Sunday, March 29, 2009

1974 - The Year of the Weird

I was listening to one of my homemade ‘70s compilation CDs the other day ("Have A Nice Day-Deluxe", as I like to call my little creations) and while cruising the year 1974, I couldn’t help but note the number of odd recordings that wound up being hit records that year.  I mean, we had a singing nun, a little Ragtime, a Canadian defending America with a spoken-word 45, a tribute to James Dean (two, if you count the Eagles' "James Dean"), a hit song with a gorilla chant, an interracial duet about an aborted abortion, a hit single about a Civil War hero, another song with a fake live audience on it and a song about people running around nekkid, among othersall in the same calendar year!  Then again, this was the same year that our President resigned in infamy, Evel Knievel jumped the Snake River Canyon in a homemade rocket-cycle (well, tried to, anyway) and Philippe Petit high-wired between the World Trade Center towers, so what else should one have expected?  So, in that oddball spirit, here’s a little look back at that goofy year in music history.  To paraphrase one of the big hits thereof, “It was weird and it was wonderful…”

"The Joker"—STEVE MILLER BAND  This one was a carryover from late ‘73, with young master Miller posing as any number of aliases—the Gangster of Love, Maurice, the Pompatus of Love (whatever that is) and the Space Cowboy.  What we do know is that he was smoker and a Midnight toker…

"Seasons In The Sun"—TERRY JACKS  One of the all-time biggest sellers for Bell Records this side of the Partridge Family and Tony Orlando & Twilight, this dirge about a poor soul who was dying of some unnamed disease lit up the Billboard charts in early ’74.  We had joy, we had fun, indeed!

"Bennie And The Jets"—ELTON JOHN  “She’s got electric boobs, a Mohair suit…I read it in a magazine…”  Okay, I know the lyric was ‘boots’, b-b-b-b-but this was one of the biggest hits of the year, even with it’s faux live audience.  Late producer wunderkind Gus Dudgeon even admitted that the fake crowd noise was “out of time” with their collective clapping, as is par for the course with a British audience.  It still astounds me to this day that Elton himself thought he left France with a piece-of-crap album after recording Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  Silly Elton…

"The Americans"—BYRON MacGREGOR  Quite possibly the most unlikely hit record in Top 40 history, this was a verbatim re-hash of an early, 1973 spoken-word commentary by legendary Canadian pundit Gordon Sinclair (accompanied by “America The Beautiful” in the background) about how Gordon/Byron was “damned tired of seeing America being kicked around” for all the good the U.S. did for the world at the time.  Even the late Tex Ritter (John’s pappy) took a shot at this little diatribe, but it was the late Mr. MacGregor’s version that went all the way to #4 on the Billboard charts.  “The Americans” was even revived in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, albeit to a much hollower effect…

"Rock On"—DAVID ESSEX  This song has always come across as rather strange to me, for some reason—”See ‘um shake on the movie screen, uh, Jimmy Dean.”  Uhhh, the Sausage King?!?  Okay, dude, whatever, you say…

"I Love"—TOM T. HALL  Any song that pays tribute to little baby ducks scares the bejeezus outta little ol' me…

"Spiders And Snakes"—JIM STAFFORD  Another carryover from the tail-end of ‘73, and a big crossover Country song, to boot.  This song was wrote by David Bellamy of the Bellamy Bros., who was a roadie for Mr. Stafford back in the day before he became famous.

"Hooked On A Feeling"—BLUE SWEDE  I’m curious as to what think-tank came up the “Ooga-Chucka, Ooga-Chucka” chant that embellished this here 1969 B.J. Thomas hit remake.  Whomever it was, it worked, for reasons that remain unexplained to this day…

"The Lord’s Prayer"—SISTER JANET MEAD  Delivered in all earnestness, evidently—Sister Janet duplicated Mr. MacGregor’s success and took this thang all the way to #4 in the Spring of ‘74.  Amen, sistah!

"W.O.L.D."—HARRY CHAPIN/"T.S.O.P."—M.F.S.B.  A couple of hits known by their initials, the former being about an over-the-hill radio DJ (shades of Dr. Johnny Fever?) and the latter being the "Soul Train" theme, all about The Sound Of Philadelphia (performed by Mothers Fathers Sisters Brothers, as the acronym dictated).  The latter also featured the Three Degrees doing the "doot-doot-doodle-e-doos"…

"The Streak"—RAY STEVENS  Oh, yes, they called it great sensation that was sweeping the nation in ‘74—running around in the buff!  I was ten at the time and never witnessed this phenomenon in person, but heard plenty about it on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite, as well as from my older sister, who witnessed a streaker or two on campus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, my future alma-mater.  Don't look, Ethel!

"Billy, Don’t Be A Hero"—BO DONALDSON & THE HEYWOODS  Here’s that Civil War paean I referred to earlier.  What exactly is a Heywood, anyway?

"The Night Chicago Died"—PAPER LACE  Originally recorded by those dreaded aforementioned Heywoods, “The Night Chicago Died” was the one and only hit for Paper Lace, going all the way to #1 in the summer of ‘74.  I always thought it was about the famed fire in Chicago, rather than about Al Capone and his famous vault…

"(You’re) Having My Baby"—PAUL ANKA & ODIA COATES  Man, did this song have all them conservatives shittin' bricks on not one, but two fronts here!  First, there was the whole abortion thing (or in this case, the averted variety), then you had an interracial couple singing all about it—shades of blasphemy in those days!

"Beach Baby"—FIRST CLASS  A bit of nostalgia pastiche in the American Graffiti/”Happy Days” era.  Only problem was that the ‘50s weren’t as fabulous as we‘re made to believe.  A little trivia for you, here, singer Tony Burrows also fronted The Pipkins ("Gimme Dat Ding"), The Brotherhood of Man ("United We Stand"), White Plains ("My Baby Loves Lovin'") and Edison Lighthouse ("Love Grows [Where My Rosemary Goes]'").

"Wild Thing"—FANCY  White Trash Rock ‘N’ Roll rears its ugly head on this insipid remake of the Troggs' classic.  As Jed Clampett was known to utter, “Pity-ful, pity-ful…”

"Sister Mary Elephant"/"Earache My Eye"—CHEECH & CHONG  A pair of Dr. Demento classics that hit the Top 40 in ‘74.  I could easily relate to “Elephant”, given the typical quality of substitute teachers in the Raytown School District.  Even my regular 4th-grade teacher thought this thing was a total hoot!  SHAAADUUUP!!!  “Earache” was the debut of Rock legend Alice Bowie, too…

"Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)"—REUNION  A rapid-fire roll call of Rock ‘N’ Roll legends, both big and small, provided by former Ohio Express vocalist Joey Levine (no relation to the late Irving R. Levine).  Comedienne Tracey Ullman turned in a serviceable remake of this one in 1984.

"Kung Fu Fighting"—CARL DOUGLAS  This hit presaged Miss Piggy by at least two years with its inherent karate chops and “HI-YAAA”s.  It was disco before disco was ever cool.  Come to think of it, was Disco ever cool?!?

"Angie Baby"—HELEN REDDY  Weird song about a weird girl written by Alan O’Day (of “Undercover Angel” fame) that was cause of much conjecture in ‘74.  Did she kill the boy that came into her room?  Did she swallow him whole, or did the radio do it?  Sounded like “Search For Tomorrow” or "The Edge Of Night" territory to me…

"Mandy"—BARRY MANILOW  The first of a continuous steady stream of depressing dreary-weepies from Brother Barry, this sad-sack song checked in at numero uno at the tail-end of '74 and forever cemented Mr. Barry Allan Pinkus into the hearts and minds of American record-buyers.

"The Entertainer"—MARVIN HAMLISCH  Marvin had to reach back 72 years to snag Scott Joplin’s 1902 piano rag, which was part of the soundtrack to the hit film The Sting, starring the late Paul Newman, Robert Redford and the late Robert Shaw.  Our music teacher at Blue Ridge Elementary School was majorly impressed that I even knew who the hell Scott Joplin was way back then…

And little did 4th-grade yours truly know that all the while in 1974, some crazy-ass Rock ’N’ Roll band from New York that wore make-up and incorporated lots of pyro and fire into their live stage show was already in en route to conquering the world and would ultimately become my favorite band of all-time…

5 comments:

RR said...

1974 was one of the more absolutely dreadful years in music. The day of my graduation from high school, "The Streak" was the number one song Foreshadowing anyone? You also forgot "Rock and Roll Heaven" by the Righteous Bros. Ick. But there were some good things about 1974...Rufus..."The Air That I Breathe"..."What Is Hip?"..."Smokin in the Boys Room"...Another Park, Another Sunday".."When Will I See You Again" (one of the best pop songs ever)... etc...and so it goes.

Brian Holland said...

Didn't forget, my man, just plain ran out of room! "Air That I Breathe" and "Smokin'..." were most definitely classics, but not goofy enough to make the list that I was going for.

"R'n'R Heaven" was a close call, tho, with the line about Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and how "Jimmy touched us with that song." Croce was NEVER known as "Jimmy" under ANY circumstances!

Alan said...

Hey Brian,
Nope, Angie didn't kill him. She used him. Weird? Yes, and thanks for the compliment! Hey, I enjoyed the short trip down memory lane.

Chordially,

Alan

dr sardonicus said...

1974 was also the year that "Tubular Bells", "Midnight At The Oasis", "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", "Can't Get Enough", "Sweet Home Alabama", and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" all made Top 10. 'Twas a strange and wonderous time indeed. I remember it as a time that you literally didn't know what was going to come on the radio next.

Trivia which may or may not be useful: There was an unusual amount of singles chart volatility during '74 and '75, as songs moved up and down the Billboard chart in those years faster than at any time since the mid-60's. There were a record 35 #1 singles in 1974, which was matched the next year. There have been no more than 32 #1's in any year ever since. The combined 70 #1 hits for '74-'75 is far and away the most in any two-year period in history. Also, between January 18 and April 5, 1975, there was a different chart-topper for 12 straight weeks, another record that stands to this day.

At the other end of the chart, ZZ Top's "La Grange" spent 26 weeks in the Hot 100 in 1974, yet climbed no higher than #41. That set a record for most weeks in the charts without making the Top 40 which I also believe endures to this day. One of the last great regional hits, "La Grange" was #1 on Texas radio for six weeks, and almost all of its chart strength came from sales and airplay in the South and Southwest.

Brian Holland said...

The good doctor has been doing his homework! Thanks for the info, bro!