Forgettable. Regrettable. Nausea inducing. Nineteen seventy-four was a year I lived through, and musically, it wasn’t pretty.
Once in a while, I like to remind my colleagues here at REBEAT (and readers as well), who sometimes tend to romanticize the 1970s, that though there were high points, the music and fashion that decade produced was by and large pretty dreadful. With that in mind, I want to offer a list of the #1 hits of 1974 — as bad a group of chart toppers as was ever assembled.
The idea that 1974 was the worst year in the history of modern music is certainly not a new one, and maybe you’ve heard about the year’s bad musical reputation before. A list of the #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 that year paints a pretty accurate picture of popular musical tastes in 1974, but I thought I’d go a little further and actually comment on some of the wretched music that reigned supreme that year. One of the arguments offered in support of how bad that year was musically is that few if any songs stayed at #1 more than a week, the idea being that they were all the hits of the moment and had no real long term value. It’s a fact that there were more different #1 songs that year than any year before or since, and the few that did stay at the #1 position for more than a week tend to offer compelling evidence that it was a dreadful year indeed.
But I’ll let the songs do the talking for me. Let’s take a look.
First, the so-called “best songs of the year”:
These four songs stayed at the #1 position on the charts the longest, a mere three weeks:
- “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand
- “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks
- “The Streak” by Ray Stevens
- “You’re Having My Baby” by Paul Anka
I could probably stop right here and still make a pretty compelling case for how bad 1974 was musically. The biggest hits of 1974 were two adult contemporary songs better suited for a Vegas cocktail lounge than a popular music concert, a cornball novelty record about half-wits who see a naked man running through various public venues, and a cover version of a French song about death. Think about being at a party and the buzz-killing effect that any one of these would have on the room. It really and truly doesn’t get much worse than these four songs, and I can’t imagine any year in modern musical history where the year’s biggest hits were all this bad. Consequently, I can dismiss these with a collective wave of the hand, like emptying a litter box that the cat used four times. Disgusting.
Next, the songs that had a two-week run at the top of the charts:
5. “TSOP” by MFSB Featuring the Three Degrees – This song, which was basically an instrumental overlaid with backing vocals, was the only chart record by this group of roughly 30 studio musicians. The song is best known as the Soul Train theme. So-so, but nothing special.
6. “The Loco·Motion” by Grand Funk – The song that confirmed for everyone that Grand Funk had sold out. From the group that once did songs such as “Closer to Home,” “Mean Mistreater,” “I Want Freedom,” and others, we were now getting Little Eva covers? Oh, the disappointment.
7. “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods – One of those songs that a lot people use as an example of how bad the ’70s really were. The group was not a one-hit wonder — they did chart once more — but they didn’t make much of an impression beyond this song either. And this song was the worst kind of ’70s schmaltz.
8. “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae – Far from the worst song on this list, but as I’ve written before, a song that KC wrote and decided wasn’t right for the Sunshine Band. McCrae wasn’t a lasting presence — he only had one more chart record.
9. “Annie’s Song” by John Denver – While I’m not as dismissive of Denver as are many modern listeners and critics, I wasn’t into that “gosh darned/golly gee, I’m a wholesome rube” routine of his. I think it’s also telling that eight of his 15 Top 40 hits — this one included — were also #1 on the adult-contemporary charts. As a teenager in 1974, I wasn’t buying into it. His music just wasn’t hip.
10. “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton·John – I was never a big fan because this wasn’t the type of music I was into. Her first chart record was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” which was pretty good, but after that, the likes of “Please Mister Please,” “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me Let Me Know” told me the train was heading down the wrong track.
11. “I Can Help” by Billy Swan – Oh boy. One of those country-crossover songs that’s only listenable because it’s fun to make fun of — if that makes sense.
12. “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas – Only in the ’70s could an homage to a television show about a guy who goes around beating up bad guys using Chinese martial arts (Kung Fu) reach #1. But this did.
Finally, the remaining #1s that year:
What makes this group different is that mixed in among the one-hit wonders are some classic acts. The recordings they offered may not necessarily be Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-caliber songs, but some of these artists are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-caliber talent. All of these songs were #1 for just one week — which, in theory, somehow makes them worse than the songs that were on top for two or three weeks. I’m not sure that’s possible.
13. “Time In A Bottle” by Jim Croce – The last #1 of 1973 and the first of 1974. Jim Croce had a pretty good run in ’72 and ’73 before his death in a plane crash late that year, but for every good song he did, such as “Operator” and “I’ve Got a Name,” he did one of those badass-country-boy “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” types. This treacly song falls somewhere in between.
14. “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band – Kind of a dumb song by an overrated band. It’s hard to believe this was the first of three #1s they had. As in, it’s hard to believe they actually had three #1s.
15. “Show and Tell” by Al Wilson – Over a roughly 10-year period, Al Wilson had just four Top 40 songs, and this was the only one that rose above the 20s. I think it benefited from being released during a period when R&B adult-oriented love songs were all the rage. He can probably thank Bill Withers, Gladys Knight, Robert Flack, and Billy Paul for that. This is pretty forgettable.
16. “You’re Sixteen” by Ringo Starr – After three excellent chart records as a solo artist — “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Back Off Boogaloo,” and then “Photograph” — it looked like Ringo was going to shake that goofy image and get the artistic respect that Paul, John, and George did. But it was 1974, after all, and instead, he offered up a Johnny Burnette cover featuring a kazoo, which was definitely not the way to go. Number one or not, in Ringo’s catalog, it ranks down there with the “No No Song.”
17. “Love’s Theme” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra – A nice song by Barry White’s orchestra, but the fact that the first decent song we’ve come to on this list is an instrumental says a lot about the kind of year 1974 was.
18. “Dark Lady” by Cher – Cher’s two previous #1 songs in the 1970s — “Gypsy’s Tramps and Thieves” and “Half Breed” — tell you all you need to know about musical tastes during that decade. Maybe the best thing you can say about this song is it wasn’t quite as memorably bad as the other two. But it was very, very close.
19. “Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver – See “Annie’s Song” above. This is far worse.
20. “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede – A somewhat different take on B.J. Thomas’s 1968 original, this song was most recognizable for the semi-obnoxious “ooga chaka” chant that makes an appearance in the song periodically. It has become a well-known song over time and was certainly one of the most memorable tunes of the 1970s.
21. “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John – Elton John’s career had been picking up steam since 1972, but over the course of 11 US single releases, only “Crocodile Rock” had reached the top of the charts. After this release from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, four of his next eight records would hit #1, so in many ways it was a landmark record for an artist who produced some quality music during the mid ’70s.
22. “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings – Amazing — three decent songs in a row. This was the title cut from McCartney’s first really solid album, where pretty much every cut was great. I’m more of a Venus and Mars fan myself, but this is a fairly representative song from a very good album.
23. “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot – In many ways, Canadian crooner Gordon Lightfoot was a lot like Jim Croce. He occasionally did a good song — such as “If You Could Read My Mind” — but charted with a few real dogs, too (listen, if you dare, to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”). Like Croce, his 1974 output in terms of this #1 was somewhere in between the two extremes.
24. “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation – This is often considered the first real disco record to hit #1, and indeed, it’s a claim that’s hard to dispute. It was light, airy, danceable, and about as substantive as cotton candy. It’s innocuous though, and considering most of this line up, that counts for a lot.
25. “Feel Like Making Love” by Robert Flack – Honestly, this may well be the one really solid classic song to come out of this year. Written by the great Gene McDaniels, it sounds as fresh today as it did then.
26. “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace – Paper Lace was actually the group that took “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” to #1 in England before the Heywoods did the same in the US. Shouldn’t there be some special punishment for a group that did two songs that horrible? Of course, then we’d have to also punish 1974 listmates Cher, Helen Reddy, John Denver, Steve Miller, Paul Anka, Barbara Streisand, and Ray Stevens for their collective work as well. Despite recording this terrible song, even Paper Lace doesn’t deserve inclusion with that bunch. And this song is really, really bad.
27. “I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton – A Bob Marley song covered by Eric Clapton has to be a winner, right? Well, it’s okay, but the fact that it hit #1 while previous Clapton releases such as “Layla,” “After Midnight,” and “Bell Bottom Blues” didn’t do nearly as well says a lot, again, about the year that was 1974.
28. “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” by Barry White – There are few artists that have such a distinctive style that they don’t even have imitators, but Barry White had the deep bass/sensuous/erotic category of music all to himself. I’ve spent a lot of time running down the year’s music, but allow me to give credit where credit is due — this is a good song.
29. “Rock Me Gently” by Andy Kim – Andy Kim had occasional moments of brilliance as a performer — “Baby I Love You”(#9, 1969) is a great song — and just the fact that he co-wrote the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” should have guaranteed people would never forget him. But when this song came out, he hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in three years, and so this revived his career for a while. It’s an okay song, but sounds so much like Neil Diamond that most people think it’s part of Diamond’s catalog.
30. “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston – Oddly enough, today Billy Preston may be best known today as the man who was referred to as “the fifth Beatle” for his work on Let It Be and for the fact that John Lennon actually floated the idea that Preston be allowed to join the group in 1969. He had a prolific solo career, however, and this was his second #1 record after 1973’s “Will It Go Round in Circles.” “Nothing from Nothing” was one of 1973’s more solid #1 hits.
32. “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick & the Spinners – The Spinners were one of the biggest groups of the 1970s and very popular at the time of this collaboration. However, this would be their first and only #1 Billboard pop hit, and similarly, this would be Warwick’s first #1 hit as well (she’d never have one singing solo). Their vocal styles mesh well, and it’s a good song, though both the Spinners and Warwick had individual efforts that were far better.
33. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” by Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder did some great songs, including “Superstition,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Sir Duke,” and many, many more. He’s had nearly 30 records reach the Billboard Pop Top 10, and of his 10 to hit #1, this is probably the most forgettable. Not bad, just not as instantly memorable as many of the others. Can you sing it off the top of your head?
34. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachman Turner Overdrive – The chart performance of this song ranks among the strangest in history. Usually a song climbs the charts, peaks, then eases back down. This song seemed determined to live up to its name, as it hit #1, dropped to #12, and then to #34, which was a substantial drop. Then it jumped back into the Top 10 for a couple of weeks before sliding down again. Though BTO had some solid singles in ’74 and ’75, this song was the pinnacle of their success.
35. “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” by John Lennon feat. Elton John – First Ringo, then Paul, now John — if only George, who had already had two #1s before 1974, would have had a single hit #1 it would have been quite a year! Actually, this was Lennon’s first #1 as a solo artist, as “Imagine” surprisingly didn’t top the charts. It’s not close to his best work though; too much of the frenetic yelling and caterwauling that indicates Yoko probably had a strong hand in it.
36. “Cat’s In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin – Though a bit depressing for my tastes, it’s probably the most iconic song on this list. Want to be a good dad? Don’t do what the guy in the song did. Maybe 1974 did leave us with one moral lesson after all.
37. “Angie Baby” by Helen Reddy – In classic 1974 style, the year ended with a #1 song by an artist who brought us the likes of “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress),” “Delta Dawn,” and other songs that were the absolute dregs of ’70s pop. This song ranks right down there with those. A fitting end to a horrible year in music.
These were just the songs that hit #1 that year, but let me leave you with one final thought: the Top 100 songs of the year also featured non-#1 gems such as “One Hell of a Woman by Mac Davis, “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Muldaur, “The Entertainer” by Marvin Hamlisch, “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead, “You and Me Against the World” by Helen Reddy, “Rock and Roll Heaven” by the Righteous Brothers, and the trifecta of “Spiders and Snakes,” “Wildwood Weed,” and “My Girl Bill” by Jim Stafford. Bad taste all around.
Remember, these are my opinions, not REBEAT’s, and I don’t expect everyone to agree. After all — someone bought those 11 million copies of “Kung Fu Fighting” that sold worldwide.