As I mentioned in the best list intro, 1969 was when many of the worst pop trends of the early 70s started rearing their ugly heads. Although the foremost bad trend on display this year is gutless, edgeless pop-rock of a variety that would rapidly fizzle out over the next year or two, even in that subcategory you can hear the seeds of ‘70s shmaltz waiting to sprout. I’m about to break in my thesaurus finding synonyms for “gaudy”, “overwrought” and “trying too hard”, but before the Osmond era properly sets in we have 10 more baddies to finish off the 60s with. On with the show!
#10: Paul Revere & the Raiders- Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon
Sometimes a song that’s all near-misses and wasted potential is just as bad as a song that just flat sucks. I want to like “Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon”, and I hear why a lot of people do. It’s fun, it’s upbeat, it’s got that neat little fingerpicking section- there are redeeming qualities here! It’s not beyond salvation, but man, this thing does absolutely nothing for me. The vocals are right between “distinctive in a good way” and “distinctive in a bad way and somehow end up being “distinctive in a not-especially-memorable way”. The melodies are all fine but there’s nothing that really ever hooks me in, there are no knockout moments to buoy all the parts that are just-okay. Even that fingerpicking interlude, which is admittedly very nice, falls short of being a brilliant “Good Vibrations”-style changeup and the contrast just sounds a bit awkward. It’s not a terrible song, but every aspect comes so infuriatingly close to being genuinely good that the shortcomings here are impossible to ignore.
#9: The Archies- Sugar, Sugar
Honest question: do people like the Archie Comics franchise? As far as I can tell, it seems like one of those things that’s just kind of always been around, hovering on the periphery of pop culture and popping back into the spotlight every decade or so to general responses of “oh yeah, Archie…” I’m not nearly familiar enough with the franchise as a whole to speak definitively on the matter, but I can say that “Sugar, Sugar”, Archie and the gang’s ambassador to the world of pop music, seems to enjoy the same kind of broadly neutral reputation, never really questioned as a part of American life. However, upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be as flat and sterile as a mint-condition copy of a vintage Archie Comics issue. I think by now it’s obvious I’m not especially charmed by most bubblegum pop, and this is no exception. That dopey keyboard riff and the bored-sounding vocals are the most obviously egregious things here, but the lyrics are woefully unconvincing too. It takes a fair bit of creativity to put a fresh spin on the love song as a lyricist, but here there’s hardly even an attempt made. “I just can’t believe the loveliness of loving you”, mehhhh. It’s far from the most egregious example of its genre, but I still much prefer bubblegum when it’s in my mouth and not my ears.
#8: Lou Christie- I’m Gonna Make You Mine
Credit where credit is due: After the unlistenably atrocious “Two Faces Have I”, Lou Christie actually did improve somewhat as a performer. His 1966 chart-topper “Lightnin’ Strikes” put his, er… unique vocals to much better use, and though “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” is a return to full-on badness for Christie, it does still manage to clear the very, very low bar of being less painful to hear than “Two Faces Have I”. In fact, Christie himself is far from the worst thing about the track: he’s eased up a lot on that migraine-inducing falsetto, and though he’s dull as dishwater when singing in his normal register, he manages to not worsen the proceedings by much. No, my ire here is reserved for the actual song, especially that nattering chorus, which features the most grating backing vocals of the year. It reminisces of Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him”, in the way that every sonic aspect of the song serves to make the central conceit (the narrator’s stubborn desire to get with the object of their affection) seem as unlikeable and overbearing as possible.
#7: Bobby Sherman- Little Woman
A surefire way to get on my bad side is to make your song a patronizing lecture to a romantic partner. Almost without exception, these songs don’t make an attempt to justify why the narrator is talking down to their significant other, nor are they willing to frame the narrator in a less-than-flattering light to implicitly criticize their controlling nature. “Little Woman” is a prime example of this kind of song. Bobby Sherman doesn’t even make any arguments why the woman he’s singing to might benefit if she decides to “come down from her cloud” and “leave her world behind”. It’s all about him, him, him: he’s sad when they’re apart, he thinks she ought to get her head on straight and quit daydreaming, and he wants her to come into “his world”. There’s never a moment where I buy into the relationship here, and given that the melody and instrumentation are so forgettable, the only thing that really sticks with me is the failed narrative at the core of it.
#6: Tom Jones- Love Me Tonight
If last year’s “Delilah” proved anything, it was that Tom Jones is generally at his least obnoxious with a more minor-key melody and some appropriately dramatic lyrics to chew on. “Love Me Tonight” adheres to the first rule, with a nicely angsty italo-pop arrangement, but bungles the second, leaving Jones to massacre the entirely uninteresting love song at the heart of the thing. Perhaps most interestingly, this song finds Jones starting to move more firmly into the sort of variety-show, Las Vegas schmaltz that would prove to be one of the more regrettable mainstream trends of the next half-decade or so. It’s genuinely ahead of its time in a way; more so that even most of the best songs this year, it really does feel like a product of the ‘70s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the mainstream pop-soul and lounge music acts that would soon rise to prominence found large chunks of their inspiration in this very song. All that said, it’s still Tom Jones, and laying the groundwork for guys like Barry Manilow is, in my eyes, a dubious honor at best.
#5: Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge- The Worst That Could Happen
Readers with a particularly sharp memory might recall that, back on the 1960 best list, I praised Adam Wade’s “Take Good Care of Her”, specifically because I thought the narrator displayed a genuine effort to accept that the woman he loved found happiness with another man. I respected that it didn’t downplay the narrator’s pain, but still centered his resolve to not make that pain the happy couple’s problem, stoically telling the other man to “take good care of her” and leaving it, more or less, at that. Still, I can see how, for anyone who didn’t buy the sentiment, that song probably just seems like a whiny, self-pitying bummer. To those people, I present “The Worst That Could Happen”. Now this is a whiny, self-pitying bummer. Like “Little Woman”, it’s relentlessly self-centered: the chorus basically boils down to saying “you getting married might be good for you, but what about how upset it makes me?” Then, he goes on to reveal that the reason he isn’t the one marrying her is that, well, they want different things. Presumably, their relationship only ended in the first place because he didn’t want to make that commitment, and she went on to find someone who did. An ex-girlfriend getting married being the “worst that could happen” is overstatement by the most generous of definitions, but an ex-girlfriend who you explicitly do not want to marry getting married is quite possibly the least appropriate situation to make all about your stupid hurt feelings, and it shitsure doesn’t deserve the garish, wailing delivery and straight-faced trumpeting fanfares this song delivers.
#4: Tom Jones- I’ll Never Fall in Love Again
Fun fact: This song managed the impressive feat of not even being the best song with this exact title released this year; that honor goes to the far superior “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” by Dionne Warwick, which came out in December and eked its way onto the 1970 year-end Hot 100 by a nose. Tom Jones turns in what has to be his most loathsome vocal performance since “What’s New, Pussycat?” here, gasping and sighing through the whole song with repulsive gusto. One can only assume the hit single was edited down from the original out of fear of the potential adverse effects of mass exposure to a full four minutes and twelve seconds of Tom Jones interrupting a chaste, earnest country ballad with pseudo-sex noises, a listening experience which is nearly impossible to overstate the visceral discomfort of.
#3: Ray Stevens- Gitarzan
Somehow, nearly three years after the pop phenomenon of the witless novelty tune died a long-overdue death, Ray Stevens managed to momentarily revive it for a comeback hit as dopey and hamfisted as anything from the genre’s glory days. You would assume this song would have to have some special appeal to become as successful as it did riding a trend that had so thoroughly burnt itself out, but nope! It’s the exact same dumbassery I’ve already spent 7 worst lists kvetching about. To get my one big complaint out of the way, this song does not contain a guitar solo. If you are going to write a song about Tarzan playing the guitar, or title any song with a pun on “guitar” the absolute bare minimum is to actually include a modicum of noteworthy guitar playing- and no, the one bog-standard, country-blues-by-numbers lick we get at the end of each chorus does not count. And it should really go without saying that this isn’t funny at all, right? As with Stevens’ last big hit “Ahab the Arab”, there are glimmers of something that might have been fun here- I can at least appreciate the massive pile-up of rhymes that accumulates over the course of each verse, and the idea of layering the little gag choruses all on top of each other at the end would be really cool if it hadn’t been executed so clumsily- but the noxious, “boy, ain’t I a cut-up?” attitude of the whole thing leaves it annoying, tedious and little else.
#2: Gary Puckett and the Union Gap- This Girl is a Woman Now
After last year’s “Young Girl”, I was really hoping Gary Puckett and the Union Gap would redeem themselves. After all, the song wasn’t written by anyone in the band, and while the Union Gap hadn’t given much indication of being great or even above-average performers, I still had my fingers crossed that they’d be able to rise to the occasion somewhat if they got paired with a better songwriter. But, uh… I guess they thought they had a brand to maintain? That’s really the only explanation I can think of for “This Girl Is A Woman Now”, which was not penned by “Young Girl” mastermind Jerry Fuller but still somehow manages to be deeply unpleasant in pretty much all the exact same ways. There’s very little here that’s explicitly objectionable, but come on, a ballad about how amazing it is that “this girl is a woman now” that adoringly describes her transformation from child to adult? There’s undeniable subtext there, and I do not care one bit for that subtext, no siree. Seriously, was there no one at Columbia records telling Gary Puckett to knock it off with all this ‘barely legal’-type shit? Speaking of which, maybe it’s the slower tempo or maybe it just took this many songs to really notice it, but Puckett himself sings with an almost Tom Jones-ian level of melodrama here and it’s as bad as any of Jones’ worst material. To end this on a more positive note, after this song Puckett and co. supposedly started getting sick of singing overblown pop written by gormless industry hacks and struck out on their own, and if nothing else I respect that they ultimately chose artistic integrity over what could have easily been another few years of easy paychecks singing about teenagers they wanted to fuck.
#1: The Cowsills- Hair
As I have alluded to several times over the course of these lists, I have a pretty strong bias against musicals. There are a few I like- Heathers is fun, The Book of Mormon and Les Miserables both have their moments- but in my experience the vast majority of songwriting rooted in contemporary musical theater has a very particular sort of affected, garish preciousness that I really can’t stand. This is especially true when it comes to commercial recordings of musical theater, which are, in my opinion, the absolute worst way to experience the medium. Not only are you robbed of the visual component of the performance, but music specifically geared towards the kind of outsized performances that can play all the way from the stage to the cheap seats is now being blasted directly into your speakers or headphones, and the effect is, to me, unfailingly smothering. When it’s so up-close and personal, the artifice and exaggerated emotions just seem clunky and too-obvious, lacking in any kind of nuance or subtlety. Now, this version of “Hair” is not the version performed by the original Broadway cast of the eponymous musical, but a cover by pop rockers The Cowsills, which makes it almost impressive how much that overzealous, yelling-into-your-ear style of delivery still comes across here (unlike the boring-but-inoffensive pop cover of “Good Morning Starshine” which also charted this year). An important thing to know about the musical Hair is that almost every song in it is under 3 minutes long, and they mostly convey a single, simple idea rather than a full plot point or character interaction. This makes them uniquely ill-equipped to stand on their own. In the context of a full production of Hair, the title song may well be an enjoyably goofy respite from all the serious anti-war themes, but by itself it’s one of the most shallow, one-dimensional portrayals of a hippie I’ve ever seen. It treads the line between being a sort of farcical roasting of this man’s outlandish coiffure and an open-minded acceptance of it, and in doing so it becomes almost completely meaningless. Maybe 50 years ago it seemed more like something worth singing about, but as someone who has dealt with unsolicited comments about the length of their hair for the majority of their life, “Hair” only serves to remind me of how much I wish everyone would just shut the fuck up about it and get on with their lives.
…Aaaaand that’s a wrap on the sixties! Hot damn, what a decade! Thank you all so much for tuning in to the first “season” (so to speak) of Pop Goes The Year! After this post goes live, this project will be going on hiatus while I work on completing PGTY season 2: the ’70s! With a lot of hard work and a little luck, I’m planning on resuming regular posting with ‘The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1970’ in March of 2021, give or take a few weeks (I’ll most likely be posting a little update sometime before then with an official schedule once I have one). I hope to see you all there. Until then, happy listening!