Friday, July 23, 2004

Friday Top 5: Days Gone Down

Twenty-five years ago, in late July 1979, I was finishing a month of summer school at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, between my freshman and sophomore years. I spent the rest of my time working at either the campus radio station or at my paying radio gig at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa.

I had snagged the job at KDTH in April, a scant three months after I sat down behind a live microphone for the first time, so I was as green as an Iowa cornfield. Like everybody who started in radio back in those days, I did a lot of button pushing at first, for the taped programs that filled up the station’s off-peak hours. By summer I was pulling two six-hour shifts each weekend, some of those hours involving actual DJ shows, and it was pretty good experience. Or it would have been, had I been getting any guidance from the people who ran the place. Fact is, I was learning by trial and error, and it involved more error than it should have. So on those occasions when I was asked to fill in on a weekday afternoon, or a Saturday morning--or any shift other than my comfortable Saturday and Sunday night shifts, when nobody cared what I did--I felt tremendous pressure. I supposed that nobody was going to tell me what to do unless I asked (since nobody much told me what to do normally) and that caused me to ask what some of my colleagues perceived as too many questions. (The station’s news director, for example, routinely chewed me out for this very offense; he seemed to dislike me so much that I was pretty sure if Skylab fell on Dubuque that summer, he would blame me.)

So anyway: When I listen to tunes from the summer of 1979, many of which I was playing on my radio shows by then, and when they do what old tunes commonly do--transform me briefly to the person I was when they were new--I become inexperienced, naive, fumbling, insecure, and stressed out--not a person I’d much like to remember. Nevertheless, there are some tunes from that summer I still like to hear now and then, and here are five of 'em:

"You Can’t Change That"/Raydio: One of the few R&B records that summer that wasn’t either a disco thumper or a bland ballad. Ray Parker Jr. would go on to greater success in the 1980s, but his two 70s hits, this one and 1978’s "Jack and Jill," would earn him noteworthy status in my pantheon even without "Ghostbusters" and "The Other Woman."

"Days Gone Down"/Gerry Rafferty: Imagine doing the best work you could possibly do on your first attempt--hitting .400 your first season in the majors or winning Best Actor in your first movie--and then imagine having to live up to that standard for the rest of your career. I have named this conundrum "the Gerry Rafferty Syndrome." If he made records for a hundred years, he was never going to surpass 1978’s "Baker Street"—but "Days Gone Down" is a respectable attempt.

"Mama Can’t Buy You Love"/Elton John: By 1979, Elton John had slipped from the peak, and it was only going to get worse, with the godawful disco album Victim of Love. But he also collaborated with Philly soul producer Thom Bell on this, and it became his biggest Top 40 hit in three years. Several tracks with Bell were released on an EP called The Thom Bell Sessions, which Philly phreaks should seek out--it’s like something from an alternate universe in which Elton sang lead with the Spinners.

"Heart of the Night"/Poco: This band has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine—the early '70s edition that recorded the excellent "Good Feelin’ to Know," the late 70s edition that made the not-very-country-at-all album Under the Gun, and the revived late '80s edition whose sole moment of glory was "Call It Love." "Heart of the Night" is a lovely country-rock tune that was probably a year too early--had it come along in the Urban Cowboy summer of 1980, it might have been even bigger. (It was a particular favorite of mine in 1979 because it clocks in at 4:49--plenty of time for me to put it on at KDTH and run next door to take care of the room-sized automation machine that ran the FM sister station, D93.)

"Let’s Go"/Cars: One way to remember 1979 is to recall us drowning in a sea of disco. The top 5 singles 25 years ago this week were all disco tunes, although the Knack's "My Sharona" also made its debut in the Top 40, and seemed at the time like a thunderbolt from the gods designed to save rock and roll from the disco plague--so rock was by no means dead. In fact, several standards of the classic rock canon first appeared in 1979 and were spawning hits that summer: Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, the first Dire Straits album, the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute, Pieces of Eight by Styx, and the Cars’ Candy-O. "Let’s Go," the lead single from Candy-O, is a great radio tune, perfect for drivin’ around with the windows down.

As the summer of 1979 faded into fall, I would go back to college, meet the woman who would become my wife, and become program director of my college radio station, in that order. And the next 25 years would pass in a blink, and here we are.


At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, the summer of '79....and no, it wasn't YOUR fault that Skylab crashed to earth. We should blame Anita Ward for "Ring My Bell," Alicia Bridges for "I Love the Nightlife," and Amii Stewart for her obnoxious version of "Knock on Wood." Those horrible songs would cripple ANY spacecrafts.

Here's some songs that got some airplay on the radio in the summer of '79 that I wouldn't mind hearing again:
"Driver's Seat" - Sniff n' the Tears
"Hey St. Peter" - Flash & the Pan
"People of the South Wind" - Kansas
"Gone Gone Gone" - Bad Company
"Long Live Rock" - the Who
and, take your pick: "Fat City" or "Children of the
Nighttime" by the Climax Blues Band


At 3:52 PM, Blogger jabartlett said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger jabartlett said...

(Yes, but only so I could add a thought.)

"Driver's Seat"--very cool. "Long Live Rock," too--I've heard 'em both in the last week or so. "Children of the Nighttime" is one of those songs that should have been a monster hit but wasn't never even released as a single. But I find that Kansas hasn't aged very well. "Point of Know Return" and "Portrait" are pretty painful to listen to now, and although I haven't heard "People of the South Wind" for a while, my guess is that I'd only need to hear it once or twice. If you actually have Flash and the Pan, let me know. That's one I've been trying to find.

"Ring My Bell" sounded like the epitome of stupid in 1979, but it actually is treated kindly by critics now. (It was #2 25 years ago this week, between Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff.") And I'm not particularly offended by "I Love the Nightlife," although I don't need to hear "Knock On Wood" again, at least by anyone not named Eddie Floyd.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Willie said...

I thought I might have Flash and the Pan, but no such luck. However, I do have a 45 of "One Tin Soldier" by Coven. It was originally on the "Billy Jack" soundtrack.


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