Songs and Stories

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My radio station went all-70s on Saturdays in 1989. The details changed over the years (start time, end time, American Top 40 shows came and went), but it remained essentially an all-day thing, until the first Saturday of 2022, when management dropped the all-day 70s program and put it on from seven til midnight only.

That first day, with Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa playing all day instead of Elton John and Donna Summer, caused the station’s Facebook page and studio e-mail box to melt down. I wasn’t especially surprised by the volume of the response, only at the harshness of a lot of it. This went on for six or eight weeks before things calmed down. Now those “what happened to 70s music” e-mails have become infrequent, whenever the occasional coma victim wakes up.

Every now and then a message or a phone call would come in from somebody who seemed sincerely interested in the reasoning behind the decision, so I would try to explain. It comes down to the passage of time, I said. Our radio station has always been targeted at people aged 25 to 49. In 1989, that meant people born between 1940 and 1964, people whose formative music years were essentially from the mid 1950s to the late 80s. Seventies music falls right in the middle of that. In 2022, people in the target audience are born between 1973 and 1997. Their formative music years run from the late 80s to, well, right now. I said to one woman, “70s music means as much to our target audience today as 40s music did to us when we were 30.”

“Oh,” she responded. “I get it now.”

The decision to put the 70s show on from seven til midnight was coupled with another one: to make me the sole host and producer of the show. I have probably gotten too old and tired and jaded to fully appreciate what management did: they handed me five hours of airtime and said, “Play 70s music, and do it any way you want.”

Some of you are thinking, “Wow, I’d love that.” But consider this: free-form radio is harder than anybody imagines. Anybody reading this could probably program a decent five-hour 70s music show—one time. Doing it a second and third and fourth and nineteenth time, when you have to change it up again and again, is far more difficult, especially if you don’t want to turn it into a wank-fest for your own amusement. I have no desire to work that hard. So I’m still letting the music software schedule most of the show, although the lineup always has to be edited by hand, because the human touch can’t be removed from radio programming no matter how hard the industry tries to make it so.

I went through the library and recategorized a lot of songs. We were regularly playing only about half of the 70s songs in the library, with a vast number of classics collecting dust for some reason. I’m still trying to get the category rotations tweaked to my satisfaction. I have replaced some edited songs with better full-length versions, and I have also added a few songs that seemed like howling omissions. (No “Mr. Blue Sky”? Seriously?) And I will confess to having put in a couple of songs just because I want to hear how they sound on the show. (Coming up one night soon: the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation.”)

This doesn’t mean that the show as it was built and nurtured through the 90s, 00s, and 10s was wrong or bad. My approach is a difference in philosophy. It’s a different kind of specialty show now, more concentrated, and not all-day wallpaper. The audience that has followed the show to Saturday nights likely has a greater interest in stories about the artists and songs, and in hearing a greater variety of music. I’m giving them both.

I do the show live most of the time, although I could easily take advantage of the technology and record it in advance. I do it live because I feel like it’s important to actually be there for the listeners (and to play requests, because how better to boost listener loyalty?), and because The Mrs. and I never go anywhere on Saturday nights anyway. And because it’s fun. And for one other related reason, which will require a future post to discuss.

No Lookin’ Back

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(Pictured: the hottest mom in the neighborhood, circa 1985. Hang on, I’m being told that’s Pat Benatar.)

I wasn’t really gonna tap out of the American Top 40 show from August 31, 1985, so here’s the rest of it:

40. “No Lookin’ Back”/Michael McDonald
37. “Every Step of the Way”/John Waite
36. “Live Every Moment”/REO Speedwagon
34. “State of the Heart”/Rick Springfield
27. “There Must Be an Angel”/Eurythmics
24. “Mystery Lady”/Billy Ocean
16. “Dare Me”/Pointer Sisters
14. “Freedom”/Wham
9. “You’re Only Human”/Billy Joel
4. “We Don’t Need Another Hero”/Tina Turner

Many artists with iconic records are on this show, but with songs that either aren’t all that great, or are largely forgotten.

35. “When Your Heart Is Weak”/Cock Robin. “When Your Heart Is Weak” didn’t do much for me in 1985, but hearing it again for the first time in a long time, it sounded a lot better.

32. “Glory Days”/Bruce Springsteen
31. “Saving All My Love for You”/Whitney Houston
11. “Don’t Lose My Number”/Phil Collins

10. “Money for Nothing”/Dire Straits
8. “Cherish”/Kool and the Gang
3. “Freeway of Love”/Aretha Franklin

Here are some icons being iconic. “Saving All My Love for You” might be the best of Whitney’s 80s singles, although its jingly keyboards and luxuriant saxophone make it sound dated now. “Don’t Lose My Number” is probably the most Phil Collins-y of all his 80s hits. I’m not sure anybody needs to hear “Money for Nothing” again, but there hasn’t been anything that sounds like it since.

29. “Cry”/Godley and Creme
26. “Oh Sheila”/Ready for the World
I’m indifferent to most of what’s on this show, but I actively dislike some of it. “Oh Sheila” is boring as hell but would end up #1 anyway. “Cry” stops any radio show’s momentum dead, and its octave-jumping conclusion should be shot into the sun.

28. “Take on Me”/a-ha
19. “Every Time You Go Away”/Paul Young
7. “Never Surrender”/Corey Hart
One of these could be the best record on the show, but keep reading.

25. “Shame”/The Motels. Which Casey introduces with a long and not-all-that-interesting feature on lead singer Martha Davis, in which he casually mentions that she got married when she was 15 and now, at the age of 34, has daughters who are 19 and 17.

17. “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”/Motley Crue. A bad and unnecessary but inevitable remake, which Casey follows with a feature on the 1955 hit “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” I might have put the feature nearly anywhere else in the show.

15. “What About Love”/Heart. “The two-woman, three-man band formed in 1972 in Seattle, and that’s where they’re based, Seattle, Washington.” Later in the show Casey will say, “Here’s Aretha, Aretha Franklin, with “Freeway of Love.” The repetition is a bit, right? It’s gotta be a bit.

12. “Invincible”/Pat Benatar. Casey introduces “Invincible” with a lengthy story about how Benatar was discovered, which repeats her name unnecessarily only once and is written in clear and direct English.

LDD: “Count on Me”/Jefferson Starship
LDD: “One Hundred Ways”/Quincy Jones with James Ingram
Casey believed that apart from the music, the Long Distance Dedications were the most valuable thing on the show, although there were dissenting opinions on his own staff. If we’ve got to sit through the sort of mawkish letters featured on this show (one of which contains details that sound fake), it helps if the songs are good. In fact, it’s “One Hundred Ways” that’s the best thing on the show.

6. “Shout”/Tears for Fears. At the end of the show, when Casey reviews the #1 songs on the other charts, he notes that a disco remix of “Shout” is #1 on the dance chart this week. “These are the things I can do without”? Yeah, I’d say so.

5. “Summer of ’69″/Bryan Adams. “Summer of ’69” is probably the single most enduring record on this show, unless it’s “Take on Me” or the song at #1. Casey introduces it with clips of the five songs that hit #1 in the summer of 1969: “Get Back,” Henry Mancini’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “In the Year 2525,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Sugar Sugar.”

1. “The Power of Love”/Huey Lewis and the News. If Huey never had another hit, we’d still be playing this one on the radio several times a week today because it’s perfect: seriously, you can’t name a single thing that would improve it. It was featured in the perfect place (Back to the Future) and at the perfect time, blasting out of radios across a hot-and-happening American summer.

Looking back across the whole show, however, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. Mid-80s Casey is hard to take, with his announcer-y delivery. And despite 1984 to 1986 being my Top-40 radio years, I find myself decades later respecting a lot of the music, but loving very little of it.

Step by Step

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We are fortunate, out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, to have a few people amongst the readership who worked on American Top 40 or for Casey Kasem on other shows. One of them, briguyx, commented on Monday’s post, in which I edited a long bit of a 1985 show:

When I wrote for Casey, it was very important to take the listener step by step, from one thought to another in each of the long intros, without skipping a step. You might call that spoon fed!

That’s an excellent definition of the process of informational writing: moving step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step. It’s the way to proceed when presenting a concept you want people to learn. In my two decades as an educational writer, it’s something I did all the time.

In education, we talk about scaffolding: building on a base of existing knowledge to introduce new concepts. It’s how any of us gets proficient at anything. We learn the basics, about building a birdhouse, or about biology. Then we learn other stuff that builds on it, until eventually we can make a chair or create a vaccine.

A teacher or instructional designer has to account for the fact that students’ scaffolds differ. Imagine a lesson about that old social studies favorite, triangular trade. A lesson for high-school seniors will be qualitatively different than one for fifth-graders. Although every student’s learning style is a little different, there are some valid assumptions you can make. For example, because upper-level students have a greater background in history and/or economics (theoretically), there are some things you either needn’t explain at all, or you need mention only briefly to refresh the recollection you expect them to have. Also, you can use more advanced vocabulary, because they know more and bigger words. In short, high-school students have a more elaborate scaffold upon which to build.

That doesn’t mean you won’t still spoon-feed—or, to use a better and more accurate term, that you won’t elaborate on certain ideas, explaining them in greater detail. Which ideas get elaborated depend on the age and/or proficiency of the student. The youngest ones (or beginners of any age) get elaboration on practically everything, because they gotta start somewhere. As students get older and/or more experienced, the elaborated concepts are likely to be more complex ones. We also tend to elaborate key ideas that need to become part of the scaffold, so that the students will be able to build on those ideas as their studies continue. Elaboration is meant to illuminate an idea, expand a student’s understanding, and help them connect it to the scaffold. It’s not mere repetition.

The central or main idea of the Casey bit is this: in her new song, Lisa Lisa uses a bit of an old song by a famous singer. Casey wants listeners to understand how Lisa Lisa and the old song and its singer relate. That’s a legitimate purpose, and you can argue that he accomplishes it. After all, I didn’t change a word of his original text, and I added only one word. But I did take out the stuff that sounds like, or perhaps was intended to be, elaboration that helps the listener better understand. I would argue that elaboration isn’t needed here. Casey’s audience of adults and young adults can follow and understand just fine: Lisa Lisa has a new song that is related to this old song by Ella Fitzgerald, and here’s who Ella is. The “elaboration” doesn’t illuminate the main idea, it belabors the point. That’s not good teaching; it’s just bad writing.

Depending on your purpose, taking your reader (or listener) step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step is absolutely a valid way for a writer to go. (And if it’s what the boss or the client wants from you, you’ll have to do it.) But for that approach to be truly effective, it has to account for the expectations and capabilities of the audience. Assume too much, be too complex, be unclear, and your piece will fail to accomplish its purpose. But you can also assume too little about your audience’s capabilities—and end up insulting their intelligence. That’s my gripe with the Ella Fitzgerald bit.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe. In any event, we will get around to a more mundane discussion of the AT40 show from August 31, 1985, on Friday. 

Lisa Lisa Lisa Lisa Lisa Lisa

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(Pictured: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam backstage in 1986: Alex “Spanador” Moseley, Lisa Velez, and Mike Hughes.)

On the air, we marshal words for particular purposes: to entertain, to inform, to make people think or feel. Even when we’re ad-libbing, we are (one hopes) doing so with some goal in mind, some particular thing we want to accomplish.

Compared to ad-libbing, scripting our words in advance is a luxury. It gives us the chance to carefully choose the right words, and it helps ensure that we’ll deliver those words in the right way. It doesn’t guarantee that, however. Behold, a bit of the American Top 40 show dated August 31, 1985:

“Now we’re up to the current hit song that borrows some of its melody from a nursery rhyme. Listen. (Clip.) That’s a piece of the current hit song by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, a song called ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home.’ And you heard Lisa Lisa singing the melody from a great old nursery rhyme. Nearly 50 years ago, that nursery rhyme became the first big hit for the woman who would become the most famous female jazz singer in history. Listen. (Clip.) From way back in 1938, that’s a jazzed-up version of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ by legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. For more than 50 years, Ella’s been a major jazz star, probably best known for her scat singing on records, in the movies, on television, and of course in concert. And she also got noticed for breaking crystal with her voice on the Memorex TV commercials. Today, at age 67, Ella Fitzgerald is still wowing audiences around the world, and the melody of a nursery rhyme she recorded to get her first big hit, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ now shows up again, at least the melody does. It’s the song at number 38 this week by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home.'”

Here’s how a former professional editor of your acquaintance might streamline that:

“Now we’re up to the current hit song that borrows some of its melody from a nursery rhyme. Listen. (Clip.) That’s a piece of the current hit song by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, a song called ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home.’ And you heard Lisa Lisa singing the melody from a great old nursery rhyme. Nearly 50 years ago, that nursery rhyme became the first big hit for the woman who would become the most famous female jazz singer in history. Listen. (Clip.) From way back in 1938, that’s a jazzed-up version of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ by legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. For more than 50 years, Ella’s been a major jazz star, probably best known for her scat singing on records, in the movies, on television, and of course in concert. And she also got noticed for breaking crystal with her voice on the Memorex TV commercials. Today, at age 67, Ella Fitzgerald is still wowing audiences around the world, and the melody of a nursery rhyme she recorded to get her first big hit, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ now shows up again, at least the melody does. It’s [in] the song at number 38 this week by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force, ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home.'”

This is one of the most egregious instances of the repetition that plagues the four-hour AT40 shows. It’s just wretched writing. It’s almost as if Casey and company feared we couldn’t follow the bit unless they spoon-fed it to us. And did he really say that the melody of Ella’s song “now shows up again, at least the melody does”? If the last phrase is an ad-lib, it’s a brain fart. If it’s scripted, I can’t even.

The lengthier bit fills time, at least, which as we know was a major concern on the four-hour AT40s. But one song earlier, Casey says, “Here’s another debut. It’s the fourth Top 40 hit for John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. It’s a song about living in the city, and they spell it out, “C-I-T-Y.” Debuting at number 39, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.” He does this over the introduction of the record, so it doesn’t fill time. This repetition treats the listeners as if they were completely lacking short-term memory.

So I’m three songs into the August 31, 1985, show and I’m already deeply annoyed by it. Will I listen to the rest of it and write about it here? Stay tuned.

September 1, 2007: Don’t Cry

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(Pictured: Fergie onstage in 2007.)

September 1, 2007, was a Saturday. It is Labor Day weekend. Skies are sunny in the eastern and central United States, although rain is possible in the South from Texas to Mississippi, and in the Dakotas. Rain and snow are possible in the Mountain West. U.S. Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, resigns from office today in the wake of his arrest last June for soliciting gay sex in a Minnesota airport bathroom. Craig, who has already been removed from leadership posts by the Senate GOP, insists he is not homosexual and never has been. Also in the news today, the search for six missing coal miners trapped three miles underground in eastern Utah has ended with no hope that the men will be found alive. Two weeks ago, three men died and six were injured attempting to rescue the missing miners.

On TV tonight, CBS presents NCIS, Cold Case, and 48 Hours Mystery. ABC presents live college football; the main national game features #12 California defeating #15 Tennessee 45-31. On FOX, it’s Cops and America’s Most Wanted. The CW shows the 1999 theatrical movie Wing Commander starring Freddie Prinze Jr. NBC airs three episodes of Friday Night Lights. Later on NBC, Scarlett Johansson hosts Saturday Night Live. It’s a repeat from January with musical guest Death Cab for Cutie.

It’s the first big Saturday of college football for 2007. The game of the day is Appalachian State’s unlikely 34-32 upset of fifth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor. Elsewhere, #1 USC beats Idaho 35-10 and #7 Wisconsin defeats Washington State, 42-21. Major League Baseball enters the month of September with competitive races in all six divisions; the largest lead belongs to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who lead Seattle by six-and-a-half games in the American League West; in the National League West, San Diego leads Arizona by a single percentage point. The NFL preseason concluded with 14 games on Thursday and two yesterday; this coming week, the regular season begins with the third annual Thursday night opener, featuring the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts hosting New Orleans. This year’s NFL schedule will include an additional five Thursday night games, in November and December.

On this week’s Billboard Hot 100, “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston is #1 for a fourth consecutive week. Holding their positions this week are “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fergie at #2, “The Way I Are” by Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson at #3, and “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s at #4. Kanye West moves from #6 to #5 with “Stronger.” Only one song is new in the Top 10: “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em is at #6. It replaces “Shawty” by Plies featuring T-Pain, which falls from #10 to #11. The highest debut in the Top 40 is the highest on the Hot 100, “Misery Business” by Paramore at #34. The record had a four-week run earlier this year and has re-entered the chart. The new #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart is High School Musical 2, from the Disney Channel movie franchise.

Perspective From the Present: The Mrs. and I attended the Washington State-Wisconsin game with a couple of friends, although we had a hard time connecting with them in the pregame rush. We saw the end of the App State-Michigan game on the Jumbotron. The next day, we attended the annual Taste of Madison, where my radio station was hosting a stage. At one point, I think there were six jocks on stage with one microphone between us. (I wrote about the day here.)

Until I was researching this post (which is by reader request), I had never heard  “Beautiful Girls,” which is fetchingly arranged and produced, although Sean Kingston’s voice is awful. The Hot 100 was populated with grotesque titles (“Ayo Technology,” the remarkably stupid “Thnks fr th Mmrs,” “Wipe Me Down,” “Get Me Bodied”) and lame artist names (Plies, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em—which was quickly truncated to the vastly superior Soulja Boy—Baby Bash, Gorilla Zoe). If this was art that spoke to people, then good for it, and good for them. I’ll be over here listening to something that is capable of speaking to me.

I’m Still in Love With You

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(Pictured: Gilbert O’Sullivan, who performed in sweaters with the letter G on them.)

Here’s more about the American Top 40 show from August 26, 1972. (First part here.)

18. “Where Is the Love”/Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
14. “Back Stabbers”/O’Jays
13. “The Guitar Man”/Bread
12. “Motorcycle Mama”/Sailcat
10. “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”/Mac Davis
6. “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)”/Luther Ingram

5. “Hold Your Head Up”/Argent
3. “Long Cool Woman”/Hollies

By this point, two hours into the show, I’m there, 50 years ago, transported in a way that doesn’t happen with every AT40 show, or every season. “Where Is the Love,” “If Loving You Is Wrong,” and “Hold Your Head Up” radiate heat and light as the last days of summer slip away. “Back Stabbers,” “The Guitar Man,” “Motorcycle Mama,” “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” and “Long Cool Woman” put me slightly later in time, seeing the sun through a school bus or classroom window.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a 1978 show in which Casey answered a question about the artists who most successfully remade their own hit. He answered a similar question on this show: has anyone ever hit with a remake of their own earlier hit? It’s happened three times, he says. Tommy Edwards remade his 1951 hit “It’s All in the Game” in 1957; the Ventures remade 1960’s “Walk Don’t Run” in 1964; and Barbra Streisand remade “Where You Lead” as part of the “Sweet Inspiration” medley heard earlier in the show.

11. “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”/Donna Fargo. I don’t think I had an opinion on “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” in 1972 (although I remember that it sounded great off a jingle) but today I like it out of all proportion to its enduring value. Its sweet joyfulness is, as I wrote a couple of years ago, “an antidote to this dark time in which we are living.” It runs only 2:27 but Casey cuts it short anyway, which was especially annoying given the six minutes he devoted to the Streisand medley in the first hour.

8. “Coconut”/Nilsson. Here again we encounter the question of just how Nilsson’s name is pronounced. Harry himself pronounced his surname with a short “i,” but Casey says “Coconut” is from the album “neel-son schmeel-son,” which makes me squirm like nails on a chalkboard. (Over the years, Casey pronounced it both ways, and earlier in 1972 he used both on the same song.)

7. “Goodbye to Love”/Carpenters. I played “Goodbye to Love” on the radio the other night and was reminded again how insanely great it is. (Have I mentioned here that I do a 70s music show Saturday nights from 7 til midnight on my station? That I not only host it but program it too? You should probably listen sometime.)

EXTRA: “Ben”/Michael Jackson
EXTRA: “Use Me”/Bill Withers

One of the extras offered in the modern-day version of this show was Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love,” snipped from the original 8/26/72 broadcast. Commonly, extras are future hits not part of the original show, like “Use Me” and “Ben.” The extras are usually introduced by voiceover guy Larry Morgan. But on this show, Casey himself introduces them. Neither appeared on the 8/26/72 show, so where the intro bits came from I can’t say.

4. “I’m Still in Love With You”/Al Green. As much as I love Al Green, I sometimes mix up “I’m Still in Love With You, “Look What You Done for Me,” and “You Ought to Be With Me,” all of which followed “Let’s Stay Together” up the charts in 1972. In his Green biography Soul Survivor, author Jimmy McDonough says that about this time, producer Willie Mitchell was told that his stuff with Green all sounded the same. He responded, “I will ride this horse until it falls dead.”

2. “Alone Again (Naturally)”/Gilbert O’Sullivan
1. “Brandy”/Looking Glass
Gilbert and the Looking Glass had been 1-2 for the preceding four weeks but have now changed places, although “Alone Again (Naturally)” will return to the #1 position next week and hold it for two more weeks. Six weeks at #1 would be the longest run of the year, equaled only by Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in the spring.

With summer fading into the fall of 1972, it was time for young me to take a tentative step into a further widening world, to a new school, with new teachers, new friends (new girls too), and great expectations. But I still had my old friends from that time. And when I wasn’t in school, I spent hours with the radio, which turned out to be the best friend of all.

New Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter. It knows what’s what.