Project X: Sucking In The Seventies

We here at Idolator are obsessed with charts: Sales charts, best-of charts, even charts that chart other charts. In an attempt to keep track of all the rankings and reports that are compiled on a daily basis, we’ve asked Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos to break down charts from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he finally answers the question: What was the worst Billboard singles chart of the ’70s?

Project X: The Best and Worst Billboard Top 10 Singles of the 1970s

On Dec. 19, 2003, Salon ran a piece called “Rock’s Greatest Week,” in which Eric Boehlert named what to his eye and ear were the greatest and worst Billboard Top 10 Albums lists of all time. I have trouble believing I could find lists as apt as the ones Boehlert chose. Best was December 20, 1969: Abbey Road, Zeppelin II, Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, Creedence, Stones, Santana, and Temptations at No. 1-7 is incredibly strong, even if you don’t think much of Blood Sweat & Tears or Crosby, Stills & Nash at 8 and 9. (No. 10 is Easy Rider, again hard to argue with.) Worst: September 2, 1989, with Richard Marx, New Kids, Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli, Skid Row, Gloria Estefan, and Don Henley all slicing away at the merely meager charms of Fine Young Cannibals and Tom Petty–not to mention Prince, who was by then at the Batman-soundtracking tail of his gargantuan decade-long creative streak.

Whatever my reservations with Boehlert’s writing itself (good reporter, soft critic), his conceit was genius. And since I happen to own a copy of Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Hot 100 Charts: The ’70s (a Christmas gift–thanks again, Mom), I decided to steal it from him. After all, if Boehlert had fun with albums, I can have fun with singles. And since I only have immediate access to one decade’s worth of lists, why not do it that way? So I will. The ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s will wait until I get the books. For now, let us proceed to the ’70s.

My initial idea was to choose a best Top 10 hits list for each year. Systematically, I began noting them for 1970, ’71, ’72–solid, not stunning: seven good songs per list, not bad but not earth-shattering, either. Then I got to October 13, 1973:

1. Cher, “Half-Breed” (MCA)
2. The Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man” (Warner Bros.)
3. Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (Tamla)
4. Stevie Wonder, “Higher Ground” (Tamla)
5. Rolling Stones, “Angie” (Rolling Stones)
6. The Isley Brothers, “That Lady” (T-Neck)
7. Paul Simon, “Loves Me Like a Rock” (Columbia)
8. Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Buddah)
9. Eddie Kendricks, “Keep on Truckin’” (Tamla)
10. Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band” (Capitol)

That’s not merely strong; it’s almost unbelievable–I doubt even the ’60s high week will match this list. Even with “Half-Breed,” this Top 10 is, piece by piece, better than Boehlert’s beloved albums list. Right: “Half-Breed” is precisely as garish/mawkish as you remember it, though its cheese is chewier than a lot of similarly misshapen current hits. There’s something fitting about it appearing next to “Ramblin’ Man,” too: Cher and Gregg Allman were married (and divorced, within two weeks) around this time.

Numbers 2 through 10 of 10/13/73 aren’t just uniformly good; they’re uniformly classics. The degree to which this is true is arguable; the absolute strength of the songs, bunched up together like this, is not. For my playlist, I even used the single edit of Eddie Kendricks’s “Keep on Truckin’” instead of the flabbergasting 12-minute remix from Soul Jazz’s compilation A Tom Moulton Mix. (Moulton’s mix didn’t appear commercially until last year, and I wanted to hear this stuff as it sounded on the radio back then, more or less.) Hell, that week’s No. 11, the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can-Can,” was another great one.

I didn’t begin by looking for Worst lists. I just attempted to find something to equal 10/13/73. Up to that date, nearly every Top 10 had between four and seven good records. But as I kept going, I began finding Top 10s with only two or three good ones. It kept getting direr, until I began hitting bottom, or near-bottom, with alarming frequency.

By the time I’d finished the book, I’d found four separate lists–each separated by a minimum of 13 months–so staggeringly awful (with at least a dozen runners-up) that I knew I couldn’t trust myself to distinguish between them. So I set the question to a dozen or so friends and colleagues: If you have the stomach, rank these lists from worst to least worst. I tallied the responses in numerical terms, and present them to you in reverse order.

Least-worst: July 5, 1975
1. The Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together” (A&M)
2. Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony, “The Hustle” (Avco)
3. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Listen to What the Man Said” (Capitol)
4. Michael Martin Murphey, “Wildfire” (Columbia)
5. Major Harris, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” (Atlantic)
6. Pilot, “Magic” (Capitol)
7. Jessi Colter, “I’m Not Lisa” (Capitol)
8. Linda Ronstadt, “When Will I Be Loved” (Capitol)
9. Eagles, “One of These Nights” (Asylum)
10. Olivia Newton-John, “Please Mr. Please” (MCA)

Probably the most beloved item here is No. 6, but the thought of it mostly just makes me want to buy air freshener. Two of my voters, Alfred Soto and Rickey Wright, stand by the McCartney but I say screw him: just-OK Wings (and Ronstadt) turns to mulch in this company, especially with that weedy sax. Colter may have run with the Outlaws, but this song is utter sap. So is the Major Harris, one of the most desultory slow jams in R&B history. So is ON-J, even more than usual; so is everything after the utterly amazing intro of “The Hustle.” (As Peter Shapiro describes it in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, “elevator music.”) The Eagles are the Eagles. The Captain & Tennille begin a run of three appearances in the Worst nominations–more than anyone except Barbra Streisand. Shockingly, the song I was happiest to re-hear from this list is “Wildfire.” It’s sap, all right, and I’ve tried my best not to let nostalgia have its sway with me here. (If anything, I did the opposite.) But some combination of deep-seated memory and that guitar part (prettier than I remember) got to me. This list received zero votes as the worst, and frequently finished fourth in all-list rankings.

Second-Least Worst: November 18, 1978
1. Donna Summer, “Macarthur Park” (Casablanca)
2. Foreigner, “Double Vision” (Atlantic)
3. Ambrosia, “How Much I Feel” (Warner Bros.)
4. Anne Murray, “You Needed Me” (Capitol)
5. Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (Columbia)
6. Nick Gilder, “Hot Child in the City” (Chrysalis)
7. Exile, “Kiss You All Over” (Warner Bros.)
8. Gino Vannelli, “I Just Wanna Stop” (A&M)
9. Kenny Loggins & Stevie Nicks, “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’” (Columbia)
10. The Captain & Tennille, “You Never Done It Like That” (A&M)

Of the data-mongers I tapped for this exercise, Rob Sheffield was the most thorough, breaking each list down from “great” to “worst” to “depends on my mood/memories/medication.” Only Sheffield named 11/18/78 the worst of the four: citing only one song as great (“Hot Child in the City”), none as good, and asking if “How Much I Feel” is the “worst song of the ’70s,” then answering his own question: “Probably.” Michael Daddino begs to differ, calling “How Much I Feel” “mush I can commend”: “Its deep feeling is expressed so boringly I can read depression in it, much like I can read sadness in the affectlessness of synthpop vox.”

Besides, “I Just Wanna Stop” is far more hate-worthy than Ambrosia’s hit. So are a few others; this is one sorry list. I’m saddened to see Donna Summer here, with the worst hit of her classic period. Anne Murray sounds so sincere I want to not find the song revolting, but no luck. “Kiss You All Over” is even skeezier than my memory had it; a lot less disco, too (the 4/4 kick only really shows up with any force during the chorus it takes forever to get to; the rest is soft-rock bleh). “You Never Done It Like That” captures its makers at the height of their hardcore period, which leads us to another question: Has there ever been a young, public couple you wanted to imagine having sex less than the Captain & Tennille?

Second-worst: July 30, 1977
1. Andy Gibb, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” (RSO)
2. Peter Frampton, “I’m in You” (A&M)
3. Barry Manilow, “Looks Like We Made It” (Arista)
4. Barbra Streisand, “My Heart Belongs to Me” (Columbia)
5. Shaun Cassidy, “Da Doo Ron Ron” (Curb)
6. Emotions, “Best of My Love” (Columbia)
7. Peter McCann, “Do You Wanna Make Love” (20th Century)
8. Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville” (ABC)
9. Rita Coolidge, “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” (A&M)
10. Pablo Cruise, “Whatcha Gonna Do?” (A&M)

This list is the red herring of the bunch, because it has the one obviously great record on all of them: the Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” Any list with that song has to be pretty terrible to make as many stomachs turn as this one did: 7/30/77 was several voters’ pick for Worst. Robert J. Myers, who reviews Billboard‘s current Top 10 every week on his blog, The Illiterate, wrote, “The top five is one inducement to diabetic coma after another, and then to look further down and find Peter McCann and Rita Coolidge and Pablo Cruise–ugh. Thank God I’d found out about punk a couple of months before. I’m not sure I’d have survived the summer otherwise.”

“There’s only one African-American artist on that list–in fact, they’re all pretty bleached out,” Michael Daddino notes. Not to mention: “1977 has a preponderance of songs with gently prancing piano chords taking center stage, possibly the primary (and laziest) signifier of pop meaningfulness and deep feeling of the last few decades.” The most egregious offender of this latter device is probably “Margaritaville,” the tune cited by both Jess Harvell and J. Edward Keyes as the reason they chose 7/30/77. Rickey Wright, meanwhile, points out another trendlet within the Worst nominees: “I somehow knew that one of those dire 20th Century Records pop things–’Do You Wanna Make Love,’ ‘I Like Dreamin’,’ ‘Sometimes When We Touch’–would somehow figure here.”

Finally, without further ado:

Worst Top 10 list of the 1970s: December 15, 1979:
1. Styx, “Babe” (A&M)
2. Commodores, “Still” (Motown)
3. K.C. & the Sunshine Band, “Please Don’t Go” (T.K.)
4. Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (MCA)
5. Stevie Wonder, “Send One Your Love” (Motown)
6. Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (Columbia/Casablanca)
7. J.D. Souther, “You’re Only Lonely” (Columbia)
8. The Captain & Tennille, “Do That to Me One More Time” (Casablanca)
9. Eagles, “Heartache Tonight” (Asylum)
10. Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home” (A&M)

There was really no contest here. Well, actually, there was: numerically, 12/15/79 received only two more points than 7/30/77. It didn’t matter, though: the later list, the second-to-last of the decade (there was no list for 12/29/79), evoked a passion the others lacked. “This takes it in a cakewalk,” wrote Nate Patrin. “The stuff I thought might be tolerable is execrable, which magnifies the decrepitude of the rest.” He singled out “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” as the backbreaking straw: “While it’s not #1 here, it’s still quite possibly the worst #1 ever.”

“Only the Commodores track (which isn’t all that great) keeps it from perfect garbage,” wrote Rod Smith. “Ew ew ew,” wrote Douglas Wolk. “Thank you for this brief trip into horror.” (Rob Sheffield, naming 12/15/79 his second-worst list, asked an historical query: “How is there nothing from Off the Wall in this Top 10?” Answer: “Rock With You” was No. 12 that week.)

Indeed, the voters had a point. K.C. and Stevie and Donna are three of the ’70s’ best singles artists, but their showings here are godawful. The Captain & Tennille continue their candlelit-Skinemax shenanigans; the Eagles are at their most frat-boyish. The distressed harmonica of “Take the Long Way Home” may be the sickliest instrumental tag of any of these Top 10s. When J.D. Souther makes the most respectable piece of music of the list, there’s no doubt you’ve found the winner. Or loser. Or both.

Project X takes a critical look at a different Top 10 list biweekly. Suggestions can be sent to matos@idolator.com.

idolator
  • SupraCute

    Rob Sheffield is my jukebox hero, but how can he say that “Double Vision” isn’t even worthy of being called “good”? That’s cold! As ice!

  • Anonymous

    Holy crap. That November 1978 list… if I close my eyes, I can honestly envision myself on our screened in porch, probably on my Sit-N-Spin with my brother playing with his Stretch Armstrong, while my parents and their friends drank liquor and smoked LOTS of cigarettes.
    The soundtrack to the good ol’ days!

  • MitchT

    Wow…the 70′s were a bleak time. No wonder punk happened.

    Of course, punk sucked too.

  • RepentTokyo

    great article. the only thing missing from any of these lists is “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Muldaur.

    I decided last year to download the top 100 billboard pop songs from 1955 to 1989 and listen to all of the tracks – my goal was to find songs I had heard while I was growing up, but never known the titles too. The mid 70′s almost killed me – 1975-1978 were truly horrific years for pop. Songs like “Chevy Van” and “My name’s not Lisa” are soulcrushing to the extreme.

  • iantenna

    well i suppose there must be something seriously wrong with me. i have stashed in my office listening supply (yes we have a turntable at work, my office rules!) not 1, nor 2 or 3, but 4 albums featuring supposed top offenders of the 70s. and i’m gonna stick by them, sure you can’t really argue with c&t or ambrosia but shit, that ronstadt song comes off of one of her best lps, check her version of little feat’s “willin’” (gimme weed, whites and wine!). and i’m sorry but michael martin murphey may be a stoned goofball but he’s a loveable one, and margaritaville fucking rules! also, while that 1979 track may come from a fairly rough j.d. souther record he’s one of the most underrated songwriters of the 70s, his first album kills it (and i know that’s what everyone always says but i’m for real). ok, grammatically poor rant from a dollar bin record lover now over.

  • Mike Barthel

    That Supertramp song is fantastic though!

  • Chris Molanphy

    Songs I would rescue from the “worst” lists:

    Linda Ronstadt, “When Will I Be Loved” – Arguably better-delivered than the Everlys version, however evil Ronstadt might later have become.

    Donna Summer, “Macarthur Park” – I have a hard time dissing anything by Donna in this era. The brass arrangement is also aces.

    Nick Gilder, “Hot Child in the City” – Rob’s right; so good it actually elevates that whole list.

    Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” – Summer’s weakest major hit, but if we’re talking about the single edit, not the interminable album cut with the endless slow half, it’s actually quite tolerable.

    Eagles, “Heartache Tonight” – If, like most rock critics, you find the Eagles irredeemable, then sure, it’s fratboy rock to the max. But compared with most of their ouevre, it’s economical (read: short), catchy in all the right ways, and boasts solid opening harmony vocals. Has arguably aged better than “Hotel California.”

    Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” -  I won’t try to defend it as anything resembling rock or even pop, but I think it passed into the realm of Endearing Bad Music long ago.

    Honestly, I think your worst week is 30 July 77 in a walk: the Andy Gibb is the most tolerable song in the Top Five, which means the other four are extreme in their badness. And everything below the Emotions is so bleached-out and Wonder Bread. “Best of My Love” would have to be a Chic-level disco classic to redeem this list, not the solid example of strong disco-pop it is.

    One last question: Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” was #1 for 10 weeks; you mean to tell me none of those weeks stacked up in terms of badness?

  • MitchT

    Rupert Holmes’ better song is “Him”.

    “What’s she gonna do about him?”

    And c’mon…Supertramp deserves way more credit than they ever get – one of the few bands that started out “prog” but discovered they could actually write songs.

  • Ted Striker

    Aww man. Here I was hoping there would be mp3′s at the end of the article…

    These lists are like a lost episode of Yacht Rock.

  • janine

    I’d be interested to see what was on the so-called Black charts at the time. I was born in 1978 so i don’t remember. That list is bound to have Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament, Cool & the Gang, and the Commodores (and innumerable songs to make babies to).

  • Spiny Norman

    Once I used to think that Boston was over-produced and then…Supertramp! Egad, this just brings back the nightmare that was the decade of the 70′s. At least we had the first two Elvis Costello albums and the Ramones to fall back on.

  • d_mosurock

    It’s time to let go of the hatred for at least the first three Foreigner records. What once came off as overproduction has aged so much better than the shrill FM synth washes of the ’80s. Foreigner, at the very least, had enough headroom to play those “Head Games.”

  • Matos W.K.

    @SupraCute: Rob S actually has “Double Vision” in his “depends on my mood/whatever” column.

  • Matos W.K.

    @dennisobell (and others): I noted that the Rondstadt song is pretty good–it’s just not good enough to survive association with what surrounds it on that list, at least to my ears. My electorate agreed, obviously; no one named 7/5/75 the worst of the four.

  • Matos W.K.

    @d_mosurock: No it isn’t.

  • AcidReign

    …..This is a fine post, and it really shows how the AOR format was born. Once Donna Summer’s “Love to Love you, Baby” hit the airwaves, radio went down the tubes rapidly. It was literally better to listen to silence than to have those things forced on you!

    …..I can’t listen to Supertramp. The band may be ok, but that helium-filled singer grates on my nerves!

    …..I vote for the 1977 list as the worst ever. That was my senior year, and that list is terrible! Every song on it is a nauseating clunker!

    …..I was in college in 1979, and that list is a horror show of exactly what was on college radio! “Still” was a good enough number, and the Eagles were OK, but “Heartache” was definitely NOT “Hotel California level!” To me, “Hotel California” and “Desperado” are the Eagles’ definitive classics!

    …..We, of course, were fully in the “disco sux!!!!!!!!” camp, and lived on a steady diet of Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin, and ZZ Top; with occasional sprinklings of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Rainbow.

  • Matos W.K.

    see, I do hope it’s clear that I f’ing LOVE Donna Summer. love love love. her ’75-’79 is one of the greatest sustained runs of hits ever–with two clunkers, both of which happen to be in these lists, alas.

  • DJorn

    @dennisobell: I’d like to second your bewilderment at the fact that “You Light Up My Life” appears on none of these lists. And let me add to that. The following songs were all number one hits (implying at least two months or so in the top ten) between January 1970 and the date of the first list above:
    “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”
    “(They Long to Be) Close to You”
    “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”
    “Sunshine On My Shoulders”
    “Have You Ever Been Mellow”

  • Matos W.K.

    A bad No. 1 does not a bad Top 10 make. 10/13/73 is proof of that.

  • samethingbackwards

    Those “worst” lists prove as much as anything else that disco was frequently the only decent thing happening in the pop charts in the late 70s.

    (do people hate “Margaritaville” because of what it sounds like, or for what it represents? it’s a pretty catchy number)

  • Gretel

    I have to say that the presence of “I Want to Kiss You All Over” on any list decimates it. That lecherous swill brought out the worst in the older, teenage boys at the roller rink in 1978. They used the song as an opportunity to skate up behind you and grab. Grab whatever they could grab and then skate on back to their acne-scarred buddies chuckling. But I don’t blame those kids; I blame those Kentucky-bred one hit wonders for making Johnny Rivers’ “Rub It In” look like a masterpiece ode to adult lust.

  • RodneyJ

    “Send One Your Love” is completely redeemed by the Born Jamericans cover.

  • Chris Molanphy

    @Matos W.K.: Nice of you to do such a thorough bit of extra research for me, and agreed on all fronts – those are some excellent songs sharing Top 10 space with ol’ Pat’s spawn.

    It actually makes Debby’s run at #1 more infuriating – America in late 1977 could’ve made #1s out of “Keep It Comin’ Love,” “Brick House,” “I Feel Love,” “Back in Love Again” or “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” and they chose “You Light Up My Life”?

    @samethingbackwards: I couldn’t agree more! If anything, this experiment of Michaelangelo’s proves something I’ve been saying for years: the problem with the ’70s wasn’t disco, it was white-bread schlock.

  • Matos W.K.

    @DJorn: word. I definitely was amazed by the worst-of-worst 10s I found, largely thanks to their amazing mixtures of schlock. like, it isn’t just Capt/Tennille x 10, there were bad songs by good artists, one-shots and career folks side by side, that sort of thing. that’s what made it fun.

  • Matos W.K.

    @dennisobell: since I have the book to hand again, here’s an answer to your question.

    “You Light Up My Life” entered the Hot 100 at No. 71 on September 3, 1977. It jumped to 58th the following week, then to No. 35 on the 17th (one spot behind “Cat Scratch Fever,” naturally). A week later it was at No. 21, then up six more spots on October 1. The following week, it was in the Top 10 (at No. 3). So were K.C. & the Sunshine Band’s “Keep It Comin’ Love,” the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” and the Commodores’ “Brick House.”

    That’s how things ran throughout “Life”‘s No. 1 run: at least two, often three good records in the Top 10. Aside from those just named, these included Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Barry White, “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love, LTD’s “Back in Love Again,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “You Makie Lovin’ Fun.” And I don’t hate Ronstadt’s “It’s So Easy,” though I’m no fan of her “Blue Bayou,” which overlapped (and shared one week, December 3).

    Believe me, I was tempted to let the rules down, especially as it got into November, when Chicago’s “Baby, What a Big Surprise”–possibly the most tepid recording ever made–joined the Top 10. But as lists, they could have been a lot worse.

  • FionaScrapple

    The 7/77 list is not just the absence of rock…it is the opposite of rock. Buffett, Affirmed!

  • RepentTokyo

    The band currently touring as Foreigner is amazing live.

  • DJorn

    @Matos W.K.: Nor do I mean to imply that it does; I was simply reveling in the sheer volume of schlock in the 70s. I edited down that post after flipping through my Billboard Book of Number One Hits and typing the titles of more than a dozen songs.

  • GRBurr

    What I’ve been wondering all these years since the 70s:

    I remembered top 10 music of the 60s — which mainly played on AM radio — to be of a wider assortment of styles and tastes. Something happened in the early 70s to change the variety.

    Was it FM radio? Where if you wanted to hear rock you went to the all-rock station, etc.? Was it a backlash against the increasingly-socially-aware soul music heard in the early 70s? Too many listeners jumped ship, so to bring them back the AM-ers played more-and-more non-offensive music — which sent those who stayed scurrying off to their own tastes on the FM dial.

    The problem with the advent of no-variety radio is that everyday people lost a chance for exposure to something different, something they may actually have come to love if they’d been given a chance.

    Mankind seems to have a nesting-instinct, taking comfort in the familiar. FM radio (and the subsequent other media catering to single-tastes) made money by fostering this impulse, but the lack of a popular medium for wide-ranging styles of art has brought us to the point of today where Top 10 means almost nothing.

    Still wondering…

    –Garrie

  • AcidReign

    …..Well, that’s it exactly, Garrie. That, and hostility for other strands of stuff. I’m afraid my “disco-sux!” generation of listeners set the tone, and now most listeners have no tolerance for anything out of their comfort zone!

    …..For several decades, at least, the top ten list has been presumed by many to represent the aggregate musical tastes of the country, rightly or wrongly. Fact is, most people like what they like. Sales, as any economist would tell you, is a factor of supply vs. demand. As has been pointed out earlier, there are a LOT more entertainment options these days.

    …..What’s weird to me (as a headbanger approaching 50!) is that the rare times I set foot in a college bar, I’m most likely to hear stuff like Bob Seger and Peter Frampton. Oh, and Louie-Louie. Will that song never die? Why do bars play this stuff and not the current hits?

    …..When I was 19, and walked into a bar, I’d have been offended if they were playing “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” You’d think the 21-year-old of these times would be similarly offended by “Turn the Page.”

  • jetfan

    Re: “Rub It In” by Johnny Rivers. That song was done by Billy “Crash” Craddock in 1974. Went to #16 on Pop, #1 Country.