This post started out as a list of the Top 20 hits of the summer of 1981 by Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on peak chart position and weeks in that position, but it ended up sounding like a couple of posts I wrote back in the spring, which you can go read if you like. So now it’s an unscientific list of 20 songs I liked, in no particular order.
“Too Much Time on My Hands”/Styx. If you expected to hear rock music on your local Top 40 station in the summer of 81, pickin’s were slim.
“Hearts”/Marty Balin. The audible breath that Balin takes before delivering the last line (“is everything all right”) is very sexy, actually.
“Boy From New York City”/Manhattan Transfer. I should write about the Manhattan Transfer someday. They had four Top 40 hits between 1975 and 1983, and “Boy From New York City” was the biggest.
“I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers. As a producer, Lionel Richie got more out of Kenny Rogers than anybody else, although their collaborations were trapped in the amber of their early-80s moment, and within a couple of years, you wouldn’t hear them much anymore.
“Slow Hand”/Pointer Sisters. At the country station, we mixed in a few pop hits, especially during daytime hours, and this was one of them. We weren’t the only ones who saw its country potential: a year later Conway Twitty took a rather skeevy cover of it to #1 country.
“Fire and Smoke”/Earl Thomas Conley. This was the first #1 country hit for an artist who would eventually trail only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap for most #1 country hits during the 80s.
“Seven Year Ache”/Rosanne Cash. This, too, was #1 country hit, and you have forgotten that it crossed over to #22 on the Hot 100.
“Elvira”/Oak Ridge Boys. I didn’t mind this when it first came out in April, but sweet mama when people were still requesting it once an hour six months later, I was done.
“All Those Years Ago”/George Harrison. America loved the idea that Paul and Ringo were backing George on this, and if it portrays a John Lennon that some people didn’t recognize, maybe blame grief for it.
“Talk to Ya Later”/The Tubes. This wasn’t the hit single from the Tubes album The Completion Backward Principle—that was “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore”—but we adored “Talk to Ya Later” at the campus station and played it from the spring into the summer.
“A Life of Illusion”/Joe Walsh. Once you realize how much the intro of “A Life of Illusion” resembles “On Wisconsin,” you’ll never be able to un-hear it.
“Sweetheart”/Franke and the Knockouts. Certain records sound familiar from the first time you hear them, and “Sweetheart” is one of those. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and with “Sweetheart,” it isn’t.
“This Little Girl”/Gary U. S. Bonds. I was a relatively new Springsteen acolyte in ’81, and in the way of new converts everywhere, I worshipped anything my idol (who co-produced, played, and sang on the Bonds album Dedication) touched.
“The Stroke”/Billy Squier. If you took the interests, experiences, and aspirations of rural white male Midwestern college students of 1981 and made a songwriting bot out of them, it would write “The Stroke.”
“I Love You”/Climax Blues Band. And yet it was possible for a 21-year-old college student who loved “The Stroke” to love this too, for he contained multitudes.
“Gemini Dream”/Moody Blues. Me, last fall: “three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama.”
“Time”/Alan Parsons Project. Of all the songs on this list, it might be most appropriate for scoring the closing credits of the movie I wrote about yesterday.
“Urgent”/Foreigner. Of all the albums that came out while I was in college radio, the most impactful wasn’t The Wall or The Long Run or Tusk, it was IV by Foreigner. Every cut sounded good on the radio, and we played ’em all.
“The Waiting”/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Hard Promises was another impactful album. At the time, I didn’t like it as much as Damn the Torpedoes. But in four decades since, it’s the one I’ve listened to much more often.
“The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band. If I were picking a favorite song from the summer of 1981, “The Breakup Song” would be it. Hard-rockin’, earworm-worthy, and as I might have described it back then, “tough and tight.”
In the next installment, some broadcasting industry news from the summer of 1981.