The Nostalgia Files: American Top 40

I thought at some point over the last six years, I blogged about "American Top 40." But looking through the old posts, I can't find it. If I do, I'll rewrite this first paragraph. For now, I'll paraphrase what I thought I wrote. I discovered AT40, hosted by Casey Kasem, in December 1980 while listening to the radio while taking a shower. I had taken a liking to music countdowns, with WLS' Big 89 the New Year's Eve before and "Solid Gold" (and that blog post I found).

I consistently listened to AT40 the next couple years, first on WBBM-FM in Chicago, then on WLS. Gradually, I was sleeping a little later on Sunday mornings or finding other things to do, because I didn't listen to the countdowns as much. Still, on the couple hundred tapes of songs I recorded off the radio between 1982-1989, bits of "American Top 40" -- and the songs in between Casey Kasem's voice -- pop up here and there.

A few decades later, the classic AT40s are rerun on radio stations across the country. More station carry the 1970s reruns than the '80s, and though I like the listening to the former decade, I prefer the latter's shows. After all, these were the countdowns I actually listened to when I was a kid. With live streaming, an audio program and an MP3 converter, I've been recording these shows for future listening on my iPod.

After getting a bunch of old episodes over the last two years, I've become a little more discriminating on what I record. If I have an episode from this week in 1982 that I recorded last year, and the episode next week is the subsequent week in 1982, the songs are mostly the same. The files from 3-4 hours of recorded audio are big; I only keep a few on my iPod at any one time. And though I do catch some new songs that I don't remember from back in the day, I do own most of these songs as MP3s or MP4s -- I can re-create my own countdowns if I wanted. No, the allure is the "American Top 40" itself -- Casey's stories, the long-distance dedications, the jingles that might musically declare "Number twenty-seven!"

In the past few months however, the rerun AT40s have made a case that I should be less discriminating instead of more.

First, I captured the year-end countdown from 1987, rerun 25 years after its original airing. This was significant because on one of those old tapes, several songs, including "I Knew You Were Waiting" and "Rock Steady" by The Whispers, taped one Sunday from the same countdown reside.

Second, and this really floored me more than anything, was an AT40 episode from February 1983 that was recently rerun and I recorded. Usually, I record the live stream, then go back through to edit out the present-day commercials. As I listened to the 30-year-old show, Casey started telling a story about the Stray Cats (in the countdown that week with "Stray Cat Strut") and how the band would change its name to something else with "cats" in the title so it could play at different clubs in England and still let the fans know it was the same band.

I already knew that story, and you know why? I remember hearing it on "American Top 40" in 1983.

Besides the nostalgia of the old music and the show itself, I love listening to these AT40s because it's taking me to an exact place in time when I was also listening to the show. I can see an old movie and try to remember the first time I saw it (and I'm actually pretty good at remembering the theater and the circumstances), or watch a rerun of "Cheers," "The Cosby Show" or "Happy Days" and know what's going to happen, even though I haven't seen the episode in decades. But something about this one specific AT40 moment ignited something in my nostalgic brain. Thirty years ago, I was in my house or maybe my parents' car, or maybe listening to my dad's Walkman or the little AM transistor radio I owned, and I heard this story about the Stray Cats. Three decades later, I was sitting in my home office, on my PC, and I heard the same story.

I wish our memories were like a long YouTube video. If you place your cursor over the progress bar, a very small thumbnail pops up to show you what's playing at that moment of the video. How great would it be if we could replay every moment of our lives? You could click on the parts you wanted to see again, then click ahead past the parts you don't. We remember so much but forget even more. And that's a small part of why I blog so much about things past -- I'm pissed that there's things I don't remember.

Listening to that AT40, I placed a cursor on a point of my life when I absolutely knew I was doing. There was no video, but there didn't need to be -- I was listening to the radio.


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