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.

Trapped in the Amber of the Moment

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This post started out as a list of the Top 20 hits of the summer of 1981 by Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on peak chart position and weeks in that position, but it ended up sounding like a couple of posts I wrote back in the spring, which you can go read if you like. So now it’s an unscientific list of 20 songs I liked, in no particular order.

“Too Much Time on My Hands”/Styx. If you expected to hear rock music on your local Top 40 station in the summer of 81, pickin’s were slim.

“Hearts”/Marty Balin. The audible breath that Balin takes before delivering the last line (“is everything all right”) is very sexy, actually.

“Boy From New York City”/Manhattan Transfer. I should write about the Manhattan Transfer someday. They had four Top 40 hits between 1975 and 1983, and “Boy From New York City” was the biggest.

“I Don’t Need You”/Kenny Rogers. As a producer, Lionel Richie got more out of Kenny Rogers than anybody else, although their collaborations were trapped in the amber of their early-80s moment, and within a couple of years, you wouldn’t hear them much anymore.

“Slow Hand”/Pointer Sisters. At the country station, we mixed in a few pop hits, especially during daytime hours, and this was one of them. We weren’t the only ones who saw its country potential: a year later Conway Twitty took a rather skeevy cover of it to #1 country.

“Fire and Smoke”/Earl Thomas Conley. This was the first #1 country hit for an artist who would eventually trail only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap for most #1 country hits during the 80s.

“Seven Year Ache”/Rosanne Cash. This, too, was #1 country hit, and you have forgotten that it crossed over to #22 on the Hot 100.

“Elvira”/Oak Ridge Boys. I didn’t mind this when it first came out in April, but sweet mama when people were still requesting it once an hour six months later, I was done.

“All Those Years Ago”/George Harrison. 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.

“Talk to Ya Later”/The Tubes. This wasn’t the hit single from the Tubes album The Completion Backward Principle—that was “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore”—but we adored “Talk to Ya Later” at the campus station and played it from the spring into the summer.

“A Life of Illusion”/Joe Walsh. Once you realize how much the intro of “A Life of Illusion” resembles “On Wisconsin,” you’ll never be able to un-hear it.

“Sweetheart”/Franke and the Knockouts. Certain records sound familiar from the first time you hear them, and “Sweetheart” is one of those. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and with “Sweetheart,” it isn’t.

“This Little Girl”/Gary U. S. Bonds. I was a relatively new Springsteen acolyte in ’81, and in the way of new converts everywhere, I worshipped anything my idol (who co-produced, played, and sang on the Bonds album Dedication) touched.

“The Stroke”/Billy Squier. If you took the interests, experiences, and aspirations of rural white male Midwestern college students of 1981 and made a songwriting bot out of them, it would write “The Stroke.”

“I Love You”/Climax Blues Band. And yet it was possible for a 21-year-old college student who loved “The Stroke” to love this too, for he contained multitudes.

“Gemini Dream”/Moody Blues. Me, last fall: “three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama.”

“Time”/Alan Parsons Project. Of all the songs on this list, it might be most appropriate for scoring the closing credits of the movie I wrote about yesterday.

“Urgent”/Foreigner. Of all the albums that came out while I was in college radio, the most impactful wasn’t The Wall or The Long Run or Tusk, it was IV by Foreigner. Every cut sounded good on the radio, and we played ’em all.

“The Waiting”/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Hard Promises was another impactful album. At the time, I didn’t like it as much as Damn the Torpedoes. But in four decades since, it’s the one I’ve listened to much more often.

“The Breakup Song”/Greg Kihn Band. If I were picking a favorite song from the summer of 1981, “The Breakup Song” would be it. Hard-rockin’, earworm-worthy, and as I might have described it back then, “tough and tight.”

In the next installment, some broadcasting industry news from the summer of 1981.

Summer of ’81: Notes for the Screenplay

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(Pictured: we open on this shot.)

Memo for the file: what could go in a screenplay about the summer of 1981. 

Dramatis personae:

—Jim, a 21-year-old college student between his junior and senior years, obsessed with radio, not untalented but more egotistical than his talent merits. Nearly 300 pounds, long unruly hair, scruffy reddish beard.

—Carl and Rick (not their real names), Jim’s new roommates; both are behind-the-scenes TV guys, one of whom Jim knows reasonably well, the other hardly at all. Mutt-and-Jeff pair: Rick tall/thin/talkative, Carl shorter/stocky/quiet.

—Ann, Jim’s girlfriend, whose summer job involves a video project with Carl and Rick, and who also has a paying radio DJ job. Long hair, nice build, patience beyond her years.


—Small Wisconsin college town (non-student population about 10,000) where most of the students (regular enrollment about 5,500) are gone for the summer.

—Two-bedroom apartment occupied by Jim, Carl, and Rick.

—Two radio stations: one at the college and one a commercial station a half-hour up the road.

Potential story beats:

—Coming of age #1: Jim’s last lap around the childhood clock of school and summer. Come 1982, he will go permanently into the working world. Look back/look forward.

—Coming of age #2: Jim works a lot at his paying radio job, weekends and fill-ins, and it adds up to big coin by college-student standards, even at the minimum wage of $3.35. Sense of independence/accomplishment from being able to pay for gas/groceries/rent and still have fun money without having to call upon the Mother and Dad National Bank (much).

—Workplace comedy #1: Carl, Rick and Ann spend the summer working on a video animation project which requires hours of tedious labor to generate seconds of videotape. Comedy potential in Jim’s attempts to find out what the purpose of the project is and the inability of anyone involved to explain it. Also mystery potential. Jim doesn’t know Carl very well. Maybe he’s got them working on some secret government project?

—Workplace comedy #2: Jim and a handful of other students keep the campus radio station on the air, erratically. He used to be the program director but isn’t anymore, officially, but he becomes de facto program director in the summer because he the only person there who wants the job. Opportunity to showcase soundtrack tunes; list of possibilities to come. Related: road trip to outdoor Doobie Brothers show at Alpine Valley near Milwaukee.

—Domestic comedy: Jim, Carl, and Rick work in adjacent studios and confer daily about after-work plans. Conference often involves making sure they have meat for the grill and beer for the living-room fridge. Apartment has pirated cable. Potential storylines: MST3K-style commentary on HBO movies and various escapades at home. Also escapades in downtown bars and at apartments of friends who have remained in town for the summer. Potential guest-star roles for friends not remaining in town for the summer, who visit and flop on the couch. Example: friend arrives, contributes $3 for a beer run. Jim comes home with $3 case, friend complains. “Well jeez Bill, you only gave me $3.”

—Romance: Jim and Ann have had their ups and downs in the last several months, but are up when the summer begins. He has his own bedroom in the apartment. Comedy embarrassment potential: what’s going on in there?

—Personal conflict: Although Jim and Rick were sure they’d be compatible, by summer’s end, something feels off. If story were extended to autumn, they would assume an increasingly chilly distance. Attempt to uncover/explain origins.

—Catchphrase for Carl: “Baker’s run later?” Baker’s is an ice-cream stand that does not open until after the students have cleared out for the summer and closes before they came back in the fall, a legend known only to townies and to summer school students. (Most effective as a plot device if it’s never shown.)

—Classroom hijinx: Between broadcasting, beer, barbecuing, and Baker’s, coursework is far down on the list of our characters’ priorities. Nevertheless, summer school is ongoing. Jim takes a four-week course in personnel administration to complete the management requirements of his degree. Some comedy potential from eccentric professor, Jim’s inability to remember any of what he’s supposed to be learning, and his breezy insouciance about education in general.

Coming next: a potential soundtrack for the movie.