Even if The Rock Album hadn’t whetted my appetite for K-Tel compilation albums, I still would’ve sought out a copy of Chart Action ’83 for strictly sentimental reasons.
The collection dates back to a significant moment in my life, one that was further shaped by a cluster of serendipitous events. I was eleven years old in 1983, and had just entered the stage of early adolescence where pop music exposure transitions from passive exposure to active pursuit. I had my share of favorite songs and favorite bands before that point, but most were bits of appealing audio flotsam that just happened to drift within earshot.
That standard preteen process of developing one’s own tastes and preferences was kicked into high gear two concurrent developments — my dad’s acquisition of a Panasonic boom box and 103.3 WEEI-FM’s switchover to the “hot hits” format under the WHTT call sign.
My dad bought the boombox — a sharp-angled monstrosity cased in gray and chromed plastic — to listen to when he was out in the yard catching some rays. During the hours he wasn’t soaking up dangerous levels of UV radiation, the machine rested on my mom’s sewing table at the back of our apartment’s combined kitchen and dining area, where it was left on while my teenage aunt worked on school assignments and my brother and I played Atari on an ailing old color tucked under the sideboard.
While my aunt preferred the more rock-oriented programming of WBCN or WCOZ, the dial was most frequently tuned to WHTT. For starters, it was a “new” station, which counts for a lot when you’re young and seeking out things to claim as “your own.” My aunt was also fond of radio-dubbed mix tapes, which the station’s tight every-hour-on-the-hour playlist helped facilitate.
Mostly, however, it came down to timing. If these events had been bumped up or back by a couple of years, I’d have experienced the same process with an entirely different frame of reference. As it happened, my impressionable younger self found himself awash in the beneficiaries of MTV’s musical revolution. Cable — and by extension MTV — was still a rarity in my neighborhood, but its effects could be heard across FM spectrum. In 1981, the “new wave” had been pronounced dead. Two years later, new wave acts and adjacent artists were flourishing thanks to their videogenic aesthetics and MTV’s racially problematic approach to targeting its chosen demographic.
The result was a cultural feedback loop in which multiple manifestations of the zeitgeist tied back to and reinforced each other — synthesizer pop, phospor dot battlescapes, apocalyptic dread, and chilly techno-futurism. It was a weird era of terrors and delights, and it hit me at the moment of maximum impact. It doesn’t matter how much of the reality aligns with my nostalgia, as the experience has been internalized past any point of objective separation.
My parents had Chart Action ’83 on 8-track, which got infrequent plays in the tape deck of the family Cordoba. A few years later, after the moment had passed, I bought a cassette copy for three bucks from a discount bin at the Bradlees on Washington Street. In discussions with college pals about the Eighties, I referenced it as an essential and influential artifact. During the Golden Era of Filesharing, I scoured the dark areas of the internet for a rip and contemplated recreating it from the various slices of source material.
I never did, though, and a glimpse at the track list is essential for explaining why.
A1 The Police – Every Breath You Take
A2 Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
A3 Bryan Adams – Straight From The Heart
A4 Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing
A5 Golden Earring – Twilight Zone
A6 Thompson Twins – Lies
A7 Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry – Don’t Fight It
B1 Rick Springfield – Affair Of The Heart
B2 Greg Kihn Band – Jeopardy
B3 After The Fire – Der Kommissar
B4 Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
B5 Pat Benatar – Little Too Late
B6 Peter Gabriel – Shock The Monkey
B7 Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes
As memories faded and were replaced with mythic impressions, my mind began to substitute its own tracklist in place of the one that actually appeared on the compilation.
“She Blinded Me With Science,” “Electric Avenue,” “Mr. Roboto” — all were dearly loved by my eleven year old self, and so I subconsciously inserted them into the musical artifact I associated most closely with that era.
I did recall some of the tracks correctly. The Celt-ified soul of “Come on Eileen” and English language version of Falco’s “Der Kommissar” were two pillars of the pop trinity (alongside the previously mentioned “Mr. Roboto”) that had me waiting eagerly for WHTT’s playlist to cycle again. “Goody Two Shoes” and “I Know There’s Something Going On” also stuck with me, though my feelings about the latter have soured a little after learning that it was a stealth Phil Collins track.
I also remembered the inclusion of Marvin Gaye’s swan song “Sexual Healing” because of how embarrassed I felt if my parents were around when it started playing.
As for the rest? Apart from the Pat Benatar track, it all falls into the filler category for me. That’s not a blanket dismissal, but rather an admission that most of it does nothing for me on any level outside a nostalgic one.
Technically, that’s part of the appeal K-Tel comps hold foe me. They fascinate me because they present an aggregate musical snapshot of a given era. On those terms, my history with Chart Action ’83 tends to work against that effect. It makes great audio wallpaper to retrogame to, but it doesn’t live up to the legend I built up for it during the pre-internet times. The gap between what I remember and what I wanted to remember was a little too wide to bridge with a cheesy Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry duet.
Thanks to Discogs and other online resources, I knew this well before I picked a copy of the album last fall. It didn’t stop me from buying it, because it’s still a significant childhood artifact even after discounting for nostalgic inflation. I’ve given it a few spins and enjoyed it well enough, but it will never match record I misremembered it to be.
“Don’t turn around, oh uh oh.” Absolutely goddamn right.