The Stalker of ’79

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(Pictured: “Oh, God, there’s that idiot with the Leo Sayer record again.”)

As time passes, we learn new things, we gain new perspectives, and we sometimes find that what we once believed isn’t quite true. So we recalibrate what we once believed, in hopes of being wiser in times to come. It’s what most intelligent people do (except for some intransigent political creatures who equate virtue with believing in the same things you believed 10 or 30 or 50 or 500 years ago, even in the face of evidence to the contrary).

American Top 40 recently repeated the show from July 21, 1979, the very same week that inspired a 2011 post I wrote called “Summer of Schlock”, but I am finding it not quite so schlocky another time around.

It tries to be. “Kiss in the Dark” by the Japanese disco act Pink Lady and “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” by country stars the Bellamy Brothers make a big ol’ train wreck right at the start, although Casey observes they were produced by the same guy, Michael Lloyd. (In 1979, Lloyd had already produced some of the biggest hits by the Osmonds and Shaun Cassidy, and in the 80s, he would produce Belinda Carlisle and serve as music supervisor for Dirty Dancing and its string of megahits.) But from that point on, the show settles into a pretty typical 70s Top 40 mix: Charlie Daniels next to Van Halen, Blondie next to James Taylor, Anne Murray next to Supertramp.

It is true that a few of these records sound crazily out of place now: Murray’s “Shadows in the Moonlight” (#25) was #1 on the country chart for the week of July 21 although it twangs not a whit and features a saxophone solo. Up at #16, Barbra Streisand’s “The Main Event/Fight” is the biggest mover within the countdown, a glitzy Hollywood production number spiked with a weak shot of disco that was remarkably popular for a while. It would sit at #3 for four weeks in August and September, but would disappear from the radio the moment it dropped out of recurrents.

There is, as I complained in 2011, not much straight-up rock on this chart, and what there is would not annoy the neighbors, not Charlie Daniels, or Van Halen, or Wet Willie, or Joe Jackson, or Poco, or Supertramp, or Peter Frampton, although Blondie and Cheap Trick might. But there are a couple of late-period Philly soul numbers, Elton John’s “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” (#21), produced by Thom Bell, and McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (#13), the best thing on which is the MFSB backing track, and that kind of thing is always welcome. The two best-sounding records of the week might be John Stewart’s “Gold” (#9) and Gerry Rafferty’s extremely fine “Days Gone Down” (#17). Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” is sitting up at #3, in the 11th of 14 weeks it would spend in the Top 10, a record I like much better now than I did then.

Because AT40s were up to four hours by 1979, this show is liberally padded, with three past #1 singles from the 70s and two Long Distance Dedications. One is from a guy who has had trouble winning the girl of his high-school dreams. He’s tried writing funny poems and sending flowers; he says he even “wrote a letter on the sidewalk in front of her house,” but even though she is always cordial, she doesn’t understand that he loves her. Now she’s gone to college out of state, and he wants Casey to play Leo Sayer’s “How Much Love” as one more attempt to convince her. I heard this guy as a lovelorn doofus making another pathetic, doomed-to-fail romantic gesture. The Mrs., listening at the same time, branded him a stalker. “The girl is just trying to be polite and let him down easy,” she said, “but he just doesn’t get the message.”

She’s right.

As the July 21, 1979, show rolled on, it occurred to me that branding it schlocky is a case of what historians call presentism, which is interpreting the past by the standards of the present, even though there was no way for those standards to be applied back then. The music of the summer of 1979 only sounds like schlock because of where popular music and music radio went after the summer of 1979. In its time, it was simply the way it was, from Pink Lady to Rickie Lee Jones to Donna Summer and everything in between.

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