(Pictured: Casey Kasem at work, 1998.)
Because I work for a radio station that’s an American Top 40 affiliate, I have been able to assemble a personal collection of shows. I have not been systematic about it at all. I look at the rundown, see a list of songs I’d like to hear, and rip a copy of the show. The breakout of my collection by year is both interesting and entirely predictable.
Specials: 3 (1986 Giants of Rock, 2014 Casey tribute, and one I’m going to write about in the near future and will not spoil here)
That I have collected nearly twice as many 1976 shows as any other year should surprise nobody. For what it’s worth, that year breaks down by month as follows:
Top 50 countdown: 1
I need only the July 17 and August 7, 1976, shows to give me a complete run of the show from May 22 through September 25. I thought I would have more from October, November, and December, but that’s the way it goes. What’s up with April I have no idea.
That I have few shows from 1973, 1978, and 1979 is not a surprise either. I spent a whole year at this website trying to parse 1973, and while I didn’t learn much, I did find that the music was better than I remember. I find it difficult to listen to the shows from 1978, as I have mentioned before. As for 1979, my musical tastes changed in that year, thanks to my involvement in college radio and country radio; also, as I’ll discuss in a future post, the popularity of disco did not square with my self-perception at that moment.
When we get to the 80s, a couple of things happen. In 1982 and 1983, for example, I started working full-time in radio, at country stations. I was not mainlining pop and rock music the way I had for a dozen years before. Instead, I experienced those years as a casual spectator, and I wasn’t hearing very much that I liked. For that reason, 1982 and 1983 countdowns have little appeal to me. From 1984 through 1986, I was a jock and program director at a Top 40 station. Two of those years, 1984 and 1985, are two of the best years pop music ever had—to look back at the record charts from 1984, especially in the summer and fall, is to look into a treasure chest of music that seems almost unreal. And 1985, while not as transcendently glorious, is still pretty dang solid.
But there’s a reason why I haven’t rushed to fill out my collection from those years: the 1980s shows are hard to listen to. I have said it several times: when the show went to four hours starting in October 1978, it didn’t need to be four hours as much as it needed to be 3 1/2. The #1 songs of the 60s and 70s, which were used as filler at first, are fine—many of the songs would have been in the libraries of affiliate stations already. But the Long Distance Dedications, popular as they were, iconic as they became, are my least-favorite part of the show. I often play a guessing game as I listen: first, how long is this letter going to be? I’ve heard ’em run better than two minutes, which is an eternity in radio bit time. And second, what sappy, clichéd record will the letter-writer ask for?
But beyond that, the four-hour shows can drag badly for other reasons. One I heard a while back played only six of the Top 40 in the first hour, and two of those were album versions that ran five and six minutes apiece. I have also been critical of Casey himself on some of these shows. He speaks slowly and repeats himself to fill time, but what’s worse is when he talks at a gathered audience of millions rather than communicating one-to-one. And it’s a particular shame, because one-to-one communication is one of his great strengths. Pick any show from 1972 through the early 80s and you’ll mostly hear a guy just playing records and talking. A lot of shows from the mid-80s sound like they’re intended to showcase The Most Famous Voice in America.
And so we conclude this narcissistic exercise. Starting tomorrow, we’ll take a break from the ongoing July Casey-thon. When we return to Casey next week, it will be to deal with the two subjects teased in this post.
(Pictured: I never need a reason to post a picture of Linda Ronstadt, but I am always glad to legitimately have one.)
The phrase “set and setting” first came into the language thanks to Timothy Leary, who talked about its importance to psychedelic experience. “Set” is the mental state one brings to the experience: mood, feelings, desires, etc. “Setting” is the physical environment where the experience takes place, including the room, the music, the lighting, and so on. (Setting can also involve the social environment—who else is present for one’s experience and how they interact with the person tripping.) Leary believed that the right set and setting could enhance a trip, and that a bad trip could result from the wrong one.
I thought about set and setting while I was listening to the American Top 40 show from June 28, 1975. I heard a large chunk of it in my car on a hot Saturday afternoon, flying down the highway on the way to something I was looking forward to doing. The set and setting definitely enhanced the trip.
38. “Spirit of the Boogie”-“Summer Madness”/Kool and the Gang. “Spirit of the Boogie,” which is what Casey played on the show, is basically another five mintues of “Jungle Boogie.” Simmering, sexy “Summer Madness” is way, way better.
37. “Black Friday”/Steely Dan
36. “Slippery When Wet”/Commodores
35. “The Last Farewell”/Roger Whittaker
34. “Bad Luck”/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
33. “Jive Talkin'”/Bee Gees
32. “Rockford Files”/Mike Post
31. “Bad Time”/Grand Funk
Set and setting, people—this stretch was an absolute blast, even “The Last Farewell.”
30. “Rhinestone Cowboy”/Glen Campbell. Casey tells a story I can’t remember hearing before: in 1964, Campbell provided the voice for Steve McQueen’s character in Baby the Rain Must Fall, but instead of doing a lip-sync to a recording, McQueen mouthed along with Campbell as Glen sang live, just out of camera range.
29. “I’m on Fire”/Dwight Twilley Band. During which I may have violated the speed limit out on the interstate. If you do not dig “I’m on Fire,” we have to break up.
26. “Baby That’s Backatcha”/Smokey Robinson
25. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”/John Denver
24. “Why Can’t We Be Friends”/War
22. “Hey You”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive
21. “Midnight Blue”/Melissa Manchester
20. “Misty”/Ray Stevens
Lots of radio stations promote themselves with some variation of the phrase “better variety.” But they’ve got nothing on your average Top 40 station in the middle of the 1970s. In order you’ve got a sinuous R&B love song, country twang and yee-haw, an R&B novelty, a Parliament-style funk number incorporating a TV catchphrase, sturdy heartland rock, a beautifully sung and produced love ballad, and a slick country cover of a pop classic. Beat that, if you can.
16. “One of These Nights”/Eagles
15. “Please Mr. Please”/Olivia Newton-John
14. “Swearin’ to God”/Frankie Valli
When Casey started the show he said, “There’s a lot of action,” and there is. The Eagles are up 15 spots this week, ONJ is up 19, and Frankie Valli is up 13. Back at #21, “Midnight Blue” was up 11 from the previous week. But just wait: nine of the week’s Top 12, including the top five, are in the same positions as last week.
13. “Sister Golden Hair”/America
12. “Only Women”/Alice Cooper
11. “Take Me in Your Arms”/Doobie Brothers
10. “Cut the Cake”/AWB
8. “Get Down, Get Down”/Joe Simon
7. “Listen to What the Man Said”/Paul McCartney and Wings
6. “The Hustle”/Van McCoy
By the time I got to this part of the show, my set and setting had changed. I was on my way to work at 4:30 in the morning. Never mind, though. I got high on my own supply, because these songs come with some pleasant associations from the summer of ’75.
5. “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”/Major Harris. The soft female moans on “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” were hard for me to hear when I was 15. Today, the sexier thing is that luscious Philly-soul arrangement.
4. “I’m Not Lisa”/Jessi Colter
3. “Wildfire”/Michael Murphey
2. “When Will I Be Loved”/Linda Ronstadt
Jessi and Linda both made #1 country within the preceding month. So did “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” would get there in August. “Wildfire” didn’t make the country chart, but Murphey would start hitting there in 1976.
1. “Love Will Keep Us Together”/Captain and Tennille. I like this a lot better now than I did then. It’s in its second of what will be four weeks at #1, and four weeks will be the longest run at the top since “My Love” by Wings two years earlier.
I could go on for another 700 words about how the summer of 1975 looked out the windows of the house I grew up in, but I’ll spare you that, I think.
(Pictured: in early 1971, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were making Blue and Tapestry in the same Hollywood studio complex, and James Taylor was making Mud Slide Slim down the street.)
Here’s more about the American Top 40 show from June 26, 1971:
EXTRA: “Too Young”/Nat King Cole
21. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”/Aretha Franklin
As Casey liked to do in AT40‘s earliest days, he featured the #1 song “from exactly 20 years ago.” Sometimes these features get snipped from the modern-day repeats, for good and obvious reasons. But “Too Young” was left in when this show was repeated a couple of weeks ago. A commercial break that originally appeared following “Too Young” was edited out, however, which put “Bridge Over Troubled Water” right next to it, and that sounded just fine, actually.
16. “Nathan Jones”/Supremes. Diana who? The Jean Terrell edition of the Supremes continued to score hits in 1971, just like old times. “Nathan Jones” is one of the more unusual Motown hits, thanks to its use of phasing, a bit of trickery I don’t recall hearing (at least not to this extent) on anything else from Hitsville.
15. “Double Lovin'”/Osmonds
10. “Sweet and Innocent”/Donny Osmond
“Double Lovin'” is not a song I hear very often, and it was disorienting for a moment when it came on this show because it sounds exactly like “One Bad Apple.” We will not discuss the potentially skeevy interpretation of the lyrics of either song: “Double Lovin'” sounds like an invitation to a threesome, and in “Sweet and Innocent,” 13-year-old Donny ogles the backside of an even younger girl.
14. “You’ve Got a Friend”/James Taylor. In just its fourth week on the Hot 100, “You’ve Got a Friend’ had gone 80-44-24 before leaping to #14 in this week. It would take four more weeks to get to #1.
12. “Joy to the World”/Three Dog Night. Casey runs down the statistics: “Joy to the World” spent six weeks at #1, is in its 16th week on American Top 40 during the week of June 26, and is the largest-selling single so far in 1971. It would spend one more week on the show, falling to #31 for the week of July 3 and then entirely out of the Hot 100 the week after that. It would end up Billboard‘s #1 song of 1971.
8. “Don’t Pull Your Love”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There was an awkward edit in the recent national repeat of this show before “Don’t Pull Your Love,” removing a commercial break from the original 1971 broadcast. According to the original rundown sheet for the show, the spot was for a compilation album called American Top 40’s Double Dozen, a two-disc, 24-track set made up of oldies from the 60s with liner notes written by Casey. It was promoted on the show throughout the summer of 1971, and the 6/26/71 show contained five spots for it.
7. “It Don’t Come Easy”/Ringo Starr
6. “Brown Sugar”/Rolling Stones
5. “Treat Her Like a Lady”/Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose
4. “Indian Reservation”/Raiders
3. “Want Ads”/Honey Cone
This is some solid AM radio pleasure right here. “Brown Sugar”—which is even sleazier than “Sweet and Innocent”—and “Want Ads” have already been #1; “Indian Reservation” will be.
2. “Rainy Days and Mondays”/Carpenters. “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” Karen sings, but there’s a solution to her troubles: “run and find the one who loves me.” Her sadness is neither existential nor unremitting—it’s the kind people feel in real life, and the solution real people often choose. Maybe that had something to do with why the song was so big. That, and the fact that it sounds great on the radio. “Rainy Days and Mondays” had been the hottest record in the country for a time, debuting on the Hot 100 at #46 in May, then going 20-11-5-3-2, and was in its second week at #2 during the week of June 26. (Someday I’m going to do the research, but if I’m recalling correctly, several Carpenters hits exploded up the charts that way, only to drop off just as quickly, as “Rainy Days and Mondays” eventually did.)
1.”It’s Too Late”/Carole King. In its second of six weeks at #1, and a great radio song from the first second, as piano, guitar, and congas deliver us to that memorable first line: “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time.” And the instrumental break in the middle, where Curtis Amy’s saxophone and Ralph Schuckett’s electric piano dance sensuously around one another, is just cool. Tapestry was also in its second week at #1, just beginning its run as one of the most enduring albums ever made. After it hit the Billboard 200 in April 1971, it would stay on that chart until January 1977.
Coming Monday: the bottom 60 from June 26, 1971.
(Pictured: Yvonne Elliman and Jeff Fenholt, from the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar.)
I have mentioned before that the summer of 1971 was my last as a full-time child. I filled my days seeking adventures outside with my brother, taking saxophone lessons, and playing Little League baseball. The next year, I was expected to drive a tractor on the farm, and although Dad did not expect me to do it for free, he did expect me to do it, and so for the first time I did what a friend referred to years later as “trading your life for money.”
I also spent a lot of time listening to the radio in the summer of 1971—not to American Top 40 yet, but to WLS from Chicago, where I heard some, but not all of the songs featured on the AT40 show dated June 26, 1971.
40. “Cool Aid”/Paul Humphrey and His Cool-Aid Chemists. Paul Humphrey was a drummer who first worked as a sideman with a number of New York-based jazz artists including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Smith. After relocating to Los Angeles, he became a session player for R&B, pop, and rock acts from Natalie Cole to Steely Dan, and he toured and recorded with Marvin Gaye. While he was based in LA, he also played in Lawrence Welk’s orchestra. “Cool Aid” had made #29 during the week of June 12, 1971, was also a mid-level R&B hit, and got Humphrey’s group on American Bandstand.
37. “Escape-ism (Part 1)”/James Brown. Brown’s airplay on R&B stations drove enormous sales, and as a result he frequently made the pop Top 40 with records that had little pop appeal, like “Escape-ism.”
35. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Yvonne Elliman
23. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”/Helen Reddy
22. “Superstar”/Murray Head
We reached peak Jesus Christ Superstar during the first half of June 1971, with Reddy and Head topping out at #13 and #14 respectively and Elliman reaching #28. The Superstar album had spent a week at #1 in February and two more in May, and it was still at #5 in this week. For what it’s worth, Elliman’s version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” which appears on the original Superstar album, has got it all over Reddy’s more successful cover, which was her breakthough single.
38. “Draggin’ the Line”/Tommy James
36. “Take Me Home Country Roads”/John Denver with Fat City
33. “Bring the Boys Home/Freda Payne
EXTRA: “I Feel the Earth Move”/Carole King
19. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”/Carly Simon
Casey refers to each of these female artists as “girls,” even though Freda Payne was 28, Carole King was 29, and Carly Simon was 26. He does not refer to 24-year-old Tommy James or 27-year-old John Denver as “boys.”
EXTRA: “Teen Angel”/Mark Dinning. Casey tells the story (which was offered as an optional extra during the recent national repeat of this show) of how Dinning and his family whomped up “Teen Angel” at a family dinner. He says that it was intended as a joke, but a record producer heard it and thought it could be a hit—which it was, going to #1 in February 1960. The joke part of the story isn’t supported by the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, but whatever the case, the fate of “Teen Angel” is an oft-told tale in American pop: a song that is intended to be disposable gets made a little too well to be discarded. Although the lyric is contrived and melodramatic, the tune and arrangement are lovely.
31. “Sooner or Later”/Grass Roots
28. “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”/Fortunes
18. “Mr. Big Stuff”/Jean Knight
The sound of these records, the way they jump off the radio and make you want to sing along, is one of the purest pleasures from the classic Top 40 era.
We’ll need another installment to get this whole show in (plus the obligatory American Bottom 60 to come), and I am not especially surprised. The summer of 1971 is one of my favorite Top 40 seasons, and there’s plenty to say about a lot of that season’s songs.
(Pictured: the underrated Bob Dylan, 1966.)
Here’s the second half of American Top 40‘s “Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll” countdown from the July 4 weekend in 1986.
20. James Brown. The Godfather of Soul is probably ranked a bit too low even for 1986.
19. Led Zeppelin. Casey plays all of “Stairway to Heaven” and only talks over a little of it.
18. Lionel Richie. Nope nope nope. Lionel was way too high on this list even in 1986. More influential than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Ray Charles? As I asked the other day about Hall and Oates and Billy Joel, who did he influence, and how? Next to the omission of Aretha Franklin, this is the show’s biggest goof.
17. The Doors
16. The Who
15. Bob Dylan
Casey quoted a lot of DJs who responded in the poll, mostly from small and medium-sized markets. Writing about Dylan, one said, “He gave us something to sing about besides cars and girls.” Precisely: Bob Dylan is largely responsible for the idea that rock lyrics don’t have to be doggerel. They can tell serious stories in a literary way, or be poetic in a way pop songs were not before he came along. So he’s influential in a way unequaled by practically everyone else on this list. He should have been no lower than #3.
14. The Eagles
13. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Chicago is way too high on the list and might not belong on it at all. Several horn bands emerged at about the same time Chicago did, and Casey talks about how Chicago was inspired by Blood Sweat and Tears. If that’s true, shouldn’t BS&T be on this list instead?
11. John Lennon. Casey quotes a DJ who says Lennon belongs on the list “for his love.” Whether that’s accurate is a question biographers have considered since 1980, but it sounded great next to “Imagine.”
10. Buddy Holly
9. The Beach Boys
8. Paul McCartney
7. Elton John
6. Bruce Springsteen
Paul and Bruce get two songs each, as Eric Clapton did in his segment earlier.
5. Chuck Berry. Casey praises Berry as an influential guitarist, but then plays “Maybelline,” even though every kid who bought a guitar because he loved Chuck Berry wanted to learn “Johnny B. Goode” first.
4. Stevie Wonder
3. The Rolling Stones
2. Elvis Presley
1. The Beatles
The songs Casey chose for the top three—“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Day in the Life,” “Hound Dog,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Miss You,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—make abundantly clear why these people top the list. Casey’s choice of “Part Time Lover” for Stevie pales in comparison, although it’s in keeping with this show’s tendency to play 80s hits wherever possible. It’s why “We Built This City” got on earlier and not “White Rabbit” or “Miracles,” and why James Brown’s then-recent “Living in America” got on instead of quite literally anything else.
As I listened to the show (which was fabulously entertaining despite all that you’ve read here), I was reminded that merely working in radio doesn’t automatically make you an expert. Some radio people have a historian’s knowledge of music, but many others are simply passionate fans who don’t know much more than their listeners. (And some don’t like music at all.) It’s perfectly fine to be a passionate fan, but such a person is likely to think, Billy Joel and Chicago have had lots of hits so they have to be on the list, without giving much thought to the question of who they influenced and how. They won’t differentiate between the Jefferson Airplane, whose psychedelic style really did have an impact on other performers, and the Starship, which was a generic 80s album-rock band. (That one may be the AT40 staff’s fault, though, for assuming that the entity remained the one and the same for 20 years.) Neither will they single out the house bands at Motown or Stax, for example, even though those groups inspired bands in garages from coast to coast. And there’s a long list of artists experts recognize as pioneers and influencers who never made a radio hit, so they’d never register on a list like this.
Apart from the unconscionable omission of Aretha Franklin and any women other than the Supremes, the show does get a lot of rock history right, though. But who do you think is missing? Who shouldn’t be on it? How would you re-rank the list? Who from the last 33 years would have to be included on a similar list made today, and who would get bumped from this list in their favor?
(Pictured: Prince, underrated in the 80s.)
(Note to patrons: welcome to our July Casey-thon. This month, the vast majority of posts will have something to do with various editions of American Top 40.)
Back in the middle of the 80s, when I was program director of a Top 40 station, I ran a lot of syndicated holiday music specials that focused on rock ‘n’ roll history. On Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or Labor Day, I loved to hear my station blasting classic oldies, many of which were still part of Top 40 playlists then.
My station’s sales department loved the specials, too. They’d offer package deals to car dealers, boat dealers, pizza restaurants, ice cream shops, and anybody else who might benefit from blanket coverage on a holiday weekend. The ads were cheap and the sponsors got a lot of them—too many, on one holiday one year. Due to a math error, the sales department oversold the show we were running, and I was forced to schedule commercial breaks with as many as 16 30-second spots in them. It was not good radio. But when everything worked out right, my station would sound hot and fun and irresistible all weekend long.
For the July 4 weekend in 1986, American Top 40 produced a four-hour summer special called “The Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was based on a “worldwide DJ poll,” counting down the 40 most influential artists of the rock era going back to 1955. The show was a lot of fun to listen to, although I’ve got some issues with the list of artists. The original cue sheet is here.
40. Pink Floyd
The songwriting and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, who started at Motown and later founded their own Hot Wax label, is my favorite unexpected inclusion on the list. But Smokey Robinson should have gotten on ahead of them, and he didn’t make it at all.
38. Jerry Lee Lewis
37. David Bowie
36. Mick Jagger
Mick is represented by the Stones’ then-recent hit “Harlem Shuffle,” which is the most obscure record on the show today.
35. Prince. If we re-ranked this list today, Prince would be a lot higher. David Bowie too.
34. Ray Charles
33. Marvin Gaye
32. Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship
Given that Brother Ray basically invented soul music, he’s probably a tad underrated. And of these three songs in a row—“What’d I Say,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and “We Built This City”—see if you can pick the oddball.
31. Fleetwood Mac
30. Hall and Oates
29. Quincy Jones
Jones’ inclusion makes me want to argue for Phil Spector and/or Gamble and Huff, both of whom invented entire genres, which Jones did not.
28. Little Richard. The rock-star moves of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and the like started here.
27. Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s eye-opening to listen to Bill Haley’s pre-“Rock Around the Clock” singles with the Saddlemen, some going back as far as 1951. His fusion of western swing with R&B is rock ‘n’ roll before it had that name.
26. Michael Jackson
25. Simon and Garfunkel
If we’re talking about influence on singer/songwriter pop, I wonder where James Taylor is.
24. Billy Joel. By this point in the show, the word “influential” has gotten pretty slippery. The show means to define “influential” in the usual way: artists who affected the work of other artists and helped to shape the sound of pop music. But in that case, who, precisely, was influenced by Billy Joel or Hall and Oates, and in what way? If by “influential” we mean “influenced a lot of people to buy a lot of their records,” these two acts aren’t the only ones on this list who are more influential by that definition.
23. Jimi Hendrix
22. Eric Clapton
21. Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Casey mentions that no female solo performers made the Top 40, so the Supremes are the only women on it. Where in the world is Aretha Franklin? There are also arguments for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and even Madonna, despite it being so early in her career. The Supremes probably belong on the list—although not ahead of Clapton and Hendrix—but the omission of other worthy female artists is shameful.
Coming later in the week: the remainder of the list, and some additional comments about it.