The White Tornado

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(Pictured: the group Alabama hangs out in 1980.)

On August 1, 1981, MTV launched, on a single cable system in New Jersey. It would take a while before MTV gained sufficient critical mass to change music history. Out in the pop world of 1981, the beat went on. Here’s a live-blog of the American Top 40 show that aired around the country that weekend.

Casey starts the show by noting that there are eight new songs in this week. New, yes. Different? I wonder.

40. “You’re My Girl”/Franke and the Knockouts. Franke and the Knockouts’ first hit, “Sweetheart,” remains great. “You’re My Girl” is a song you’ve already heard a million times before you’ve heard it once, and you’ll never need to hear it again.

39. “Really Want to Know You”/Gary Wright. In which Gary Wright sounds postively exhausted.

38. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”/Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This has never done much for me, but at least it’s got some personality.

37. “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore”/Tubes. The band hired super-producer David Foster, and he gave them this generic love ballad that could hardly be by the same band that made “White Punks on Dope” and “Don’t Touch Me There.”

36. “Love on a Two-Way Street”/Stacy Lattisaw. Before playing “Love on a Two-Way Street,” Casey answers a question about songs that stayed the longest in the Top 40 by giving the answer—and then repeating the answer in case we didn’t catch it 10 seconds before. Then, he says, “Debuting this week is that 14-year-old girl Stacy Lattisaw, with her second Top 40 hit on the pop chart called ‘Love on a Two-Way Street.’ Stacy Lattisaw.” FOR GOD’S SAKE MAN YOU JUST TOLD US HER NAME WHY DO YOU HAVE TO SAY IT AGAIN

35. “Feels So Right”/Alabama. Late in 1980, Alabama scored their first two #1 country hits, and sometime that winter, the county fair in my little Wisconsin hometown was able to book them for the grandstand in July. By the time they played, they’d had two more #1s and “Feels So Right” was crossing over to pop. It was the fourth in a streak of 21 consecutive #1 country hits that would last until 1987.

34. “Don’t Give It Up”/Robbie Patton. A “turntable hit” is a song that gets played a lot on the radio without generating many sales. The phrase is obsolete but the concept remains today, especially in country music—radio stations give heavy airplay to certain records that I am convinced no listener actually likes. I also feel that way about the blindingly white “Don’t Give It Up.” It’s hard to imagine that anybody raced out to the record store to buy it, but radio stations liked how it sounded.

LDD: “While You See a Chance”/Steve Winwood. In which Mary, a woman from the Chicago suburbs, makes friends with a train conductor named Bobby, who consoles her with advice after her dream of moving to California falls through: “Life’s not gonna give you anything. You have to make things happen.” Shortly after that, Bobby fell off the train and was squashed against the third rail.

Well, no, I made that last bit up, but if I hadn’t admitted it, would you have doubted me?

33. “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”/Jim Steinman
32. “Double Dutch Bus”/Frankie Smith
“Double Dutch Bus” is rarely mentioned when we discuss the earliest rap records to get traction on the pop charts, and I don’t know if it belongs. But if it’s OK with you, I’d prefer we never speak of it again. Or Jim Steinman either.

EXTRA: “Winchester Cathedral”/New Vaudeville Band. Part of Casey’s series reviewing the #1 songs of the 60s, this is the 154th, from December 1966.

31. “Fire and Ice”/Pat Benatar. I am no Pat Benatar fan, and this isn’t especially good on its own, but it sounds great compared to the rest of this show so far.

30. “Who’s Crying Now”/Journey
29. “A Woman Needs Love”/Ray Parker Jr.
28. “Cool Love”/Pablo Cruise
27. “The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band
Journey and Greg Kihn are the best of this show so far, but even a man with the soul-music cred of Ray Parker Jr. can’t escape the white tornado that is 1981. “Cool Love” doesn’t move me in any direction.

26. “Modern Girl”/Sheena Easton
25. “Medley”/Stars on 45
I’m about ready to tap out here. “Modern Girl” is dreadful. Compared to that, “Medley” is “Stairway to Heaven.”

24. “Don’t Let Him Go”/REO Speedwagon
23. “In the Air Tonight”/Phil Collins
22. “Urgent”/Foreigner
EXTRA: “Good Vibrations”/Beach Boys
Finally, some signs of life. But we’re two hours down and still only up to #22.

Do I want to live-blog the rest of this? Not really. Do you want me to? Well, OK then. Tune in again next time.

14 thoughts on “The White Tornado

  1. TN

    Imagine being in high school, as I was at this point, and having this be the soundtrack to your life. Are any of these songs free of artificial-sounding tinkly keyboards, or bass lines that just thump along on one note? It’s a wonder I retained any affection at all for pop music in my adulthood.

  2. mikehagerty

    This was the time that it was great to be in Northern California (or in my case, a short drive over Donner Pass from Northern California).

    Gerry Cagle, brought in to drag KFRC’s ratings up a year before, knew that wasn’t gonna happen playing what Billboard said were the hits. So suddenly, alongside the legitimate rock songs (and a couple of white ballads for morning drive), some serious R&B was charting at the Big 610.

    Here’s the same week at KFRC from the Arsa-Las Solanas site:

  3. Chris Herman

    I was in high school at this time and remember mostly listening to AOR instead of pop. This chart is a reason why.

  4. Jake

    This was the year before I was born and coming up in the late 80s/early 90s as a pop and AOR listener meant I barely heard ANY of these songs anywhere. I feel like most just disappeared off the face of the gotdamn earth when they went recurrent.

    As I got older I looked at the top 40 landscape of my home base (Twin Cities) at this time and realized that most were leaning AOR (as someone posted above ). What stations were actually spinning this dreck then?

    1. mikehagerty


      Mostly AM stations in predominantly white areas that had already lost out to a dominant AOR on FM.

      By ’82, those were the stations that were finding something else to do—usually AC (where they played even more dreck), Country, or, if they had a big enough signal, talk.

      The genius behind what Gerry Cagle did at KFRC (see above) was that the Bay Area at the time had a significant Black population. Rather than face off against AORs like KSFX and KOME and lose, Cagle took on KSOL and got three more years of livable numbers before the tank ran dry.

      But it didn’t translate everywhere. Chuck Martin went heavily R&B (by L.A. standards) at KWST and got his clock cleaned by KIIS-FM, which was still a year away from truly big numbers and, in fact, was playing it pretty safe musically as they morphed out of Disco.

      1. Jake

        Thanks for the reply! I figured it had something to do with AM dying off and going for the mellower end of the Boomers. The big top 40 in the Twin Cities split into an AM top 40 and a FM mix of pop and AOR from what I’ve seen. I’ve heard a few air checks from the AM side from 79 and 80 and oooooooh boy, it’s pretty bad and out of touch with what was on the hot 100

  5. thomas m jr long

    I was in Navy boot camp from June 17 through August 9 1981. I never got to hear radio the entire time. I see what I missed out on.

    1. The music video to Jim Steinman’s “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” is ridiculously bad. Even worse, Steinman performed the song in concert for a live TV audience in Europe with the actor and actress from the video. The performance looks eerily similar to sacrificing a virgin.

  6. Probably helped “Don’t Give It Up” that Christine McVie and Bob Welch provided backing vocals and Lindsey Buckingham played guitar on the song. Me, I like bouncy pop like “Don’t Give It Up,” “Please Don’t Leave” by Lauren Wood and “How Do I Survive” by Amy Holland (the latter two with backing vocals by Michael McDonald).

  7. porky

    Someone: You know they have the shittiest food in town? I mean, completely awful.
    Jim: I know! I’m going anyway! And then I’m going to write a review about it!

  8. Wesley

    Ah, 1981. The year when CHR stations sounded more like adult contemporary stations than some adult contemporary stations did. This proves my belief that pop stations ought to be grateful MTV arrived to shake them out of their doldrums.

    By the way, jb, if you’ve already done it, my apologies, but I think you’d get a good column or two out about what you consider were the biggest “turntable hits” on radio during the 70s and 80s (and 60s, if you feel adventurous).

  9. porky

    The Tubes! They weren’t selling out, they were buying in! BTW the 12″ version of “Double Dutch Bus” is a go-to in my collection and has brought joy to my kids and I for many years, instant smiles all around when it’s spinning (same with Ohio Players “Funky Worm”).

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