Been a while since I blogged an American Top 40 countdown, but people always seemed to like ’em, so here we go.
This is one I downloaded from the Internet Archive during the brief golden moment when someone had a cache of AT40s uploaded there. (Come to think of it, someone could have another cache uploaded there now. I love the Internet Archive but there’s something Wild West about it.)
Nineteen eighty-one wasn’t a tremendously good year for pop music, if memory serves, but let’s dive in and see if we find anything that suits us.
At this point, Casey has been doing AT40 countdowns since July 1970, and he is something of an established cultural presence in his little niche. He has also stopped appearing in horrible movies like the one with the guy with two heads.
Also at this point, a certain narrator of your acquaintance is in third grade when this airs. He is not yet listening to top 40 radio of his own accord, although he might hear it here or there in his travels amid the post-Pleistocene geography of the Rust Belt. He is aware that last week’s Number One is a big song that lots of people know, let’s put it that way, and other than that he is chiefly occupied with his NFL pencils.
So what does the Caser have to give us this week? (Favourites in bold, as always.)
Casey begins by playing the top three hits of last week, as he used to do after he moved to four hours in 1978 and had more time to kill. In the interest of suspense, I won’t tell you what the Top Three was last week; I’ll wait until the songs come up in this week’s countdown. (Edit: It turns out this week’s Top Three is unchanged from last week.)
No. 40: Don McLean with a new version of a song he charted with earlier, if I understand Casey correctly. Debuting this week, “Castles In The Air.” I’ve got a dream I want the world to share too, Don.
This is sort of soggy (“I’m weak but I can’t face that girl again”) … and yet not completely disastrous. “Strife” rhymes with both “life” and “wife” … and OK, maybe I take back whatever nice I was gonna say about this one.
I dunno: Nine-plus years after “American Pie” it’s nice to see the guy still exerting a commercial foothold, but the song has little to say for itself.
We’re counting down to the latest hit by the Beatle who almost didn’t make it through childhood, Casey says. I know who that is, and I can’t remember what he had on the chart in December 1981, and I kinda don’t wanna find out. But time is one-way, and so are these countdowns.
No. 39: From the LP Nine Tonight, here’s a former Top 10 hit: “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You,” Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. There’s just something square and professional about this; I bet bar bands did great versions of it, because it just sorta plays by the rules. Again, I respect the artist but this is not his most incandescent work.
(I seem to write that, or variations on that, a lot. Maybe I am a bastard for expecting every artist to conjure up their most incandescent work every time they appear in front of me. This song kept Bob Seger in the general American consciousness as a commercially viable performer and is that so bad? Just accept the pleasant, Kurt, even when it drops eight spots.)
No. 38: Casey discusses the medical history of Ringo Starr, which involved repeated lengthy stays in the hospital as a boy. The first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles history is heartily recommended for its summation of Ringo’s medical bedevilments, as well as its capturing of the entire long-lost Liverpool milieu from which the Fab Four emerged.
(Ringo Starr became “the final Beatle,” the Caser says, and it’s a two-horse race to determine whether that analysis was truly correct.)
Ringo’s 10th solo hit is a tune written by George Harrison, “Wrack My Brain.” Ringo declares himself “all dried up,” and it’s hard to argue with him.He is, perhaps, coasting into the Forty on a post-Lennon wave of Beatles goodwill, rather than any particular quality in his current single. (Can you sing this song? I bet you can’t.)
This will be Ringo’s final Top 40 hit.
No. 37: One of four debut hits, Billy Joel with “She’s Got a Way.” This is a live version from the Songs from the Attic live elpee, although it’s faithful to the original studio version. According to Wiki, this was recorded at the Paradise club on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which I have walked past a quarter-million times but have never been inside.
There is absolutely no reason Paul McCartney couldn’t have written this song except that he never managed to set aside time to think of it. This is BJ’s 15th Top 40 hit, apparently. It’s not among his greatest but it’s among his pretty-goodest and that counts for something.
No. 36: Caser drops some station call letters, like KCRV in Carruthersville, Missouri (where’s that?) and 6KG, Kalgoorlie, West Australia. The single, debuting this week, is the Stones with “Waiting On a Friend.”
Years ago I was hanging at Penfield High with some friends of mine who had business to transact in the front office. The secretary asked me if I needed anything and I said, “No, thanks. I’m just waitin’ on a friend” — reducing the other friend I happened to be with to giggles.
I guess I lead the sort of life where even a momentary outburst of laughter 35 years ago is mentally preserved as a high point, worthy of remembering.
Is this Sonny Rollins’ only appearance in the American Top 40? It’s gotta be. Unfortunately, Sonny was robbed of full credit by the fact that Tattoo You was partially comprised of vault tapes, and the Stones didn’t credit the contributing musicians because doing so would have made clear that they were cleaning out their leftovers.
Anyway, this — like “She’s Got A Way” — is a solid second-rank single for its performing artist. The kind of single that Internet commenters write deep-dives about in 2022, making cases about how underrated it is.
A listener in Mississippi wants to know what family act in the rock era has hit Number One the most times. Casey’s intro makes it clear that — three years after that family act reached unbelievable peaks — the listener in Mississippi damn well oughta remember them. But we’ll get validation in a moment. We’re just waitin’ on a friend.
No. 35: In their second week, up five notches, Queen and David Bowie with “Under Pressure.” In December 1981 this is just a random one-off from a pair of superstars. Give it a dozen years or so, and it will become An Event.
I will shamelessly promote the writing of Chris O’Leary here: He’s written two excellent books analyzing the work of David Bowie song-by-song (Rebel Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), and he is also a former college colleague of mine on the Boston University Daily Free Press. By Chris’s telling, “Under Pressure” was an impromptu studio collaboration that became, in the rearview mirror, something noteworthy for both artists.
By the late-year, can-we-wrap-it-up-yet-and-move-on standards of December 1981 — a year owned by the likes of AC/DC and REO Speedwagon — this song is an earthquake, particularly when Freddie Mercury’s “give love, give love, give love” makes way for Bowie’s “Love is an old-fashioned word.”
Anyway, I have no idea what the kids at the CYO youth dances thought of it, but this is art plus hooks plus concept plus heart …. and I’m gonna bet you won’t find that too often in the remaining 34 songs on this week’s Forty. (Casey mentions that this is Number One in England … and this week, England is a few steps ahead of the States.)
Now we’ll answer the question about family acts. It’s not the Jacksons, or the Everlys, or the Beach Boys. The act with the most Number Ones was the Bee Gees — you, listener, would have to have the attention span of a mayfly not to recall them — with nine Number One hits.
No. 34: Genesis, down five slots, with “No Reply at All.” I am hard-put to explain why I enjoy this. But as I’ve said in the past, there was a period from 1980-1982 — before Miami Vice, before the omnipresence of Phil Collins — when Genesis seemed to me to represent smart pop. They could play in odd time signatures, but then turn around and hire the Earth Wind & Fire Horns and record a shameless earworm like this.
I suppose there is a certain retrospective pleasure, too, in hearing Genesis before they toppled off the cliff — before they were an inescapable cultural presence, and were just an experienced rock band with catchy ideas.
No. 33: A band whose lead singer and keyboardist met while recording commercial jingles. Their first Top 40 hit, up a notch: Survivor, “Poor Man’s Son.” About 12 steps down from Genesis, I’m afraid. Skip.
Casey teases the upcoming Top 100 year-end countdown, featuring a bunch of 1981 names. Then …
… No. 32: The biggest-ranking debut song this week, the Cars with “Shake It Up.” There are better Cars songs, but I don’t know if we’ll specifically hear Casey mention Boston again this week, so I have to apply the bold.
I wish I hadn’t traded in my secondhand copy of the first Cars LP from 1978, which is just astonishingly good, and which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I suppose I could buy another one.
No. 31: There are two former Number One songs still hanging on this week. This is one, down 14 notches. Christopher Cross, “Best That You Can Do (Arthur’s Theme),” a.k.a. the theme from Arthur, a.k.a. “The Moon and New York City.”
I remember hearing this one on the radio in 1981, perhaps at the family cottage on Keuka Lake that was new to us that summer, and it seems in retrospect like a defining earworm of its year. The writing credit for this includes Peter Allen, Carole Bayer Sager, and Burt Bacharach, which is a pretty distinguished pedigree. Still not bolding it.
No. 30, up six: Ronnie Milsap, “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World.” I seem to remember this one coming over the radio, as well.
This isn’t the worst single we’ll hear this week either, however little interest I have in country crossovers. If you heard it at the time, you can probably sing the chorus, too.
No. 29: Barry Manilow, “The Old Songs.” Do I have to listen to this and objectively evaluate it? My drink needs refreshing.
Oh, boy, a Long Distance Dedication. This letter is from a group of federal prison inmates in Oklahoma. “The music box is all we got.” They ask for “I’m Comin’ Out,” by Diana Ross, as a prelude to the day when they will be released into free society.
No. 28: This hit looks like it will place among the Top 100 of 1981. Down 18 notches, after 11 weeks in the Top 10, the Rolling Stones with “Start Me Up.” For all its ubiquity, “Start Me Up” really is that great and that jagged and that raw.
As you, the reader, probably know, this began life as a reggae song that was thrown onto the discard pile. I guess there’s a lesson in the fact that even Mick and Keef couldn’t recognize the raw pulsing heart of ROCK N’ ROLL directly in front of their noses, at least not immediately.
No. 27: Casey notes that Eddie Rabbitt just headlined for the first time at a major Las Vegas nightclub. You’ll have to excuse me if I am less than moved by that career achievement. (I still have that “you’d make a dead man come” business in my head; I’m not in Conventional Showbiz Mode right now.)
Rabbitt is up five notches with “Someone Could Lose a Heart Tonight.” I have no memory of this and I am blessed for it.
No. 26: More station namedrops, including KDWB, St. Paul/Minneapolis. Up two spots, Stevie Woods with “Steal the Night.” Who and what? This has that blanket of synth-strings going on in the background; this seems like the kind of music the narrator of “Hey Nineteen” would play to seduce the nineteen-year-old.
This sucks. Anyway:
No. 25: The latest hit by “the hard-rockin’ J. Geils Band.” Casey tells a story about Peter Wolf’s family background in vaudeville. Geils checks in with “Centerfold,” and while I might be kinda tired of it now, I’m trying to picture it from the viewpoint of December 12, 1981, when it was fresher. It’s just a shame that Magic Dick didn’t have more to do here.
No. 24: Up two notches, “Heart Like a Wheel” by the Steve Miller Band. As cold and clinical as the rest of Miller’s oeuvre, only less memorable. Miller’s first AT40 appearance since “Swingtown,” and he probably had name recognition to thank for it.
No. 23: Casey starts talking about “melodies from the classics,” and bleah, this can’t bode well for the average listener. He’s setting up a medley of Mozart, Sibelius, Handel, Grieg, etc.: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and “Hooked On Classics.”
Classical music has much to offer … but sod this business of taking the top-line melodies and plopping them down atop disco beats.
No. 22: Chilliwack, from Canada, with “My Girl.” Good on ’em for making the Forty — before Rush, even — and it’s certainly an improvement over “Hooked On Classics.” Not quite hauling out the bold for this bit of Canadian falsetto longing, but it ain’t half bad as December 1981 goes. This is the Number One song in Canada this week, Casey reports … and maybe Canada, like England, is a step ahead of the States.
No. 21: Paul Davis of Meridian, Mississippi — the home of Peavey guitars and amplifiers — up four notches with “Cool Night.” Another song I oddly remember from the radio, far beyond any relation to my actual exposure to it, and I am tempted to bold it. I won’t, quite.
Suddenly this feels like the kind of countdown on which one would encounter Todd Rundgren and Utopia. One won’t, I think, but I’ll keep up my defenses anyway, just in case.
No. 20: The first hit single by the Go-Gos, up one notch with “Our Lips Are Sealed.” I dunno, there’s a certain new-wave verve to it, and it’s not as tired as “Vacation.” The bridge — “Hush, my darlin’, don’t you cry” — is an all-too-brief moment of genius. Five points for the clap track, too.
No. 19: Kool and the Gang, up three with “Take My Heart.” Zero memory tracks of this one. Apparently Eumir Deodato produced it, and Brian Jackson (the same Brian Jax from Gil Scott-Heron’s Midnight Band? One would have to assume so) plays keyboards on the album. That’s a pretty great pedigree for a nothing single like this one.
No. 18: The Caser name-drops more stations, including WDNH in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. I’ve been to Honesdale. I think it’s one of those places where “pizza” means tomatoes spread over thick bread.
Down 12 notches, Daryl Hall and John Oates with “Private Eyes.” This song is as astonishing as Kool’s is forgettable — this is one of Hall and Oates’s two or three best ever. (What else ranks? “You Make My Dreams,” and either “Sara Smile” or “She’s Gone.” Thanks for asking.)
Anyway, yeah, this is trebly and paranoid and tightly wound and Cold War-flavored, and yet at the same time also richly giving in the fine pop tradition. And is there more clap track? There might be.
It ain’t gonna get better but on we go:
No. 17: Juice Newton, up three notches with “The Sweetest Thing.” Remember Juice Newton? Hope she enjoyed her year or two. Is it OK if I don’t listen to the whole thing? It’s my blog, so yes, it is.
Casey tells the story of Jackie Wilson, who suffered a heart attack six years ago onstage in New Jersey and remains in a semi-comatose state. He invites readers to drop Jackie Wilson a Christmas card care of AT40, and spins Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” Have I always found this song repetitious? Yes, I have.
No. 16: George Benson, a Pittsburgh native who’s since moved to Maui, up seven notches (the biggest mover this week) with “Turn Your Love Around.” This is the sort of early-’80s jazzy pop that’s kinda grabby, but not enough for a bold.
Casey mentions that “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Endless Love” each spent nine weeks at Number One in 1981, and if you tune in to the year-end holiday countdown, you can find out which one was Number One for the year. I am less than enthralled by the options.
No. 15: Barbra Streisand, up four spots, with “Comin’ In and Out of Your Life.” I’m waiting for rock n’ roll punch from this countdown and I’m not getting it. Perhaps I am wasting my time on a drawn blind, as the song says.
No. 14: Neil Diamond up two notches with “Yesterday’s Songs.” El blando supremo. I can’t imagine fifteen-year-olds were buying this, so who was responsible for keeping Neil D. in the Forty?
A reader question from Quebec: Which recording acts have had the most million-selling singles and albums? From fifth to first: Elton John; Diana Ross; the Rolling Stones; the Beatles; and Elvis Presley.
No. 13: Up five notches, Hall and Oates with “I Can’t Go For That.” This continues with the barbed sonic paranoia, but it doesn’t do it for me the way “Private Eyes” does.
No. 12: Lindsey Buckingham up a notch with “Trouble.” I’ve never quite been sold on Buckingham as a pop genius, and this doesn’t change my mind.
No. 11: Stevie Nicks and Donhenley, up a notch with “Leather and Lace.” This is better than “Trouble,” and, OK, it’s pretty good (“I am stronger than you know.”)
I’ve just arbitrarily decided to spell Don Henley’s name as one word: Donhenley. It looks like one of those bogus names they put on suburban subdivisions: “All modern conveniences! Six designs to choose from in Donhenley Estates.”
OK, time for the 10 biggest hits. Can this be over yet?
No. 10: Journey up one with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Once again I encounter a now-tired song in a setting where it is ascendant, and not yet a part of the fixed pop-culture landscape. It’s a good piece of work; doesn’t mean enough to me to bold it, but it was inescapable for a reason.
Casey teases the life story of Frankie Lymon. Oh, boy.
Meanwhile, at No. 9, we have Quarterflash with “Harden My Heart.” One of those Benatar-ish tough-chick tunes. Nice chorus. Band from the club circuit Makes It. Nice job.
Casey explains what happened to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, then cues Diana Ross at No. 8 with “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
Why does this cover version even exist? What did Diana Ross — a weathered veteran of the pop music wars — see in its naive message in 1981? Who wanted to hear it? And, maybe most importantly: Given the passing of Frankie Lymon years before, who got paid for it?
No. 7: Down two notches, Air Supply with “Here I Am.” It passeth midnight here, where I am, and I arven’t the patience to appreciate the professional pop craftmanship that these gents are capable of bringing to the table.
Another long distance dedication — this time to a couple who went to high school together, then met and dated on vacation — from a guy who wants to hear “This Magic Moment” to help him remember a kiss on the beach.
No. 6, up two: Rod Stewart with “Young Turks.” Songs like this kind of deflate one’s notion of a Top Ten hit as being a cultural phenomenon, and a thing that means something to somebody. There were actually people who hung out by the radio waiting to hear this?
No. 5: Another radio-station call-out, including Rediffusion Singapore. The #1 soul song in the country: Earth Wind & Fire,. “Let’s Groove.” I run out of stuff to say.
No. 4: The Commodores holding for the second week with “Oh No.” See No. 5. Lionel Richie gets himself paid, and three cheers for that much, but I don’t have to hear it again. The Commodores’ 16th Top 40 hit.
No. 1 on the country chart: “Still Doin’ Time” by George Jones. No 1 on the album charts: Four by Foreigner. And for the second straight week on the pop chart ..
… No. 3: “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the Police. I have a pretty firm no-bold policy where Sting is involved, but this does stomp most everything else around it, and I don’t mind hearing it more than once.
No. 2: Foreigner for the third week in a row with “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” A fellow traveler of the post-Pleistocene geography of the Rust Belt on lead vocal. It’s pretty good. Professional. Not too bad.
No. 1: This song just broke the tie for most Top Ten hits by a female singer in the past 10 years. It’s Olivia Newton-John with “Physical,” the most popular song in the U.S. for the fourth consecutive week.
I have vague memories of when this was a sociological phenomenon — like when people would make jokes about it, and when parodies would be played on the radio, and when it had sort of a general pop-culture buzz. That seems like a long time ago.
Kind of a damp squib, this countdown.