Going Down Fast

(Edited below, because it turns out I am not very good at this.)

A reader writes: “Listening to these AT40s from late ’74 leads me to wonder whether you’ve ever done a blog piece on the weirdness of the fourth-quarter #1 plunges that year.”

Not until today, no.

In days of yore, the methodology used to compile the singles charts was not nearly so precise as it is now. It’s arguable that the song designated #1 in many weeks of the 1970s was no more or less popular than several other songs at the top of the charts at the same time. But Billboard had to choose one, and so it did.

In 1974 and 1975, 35 different records reached #1 in each year. Out of the 70 chart-toppers, only 23 lasted longer than one week at the top. (The longest run was four weeks, by the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”) Between January and April 1975, an 11-week stretch, there were 11 different #1 singles on the Hot 100. In such a volatile time, scoring a #1 hit was great for bragging rights (and it’s what history remembers), but it didn’t necessarily mean you were the indisputable ruler of all the land.

There’s another kind of chart volatility involving moves within the chart. Today, records zoom up, drop off, and move around in patterns that look erratic to old-time chart geeks. Back in the day, most records followed a familiar curve—a couple of big leaps while below the Top 40, and once in, a steady climb a few places at a time, sometimes with a big leap or two in mid-chart. A period at the peak was followed by a falling-out period usually far shorter than the climb. Although middle-of-the-chart records could plunge dramatically, more often than not, the first week of falling at the very top of the chart meant a very small drop. When a record fell from #1, it would often remain in the top 5.

But not always. In the fall of 1974, six seven records took uncharacteristically large dives from the #1 spot.

—For the week of September 28, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe” by Barry White fell from #1 to #12.

—For the week of October 5, Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” did the same thing.

—On October 26, “Nothing From Nothing” by Billy Preston fell from #1 to #15, which I neglected to mention when this was originally posted. Our friend Steve Orchard caught the omission, and I’m grateful, albeit rather embarrassed.

—On November 2, “Then Came You” by Dionne Warwick and the Spinners, which had taken a then-record 14 weeks to reach #1, plunged all the way to #15.

—The next week, November 9, “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” by Stevie Wonder fell from #1 to #12.

—The week after that, the same thing happened to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

—Two weeks later, on November 23, John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” did the same damn thing yet again: from #1 to #12, the fifth #1-to-#12 drop in nine weeks.

After that, things calmed down. The next couple of dethroned #1 songs fell to #2, and then we’re into 1975.  A number of songs fell from #1 to #6 or #8 during that January-to-April stretch we mentioned above but nothing so spectacular as the October/November plunges.

(Related, and at about the same time: Wikipedia says “Junior’s Farm” by Wings had one of the all-time biggest falls out of the Hot 100, but it deserves an asterisk. Yes, the song was at #17 on January 25, 1975, and gone the next week. However, its B-side, “Sally G,” had been added to its chart listing in December, after “Junior’s Farm” had been on the chart for a couple of months. And on February 1, 1975, “Sally G” was listed as a new entry, all by itself, at #66, although it kept the same catalog number, so “Junior’s Farm” was still on the other side. That means “Junior’s Farm” actually fell from #17 to #66, which is a big plunge out of the Top 40, but not especially crazy within the scope of the Hot 100.)

What’s the reason for this brief period of volatility? Beats the hell out of me. If I were Nate Silver, I’d do a mathematical analysis and see what kind of patterns I could find in all the chart data. But I am only a dumb-ass disc jockey who got a D in algebra, so “I dunno” is the best I can do. Guesses from the readership are welcome.

2 responses

  1. We had an interesting discussion over on Pat Downey’s chat board a couple weeks ago regarding the extraordinary volume of #1 hits (sometimes numbering 50 or 51 annually) and some of the precipitous drops off the cliff therefrom on the Billboard country singles chart during the early-mid ’80s. Mickey Gilley’s “You Don’t Know Me” #1-to-#47 fall from grace was the most glaring example of what happens when the Nashville record promoters call the shots and the Billboard reporting stations follow like obedient bird dawgs. The Downey board thread can be found here:http://www.top40musiconcd.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=7105&PN=2

    jb, you can’t automatically assume there was any significant “Junior’s Farm” airplay still being reported when “Sally G” entered the chart on 2/1/75. To Capitol Records, they were two distinct records (the label had even sent separate mono/stereo Apple DJ 45s for each title.) The emergence of “Sally” and its ensuing promotional push is what hastened “Junor’s” buying the farm. Yes, sales of “Sally” necessarily translated into additional sales of the other side of the single, but by that point, there weren’t enough airplay reports to warrant including it in the chart listing.

    Speaking of “Junior’s Farm,” how did Capitol not catch that whopper of a drop-out on the mono side of the DJ 45?

  2. There are so many instances of suspect Hot 100 manipulation that occurred during the tenure of Billboard’s chart manager Bill Wardlow. Books (for example “Hit Men” by Frederick Dannen) have been written about how this man would make changes to the Hot 100 based on a whim (or money from record companies). The large number of big droppers from #1 (which rarely happened after that streak) is just one of those examples. I’m not sure when Wardlow’s tenure started (the earliest reference I could find that has him having that role was late 1974), but I do know it ended in 1983 when the publisher fired Wardlow over concerns about the validity of the charts.

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