You don’t hear Air Supply’s hits on classic rock radio and you’d probably have a problem getting, say, an AC/DC or Black Sabbath fan to admit liking the Australian group’s music. Such is the guilt inherent to guilty pleasures, silly as that is.

But you can’t knock the fact that the band’s chief members have been performing and recording for 45 years, playing thousands of shows in that time to audiences of all sizes and at one time the group had a string of seven Top 5 singles in the U.S. The people who remember those songs (and who love them – love being a key term in the Air Supply canon) still pay to see them, and some bring with them younger folks who become fans, extending the band’s listenership to yet another generation.

Air Supply’s highest-charting studio album was released 40 years ago, in 1981 – a milestone for one of the biggest bands of the early '80s, and a circumstance many around the group in its early days would likely have thought impossible.

Air Supply is built around the nexus of songwriter and guitarist Graham Russell and lead singer Russell Hitchcock, who met on the set of an Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1975. Their connection was fortuitous – Russell was a songwriter looking for the right voice for his material, and Hitchcock was a bit player in the musical who was largely overlooked.

“[Hitchcock], in fact, was a soldier in Superstar for six months,” Russell told the TV show Cover Story in 1985. “In the second act, they don’t say a word. He had this vinyl suit on, from top to bottom, all zipped up; even his head piece was zipped in. He used to carry this huge wooden spear around, and he didn’t say anything. One day, they gave him a break from it, to get out of the suit. And he sang the second half of the show, and he blew everybody away.”

Listen to 'Love and Other Bruises' by Air Supply

The duo put a band together with, among others, future Divinyls bassist Jeremy Paul and guitarist Mark McEntee, and in late 1976 scored an Australian Top 10 hit (“Love and Other Bruises”) and saw their self-titled debut album go gold. Air Supply opened for Rod Stewart on his 1977 tour of Australia, the U.S. and Canada, but came back home at the end of the tour to very little fanfare, eventually compelling everyone but Hitchcock and Russell to find other gigs.

The pair weathered two years of the indignities most starving musicians experience – Hitchcock moved back in with his parents, Russell resorted to searching for loose change in couch cushions to buy food, etc. In 1979 the two recruited a new group of musicians and recorded the Russell composition “Lost in Love,” which lifted Air Supply back into the Australian Top 20.

Listen to 'Lost in Love' by Air Supply

Record industry mogul and then-chairman of Arista Records Clive Davis heard “Lost in Love” and signed the band to his label. Released internationally in January 1980, “Lost in Love” was a global hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the U.S. Russell recalled in a 2015 interview with Broadway World how important Davis was to the band’s new lease on life.

“Clive Davis was instrumental in our success worldwide,” Russell noted, “and left no stone unturned in making sure we were positioned to succeed at the topmost level. Looking back, we did have a sound that was fresh and different, and it was a plus that we were from Australia and music was ready for a new sound for a new decade. When I saw 'Lost in Love' climbing the charts worldwide, I couldn't believe that not only did we have an enormous hit on our hands but also it would be the first of many to come.”

Air Supply’s 1980 album, also titled Lost in Love, did indeed yield more hits, particularly in the U.S. – “All Out of Love” topped out at No. 2 (stuck behind a Diana Ross song and "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen) and “Every Woman in the World” peaked at No. 5. Air Supply supported the record by touring. And touring. And touring.

Listen to 'All Out of Love' by Air Supply

“To give them an image, we toured them [in the U.S.] three times in 12 months,” their then-manager Fred Bestall told Billboard in 1981. “We played colleges as well as auditoriums and fairs. We toured them so much purposely to give them an image other than a band that sings nice ballads. … We’ve gone back to those markets again to re-establish that they are a good live band.”

The momentum worked. With a head of steam and a brace of new songs, the band entered a Sydney studio with one-time David Bowie producer Harry Maslin to record Lost in Love’s follow-up, The One That You Love, which was released in July 1981.

The album’s title track moves from a barely audible beginning to a powerhouse close, displaying the full range of Hitchcock’s voice in a little over four minutes. And, as Russell remembers, Hitchcock’s performance was captured in a single take.

Listen to 'The One That You Love' by Air Supply

“There’s just an energy and a fire and a passion, and Russell had that,” he told the podcast Misplaced Straws. “It was just incredible to hear it ... In those days, that’s how you recorded; everything was live. There were no tuning machines in those days. You sang the song from top to bottom; that’s the way it was.”

“The One That You Love” was released in April 1981 and in its eleventh week on the Billboard Hot 100, it hit No. 1 – the band’s only single to achieve that status.

There were more hits to come – both “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and “Sweet Dreams” hit No. 5, extending Air Supply’s consecutive Top 5 singles streak to six. “Sweet Dreams,” in particular, had a spacey intro with guitar arpeggios, strings, dramatic piano chords and maybe even some martian instrumentation someone had to learn to play. The song’s success surprised Russell.

Listen to 'Sweet Dreams' by Air Supply

“I had no concept that that was ever going to be a single,” he admitted to Songfacts. “I just thought, ‘Oh, I've got free rein here, I don't have to particularly write a hit song, I can just do something that I want and that I think would be great for the band.’ But when Clive [Davis] heard it, he was all over it. So I was very surprised then. But I think now I've learned to distinguish certain songs from others.”

The hits on The One That You Love were complemented by some fine deep cuts. Hitchcock and Russell’s voices on the chorus of the rocking opener “Don’t Turn Me Away” lock together tightly; “I Want to Give It All” (the B-side of the “The One That You Love” single) is all quiet power – a perfectly arranged blend of voice, guitar and strings. “Keeping the Love Alive” could have been a fourth Top 5 from the album, had it been released as a single, so stately and radio-ready was its chorus.

Listen to 'Keeping the Love Alive' by Air Supply

The One That You Love hit No. 10 on the Billboard 200 albums chart – Air Supply’s only studio album to make it to the U.S. Top 10 (though their 1983 Greatest Hits record would surpass it, peaking at No. 7). It was a level of success for the band once again foretold by Davis, upon hearing the final mix of the record.

“That was a very important moment because it was our second album,” Russell recalled to podcaster Harvey Brownstone. “We’d had three Top 5s [from Lost in Love] so … we had to impress him. … He was in the studio and he was sitting right at the console on his own and we were all behind him. He listened back to the final mix of The One That You Love and we were going, ‘Oh God; [we] hope he likes it.’

“And after it was finished,” Russell continued, “he didn’t say anything for two minutes, and that’s an eternity. And then he turned around to us and he said, ‘It’s going to go to No. 1 and it’ll win you a Grammy.’ And we were like [breathes sigh of relief].”

The One That You Love was snubbed by the Grammys, much as Air Supply themselves were ignored by the fledgling video channel MTV (“They never played us one time,” Russell once noted. “I’m dead serious, never”) and “hip” rock press like Spin (where they placed No. 8 in the magazine’s inaugural reader’s poll’s “Worst Band of All Time” list, between the Bee Gees and REO Speedwagon).

None of that matters in the long run. Death stole two of the Bee Gees from the world, but Barry Gibb still performs; REO Speedwagon still headlines tours every summer; Poison (the “Worst Band” list-topper) is set to be a part of the biggest stadium tour in the country next year, if it ever gets off the ground.

Air Supply’s career has lasted 45 years; the band plays more than 100 dates a year (when there's not a pandemic to keep everyone home) to paying audiences who sing along with every song – from a collection of tunes that have wound their way into people’s lives, their personal soundtracks. Songs that have been their voice when they couldn’t form the words themselves.

“What we say in our music,” Graham Russell told VH1, “people want to say to each other, but we say it for them.”

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