This weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the US release of the Pretenders’ first album. It had come out in the UK two months earlier, and its first single, “Brass In Pocket,” had risen to number one there, but it wasn’t making any inroads in the US.
Until one fateful night in Atlanta.
In January, 1980, I was the music director of WRCN, an AOR (album-oriented rock) station on Long Island. Like dozens of stations across the country, we used the “Superstars” format created by our consultants, Kent Burkhart and Lee Abrams. Each year, they invited all of their clients to get together at a two-day national convention, where there were sessions on various topics during the day, then a big dinner and entertainment each evening. That year, it was in Atlanta and I convinced the owner of WRCN to underwrite a trip for me to attend.
I don’t remember everything that happened, although I have a vague memory of David Lee Roth singing the national anthem before the first day got underway in the hotel ballroom. However, I’ll never forget what happened that evening.
We were all taken by bus to a big barbecue joint, where we sat around family-style tables and enjoyed free food courtesy of the record label Warner/Elektra/Asylum. When we were done eating, they rolled in a large screen and one of the WEA reps announced he wanted to show us some of their new releases. This was more than a year and a half before MTV debuted, and there were very few outlets for music videos on television, so there was more than a bit of anticipation.
The very first thing to hit the screen was “Brass In Pocket,” with Chrissie Hynde playing a lonely waitress in a cafe. Within five seconds of it beginning, there was absolute silence in the BBQ joint and every eye was on her. When it was over, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. When it died down, the WEA rep said, “I’m glad you liked it so much. I look forward to you telling me you’ve added it to your playlists!”
At the time, AOR stations were struggling with new wave bands, being very careful about mixing in artists like Elvis Costello, Blondie, and Joe Jackson with perennial playlist hogs (e.g. Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd) because we weren’t sure how much the audience would accept. Eventually, we included other bands of that genre (e.g. Talking Heads, The Police, The Cars), but at that point, it was limited to just a few.
“Brass In Pocket” changed that. The thinking was that if all of those AOR program directors and music directors responded so positively, maybe listeners would, too — even without seeing Chrissie in the video.
The next morning, I — like my counterparts at Superstars outlets across the country — called the radio station and added the Pretenders single to our highest rotation. By the time I got back two days later, it was our most requested tune (often referred to by listeners who didn’t know better as the “I’m Special” song), and the floodgates were open. With all those call letters reporting airplay for the song, WEA pressured Top 40 stations into playing it, too. Although it never got higher than #14 on the pop charts, the song had a second life once MTV hit the air in August, 1981, and played the hell out of it, too.
Before you knew it, WRCN and other Superstars stations were playing tunes by Duran Duran, Squeeze, and Roxy Music. Sometimes, we had train wreck segues (e.g. following “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels with “Whip It” by Devo), but for the most part, it worked.
All because of one special video shown to the right group of people by one record label at one dinner.