On my old blog I used to listen to Casey Kasem American Top 40 countdowns and write them up, with commentary of questionable value appended to each song.
In memory of Donna Summer, then, here’s the countdown from the week ending July 14, 1979, as I heard it two summers ago.
A lot of people like to point to the infamous 1979 Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park as an emblem of America’s dissatisfaction with disco.
But, if the rioters in Chicago truly reflected a changing American mood, it took a long time for the wave to actually break, because the American Top 40 countdown for that very week was top-heavy with disco records.
There might have been a lot of people wishing for disco’s demise; but any reports of its death at that point were very much premature.
How do I know? Well, I just sat through the AT40 for the week ending July 14, 1979.
In the words of James Hetfield, it hella sucked.
But because I went to the length of writing it all down, here it is for your delectation, with the occasional favourite song in bold.
So come with me to disco’s last stand:
No. 40: Things lead off with a “dynamite little redhead,” (Casey’s words), Bette Midler with “Married Men.”
Her first hit in five years, and undistinguished disco.
A short clip of Midler singing this song was included in the long musical-guest medley in the “Saturday Night Live” 15th anniversary special in 1990, which I recorded on VHS tape and watched numerous times.
I could name most of the other tunes, but for years, I had no idea what song she was singing.
No. 39, debut: The Bellamy Brothers with “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?”
Sounds like recycled Jimmy Buffett. I wonder if people at his concerts in 1979 asked him to play it?
No. 38, debut: Eddie Rabbitt, “Suspicions.” In which Mr. Rabbitt applies his weak falsetto to a theme more successfully explored by Dr. Hook in “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman.”
Long Distance Dedication: “Always and Forever” by Heatwave, dedicated to some teenage army-brat girl who sounds like she doesn’t recognize that her best friend has a lesbian crush on her.
No. 37: For the good folks gettin’ down to WMRK in Selma, Alabama, it’s the Doobie Brothers down nine notches with “Minute by Minute.”
I loathe Michael McDonald but I give him points for a spare arrangement — sounds like there isn’t much more on this record but drums, bass, percussion, Rhodes and one other keyboard.
No. 36: Down 21, it’s Rex Smith singing “You Take My Breath Away,” which sounds like secondhand Manilow.
No. 35: Joe Jackson, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” — To my view, this, and not “My Sharona,” was the breath of fresh attitude Top 40 radio needed in the summer of 1979.
Of course, given that I wasn’t actually listening to Top 40 radio in the summer of ’79, my opinions are completely revisionist and likely inaccurate.
(I most likely spent the week of July 14, 1979, enjoying whatever books and toys I received for turning six earlier in the month.)
No. 34 and on its way up: Robert John, “Sad Eyes.” Beats “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” I suppose.
As marshmallowy as the handling of a Ford LTD, plus an incongruously distorted guitar solo and a graceless key change.
Personally, I always liked Ford LTDs because I thought their hubcaps looked cool, kinda wreath-like.
I thought weird things.
Maybe still do.
AT40 Extra: Casey counts down the Number One hits of the ’70s. We’re in September 1974 and Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” is rocking us gently. THAT’s what this dismal 1979 countdown needs — some BUBBLEGUM, or maybe a TEEN IDOL. Seriously. At least we’d have us some dumb fun.
No. 33: Wet Willie, “Weekend.” Egregious disco sellout by a journeyman Southern-rock outfit.
Like many of these songs, it is encased in a layer of studio gloss that preserves its awfulness forever, like formaldehyde.
No. 32, and laden with soggy-eyed bathos, and down 18 notches, and on its way out, and thank God for that: “Just When I Needed You Most” by Randy Van Warmer.
No. 31: Maxine Nightingale up six with “Lead Me On.” So bland, so inoffensive, so thoroughly offensive.
No. 30: James Taylor, “Up On The Roof.”
Casey discusses how James credits Carly Simon with steering him away from hard drugs and saving his life, thus allowing him to record banally pappy versions of old hit songs.
Well, OK, Casey didn’t say that; but I bet he thought it.
If this song genuinely meant anything to JT, you can’t hear it in his vocal.
No. 29: For the listeners of WACO in Waco, Texas, the Bee Gees bring “Love You Inside Out.”
Y’know, I notice that a number of Gibb-penned tunes meander a little bit.
They’re not strictly AABA in structure, nor are they intro-verse-verse-chorus-solo-chorus.
Sometimes they’ll veer off into short sections that only show up once.
But no matter what, they always make their way back to the Great Big Chorus.
No. 28: Kansas, “People of the South Wind.” This actually seems to have a little bit of rock energy — just a little bit — compared to what’s around it.
This one loses points with me, perhaps, because I don’t find the phrase “people of the south wind” particularly evocative. Sometimes a song’s value kinda rises and falls to the listener depending on whether that sort of image connects.
(“Deacon Blues” connects with my heart and imagination; “Year of the Cat” does not. Like that.)
No. 27: Anne Murray, “Shadows in the Moonlight.” (Hey, isn’t there a hyphen in the name? There isn’t on Wikipedia.)
Y’know, the loneliest man in America in the summer of 1979 must have been Joey Ramone.
It must have seemed like there was absolutely no commercial hope for music that valued heart and wit above chops.
(There wasn’t, really.)
No. 26: Barbra Streisand rides the disco train with “Fight.”
Now I’m imagining a young chart buff in 1979, one of those kids who sits by the radio writing down the Top 40 every week.
Was he sorely disappointed?
Did he listen to the radio and think, “Y’know, this is all shite, and it gets worse every month, and I could be spending my time doing something productive?”
Or did the young chart buffs of the day find something to connect to in all this dross?
No. 25: “The phenomenal Wings,” Casey says, with the bonanza of forced rhymes that is “Getting Closer.”
Macca shoulda done like Lennon and taken a year or two off to bake bread and change diapers.
No. 24: “Do It or Die,” Atlanta Rhythm Section.
“Once a week and you know where your favorite songs are,” Casey says.
And I reply, “I know where they are, Casey. They’re nowhere. That’s where they bloody well are.”
No. 23: Elton John, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.” In which Elton drags his coke-addled self to Philadelphia, and Thom Bell props him up long enough to get him into the Top Ten.
A nice Philly strut to the music, but Elton’s kinda sleepwalking here, I’m afraid.
Another AT40 extra from the Number One hits of the Seventies. Olivia Newton-John, “I Honestly Love You.” Honesty is such a lonely word; everyone is so untrue.
No. 22: KISS, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.”
My wife: “Finally.”
Me: “Something good!”
I don’t care that these clownfaces were slumming; I don’t care that Anton Fig is playing drums because the Catman is too wasted to contribute.
I like this song.
I even listen to it of my own accord from time to time.
No. 21: Poco with their second AT40 hit in nine years, “Heart of the Night.”
This song has no heart and precious little night.
On the other hand, the title fits perfectly — the heart of the night is when people sleep.
No. 20: ABBA, “Does Your Mother Know?” So rare and delightful to hear the plasticine Swedes trash-talk.
Long Distance Dedication: From a transferred minister’s wife to some teenage parishioner she left behind. One of the rare LDDs to feature a good song: Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” a song that stomped most everything around it in 1973, and still did six years later.
Hey, what percentage of Long Distance Dedications do you think were actually heard by the person at whom they were aimed?
No. 19: Raydio, “Can’t Change That.” My wife said she always thought Hall and Oates sang this. OK pop-funk that might have been better in their hands.
No. 18: Gerry Rafferty, “Days Gone Down.” Not too bad. Seems to strike a thoughtful note different from the bubbleheaded tone of most of the rest of the countdown.
No. 17: “I Can’t Stand It No More,” Peter Frampton. OK record. Nothing to write home about or play 10-minute talk-box solos over.
No. 16: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” McFadden and Whitehead. Another shot of Philly. Lyrically empty but nice and propulsive.
(Of course, you could say that about 99 percent of disco records.)
No. 15: Van Halen, “Dance The Night Away.” And people said they sold out when Sammy Hagar joined.
Of course, I’ve had trouble taking VH seriously ever since I saw St. Sanders’ awesome deconstruction of “Jump.”
Seriously — go watch it. If you never come back to this blog post, you won’t have missed anything.
No. 14: Whaddya know, it’s Dr. Hook with “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman.”
This is another of that handful of songs I remember hearing from the AM radio of my folks’ old Plymouth Satellite during long road trips.
That’s probably why I am fonder of it than it really deserves.
No. 13: Up 12, Chic with “Good Times.” Why the bold? I love the riff, and I love the production values, and I love the clams on the half-shell and roller skates!, and I love the whooshing what-the-hell-was-that? introduction.
Which, of course, Casey talked over.
Am mulling the social meaning of the line “Don’t be a drag / Participate.”
Were the ’80s a decade when we stopped listening to the cruise directors, cocooned ourselves in our houses with movies from Blockbuster, and stopped participating?
No. 12: For the listeners of WBGY in Tullahoma, Tennessee, it’s “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, which probably should be bolded because it’s a great production and incredibly catchy, but won’t be because I just don’t enjoy listening to it that much.
One last Number One hit of the ’70s: “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston, October 1974. Not sure why Billy wasn’t bigger in the disco era; he had all the tools to be.
No. 11: Supertramp, “Logical Song.” Stronger truth-in-advertising laws would have compelled them to call it “Horrible Song.”
No. 10: John Stewart, “Gold.” I debated long and hard (there I go bragging again) about whether I liked this enough to bold it.
Even though Stevie Nicks kinda steals the record.
Wonder if Tim Bass is still working at that filling station?
No. 9: ELO, “Shine A Little Love.” For some reason, all of Jeff Lynne’s pet licks — the galloping guitar, the swizzling falling-star synth sounds, the falsetto backing vox — seem empty and antiseptic to me this time around.
Usually I lap them up like a cat does milk.
No. 8: Cheap Trick, “I Want You To Want Me.”
How does one go about becoming big in Japan, anyway?
What’s the music industry like over there, and how does one get known and break big?
Is payola legal?
Do they even have their own Casey — or perhaps even several Caseys?
No. 7: For the listeners of KBRE in Cedar City, Utah (where?), it’s David Naughton with “Makin’ It.”
For some reason, the lyrical braggadocio reminds me of the Old Spice guy. Except he’s actually entertaining.
No. 6: The Emotions and EW&F with “Boogie Wonderland.”
No. 5: Kenny Rogers, “She Believes in Me.” Not even effective as an antidote against disco.
No. 4: Rickie Lee Jones, “Chuck E.’s In Love.” Now, slurry self-referential bohemia, that can help reduce the pain of disco. Take a dose and call me in the morning.
Casey also explains the meaning of the phrase “P.L.P. with me;” it means hanging out. Isn’t that pretty much what bohemians do, unless they’re driving cross-country?
Nice groove, anyway.
No. 3: “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer, whose “Bad Girls” album was the nation’s top seller that week.
No. 2: Last week’s Number One, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.”
This is not a song I’ve ever heard much of anybody praise (including me — it’s repetitive and annoyingly girly.) But somebody who liked it in 1979 isn’t letting on now, because it went to the freakin’ top.
And this week’s new Number One: “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer.
That’s right, two of the nation’s top three records.
Y’know, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard much of anyone celebrate that feat, the way they do the Bee Gees’ big run in 1977-78 or the Beatles’ landslide in ’64.
(Of course, I don’t read every blog out there.)
It just seems like if a white and/or male and/or rock performer had two of the top three singles, they would be regularly revered by mainstream writers and the blogosphere alike.
I’ve never gotten that vibe about Donna Summer … if anything, it seems like people are ashamed of her chart reign.
But again, I’m not the membrane through which all public opinion must pass, so maybe people are giving Donna and Georgio Moroder their due and I’m just not hearing it.
Hey mister — beep beep!