Wednesday, June 28, 2023

It's the end of the Seventies

The May 1979 Billboard Hot 100's a heady time machine. Your settings may vary.While recently poring over old Billboard issues, a favorite pastime, I resolved to take a look at the Top 100 pop chart during the week I became a teenager. Surely, I thought, while running down the list I'd be overcome by memories, taken back to that heady, oft-great, oft-awful time in my life—puberty—the songs scoring my melodramas, as in some overheated teen film. Instead, I was surprised by how little the charts resonated with me.

Let's go back to May, 1979:

Zooming in:

Some songs and their associated memories—snatches of images of friends and acquaintances; a vague scene out of a car window; faces of bullies and their victims; unhappy politics on the blacktop of St. Andrew the Apostle School—leap out at me, urgently: Blondie's "Heart of Glass"; Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes"; Bad Company's "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy"; Wings' "Goodnight Tonight"; Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing"; Bee Gees' "Tragedy"; the Police's "Roxanne" and others were nearly all lodged in the Top 30 in May of 1979. These songs are mini-films or sonic story boards in themselves, with embedded memories and narratives, some full, some fragmented, part of the scenery around us as newly-minted teens, each telling, or more accurately translating, a different story. 

And when I turn and scan the horizon, I can see what's charging: Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me," the live version from Cheap Trick at Budokan, rested at the lowly 62 spot, but would eventually triumph at number 7, blissing out me and my friends along the way. Rickie Lee Jones's "Chuck E's in Love," also a newcomer only two weeks old, stood at number 55 and would head to number 4, like Cheap Trick introducing me to all sorts of new emotional complications and hard-to-decipher joys. Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" was biding its time at the number 39 spot after five weeks on the charts, preparing to strut its way into the Top 20, and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," also a newcomer, sat at number 53, commencing its funky journey toward cultural domination (not the least, for me, being its adoption by the Pittsburgh Pirates as their unofficial theme song for their Championship '79 team) and its eventual number 2 spot on the charts–it'd reach number one R&B. Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," too, was poised for its fiery ascension. What a summer '79 would turn out to be!

"Although we continue to hear [Top 40] songs throughout our lives," Thomas Ryan wrote in American Hit Radio: A History of Popular Singles from 1955 to the Present, "they are sometimes mistakenly heard as a part of our past rather than as an active representation of who we are and what our collective tastes are like."

A sample browsing through the titles ought to display just how many of these songs have become signposts in most of our lives and have retained their relevance into the present. Most everybody has at least a passing interest in popular music, and everybody can name a handful of favorite songs.... Despite changing times, we continue to love the favorites from our past.

True enough. Yet what surprises me is how many of these songs, which sold in enough units to break the Top 100, I don't remember ever having heard. (Let's allow here some industry skepticism, of course, about just how these so-called sales were "counted.") If, as Aeschylus observed more than two thousand years ago, "Memory is the mother of all wisdom," then I feel kinda stupid. Granted, taste accounts for many of these pop culture blank spots on my part; I of course remember Peaches & Herb, Kenny Rogers, and Pointer Sisters, yet I was't as into to them as I was Sting, McCartney, and Debbie Harry. Some songs, were I to have caught a snatch of them in the dentist's office, at the public pool, or in a friend's parent's car, I would've gladly tuned out. And yet: popular songs are everywhere, all at once, that's what contributes to their majesty, myth, and power. I'd have thought that glancing at this list of songs would've brought back more than it did. 

I was a kid then, with narrow perspective and an inward-gazing personality, and though my taste in music was, like my acne, burgeoning, it was also fairly ironed out: there already wasn't a lot of room for Journey, Supertramp, Styx, Orleans, and the rest. I was more into album cuts on the Cars' debut album and the Police's first two albums than I was into keeping up with Top 40, so who am I now to be dismayed that more than half the chart sparks nary a sensation in me? The days of tuning in to Casey Kasem's Top 40 rundown on Sunday mornings on WPGC, which I'd listen to with the same spirit with which I'd pore over my favorite baseball player's stats in the Washington Post, were over for me by the end of the decade. Tycoon? Ironhorse? Alton McClain & Destiny? No idea. I'd have to YouTube them. They didn't enter my consciousness in the Spring of 1979, even if I did hear them at the mall, or a classmate's house, or on the radio somewhere.


That's not not suggest that they didn't affect you. "In memory everything seems to happen to music." So mused Tennessee Williams. Once I got past my naïve, self-interested shock in recalling so little of the Top 100 in the weeks around my 13th birthday, the chart gained immense dimension: your memories were pegged to different songs this week than mine were. Your spouse or partner, your mom or your uncle, will read this Top 100 and be overcome my recollections tethered to completely different songs than mine. This isn't news, or particularly novel, and yet I'm amazed at just how infinitely evocative a document like this is: 100 songs, 100 chains of associative memories, each burrowing deep inside the rememberer where music and memory commingle, telling and re-telling the pasts that create our present. Each song's a doorway leading into a hundred different rooms, a hundred different lives; like a kind of sonic neighborhood, some of those doorways were on houses I'd only glance at on my walks or bike rides, and never visit; some were houses I'd never see, in a part of town I rarely ventured to. Each house privately thrumming with music.

Imagine a group of friends and strangers at a public pool in May of 1979. The radio's on here, and over there, and maybe coming out of the PA, too. In my version we're tuned to WPGC, listening to the Top 40, the songs coming out and entering each person; some songs take, some don't, some attach themselves to a fleeting thought, or glance, or a movement of the clouds and sun, and stay forever, others are lost into the sky. Each person leaves that day with an unknown, unbidden soundtrack, which they'll play over and over for the rest of their lives, each tracklist subtly or radically different from the other, and updated in the weeks to follow as the next group of "chart bound," "bubbling under," or "with a bullet" singles spills out into the sunshine, putting into words and melodies what we're all differently feeling, what we're looking at but can't see.
Memorial Swimming pool, Victoria Street, circa 1970 via Facebook

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