The last time I wrote about an old local radio airplay chart, I found the story of a band that was huge on most continents but small potatoes in the U.S. … except for a couple of weeks in the Lehigh Valley, when they got Top Five airplay.
I’m looking at another of these old radio charts. And this time, the story is an album — one of those earnest high-concept Seventies jobbies — that stiffed in most other parts of the U.S., but was unaccountably popular here in the Valley.
Set the controls for the week ending Aug. 26, 1973, and the radio for Allentown’s old Top Forty station WAEB 790 AM.
Summer’s nearly over. What are the kids reporting for fall sports practice at Northampton and Nazareth and Becahi buzzing over?
Well, the list of top singles is a typical ’73 mix of the sublime (“Here I Am (Come And Take Me),” “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” “Live and Let Die”) and the ridiculous (“The Morning After,” “Uneasy Rider,” “Gypsy Rose”).
But what interests us is the LP chart. That’s an uneven mix too — you’ll see the kids in the Lehigh Valley getting off on Leon Live and Sing It Again, Rod alongside the more lasting likes of 1967-1970 and Countdown to Ecstasy.
And then, near the bottom, you’ll see the Osmonds’ The Plan.
The Plan, released in June of that year, is an openly religious album — an attempt by the group to express aspects of its Mormon faith in a pop setting.
If you skip to about 1:30 into this promotional video, you’ll see one of the guitar-toting Osmond bros explain it in a po-faced voice-over: “Recently, we released a new album … a concept album … based on our philosophies about life. Where did I come from? Why am I here? And where am I going? In other words — the plan.”
Anybody who knows their Seventies pop culture knows where the Osmond family of Ogden, Utah, formed its “philosophies about life” — philosophies that guided the group members’ offstage lives and, on this album, spilled over into their music.
Like other musicians of faith — including fellow ’73 hitmakers George Harrison and Al Green — the Osmonds found ways to package their spiritual concerns in ways that would be palatable to a mass audience.
Two of the album’s songs cracked the lower reaches of the U.S. Top Forty and one hit No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart, testament to the professional talent of family songwriters Merrill and Wayne Osmond.
That said, online reviews of the album suggest that most listeners found The Plan too openly religious to embrace. (Some reviewers also criticize the album for skipping too wildly between musical genres.)
If you watch the promotional video above, skip to about 4:05 in, and you’ll see the brothers tackle a foreboding, heavy tune called “The Last Days,” which segues abruptly into a bouncy, encouraging tune called “One Way Ticket To Anywhere.” (This is just for the purposes of the promo video; the songs do not abut on the LP.)
For my taste, the whole thing seems a little too theatrical, a little too well-scrubbed, like the soundtrack to the spring musical at a religious high school.
This being the Osmonds, the whole thing is performed with the utmost professionalism, and it’s kinda catchy here and there … but ultimately, it just doesn’t hit a nerve for me.
Audiences in other countries loved it: According to Wiki, The Plan hit No. 6 in the U.K., and its singles went Top Five there.
But American album buyers only sent The Plan to No. 58 on the charts — a letdown compared to predecessor LPs Crazy Horses (No. 14, 1972) and Phase III (No. 10, 1971.) By the standards of religious albums, The Plan was a strong success; by the standards of mainstream pop, it was a misfire.
(It’s true that bands appealing to the teenybop market tend to have short, torrid runs of popularity … and maybe the Osmonds’ time would have been up in 1973 even if they’d released a fully secular album. As it was, they chose to take a chance; commercially, it did not pay off.)
Which brings us back to WAEB in the Lehigh Valley, where listeners highly rated The Plan, even though the region is not particularly a stronghold of the Mormon faith.
In the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts, only five charts mention The Plan — one apiece from Buffalo, N.Y.; Oklahoma City; Provo, Utah (a Number Three hit there, not surprisingly); Windsor, Ontario, Canada; and Allentown.
That doesn’t mean The Plan wasn’t popular anywhere else. Some Top Forty stations’ airplay charts focused heavily on singles, paying little or no attention to LPs. And the ARSA database is not comprehensive, so there could be additional local charts with The Plan that haven’t yet been scanned in.
Still, the available evidence suggests that the Lehigh Valley embraced this record in a way that didn’t happen just about anywhere else.
The WAEB chart came out a good two months after the album did. So the placement of The Plan must have been based on genuine popularity, rather than being a pre-emptive strike on the station’s part. (i.e., “the kids love the Osmonds, and this new album will probably be hot, so we’ll put it on our Top Ten.”)
The only explanation I can think of for The Plan‘s strong local sales is that eternal shifter of units: Tour dates.
The Osmonds played the Great Allentown Fair — a major annual event, held around Labor Day — in 1973. They’d played the fair the year before, according to the local paper, and would be back yet again in 1975 and 1978. Presumably the anticipation of their upcoming gig drove the local kids out to their local record stores to pick up The Plan.
The Osmonds gigged in lots of other places where The Plan didn’t chart, so that doesn’t seem like an ironclad reason.
But at this distance, trying to peer back into the haze of a distant late summer, that’s as much as I can come up with.