(Pictured: John, December 6, 1980.)
Although the second week of December 1980 would eventually be dominated by one of the biggest stars in music history, it didn’t start off that way. Here’s what radio stations were playing the week John Lennon died, from the edition of Radio and Records dated December 5, 1980, the Friday before.
In that week, Lennon’s album Double Fantasy and single “(Just Like) Starting Over” were big, but the week’s biggest star was Kenny Rogers. “Lady” had been #1 on the magazine’s main chart, the National Airplay 30, for six straight weeks; “More Than I Can Say” by Leo Sayer had been at #2 for five straight. “Starting Over” was #6, also trailing Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks,” “Never Be the Same” by Christopher Cross, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” One song was new in the Top 10: “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, at #9 in only its third week on the chart. The biggest mover on the chart was “I Made It Through the Rain” by Barry Manilow, which was up eight spots to #19. Only one song was new: “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt at #30.
Rogers, Cross, Diamond, and Sayer topped the AC chart, which included two Barbra Streisand records among the top 11, and “I Made It Through the Rain” blazing up to #12. (“Starting Over” moved from #25 to #19 in this week.) “The Tide Is High” and “Tell It Like It Is” by Heart debuted on the AC chart; so did Boz Scaggs’ “Miss Sun” and “Hungry Heart.”
(Considering that “I Made It Through the Rain” is about the most middle-of-the-road thing Barry Manilow ever did, its airplay numbers tell you a lot about the historical direction pop radio was taking in late 1980 and would continue to take in 1981, which we’ve discussed here before.)
On the Album Airplay 40, Bruce Springsteen’s The River was #1 and dominant, although Rod Stewart’s Foolish Behaviour made a big leap from #11 to #2. Double Fantasy sat at #4; album stations were playing “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You,” and “Watching the Wheels.” Steely Dan’s Gaucho was #5: top tracks were “Hey Nineteen,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Glamour Profession,” and the title track. The highest debut on the album chart was REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity; the top track was “Keep on Lovin’ You.” Album stations did not shy away from power ballads in those days, or from music that we wouldn’t even consider to be rock today: for example, Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” was getting airplay on a few stations. So was Stevie Wonder’s album Hotter Than July. Live albums got a lot of radio traction in that bygone day, which accounts for the success of Eagles Live and Supertramp’s Paris, both of which made the Top 10 of the airplay chart. College radio favorites also charting: Dire Straits’ Making Movies, AC/DC’s Back in Black, and the Jim Carroll Band’s Catholic Boy, featuring “People Who Died,” which you should hear if you haven’t.
I don’t remember a lot of the songs on the Country Airplay 40. “Lady” fell to #11 in this week, but another pop crossover, “Smokey Mountain Rain” by Ronnie Milsap, was in its third week at #1. “I Love a Rainy Night” was #12. I wasn’t working much at KDTH in the fall and early winter of 1980; I’d given up my part-time gig to work at the album-rock station all summer with the understanding that KDTH would take me back in the fall, provided I went to the bottom of the seniority pole.
When these charts were compiled, we didn’t know John Lennon was going to die suddenly that week. We didn’t know anything else, either. Not the big stuff, certainly: about how and where the currents of history were going to carry us, or about what would endure and what would not. That’s nobody’s fault. It was life as it was and ever shall be.
At the risk of straining a metaphor (too late, maybe?), in that moment, we twentysomething college kids were the rollergirl in Dire Straits’ “Skateaway,” the most-played track from Making Movies. We ordered our lives in ways that made sense to us and waited to see what would happen next, all the while hoping things would work out—and all the while with music in our heads.
She gets rock and roll
And a rock and roll station
And a rock and roll dream
She’s making movies on location
She don’t know what it means
But the music make her want to be the story
And the story was whatever was the song what it was
Rollergirl, don’t worry
DJ plays the movies all night long
All night long