(Pictured: Dottie West and Kenny Rogers, a.k.a. the hip young couple next door, circa 1981.)
Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I got the news about Casey Kasem’s death at the same time we were listening to the American Top 40 show from June 13, 1981. (Somebody on the Internet noted how appropriate it was that Casey’s death was announced on Sunday morning, the daypart in which his show most frequently aired.)
That early 80s pocket between disco and MTV is a fascinating time for a low-rent music historian such as myself, even though—and largely because—the hits of the day were so odd. In the summer of 1981, Top 40 radio stations were rife with tasteful adult balladry: depending on how you count them, something like 13 funkless medium-tempo love songs were among the 40 on June 13, as utterly unthreatening as a glass of milk and in some cases, about as interesting: Carole Bayer Sager’s “Stronger Than Before” (#40), “Fool in Love With You” by Photoglo (#31), Lee Ritenour’s “Is It You” (#21), “What Are We Doin’ in Love” by Dottie West and Kenny Rogers (#15), and so on. Melodies that sound familiar from the first time you hear them, easy to bob your head or tap your foot to and perfect for in-office radio listening, innocuous enough to vanish from consciousness until they come up in the rotation three hours later.
In 2013, Brian Boone tried explaining the phenomenon over at Popdose—although he never really offers a definitive reason for it. He comes closest when he wonders, “Were the ‘70s, with its Watergates and Vietnams and recessions and Rootses and iron-fisted peanut farmers so stressful that adults were left so fried that they needed to spend a couple of years, even if these were their last years actively consuming the culture just chilling the hell out, agreeing with Eddie Rabbitt as to the goodness of rainy nights?” And he goes on to wonder why those performers—your Michael McDonalds and Peter Ceteras—seemed so much older than pop stars of today, who are the same age (or older) today than McD and Cetera were back then.
My guess is that what was happening in 1980 and 1981 was the Big Chillification of the boomers. After an adventuresome (and for some, extended) adolescence, they were discovering that you cannot be a barefoot revolutionary forever, and that burning down the system is a lot less attractive when you have kids in public school. Cocooning with the family and trying to make a decent space emotionally for yourself and your loved ones became a priority, and it frequently expressed itself through this sort of denatured pop music. (“Stop playing that goddamn guitar so loud, you’ll wake the baby.”) The fragmentation of radio formats, just beginning at that time, made it profitable for some stations to concentrate on adult pop-rock, as Boone notes, which helped increase its reach.
Today, 30-plus years later, adolescence need never end. Popular music has been infantilized to the point at which singers pushing 40 can get away with songs better left to kids on the Disney Channel.
There are a few forgotten gems among the June 1981 dross, though: “I Can Take Care of Myself” by Billy Vera and the Beaters debuts at #39; the magnificent career of Rosanne Cash gets going with “Seven Year Ache” at #36; the Gary U.S. Bonds comeback record, “This Little Girl,” powered by its Bruce Springsteen connection, is at #12, and “Sweetheart” by Franke and the Knockouts, is at #10. Conversely, the top 10 is remarkably dire, apart from George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” at #7. It contains what might be the single most pointless remake in history at #3: “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey, an English-language R&B-ification of Kyu Sakamoto’s Japanese-language #1 hit of 1963. The #1 song is “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes—fitting, since it sounded like nothing we’d ever heard in the 70s, and it would sound as dated as Dixieland by 1983.
The show contains a lot of extras to pad it to four hours. The Long Distance Dedications are “Just Remember I Love You” by Firefall, dedicated by a tongue-tied nerd to the girl who probably doesn’t even know he exists, and “Hey Jude,” somehow appropriate for three children to dedicate to their hospitalized grandmother. During this era, each hour of the show contained one of the #1 songs of the 60s, and this week, they’re pretty strong: “Soul and Inspiration,” “Good Lovin’,” and “Monday Monday,” all from the spring of 1966, and each one better than whatever you consider to be the best song on the charts during the week of June 13, 1981.