A Hazy Snapshot

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(Pictured: David Lewis, Barbara Weathers, and Wayne Lewis of Atlantic Starr, harmonizing onstage in 1987.)

After the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, people walked around in a fog for days. That’s not the reason why the American Top 40 show from February 1, 1986, is such a hazy snapshot of the time, though. I suspect you’d have a hard time finding an AT40 with more records that are utterly forgotten now, or that were nothing special in the first place.

40. “Everybody Dance”/Ta Mara and the Seen
33. “Digital Display”/Ready for the World
22. “A Love Bizarre”/Sheila E
18. “Sidewalk Talk”/Jellybean
Adjacency to Prince or Madonna, or imitation thereof, was a good business move as 1986 began. “Sidewalk Talk,” written by Madonna and released under the name of producer John “Jellybean” Benitez, is sung by Cat Buchanan, who is name-checked by Casey when he introduces the song. Madge sings backup. Prince wrote “A Love Bizarre,” sings on it, and produced it. “Everybody Dance” is produced by Prince associate Jesse Johnson. “Digital Display” sucks on its own.

39. “Day by Day”/Hooters
30. “Everything in My Heart”/Corey Hart
The production of these records hurts my ears: that flinty noise the Hooters put on everything and that drum sound on “Everything in My Heart,” plus Hart’s weird inflections, like he learned the words phonetically.

38. “Russians”/Sting
19. “Party All the Time”/Eddie Murphy
I have disliked “Russians” for years (receipts here), grim and pretentious and awful, although its appeal in 1986, with Ronald Reagan’s finger on the nuclear trigger, is understandable. Casey quotes Eddie Murphy telling an interviewer he was serious about his singing career, but in no universe does  “Party All the Time” sound like the work of an artist with something worthwhile to offer. Radio’s rapturous promotion of both is among the sins we’ll have to answer for on Judgment Day.

31. “Secret Lovers”/Atlantic Starr
21. “Alive and Kicking”/Simple Minds

20. “Life in a Northern Town”/Dream Academy
10. “Go Home”/Stevie Wonder
9. “Walk of Life”/Dire Straits

Any one of these might be the best song on the show, but there’s a good chance it’s “Secret Lovers.” Although “Alive and Kicking” got to #3, who remembers it now? “Life in a Northern Town,” about a British childhood in 1963, is both vividly drawn and half-remembered, like a dream can be. “Go Home” is Stevie’s final Top 10 hit to date. Casey precedes “Walk of Life” with a feature on what he calls the most famous “walks of life” in history: Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, Mao Tse-Tung’s Great March of 1934, and the Trail of Tears. Anybody who’s ever been on the air knows that not every bit is going to be golden, so I ain’t mad about it.

Early in the second hour, Casey does a brief feature on Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” as the first song to hit #1 on the pop, soul, and country charts. He plays about 20 seconds of it, and it stomps every other record on the show.

17. “Goodbye”/Night Ranger
14. “Kyrie”/Mr. Mister
I recently called Night Ranger “bombastic, overblown hogwash that also sounded great on the radio,” and “Goodbye” is certainly that. “Kyrie” is equally ridiculous, although “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel / Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night” is one of the greatest punch-your-fist-in-the-air choruses ever. Casey says “Kyrie” is one of many hit song titles in a foreign language, Greek, adding to a list that also includes French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Latin, and others.

6. “My Hometown”/Bruce Springsteen. Casey reports that Born in the USA has become the third-biggest selling album of all time, behind Thriller and Saturday Night Fever. It’s at #11 in this week after spent 84 straight weeks in the Top 10. Call me if Drake ever does that.

LDD: “Missing You”/John Waite. From high-school junior Jill to her loser friend Todd, who is currently in some kind of double-secret drug rehab program where he can’t receive letters or phone calls. I believe they call that “jail,” Jill.

4. “Talk to Me”/Stevie Nicks
3. “I’m Your Man”/Wham
2. “Burning Heart”/Survivor

There are maybe five songs on this entire list that you’re halfway likely to hear on the radio somewhere today, and these ain’t any of them.

1. “That’s What Friends Are For”/Dionne Warwick and Friends. Given its associated starpower (Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John) and its high-profile cause (AIDS research), “That’s What Friends Are For” (originally recorded by Rod Stewart in 1982) was never not going to be a smash. In fact, it would end up Billboard‘s #1 song for 1986. It’s one of seven singles from this show to make the year-end Top 10, which tells you plenty about the months to come.

There was a lot of hating in this post today. I’ll try to do better next time.

I Remember Everything

The very first post at this blog warned you: “Some of what we get into will likely be so personal that I’ll be the only one who could conceivably be interested in it.” And so here we are in the middle of January 1977. The list, which I playlisted and drove around with this week, was originally posted on Twitter by Retro Music Ads; click to embiggen.

2. “New Kid in Town”/Eagles. Me, 2017: “A few years ago some Internet site I was reading suggested that your life’s theme song is the one that was #1 on your 18th birthday. But there is no goddamn way I’m accepting “Love Is Thicker Than Water” by Andy Gibb. I would, however, take the #1 song on my 17th birthday….”

4. “Torn Between Two Lovers”/Mary Macgregor
5. “Walk This Way”/Aerosmith
“Torn Between Two Lovers” is very 70s, and not just because it’s bland pop cheese that scratched some cultural itch and became an unlikely #1 hit. It’s also quite progressive, in Mary’s suggestion that there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be able to love two people equally, as each one of them provides something she needs and cannot get from the other. That radio stations would play it in the same quarter-hour with “Walk This Way” leaves me woozy with delight.

8. “Hot Line”/Sylvers. Some big hits don’t stay on the radio very long after they drop out of current rotations, but precious few disappeared as fast or as completely as “Hot Line,” which went to #5 on the Hot 100 and was #1 at WLS in Chicago. It ranked #25 on Billboard‘s official year-end Top 100 (and #11 at WLS), but literally dozens of the songs that ranked behind it would be much better remembered and get much more airplay across the years to come.

9. “Dazz”/Brick. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me one of the things wrought by the triumph of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s was the virtual end of the crossover between jazz and Black pop. But before that, in bands from Earth Wind and Fire to MFSB down unto Brick, guys with jazz chops frequently got to show them off on the radio.

12. “Weekend in New England”/Barry Manilow
17. “After the Lovin'”/Engelbert Humperdinck
25. “Stand Tall”/Burton Cummings
28. “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)”/Barbra Streisand
Here I am at peak irrationality about the winter of 1977, although it has far less to do with what’s in the grooves than it does the context in which I was listening. That said, however, neither Manilow nor Streisand ever did anything better.

14. “Tonight’s the Night”/Rod Stewart
22. “Hard Luck Woman”/KISS
Rod sings, “Disconnect the telephone line / Relax baby, enjoy that line,” thereby rhyming “line” with “line.” My man’s got coke-fueled seducin’ to do and no time for poetic details. It’s said that in 1977, people mistook “Hard Luck Woman” for Rod Stewart, although to the extent I hear that, it’s much more so in the backing track, which sounds like it could have been on Gasoline Alley or another early album.

15. “Night Moves”/Bob Seger
16. “Somebody to Love”/Queen
20. “Year of the Cat”/Al Stewart
29. “Livin’ Thing”/ELO

The other day on my radio show I played for the first time one of the giant hits of the moment (which I cannot mention by name, alas), a record that’s been getting thousands of spins a week across the country for a couple of months—and friends, it is garbage. It’s so bad that it actually makes me angry. We consumed plenty of empty musical calories back in the day, but from time to time, artists would challenge themselves and us with music that demanded and rewarded attention, and it was good for the soul in ways that endure years later.

30. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston. I have written before about “the climax of ‘More Than a Feeling,’ just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything.

And I do. The angle of the light on those January mornings, and the promise of those days, and the way my future rolled out in front of me, a road leading inevitably over the rainbow, an easy journey as long as I just kept walking.

I would never get over the rainbow, of course. Remembering the time when I was sure I would will have to be enough now.

As with all things at this website, your mileage may vary. We’ve all got music that speaks to us of things only we can understand, on a frequency that only we can hear. This is some of mine.

You’re Outta Here

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Radio consultant Fred Jacobs wrote a thing last week about whether radio jocks who are being fired should get the chance to do a farewell show. This, as you know or can guess, is extreeeeeeemly uncommon. But he notes how many fired jocks have made graceful farewells on social media, and he wonders if stations might not consider giving more such people a chance to say goodbye on the air.

Some fired jocks can’t be trusted to make a graceful farewell, however. The most famous case of a farewell-gone-wild (that I know of) was in 1976, when WCFL in Chicago made its fabled format change to elevator music. The station announced the move in advance, and all the jocks on the staff went quietly, except for morning hosts Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren. On the day after the announcement, they spent 3 1/2 hours setting fire to their bosses (even making an on-air call to morning rival Fred Winston at WLS) before they were finally yanked off the air.

(Highlights of the final show are here; the video also includes a Chicago Tribune column about their stunt.)

But the number of jocks who’d go as far as Dick and Doug is pretty small, I think. I am also guessing that the number who’d actually want to do a farewell show after getting fired is small, too. Even in those cases when you can smell it coming like a thunderstorm on the wind, being fired is traumatic, and traumatized people tend not to be all that great on the radio. But if time and circumstances permit, some jocks would certainly welcome the chance at a formal on-air goodbye.

I got to do a post-firing farewell show once. I said goodbye to a large and loyal local audience instead of just vanishing into the ether, so there was a bit of closure for them, and for me. Another time, when my boss showed up at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon while I was on the air, there could be only one reason why he was there, so I ended my last break by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a pleasure.” The stupidest and least justified of my firings, the famous industrial espionage incident, was the one time I’d have been justified in going full-Dick-and-Doug on the people who ran the place. They didn’t give me the chance, of course, and I wouldn’t have done it anyway, because I was young and green and trying to be professional, and hoping to protect whatever future prospects I had in that market or elsewhere. The last time I got fired, I was deep into burnout without realizing it, and the owner did me a favor by cutting me loose. After the shock subsided, what I felt mostly was relief. I probably could have done a perfectly fine farewell show there, but I didn’t want to.

(To newer patrons: yes, I got fired a lot. Nearly every radio jock gets fired sometime. It happens. You have to go out in some spectacularly illegal fashion before there’s much stigma attached to it. Even Dick and Doug weren’t blackballed from the industry.)

But radio companies are generally risk-averse in the best of situations, and so most of them would not for one second consider letting a fired employee back on the air. (The more humane ones might let you clean out your desk unsupervised and leave the building without being walked out by security.) So it seems likely that fired jocks disappearing without a trace will be a thing forever. But farewell shows, in addition to providing a modest sense of closure for the jock, can also offer closure to the audience. For listeners emotionally invested in a favorite station, it’s extremely jarring to find a familiar personality suddenly gone without explanation. (After one station of mine suddenly turfed a popular veteran jock, we got calls about them for a year afterward.) And even after decades of success at KROQ in Los Angeles, our friend Bean Baxter periodically reminded listeners that it was entirely possible that they would tune in one morning and find that he and Kevin Ryder were gone without warning.

It’s true for all of us, because that’s how radio is.

In the Jingle Jangle Morning I’ll Come Following You

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(Pictured: the Byrds on The Ed Sullivan Show in December 1965; L to R, Crosby, Hillman, Clark, Clarke, and McGuinn.)

It is the last week of August in 1965. The Billboard Hot 100 is top-heavy with songs that will be considered classic for decades to come. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” is #1, ahead of the Beatles’ “Help” and “California Girls” by the Beach Boys. The Top 10 also includes hits by the Righteous Brothers, Four Tops, Bob Dylan, and James Brown.

The list of songs that have already reached #1 in 1965 is astounding to an observer from the distant future. It includes “Satisfaction,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Stop in the Name of Love,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Eight Days a Week,” “My Girl,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Back in My Arms Again.” And also “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, which spent the week of June 26, 1965 at #1. In a summer of ridiculous musical bounty, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was in the Top 10 for most of June and July. The Byrds harmonize beautifully on a truncated version of Bob Dylan’s original lyric over a track that’s mostly played by the Wrecking Crew; only lead guitarist Roger McGuinn (then still known as Jim) was deemed musician enough to play on the band’s debut single. The original plan was for studio musicians to make the entire album, but producer Terry Melcher relented, and the other Byrds, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, Michael Clarke, and David Crosby, both played and sang on Mr. Tambourine Man, which was released the week before the title song hit #1.

But back to the last week of August. “Mr. Tambourine Man” has been out of the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks. The album of the same name sits at #12 on Billboard‘s Top LPs list, down from its peak of #6 the week before. A second Byrds single, Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” is at #47, down from #40 in the previous week, a disappointing performance for a band just off a #1 hit. A version of the song by Cher, which she and Sonny decided to record after hearing the Byrds perform it earlier in the year, has run the charts at exactly the same time, and it’s the bigger hit, at #15 in this week. But Cher had the best of it only in the States. In the UK, the Byrds’ “All I Really Want to Do” went to #4, and in fact the band spends two weeks of August 1965 playing shows up and down the sceptered isle.

Thousands of miles from the UK, in the last week of August in 1965, I go off to kindergarten. I can still see myself standing at the screen door waiting for the school bus on the first day. I’ve written about Lincoln School before: “I know now that it was a normal, human-sized building, but in my memory, perspective is distorted—ceilings are a mile high, hallways are yards wide, and I’m a tiny creature looking up from very close to the floor. Which, in fact, I was.” My mother says that when she asked me how I had found my way to the right room on that morning, I told her, “They opened the door and I just walked in.”

My kindergarten teacher was Miss Morgan. Honesty compels me to report that I do not have specific memories of Miss Morgan, a woman in her early 30s then. I am certain that she had the traits all kindergarten teachers require—unfailing kindness and endless patience—but at the same time she was taskmaster enough to get 30 half-feral five-year-olds to go willingly in something like the same direction every day. And I am also certain that to the extent I am capable of learning and growing today, I still walk the path that Miss Morgan put me on.

Now, 57 years and some months past the end of August in 1965, it happens that David Crosby, who became the most famous member of the Byrds, and Miss Morgan of Lincoln School, who taught kindergarten for 40 years, should leave the planet in the same week.

The coincidence of the Byrd and the Teacher feels like it ought to mean something, and maybe it’s this: as we all sail our respective oceans, we have people who stand like beacons on the shore, whether we know them personally or only at a distance, whether they lit up our lives for years or for only a brief time. Even after those beacons wink out, we still use the light they gave us to help us fare forward on our way.

This Is It

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(Pictured: American soldiers at the Kuwaiti border, January 1991.)

I have told the story before about being on the air the day the Persian Gulf War began in 1991. Recently, I was poking through the archives of my first blog, The Daily Aneurysm, and found what I wrote about it on January 16, 2006. It has a couple of details I don’t think I’ve ever shared here. 

On January 16, 1991, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa. In those days, Clinton wasn’t exactly Paris in the 1920s—it was a hanging-by-a-thread industrial town where the top employers were an animal carcass rendering plant and a grain processor, both of which blanketed the city with an indescribable stench, and a chemical plant that produced god-knew-what. It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what’s-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense. (That’s partly why The Mrs. and I never lived there—I commuted from 30 miles away for three-plus years.) Despite all that, however, the station was run by the best owner I ever worked for, and it became a place where you could plant little seeds of good radio and be given the time necessary for them to grow.

We tried buying a house in Clinton—a couple of them, as a matter of fact. One was a magnificent old pile from the 1920s that had quite literally everything we’d ever wanted in a house, at a price that made it an absolute steal. But we were warned off by every single local person we talked to: “You do not want to live in that neighborhood no matter how beautiful the house is.” The second was in the more desirable part of town, but we bailed after the home inspector determined that the whole thing had been framed with two-by-fours. Standing in the attic, he told me, “The fact that this place is 40 years old and hasn’t fallen down yet says something, but I still wouldn’t store anything heavy up here.” 

So on that day, I am on the air in the afternoon, my regular timeslot. Around the office, war talk has been secondary to the fact that Jane Pauley of NBC News is in town shooting a feature for one of her shows. At the end of the 3:30 local newscast, my reporter, Christy, mentions this to me on the air. We happen to know that the owner of the local limousine service usually plays our station in his limo, so I make a little speech: “Jane, if you’re listening and you have a few minutes, stop by the radio station. Your driver knows how to find it. We promise it will be the easiest interview you ever had. Nothing but softball questions. You can plug your new show all you want.” I repeat the invitation a few more times over the next couple of hours.

About 5:45, Christy suddenly bursts into the studio yelling, “This is it! This is it!” She is talking about the first bulletins of bombers over Baghdad. For a few seconds, I think she is telling me Jane Pauley has showed up.

I wasn’t in favor of that war. All the talk about liberating the poor Kuwaitis, and all the talk about Saddam being worse than Hitler, all of it sounded to me like PR nonsense. It was a war to control the flow of oil, nothing more. The fact that an international coalition was working together on the effort made it only a little easier to swallow. Yet when the war actually began—in the first ten minutes after Christy barreled into the studio—I remember feeling a rush of excitement, and a euphoria so powerful my knees almost buckled when I stood up. Visions of B-52s flying wing-to-wing, tanks and trucks roaring over the border, endless lines of soldiers marching into the distance, flags snapping in the breeze, my country, of thee I sing. This is it. This is it.

We carried ABC News war coverage all that night. The next day, we decided to return to regular programming at noon but with regular updates on the war news. ABC fed a two-minute update every 10 minutes, so all afternoon, I did a regular music show while hitting a network feed six times an hour. It occurs to me now that we probably should have just kept carrying the live network feed. Still, any old radio veteran who ever had to backtime to the top of the hour can appreciate the challenge of doing it 36 times in a single day. 

The Patron Saint of Broadcast Manor

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January came in with a quickness this year, not January-the-month but January-the-vibe. The holidays disappeared like they never really happened, and there’s nothing to look forward to now but two or three months of crappy weather surrounding the daily routine. In the interest of getting something up here this week, here’s a post from April 2013.

In 1979, while I was still immured in the dorm, several of my friends rented a house in the country. Since all of them were radio and television majors, the place was quickly named Broadcast Manor. And since a couple of them would be graduating in the spring of 1980, I was already making plans to move in that fall. Alas, I never did—we lost the house, for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe the owner sold it, maybe he didn’t want to rent it anymore, I forget. But the spring semester could not end until one last epic party, famed among those who were there as the House Destruction Party. We didn’t actually destroy anything, except many, many brain cells. There’s a picture taken the morning after, with all the survivors gathered around a boom mike in the dining room, that’s one of my most cherished artifacts of college.

(Note from 2023: the boom mike in the dining room is emblematic of just how crazy we were for our chosen careers in radio and TV. A few in the picture are still in the biz, but many more are no longer. A couple never found media jobs after college.)

Broadcast Manor lived on that fall, albeit on a much smaller scale. Two of the guys, Jim and Bill, took a two-bedroom apartment in town. I moved in, sharing a room with Jim, while Bill’s friend Tom took the other available space. (Two Jims was not confusing to anybody, since practically nobody called me Jim back then, but that’s a story for another time.) The four of us were not especially compatible. Jim and I liked to party, while Bill and Tom’s idea of a big Friday night was going to dinner with their girlfriends at 5:00 and coming home to watch TV. At least once, Bill and Tom got home to 30 people in the living room after Jim and I forgot to tell them about the party we were planning.

While nothing would ever rival the House Destruction Party, we had a couple of ragers. One was a M*A*S*H party—come as your favorite character—for which Jim and I dressed in matching bathrobes as the Hawkeye Brothers. Another was a beach party, although I think the entire theme might have been a sign saying “beach” that pointed to the upstairs bathroom, where we had filled the tub with water and dyed it blue. One party brought out the cops, and we were shanghaied by Bill and Tom into Friday-night carpet-shampoo duty in the aftermath of another.

Jim, Bill, and Tom all graduated in the spring of 1981, and I took in new roommates for the summer and fall, two of whom were named Dave. Two Daves was not confusing to anybody, since one of the Daves was never called Dave. The Dave who was called Dave was a childhood friend of mine, and a big hit at our first party of the fall, although I didn’t do a good job of introducing him, apparently. I was asked repeatedly on Monday, “Who was that guy who kept refilling my beer on Saturday night?”

He was popular.

College party stories are dime-a-dozen. Everybody’s got them, and everybody thinks theirs are interesting. And there’s also this: everybody thinks their party music was better than anyone else’s. Our party tapes were created from radio station record libraries, and were pretty solid as a result. (For the record, it was “Green Grass and High Tides” that prompted the neighbors to call the police.) But when I think of the typical Broadcast Manor blowout, the memory is always accompanied by the same song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita.”

I see that apartment, keg in the kitchen, the stereo cranked, living room full of people, every one of  ’em chanting along, if they can manage to get the words out through the beer fog: “Your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money / Your papa says he knows I don’t have any money.” And right at the end: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Everybody’s smiling, laughing, shouting, eyes bright, souls without care, having as much fun as is possible with both feet on the floor.

In all the years since, I’ve never had that much fun again.