Primordial Top 40

Last weekend’s American Top 40 repeat broadcast was the first show, from July 4, 1970. At this early stage, the personality Casey Kasem displays is far different from what we’re used to hearing, much more casual than it would eventually become. Sometimes he punches his voice like a classic boss jock while at other times, he speaks softly, almost like an underground FM jock. Sometimes he’ll chuckle at stuff he finds amusing, which can be disconcerting for the listener if he or she doesn’t find it amusing, too.

At the beginning, Casey seems uncomfortable, hurrying through the first couple of segments, short bits delivered quickly, as if he were consistently up against the clock. As I listened, I found myself thinking, “Come on, man, stop talking so fast.” By the last segment of the first hour, he seems more comfortable. The pace is far less frantic. At first I suspected that maybe the show was recorded live in a single take, and that Casey felt more at home as the show went along. But he’s also given more time to stretch out and more things to talk about after the first couple of segments. Some of the stuff sounds scripted, but some of it sounds ad libbed, as you’ll hear below.

The production of the show is also different from what it would become. Casey rarely speaks the chart positions of the songs in the countdown, letting the jingle singers do it instead. It’s almost as if he were trying to do the show in such a way that his intro segments could be cut up and re-used in future shows, when the positions would be different. It would make little sense for him to have done so, but I don’t know what else explains his reluctance to give the chart positions, unless maybe he recorded some of his bits before the chart was officially released.

Contrary to what I wrote last week, the chart Casey counted down on the first show is actually the Billboard chart dated July 11, 1970, which was topped by Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” The Beatles (“The Long and Winding Road”) and Elvis (“The Wonder of You”) are in the Top Ten. The chart contains five records new to the Top 40, including “Ohio” by CSNY at Number 30 and “Make It With You” by Bread, way up at Number 20. It also contains a handful of records that disappeared from history not long after they disappeared from the radio. “End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye anchors the countdown at Number 40, where it would hold for a second week and then drop out. “Check Out Your Mind” by the Impressions at Number 28 and “A Song of Joy” by Miguel Rios at Number 15 didn’t linger on many playlists after the summer of 1970, either.

Casey’s intro of “Ohio” does not include a single word about the song’s explosive subject matter, except to call it “heavy.” The same segment also includes an awkward introduction of “Everything Is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens, and one of those strange chuckles after “Check Out Your Mind.” The last song of the segment is “Question” by the Moody Blues, which includes my favorite part of the whole first show. Midway through the song, a repeating scratch on the record is clearly audible. If some of the Casey shows have gone through post-production to “fix” them for repeating 30-plus years later, this one hasn’t. More than anything else in the show, that little scratch is evidence of how much radio has changed.

American Top 40, 7/4/70, hour 1, segment 3

Casey Country

In my post about the repeat broadcasts of original 70s-vintage American Top 40 a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how forgotten records of various genres populate the first hour of the show, and that they sometimes clash weirdly when played back to back. Those clashes are part of the fun of hearing the reruns today, although I’m sure they make program directors squirm a little bit—and to be fair, they may have made program directors squirm a little back in the day, too.

I’ve been listening to the May 22, 1976, show over the last few days, and there’s a stretch of that broadcast that makes you wonder just what format you’re listening to. It starts innocuously at Number 36  with Olivia Newton-John’s “Come on Over,” a song by Barry and Robin Gibb that was also a Top-Ten hit on the country charts. Up next at Number 35 is the highest-debuting song of the week, “I.O.U.” by Jimmy Dean. At the time, Dean was known to most as the star of commercials for his sausage company, although  he had been a TV star for years before that, and he scored a number of sizable spoken-word hits in the 1960s, including “Big Bad John” and “P.T. 109.”

May 22, 1976, was a Saturday; the previous Sunday would have been Mother’s Day, which explains why “I.O.U,” in which Dean describes how grateful he is for all the services his mother provided him over a lifetime by reciting them over a weepy string track, would have zoomed into the 40 from Number 83.

After “I.O.U,” which runs 5:57 (and which seems twice as long), Casey teases that he’s going to answer a question from a listener about the highest-charting answer record in pop history. Then he kicks into Gary Wright’s latest, “Love Is Alive,” at Number 34, and normalcy seems to return. After the record’s over, he answers the question: the top answer song of all time is Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” a response to Jim Reeves’ 1960 classic “He’ll Have to Go.” Two more country songs, although both went Top 5 on the pop chart as well. (Hear ’em both here.) And after this bit of trivia, Casey moves on to Number 33.

By this point, a Top-40 listener could scarcely be blamed for thinking he’d tuned in the wrong station, at least until the Doobie Brothers (“Takin’ It to the Streets”) and Rhythm Heritage (“Baretta’s Theme”) set things aright, although Elvis and the Bellamy Brothers will be heard shortly with songs that were also big country hits.

Up at Number 24, Casey plays “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers. As I listen, I remember that four years ago this spring, National Review published a widely mocked list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, and I wonder why “Union Man” didn’t make the list. It’s highly ambivalent on the subject of labor unions, and the song’s protagonist would probably have ended up a Reagan Democrat.

Well I know I need to help get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
When you say I’m going on strike
Hey hey Mr. union man
How’m I gonna pay my dues
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

YouTube DJ Music Mike has more on the Cate Brothers and “Union Man” here.

Both “I.O.U” and “Union Man” were at their chart peaks on May 22, 1976. “I.O.U.” would bring AT40 to a dead stop again the next week at Number 35 and “Union Man” would hold at 24. “I.O.U.” would be gone from the countdown (and the Hot 100) the week after that, while “Union Man” would spend one last week on the 40 during the week of June 5 before plunging to Number 96 and out. And 34 years after they ran the charts together, “I.O.U.” and “Union Man” stand as dusty, forgotten monuments to the unparalleled diversity of 70s radio pop.

Everybody Listens to Casey

I dig the vintage American Top 40 shows that run across the country every weekend. Magic 98 carries them; so does the Sirius/XM 70s channel. The first hour of the show is often hilariously obscure, juxtaposing rock thrashers, wimp-pop weepers, R&B stompers, and novelty records, few of which are ever on the radio anymore. But the remainder of each show, where the bigger hits live, is also a strong reminder of the incredible variety of 70s radio music.

The rebroadcast shows are edited. When you hear two AT40 jingles back to back, that’s where you would have heard a commercial break back in the day—there were lots more breaks per hour than we typically take today. Casey will tease an upcoming feature or extra, but you don’t always hear it.  The survey songs themselves are frequently edited, too. I’m not talking just about the standard 45RPM edits, although this show is often the only place you’re going to hear them anymore—I’m talking about entire verses hacked off to save time, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not. I suspect that this is occasionally done to fit the rebroadcast time window, but Casey and company cut them to fit the original shows as well. Their rationale apparently was that the songs were being heard repeatedly everywhere on the dial, so it didn’t matter if AT40 listeners didn’t hear complete versions every time.

I’ve long wondered whether some parts of the countdowns have been recreated—that is, if Casey’s bits have been digitally pulled off and then remixed with the music. That’s because the rebroadcast countdowns you hear from 1970 and 1971 seem to be in stereo, even though the show didn’t start airing regularly in stereo until 1972. After listening this past weekend, however, I’m almost completely sure that there’s stripping and remixing going on. The show I heard featured Firefall’s “Cinderella,” which includes the line “And I said, goddamn girl, can’t you see.” The radio version of the single heard in the 70s blanked out the “god” part—“And I said, [beat] damn girl, can’t you see.” But on the Casey rebroadcast, “Cinderella” appeared in its full goddamn glory. I’d bet my house that it didn’t air that way originally; earlier in the show, Casey aired the “funky kicks” version of Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner.” The same countdown also featured the album version of Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You” instead of the single—and I just don’t believe that would have happened on the original show.

I’ve also noticed that the audio processing of the old AT40 shows can change from week to week. Some of the mid 70s countdowns sound incredibly hot to me—lots of sibilance on the high end and punch on the bottom—compared to others from earlier and later in the decade. It seems odd that if the show is being digitally reprocessed in other ways, they wouldn’t reprocess it to smooth out the differences, and maybe they do. I’m not much of an audiophile, and I may not be hearing what I think I’m hearing.

If you can’t recall a rebroadcast countdown from late 1978 or 1979, it might be because the show went from three hours to four starting in October 1978. This was due to the increasing length of the average pop single, although this was also the era when Casey started doing long-distance dedications, and each week’s show began with the previous week’s top three records. I guess it would be possible to cut the four-hour shows to fit the three-hour window, but I can’t recall having heard one.

One of the most best parts of the countdown to me is when Casey name-checks the stations carrying or adding the show. You’ll hear a lot of great call letters from major-market stations, stations that have long since abandoned music for talk or sports. Their brief, ghostly reappearance as music stations is a reminder that once, everybody listened to Casey Kasem.

“When I Need You” (single version)/Leo Sayer (buy it here, on a three-disc box set called Singles A’s and B’s, although 61 songs is almost certainly more Leo Sayer than you need. It’s probably one less than you’d expect, though.)

Keep Reaching for the Stars

Casey Kasem turned 77 last April. If you’ve heard him lately, you know that legendary voice isn’t as sharp and clear as it used to be—a contrast made all the more noticeable when you hear repeats of his older shows. Nevertheless, the little item that turned up on a couple of broadcasting websites last Friday was a bit of a surprise: “Premiere Radio Networks has informed its affiliates that they [sic] will stop producing new American Top 10 and American Top 20 countdown shows as of the July 4th weekend. PRN will continue with Casey Kasem’s 70s & 80s-based countdown shows.” With his apparent retirement, one of the most extraordinary careers in voiceover history is coming to an end. You heard him on dozens of commercials. You heard him as the voice of Shaggy in the original Scooby-Doo cartoons, and on many other cartoon series. You heard him as the voice of NBC-TV for a while. But the radio countdowns are what we will remember best, from “This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood” to “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”

American Top 40 premiered on the weekend of July 4, 1970, on a network of seven stations. At its peak in the early 80s, it was on 520 stations in the States and aired in 50 other countries around the world. Competing shows came and went—Casey himself came and went, leaving AT40 in 1988 and returning in 1998 for another six-year run—but Casey’s AT40 shows remain the standard against which radio countdown shows are judged. His “teaser” introductions of records, going into a commercial break by saying something like, “Coming up next, the current hit by the artist who played on more Number One songs than any other left-handed bassist in history,” became famous. (Practically every jock who’s ever strapped on headphones has done a variation on that technique.) His long-distance dedications remain memorable precisely because they were so cheesy. His explorations of chart history were fascinating to geeks such as I, especially during the era before chart books were widely available. But what kept you listening each week, and brought you back the next week, was the undeniable momentum inherent in a countdown show—you wanted to know where your favorites ranked. I’d frequently listen to the show with pencil and paper close by to write down the song titles. And when I became a program director in the 80s, one of the first things I did was to get American Top 40 for my station.

The earliest editions of AT40 were in mono—the program didn’t go stereo until 1972. In 1978, the original show expanded from three hours to four, but rebroadcast countdowns from 1978 and 1979 are edited down to three, so the long-distance dedications and chart extras are omitted. (The American Top 40 Wikipedia entry is full of fascinating facts about the show.) Back in the day, the shows were delivered to radio stations on vinyl albums, one hour of the show per disc, so somebody, generally a low-paid part-time jock, would have to sit there in the studio and play ’em each weekend. Thus thousands of radio people got their start in the biz engineering Casey’s show. Now, of course, the 70s and 80s rebroadcasts are digitally remastered, and most stations can automate the show so nobody has to hang around.

For someone as ubiquitous as Casey once was, he gave us few opportunities to glimpse his real, away-from-the-microphone personality. People like Dick Clark and Howard Stern are much fuller characters to us. The most unguarded moment of Casey Kasem’s career was that famously obscene off-air rant about an inappropriate long-distance dedication. He never seemed to give many interviews, and although he was politically active, he didn’t seek publicity in doing so. He was simply a voice—but to many of us, his voice was as familiar as the voices in our own families.