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.
6 thoughts on “From Somewhere to Somewhere Else”
Funny. I just heard “Tennessee Birdwalk” again yesterday. KHJ didn’t play it 50 years ago in SoCal, but I was aware of it at the time (I was in sixth grade) because I saw Blanchard and Morgan perform it a couple of times on TV. When I listened to it yesterday I noticed the really cool instrumentation, including that fun guitar. And I loved Misty’s seductive “chirp, chirps.”
I was an upperclassman in 1976 and 1977 and I was becoming more and more aware of the music on the radio ad I knew then that I wanted to work on the radio. In 1981, I was working on the radio and it seemed the Top 40 music of that year was evenly split between Adult Contemporary music dur8ng the day and Album Rock played at night.
Reading these memories about music during this week in 1970, 1976, 1977 and 1981 is a lot of fun. Certainly more enjoyable than today’s story on NPR about doing dance challenges on Tiktok helped Drake become the first male artist in Billboard history to have three singles reach No. 1 upon release. I can’t imagine looking fondly about that. If you’re curious, here’s the link, but don’t blame me if you feel unimpressed or worse after reading it: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/17/837245071/the-genius-move-that-helped-drake-s-new-song-toosie-slide-hit-no-1
Tough years for Top 40. FM, especially album rock, ate most of the males over 16 (and a good chunk of the females), disco died and the backlash hit R&B artists hard and ad budgets aimed at teens evaporated—leaving radio station GMs wanting 25-54 adults, resulting in Top 40 stations morphing into Adult Contemporary, going Country or going Talk.
I’ve described this period as choking on Air (Supply) and drowning in Juice (Newton). And it stayed grim until ’82/’83 when videos, instead of killing radio, made hits for a new generation of teens and young adults.
Given my vast amount of unstructured time these days, it might be interesting to compare mainstream Top 40 with adult contemporary in 1981: wimpy vs. wimpier. Homework: assigned.
I’ll be interested to learn what you find. 1981 was the year I went from jock/PD to news, so those titles aren’t burned in my brain the way the previous ten years worth were.
A lot of it will vary by market and station. From 1975 on, I was very influenced by stations like KFMB, San Diego, which basically took the Top 40 playlist, dumped the five or six hardest songs and played the rest. KFMB actually just ran a 22-record playlist. I fleshed mine out to 30 by going early on songs that I thought would be hits later and only very rarely dipping into AC titles that would never cross over to Top 40.
Beyond that, the biggest difference between Top 40 and ACs out west was how deep the gold file ran. At Top 40, in the early-middle 70s, it was generally 5-7 years. I started out playing nothing from before the Beatles hit in the U.S.
Top 40 GMs began insisting on decent 25-54 numbers, the Top 40s started going back 10-15, and I went 20-25, especially after a long-dark AM signed back on as an oldies jukebox.
From the list above, if I’d just parachuted into a station and needed a first week playlist, I’d have ditched Clapton, REO Speedwagon, April Wine, Styx (Too Much Time), John Cougar and The Who, and played everything else (though I had to look up the John O’Banion record).