(Pictured: Kim Carnes enjoys a moment backstage in 1981.)
OK, I started live-blogging the AT40 show from August 1, 1981, on Monday, and now I have to finish the job, like it or not.
21. “All Those Years Ago”/George Harrison. Me, last summer: “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.”
20. “It’s Now or Never”/John Schneider. There is utterly no reason for this stiff, whitebread version of the Elvis classic to exist.
19. “Sweet Baby”/Stanley Clarke and George Duke. On “Sweet Baby,” two accomplished jazz players who know a little bit about soul and funk can’t muster up either one.
18. “The Stroke”/Billy Squier
17. “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”/Commodores
Squier’s hormonal riffage still amuses the teenage boy in me, and compared to the rest of the show, Lionel Richie sounds like James Brown.
16. “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”/Carpenters
15. “Time”/Alan Parsons Project
14. “Endless Love”/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
13. “There’s No Getting Over Me”/Ronnie Milsap
But then there’s this. In the past, I have written about the way AT40 will sometimes hit a streak of pure Top 40 pleasure, with one great radio song after another. This is not that. This is a stultifying quarter-hour of radio. This is why MTV had to happen.
12. “Gemini Dream”/Moody Blues. With Long Distance Voyager at #1 on the album chart in this week, Casey introduces “Gemini Dream” with a good bit of trivia: the Moodys are the third group to hit #1 with an album, break up, reform, and then hit #1 with another album, joining the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and the Bee Gees. Surely it’s happened again since.
EXTRA: “I’m a Believer”/Monkees
11. “You Make My Dreams”/Hall and Oates
The best thing on the show is probably “Who’s Crying Now” back at #30, but these are close.
10. “Queen of Hearts”/Juice Newton. “Queen of Hearts” is uptempo without being the remotest bit rock ‘n’ roll, and thereby exactly what pop radio was looking for at this moment in history. Juice scored five big hits in 1981 and 1982 but when fashions changed in 1983, she went swiftly back to playing county fairs.
9. “Hearts”/Marty Balin. Different times: despite being a pure pop record, “Hearts” was one of the top tracks on album-rock radio in the summer of 1981.
LDD: “Love You Like I Never Loved Before”/John O’Banion. Which Debbie dedicates to Mike, a high-school flame. They have both been married and divorced and now they’re in love, she says, even though he is a soldier in West Germany and they haven’t set eyes on each other in 10 years. Good luck, you crazy kids.
8. “Boy From New York City”/Manhattan Transfer. In the last post, I referred to 1981 as “the white tornado.” To wit: “Boy From New York City” is the 38th record on this show so far, counting the extras, and the 32nd credited to white people. It’s like a Republican National Committee meeting up in here.
7. “Bette Davis Eyes”/Kim Carnes. Seventeenth week on the show, nine of them spent at #1. I’m at a loss to fully explain its appeal. I seem to remember that it didn’t stay on radio playlists very long after 1981, but you shouldn’t trust my memory. I don’t.
6. “Slow Hand”/Pointer Sisters.
Potentially controversial opinion: this is yacht rock. Take away the Sisters and it’s basically “What a Fool Believes.” [Late edit: wait a sec. “He’s So Shy” is the one that’s yacht rock. “Slow Hand” is something else but I don’t care about it enough to differentiate the two.]
5. “Elvira”/Oak Ridge Boys
4. “I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers
3. “Greatest American Hero Theme (Believe It or Not)”/Joey Scarbury
2. “The One That You Love”/Air Supply
You cannot imagine the horror of living in a world where “Elvira” was on the radio every couple of hours. Thank the gods this show is almost over.
1. “Jessie’s Girl”/Rick Springfield. This sounded better than practically everything else in the summer of 1981, although if this week’s AT40 has taught us anything, that was not an especially high bar to clear.
It’s a familiar theme: by 1981, the jolt that disco gave to pop music in the late 70s had faded away. Mainstream radio pop had retreated into a safe space in which nobody would be challenged. (I’ve seen it linked to the rise of Ronald Reagan and the triumph of backlash politics after the 60s and 70s, but smarter people would have to say.) In any case: a new jolt was needed, and it was coming, starting on one cable system in New Jersey, the same weekend this AT40 aired.
I realize that there are people who feel as warmly about 1981 as I do about 1976 and 1971, and if you are one of them, all I can say is, you do you.