American Top 40 PastBlast, 9/7/85: a-ha, “Take On Me”

This was the first weekend of my senior year of college, classes likely having started on Wednesday. I was taking courses in math, physics, computer science, history, and French, plus my usual quarter-credit for tooting on the trombone. Easily the most enjoyable class that semester was History of England to 1660; James and Stacey were among the others in the class. We read engaging books on pivotal moments such as the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, and the Spanish Armada (the last of these was especially good) and then slammed out two-page papers and the occasional essay exam for Dr. Binford. I kinda wish now I’d had room to take the second half of the sequence in the winter. While I’ve yet to travel to Great Britain, I suppose it’s not too late.

By this point I’d pretty well settled on a post-baccalaureate plan. I imagine graduate study of some sort was always in the cards. Three years earlier I would have told you that computer science was by far the most likely subject for further investigation, but along the way I had slowly turned toward mathematics. I realize CS would have been the sounder choice from a financial perspective (I don’t even need to add a phrase like ‘in retrospect’ to that–it had to have been obvious at the time). Even though I still like to noodle around with programming, there are zero complaints about the path I wound up following. I’d spend a chunk of the fall semester beginning the process of identifying potential next destinations, taking the GRE, etc. Mark H was also planning on graduate school, though in CS; we wound up considering some of the same places.

When casting around for a song from this show that reflects some part of where I was in my social life at that moment, I found two diametrically opposite positions to take. The harder view is represented by Sting’s “Fortress Around Your Heart.” At the beginning of 85 I’d written a diary entry claiming as a result of a particular experience the year before I’d “stashed…emotions in an ice box somewhere far down” and that I was “colder than I used to be.” It’s not clear this was remotely true, but knowing I was leaving Lexington in less than a year (UK wasn’t really on my radar for grad school) did make me loath to seek out a dating relationship.

On the much brighter side, I was already in love with a-ha’s “Take On Me” and its striking, magical video. Watching vocalist Morten Harket and his then-girlfriend Bunty Bailey (who’s just three months younger than I) act out those moments when you first meet a potentially special someone…well, I guess it gave a 21-year-old hope. The future #1 song was hanging out at #21 on this show.

Perhaps you can tell we’re going with optimism today–I’m a sucker for a happy ending, I suppose.

One other note: I immediately knew the source of the ending for the vid of “Take On Me” the first time I saw it. I’d gone on a double date with a friend early in 81 to see the William Hurt/Blair Brown flick Altered States. (You can find a clip of the film’s final scene on YouTube, but it’s NSFW.) Given the R rating, the folks at the cinema must not have been enforcing the rules the night we were there–maybe I’d just turned 17, but my date was younger.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 8/31/74: Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris”

My friend Warren really hates Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” We’re talking heat-of-ten-thousand-blue-giant-suns hatred–I mean, he even had the protagonist in his novel remark on how awful it is. Warren’s not big on Seger anyway, but he has absolutely no patience for complaints about how tough it is to be a rock musician. If you don’t like it, just don’t do it, I imagine him thinking whenever the song comes on the radio within his hearing.

(As for me, I like “Turn the Page” well enough; perhaps I’m more sympathetic to articulating the sucky aspects of being on the road? Besides, one of my best friends in HS absolutely loved it, so I guess there are sufficient back-in-the-day memories so that it’s hard to get too down on it.)

Anyhow, I can’t help but wonder if Warren feels similarly about Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” This time, we’re treated to Mitchell relaying what she heard in David Geffen’s laments about the downsides of being a record company executive, and in his pleasures in traveling to the City of Lights. On the whole, I get it–people being nice to you solely because they want something from you is draining (I could get into spending a bunch of time in Paris, too). And as far as “if you don’t like it, just don’t do it” goes, well, Geffen kinda did that after awhile, essentially taking off the last half of the 70s from the music biz.

Court and Spark has become one of my go-to albums this decade, and “Free Man in Paris” is one of the really amazing songs on it–it’d definitely be worth trying out at karaoke. Sitting at #30 this week on its way to #22, it became the last studio recording of Mitchell’s to get played on AT40 (a live take on “Big Yellow Taxi” made it a few months after this).

Beaten To The Punch

We got a satellite dish in 2005, not long after returning to KY from our year in upstate NY. Our package included a number of pre-merger Sirius radio channels, and it didn’t me take long to discover the 70s station. On Sunday nights, after Ben was down for the night, I’d listen to Dave Hoeffel’s Satellite Survey, in which he played the top 30 songs on Billboard‘s pop chart from the corresponding week of some year in the 70s. After close to two years of moderately faithful listening, I came to realize that Hoeffel recycled the same fifty countdowns (five from each year of the decade), which took a little of the fun away; additionally, the station apparently didn’t have copies of all the songs–there’d be occasions when, say, #27 wasn’t available, so the first four played would actually be #31-#28. Sometime after the 2007 merger between Sirius and XM, Hoeffel moved to the 60s channel and genuine AT40 70s shows began being rebroadcast.

The Satellite Survey lives on in 60s form, however, still hosted by Hoeffel.  Martha and I have been listening to Channel 6 in the car a little more recently, and caught most of this past weekend’s Survey after leaving Ben at college. Hoeffel kept saying he was playing tunes from August of 1962, but I found after getting back home that the rankings came from Billboard‘s 9/15/62 Hot 100. It doesn’t exactly feel fair for me to critique music that’s older than I am, but I was definitely struck by any number of things while the hits were rolling, so here we go.

–There were long stretches of songs with which I was unfamiliar, and that’s a very good thing; while decade-based stations by definition have a finite number of options, they sure seem to have playlists that are far too short. That’s not to say there weren’t some welcome classics to be heard. Outside the Top 10 we got “If I Had a Hammer,” (#35), “Surfin’ Safari” (#30), and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (#11), and the Top 5 all were in the very-good-to-outstanding range: “Green Onions,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Sheila,” and “Sherry.”

–On the other hand, after a while there was a certain sameness to the songs. Very little of it rocked, and treacly ballads abounded. Even if I hadn’t been told the year, it was easy to tell we were listening to music pre-dating the British Invasion. As it happens, it was less than eighteen months prior to the Beatles and their compatriots sweeping much of this style away.

–Some lowlights:
#23: Bobby Bare, “Shame on Me”
#17: Johnny Tillotson, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On”
#16: Marty Robbins, “Devil Woman”
#9: Dickey Lee, “Patches”

I’m coming out fighting here, as all four of these fellows had lengthy and successful careers (in most cases more so on the Country charts); I just didn’t find any of these songs engaging. “Shame on Me” is told by a guy regretting a brief bout of cheatin’, with a couple of loooong mournful spoken word segments. Tillotson has a wonderful, pure voice, and “Pillow” is considered a country classic according to Wikipedia, but the sentiments expressed didn’t impress me even slightly. The protagonist in “Devil Woman” denies all agency and puts everything on his “temptress”–I can’t begin to imagine why Mary even wants to take him back. Pass, even though Robbins also has a magnificent voice. And “Patches” could be the worst of the bunch, a soppy tale of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks who kill themselves after the boy’s parents forbid him from seeing/marrying shanty-town-dwelling Patches. I know tragedy has always sold, but still…

–On the brighter side:
#27: Brook Benton, “Lie To Me”
#22: The Springfields, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
#14: Claudine Clark, “Party Lights”
#12: Mary Wells, “You Beat Me To the Punch”
#8: Ray Charles, “You Don’t Know Me”

What little I knew of Benton’s work–“Rainy Night in Georgia” and a couple of duets with Dinah Washington–indicated I need to dig into his catalog. “Lie To Me” does nothing to change that.


“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” was easily my favorite discovery on Saturday. I knew the song to a smallish extent, but hadn’t heard the version by the trio of Dusty Springfield, her brother Tom, and Mike Hurst. I’m reading that this was the first song by a British group ever to break into the U.S. Top 20. The Springfields didn’t have the original version, but were the first to have a hit with it. It’s been subsequently covered many times, including by my father’s high school classmate Skeeter Davis, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and the trio of Dolly, Tammy, and Loretta.


Claudine Clark was a true one-hit wonder, but “Party Lights,” about a teenage girl’s wish to join in on the action across the street, is pretty sweet.


“You Beat Me To the Punch” sounds just like a Smokey Robinson joint, so it’s no surprise that he co-wrote and produced this one for Wells. Her understated approach serves the song extremely well.


And Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is another one to add to my pile of albums to seek out. The arrangement on “You Don’t Know Me” sounds of its time, but Charles’s vocals are impeccable.


–Finally, a quick word about three instrumentals on the show:
#26: Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra, “A Swingin’ Safari”
#18: Bent Fabric and His Piano, “Alley Cat”
#10: Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, “Rinky Dink”

Jim Bartlett wrote about Vaughn back in June, and you should definitely go there to read about “A Swingin’ Safari” and other Vaughn hits. You likely know the Grammy Award-winning “Alley Cat,” even if not by name; Fabric, from Denmark, is apparently still around, now in his mid 90s. This was the second and last Top 40 hit for Cortez–his other, “The Happy Organ,” was a #1 hit three years earlier. “Rinky Dink” sounds like it was written with the roller rink in mind.

–Why write about all this? Throughout my life, songs have regularly gotten tied down to a specific time and place. Sheerly by accident, these have become the tunes I’ll always associate with the cool, cloudy Saturday ride home through Indiana after handing Ben over to his future.

As I noted above, it doesn’t feel quite right to cast aspersions on songs I didn’t experience in real time. Looking through comments this weekend on the YouTube videos to which I’ve linked, I saw so many folks, perhaps now around 70 years old, noting the memories that come rushing back when they hear them again, even “Shame on Me” and “Patches.” If I were 12-15 years older, that could well be what I would say. As it is, I might not really want folks born a dozen or so years after I was to go browsing through my 45 collection from the late 70s…