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Reconsidering Radio’s Worst Summer (Of The Early ‘80s)

The summer of 1979 was pretty great for hit music—the peak of disco, the explosion of new wave crossovers, not much has to be said. Besides, I’d just graduated from high school.

The summer of 1980 was pretty good where I was in Washington, D.C., thanks to the battle between WPGC and WRQX (Q107). WPGC hadn’t stopped playing R&B crossovers like many top 40 stations. Q107 leaned pop/rock and was pounding a half-dozen songs that weren’t national hits, or even singles. Outside, it was the summer of Air Supply, Robbie Dupree, and Christopher Cross, but it was OK in D.C.

The summer of 1982 was the ramping up of Top 40’s resurgence. There was “Don’t You Want Me,” “Tainted Love,” “Hurts So Good,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Vacation,” “Abracadabra,” etc. All of which did a lot to wash out the taste of “I’ve Never Been To Me” or “’65 Love Affair” at summer’s outset. Besides, I had my first radio job.

That leaves the summer of 1981 as the generally acknowledged nadir of Top 40’s early ‘80s doldrums. It’s easy to remember 1981 now as the year that “yacht rock”—the last wave of Doobie Brothers disciples—wouldn’t leave. It was a year when R&B couldn’t crossover unless it was “Slow Hand” by the Pointer Sisters or “Endless Love” by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie.

In the summer of 1981, the Top 40 format itself was going missing in many markets. In D.C., WPGC was in the process of softening to AC. Q107 was segueing to AOR as “Q Phase II”—a reaction to the relaunch of rival WAVA as a Doubleday AOR along the lines of the phenomenal WLLZ Detroit. New York didn’t have a real top 40 that summer either. (WABC and WNBC were really Hot ACs.)

Recently, I wrote an article comparing 1985 with 2016, and asking if Top 40 music really was better back then. In a well-reasoned e-mail, reader James Machinia took exception with my suggestion that pop music in 1985 had in any way lost momentum from the previous two summers. “No one will ever confuse it with the summer of 1981,” he wrote. But recently I came across a playlist from CFTR Toronto from the summer of 1981 at the ARSA site for old radio surveys. I found myself dividing the summer’s hits into a handful of piles—those that were actually good, those that were despicable, and those in between.

Actually Pretty Good (At Least At The Time)

    Stars On 45, “Medley” (scoff now, but having a song that was essentially “Beatles meet Abba” was exciting on the radio)
    Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
    Phil Collins, “In The Air Tonight”
    Foreigner, “Urgent”
    Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”
    Greg Kihn Band, “The Breakup Song”
    Hall & Oates, “You Make My Dreams”
    Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl”?
    Moody Blues, “Gemini Dream”
    Gary “US” Bonds, “This Little Girl”
    Juice Newton, “Queen of Hearts”
    Santana, “Winning”
    Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”
    ELO, “Hold On Tight”
    Moody Blues, “Gemini Dream”
    Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache” (more about this in a minute)?

Neutral, But Harmless

    George Harrison, “All Those Years Ago” (this John Lennon tribute was a better gesture than record)
    Ray Parker, Jr., & Raydio, “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)”
    Journey, “Who’s Crying Now”
    Commodores, “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”
    Pat Benatar, “Fire And Ice” (suffered from comparisons with her last album)
    Pointer Sisters, “Slow Hand”—disappointing because it wasn’t “He’s So Shy”
    Little River Band, “The Night Owls”

Goofy/Wimpy But Harmless

    Ross & Richie, “Endless Love”—good for what it was, until we all got sick of it; it also benefited from some of the heat surrounding the movie. When it was exploding, WPGC played it once an hour
    Christopher Cross, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)”—see “Endless Love.” Also, I’m friended with Carol Bayer Sager on Facebook and while it is unlikely that she’ll see this…
    Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
    Manhattan Transfer, “The Boy from New York City”
    Marty Balin, “Hearts”
    Alan Parsons Project, “Time”
    Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Getting Over Me”
    Sheena Easton, “For Your Eyes Only” (and “You Could’ve Been With Me,” which I love, was on the way)
    Grover Washington, Jr. & Bill Withers, “Just The Two Of Us” (because I cannot put a Bill Withers record in the bad stack)
    Neil Diamond, “America” (sounded pretty good after “Love On The Rocks” and “Hello Again”)

Would Have Been Fine If They Were Bigger At CHR

    REO Speedwagon, “Don’t Let Him Go”
    Joe Walsh, “A Life of Illusion”
    Frankie Smith, “Double Dutch Bus”
    Rick James, “Give It To Me Baby”
    Rush, “Tom Sawyer”
    Billy Squier, “The Stroke”
    Tom Petty & Heartbreakers, “The Waiting”
    Point Blank, “Nicole”
    Teena Marie, “Square Biz”
    Squeeze, “Tempted”
    Balance, “Breaking Away”
    Quincy Jones, “Ai No Corrida”
    38 Special, “Fantasy Girl”
    Diesel, “Sausalito Summernight”
    Evelyn King, “I’m In Love”
    Denroy Morgan, “I’ll Do Anything For You” (now we’re into the Urban hits that got nowhere near CHR)

Wimpy/Bad

    Air Supply, “The One That You Love” (and it had more like it in the wings)
    Joey Scarbury, “Theme from ‘the Greatest American Hero’”
    Kenny Rogers, “I Don’t Need You” (and “Through The Years” was on the way)
    Dottie West & Kenny Rogers, “What Are We Doing In Love”
    John Schneider, “It’s Now Or Never” (he was headed for better true Country hits)
    A Taste of Honey, “Sukiyaki” (and because I like them, it pains me to put it in this stack)
    Emmylou Harris, “Mr. Sandman” (and because I like her, it pains me that this was her pop hit)
    Gino Vannelli, “Living Inside Myself” (but it made the switch to “Black Cars” and other uptempo pop later in the decade even better)

Your judgment on individual titles will, of course, vary. I was delighted by the semi-crossover of Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache”—one of the brightest spots in a period of wimpy, post-“Urban Cowboy” country (along with the less ambitious Juice Newton rockers). Then, many years later, a friend told me that song was the reason that he left Top 40 radio for Urban.

The pile of true bile isn’t that huge (although if you do this exercise in, say, the summer of 1983, almost nothing goes into the pile then). It’s when you add it to the songs on the cusp, and consider the overall AC feel of Top 40 at the time (in terms of presentation and gold library) that you understand why summer radio felt mushy.

There were a handful of Top 40s that were taking things into their own hands. KFRC San Francisco amped up the R&B crossovers and refused to participate in the recession. CKLW Detroit, trying to find its way in its final years, still managed to play “Square Biz” and “I’m In Love.” There were definitely markets where I could have enjoyed radio in summer 1981 more.

In other words, the summer of 1981 was bad for pop radio, but it would have made a pretty good listener playlist, if such things had been easily customizable at the time. I gripe about the current spate of slow-grind EDM/pop, but I’m still waiting for broadcast radio to do a better job of triaging today’s available music for me. Nobody these days really has to wait.

Profile photo of Sean Ross
Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

5 Comments

  1. Profile photo of johndavis


    This makes me think about the station I was listening to back in 1981, KZZP Phoenix.

    Of the titles you list:
    – Everything on the “actually pretty good list” I remember them playing, and they spun the Moody Blues Gemini Dream enough to warrant listing them twice. Besides Gemini Dream they also played The Voice a lot.
    – Everything on the neutral list got airplay. Benetar got a fair amount of spins, as KZZP in the early 80’s would cross over songs that did well on the two AORs in the market.
    – Everything on the wimpy but harmless list is a song I remember getting airplay. They dayparted a lot of this stuff to midday, too.
    – The “wish it would have done better at CHR” list… REO, Walsh, Petty, Squier (the AOR competition had an influence), Squeeze, Balance, Quincy Jones… Frankie Smith & Evelyn King were probably too disco and Teena Marie didn’t get attention, but I remember Skyy’s Call Me was big… Rick James got airplay for both Superfreak and Give It To Me Baby, but it was Superfreak that worked best as a bringback later in the decade.
    – The bad stuff: You couldn’t escape Air Supply, Gino Vanelli, or A Taste of Honey. Add to that list Cliff Richard. Somebody in that market had a thing for Cliff Richard between KOPA and KZZP. I’m thankful that we escaped most of the Kenny Rogers stuff outside of The Gambler, because when they pop up on XM now they are dreadful.

    Somewhere in the positive side of the spectrum would be the addition of Bob Seger to the discussion. You could easily find him on the radio in Phoenix in the early 80s, either on AOR or CHR.

    All things considered, 1981 was a decent pop year.

  2. Profile photo of charles57


    You have to cut Gino Vannelli a break — Toronto radio played him if only to meet the CanCon quota.
    On another front WABC had morphed into Full Service in 1981, going Adult Contemporary by day, Talk at night, plus Yankees baseball. That didn’t last as WABC went full-time Talk (plus Yankees) the following spring.

  3. Profile photo of radio truth


    There were three extremely bad years for music between 1955 and 1981. Those years were 1959, 1963 and 1981. 1959 was a bad year because of the effects of the payola scandal as record companies were scared to make hard rocking or very black sounding songs. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were replaced by the non-offensive pretty boys such as Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The 1960-63 era had residual problems left over from the 1959 payola scandal. 1963 was a particularly bad year for music as three of the top ten songs of the year were Sugar Shack, Dominique and Sukiyaki. 1963 wasn’t all bad as there was a resurgence of doo wop, the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound, the evolution of Motown, the Beach Boys, Four Seasons and many great instrumentals among some other valid stuff. 1981 fits in the same category. 1980 wasn’t that great either. From the Summer of 80 through the Fall of 81, a majority of the music was made for AC radio and other than a few songs such as Whip It and Take Your Time (Do It Right), the pickings were slim for songs applicable for top forty radio. I owned an AM/FM in 1981 and had to deal with this problem. My FM was high energy, personality, top forty. Here’s what I did. I talked to the promotion girl for WEA for our region. I told her what the problem was and that I’d be open to playing a lot of the punk and new wave rock on Sire. She was really happy because most top forty stations wouldn’t play any punk or new wave songs. That partially solved the problem by balancing out the tempo of the music to counteract some of the awful, bland hits from 80 and 81. The WEA promotion girl was so happy to get the punk and new wave rock played that whenever we wanted albums to give away or an advance copy on an unreleased single, she gave us anything we wanted. I solved the rest of the problem by using a short current playlist, playing a lot of uptempo recurrents and oldies. We had one rating book per year in the market where this all happened and we went from a 3.3 12+ to an 11.6 12+. a 375% ratings increase in one ratings book.

  4. Profile photo of Sean Ross


    A few other comments that came to me directly:

    “It was sappy ballads from Neil, Babs, and Barry, with ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and ‘Start Me Up’ burnt to a crisp because there was nothing else to play. Stars on 45 works only because there was little else in the energy category.” — Adam Jacobson

    “Any article that lists ‘Breaking Away’ by Balance and ‘Sausalito Summernight’ is okay by me. On [my KFAI Minneapolis] show ‘Crap From The Past’ we touched on the awfulness of 1981 back in 2009. But we didn’t do a whole show because nobody would have listened through to the end.” — Ron Gerber

    “Here’s a perfect mix from summer 1981. Fade ‘Seven Year Ache’ into ‘The Stroke.’ Start the drum mix about five seconds early. Throw Hall & Oates into your list and 1981 was a decent year for music.” — Dan O’Neil, WNAV Annapolis

    “I call that the ‘Bette Davis Eyes’/’Tired Of Toein’ The Line’ era of pop music. Songs that would not, could not be a hit in any other era.” — Darren Gauthier, Townsquare Media, Killeen, Texas

    “Great read. Cringing and laughing the whole way.” — Herb Ivy, Townsquare Media

    “I’d move Manhattan Transfer and the Oak Ridge Boys to the truly bad category. I generally dislike remakes unless it’s a really obscure tune. But that John Schneider song is truly unforgivable. As for Kenny Rogers, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Same goes for ”65 Love Affair.” — James Machinia, the reader who started this whole discussion.

  5. Profile photo of chrisgranozio


    While scanning my radio dial throughout the summer of 1981, both in my home base of New York as well as in Upstate New York on vacation, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to far more music than that which was played on most Top 40 stations at the time. First off, for the record, you can count me as one of those people that actually liked Christopher Cross, Kenny & Dottie and Air Supply, and my absolute favorite on the list was “Who’s Crying Now,” Journey’s most underrated hit, in my humble opinion. There was a clear lack of depth on the pop music roster that summer,, especially when compared directly to the far superior charts from the two previous years and two successive years. Here are some of my favorites from that summer from various formats that got lost in the shuffle:

    In New York City, there were two R&B stations (Kiss and WBLS) that were playing outstanding, melodic tunes at the time such as the already referenced Denroy Morgan, Rick James, and Evelyn King, but also equally juicy tracks that were ignored by their CHR brethren such as: “On the Beat” by the BBQ Band, “Dancin’ the Night Away” by Voggue, “First True Love Affair” by Jimmy Ross, “Push” by One Way, and “Razzmatazz” by Quincy Jones & Patti Austin – songs that still sound great today. They even played a pretty tune by a black woman (Catherine Russell) [but released credited as a] white woman (Lenore O’Malley) titled “By the Way Now (Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me).”

    There was some cool alternative music as well, if you knew where to look. Tracks such as “Antmusic” by Adam & the Ants, “Suzi” by Randy Vanwarmer, “Someday Someway” by Robert Gordon, “Sanctuary” by New Musik and “Vienna” by Ultravox were off the beaten track but also ahead of their time.

    Country tunes I gravitated toward were the crossovers by Rosanne Cash and Ronnie Milsap, as well as Alabama’s “Feels So Right,” Johnny Lee’s “Prisoner of Hope” and Johnny Rodriguez’s “I Want You Tonight.”

    Along with the “Tom Sawyers” and “The Strokes” of the world, there were other fine rock tunes that fell a little short on the pop charts, such as “Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through by Jim Steinman, “Stranger” by Jefferson Starship, “Burning for You” by BOC, “Ready for Love” by Silverado (maybe the best unknown chart single from 1981) and “For You,” another Springsteen cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.

    I heard many of these songs while monitoring two stations in particular during the summer: WSPK in Poughkeepsie and Kix-101.5 in Trenton, both of which I could barely tune in from my Manhattan high-rise. The latter station was also fond of playing two cool covers of ’60s songs: Dan Hartman’s “It Hurts to Be in Love” and Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony,” a full six years before it broke nationally.

    These tunes made Summer ’81 far more palatable than had I been restricted to just the Top 40. And thank God, in all my hours and hours of rolling tape, I somehow never heard that John Schneider dreck once! How the hell did it spend 19 weeks on the Billboard chart?!?

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