Songs That Programmers Wish Would Test
I’ve never seen Electric Light Orchestra’s “Turn to Stone” do well in music testing. Or “Sweet Talkin’ Woman.” Or “Livin’ Thing.” Or “Do Ya?” The band that had five years as one of pop music’s greatest hitmaking machines is now often represented at Classic Hits radio by two songs, “Evil Woman” and the goofy outlier that it is “Don’t Bring Me Down.” (Who was Brrrrruuce? What did Jeff Lynne have against him? And even if they really were singing “grooose,” as they insist, that doesn’t make any sense either.)
But “Turn to Stone” got nearly a hundred BDS spins this week. Nearly a decade ago, former WCBS-FM New York PD Brian Thomas nurtured it from a few spins a week to playing almost daily. (It got five spins there this week.) WGRR Cincinnati Keith Mitchell tells me it “does well enough to get played for me.” Mostly, though, I think it’s just there because PDs want to play it. Same with “Livin’ Thing.” It’s up. It’s fun. It’s what it sounds like a Classic Hits station should be playing.
Every programmer has favorite “turntable hits,” songs that peaked somewhere below power rotation, which you wouldn’t expect to be enduring hits now. The more confounding ones are the songs that were smashes (or big enough radio records) at the time, but which don’t endure. Some records get close enough to the middle of a music test that some PDs just play them anyway — there was a moment when Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” started popping up at the format. But I knew that it was probably the No. 375 song on a 650-song test, being added by PDs out of sheer willpower. Same for “Do You Know What I Mean?” by Lee Michaels.
Classic Hits needs uptempo, fun songs it can own, especially in this era where the format’s emphasis on the early ‘80s leads the format ever closer to Classic Rock. No surprise, since in 1981 many CHRs sounded like AOR stations anyway. So when a song is up, fun, definingly pop, and nevertheless seemingly lost to time, it is particularly painful. And there are a few songs on this list that some PDs have pushed ahead with anyway.
Not all lost hits stay lost. Songs float in and out again of playability as listeners come in and out of a demo. We don’t yet know which ‘90s hits will endure, but after a few years when the decade was music-test poison, there are a few more songs pushing through every year. Some songs eventually become what reader and programmer J.J. Duling refers to as “cultural hits.” At WLUE (Louie 100) Louisville, Duling got Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano” to test. (I’ve seen it slide through in a few other places as well.) But those are the exceptions.
Soundtrack and TV placements used to help nurture a song back into playability. KLUV Dallas PD Jay Cresswell is waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to help yet another ELO hit, “Mr. Blue Sky.” But that song has already had plenty of other syncs. And I’m still waiting for the first Guardians to help “Come and Get Your Love” become the Classic Hits mainstay it deserves to be.
Then there was “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. The morning after the Breaking Bad finale, one of the Classic Hits programmers I worked with and I were busily e-mailing each other to get it on the air. Then the next music test came back and we were busily e-mailing each other to pull it off. There was no “Don’t Stop Believin’” effect, partially because “Baby Blue” was never a hit of that magnitude in the first place. Also, while the Journey hit became bigger over the years, there was never a moment when it was “lost to time” in the same way as a No. 14 song that hadn’t been on the radio since 1972.
I should note here that during the time when “Baby Blue” was on the air, nothing bad happened to the ratings of the station in question—which was in a very competitive PPM market. Playing it 2-3x a week never exceeded the “right amount of wrong” that an otherwise cogent and hit-driven radio station has to draw on. But there’s not enough wiggle room to accommodate all of my wish list of songs—most of which were big enough hits that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to test them now.
Grand Funk, “Bad Time” (1975) – For certain people (often the same ones who like “Baby Blue”), one of the greatest singles of all time. Also, the only one of Grand Funk’s big mid-‘70s hits (“We’re an American Band,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”) that never tests. Like “Baby Blue,” maybe it’s too much of a lyrical downer to hide behind its musical cheeriness. Then again, there are Classic Hits programmers today playing Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” (a distant cousin of both songs).
Sweet, “Fox on the Run” (1975) – “Ballroom Blitz” has actually flirted with playability over the years (better in some markets than others). But there’s no sign of a Guardians of the Galaxy 2 bump for this one either. If you do play it, please fix the levels on the fade-up, however. (Same for “Turn To Stone.”)
Billy Ocean, “Love Really Hurts Without You” (1976) – In the U.K., this song is on the Classic Hits safe-list and (despite its title) a wedding perennial. In America, it was never quite big enough, but even in Canada, where it was bigger, it doesn’t endure. Which is too bad, because it’s not only a great single, but would also one of those great programmers’ tools — a record that sounded both contemporary and throwback at the time. Now PDs would be looking for a ‘90s song that sounds like a ‘70s song, but a ‘70s song that sounded like a Motown record should have worked for Classic Hits, too. (Also see Polly Brown’s “Up in a Puff of Smoke”).
Rod Stewart, “Hot Legs” (1978) – All the more aggravating because “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” the single that preceded it, endures and, at a stately four-and-a-half minutes, is hard to program on the radio. But if you decide you’re going to play it anyway, make sure you get the single edit.
John Stewart, “Gold” (1979) – I’m using this one as a totem for all of the uptempo lost late-‘70s songs that didn’t have any particular taint of goofiness beyond being by an act with only one or two hits. I could have as easily written this paragraph about “Thunder Island” by Jay Ferguson. There were a lot of reader votes on Facebook for “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff N’ the Tears as well. But it’s interesting that the halo of Fleetwood Mac, which propelled a handful of unlikely hits up the charts in the late ‘70s, does nothing for “Gold” now. Or “Ebony Eyes” by Bob Welch. Perhaps it’s Stewart’s stentorian vocal that didn’t wear well.
Rocky Burnette, “Tired of Toein’ the Line” (1980) – Again with the dual-eras thing: a 1980 record that sounded like a 1950s rockabilly record. In the early days of Bob- and Jack-FM, I knew one Adult Hits PD who got it to test for a while. But that was more than a decade ago.
Joe Walsh, “A Life of Illusion” (1981) – When I opened up this topic on Facebook, this was actually the first song cited by a reader (KTMX York, Neb.’s Gene Curtis), but it was already on my list, along with Walsh’s even more up/fun “All Night Long.” Not even helped by its prominent showcase more than a decade ago in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Naked Eyes, “Promises Promises” (1983) – “Always Something There to Remind Me” endured. The follow-up, which seemed to be a hit of the same magnitude at the time, did not. Perhaps by being an oft-remade Bacharach/David song that had already been a hit elsewhere in the world, “Remind” had an advantage.
Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Out Of Touch” (1984) – For all their hits in the first half of the 1980s, there definitely a few Hall & Oates songs that do better than others now. That doesn’t stop PDs from wanting to play “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” or, to a lesser extent, “Out of Touch.” Mostly it’s because they’re waiting to hear the scream at the end of the bridge. Nevertheless, “Out Of Touch” gets more than 250 spins per week. “I Can’t Go for That” (which I see playable at AC from time to time) gets about 400.
Janet Jackson, “Escapade” (1989) – It’s interesting how little of the rhythmic pop of the late ‘80s endures in pop formats now. So this entry could have gone to “Crush on You” by the Jets or “Head to Toe” by Lisa-Lisa & Cult Jam. (Readers had plenty of suggestions in this category, from “Secret Rendezvous” by Karyn White to “Right on Track” by the Breakfast Club.) Jackson is a bafflement, with a decade worth of hits and not one consensus song. There was mid-‘00s speculation that Jackson had angered radio with her flash of Super Bowl controversy and the renewed focus on indecency. But listeners are oddly lukewarm, too. Again, “Escapade” still gets 300 spins a week or so.
Jane Child, “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” (1990) – As kids of the ‘90s become PDs, this might be the most frequent example of a record that programmers want to play. Again, a throwback (in this case to the Chaka Khan hits of a decade earlier). Again, a song where you’re waiting for one great moment (the screamed “no!” at the end of the bridge).
Hanson, “Mmmbop” (1997) – Classic Hits stations are determined to find more playable songs from the ‘90s. Because it’s hard to be “good-time oldies, er, Classic Hits” when the consensus hits are “3 AM” by Matchbox Twenty and “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Mmmbop,” a ‘90s record that sounded like a ‘70s record, would be perfect for Classic Hits. And I’m not ruling out that it will get there, since even New Kids on the Block have a (sometimes) playable hit in “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” now.
And what are the songs you wish you could play? Leave a comment here or see my Facebook discussion.