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.

Rounding the Quarter-Century Pole

February 13, 1989 was a Monday. I found someone to cover for the class I was teaching (IIRC, I had one section of Calculus III that semester, which met on MWF) so that I could spend the day in KY with my parents. The guess from here is that I opted to take a long weekend to visit them on the occasion of my 25th birthday, since I’d gone back to IL so soon after Christmas.

I do remember a couple of things about the day. Dad was working at Fifth Third Bank in downtown Cincinnati by this time—he was in charge of the huge underground vault where the safety deposit boxes resided. (It was his final job; he retired from it in early July of 94). I drove over from Florence to visit with him awhile (despite the size of the vault, he generally wasn’t all that busy). Then I met up for lunch with my college friend Cathy, who still lived in the area and was working as a computer programmer for a big company downtown.  Before I went back across the river, Dad handed me some money, with instructions to buy myself a present.

Maybe I’m what you might call hard to shop for. Martha tries to pry ideas out of me come February and December each year; I’m frequently not very forthcoming. And I suppose I hadn’t given Mom and Dad much to work with this time, either. I cruised on over to the Florence Mall, about a mile away from the folks’ house. I don’t know if I purposely avoided going to the record stores, but somehow music didn’t seem like what they would have had in mind for me that day. Anyway, I wandered around a while, and finally landed in a gift shop on the upper level. Among their displays at the front of the store were a few plates featuring Japanese Chokin Art (engraving on copper). I saw one with two birds, one in the air, the other on a bamboo stick, hovering over a pretty flower. Something about it struck me just so. It wouldn’t be useful in the least, but I quickly decided this decorative piece was to be my gift from Mom and Dad.

I’ve had the plate on display pretty much ever since, through four apartments and two houses. Each time I changed coordinates between 89 and 97, I wrapped the plate and accompanying stand snugly in their red box, and out they would come in the new location, ready to be set up somewhere, often a fold-up bookshelf.  For the past twenty-plus years (except at the holidays), it’s resided on the mantle in our living room. I get that it’s hardly a valuable piece—there are scores, if not hundreds, of similar pieces available on eBay right now for about half of what I think I paid—but I confess it’s got a dear place in my heart. I usually think about its provenance whenever I intentionally look its way.

Top 40 wasn’t my main scene by early 89, but I’ll still take a gander at the 2/18/89 Hot 100 and see what pops out at me, a la Len O’Kelly:

#94: Ratt, “Way Cool Jr.”
This song was part of an inside joke amongst those in my office, one that’s not worth attempting to explain here. Kate, my officemate Will’s fiancée, had seen Ratt in concert (a fact that caused her some embarrassment in retrospect, I think) while she was an undergrad in California. Maybe that helped make her aware enough of this song to want to poke fun at it. It had peaked at #75, and as it happens, this was the last week evah on the pop charts for Steven Pearcy and company…

#76: Metallica, “One”
…and as Laura Nyro so aptly noted, there’ll be one chart act born to carry on.  Here’s the first Hot 100 week for Metallica. “One “and “Enter Sandman” are the only songs of theirs that have lodged in my consciousness, and I’m okay with that.  This would reach #35.

#75: The Timelords, “Doctorin’ the Tardis”
John introduced me to Doctor Who in the summer of 87 after we’d moved out of the dorm into the apartment on Elm St. in Urbana. It was fun learning about the various incarnations of the Doctor (I saw episodes with Tom Baker, Colin Baker, Peter Davison, and Sylvester McCoy across the grad school years), and the low-budget Daleks were simply the best. The Doctor sure left a lot of death and destruction in his wake, though.

We noticed this song on the charts at this time, but no station in C-U (so far as I knew) was playing it. When I eventually heard it, I was surprised to learn it was essentially a riff on Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part Two.” It was a big #1 song in the UK but could only muster a peak of #66 here, which is about all it deserves.

#69: Traveling Wilburys, “End of the Line”
I owned The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 by this point and was listening to it with some regularity. It was somewhat disappointing to see the singles fail to make the Top 40 (this one only got to #63); other faves included Harrison’s “Heading for the Light,” Orbison’s “Not Alone Any More,” and Petty’s “Last Night.” The Dylan pieces are not among his best.

#64: Boy Meets Girl, “Waiting for a Star to Fall”
I’ll cop to buying this single toward the end of 88. I found it super-charming, the sound of falling in love. (Don’t @ me.)  It’s working its way down from a #5 peak.

#40: Roy Orbison, “You Got It”
Orbison’s unfortunate death in December 88 occurred just weeks after Vol. 1 was released and less than two months before his own Mystery Girl came out. I’m probably repeating myself here, but the sheen in Jeff Lynne’s production efforts in the 80s and 90s overall doesn’t sit well with me. That said, this was a more than deserving hit, getting as high as #9.

#34: Bangles, “Eternal Flame”
It’s steaming toward the top (it’d get there on April Fools’ Day). It’s a good enough song, but the Bangles were definitely past-peak by this time.

#25: Karyn White, “The Way You Love Me”
The first of her four Top 10 hits; I remember this one and “Secret Rendezvous” most. Her first album was co-produced by Babyface, the second by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (White spent most of the 90s married to Lewis). I didn’t appreciate this, which is falling after reaching #7, enough in real time.

#24: Breathe, “Don’t Tell Me Lies”
I was glad to hear something a little peppier from these guys (although “How Can I Fall?” had plenty of personal appeal). A cute number that reached #10.

#18: Erasure, “A Little Respect”
Overall I’m not all that big on Erasure—I guess I think Clarke’s synth work tends to be too much of a focus—but this is a fine tune. It would soon reach #14.

#16: Mike and the Mechanics, “The Living Years”
There are songs out there about father/son relationships that make me well up (I’m looking at you, Harry Chapin), but for some reason “The Living Years” just leaves me cold. As we all know, this made #1, beating ”Eternal Flame” there by one week.

#2: Tone Loc, “Wild Thing”
This was somewhat amusing the first ten times I heard it, and I admit that there are moments of cleverness, but the oversexed narrator on this and its twin, “Funky Cold Medina,” got to be a tad much. They’re still both big hits on SiriusXM’s 80s on 8, though.

#1: Paula Abdul, “Straight Up”
Great dance tune, very reasonable option for the top of this chart, and the one I like best from Abdul. There’s sass and attitude to spare here; Arsenio Hall’s appearance in the video certainly didn’t hurt the song’s chances of breaking through. The variation in how she approaches singing the title phrase at the end is a winner, too.


There are a couple of songs on this chart that will get featured in separate posts over the next few weeks. I probably skipped over some other decent stuff, but this is too long as it is. Let’s close with a couple of Wilbury tracks. Nice tribute to Orbison in the first one.


2/2/80 and 2/11/78 Charts

Premiere has played shows over the last couple of weekends for which I have charts. First, 2/2/80:


The semi-interesting thing here is the “Two Years Ago” feature at the bottom, just one of the various add-ons I tried out over the years (many of which were quickly abandoned). This was the first week I’d done this particular thing, and it looks like it lasted six weeks. ‘Cause, ya know, it’s important to note what #32 was previously…

While we’re on the topic of 1980, here’s Q102 from this date 39 years ago:


Interesting mix of songs already off the national chart hanging on (Starship, Foreigner)  and songs they seem to be leading on (Floyd, Ronstadt, Babys). Love that “Romeo’s Tune” was in their top 5. I heard the Molly Hatchet plenty back then, and was a touch surprised it turned out to be a song Casey never played.

It’s the LP Extra that’s got me interested today, though–if I heard Q102 play it back then, well, it didn’t stand out. “Kill the Fire” is the rocker I know and love from Phoenix, but “Wishing on the Moon” is one I’m going to have to revisit on occasion.

And then here’s the 78 chart, one week after Debby Boone graced the show for the final time:


Speaking of temporary features, it’s looking like “Guess the Mystery Song” is about to bite the dust. Maybe it’s just the radio station I tuned in this past weekend, but I thought the re-mastering of this show was fantastic–the music just sounded so clear. Kudos to Shannon Lynn and Ken Martin!

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/9/85: John Fogerty, “The Old Man Down the Road”

WKQQ is the Lexington-area classic rock station. It sits at 100.1 on the dial now (part of the ubiquitous iHeart network), but back when I was in college it was located at 98.1.  I don’t listen to it anymore, but our next-door neighbors’ son would have it on a fair amount when went over for swimming and/or birthday parties a few years ago, during his teen years. I would joke that their playlist hadn’t changed much since I was his age, but honestly, it wasn’t far from the truth!

Double Q could well have been the station I tuned in most during my last two years of college. Looking at this attempt at a history of the station in its earlier years, I recognize the names of a number of the DJs, both from college days and after I returned in the early 90s: Curt Mathies, Mike Graves, Stacey Yelton, and Tony “TNT” Tilford (who’s still there, actually). I’m not the person to do it, but it’d be cool if there was a more extensive history of the station available somewhere.

WKQQ’s morning show back then was “Kruser and Company,” hosted by Dave Krusenklaus. I suppose it was pretty standard fare for a show of its type; because of or in spite of that, James and I certainly listened to Kruser plenty in the dorm room as we were getting ready for the day. Kruser was still doing his thing after I came back. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but I was surprised when Double Q canned him just a few years later in favor of the syndicated and eternally juvenile Bob and Tom. Krusenklaus has hung on in Lexington over the years, and is currently PD at an AM talk radio station.

The first months of 85 were a particularly intense time of listening to Double Q in 402 Clay Hall—my recollection is that there was some kind of limited commercial interruption promotion that stretched on for a few weeks, at least on one day of the week. For some portion of the weekends, I’d be sitting at a desk or in bed, reading something for my U.S. politics course, working on abstract algebra proofs or numerical analysis problems, letting AOR goodies wash over me (okay, I goofed off plenty, too).

This period coincided with John Fogerty’s big comeback hit, “The Old Man Down the Road,” first hitting the airwaves. It’s at #17 on this show, soon to reach #10. It’s a fine track, but the most fascinating thing about it to me is that Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records and the rights to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s catalog, unsuccessfully sued Fogerty over it, for plagiarizing himself (I’ll agree that “Old Man” bears at least a passing resemblance to “Run Through the Jungle”). The video was sort of a one-note joke, the camera tracing the path of a power cord from an amp in the swamp to Fogerty’s guitar. I have no idea why I didn’t notice back in 85 Fogerty’s three cameo, Hitchcock-like appearances throughout the clip.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/11/78: Wet Willie, “Street Corner Serenade”

At first glance, there’s nothing too remarkable about “Street Corner Serenade.” The single has a pretty standard song structure—two rounds of verse & chorus, bridge/sax solo modulating into a keyboard riff before heading into a final verse & chorus. And there’s not a lot of substance in the lyrics:
Verse 1: I sang on the corner with my friends when I was younger;
Verse 2: Let me tell you who was in the group;
Verse 3: I sure miss it!

But yet—it’s such a happy piece of music, from its big intro on through to the final “do-do-do-doot, whoah-whoa.” It’s one that I really liked when it was on the show (and that’s about the only place I heard it back then). I don’t know if any of the members of Wet Willie did any doo-wop street singing in their formative years—they might be a little young for that—but it feels like they’re nostalgic about something(and I’m certainly all about the nostalgia).

This is the second of three times Wet Willie would visit The 40 (lead singer Jimmy Hall also had one solo hit on the show in the fall of 80). “Street Corner Serenade” is one spot shy of its #30 peak this week.  Like a number of the bands from the era, they still get together and play shows from time to time.

SotD: Sarah McLachlan, “Vox”

Last week I noted the oddity of Tanita Tikaram doing her best work before she was 20, despite having multiple opportunities afterward to grow and flourish. Today, it’s another artist who started quite young, with a significantly weaker initial effort, but who went on to fulfill her promise, and then some.

Sarah McLachlan’s first album, Touch, came out in her native Canada in October 88 and was released in the US a few months later, around the time she was turning 21. Somewhere over the course of the year, “Vox” got decent play on VH-1—it seems like that might have been late summer or early fall? (So even though it was already out as a single in early 89, yes, maybe I should be posting this in six months or so—them’s the breaks.)  I remember the video because of the sheer piece of fabric McLachlan uses as a prop, and the song for its bouncy synth and the lines, “They start to limply flail their bodies in a twisted mime/And I’m lost inside this tangled web in which I’m lain entwined.” Not great poetry by any means, but it definitely succeeded in getting lodged in my brain.

I didn’t buy Touch, but did eventually check the CD out from the Urbana Free Library; my officemate Paul dubbed it onto a cassette for me, along with Julia Fordham’s Porcelain (speaking of songs I know because of late 80s VH-1, I hadn’t thought about “Happy Ever After,” a very fine track from Fordham’s self-titled 88 debut, in a long while until digging through my cassette stash). Can’t say I listened to that tape much, alas.

So, yeah, “Vox” is not super-special, but it got me to file McLachlan’s name away in my head. I was absolutely floored when I started hearing “Into the Fire” from Solace on the radio in the spring of 92. Such a huge leap of maturity and confidence—one of my favorites from that year. It wasn’t as big a commercial breakthrough as it was artistic, though; it took her third album, Funblling Toward Ecstasy, released two years later, to make people worldwide really notice.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/2/80: Styx, “Why Me”

Okay, first some dope on this week’s 80s feature:

–“Why Me” is #27 on this show and would climb only one spot higher;
–It’s a way overlooked song in Styx’s repertoire. I kinda wonder if the time it hit the chart cuts against it—80s stations tend to underemphasize songs from the first two years of the decade, and it doesn’t seem that 70s stations choose to take note of its 79 release date. Plus, Styx hasn’t opted to put it on many of its compilation disks, either;
–I bought the 45 soon after hearing it the first time. The sax/guitar interlude is pretty awesome; I was surprised its run on the show was so short, especially after debuting at #32;
–The song on the flip, “Lights,” is a really good Tommy Shaw piece. I’ve set it aside as a possible Time to Play B-Sides post someday.

But it’s Dennis DeYoung’s spoken, “Why me? That’s what I want to know, you know what I mean? Huh, I don’t know…” at around the 3:06 mark that’s led me down a bit of a rabbit hole this week. For all I know, what we hear is the way DeYoung normally speaks, but even back in early 80, it reminded me of a voice on a novelty record from the 50s that my father had introduced to Amy and me.

Dad owned A Child’s Garden of Freberg, a compilation LP of parodies and comic originals by Stan Freberg, and he started playing it for us sometime in the mid-70s. I found many of its pieces absolutely riotous: “St. George and the Dragonet,” which hit #1 in 1953 (Dragon: “I see you got one of them new .44 caliber swords.”  St. George: “That’s about the size of it.” Dragon: “You slay me.” St. George: “That’s what I’m here to talk about.”); “Heartbreak Hotel,” poking fun at both its use of echo and Elvis’s gyrations (“Where you will be… RRRIPPP!  …uh, I ripped my jeans…third pair today.”); and “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” with its overexuberant snare drummer.  Freberg was no fan of the popular music of the day and took glee in pointing out what he considered to be its excesses. And even if I wasn’t familiar with the originals enough to know exactly what was being parodied in all cases, you could sense that these recordings came from a master in his prime.

Another classic from Child’s Garden was Freberg’s take on the folk classic “Rock Island Line,”  which was the B-side to “Heartbreak Hotel.” More specifically, it lampooned Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, which was a sensation in the UK and had hit the Top 10 in the US in spring 56 (on the 4/25/56 Top 100 chart, Donegan was peaking at #10 while “Heartbreak Hotel” was #1). Donegan had added a long spoken introduction, which clearly irritated our parodist. Freberg, who shares billing with Peter Leeds (playing a record producer) gives it some of his typical flourishes, such as breaking mid-word (SF: “Well, the Rock Is-…you’re sure you don’t want the pig iron part?” PL: “Forget it, will ya?” SF: “…-land Line is a mighty good road…”).  And the bits about the sheep are simply perfect. (By the way, I guess it’s the “Well, you’re alright boy…you don’t have to pay me nothin’” part that DeYoung brought to mind.)


I hadn’t listened to the Donegan version until recently, and honestly I had no idea how closely Freberg had hewed to it. I guess I’d just thought Freberg had made it all up himself.


In reworking “Rock Island Line,” Donegan apparently misunderstood how the line worked, which of course Freberg and others, including Johnny Cash, propagated: there was no toll that one had to pay if one was transporting goods and not livestock, but such a train might have to go into a holding area. It does make a good story, though!

Well, all this led me to learning a little more about the artist who first popularized “Rock Island Line,” Hudy Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. He recorded it several times in the late 30s and throughout the 40s.


And how did Lead Belly encounter it?  Through working with John Lomax, a leader in the preservation and recording of American folk music. Lomax is responsible for the earliest known recording of “Rock Island Line,” by a group of prisoners in Arkansas led by Kelly Pace, in 1934. It’s mighty good.


Anyway, this is where “Why Me” has led me in recent days.  There’s a lot of detail I’m leaving out, but it’s all been fascinating. Somehow, I don’t think this is what DeYoung had in mind, though, as he tossed off that line.