Never Heard This on AM Radio Before

While we’re on the subject of American Top 40 countdowns, let’s talk about one of the weirder ones in AT40 history: the “national album countdown,” broadcast on the weekend of August 5, 1972, and repeated last weekend on Sirius/XM. Instead of counting down the week’s top singles, it counted down the 40 biggest albums of the week.

Casey and his producers made what turns out to have been a fateful mistake: When presenting each album, they chose to announce the song holding the corresponding position on the singles chart, and that turned the show into a muddle. For example, the Number 28 album of the week was Too Young by Donny Osmond. As it happened, the title song from that album was in the Top 40, but at Number 26 for the week. Playing “Too Young” at 28 was apparently deemed confusing, so Casey played Donny’s cover of Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy.” (Which sounded as much like Alvin and the Chipmunks as it did Donny Osmond, but I digress.) Then up at Number 26, he announced “Too Young” as the 26th biggest single of the week before playing a track from the Number 26 album, Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers Band, “Melissa.”

But Casey didn’t ignore current hits altogether. Before playing “Lonely Boy,” he announced that the Number 28 song of the week was “Happy” by the Rolling Stones, but then played it when album countdown reached Exile on Main Street at Number Two. Something similar happened, or didn’t, at several points in the countdown: He chose Procol Harum’s “Conquistador” to represent Live With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the album at #5 when “Conquistador” was at #17 on the singles chart, and “School’s Out,” the #7 single of the week, to represent the #2 album by Alice Cooper. But he might have played Elton John’s current hit, “Rocket Man” (#18 on the singles chart), when announcing the Number One album, Honky Chateau (or “Honky Cat,” the forthcoming single from the album), but he chose “Salvation” instead.

In short, the show was all over the place, and it didn’t have to be. Not obligating himself to announce the single sitting at each chart position would have made it possible for Casey to play many more of the week’s current hits, and that would have made for a much better show—for both listeners and program directors.

The oddest song on the countdown probably would have been a track from Amazing Grace, the Number 36 album, by the Fifes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scotch Dragoon Guards, had Casey not chosen to omit it. (According to the show’s original cue sheet, four albums were mentioned on the show but nothing was played from them, including Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu, sitting at Number 8.) As it was, the never-heard-this-on-AM-radio-before award goes to “Marbles,” a track from Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles Live, the album at Number 14, with a segment of Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” a close second.

The “national album countdown,” as Casey referred to the show, was never repeated, although in the late 70s, there was a separate series called The National Album Countdown.  There’s precious little about that show on the web—if you google the phrase “national album countdown,” the top link is to a post I wrote about it last summer, which mentioned how there’s precious little about that show on the web. It seems to have premiered in 1976, which is when I remember listening to it. Mentions of the show in editions of Billboard available at Google Books are scarce; one 1977 article says it was heard on 85 stations, but a 1980 article says only that it was currently heard on the Armed Forces Radio Network. The National Album Countdown was produced not by Casey’s company, Watermark, but by Westwood One. (I said in my original post that it used the Billboard chart, but scattered mentions across the web say it used Record World‘s chart. Record World was the stepsister of Billboard and Cash Box, but was influential for a few years in the late 70s.)

If you have made it to the end of this post, thank you. I bet not everybody who started it finished it.

A Million Years Ago

A few more random observations about the American Top 40 show from August 1, 1970:

In all my experience, there’s never been another record remotely like “(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You” by Ronnie Dyson, which was at Number 21 that week: its jaunty opening, Dyson’s pure, clear voice, and the lyric, which was quite an enigma to me when I first heard the song—just as enigmatic as the relationship Dyson is singing about. (The AT40 show was in mono, as all of the shows were until sometime in 1972, but “Why Can’t I Touch You” in stereo is glorious.)

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a young, politically aware person in the summer of 1970, hearing CSNY’s “Ohio” on the radio every three or four hours, and having to repeatedly contemplate the enormity of the government’s willingness to kill you if you opposed the Vietnam War. “Ohio” appeared back-to-back on that week’s countdown with “Teach Your Children,”  at Number 17 and 16 respectively. The two songs together present a pretty rich text regarding America in 1970—about the trouble we were in, and the counterculture’s idealistic prescription for getting out of it.

A couple of times during the show, Casey explained the methodology used to develop the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. Sales statistics from 100 record stores and airplay from 54 major radio stations were analyzed by “computerized data processing,” as Casey put it, to develop the chart. That strikes me as a remarkably small sample size, even for an era when big radio markets had just two Top-40 stations competing head-to-head, simply because there was a far greater number of record stores then. Perhaps it was small sample size that permitted charmless sludge like “Can’t You See My Love” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars to creep into the Top 40.

Despite the countdown’s awful first hour, it’s pure Top-40 pleasure by the end: “Ooh Child,” “Tighter & Tighter,” “Spill the Wine,” “Signed Sealed Delivered,” “Band of Gold.” The top song of the week was “Close to You” by the Carpenters, spending the second of four weeks at Number One. Because “Close to You” hasn’t gotten 41 years of continuous radio play, it seems out of place with the others now. I remember playing it on the radio a few years back and saying it was from the summer of 1970, “exactly one million years ago.”

We haven’t had an Off-Topic Tuesday for a while, but today we do, on the flip.

Continue reading “A Million Years Ago”

Tell It All, Brother

This past weekend’s vintage American Top 40 show was dated August 1, 1970. Casey Kasem was still groping toward his familiar style, although it had come a long way since the very first broadcast a month earlier—his delivery and the show’s production were much more consistent compared the slapdash quality of the first show.

No matter the year, I particularly like the first hour of each show, where legendary singles frequently rub up against ephemeral oddballs: country weepers, R&B stompers, and novelty records that had enough juice in enough places to crack the 40, but not enough to leave a mark on history. The second and third hours of the show are generally filled with highly familiar music, but that first hour often contains stuff even I have forgotten, and it’s usually a lot of fun. The August 1, 1970, show was unique in my experience, however: The first hour was terrible.

Let me count the ways. The standard Motown narrative has the label beginning to struggle in 1970, reflecting its failure to find a second generation of stars apart from the Jackson Five. “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars and “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love” by the Supremes, which debuted at Numbers 39 and 37 respectively, are evidence of Motown’s decline. There’s absolutely nothing special about either one. Up at Number 35 is “Maybe” by the Three Degrees, a cover of the 1957 Chantels hit (as Casey told the audience twice), which starts with a monologue and seems to take forever to play. (The album version, linked above, takes even longer.) “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, which closes out the hour, is so firmly anchored to a particular moment in history—the one at which the hippie dream of universal brotherhood and peace begins to unmistakably crumble—that it sounds as dated as ragtime. The first hour also includes “Summertime Blues” by the Who and “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain. Next to Walker, the Supremes, and the Three Degrees, it wasn’t so much a contrast as a collision—a head-on with fatalities.

That first hour was not without its gems: “Mississippi” by John Phillips is a record we have repeatedly praised ’round these parts. “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago (“We’ll figure it out as the weeks go by,” Casey says of the title, which perplexes him) points the way toward the sound of the 70s better than most other records in the countdown. And “Patches” by Clarence Carter brings the timeless charm of old-school soul music that the Three Degrees were going for in “Maybe,” but couldn’t capture. The first hour also included “Sex Machine” by James Brown, and if you guessed that Casey glossed over the title, you are correct.

I have said more than once—most recently on Twitter Saturday night—that when I look at a record chart from the summer of 1970, I see my life in the test tube, mixed up but not yet poured out. Most of the top songs during August would still be around in September, that pivotal month of discovery. The songs at the bottom of the Top 40 are part of that history, too. Just as my love of music started at the top of the charts that fall, perhaps my eventual fascination with obscurities was sparked by the stuff at the bottom.

Love and Death on AT40

My curmudgeonly post of yesterday about never going to the movies nearly came around and bit me three hours after it went up. I had time to kill late in the day before meeting The Mrs. for dinner at a spot we like, and I had to walk by a movie theater to get there. If The King’s Speech had been playing at 3:30 instead of 4:30, I probably would have bought a ticket.

We’ve become so atomized as a culture, each of us a member of several little tribes, many of them remarkably insular, that there are practically no cultural events left that we all take part in together. And so, even though The King’s Speech won Best Picture, only a tiny fraction of the population will ever see it, and its impact on whatever’s left of our common culture will be extremely limited.

I was thinking about this even before yesterday, while listening to this past weekend’s vintage American Top 40 broadcast, which counted down the chart from February 27, 1971. The show contained three different versions of the theme from the movie Love Story—a vocal by Andy Williams, the original soundtrack version by Francis Lai, and the Henry Mancini version—and a fourth recording, by Tony Bennett, was bubbling under the Hot 100. And later, Love Story would inspire yet another hit single: “Love Means (You Never Have to Say You’re Sorry)” by the Sounds of Sunshine, which would squeeze into the Top 40 in July.

That’s decent evidence that Love Story, about the doomed love of Oliver and Jenny (Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw), resonated within the culture of 40 years ago to a degree we just don’t see anymore. And never mind now—we never saw it to that degree again in the 1970s. Can you think of another movie that produced so many different hit versions of its theme? Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind each had two, original soundtrack versions by John Williams and disco versions by Meco. Perhaps there were others with more than one, but four?

Another oddity about the February 27, 1971, countdown: Right there alongside all of the romantic toonage from Love Story was one of history’s most bizarre hit singles: “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock, the lugubrious, minor-key, overly long tale of how it feels to die in an airplane crash, or a traffic accident, or some damn thing. Somebody who was there back then would have to tell me how it was that this record got onto mass-appeal Top 40 in the first place, and how it managed to do so well: ARSA shows “D.O.A.” reaching Number One in Tulsa, Kansas City, Phoenix, and San Diego, and going Top Ten in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I can understand why people might have bought it—there is no accounting for taste—but what I can’t grasp is how programmers of that day decided to play something that seems so uncommercial, right alongside the Partridge Family, Dawn, Three Dog Night, and the Osmonds.

Programming Note: Starting tomorrow, I’ll be writing Rock Flashback posts for six days a week. If you want to keep up with them, the best way is to follow WNEW on Twitter, since the new WNEW site doesn’t have an RSS feed yet. I’ll do my best to tweet the posts too, so check “Real Stupid in Real Time” at the right for those updates, or follow me on Twitter. I hope that the amount of work I’ll be doing over there won’t interfere with the regular goings-on at this blog, but we’ll see.

American Top 39

I’m a big fan of Kinky Paprika’s American Top 40 breakdowns at Songs of the Cholera King. I go full geek on 70s music because I lived those years through the radio; as a younger man who didn’t, his perspective is more dispassionate. So I was especially interested in his recent post on the AT40 show from December 26, 1970, one of the more memorable weeks of my young life as a radio listener.

But it turns out that the show from that week is interesting for technical reasons and not so much the songs themselves. The week’s Number One song, “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, was listed as a double-A side by Billboard, and so Casey decided to play “Isn’t It a Pity” too, all seven minutes’ worth. To do this, however, he told the audience that he would be forced to omit a song from the countdown as a result. I’d love to know the thought process by which the AT40 staff decided to drop Number 30, “Share the Land” by the Guess Who. “Share the Land” was on its way down the chart, but Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight” had taken a bigger fall to Number 38, and had been around the same number of weeks. Casey chose to play only one side of another double-A-sided record, “Patch It Up” by Elvis Presley (in lieu of the far superior “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which is listed on the show’s original cue sheet), and he could have made a similar decision with “My Sweet Lord.”

But it seems to me that the decision might have had just as much to do with Christmas as it did with Harrison’s landmark single. Casey chose to tell a Chrstmas story involving singer Jackie Wilson, and he played “Higher and Higher” to go along with it. Later in the show, he played Bing Crosby’s version of “Silent Night”—more Christmas flavor for the kiddies. He could have bagged either one to make “Share the Land” fit, so I wonder if Casey, in those early days of the show, wasn’t trying to placate program directors who didn’t want to go three hours during Christmas week without some mention of the season, or some seasonal music.

The Crosby “Silent Night” was edited out of the version of the show that aired around the country last weekend. Kinky noted that the version of the show that aired on Sirius/XM contained an odd glitch—it played Dawn’s “Knock Three Times,” the week’s Number 4 song, twice, and omitted Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.” The version shipped to terrestrial radio stations had it right, though.

To make up for what Casey missed, here’s “Share the Land.” I linked to this live TV performance three weeks ago, so here’s a lip-synched performance of about the same vintage.

If you dig the classic AT40s, Magic 98 will be running an entire day of them on New Year’s Day, including the top 40 hits of 1974, starting at 6AM US Central. Click “listen live” here, where you can also listen to my Green County shitkicker routine today and tomorrow from 3 to 7 in the afternoon.

At this blog, I will have one last post on Thursday before 2010 trails off into history, but otherwise, we’re on hiatus until next week. May 2011 be a better year for you than 2010 was for me—because saints preserve us if it’s worse.

On With the Countdowns

After this post, we’re going on hiatus for a while, to work on things we get paid for, to spend some time with the family, and maybe even to disconnect from the Internet for a while. There should be a new post here on Tuesday, July 20.

Listening to American Top 40 last weekend, and the countdown dated July 10, 1976, I could remember hearing it when it originally ran 34 years ago. I could easily picture the 1976 me, sitting on my bed in my room upstairs at home, pencil and paper close at hand, writing down the titles and artists song by song. In those pre-Internet days, it was tough for a chart geek to get the information he craved. Our local newspaper would occasionally publish the Billboard Top 10, and I can remember running to the mailbox on the days I thought it was going to appear, and being crushed when it didn’t. What else was I going to do? It was either subscribe to Billboard or listen to Casey, although WCFL in Chicago counted down its survey on Friday afternoons (with Larry Lujack) for a while toward the end of its life as a Top-4o station.

AT40 never aired on a station I listened to regularly; I always had to search it out. Often, I’d catch it on an AM station from Rockford, Illinois, which cut its power at sundown, and which frequently left me trying to pick out fragments through the static in order to get the last of the countdown.

AT40 wasn’t the only countdown I was addicted to in 1976. I also listened religiously to something called The National Album Countdown, hosted by “Humble Harv” Miller, a veteran of KHJ and other Southern California stations. There’s precious little information about the show online, but Harv would count down the top 20 or 30 (I forget) albums on the Billboard chart, playing different tracks each week.

AT40 featured an album countdown on one show early in its history. According to Watermark on the Web, which is loaded with fascinating stuff about AT40 and other programs syndicated by Watermark, Inc., a special countdown dated August 5, 1972, was called “The National Album Countdown” and featured songs from the week’s top 40 albums. The show started with “Rock and Roll Crazies” by Stephen Stills and Manassas, and concluded with “Salvation” by Elton John from Honky Chateau. It included both the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 compilation, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu, both of which were in the Top 10, a live album by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles, classic albums such as Harvest, Eat a Peach, and Tapestry, and an inordinate number of records by the Osmonds—three in all. And it must have been fairly cool to hear Casey play “Thick as a Brick.”

Based on the cue sheet for the show, it looks as if Casey didn’t play a song from every album, and some of the choices seem mighty odd. Why would the show have omitted Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space,” a current hit that summer, and have included “Salvation” instead of either “Rocket Man,” which was on its way out of the singles chart, or “Honky Cat,” which was on its way in?

Just to complete the circle, Humble Harv filled in for Casey on AT40 on the show dated July 13, 1974. I don’t remember listening to that one—but it doesn’t mean I didn’t.