I recently argued that 1968 was the greatest year in pop music; you can make the case that maybe it was 1967 or 1969, but there’s no debate that the late sixties were pretty terrific.
So it’s shocking to consider that just eight years later we had what is probably the worst year in pop music. I had completely forgotten how bad it was until I listened to Chris Molanphy reviewing the number one hits of 1976 on Slate’s “The Gist” podcast. I listened to the podcast with growing incredulity as one terrible song followed another. The year was full of novelty songs, easy listening hits and disco-influenced garbage.
How did this happen? First of all, it’s important to mention that every year — even 1968 (remember “Honey“?) — has its share of schlock. But 1976 was impressive for being dominated by schlock. (Here are the top 100 songs of the year.)
It’s easy to point to contemporary events to explain the artistic output of an era, and in 1976 the U.S. was coming out of a bad time, with Watergate, the Vietnam War, gas shortages, inflation and a lousy economy still fresh in people’s mind. Arguably, the consequence could have been a turn to mindless music.
Then too, there was a rise in Album Oriented Radio, with many of the more serious music fans focusing on albums instead of singles. Indeed, 1976 had some great albums, including Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”, the Ramones eponymous album, David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Bob Dylan’s “Desire.” None of these artists had major hits on the singles charts in 1976.
My own explanation is simpler: cultural trends go in cycles and the tremendous tidal wave of great music from the 1960s had exhausted itself with nothing left to replace it except disco.
In any event, on to the actual music. Here are some highlights (lowlights?) from Molanphy’s podcast.
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
We’ll start with the one acceptable number one song of the year. Believe it or not, this was Paul Simon’s only number one hit as a solo artist (he had three others with Simon and Garfunkel). It’s not a bad song but is inferior to “Kodachrome,” “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al.” It’s hard to remember what a major musical force Simon was in the 1970s, but he had a string of hits and was a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live (including the famed second episode, which put SNL on the map when he sang “Still Crazy After All Those Years” wearing a chicken suit.)
From the best number one song of the year we now move to the worst. The problem with 1976 wasn’t disco per se, it was the way disco infected so many acts and spawned so many novelty songs. Give Rick Dees credit. He knew that the song was a joke, and maybe fun for about five minutes. He even named his act “Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots,” suggesting that maybe this was a Mad Magazine spin-off.
A Fifth of Beethoven
Disco strikes again in a semi-novelty record. Walter Murphy takes the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, some of the most famous musical phrases in music history and gives it a disco beat. Is nothing sacred for crying out loud? The song, if you can call it that, is not exactly terrible, and how could it be with all that Beethoven? It’s just deeply weird. How weird? The writing credit goes to “Ludwig von Beethoven and Walter Murphy.” Talk about cultural appropriation!!! The song eventually appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, making Murphy a very rich man.
You Should be Dancing
The only pure disco song to top the charts in 1976, “You Should be Dancing,” is not bad a far as disco songs go. It became even more famous the next year when John Travolta danced to it in Saturday Night Fever. Oh, and The Brothers Gibb set a fashion style by flaunting their hairy chests, another trend that would not last.
Tonight’s The Night
Welcome to the 1970s, when Roman Polanski thought it was ok to seduce a 13-year-old and Woody Allen made a highly regarded movie about an older man’s affair with a 17-year-old. “Tonight’s the Night” fits right in there — a song about taking a young woman’s virginity that includes the line “spread your wings and let me come inside.” This is the only number one hit that Rod Stewart wrote on his own, so it’s his full id on display. Nice.
People were obsessed about sex in the 1970s. The sexual revolution of the 1960s went mainstream, as did porn (“Deep Throat”), “key parties,” the Playboy Mansion and divorce. And here we have a number one song about having sex mid-day (“skyrockets in flight”). The Starland Vocal Band won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” and then never had another hit single. They did have a variety show for six weeks in 1977; one of the show’s writers was David Letterman, so there’s that.
Another huge fad in the mid-1970s was the CB Radio. For about 20 years blue collar workers had used the citizen band frequency to communicate with each other. It became a mainstream fascination during the energy crisis when truck drivers started using the CB to evade the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit that the government had imposed to save gas. The C.W. McCall song “Convoy” exploited that fad and eventually spawned a movie of the same name starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. Needles to say, like many other popular artists in 1976, C.W. McCall never had another pop hit.
Silly Love Songs
Now we come to the most popular song of 1976. “Silly Love Songs,” was Paul McCartney’s answer to John Lennon, who claimed that McCartney wrote insipid love songs. So Paul’s response was to write an insipid song with an underlying disco beat that asked the burning question, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?” As Chris Molanphy points out, when “Silly Love Songs” became a massive hit, both Paul and John could point to the other and say “see, this proves my point.” But really, Paul McCarney’s greatest songs, “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Penny Lane,” “Fool on the Hill”, “Back in the USSR,” and “Eleanor Rigby” were not even love songs so he had no reason to apologize.
So, what a year. And yet out of the ash heap of 1976 arose new and exciting forms of music. Stevie Wonder would reinvent R&B for a mainstream audience; Bruce Springsteen would breathe new life into rock; we’d see the birth of Punk and the emergence of New Wave rock stars like Blondie, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads. When Disco finally died whole new genres of exciting music were left standing.
The One Great Song of 1976
Lest you think 1976 was a total loss, there was one terrific song in the year’s top 100. Sitting way down there at number 72 was “I’m Easy,” the Keith Carradine song from the movie “Nashville.” In the movie, which takes a sardonic look at American society through the lens of the Country music industry, Carradine plays a manipulative, womanizing folk singer. It says something about 70’s taste that a gaunt, grungy, hollowed-eye guy like that would be considered such a sex symbol. In the movie he sings this song to attract the middle class Lily Tomlin character, although three other women that he’s already slept with think he’s singing to THEM. It’s a soulful sensitive song that actually does manage to seduce Tomlin, although she quickly sees through him. It’s still on my all-time top 20 after all these years and somehow it came out in 1976.