Chart Action 83 may not be my favorite K-Tel release, but it was the foundation upon which my irrational interest in mass market pop compilations was built. The album dropped right at the moment my eleven year old self became entranced by WHTT’s “hot hit radio” format and included several of the cuts I’d tune in every hour on the hour just to hear.
It was the soundtrack to that particular — and all-to-fleeting moment where I started to get a taste of adult independence without its corresponding responsibilities. Its songs are triggers for lucid memories involving The Fury of Firestorm, Tangy Taffy, the Golden Age of Videogames, and epic action figure battles waged in my backyard.
In short, Chart Action 83 is a potent nostalgia bomb to my ears, and one whose megatonnage has grown exponentially over the decades. It was such a potent artifact that my hazy memories of it took on a grossly inflationary cast during the stretches where I lacked access to a copy of the album. The tracklist somehow managed to grow and encompass every single favorite song from my fifth grade year.
The rational part of my brain knew that wasn’t possible, but had little say in the matter. That gap between nostalgic fantasy and practical reality left me feeling a bit let down when I did finally get a chance to listen to the genuine article again. It was only a taste of the old magic, yet it was enough to compel me to seek out other sources. Given K-Tel’s prolific output and selection of featured material, it stood to reason that the rest of “my 1983″ in music would be out there in some goofy-titled sibling release (or four) scattered across the late ’82 through early ’84 timeframe.
Some, like Dancing Madness, were easy enough to find among K-Tel’s sprawling list of releases. Others, like Hot Tracks, only caught my eye after multiple passes through the database.
The Hot Tracks cover aesthetic was odd, and a break from the text-heavy Reagan Moderne and airbrushed futurist styles common to K-Tel offerings from this era. It can’t even be classified as a throwback to the Seventies, because even in those days the label opted for techno-sheen or blunt force functionality in its trade dress. The Hot Tracks cover just looks like something inspired by the lurid murals spray-painted on seedy carnival ride. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it was really weird to behold.
Weirder still? The record’s inner sleeve was printed with a full-color ad for K-Tel’s short-lived “Xonox” line of double-ended Atari 2600 cartridges. It was a novel gimmick, but suffered from some bad timing and poor implementation. Offering two (lousy) games for the price of one a bit pointless when the entire home videogame industry was dumping excess inventory at fire sale prices, and other companies were exiting the business in droves.
Here’s the tracklist:
A1 Michael Sembello – Maniac
A2 Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
A3 Rick Springfield – Human Touch
A4 Billy Idol – White Wedding (Part I)
A5 Styx - Mr. Roboto
A6 Chris De Burgh – Don’t Pay The Ferryman
A7 The Animals – The Night
B1 The Police – King Of Pain
B2 Bryan Adams – This Time
B3 Def Leppard – Rock Of Ages
B4 Wall Of Voodoo – Mexican Radio
B5 Naked Eyes – Promises, Promises
B6 Patrick Simmons – So Wrong
B7 Shalamar – Dead Giveaway
Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” was one of the reasons (alongside “Der Kommissar” and “Come on Eileen”) I tuned into WHTT, as the station’s tight-rotation playlist meant getting to listen to it at least once every couple of hours. The song was a perfect (and perfectly goofy) slice of the zeitgeist, and tailor-made for my younger self’s oversized geeky ears. Even better, Hot Tracks paired it up with the overwrought theatrics of Chris De Burgh’s “Don’t Pay The Ferryman.” The combined effect is nearly enough to summon a 1st edition Monster Manual from the ether.
Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” is one of the most bizarre songs to ever crack the charts, and a good example of why this period of pop history appeals to me beyond the usual nostalgic reasons. It was the apex of a transitional period amplified by the emerging medium of music video, which meant all manner of oddities could bubble up to mainstream audiences and leave a brief but memorable mark.
Blidol’s “White Wedding” and Rick Springfield’s “Human Touch” were welcome inclusions, and my grade school adoration of Def Leppard still holds enough sway to make “Rock of Ages” a fun listen (though I’d have preferred “Photograph’). The rest of the songs I can take or leave.
“Maniac” is one of those tracks whose former ubiquity has killed my capacity to hear it as anything but sonic wallpaper. I’ve never been particular fond of either the Eurythmics or The Police’s output after Ghost in the Machine. It’s not that I think they’re awful, but that they were the type of “new wave” music my parents would listen to — the ur-acts of the tedious “adult alternative” format. The Shalamar track is a solid jam, but suffers from getting wedged in at the end behind ex-Doobie Patrick Simmons’ soporific attempt at synthesized soft rock.
After a few listens, I’m still not sure what I think of Hot Tracks as an “experience.” In terms of content, it’s on par with Chart Action 83 yet it hasn’t grabbed me in the same way. I feel historical connections with individual songs, but not with the album as a whole. It’s close to my experiences with K-Tel’s other Class of 1983 releases but with a unsettling sense of “road not taken” added to the mix.
In other circumstances — a different commercial aired during a syndicated repeat of Barney Miller or a different 8-track at the top of Strawberries’ sell-though bin — Hot Tracks could easily have occupied the same place in my heart that Chart Action 83 does. It’s just a small epiphany about childhood nostalgia and the long tail of imprinted biases, made stranger by the presence of a Styx song about robots.