Chart Week: Feb. 7, 1981
Songs/Chart Positions: “Killin’ Time” – Fred Knoblock and Susan Anton, #28
“Smoky Mountain Rain” – Ronnie Millsap, #27
“I Made It Through the Rain” – Barry Manilow, #26

My normal Sunday routine is to get up sometime between 8:00 and 8:30, watch the local news long enough to check the weather, and then move into the kitchen to have breakfast. While eating I flip on the radio to check the week’s American Top 40. I always have a little contest with myself to see how quickly I can determine what year the show is from based on the song that is playing. From there I decide if that week’s countdown is worth listening to. My sweet spot is normally 1982 through mid–1986. Earlier or later than that and I often lose interest fairly quickly.

Last week’s countdown was from 1981, and full of mediocre songs, so I only listened long enough to eat.

Why write about this week, then? Because three songs that were just off the chart hinted at a new era that was fast approaching.

But, first, the three songs I listened to.

The only way Fred Knoblock was cracking the Top 40 was by singing about having a fling with Anton, a former Miss America finalist who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world in 1981.[1] It’s a cheesy, saccharine, weightless song perfect for the era when every family had a fondue pot tucked into their pantries and “Afternoon Delight” was still part of the cultural memories of most Americans.[2] Although actors hitting the charts with bad songs has happened in all musical eras, the touch of country in this song makes it easy to peg as something from the transitional phase that was the late ‘70s through the rise of the New Wave era.

“Smoky Mountain Rain” is a good damn song. There, I said it. But, again, its AM radio blend of country and adult contemporary identifies its time of origin quickly. Despite its date of release, this is not 80s music.

I know I have some friends who are down with Barry Manilow. That’s cool. My mom listened to a lot of Barry in the late 70s, so his tunes are certainly a part of my musical education. But if you forced me to listen to Barry, this is not a song I would pick.

I may not like these songs, but they cut to the heart of why I enjoy listening to these old countdowns. I can listen to any 80s song any time I want to thanks to the magic of streaming music services. In that on-demand world, I can jump across years and tie together just my favorite songs. When I listen to old AT 40s, I’m forced to hear the songs in their original contexts, surrounded by other records of different genres. I love hearing a song that became a timeless classic just as it was creeping into the Top 40. I also love hearing Casey Kasem talk about artists who dominated the charts for a few years but are completely forgotten today. We had no idea that “Don’t You Want Me” would still get played dozens of times a week today, or that The Knack would never be heard from again.

Each week, as I listen to the old countdowns, I use the Weekly Top 40 website for more context. One of the great things about the site is it lists not only each week’s Top 40, but also songs that fell out of the countdown, songs that debuted in the Hot 100, and that week’s Power Plays; songs that, based on airplay and sales, were likely to move into the Top 40 soon.

The week of February 7, 1981 fascinates me. As I scrolled through that week’s chart, it did not feel very 80s to me. The three songs I heard Sunday seemed largely representative of that entire chart: mostly adult contemporary, mostly older artists, with a strong influence of the 1970s throughout. It seemed better suited to a small, transistor AM radio than an FM stereo receiver that was part of a big sound system.

But then you look at that week’s Power Plays and see something different. Number 43, “Kiss On My List” by Hall & Oates; #42, “Rapture” by Blondie; and #41, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar. Now these are 80s songs! Only “Rapture” has any New Wave ties, although it is far more famous for being the first significant charting song that incorporated rap. “Kiss On My List” is pure 80s pop. And Benatar was combining stadium rock and melodic pop into one of the iconic sounds of the new decade.

Finding these transition points in old charts makes listening to a bunch of crappy songs worth it. Music didn’t suddenly become all New Wave synth pop in March of 1982, or all hair metal ballads in the summer of ’89. The shifts come slowly, over several months, with one song breaking the trail for a few more, until finally dozens have moved pop music in a different direction.

1982 feels like the first year that “80s music” dominated the charts. The first hints of that shift were making themselves visible in the winter of 1981.

  1. Knoblock actually had four other songs that hit the country charts, including 1980’s “Why Not Me,” that made it to #18 on the pop chart. I stand corrected!  ↩
  2. Dude, that “Afternoon Delight” video is dope as hell!  ↩