Who’s Happening Now

Behold the top of the Hot 100 for the week of September 18, 2021. Nine of the Top 10 are from the new Drake album Certified Lover Boy, which was released on September 10. Further down, the other 12 tracks on the album all debuted within the Top 40.

This is fine. It reflects the way people consume music now, streaming or downloading on-demand. We don’t go to Musicland to buy pieces of plastic anymore. Most people don’t even order them from Amazon anymore. This is fine.

Here’s what is not fine.

After Billboard tweeted this chart the other day, I retweeted it with a question: “Has Eric Alper proclaimed that this makes Drake greater than the Beatles yet?” Alper is a Canadian music publicist with several annoying Twitter habits, chief among them his fluffing of Billboard chart achievements. Maybe 12 hours later, he tweeted, “Drake is the only artist in music history to have 21 songs in the top 40 simultaneously. And he’s done it twice.” Alper has a vested interest in Who’s Happening Now, and as such concerns himself with history only as something that can be rewritten by Who’s Happening Now. But I have said it over and over: due to changes in methodology, you cannot compare current Billboard chart achievements with those of past eras.

Exactly which date before which you cannot compare is debatable. In 1991, Billboard started using Nielsen Soundscan data in its charts. Soundscan tracked sales data in more-or-less real time, a far more accurate system than the old ask-record-stores-what-they’re-selling system, which Billboard used previously. It was in this era that new albums started regularly debuting at #1, which had been vanishingly rare. It was also in this era that country and hip-hop acts were revealed as a lot more popular (in sales terms) than the old methodology reflected. In 2005, Billboard began incorporating paid digital downloads, which drastically increased the volatility of the singles charts. Another milestone came in 2007, when Billboard began incorporating streaming and on-demand data.

The latter addition presented a conundrum. How do you equalize a Spotify play with an actual sale? The Recording Industry Association of America eventually came up with a number: 1500 streams or ten on-demand downloads is equal to one album sale. So since 2014, Billboard‘s main charts have been popularity charts and not strictly sales charts. Billboard hasn’t always been so transparent about this. Back in the 80s, it started counting airplay in its sales charts, which our friend Mike Hagerty described thusly: “Counting airplay on a mixed chart is like Nissan getting to claim every time you see an Altima drive by as an additional sale.”

But it’s fine. For over a century, it’s been Billboard‘s mission to determine Who’s Happening Now, and how.

Repeating: these methodology changes make comparisons with past achievements meaningless. Drake has put all of the songs on his album into the Top 40 during its first week out? Fine. Michael Jackson would certainly have done it when Bad came out in 1987. The Beatles would have done it, probably with everything from A Hard Day’s Night forward. At the end of the 70s, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer would likely have done it. In the 80s, albums by Madonna, Prince, George Michael and Whitney Houston would likely have come very close. And all would have debuted on the album chart at #1.

In 2018, Drake’s album Scorpion became the fourth ever to contain seven Top-10 hits, joining Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Born in the USA, and Thriller. But the latter three had to remain popular for two solid years in order to score seven singles, while Drake did it in a week. It doesn’t mean his album was as popular as those others; in fact, it might mean just the opposite. Two years after Scorpion, were people still listening to it the way they were with Janet, Bruce, and Michael?

A related achievement involves singles debuting on the Hot 100 at #1. All of them have come since 1995. Had it been possible in earlier eras, other acts would have done it: Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, MJ, Prince, Madonna, Bruce, George Michael, Janet, Whitney. As I noted this week, the Carpenters were big enough in 1971 to have done it. Ariana Grande is staggeringly popular, but her place in history is distorted by the post-2007 accounting change: that she’s debuted at #1 with five singles doesn’t make her the greatest female singer of all time, no matter how badly Eric Alper wants to call her that.

Good on Drake for what he’s done. But any attempt to take the long view of What Has Happened demands that we not be blinded by Who’s Happening Now.

The Wind

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The kid gets on the school bus at 6:50 in the morning for the long ride through Clarno and Cadiz Townships. Other kids get on in ones and twos, some older, some younger, some he knows, and some he merely recognizes from other mornings. Some get on from neatly kept farmsteads, others from ramshackle houses or long-parked mobile homes. The gravel roads are rough and narrow, and as they track up and down and around, the kid sometimes worries that the bus, rolling like a ship in a storm, might actually tip over. 

If it were up to the driver, the school bus radio would probably be on local station WEKZ, but by passenger demand, it’s on WLS from Chicago, with Larry Lujack playing the hits. There’s news every half-hour, so the kid hears the Lyle Dean Report twice each morning. In September 1971, he knows about the Attica prison riot and the death of Nikita Khrushchev, even if he doesn’t understand all of the details. He cares more about the baseball scores, and that football season has started for the teams he follows. He plays a little organized football himself.

On certain mornings, the kid wrestles his saxophone aboard the bus. He enjoys honking away in rehearsal, although he already knows he doesn’t have much talent. He’d rather listen to other musicians, and his Ol’ Uncle Lar, on the radio. 

You’ve already read about some of the songs of September 1971. Here are a few more from below the Top 40.

42. “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore”/Glass Bottle. “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore” is an American cover of a concurrent British hit sung by Cliff Richard, co-produced by Dickie Goodman, master of the break-in record. Wikipedia says that the group’s name was chosen to help the glass industry in a PR effort to boost the use of glass soda bottles over plastic ones. While it seems like almost anything else would have been more effective PR, the factoid has proliferated across dozens of websites, so it must be true.

43. “Sweet City Woman”/Stampeders
54. “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”/Jr. Walker and the All-Stars
68. “Annabella”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
Old man yells at cloud: nobody making records today wants to grab the listener from the first second; producers would rather sneak up on them. (I am sick unto death of fade-ins, a production trick meant for earbuds and not for radio.) So you don’t get the banjo that opens “Sweet City Woman,” or the gloriously exciting 40 seconds that start “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready.” Related: I often can’t tell what people are supposed to remember about the hits of today. Fifty years later, “Annabella” is still right there in my head.

47. “All Day Music”/War
48 “Marianne”/Stephen Stills
These records made #35 and #42 respectively on the Hot 100 but were #4 and #6 at WLS. “All Day Music” is the single best song on the entire list of 100, BTW. It take you to a place you want to go, and if you play it again, you can stay there.

49. “Superstar”/Carpenters. The highest-debuting single on the Hot 100 in this week. To double down on something I’ve said before, had it been as easy to consume music in 1971 as it is today, the Carpenters would have debuted on the singles chart at #1 or close to it, more than once.

65. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle. There’s a lot of straight-up R&B records on this week’s Bottom 60, few of which got much play on pop radio, although “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” did. I would absolutely read a book about the relationship between R&B radio, the Black audience, and the record business in the first half of the 1970s. There was a whole ‘nother world out there that had little to do with white kids listening to WLS.

93. “Carey”/Joni Mitchell. The lone charting single from Blue is in its lone week on the Hot 100.

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh you know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey
But it’s really not my home

It will be years before the kid hears the arresting first lines of “Carey.” By then he will know, in a way he was only learning in 1971, that there’s something on the September wind that isn’t there the rest of the year: the knowledge that wherever he finds himself in the Septembers to come, it’s really not his home. Home is on the bumpy rural roads of Clarno and Cadiz, in other Septembers, on other mornings, at the beginning of everything that ever was, and all that will ever be.

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.

Electric Boogaloo

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(Pictured: the Pointer Sisters at the American Music Awards in January 1985.)

Following up on a post about the American Top 40 show from September 1, 1984, that date was the single most exciting day of my radio career: the day we switched the soft-rock FM station to Top 40. So many songs, inside the Top 40 and out of it, can still bring back that day and the days thereafter, because that’s one of the things songs can do. Here’s some of what was below the Top 40 on that date.

41. “I’m So Excited”/Pointer Sisters
71. “Jump (For My Love)”/Pointer Sisters

Four Pointer Sisters singles were released in 1984, and every one of them smokes: these two plus “Automatic,” which preceded them, and “Neutron Dance,” which followed them and ran the chart into 1985. “I’m So Excited” was on its second go-round; it had made #30 in 1982, but this remix would go all the way into the Top 10.

43. “Infatuation”/Rod Stewart
46. “Some Guys Have All the Luck”/Rod Stewart
Rod’s full strutting cocksman mode, as on “Infatuation,” is insufferable. “Some Guys Have All the Luck” is far more charming and relatable, but if I had my druthers I’d rather listen to “Mandolin Wind” again.

55. “Breakin’ . . . There’s No Stoppin’ Us”/Ollie and Jerry
95. “99 1/2″/Carole Lynn Townes
Ollie and Jerry had taken the title song from the movie Breakin’ to #1 on the dance chart and to #9 on the Hot 100 while “99 1/2” peaked at #77 on the big chart. Breakin’ isn’t as well-remembered now as the parody-worthy title of its sequel: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

56. “On the Dark Side”/John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Any resemblance to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was probably not coincidental, from Cafferty’s echo-drenched soul shout to the presence in the band of a large, amiable sax player named Michael “Tunes” Antunes. I have mentioned that I got to interview Cafferty before a show in my small Illinois town; I also did a pre-concert phone interview with Antunes, who surprised me by coming off as a regular guy, at a time when I assumed that most rock musicians were not.

58. “The More You Live, the More You Love”/A Flock of Seagulls. I was, in general, left cold by the English bands that proliferated in the early days of MTV’s dominance. Previous singles by A Flock of Seagulls had done nothing for me until “The More You Live” came along. As I wrote in 2009, “It’s the one I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The lead guitar has a haunting urgency that’s clearly conveying something we’d better pay attention to.”

54. “The Last Time I Made Love”/Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
73. “Hold Me”/Teddy Pendergrass and Whitney Houston
Choose your flavor of tender, oh-so-80s R&B duet. “Hold Me” was the first hit Whitney Houston ever sang on, the summer before she released her debut album and ascended into the stratosphere. “The Last Time I Made Love” opens with a great soul-music line: “The first time I made love it wasn’t love at all.”

60. “The Only Flame in Town”/Elvis Costello and the Attractions. I have friends who are genuinely pained by the fact that I just don’t get Elvis Costello. The charm of what he’s doing eludes me. I respect his critical reputation and his body of work that spans nearly 50 years now, but I’d rather listen to quite literally anybody else.

83. “10-9-8″/Face to Face. On the morning of my radio station’s format change, I aired a series of countdown promos: “seven hours to go,” “six hours to go,” and so on, showcasing the hot hits we would be playing after we threw the switch at noon. But we were locked into a sequence provided by the company that syndicated our music, and so the first current-rotation song we played a few minutes after noon was “10-9-8.” It wasn’t exactly “Ghostbusters” or “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

85. “On the Wings of a Nightingale”/Everly Brothers. Written by Paul McCartney and in its first week on the Hot 100, “On the Wings of a Nightingale” would peak at #50 in a 12-week run, although it made #9 on the adult-contempoary chart and even got a little country airplay.

96. “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll”/Huey Lewis and the News. This was the first song we played on the new format. It was never going to be anything else.

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September 7, 1978: Who Are You?

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(Pictured: Keith Moon and Annette Walter-Lax at the London premiere of The Buddy Holly Story on September 6, 1978.)

While it’s pleasant to read your old stuff and think, “Yeah, that’s still pretty good,” sometimes you read your old stuff and go, “Dear goddess I hope nobody saw this.” The post below first appeared in 2007, before I’d figured out the form of One Day in Your Life posts, and the original has some other problems. So here it is again, rebooted.

September 7, 1978, was a Thursday. At Camp David, President Carter referees a tense day of secret meetings between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, negotations that will result in the Camp David Accords later this month. In Iran, a month of anti-Shah demonstrations reaches its peak as two million rally against the regime in Tehran. The Shah imposes martial law; the next day, Iranian troops will kill thousands of demonstrators. In London, Bulgarian expatriate writer and journalist Georgi Markov is walking to work at the BBC when he feels a stinging pain in his thigh. Four days later he will be dead of ricin poisoning, delivered by a KGB agent’s umbrella. By proclamation of Mayor Michael Bilandic, it’s Peace Day in Chicago. The Italian-American Club of Livonia, Michigan, publishes its first newsletter. In Bayside, New York, the Virgin Mary appears to Veronica Lueken, who had been seeing her regularly since 1970. Lueken is told: “Satan, Lucifer in human form, entered into Rome in the year 1972.” Some will interpret the statement as meaning that Pope Paul VI was replaced by an impostor in 1972, and that the so-called Third Secret of Fatima, historically believed to refer to the end of the world, actually refers to a Russian takeover of the Catholic Church. Future actor Devon Sawa and future pro hockey player Matt Cooke are born. General George P. Hays, who won the Medal of Honor in World War I and commanded troops in Europe during World War II, dies at age 85.

In the majors, the New York Yankees open a four-game series by beating the Boston Red Sox 15-3; the Yankees will sweep the series to pull even in the standings with the Red Sox, who had a 14-game lead in mid-July. Six Five future Hall of Fame players appear in the game. TV5 in Platteville, Wisconsin, the campus cable TV station, previews the series on that night’s news broadcast; the sports anchor is an erstwhile radio broadcaster in his second week at college. Celebrity guests on Match Game ’78 this week are Robert Mandan, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Lee Meriwether, Richard Paul, and Betty White. NBC airs the premiere episode of the new series Grandpa Goes to Washington, starring Jack Albertson and Larry Linville. When it moves to its regular Tuesday slot, it will be on opposite another new series, CBS’ The Paper Chase. Both shows hope to pick up any viewers who aren’t watching Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, the two top-rated shows on TV.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are on the cover of Rolling Stone. The magazine contains a full-page ad for the new album by the Who, Who Are You. After attending the London premiere of The Buddy Holly Story with Paul McCartney and a post-premiere party at which he discussed with Eric Idle a role in the upcoming Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Keith Moon returns to a flat he and his girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax had borrowed from Harry Nilsson. Moon has been prescribed pills to help wean him off alcohol; he takes 32 of them, has a few drinks, and dies of an overdose. At WRKO in Boston, “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores tops the chart again. There’s not a lot of movement: The most impressive moves are made by Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” jumping to #7 from #11, “Kiss You All Over” by Exile, climbing from #18 to #12, and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder, moving from #22 to #15. Debuting at #30 is the second solo single by Kenny Loggins, “Whenever I Call You Friend,” which features backing vocals by Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester. They’re a bit behind on this one in the Midwest—it won’t chart at WLS for a month yet. It will take the erstwhile DJ-turned-sportscaster mentioned earlier in this post a lot longer—several years—before he stops associating the record with his difficult transition to college life and just starts digging it.

There Goes My Baby

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(Pictured: Tina Turner in 1984.)

The mid-80s are Casey Kasem’s Imperial Period. American Top 40 is on hundreds of radio stations coast to coast and around the world, and Casey possesses The Most Famous Voice in America, even if, in his early 50s, he sometimes sounds like a friendly but out-of-touch dad trying to relate to his teenage daughter by telling her something he read in a magazine. Here’s some of what he was telling about on the show from September 1, 1984.

37. “There Goes My Baby”/Donna Summer
33. “I Just Called to Say I Love You”/Stevie Wonder
Casey does a feature on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” the first record of the rock ‘n’ roll era with strings, and he talks about Stevie’s 1973 car wreck and coma. Each of them is fine although they both go on too long, and they come awfully close together. Casey plays only nine songs in the first hour of the show.

32. “Panama”/Van Halen
26. “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/Twisted Sister
Exhibits A and B for what can happen when people take pop music too seriously. Twisted Sister wasn’t going to single-handedly corrupt American youth no matter what the Parents Music Resource Council claimed. Meanwhile, David Lee Roth’s hilariously stupid monologue in the middle of “Panama” (“I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off”) makes me think that Van Halen was basically a novelty act that happened to include a generationally great guitarist. It’s as if Charlie Parker played in the Spike Jones Orchestra.

30. “Torture”/Jacksons
29. “Dancing in the Dark”/Bruce Springsteen

22. “Cover Me”/Bruce Springsteen
20. “Dynamite”/Jermaine Jackson
18. “State of Shock”/Jacksons
8. “Let’s Go Crazy”/Prince
5. “When Doves Cry”/Prince

Casey notes that three acts have two songs on the survey, crediting Jermaine for his return to the Jacksons on “Torture.” (He’s not on “State of Shock.”)

25. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”/Elton John. Casey says Elton has hit the Top 40 for 15 consecutive years since 1970, trailing only Elvis, who did it for 22 years. Elton’s streak would eventually reach 30.

24. “Sexy Girl”/Glenn Frey. A man should not call a grown woman a girl, unless she’s his daughter. So that’s one strike against this record. And if Frey’s girl really is a girl, under the age of 18, that’s strike two. Strike three is repeating the phrase “sexy girl” maybe 50 times (estimate) in three minutes as if he were doing aversion therapy.

LDD: “Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)”/Joey Scarbury. Casey takes nearly two minutes to read a letter from a 17-year-old boy about four older women he used to work with at a toy store. The letter implies that they helped him grow up; unfortunately, it doesn’t say that they turned him into a man. Now that would be a letter worth reading.

17. “Rock Me Tonite”/Billy Squier
14. “Drive”/Cars
11. “The Warrior”/Scandal
10. “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again”/Peabo Bryson
One of these is the best record on the show, if it isn’t “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” or the one of the top two songs below.

13. “Lights Out”/Peter Wolf. Casey introduces this by correcting his previous week’s list of solo acts whose names are also animal names (“from Adam Ant to Eddie Rabbitt,” he says, which is making me cringe even without hearing it) to include Ronnie Dove.

9. “If This Is It”/Huey Lewis and the News. Which baseball fan Casey introduces by telling that Lewis and band sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the recent major league all-star game, and helpfully reports that the National League won the game 3-1.

7. “Sunglasses at Night/Corey Hart. Which Casey introduces with a story about aspiring songwriter Hart losing $200 while seated next to Carly Simon at a blackjack table. He hoped to sell her one of his songs. She hoped he was a better songwriter than blackjack player.

LDD: “Heartlight”/Neil Diamond. From a schoolteacher to her little brother, who was befriended by late New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, although what that’s got to do with the letter beyond name-dropping I couldn’t tell. A complete waste of time.

4. “Ghostbusters”/Ray Parker Jr. Down to #4 after three weeks at #1. Ghostbusters was still #2 at the box office after a whole summer in theaters, and the only people who hadn’t seen it by Labor Day weekend were either in monasteries, nursing homes, or jail.

2. “Missing You”/John Waite
1. “What’s Love Got to Do With It”/Tina Turner
Thirty-seven years on, I’m still playing “What’s Love Got to Do With It” on my radio shows maybe twice a week. When 80s music finally starts falling out of style, these two records, perfect in every way, will be among the last to go.