American Top 40 PastBlast Redux, 3/15/86: Opus, “Live Is Life”

Before I started this blog, I posted about songs from old AT40s on Facebook, January-July 2017. I’ll be moving them here over time. This entry has been edited somewhat from the original.

This song was part of the Austrian Invasion that hit our shores in the early part of the year (okay, it was just these guys and Falco, but at the time I believe that tripled the number of Austrian acts to hit the top 40 in the rock era).  Even though it’s plenty repetitive, I’ve always had a genuine fondness for this track–I find it a real pick-me-up.  It’s debuting at #38, and reached #32.

SotD: Stan Ridgway, “The Last Honest Man”

Last week I briefly mentioned Jon, an agronomy grad student I met playing bridge at Illinois. I think we met in 89, at the nascent student bridge club started by my good friend Mark, a fellow math grad. Jon and I played together occasionally over the next couple of years, both on campus and at the club in town. We were both close to rank beginners, but I fancied myself the better player. My recollection is that he’d gotten interested in the game through his mother.

I occasionally gave Jon rides back to his home, and it was then that the conversations would turn to music. As I said earlier, he’s the one who suggested I listen to Jane Siberry’s No Borders Here, for which I’m still exceedingly grateful.  He let me borrow some of his disks/tapes (perhaps I reciprocated–it’d be like me to do so). I distinctly recall his choice for favorite album of 1990: Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints (mine was Kirsty MacColl’s Kite). Jon was always upbeat; nothing seemed to get him down, not even my much-too-harsh carping about his card play. Katie called him “Smiling Jon.”

I’ve thought about Jon occasionally over the years, wondering what happened after he finished his degree (he wrapped up a year before I did). I hadn’t taken time to Google him until last Monday, and I was stunned to find his obituary. He’d wound up in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas, where he was a highly regarded teacher and colleague. What I found in poking around a little bit indicates he completely loved his work and that he made some real contributions to his field. He passed away in late May 2013, a couple of months after he turned 54 (it’s not lost on me I’ll be reaching that moment in my life in mid-April).

Jon and I weren’t close, but I feel some loss and regret nonetheless. I would have enjoyed reaching out to him last week, hoping that he remembered me. It’s another reminder of the need to be more present, more conscientious about relationships.

One of the albums he lent me back in the day was Stan Ridgway’s Mosquitos; he highly recommended it. I didn’t make a recording, but a couple of its songs have stuck with me through the years. Here, in honor of Jon, is one of them. Cheers, to an old friend and more importantly, a genuinely nice person. Rest well.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/18/86: Dream Academy, “Life in a Northern Town”

In early January 86 I drove to St. Louis to visit my friend Mark. I spent several days at his house, getting to know his parents and siblings a little (he was the youngest of four, but they’d arrived fairly close together, in approximately 13 month intervals) and seeing some of the sights the Gateway City has to offer: science museum, zoo, botanical gardens, record stores, etc. The weather was very reasonable for that time of year—sunny, dry, and in the 30s and 40s. I brought him back to Kentucky with me, as we were about to embark on our final semester at Transy.

However, I returned home with a bad headache, one that had started about halfway through my visit. It didn’t go away, even after the semester started. Some days were a little better than others, but serious head pain became an ongoing part of my life. My parents were worried enough that they came down more than once to visit in the middle of the week, taking me to lunch and trying to make me feel better. There were a couple of mornings it was so bad that I went to a clinic down the road to see what they could do. I didn’t undergo any scans or major tests; whoever saw me didn’t see or hear me describe anything that made them particularly worried. My friends Suzanne and Kathy Jo were concerned enough to make signs for my dorm door, offering words of encouragement.

Through all of it, though, I took care of business. My grades didn’t suffer. My computer science buds and I roamed the state on several weekends that winter, lugging around and setting up PCs to be used in programming competitions by high schoolers. Over spring break, I settled on Illinois as my next landing spot. I had plenty of good times with my friends.

It took a few months, but I finally started feeling better. I’d get through some days without my head bothering me much, but then it’d come back. I went back to St. Louis that summer, for Mark’s sister’s wedding, and I remember thinking that maybe it would take going back to where things started for it to end.  It didn’t quite work out that way, but by the time I headed off to Champaign-Urbana in August, I felt more or less like life was back to normal.

What was going on? It looks like it was a combination of hypochondria and stress, with a feedback loop thrown in for good measure. My head hurt, I (dumb, I know—easy to be dumb when you’re 21) started to worry that something might be seriously wrong, and that in turn made me even more tense. Not to blame my father, but I did pick up a bit of his tendency to imagine every little twinge might be really bad news. In this case, it just took much too long to come to realize the degree of control I had over the situation. (I had another, but much shorter, bout of stress-related headaches a couple of years later one summer in Illinois. Knowing what it was very likely to be helped me navigate through it pretty quickly.)

This is one of the songs I was hearing plenty during those angst-filled days in early 86. Just starting its climb here, #33 in its second week, it would get to #7. It was the second hit song to specifically mention the end of 1963. Ten years earlier, when the Four Seasons were climbing to the top of the charts, I hadn’t really thought to reflect on what had gone down around that point in time—of course, Frankie Valli and company weren’t exactly addressing world events, either. The Dream Academy makes it all too clear, though: “…with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles.” Mom was more than six months along with me when JFK was assassinated (as it happens, one of my HS classmates was born on 11/22/63); the Fab Four played Ed Sullivan for the first time four days before I was born.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/14/78: Santa Esmerelda Starring Leroy Gómez, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

Disco music upended the order of the early 70s; by 76, when I started listening in extreme earnest, many acts from the old guard, such the Carpenters, Three Dog Night, and Tony Orlando & Dawn, were fading or already done. In their place came a slew of new singers and groups. Some had an extended run of success, but there were plenty whose star shone for only one tune.

Here are some of those one-hit disco wonders—I’ll let you try to recall their single Top 40 song: Anita Ward, Patrick Hernandez, Wild Cherry, Vicki Sue Robinson, Alicia Bridges, High Inergy, Gonzalez, Odyssey, Cerrone, Stargard, Bell & James, and Instant Funk.

There’s at least one more. Leroy Gómez was punting around Paris when he hooked up with a couple of French producers and recorded this cover of an Animals hit from 65 as the frontman for an otherwise anonymous disco collective. Both the original and the remake peaked at #15 (Santa Esmerelda is at #28 here). I’m somewhat amused at the use of the word ‘starring.’

American Top 40 PastBlast Redux, 1/14/84: Motels, “Remember the Nights”

Before I started this blog, I posted about songs from old AT40s on Facebook, January-July 2017. I’ll be moving them here over time. This entry has been edited somewhat from the original.

To mark the first anniversary of this feature, here’s the post that got the ball rolling. Many of my early efforts were pretty brief and focused mainly on the artists.

Debuting at #38 is the third AT40 entry from the Motels.  Today they’re thought of as a two-hit wonder, and I suppose that’s not entirely unfair.  In addition to the big two and this one, they had one other top 40 song, “Shame,” in summer 85.  This got to #36, but IMO deserved a better fate.  Check out the very overt David Bowie reference at around the 2:25 mark!

1988 Three Female Artists Mix Tape, Part 1: Jane Siberry, The Walking

During the 86-87 academic year I lived in Sherman Hall, which was then one of two dorms at the University of Illinois for graduate students. I was assigned room #457, in the tower portion of the complex (there was also a long, two-story corridor of rooms—the two sections shared a lobby and a basement commons area). My room was part of a suite for three students in the southwest corner; we shared a narrow hallway, a sink, and a teensy toilet/shower stall. Mine was the smallest of the three, the one with the western exposure, which meant it got really hot in the afternoons during both the beginning and the end of my time there.

Sherman Hall is on the northwest corner of 5th and Chalmers, in Champaign. Two blocks east and two blocks north, just over the line into Urbana, is Altgeld Hall, the mathematics building, where I took classes and would soon have my office. Close to halfway in between, on the northeast corner of 5th and John, is an outdoor mini-mall of small shops/restaurants. When I walked by on a visit this past May, it was clear that in the intervening 30 years there’d been a complete turnover of the businesses operating there. I can remember a coffee/bagel shop (whose name I now forget) that I went to a couple of times. There was Coslows, the bar/restaurant where many math grad students and a few faculty would gather on Friday afternoons for pitchers of beer. And there was a video rental place called That’s Rentertainment, which also for a while loaned out compact disks. (Sometime in the very late 80s they were made to cease-and-desist the rental of CDs, citing copyright issues. I dropped by during the subsequent liquidation of their inventory and scored Marshall Crenshaw’s Mary Jean and 9 Others.)

I didn’t have my own CD player until March 88, but Jim, one of my roomies in the apartment on West Elm during 87-88, already had one as part of his stereo system, which he graciously allowed to be ensconced in our communal living space. His collection of disks was not all that large, but my memory is that it was pretty solid, mostly AOR with some good New-Wavy stuff thrown in. (I did commit his copies of Oingo Boingo’s Dead Man’s Party—a great disk—and Tears for Fears’ The Hurting to cassette.) I also regularly borrowed CDs from the Urbana Free Library and checked stuff out from That’s Rentertainment. At this point my musical tastes were continuing to evolve away from Top 40 radio and I was spending more and more time (and money) trying to discover what I hoped were up-and-coming artists. My two primary sources for finds in the late 80s both had the initials RS: Rolling Stone magazine and Record Service, a store located on Green Street in Campustown, less than a block away from Altgeld. I’m pretty certain that I first heard of Jane Siberry, a quirky, art pop performer, through Rolling Stone.

Siberry came out with The Walking in May 88.  It was her fourth album, but first major-label release. Hard to know now what it was I might have seen in Stone’s review that intrigued me, but this was the period when I was really focused on female artists (87 had been the year of discovering Suzanne Vega, 10000 Maniacs, and Kate Bush, among others). Perhaps they compared her to Bush in some way?

I didn’t rush out to buy The Walking; I’m thinking I rented it first, but concede I may have gone to the library instead. In some respects, it made for a difficult listen—all the songs are rather long and a few didn’t initially strike me as being overly melodic—but there were also some real keepers on it. I did eventually purchase a used copy of the CD.

A couple of years later, I listened to some of Siberry’s earlier stuff at the encouragement of Jon, a friend I’d made at the bridge club who was a grad student in agronomy. Her second album, No Borders Here, is amazingly good; highlights include “Mimi on the Beach,” “Follow Me,” “The Waitress,” and “Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be).” Wouldn’t surprise me if I feature one or more of those someday. I didn’t get into the follow-up, The Speckless Sky, as much, though “One More Colour” is among her best. I didn’t pay too much attention to her later work, either.  “The Life Is the Red Wagon,” from 89’s Bound by the Beauty, is the one I like most from the post-Walking period. She’s kept on recording steadily through the years, definitely (and maybe even defiantly) charting her own unconventional path, dabbling in various genres, forming her own recording company, and even changing her identity, to Issa, for a few years.

Sometime that summer of 88, before John and I split from Jim, I took a cassette and recorded the four tracks from The Walking that I especially liked. It was the beginning of a tape with thirteen songs by three female solo artists, all of whom came from outside the U.S. (Siberry is Canadian). This is the first of three installments in which I feature those songs. I didn’t pay attention to the artists’ sequencing at all (intentionally, and if I can allow myself a little bragging, I’d say effectively): for instance, the Siberry selections are, in my ordering, songs 6, 4, 7, and 2 on the CD.

I opened with the stellar title-like track, “The Walking (and Constantly).”

Next came a goofy (but delightful) song with an equally goofy (but delightful) video, “Ingrid (and the Footman).”

Third was the more solemn “The Lobby.” This video seems to have been recorded by a fan almost 20 years after the song was originally recorded. I’m impressed that Siberry went along with it.

I wrapped up with my then-and-still favorite, “Red High Heels.”

I’m putting together Spotify playlists for each of these three posts, and I’ll pull them all together into one when I’m done.

American Top 40 PastBlast: The Top 100 of 1983, Part 2

Last week, Premiere Networks played the first half of American Top 40’s Top 100 of 1983. Now, it’s time for #50-#1. Even though I wasn’t listening to Casey any longer by this point, I still took the time to hear the year-end shows while I was in college. Here’s what I wrote down back then:



There’s much more sorting by peak position here than was present in 77–it’s my understanding that sometime in the 80s they changed the underlying formulas used to compute these year-enders. Most of the songs that “outperformed” their peak position (specifically, “The Look of Love,” “Allentown,” and “You and I”) in this survey tended to be from before April. It was in the 4/30/83 Hot 100 that a new “chart master” took over and a different methodology for computing the weekly surveys was employed.


American Top 40 PastBlast: The Top 100 of 1977, Part 2

Last week, Premiere Networks ran the first half of American Top 40’s Top 100 of 1977, ending with mega-hit “You Light Up My Life” at #51. This was because the 12-month period for compiling the chart was November 76-October 77; if it’d been shifted just one month later, Debby Boone would easily have been in the top 10. As it was, she wound up at #3 in the 1978 year-end show.

Now, it’s time for #50-#1.  Here’s what I wrote down 40 years ago:


What stands out to me now compared to Top 100 surveys in the 80s is how well songs that peaked outside the top 3 fared relative to the #1 songs (and there were tons of chart-toppers in the first seven months of 77, most for only one week). “Tonight’s the Night” would have been #1 for the year if they’d shifted their year back one month.

The music of 76 will always be special to me, since that’s when I first became hooked on AT40, but 77 just might top-to-bottom be my favorite year for popular music.

SotD: Red Button, “Behind a Rainbow”

Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg, two LA musicians, formed The Red Button in the mid-aughts. Swirsky’s biggest claim to fame may be co-writing a couple of top 10 hits on Taylor Dayne’s first album; Ruekberg led a band called Rex Daisy. As a duo, they not only channeled the Beatles and other cool 60s pop vibes, but did so with clever lyrics and sonic gusto. I first learned of them sometime in Fall 16 from a FB conversation with Warren/Professor Mondo; I was asking him for power pop recommendations. Subsequently, a copy of their first release, 2007’s She’s About to Cross My Mind, appeared under the tree a year ago. It’s really good!

A couple of months ago I was all set to add their 2011 follow-up As Far as Yesterday Goes to my 2017 Christmas wish list when my Amazon search turned up Now It’s All This! It’s a 2-CD set that just came out in October in which they’ve remastered both full-length albums AND recorded six new tunes AND included “unplugged” versions of four previously released songs. I’ve really been enjoying both the second album and the new stuff.  Hard to know that the new material is totally worth the price if you already own both Cross My Mind and Yesterday, but it could be worth considering.

Today’s feature is one of the new songs; it employs the classic theme of a mismatched pair of lovers. While I wouldn’t call it Beatle-esque, it does include a sly reference to hand-holding. To check out their more Fab Four-ish material, try “Cruel Girl” or “Caught in the Middle.” A couple other tunes, “Floating By” and the new “Solitude Saturday,” sound more like they’re imitating Elliot Smith imitating the Beatles (which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned).

If any of this sounds remotely appealing, The Red Button would be a decent investment of some of your time.