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)