Soundtracking 1980

(Pictured: REO Speedwagon in 1980, the last year before their national breakout.)

For this last post of 2015, I was going to write about the year-end chart from 1975, but we spent enough time on 1975 this year. Then I thought, “How about 1985?” But all of the top-hits-of-1985 charts at ARSA look pretty much the same, and are lacking in the sort of oddball records we like to highlight around here. (That’s pretty good evidence of the grip that risk-averse, consultant-driven programming had on the industry by the middle of the 80s.)

So I split the difference and grabbed the WLS Big 89 of 1980. It was a transitional year for Chicago’s legendary Top 40 blowtorch, one in which they started rocking harder while at the same time continuing to play the soft-rock hits doing big Top 40 business. The transition accounts for some of the more interesting entries on the chart: Off Broadway’s “Stay in Time” at #11, “Gimme Some Lovin'” by the Blues Brothers at #17, and “Train in Vain” by the Clash at #20, to name but three. But softer pop tunes were still an important part of the station’s sound: Look no further than Air Supply’s “Lost in Love” at #1, or the soporific “Longer” and “Sailing” elsewhere in the Top 10.

(I was doing album-rock radio that summer, but still listening to a lot of Top 40, and I remember being blown away by “Lost in Love” the first time I heard it. Thirty-five years later, there still hasn’t been anything quite like it—not even in Air Supply’s catalog.)

On the flip, find five more songs worth circling—and some record-chart weirdness—from the Big 89 of 1980.

12. “Time for Me to Fly” and 36. “Roll With the Changes”/REO Speedwagon. These songs hit the Hot 100 in 1978, but WLS was playing them in 1980 on the strength of the compilation A Decade of Rock and Roll, a two-disc set that collected the best of REO’s run as one of the Midwest’s favorite rock bands. (“Time for Me to Fly” re-entered the Hot 100 in the summer of 1980.) Oddly, although both ranked among the year’s top 89 songs, neither appeared on the WLS weekly survey during the year.

19. “Another One Bites the Dust”/Queen. If that’s not weird enough for you, try this. “Another One Bites the Dust” spent 10 weeks at #1 on the WLS survey, from the end of September to the end of November—tied for the longest run in WLS history—but placed at #19 for 1980. Twelve of the songs ranking ahead of it never made #1 on the WLS chart at all. The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” peaked at #11, and Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” reached #20 on the weekly charts, yet they were ranked ahead at the end of the year. An expert I consulted speculates that the year-end chart was based on audience research data, not record sales and phoned-in requests, as the weekly charts were. Such data is passive—you say you like a song, we tick that box on a report, end of story. Sales and requests are active—you do something that shows you like a song beyond just saying so. This theory would explain the REO songs showing up on the year-end chart but not the weekly chart.

41. “This Beat Goes On”-“Switchin’ to Glide”/The Kings. In 2009, I had the chance to do an extensive e-mail interview with John Picard of the Kings, which is one of the cooler things that ever happened at this blog. He told me how important it was when WLS added their record. It was already on several major-market FM rock stations, but getting on one of the country’s biggest AM stations represented a significant leap forward that opened the door for other stations to add it, too.

76. “Turning Japanese”/The Vapors. “Turning Japanese,” which got up to #4 on the WLS weekly survey, was a college radio favorite, and one of the few new-wave records we had much interest in. As I have noted before, most of us were not particularly adventuresome in our musical taste—we wanted to play the songs we heard on our favorite radio stations, and WLS was certainly one of those.

OK, that’s it for 1980, and for 2015. Watch this space for more along this line in 2016, starting on New Year’s Day.

3 thoughts on “Soundtracking 1980

  1. porky

    Imagine Cheap Trick with a flame-throwing guitarist ala Brian May or Elliot Easton and you had Off Broadway, well-loved in here downstate Illinois. Cliff Johnson has a terrific pop voice, though my friend couldn’t stand the Bowie-esque “dead, dead” in “Stay In Time.”

  2. 1980-1981 was a time when WLS really sounded great despite the lack of diverse Top 40 Hits that you would’ve heard in the late 60s and early 70s. You could turn on WLS during the day and hear “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, “Being With You” by Smokey Robinson, and “Woman” from John Lennon. Yet, you would also hear “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield, “Urgent” by Foreigner, and “Burning for You” by Blue Oyster Cult. At night, they would REALLY rock out with album cuts like “Half Penny Two Penny” from Styx, “Mystery Achievement” from the Pretenders, and “Hells Bells” by AC/DC. Brant Miller would also play classic album cuts like “Bad Company” by Bad Company, “All Good People” by Yes, and the long studio version of “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. With an air staff of Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, John Landecker (afternoons til 1981), Brant Miller, Jeff Davis, and Yvonne Daniels, WLS maintained a bright, tight, rockin’ sound every day back then.

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