Category Archives: American Top 40

“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]

Casey’s Triathlon of Rock

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(Pictured: Paul, Linda, and Michael, 1983.)

(We here conclude our July Casey-thon.)

For the July 4 weekend in 1988, American Top 40 presented a holiday special in addition to the regular countdown. “The Triathlon of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which was offered to modern-day affiliates for the holiday last month) is a ranking of artists who could demonstrate a specific type of career longevity: Top 40 hits in the 60s and 70s and Top 10 hits in the 80s. In addition to the usual AT40 theme music, Casey uses the familiar Olympic theme from TV coverage. He also uses interview clips from some of the artists in the countdown, talking about their careers and their songs. The list follows:

40. Jimmy Page. Getting 60s credit for “Whole Lotta Love” and 80s credit for being in the Honeydrippers, as will one of his bandmates, shortly.

39. Cliff Richard. Casey says that Richard scored hits in four decades, having first charted in the 50s. It seems to me that should place him near the top of this list, which he ain’t.

38. Crosby Stills and Nash
37. Marty Balin
36. Robert Plant
35. Moody Blues
34. Patti Labelle
33. Graham Nash
Why Marty Balin (represented by “Hearts”) and not the rest of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship collective?, I asked myself. Then Casey got to Nash and explained that he gets credit for his years in the Hollies. OK, so maybe the whole Airplane/Starship will be on later.

As I will learn, thinking too hard about the logic of this show gets a person nowhere.

32. Kinks
31. Billy Preston
30. Bill Medley
29. Jermaine Jackson
28. Herb Alpert
The qualifications for this show are as thin as homeopathic soup. Preston is considered a 60s hitmaker thanks to his co-credit with the Beatles on “Get Back.” Medley gets credit for the Righteous Brothers and one 80s hit, the duet with Jennifer Warnes on “The Time of My Life.” Alpert’s 1987 duet with Janet Jackson, “Diamonds,” is enough to get him on.

27. Tina Turner
26. Eric Clapton
Casey mentions all the groups with whom Clapton has charted since the 60s including the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos, then plays “I Can’t Stand It,” which is in the same league with none of them.

25. Linda Ronstadt
24. Spinners
23. Bob Seger
Most artists on the show are represented by big 80s hits, which means “Shakedown” here. Ugh.

22. Jefferson Airplane/Starship. Represented by a montage of hits, the first artist on the list to be so honored.

21. John Fogerty
20. James Brown
Brown gets a montage too, and Fogerty could have.

19. Gladys Knight. The gruel is pretty thin here too. Doing one of the vocals on “That’s What Friends Are For” is enough to get Gladys on the show, Pipless.

18. Smokey Robinson
17. Dionne Warwick
16. Barbra Streisand
15. Cher
14. Paul Simon
13. Kenny Rogers
12. Neil Diamond
11. George Harrison
10. Aretha Franklin
9. Marvin Gaye
OK, sure, fine.

8. Barry Gibb. Just Barry, not Robin or Maurice, thanks mostly to Barry’s successful 80s duets with Barbra Streisand. He gets the montage treatment as well, starting with the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and ending with his extremely minor 1984 hit “Shine Shine,” which few people would have remembered in 1988, let alone now.

7. Rolling Stones
6. Mick Jagger
Mick gets credit for everything the Stones did, but because “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie was a Top-10 hit in the 80s, that’s enough to leap-frog him over his bandmates. OK, sure, fine. But by the same logic—hits in the 60s and 70s and at least one Top 10 in the 80s—the Beatles could have been #1 on this list if “The Beatles Movie Medley” had made it to #10 instead of #12.

5. Stevie Wonder
4. Michael Jackson
3. Diana Ross
Casey says there are eight Motown acts on this list in all. I count seven. The eighth mjust be Billy Preston, who was on Motown when he recorded “With You I’m Born Again” (which was on the show earlier because of course it was).

2. John Lennon
1. Paul McCartney
Paul gets a long, long montage of both Beatles songs and solo records, followed with all of “Say Say Say.”

One big thing that makes AT40 compulsively listenable is the stakes on it. Being #1 on the chart matters each week. The best of the special shows have stakes too: What’s the #1 hit of the disco era? Who are the most influential artists in history? Who’s the greatest one-hit wonder of the rock era? Which song with a girl’s name in the title was the biggest hit? But “The Triathlon of Rock ‘n Roll” falls flat because the stakes are so arbitrary. You get to the end and think, “Well that’s nice, but who cares?”

See You Again

I have written a few times about my summer between high school and college, suspended between two worlds and all that. But not today. I’m trying to wean myself from the related ideas that A) I’m the first person in history who ever experienced things that are actually quite common, and B) everything that ever happened to me is automatically interesting. I have a relatively new acquaintance who’s like this, and it bugs me. For this reason, I am trying to take the plank out of my own eye.

So anyway: I have been listening to the American Top 40 show from July 15, 1978, and it’s making me think about stuff, but I will limit my discussion here to the show, which was really entertaining.

Casey starts by recapping the massive turnover on recent charts. The shows from July 1 and July 8 had eight new songs apiece; the July 15 show has only three, but that’s 19 songs that are new in July alone. It’s hard to imagine that any period of Casey’s reign was more volatile.

40. “I’ve Had Enough”/Paul McCartney and Wings
39. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”/Dave Mason
36. “Can We Still Be Friends”/Todd Rundgren
31. “Hot Love, Cold World”/Bob Welch
There are some bigtime rock stars on this show with good-but-obscure singles. I am not sure the world needed a cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” but Mason’s is lovely, and it was my favorite song of the moment in mid-July 1978. Welch recorded only a handful of hit singles, and while several of them sounded pretty much alike (“Ebony Eyes,” “Hot Love, Cold World,” “Precious Love”), they also sounded good, so who cares.

38. “Love or Something Like It”/Kenny Rogers. I hadn’t heard “Love or Something Like It” in years, and I was surprised how much I liked it, considering how much I didn’t like it in 1978.

37. “Only the Good Die Young”/Billy Joel
32. “Stay”/Jackson Browne
16. “Wonderful Tonight”/Eric Clapton

Opposite of the good-but-obscure singles, there are songs on this show I need never hear again.

34. “Love Is Like Oxygen”/Sweet
33. “You’re the One That I Want”/John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

28. “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight”/Atlanta Rhythm Section
27. “You Belong to Me”/Carly Simon
26. “Magnet and Steel”/Walter Egan
25. “If Ever I See You Again”/Roberta Flack
13. “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”/Meat Loaf

Wow, some of these songs are powerfully evocative of times, places, and people from my summer of 1978, but we aren’t going there, I swear.

30. “King Tut”/Steve Martin
24. “Thank God It’s Friday”/Love and Kisses
These songs bring back my ill-fated tenure as a roller-rink DJ, which you can read about if you scroll down in this post. I am pretty sure the guy who owned the rink paid more to run the ad at the top of this page than he paid me the whole summer.

22. “My Angel Baby”/Toby Beau. The judges will accept either “My Angel Baby” or the name “Toby Beau” as answers to the question, “What is the diametric opposite of ‘bad-ass’?”

15. “Runaway”/Jefferson Starship
14. “Love Will Find a Way”/Pablo Cruise
We had this moment of yacht-rock nirvana years before we knew what yacht rock was.

12. “Bluer Than Blue”/Michael Johnson. In the car the other day, I may have sung along with every word of this. Possibly.

10. “Last Dance”/Donna Summer. Between August of 1977 and May of 1980, there was exactly one week without a Donna Summer song on the Hot 100. (It was the week of May 6, 1978, just before this song debuted.)

7. “The Groove Line”/Heatwave
6. “Miss You”/Rolling Stones
5. “Still the Same”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
4. “Use ta Be My Girl”/O’Jays
3. “Take a Chance on Me”/ABBA
2. “Baker Street”/Gerry Rafferty
1. “Shadow Dancing”/Andy Gibb
This show is solid at the top, even accounting for the sorry fact that this was the fourth straight week that “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” at #2. (As we learned a few years ago, “Baker Street” was actually #1 for a few hours at one point that summer, until Billboard‘s chart director, Bill Wardlow, did that voodoo for which he became infamous.) “Use ta Be My Girl” and “Take a Chance on Me” back-to-back is maximum 70s flavor, and “The Groove Line” is a burner. Although the disco beat on “Miss You” sounds a little dated now, it was right in the pocket for 1978. And for a map of how the summer of ’78 felt to between-two-worlds me, you can’t do better than “Still the Same.” But we’re not taking about that today.

Dance the Night Away, or Not

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I have never felt all that warmly about the music of 1979 in general, and of the summer of ’79 in particular, but the American Top 40 show from June 30, 1979, was a lot better than I expected, and now I’m reconsidering my long-held opinion.

LW1. “Hot Stuff”/Donna Summer
40. “Weekend”/Wet Willie
Earlier this spring, I wrote about my college radio station 40 years ago, and how some of us thought our music mix was a little too black for a campus that was more than 95 percent white and maybe 80 percent small-town white. It’s painful to think we were straight-up racist, though we probably were. A kinder way to put it is that we were obsessed with arbitrary labels. Take “Hot Stuff,” which we considered a disco song, because Donna Summer was A) black and B) a known singer of disco songs. Never mind that “Hot Stuff” features a screaming guitar solo and a bad-ass thump that leaves the rock bands on this show in the dust. Given that we were mostly small-town white guys between the ages of 19 and 22 who hated disco, we hated “Hot Stuff.”

Wet Willie, on the other hand, was not in our minds a disco group. Never mind that “Weekend” humps along on a limp disco beat that generates no fire at all. They were, in our minds, a Southern boogie band, cousins to the Allman Brothers Band and Lynryd Skynyrd and other bands we respected. And because that’s the label Wet Willie bore, we could ignore what was in the grooves of their record, just as we ignored what was in the grooves of Donna Summer’s.

39. “Renegade”/Styx
37. “Getting Closer”/Wings
35. “One Way or Another”/Blondie
Styx, Wings, and Blondie have the first hour rockin’. Wings and Blondie were new entries in the Top 40 in this week; three of the songs that fell out were disco records, as the fad seemed to wane momentarily.

33. “People of the South Wind”/Kansas
Even though Kansas had started moving off those overwrought eight-to-12-minute prog-rock epics of mystico-religious mumbo-jumbo by 1979 to focus on shorter, more conventional songs, they never stopped taking themselves so seriously.

32. “Shadows in the Moonlight”/Anne Murray. What’s this doing here? Making bank, that’s what, because Anne Murray was at the peak of her country-to-pop crossover stardom in 1979.

31. “Shakedown Cruise”/Jay Ferguson. “Shakedown Cruise,” which is about sailors under command of a mad captain, starts off great, but I can’t get past one of the worst lyric lines I have ever come across: the captain tells the crew, “You boys want some sex? / You can squeeze the sails / You can lick the decks.”

29. “Get Used to It”/Roger Voudouris
28. “Do It or Die”/Atlanta Rhythm Section
Honk if you remember either of these.

27. “Rock and Roll Fantasy”/Bad Company
26. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”/KISS
The second hour is rockin’ too, although Donna Summer’s beat makes the one on “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” sound like Wet Willie all over again.

24. “You Can’t Change That”/Raydio. Is this the best record on the show? Possibly.

23. “Heart of the Night”/Poco
22. “Days Gone Down”/Gerry Rafferty
21. “I Can’t Stand It No More”/Peter Frampton
18. “Dance the Night Away”/Van Halen
16. “Gold”/John Stewart
15. “Shine a Little Love”/Electric Light Orchestra
14. “Minute by Minute”/Doobie Brothers
12. “I Want You to Want Me”/Cheap Trick
Although there’s still a number of disco records on the chart, the familiar “disco-drenched summer of ’79” narrative seems pretty shaky, at least until this show reaches the very end.

11. “Love You Inside Out”/Bee Gees
10. “You Take My Breath Away”/Rex Smith
9. “Just When I Needed You Most”/Randy Vanwarmer
8. “Boogie Wonderland”/Earth Wind and Fire with the Emotions
7. “She Believes in Me”/Kenny Rogers
6. “The Logical Song”/Supertramp
This is the grimmest part of the show. “Love You Inside Out” had been the Bee Gees’ eighth #1 single in four years but was the weakest of them all. “Boogie Wonderland” and “The Logical Song” are fine, but Vanwarmer, Rogers, and Smith are bland, blander, and blandest.

5. “Chuck E’s in Love”/Rickie Lee Jones
4. “We Are Family”/Sister Sledge
3. “Bad Girls”/Donna Summer
2. “Hot Stuff”/Donna Summer
1. “Ring My Bell”/Anita Ward
This was the first time in chart history that the top five positions were occupied by women, and only the fourth time to date that one act had two of the top three. (Elvis, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees were the others). And while I did not like any of the top four in 1979, here in my dotage I’ve come around on all of them—and on the summer of ’79 in general.

Casey by the Numbers

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(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.

1970: 13
1971: 16
1972: 16
1973: 6
1974: 13
1975: 16
1976: 29
1977: 15
1978: 4
1979: 2
1980: 9
1981: 7
1982: 1
1983: 2
1984: 4
1985: 6
1986: 6
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:

January: 3
February: 2
March: 2
April: 0
May: 3
June: 4
July: 3
August: 3
September: 4
October: 2
November: 1
December: 1
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.

Summer Madness

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(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

23. “Dynomite”/Bazuka
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

9. “Magic”/Pilot
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.

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