“I notice you always start the hour with an impact record.”
That was radio veteran John Priester, then a weekender at WGCI (Dustryradio 1390) Chicago, the R&B Oldies AM where I got my first programming job in the mid-’90s. I’d never heard the term before, but I knew instantly what he meant. And it also signaled that we understood each other as radio people. I did probably wonder at the time: Doesn’t everybody start the hour with an uptempo song that sounds great coming out of the legal ID?
Even in the mid-’90s, there were programmers who felt the emphasis on the :00 ID was a dated radio-ism. I’ve made my case for why it still matters, even in PPM world where no one minute of the hour is really more important than the other. I still regard it as a radio station’s opening credits. And while some movies forgo those, too, I’d rather be Star Wars. And that would be disappointing without the opening scroll. Besides, Dustyradio 1390 was going for the classic AM sound. I added a ’70s style tympani hit to the :00 ID as well.
So what, then, is the best top-of-the-hour impact record?
There used to be general consensus that the perfect :00 ID song was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And that the Rolling Stones perhaps succeeded themselves with “Brown Sugar,” then “Start Me Up.” Incredible to think, but the first two of those have drifted out of regular top-of-the-hour orbit at Classic Hits/Classic Rock. Also, “Satisfaction” hasn’t sounded that great when I’ve heard it recently in the CD/digital age; I often hear it start a little loosely and that fuzzy first riff often sounds like it wasn’t input loudly enough. And if you think this topic matters, then execution is everything.
For some people, the answer to best top-of-the-hour record is whatever the strongest record is that you can play at that moment, from a programming standpoint. Facebook friends who chimed in on this topic often pointed to the legal ID itself. KAMP (Amp Radio) Los Angeles p.m. driver Chris Booker recalled Z100 New York’s “Spittin’ fire from the top of the Empire” legal ID. “As for the songs they went into, who cares? They all sounded good coming out of these!” At least two people sent me breaks from Ron O’Brien on Chicago’s legendary “Voice of Labor,” WCFL; any song sounded better after that as well.
Anything sounds better if the boardwork (or automation) is tight. Anything sounds lousy if the automation is loose, and sometimes going into a great :00 song exposes that even more. Anything sounds better at Classic Hits if you keep an ongoing stream of surprise-and-delight at :00, rather than just the same old power-rotation songs.
But let’s play the game anyway:
Of things that you might hear at the top of the hour on Classic Hits now, I’m actually inclined to “Any Way You Want It” by Journey. Cold intros and acappella often sound great out of a jingle or sweeper. It’s an urgent opening, and then the song accelerates. When that song was new, it also represented a successful enough band returning with a new and uncharacteristic energy. (“Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes does the same thing.)
I’ve never gotten tired of “Any Way You Want It,” so encountering it at :00 is also helped because I don’t mind hearing it again. There are other current Classic Hits mainstays that delight less, but sound perfectly good out of the ID: “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Hold the Line,” “Call Me” by Blondie, “Stayin’ Alive,” “If You Leave,” “Summer of ’69,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” both “Get Down Tonight” and “(That’s The Way) I Like It.”
There are Classic Hits mainstays that sound turgid to me at :00. The industrial opening of “In the Air Tonight” was arresting in 1981, but it saps the :00 energy, and it lets you know that you’re going to be hearing “In the Air Tonight” again for the next nearly-five-minutes. (And, as a programmer, I acknowledge that the audience probably regards that as a good thing.) If you hear “In the Air Tonight” at :00 on a Classic Hits station, it means that the next ‘80s power is going to be even wimpier, because otherwise the other ‘80s power would be playing at :00 instead.
I’ve written about stations not inputting songs to start hot — it’s especially noticeable when a song fades in or starts quietly: “More Than a Feeling,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Bette Davis Eyes.” “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” starts hot enough; I’m just not excited about hearing it. A lot of hits of the late ’70s/early ’80s came at a time when Top 40 had dispensed with jingles or sweepers at :00. The top of the hour was just another intro, so it didn’t matter if a song just crept in.
Ballads can sound OK at :00 with the appropriate dramatic or cold intro. The hard first note of “Bennie and the Jets” sounds fine out of the legal (although, again, it signals that the next ’70s power will be a ballad, too). Both Chris Myers and Tim Sheehan mentioned Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Not everything, though. I’m never happy to encounter Spandau Ballet, “True,” at :00, and sometimes I do.
You’re only starting to hear it again on the radio, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls sounded good at :00 in 1997, and sounds good now. In 1997, it was announcing a CHR renaissance, not just the song itself. Now, it’s announcing a ’90s resurgence on the radio. Just be sure to start it at the first “Yo! I’ll tell you what I want!” Not at the laugh. (Although that can sound okay, too.)
If you’re not looking for songs you might actually hear on mainstream broadcast radio now, there’s an infinite variety of great :00 songs. Today my answer is “Kicks” by Paul Revere & the Raiders, but it could have been any of a half dozen of their intros. Tomorrow, it might be the O’Jays, “For the Love of Money,” probably my favorite song to play at :00 on Dustyradio 1390, although “Love Rollercoaster,” “The Payback,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “O-O-H Child,” and “Dazz” were up there.
When I made the aircheck that got me my first radio job, the :00 ID song was “Up in a Puff of Smoke,” Polly Brown’s almost-hit from early 1975. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that song at the top of the hour. It didn’t become a power current in most places, or go to recurrent and gold. But it had the right insistence and energy when I used it, and the intro was just long enough. In my rock-and-roll fantasy, it became legal-worthy.
The list is still growing exponentially on my Facebook page, but includes a wide variety of obvious classics and some less-remembered ones:
- Raspberries, “Go All the Way” (from reader Greg Gawronski)
- Doobie Brothers, “China Grove” (Tom Barnes, Michael Waite)
- Outsiders, “Time Won’t Let Me” (David Juhl)
- Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride” (Jamie Turner)
- Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (Dave Van Dyke)
- Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” (Mike Erickson)
- Foreigner, “Double Vision” (Eric Johnson)
- Thin Lizzy, “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Dave Skyler)
- Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run” (Anita Bonita)
- Who, “Who Are You” (Dianna Kelly Monk — “kicks ass every time”)
- Huey Lewis & News, “The Power of Love” (Bob Walker)
- Phil Collins & Philip Bailey, “Sussudio” (Tim Sheehan)
- Bryan Adams & Tina Turner, “It’s Only Love” (Chris Torrick)
- Bryan Adams, “Somebody” (Tom Cook)
- Prince, “When Doves Cry” (Joel Murphy — “especially out of the KKHR Los Angeles top-of-the-hour in summer ’84)
- Prince “1999” (Bruce St. James — “but I need to be able to run the legal ID over the intro and hit the post”)
- Santana, “Smooth” (both Bob Walker and John Himpe cited this; I had never really thought of it that way before)
- ZZ Top, “Tush” (Shane Finch)
- Emotions, “Best of My Love” (Ed Mann)
- Sanford-Townsend Band, “Smoke From a Distant Fire” (Bill Mitchell)
- Gino Vannelli, “People Gotta Move” with its opening synth splat (Jerry Noble)
- Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” (Lance Balance)
- Temptations, “All I Need” (Paul Kowituk) — Motown, with its emphasis on arresting intros, gets a lot of mentions in general
- Temptations, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (Bob Duckman)
- Jerry Butler, “What’s the Use of Breaking Up” (Gary Reynolds) — a truly forgotten hit now, but a Gamble & Huff classic; it has that urgency of some great intros that make you feel like the song got started early without you
- Chicago, “Make Me Smile” (Don Tandler)
- Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend” (Damon Collins)
- Van Halen, “Jump” (Keith Allen-Verdi; Buck McWilliams suggests “Unchained,” although it’s a deeper Classic Rock station where you’re likely to encounter it now)
- Flirtations, “Nothing but a Heartache” (John Summers)
- Corina, “Temptation” (Ronnie Ramone), but really a lot of early ‘90s freestyle, including Company B, “Fascinated,” and Lisette Melendez, “Together Forever”
- Black Box, “Strike It Up” (Craig Russell)
- Eminem, “Lose Yourself” (Mike Couchman)
- Outkast, “Hey Ya” (Tom Barnes)
The perfect :00 song is particularly elusive among recent hits. Even uptempo songs start inauspiciously, then build. The manipulated vocal “chop” at the beginning of an EDM ballad might have gotten attention around the time of Justin Bieber, “Sorry.” Now it is a confirmation that there will be no excitement for the next three minutes. Post Malone’s “Rockstar” is typical of today’s hits that just sort of meander up to the mic. Hearing Niall Horan’s new “On the Loose” start uptempo and stay there is novel and exciting.
But I agree with Robbie Mack that “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons “has a nice impact out of the gate.” Go back nearly a decade now (frightening to consider) and Colby Huff cites “the power intro to Taio Cruz, ‘Dynamite,’ the version that has the hard percussion beats up front.” And there was certainly a moment in 2009-2010 when those opening notes were announcing the most universally liked record in the world.
If you haven’t shared one yet, what’s your favorite top-of-the-hour song?