American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/17/79: Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”

One of the most formative experiences of my high school years was a ten-session Introduction to BASIC Programming course I took as a freshman. It was offered by Xavier University, in Cincinnati, on Saturday mornings. We started in late February (next weekend will be the fortieth anniversary of the first class) and went through the first weekend of May. My classmate Debra and I both applied and were accepted, but we weren’t able to carpool over—they were running it in two sessions, and we’d been assigned each to one.

I don’t know now how much I knew about computer programming going in, but I absolutely loved it. There were around twenty of us in my session; we each were put in front of a terminal, given a manual and began learning about how to bend the innards of the mainframe to our will. For two hours each weekend, I had a glimpse of a whole new world.

Once we sorta got the hang of control, loops, and subroutines, the instructor (a priest, I believe) encouraged us to identify a largish project to tackle over our final few weeks. I had no trouble coming up with an idea, one that combined my new love with an older one: I’d write a program to compute chart points for AT40 songs! Let’s look at my notebook and some sample data:




This isn’t the whole program, but I think you get the idea. I read in six pieces of info about each song: a character string with title/artist, # of weeks on the Top 40, # of weeks in the Top 10, # of weeks at number 1, # of weeks at peak position, and peak position. If I can read forty-year-old code correctly, I attempted to award 2 points for each week on, plus extra points for each week in the Top 10 and each week at number 1, as well as bonuses for more than thirteen weeks on the show, more than ten weeks in the Top 10, more than four weeks at number 1, and/or more than two weeks at peak position. I say ‘attempted,’ because I don’t believe I got all the bugs out before the class ended. At least I have pages of code to show for it!

Seeing this again makes me wonder if I used something akin to this system for my predictions on the 1978 year-end countdown I put up here a few weeks ago, instead of the reverse-position one I claimed I used (and did use in 81).

Despite the ultimate lack of success on my project, I had a complete blast. This was the first time I’d encountered something I could see as “what I wanted to do with my life.”  From that point forward, I told people I was going to major in computer science in college (and I did!). I never became a clever, efficient programmer, but I learned enough to cut my way through my college assignments (I’ve done some coding for several classes I’ve taught over the years, too). It’s something I wish I spent more time on these days.

There are a few songs from the spring of 79 that make me think of that time at Xavier, probably from hearing them in the car while one of my parents (usually Dad) drove me over. “Sultans of Swing” is most certainly one of them—my class fit neatly inside its chart ride. It’s debuting at #33 this week, and would rise to #4. It’s definitely in my personal top 10 for the year.

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