Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

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What follows has been sitting in my Drafts folder for quite literally years. In 2020, I noodled with it as part of a podcast episode that never got recorded. 

It is a weekday morning in January 1976. Through the windows on the south side of the house lies a snow-crusted yard, the ice-slick town road that runs past the farm, and the frozen fields beyond. Leafless trees stand gray and brown against the white. Amid the outbuildings, Dad’s farm vehicles provide the only color there is—green tractors and a blue truck. The sun is filtered through winter clouds to a silvery shine that lights the day without warming it.

My brother and I come down from our bedrooms to the smell of toast and coffee. The kitchen radio is blaring WEKZ, the local radio station. We grab our bites of breakfast and bundle up for the day—heavy coats, stocking caps, and gloves, in pockets if not on hands. Often there’s a fight over wearing boots, which Mother insists on, and in which sophomores such as I would not be caught dead.

The school bus soon roars up the town road, and we tramp outside to climb aboard. I sit near the radio speaker, and it plays one of the big hits of the moment, the Diana Ross theme from Mahogany. The song’s question—“Do you know where you’re going to?”—is a pertinent one.

Our town is a farming community. There is a modest social hierarchy, in that the wealthiest families, the doctors and lawyers and other civic bigwigs, live in the same part of town, and their kids tend to run in a pack and lord it over the rest of us. But that social gulf doesn’t matter all that much, simply because the farm kids outnumber them.

To me, the more significant social gulf is the one between farm families who never seem to get all of the shit off their shoes and those who do. We are in the latter category. Mother lives on a farm, had grown up on a farm, but considers herself a farm wife only up to a point. She does not help milk the cows, as some farm wives do. She used to drive the hay baler in the summer, at least until she got a job in town the year I turned 12. She keeps the rest of farm life at arm’s length, and she is absolute hell on farm dirt in her house—and in our lives. If Dad needs to go to town, he will hose off his boots and sometimes change his clothes before doing so, even if he is going only to the feed store or the implement dealer. Now that I am 15-going-on-16, I don’t go along with him anymore, but back when I did, my brothers and I could see the difference between him and other farmers, some of them the fathers of kids we knew. We learned from his example, and theirs.

On this January morning in 1976, I do not actively dislike being a farm kid, but I already know that in the long term, farm life is not for me. And on this morning, I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance. There’s nothing more than that to see, because I am 15-going-on-16, and I don’t know what I don’t know.

“I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance.” While the winter of 1976 seems freighted with meaning now, it didn’t feel that way then. The vague shape in the distance was definitely there, though. I knew I was going to college and I knew that radio would be my career. But it was at least two years away—an eternity when you are 15-going-on-16.

I’d like to go back there, for just one morning. To hear the radio, smell the toast and coffee, hear the bus rumble up the road again—and not know what I now know about that vague shape in the distance. 

Rolling Home

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(Pictured: Grace Slick, 1975)

As is customary around here after discussing an American Top 40 show, let’s see what else we can see on the Hot 100 during the week of January 10, 1976.

42. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles. Most people never take anything to the limit, ever. Considering Randy Meisner is singing about how he’s going to take it to the limit one more time, implying that he’s done it before (whatever “it” is), no wonder he sounds so weary.

49. “Play on Love”/Jefferson Starship. Grace Slick sings the hell out of “Play on Love” and I’ve always liked that, but I wish the arrangement behind her had more going on, on the order of “Miracles” or “Runaway.”

51. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
52. “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)”/Bee Gees
59. “The Homecoming”/Hagood Hardy
61. “Break Away”/Art Garfunkel
62. “Back to the Island”/Leon Russell
The challenge for me in writing this post is finding new things to say about records I like instead of repeating things I have said before.

54. “Love or Leave”/Spinners. From the album Pick of the Litter, released in the summer of 1975, which contains the magnificent “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play).”

58. “Feelings”/Morris Albert. This record had peaked at #6 back in the fall, but here it is moving up again, from #64, in its 30th week on the Hot 100.

67. “Don’t Cry Joni”/Conway Twitty. A few years ago, we noted that Conway Twitty had 40 #1 country singles, the second-most of all time, but never became cool on the level of George Jones, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. Incredibly sappy records like “Don’t Cry Joni” probably didn’t help.

(Digression: “Don’t Cry Joni” tells a fairly predictable story—young girl falls for older boy and asks him to wait for her til she’s grown, he says he’s too old for her and moves away but realizes years later he’s in love with her, he moves back home, and he finds out that she didn’t wait. Even a predictable story can be made enjoyable if the author is just as careful about what he leaves out as what he puts in. The last verse of “Don’t Cry Joni” makes it clear where the story will end, but the last line is the lyricist saying to the audience, “I don’t think you’re smart enough to get this unless I smack you upside the head with it.” My instantaneous reaction at the moment I heard it: “oh for chrissakes.”)

71. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Here it comes, in its second week on the Hot 100.

73. “This Old Man”/Purple Reign
95. “The Little Drummer Boy”/Moonlion
Friends, that’s a disco version of a nursery rhyme and a disco version of a Christmas song. “This Old Man” peaked a week earlier at #48 and was now in its eighth week on the Hot 100. We’ve mentioned “The Little Drummer Boy” at this website previously. (It’s not terrible.) Disco adaptations of already-familiar tunes were thick on the ground during disco’s formative years; although the phenomenon never disappeared completely, it became less prevalent as disco grew in popularity.

74. “Free Ride”/Tavares. Here’s a cover of the Edgar Winter hit from 1973 that’s not as different from the original as you’d expect.

77. “Fire on the Mountain”/Marshall Tucker Band. This country-rock classic had peaked at #37 on the Hot 100 and spent three weeks in the Top 40, but was heard on American Top 40 only once, on the show dated December 20, 1977. The other two weeks of its run corresponded with the 1975 yearend countdown shows.

(Further digression: surely there must have been a few songs during the AT40 era that made the Top 40 for a single week but were never heard on the show because they charted during a week when Casey was doing a special countdown of some sort. Would anybody with a better work ethic than mine like to research that?)

81. “Dream On”/Aerosmith. “Dream On” had run the Hot 100 for nine weeks between October and December 1973, getting as high as #59. Now here it is again, in its first week back.

90. “This Old Heart of Mine”/Rod Stewart. The album Atlantic Crossing was Stewart’s first without Ron Wood, Ian McLagan, and the rest of Faces, but Rod rounded up some decent players: members of Booker T and the MG’s, the Memphis Horns, and the Swampers. The album didn’t contain any big American hits, although “Sailing” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” were #1 in the UK, and this made #4. If you think you remember hearing “This Old Heart of Mine” on the radio, you might: Rod recut it for the 1990 Storyteller box set with Ronald Isley and released it (a far-better version) as a single.

Let’s Do It Again

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(Pictured: Paul Simon on stage in December 1975.)

Several years ago, I referred to the week of January 10, 1976, as “one of the half-dozen most 70s weeks of the 70s”. I discovered that I have in my archives the American Top 40 show from that week, which I have somehow never written about. So here we go.

40. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
39. “Golden Years”/David Bowie
38. “Theme From S.W.A.T.“/Rhythm Heritage
37. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
36. “Squeeze Box”/The Who
“One of the half-dozen most weeks of the 70s”. QED. I could quit right now.

35. “Let’s Live Together”/Road Apples. Casey says this band is from Beloit, Wisconsin, which is about an hour south on I-90 from Madison, although there’s not a single citation on the Internet that confirms it. By 1976, they were based in Cambridge, Massachsetts, and a popular local act: “Let’s Live Together” hit #1 in Boston, Providence, and Pawtucket. (Bakersfield, California, too.) It’s technically a debut on American Top 40, but this is its third week in the top 40 of the Hot 100. Twelve songs entered the 40 over the two holiday weeks on which Casey did his year-end show.)

Casey answers several letters in the first hour of the show. One about the soundtrack with the longest run on the album chart reveals that the four longest-running soundtracks were all from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Questions about whether there has ever been a week in which all of the Top 10 were by female artists, and another about whether there has ever been a week with no debuts within the Top 40, are disposed of with a single word: no.

Over the course of the show, Casey welcomes 10 new stations to the AT40 family. By the end of 1976, the show would be on over 350 stations coast to coast and around the world.

29. “Fly Robin Fly”/Silver Convention
24. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds
21. “Over My Head”/Fleetwood Mac
18. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
17. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
13. “Singasong”/Earth Wind and Fire
6. “Fox on the Run”/Sweet
One of these is the best song on the show. My fondness for “Fly Robin Fly” and “Winners and Losers” borders on the irrational. With “Over My Head,” Fleetwood Mac started a chart run that would keep them somewhere in the Hot 100 for most of the next two years. “Evil Woman” and “Singasong” (one word, as it was styled on some early copies) still get radio play today. “50 Ways” was up from #34 the week before and would hit #1, in one of the great cosmic jokes, during Valentine’s week. And it occurs to me that nothing else sounds quite like “Fox on the Run.”

19. “Let’s Do It Again”/Staple Singers
5. “Saturday Night”/Bay City Rollers
These songs each hit #1 while Casey was doing the top 100 of 1975, on December 27 and January 3. (I wrote about that show in 2014: part 1 here, part 2 here.) He quotes reports in the Soviet press saying that the Rollers’ music “is designed, like all drugs, to stupefy people,” and that Rollermania is “more hysterical, more maniacal” than that inspired by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The Rollers’ manager responded by threatening to have the band march on Moscow. Well played, sir.

16. “Fly Away”/John Denver
15. “Rock and Roll All Nite”/KISS
A massive train wreck, without a commercial break or even a jingle between them.

12. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”/Glen Campbell. Casey reminds us that for 1975, Campbell had the #1 song of the year on the country chart and #2 on the pop chart, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” “Country Boy” peaked at #11 pop and #3 country during its chart run and was Billboard‘s #100 hit of 1976, but I’m betting that if there’s one song in the top half of this Top 40 that you don’t know, this is it.

4. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
3. “Theme From Mahogany“/Diana Ross
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
These were all in the same spot as the previous week. “Love Rollercoaster” was in its third week at #4. It would stay #4 for one more week before going to #3 and then to #1 on January 31.

1. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall. With so little chart action at the top over the holidays, seeing “Convoy” vault from #6 to #1 is another indication of just how hot a record it was as 1976 began. I’ve written about it a lot over the years as a example of textbook storytelling technique, but here, it locks down the basic premise of this post: that the week of January 10, 1976, was as purely 1970s as the 1970s ever got. Oddball records and timeless classics, superstars and one-shots, they’re all here.

(Note to patrons: a new Sidepiece, with commentary on Wednesday’s events in Washington, went out yesterday. Check your spam filter. To receive future editions, sign up here.)

Play That Funky Music

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(Pictured: Nancy and Ann Wilson, 1976.)

In keeping with newly instituted custom, here’s some of the rest of the Billboard Hot 100 dated June 12, 1976, outside of the American Top 40 show I wrote about recently.

49. “Crazy on You”/Heart
52. “Last Child”/Aerosmith
79. “Still Crazy After All These Years”/Paul Simon

In the earlier installment, I wrote that Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” was the hardest-rockin’ record of the summer of ’76 with a couple of exceptions. Heart and Aerosmith (which was the highest Hot 100 debut of the week) are the exceptions. One week earlier, Heart and Paul Simon had peaked at #35 and #40 respectively. They spent but five weeks in the Top 40 between them—a remarkably short time for two records that are still getting airplay 43 years later.

54. “Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles
58. “Rock and Roll Music”/Beach Boys
These two records would ride the Hot 100 together. After debuting a week apart in June, they would stick around through the last week of September.

69. “TVC 15″/David Bowie. I listened to David Bowie’s Station to Station album again recently, and while I don’t think I love it as much as I did when I was 16, it’s still mighty good. Bowie might have kept recycling that soul-man vibe for the rest of his career and collected money in crates, but he and his muse had other fish to fry.

80. “Rain, Oh Rain”/Fools Gold. These guys played behind Dan Fogelberg going back to his days in Illinois, and at live shows, they often got a chance to play a few tunes of their own before Dan came on. The first of their two albums features guest appearances by Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh. Given all that, “Rain, Oh Rain” sounds exactly the way you’d expect it to, which is just fine, actually.

83. “I’ll Get Over You”/Crystal Gayle. “I’ll Get Over You” has been a favorite around here since always. It was #1 on the country chart during the week of June 12, 1976, but would make only #71 on the Hot 100.

91. “The Lonely One”/Special Delivery Featuring Terry Huff. Terry Huff and his brothers came up during the street-corner R&B boom at the turn of the 60s; they tried hard but didn’t make it and got out of the business. After a couple of years as a cop in Washington, DC, Huff took another bash at music and self-produced “The Lonely One,” which his label insisted on releasing under that awkward group name, and which is a lost soul gem in spite of it.

93. “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Queen. Because I am not on top of any trend of any kind, I didn’t see the Bohemian Rhapsody movie until earlier this month. I agree with many of the reviews that its somewhat squeamish attitude toward homosexuality is a distortion of Freddie Mercury’s life. Also, we never really learn how it was that Mercury became the incredible showman the film presents—it’s as if he just sprung up fully formed. But the film’s musical performances are great enough to make you forget all that. On June 12, 1976, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was in its final week on the Hot 100 after debuting on the first chart of the new year and peaking at #9 in April.

94. “Norma Jean Wants to Be a Movie Star”/Sundown Company. Featured in the 1976 theatrical biopic Goodbye, Norma Jean, which stars Misty Rowe (seen on TV in Hee Haw and in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood parody sitcom When Things Were Rotten) as the titular character and future Marilyn Monroe. The film is apparently factually challenged, sexually exploitative, and poorly crafted. So the country-flavored “Norma Jean Wants to Be a Movie Star” almost has to be the best thing about it.

95. “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”/Four Seasons. This debuted on the last chart of 1975, spent three weeks at #1 in March, and in the week of June 12 was at #95 for a third week in a row. The next week it would slip to #98 and then out.

110. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry. This record makes its chart debut in the last position on the Bubbling Under chart, maybe six weeks before I’ll first hear it and three months before it will climb atop the Hot 100. Goofball as it is, it’s not just a request or a command, it’s a promise, although I didn’t know it then. Songs from the summer and fall of 1976 promised to keep playing in my head for a long time to come.

Welcome Back

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(Pictured: the cast of Welcome Back Kotter.)

It won’t be long before I have written about all of the American Top 40 shows from the summer of 1976, but that time is not yet. Here’s what was notable about the show from June 12, 1976.

38. “Making Our Dreams Come True”/Cyndi Grecco
36. “Let Her In”/John Travolta
20. “Baretta’s Theme”/Rhythm Heritage
12. “Welcome Back”/John Sebastian
5. “Happy Days”/Pratt and McClain

That’s four TV themes and one song by a popular TV star. For the entire 1975-76 season, Laverne and Shirley ranked as the #3 show in television, Happy Days was #11, Welcome Back Kotter #18, and Baretta #22, and all would rank higher the next season. (Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley would be 1-2.) It couldn’t have hurt the viewership of any of them to have their theme songs on the radio every couple of hours during the summer rerun season.

32. “You’re My Best Friend”/Queen. The highest of seven debut songs on the show this week. Because my work ethic is pretty shoddy, I can’t tell you if seven is the most ever in the AT40 era—I kinda doubt it—but it seems like a lot.

Extra: “I Shot the Sheriff”/Eric Clapton. This long segment was snipped out of the show’s first hour, where it originally appeared, and it was offered as an extra with the recent nationwide repeat. Casey spends a couple of minutes discussing the history of reggae music, in which he says that “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash was the first major reggae hit in the States, forgetting “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, a Top-10 hit in 1969. He mentions Bob Marley’s then-current American tour and plays a snippet of his version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” America was at peak Bob Marley this summer: the album Rastaman Vibration was #12 on the album chart during the week of June 12, and “Roots Rock Reggae” would make #51 on the Hot 100 in July.

28. “Rock and Roll Love Letter”/Bay City Rollers
27. “Right Back Where We Started From”/Maxine Nightingale
I quite enjoy the degree to which the Rollers commit to their performance of “Rock and Roll Love Letter,” and that shortly after they pledge to “Keep on rock-n-rollin’ til my jeans explode,” their jeans do exactly that. Similarly committed is whoever did the handclaps on “Right Back Where We Started From,” one on every beat from start to finish.

26. “The Boys Are Back in Town”/Thin Lizzy
25. “Afternoon Delight”/Starland Vocal Band
24. “Moonlight Feels Right”/Starbuck
This stretch is 1976 as it gets. With only a couple of exceptions, “The Boys Are Back in Town” was the hardest-rockin’ thing on the Top 40 during the whole summer of ’76. “Afternoon Delight” and “Moonlight Feels Right” are pretty much the opposite.

17. “Movin'”/Brass Construction. “Movin'” is the highest-ranking record on this countdown you probably can’t place. Brass Construction was in the mold of the Ohio Players, Con Funk Shun, KC and the Sunshine Band, and other R&B outfits with a large number of members, many of them horn players. “Movin'” was a couple of weeks away from its chart peak of #14. The band’s self-titled album was huge: it hit #1 on the Soul LPs chart and #10 on the Billboard 200.

13. “I’ll Be Good to You”/Brothers Johnson. This was #1 on the soul chart for the week of June 12, the biggest mover within the Top 40 (up 10 spots), and the favorite song of the moment for 16-year-old me.

10. “Fool to Cry”/Rolling Stones. Casey mentions that with their current #1 album Black and Blue, their sixth to top the chart, the Stones have moved into sole possession of second place on the list of acts with the most #1 albums, behind only the Beatles.

1. “Silly Love Songs”/Paul McCartney and Wings. This record spent the week of May 22 at #1, then gave way to “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross for two weeks before reclaiming the top spot, which it would hold for another four weeks, through the week of July 3. It was in the Top 10 for 11 weeks in all and didn’t depart the Hot 100 until the middle of August. At year’s end, Billboard would rank it the #1 single of 1976.

I gotta say that this show was not the full glorious faceplant into memories of my favorite summer that I hoped it might be. Maybe I’ve been listening to this stuff too hard for too long. Maybe 2019 is sufficiently horrific to color even the memories of 43 years before. I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter. Memory is funny that way. It doesn’t always play back the tapes we order.

Be Good

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(Note to patrons: this week, there will be a new post at this site every day, as opposed to the usual Monday/Wednesday/Friday routine. Don’t get used to it, though.)

The new thing around here is that whenever I write about an American Top 40 show—even the ones I had no intention of writing about when I started listening to them but ended up doing so anyway—I’ll also write about the bottom part of the same chart. So here’s the rest of May 1, 1976.

41. “When Love Has Gone Away”/Richard Cocciante. Several years ago, a kind reader sent me a couple of editions of The National Album Countdown, and I have yet to write about them specifically. We have mentioned the show itself, however, produced and hosted by Humble Harve Miller, which ran starting in 1976 and for several years thereafter. It was the only place on the radio where I ever heard the Italian crooner Richard Cocciante (pronounced ka-SHUN-tay), whose album managed to make the Record World chart Harve used. “When Love Has Gone Away” was at its Hot 100 peak on 5/1/76, and honesty compels me to report that I do not get the appeal.

50. “Falling Apart at the Seams”/Marmalade
81. “Arms of Mary”/Sutherland Brothers and Quiver
Other, lesser hits were far more appealing than “When Love Has Gone Away.” “Falling Apart at the Seams” is nothing but appealing, thanks to writer/producer/bubblegum genius Tony Macaulay, but somehow made it only to #49. “Arms of Mary” would get no higher than this position on the Hot 100; a couple of years later a cover by Chilliwack would get to #68.

55. “It’s Over”/Boz Scaggs. You could probably win money from people by asking them to name all of the A-side singles on Silk Degrees. Most people can get two. It’s a greater accomplishment to name the others. They are (in charting order) “It’s Over,” “Lowdown,” “What Can I Say,” and “Lido Shuffle.” And if someone does that, tell them that another Silk Degrees song, “Georgia,” was an A-side in the UK, Japan, and Brazil.

If you want trivia, my friend, you have come to the right place.

62. “Shop Around”/Captain and Tennille
67. “Rock and Roll Love Letter”/Bay City Rollers
75. “Still Crazy After All These Years”/Paul Simon
78. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”/Eric Carmen
85. “Could It Be Magic”/Donna Summer

88. “I’ll Be Good to You”/Brothers Johnson
89. “Better Days”/Melissa Manchester

90. “Dance Wit Me”/Rufus
97. “You Got the Magic”/John Fogerty
98. “Let Her In”/John Travolta
99. “Moonlight Serenade”/Bobby Vinton
Of the 11 new records on the Hot 100 this week, seven would make the Top 40, although “Dance Wit Me” and “Still Crazy” would peak at #39 and #40. The Captain and Tennille, Eric Carmen, the Brothers Johnson, and John Travolta would make the Top 10. “You Got the Magic,” in which John Fogerty takes a stab at dance music, would be his last chart single until his 1984 comeback.

77. “Kiss and Say Goodbye”/Manhattans. The 19-place move this song makes in its third week on the chart is equaled only by Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” which made a mighty leap from #29 to #10 in the same week.

79. “Forever Lovers”/Mac Davis. This would get only as high as #76 on the Hot 100, although it would get to #17 on Billboard‘s country chart. To save you three minutes, “Forever Lovers” starts as a couple is getting into bed on their wedding night. He suddenly says, “I forgot to get champagne,” climbs out of the sack to run down to the Kwik Trip, and gets killed by a bus or something. Flash forward many years. An elderly woman checks into the honeymoon suite, puts on the faded negligee she wore that fateful night, lies down on the bed, and dies. “A lifetime’s a short time / When love never ends.”

94. “The Fonz Song”/Heyettes. At various points over the years, I have contended at this website that each of the following people was the biggest star in American culture during 1976: Jimmy Carter, Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych, and the Fonz. Although Fidrych’s joyful demeanor, his eccentricities on the field, and his dominant performances would make him a superstar by July, he didn’t pitch regularly until mid-May. Carter wouldn’t sew up the Democratic presidential nomination until July. So in mid-May at least, the Fonz was The Man. “The Fonz Song,” however, is dreadful. It shows up on 19 surveys at ARSA, and in an affront to good taste even greater than “Forever Lovers,” WGNG in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, took it all the way to #3.

For more mid-May 1976 flavor, visit this post from 2016. For more about Mark Fidrych, click here.