Talk To Ya Later,” none of the songs Scraps mentions got on the radio in our world. Not even “I Will Follow.” (U2 was unknown in this particular world until “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984.)

    It might be more appropriate to say that 1981 was one of the worst years for mainstream music radio–and it certainly proves why the MTV earthquake of 1982 and 1983 had to happen.

  8. JP

    “what’s oddest about the WLS survey dated September 26, 1981, is the almost complete absence of anything you could call R&B, apart from Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, the Pointer Sisters, Frankie Smith, and Kool and the Gang.”

    You forgot Stacy Lattisaw, hanging in at #25 with her pointless remake of the Moments'”Love On A Two-Way Street.”

  9. Pingback: Art and Artifice – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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