Art and Artifice

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(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.

16 thoughts on “Art and Artifice

  1. TN

    One thing I mentioned in a comment to another 1981 entry was that for some reason, around 1979, people decided that rock basslines should be an incessant 1-2-3-4 on the same note. You hear it explicitly on “Fire and Ice” and “Urgent” as well as other hits from this era like “Eye of the Tiger” and “Feels Like the First Time” (although not, perhaps significantly, on “Who’s Crying Now”). And it sounds like crap. Not only does it remove a lot of the texture and bounce from these records, it makes half the songs on AOR sound exactly the same. Whoever thought this was a good idea?

    1. JP

      I think that might have been the influence of the Cars (whose first album came out a year after Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time”). Originally that stuttering, one-note bassline was supposed to signify “new wave” – .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” comes to mind – but eventually it was incorporated into basic arena rock.

  2. I still remember (anyone else?) a Rolling Stone feature from around, I want to say early ’82, which printed about twenty thumbnail photos of band members whose music would fit the description you wrote in your article, along with a quiz to try to match the photos to the correct band. I -listened- to must of this stuff but still IDed only half of them!

    1. JP

      At 14, I could identify the members of Styx, but that was only because they were hometown heroes here in Chicago. Hell, the Chicago Sun-Times even printed a pullout poster of those guys in one weekend issue. And I wasn’t even a fan!

      However, I get the drift that the average person in the other 49 states wouldn’t know Dennis DeYoung from Franke Previte (or Franke & the Knockouts fame). I remember one guy went around in some city (not Chicago) picking up girls by passing himself off as Styx’s Tommy Shaw. The fact that the girls knew Styx but not the individual members is telling.

  3. Wesley

    It wasn’t just the albums getting heavy promotion. I remember getting the poster for the Heavy Metal movie free from a record or comic book store in 1981 as part of their promotional push, which is odd for a 16-year-old to receive for an R-rated movie, but I guess they thought my parents or guardian would take me if I pleaded to see it. As I recall, it pretty much bombed at the box office.

    The need to push 1970s corporate rock acts into the 1980s was a noxious trend by the money counters that as we’ve noted in previous blogs helped impair the legacy of two bands in particular: Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Chicago. And yes, I do think MTV helped break up the high water mark of the trend, but it still persisted and hurt AOR stations to a certain extent in the 1980s. It also took college radio exposure to get acts like R.E.M. finally accepted into the mainstream as well–and then they became corporate rock to a certain extent. And so it goes.

  4. T.

    All I wanna know is: Who decided Gerry Rafferty’s “BAKER STREET” was gonna be played 10 times a day, every day, on every single Classic Rock station on Earth, for the next 40 years and counting? Who decided this? (And how can I make some money off it?)

  5. As usual, JB, your thinking out loud managed to hit the nail on the head.

    As early as 1978, Radio&Records special supplement “The AOR Story” pretty much said where it (the format and the music) was going. In fact, the cover, which has four illustrations of AOR core listeners in the same house from 1968, 1969, 1973 and finally 1978 with a suggestion of the future, tells the story before you even read a word.

    Click to access R&R-AOR-Story-1978.pdf

    As grim as Top 40 was that particular year, the format young people were escaping to wasn’t much better. The only bright spots were in R&B and New Wave, but not every market had stations deep into that.

    1. JP

      I can’t see any AOR station in 1978 playing Yvonne Elliman or the Bee Gees. That’s either wishful thinking or a gross misunderstanding. No wonder RSO was out of business, three short years later.

  6. mikehagerty

    Well, JP, a trade ad pushing the wrong act to the wrong format wouldn’t do that (that would take the SGT PEPPER movie soundtrack shipping platinum and returning double platinum, the death of disco, promo genius Al Coury bolting to start his own label and Robert Stigwood and the Bee Gees suing each other for hundreds of millions of dollars).

    And still, RSO didn’t really go out of business as a label—that happened in 1975, when Polygram bought it for $8 million. Ultimately, it just ceased to be used as an imprint and all future product and re-releases were on the Polygram label.

    And AOR was a different format in ’78.

    Follow this link and go to page 42 and you’ll see the AOR chart for March 10, 1978 has Billy Joel, Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Michael Murphey, Art Garfunkel, George Benson, the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack, and……Yvonne Elliman…on the Album Airplay 40 chart.

    Click to access RR-1978-03-10.pdf

    1. In the 70s, AOR was a much broader format than it would become. In the early 70s, it would play Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and other Black artists not named Jimi Hendrix. It also wasn’t afraid to play a lot of acoustic music. It wasn’t until the late 70s or early 80s that it became A) segregated racially and B) determined to rawk all the time.

      Also: I meant to respond to the above comment about “Baker Street”. While it’s true that radio stations are to some extent programmed by individual people making individual decisions, programming is also driven by research. “Baker Street” gets on as much as it does because it’s popular with listeners and there’s research to prove it. Not popular with music hardcores, necessarily, but among the people who are going to listen for 15 minutes in the car on the way to work. I used to do a request show on a classic-rock station, and was amazed at how people would call up for “Sweet Home Alabama” or something else we played literally every day. They weren’t *hearing* it everyday, however, and that’s the point.

      1. JP

        WLUP (The Loop) in Chicago was a definite reflection of how AOR radio changed within a year. In 1978-early ’79, I distinctly remember hearing Willie Nelson, (electric) Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder amidst the usual Led Zep and Foreigner. Then, around the spring of ’79, they too adopted a “kick ass rock & roll” format. While they did play some of the more accessible new wave records, it’s safe to say that Willie, Miles and Stevie were out the door.

  7. mikehagerty

    All roads lead to John Sebastian, JB. After his tour at KHJ ended in early 1979, John went home to Phoenix and became PD at KUPD, an album rocker. That’s where he worked out what he at the time called “a totally modal” approach to AOR. Nothing but rock and roll. It worked and within a few months, he was programming WCOZ, Boston, which used the slogan “Kick Ass Rock N’ Roll”. And when that did well, the imitators flooded in.

  8. Pingback: Happening Now – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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