(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.
Sometimes it seems like you can say anything now. Politicians talk publicly about minorities, the homeless, and their political opponents in terms they wouldn’t have dared use privately a generation ago. In pop culture, we’ve removed a few words from George Carlin’s famous list of seven you can’t say on TV. And thanks to the Internet, no subject is unmentionable, hidden, or taboo.
Except we all know you can’t say everything now. Where Richard Pryor could win comedy Grammys with albums called That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger in the mid 70s, we’ve infantilized the term to “the n-word” and banished it from the language as if it were a crime just to think it. (We won’t even let Mark Twain say it anymore.) Not only that, we don’t even like words that sound like “the n-word.” Remember the controversies involving the word niggardly, in which people who knew what it means were accused of racism and insensitivity by people who did not? Niggardly means stingy, is descended from the Old Norse, was used by Chaucer, and is not remotely racist.
Similarly, we get the vapors over the kind of drug references that were everywhere in the 70s, thanks to the scolding chorus of cultural watchdogs that formed during the Reagan 80s, the modern-day heirs to the Just-Say-No crowd and the PMRC. Consider what would happen if a popular weekly television program today were as openly drug-soaked as Saturday Night Live in the 70s: network boycotts, sponsor boycotts, and pious who-will-save-the-children wailing on every news channel until the shameful show was cleaned up.
All of that makes certain artifacts of the 1970s, innocuous at the time, seem positively amazing now. Certainly SNL is one of them; I have the first five seasons on DVD, and I am often astounded at what they got away with. Another one popped up on shuffle the other day: Jim Stafford’s 1974 hit single “Wildwood Weed.” It’s the story of accidental marijuana farmers and how they outwit “this feller from Washington.” “Wildwood Weed” was an AM-radio smash during the summer of 1974, reaching the Top Ten in a 13-week run on the Hot 100, although it didn’t stay on radio playlists very long after it dropped off the chart. Stafford still performs it during his shows in Branson, Missouri, a wink and a nod to those who were indulging nearly 40 years ago. And a small screw-you to the cultural watchdogs who would fumigate contemporary culture until nobody can see anything that isn’t fit for eight-year-olds. If it’s safe enough for Branson, it’s safe enough for everybody.
I have had 1974 on the brain lately. That was the spring I put blacklight bulbs in the overhead fixture in my room, and the spring I tried getting into Emerson, Lake and Palmer because a girl I liked was into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it was easier than actually talking to her. It was also the spring we came home from church one Sunday to find our house full of smoke. We didn’t see any fire, but we couldn’t tell where the smoke was coming from, either. As it turned out, the culprit was the radio in my brother’s bedroom— the green Westinghouse tube-type, my first radio, the one I listened to on Christmas Eve 1970—which had shorted out and burned. It’s hard to imagine that it could have produced the volume of smoke we saw, but it did, and the smoke and soot damage, particularly to the upstairs, was significant.
The afternoon of the fire, my brother was inconsolable, sure that his hamsters, which lived in his room, were dead. At mid-afternoon my father finally went up to retrieve the cage. The little creatures were covered with black soot—but they were still alive. It fell to my grandmother, for reasons I can’t recall, to clean them up. I can see her even now, standing at the kitchen sink, washcloth in one hand and hamster in the other, with a look on her face that said, “You know, at my house we set traps for things like this.”
Around nightfall, I innocently asked my mother, “So, do you think things are getting back to normal around here?” She went off. “Normal?! It’s going to be months before things are back to normal around here!” She was right. We would be weeks washing clothes and drapes and walls and having furniture and carpets replaced. We had to discard lots of stuff that was too smoke-damaged to save—including my entire collection of original WLS music surveys from late 1970 through early ’74, a loss I have mourned ever since. It was indeed months before my brother and I could move back into our rooms upstairs. I would spend the summer of 1974 hanging out in the basement of our house.
That was also the spring I began listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 with pencil and paper in hand. Casey used the Billboard chart, but here are five tunes from Cash Box, dated May 18, 1974:
6. “Midnight at the Oasis”/Maria Muldaur (up from 9). I am pretty sure I took this at face value—a desert narrative, like an old movie that might come on after the 10:00 news—thereby missing the sexual subtext, which is the only thing I can hear now. (Live performance from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert here.)
17. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”/MFSB (down from 7). Soul Train was must-see TV for me, mainly for the theme song, although I had a healthy appreciation for R&B by that time. And when the theme turned up on the radio, I couldn’t get to the record store fast enough.
21. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford (up from 25). In which we learn that punctuation matters. (Live performance and interview clip with David Letterman here.)
36. “Save the Last Dance for Me”/De Franco Family (up from 47). In the early 70s, you had your Osmonds, your Jackson Five, your Partridge Family, and a vast array of teen magazines to promote them. Surely there was enough teenage-girl interest to sustain the career of another family singing group. In the case of the DeFranco Family, there was three singles’ worth. “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” would be better if Tony DeFranco were a better singer, but “Abra-ca-Dabra” is a glorious gob of bubblegum that overcomes his limitations. Their respectful and respectable cover of “Save the Last Dance for Me” marked the end of the line.
37. “Star Baby”/Guess Who (up from 38). In which the Guess Who channels the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Crank it up, open the windows, step on the gas . . . and enjoy the holiday weekend. I’ll be on the radio a lot, so tune over. And because I didn’t post much this week, watch for an extra post or two here as well.