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)
- 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.