This time of year, and especially this time of decade, the limits of Top 10 (40, 100, whatever) record charts seem narrower than ever. The record industry has long since forgotten how to differentiate between important or innovative music and platinum sales. The Gold Record has replaced the Golden Calf as the measure of materialism.
The irrelevance of chart-topper lists is amply illustrated by the brochures being circulated by radio station WRQX (Q-107, the one with Hot Lips Whatzername). From the No. 1 songs of the past 10 years (all chronologized by week of preeminence), listeners are invited to pick their three favorites, plus the top male, female and group artists of the Seventies.
The Q-107 list should go down in cliche history as evidence of the old saw about knowing a collection by its omission. It's also a stunning reminder that there is little correlation between what makes for a popular driving record and what may become a lasting influence on music.
The top-artists ballot includes 17 suggestions in each category, plus a blank space to write in another nominee. Besides having a number of simperingly silly entries -- Helen Reddy, Peter Frampton, Styx -- and the obligatory remember-'em-now-that-they're-gone candidates (Minnie Riperton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Janis Jopkin, Elvis Presley), Q-107 has overlooked some rock-bottom influences, and even whole idioms.
Where are Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison? Jackson Browne, Neil Young, John Prine, Waylon-and-Willie? Elvis Costello or Graham Parker? These artists have irrevocably changed the sound of American popular music, yet their names are missing in action.
Among the women there are some more (argueably) reasonable entries -- Ronstadt, Janis, Joni, Dolly, Aretha, Streisand, Summer -- but how has Helen Reddy affected the course of popular song? Or Olivia Newton-John, or Cher, or Rita Coolidge? Where are Grace Slick, Tracy Nelson, Rickie Lee Jones, Tanya Tucker and Laura Nyro?
In the group category, the Knack is left to represent power pop, and New Wave, even the slicker type, is unremembered. Not even Blondie, Cheap Trick or the Cars come up for a bow. Kiss made it, though, and Foreigner. Why not nominate ABBA, the world's biggest-selling musical corporation? Where are Steely Dan, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic and Weather Report? Where are the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, the Band? Ike and Tina Turner and the Isley Brothers? Where is almost anyone from the Motown stable?
We are being bombarded by preformulated top/bob/pop/slop radio. If the Village People are recognized in 1989 as an influential group, let us hope it has to do with civil liberties and not lyricists. And if there is anyone who thinks that "Ring My Bell" is an important record, or even an on-key one, I don't want to know about it. Leave me my few illusions.
It's not just local radio stations -- which, after all, are not expected to make too many esthetic decisions. Cash Box magazine has released a list of its annual year-ender awards, plus a group of "Special Decade Awards" that will curl your teeth.
Bette Midler, female entertainer of the decade. Elton John, male entertainer of the decade. Wings, the group of the decade. And to top it all off, the single of the decade -- "Le Freak."
Is that what the Seventies were all about, "Le Freak"? God bless us, every one.
Or maybe it is. Of all the musical idioms that have passed through the past 10 years, from heavy metal to heavy makeup, disco to digital, New Wave to Nouveau Rave, folk rock to red-light rock and shoo-bop to wimp rock, "Le Freak" was the quintessential thoughtless, summertime-and-the-livin'-is-easy hot production single. Maybe that was what we were looking for. No beasts of burden for the Eighties.
And yet . . . there was something infinitely moving about the gradual evolution of the Eagles from the musician-as-outlaw naivete of "Desperado" to the jaded, electric horseman world-weariness of "Hotel California." And the Beatles' mid-Sixties singles going, one after another, to the top of the British charts in re-release. Of the rediscovery of Buddy Holly, and even the conversion of Dylan, once the most eclectic of visionaries.
Wasn't there some kind of lingering poignancy about Mick Jagger's leaving the haute chic Bianca for an American fashion model? About the comeback of Ray Orbison, and the closing of Winterland, and the failure of all those 10th-anniversary-of-Woodstock celebrations? About the transformation of Rod Stewart from bantam rocker to pink panther? About Janis being made into a movie, and Jimi's joking, between-takes version of "The Little Drummer Boy" being released for Christmas?
Ah, "Easy Rider," how art thou fallen. The lawless have entered the land of the lotus-eaters.
Jesus was just all right; I heard it through the grapevine.