Kenny Rogers. The Alan Parsons Project. Leo Sayer. Oak Ridge Boys. Cliff Richard. Pablo Cruise. Alabama. Gino Vannelli. Neil Diamond. Kim Carnes. These are just a few of the wild, crazy hitmakers who sent songs up the charts in 1981. Juice Newton. Air Supply. Pointer Sisters. Marty Balin. The list goes on — a veritable who’s who of adult contemporary royalty. Commodores. Terri Gibbs. Champaign. John Schneider. This was Top 40 radio at the turn of the decade, and you either loved it or you plugged your ears until you could dial into a rock station more to your liking.
I was 11 years old in 1981. I had just discovered that if I placed my little GE portable cassette recorder next to my clock radio and pressed PLAY and RECORD, any song I wanted could be mine (with a bit of DJ patter or faded parts of another song, if I wasn’t quick enough to hit STOP in time). It was file-sharing for the Atari 2600 age — I was Napster before Napster was Napster. The first song I chose was “Celebration,” by Kool and the Gang. The only time I hear it these days is at weddings (or as a really inappropriate selection at a funeral), but it will always hold a special place in my heart, as the song that revolutionized how I collected and listened to music.
I’m sure I had several of these next songs stashed away on 90-minute K-Mart blank cassettes (blue labels, three for a buck). Time and taste have certainly changed my opinion about some of them — the fresh-eared 11-year-old has given way to the grumpy, curmudgeonly almost-fortysomething who’s typing this now. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether I enjoyed music more back then, before CDs and MP3s and iPods, when I wasn’t focus-grouped to death and the concept of reunion tours hadn’t been invented yet. Did that kid with the tape recorder and the cheap, rickety cassettes have more fun with music?
Probably. But I think he also liked Christopher Cross. The kid was an idiot.
On with the countdown …
10.Â The Night Owls — Little River BandÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
9.Â Hard to Say — Dan FogelbergÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
8.Â Who’s Crying Now — JourneyÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
7.Â Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around — Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
6.Â Private Eyes — Daryl Hall and John OatesÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
5.Â Step by Step — Eddie RabbittÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
4.Â For Your Eyes Only — Sheena EastonÂ Â Amazon
3.Â Start Me Up — The Rolling StonesÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
2.Â Endless Love — Diana Ross and Lionel RichieÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
1.Â Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) — Christopher CrossÂ Â Amazon Â iTunes
10. The Night Owls — Little River Band (download)
Australia’s Little River Band is one of those groups that has, at least in name, been around forever, a band that scored a load of hits in their heyday, yet if you challenge the average listener to name even one member of the band, that average listener would likely come up blank, even if you filled in all the vowels and the letter R. This is a good thing for LRB, since the group that currently tours casinos, amusement parks, state fairs, and city festivals contains not a single member of the original band, not even a single member of their most successful lineup (the guys who played on “Lonesome Loser” and “Reminiscing”? Nowhere to be found). Bassist Wayne Nelson — a Texan, fer Chrissakes — joined the band in 1980 and the next year sang lead on “The Night Owls” (usurping lead singer Glen Shorrock, who probably played tambourine or something), watched it hit Number Six on the US charts, and, suddenly, found he had a gig for life (he is the band’s lead vocalist today).
“The Night Owls” tries to be dark and mysterious. “There’s a bar right across the street,” Nelson sings. Ooh —Â alcohol is going to be consumed. Cool. Good start. “He’s got a need he just can’t beat,” he continues. A needÂ — is he thirsty? Sexually frustrated? I want to know more. “Out on the floor, he shuffles his feet away.” He —Â he shuffles his feet away? He’s dancing, I suppose, but shuffling his feet away? Is he doing some serious James Brown shit, tearing up the floor while everyone else gawks? Or is he just, you know, walking across the floor? I get the strange sensation of wanting to know, yet not really caring. By the time we get to the chorus, where we’re implored to find the heart of a night owl falling (presumably, after it’s been knocked out of its tree and ripped apart by some hungry animal), I’ve pretty much lost whatever thread he’s talking about.
LRB saw their run of chart success end within a couple years, after they became a personnel carousel (read their Wikipedia entry for a full, incredibly confusing account of the group’s multitude of ex-members). Still, every summer, on tiny stages across the US, you can hear Wayne Nelson and whoever is calling themselves LRB these days belt out “The Night Owls.”
9. Hard to Say — Dan Fogelberg
Oh, God, I hate Dan Fogelberg. Yes, he’s dead, I know, and we all felt bad when he died, mere days after Jeff and Jason’s Fogelmas dialogue last holiday season. But, short of maybe John Denver, was there ever a singer/songwriter who lashed such Ã¼ber-sensitive sentiments to anemic studio accompaniment, with such wimp-god arrogance?
Okay, there were plenty of them, but I feel compelled by “Hard to Say”‘s Fogelhood to consider what made Danny-Boy so particularly offensive to me? Perhaps I can trace it back to 1979’s “Longer,” which rhymed “mountain cathedral” with “forest primeval” — never even in my most lovelorn high school poetry (and I wrote a lot of lovelorn high school poetry — just ask my girlfriends or my long-suffering English teachers) would I have done that. And it was an enormous hit, closing out the Seventies singer/songwriter era with enough syrup to cover a pancake the size of Omaha.
So, naturally (and Dan was all about nature), Fogelberg decided that, for his follow-up, a mere single record was insufficient to contain the full fey force of his muse — he must record a double album. A concept album! A concept album about youth and innocence and horses and running into people in grocery stores! “Call the Brecker Brothers!” he shouted. “Get Russ Kunkel over here! Fly in Henley and Frey and Richie Furay! And a harpist — I need a harpist!” And thus The Innocent Age was born.
“Hard to Say” led the Charge of the Lightfoot Brigade, fluttering up the charts as the first of three top ten hits from Innocent. With squeaky clean production values and Glenn Frey testifying meekly on background vocals, it was the perfect distillation of all things Fogelberg. And for that, I hate it. Truly.
8. Who’s Crying Now –- Journey
“Who’s Crying Now” was the lead single off Journey’s titanic breakthrough record, Escape. It’s a little odd to think about this now, considering how big the album became and how ubiquitous the band grew over the years, but at the time this was released, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the hardcore Journey fan (if indeed any existed at that point — you’d have to believe they did, somewhere) was all that excited. Their previous album, Departure, was their high water mark on the album chart, and that had only risen to Number Eight. Aside from the iconic “Any Way You Want It,” there wasn’t much to recommend on the album (sorry, all you fans of “Walks Like a Lady” and “Line of Fire”).
Basically, Journey were your typical arena rock band, packing ’em in live and putting a few cool album tracks on FM radio. Enter “Who’s Crying Now,” with its slow burning melody, Perry’s best longhair white boy soul croon, and Neal Schon’s earth-stopping solo at the end of the song. So smooth. So supple. This only vaguely resembled the guys who “na-na-nana-na’ed” their way through “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin'” a couple years previous. “Who’s Crying” was the gateway drug that led us into the real hard, addictive stuff, setting the stage for all of us to become streetlight people with open arms, stone in love, living just to find emotion, somewhere in the night.
The band’s new guy, Arnel Pineda, does a half-decent rendition of the track, but nothing quite achieves the mysterious grandeur of the original. And still we ride …
7. Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around — Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Though these days he resembles your demented, bearded, pot-smoking uncle (no, not that one — the other one, on your mom’s side), back in late ’81, Tom Petty was totally badass. He’d dropped Hard Promises earlier in the year; he got into fistfights with his drummer; he sued his record company if it looked at him funny. You didn’t mess with Tom Petty.
So Tom and the guys are sitting around in the studio one day, talking about how badass Tom is, when producer Jimmy Iovine calls in over the intercom and says Stevie Nicks is here and would like to see him. Tom vaguely remembers Stevie — she’d sung the harmony part on Hard Promises’ “Insider” — but to be honest, he didn’t remember much about the session; he’d scored some seriously sticky icky that day, and had spent most of his diminished mental capacity coming up with ways to kick his drummer’s ass.
In walks Stevie Nicks, smelling of scented candles, carrying a book of magic spells, and wearing her old lady shawl, trailed by a pair of identically dressed background singers. She wants a song. She needs a song. A rock and roll song. She’s got this solo record she’s working on, and it sounds too much like Fleetwood Mac, too much fragile love and flying doves and lace and bum-bum-bum rhythm section, and, you know, Don Henley’s singing on it, and he keeps raiding her stash of coke and talking about the time he got her pregnant and it’s just a mess. But it would all come together if Tom would give her a song — a rock song. A badass Tom Petty tune.
Tom looks over at the Heartbreakers, who have all migrated to their instruments. He counts off a 1-2-3-4, and they launch into “Stop Draggin’,” a tune they had demoed previously (an arguably superior version of the song will one day wind up on Petty’s Playback box set). They tear through it. It’s badass. He teaches Stevie the words. They cut it that day, that very hour, trading verses. Stevie’s never sounded so tough, so in control, so very Petty-esque. She’s even snarling like him. Later, Tom, Stevie, and her identically dressed background singers gang up on the drummer and fuck him up real good.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (demo) (download)
6. Private Eyes — Daryl Hall and John Oates
This is one of those songs that dares you to take it seriously, because it is just so goofy and nonsensical, it defies serious discussion (unlike, for instance, the boys’ “Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices),” about which dissertations have been written). “What my head overlooks,” Daryl Hall sings, “The senses will show to my heart / When it’s watching for lies.”
DH apparently slept through most of human biology class; the heart, if I recall correctly, has no means of obtaining ocular input, and likely would have no way of processing that input, even if it had those means. The heart is a muscle, whose job is to puh-puh-puh-pump oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood to their proper places, as well as to break, then turn to stone, when the one you love does you wrong. No watching for lies. Sorry, man.
(Funny aside — I always heard this line as “the senses will show to my heart, with its watchingful eyes,” a line which, of course, makes even less sense, medically or otherwise. Many thanks to Dr. Jason Hare — my watchingful editor — for setting me straight.)
Back to Hall’s eyes, which “you can’t escape,” because they “see your every move” and “are watching you. Watching you. Watching you. Watching you-woo-woo.” This is real stalker stuff, like “Every Breath You Take,” only Hall isn’t nearly as cool as Sting (Der Stingle, though, never had an Oates, much to his detriment).
The real kicker, though, is the video, which apparently was shot in GE Smith’s basement, with the band decked out in what appears to be the Executive belt-less trench coats Morty Seinfeld kept in his garage in Boca. The bass player is obviously stoned and convinced he’s a Greek pillar, and John Oates, when not peeking out from behind Hall’s shadow (as he has every day for 35-odd years) appears to have gotten some of Smith’s fiberglass insulation in his eye. Poor John Oates.
5. Step by Step — Eddie Rabbitt (download)
I spent nearly ten years of my adult life as a technical writer — one of the unheralded persons who puts together the instructions to the computers you buy, the appliances you accumulate, the software you load, etc. None of which you actually, you know, read. It’s really a thankless job, being a technical writer, knowing that the fruits of your labor are often cast aside, or, at best, kept “in the archives,” in the event someone a little further down the line needs to know how to recover those files, or determine whether that screw was really important.
Anyway, before Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” in 1999, this Eddie Rabbitt tune was the closest thing we technical writers had to a makeout anthem. Parsed out into actual technical instruction, the lyrics might have looked something like this:
1. Ask her out and treat her like a lady.
2. Tell her she’s the one you’re dreaming of.
3. Take her in your arms and never let her go.
Now, I won’t quibble that Steps 1 and 3 actually contain two distinct instructions apiece (making this a five-step procedure, and not a simpler three-stepper). And, under normal circumstances, we’d be looking for a system response after Step 3, but all Eddie gives us is a vague promise — “Step by step, you’ll win her love.” As a procedural instruction for romance, it doesn’t really work. But as a country-pop hit in 1981 (the year the Oak Ridge Boys even had a hit), it works just fine.
4. For Your Eyes Only — Sheena Easton
Can’t add more about Sheena than DJ D did in his recent Future Retro thang on her. I will say that, as James Bond themes go, this is one of the better ones. Not as good as Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” but still decent. Better than McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” or Tom Jones’ “Thunderball,” or Rita Coolidge doing “All Time High”—the theme from Octopussy. I still say the Bond people totally wimped out by not making Rita Coolidge sing a song called “Octopussy.” That would have been worth hearing.
3. Start Me Up — The Rolling Stones
When I was a freshman in college, there was a guy who lived in my dorm who came back from Christmas break with a really cool toy: a special edition Gibson Les Paul, black with pearl inlays on the fret board. Still the sweetest guitar I’ve ever held in my hands, and he used it every day, to play the opening riffs from classic rock songs. Just the opening riffs. Poorly. Each night, around 7:00, we in the hall would be treated to ten seconds of “Rebel Rebel,” followed immediately by ten seconds of “Brown Sugar,” followed by ten seconds of “Start Me Up,” then a full 30 seconds of “More Than a Feeling” arpeggios, and so forth, for about 10 minutes, until he’d exhausted his repertoire. Then he’d start all over again. He was like a K-Tel record, with only snippets of, you know, the actual songs you would find on a K-Tel record.
I can never hear “Start Me Up” without thinking about him. That said, there is nothing about this song that is not hella cool, from the glorious opening riff, to the way Jagger spits out “Mah ahs die-late-uh / Mah lips go grain,” to the end, where they explain how the woman they are addressing could make a corpse ejaculate. It might be the filthiest line to ever make the Billboard Top Ten, and it’s played on rock radio to this day. I love America.
2. Endless Love — Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
After a mind-numbing nine weeks at number one, this treacle, this typical Richie schmaltz, this pathetic wedding slow dance and future karaoke sensation, was knocked down a peg by Christopher Cross (more about him in a minute). Thank heaven for Christopher Cross. “Endless Love” was the second song in 1981 to have a nine-week run at the top (Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” earlier in the year had nine non-consecutive weeks at the pinnacle before being knocked off by those street thugs in Air Supply), and it set the stage for the harrowing ten-week reign of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” which began six weeks later. It was Ross’ last hit for Motown — her first chart hit with the Supremes, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining through His Eyes,” was released in 1963 — and the biggest-selling of her career.
I provide the above statistics because there is really nothing else positive I can write about this song. I loathe it. I — there’s really not much more I can say.
1. Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) — Christopher Cross
Peter Allen gets a co-writing credit on this song and presumably collected a fair amount of royalties on it, once it (along with everything else Christopher Cross touched between ’80 and ’82) zipped right up the charts. Problem is, Peter Allen didn’t have a thing to do with writing this song. Carol Bayer Sager — who co-wrote “Arthur’s Theme” with Cross and Burt Bacharach (a dynamic trio if ever there was one) — remembered a line Allen had written for another song, one not even good enough to record, much less release.
It was something about getting caught between the moon and New York City, and Bayer Sager incorporated it into the chorus of “Arthur’s Theme.” Didn’t matter that the line made no sense (unless, I suppose, you were flying into La Guardia at night or something) — when trickling out of Cross’ mouth like so much chin hair-wetting drool, it sounded like poetry, Grammy applause, and the sound cocaine would make if it could sing. All for an unbearably fey paean to the life of a hopeless, unrepentant alcoholic playboy, as played by Dudley Moore. The thing even won an Oscar, and Mr. Peter “I Go to Rio” Allen got a shitload of scratch for not really doing much of anything.
But at least he wasn’t Dan Fogelberg.
(Was that awesome or what? Â Thanks so much, Rob, for tackling this chart — terrible for music, but great for comedy! Â See you guys soon for another edition of CHART ATTACK!)