Young, Beautiful, Talented, and Stoned

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(Pictured: Carly Simon and James Taylor, 1973.)

On Monday, I wrote about how pop music, at least as it was heard on the radio via the American Top 40 show from May 4, 1974, was retreating from the innovation and ferment of the previous decade, citing the incredible blandness of many of the most popular songs, and the fact that certain significant artists and styles of the earlier period were ceasing to be as popular. In this post, there’s evidence that the thesis in my earlier post could be completely full of it.

40. “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”/Staple Singers
35. “Mighty Mighty”/Earth Wind and Fire
32. “For the Love of Money”/O’Jays
27. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”/Stevie Wonder
19. “My Mistake”/Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye
17. “You Make Me Feel Brand New”/Stylistics
5. “Dancing Machine”/Jackson Five
4. “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
Sure, Aretha Franklin and James Brown were coming down from the peaks they had reached in the 60s and early 70s, but there was a whole raft of stars who were either 60s mainstays doing fine, emergent stars in the 70s at a peak, or future hitmakers on the way up. In defense of my original thesis, I will say that in 1974, some of these acts were not especially long for the charts. For example, Philly soul would cease to be as powerful a force as disco rose, and Michael Jackson would swallow his brothers whole not too long after.

38. “Thanks for Saving My Life”/Billy Paul
23. “Help Me”/Joni Mitchell
2. “T.S.O.P.”/MFSB

And there were still innovators at work in this period. Joni Mitchell hired jazz musicians for her band because they were the only ones capable of keeping up with her explorations. Billy Paul came up as a jazz singer, which explains the way he sings ahead of, behind, and all around the swingin’ band backing him on “Thanks for Saving My Life.” That band, MFSB, made up of Philadelphia session players, had jazz chops to burn. (Listen to the sax solo on “T.S.O.P.”) Outsiders and outside styles continued to influence pop just as they had in years before.

33. “Mockingbird”/Carly Simon and James Taylor
31. “A Very Special Love Song”/Charlie Rich
21. “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”/Carpenters
One might consider these to be emblematic of the bland, adult-contemporary direction of Top 40 music as 1974 unfolded. Charlie Rich had taken that same sensibility to the top of the country charts: Casey mentions that in a recent week, Rich held the top three positions on the country album chart. (Of all his hits in the 1973-1974 period, “A Very Special Love Song,” which had been to #11 on the Hot 100 in April, might be the best of the bunch.) I did not lump the Carpenters with the previous post’s examples of records dull enough to stop time, even as it sounds exactly right alongside of them. That’s because by 1974, the Carpenters’ record-making craft was so accomplished—seriously, they were approaching McCartney levels by this time—that I’m impressed by it even when it’s in the service of a song that’s not especially memorable.

As for Carly and James, leave it to nerds such as we to consider where  “Mockingbird” fits on a creative spectrum or within the course of history. In 1974, they had hit the quinella of being young, beautiful, talented, stoned (just JT), and in love, so good for them.

29. “Let It Ride”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive

22. “Band on the Run”/Paul McCartney and Wings
3. “Bennie and the Jets”/Elton John
1. “The Locomotion”/Grand Funk

Here are more stars who were either just starting a run of success (BTO) or in the middle of one. But they also represent the only real rock music on this chart. Does “Bennie and the Jets” even count? I am almost convinced that “The Locomotion” is more akin to the novelty cheese of “The Streak,” which would knock “The Locomotion” from the #1 position during the week of May 18, 1974, and stay in the Top Five until July.

While there are some specific exceptions, in general I find the radio pop from first half of 1974 hard to love. It gets better as the year goes along, but I can never be sure that doesn’t have as much to do with the pleasant associations I have with the music as it does with the music itself. If I’m onto anything here, it’s the idea that there was a degree of qualitative retreat going on in that year, moving in a direction that would necessitate new innovations—disco, new wave, MTV, take your pick—in not too many years after.

Tell Me a Lie

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(Pictured: John Denver, outdoors.)

Popular music runs in cycles, periods of innovation followed by retreat, which inspires new innovation. It’s always been true, as David Wondrich demonstrates in Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924. Innovations bubble up into the mainstream and change the course of it, but after a while, the innovations (and the inventive spirit that inspired them) get co-opted to various degrees by the keepers of orthodoxy until the next new bubbling innovations come along. In Wondrich’s book, it happens to minstrel music, coon songs, and ragtime. Although eras don’t break cleanly and there are always individual exceptions, in later years it went generally like this: the Jazz Age and Swing Era (from the 20s to the start of World War II) was followed by an era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (to 1954), which was followed by the birth of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, which was followed by another era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (late 50s/early 60s), which was followed by the British Invasion, the rise of soul, and the whole ferment of the 1960s. That latter period lasted longer than it seems. I believe that certain innovations and spirit of the 1960s persisted as late as 1973. It wasn’t until 1974 that pop music became truly quiescent, in need of new bubbling innovations.

It’s easy to say that the bland and escapist pop of 1974 was birthed by the psychological weight of outside historical forces coming down—Vietnam, Watergate, energy crisis, etc.—and that’s probably part of it. Wondrich notes how the outside force of Jim Crow in the 1890s changed the nature of racist coon songs. But the biggest historical force driving co-optation at any point is probably capitalism, in which somebody hopes to profit by making an outsider art form palatable for a broader, less sophisticated audience. Top 40 radio, the main means of music discovery for a generation, was transformed by that desire to profit. By 1974, some of the big stations increased their efforts to achieve truly mass audiences by bringing more soft rock/adult contemporary music into the Top 40 mainstream to attract the olds, while others went all-in on attracting teenagers, which kept bubblegum and teenybopper acts alive (and which drove young adults away from AM to FM rock stations, another historical force in motion).

All that explains something, but not everything, about the the American Top 40 show dated May 4, 1974 (a show I’m sure I heard on the weekend it first aired).

39. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford
37. “I’m a Train”/Albert Hammond
28. “Seasons in the Sun”/Terry Jacks
26. “Keep on Singing”/Helen Reddy
25. “The Lord’s Prayer”/Sister Janet Mead
20. “Sunshine on My Shoulders”/John Denver
14. “Come and Get Your Love”/Redbone
7. “Hooked on a Feeling”/Blue Swede
6. “The Streak”/Ray Stevens
This right here is the reaction, or the co-optation, or whatever you want to call it, in response to the years since 1964. With these records, it didn’t feel like pop music had lost an edge as much as it had actively stopped trying to hone one. Even “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Come and Get Your Love,” catchy though they are, feel a little enervated. The very topical “The Streak” was on its way to #1 as one of the top hits of the year, but it generates a chuckle at most. In the aggregate, the blandness of these records is enough to stop time.

36. “I’m in Love”/Aretha Franklin
34. “Tell Me a Lie”/Sami Jo
30. “The Payback”/James Brown
And here are some casualties of the reaction, two stars and one style (deep Southern country-soul) that had been ascendant in years before but would never be quite so dominant again.

11. “The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch
8. “Tubular Bells”/Mike Oldfield
The blandness was not all-consuming, however. Any era in which both The Sting and The Exorcist were playing in your town (and in which Chinatown was a coming attraction, to open in June) was a good one. The Sting drove the success of “The Entertainer,” originally a ragtime piece written in 1902, but as a retroactive argument for the blandness of radio pop in the spring of 1974, you can’t do better, even if “Tubular Bells” represents a dissenting view.

Cherry-picking the charts in search of support for a particular thesis is a dangerous occupation. You can prove anything by selectively interpreting your source material. And in fact, what I’ve suggested here is probably a gross oversimplification of what was happening back there in the spring of 1974. Coming in the next installment (and I desperately did not want this to require two posts but gasbags gotta gas and I’m sorry), I’ll suggest that my whole thesis could be wrong.

Something Going On

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(Pictured: Culture Club, 1983.)

Last February I asked if having three acts with two separate, non-double-A sided singles in the Top 40 at the same time was some kind of a record. A couple of readers quickly chimed in to say that it was not. On the chart dated May 7, 1983, there are seven acts with two hits in the 40:

—Michael Jackson with “Beat It” (#1) and “Billie Jean” (#14)
—Styx with “Mr. Roboto” (#8) and “Don’t Let It End” (#27)
—Duran Duran with “Rio” (#16) and “Hungry Like the Wolf” (#33)
—Lionel Richie with “My Love” (#17) and “You Are” (#38)
—Culture Club with “Time” (#19) and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (#34)
—Journey with “Separate Ways” (#21) and “Faithfully” (#23)
—Hall and Oates with “One on One” (#31) and “Family Man” (#32)

If we dip below the Top 40, we can find other pairs:

—Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band with “Even Now” (#12) and “Shame on the Moon” (#91)
—Kenny Rogers with “We’ve Got Tonight” (#36) and “All My Life” (#67)
—Frida with “I Know There’s Something Going On” (#41) and “Here We’ll Stay” (#103)
—Golden Earring with “Twilight Zone” (#43) and “The Devil Made Me Do It” (#79)
—Pat Benatar with “Looking for a Stranger” (#51) and “Little Too Late” (#100)
—Christopher Cross with “No Time for Talk” (#59) and “All Right” (#96)
—Thompson Twins with “Love on Your Side” (#72) and “Lies” (#98)

That’s 14 acts with two records on the chart at the same time. It likely has something to do with the slow-moving charts of the period, which is something we’ve discussed before.

Beyond the number of acts doubling up, there’s an argument that, early in the decade though it is, the week of May 7, 1983, represents Peak 80s, with groundbreaking records and iconic hits thick on the ground. In the Top 40, there was “Let’s Dance” and “Come on Eileen,” “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Little Red Corvette” and “Flashdance,” “Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Whirly Girl,” Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and Bryan Adams’ “Straight From the Heart.” Below the Top 40, there was New Year’s Day” by U2, Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” “I Eat Cannibals” by Total Coelo, “Our House” by Madness, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day,” “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs, plus “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Too Shy,” “Reap the Wild Wind,” “Mexican Radio,” “I Melt With You,” and even the Cheers theme “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

Although I was hearing most of these songs plenty in the spring of 1983, I was playing only a few of them on the air myself. I was music director and afternoon jock at KDTH in Dubuque, a country station. As I wrote a while back, country hits that crossed to pop were the heart of our playlist. In this week, those included Ronnie Milsap’s “Stranger in My House,” “You Can’t Run From Love” by Eddie Rabbitt, “The Closer You Get” by Alabama, and “Swingin'” by John Anderson. “Swingin'” was a rage that spring, blowing out the phone lines at KDTH on its way to #1 country and #43 on the pop chart. Most of its pop-chart action came in smaller markets; apart from WZGC in Atlanta, which had it at #1 for three weeks in March, the most famous major-market station to chart it was WLS in Chicago. “Swingin'” went to #12 in a 14-week run on the WLS survey, although I never knew anybody who actually heard it on WLS; I never did.

Listening to this stuff, and revisiting the spring of 1983 for the first time in awhile, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I expected. I actually felt the warm glow of nostalgia, which is elusive where the 1980s are concerned. During the week of May 7, 1983, The Mrs. and I had been Mr. and Mrs. for one month. We were 23 and 22 years old. We were getting ready to move out of my crappy one-bedroom bachelor pad to a new apartment in June, the bottom quarter of an old house that’s still my favorite of all the places we ever lived. She worked for the local newspaper, which also owned KDTH. And we were figuring out, together, what our life was supposed to be, together.

Next week at this website: return with me to the spring of 1974, and enjoy some half-assed historical theorizing thereon. 

Next week on the radio: I’ll be taking over the afternoon show on Magic 98 on a regular basis, Monday through Friday from 3 til 7 US Central, at least for a while, until they find somebody they like better. You can listen here, if you care. 

May 5, 1981: Adventures and Misadventures

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(Pictured: Stefanie Powers and Robert Wagner in a 1981 scene from Hart to Hart.)

May 5, 1981, was a Tuesday. Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, in the 66th day of a hunger strike protesting conditions at the Maze Prison in Ireland, dies at age 26. During his hunger strike, Sands was elected to a seat in Britain’s House of Commons. In Brooklyn, New York, a power struggle within the Bonnano crime family leaves three high-ranking bosses shot to death; one body will be found later this month, but the other two will remain undiscovered until 2004. In Rome, Pope John Paul II issues a statement on euthanasia, calling it “a crime against life.” Future R&B singer Craig David is born. Mobile, Alabama, suffers widespread flooding after recording 7.96 inches of rain today.

Eleven games are played in the majors today and tonight. The Oakland A’s have the best record in baseball at 21-and-5; tonight, pitcher Mike Norris runs his record to 6-and-0 with a complete-game two-hitter as the A’s beat the Detroit Tigers 6-2. The National League’s best record belongs to St. Louis Cardinals, who are 13-and-4 after beating the Atlanta Braves 4-1. In the National Hockey League, the New York Islanders advance to the Stanley Cup Final, completing a four-game sweep of the New York Rangers with a 5-2 win. They await the winner of the series between the Calgary Flames and Minnesota North Stars, which is even at two games apiece after the North Stars win 7-4 tonight; Dino Ciccarelli has a hat trick for the North Stars. The NBA Finals open tonight in Boston with the Celtics beating the Houston Rockets 98-95. The Rockets are the first NBA team since 1959 to reach the finals after posting a losing record during the regular season. Although CBS has the national TV contract for the NBA, it carries tonight’s opening game of the Finals on tape delay following the late local news. It’s the third straight season that CBS has kept Finals games out of primetime, fearing their impact on the May ratings sweeps. As many as four Finals games could be shown on delay.

Instead of primetime basketball, CBS airs an episode of Palmerstown, USA, a drama created by Norman Lear and Alex Haley, based on Haley’s childhood in the rural South during the Depression. It’s followed by the TV movie Broken Promise, about a family of abandoned children struggling to stay together. ABC’s high-powered Tuesday night lineup features new episodes of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, Too Close for Comfort, and Hart to Hart. NBC starts its night with the final episode of Lobo, starring Claude Akins. The show, originally known as The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, was retitled for its second season. Also on NBC tonight: a repeat episode of Hill Street Blues and the next-to-last original episode of Nero Wolfe, a series based on the mystery novels of Rex Stout, starring William Conrad and Lee Horsley. In today’s Peanuts strip, Snoopy and his brother Spike are on World War I leave in Paris.

The Grateful Dead plays Glens Falls, New York, Bruce Springsteen plays Drammen, Norway, and jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon plays Atlanta. Barry Manilow continues a weeklong run of shows at Resorts International Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes and “Wasn’t That a Party” by the Rovers hold at #1 and #2. “Medley” by Stars on 45 is up to #3. “A Woman Needs Love” by Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio makes a strong move from #10 to #5. The only new song in the Top 10 is “I Missed Again” by Phil Collins, up to #10 from #15. “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey is also up five spots, to #11, but the biggest upward move on the survey is seven spots—Neil Diamond’s “America,” from #29 to #22. “I Love You” by the Climax Blues Band makes the highest chart debut at #26. Phil Collins’ album Face Value is #1; AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is #2. Styx, REO Speedwagon, the Who, Steve Winwood, Rush, and Santana are also in the Top 10 on the album chart.

Perspective From the Present: This was finals week at UW-Platteville, although I wasn’t much concerned; I had largely stopped caring about my studies, not just for my junior year but in general. (I would rack up one A, one B, two C’s and a D for the spring semester.) I was planning to stay in Platteville for the summer to come, where adventures awaited.

May 3, 1957: Round and Round

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(Pictured: Senator Joe McCarthy and his staff in better times; L to R, G. David Schine, Roy Cohn, McCarthy, and Frank Carr.)

May 3, 1957, was a Friday. Funeral services are pending for Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who died at Bethesda Naval Hospital last night at the age of 49. In her syndicated newspaper column My Day, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt writes about the recent decision by a U.S. Senate committee to return $9500 of an appropriation it had been given to select the portraits of five outstanding former senators to be hung in the Senate’s Hall of Fame. Wichita Falls, Texas, is faced with serious flooding after heavy rains swelled the Sabine River. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visits New York City, where he speaks to a crowd in front of the Hotel Theresa in addition to scheduled addresses at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Off the coast of California near San Luis Obispo, the search continues for a Cal Poly architecture student who is missing and believed killed by a 20-foot shark. In Staten Island, New York, shoppers at Food Fair can get USDA grade choice sirloin steak for 59 cents a pound; live Maine lobsters are 79 cents a pound. In today’s Peanuts strip, Lucy continues her week-long adventure on roller skates. In Detroit, Michigan, Henry Ford’s grandson William Clay Ford and his wife Martha Firestone Ford welcome a son, William Clay Ford, Jr. Also born today: future pro hockey star Rod Langway.

In Los Angeles, city officials meet with Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to discuss an offer from the city that would entice the Dodgers to move. On the field today, the Dodgers are idle; they trail the Milwaukee Braves by two games in the National League standings. The Braves beat the Pirates in Pittsburgh tonight 8-7 when Bobby Thomson singles in Hank Aaron with the winning run in the 11th inning. The Braves’ record of 12-and-2 is the best in baseball. The American League-leading Chicago White Sox are 11-and-2 after beating the Washington Senators 11-6. Light heavyweight boxer Eddie Machen wins a 10-round unanimous decision over former champ Joey Maxim.

On TV tonight, CBS shows include Beat the Clock, The Lineup (a detective series), and Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person. Murrow’s guests include Alcatraz prison warden Paul Madigan and actress Sophia Loren. NBC presents The Joseph Cotten Show (an anthology series), Blondie (based on the comic strip), and the Machen-Maxim fight live from Louisville, Kentucky. ABC’s lineup includes The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Crossroads (an anthology show focusing on clergy from different denominations), and Treasure Hunt (a game show hosted by Jan Murray).

In London, Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group and the Platters continue a three-night stand at the Palladium. In Hollywood, Elvis Presley lays down a few new tracks, including “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” At KLIF in Dallas, on the new survey that will come out tomorrow, Elvis is at #3 with “All Shook Up,” behind “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds (#1) and “School Day” by Chuck Berry (#2). Also at the top of the chart are “I’m Walkin'” by Fats Domino at #4 and “It’s Not for Me to Say” by Johnny Mathis at #5. Also on the KLIF chart this week: “Lucille” by Little Richard, the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me,” “A White Sport Coat” by Marty Robbins, and Perry Como’s “Round and Round.” KLIF also charts Elvis’ “Peace in the Valley” and “I Believe.”

Perspective From the Present: William Clay Ford, Jr., is now chairman of Ford Motor Company. Rod Langway ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Most of the music Elvis recorded on May 3 was released later in 1957 on an EP titled Jailhouse Rock. The Dodgers would move to Los Angeles for the 1958 season.

Last January I read Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, a new biography by Larry Tye. Tye says he was inspired to write the bio partly by the rise of Donald Trump. Witnessing the fall of Trump during the very same week I was reading the book set off a cascade of historical echoes, not least among them the fact that McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn, was one of Trump’s early mentors. And also, as Tye wrote: “Each man made his name into a ubiquitous brand. Neither had a master plan other than accumulating and holding onto power.” In the months since Trump’s ouster, we’ve seen that the modern edition of the McCarthy/Trump party also has no plan other than that.

(Come back Wednesday for a less ancient ODIYL post.)

I Hear the Sound I Have to Follow

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(Pictured: participants in Hands Across America try to span the Arizona desert on May 25, 1986.)

After listening to the American Top 40 show from April 26, 1986, earlier this week, here’s the usual look into the Bottom 60 of the same week to see what’s interesting.

44. “Crush on You”/The Jets. “Crush on You” takes four minutes to do not very much, but it was the first of five Top-10 hits the Jets would score in the next two years.

48. “Nothin’ at All”/Heart. Heart’s mid-80s comeback had so far consisted entirely of bombast: “What About Love,” “Never,” and “These Dreams.” “Nothin’ at All” was more like the rockin’ Heart of old. It would make the Top 10 like the others, but it didn’t get much radio play after it dropped off the charts. The video looks great, although much of the budget seems to have gone for hair styling, flowing scarves, and animal wrangling.

49. “Right Between the Eyes”/Wax. In 1981, singer, songwriter, and session man Andrew Gold (best known for the singles “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You for Being a Friend”) was invited to record with 10cc as the group worked to finish an album. Later, he was extended a formal invitation to join the band. He didn’t, but a couple of years later, he and Graham Gouldman, longtime 10cc member and a prolific songwriter, formed Wax, which recorded three studio albums in the late 80s and a fourth a decade later. “Right Between the Eyes” sounds great, and the video is directly in the mid-80s pocket, with Gold and Gouldman performing in front of random whimsical images, intercut with a pretty dancing girl and clips from silent movies and old TV shows.

57. “A Different Corner”/George Michael. This was the highest-debuting record on the Hot 100 in this week, and was the first single George Michael released under his own name, although two records credited to Wham would hit the American charts later in 1986. Your average adult-contemporary or oldies radio station is gonna play “Faith” 100 times before they play “A Different Corner” once, which don’t seem right.

69. “Hands Across America”/Voices of America. In retrospect, this seems like an incredibly strange thing: an attempt to create a human chain stretching  through 16 states from coast to coast to raise money to fight hunger in the United States. But at the time, a year after Live Aid and “We Are the World,” it had great appeal, and USA for Africa was instrumental in organizing it. It was announced with a Super Bowl TV ad in January, and on May 25, 1986, nearly five million people were said to have participated, including President and Mrs. Reagan. About $15 million supposedly went to charity, a lot of it from corporate sponsors, but it could have been more if people had actually paid the participation fee USA for Africa sought.

My radio station was involved in our local event, although I can’t recall many specifics. We were on the national route, but we couldn’t form hands across our own town, let alone join up with anyone else. Playing “Hands Across America” on our air was easier. It’s a power ballad featuring a couple of anonymous singers doing the leads backed by the New Jersey Mass Choir, with several members of Toto handling the instruments. It got a celebrity-studded video but didn’t have much radio appeal, topping out at #65 during the week of May 17.

There’s going to be an attempt to make a virtual human chain on social media for the 35th anniversary of Hands Across America on Tuesday, May 25 of this year, as a benefit to help the homeless. It will not have a song.

77. “Tuff Enuff”/Fabulous Thunderbirds
79. “Bop”/Dan Seals
Amidst all the English haircuts, proto-hip-hop records, and gated reverb came a blues-rock band from Texas with a highly unlikely hit, which would eventually make #10, and a #1 country hit by the erstwhile England Dan, which had stalled just outside the Top 40.

81. “Your Wildest Dreams”/Moody Blues. The Moodys had charted singles right along during the first half of the 80s and would continue to do so after 1986, but “Your Wildest Dreams” became the third and last Top 10 hit of their career, joining “Go Now” and “Nights in White Satin.” The video is one of my two or three favorites of all time, about the hold that love, memory, and music have on us, a subject that always has been directly in my wheelhouse: “When the music plays / I hear the sound / I have to follow.”