One of the things you learn doing music research is, no kidding, the power of the drinking song.
It’s been a decade or so since the concept of songs aging symmetrically — you will carry only your high school music through life — gave way to more of an “eternal jukebox” of transcendent songs that one might or might not have grown up with. And the eternal jukebox is often driven by those songs actually playing on a jukebox or its contemporary equivalent.
The power of the drinking song is why the last two examples of ‘70s soft rock to disappear from Adult Contemporary radio were “Margaritaville” and “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” Even now at Classic Hits radio, the format once known as Oldies, Jimmy Buffett and Rupert Holmes have outlasted Firefall, England Dan & John Ford Coley, and their other soft-rock peers.
“Friends in Low Places,” the centerpiece of a previous, early-‘90s golden age for Country, would test for most Classic Rock program directors curious enough to include it. Drinking songs cycle in and out of favor at Country radio, but I usually regard them as a symbol of the format’s vitality. A seeming trifle now, “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” by Tracy Byrd was one of the reaction records that nudged the format out of its early ‘00s doldrums. “Fix a Drink” by Chris Janson was a format bright spot last year.
“Ten Rounds” and another single, “Drinkin’ Bone,” also gave Byrd a brief chart resurgence, a decade into his Country chart career. Many years earlier, drinking songs led to an odd pair of career revivals, neither of them written by the artist themselves. They happened but at different ends of the world, in different hemispheres, meaning that one was a summer smash, and another was a respite from a particularly brutal winter. And they happened at roughly the same time: late 1980/early 1981. Call it “drinkchronicity.”
I remembered “Wasn’t That a Party” by the Rovers as a current. It was one of the last Canadian-content hits that CKLW made phenomenal in the Detroit market, also playing on the just-launched WWWW (W4 Country). The Irish Rovers were a childhood memory because what five-year-old wouldn’t like a song called “The Unicorn,” their equally unlikely 1967 hit that returned every St. Patrick’s Day. The writer was folksinger Tom Paxton, who had gone almost as long since yet another drinking song became a comeback for yet another act.
I think I regarded “Wasn’t That a Party” as enjoyably, fascinatingly bad at the time, but no way would college-aged Sean have admitted to liking it as anything more than camp. It was just one of the oddball hits made possible by the weakened and confused CHR format that was also embracing “Never Be the Same” by Christopher Cross. In Canada, though, it was phenomenal. On some stations, it charted in early November and was No. 1 from Fredericton, N.B., to Vancouver — essentially sea to sea — by the end of that month. As it spread across the country, it was No. 1 in some places as late as March.
In my decade-plus of working with Canadian stations in the Classic Hits format, I’ve never found a programmer willing to rotate “Wasn’t That a Party” on a regular basis, although I spiked it last St. Patrick’s Day weekend and the response was positive enough that the PD thanked me for pushing for it. The Rovers do survive on Canadian radio, because theirs is the version of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” that radio plays every year. I also remember Bryan Adams writing a song for them in the mid-‘80s. “Wasn’t That a Party” exists somewhere on a continuum between “guilty pleasure” and “national treasure.”
So does “Duncan” by Slim Dusty, which I knew of, but had never heard until it appeared on an Australian ‘80s CD compiled by “Ross On Radio” contributor Brent James. Dusty’s signature song, “A Pub With No Beer,” predates “The Unicorn” by a decade, and James remembers how odd it was to see the then-52-year-old Country artist singing “Duncan” on Countdown, Australia’s equivalent of Top of the Pops.
“Duncan,” according to local lore and Wikipedia, was written by a then-insurance salesman following an afternoon of drinking with a favorite client. Several years and a career change later, it appeared on the B-side of a self-issued novelty single that made its way to Dusty’s wife. The video features Dusty flanked by both the writer and the real-life Duncan, filmed at the actual bar he was singing about. I’m not even aware of it coming out in America as a single, although some people here with kids at a certain age seem to know it in a more family-friendly version because it was covered by the Wiggles.
“Duncan” landed on its first Australian chart in early December, about a month after “Wasn’t That a Party,” and bounded up radio station playlists in a similar way. Like the UK, Australia was friendly in general to novelties and reaction records. The far-less-charming “Shaddap You Face” by Joe Dolce had roared up the charts about a month earlier, displacing “I Got You” by Split Enz as the top-selling song to date by an Australia/New Zealand artist. The song that “Duncan” pushed out of No. 1 on 3XY Melbourne was “The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack.
If it hadn’t been for “Duncan,” chances are that “Wasn’t That a Party” would have been a perfect record for Australia. Top 40 radio in Australia was friendly to Country crossovers, including many that were never pop hits at home in America. But with a homegrown hit that filled the same need, “Wasn’t That a Party” got only scattered airplay (and not until spring).
In America, “Wasn’t That a Party” was stacked up behind a pile of other Country crossovers. That it did crack the top 40 in April 1981 was unlikely achievement enough for a ‘60s Celtic folk act. Even a worldwide hit like Joe Dolce was unable to make much headway on a sludgy chart at a relatively solemn time. What there was at the time was Kool & the Gang, “Celebration,” the amicable-enough R&B/disco anthem that somehow made it through the disco/R&B backlash of that era. That song exists on the eternal jukebox, too, thanks to special occasions, and draws similar mixed reactions.