(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.
(Edited to add a link.)
What makes old record charts endlessly enchanting to me is how they can be viewed as a montage of people, places, and moments. Take the chart from WGRQ in Buffalo, New York, dated October 1, 1973:
2. “Heartbeat–It’s a Lovebeat”/DeFranco Family (holding at 2). What radio people call the “news sounder” is out of fashion today. (Not unlike radio news itself.) In days of yore, stations would play some kind of attention-getting, authoritative musical theme to signal a newscast. When I was working for WXXX (which is not its name), somebody hit upon the idea of using the opening seconds of “Heartbeat–It’s a Lovebeat” as the station’s news sounder. It’s not a bad idea—certainly not as bad as starting an especially lightweight teenage bubblegum record with it—it was just weird.
3. “We’re an American Band”/Grand Funk (down from 1). For a period of years starting in junior high, I was tight with a kid we’ll call Kyle, because that is not his name. We both dug this song a lot. We went through high school together, but attended separate colleges and drifted apart. We’d see each other now and then as the years passed, but we had little to say to one another. In the new millennium, he found his way to my political blog, and he left a comment one day saying he was a Republican, I was wrong about everything, and goodbye forever. In my pantheon of personal losses, it wasn’t an especially big one since we were lost to each other by then anyhow, but I’ve always wondered why he felt the need to slam the door so hard.
13. “China Grove”/Doobie Brothers (up from 17). Sometimes it takes a psychiatrist to explain the images conjured up by the songs we remember. Since I’m not a doctor, I can’t tell you precisely why I associate “China Grove” with the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor, but I do. (The Massacre was just one event in a month jammed with history. As I put it at Popdose last year, “Egypt and Israel brought the world to the brink of war, Richard Nixon went nose-to-nose with the Constitution only to blink first, and Cheech and Chong had a hit single.”)
17. “Summer (The First Time)”/Bobby Goldsboro (up from 20). Each year at the campus radio station, a new crop of freshmen would come aboard. We veterans were always interested in sizing up the new talent to see who’d be a good fit. One kid, whom we’ll call Chad because that is not his name, was too eager to get involved. One day, he was in the studio watching one of the veterans while she was on the air. Sensing she was coming to the end of a talk break, he helpfully reached over and switched on the turntable for her. She didn’t murder him, although that seemed to us like an act of extreme forebearance, and less than Chad deserved.
The kid was not without talent, but he chafed at format rules. “Summer (The First Time)” was his favorite song, and he would frequently play it during his shows, despite the fact that we were running a classic-rock format. It’s also said that he once got to work at his commercial radio job on a Sunday morning and couldn’t get the transmitter on. Instead of calling the engineers, he went to the transmitter building and broke in to see if there was anything he could fix. My suspicion is that the story got embellished by the time I heard it, but I dunno—it sounds like something he would have done.
24. “Touch of Magic”/James Leroy (down from 14). I’ve got no personal story about this song, but what the hell. It was a big hit in Canada for Leroy, a singer/songwriter who once toured with the Stampeders (“Sweet City Woman”). While on the road, Leroy and one of the Stampeders started fooling around with dueling Wolfman Jack imitations. That ultimately resulted in the Stampeders’ version of “Hit the Road Jack,” which features the real Wolfman Jack—and which keeps the Stampeders from being a true one-hit wonder by virtue of its having made Number 40 for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1976. As for “Touch of Magic,” it’s another one for the “how-did-this-fail-to-chart-in-America?” file.