Art and Artifice

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(Pictured: Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty duet in September 1981.)

This is the point where, after writing about the American Top 40 show from the week of August 1, 1981, I’d write about what was below the Top 40, or on the Bubbling Under chart in the same week. I ain’t doing that this time. What exactly I *am* doing here I’m not sure. Thinking out loud, mostly.

If I had a better work ethic, I would look into the origin of the term “corporate rock.” I remember hearing it for the first time long about 1981, in reference to  artists who got the lion’s share of major-label marketing power, bands whose music often seemed purpose-built for album-oriented radio. The term was a little bit disingenuous—as if, only a few years before, bands made their music by hand in little sheds out back and record labels went door-to-door like they were selling Girl Scout cookies—but it struck a nerve, too. Art and commerce have always gone hand in hand. Even Mozart needed a patron to feed his family. But what does it mean when the border between art and commercial artifice is no longer clear?

As you’ve read here previously, at the dawn of the 80s, younger listeners were deserting AM and Top 40 radio in large numbers for FM and album-rock stations, and album-rock stations were giving them what they wanted. It was more adventuresome than the Top 40 (although almost anything would have been), but at the same time, it meant highly familiar-sounding music from highly familiar bands.

Behold the top of the Radio and Records AOR National Airplay 40 for the week of August 7, 1981 (page 34 at that link): Journey, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, the Moody Blues, Blue Oyster Cult, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, Stevie Nicks, Foghat, Van Halen. The lead cut on most of these albums is the single currently getting or seeking airplay on Top 40 stations: “Who’s Crying Now,” “Urgent,” “Fire and Ice,” “The Voice,” “Burnin’ for You,” “A Woman in Love,” “Edge of Seventeen,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

Highly familiar-sounding music from highly familiar bands. Album-rock stations would mix in new or lesser-known artists, but established superstars drove the bus. (One of the most popular nationally programmed AOR formats of the time was called “Superstars.”) Newer acts who got on the air that summer had to fit the template. Album stations were not interested in meandering, nine-minute jams. If you were going to make it, you had to play tight and come in hot. Billy Squier did; so did Greg Kihn and Michael Stanley. Even the Allman Brothers Band got the memo. Their hit that summer, “Straight From the Heart,” was a single that ran 3:18, from a forthcoming album where nothing would be longer than 4:45.

I remember a pair of dueling comments at this website several years ago. One reader praised 1981 as a good year for rock. Another responded that the mass popularity of acts such as the Moody Blues and Jefferson Starship represented the very death of creativity, and that the year’s worthwhile music barely made it on the radio at all.

So here’s a question to ponder: is this stuff good, or not?

Forty years later, I’m not sure anybody needs to hear again the songs I mentioned above (except maybe “Who’s Crying Now,” which I played on the radio the other day and it sounded great). Albums that were played with much fanfare back then—the Heavy Metal soundtrack, ZZ Top’s El Loco, Blackfoot’s Marauder, and that stupid Foghat title, Girls to Chat and Boys to Bounce—have disappeared into the ether. I have listened to Hard Promises a lot over the years (although not recently), and just last week I linked to a piece I wrote after re-listening to Long Distance Voyager. But of the albums that were getting radio play 40 years ago this summer, few of them seem to matter much as albums anymore. (Bella Donna, maybe?) What’s endured are the singles, several of which are radio warhorses still.

I’m not sure what conclusion I might draw to make you think there’s been a point to the preceding 700 words. Maybe it’s enough to say that if corporate rock was a thing—art fabricated mainly to separate people from their money, as consumers of albums or as buyers of radio advertising or radio-advertised goods—it reached a high-water mark in 1981 and 1982, before MTV started smashing the crockery, and before fragmenting radio audiences opened doors for artists who didn’t fit the old AOR template. As always, I welcome any thoughts you have on the topic.

I Don’t Need You

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(Pictured: Kim Carnes enjoys a moment backstage in 1981.)

OK, I started live-blogging the AT40 show from August 1, 1981, on Monday, and now I have to finish the job, like it or not.

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

20. “It’s Now or Never”/John Schneider. There is utterly no reason for this stiff, whitebread version of the Elvis classic to exist.

19. “Sweet Baby”/Stanley Clarke and George Duke. On “Sweet Baby,” two accomplished jazz players who know a little bit about soul and funk can’t muster up either one.

18. “The Stroke”/Billy Squier
17. “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”/Commodores
Squier’s hormonal riffage still amuses the teenage boy in me, and compared to the rest of the show, Lionel Richie sounds like James Brown.

16. “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”/Carpenters
15. “Time”/Alan Parsons Project
14. “Endless Love”/Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
13. “There’s No Getting Over Me”/Ronnie Milsap
But then there’s this. In the past, I have written about the way AT40 will sometimes hit a streak of pure Top 40 pleasure, with one great radio song after another. This is not that. This is a stultifying quarter-hour of radio. This is why MTV had to happen.

12. “Gemini Dream”/Moody Blues. With Long Distance Voyager at #1 on the album chart in this week, Casey introduces “Gemini Dream” with a good bit of trivia: the Moodys are the third group to hit #1 with an album, break up, reform, and then hit #1 with another album, joining the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and the Bee Gees. Surely it’s happened again since.

EXTRA: “I’m a Believer”/Monkees
11. “You Make My Dreams”/Hall and Oates
The best thing on the show is probably “Who’s Crying Now” back at #30, but these are close.

10. “Queen of Hearts”/Juice Newton. “Queen of Hearts” is uptempo without being the remotest bit rock ‘n’ roll, and thereby exactly what pop radio was looking for at this moment in history. Juice scored five big hits in 1981 and 1982 but when fashions changed in 1983, she went swiftly back to playing county fairs.

9. “Hearts”/Marty Balin. Different times: despite being a pure pop record, “Hearts” was one of the top tracks on album-rock radio in the summer of 1981.

LDD: “Love You Like I Never Loved Before”/John O’Banion. Which Debbie dedicates to Mike, a high-school flame. They have both been married and divorced and now they’re in love, she says, even though he is a soldier in West Germany and they haven’t set eyes on each other in 10 years. Good luck, you crazy kids.

8. “Boy From New York City”/Manhattan Transfer. In the last post, I referred to 1981 as “the white tornado.” To wit: “Boy From New York City” is the 38th record on this show so far, counting the extras, and the 32nd credited to white people. It’s like a Republican National Committee meeting up in here.

7. “Bette Davis Eyes”/Kim Carnes. Seventeenth week on the show, nine of them spent at #1. I’m at a loss to fully explain its appeal. I seem to remember that it didn’t stay on radio playlists very long after 1981, but you shouldn’t trust my memory. I don’t.

6. “Slow Hand”/Pointer Sisters. Potentially controversial opinion: this is yacht rock. Take away the Sisters and it’s basically “What a Fool Believes.” [Late edit: wait a sec. “He’s So Shy” is the one that’s yacht rock. “Slow Hand” is something else but I don’t care about it enough to differentiate the two.]

5. “Elvira”/Oak Ridge Boys
4. “I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers
3. “Greatest American Hero Theme (Believe It or Not)”/Joey Scarbury
2. “The One That You Love”/Air Supply
You cannot imagine the horror of living in a world where “Elvira” was on the radio every couple of hours. Thank the gods this show is almost over.

1. “Jessie’s Girl”/Rick Springfield. This sounded better than practically everything else in the summer of 1981, although if this week’s AT40 has taught us anything, that was not an especially high bar to clear.

It’s a familiar theme: by 1981, the jolt that disco gave to pop music in the late 70s had faded away. Mainstream radio pop had retreated into a safe space in which nobody would be challenged. (I’ve seen it linked to the rise of Ronald Reagan and the triumph of backlash politics after the 60s and 70s, but smarter people would have to say.) In any case: a new jolt was needed, and it was coming, starting on one cable system in New Jersey, the same weekend this AT40 aired.

I realize that there are people who feel as warmly about 1981 as I do about 1976 and 1971, and if you are one of them, all I can say is, you do you.

The White Tornado

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(Pictured: the group Alabama hangs out in 1980.)

On August 1, 1981, MTV launched, on a single cable system in New Jersey. It would take a while before MTV gained sufficient critical mass to change music history. Out in the pop world of 1981, the beat went on. Here’s a live-blog of the American Top 40 show that aired around the country that weekend.

Casey starts the show by noting that there are eight new songs in this week. New, yes. Different? I wonder.

40. “You’re My Girl”/Franke and the Knockouts. Franke and the Knockouts’ first hit, “Sweetheart,” remains great. “You’re My Girl” is a song you’ve already heard a million times before you’ve heard it once, and you’ll never need to hear it again.

39. “Really Want to Know You”/Gary Wright. In which Gary Wright sounds postively exhausted.

38. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”/Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This has never done much for me, but at least it’s got some personality.

37. “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore”/Tubes. The band hired super-producer David Foster, and he gave them this generic love ballad that could hardly be by the same band that made “White Punks on Dope” and “Don’t Touch Me There.”

36. “Love on a Two-Way Street”/Stacy Lattisaw. Before playing “Love on a Two-Way Street,” Casey answers a question about songs that stayed the longest in the Top 40 by giving the answer—and then repeating the answer in case we didn’t catch it 10 seconds before. Then, he says, “Debuting this week is that 14-year-old girl Stacy Lattisaw, with her second Top 40 hit on the pop chart called ‘Love on a Two-Way Street.’ Stacy Lattisaw.” FOR GOD’S SAKE MAN YOU JUST TOLD US HER NAME WHY DO YOU HAVE TO SAY IT AGAIN

35. “Feels So Right”/Alabama. Late in 1980, Alabama scored their first two #1 country hits, and sometime that winter, the county fair in my little Wisconsin hometown was able to book them for the grandstand in July. By the time they played, they’d had two more #1s and “Feels So Right” was crossing over to pop. It was the fourth in a streak of 21 consecutive #1 country hits that would last until 1987.

34. “Don’t Give It Up”/Robbie Patton. A “turntable hit” is a song that gets played a lot on the radio without generating many sales. The phrase is obsolete but the concept remains today, especially in country music—radio stations give heavy airplay to certain records that I am convinced no listener actually likes. I also feel that way about the blindingly white “Don’t Give It Up.” It’s hard to imagine that anybody raced out to the record store to buy it, but radio stations liked how it sounded.

LDD: “While You See a Chance”/Steve Winwood. In which Mary, a woman from the Chicago suburbs, makes friends with a train conductor named Bobby, who consoles her with advice after her dream of moving to California falls through: “Life’s not gonna give you anything. You have to make things happen.” Shortly after that, Bobby fell off the train and was squashed against the third rail.

Well, no, I made that last bit up, but if I hadn’t admitted it, would you have doubted me?

33. “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”/Jim Steinman
32. “Double Dutch Bus”/Frankie Smith
“Double Dutch Bus” is rarely mentioned when we discuss the earliest rap records to get traction on the pop charts, and I don’t know if it belongs. But if it’s OK with you, I’d prefer we never speak of it again. Or Jim Steinman either.

EXTRA: “Winchester Cathedral”/New Vaudeville Band. Part of Casey’s series reviewing the #1 songs of the 60s, this is the 154th, from December 1966.

31. “Fire and Ice”/Pat Benatar. I am no Pat Benatar fan, and this isn’t especially good on its own, but it sounds great compared to the rest of this show so far.

30. “Who’s Crying Now”/Journey
29. “A Woman Needs Love”/Ray Parker Jr.
28. “Cool Love”/Pablo Cruise
27. “The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band
Journey and Greg Kihn are the best of this show so far, but even a man with the soul-music cred of Ray Parker Jr. can’t escape the white tornado that is 1981. “Cool Love” doesn’t move me in any direction.

26. “Modern Girl”/Sheena Easton
25. “Medley”/Stars on 45
I’m about ready to tap out here. “Modern Girl” is dreadful. Compared to that, “Medley” is “Stairway to Heaven.”

24. “Don’t Let Him Go”/REO Speedwagon
23. “In the Air Tonight”/Phil Collins
22. “Urgent”/Foreigner
EXTRA: “Good Vibrations”/Beach Boys
Finally, some signs of life. But we’re two hours down and still only up to #22.

Do I want to live-blog the rest of this? Not really. Do you want me to? Well, OK then. Tune in again next time.

In the Air Tonight

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(Pictured: MTV’s Martha Quinn with a remarkably normal-looking Ozzy Osbourne in 1983.)

MTV launched 40 years ago this Sunday.  I haven’t had time to write anything new about it, so here’s a reboot of some stuff I wrote in 2006 and 2011. There were lots of links in the originals but they’re all dead now, so I took ’em out and I don’t have time to put ’em back in. 

The first video ever shown on MTV was, famously, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles:

It had been a modest hit on good old-fashioned radio late in 1979–which, given its sonic oddness, was quite an accomplishment. With its iconic images of video screens rising from a pile of old radios, if it hadn’t already existed, MTV would have had to invent something like it for its first video.

Rather than showcasing the best that music video had to offer at that moment, the first hour’s music was entirely random. Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video, followed by the hideous “She Won’t Dance With Me” by Rod Stewart (lyric sample: “Got a hard-on, honey, that hurts like hell / If I don’t ask her, somebody else will”). The first hour also included “Little Susie’s on the Up” by Ph.D, which is frequently omitted by people listing the first hour’s videos because nobody had ever heard of it then or remembers it now. Also seen: “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, a remarkably geeky video even by the standards of 1981. Best song of the lot: either “Rockin’ the Paradise” [by Styx] or “You Better You Bet” by the Who. Best video of the lot: “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders, which is the one video from the first hour that most people would recognize if they saw it today.

Digression: MTV blasted to popularity in small- and medium-sized cities first, because it was easier to get cable clearances in those places than in major metropolitan areas. And once it became clear that MTV’s audience was going to be comprised largely of white suburban kids, that meant REO Speedwagon and Styx until you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Mark Goodman got the first VJ shift, and his smarmy personality was already on display, although he wasn’t quite as impressed with himself as he would eventually become. . . . One of the things he talked about was how you could write in for your free MTV dial position sticker. One of MTV’s big selling points was that the audio was in stereo, but TV channels didn’t broadcast in stereo back then, so TVs weren’t equipped for it. To get MTV in stereo, you had to hook your cable TV into your stereo receiver. You got a little gizmo that attached to the FM antenna port on the back of the receiver, into which you plugged a cable from the cable box. If it worked—a rather big “if” in my experience—instead of getting whatever signals you could pull down out of the ether, you would get whatever FM services the cable company was offering, including the audio from MTV. The purpose of the sticker was to help you remember where you should tune to get the MTV audio.

The very first commercial spot ever shown was for school supplies—some kind of expanding three-ring binder. Also in the first break, the only ad I’ve ever seen for Dolby technology, which was probably a trade for some of the equipment MTV was using. Later breaks included a classic Mountain Dew spot (idiots rolling downhill inside a giant inflatable donut, to the tune of “Give me a Dew”), an Atari spot with hot new games that looked like MS-DOS graphics, and a promo for the Movie Channel.

That those sponsors shelled out to be on MTV the first day is a bit of a miracle. At the moment MTV launched, it was on a single cable system in northern New Jersey.

You can find a lot of videos on YouTube purporting to be the first hours of MTV, and they’re all different. Likewise, sources differ on the exact video lineup in the first hour. My source for this post was the 2011 VH1 Classic rebroadcast of the first hour, and you’d think that they’d get it right.

My radio station is doing some special programming related to the anniversary this weekend. Putting it together, I learned that the video most played on the first weekend of MTV was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, although it didn’t appear in the historic first hour. 

Coming Monday: more from the weekend of August 1, 1981. 

July 3, 1981: You Cannot Be Serious

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(Pictured: John McEnroe at Wimbledon, July 4, 1981.)

July 3, 1981, was a Friday. It’s the legal holiday before Independence Day tomorrow. President Reagan is among those with the day off. He has no public events, takes only a couple of phone calls, and otherwise spends the day with the First Lady and an old friend from California. Outside the White House today, demonstrators protest a number of issues including budget cuts, defense spending, and Reagan’s foreign policy positions. In Israel, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. It is unclear whether the Likud Party retained enough seats in the Knesset for Menachim Begin to remain as prime minister, or whether the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres will take over. But the lead story on all three network newscasts regards the visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Poland, which has been the site of labor unrest and the Solidarity movement since 1980. Also in the news tonight is the possibility that Reagan might name Arizona appeals court judge Sandra Day O’Connor to become the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. A report on page 20 of today’s New York Times is headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” It refers to a disease currently described as GRID, for “gay related immune disorder.” Actor Ross Martin, best known for playing Artemus Gordon on the 60s TV show The Wild Wild West, dies of a heart attack while playing tennis. He was 61 years old.

Tomorow, the Reagans will travel to Virginia to celebrate the First Lady’s birthday before returning to host a White House staff Independence Day party and to watch the DC fireworks from the Truman Balcony. Also tomorrow, the National Symphony Orchestra will perform on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the first time, and the Beach Boys will headline a show on the National Mall.

Chris Evert Lloyd wins the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon, defeating Hanna Mandlikova in straight sets. She is the first woman in 14 years to win the title without losing a set. (Among those watching at Wimbledon today is Lady Diana Spencer, who will marry Britain’s Prince Charles later this month.) Tomorrow’s Wimbledon men’s final matches John McEnroe against Bjorn Borg. There’s no major-league baseball today due to the ongoing players’ strike. Players walked off the job on June 12 over free agency rules.

At the movies this weekend, popular options include Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, and Bill Murray in Stripes. Rush plays Bloomington, Minnesota, with opening act the Joe Perry Project. The two bands will move on to Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, for a show on the Fourth of July. Def Leppard plays Barcelona, Spain. Santana opens a two-night stand in Hyannis, Massachusetts; their show tomorrow night will be broadcast live on a nationwide network of album-rock radio stations. Bruce Springsteen plays East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Van Halen plays Detroit. In Eugene, Oregon, the Oregon Jam stars Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, Pat Travers, and Loverboy; the same four acts will be joined tomorrow by Ozzy Osborne for the annual Day on the Green in Oakland, California. Ozzy is in Bakersfield tonight. Heart, Travers, and Loverboy will be joined by Jimmy Buffett at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego on Sunday.

At KEZR in San Jose, California, “Hearts” by Marty Balin jumps to #1. “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates is #2 and last week’s #1, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, is #3. The hottest record on the survey is the Greatest American Hero theme by Joey Scarbury, up 10 spots to #9. Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” is up one spot to #12. The highest-debuting song on the survey is “Cool Love” by Pablo Cruise at #24.

Perspective From the Present: the disease once known as GRID would later be named AIDS; the New York Times story on this date is the first mention of the disease in the national media. Baseball resumed with the All-Star Game on August 9. The Capitol lawn concerts continue to this day and are broadcast annually as A Capitol Fourth. John McEnroe won the Wimbledon men’s final but spent most of the match berating the officials. At one point, he disputed a call by shouting “You cannot be serious!,” which became an iconic moment in his career and in 2002, the title of his autobiography. I am guessing I worked a lot of radio over the holiday weekend, and on the Fourth, Ann and I watched the fireworks at the football stadium in our college town. I think. It’s been too long to remember.

Don’t Say No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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