American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/14/87: John Cougar Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb”

In the late 80s, WPGU, Champaign-Urbana’s album/college rock station, started a new game during their weekday morning show.  It centered around a character called the Lounge Lizard; the selected caller was treated to a twenty-or-so-second snippet of a rock tune sung “lounge style,” and to win one had to correctly identify song and artist.  It was around this time of year in 90 that I got my chance to square off against the LL.

That was the year I had an apartment by myself.  John, my roommate the previous three years, had been dating Ann since the second half of 87.  They got married in July 90, after she graduated from vet school, and moved to Chicago.  In August, when the lease on our place ended, I moved to a one-bedroom somewhat closer to campus.  John kept his teaching assistantship at the U of I, so he’d drive down to C-U Tuesday morning, crash on my couch for two nights, and return home after his Thursday classes were over.

Since John wasn’t a witness, it must have been a Monday, Tuesday, or Friday morning when LL and I did battle (I’d guess Friday).  I imagine the guy who played the Lounge Lizard was a friend of one of the morning jocks.  He was a bit unreliable; he didn’t always show up, and there were times when he literally phoned it in.  You likely wouldn’t be surprised to learn LL was portrayed as having alcohol issues.  I even recall a time when they attempted to kill him off, complete with a plot line that involved him getting shot (probably by an irate husband, with whose wife LL had, uh, consorted).

While I did reasonably well “playing at home,” I by no means got them right anywhere close to all the time—the nightclub affectations really did get in the way, even when lyrics might have sounded familiar.  I was a little worried I’d whiff, but nothing ventured, etc.  I don’t remember trying regularly to take a shot, but I doubt that I was the right caller on my first attempt.

It’s lost to me now which portion of the song LL crooned, but I’d bet on the chorus: “That’s when a sport was a sport, and groovin’ was groovin’…”  It didn’t click at first, and for a second I saw myself going down in flames. They were known to give hints to struggling contestants, and I may have received a nudge. Regardless, all was suddenly revealed.  I gave the required information about today’s song (debuting at #40 here, peaking at #8) and was soon providing my address to them off-air.  I suspect I was pleased enough with myself over this.

My prize was a copy of a recently released CD, one that I actually was happy to receive!  I’ll feature a song from it tomorrow.

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American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/15/75: Simon and Garfunkel, “My Little Town”

Most of my earliest experiences with pop music came from listening to AM radio in the car.  I began paying closer attention around late 73-early 74, just before I turned 10; looking back, it seems that for about a two-year period, all of my musical memories occur while either Mom or Dad is driving me somewhere.  That started changing toward the end of 75.  It must have been around then that I obtained or at least began regularly listening to a transistor radio.

Here’s one of those first tunes (#19, on its way to #9) that wasn’t confined to being heard on a car ride.  Whether or not it’s an actual memory, listening to it causes me see myself looking out my bedroom window on a cold late autumn evening, craning my neck to look west and watch trucks in the distance on I-75. I don’t think I appreciated fully at the time how cool it was to have Paul and Art singing together again.

I know now that WSAI in Cincinnati had started playing AT40 a few weeks earlier, in October.  Less than five months after this broadcast, I had caught the fever and was listening to it close to regularly.  It wasn’t long before music was with me just about all the time.

Ranking Songs on Albums: REM, “Automatic for the People”

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the release of REM’s last great album, the somber Automatic for the People.  A week ago, the band celebrated by setting out upon us a three-disk Deluxe Edition–could be on my Christmas list!  In honor, here’s my ranking of its twelve tunes (with more than just a nod to jb, who’s done this sort of thing for great late 70s albums such as Rumours, Some Girls, and Hotel California).

#12.  “Sweetness Follows.”  Truth be told, the bottom four are pretty easy for me.  The worst is hardly bad, but I’ve never taken time to get much into this one.

#11.  “Star Me Kitten.”  Its atmosphere is definitely of a piece with the rest of the album.  It just hasn’t grabbed me like many of the others.

#10.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”  Not a whole, whole lot going on here, but I do hear an ode to the Crescent City.

#9.  “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” A stronger tune than I thought upon first listen back in the day.  I don’t know all that much about Montgomery Clift—his career was derailed by a car accident and he died pretty young—but Michael Stipe clearly found him a sympathetic character.

#8.  “Drive.”  Now the rankings get harder, with some of the prominent tunes popping up.  This, the first track and lead single, is an obvious paean to the early 74 hit “Rock On,” by David Essex.  It’s done in such a way, though, that it sets in place an almost funereal tone for the whole album.

#7.  “Man on the Moon.”  Maybe the most well-known song on Automatic, even if it’s in part because its title was lent as the name of the subsequent Andy Kaufman biopic. Lots of good name-checking going on.

#6.  “Ignoreland.”  Righteous anger and social commentary galore from Stipe and company here.  This is the one to crank.

#5.   “Find the River.”  On the other end of the spectrum is the closing song.  Beautiful, introspective work about searching out one’s path.  It took some time for it to stand out and move its way up the list.

#4.  “Try Not to Breathe.”  Moving piece on death and dying. It’s one I’ve liked from the beginning.

#3.  “Everybody Hurts.”  This is almost certainly the most important song on the album, though not my favorite.  I had moved back to KY after six years in IL several weeks before Automatic came out.  Soon after, my dissertation advisor predicted in an email that this would be REM’s first #1 song.  Didn’t work out that way, but it’s an incredibly affecting work.  The video only enhances its power.  Probably should be #2 on the list, but…

#2.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” …I’ve got to go with the fun, sing-along piece here instead.  I love that they used a take where Stipe’s voice catches, holding back laughter right after singing, “…and a reading from Dr. Suess.”  Still, I honestly hear/feel more than a tinge of sorrow on this one, too.

#1.  “Nightswimming.” Love the piano line, love the oboe, love the strings, love the vulnerability, love the longing for times past.  Grade A+ stuff.  In my REM All-Time Top 5, for sure. Let’s give it a whirl.

SotD: David + David, “Swallowed by the Cracks”

Among the first music purchases I made after moving to Champaign-Urbana in 86 was a cassette copy of Boomtown, the only release from the California duo David + David (last names Baerwald and Ricketts).  The title-ish track, “Welcome to the Boomtown,” scraped the bottom of the Top 40 in November–it’s a great candidate for a PastBlast post the next time one of those three shows is featured.  I hadn’t listened to the album in a LONG time, but a couple of nights ago I fell down a YouTube hole that led me to cycle through most of its songs again.  I’d forgotten how good it is, and how much I liked a lot of it.

A number of the songs are careful character studies of the on-their-way-to-down-and-out in mid-80s LA. Particularly discomfiting is “Ain’t So Easy” (which also made the Hot 100), told from the point of view of an abusive partner who doesn’t quite recognize he’s got a problem.

Today’s feature was one of my favorites, a non-charting single.  I heard it a bunch on WPGU that fall and winter.

American Top 40 PastBlast Redux, 6/29/74: Gordon Lightfoot, “Sundown”

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 slightly from the original.

One game I played regularly from the very beginning of my days as an AT40 scribe was to predict where I thought songs would appear on the following week’s countdown. Overall I wasn’t very accurate; as I recall, a solid week would have me get eight to ten songs right. The best I ever did, in February 79, was eighteen.

Not quite two years before I started writing down the charts, they did a show that had the AT40 staff trying this same game. Casey had scored an appearance on Hawaii-Five-O and rather than scrounge up a guest host, they decided to make their best guesses based on the 6/22/74 chart and have CK record the show of “estimates” before he took off for Honolulu. In terms of getting songs in exactly the right position, they did terribly: only three. Many were just a spot or two off, but there were some significant misses as well. The most notable error was predicting that ZZ Top’s “La Grange” would debut at #33–it never made the Top 40 at all, stalling at #41.

Casey and the staff had been in the prediction business to some extent before. For about a year starting in late 72, CK announced at the end of the show what they thought the following week’s #1 would be. They were right only about one-third of the time–that low rate of success is likely why they gave up. Here, they at least got the top two correct (they also nailed Elvis’s “If You Talk in Your Sleep” at #34). “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, was runner-up. And this one, a favorite of mine at the time (and still today) from the great Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, really did stand at the top.

SotD: Aimee Mann, “Freeway”

So, my daily routine is a little different now that I’m not driving Ben over to school in the mornings.  I’d transported him daily from kindergarten through 5th grade and shared duties with our next-door neighbor more or less since then.

It’s hard for me to believe that he was only in 2nd grade when this song came out–where does the time go?  I played it in the car more than a few times that fall on my way to dropping him off at Western Elementary, one of my first attempts to intentionally influence his musical tastes…

Sixty Minute Tape, Song 8: Marshall Crenshaw, “Little Wild One (No. 5)”

Late in 2016, I posted on Facebook about the contents of a mix tape I put together sometime in early 92.  It’s the only sixty-minute tape of its kind in my collection.  I’ll be re-upping modified versions of those sixteen posts over the coming weeks.

In the fall of my senior year of college I bought Marshall Crenshaw’s third release, Downtown. While fairly different from the power pop of his debut disk, I have taken immense pleasure over the years in its ten shimmering tunes. The first three songs on side two–yes, I still think of it as an LP–may be my favorites, especially the wonderfully titled “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee).”  This is the leadoff track.

It’s also one of the few songs I put on two mix tapes.  Here’s it’s the last song of Side 1, so I don’t automatically hear the first song of Side 2 play in my mind when it ends.  What I do hear is the song that followed it on the other tape, a tape I recorded down at WTLX that winter of 85-86, one that’s unfortunately broken now.