A Hazy Snapshot

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(Pictured: David Lewis, Barbara Weathers, and Wayne Lewis of Atlantic Starr, harmonizing onstage in 1987.)

After the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, people walked around in a fog for days. That’s not the reason why the American Top 40 show from February 1, 1986, is such a hazy snapshot of the time, though. I suspect you’d have a hard time finding an AT40 with more records that are utterly forgotten now, or that were nothing special in the first place.

40. “Everybody Dance”/Ta Mara and the Seen
33. “Digital Display”/Ready for the World
22. “A Love Bizarre”/Sheila E
18. “Sidewalk Talk”/Jellybean
Adjacency to Prince or Madonna, or imitation thereof, was a good business move as 1986 began. “Sidewalk Talk,” written by Madonna and released under the name of producer John “Jellybean” Benitez, is sung by Cat Buchanan, who is name-checked by Casey when he introduces the song. Madge sings backup. Prince wrote “A Love Bizarre,” sings on it, and produced it. “Everybody Dance” is produced by Prince associate Jesse Johnson. “Digital Display” sucks on its own.

39. “Day by Day”/Hooters
30. “Everything in My Heart”/Corey Hart
The production of these records hurts my ears: that flinty noise the Hooters put on everything and that drum sound on “Everything in My Heart,” plus Hart’s weird inflections, like he learned the words phonetically.

38. “Russians”/Sting
19. “Party All the Time”/Eddie Murphy
I have disliked “Russians” for years (receipts here), grim and pretentious and awful, although its appeal in 1986, with Ronald Reagan’s finger on the nuclear trigger, is understandable. Casey quotes Eddie Murphy telling an interviewer he was serious about his singing career, but in no universe does  “Party All the Time” sound like the work of an artist with something worthwhile to offer. Radio’s rapturous promotion of both is among the sins we’ll have to answer for on Judgment Day.

31. “Secret Lovers”/Atlantic Starr
21. “Alive and Kicking”/Simple Minds

20. “Life in a Northern Town”/Dream Academy
10. “Go Home”/Stevie Wonder
9. “Walk of Life”/Dire Straits

Any one of these might be the best song on the show, but there’s a good chance it’s “Secret Lovers.” Although “Alive and Kicking” got to #3, who remembers it now? “Life in a Northern Town,” about a British childhood in 1963, is both vividly drawn and half-remembered, like a dream can be. “Go Home” is Stevie’s final Top 10 hit to date. Casey precedes “Walk of Life” with a feature on what he calls the most famous “walks of life” in history: Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, Mao Tse-Tung’s Great March of 1934, and the Trail of Tears. Anybody who’s ever been on the air knows that not every bit is going to be golden, so I ain’t mad about it.

Early in the second hour, Casey does a brief feature on Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” as the first song to hit #1 on the pop, soul, and country charts. He plays about 20 seconds of it, and it stomps every other record on the show.

17. “Goodbye”/Night Ranger
14. “Kyrie”/Mr. Mister
I recently called Night Ranger “bombastic, overblown hogwash that also sounded great on the radio,” and “Goodbye” is certainly that. “Kyrie” is equally ridiculous, although “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel / Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night” is one of the greatest punch-your-fist-in-the-air choruses ever. Casey says “Kyrie” is one of many hit song titles in a foreign language, Greek, adding to a list that also includes French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Latin, and others.

6. “My Hometown”/Bruce Springsteen. Casey reports that Born in the USA has become the third-biggest selling album of all time, behind Thriller and Saturday Night Fever. It’s at #11 in this week after spent 84 straight weeks in the Top 10. Call me if Drake ever does that.

LDD: “Missing You”/John Waite. From high-school junior Jill to her loser friend Todd, who is currently in some kind of double-secret drug rehab program where he can’t receive letters or phone calls. I believe they call that “jail,” Jill.

4. “Talk to Me”/Stevie Nicks
3. “I’m Your Man”/Wham
2. “Burning Heart”/Survivor

There are maybe five songs on this entire list that you’re halfway likely to hear on the radio somewhere today, and these ain’t any of them.

1. “That’s What Friends Are For”/Dionne Warwick and Friends. Given its associated starpower (Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John) and its high-profile cause (AIDS research), “That’s What Friends Are For” (originally recorded by Rod Stewart in 1982) was never not going to be a smash. In fact, it would end up Billboard‘s #1 song for 1986. It’s one of seven singles from this show to make the year-end Top 10, which tells you plenty about the months to come.

There was a lot of hating in this post today. I’ll try to do better next time.

11 thoughts on “A Hazy Snapshot

  1. Casting a vote for “Life in a Northern Town” in the Best in Countdown race, with second-place honors going to the unmentioned “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” Sade, Dire Straits and Simple Minds might round out the top 5. (“Don’t Be Cruel” is indeed the best thing heard on the broadcast, but to put any of the contemporaries against it is just…what’s the word?)

  2. mikehagerty

    It’s as much about where and how you hear a song the first time as anything. And it transcends age.

    January, 1986. I’m two months from my 30th birthday, a window is opening at the mid-point of a three-year contract that would allow me to escape Las Vegas, where I moved sixteen months before. Attracted by a TV station with more money and more toys, I find myself in a town that will eat your soul, and I hate it.

    I had moved there from Reno, and there are two TV stations there that would top the Vegas salary if I came back. I’m tempted. Reno’s not a great town in and of itself, but I love the Sierra Nevada, the North Shore of Lake Tahoe is a 45 minute drive, the South Shore an hour and it’s three and a half hours (well, it was in 1986) to San Francisco. Seven years worth of accumulated friends and contacts are there.

    So I fly up to Reno for a few days just to try it back on and see if it still fits.

    One day, I’m parked along the Truckee River, looking at what downtown skyline Reno had in those days, listening to KRNO-FM, when they cold-segue into “Life in a Northern Town” and on the first note, snowflakes begin to fall from the air.

    It was four minutes and 15 seconds of near-cinematic perfection. I fell in love with that view (an approximation of what I used to see from the second-story studio window at KOLO-AM from 1977 to 1981) all over again.

    And then I decided that it could only be downhill from there. I took a gig in Phoenix instead.

  3. You gotta blog the blog
    You gotta post the post
    You gotta burn the burn
    You gotta toast the toast

    GOT TO
    (boom-thwap, boom-thwap, boom-thwap)

  4. Wesley

    This was one of the AT40 weeks where either the acts were one- or two-hit wonders while the established artists were charting with second- or even third-tier material. I don’t know if it was record companies becoming conglomerates or hardening of the arteries by MTV and similar outlets as videos were now commonplace and less imaginative. Maybe both. Maybe neither. But some kind of malaise was going on with the industry at that time, assuming this top 40 reflects accurately what was going on.

    Having said that, I join the chorus here and vote for Life in a Northern Town as the very best among a rather shabby lot.

  5. Not to be a grumpy old man, but I absolutely HATED “Life In a Northern Town.” Here’s my story: on January 1, 1986, I started a radio job at a station in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and hated every minute of it, freezing my ass under 200 inches of snow. Making it worse was “Life In a Northern Town” on the radio every 2 and a half hours reminding me of how miserable I was. 1986 was one of the worst years of my life. Thankfully, I spent just under a year at that hellhole.

  6. Guy K

    Since you mentioned it, I think I’ve gotta go with “Life in a Northern Town” as the best song on this countdown. It’s so evocative, its chorus is pitch perfect, and the song was all over the radio in the middle of winter, as it should have been.

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