somewhere in time

Dave Holmes Visits 1988 to Pay Respect to Casey Kasem’s Last True American Top 40 Countdown

On Sunday, we woke to the sad news that Casey Kasem had died at the age of 82. Though we knew he’d been sick for a long while, the news still stung, if only because we remember him sounding so young, so high-spirited. For this week’s installment of Somewhere in Time, I’m hopping in my trusty DeLorean GIF and heading back to August 6, 1988, for Casey’s last countdown at the helm of American Top 40. Along the way, voluminous rock hair, more sweaty tank-tops than you can shake a stick at, and a few memories of a life spent listening to Casey countin’ ‘em down.

40. Debbie Gibson, “Foolish Beat”
Now, let me be clear: I am aware that Casey returned to the mike in 1998 and hosted a new version of American Top 40 before handing the reins to Ryan Seacrest in 2004, but this new version was based on charts from Radio & Records magazine, and therefore I do not recognize it as canon. (I will accept R&R as source material for Joel Denver’s Future Hits, but when it comes to AT40, only Billboard will do.) This chart represents the very end of what I feel is the Golden Age of Casey Kasem.

Also, in 1988, we styled our teen stars like Donna Mills in Knots Landing and thought nothing of it.

39. Al B. Sure!, “Nite and Day”
Will you look at this video, please? Will you check out Al’s chunky sweaters, acid-wash denim jackets, and turtlenecks under cardigans? Can you handle his Mighty Morphin Power Rangers–via–House of LaBeija dance moves? Will somebody please arrange a meeting between Al B. Sure! and a pair of tweezers? Still, “Nite and Day” is a banger.

38. Hall & Oates, “Missed Opportunity”
This mostly forgotten song presents Hall & Oates at maximum hair volume.

37. Peter Cetera, “One Good Woman”
In early 1994, in her initial consultation with the wardrobe and hair stylists for her first sitcom, Ellen DeGeneres played the video for Peter Cetera’s “One Good Woman” and simply said: “This.”

36. Denise Lopez, “Sayin’ Sorry (Don’t Make It Right)”
A shot across the bow from freestyle, and a video that catalogues literally every fashion mistake of the late 1980s.

35. REO Speedwagon, “Here With Me”
My earliest American Top 40 memories come from REO Speedwagon’s 1981 “Keep on Loving You”/“Take It on the Run”/“In Your Letter” streak. The music was the music — everything sounds enticing when you’re 10 — but the warm, welcoming voice of Casey Kasem pulled me in further. He brought pep and passion to the proceedings. He gave out just enough information about Loverboy and Kenny Rogers to make you decent lunch-table company. He made you care what was going to be No. 1, even during those endless nine weeks when we all knew it was going to be “Bette Davis Eyes.”

1981 was a very adult-contemporary time to become a young pop-music fan — Champaign’s “How ’Bout Us,” Marty Balin’s “Hearts,” and Franke and the Knockouts’ “Sweetheart” were aimed right at the 30-something divorcee market — but Casey’s enthusiasm made these songs seem like they had something to tell us. If Dick Clark was America’s oldest teenager, Casey Kasem was its favorite teacher.

34. Rick Astley, “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man”
Rick Astley. Dead or Alive. Mel & Kim. Early Kylie Minogue. Late Bananarama. Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real.” Boy Krazy. Has history vindicated Stock Aitken Waterman yet, or do we have to do it ourselves?

33. Kenny Loggins, “Nobody’s Fool”
From Caddyshack II. Kenny actually works a “back to the ‘shack” into the first verse, yet it still doesn’t induce the same full-body cringe as “Playin’ With the Boys” from Top Gun.

32. Climie Fisher, “Love Changes (Everything)”
Simon Climie serves solid Sweaty Tank-Top in this video, but Peter Cox in Go West’s “We Close Our Eyes” is the standard by which all such performances are judged.

31. Michael Jackson, “Another Part of Me”
Listening to American Top 40, one could never tell which songs Casey Kasem liked, and, more importantly, one could never sense which ones he didn’t. From Michael Jackson to Rockwell, from “Do They Know It’s Christmas” to “I Wanna Be a Cowboy,” if there were any songs in the chart Casey felt were beneath him, he never let on. If it was in the Top 40, that meant you liked it, and if you liked it, it was important enough to be taken seriously. Let the rest of the world sneer at your taste in music; Casey Kasem treated you with respect.

Meanwhile, this video exists to inform you that in 1988, Michael Jackson enjoyed worldwide popularity. I think I speak for all of us who were alive at that time in history when I say: “Message received.”

30. Moody Blues, “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”
A sequel to their “Your Wildest Dreams” video, and the Moody Blues are not ones to mess with success: The middle-aged rock-guy hair is still epic.

29. Pat Benatar, “All Fired Up”
Sweaty Tank-Top Honorable Mention: Neil Giraldo, “All Fired Up,” 1988.

28. Pebbles, “Mercedes Boy”
Casey Kasem was never cool, and that’s why Casey Kasem was the coolest guy in the history of radio. One cannot imagine Casey calling Debbie Gibson his “good friend,” the way a Ryan Seacrest will a Demi Lovato. One cannot picture Casey Kasem buddying up to Bruce Springsteen or the Pet Shop Boys or Ronnie Milsap. He wasn’t flashy. Until Jean Kasem turned up on Cheers, we didn’t even know he had a wife. That’s because Casey Kasem did a thing that’s inconceivable in our compulsively oversharing world: He avoided the use of the word “I.”

27. Taylor Dayne, “I’ll Always Love You”
Best Sweaty Tank-Top, Female Division: Taylor Dayne, “I’ll Always Love You,” 1988.

26. New Edition, “If It Isn’t Love”
Ricky Bell’s sweaty tank-top performance is sub-Cox, but only barely. I never imagined I’d talk this much about sweaty tank-tops, but apparently that’s what we were doing in 1988.

25. Van Halen, “When It’s Love”
We were also, if we were Sammy Hagar, doing bright red suits that gave us an overall “Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction as a wrestling promoter” effect.

24. Huey Lewis & the News, “Perfect World”
Fun fact: The guy who wrote this song, Alex Call, also wrote Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny).” I don’t remember learning this tidbit from Casey Kasem, but I can’t imagine where else I would have picked it up. Casey had the omniscience of a Trebek, with none of the smugness. And the crisp way he delivered those difficult pronunciations — sukiyaki, neunundneunzig, Scylla and Charybdis — showed you he cared. The dude did his homework.

23. Cheap Trick, “The Flame”
And those Long Distance Dedications! Story after story of beloved siblings in the military, long-sought birth mothers, ill-fated lovers, estranged childhood friends, and doomed pets — so many doomed pets. Aches that could only be eased by the right song. “Casey? Could you please play ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry’ by Chicago, to let Desiree hear the words I’ve never been able to say out loud?” It was reality radio, and even if the rhythm, syntax, and vocabulary of the letters were suspiciously similar from week to week, I’ll be damned if we didn’t idle in the driveway to hear it all the way through.

22. INXS, “New Sensation”
Australia and New Zealand were having a decent week: Kylie Minogue was a bit further down the chart with “I Should Be So Lucky,” Midnight Oil debuted with “The Dead Heart,” and Crowded House’s lost classic “Better Be Home Soon” hit its peak in the low 50s. If you only know “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” from Crowded House, please go listen to “Temple of Low Men”; “When You Come” will immediately make you send a booty text, guaranteed.

21. Aerosmith, “Rag Doll”
Steven Tyler’s performance in this video, particularly from 3:45 on, is the least dignified thing he has ever been a part of, and we are talking about Steven Tyler here.

20. Robert Palmer, “Simply Irresistible”
I will resist the urge to post Casey’s famous in-studio tantrum about coming out of an up-tempo record into a Long Distance Dedication about a dead dog; this is neither the time nor the place. But I will say this: The guy had a point. Peppy music into pet death is a jarring emotional transition, and Casey cared about making our AT40 journey a smooth experience. It’s not like he was berating an assistant for an incorrect coffee order; he snapped for us.

19. Jane Weidlin, “Rush Hour”
This song is what dopamine sounds like. Can we retroactively declare this 1988’s Song of the Summer? Is it too late to submit it as an entry for the Song of This Summer?

18. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine”
Because this whole thing of designating an official Song of the Summer is a new phenomenon. Here’s my proposal: If we’re going to get serious about this, if we’re going to make this a concrete and quantifiable thing, we need to treat our July 4 chart-toppers the way the British do their Christmas No. 1s. Whatever’s on top for the long holiday weekend is the Song of the Summer, case closed. I’m actually kind of excited about the pageantry and marketing that would go into such a thing (not to mention the wagering), and I’m gutted Casey Kasem won’t be there to announce the first one.

17. Billy Ocean, “The Colour of Love”
Billy Ocean: master of a genre I call “dental-office-core.”

16. Fat Boys & Chubby Checker , “The Twist”
Aside from this “The Twist” and the original “The Twist,” Chubby Checker’s hits include “Twistin’ USA,” “Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twistin’,” “Twistin’ Around the World,” and “Twist It Up.” Fearing that he might have hemmed himself in ever so slightly, Chubby recorded a psychedelic record called Chequered! in the early’‘70s, which he now disavows and which I will now move heaven and earth to find.

15. Whitney Houston, “Love Will Save the Day”
The most underrated of Whitney’s peppy numbers. Here she is performing it for a crowd that is on the other side of a massive expanse, at the opening ceremonies for, I guess, the Metaphor Olympics.

14. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”
From the “Hi Infidelity” era right up until Casey left, American Top 40 was a part of my Sunday routine, as immovable and unmissable as church. I’d be able to catch Nos. 40-21 from 8-10 a.m. with very little distraction, but I’d have to bring a boom box into the bathroom while I showered and then grab my dad’s keys and start the station wagon to hear Nos. 20-13 uninterrupted. We’d be in transit to 11 a.m. Mass from Nos. 13-11, and while I consistently missed the Top 10, I considered it my sacrifice to God (plus, by the time a song made it that far, I’d usually have decided I was tired of hearing it). Sometimes I’d get lucky and Father Shea would breeze through his homily, and we’d be en route to IHOP in time to hear the drumroll that heralded No. 1.

13. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”
And now, 26 years later, Will Smith himself is a parent who just doesn’t understand (that maybe his children have no interest in being famous). For real: In Willow and Jaden Smith, we are seeing the first people who have become pop and movie stars because it came up on the chore wheel.

12. Johnny Kemp, “Just Got Paid”
Strange that the “very, very thin dreadlocks” hairstyle never took off. I thought people liked looking like they got a bowl of ramen dumped on their heads.

11. The Contours, “Do You Love Me”
The first of the twin horrors inflicted on our culture by Dirty Dancing, a movie that was set in 1963 and released in 1987. An equivalent movie released this year would take place in 1990. Have a nice day.

10. George Michael, “Monkey”
George Michael recently gave up smoking weed, and I don’t know what led him to that decision, but I’d like to think a close friend put this song on and gave him a look, and he just knew.

9. Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
Joe Elliott: the sweatiest tank-top and most-distressed jeans of this week’s countdown.

8. Chicago, “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love”
This one has everything a 1988 video needs: snow globes shattering in slow motion, crude computer animation, majestic middle-aged rock-guy hair, and a repurposing of the set from Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok.” See if you can make it all the way through; I couldn’t.

7. Elton John, “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That”
In 1970, the same year Casey started American Top 40, he booked the role of Shaggy in the animated Scooby Doo series, a show I have never liked, not even as a child, and the only reason I bring it up here is to tell you that Casey Kasem was even integral to my first experience as a snob.

6. Gloria Estefan & the Miami Sound Machine, “1-2-3”
I remember pulling out of an icy church parking lot in December 1984, the week Daryl Hall & John Oates’s “Out Of Touch” ended “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”’s three-week run at the top. “Well, I disagree with this,” my dad confided. “That Wham! song really has something, doesn’t it?” With a mixture of absolute agreement, relief that someone so close to me actually got it, and the deep self-loathing American culture forces a 13-year-old male Wham! fan to feel, I replied the only way I could: “I guess.”

5. Terence Trent D’Arby, “Sign Your Name”
There are people who wish they could have been present for the recording of Abbey Road, or Born Tt Run, or Led Zeppelin IV, and while I see their point, I would much rather have been there to watch the session singers record the stings for American Top 40: “Casey’s coast to coooooast!” “On with the countdown!” “Numberrrr twelve!” Who were these people? Are they still in the business? Was that an actual robot saying “American?”

4. Eric Carmen, “Make Me Lose Control”
The other major drawback to Dirty Dancing was the brief resurgence of Eric Carmen. But I invite you to watch this video and get a load of Mr. Carmen’s hair. It is Linda Evans multiplied by Bonnie Tyler.

3. Richard Marx, “Hold On to the Nights”
Before the 1983 debut of NBC’s Friday Night Videos, my first exposure to music videos came from America’s Top 10, Casey’s weekly syndicated countdown show. Tantalizing glimpses of Rick Springfield, Kim Carnes, and Blondie, and at the center of it all, Casey Kasem, exuberant and ageless in early Cosby sweaters, showing that his enthusiasm wasn’t just some kind of vocal trick.

2. Breathe, “Hands to Heaven”
Jeez Louise — what the hell kind of listen-at-work-station summer were we having in 1988?

1. Steve Winwood, “Roll With It”
Listen: Pre-internet America could be a lonely place for us kids who took pop music seriously. Our parents, our teachers, our peers lined up to tell us our interests were frivolous, foolish, minor. But for four hours a week, Casey Kasem showed us a place on the map where grown-ups believed the Top 40 was worthy of interest and analysis. He made us believe there was room for us. He showed us that reaching for the stars while keeping our feet on the ground was absolutely possible. He made us feel less alone in the world, long before we were able to find each other here.

His was a life well lived. Bravo, Casey Kasem, and thank you.

Dave Holmes on Casey Kasem’s Final Top 40