(Pictured: Juice Newton.)
Last week, after I wrote about the incredible lightness of Top 40 radio in April 1981, our friend Mike Hagerty dropped some pertinent comments that I hope you saw. They help explain why ostensible “rock” stations got so soft at the dawn of the 80s:
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).
Mike says it wouldn’t take much to turn the Radio and Records National Airplay 30 I wrote about into an adult-contemporary chart:
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).
(“Love You Like I Never Loved Before” by John O’Banion, which would get to #24 on the Hot 100 in mid-May, is the sort of thing that would have gotten instant airplay in a year like 1981. Even if you’ve never heard it before, you’ve heard it before. It’s well-produced radio pop, and it’s catchy for three minutes but then disappears entirely until you hear it again three hours later.)
This discussion made me think it would be a good idea to compare the National Airplay 30 to the same week’s Pop/Adult Airplay 30, the magazine’s adult contemporary chart, to see what we can see. I made a spreadsheet if you want to take a look, but to summarize: there are 13 songs on the 4/17/81 Pop/Adult chart that weren’t on the National Airplay 30 in the same week. Some of those had certainly been there previously, or would be: “What Kind of Fool,” “Hello Again,” “Crying,” “Woman,” and “Sukiyaki.” (All were Top-10 hits on the Hot 100.)
Radio and Records also listed “New and Active” records on its Pop/Adult page, songs that were getting airplay on AC stations but not enough to chart yet. Among the songs from the current National Airplay 30 on that list are the Stars on 45 medley, “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” and “I Missed Again.” In the same section, under the subheading “Others Getting Significant Action,” there’s “I Can’t Stand It,” “Sweetheart,” “Love You Like I’ve Never Loved Before,” “Take It on the Run,” and “Just Between You and Me.” Several songs on the National Airplay 30 that aren’t on the Pop/Adult chart almost certainly either had been (like “The Best of Times”) or could have been at some point.
The National Airplay 30 page also lists “New and Active” songs on Top 40 stations (which were starting to be known this era as CHR stations, for “contemporary hit radio”). Songs coming over from the Pop/Adult side include “Blessed Are the Believers,” “I Loved ‘Em Every One,” and “Lonely Together.” “Others Getting Significant Action” lists “I Don’t Need You” and “Mister Sandman.” I’m mildly surprised not to find “Super Trouper,” but it might have been there in some other week.
Of the 13 Pop/Adult hits not on the National Airplay 30, “What’s in a Kiss” by Gilbert O’Sullivan and “Alice Doesn’t Love Here Anymore” by Bobby Goldsboro are the least likely to have made it, considering that they missed the Billboard Hot 100 entirely (although they charted on Billboard‘s AC and country charts respectively). Like “Love You Like I Never Loved Before,” “What’s In a Kiss” will seem familiar even if you’ve never heard it, but its cloying sweetness will test your patience by the end of its 2:40 running time. You might also be tempted to throw a heavy object at the bridge: “And anytime you need a light refreshment / Baby you can count on me / I am your very own delicatessen / Well equipped to supply you with your every need.” “Alice Doesn’t Love Here Anymore,” the tale of a middle-class marriage gone cold, is gold-standard schlock. In the first four lines it rhymes “awaken” with “bacon” and “places” with “interfaces”; in the last verse, Alice abandons her husband and children while they’re at the circus.
So yeah, your average Top 40 station had clearly gone in search of the 25-to-54 audience by 1981, and a female-leaning one at that. Something on the order of 80 percent of the hit songs of April 1981 were getting at least some airplay on both Top 40 and adult-contemporary radio. Both charts were blindingly white, too, but that’s a subject for another time.