Friday, August 18, 2006

Random Rewind: 1986

I was involved, either as a listener or as a radio guy, with the day-to-day progression of pop music from 1970 until 1986. On the first working day of 1987, I went into elevator music radio. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.) Although I tried to keep up with the pop charts, it got harder--and the pop charts themselves were becoming a lot less interesting to me as times changed in the late 80s and I got older. I worked an adult contemporary format for three years in the early 90s, at the precise moment AC was becoming the blandest format imaginable. Sometime in these years I developed the following Law of Radio: In any market, the station promoting itself as having "the best variety" will in fact be the dullest station in town. Then it was off to classic rock, and eventually out of radio entirely.

Where was I? Oh yeah. This is a roundabout way of saying we're approaching the 20th anniversary of the Top 40 ceasing to matter to me the way it had since I was 10. And so here's a look back at some random selections off the Cash Box chart from this week in 1986.

1. "Papa Don't Preach"/Madonna. (peak)
In which an unwed mother wants to keep the baby, and asks for understanding from her father. This was controversial back then. Madonna had shown no signs of wanting to do anything but party since she burst on the scene a couple of years before, but now here she was offending both pro-choicers (for keeping the baby) and pro-lifers (by being an unwed slut). It might still be mentioned as a pro-life anthem today, were it not for the whole unwed-slut thing.

5. "Higher Love"/Steve Winwood. (climbing) Back in the High Life is as good an album as anybody made in the 1980s, although this song hasn't held up all that well after 20 year of continuous airplay. I wouldn't mind hearing "Split Decision" again right now, though.

8. "Dancing on the Ceiling"/Lionel Richie. (climbing) The record that made urban contemporary radio wonder whatever became of their old pal Lionel. "Dancing on the Ceiling" was the whitest record he had made to date (and inspired one of the lamest videos of all time). Of course, we hadn't yet heard "Ballerina Girl," the very thought of which makes me want to pull my arm off and use it to beat myself to death.

15. "Sweet Freedom"/Michael McDonald. (climbing)
16. "Danger Zone"/Kenny Loggins. (falling)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the Golden Age of Yacht Rock, apparently.

22. "Stuck With You"/Huey Lewis and the News. (climbing)
It's interesting to me how Huey Lewis and the News have become, in the last several years, shorthand for lame 80s rock. Yeah, OK, the album Fore! sounds today like the soundtrack for suburban fatherhood, and "Stuck With You," in retrospect, is one the first suburban-dad anthems, but Fore! got AOR play when it was released late in 1986 and contained two Number-One singles. It doesn't matter how he's perceived today, though. Huey gets the last laugh every time the checks come in.

32. "Rumbleseat"/John Cougar Mellencamp. (climbing) On Scarecrow, Mellencamp addressed the rural economic crisis that was destroying towns like the ones he knew in Indiana, at a time when social commentary had been largely absent from the Top 40 for 15 years or more. He seemed to have completed the journey from snotty punk to important artist. Except his snotty side never went away, and he never again recorded an album remotely as valuable or true.

41. "Velcro Fly"/ZZ Top. (climbing) This may be exactly the same record as ZZ Top's other post-Eliminator singles, "Sleeping Bag," "Rough Boy," and "Stages," but you'd need an advanced degree to tell the difference. And you'd have to be a fan to care.

48. "Two of Hearts"/Stacey Q. (climbing) Faceless, vapid, annoying dance pop, notable only because it was involved in a wager between my pal Shark and me. I was working in Macomb, Illinois, at the time; he was on the air in Marquette, Michigan. So when Western Illinois played Northern Michigan in football that fall, we bet on the game. The loser had to go on the winner's show and sing "Two of Hearts." WIU won, so Shark lost. It wasn't his finest radio moment, no.

61. "Secret Separation"/The Fixx. (falling)
The Fixx played Macomb at some point during my time there, and they employed one of the more unusual bits of staging I'd ever seen, then or since. The between-shows soundcheck had been going on for a while without a break, and what we thought was a drum technician was beating on the drum kit. Except it was the drummer, and after a couple of minutes, the rest of the band strolled on stage and started to play while the house lights were still up and half the crowd was out in the lobby.

I said it was unusual; I didn't say it was an especially good idea.


At 6:00 AM, Blogger wzjn said...

I do know exactly what you mean by 'ceasing to matter'. I soaked up so much music as a kid and was so pumped about the top 40 at that time that I would spend hours on a Saturday night making up my own version of the top 20.

Sunday morning, on WEEI 1510 (Boston), Casey Kasem woul begin at 9:00 AM and I would compare my list to his - and be really pleased that I would come VERY damn close to what he had.

So, one of the milestones that made me feel that I was getting older was when I would look at the top 40, and see less and less of what I knew. Then, even less. Less. Until now when I look at it, I think, damn!, I don't know anyone. For months at a time!

Sad. Very sad.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Top 40 music from 1982-1985 was generally very dynamic, with a variety of new artists introduced ranging from soft ballads to hard rock. When 1986 arrived, Top 40 began to embrace Urban Contemporary music and that's where Top 40 lost me. It became harder and harder to enjoy doing a Top 40 format with a new emphasis on playing the top ten songs every 70 minutes when the top songs were "Let's Go All The Way" by Slyy Foxx, "I Wanna Be A Cowboy" by Boys Don't Cry and ""Kiss" by Prince. All of those songs really, really SUCKED!

So, just like you, 1986 marked the end of Top 40 radio to me. By the way, I still have nightmares as a result of singing "Two of Hearts" on the radio for losing that bet with you. ---Shark

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