The year the music died: Road trippin’ with Casey Kasem’s ‘American Top 40’

The day we heard nothing but crap on the radio. Thanks, Casey Kasem. CREDIT: Andras Vas

A weekend getaway isn’t complete without the garbage gas station snacks, pit stops, and requisite radio play. For old school drivers, or Baby Boomers if you will, nothing beats a weekend road trippin’ to the classics, Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40 Countdown.” Well, unless Kasem’s tracking the hits from the 1980s, specifically the week of April 10, 1982 — quite possibly the worst week in history.

Not much tops the pure insipidness of Elton John’s 1982 hit, “Empty Garden,” written with lyricist Bernie Taupin in memory of John Lennon, who’d been gunned down one and a half years earlier. Lennon was a dear friend of Sir Elton Hercules John who — in the glory days of the 1970s — was a hit-making machine and pop legend, deservedly so. That status began to change in the ‘80s.

With maudlin lyrics like “Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop | And now it all looks strange | It’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain,” Taupin gave Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” disaster a run for the money. John’s sprinkling of gentle synth madness didn’t ease the maudlin effect either.

But then listen to the dreck that came out of that time period, a dark time indeed: Queen’s “Body Language,” The Rolling Stones’ “Hang Fire,” Ray Parker Jr.’s “Other Woman,” Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It,” Diana Ross’ “Upside Down,” The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me…” None of these songs, except for the punchy music of “Other Woman” really bothered with melody or singers who could hold a note (Human League). All of them were unnaturally focused on getting into someone’s pants, or as many someones as possible, the stranger the better.

Even stranger still, the star power of The Rolling Stones and Queen couldn’t stem that poisoned tide. Almost everyone made bad song choices and sounded horrific.

The lyrics were either bizarre, minimal, or loaded with sexual innuendo. Queen didn’t even bother with many lyrics in “Body Language,” just whatever the guy could get out in between panting for an orgasmic release in between the electronic beeps and grinds. At one point Freddie Mercury’s just panting his Pulitzer-winning prose: “Give me body give me body body | Give me your body | Don’t talk don’t talk don’t talk don’t talk | Baby don’t talk | Body language body language body language | Give me your body … Don’t talk | Body language huh huh.” And who inserts Shakespeare in this disco-light number by Ms. Ross — how far the star has fallen — the boring “Upside Down?” “Instinctively you give to me | The love that I need | I cherish the moments with you | Respectfully I say to thee | I’m aware that you’re cheatin’ | When no one makes me feel like you do.” The guy’s cheating on her, and she’s not just still hanging in there, she’s respectfully calling him out? These lyrics don’t even make sense! Let’s not even get into Parker Jr.’s gleeful cheating song and the inadvertently laughable double-entendre of this, “My life was fine, yes, it was | (Life was fine) | ’Til she blew my mind, mmm,” and this, “Makes me wanna grab my guitar | And play with it all night long.”

Worst of all, most of the Top 40 songs relied on this craptastic, soulless electronica for eerie, futuristic, shock value over anything musical, moving, or even remotely memorable.

Hard to believe? Remember Pia Zadora’s “The Clapping Song?” How about Meco’s “Pop Goes The Movies (Part 1)?” Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever?” Junior’s “Mama Used To Say?” Who?

It’s never a good sign when Willie Nelson’s ruling the charts (“Always On My Mind”). He won a freakin’ Grammy for it in 1982.

Next road trip, bring the CDs.


Article first appeared in Examiner May 12, 2015.