(Above: The place where my radio career started, in a very loose sense of the word.)
The big story in the middle of May 1980 was the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State. More than fifty people lost their lives in the blast, and it dominated the news cycle for several days. This moved coverage of the American hostages in Iran from the lead for a few days, as the networks had come to rely on leading with the latest update on how many days they had been held captive. The Presidential race is also in the news: Maryland and Nebraska have just held primaries (President Carter edges Senator Ted Kennedy in both while Governor Ronald Reagan easily claims Nebraska), and the Utah caucus is next.
In the middle of May 1980 I was finishing up sixth grade at Helen Keller Elementary School in Tinley Park. Our family had moved to Orland Park in February, but I was finishing out the school year before moving to Orland Junior High in the fall. (Someday I’ll write about junior high school. Cliffs Notes version: It was not my favorite time of life.) We had just finished the “outdoor education” field trip, which involved a bunch of sixth graders getting no sleep in cabins and looking at pond water under a microscope. It was on that trip that I asked a classmate named Jill if she wanted to go out with me, not being entirely sure what that really entailed. She politely declined.
The more memorable part of sixth grade, for me, was playing radio in my language arts class. Another student and I – he was another one named Dave – were charged with doing a sort of independent study. Our teacher, Rick Johnston, was tasked with working with the lowest-performing readers in the grade, and Dave and I were the highest. We recorded our assignments on tape so Mr. J could listen to them while grading other work. Dave and I created a mythical radio station – WUBS – that only broadcast homework assignments. When we’d get together on the weekends, we’d venture into other sorts of broadcasting (onto tape), perform dramas, play a few records, and talk about girls in the class. For some reason despite all of this, no career or guidance counselor ever pointed me towards studying radio, and I found it by myself seven years later in college.
I got to thinking about what was on the charts this week in 1980 after, once again, hearing the year come up on Sirius XM’s 80s on 8. I’m a week late from their countdown, though, so the positions of songs from their countdown have changed. Oddly, I had also purchased a bunch of records from this chart. Among those that I owned:
#65 – Pink Floyd, “Run Like Hell.” One of the things I asked for for Christmas 1979 was a copy of The Wall, which my parents got for me. I don’t think they listened to it first. I know that they were not big fans of “Another Brick In the Wall,” which is coming down the charts this week and is at #9. One of the things that Dave and I figured out was that you could sing “Another Brick In the Wall” to the melody of “Roll Out the Barrel” and it worked. I am sure we serenaded Mr. J with this, and maybe it’s why they didn’t point me towards radio after all.
#60 – Rocky Burnette, “Tired of Toein’ The Line.” I mentioned this one the night I went through the box of records. I’ve had it a long time. I think it was the oldies sound that attracted me, since my preference was (and still is) for songs that sounded like they were from another era.
#38 – Ray, Goodman and Brown, “Special Lady.” I remember hearing this on the radio one afternoon and deciding I had to have a copy of it. When contrasted with the rest of my age-11 record collection, it stands out a bit, but it’s a great tune. It’s on the way down the charts this week having peaked at #5.
#19 – Paul McCartney, “Coming Up.” This one owes my purchasing it to seeing a video – maybe on ABC’s Fridays – that featured McCartney playing all of the instruments on the song. Pretty cool for pre-MTV. It eventually winds up at #1. (The version that charted was the “Live at Glasgow” version, but I prefer the video.)
#14 – Charlie Dore, “Pilot Of the Airwaves.” Since I was obsessed with all things DJ at this stage, it was natural for me to want a copy of this. It’s not that great a record, now that I hear it again, but there’s a definite oh-wow factor here. Years later I found a copy of the LP. Had I seen its cover in the sixth grade, I might have become a man earlier.
#7 – Billy Joel, “You May Be Right.” I had the Glass Houses LP, and played it over and over again. This was also the closing theme song to the Son of Svengoolie TV show on WFLD-TV, which I watched religiously every Saturday night. Svengoolie was (and is, still played by Rich Koz) a horror movie host who showed terrible films interspersed with comedy and parody – the sort of stuff we tried to do in class. Again, why was I not being pointed towards broadcasting?
There were also a number of great songs on this chart that I didn’t buy at the time (hey, funds were limited) but discovered later:
#72 – The Babys, “Midnight Rendezvous.” A college radio staple.
#61 – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Here Comes My Girl.” A classic rock radio staple.
#58 – The B-52s, “Rock Lobster.” I think I finally found this one in high school. Good long record to have handy if you need to, um, leave the room.
#25 – The Clash, “Train in Vain.” Another common find on the college radio show.
#24 – Bob Seger, “Fire Lake.” For some reason I never get tired of this song. Seger is also at #18 with “Against the Wind,” which I am OK with not hearing for a while.
Number One this week: Blondie, “Call Me.” It was there for several weeks. Blondie didn’t appeal to a sixth-grader, but later I found a few records (“One Way Or Another,” for example, long before it became a Walmart ad) worth playing a lot.
This isn’t to say that this list isn’t without some clunkers. Scanning the chart we see Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” Neil and Dara Sedaka, Barry Manilow, and Bernadette Peters. But there are a lot of great tunes on this particular chart.
Epilogue: Sixth grade was now 37 years ago, which is hard for me to fathom, since so many memories of it are fresh. My friend Dave, with whom I did those fake radio shows (and saved a few), passed away in 1998. We lost touch over the years after high school, and I didn’t know what had happened to him until I attended my 20th class reunion in 2006. Jill, the girl I asked to “go out” with me, lost her long battle with cancer in 2016. I saw her at one of the reunions years ago and kept up with her battle through social media. Mr. J, on the other hand, is alive and well. We reconnected on Facebook some years ago. In retrospect, I should probably find him and buy him a beer for letting me play radio for a grade in his classroom all those years ago. At the very least I should thank him.