Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

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There’s nothing intrinsically special about round numbers. We are the ones who assign significance to 10, 20, 50, or 100 that we don’t give to 9, 22, 49, or 101. We find round numbers aesthetically pleasing, and so they make attractive denominations for the days of our lives. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I enjoyed listening to the American Top 40 show from September 4, 1971, more this past week than I might have a year ago, or a year from now.

Casey notes that there are eight new songs on the show, but his audience doesn’t get to hear all of them. What I mean is that nearly every song in the first hour is either edited or faded early. I suspect this was done in 1971 and not by his modern-day producers because he needs to get 13 songs in, and one of them is the full 6:10 of Tom Clay’s “What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John,” the novelty rage of the summer. I’ve mentioned it before; it’s made up of news clips from the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, backed with music and including the voice of a little girl who is unable to define terms like segregation, bigotry, and prejudice. Clay was a Los Angeles DJ who produced “What the World Needs Now” for his local show on KGBS, but after Motown made it the first 45 release on its new West Coast imprint Mowest, it blasted into the national Top 10. It scratched some national itch in the summer of 1971 and then disappeared from the radio as fast as it had come. And it’s a long, tedious listen today.

The first hour has some spectacular 1971 flavor: well-remembered hits like Carole King’s “So Far Away” and Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line”; oddballs like the Guess Who’s “Rain Dance” (which features the enigmatic line, “I’m still sittin’ with my next-door neighbor sayin’, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?'”), Bobby Russell’s domestic novelty “Saturday Morning Confusion,” and “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”; plus a couple of records that should be better-remembered than they are: the Jackson Five’s “Maybe Tomorrow” and the Moody Blues’ “The Story in Your Eyes.”

The second hour has another long song to fit in, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” with a label time of 5:15. Casey gets the whole thing on, likely because it’s the hottest record of the week, up to #19 from #36 the week before. Also in the second hour: former #1 hits “Indian Reservation” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” George Harrison’s highly topical “Bangla Desh,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

There are some weird little oddments in this show. There’s a 1971 network commercial for American Top 40’s Double Dozen, a compilation of 50s and 60s hits with liner notes by Casey, sold by mail order. It was heavily promoted on the show during the summer of 1971, although the spots, which sometimes appeared outside of the normal break structure, are usually cut from the modern-day repeats. Also, coming up short at the end of the second hour, Casey chooses to repeat the titles of the eight new songs from the first hour, which he’s already recapped once before.

There’s another one of those incredible AM radio streaks at the end of the second hour and into the third, starting with “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Maggie May” back to back, and then:

18. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez
17. “Stick-Up”/Honey Cone
16. “Sweet Hitch-Hiker”/CCR
15. “Beginnings”/Chicago
14. “Riders on the Storm”/Doors
13. “Mercy Mercy Me”/Marvin Gaye
12. “Mr. Big Stuff”/Jean Knight
11. “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”/Dramatics
10. “I Just Want to Celebrate”/Rare Earth
9. “Liar”/Three Dog Night
8. “Signs”/Five Man Electrical Band
7. “Take Me Home Country Roads”/John Denver

6. “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers
Either “Mercy Mercy Me” or the astounding “Stick-Up” is the best thing here, but taken altogether, this is why you turned the radio on in the summer of 1971, and a good reason to do it today. Donny Osmond’s future #1 “Go Away Little Girl” is at #5; it’s awful, but all things considered that summer, it was never not going to end up a smash. Without it, the streak goes all the way:

4. “Spanish Harlem”/Aretha Franklin
3. “Smiling Faces Sometimes”/Undisputed Truth
2. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”/Bee Gees
1. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney
“Go Away Little Girl” will commit the grave injustice of keeping “Spanish Harlem” at #2, although Aretha will make #1 in many cities. Meanwhile, “Uncle Albert” jumps to #1 from #12 the previous week in only its third week on the chart, taking out the Bee Gees after four weeks at the top.

Your mileage may vary, but it occurs to me that a Top 20 with only one certified clunker puts the week of September 4, 1971, into the discussion of best weeks ever.

16 thoughts on “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

  1. I feel seen by this lede, having just been ranting on Twitter the other day about the tyranny of fives and zeroes.
    This is a good countdown, though if I had to hear any one song right now, I’d pick either “Sweet Hitch-Hiker,” which smokes, or “Rain Dance.”

  2. Jim Cummings

    I always considered the intro to “Signs” one of the best in rock (personal opinion), and Casey always talked over it………

    1. Gary Omaha

      I did a film project in college showing signs around the city and, for audio, used only that great intro (looped a few times) plus an edit into the word “Signs” at the close. Being an audio guy, I was more proud of the audio than the video. I probably have it around somewhere but can only imagine the cringe factor watching it today.

  3. Wesley

    The story about What the World Needs Now/Abraham Martin and John on this show brings back an irritating memory I have about my local oldies station here in North Carolina playing AT40 a few years ago. It was one of the two weeks in May 1976 when Jimmy Dean’s monologue I.O.U. was in the first hour of the countdown, and Casey and crew played the whole sappy, plodding 5:57 of it, even though probably hardly any station carrying the show had the record in rotation (it likely got their to inexplicably having sold a million copies). Anyhow, the engineer on duty early in the morning (it started sometime before or after 7 a.m., never at the top of the hour, because that’s the sort of incompetence there) was inattentive and wound up playing that first segment again, forcing loser listeners like me to endure another 6 minutes of Jimmy apologizing for what he believes was taking advantage of his mother. Yuck.

    By the way, Joan Baez ought to thank the state of Virginia for having some of the lyrics for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down becoming a meme this week as the statue of General Lee came down in Richmond.

    1. mikehagerty

      Wesley, if a few years ago was anytime in the past decade, your local oldies station at 7am on a weekend likely didn’t have an engineer. Someone during the week carelessly entered the same segment into the AudioVault (or whatever they used for playback) twice.

      Coming back to radio in 2012 after my 30-year detour in TV was an eye-opener in terms of the ability to automate and, how once that’s done, how few people in management or even programming (especially in clusters where one PD is juggling three or more stations) actually listen and iron out issues like that.

    2. porky

      Also a coincidence that there is a “Signs” meme going around with places posting “Long-haired freaky people PLEASE apply” or something to that effect.

  4. Alvaro Leos

    Some other “weird little oddments” I’ve heard on American Top 40: The 70s include commercials for full-sized Osmonds posters and an album by a W.C. Fields impersonator(!).

    1. mikehagerty

      Alvaro: The whole W.C. Fields nostalgia thing baffled me at the time. There’s no cultural parallel today for a comedian whose peak was 35 years ago, as W.C.’s was in the 70s.

      The closest I can come is that the old movies on local TV stations had an impact. We’d watch stuff that, given broader choices like we have today, we’d ignore. And that gave Fields a chance to catch on a second time around.

      1. Chris Herman

        It wasn’t just Fields. The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and The Three Stooges all found new audiences a generation after their heydays.

  5. Any show with Aretha’s version of Spanish Harlem and Undisputed Truth’s Smiling Faces Sometimes (the template for the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers)–back to back, nonetheless–needs very much to include both of these songs as the “best things on the countdown.”

    1. Let me clarify something: I am not suggesting that either “Mercy Mercy Me” or “Stick-Up” is the best thing on this entire Top 40—only that one or the other is the best thing in the sequence of songs I mention. The best thing on this Top 40 is “Spanish Harlem,” by quite a lot. The best song on the entire Hot 100 in this week, however is . . . something that wil be revealed in a post later today,

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