Don’t Say No

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(Pictured: Billy Squier on stage in the summer of 1981.)

As I might have done with a hard copy back then, let’s digitally page through the edition of Radio and Records dated July 3, 1981, to see what we can see.

Item: Congress is considering the expansion of Daylight Saving Time, which currently runs from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October. The Federal Communications Commission is concerned about the impact on daytime-only radio stations. Those not authorized for pre-sunrise operation would see up to two additional months in which they would lose an hour of profitable morning drive-time.

Comment: DST was expanded in 1986 so it started on the first Sunday in April instead of the last. In 2007, DST changed to its current schedule, from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.

Item: TV ratings for the week ending June 28 show M*A*S*H at #1, followed by the M*A*S*H spinoff Trapper John M.D. at #2. The sitcom featuring former M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers, House Calls, finished at #3 for the week.

Comment: Few successful TV series have gone further down the memory hole than House Calls, which finished in the Top 25 during all three of its seasons but isn’t streaming or seen on vintage TV diginets. Co-star Lynn Redgrave was fired midway through the 1981-82 season for wanting to breast-feed her newborn daughter at work, which the studio would not abide. After Redgrave was suddenly replaced by Sharon Gless, ratings plummeted, the show was canceled, and lawsuits followed.

Item: WZZQ in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the first album-rock stations in the South, has switched to a country format after 13 years. The station’s general manager believes the AOR format attracts too young an audience, and that country will help the station capture more national advertising dollars aimed at 25-to-49 year-olds. As the only AOR station in Jackson, WZZQ ranked second overall in the most recent Birch Report ratings. It becomes the fourth country station in the market.

Comment: WZZQ would not have been the first or last station to trade a bird in the hand for two that it thought were in the bush. Nevertheless, it seems deeply weird for a heritage album-rock station with strong ratings and market exclusivity to enter a four-way battle and expect to do better. This feels like a change that’s officially about one thing but actually about something else. For example, stations have been known to change format because of the owner’s personal taste, profits notwithstanding. I’m not saying that’s what happened here, but it could have.

Item: KWRM, a 5,000-watt adult-contemporary station in Corona, California, outside of Los Angeles, has gone all-in on contesting. The station runs five or six contests an hour, 17 hours a day. The jocks don’t back-announce songs; they give prizes to listeners who can name titles, artists and chart positions. The station carries Dodgers and Lakers play-by-play, and the scores are used for quiz questions. Prizes are mostly items already being advertised on the station. General manager Pat Michaels insists that the station isn’t trading advertising time for prizes, but advertisers who provide large prizes get promos and mentions equivalent to the value of the product.

Comment: If you weren’t interested in playing contests (and the vast majority of listeners are not), KWRM must have been positively exhausting to listen to. As a jock, I’d have been exhausted by it, too.

Item: The National Airplay 40 for album-rock radio shows the Joe Walsh album There Goes the Neighborhood as the week’s most played nationwide, nosing out the Moody Blues’ Long Distance Voyager. Other hot albums of the moment include Tom Petty’s Hard Promises, Don’t Say No by Billy Squier, Fair Warning by Van Halen, Face Value by Phil Collins, and Santana’s Zebop! Jazz albums getting play on album-rock stations include As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, Unsung Heroes by the Dixie Dregs, Lee Ritenour’s Rit, and The Clarke/Duke Project by Stanley Clarke and George Duke.

Comment: The Top 40 in this summer wasn’t great, but album-rock radio was loaded with new releases by superstar acts. And if there has been a cooler album title than As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, I’m not sure what it is. Many album-rock stations were playing the track “Ozark,” which could easily have been made to fit alongside Tom Petty, the Moody Blues, and Joe Walsh.

Coming in the next installment: a single day from the summer of 1981.

Trapped in the Amber of the Moment

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This post started out as a list of the Top 20 hits of the summer of 1981 by Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on peak chart position and weeks in that position, but it ended up sounding like a couple of posts I wrote back in the spring, which you can go read if you like. So now it’s an unscientific list of 20 songs I liked, in no particular order.

“Too Much Time on My Hands”/Styx. If you expected to hear rock music on your local Top 40 station in the summer of 81, pickin’s were slim.

“Hearts”/Marty Balin. The audible breath that Balin takes before delivering the last line (“is everything all right”) is very sexy, actually.

“Boy From New York City”/Manhattan Transfer. I should write about the Manhattan Transfer someday. They had four Top 40 hits between 1975 and 1983, and “Boy From New York City” was the biggest.

“I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers. As a producer, Lionel Richie got more out of Kenny Rogers than anybody else, although their collaborations were trapped in the amber of their early-80s moment, and within a couple of years, you wouldn’t hear them much anymore.

“Slow Hand”/Pointer Sisters. At the country station, we mixed in a few pop hits, especially during daytime hours, and this was one of them. We weren’t the only ones who saw its country potential: a year later Conway Twitty took a rather skeevy cover of it to #1 country.

“Fire and Smoke”/Earl Thomas Conley. This was the first #1 country hit for an artist who would eventually trail only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap for most #1 country hits during the 80s.

“Seven Year Ache”/Rosanne Cash. This, too, was #1 country hit, and you have forgotten that it crossed over to #22 on the Hot 100.

“Elvira”/Oak Ridge Boys. I didn’t mind this when it first came out in April, but sweet mama when people were still requesting it once an hour six months later, I was done.

“All Those Years Ago”/George Harrison. America loved the idea that Paul and Ringo were backing George on this, and if it portrays a John Lennon that some people didn’t recognize, maybe blame grief for it.

“Talk to Ya Later”/The Tubes. This wasn’t the hit single from the Tubes album The Completion Backward Principle—that was “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore”—but we adored “Talk to Ya Later” at the campus station and played it from the spring into the summer.

“A Life of Illusion”/Joe Walsh. Once you realize how much the intro of “A Life of Illusion” resembles “On Wisconsin,” you’ll never be able to un-hear it.

“Sweetheart”/Franke and the Knockouts. Certain records sound familiar from the first time you hear them, and “Sweetheart” is one of those. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and with “Sweetheart,” it isn’t.

“This Little Girl”/Gary U. S. Bonds. I was a relatively new Springsteen acolyte in ’81, and in the way of new converts everywhere, I worshipped anything my idol (who co-produced, played, and sang on the Bonds album Dedication) touched.

“The Stroke”/Billy Squier. If you took the interests, experiences, and aspirations of rural white male Midwestern college students of 1981 and made a songwriting bot out of them, it would write “The Stroke.”

“I Love You”/Climax Blues Band. And yet it was possible for a 21-year-old college student who loved “The Stroke” to love this too, for he contained multitudes.

“Gemini Dream”/Moody Blues. Me, last fall: “three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama.”

“Time”/Alan Parsons Project. Of all the songs on this list, it might be most appropriate for scoring the closing credits of the movie I wrote about yesterday.

“Urgent”/Foreigner. Of all the albums that came out while I was in college radio, the most impactful wasn’t The Wall or The Long Run or Tusk, it was IV by Foreigner. Every cut sounded good on the radio, and we played ’em all.

“The Waiting”/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Hard Promises was another impactful album. At the time, I didn’t like it as much as Damn the Torpedoes. But in four decades since, it’s the one I’ve listened to much more often.

“The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band. If I were picking a favorite song from the summer of 1981, “The Breakup Song” would be it. Hard-rockin’, earworm-worthy, and as I might have described it back then, “tough and tight.”

In the next installment, some broadcasting industry news from the summer of 1981.

Summer of ’81: Notes for the Screenplay

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(Pictured: we open on this shot.)

Memo for the file: what could go in a screenplay about the summer of 1981. 

Dramatis personae:

—Jim, a 21-year-old college student between his junior and senior years, obsessed with radio, not untalented but more egotistical than his talent merits. Nearly 300 pounds, long unruly hair, scruffy reddish beard.

—Carl and Rick (not their real names), Jim’s new roommates; both are behind-the-scenes TV guys, one of whom Jim knows reasonably well, the other hardly at all. Mutt-and-Jeff pair: Rick tall/thin/talkative, Carl shorter/stocky/quiet.

—Ann, Jim’s girlfriend, whose summer job involves a video project with Carl and Rick, and who also has a paying radio DJ job. Long hair, nice build, patience beyond her years.

Settings:

—Small Wisconsin college town (non-student population about 10,000) where most of the students (regular enrollment about 5,500) are gone for the summer.

—Two-bedroom apartment occupied by Jim, Carl, and Rick.

—Two radio stations: one at the college and one a commercial station a half-hour up the road.

Potential story beats:

—Coming of age #1: Jim’s last lap around the childhood clock of school and summer. Come 1982, he will go permanently into the working world. Look back/look forward.

—Coming of age #2: Jim works a lot at his paying radio job, weekends and fill-ins, and it adds up to big coin by college-student standards, even at the minimum wage of $3.35. Sense of independence/accomplishment from being able to pay for gas/groceries/rent and still have fun money without having to call upon the Mother and Dad National Bank (much).

—Workplace comedy #1: Carl, Rick and Ann spend the summer working on a video animation project which requires hours of tedious labor to generate seconds of videotape. Comedy potential in Jim’s attempts to find out what the purpose of the project is and the inability of anyone involved to explain it. Also mystery potential. Jim doesn’t know Carl very well. Maybe he’s got them working on some secret government project?

—Workplace comedy #2: Jim and a handful of other students keep the campus radio station on the air, erratically. He used to be the program director but isn’t anymore, officially, but he becomes de facto program director in the summer because he the only person there who wants the job. Opportunity to showcase soundtrack tunes; list of possibilities to come. Related: road trip to outdoor Doobie Brothers show at Alpine Valley near Milwaukee.

—Domestic comedy: Jim, Carl, and Rick work in adjacent studios and confer daily about after-work plans. Conference often involves making sure they have meat for the grill and beer for the living-room fridge. Apartment has pirated cable. Potential storylines: MST3K-style commentary on HBO movies and various escapades at home. Also escapades in downtown bars and at apartments of friends who have remained in town for the summer. Potential guest-star roles for friends not remaining in town for the summer, who visit and flop on the couch. Example: friend arrives, contributes $3 for a beer run. Jim comes home with $3 case, friend complains. “Well jeez Bill, you only gave me $3.”

—Romance: Jim and Ann have had their ups and downs in the last several months, but are up when the summer begins. He has his own bedroom in the apartment. Comedy embarrassment potential: what’s going on in there?

—Personal conflict: Although Jim and Rick were sure they’d be compatible, by summer’s end, something feels off. If story were extended to autumn, they would assume an increasingly chilly distance. Attempt to uncover/explain origins.

—Catchphrase for Carl: “Baker’s run later?” Baker’s is an ice-cream stand that does not open until after the students have cleared out for the summer and closes before they came back in the fall, a legend known only to townies and to summer school students. (Most effective as a plot device if it’s never shown.)

—Classroom hijinx: Between broadcasting, beer, barbecuing, and Baker’s, coursework is far down on the list of our characters’ priorities. Nevertheless, summer school is ongoing. Jim takes a four-week course in personnel administration to complete the management requirements of his degree. Some comedy potential from eccentric professor, Jim’s inability to remember any of what he’s supposed to be learning, and his breezy insouciance about education in general.

Coming next: a potential soundtrack for the movie. 

June 26, 2000: Everything You Want

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(Pictured: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on stage on June 26, 2000.)

(This post is a long-overdue request, from a reader who asked if I would move this feature into the new millennium.)

June 26, 2000, was a Monday. All three broadcast network newscasts lead tonight with the announcement that for the first time, the human genome has been mapped. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair made the announcement revealing the first DNA sequence at the White House today. Also in the news today: the Supreme Court has reaffirmed by a 7-2 margin that suspects must be read their Miranda rights at the time of arrest. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissent. Debate continues over how the United States should spend its budget surplus, and there has been a new court filing in the custody case of six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. Character actor Logan Ramsey, best known for appearances in Walking Tall, Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and Scrooged, just a few of his many movie and TV roles from the 50s to the 90s, dies at age 79.

Sports fans are still buzzing over ABC’s recent announcement that this fall, comedian Dennis Miller will join play-by-play man Al Michaels and color analyst Dan Fouts in the Monday Night Football booth. There’s a partial schedule in Major League Baseball today. Only two of the six division leaders are in action: NL West-leading Arizona beats Houston 6-1 and NL Central-leading St. Louis loses to Cincinnati 3-2. Also in the National League, the San Diego Padres light up Orel Hershiser for eight runs in the second inning and then hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers 9-5. It will be the final appearance of Hershiser’s 18-year big-league career.

The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers list is led by The Indwelling, the seventh book in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The top New York Times nonfiction book is Flags of Our Fathers, the story of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Top movies at the box office over the weekend were Me, Myself and Irene starring Jim Carrey and the animated Chicken Run. They knock off last week’s 1-2 tandem, Shaft and Gone in 60 Seconds. On TV tonight, ABC has the highest rated program, an edition of Peter Jennings Reporting called “The Search for Jesus.” CBS presents two episodes of The King of Queens plus Everybody Loves Raymond, Becker, and the news show 48 Hours. On NBC, it’s Dateline NBC, Law and Order, and Third Watch. Fox presents That 70s Show, Titus, and Ally McBeal.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are wrapping up their 1999-2000 reunion tour with a run of shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Springsteen’s performance of “American Skin (41 Shots),” about the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers, has caused some fans to boo, especially cops among the crowds. Pearl Jam plays Hamburg, Germany, and the Dave Matthews Band plays Cincinnati. NSYNC plays Lexington, Kentucky, and Coldplay does a radio concert in the Netherlands. On the Billboard Hot 100, “Be With You” by Enrique Iglesias is #1, taking over the top spot from “Try Again” by Aaliyah. “Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon is #3, and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” is #4. “Breathe” by Faith Hill is #5 in its 34th week on the Hot 100. “Higher” by Creed, currently at #11, is also in its 34th week. Neither is the oldest record on the Hot 100, however: that’s “Smooth” by Santana with Rob Thomas, at #33 in its 48th week. “Amazed” by Lonestar is in its 47th week and still at #25. The #1 album of the week is The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem; Oops!…I Did It Again by Britney Spears is at #2.

In suburban Madison, Wisconsin, a couple who have just moved to town are getting settled in their new place. They are both adjusting to new jobs, although three months in, he’s already decided he doesn’t like his. He’s still figuring out how to manage his immediate supervisor who, in an earlier life, was a tutor for Aaliyah. It doesn’t help matters that a friend and former colleague from Iowa City visited over the weekend to remind him how much he misses it.

Programming Reminder: This weekend is the 50th anniversary of the Iola People’s Fair, a Wisconsin rock festival that featured a riot involving bikers and fans. I talked with a guy who was there, and also at Wisconsin’s other big 1970 rock festival, Sound Storm. That conversation is here and I hope you will listen to it and share it with people who might be interested.

English Mist

If the name of Roger Whittaker isn’t familiar to you, see if the TV compilation spot up there, from the early 90s, refreshes your recollection of that kindly looking English gentleman, with an impossibly resonant voice and perfect diction, who made the sort of music your mother or grandmother would have liked.

Whittaker’s life story is kind of interesting. He was born in England but grew up in Kenya after his parents moved there for the more salubrious climate. He served in the Kenyan army during the late 50s, then moved back to England to attend university. At the same time, he began a singing career, and landed a record deal in 1962. He recorded throughout the 60s, finally cracking the UK charts with “Durham Town” in 1969. “New World in the Morning” was an easy-listening hit in the States in 1970. He became popular in Scandinavia and Germany, and recorded a long streak of albums in phonetic German.

In 1975, Whittaker’s American label released a 1971 recording, “The Last Farewell.” There must have been something in the air late that spring and into the summer: it’s hard to imagine “The Last Farewell” becoming a pop hit in any other season. It got a boost from WSB in Atlanta, after the program director’s wife heard it on a Canadian station, possibly CKLW, which was one of the first to chart it. After hitting #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, it became a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations not just in Detroit but in Philadelphia, Dayton, Houston, Columbus, Denver, Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Hartford. At WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, it was #1 for five weeks in June and July, stayed in the station’s Top Five for four weeks after that, and ended up #2 for the entire year. On the Hot 100, it peaked at #19 for the week of June 21, 1975, doing a total of nine weeks in the Top 4o and 15 on the Hot 100. It went to #2 in the UK. Around the world, “The Last Farewell” moved something like 11 million copies.

For the next several years, Roger Whittaker was an easy-listening star in America, with six more chart hits, including a reissue of “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore,” which made the Easy Listening Top 10 in 1975 after being a relative stiff in 1970; “Durham Town” got an American release late in ’75 and made #23. He charted six albums: The Last Farewell and Other Hits was the biggest, making #31 on the Billboard 200. Although he never charted after the early 80s, he was a consistent seller, and claims to have received over 250 gold, silver, and platinum awards. It’s easy to understand how mail-order compilations like the one in the ad at the top of this post might have found a very rabid, loyal audience: ultra-familiar songs, most of them very romantic, quietly sung in a traditional and completely unthreatening way.

Roger Whittaker retired from performing in the early 00s, but he has continued to record a little, most recently a German-language album in 2012. (No more phonetic singing; after his earlier success in Germany, he learned the language.) He lives in Ireland now and is still among us at age 84.

When I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s, “Durham Town,” “New World in the Morning,” and “The Last Farewell” were in the library. They’re maybe not your cup of tea and maybe not mine, but they were surely somebody’s. Although in the summer of 1975, “The Last Farewell” was my cup of tea. The introduction of it—that lush, rich, orchestrated thing. (Cable TV viewers got very familiar with it in the late 70s and early 80s; WGN-TV in Chicago used it for station IDs several years running.) That very romantic lyric—brave sailor stoically leaves his beloved to fight a war and hopes he won’t get dead and can return to her one day. And Whittaker’s voice, which certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. I liked it, and I still kind of like it now, on those rare occasions when I hear it.

Though death and darkness gather all about me
And my ship be torn apart upon the sea
I shall smell again the fragrance of these islands
In the healing waves that brought me once to thee
And I should I return safe home again to England
I shall watch the English mist roll through the dell
For you are beautiful
And I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

Record Zero

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(Pictured: Tommy James, social distancing in 1968.)

We are creeping closer to the 50th anniversary of the fabled fall of 1970, the season in which fifth-grade me discovered the radio and pop music and started on the road to becoming whatever the hell it is that I am now. The period of discovery itself would have begun in the first half of September, but some of the records I heard during those first pivotal weeks were on the chart long before that. Since WLS from Chicago was the station that captured me, I dug back into the station’s music surveys from the summer of 1970, trying to find the first appearance of some of the songs that made a strong impression on me that fall.

At 50 years’ distance, it’s hard for me to know which songs I remember hearing while they were current hits, and which would have been what is known in the radio biz as “recurrents,” recent hits that get less regular airplay than current hits, but more than songs from months or years earlier. Any distinction between recurrents and currents is drawn from radio surveys and memory, so it will be a thin and wavy line, and it may end up not meaning anything at all.

Let’s assume for purposes of this discussion that any song listed on the WLS Hit Parade is a current hit and not a recurrent. (Yeah, I know, big leap, and not true at WLS later in the 70s, but go with it today.) Two songs I associate with those very first days of listening in September are “The Wonder of You” by Elvis and “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne. Both were gone from the chart by early September, however, so I could have heard them as recurrents. “The Wonder of You” first appeared on the Hit Parade on May 25, 1970, and “Band of Gold” a week later on June 1. Likewise “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps, which debuted on June 15, and “Are You Ready” by Pacific Gas and Electric, which debuted on June 22. Both of the latter were gone from the chart by September.

Also among the debuts 50 years ago today, on June 22, 1970, are “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” by Robin McNamara and “Tighter, Tighter” by Alive and Kickin’. And if we flash forward to the chart of September 7, 1970—a Monday, the day of the week on which WLS surveys were issued in this period—we see that “Tighter, Tighter” is the oldest record on the survey, in its 12th week. If we make the entirely reasonable assumption that I first heard WLS sometime during the week of September 7, 1970, “Tighter, Tighter,” produced and eventually also recorded by Tommy James, is probably the record we’re looking for, the earliest summer debut that would still have been a current hit in September, and therefore Record Zero for a lifelong obsession. (“Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” loses this race by a nose, having appeared on the Hit Parade for the final time during the week of August 31.) But it’s a thin line. If September 14 was the magic week instead of September 7, “Make It With You” by Bread, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, and “Close to You” by the Carpenters, all of which debuted during the week of June 29, could be Record Zero as well.

But that is not to say that “Tighter, Tighter” or “Lay a Little Lovin’ on Me” or any of the other candidates are the biggest or the best or the most evocative or the most impactful current hits from that first season, only that they’re the oldest. Several songs on the 9/7/70 survey would be among the first 45s I ever owned: the inestimable “Candida,” “Julie Do Ya Love Me,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Some of the songs I didn’t own are incredibly vivid in memory also: “War,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Patches,” “Groovy Situation, “Spill the Wine. ” I can see myself there, close to the school bus radio speaker, or in my bedroom after I scrounged Dad’s old green Westinghouse tube-type AM radio, listening to them. All debuted in July or August 1970.

Other songs don’t register at all, at least not as memories from the beginning of time: “Neanderthal Man,” “I Who Have Nothing,” “Hi-De-Ho.” I might have heard them just as often, but they didn’t stick, and half-a-century later, they’ve been erased from the canon. So it goes when we’re back in a country of the heart where history mingles with myth. In a land such as that, faith and feelings count as much as data.