Last month I wrote the first installment of a new feature for me here on REBEAT, “The Year in Schmaltzy, Crappy, Cringe-Inducing Music,” in which I will take a look at some of the really bad music for randomly selected years in the 1960s and ’70s. Since I laid down the rationale for doing this and the ground rules for inclusion in last month’s look at 1972, let’s get right to the dreck, shall we?
Welcome to 1976. Believe me when I say I’m not trying to pontificate when I make this comment, but 1976 was a year when you really had to “be there” to understand how and why some of this garbage charted. Disco was in full swing, as was the CB radio craze, and – well, there really is no good reason I can think of to explain why “Muskrat Love” charted so I won’t try. But suffice it to say that there was a lot of really bad music that year, and like last month, we’re going to look at the worst of the worst.
“Disco Duck,” Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots (Billboard Pop #1)
The fact that this record even charted, much less made it to #1, is part of the reason that people are so dismissive of the music of the 1970s. It combines the worst qualities of two highly questionable genres – disco music and novelty records. Although I wasn’t a big fan of disco at the time, over the years I’ve realized some of it was actually pretty good music. I also suppose that occasionally there must have been some decent novelty records, though right now I’m having a hard time thinking of one. But this song is neither good disco nor good novelty. It was the “brainchild” of Memphis DJ Rick Dees, and while it’s not a surprise that it found some kind of audience, I still think it’s amazing that it hit #1. And it wasn’t just Americans who had questionable taste in 1976: it reached the top 10 in Canada, Australia, the UK, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and a host of other countries. In this case I guess bad taste was international in its scope.
If you can listen to this without cringing I don’t know what that says about you. It is a painful experience.
“Convoy,” C.W. McCall (Billboard Pop #1)
Speaking of novelty records, stupid songs, and cringe-worthy songs that went to #1, here’s another one. And speaking of bad, and I mean really bad, this one takes the cake.
This song was released in 1975 and hit the top position in 1976, but I don’t think any rationale can really explain why it hit #1. In fact, it’s pretty hard to explain anything about this song to anyone today, because for public use I think the CB radio has gone the way of the eight-track player, the 45 rpm record, and the public pay phone booth. But back in the ’70s, for some unknown reason, regular people started buying CB radios for their cars, started wearing “Peterbilt” trucker hats (though that may have been some Freudian issue), and got into the whole truck-driver-lingo thing (10-4 good buddy!). This song is filled with language that made very little sense unless you were a truck driver, but once again, it took the country and world by storm. Another #1 in the US, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and more.
“Muskrat Love,” The Captain and Tennille (Billboard Pop #4)
You might be thinking “At least things weren’t so bad in 1976 that this song hit #1 too.” But it kinda did, going to #1 on the adult contemporary charts and in Canada.
I get the first two songs on this list. I’m sure Dees and McCall knew those were basically one-off novelty records and that they weren’t the Beatles or anything, so in brilliant marketing moves they seized the moment and made boatloads of money with their dumb songs. But the Captain and Tennille were actually pretty popular during the ’70s (though not with me, I swear). They had a little more than a half dozen Top 10 records and a couple of #1’s, and pretty much epitomized adult contemporary music. There was a lot of that during the ’70s, with John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow, The Carpenters, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Helen Reddy, and so on. It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t soul — it was just music you heard your parents listening to. Those were difficult times for a teenager!
This song epitomizes ’70s schmaltz, and I dare you to watch the video all the way through and not ask yourself “what the hell is this crap?” Interestingly enough, the song was originally an album-cut by the group America, of “Horse With No Name” fame. The story goes that they liked the song, and although their label begged them not to release it as a single they did anyway (you know that if a label says you shouldn’t release a record when there’s even a slight possibility that it might make even a dollar profit, it has to be bad). America wasn’t exactly Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, and were borderline adult contemporary anyway, but at least they had that kind of hippieish-acoustic-southwestern feel to their music. That being said, it probably fit the Captain and Tennille’s catalog better than America’s, but it was a horrible song no matter who recorded it.
“Afternoon Delight,” The Starland Vocal Band, (Billboard Pop #1)
I’m probably going to lose even the small modicum of credibility I may have with some REBEAT readers for saying this, but I don’t really think this song is anywhere near as bad as the other five songs here. I include it because I’m guessing that my opinion puts me in the minority, as so, so, so many people seem to really hate this song. But it has a nice harmony and is well produced, and it just has a very positive vibe.
For a song about afternoon sex, it seemed to appeal to a very broad audience, hitting #1 in the US and Canada and winning two Grammys. The group very quickly became the rage of the moment, landing their own variety show on CBS in 1977. None of it lasted though – they never even had another Top 40 hit, and the television show ended after a half dozen episodes,
Two members of the group, Bill Danoff (who wrote “Afternoon Delight”) and his soon-to-be-wife-at-the-time-and-now-ex-wife Taffy Nivert, co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with John Denver, and based on that alone I’m sure they have lived well enough off the royalties that, with or without the Starland Vocal Band, they did okay after all.
“The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot (Billboard Pop #2)
I generally reach for low hanging fruit when picking these songs, because there probably aren’t a lot of people around now that like the previous songs on this list, and fewer still would admit it. This selection may ruffle a few feathers.
I hate this song. Now that I’ve said that, let me give credit where credit is due. Gordon Lightfoot is often considered Canada’s greatest songwriter, and he did a few songs I’m okay with (“Sundown,” “Carefree Highway”) and one I actually like (“If You Could Read My Mind”), but overall he’s a bit too folksy for me. I think that’s what he shoots for, honestly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I just find this to be a putrid song all around, no matter what the genre. It’s one of those songs, like the one below, that just works too hard to make the lyrics rhyme. Lightfoot supposedly admitted changing some of the details of the source story to actually make the lyrics work. Maybe that comes across or something.
Speaking of the source story, the song is about a shipwreck that took place on Lake Superior in 1975, and while I’m sure the song was a nice memorial, we aren’t talking the Titanic or the Lusitania here. I’ve also read that Lightfoot considers this song his best work. Whatever.
Every month my bonus selection will be by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member (or at least a significant headliner), which is generally a contrast to the other selections, which are often (but not always) performed by one-hit wonders and an assortment of artists it’s not always easy to take too seriously. Last month it was “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry, this month it’s:
“Take the Money and Run,” The Steve Miller Band (Billboard #11)
In the interest of fairness I’ll admit I’ve never been a big Steve Miller Band fan, but much of that is due to the insipid nature of this song. Every time I heard it, I had the feeling that they simply wanted to build a song around that “hoo, hoo” they sing over and over because they liked singing it.
The lyrics are bottom of the barrel, and the song has some of the most contrived and forced rhymes I’ve ever heard.
“They headed down to, ooh, old El Paso
That’s where they ran into a great big hassle
Billy Joe shot a man while robbing his castle”
Rhyming “El Paso,” “hassle,” and “castle,” well – move over Shakespeare.
“Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
He ain’t gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his living off of the people’s taxes”
Now I’m not sure which of those words are supposed to rhyme. “Texas” and “facts is,” and/or “taxes”? How does “justice” fit in?
The fact is this is a dumb, dumb song about a couple of stoned losers who rob a house, shoot a man, but get away and are lauded by Miller like some kind of folk heroes. I’m not sure this type of song would make it today, because we are a lot more sensitive about random shootings than we were in 1976 – strange as that may seem. But it’s always been a bad song, and the arbitrary attempts at rhyming make it even more painful to hear today.
That’s it for this month. I’ll have more for you next month, when I pick some other random year and see what we can scrape up.