“Hey, I got another bunch of singles for you,” Robin said as soon as 45 Guy walked into the record store. Condition doesn’t matter to 45 Guy, only quantity. He’s kind of an odd cat as collectors go. I think his quest is to own at least one copy of every single to ever hit Billboard’s Hot 100.
The good news for him is that there are a lot of beat to death 45s floating around. Between jukeboxes and automatic record changers, those little seven-inch records lived hard lives. Millions remain in circulation without their paper sleeves and scratched beyond playability. But because 45 Guy will buy them, Robin always sets them aside for him if he takes them in trade or whatever.
Robin and I were standing on opposite sides of the counter, flipping through a book of German prog album covers, when 45 Guy walked in. He shoved the book toward me, bent over and grabbed the box of records, and set them on the counter. “These are junk, look at the condition,” 45 Guy said.
“That’s why you pay a quarter a piece. You want good condition? Go look through the bins like everybody else. There’s a bunch in there for one to five dollars.”
45 Guy grimaced, but it was a theatrical grimace. These two play out variations of the same vaudeville routine every time 45 Guy drops in. Robin and I returned to the album cover book and 45 Guy flipped through the box of records. “Drift Away,” he said.
“What about it?” Robin said.
“Who did it?” 45 Guy asked.
“Dobie Gray,” I said. “Too easy.”
“What was Dobie Gray’s other hit?” 45 Guy said.
“He had another hit?” Robin asked.
“I’m pretty sure he did, I just can’t remember it,” I said. “Didn’t he do a cover of ‘Patches’?”
“No, that was Clarence Carter.”
“Clarence Carter had a hit with it, but I still think Dobie Gray might’ve done a cover of it.”
“I don’t know, maybe,” Robin said.
“You got us, 45 Guy. What was Dobie’s other hit?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re the smart guys.”
This is everything that I love about record stores, by the way: weird characters, obscure trivia, time wasted talking about nothing. The answers were as close as the smartphone in my pocket, but that would have taken the fun out of the thing. I could just stay home and buy records online, after all. I can Google any answer, too. What I can’t do is hang out. Imagine Floyd’s barber shop if Andy, Goober, and Barney stayed home–or if they just sat around staring at their stupid phones.
Eventually we reached an impasse, though. None of us could name another Dobie Gray hit, but we are all sure that he had a few. “Look it up,” Robin said.
“He actually had eight songs that hit the Hot 100,” I said.
“Those don’t count,” Robin said. “Nobody cares about those except 45 Guy, and even he doesn’t listen to them.”
“Okay, he had three songs make the top 40: ‘Drift Away,’ ‘The In Crowd,’ and ‘You Can Do It,'” I said.
“‘The In Crowd!’ That’s the one,” Robin said. “I don’t remember ‘You Can Do It.'”
“Peaked at 37 in 1979,” I said.
“Totally gone. Don’t remember it at all.”
“Me neither,” I said.
“Here’s one: ‘Crimson and Clover,'” 45 Guy said.
“Come on, man, you aren’t even trying to make this hard,” Robin said. “Tommy James. You’re holding the damned Roulette label in your hand.”
“Isn’t it funny how many one hit wonders had more than one hit?” I said.
“Yeah, but Hot 100–nobody remembers all of those,” Robin said.
“Nobody even remembers top 40. Top 20, maybe. Top ten, probably,” I said.
“That sounds about right,” Robin said.
“Here’s one: ‘Come and Get It,” 45 Guy said.
“Badfinger,” we both replied.
When I got home, I tested my theory. I went back 30 years to early 1988, and I looked up the number 40 single for ten successive weeks. Now, this was a totally biased test. Thirty years ago not only was I of prime record/radio age, but I was managing a record store. Back then, buying singles for the store meant watching the charts closely, paying attention to MTV and local radio, all of that stuff. It didn’t matter whether I wanted to know what was going on in the top 40–my job depended on it. Buying too many copies of a single meant returns, and returns cut into profits.
And so I can guarantee you that 30 years ago I knew each of these #40 singles:
- January 30, 1988: “Endless Summer Nights,” Richard Marx
- February 6, 1988: “Rhythm Of Love,” Yes
- February 13, 1988: “Rocket 2 You,” The Jets
- February 20, 1988: “Live My Live,” Boy George
- February 27, 1988: “Wishing Well,” Terence Trent D’Arby
- March 5: “Never Knew Love Like This,” Alexander O’Neal featuring Cherrelle
- March 12: “Prove Your Love,” Taylor Dayne
- March 19: “Because Of You,” The Cover Girls
- March 26: “Pamela,” Toto
- April 2: “Piano In the Dark,” Brenda Russell featuring Joe Esposito
Thirty years later I recognize the artists’ names, but the songs? Not so much. If you asked me to name a Richard Marx song, the best I could do is “Hold On to the Nights” or “Right Here Waiting” even though he had 14 top 40 hits. “Endless Summer Nights” might have been in the 40 slot on January 30, but it peaked at number two and yet it has completely cleared my cache. Even after listening to it, I can’t remember ever hearing this song. For whatever reason, Richard Marx has been reduced to a two hit wonder in my long term memory even though I know how popular he was throughout the late ’80s.
Toto’s “Pamela” peaked at #22, but unless you know or are a Pamela chances are that you have no idea what song I’m talking about. “Africa?” Sure. “Rosanna?” Probably. But “Pamela?” Toto cracked the top 40 ten times, by the way. Not bad for a two hit wonder.
If you remember Taylor Dayne, you probably remember “Tell It To My Heart” rather than “Prove Your Love,” but the latter wasn’t just a top 40 single–it was a top 10 hit. “Tell It To My Heart” isn’t even Dayne’s highest charting song. That honor belongs to 1990’s “Lead You Back,” which went all the way to number one. Dayne hit the top 40 (really the top 20) nine times in all, but 30 years later most people probably consider her a one hit wonder.
Clearly I’m not talking about fans here. The Marxists and the Dayne-iacs know their stars’ catalogs better than their own immunization records. To a Taylor Dayne fan my blank stare in response to “Lead You Back” means I clearly know nothing about music, but for the general population this seems to be how it goes. Over time entire bodies of work simmer down to one or two representative examples. Dali is the melting clock guy, Bogey is the Casablanca guy, Fitzgerald is the Gatsby guy. Clark Gable starred in 60 movies, but when you read that name you pictured Rhett Butler.
If I wasn’t so lazy I’d actually research how memory works, but my guess is that in the case of artists we’re simply applying an easily identifiable marker, not unlike the landmarks we use for navigation. “Turn left at the red barn and drive until you get to the four-way stop.” I don’t need 500 details to remember the route, just the two, and I don’t need to remember 14 Richard Marx top 40 singles to identify him in a lineup.
The corollary to this “landmark” theory is that we remember some songs as hits that weren’t. Modern English’s “I Melt With You” stalled at #78, but 35 years later the song is synonymous with the ’80s. The only hit from that particular one hit wonder was no hit at all, yet it serves as the label we use to retrieve from our memories Modern English, Valley Girl, and perhaps even a particular ’80s aesthetic. “Stairway To Heaven,” Led Zeppelin’s best known hit, was never even released as a single. By definition it’s not even in the vicinity of a hit, and yet we generally assume that it was one.
Or maybe that’s no corollary at all. Perhaps all of these examples point to the long term irrelevance of sales charts. If he were still alive, Van Gogh could tell you that initial sales and popularity don’t necessarily correlate with long term success. Given enough time, the good work floats to the top and trivial stuff sinks into the depths where it is forgotten.
That’s the theory, anyway. Unfortunately, often what happens is that once a representative work has been selected for an artist, that choice calcifies into a sort of truth. The biggest driver of that process is advertising. We’ve heard “I Melt With You,” “Let My Love Open the Door,” and “Lust For Life” in so many commercials that their initial success or failure as singles is irrelevant. They are stitched into the collective pop culture consciousness in a completely different way now. They are hits, while some long forgotten number 40 song is not.
So there we stood, the three of us: 45 Guy with his box of mostly forgotten singles that he wasn’t going to listen to anyway, my record store buddy with his book of obscure German prog album covers, and me with a blank stare on my face as I tried to figure out what the Hot 100’s place was in the universe. “Okay, here’s one,” 45 Guy said. “The Locomotion.”
“Which version: Little Eva or Grand Funk?” I asked. He was making this game way too easy.