(Pictured: Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty duet in September 1981.)
This is the point where, after writing about the American Top 40 show from the week of August 1, 1981, I’d write about what was below the Top 40, or on the Bubbling Under chart in the same week. I ain’t doing that this time. What exactly I *am* doing here I’m not sure. Thinking out loud, mostly.
If I had a better work ethic, I would look into the origin of the term “corporate rock.” I remember hearing it for the first time long about 1981, in reference to artists who got the lion’s share of major-label marketing power, bands whose music often seemed purpose-built for album-oriented radio. The term was a little bit disingenuous—as if, only a few years before, bands made their music by hand in little sheds out back and record labels went door-to-door like they were selling Girl Scout cookies—but it struck a nerve, too. Art and commerce have always gone hand in hand. Even Mozart needed a patron to feed his family. But what does it mean when the border between art and commercial artifice is no longer clear?
As you’ve read here previously, at the dawn of the 80s, younger listeners were deserting AM and Top 40 radio in large numbers for FM and album-rock stations, and album-rock stations were giving them what they wanted. It was more adventuresome than the Top 40 (although almost anything would have been), but at the same time, it meant highly familiar-sounding music from highly familiar bands.
Behold the top of the Radio and Records AOR National Airplay 40 for the week of August 7, 1981 (page 34 at that link): Journey, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, the Moody Blues, Blue Oyster Cult, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, Stevie Nicks, Foghat, Van Halen. The lead cut on most of these albums is the single currently getting or seeking airplay on Top 40 stations: “Who’s Crying Now,” “Urgent,” “Fire and Ice,” “The Voice,” “Burnin’ for You,” “A Woman in Love,” “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
Highly familiar-sounding music from highly familiar bands. Album-rock stations would mix in new or lesser-known artists, but established superstars drove the bus. (One of the most popular nationally programmed AOR formats of the time was called “Superstars.”) Newer acts who got on the air that summer had to fit the template. Album stations were not interested in meandering, nine-minute jams. If you were going to make it, you had to play tight and come in hot. Billy Squier did; so did Greg Kihn and Michael Stanley. Even the Allman Brothers Band got the memo. Their hit that summer, “Straight From the Heart,” was a single that ran 3:18, from a forthcoming album where nothing would be longer than 4:45.
I remember a pair of dueling comments at this website several years ago. One reader praised 1981 as a good year for rock. Another responded that the mass popularity of acts such as the Moody Blues and Jefferson Starship represented the very death of creativity, and that the year’s worthwhile music barely made it on the radio at all.
So here’s a question to ponder: is this stuff good, or not?
Forty years later, I’m not sure anybody needs to hear again the songs I mentioned above (except maybe “Who’s Crying Now,” which I played on the radio the other day and it sounded great). Albums that were played with much fanfare back then—the Heavy Metal soundtrack, ZZ Top’s El Loco, Blackfoot’s Marauder, and that stupid Foghat title, Girls to Chat and Boys to Bounce—have disappeared into the ether. I have listened to Hard Promises a lot over the years (although not recently), and just last week I linked to a piece I wrote after re-listening to Long Distance Voyager. But of the albums that were getting radio play 40 years ago this summer, few of them seem to matter much as albums anymore. (Bella Donna, maybe?) What’s endured are the singles, several of which are radio warhorses still.
I’m not sure what conclusion I might draw to make you think there’s been a point to the preceding 700 words. Maybe it’s enough to say that if corporate rock was a thing—art fabricated mainly to separate people from their money, as consumers of albums or as buyers of radio advertising or radio-advertised goods—it reached a high-water mark in 1981 and 1982, before MTV started smashing the crockery, and before fragmenting radio audiences opened doors for artists who didn’t fit the old AOR template. As always, I welcome any thoughts you have on the topic.