Category Archives: American Top 40

Spikes of Joy

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(Pictured: ABBA says hello from 1976.)

Up here in Wisconsin, we got our first snow a month ago. On a gray day last week, a cold rain took the last of the leaves from the trees. The best part of autumn is behind us now. It’s bittersweet to see it go, but before it did, I spent some time in bygone autumns, with a couple of American Top 40 shows.

This stretch, as heard on the show from October 30, 1971, provided another motherlode of AM radio pleasure:

28. “Everybody’s Everything”/Santana
27. “So Far Away”/Carole King
26. “One Fine Morning”/Lighthouse
25. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe
24. “Only You Know and I Know”/Delaney and Bonnie
23. “Birds of a Feather”/Raiders
22. “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers
21. “Have You Seen Her”/Chi-Lites
20. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart
19. “Inner City Blues”/Marvin Gaye
18. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney

A person such as I, who grew up in the supercharged AM radio atmosphere of boss jocks and call-letter jingles, can live for a mighty long time in the headspace created by those 11 songs. Or these seven:

10. “I’ve Found Someone of My Own”/Free Movement
9. “Peace Train”/Cat Stevens
8. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez
7. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
6. “Imagine”/John Lennon
5. “Theme From Shaft”/Isaac Hayes
4. “Superstar”/Carpenters

By the time I got this far on the list, I had long since left 2019. It was 1971 again, and I was in the bedroom I shared with my brother, across the hall from Mother and Dad, with my green plastic Westinghouse tube-type radio, the one with the big dial, with a tiny bit of masking tape on it to mark WLS, since the thing had a tendency to drift. That fall, in the afternoons home from school, evenings after supper, weekend days, all the time, I devoured the radio joyfully, not just the songs but the jocks and the jingles and the atmosphere, because I already knew that radio was my calling.

As I listened to these songs again, I was there, and I had no desire to come back.

But I had to, because you have to.

Not long after, I listened to the show from November 13, 1976. It, too, has a stretch of songs that I find seriously pleasurable, but in the end it evokes an entirely different feeling:

25. “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”/Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
24. “I Never Cry”/Alice Cooper
23. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry
22. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers
21. “A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy
20. “Magic Man”/Heart

19. “The Best Disco in Town”/Ritchie Family
18. “Nights Are Forever Without You”/England Dan and John Ford Coley
17. “She’s Gone”/Hall and Oates
16. “You Are the Woman”/Firefall
15. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston
14. “Fernando”/ABBA

The average onlooker probably considers this a load of forgettable cheese, and some of it certainly is, but I am incapable of hearing it that way. These songs took me to a place I’ve written about before, where 16-year-old-me had the world by the tail. I had my day-to-day concerns, but nothing I couldn’t handle. All good things were mine, or eventually would be. The road to the glowing future was smooth and wide and straight, and all I had to do was keep to it and I’d get there.

I hear this stretch of songs now, and the clash between the two people, the boy who didn’t know what he didn’t know and the older man who does, drowns out most everything else. I can’t live in that country the way I can live in my 1971 bedroom. The most I can get is the occasional spike of joy—like at the climax of “More Than a Feeling,” just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything—but it doesn’t stay.

Which is why I keep going back, like an addict in thrall to another kind of spike.

These shows have some fine moments beyond these stretches. The top 10 of the 1971 show is a list I’ll never get tired of hearing. (Even “Yo-Yo.”) The top of the 1976 show is harder to love, as anything with “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” would be, but there’s “Rubberband Man” and “Rock’n Me” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to take the curse off. And even “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” are indispensable. Without them, the fall of 1976 wouldn’t have been quite what it was.

What it continues to be.

We do not always listen to old songs simply because we want to be transported back in time. But sometimes we do.

Diggin’ the Cat on the Radio

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(Pictured: Kiki Dee, 1973.)

The fall of 1974 is, as I’ve written several times over the years, a favorite season of mine. The American Top 40 show from October 19, 1974, was pretty powerful stuff on these recent autumn afternoons, making the door to the portal back in time, a door that periodically materializes in my middle distance, feel pretty close.

39. “Longfellow Serenade”/Neil Diamond. Me, 2014: “I am pretty sure you can’t get anywhere with a girl by reading her Longfellow. I am not sure you could get all that far 40 years ago, either.”

38. “Second Avenue”/Art Garfunkel. Two versions of this charted at the same time, one by Garfunkel (as he was billed on the single) and one by Tim Moore, who wrote it.

Then all the things that we felt
Must eventually melt and fade
Like the frost on my window pane
Where I wrote, “I am you”
On Second Avenue

37. “Higher Plane”/Kool and the Gang. If you dig the groove on “Jungle Boogie,” here’s more of it, and in a good way.

36. “I’ve Got the Music in Me”/Kiki Dee Band. Me, 2014: “Imagine not-yet-famous Ann and Nancy Wilson sitting by the radio in Seattle in 1974 going ‘damn, THAT’S the stuff.'”

35. “Clap for the Wolfman”/Guess Who. “Aw, you know, she was diggin’ the cat on the radio.”

30. “Overnight Sensation”/Raspberries. Casey tells the story of the woman who passed out in a record store due to the strong smell from the scratch-and-sniff sticker on the cover of the band’s debut album—a story he told almost exactly two years earlier, to the week, when he played “Go All the Way.”

29. “Straight Shootin’ Woman”/Steppenwolf. This was last of 13 Hot 100 hits for Steppenwolf, going back to 1968.

28. “The Need to Be”/Jim Weatherly. Me, 2014: “in which a man of the Me Decade disappears up his own external orifice.”

26. “Beach Baby”/First Class. If one is nostalgic for the era of a song that expresses nostalgia for a still earlier era, how far is he from Inception, really?

22. “Carefree Highway”/Gordon Lightfoot. The warmth in Gordon Lightfoot’s voice on this record is the aural equivalent of autumn.

20. “Give It to the People”/Righteous Brothers. I must have heard this record before listening to this show recently, but I don’t remember it. It’s another entry in the genre of what it’s like to be a rock star, which is highly relatable content.

19. “Back Home Again”/John Denver
18. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”/John Lennon
17. “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive
16. “Tin Man”/America
15. “Sweet Home Alabama”/Lynryd Skynyrd
You want the radio turned off, turn it off yourself. I ain’t gonna do it.

14. “Do It Baby”/Miracles. The first Miracles hit without Smokey Robinson. I am pretty sure I never heard it until I started doing Saturday at the 70s on the radio a decade ago.

13. “Skin Tight”/Ohio Players
12. “You Little Trustmaker”/The Tymes
11. “Stop and Smell the Roses”/Mac Davis

I told you once, I ain’t turning it off.

10. “Love Me for a Reason”/Osmonds. But I might step out of the room for a bit.

9. “Steppin’ Out (Gonna Boogie Tonight)”/Tony Orlando and Dawn. I can’t find a link for it, but I remember somewhere describing Orlando’s style as the 70s went on as “overacting like Fozzie Bear.” This is one of the less egregious examples of it, and since I’m halfway through the time portal by this point in the show, I’ll allow it.

7. “Never My Love”/Blue Swede. Blue Swede decorated “Hooked on a Feeling” with the “ooga-chucka” hook (which they nicked from Jonathan King); their tactic on “Never My Love” was to play it twice as fast as the original.

6. “The Bitch Is Back”/Elton John. Contrary to urban legend. Casey did mention the title of this, both going into and coming out of it, although he sounds a little embarrassed. Old-school radio jocks could be that way; I still remember the first time I deliberately said “hell” on the air (as an intensifier and not as a noun), and wondering afterward whether I should have done it.

1. “Nothing From Nothing”/Billy Preston. Throughout the show, Casey teases the fact that the week’s new #1 song would be the 28th of 1974, breaking a record for most #1 songs in a year. The record of 27 was set in 1966 and equaled in 1973. Before 1974 ended, 36 songs would hit #1. As best I can tell, that’s still the all-time record for #1 hits in a year.

The feeling of family warmth and security I remember from the fall of 1974 is almost certainly a lie, but a harmless one after all this time. And in this horrid fall of 2019, each of us needs all the warmth and security we can get.

Remember Life Holds for You One Guarantee

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(Pictured: Diana Ross.)

Everybody’s got a creation story, and I’ve either told mine or referred to it many times: in the fall of 1970, I had to ride the school bus for an hour every morning, and after the driver put WLS on the bus radio, I was gone. I loved the music, and I loved the sound of radio, and it took me no more than four months from that fateful day to decide, “I want to do that.”

So when I put on the American Top 40 show from October 17, 1970, it was with two thoughts: A) I probably won’t need to write about this show because I’ve written about this season so much already and B) I’m gonna end up doing it anyway, and I’ll need to find some new stuff to say.

38. “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)”/Temptations
37. “Do What You Wanna Do”/Five Flights Up
36. “Deeper and Deeper”/Freda Payne
35. “Stand by Your Man”/Candi Staton
34. “Super Bad”/James Brown
33. “Lucretia MacEvil”/Blood Sweat and Tears
This stretch of better than 20 minutes is evidence for why a lot of Premiere Radio Networks affiliates don’t run the early 70s shows. You need to be a bit of an antiquarian to remember these songs. And no, Casey didn’t try giving the Temptations title in Swahili; he settled for “Unite the World.”

EXTRA: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/Rolling Stones. For some reason, Casey decided to review the top five from a random week in July 1968 at this point in the show, and he did it in a decidedly odd manner, mentioning #5, then #1, then #4, then #2, and finally #3, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” This is the kind of weird little oddment we frequently hear on the earliest shows (and this one is the 13th since the show premiered in July), and it’s one of the things I love most about them.

32. “Our House”/Crosby Stills Nash and Young
31. “It Don’t Matter to Me”/Bread
30. “God, Love, and Rock and Roll”/Teegarden and Van Winkle
29. “That’s Where I Went Wrong”/Poppy Family
28. “Somebody’s Been Sleeping”/100 Proof Aged in Soul

27. “Joanne”/Michael Nesmith
26. “Groovy Situation”/Gene Chandler

Narrator: “It was in this portion of the program that Jim knew he’d have to write about it.” These songs put me back on the bus, listening to Larry Lujack play the hits every morning, and I’m gonna need a minute.

21. “El Condor Pasa”/Simon and Garfunkel
18. “Still Water (Love)”/Four Tops
13. “Express Yourself”/Charles Wright
5. “We’ve Only Just Begun”/Carpenters

We get some FM-radio Casey on the show, where he drops his voice into a soft, late-night register to introduce “Still Water” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and while introducing “El Condor Pasa,” to recite a bit of the lyrics. Meanwhile, when he talks up the introduction to the Charles Wright record, he calls it “Express Yo’self.”

11. “Indiana Wants Me”/R. Dean Taylor. Today, it’s easy to hear that this is weapons-grade 70s cheese. Ten-year-old me, who had taken the weekly Batman cliffhangers so seriously only a few years before, was all in on the melodrama of “Indiana Wants Me.” He loved her, he committed murder for her, and he just wants to get a message to her one last time.

7. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. Will say again: I don’t think there’s much in popular music that’s more straight-up thrilling than Diana’s last spoken bit in this song, the way it builds to “just remember what I told you the day I set you free.”

6. “Candida”/Dawn. I’m sorry, but Jim is not available to take your call. Please leave a message and he will return your call when he gets back from 1970.

EXTRA: “Make the World Go Away”/Eddy Arnold. “Make the World Go Away” is a lovely countrypolitan record and was a big pop hit in 1965, but even in 1970 it was a little incongruous between “All Right Now” and “Green Eyed Lady.”

2. “Cracklin’ Rosie”/Neil Diamond
1. “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five
Words fail. These songs and the others from the fall of 1970 made me. Without them, I’d be here in 2019 as someone else entirely.

A Midwestern Boy on His Own

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(Pictured: Cheryl Ladd, front, with her Charlie’s Angels cast mates.)

Not long ago, I wrote about an American Top 40 show from mid-July 1978 and about my summer between high school and college. When the show from September 9, 1978, hit the air, I would have been finishing my second week at college. A lot was different from what it had been in July, in my world and on my radio.

38. “Talking in Your Sleep”/Crystal Gayle. Most days I wake up with a song running through my head. Sometimes I can tell where it came from, but other times I have no idea. One morning not long ago, it was “Talking in Your Sleep.” Later that day I put on this show and was gobsmacked when three songs in, there it was.

37. “I Love the Nightlife”/Alicia Bridges. Eighteen-year-old me did not like disco much; much-older me recognizes that “I Love the Nightlife” is legitimately great.

36. “You Never Done It Like That”/Captain and Tennille. On the verses, when Toni is describing in fairly explicit detail how she and the Captain got it on, she purrs like a soul singer.

34. “Think It Over”/Cheryl Ladd. As Cheryl Stoppelmoor, Cheryl Ladd was one of the voices of the cartoon singing group Josie and the Pussycats, whose 1971 album is a lost bubblegum classic. (Seriously, people, “Every Beat of My Heart” should have been a monster.) But “Think It Over,” propelled into the Top 40 thanks largely to Ladd’s Charlie’s Angels stardom, is not good.

33. “Come Together”/Aerosmith
24. “Oh Darling”/Robin Gibb
10. “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Earth Wind and Fire
Has anybody written the inevitable modern-day reappraisal of the Sgt. Pepper movie that argues it was actually good?

29. “Right Down the Line”/Gerry Rafferty
23. “Whenever I Call You Friend”/Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks
17. “Reminiscing”/Little River Band
13. “Fool If You Think It’s Over”/Chris Rea

If you had asked me in the fall of 1978 how I was adjusting to college, I’d have said, “Fine,” and I’d have been lying. I was in way over my head, not so much academically but personally, and I was lucky to have sorted it out before anything profoundly terrible could happen. As it was, some of the stuff that did happen was terrible enough. I am mostly at peace with it now, and with these songs. But they, and others on this list, soundtracked some pretty dark times.

28. “Just What I Needed”/Cars
22. “Two Tickets to Paradise”/Eddie Money
I wrote a thing about both Ric Ocasek and Eddie Money after they passed earlier this month, but I like it less and less the more I read by other people. I don’t write all that many tributes because others can do them better.

19. “Hollywood Nights”/Bob Seger
12. “Don’t Look Back”/Boston
Casey’s edit of “Hollywood Nights” took out my favorite line, not just of the song but of Bob Seger’s entire body of work: “She has been born with a face that would let her get her way / He saw that face and he lost all control.” Casey also played an edit of “Don’t Look Back,” but whether it was the standard radio edit or AT40‘s own, I can’t recall.

14. “Love Is in the Air”/John Paul Young. “Love Is in the Air” is a master class in building up tension and releasing it in a glorious rush.

8. “Summer Nights”/John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
6. “Grease”/Frankie Valli
4. “Hopelessly Devoted to You”/Olivia Newton-John
This is peak Grease right here. Valli had spent the previous two weeks at #1.

5. “Kiss You All Over”/Exile. In Moline, Illinois, a born-again Christian DJ got performatively angry over this song, refusing to play it because it was “blantantly sexual” and a bad influence on children, and he ended up quitting his job over it. It seems to me, however, that there’s nothing in the song to suggest that the all-over-kissing isn’t taking place between two married adults for purposes leading to procreation. Get your mind out the gutter, son.

2. “Three Times a Lady”/Commodores. After two weeks at #1 in August, “Three Times a Lady” spent the next four weeks at #2. It had done a week at #2 before hitting #1, so that’s seven straight weeks at the very top of the charts. It’s beautiful, but all I can think of when I hear it now is Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat.

1. “Boogie Oogie Oogie”/A Taste of Honey. Like “I Love the Nightlife,” this sounds better to me now than it would have in 1978.

I’m better now myself.

Walk This Way

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(Pictured: Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines with Michael McDonald in his video for “Sweet Freedom.” I’ve used the pic before, but I’m bringing it back so you can see yet again the worst Chicago Bears knockoff jersey in the world.)

This is the second installment of various ruminations inspired by the American Top 40 show from August 16, 1986.

31. “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”/Glass Tiger
22. “One Step Closer to You”/Gavin Christopher
Listing these songs separately is a distinction without a difference; they are remarkably similar. If I’m recalling correctly, my radio station got rush reservice on the automation tapes that announced “One Step Closer to You” as being by Christopher Gavin. But that too is a distinction without a difference.

30. “Walk This Way”/Run-DMC. Other rap records made the Hot 100 (“The Message,” “The Breaks,” “Rapper’s Delight,” “Planet Rock”), and Blondie’s “Rapture” had been to #1, but Run-DMC was the first rap act to crack the Top 40. While rap was growing in popularity in 1986, I suspect that a lot of people heard “Walk This Way” as a novelty remake and never bought another rap record. Given, however, that within the next decade, rap and hip-hop would become the dominant form of pop music, its success is one of history’s pivot points.

27. “Man Size Love”/Klymaxx
12. “Sweet Freedom”/Michael McDonald
Everybody’s got one obscure movie they love beyond all others, and mine is Running Scared, a buddy comedy featuring the amazing chemistry of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, playing Chicago cops who want to quit and move someplace warm, but end up saving Crystal’s ex-wife from a drug dealer instead. (Crystal to the villain, played by Jimmy Smits: “You hurt that lady and you will never be dead enough.”) Running Scared never got above #6 in the weekly box office rankings that summer, but four songs from its soundtrack charted, and these two went into the Top 15.

24. “Stuck With You”/Huey Lewis and the News 
23. “Yankee Rose”/David Lee Roth
Of all the Huey Lewis records in the world, “Stuck With You” is the Huey-est. Of all the David Lee Roth records in the world, “Yankee Rose” is the crappiest. (The opening segment of the video contains something to offend almost everybody, even before the song starts.)

21. “Invisible Touch”/Genesis
16. “Danger Zone”/Kenny Loggins
13. “Sledgehammer”/Peter Gabriel
9. “Take My Breath Away”/Berlin
4. “Higher Love”/Steve Winwood
2. “Glory of Love”/Peter Cetera
Any one of these might qualify as the song of the summer for 1986, and I don’t think any of them have been off the radio since then. But on the other hand:

19. “All the Love in the World”/The Outfield
18. “Baby Love”/Regina
17. “Suzanne”/Journey
15. “Friends and Lovers”/Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson
10. “The Edge of Heaven”/Wham
8. “Rumors”/Timex Social Club
5. “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”/Jermaine Stewart

It’s strictly via the eyeball test, but it seems to me that a lot of big hits from 1986 (and not just these) disappeared without a trace as soon as they dropped out of current rotations. Apart from Casey reruns, I am pretty sure nobody has played any of these songs on the radio since 1986. “The Edge of Heaven” was Wham’s sixth Top-10 hit in two years, and their last; they would chart one more time as Wham before George Michael became exclusively a solo act.

6. “Venus”/Bananarama. I cannot remember what I thought of this record in 1986, when I was the morning jock and program director of a Top-40 station. I can tell you now that “Venus” was the kind of record that made your station sound hot and hip, and as a soundtrack for summer fun, you couldn’t do better.

3. “Mad About You”/Belinda Carlisle. I can’t remember how I felt about this in 1986 either, but hearing it again the other day all I could think was, “Holy smokes, this is the best thing on the show.”

1.”Papa Don’t Preach”/Madonna. Casey says that “Papa Don’t Preach” is Madonna’s fourth #1 hit, which ties her with Olivia Newton-John for second place all-time among female artists behind Diana Ross. That’s quite a statistic, from the pre-Mariah, pre-Whitney, pre-Janet, pre-Rihanna world. That Madge accomplished it in less than two years makes it even more impressive. Also impressive: her creative development since her first chart hit in 1983. “Papa Don’t Preach” takes her a long way from the chirpy boy toy who made “Holiday” and “Like a Virgin”—but she had even further to go.

As did we all. Although, as I wrote in the earlier installment, not all of us knew it at the time.

“After 1986, What Else Could Be New?”

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(Pictured: Billy Joel picks up a guitar, 1986.)

It’s a reasonably common literary trope, I guess: that fading, end-of-summer vibe, the last couple of weeks of summer vacation when you were still in school, or an August week or weekend spent away from work, at the lake or in the mountains in adult life. Such tales almost always involve something slipping away, changes coming, holding on to something precious, that kind of thing. It’s a fertile field for a memoirist to plow, and you’ve read a lot of stuff like that. (And not just at this website, where we specialize in it.)

What we can’t always see clearly is what those times felt like while we were living them. Did I look at the calendar back there in, say, August 1972, see the first day of school looming there, and think, “I should hang onto these days because they will soon be gone”? How about August 1976, as my summer of all summers turned toward the autumm of all autumns? Or August 1986, by which time I was out in the working world? Did it feel to me like summer was fading, or was I too busy with the day-to-day routine of programming a radio station and hosting a morning show?

Today, there are narratives, but they’re retroactively applied. For 1986, it’s not just the narrative of a summer, but of the arc of my career and ultimately, my life. Today, I know that I had already made a critical choice that would change the course of my career. And the narrative had a second part that had nothing to do with the first: leaving my radio station in December and moving to a new city in January 1987.

If, in my head, the summer of 1986 had a narrative while I was living it, it wasn’t either of those.

That’s a weird way to introduce a few thoughts about the American Top 40 show from August 16, 1986, but it’s what I found myself pondering as the show went along. I have just enough of the word count left to get started; we’ll finish it up in a future installment.

40. “Two of Hearts”/Stacey Q. During the football season of 1986, I made a bet with a DJ friend on the outcome of a game between the colleges in the towns where we worked. The loser had to sing along with “Two of Hearts” on the winner’s show. I hated “Two of Hearts” back then. Today I realize that what I hate is the stuttering electronic “I-I-I-I-I-I need you” effect. The rest of the song isn’t nearly so awful.

(I won the bet.)

38. “Take It Easy”/Andy Taylor. I have utterly no memory of “Take It Easy,” but I do remember the spate of Duran Duran side projects, including Arcadia, Power Station, and various solo singles. Apart from Power Station, none of them did much for me, and I dug Power Station because I was a Robert Palmer fan.

37. “Modern Woman”/Billy Joel. “Modern Woman” is probably meant to sound like a progressive take on 80s relationships but it comes off smug nevertheless; Billy can’t hide his condescension even though “she’s got style and she’s got her own money.” Notable lyric line: “After 1986 what else could be new?”

36. “Digging Your Scene”/Blow Monkeys
34. “The Captain of Her Heart”/Double
I adored “Digging Your Scene” back then, and I still like it today, even though the Blow Monkeys sound to me like they want to be funky but not break a sweat. “The Captain of Her Heart” represents an impressive level of white-boy soul for two dudes from Switzerland.

35. “Hanging on a Heart Attack”/Device. Device was fronted by Holly Knight, who would become one of the most esteemed songwriters in the business over the next three decades. I can’t say whether or not I like “Hanging on a Heart Attack,” but I can tell you that few records sound more like 1986.

Coming in the next installment: songs of the summer, songs that disappeared, and a ton of iconic 80s stars and hits including Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis, Wham, Lionel Richie, Madonna, and a bunch of others. Stay tuned.

[jingle out]

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