By Curt Alliaume
Six top 20 songs this week, most of which you probably remember well, plus a bunch of near misses. It’s a great week.
Little River Band, “Lonesome Loser,” #6, 9/29/1979
Huge hit for the band, their fifth top 20 hit in a row in the United States. (I’m going to bring up the point now that Little River Band was always considerably more popular here than in their native Australia; the only three top 10 hits they had there were the #1 “Help Is on Its Way,” 1982’s “Down on the Border,” which had very specific Australia-centric lyrics, and 1988’s “Love Is a Bridge,” which was a couple of years after they stopped charting here in the States.) Anyway, this one was written by guitarist David Briggs, and emphasized guitars as if to say this was a rock band, not an AC band (as one might have thought from some of their previous songs). And even though no bands are touring right now, I’ll put in my usual warning that the current version of Little River Band contains nobody that was on this record, so save your money.
Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind,” #12, 9/29/1979
First US chart hit for Lowe, who had been around in the UK for a while, first with the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz and then solo (he’d hit #7 in the UK in 1978 with “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” from his solo debut Jesus of Cool, which was retitled Pure Pop for Now People in the US with a slightly altered track listing, presumably to avoiding offending people in the Bible belt). Even though Lowe was considered part of the British new wave, this is more power pop, with Lowe later noting he took inspiration for the song from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost.” Lowe is backed here by Rockpile (Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Terry Williams), an ad-hoc band that had worked together on and off for a few years. This video includes scenes from Lowe’s actual wedding to singer Carlene Carter (June Carter Cash’s daughter, Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter); Lowe was late to his own wedding due to the shoot running long.
Robert Palmer, “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor,” #14, 9/29/1979
Was rock and roll back this week or what? Palmer eschewed some of his blue-eyed soul affectations on this one, going for a power pop sound. Moon Martin wrote the song and released it first as a single in 1978, but it didn’t hit. Palmer’s name and performance made it work, however, and even though it was post-disco, it made for a great, short dance floor song. Warning: Palmer inexplicably remixed the song for his 1989 greatest hits set Addictions: Volume 1—I read somewhere the remix was more like what he originally had in mind, which either means he was way ahead of his time or he was full of crap, because it sounds exactly like “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible.” The original is on most other greatest hits sets, however, and I recommend sticking with that.
Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, “Driver’s Seat,” #15, 9/29/1979
One of the great genuine one-hit wonder songs—other than a #38 song in the Netherlands, this band never charted anywhere before or after this “let’s go out tonight and drive around” song. Sniff ‘n’ the Tears was a six-man band from London that had performed in various configurations over the years. (The original suggested band name was simply “The Tears,” but the band’s manager noticed leader Paul Roberts sniffed a lot due to hay fever, and added that on.) A top 20 hit in several territories, the song only peaked at #38 in the UK due to a record plant pressing issue after their Top of the Pops appearance made the vinyl version unavailable. Further releases were ineffectual, and the band broke up in 1983.
Patrick Hernandez, “Born to Be Alive,” #16, 9/29/1979
If you were going to make disco at this point, you made it pure, unapologetic disco. Despite his last name, Hernandez is French, and recorded this song in 1978 in Belgium. “Born to Be Alive,” a fun, brainless celebration of good times, hit #1 in seven countries over the first half of 1979. The United States was a little late to the party, but it did hit #1 on the Billboard dance chart, and Hernandez toured here (his backup dancers included a very young Madonna). He did have a few minor hits in other countries after this one, but remains a one-hit wonder in the States. Note: almost every video of this song shows Hernandez trying to make like Fred Astaire dancing (to make a long story short, he ain’t Astaire), and I didn’t recognize Madonna in any of them. So I’m using this “flash mob” video from a couple of years ago (I suspect it was actually for a sneaker commercial, and may not have even been to this song), which is at least more fun to watch.
Maureen McGovern, “Different Worlds,” #18, 9/29/1979
Hey, it’s another hit theme song from a failed TV series! This one was from Angie, a 1979-1980 sitcom where a poor young coffee shop waitress (Donna Pescow) meets and marries a pediatrician who’s secretly rich (Robert Hays). A few changes in arrangement and a couple of extra lyrics turned it into a single for McGovern—it would actually be her last chart hit (she’s toured singing primarily standards since). The show might have lasted longer had ABC not shuffled around its time slot a few times and the producers changed the backgrounds (Angie’s a coffee shop waitress and her mother’s runs a newsstand! No, now Brad bought Angie the coffee shop! Wait, let’s have them both sell the coffee shop and newsstand and run a beauty parlor instead!) and supporting cast (Angie’s best friend DiDi and her niece Hillary were both cut loose after the first season, with young Tammy Lauren going to the short-lived Out of the Blue). Pity, because the leads were charming enough to carry the show on their own—there are a few episodes on YouTube if you’re curious. Side note: Pescow and Hays are godparents to each other’s kids in real life. This is from the Season 1 credits; the actual record release had far fewer synthesizers.
Stephanie Mills, “What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’,” #22, 9/29/1979
Best known before this release for playing Dorothy in the Broadway musical The Wiz, Mills had been around for a while—she’d appeared in the flop musical Maggie Flynn in 1968 (alongside Irene Cara), and opened at one point for The Isley Brothers. But one album on ABC Records and a second on Motown (written entirely by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which seems an odd grouping, but I’d love to hear it) hadn’t hit, and a second Motown album went unreleased. So when this 20th Century Fox release occurred, she was looking for a hit. (And remember 20th Century Fox wasn’t a big name in records at the time; the label would be sold to PolyGram a few years later.) But she got sympathetic production from James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, and this became the first of her 30 hits on the R&B charts.
Cheap Trick, “Ain’t That a Shame,” #35, 9/29/1979
I’m of the opinion that if the band and Epic Records had their way, “Surrender” would have been the second single release from Cheap Trick at Budokan—it was getting tons of radio airplay, and it’s a great song. But the studio version had been released off Heaven Tonight the year before (and peaked at #62), so they went to this remake of a Fats Domino classic instead. It’s definitely different than the original—Domino’s barrelhouse piano is traded for Rick Nielsen’s pyrotechnics—but it’s still pretty great. (Unfortunately, the single version itself comes in at 3:08, cutting over two minutes from the album version.) It’s not the highest-charting version—Pat Boone took his version (which he originally wanted to retitle “Isn’t That a Shame”) to #1 in 1955—but it was reputed to be Domino’s favorite.
Fern Kinney, “Groove Me,” #54, 9/29/1979
Kinney actually sang backing vocals on King Floyd’s original version of “Groove Me,” which became a #1 R&B hit and #6 pop hit in 1971. By 1979, Kinney was a housewife and was itching to get back in the game, so she picked up some of the reggae feel of the original (well, I guess that can be credited to producers Carson Whitsett, Wolf Stephenson, and Tommy Couch), and had a dance hit with some pop crossover success. Album releases in 1981 and 1982 failed to gain much of an audience, and that was it for Fern, who went back to backing vocals. Coincidentally, The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues album from 1978 also contained a “Groove Me” remake, with a lot more Jamaican reggae and some drug references.
Pat Travers, “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights),” #56, 9/29/1979
First of two chart hits for Travers, a Canadian guitarist who’d been releasing music since 1976. Weirdly, Polygram couldn’t decide how to bill him—the parent album Live! Go for What You Know is credited to The Pat Travers Band, but this single just says “Pat Travers” on the label. Anyway, it’s a great blues/boogie workout taken from concerts the band had made earlier in 1979, marred only by some lyrics that sound threatening to women. (Note Travers didn’t write the song himself.) That might be the reason it isn’t heard much on the radio today.
Toby Beau, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” #57, 9/29/1979
Second chart single for this band, and it was a remake of the 1967 Casinos song (which itself was a throwback to the doo-wop era). The song itself has been remade by everyone from Eddy Arnold to James Brown, but this is the second-highest charting version as a standalone song (Glen Campbell brought it to #27 as a medley with Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds’ “Don’t Pull Your Love”). However, all was not well in Toby Beauville: this was one of several songs recorded with studio musicians after RCA Records was unhappy with the direction their album More Than a Love Song was taking; guitarist Danny McKenna, who had cowritten their big hit “My Angel Baby” from 1988, would bail out on the band because of this change before the completion of the album.
Dave Edmunds, “Girls Talk,” #65, 9/29/1979
Look, it’s two Rockpile songs in the same week! This was released under Edmunds’ name, but as with Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” Rockpile is the band playing here. Edmunds was given the song by Elvis Costello, who said in the liner notes to his Get Happy!! album, "Perhaps I was careless to give this song away to Dave Edmunds as it became a top five hit for him in Britain.” Costello’s version became the B-side of “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” and was released on the now-out-of-print Taking Liberties album; it was added to expanded versions of Get Happy!! in 1994. (Linda Ronstadt also recorded the song for her 1980 album Mad Love.) It also became a top 20 hit in Australia, Canada, and Ireland. It’s a great rocker (although a little misogynistic) about gossiping women, although there a lots of double meanings throughout.
New England, “Hello, Hello, Hello,” #69, 9/29/1979
How did this band not hit the big time? Between this and “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya,” they obviously had a way with a pop hook. Anyway, second and final chart hit from their self-titled debut album, which sank into the sunset when Infinity Records went out of business not long after. New England signed with Elektra Records and released Explorer Suite in 1980 and Walking Wild (produced by Todd Rundgren) in 1981, but neither went anywhere, and the band broke up afterward. They’ve done some occasional one-shot reunions since then, and all their albums are on Spotify.
Carolyne Mas, “Stillsane,” #71, 9/29/1979
Rocker that was christened “the female Bruce Springsteen” by some rock critics, and while she never made those heights, this is still a pretty solid rocker. Born in Bronxville, New York, she came up at the much-missed Cornelia Street Café in Manhattan (I used to live across the street, although not when she played there), and eventually got a contract with Mercury Records. This was her only American chart hit; her 1981 song “Quote Goodbye Quote” charted in Canada and the UK. Mas is now semiretired from the music business, but her web site says she’s working toward her master’s degree in medical nutrition at Arizona State University, due in 2021. And many of her albums are on Spotify.
Blue Oyster Cult, “In Thee,” #74, 9/29/1979
I guess I don’t know this band very well, because “In Thee” sounds nothing like their two best-known songs, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burning for You.” That’s probably because this album was intended to reach beyond their standard audience; toward that end Cheap Trick producer Tom Werman took the reins on this one. And “In Thee” sounds more like a Crosby, Stills & Nash outtake—harmonies galore (and no cowbell). The move backfired; Mirrors didn’t sell any better than their previous albums (in fact, it charted lower than their previous two studio albums), and Blue Oyster Cult went back to the darker music that made them famous.
Olivia Newton-John, “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round,” #82, 9/29/1979
This gets my vote for Most Unnecessary Apostrophes in a Song Title for 1979. “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round” is the B-side of “Totally Hot,” which peaked at #52 the month before. MCA hadn’t forgotten Newton-John’s country audience, seemingly left behind after Grease, but she had chalked up six country top 10 hits early in her career. This song made #29 there, and that seemed to make sense—it’s a ballad that’s well suited for Newton-John’s voice, about a woman forgetting about her troubles (mostly romantic) by going dancing at the local honky tonk (although the video doesn’t use this angle at all). This would be her last country hit; future releases aimed squarely at the pop market.
Weeks 25 and 26
Weeks 30 and 31
Weeks 37 and 38