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.