American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/17/83: Naked Eyes, “Promises, Promises”

I took my third computer science course, Assembly Language Programming, in the fall of my sophomore year of college. Assembly languages are low-level; that is, the commands used in them are MUCH closer to machine-level code than high-level languages such as Java, Python, R, and the like (or the FORTRAN I used in my other college classes). The mainframe Transy was using in the fall of 83, an HP-3000, had no mechanism to accept an assembly language program. That meant James, Mark, Cathy, I, and all the others in the class had to trundle across town to McVey Hall at UK to complete our assignments. Even better, our programs needed to be typed on punch cards, one card per line of code!  (I hope you can truly sense how much fun this was to do.)

There were a few punch machines on our campus—one in the science building and maybe a couple in the basement of the library—so we did the majority of our prep at Transy before jumping in my navy Citation or James’s enormous, black Caprice Classic (otherwise known as the land yacht). Once at UK, we’d hand over our bundle of cards to a staff member who’d put it in the queue to run through the reader. Soon enough you’d get a printout, letting you know if your program compiled/ran, along with any output you requested if successful. Fortunately, UK had their own machines on site so you could fix bugs etc. as needed (I might have needed to use it from time to time…).

For some while after graduating, I kept my stacks of cards, but eventually threw them all away (honestly, I’m a wee bit surprised I didn’t retain a few as souvenirs). However, I do still have the printouts from successful runs of my code. It may be hard to read, but the picture at the top was what I submitted to Dr. Feng for my first assignment. It’s time-stamped a little before 5pm on the Monday following this weekend’s featured 80s countdown. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so even though it was a straightforward, introductory program, it appears I’m demonstrating excellent ‘just in time’ protocol here!  One thing I very much like about the printouts is I can see how many cards I used each time (this project required 20); the largest number I found among my artifacts is 237.

Our cohort turned out to be the final group forced to use punch cards and trek over to UK. At the beginning of 84, Transy upgraded to an IBM 4331 system which, among other vast improvements, allowed submission of assembly programs. I’ve had friends over the years express surprise that as late as 83 there were people still programming with cards. I have to admit looking back it’s something I didn’t expect to experience myself (it feels much more like a 60s and 70s thing to me), but on the other hand, clearly there were folks at UK who were also still dealing with it. It’s become a fun memory to have.

Many thanks go to James for a messaging conversation this week that helped me recall a number of the details about Transy computer systems and our experiences typing cards in the library, among other things.

I can’t know for certain that I heard “Promises, Promises” (#15, heading toward a peak of #11) in the car heading over to McVey early that semester, but it’s certainly more than possible. I probably like it a little more than “Always Something There To Remind Me,” but I’m a fan of that whole first Naked Eyes album. I’m including two clips here: second is the official video, but I also wanted to provide a version with different lyrics that has the intro I remember being on WLAP-FM (courtesy of TM Stereo Rock) back in 83. Not sure I’ve heard those opening measures anywhere since (other than in my head).

 

 

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/12/70: Blood, Sweat and Tears, “Hi-De-Ho”

My perfect 70s radio station would include a LOT of pop music from the second half of the 60s, just like the stations I heard when I was growing up. There’d be plenty of contributions from folks who hit only in the 60s, among them the Association, Mamas and the Papas, Small Faces, Left Banke, Zombies, Lovin’ Spoonful, Tommy James and the Shondells, and psychedelic-era Beatles. Of course, music from the first act of artists whose careers bled into the 70s would also be represented, too: the Fifth Dimenson, Guess Who, Four Tops, Temptations, Doors, CCR.

And you can be sure that Blood, Sweat and Tears would be featured prominently. “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die” take me back to the period where I’m first really able to piece together memories with songs on the radio. (I think I come closer to understanding what Laura Nyro was getting at in the latter song as each year passes.) While I don’t remember “Hi-De-Ho” (#19, down from its peak of #14) quite as well, it’s definitely tucked back in there somewhere (and what an opening!).  The magic that David Clayton Thomas’s vocals brought to BS&T burned away much too quickly, but I sure celebrate their best pieces.

SotD: Suzanne Vega, “Neighborhood Girls”

My father subscribed to Stereo Review as far as back as I can remember; my guess is that originally he wanted to keep track of new classical releases and eventually inertia took over.  Somewhere around the age of 13, I began taking a serious interest in its Popular Music album reviews section (I tore out Peter Reilly’s full-page review of The Stranger from the January 78 issue–still have it, too). By the time I was in high school, it got to the point where I’d attack a new arrival as soon as it landed in our mailbox, anxious to seek out the Best of the Month and Recordings of Special Merit, figuring out which critics spoke to me more (Steve Simels–who is still active, blogging here–was the star, but if I had to do it over again, I’d pay much closer attention to what Alanna Nash wrote), and plotting potential future purchases on my limited budget. I recall their strong praise for Fear of Music and Argybargy, even though it’d be years before I obtained either. During the college years, I made a point to catch up on anything I’d missed in SR on my visits home. And that’s how I first learned about Suzanne Vega.

While it wasn’t selected as one of September 85’s Best, Suzanne Vega did get a featured review from Simels in that issue (I think reviewers took turns on Best picks, and it wasn’t his month). I took further note a few months later, in February 86, when SR chose it as one of its twelve Albums of the Year (besting another Simels favorite, Marshall Crenshaw’s Downtown). It’d be close to a year before I finally purchased SV at Record Service in Champaign, sometime between November 86 and January 87. I was immediately awestruck and wished I hadn’t waited so long to give it a spin.  I’d recalled the phrase “her songs insinuate themselves” from the SR write-up; that turned out to be completely accurate, particularly lyrically–similar snippets of language crop up in pairs of songs, and more than once.

It’s hard to pick a favorite on SV–“Freeze Tag,” “Small Blue Thing,” and “Undertow” would all be under consideration–but the honor may go to the final track, “Neighborhood Girls,” one of the few pieces on the album to feature (more or less) a full band. It’s a slinky thing, with an almost funky bass line. Just to prove the ‘insinuation’ point, “I’d like to hear a straight line to help me find my way” (almost) directly references the title of the last song (“Straight Lines”) on side one, though with an entirely different meaning to the term.

Over the next decade her stuff was must-buy and usually top-notch. There’s more I want to say about Suzy V (that’s what I called her back in 87; I was completely amused to find her Twitter handle is @suzyv), but that will wait for another day.  (In the meantime, I recommend checking out The Old Grey Cat’s recent overview of her second release, Solitude Standing.)

I don’t know when Dad let the Stereo Review subscription finally lapse, but it may not have been too long after I left for Illinois. I don’t seem to have any memories of pawing through it after I was done at Transy.

Mucho credit goes to americanradiohistory.com for helping me with dates for this post. I’m super excited to discover that a few months ago they began housing an awesome archive of Stereo Review!

What’s In A Name: Tony Harris, “Chicken, Baby, Chicken”

Last month I was browsing through my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, wandering through the ‘H’ section. My last name is relatively common, so it’s not too surprising there have been several acts over the years that share it. I’ve known for a while there are nine solo acts listed with the surname Harris, and that they all charted between 57 and 86.  One thing I have noticed is that while eight of the nine did make the Top 40, exactly zero of them scored more than one such hit.

I figured that it might be cool to do a little digging and find out more about these folks, even though my interest is strictly driven by our respective accidents of birth. Seven men and two women. A couple are well-known (though in one case, not for singing); another has a troubling (understatement alert) story. I’m hoping to do write-ups about them and their hits in a series that I’ll come back to from time to time. I think it should be fun on the whole. Today, I’m taking a look at Tony Harris, not just the first to chart in the rock era, but also the only one who never made it as high as #40.

Tony Harris had a single chart appearance.  “Chicken, Baby, Chicken” spent three weeks on the Top 100 and peaked at #89 on the 8/31/57 survey. A little searching on the web doesn’t reveal much about our subject other than this pair of articles from the British magazine Blues & Rhythm: The Gospel Truth. They appear to be based virtually exclusively on the author’s conversations with Tony. Basic outline: Harris, born in 1934, got his start in gospel quartets in the Los Angeles area while still in his early teens. This led to touring on the gospel circuit (as part of a group called The Traveling Four)  around the western and southern US in the mid-50s before going solo and switching to R&B. He wound up cutting just a few singles over the years; the lack of traction he experienced beyond his one minor hit kept him on the outside looking in. He did stay involved in the music business around LA, at least into the 80s.

It’s an interesting, if minutely detailed and occasionally rambling, story; it almost reads like the transcript of a tape recording at times. Sam Cooke, Darlene Love, Dick Clark, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Bumps Blackwell, the Rivingtons, and Little Richard all make appearances, though some only on the very fringes of the tale. The most fascinating detail revealed is that Harris did a couple of tours posing as Little Richard after the latter found religion and left promoters holding the bag. There are a few pictures of him in the linked articles—I haven’t found any elsewhere. I don’t know if he’s still living; he’d be 84.

The pieces appeared over twenty years ago. The author, Opal Louis Nations, is originally from England and clearly has a longstanding, deep interest in US gospel groups of yesteryear. I assume he’s still around—information on the internet for him outside his own website, while not quite as sparse as it is for Harris, still doesn’t amount to a whole lot. I’m certainly glad to have found the articles.

“Chicken, Baby, Chicken” sounds a little rough around the edges to me, but it’s still a pretty sweet R&B number about the famous dance craze. If you’re curious, take a listen. Ebb was a short-lived LA R&B label in the late 50s; I see that there are two compilations of its releases out there. Tony has three songs on Volume 2, and “Chicken, Baby, Chicken” is its lead track.

By the way, Harris said he wrote this song. The “O” below tells me that I don’t know his actual first name.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/1/84: Peter Wolf, “Lights Out”

Sometime in mid-2004 I decided it would be cool to collect all the songs from the 6/5/76 AT40 countdown, my first chart. From the get-go, for better or worse, I elected that digital format, rather than vinyl, was the way to do it. I didn’t pursue it that doggedly, but I did complete the task about eight months later. Some songs were a little tough to track down—a few seemed to have appeared only on Time-Life compilations. Others I purchased via iTunes (an iPod was our Christmas gift at the end of the year). Unsated, I picked other shows’ songs to collect: 4/18/81, 4/29/78, and 1/29/77 were among the early targets. Eventually I branched beyond October 82, the end of my charting days, looking well into my college years. At some point, I resigned myself to the obvious: I was on the lookout for all the songs that Casey played over a ten-year period, through 5/31/86, which happened to be the weekend following my college graduation.

Over the years, I discovered a number of songs had never been released on CD and weren’t ever put on iTunes or .mp3 format, either.  Virtually all of them are really obscure: at least as of a few years ago, they included “Old Fashioned Boy (You’re the One)” by Stallion, “The Clapping Song,” by Pia Zadora, “Disco Lucy” by Wilton Place Street Band, “Oh Julie” by Barry Manilow, and “Tragedy” by John Hunter.  Others may have appeared on CD at one point but were extremely difficult to find (or very pricey).  I did my best to go digital whenever I could, but those relative few remained out of reach for one reason or another. I now have a turntable that allows me to transfer easily from vinyl, so it’s all good, anyway.

By far the most well-known Top 40 song from that span which I have on vinyl only is Peter Wolf’s “Lights Out” (at #13, one shy of its peak). Long out of print before I turned my attention to it, the CD of the same name fetches well over $100 these days.  I’m more than happy to take a pass; the 45 I have is just fine.

I chased my dream in fits and starts, but managed to wrap it up in the first half of 2012, almost eight years after starting.  One of the last pieces of the puzzle was Donna Summer’s The Wanderer, which had three hard-to-find hits (it looks like it’s easier to get hold of now than six years ago).  I bought it just a few weeks before Summer died.

Turns out I’m not the only one with this sort of mania—a few months ago I caught wind of My Favorite Decade’s Megalist project, which was almost identical to what I described above. MFD was much more businesslike about the matter—he took around 3.5 years to knock it out.

It’s honestly good to know there’s at least one other out there…

American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/1/79: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, “Driver’s Seat”

I’ve strongly tended to favor songs I dug in real time for these weekend posts to this point, while also regularly opting for tunes that weren’t super popular. It’s not always this way, of course, on either count—occasionally a memory will trump a song I might like better, and I often make biggish-hit choices from countdowns that ran before I was, oh, say twelve. But the last four months of 79 are chock full of favorites that fell short of Top Ten status.

I’m just spitballing here—no promises about these eventually appearing as actual features (well, okay, you’ll very likely see some of them, and one has already posted)—but it wouldn’t be outrageous to see it shake out something along these lines (should all of these play while I’m doing this):

9/1: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, “Driver’s Seat”
9/8: Guest-hosted, so no rebroadcast
9/15: Herman Brood and His Wild Romance, “Saturday Night”
9/22: Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind”
9/29: Also guest-hosted
10/6: Jennifer Warnes, “I Know a Heartache When I See One”
10/13: Gerry Rafferty, “Get It Right Next Time”
10/20: Ian Gomm, “Hold On”
10/27: John Stewart, “Midnight Wind”
11/3: Chris Thompson, “If You Remember Me”
11/10: Michael Johnson, “This Night Won’t Last Forever”
11/17: Kermit the Frog, “Rainbow Connection”
11/24: Cheap Trick, “Dream Police”
12/1: Daryl Hall and John Oates, “Wait for Me”
12/8: Blondie, “Dreaming”
12/15: Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”
12/22: ?  Probably Foreigner’s “Head Games.” It’s a somewhat harder exercise as 80 dawns.

There wouldn’t be personal stories to go with every one of these, but so what? They’re all songs I’d listen to just about any time. And I might be leaving a few gems out: other possibilities include “Spooky,” by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Many of the top hits in this time frame were at best just okay IMHO, but it’s one of my real sweet spots as far as the #11-40 peakers go.

“Driver’s Seat” (#22, climbing to #15) is pretty close to the very top of the list. Even if this came on the countdown in August, the song has a cool, crisp fall evening feel to me (actually, several of those listed above stir this same reaction/sensation); I can’t hear it without being transported back in time to the end of its AT40 run. It’s another tune from a one-hit wonder that makes me question: if a band could get it this right once, how could they not have come remotely close to charting again?