(Pictured: a young man examines a display in the “Think Metric” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1975.)
In December 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which set up the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate a voluntary transition to the metric system. (It was to be complete by the end of 1992.) Some industries—particularly those doing business worldwide—switched over; many more did not. You probably could have predicted that Americans would in general resist the metric system, but at the time, we weren’t quite as cynical as we are now. And so there was a concerted and completely serious public effort to get people on board with the metric system.
One of the most interesting artifacts I’ve ever seen from this era is on a radio station survey from WLAC in Nashville, dated June 21, 1976. It’s headed “Metro Music Metric Survey” and “Hits That Measured Up,” and that’s only the beginning. On the front cover, on either side of the obligatory DJ photo, are a pair of rulers, one showing inches and one showing centimeters. Across the page from the hit list, there’s a chart showing how to convert length, area, mass, volume, and temperature—although the table shows how to convert from metric to English units and not vice versa, which might have been more useful for teaching purposes. WLAC apparently did this for a while in 1976—a survey from April has the same metric extras. But by sometime in late ’76 or 1977, WLAC would drop the metric stuff from their surveys.
I have written a million times about the songs at the top of this survey, so let’s listen to some of the obscurities further down:
18. “The Hungry Years”/Wayne Newton (up from 19). This was the title song of the album that brought Neil Sedaka back to prominence in 1975, and I can remember hearing his version of the title song on the radio back then. Newton’s version was his first chart hit in over three years and made it to #82 on the Hot 100.
19. “Good Vibrations”/Todd Rundgren (up from 23). In 1976, Rundgren released Faithful, which included a side of songs from 1966, not merely covers but recreations of the originals as closely as possible. (Also included were songs by the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and two by the Beatles, “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) Critics liked the originals on side 2 much better, but you can judge for yourself: listen to the whole album right here.
20. “Lonely Teardrops”/Narvel Felts (up from 22). Besides possessing one of the countriest names in country, Narvel Felts did pretty well for himself in the middle of the 1970s by covering familiar hits: Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” the blues standard “Reconsider Me,” and “Lonely Teardrops,” originally made famous by Jackie Wilson, were all Top-10 hits on the country chart. “Lonely Teardrops” made #62 on the Hot 100.
22. “Framed”/Cheech and Chong (up from 25). From the album Sleeping Beauty, “Framed” is better remembered for its appearance in the duo’s first movie, Up in Smoke.
29. “Yes, Yes, Yes”/Bill Cosby (down from 10). Apart from his long string of very successful and very funny comedy albums, Cosby hit the Hot 100 with five singles, including the 1967 Top-10 hit “Little Ole Man,” a parody of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.” “Yes Yes Yes” is a Barry White/Isaac Hayes parody; it made #46 on the Hot 100 and was Cosby’s last Hot 100 single. The album from which it came, Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days, was his first in three years, and is made up entirely of musical parodies.
The Metric Conversion Act was modified by later acts of Congress and executive orders, and the Metric Board went out of business sometime in the 80s. However, it’s still the official position of the U.S. government that we’re going to switch to the metric system eventually, even though it’s clear to the rest of us that absent an invasion and takeover by some metric power, we never will.
(Partially rebooted from a 2008 post, but mostly new. Imagine that.)