November 21 – That Wasn’t Grease, It Was Sweat

It was Sheryl Crow who told us “a change will do you good”, but maybe it was another popular, blonde female singer who took it to heart 40 year back – Olivia Newton-John . Of course, her character Sandy changed from the ignored, “good girl” to the high school “sexpot” who gets the guy in the film Grease. A few years later she applied the same change to her career and public persona, and again got the results. Her smash “Physical” hit #1 in the U.S. on this day in 1981. It would stay on top until late January ’82, a run of 10-straight weeks.

Of course, the single – the title track of her 13th studio album (not including movie soundtracks Grease and Xanadu) – came as something of a surprise to fans and fans-to-be alike. The young Aussie woman – who was actually British by birth and by then living in California – had made a huge career for herself with a sort of downhome, country-ish, “good girl” image in the ’70s. She was adored for hits like “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?”. Where did this strident, bouncy, sexy, demanding woman arise from? The public might have been curious, but sure didn’t mind the transformation.

She was of course, aware of the change in persona and the ripple effects it might have. At the time she said “if these new songs were offered to me a couple of years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have attempted them.” The new songs were generally upbeat and sexually-charged straight-ahead pop written by others. (The only song on Physical the album she wrote was the environmental call “The Dolphin Song”). This track was penned by Terry Shaddick and Steve Kipner. Shaddick wasn’t well-known but Kipner, an Australian as well, was moderately-successful and would also write the Chicago hit “Hard Habit To Break.” Amazingly, they wrote it with an ear to Rod Stewart – who it wouldn’t be hard to imagine singing this alongside “Do You think I’m Sexy?” – but he didn’t want it. Neither did Tina Turner, their second choice. Third time was the charm when they offered it to Olivia and her producer, John Farrar. They recorded it with Toto’s Steve Lukather on guitar and well-known session players like drummer Carlos Vega and bassist Dave Hungate (also of Toto) and delivered it to MCA. Complete with a video.

MTV was just taking off and Newton John loved it. “I think this is the way albums will go in the future, visuals with music” adding for this video she enjoyed “I got to be a different personality.” The video enhanced the song’s racy image and double-entendre which at times was played up. It had ONJ in tight workout clothes in gym settings with scantily-clad, heavily-muscled men. Obvious sex coupled with the wholesome “it’s all about being fit and exercising” side they sometimes resorted to when complaints rang out. the album cover continued the idea, a wet and possibly turned on John in a wet top was the photo, taken by Herb Ritts who’d later do one of the sexiest videos ever, Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

Whether an exercise video soundtrack or a smoldering sexual come-on, the public ate it up. It also topped Canadian and Australian charts while making the British top 10. the single went double platinum in Canada and was her second U.S. platinum single (the first being “You’re the One That I Want” with John Travolta.) Eventually it would be listed by Billboard as the top-selling single of the decade. It’s 10 week run at #1 was the longest stint atop until Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in 1992.

An interesting bit of trivia about that run on top of the singles chart: Olivia was a Hall & Oates sandwich…which sounds like something the “Physical” persona might’ve liked! The song bumped one Hall & Oates tune, “Private Eyes”, off the #1 spot and was finally dethroned by another Hall & Oates single, “I Can’t Go For That.” . The public on the other hand, could go for all that!

November 12 – Piano Man’s Charm Shone Uptown

Ugly men take heart. Or so said Billy Joel whose biggest international hit, “Uptown Girl”, hit its peak at home at #3 on Billboard this day in 1983.

Although by chart positions not his highest-reaching single in the U.S., it was his only #1 hit in the UK, Australia and New Zealand and is arguably the most played of his many singles on radio to this day. (For another example of that, while The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was recently recognized as the most played song on radio ever over here, in the UK, “Uptown Girl” has been played more than it or any other song released that year.) It helped his 1983 An Innocent Man album go 7X platinum at home and multi-platinum in Britain where he’d been little noticed before. The song itself went platinum there, one of only two he’s had achieve that compared to seven at home.

Like all songs on An Innocent Man it was written in a style as an homage to a childhood music idol of his. In this case, taht was Frankie Valli (and the Four Seasons), with guitarist Danny Kortchmar adding cheekily it’s “the best Four Seasons song ever written.” The “Uptown Girl” was actually Aussie supermodel Elle McPherson, whom Billy was dating when he wrote it. By the time the record came out, he’d moved on to another model, Christie Brinkley, who appears in the video. Says Joel: “the fact that I can attract such a beautiful woman as Christie should give hope to every ugly guy!”.

It played into another romance a couple of decades on for Billy too. Famous TV chef Katie Lee and he had a relationship in the early 2000s, but when they met in New York City, she barely knew who he was. She said this one and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” were the only songs of his she’d ever heard…although she did buy his Greatest Hits after going out with him a time or two!

October 28 – Tree Turned Into Diamonds For U2

Many have said that Nirvana turned the music world on its ear and made “alternative rock” mainstream with their Nevermind. There’s some truth to that as it certainly signified a sea change in what hit radio and FM rock stations were choosing to play in the early-’90s. But perhaps the change came earlier than that…in Canada at least. Because on this day in 1987, U2 were awarded with a Diamond record for The Joshua Tree, making it the first alt rock album to achieve that level of success in North America. Maybe anywhere for that matter.

A diamond award represents sales of 10X platinum, or 20X gold if you like. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was the first one to do so there, in 1978. The Joshua Tree was only the 17th album to go diamond in Canada, sandwiched between Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and the Eagles Hotel California. Not only that, but being just seven months after its release date, it was also the fastest album to hit that mark in the Great White North, a few days faster than Supertramp’s Breakfast in America had in 1979.

It was only mildly surprising. By this point, it had already spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Canadian charts, longest of any album, produced a massive #1 song (“With or Without You”) and another top 10 (“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) which together managed to dominate the country’s rock and pop stations most all of the summer and fall, and it came on the tail of back-to-back triple platinum successes for the Irish lads, in War and The Unforgettable Fire. U2 was hot and omnipresent enough to not be in any way “alternative”, popularity wise at least.

Of course, it was far from an exclusively Canuck phenomenon. The Joshua Tree had spent nine weeks on top in the U.S., and eventually went diamond there too, although not until 1995. By now it’s topped 14 million copies in the States, or 14X platinum. Nor was it a mere fad. U2 obviously have carried on as big as ever, and in 2000 a second album of theirs, Achtung Baby hit the diamond mark in Canada, making them only the sixth artist to have a pair of albums that popular.

By the way, if you’re a big fan of The Joshua Tree, and like traveling, there’s good news and bad. The good news is there is a national park in California named Joshua Tree, and true to its name, there are many of the odd, gnarly desert trees growing there. The bad, according to travel journalist Conor Knighton, is that the cover photo for the record wasn’t taken there, but about 200 miles away, and the actual tree in the back cover photo is no longer there.

March 8 – A Day For People Who Dig Digital Music

This has been a big day for digital music and how it’s changed the industry. First, in 1979, Philips demonstrated a prototype of the Compact disc player at a news conference in the Netherlands. It was the fruition of a patent filed by James Russell back in 1966, and in 1980 they standardized the format with Sony who were also working on it. By 1982, CDs were available for consumers and six years after that they were outselling LPs.

Even though compact discs were topping 900 million sold annually in the U.S. by the end of the 20th Century, their days would be somewhat numbered thanks to the internet. To whit, on this day in 2006 Canada recognized the evolving technology of music by giving out awards for gold and platinum music downloads for the first time. INXS, Coldplay and the Foo Fighters were among the initial recipients of gold “downloads”, although at the time the bar was set fairly low – 10 000 paid downloads compared to 50 000 hard copies for a gold record in the Great White North. The U.S. began a similar process the year before, giving Gwen Stefani a gold record for digital downloads of her song “Hollaback Girl.”

These days the vast majority of gold and platinum certifications are for digital purchases and more recently streaming listens on services like Spotify have been factored in, making the job of certifying a song or album “gold” or “platinum” considerably cloudier and more difficult. As of 2019, there were about 45 million CDs sold, 19 million vinyl LPs (despite the hype about a vinyl revival, current sales by dollar value are still less than 1/10th of what they were at that format’s peak, 1978), and about one million music DVDs. By comparison, 40 million digital albums and 330 million singles were downloaded but there were 60 million streaming music subscriptions. Overall, digital music sales (via download and streaming services) accounted for about eight out of every nine dollars the music recording industry took in. It all leads one to draw two conclusions. One, that the only constant in the music industry is change in how it’s delivered. And two, that popular songs will always be consumed en masse… and the industry will award those most popular.

November 8 – When Elton’s Hits Were The Greatest

Elton John was on a roll like we’d seldom seen before or since. On this day in 1975, his Rock of the Westies album hit #1 on Billboard, making it his third chart-topper that year!

That came one year to the day after he (and MCA Records) released his first Greatest Hits album. That album quickly rose to top the charts in the States and Canada , became the best-selling record of 1975 and ranks up there with the Eagles and Billy Joel near the top of best-selling “greatest hits” albums ever, with some 25 million copies sold. That despite being out of print for years now (other compilations of Elton have rendered it redundant) and not having new material on it then. The ten-song record did include some of his older singles like “Border Song” his newer fans might have missed the first time around, but didn’t include the chart-topping singles (“Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) that were released between the previous album, Caribou, and the next one after it, Captain Fantastic.

With Captain Fantastic being a summertime #1 hit in ’75, after Greatest Hits and then Rock of the Westies, the three #1 albums in the year made him the first artist since The Monkees to do that. they scored a trio in 1967. For Elton, Rock of the Westies was the eighth album in a row to go platinum in the U.S. and seventh overall to hit the top of the charts; however, all good things like winning streaks must come to an end. He wouldn’t have another #1 until The Lion King soundtrack in ’94.

October 29 – The Moon Kept Spinning A Decade On

The Police were sitting on top of the Billboard album charts this day in 1983, with Synchronicity occupying the #1 position for its 14th week. But it’s possible the British band celebrating the chart even more that day was Pink Floyd, because David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright made some history with it. Their epic 1973 release Dark Side of The Moon was still on there… in its 491st week. As such it became the longest-running hit album in Billboard‘s history. Maybe not as happy, Johnny Mathis’ the velvet-voiced crooner whose 1958 album Johnny’s Greatest Hits got relegated to silver medal status. Previously its 490 week run, which ended late in ’68, had been the longevity champ.

There was obviously a little magic in that rainbow prism record. Now, Dark Side of the Moon is a great rock record that spans conventional sub-genres. As Gilmour notes, “the combination of words and music hit a peak. The cover was also right.” But still, one wonders what it was that kept it selling and selling and selling when other greats had dropped off, their fanbase finally sated. Of course, one thing that benefitted it (as well as other greats of the ’60s and ’70s) was the introduction of compact discs. Obviously, many copies were sold to people who might have already had an LP copy (or even 8-track gathering dust!) who wanted a more portable, upto date version. Dark Side... came out first on CD in ’83 in Japan, and the following year it most other places including the States. It was re-released, remastered, on CD in ’92.

Its estimated the Floyd opus has sold 45 million or so copies worldwide, making it the fourth most-popular album ever, behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell. In the U.S. it’s certified 15X platinum, for sales of over 15 million, but considering that it’s sold nearly 10 million copies just since Nielsen began Soundscan (around the end of ’91), that tally seems low. It’s 14X platinum in Britain, where it never got to that #1 spot on the charts, making it the biggest-selling record there not to be an actual chart-topper.

Mathis’ album needn’t hang its head in shame mind you… it still holds on to that #2 rank in weeks on, just ahead of the My Fair Lady soundtrack and Jackson’s Thriller (which spent 441 weeks on, according to Billboard.) And Johnny has another feather in his chart hat – his Heavenly album had a 295 week run, making him the only artist with two of the ten most enduring sellers.

Needless to say, Dark Side of the Moon didn’t stop selling in its 491st week. It went on to stay on the chart until some time in 1988. And since then, it’s reappeared at times on the list, making for 950 different times you could look at the Billboard album chart and see it on there.

July 3 – Oakey Didn’t Want Single; Public Did

Another example of an artist not knowing how good their material was. On this day in 1982, Britain’s Human League hit #1 in the U.S. with their iconic single “Don’t You Want Me.”

The song had already hit the top in their homeland late the year before, and in Canada a month or two earlier, but it was a milestone in the States for a couple of reasons. First, it was arguably the first “new wave” song to top American charts. Consider that it knocked “Ebony & Ivory” out of the top spot, and the next foreign, unusual/new wave song to hit #1 afterwards would be “Come on Eileen” about 11 months later.

Certainly it was the first British new wave one to do so, leading Rolling Stone to term it “the breakthrough song of the second British Invasion.” While the U.S. had heard and liked some other examples of the new wave from across the sea (like Gary Numan’s “Cars”) this was the first to basically rip the doors right off radio from coast to coast, earning them a gold single (it went platinum in the UK and Canada.) Not coincidentally, it’s also said to be the first U.S. #1 song to use all drum machines for percussion. As well, it became Virgin Records’ first #1 song in the country. Richard Branson’s label had had its share of hits in the UK and made a dent into Canadian and Aussie markets, but had never done especially well in the mighty U.S. before.

The song was the third North American (and fourth in Europe) single off the band’s big album, Dare. Singer/songwriter Phil Oakey got the inspiration for it while flipping through a “teen girl” magazine and then had the idea to make it a male-female duet after watching a Star is Born movie. Rumor has it he picked Susan Sulley , one of two female singers he’d recruited for the band, to do the girl’s part by a flip of the coin.

While most of the listening public, and Virgin Records, thought it was a great hit, Oakey didn’t like it. After being in the studio, he decided it wasn’t really a great song and he hated the production Martin Rushent did, thinking it made it too soft and bland apparently. He didn’t even want it on the album, and fought Virgin hard enough to have it pushed back to after “Love Action” and the “sound of the crowd” as a single release.

Needless to say, if he didn’t like the song, we can be sure he liked the response to it and his growing royalty cheques. The song hit the British top 20 again in 2014 and as voted as the seventh best song of the ’80s by the ITV Network over there. It”s probably also about the seventh best example of artists not knowing when they’re sitting on a goldmine!

April 5 – Leveling Up To International Success

Leveling up a bit in the music game, Britain’s Level 42 hit the U.S. top 40 for the first time this day in 1986 with their iconic hit,“Something About You.”  It was the lead single off their fifth album, World Machine.

Level 42 had started some six or seven years earlier as a largely jazz combo, but had leaned closer and closer toward mainstream, intelligent pop through the years, making them something akin to a European version of Steely Dan. While often considered a simple outfit for Mark King to showcase his fine bass skills and singing, at the time it was a talented quartet-plus: King, the Gould brothers Boon (on guitars), and Phil (drums), keyboardist Mike Lindup and while never an official member,  producer Wally Badarou as well. All five are credited with writing the hit, which was loosely inspired by trying times three different members were going through with their significant members at the point.

Trying times mixed with a bit of optimism was a message that worked then, as now, especially when put into a very danceable, well-produced record. “Something About You” became their second UK top 10 hit, their first in the States (where it rose to #7) and in New Zealand, while in Canada it stalled at #13 … but its long run of over 20 weeks on the charts there earned it a gold record. The album meanwhile became their first massive hit, getting to #3 at home and scoring a double-platinum award in Canada. While the follow-up album, Running in the Family, would garner similar sales (and score them four more UK top 10 hits including the title track), it also put an end to the “classic” lineup with both Gould brothers quitting right after it.

Level 42 have never completely called it quits, but haven’t done much of late.They did put out a single in 2013, “Sirens” but haven’t put out a full album since 2006 not toured much. However, the completist would be kept busy – since that last album, no fewer than 14 different compilation albums have come out!

April 2 – Dysfunctional Relationships 40 Million Relate To?

You can’t have it all. But if you’re lucky, sometimes you can come close. Fleetwood Mac found this out with their career taking off into the stratosphere – while their personal lives were crashing and burning. Rumours hit #1 on Billboard this day in 1977 and would end up spending 31 weeks on top, off and on until January ’78, sell double-diamond (20X platinum) in the U.S. and Canada and spend a mind-boggling 630 weeks on the UK charts.

It won the 1978 Grammy for Album of the Year and generally was met with positive reviews like in Rolling Stone which said the “formula is vintage Byrds” and that it “proves success of Fleetwood Mac (previous album) was no fluke”. They rate it as the 25th greatest album of all-time, saying “The Mac’s catchy exposes, produced with California sunshine polish, touched a nerve.” Stevie Chick who lauded the “harmony-drenched” songs.

The album came about under remarkably bad conditions however; Christine and John McVie were divorcing and wouldn’t talk to one another, Stevie Nicks was breaking up with Lindsay Buckingham (who wrote “Go You Own Way” about her,which she later said “was very angry and nasty in my opinion”) and she in turn turned to drummer Mick Fleetwood who found his own wife was cheating on him. Mixed in with copious amounts of cocaine, the atmosphere was volatile to say the least. But the result was stunning. Not only has it topped 40 million copies worldwide (making it in a virtual tie with the following year’s big-seller, Saturday Night Fever, for seventh most ever), it had four smash singles and two other songs – “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Woman” – which have received heavier radio play than many actual singles have for the four decades since.

March 20 – You Oughta Know This Sold Tens Of Millions

Think about ’90s music that changed the aural landscape and you probably think of a trio out of Seattle and an album of theirs with a swimming baby on the cover. No question about it, Nirvana’s Nevermind was huge, it changed the sound of the radio airwaves for years to come and it remains a short of shorthand representation of the entire decade. But… “you oughta know” there was another album that sold more and perhaps shook up the music industry even more. And it was a big day for it, and its artist, Alanis Morissette 24 years ago.

Jagged Little Pill was certified diamond status in Canada on this day in 1996, diamond meaning 10X platinum. The first ever album to hit that mark in the Great White North was Saturday Night Fever in 1978. It had been a dramatic rocket to the top of the charts for the Ottawa singer who’d had a little – emphasis on little – success in her homeland a few years earlier as a teenybopper pop singer in the mode of Tiffany or Brandy. And like them, in the past she’d used only her first name.

But Alanis had matured, gone through a few bad relationships and found that she liked to rock a little. She signed with Madonna’s Maverick Records (a division of Warner Brothers) got super-producer Glen Ballard as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Dave Navarro to help her and had gone to L.A. to record. What she turned out arguably turned out to be the soundtrack to Gen X angst and “grrrl-power”. Much like Tears For Fears Songs from the Big Chair a decade earlier, Jagged Little Pill was like a trip to the psychiatrist’s couch on disc. Alanis covered dealt with everything from her seething rage at the ex who’d left her (“You Oughta Know”) to confusion (“Ironic”, which as many have pointed out, ironically details all sorts of things which really aren’t ironic at all in the lyrics) to come out with youthful optimism (“Hand in My Pocket”). The result was a power-pop masterpiece that captured the zeitgest of the decade perfectly. As Rolling Stone put it, Alanis created “the ’90s version of Carole King’s Tapestry – a woman using her plain soft rock voice to sift through the emotional wreckage of her youth.”

Released mid-June ’95, it had gone gold in Canada by August and knocked the Smashing Pumpkins out of the #1 spot on the album chart by November. After being replaced on top of the charts by The Beatles compilation Anthology I at Christmas time, it soon went back to #1 and ended up spending 21 weeks there in total. It kept selling and selling all through its second summer, and by fall ’96, was double diamond in Canada, one of only 12 albums ever to reach that level. Little wonder that, as it spawned four-straight #1 singles there – “Hand in my Pocket”, “Ironic”, “You Learn” and “Head Over Feet”, all following in the footsteps of the album’s anthem of anger, “You Oughta Know” which was a top 10 hit.

Now that in itself would be noteworthy, but of course Ms. Morissette’s popularity wasn’t confined to the land of Molsons and moose. The album did almost as well, as quickly in the U.S., spending a dozen weeks at #1, being the best-seller of ’96 and, at the time making her the youngest artist to have a diamond album there. she was 21 when she picked up that hardware. And the story was much the same around the world – it hit #1 in the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Belgium…seemingly almost everywhere they listen to pop music. When all was said and done it had sold 16 million in the U.S. and more than double that worldwide. It ended up being the third biggest album of the decade, globally, behind only two other female artists – Whitney Houston and her The Bodyguard and fellow Canuck Shania Twain’s Come on Over.

That last fact probably sums up the biggest change in music in the ’90s, bigger even than Kurt Cobain’s little band shaking up rock radio. While the previous two decades had seen some popular and big-selling female artists – Linda Ronstadt , Carole King and Olivia Newton-John in the ’70s, Madonna, Whitney and Pat Benatar in the ’80s for example – the music we listened to and bought was primarily male. And that would continue until Alanis unleashed her pent up anger and turned it into over 30 million albums and radio domination for better than a year. Before you knew it, radio – rock, alternative, country, pop – was falling over itself to promote new female artists and yet another Canadian lady, Sarah McLachlan, had begun what was briefly the hottest ticket on the concert market, Lilith Fair.

Maybe it’s “ironic”, but Morissette herself didn’t seem to benefit as much as many other artists from the change she helped bring about. While her follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold about four million copies globally and topped North American charts, it was seen as a flop (one of only a handful of examples of a homegrown album that would be 4X platinum in Canada and not seen as “successful”) and she’s still recording, she never again had a mega-selling record nor a song that would be a virtual anthem for a generation. But singers ranging from Sia to Kacey Musgraves should all feel just a little bit grateful to Alanis for the time when she did.