Saturday, November 20, 2010

All Those Songs Are Oldies Now

I've retreated to my bedroom, having devoted the last three and a half hours to overseeing Precocious Daughter's 11th birthday slumber party extravaganza.  The games have been played, the presents opened, the cake served, the goodie bags subjected to critical scrutiny and a marathon trading session, and now PDaughter and her six BFFs are doing whatever it is that 10- and 11-year-old girls do when not under adult supervision.  And I'm trying hard not to remember what it was that I used to do at that age under those circumstances.

Selective amnesia nothwithstanding, it's inevitable that my thoughts turn to my own 11th year (yes, technically the year I turned 11 would have been my twelfth year, but as I learned at the turn of the millennium, there's no use explaining the concept of the zero year).  One of the things PDaughter and I did today was download new music to her MP3 player from Rhapsody.  Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift - all the muscial must-haves of the tween demographic.  It got me thinking about the songs that were in heavy rotation when I turned 11.  That was April 1979, loyal readers.  I was in the sixth grade, and the Top 40 was a mixed bag of late-era disco, MOR pop hits, radio-friendly rock, and the occasional new-wave track deemed commercial enough for Middle America.  Good stuff, bad stuff, stuff that now pops up on "classic hits" radio with discomfiting regularity because it's 30+ years old.  Good God, y'all.

Fortunately, the Internet makes it easy to relive the past while feeling exceedingly grateful for 21st-century technology.  With a few keystrokes I was able to find the April 7, 1979 issue of Billboard, the music-industry Bible and home of the weekly "Hot 100" lists, online.  There they were:  the most popular songs in America the week I turned 11, the 31-year-old equivalents of "Animal" and "Dynomite" and "Teenage Dream."  (Maybe you can find your own birthweek Hot 100 list, too:  Just go to and search for "Billboard [date]".)

These were the songs that were playing on radios in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and across the nation that week:

1.  "I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor.  One of my all-time favorite songs, even though it was becoming tres uncool to enjoy anything disco by Spring 1979.  Cake did one of the all-time great remakes when they released their version of the song in 1996.

2.  "What a Fool Believes," The Doobie Brothers.  Didn't like this song then, don't like it now.  Good to see some things never change.

3.  "Tragedy," The Bee Gees.  I loved this song.  It had such a creepy vibe.  For some reason, I thought the music sounded like something out of a Hitchcock film.  This was probably the Gibb brothers' last big hit before the disco backlash scuttled their career.

4.  "Sultans of Swing," Dire Straits.  Nothing else on radio sounded like this song when it came out.  It wasn't disco, or hard rock, or bubblegum.  It was sophisticated and elegant and had some badass Mark Knopfler guitar licks.  A perfect debut single by one of the more underrated rock bands of the 80s.

5.  "Shake Your Groove Thing," Peaches and Herb.  Admit it:  The best disco songs were undeniably catchy, well-crafted, obviously danceable, and had stupid-ass lyrics.  What is a Groove Thing, exactly?  It's something you shake on a dance floor, which narrows it down to several body parts that I didn't think much about when I was 11.  I'm sure to people older than that, it was deeply philosophical.  Or maybe it was just the butt.

6.  "Music Box Dancer," Frank Mills.  I literally played this 45 (look it up, children) until it wore out.  Such a sweet, happy, nothing little instrumental.  When I was a kid, there were lots of instrumental hits on the radio, like "Popcorn" and "TSOP" and "Chariots of Fire."  Now it's all vocals with so much Auto-Tuning that they may as well be considered some kind of electronic instrument.  Sorry, I'm one harumph away from saying "In my day..."  I'll try to cool out.

7. "Knock on Wood," Amii Stewart.  A pretty damn good disco version of an old soul hit by Eddie Floyd.  I had never heard the original when the 1979 version was everywhere on the radio.  Thank God the Blues Brothers came on the scene around the same time to make sure we didn't forget about people like Floyd, Sam & Dave, and Ray Charles.

8.  "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," Rod Stewart.  A relentlessly awful song, especially when you compare it to the way Rod Stewart used to sing before he pranced around on the pop/disco bandwagon.  This damn song came on the radio about every half-hour in 1979.

9.  "Heart of Glass," Blondie.  Blondie was something we just hadn't seen or heard much of when I was 11:  an edgy, rocking band (dare we call it "New Wave"?) with a tough, sexy lead singer.  And synthesizers.  And lots of Spandex.  And that great, anti-Farrah platinum bob.  Debbie Harry would come to seem pretty campy when we started listening to the Waitresses and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but we probably wouldn't have listened to them if we hadn't heard Blondie first.

10.  "Lady," Little River Band.  Loved this song when it was all over the radio, love it today.  Before Men at Work made it hip to be Australian, the Little River Band put out about a million great soft-rock hits. Today it's not cool to profess admiration for LRB, not even in a retro-hip, post-ironic way.  Don't care.  I always turn up the radio when this comes on.

If you want to check out the rest of the Hot 100 for the first week of April 1979, click here.  This was the soundtrack of one my favorite years, before middle school and puberty set life on an infinitely more complicated trajectory, which it follows to this day.  I do hope PDaughter looks back on her year of being 11 with equal fondness someday.  And I sincerely hope that Justin Bieber isn't in the middle of his comeback tour at the time.   

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