Pop Life

The American Top 40 shows from the 80s don’t wear very well, at least not with me. They’re badly padded and frequently contain stretches of songs even I don’t remember. But I’ll still listen to one now and then, because during the mid 80s, I was program director and morning guy on a Top 40 station and AT40 affiliate and it’s fun to recapture those days for a little while. And recently I’ve been listening to the show from September 21, 1985, which was a very 80s week indeed, with Madonna, Prince, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Wham, and Tina Turner all riding high.

38. “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”/Paul Young. When this guy chose the right songs—as he did earlier in 1985 with his spectacular version of Hall and Oates’ “Every Time You Go Away” and would do in the early 90s with the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl”—he sounded great. Other times, he misfired. “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” is an old R&B song by Ann Peebles, but I wondered both in 1985 and again the other day how come this record just isn’t better.

37. “Miami Vice Theme”/Jan Hammer. Synergy, everybody—this record debuted in the Top 40 the week before the second-season premiere of Miami Vice.

36. “No Lookin’ Back”/Michael McDonald, 27. “Shame”/Motels, and 26. “Every Step of the Way”/John Waite. Maybe it’s my obsession with the 70s talking—the way I have sought out every last obscure record from that decade, so I’m more familiar with them—but it always seems to me like the 80s countdowns are loaded with stuff that’s completely forgotten now. All told there are maybe a dozen songs out of this week’s Top 40 that still get significant airplay today and about as many I couldn’t hum a note of.

35. “Four in the Morning”/Night Ranger. Sweet mama Night Ranger sounds jive now—like the product of a focus group designed to sell records to teenagers. There might actually be real instruments on this, but it’s as phony as hair extensions.

34. “Life in One Day”/Howard Jones. Catchy enough, and introduced with a shoutout to AM Stereo 1490 WDBQ in Dubuque, Iowa.

28. “I Got You Babe”/UB40 and Chrissie Hynde
. UB40 is what you’d get if you drugged Pee Wee Herman and taught him to sing over inept reggae noodling that needs to be speeded up by maybe a third. Few other successful bands in history suck so definitively.

In the second hour, Casey does a feature on the artist who went the longest between Top 10 hits—Dickie Goodman, over 19 years between “The Flying Saucer” in 1955 and “Mr. Jaws” in 1974. Casey often delivers his lines at a slow tempo, as if he’s conscious of the need to fill time, but on this bit he repeats the same information three different times. These shows don’t need to be four hours long as much as they need to be three-and-a-half.

One of the Long Distance Dedications this week is to deceased Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto from a fan, which gives Casey an excuse to play the 1963 #1 hit “Sukiyaki,” regardless of whether that’s a good idea. Another LDD is from an unemployed 17-year-old mother of twins to her 19-year-old husband, who left her “last week.” If I’d just been dumped into such a dire situation, writing to Casey Kasem would be fairly far down my list of priorities. The song she chose was one I don’t remember, Rick Springfield’s “Don’t Walk Away.”

22. “There Must Be an Angel”/Eurythmics. Probably the best thing they ever did.

I find myself with little to say about the warhorses in the countdown after this point, like “Summer of ’69,” “Freeway of Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” and “Take on Me,” and nothing to say about the obscurities that outrank them, such as Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” and the Pointer Sisters’ “Dare Me,” back to back at #12 and #11 respectively. But I press on.

8. “The Power of Love”/Huey Lewis and the News. We saw them live in August 1985, at the height of their fame. I doubt any band in history had more fun than the News did, and does.

7. “Pop Life”/Prince. This record hits a good-enough groove, but the arrangement is too busy in that uniquely Prince-ian way, and like a lot of other songs in this countdown, it dropped out of sight as soon as it dropped out of the Top 40.

1. “Money for Nothing”/Dire Straits. Making your average Top 40 station sound pretty damn good in 1985.

In the fall of 1985, I was doing a voice-tracked morning show in Illinois and preparing to do a live show starting toward the end of the year. In retrospect, I wasn’t an especially good morning guy. But then as now, we do what makes sense at the time because we can’t think of anything else.

8 thoughts on “Pop Life

  1. Brian

    I heard that long distance dedication from the teenaged mother in Baltimore. It was obviously sad, but, man, did she really think that a song from Casey would bring back the father?

  2. I might have listened to this countdown live. I was definitely listening to Top 40 radio at that time, and I had mix tapes with some of these songs on them.
    (“Pop Life,” definitely, and mayyyyybe “Power of Love.”)

    I remember the songs you don’t, but only bits and pieces of them.

  3. porky

    remember what I said the other day about ’65 and ’66? Twenty years later, probably two of the worst years in pop music (Bruce Willis and “Respect Yourself” were to come, however as well as Will to Power…).

    The technology took over. Horrid drum sounds, layers of keyboard icing, crappy stagewear with cartoonish hair, every guitar solo sounded the same. It’s no wonder that kids today look at this era the same way we did with “Splish Splash” in the 70’s.

    1. jb

      A lot of the acts from the high point of the MTV era (which 1985 surely was) seemed to be actively trying to put up barriers between themselves and their audience, maintaining a chilly distance with robotic vocals and artificially created backing tracks. It’s music one can admire, but you can’t really love it.

  4. Steve E.

    This is when I stopped listening to current music. Right here. There was a reason: KRTH-FM, Southern California’s oldies station, used to play maybe two-thirds oldies and one-third currents during the week. From noon Friday until midnight Sunday, it was all-oldies weekends built around a theme (Oldies But Goodies, Super ’60s, Souvenir of the ’70s and so one — one time it was a Beatles-Stones-Beach Boys-Doors weekend, and the station played both the well-known songs and deep cuts by those acts (I remember hearing “Ride On, Baby” and “If You Can’t Rock Me” by the Stones and “Waiting for the Sun” by the Doors). But since it still played some currents during the week, I was able to keep abreast of current Top 40 music, and I remember “Pop Life” was on the playlist. Anyway, right around this time KRTH changed its format to all oldies all week long. And I stayed with the station after the change, so there went my connection to current music. So when I look back on the Hot 100s from this point afterward, I know maybe 10% of the tracks on any given chart, and by the end of the ’80s it was pretty much nothing.

  5. Scott Paton

    As you and I have previously discussed, JB, four hours was just too long, and the expanded AT40 initiated the gradual attrition of its audience. How many four-hour films do you want to sit through? Granted, you could argue that whatever portion of a Top 40 countdown you listen to is stand-alone entertainment, but the fundamental concept of AT40 was the inherent intrigue in Casey’s guided tour up the chart leading to the ultimate reveal of the Number One song.

    I’ve often wondered how many people missed the first few minutes of a movie on a Saturday night or snuck into church a few minutes late on a Sunday morning waiting to hear what song topped the charts.

    I can almost certainly guarantee that the affiliate stations that started the newly-expanded show an hour earlier as opposed to delaying its conclusion by an hour suffered less in the way of diminished ratings. One is less inclined to watch or listen to a story if they’re not going to hear the conclusion. And AT40 in its original three-hour iteration was a concise narrative of popular music each and every week.

    As for the Long Distance Dedications, I hated ’em. I thought they were pandering, bathetic distractions from what the show was all about, and I’m glad that I only had to deal with them for a few months before I exited the show. Granted, you mention AT40 and that’s what many people will remember first and foremost. But such is the nature of cliches, and that was always the feature that comedians spoofed if Casey and the show popped up in their material.

    It was the increasing length of hit singles’ running times and the Long Distance Dedications that conspired to lengthen (and ultimately weaken) AT40. But as I argued then and always will, if you eliminated the LDDs and judiciously edited a certain percentage of songs –particularly those that never broke into the Top 30 and the ones headed off the chart– AT40 would have remained a fast-paced, more successful show– from both a content and ratings standpoint.

    Sure, as Casey heads toward the sunset on the trail to legend status, those dedications are a cornerstone of his mythology, but they really diluted the show.

    Oh. And yes, for the most part, Top 40 music in the ’80s really sucked!

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