Trapped in the Amber of the Moment

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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.

12 thoughts on “Trapped in the Amber of the Moment

  1. mikehagerty

    I swear, J.B., I never have heard “Don’t Want To Wait Anymore” until just now when I read this and said “Huh?” . “Talk To Ya Later”, however, got played like it was Top 10 here in California—maybe because The Tubes were a Bay Area band.

    And I LOVE “Life of Illusion”.

  2. I would be curious to read what you had to say about the Manhattan Transfer. Based on some relatively limited exposure, I sortakinda can’t stand them. (Insert obligatory disclaimer — talented and successful performers, etc.)

    1. Short version: they can be crazily good and really lame, and sometimes both at once. One of my favorite songs of theirs for years was “Ray’s Rockhouse,” but until recently I had never seen the video they did for it in 1985, and it’s so ludicrously awful I’ve actually had to reconsider how good the song is. Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUNGh75qR58

  3. mikehagerty

    Manhattan Transfer is one of those acts better heard and not seen. They got on my wrong side through a series of TV appearances in the 70s that were just so 30s campy, and in my early 20s, I could not even begin to relate. But on its own, the music (most of it) is pretty hard to argue with.

  4. porky

    How The Tubes went from a subversive theatrical outfit to slick AOR band is probably documented somewhere on the net. Seeing “David Foster” on their records of this period explains a lot as does the use of Steve Lukather (his searing, soaring guitar solo on “Talk….” is great though).

    “Jukebox Hero,” ugh. Why do bands write songs that are out of the singing range of their singer?

    And I hear a lot of “Street Fightin’ Man” “borrowed” by Joe in “Life of Illusion.”

  5. Wesley

    Oh man the thinness of 1981 pop music again, eh, JB? Well, actually this is a pretty solid list on those terms. “Hearts” is an underplayed ballad with a great vocal (Marty Balin knew how to give some grit to a slow song), while “I Love You” is in the same vein to me but has more exposure as an oldie. “Talk to Ya Later” I recall getting good airplay here in North Carolina rock stations, while “Time” probably got the most airplay at the time on top 40 stations. Well, excepting “Slow Hand” and “Elvira” of course.

    The choice of “The Breakup Song” as your favorite, I agree with that.They definitely don’t write like that anymore. But let me give another thumbs up to “Sweetheart” by Franke and the Knockouts, a good piece of perky pop that might have had a higher profile nowadays if it had not appeared in one of the least impressive times for top 40 radio.

  6. Yah Shure

    For me, the summer of 1981 boiled down to this learning experience: do not buy a chocolate bar from the candy machine sitting directly behind a Continental 317-C 50,000-watt AM beast in a non-airconditioned transmitter room, when the outside temperature is 105ºF.

    Only under the watchful eye of Conway Twitty could the term “skeezy covers” have two distinct, and yet ultimately similar meanings.

    The music director who preceded me at my present station tagged “The Breakup Song”‘s subtitle as “They Don’t Wriet ‘Em”. Knowing his offbeat sense of humor, I seriously doubt it was a typo. I also think it (im)proved the point. And thus it shall remain.

  7. Andy

    I believe a lot of the lameness of 1981-82 pop boils down to the anti-disco backlash, and the disproportionate effect it had on the popularity of black artists, which resulted in a distinct lack of uptempo soul in pop music during those years.

    There were only 2 #1 pop hits by black acts in 1981: “Celebration” and “Endless Love”.
    1982 was much the same: “Baby Come to Me” and “Truly”. Oh, and uh, “Ebony and Ivory”.

    Of those, only “Celebration” and “Baby Come to Me” approach anything that can be considered “soulful”, and as good as they are, they are still fairly weak sauce. A little too smooth, a little too bland.

    Yes, there were some other big R&B hits during that time that crossed over, “Let’s Groove”, “Turn Your Love Around”, the above-mentioned “Slow Hand”, “That Girl”, “The Other Woman”, “Being With You”, etc. But overall, it seems like black artists, who had really dominated the pop charts during the disco era, were largely being shut out in ’81/’82, especially the danceable, funky stuff that had been such a huge part of pop music throughout the rock era.

    1. mikehagerty

      So much truth to what Andy wrote above—unless you were in Northern California at the time. KFRC, San Francisco went seriously urban in ’82…among their top 30 in the first week of July, 1982:

      5. Early In The Morning-Gap Band
      6. Murphy’s Law-Cheri
      11, Let It Whip-Dazz Band
      12. Outlaw-War
      13. It’s Gonna Take A Miracle-Deniece Williams
      21. Cutie Pie-One Way
      23. Forget Me Nots-Patrice Rushen
      25. Do I Do-Stevie Wonder
      27. Sitting On The Dock of the Bay-The Reddings

  8. mackdaddyg

    So many random thoughts after reading this post:

    – I first heard the Manhattan Transfer when their version of “Boy From New York City” became a hit. That was the first time I’d heard that song as well. I liked it all right, but something about it kept me from really digging it. When I finally found out a few years later that it was a cover, and once I heard the Ad Libs version, there was no going back.

    There are a lot of songs that I heard as covers and found out later that there were earlier hit versions. Barry Manilow introduced me to “Let’s Hang On” for example. Amii Stewart made me aware of “Knock On Wood.” Maybe that could be a post in the future?

    – Calling just about anything by Conway Twitty “skeevy” is perfect. “You Haven’t Been This Far Before” comes to mind.

    – “This Little Girl” was my introduction to Gary U.S. Bonds. I loved it then and still love it now, even if it doesn’t get the airplay it deserves. That album (Dedication) is really good.

    – That Climax Blues Band song is a guilty pleasure. Sometimes I hear it and remember it as being from the early 80s, but other times it sounds like it’s from a few years earlier.

    1. I am not especially interested in doing it, but I suppose there’s research to be done about the sexual explicitness of country music during the last half of the 70s. “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” was the first I know of, but for several years, there were lots of hits that plowed (rimshot) similar ground. Male singers talked about women they “had,” which is quite a dehumanizing verb in that context. Female singers occasionally did that sort of song too, but the sex in those songs more often grew out of relationships. Male singers often just celebrated random banging.

  9. mikehagerty

    Amen on Conway’s skeevyness. The only time I’ve never felt that way listening to him was his duet with Sam Moore of Sam and Dave on Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”—which I just love;

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