Top 5: Novelty Streak

(This item was scheduled to appear last Friday, but I bumped it due to the death of Donna Summer. It almost got bumped again today due to the death of Robin Gibb—we would not have imagined in 1979 that rulers of the record charts would die within days of one another many years hence, because life doesn’t work that way. I was going to write about Gibb until I saw this piece from Rolling Stone, which sums up Robin’s contributions and legacy nicely. We now return to our regular programming, already in progress.)

Two weekends ago, the vintage American Top 40 countdown was one I remember listening to, up in my bedroom at home, pencil and paper at hand as Casey played the hits from the week of May 11, 1974. Thirty-eight years later, looking over the top songs of the week again, it occurs to me that the golden age of the novelty song had arrived. For the next couple of years, novelty songs—the kind of thing that would eventually be ghettoized on wacky morning shows before being exiled to YouTube—got airplay every couple of hours just like the other chart-topping hits of the day. The leading novelty of the moment was “The Streak” by Ray Stevens. Give Stevens credit for putting himself in the right place at the right time.

The craze began at the beginning of the year. A small item showed up in papers around the country late in January explaining that “streaking” had become a fad at Florida State University. UPI defined it as “a male running nude across campus.” Although there would eventually be female streakers, the fad was largely gendered—or at least the reportage was. Within a couple of weeks, more streakers were reported, from the University of Maryland, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Gonzaga University in Seattle, plus North Carolina, Maine, Auburn, and Alabama. At Western Carolina, 138 students held a mass streaking in mid-February and claimed to set a world record, although later in the spring, over 1200 showed up to streak at the University of Colorado. From the end of February and all through March, rare was the day when a newspaper somewhere didn’t report a streaker somewhere.

It wasn’t long before streakers were no longer confined only to college campuses, or even to the United States. Concerts by Yes and Gregg Allman were interrupted by streakers; Mike Love and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys streaked their own show once. On April 2, 1974, a streaker interrupted the Academy Awards, just as David Niven was about to award the Oscar for Best Picture. (There’s some suspicion that the Oscar streaking may have been staged; in the weeks to come, the guy responsible hired himself out to streak Hollywood parties.)

The very week of the Oscar streaking, Stevens released “The Streak,” which debuted on the Hot 100 during the week of April 13, and went from 84 to 54 to 19 to 6 to 2 for the week of May 11, and to #1 the week after that. After three weeks at #1, the record remained in the top 5 into July. By that time, newspapers were writing about how the streaking fad had passed.

(Here’s a scholarly article about the history and meaning of streaking: “‘It Beats Rocks and Tear Gas’: Streaking and Cultural Politics in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Damn, I love the Internet.)

On the flip, read some brief takes on other novelties from the Top 40 that same week.

“My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford. It’s a song about the power of punctuation, really.

“The Lord’s Prayer”/Sister Janet Mead. One definition of novelty according to Webster is “something that provides fleeting amusement and is often based on a theme.” Yup, that’s “The Lord’s Prayer” all right.

“The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch. A straight-up ragtime number written in 1902? Definitely a novelty—and one of three instrumentals in the Top 10 this week, alongside “Tubular Bells” and “TSOP.” If it had ever happened before, it was probably back in the 1950s, and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t happened since.

“Hooked on a Feeling”/Blue Swede. The amusement value of that “ooga-chucka” hook may have seemed fleeting in 1974, but it remains one of the great mad-scientist moments in pop history. Here’s a live performance from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert featuring the Man Himself, recorded by somebody pointing a camera at his TV.

Honorable mention: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder, for the hilarious spoken bit that opens it, and “The Locomotion” by Grand Funk, one of the oddest collisions between song and artist in rock history—and the #1 song in America for a second consecutive week on May 11, 1974. Here’s a live version that’s the unadulterated essence of 1974, when any damn thing could become an enormous hit, and we liked it that way.

6 responses

  1. Blue Swede’s version of “Hookoed on a Feeling” is one of the most clearly remembered songs of my childhood. Years later and in the pre-Internet days, I spent considerable time trying to track down their verison, almost giving up and thinking I had imagined the whole thing. Whoever thought, “Let’s add ‘Ooga Chugga’ to this one…’ had to be a certifiable genious, in my opinion. I too enjoy listening to the vintage American Top 40s on Seventies on 7; each time I catch it, I realize how little I actually know- there are almost always three or seven performers or songs I have never before heard of, many if not most of the soul/R&B variety (for some reason, not all that many hits of the early 70s were aired up here in Alberta although that changed in the disco years). One novelty song that you didn’t mention, and would appear on the charts in 1974 was Jim Stafford’s “Wildwood Weed,” a song I heard on the radio during a trip to Oregon either that year or the next and listened to with my Grandfather. I’m pretty sure neither of us had a clue what it was about. Thanks for the writing. Donald

    1. “Whoever thought, “Let’s add ‘Ooga Chugga’ to this one…’ had to be a certifiable genious, in my opinion.”

      That would be Jonathan “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” King, who first chuggafied it in 1971. But credit Blue Swede for knowing that King’s comparatively anemic blueprint needed a major shot of joyous over-the-topness to make it a smash.

  2. Stevies’ entire “EEE-EEE!” intro immediately became a catch phrase at my college station. When Tamla re-serviced the promo 45 with everything but the “EEE-EEE” trimmed from the opening, the staff consensus was a loud “NUH-UH!”

  3. I admit I fell for those subliminal seduction books that were popular in the late 70’s and recall the author writing that Blue Swede was saying, in a roundabout way, (bear with me here) “who got sucked off?” That’s the honest to god’s truth, though I’m not sure what one’s brain, liminal or subliminal was supposed to do with such information.

    We’re on the verge of an old-time piano competition Memorial Day Weekend here in the river city (complete with 60’s teen idol Ian Whitcomb) and “The Entertainer” is bound to pounded out a few hundred times. This thought came to me: Wouldn’t using Scott Joplin in “The Sting” be like using Glenn Miller in “American Graffiti?”

    1. Yes! I read that book too and have never been able to listen to Blue Swede in quite the same way.
      I no longer closely study the ice cubes in magazine liquor ads, though.

  4. 1974 is probably the most reviled year by those who like to look down on 1970s Top 40, and I can certainly understand why. All those novelty hits, plus monster hits like “Seasons in the Sun,” “Dark Lady,” “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died” and “Kung Fu Fighting.” But what the hell — I was in 10th and 11th grade that year, and I liked all of that goofiness then, and I still like it now. Take a bow, 1974.

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