(Above: The author at Student Council camp, June 1981. This does not look like camping.)
“Is the baseball strike over?”
That was the first question I had for my parents when I saw them on June 27, 1981. They had come to pick me up from a week away at camp – the only such week away I spent during my formative years. I attended a leadership camp hosted by the Illinois Association of Junior High Student Councils; you see, I was not only the president of my 7th grade class, I was selected to be a district representative on that association’s board for junior high schools in the Chicagoland area. Political science was an early major choice for me, and despite the reputation that elected officials have, it was probably more appealing to my family than that “radio thing” that I was so fascinated with in the sixth grade and would be again a few years later in college.
There was no radio available to me at the camp, so I honestly didn’t know if the strike was over or not. It wasn’t. They wouldn’t go back to work until August, resulting in a split-season system much like what is used in the Midwest League. It wasn’t perfect: the Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record in baseball that year, but by virtue of not finishing in first place at the end of either half did not secure an invitation to the playoffs. The work stoppage didn’t stop Jon Miller from airing re-created Red Sox games, played with a set of Strat-o-Matic Baseball cards, on WITS – and people tuned in.
Meanwhile, on the radio in Chicago, WLS was playing some damned good music. Let’s take a look and see what’s on the survey this week.
45. The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” I didn’t pick up a copy of Ghost In the Machine until a year or two later, and I don’t remember hearing this one on the radio.
44. REO Speedwagon – “Don’t Let Him Go.” This one did get played in my house as I had a cassette (!) copy of Hi Infidelity. Hometown discount applies here since the band was from Champaign, well within the WLS coverage area.
43. Dolly Parton – “9 to 5.” We splurged on a VCR right about this time – a huge box that sat atop the television set with a remote on a cord that you had to drag to the couch. This was an early rental.
42. Alan Parsons Project – “Time.” This was a cool record that I associate more clearly with hearing on my parents’ FM console on whatever station they had on.
41. Devo – “Whip It.” Around this time I was a devotee of SCTV, and seem to recall Devo making an appearance on the show. Or was it The Tubes?
40. April Wine – “Just Between You and Me.” Years later I’d be throwing this on WXLP/Quad Cities every few days.
39. James Taylor & J.D. Souther – “Her Town Too.” I seem to remember this one getting a ton of airplay. I might be confusing WLS listening with WFYR, where my parents usually kept the console.
38. Steve Winwood – “While You See a Chance.” I think my folks had this one on cassette in the car, but I’m fuzzy on that. It’s not a bad record.
37. John Lennon – “Watching the Wheels.” Post-assassination, anything released by Lennon was going to chart. This seemed to be on the radio for months at the time, and yet I really can’t think of how long it has been since I’ve heard it. How quickly we forget.
36. Joey Scarborough – “(Theme From) The Greatest American Hero.” Memory associated with this song: in early 1982, as a part of Catholic religious training, we were sent on a retreat on a Saturday to prepare for the sacrament of Confirmation. For some reason, as a part of the retreat, we were all sitting in a circle, singing… this. I am still, dozens of years later, unclear as to the concept. (At least we weren’t singing the theme to “Gimme a Break.)
35. REO Speedwagon – “Take It On the Run.” Another single from Hi Infidelity.
34. Moody Blues – “Gemini Dream.” Finally, we have a song that, upon looking at the title, I can’t hum. Drop the needle, and – there’s the synth. Somewhere in the house lurked a copy of Long Distance Voyager; I was more partial to “The Voice,” and would have gotten that immediately.
33. Kool and the Gang – “Celebration.” Soon to be a scourge of high school sock hops and wedding receptions for years to come.
32. Sheena Easton – “Modern Girl.” I always sort of liked this one – it turned up in the Box of 45s post from January 2017. Maybe it was that I liked Sheena Easton.
31. Rick Springfield – “Jessie’s Girl.” If you are in your late forties or early fifties, you know the words to this song. You also hopefully know that “cute” and “moot” don’t rhyme, nor are points “mute.”
30. Neil Diamond – “America.” My mother was a huge Neil Diamond fan, and the aforementioned VCR was used for screenings of The Jazz Singer, the film that gave us this record. It is not one of my favorite movies, but I can probably get the melody to “My Name is Yussel” right.
29. Grover Washington, Jr. – “Just the Two Of Us.” Bill Withers gets no credit on the label, but that’s his vocal. This screams “couples only skate.”
28. Air Supply – “The One That You Love.” Even at 12, I’d have gotten up from my chair to turn this off.
27. Styx – “Too Much Time On My Hands.” In the same way that REO Speedwagon got the “local boys” treatment, so did Styx. This one was a bona fide hit record, though.
26. Phil Collins – “I Missed Again.” Have I pointed out yet on this list that even in ’81 WLS was a fantastic-sounding radio station?
25. Joe Walsh – “A Life of Illusion.” There was a video done for this one, and I clearly remember garbage trucks and maybe a tank. It was the tie-in for the album cover. It’s also a great record that I don’t hear enough anymore.
24. Loverboy – “Turn Me Loose.” Vague memory: walking by Musicland at Orland Square Mall, seeing the album on display (the one with the crossed fingers and the leather pants), and hearing a parent say “What the hell is that?” Did not purchase.
23. Jefferson Starship – “Find Your Way Back.” People can’t figure out a band goes from “Somebody to Love” to “We Built This City.” They forget that there was stuff in between, and that some of it was really pretty good – like this one.
22. Frankie and the Knockouts – “Sweetheart.” Here’s a genuine “oh wow.” I have not heard this in years. Yet another memo to Sirius 80s on 8 – more of this, less Bon Jovi.
21. Daryl Hall and John Oates – “Kiss On My List.” There was no avoiding these guys on the radio in 1981. For me, it was a matter of “what do I like least.” This was less awful than “Private Eyes.”
20. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “For You.” They hit it big by covering Springsteen in 1977, so they tried it again. Not as big. I did make sure to spin this at WERV in my continuing effort to drive the corporate folks nuts.
19. The Who – “You Better You Bet.” Another terrific record that I am not hearing enough. (I also love that they snuck in a plug for Who’s Next in the middle of it. Look us up.)
18. Smokey Robinson – “Being With You.” Here we have a song that I am sure I hated at 12 but like now. Tastes change.
17. Gary U.S. Bonds – “This Little Girl.” It would have been around this time that I started my practice of staying up late on Saturday nights to tape oldies off of WCLR, who did a request show in a time period where “oldies” was not a full-time format. I more likely preferred “Quarter to Three,” but this was his attempt at a comeback.
16. Gino Vannelli – “Living Inside Myself.” This is another one that I more closely associate with AC radio than with Top 40.
15. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “The Waiting.” Even if the survey says “The Waking,” it’s still a great record. I wouldn’t really discover the band until the weird space-age video for “You Got Lucky” a year later, but you gotta start somewhere.
14. Santana – “Winning.” Memory is playing tricks on me again – was this in a commercial for something? I seem to recall hearing it from the TV more than the radio, and we didn’t have MTV yet at this time. It sounds like a jingle to me.
13. Juice Newton – “Angel of the Morning.” Clunk.
12. Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio – “A Woman Needs Love.” Wait – what’s happening to this chart all of a sudden? I should have liked this one, since I liked “You Can’t Change That,” and they’re basically the same record.
11. Billy Squier – “The Stroke.” OK, this is more like what I remember Chicago in 1981 sounding like. A song that’s a three-minute dick joke.
10. A Taste of Honey – “Sukiyaki.” Maybe this is why I was starting to spend so much time away from Top 40 and listening to the oldies shows? If we’re going to keep putting out these covers of old records, I’m going to seek out the superior original versions.
9. .38 Special – “Hold On Loosely.” OK, I’ll admit – even though I have heard this ad nauseum over the years, I still kinda like it.
8. The Oak Ridge Boys – “Elvira.” I hated – HATED – this record. The Oak Ridge Boys have done some decent stuff over the years, but this and that awful “Bobbie Sue” record aren’t it. “Hey! Let the guy with the unnaturally deep voice sing a whole lot.” My favorite version of this was performed by the studio orchestra at the Grammys, who tried to play it and sucked all of the life out of it.
7. Sheena Easton – “Morning Train.” It’s not an intellectual record so much as an earworm.
6. Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight.” Years later, we’d be totally faced at the campus bar, banging on the tables along with this one and getting hollered at for it. That was not in the cards in 1981.
5. Rush – “Tom Sawyer.” The Rock of Chicago, indeed.
4. Climax Blues Band – “I Love You.” This was one of my “secret weapon” records when programming oldies/classic hits. Because it’s been given little play over the years, it’s fresh, and people love it. Mix in the psychological subject matter (aging, addiction, needing someone along the way) and it registers well. We played it like a current in the summer of 2002 at WERV.
3. George Harrison – “All Those Years Ago.” The Elton John tribute to John Lennon, “Empty Garden,” gets all the attention. I’ll argue that this one is the better record.
2. Stars on 45 – “Stars on 45.” See above, “oldies remakes.” This was a weird phenomenon in the early 80s – the idea of making a medley with a bunch of handclaps in it. It worked for “Hooked on Classics,” which sold a ton of albums, and it worked for these guys as well. (“The Beach Boys Medley” was also a hit, absent the handclaps.) It was a big enough phenomenon to go to #1 nationally and disrupt the run of the song that’s at the top of this chart…
#1 this week – Kim Carnes – “Bette Davis Eyes.” I didn’t mind it so much as I thought it was Rod Stewart the first time I heard it. But it was a huge, huge hit that summer.
There you have it – a chart that, to be honest, rocks pretty hard. Chicago in 1981 leaned a little to the rock side, perhaps a post-disco hangover (it was the city, after all, where records were “blowed up real good” by Steve Dahl). It’s interesting to see just how many of the songs on this list stayed on my personal playlist for decades. The music lasted longer than the political science pursuit did for sure. (Side note – if by chance you were at student council camp in 1981, drop a line. I don’t think I’ve ever bumped into anyone else since then who was there. Were there not a picture, I’d suggest that I dreamt it.)