We all talk about 70s music and 80s music, but those numbers are arbitrary, and nothing shows it better than the Radio and Records National Airplay 30 from this week in 1981 (nicked from the great Radio Rewinder Twitter feed; click the chart to embiggen it). That’s a 70s chart. Whatever makes the musical 80s into The Eighties, capital-T, capital E—apart from the numeral 8—is almost entirely absent. Steve Winwood, Smokey Robinson, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, and the Who all came up in the 60s. Seventies icons include James Taylor, Steely Dan, and Styx. There’s a great deal of music that fits into that little post-disco/pre-MTV adult-contemporary pocket I’ve discussed here before: “Morning Train,” “Angel of the Morning,” “Living Inside Myself,” “I Love You,” “Somebody’s Knockin’,” “Say You’ll Be Mine,” and “What Are We Doing in Love. ” The 80s icons present—Hall and Oates, John Cougar Mellencamp, the Police, and Phil Collins—do hint at the future to come. In that moment, certain artists had an idea of where music needed to go but hadn’t yet figured the best route to get there. It took a second British Invasion and the birth of MTV to show it to everybody. And a lot of those 60s and 70s icons would never matter in the same way after that.
And that’s 1981 pretty much in a nutshell—a year in-between, on the way from somewhere to somewhere else.
Earlier this week, I started writing about this date—April 17—but the stuff didn’t cohere the way I wanted it to. What follows is some of it.
Fifty years ago today—April 17, 1970—the Wisconsin State Journal devoted its entire front page to a single headline: “Let Us All Pray for Their Safe Return,” with line drawings of the Apollo 13 astronauts. It was a striking visual at the time, as was the headline the next day: the words “Thank God!” all in red over the page-1, above-the-fold story of the splashdown. (I went looking for my copies the other day; I know I have them somewhere but I couldn’t find them.) Splashdown was a little after 1:00 on that distant Friday afternoon; perhaps TV sets were rolled into my fourth-grade classroom so we could watch, but I don’t remember.
Although I heard the radio at home morning and night, music was not yet my thing on April 17, 1970. Mother and Dad listened to a lot of country, so the one song on the pop chart that I would have heard the most was the moment’s biggest country crossover: “Tennessee Birdwalk” by Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan.
It’s easy to dismiss “Tennessee Birdwalk” as a mere novelty, but it’s always seemed to me much more than that. The production highlights a lot of interesting stuff the musicians are doing; you’ll rarely hear a busier-sounding record. Jack and Misty’s self-aware walk along the line between absurdity and earnestness makes the record’s whimsy more enjoyable than it ought to be. I’m a fan.
April 17, 1976, was a Saturday—the first Saturday of my life on which I possessed a driver’s license, which I had gotten on Tuesday. I do not remember if I drove anywhere by myself that day—the only wheels available to me would have been the family car, a banana-yellow 1973 Mercury Montego—but I can’t imagine that I didn’t. I also can’t imagine that the radio didn’t already have a preset for WLS. They were playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” every couple of hours, which I adored, but I would have been listening for “Lorelei” and “Slow Ride,” as well as “Disco Lady” and “Money Honey.”
April 17, 1977, was a Sunday, a day for lazing around the house reading the State Journal and watching the ball game, although I was probably rousted in the morning to go to church—especially if I had pushed up against my curfew the night before after an evening spent at my girlfriend’s house. The radio would have been on there, and in my car, too, whenever and wherever I went: “The Things We Do for Love” and “Dancing Queen” and “Carry on Wayward Son” and “Night Moves” and “So in to You” and all the rest. It occurs to me now that as much as I love the music of 1976, the hits of the winter and spring of 1977 are right there with it, both in the sound of the grooves and in what they make me remember.
Stop back this weekend for a rare Sunday post.