A Million Years Ago

A few more random observations about the American Top 40 show from August 1, 1970:

In all my experience, there’s never been another record remotely like “(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You” by Ronnie Dyson, which was at Number 21 that week: its jaunty opening, Dyson’s pure, clear voice, and the lyric, which was quite an enigma to me when I first heard the song—just as enigmatic as the relationship Dyson is singing about. (The AT40 show was in mono, as all of the shows were until sometime in 1972, but “Why Can’t I Touch You” in stereo is glorious.)

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a young, politically aware person in the summer of 1970, hearing CSNY’s “Ohio” on the radio every three or four hours, and having to repeatedly contemplate the enormity of the government’s willingness to kill you if you opposed the Vietnam War. “Ohio” appeared back-to-back on that week’s countdown with “Teach Your Children,”  at Number 17 and 16 respectively. The two songs together present a pretty rich text regarding America in 1970—about the trouble we were in, and the counterculture’s idealistic prescription for getting out of it.

A couple of times during the show, Casey explained the methodology used to develop the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. Sales statistics from 100 record stores and airplay from 54 major radio stations were analyzed by “computerized data processing,” as Casey put it, to develop the chart. That strikes me as a remarkably small sample size, even for an era when big radio markets had just two Top-40 stations competing head-to-head, simply because there was a far greater number of record stores then. Perhaps it was small sample size that permitted charmless sludge like “Can’t You See My Love” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars to creep into the Top 40.

Despite the countdown’s awful first hour, it’s pure Top-40 pleasure by the end: “Ooh Child,” “Tighter & Tighter,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Band of Gold.” The top song of the week was “Close to You” by the Carpenters, spending the second of four weeks at Number One. Because “Close to You” hasn’t gotten 41 years of continuous radio play, it seems out of place with the others now. I remember playing it on the radio a few years back and saying it was from the summer of 1970, “exactly one million years ago.”

We haven’t had an Off-Topic Tuesday for a while, but today we do, on the flip.

Last night I finished watching The War, Ken Burns’ 2007 film on World War II. It’s the best of the Burns films because it leans so heavily on the recollections of people who were there. Nothing makes the sacrifices of veterans more vivid than listening to them describe what they went through in the swamps of the Pacific, the frozen battlefields and the skies of Europe, the prisons of Japan. What they did was to create the modern world, by saving the old world from despotism, and by making it possible for the United States to take its place as the world’s leader. They represented every stratum of society, and they were able to do what they did because they knew their countrymen back home were united behind them.

Then I turn off the DVD and turn on the news, and I see that we are pissing away their sacrifices by the way we’re acting today. The debt-ceiling fiasco is an embarrassment to every last person involved in it—which is all of us—but that’s just a symptom of the greater disease. The government the Founders imagined—citizen legislators representing the public’s will and doing the public’s business—has become a bought-and-paid-for oligarchy acting on behalf of the few. The informed citizenry critical to the democratic experiment has become an atomized mob with the attention span of goldfish, driven by fear and prejudice. (And I mean to indict both conservatives and liberals in this.)

Up here in Wisconsin, it’s Recall Election Day today, sparked by the controversy over the state budget last spring—but instead of having a grand conversation about government and unions, about precisely what the public good is and how it should be served in the modern world, the recalls have devolved into a war of hackneyed attack ads, which have rendered local TV and radio unlistenable the last several days. (Most of the ads running here in Madison are from liberal groups.) Polling suggests that it will be tough for the Democrats to take control of the State Senate. Even if they do, it won’t change the tone of Wisconsin politics, which has become, like politics elsewhere in America, small and mean.

I look at the faces of the veterans in The War, and I wonder if those who are still alive today ever doubt the value of their sacrifices. Probably not, given that the country had a pretty good run for most of their lives. But as their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, we’ve taken what they bought for us at such a high price . . . and fucked it up.

4 thoughts on “A Million Years Ago

  1. kblumenau

    I have also wondered about those 100 record stores. Did they survey two from each state, giving North Dakota and California an even say in the nation’s Top 40?
    Did they survey one store in each of the 100 largest markets, or maybe two in each of the top 50?
    I can’t remember Pete Battistini’s book explaining this, though perhaps it did and I just can’t remember it offhand.

    And yeah, Casey’s computer would have been fun to look at (if not to operate.) Maybe an inadvertently placed hole in Junior Walker’s punch card accidentally raised him from No. 90 to No. 35.

    Couldn’t agree more with what’s on the flip.

  2. Yah Shure

    If Casey felt compelled to tiptoe around having to utter the words “Sex Machine,” he surely wasn’t about to divulge that the charts were determined by $moke and mirrors.

    In 1970, those North Dakota record stores were just as important as those in California. L.A. and San Francisco weren’t taking the same chances with new, unproven records as KKXL/Grand Forks, KQWB/Fargo-Moorhead, KFYR/Bismarck and other small-market Midwest stations often did. North Dakota retailers were among the first to spot sales trends generated by that initial airplay, which, in turn, led to more widespread sales and airplay and – eventually – a hit record on Casey’s show.

    jb, your last paragraph says it all. I’m politically smack dab in the middle, surrounded by the warring Clowns and Jokers who are engaged in nothing more than blame-gaming and nest-feathering. The Madison insanity extends to the five million dollars spent on behalf of the Western Wisconsin candidates, most of which has gone to broadcasting ads on Twin Cities media; the vast majority of whose listeners or viewers neither reside nor vote in Wisconsin.

    I’d agree that the majority of World War II veterans would never doubt the value of their sacrifices. But I wonder whether they even recognize their “America” these days. I certainly don’t.

  3. As a person who is neither conservative nor liberal (I skew libertarian), I have a gift which allows me to infuriate both sides with equal impunity. That said…I’m really glad there are other topics like sports and music that will allow us to see eye-to-eye, since few minds ever get changed as a result of political bickering.

    I’ll say nothing about the recalls except that the people in Wisconsin have a right to decide who will lead them. And that maybe more elected “representatives” might actually listen to their constituents after the election if they could be voted out of office at any time by them.

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