The Summer Of ’81

Rolling past a junior high school on the morning commute, I noticed that the final day of class was plastic lettered onto the marquee out front.

This week.

11:15.

Class dismissed.

I still had one more year of junior high when school broke for the summer in ’81, but it was the first summer for which I was legally and officially a teenager.

I got started quickly, sleeping in ’til ten.

In previous summers, I’d be up several hours earlier, my schedule hardly altering from the school year. There were places to go and things to do.

OK. I was on the outskirts of a town of less than three-thousand and there was a cornfield across the one-lane road from our house. There was nowhere to go and even less to do.

That was cool, though.

There were half a dozen kids, roughly the same age in our subdivision. We played a lot of baseball.

Little had changed in ’81.

There were still the same kids.

There was still baseball.

There was still nowhere to go and even less to do.

And, I knew it.

And I was less interested in baseball and more interested in Angie. I was quite smitten with her – a gangly tomboy of a girl with short, tousled red hair. We had hung out a lot that spring waiting for the same bus after school. Sometimes, we’d shoot hoops in the gym to kill the time.

But, she lived in a farmhouse several miles away with thirty-six brothers and sisters, a burly, overall-clad father, and a mother who was overly exuberant for Jesus and possessed a withering glare.

So, there was little need to be up early – I could be petulant at any hour – and that meant staying up late to maintain equilibrium.

Not that there was much to do late except sprawl out on the couch and search for something to watch between six television channels (if you counted PBS – and I don’t think it even aired past eleven).

Some nights I’d watch Johnny Carson and, on other nights, I’d check out the CBS Late Movie.

I was truly nocturnal for the first time that summer, usually not crashing until two, two-thirty in the morning. At which time of night, the viewing choices usually were winnowed down to the one independent station.

But it was late one night that I stumbled upon America’s Top 10 and the oddly engaging little fellow hosting the program. It was the first time I’d ever seen Casey Kasem.

Of course, I’d heard him before as the voice of the sandwich-loving stoner Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoons. I wouldn’t hear him counting down songs on the radio, though, for another six months when I happened upon American Top 40.

I was increasingly interested in music, so I watched as Casey gave a rundown of the Top 10 charts. I likely recognized the songs from the pop chart, some from the R&B chart, and few – if any – from the country one.

From then on through high school, I’d occasionally catch the show. As it was syndicated, it didn’t really seem to have a set schedule on our ABC affiliate. Usually I’d randomly find it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but, every now and then, it would air late, late at night after whatever regular programming had ended.

I’m not sure when it was exactly that I first saw America’s Top 10 or what songs Casey highlighted that week (hell, I barely remember what I had for breakfast), but according to a music chart archive I found, here are four songs that were in the Top 10 or from albums in the Top 10 from this week in 1981…

REO Speedwagon – Take It On The Run
from Hi Infidelity

Years of relentless touring helped make REO Speedwagon a radio fixture in the Midwest during the late ’70s and Hi Infidelity, released in late 1980, launched them to superstar status when Keep On Loving You ruled the airwaves in early 1981.

Though it was hardly rocket surgery, Hi Infidelity struck a chord with my classmates at the time with its straight-ahead rock and tales of romantic entanglements which were suddenly becoming something to which we could relate.

Of course, it was the album’s second quasi-ballad, Take It On The Run, that we were hearing in early summer of ’81.

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels
from Double Fantasy

In college, one of the most popular classes was one on the history of rock and roll. It was taught by a professor that was, apparently, one of the world’s most respected historians on The Beatles. Regrettably, I was never able to work the class into my schedule.

However, several friends took the class which began with the early years of rock and culminated around 1980. When the final class arrived, the professor would walk into class, play John Lennon’s Watching The Wheels and dismiss everyone for the semester.

AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Though it had been issued in the band’s homeland of Australia five years earlier, AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap didn’t receive a release in the States until the spring of 1981, following the massive success of the previous year’s Back In Black.

I’m certain that, at the time, I had no idea that I wasn’t hearing lead singer Brian Johnson but, rather, the late Bon Scott, whom Johnson had replaced on Back In Black. But it’s certainly the charismatic Scott that gives the song a charming menace that makes the song one of the band’s classics.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – The Waiting
from Hard Promises

Hard Promises found Heartbreaker’s lead singer Tom Petty fighting with the band’s distributor over the sticker price which had been scheduled to be tagged at a higher “superstar pricing.”

(a battle that Petty would win)

According to Wikipedia, Petty and the band were scheduled to be in the studio recording at the same time as John Lennon and Petty was eager for the opportunity to meet the music legend. Sadly, Lennon was murdered before the two could meet.

(as a tribute, the band had “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched onto the master copy of Hard Promises and, thus, the millions of copies which the album sold)

As for The Waiting, it sounded simply perfect on the radio that summer.

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3 Responses to The Summer Of ’81

  1. Paul says:

    Fantastic. I am probably a similar age and they used to syndicate Casey Casem here in South Africa. That gangly age where suddenly the sports field is not as important as the sixth form girls that were at my school. I also can never forget the day we heard on the radio that Lennon had been murdered.

    Lovely memories (other than Lennon’s murder)

  2. […] I certainly had no idea of Balin’s connection to the legendary band unless, again, that information was passed on to me by the DJs playing the song or, perhaps, Casey Kasem, whom I had discovered earlier that summer. […]

  3. […] weeks ago, the marque outside a high school on my morning commute heralded the end of the school year. A week later it wished all to “Have A Great […]

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