It’s What You Want

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(Pictured: ABBA on Saturday Night Live in November 1975. They were one of the few acts in the history of the show to lip-sync, because Lorne Michaels didn’t believe they could sing live.)

We have spent a lot of time in 1971 around here lately. Let’s come forward in time a bit and listen to the American Top 40 show from November 22, 1975.

39. “Theme From Mahogany”/Diana Ross
38. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
34. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
Seven songs debut on the show in this week. Three of them would reach #1 in January 1976.

37. “For the Love of You”/Isley Brothers
23. “S.O.S.”/ABBA

19. “I Only Have Eyes for You”/Art Garfunkel
18. “Eighteen With a Bullet”/Pete Wingfield

14. “Miracles”/Jefferson Starship
12. “Lyin’ Eyes”/Eagles

8. “Low Rider”/War
Any one of these could be the best song on the show were it not for #13 below. The ultra-smooth “For the Love of You” would get to #22 during Christmas week. That “Eighteen With a Bullet” would end up at #18 in some week was inevitable. And as I’ve said before, “Lyin’ Eyes” is another case of Glenn Frey and Don Henley revealing themselves as terrible people through the lyrics they write, but at the same time, it’s beautifully performed and anchored in time and place, so sue me if I still like it.

36. “The Last Game of the Season”/David Geddes. Casey answers a listener letter asking which song debuted the highest on the chart in 1975. In the Top 40, it’s “Old Days” by Chicago, which came on at #17 back in the summer. On the Hot 100, it was “The Last Game of the Season,” which had come on the previous week at #44. My tolerance for 70s cheese is higher than most people’s, and I’ve heard “The Last Game of the Season” many times, but this time, I couldn’t make it to the end.

33. “Brazil”/Ritchie Family
32. “I’m on Fire”/5000 Volts
25. “Our Day Will Come”/Frankie Valli
Three flavors of early disco. The Ritchie Family was a studio group created by Village People impresario Jacques Morali. 5000 Volts was a real group, although due to a contractual issue, lead singer Tina Charles did not appear when the group performed “I’m on Fire” live and on TV. “Our Day Will Come” takes three minutes to do not very much.

28. “Secret Love”/Freddy Fender. Fender had two big country-to-pop  crossover hits in 1975, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” “Secret Love,” made famous by Doris Day, was not destined to be the third, but Fender sings the hell out of it.

27. “Venus and Mars-Rock Show”/Paul McCartney and Wings. Casey welcomes new stations to the AT40 family this week, including KSTT in Davenport, Iowa. I’ve mentioned KSTT before as a dominant local station that was every bit as hot and fun and important to its community as bigger and more famous major market stations were. By 1975, it had been a Top 40 powerhouse for nearly 20 years.

15. “My Little Town”/Simon and Garfunkel. In October, Garfunkel’s Breakaway and Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years came out within two weeks of each other; between the two release dates, Paul and Artie sang together on the second episode of Saturday Night Live.

13. “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”/Spinners. I have said before that “Games People Play” is my favorite single of all time, another genius production by Thom Bell, arresting from the first second, smooth and soulful all the way home. It’s a time-and-place record for me, certainly, but I have listened to it so often since the fall of 1975 that it’s not as firmly anchored there as others on this show.

7. “Feelings”/Morris Albert. Casey says that “Feelings” has been around for 23 weeks (on the Hot 100) and that it has recently started moving up the chart again after slipping down. It had peaked at #6 on October 25 and then fell to #7 and #9 before creeping back up to #8 and then to #7 in this week. After falling out of the Top 40 in mid-December, it would make two more upward turns before exiting the Hot 100 in late January. Its 32-week run was the longest of 1975.

4. “Island Girl”/Elton John
3. “Who Loves You”/Four Seasons
2. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention
1. “That’s the Way (I Like It)”/KC and the Sunshine Band
Silver Convention is up from #16 the week before; KC leaps from #6 to #1, taking out Elton after three weeks. Casey notes that “Island Girl” had made Elton the first act of the 70s to have five #1 singles.

Your mileage may vary, but at 46 years’ distance, this show still sounds like 70s Top 40 glory to me, full of songs that are inventive, hooky, uptempo, and fun. If you turn on the radio to be entertained, it’s what you want.

Old Fashioned Love Songs

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(Pictured: the Stylistics on tour circa 1974. Note the song titles painted on the side of the bus.)

It is always a challenge, especially with time periods I have covered extensively, to find new songs to write about or new things to say. But I’ll take a shot with the Bottom 60 of the Hot 100 from the week of November 13, 1971.

59. “You Are Everything”/Stylistics. In the fall of 1971, I’d only been listening to the radio for a year, so lots of things would have sounded new and exciting. But “You Are Everything” hit different. There was not, had never been—and would never be—anything that sounded quite like it. I am a fan of little moments in songs, and the instant where the dreamy, ethereal introduction gives way to the opening line, “Today I saw somebody who looked just like you” is an all-timer, still raising goosebumps after 50 years, every time I hear it. But the whole record is great—pain and regret made impossibly beautiful in the way only the best pop music can. Last week I tweeted a new profile of the great Philadelphia songwriter/producer Thom Bell and suggested that while there should be a statue of Bell somewhere, “no matter how grand we made the thing, it wouldn’t be as great as intro of ‘Back Stabbers.'” I could have said “as great as ‘You Are Everything.'” Nobody else on Earth has that man’s gift. 

65. “Rub It In”/Layng Martine. I have written a bit here about Billy “Crash” Craddock, the mid-70s country star, and his pop crossover hit “Rub It In.” This is the OG, recorded by the man who wrote it, eventually a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and produced by Ray Stevens. (It’s easy to imagine Stevens singing it, actually.) Craddock’s version is better, and it was timed better, running the charts in the summer of 1974.

73. “Gimme Some Lovin’ (Part 1)”/Traffic, Etc. This is an oddly credited single from an oddly credited album. The album is Welcome to the Canteen, which is a live album taken from two English concert dates in the summer of 1971. The album was not credited to Traffic, but to the seven individual musicians who made up the group at the time: Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, Ric Grech, Dave Mason, Reebop Kwaku Baah, and Jim Gordon. But since it wasn’t practical to issue a single with all those names, “Gimme Some Lovin'” was credited to Traffic, Etc., with part 1 of the nine-minute album version on one side and part 2 on the other. That it got any traction as a single is pretty surprising, as it’s mostly a jam and not the sort of thing you’d expect your local Top 40 station to play.

76. “Stones”-“Crunchy Granola Suite”/Neil Diamond. Another excellent article I read recently was by the great Dan Epstein, about how Lenny Bruce inspired Neil Diamond to write his best song, “I Am … I Said,” which appeared (according to Epstein) on Diamond’s worst album. I feel more warmly toward “Stones” than Epstein does (fall of 1971 and all), and “Crunchy Granola Suite” is just odd enough to be charming. But your mileage, like Epstein’s, may vary.

77. “Old Fashioned Love Song”/Three Dog Night. A friend and I were talking the other day about the sound of music on AM radio. To the extent people think about it at all (which is not much anymore), I suspect they find AM’s sound quality inferior and figure that everybody just lived with it until something better came along. But the great AM music stations cared deeply about the quality of their audio. They tweaked their processing in various ways to minimize the limitations of the AM band, and to provide the best possible sound on the radios most commonly in use, especially little transistor sets and car radios. Although that’s not done much anymore, I still enjoy listening to 60s and 70s music on AM. (And it’s not just music. If I am listening to a sports broadcast and I have a choice, I will always choose the AM signal.) Record labels helped too, with special mixes for 45s and/or for radio. It’s a subject I’ve written about before so I won’t belabor the point here, but “Old Fashioned Love Song” is a record that you have not heard properly until you have heard its 45 mix.

It’s arguable, of course, that you have not heard “Old Fashioned Love Song” properly until you’ve heard it on a fading nighttime skywave from 100 miles and 50 years away, but insert shrug emoji here.

Hot Stuff

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Local radio charts were usually ahead of Billboard‘s. It makes sense; Billboard was tabulating data from across the country, gathering it via the telephone and having to adhere to a print deadline. Even in a city the size of Chicago, a music survey was closer to the street, and it included more than just sales information. The fine print on the 10/25/71 WLS survey I posted last week says, “Records listed on the WLS Hit Parade are selected by WLS after evaluating and considering record sales, listener requests, and the station’s own opinion of their audience appeal.”

Billboard‘s data had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was local demand for records created by local airplay. The two hottest records in the country at this moment 50 years ago were John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Theme From Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. “Imagine” is new on the Hot 100 at #20 for the week of 10/23/71, but it’s in its second week on the WLS chart and likely got airplay before it charted. At WLS, “Shaft” was in its third charting week, having gone from #26 to #16 to #9. It had debuted on the Hot 100 at #50 during the week of October 16, and then took a mighty leap to #9 on 10/23.

Elsewhere, “Baby I’m a Want You” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself” debut on the Hot 100 in the same week they first appear on the WLS Top 30. Several other records WLS was charting were still making their way into the Billboard Top 40 in the same week. “What Are You Doing Sunday” and “Charity Ball” are at #43 and #44 respectively; “Everybody’s Everything,” “Two Divided by Love,” “Absolutely Right,” and “You Think You’re Hot Stuff” are farther down.

Similarly, several songs that are still in the Billboard Top 40 have left the WLS survey of the same week: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (which had been #1 on WLS in late August), “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” and “The Wedding Song” are among those gone. And the Persuaders’ “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” at #17 in Billboard during the same week, never charted on WLS at all.

I have the American Top 40 show from the week of November 13, 1971, in my collection, which has most of this music on it. I don’t know if I’m going to write about it, but I’m damn sure going to listen to it.

OK, new topic.

November 8 will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album. One of the only music pieces I ever got paid for was a 25th anniversary retrospective on “Stairway to Heaven,” for which I corresponded with Zeppelin fans and interviewed radio people and a history professor about the song’s impact. The story used to be online; some rando transcribed it for his Zeppelin fansite, but the site doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I should have a hard copy in my pile of clips, and if I find the time to dig through the pile in the next couple of weeks, I’ll post it.

The piece ran in the Rock Island Argus and Moline Dispatch, the newspapers that served the Illinois side of the Quad Cities, where we lived at the time. I forget how I developed a relationship with the entertainment editor; I was working at the classic-rock station, and that may have gotten him to take a look at my stuff. It is also entirely possible that he simply bought a story I pitched cold. He also bought the Elvis piece I posted here a few years ago. (First part here, second part here, third part here.)

Somewhere in my clips, there is also a positively fawning piece about me, written at about the same time by a columnist for the Dispatch/Argus, a guy who doubled as a weekend weatherman at one of the local TV stations. Again, I no longer remember how it came about. I remember it played up the fact that I have a stutter, and that it didn’t adversely affect my radio career. (Sure didn’t; I got a part-time job that paid a whole $6 an hour in spite of it.) It was illustrated by the photo you see here. The columnist was so complimentary of my work that people around the office started asking if he and I were dating.

Amusing anecdotes, yes. But also evidence of roads not taken, either by choice or by chance.

A Thing Called Love

Behold the music survey from WLS in Chicago dated 50 years ago today. (Click to embiggen.) I wish I had a fuller picture; at some point during the spring or summer of 1971, the station converted its survey from a single long sheet of heavy paper to a folded sheet that allowed a cover with a photo, which opened to reveal the week’s list inside. I have never seen a more pleasing survey design from any radio station anywhere: clean, easy to read, and distinctive in red and blue.

If I were to attempt to rank the seasons of the 70s—a project I really should take on—the fall of 1971 would probably be in the top five. The chart of October 25, 1971, contains songs and stars familiar even to people who can’t remember 1971: Cher, Rod Stewart, “Shaft,” Stevie Wonder, the Carpenters, Marvin Gaye, “Imagine,” Carole King, Santana, Bread, the Bee Gees. But as is our custom here, we’re more interested in the songs that are less well-remembered.

3. “Charity Ball”/Fanny
10. “What Are You Doing Sunday”/Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando
These records barely squeaked into the Billboard Top 40 (#40 and #39 respectively), and only for a brief time (one week each, 11/6 and 11/13/71), but in this week, they are both at their chart peaks on WLS. “Charity Ball” was also a Top-10 hit in Denver and a few other places. “What Are You Doing Sunday” looks to have been a somewhat stronger performer nationwide, although Chicago was its strongest market. (On a survey dated October 21, from WFOM in Marietta, Georgia, they’re #1 and #2.) “Charity Ball” has a Van Halen swagger and is an unjustly lost hit. “What Are You Doing Sunday,” meanwhile, sits at the intersection of cheese and bubblegum. But Tony Orlando, who gets separate billing for the first time, had a gift for selling that very thing. Dawn had bigger hits, but few that were more purely joyful. It’s easy to understand why listeners of 1971 gravitated to it.

(Fifty years later, Fanny is the subject of a new documentary that reveals just how much ground they broke, not just as women in a male-dominated business but as Filipina Americans in a racist society.)

12. “Never My Love”/Fifth Dimension. The Fifth Dimension’s version of the Association’s 1967 classic is a live recording produced by Bones Howe, who also produced the original. It’s far more supper-club than soul music, although we get a hint of what could have been when Marilyn McCoo starts ad-libbing over the last 45 seconds or so (including a spectacular long, high note). It made #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart and #12 on the Hot 100.

21. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”/Denise LaSalle
22. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff”/Jean Knight
It did not hurt WLS one bit to latch on to the housewife appeal of “Never My Love.” Neither would it have been bad for them to play straight-up R&B records. In an era with fewer signals for listeners to choose from, mass appeal was not only possible, it was the goal. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” a Willie Mitchell production of a song LaSalle wrote, made the Billboard Top 40. “You Think You’re Hot Stuff” peaked at #57 despite sounding remarkably like “Mr. Big Stuff,” Knight’s #2 hit from earlier in the year. Like “Mr. Big Stuff,” it’s a Wardell Quezergue production licensed by Stax from the Mississippi label Malaco.

The fall of 1971 is less purely magical than the fall of 1970; September to December 1970 will always be a liminal space to me, a wondrous passageway that pointed the little boy I was toward the person I am now. One year later, I had listened through a full procession of the seasons and discovered a powerful link between music and time. For me to even talk about “ranking the seasons” shows how strong is the association between the songs I heard and when I heard them.

But 1971 represented another passageway, another space between. I never wanted to be a farmer like Dad when I grew up, not for a minute. Like many boys, I wanted to be a pro football player for a while. But by the fall of 1971, I had lived a year with the radio in my head. I loved the music, but I was also fascinated with how the music and the jingles and the newscasts and the commercials weaved together to create a complete, enormous thing, orchestrated by the jocks, who seemed like the coolest people in the world to me. And by the fall of 1971, I would say to everybody (even if they didn’t ask), I want to do that.

Anything You Want

Last weekend Radio Rewinder posted the Record World Top 100 for the week of September 25, 1976. (Click to embiggen.) Right on the edge between summer and fall, it’s got most of the essential Top 40 radio music from both of my favorite seasons. The oldest record, “More More More” by the Andrea True Connection, is in its 29th week, which meant it debuted in March; “Silly Love Songs” by Wings is in its 25th week, and several other songs have been around 20 weeks or more. On the other hand, certain recent debuts will remain popular at least until Christmas; “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. won’t hit #1 until January.

That I playlisted the chart immediately should not surprise you at all. I have 82 of the 100 songs in my digital library. But what about the other 18?

Continue reading “Anything You Want”

Who’s Happening Now

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

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

Here’s what is not fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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