The month of MTV’s birth, the biggest singles in the U.S. didn’t exactly reflect the new cable channel
You want to know why MTV, at its start, looked very little like the pop charts?
In a recent “Ross on Radio” column, radio industry expert/veteran Sean Ross says, “About 40% of the stations reporting to the Radio & Records CHR [top 40] chart [in August 1981] were really AC stations.” Which goes miles in explaining why this looks so little like the nascent video channel that launched at the start of that month: MTV was largely rock, and pop radio those days largely wasn’t. (Though, as Ross notes, it was somewhat.) The new wave music that MTV was eagerly playing – since many of those bands, especially the Brits, were making videos in the first place – was widely ignored by the radio, which helped to make the pop charts much softer. And while Black/R&B radio was sizzling at the time, most top 40 programmers were still caught up in their “disco sucks” backlash and also ignored Black records, thanks to racist thinking. So here’s what we got instead.
You’re gonna see the words “yacht rock” more than once in this column, because 1981, even though all of the genre’s kings (Doobies/McDonald, Steely Dan, Loggins, Toto) were MIA in this moment.
TW LW TITLE –•– Artist (Label)-Weeks on Chart (Peak To Date)
VIDEO: Diana Ross and Lionel Richie perform “Endless Love” at the 1981 Academy Awards
1 1 ENDLESS LOVE –•– Diana Ross and Lionel Richie (Motown)-8 (3 weeks at #1) (1) – “Endless” is right.
2 4 SLOW HAND –•– The Pointer Sisters (Planet)-14 (2) – Anita’s lead vocal on this is strong and sultry, but Richard Perry’s production is kinda drippy. What I really love is the following year’s #1 country cover by Conway Twitty; these sexy lyrics sound much more natural coming from the king of what I’d call “bedroom country.” Their biggest pop hit! (#2 for 3 weeks.)
3 2 THEME FROM “GREATEST AMERICAN HERO” (Believe It Or Not) –•– Joey Scarbury (Elektra)-17 (2) – The experts actually consider this yacht rock, even though to my ears it’s just a smidge too whitebread for it, but it’s definitely smooth, and definitely of its 1981 moment. Good, however? That’s another matter.
4 6 STOP DRAGGIN’ MY HEART AROUND –•– Stevie Nicks (with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) (Modern)-6 (4) – A Perfect Petty song + a perfect Nicks vocal (simultaneously smooth and gravelly) + a perfect supporting performance from Petty and his band of merry men = a guaranteed, and correct, smash in the summer when AOR was pop.
5 5 JESSIE’S GIRL –•– Rick Springfield (RCA)-23 (1) – Catchy enough, sure, but I actually find this to be mid-tier Springfield. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is so much better.
6 8 QUEEN OF HEARTS –•– Juice Newton (Capitol)-14 (6) – Funny how Newton was considered a country crossover artist, but yet this smash (heading to #2 pop) topped out at #14 country – of her seven top 40 pop hits, only two made the country top 10. Her take on a song previously recorded by Rodney Crowell and Dave Edmunds is perfectly jaunty, and adheres pretty closely to the latter’s version.
7 9 (There’s) NO GETTIN’ OVER ME –•– Ronnie Milsap (RCA)-10 (7) – A warm, professional bath of a record that I couldn’t love more if I tried. What a singer!
VIDEO: Ronnie Milsap “There’s No Gettin’ Over Me”
8 15 URGENT –•– Foreigner (Atlantic)-9 (8) – Generally I’m not much of a fan, but their commercial apex, 4, is unquestionably a triumph of early ‘80s commercial rock/pop. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” is my favorite, but this collision of Lou Gramm’s vocal, Thomas Dolby’s synths (!), Junior Walker’s sax solo, and “Mutt” Lange’s production is aces.
9 10 LADY (You Bring Me Up) –•– The Commodores (Motown)-11 (9) ‘81’s In the Pocket was Lionel Richie’s final album with the group who, ahem, brought him up, and it’s a fine one. This midtempo body-rocker, lightly funky even with a string section, kills it to this day.
10 11 WHO’S CRYING NOW –•– Journey (Columbia)-7 (10) – Happy 40th anniversary to Escape, Journey’s only #1 album and now their second (after Greatest Hits) to be certified Diamond, for U.S. sales of 10 million. Its first single, on its way to #4, was their first top 10 pop single, and might even top the iconic “Don’t Stop Believin’” in my book. I mean, not just that glorious Steve Perry vocal (maybe his most soulful on record), but that – again, soulful – Neal Schon guitar solo that makes up the last third of the record, wow.
11 3 I DON’T NEED YOU –•– Kenny Rogers (Liberty)-12 (3) – This was the absolute peak of the country crossover era: there are seven country titles among the top 22 on the Hot 100 – that’s an entire third! But there was, of course, no crossover titan mightier than Rogers. This light-touch ballad, more pop than not and produced by Lionel Richie, is down from its #3 pop peak; it also topped both the country and A/C charts, the latter for six weeks. Rogers’s vocal on this is lovely.
12 7 BOY FROM NEW YORK CITY –•– The Manhattan Transfer (Atlantic)-15 (7) – 1981 was quite a time, wasn’t it?
13 12 HEARTS –•– Marty Balin (EMI-America)-15 (8) – The former Jefferson Airplane/Starship pilot hit the top 10 with his first single, a marvelously, stupidly slushy midtempo ballad, and then, well – when’s the last time you heard his name?
14 13 ELVIRA –•– The Oak Ridge Boys (MCA)-16 (5) – I love this freakish pop crossover as kitsch, but not as actual music.
16 23 STEP BY STEP –•– Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)-6 (16) – One of the biggest country crossover stars of the era, Rabbit had plenty of better songs than this one. But boy, what a star: this was part of an uninterrupted run of 19 consecutive country top 10s (eventually peaking at #1 country/#5 pop).
17 20 THE BREAKUP SONG (They Don’t Write ‘Em) –•– The Greg Kihn Band (Beserkley)-15 (17) – Thank goodness “they” don’t. Talk about a bar-band-got-lucky – in that respect, they make Huey and his News look like the Beatles.
18 21 REALLY WANNA KNOW YOU –•– Gary Wright (Warner Brothers)-9 (18) – A full 5 years after his back-to-back #2 singles from the #1 album The Dream Weaver, Wright made a brief comeback with this lovely, still-on-his-synth-game single. It’s kinda of yacht rock without actually being yacht rock.
19 22 FIRE AND ICE –•– Pat Benatar (Chrysalis)-7 (19) – Has anyone else noticed how much Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” cribs from Neil Giraldo’s opening guitar line here?
20 14 IT’S NOW OR NEVER –•– John Schneider (Scotti Brothers)-14 (14) – This overproduced Elvis cover is silly, but it’s not awful. Even with a voice as impressively wimpy as this, TV’s Bo Duke went on to top the country chart (this didn’t, stalling at #4) four times in the mid-’80s.
AUDIO: John Schneider “It’s Now Or Never”
21 28 HOLD ON TIGHT –•– ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) (Jet)-6 (21) – Jeff Lynne has plenty of partisans; by and large, I’m not one of them, save for Traveling Wilburys. This is an exceedingly odd mélange of Jerry Lee Lewis-esque boogie piano, disco rhythms, cusp-of-the-’80s soft pop/rock, and (most inexplicably) an entire verse en français.
22 24 FEELS SO RIGHT –•– Alabama (RCA)-13 (22) – As soft as soft country gets. Not an endorsement.
23 25 THAT OLD SONG –•– Ray Parker, Jr. and Raydio (Arista)-8 (23) – When this starts, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s Joey Scarbury, because it’s definitely got a similarly smooth vibe. Raydio’s final single before Parker went solo, however, is infinitely more soulful and, to my ears, more yachty.
24 30 THE BEACH BOYS MEDLEY –•– The Beach Boys (Capitol)-6 (24) – I’m not linking to this (it’s not streaming), because it is patently terrible. However you imagine it sounds, it’s worse.
25 31 THE VOICE –•– The Moody Blues (Threshold)-4 (25) – Sean Ross again: “The Moody Blues […] made a surprise comeback [in ‘81] by sounding like Electric Light Orchestra.” He’s not wrong. This also has a touch of John Williams’s Star Wars scores in it. At least Justin Hayward is a better singer than Jeff Lynne.
26 26 DON’T GIVE IT UP –•– Robbie Patton (Liberty)-8 (26) – At its peak, this aggressively mediocre pop record, Patton’s only hit, had the good luck to be co-produced by Christine McVie and feature McVie and Lindsey Buckingham among its players. But Patton wasn’t all meh: he co-wrote (with McVie) Mirage’s “Hold Me”!
27 27 YOU’RE MY GIRL –•– Franke and the Knockouts (Millennium)-9 (27) – Their first hit, the wonderfully yachty (a 65 on the Yachtski scale) “Sweetheart,” is an ‘81 knockout for me (I mean, that keyboard solo!); its follow-up, not. so. much.
28 29 LOVE ON A TWO WAY STREET –•– Stacy Lattisaw (Cotillion)-11 (28) – This cover of the Moments’ 1970 smash (the year’s #1 R&B record) isn’t bad, exactly, but here’s the thing: Lattisaw, especially at age 14, wasn’t actually a very good singer. Her voice absolutely grates.
29 35 FOR YOUR EYES ONLY –•– Sheena Easton (Liberty)-6 (29) – I mean, it’s a straight-down-the-middle melodramatic Bond theme, whaddaya want?
30 34 I COULD NEVER MISS YOU (More Than I Do) –•– Lulu (Alfa)-5 (30) – How’s this for a surprise comeback: Lulu’s first US top 20 hit (on its way to a #18 peak) since 1967’s “To Sir with Love”! Recorded in ‘78 and released after another label got the rights to it, this absurdly smooth single benefits greatly from Lulu’s grit-less voice, which skates across its surface like Michelle Kwan on ice.
VIDEO: Lulu “I Could Never Miss You More”
31 51 ARTHUR’S THEME (Best That You Can Do) –•– Christopher Cross (Warner Brothers)-3 (31) – Not only is this a superb single, it’s a great piece of film-theme songwriting, as it makes perfect sense as the theme from the wonderful Dudley Moore/Liza Minnelli vehicle Arthur. And it means that Cross – and the late Peter Allen – has an Oscar! (Alongside their co-writers Burt Bachrach and Carole Bayer Sager, but that’s less of a big deal for them, as they’ve each got six.) Michael Omartian’s production is note-perfect, and Cross sings the hell outta this.
32 32 EVERLASTING LOVE –•– Rex Smith/Rachel Sweet (Columbia)-10 (32) – The word you’re looking for is “dire.”
33 36 BREAKING AWAY –•– Balance (Portrait)-8 (33) – Very Toto-esque in that this is on the rock side of smooth, with the best percussion of any single in this countdown.
34 42 IN YOUR LETTER –•– REO Speedwagon (Epic)-4 (34) – Hi Infidelity’s prior trio of singles were all far superior to this coasting-on-fumes ‘50s homage, which I loathe.
35 61 START ME UP –•– The Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones)-2 (35) – Some riffs are deathless, and this is one of them.
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Start Me Up”
36 43 DRAW OF THE CARDS –•– Kim Carnes (EMI-America)-4 (36) – I recently had a lot to say about Carnes, and her Mistaken Identity album.
37 19 IN THE AIR TONIGHT –•– Phil Collins (Atlantic)-14 (19) – You can’t argue with the atmosphere crafted here, even if I wish there were more song.
38 17 THE STROKE –•– Billy Squier (Capitol)-16 (17) – I mean, have you heard
39 44 YOU COULD TAKE MY HEART AWAY –•– Silver Condor (Columbia)-6 (39) – Fairly generic-sounding rock-pop, with Earl Slick (!) on lead guitar.
40 41 NICOLE –•– Point Blank (MCA)-10 (40) – The ‘70s weren’t done with the charts quite yet, not with chugga-chugga guitar riffs and bland rock singing like this.