When It’s Right, It’s Right

(Pictured: the Starland Vocal Band meets the press after winning their Best New Artist Grammy in 1977. At right, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys wonders what he’s doing there.)

Forty years ago this week, “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band hit #1 on the Hot 100. Here’s an appreciation, rebooted from 2011.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (later husband and wife) had written John Denver’s 1971 hit “Take Me Home Country Roads.” After performing as Fat City, the Danoffs teamed with another couple, Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman, as the Starland Vocal Band, and released their first record in 1976, “Afternoon Delight.” It was a monster, sufficient to earn them the Best New Artist Grammy for the year—which is not as absurd as the one “Afternoon Delight” got for Best Vocal Arrangement, which was deemed better than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

On the strength of that Grammy, they landed a limited-run TV variety show on CBS in the summer of 1977. It was, against all odds, pitched at a hip young urban audience, with political commentary by Mark Russell and a young comic in the cast named David Letterman. But they were never built for the long run, not really, not professionally or personally. Bill and Taffy Danoff divorced after the group broke up; so did Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman. And with the rise of disco in the late 70s and danceable new wave acts in the 80s, their gentle acoustic sound was swept away in the same tide that swamped John Denver. In all, they managed four chart singles between 1976 and 1980, three of which you’ve probably never heard: “California Day” is the Platonic ideal of blandness and “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” is hideous, although “Loving You With My Eyes” is a beautiful song that deserved better than #71.

Thanks to the way we seize upon and recycle certain bits of pop-culture history, “Afternoon Delight” is now considered one of the most cheese-tastic moments of the 1970s. (The song was performed on Glee, for example, and not only did the character who sang it not get its erotic subtext, neither did the actress who played her.) I, of course, neither agree with that nor care about it. Regular readers of this blog already suspect why: “Afternoon Delight” was in the Top 40 from around Memorial Day through Labor Day 1976, and it went to #1 in July, at the peak of my favorite year.

We love the songs that we love the most in part because of our associations with them. The Mrs.,  not yet old enough to drive in 1976, was being chauffeured with a friend one day by the friend’s older brother when “Afternoon Delight” came on. There in the car, the three of them started spontaneously harmonizing along with the radio. My favorite part of the story is not so much the two 15-year-old girls singing along, but the 19-year-old guy joining in. Lots of guys having to haul their little sister and her friend someplace on a summer’s day might have sat sullenly silent—and probably would have hated “Afternoon Delight” too. But not him, and not then.

The only specific association I have with “Afternoon Delight” is that I used to start my afternoon show with it every now and then when I was a little baby disc jockey at KDTH, but I have to think comparatively hard to remember that. The stronger association is more nebulous, but no less beloved. “Afternoon Delight” was one of the songs in my ear every three hours during the best summer I ever had.

They made a video for it, too. I can’t watch it without smiling.

4 responses

  1. “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” – mein Gott man, what have you done?!

  2. There’s probably a good reason why the older teen thought that it might be useful to be friendly with his younger sister’s friend. . .

  3. It IS cheesy as all get-out, but it’s still a beautiful song and I still listen to it all these years later.

  4. This song has a strong association with my very first job that summer…picking blueberries on a local farm. Cheesy? Hell yeah. But it’s still a great song that makes me smile when I hear it…

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