Saturday, May 30, 2015

Stuck in the ’70s: Picking apart the 50 biggest hits of the decade

Excuse me. I'm about to geek out again. What am I obsessing over now? A meeting of two of my favorite things: 1970s music and a marathon Casey Kasem countdown. This one is a very special American Top 40 flashback from 1980 in which Casey counted down the Top 50 hits of the '70s.

What a decade...musically, my all-time favorite. Sorry, '80s fanatics. That decade had its moments (particularly the new wave and post-disco soul of 1980-82 and alternative rock), but the slick, polished mid-to-late '80s pop sound, which generally emphasized production over substance, just hasn't aged as well. The proof is in a 1986 American Top 40 countdown that I recently cringed through.

I'm still trying to process the '70s Top 50 after four listens, and there's no better way to organize a countdown in my head than to write about it. So here goes…

George, Art and Paul X 2… I've always tended to think of The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel as strictly '60s acts, but not so fast. Like Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Paul Simon is represented on the countdown in two incarnations -- solo, with "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," No. 48, and with Art Garfunkel, on "Bridge over Troubled Water," No. 2. It's always struck me as interesting that Simon's biggest post-Simon & Garfunkel success and his only solo No. 1 sounds less like a Paul Simon song than any of his other hits. When I was a kid, I could have sworn it was by some black guy! And despite the African influences that colored his later work, Paul Simon is nothing if not white as snow.

Today "50 Ways" sounds more dated to me than vintage Simon generally does, which might have more to do with its ubiquity when I was about six years old than with the production of the record. As for "Bridge," I've always been more about Aretha's 1971 cover, but until Casey Kasem educated me, I had no idea that it's basically a Garfunkel solo track written by Simon.

Hail Canada...again... The Guess Who was like a Canadian Hollies -- a second-tier band whose hits spanned both the '60s and '70s but with completely different sounds in each decade. Can the same group possibly be responsible for both "These Eyes" and "American Woman" (No. 38)? How come I never noticed until now how similar "American Woman" is to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love"? That they were released mere months apart ("Love" in November of 1969 and "Woman" in January of 1970) must mean the similarities were purely coincidental. Right?

What happened to '70s classic rock? "American Woman" aside, classic rock is sorely underrepresented in the decade's Top 50. No appearances by Grand Funk Railroad, The Steve Miller Band, or The Doobie Brothers, all of whom had a pair of '70s No. 1s. Even Paul McCartney, the hardest-rocking ex-Beatle, is represented by his considerably softer side, via "My Love" (No. 28) and "Silly Love Songs" (No. 17).

Elton rocks… So "Crocodile Rock" (No. 36) was Elton John's biggest hit of the '70s? Odd. Is that the first song anyone thinks of when they think of Elton? Interestingly, though, the bulk of Elton's '70s No. 1s were uptempo pop-rockers ("Bennie and the Jets," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Island Girl," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," No. 44), though Elton is probably better known for mournful piano songs like "Daniel," "Rocket Man" and "Your Song."

Those uptempo ones have aged quite well, though. They sound better now than I remember them sounding when I was a kid. I used to hate "Crocodile Rock." Now I can listen to the entire thing without being tempted to turn it off. I'd still rather hear "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," though.

Beatlemania continues… Wow. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" (No. 15) was the biggest hit by an ex-Beatle in the '70s. Does that make him the ex-Beatle with the biggest solo single overall? I think it's pretty safe to assume that John Lennon's six-weeks-at-No. 1 "(Just Like) Starting Over" and Paul McCartney's seven-weeks-at-No. 1 "Ebony and Ivory" and six-weeks-at-No. 1 "Says Say Say" surpassed the '70s success of "My Sweet Lord" in the '80s.

Family feud… Hmm... The Osmonds' biggest '70s hit ("One Bad Apple," No. 11) was bigger than The Jackson 5's ("I'll Be There," No. 19). Who knew? I have to admit, I prefer "One Bad Apple" to that particular Jacksons track.

Rod's triple… When Rod Stewart hit No. 1, he really hit No. 1. Each of his three chart-toppers made the Top 50 ("Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," No. 35, "Maggie May," No. 13, and "Tonight's the Night," No. 6). In fact, only the Bee Gees had more songs in the '70s Top 50 (more on them later). But here's the odd thing about Stewart's '70s run. Aside from his three chart-toppers (all good songs, none essential to my listening pleasure), he had only one other Top 10 '70s single, "You're in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)," which hit No. 4 and is my favorite of the quartet.

Motown's '70s… Then there's Diana Ross, whose four '70s No. 1s were her only Top 10s of the decade. Of her chart-topping quartet, only "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (No. 30) made the decade's Top 50.

With the exception of Ross and The Jackson 5, no Motown acts placed in the decade's Top 50, not Marvin Gaye, The Temptations or The Miracles (each of whom scored two No. 1s in the '70s) and not…

...Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder! Where's Stevie Wonder? He had five No. 1 singles in the 1970s and not one of them ranks among the decade's 50 biggest hits? I demand a recount!

Where is the soul?... There's a noticeable dearth of soul men in the Top 50. Unless you're going to count Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" (No. 26) as soul just because he's black, Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" (No. 45) is the only song sung blue by a male soul soloist (i.e., a single black male) on the countdown. There's no Al Wilson, no Al Green, no Barry White, no Isaac Hayes, no Edwin Starr -- and they all went to No. 1 in the '70s.

Also shut out… The Eagles, who also had five '70s No. 1s; John Denver, who had four; and The Rolling Stones, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Cher, and Helen Reddy, all of whom had three.

Speaking of no Denver hits... Country music's lone representative in the '70s Top 50 is Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" (No. 41), which means country-crossover No. 1s by BJ Thomas, Charlie Rich, Freddie Fender, Billy Swan, Mac Davis, Anne Murray, and Glen Campbell are nowhere to be heard.

Speaking of no Glen Campbell, a number of other artists who had two No. 1 singles in the '70s didn't make the list… The Staple Singers, Jim Croce, Ringo Starr, Neil Sedaka, Michael Jackson solo, and Frankie Valli -- though The Four Seasons slipped in with "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" at No. 42.

Comeback kings... The '70s were great to returning pop and rock vets from previous eras. Like Neil Sedaka and Frankie Valli, Sammy Davis Jr., Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, and Johnny Mathis all reached the Hot 100 summit, but of all the resurgent stars, only The Four Seasons made the final 50.
In fact, perhaps not so surprisingly, the '70s Top 50 is dominated by quintessentially '70s acts, which might help explain Motown's near shut-out. (By contrast, two of the '80s biggest hits -- Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie's "Endless Love" -- were by acts who were prominent in the '70s.)

Other '60s acts that missed the Top 50 despite topping Billboard's Hot 100 in the '70s: Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, The 5th Dimension's Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, Dionne Warwick, Janis Joplin, and Herb Alpert.

Nonsense song… According to Dewey Bunnell, the member of America who wrote the then-trio's first and biggest hit, "A Horse with No Name" (No. 22), the song is about absolutely nothing. That would make it the '70s musical forerunner of Seinfeld.

Disco dud… Though it was the decade of disco, there are actually fewer disco songs than I expected in the '70s Top 50. Aside from Andy Gibb's two entries ("I Just Want to Be Your Everything," No. 40, and "Shadow Dancing," No. 12), two of Bee Gees four ("Night Fever," No. 16, and "Staying Alive," No. 9), Donna Summer's two ("Hot Stuff," No. 33, and"Bad Girls," No. 24), and Rod Stewart's "Sexy" disco turn, the genre is represented only by Gloria Gaynor (with "I Will Survive," No. 37), The Emotions ("Best of My Love," No. 20), and Chic (with "Le Freak," No. 18). That means none of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's five No. 1s made the cut.

M.I.A.… It also means Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady" missed. That's actually fairly suspicious, considering that it was a HUGE hit that spent four weeks at the top and was Billboard's No. 3 Hot 100 single of 1976. The Four Seasons' aforementioned "December 1963" was the No. 4 hit of 1976, so how did it make the list and not "Disco Lady"?

WTH?… If, as Casey says, "Le Freak" was the biggest disco song of all time, why is it lower on the list than "Night Fever," "Staying Alive" and "Shadow Dancing"?

Bee Gees revelation… Before listening to this countdown, I would have called "Staying Alive" Bee Gees signature song and "Night Fever" their biggest hit. After all, it spent a whopping eight weeks at the top. But the trio's biggest hit was actually "How Deep Is Your Love" (No. 8), which spent 17 weeks in the Top 10 and FOREVER on the chart.

Hello, '80s… The Knack's "My Sharona" (No. 9) is the most '80s-sounding hit in the '70s Top 50.

No thanks… I've never cared for Don McClean's "American Pie" (No. 7). It might be my least favorite song in the Top 50. As much as I love Three Dog Night, I've never been a fan of "Joy to the World" (No. 3) either. (Fun fact: "Jeremiah was a bullfrog," the opening line of "Joy," gave me one of my childhood nicknames, "Bullfrog.")

All by myself… Before listening to Casey count down the biggest hits of the '70s, I never would have guessed that the biggest one by a foreign act would be Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" (No. 5). It might very well be my favorite song in the Top 10, closely followed by "My Sharona" and then "How Deep Is Your Love."

Built to last… Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (No. 4) might be the most durable song in the Top 10, a true pop standard. It's still being sung by singers who were born decades -- DECADES! -- after it hit.

M.I.A. II… Where is James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend"? Fun fact: The Taylor-sung cover of the Carole King Tapestry track entered Billboard's Top 40 the same week in 1971 that the King-sung Tapestry track "It's Too Late" (No. 14) slipped into the No. 1 position for the first of five weeks. Taylor's wife-to-be Carly Simon was also in the Top 40 that week with her debut, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be." I would have expected her signature "You're So Vain" -- one of the first pop songs I can remember ever hearing -- to be higher than No. 29.

Love of "Life"... For a decade that was so heavy on one-hit-wonder No. 1s, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the biggest hit of the decade, "You Light up My Life," was sung by one-hitter Debby Boone.

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