Now, having established myself as a one hundred per cent, bona-fide “Fan of 1970s Music”, I don’t think it’s too terribly controversial to say that the bad music of the 70s is, broadly, worse than the bad music of the 60s. At any rate, it’s persisted much more as a distinct set of aesthetics- While the so-called “lame ‘70s” has been rightfully dwarfed by the bountiful crop of wonderful music from the same period, the amorphous cluster of AM-radio cheese that produced the likes of Tony Orlando & Dawn, Barry Manilow, and The Partridge Family has remained fairly concrete as a cultural gestalt, as has the phenomenon of low-rent bar bands cribbing half-assedly from the rock explosion they were ushered into the mainstream on the heels of. This makes writing about the worst hits of the era a bit easier, since well-known points of reference are somewhat less scarce than they were when I was writing about the zillionth featureless hack job to emerge from The Brill Building in the ‘60s… but boy, it sure doesn’t make listening to them any less painful. Without further ado, let’s begin our examination of the hideous, grimy underbelly of ‘70s pop- On with the show!
#10: Three Dog Night- Mama Told Me (Not to Come)
As I just mentioned in my intro, the early ‘70s saw a major influx of third-rate bar bands who somehow, through a combination of dumb luck and fortuituous timing, wound up as top 40 staples. One of the primary examples of this is Three Dog Night, who debuted on the 1969 charts with the soft-rock smash “One (is the Loneliest Number)” and the also-very-successful “Easy to be Hard”. Now, both of those songs were pretty mellow, light things- not awful, but probably also not the best first impression to make when you’re trying to make a name for yourself as a loose, good-times boogie rock band. I’m guessing that, after their success in ‘69, TDN were looking to toughen up their sound a bit, try to prove they had at least a little bit of actual rocker cred, and the result is “Mama Told Me”, originally popularized by Eric Burdon of The Animals. The joke of “Mama Told Me” is that it’s a party song written from the perspective of some nerd who’s totally out of his depth. That’s a solid, creative premise, and the instrumentation does a passable job at conjuring up the vibe of a wild, late-60s party, but when your song is written from the perspective of a particular character, you really need a vocalist who’s believable as that character, and lead ‘Dog Cory Wells trying to sell himself as this straight-arrow nebbish is roughly equivalent to Jeff Bridges being cast for Michael Cera’s role in Superbad. He tries to make up for it with delirious, zany energy, with his delivery almost bordering on novelty-song territory, but it just makes the whole thing annoying in addition to being totally unconvincing, and it hurts this song especially because the whole thing hinges on the contrast between the upbeat music and the anxious, dorky narrator. The tune itself is tolerable apart from a noticeably weak chorus, making it all the more a shame that the execution so grievously misses the chance to make it really shine.
#9: The Kinks- Lola
On paper, The Kinks’ “Lola” has a lot going for it. It showed the Kinks returning to the top 10 with a more mature sound, even incorporating some folk influences with surprising grace. Ray Davies turns in a much more dynamic and involved vocal performance than on their earlier hits. Perhaps most importantly, the lyric flirts with themes of queer sexuality and gender nonconformity in ways that have, overall, aged far better than anyone would have reason to expect. On one hand, I see why this has remained a fan-favorite single and radio stalwart for 50-plus years. But, on the other hand… I dunno, man. “Lola” has just never sat right with me. For starters, I think the melodic heart of the song is the weakest part of it, and the song gets proportionally stronger the further it strays from that central motif. The less a given line has to do melodically with “la-la-la-la Lola”, the more I enjoy it, and the feeling that the song is always pulling me back to the thing I like least about it is one that gets harder to stomach with every listen. I’m also conflicted on Davies’ lyric here- both the narrator and the larger framing are mostly accepting of Lola’s lack of “traditional” (read: cisgender) female-ness, and that’s certainly worth respecting. However, I’m always leery of stories that empower unconventional women via a male narrator through whose desire their abberrance is made acceptable. Put another way, we’re told Lola is valid as a woman, but the way we’re told that is by having the narrator still want to fuck her after he finds out she’s trans. This isn’t to make some specious argument as to why “Lola” is problematic or cancelled or whatever, but I do think that, in addition to being a song that did push boundaries that needed pushing, it also remained beholden to old-fashioned tropes in some very important ways that greatly harmed the overall message. Ultimately, “Lola” is a song that’s worth a closer look, and while I do understand the value some find here, for me that closer look just leaves me unimpressed and more than a little uncomfortable.
#8: The Jaggerz- The Rapper
“The Rapper” is the worst kind of bad song to try and write about. Its flaws don’t add up to some central, crippling error in the artist’s approach, it isn’t totally incompetent- hell, I doubt very many people even remember this song enough to hate it. It’s just mildly dull and mildly irritating, in a dozen little ways that all have very little to do with each other. Like here, take the first line of the song: “Hey girl / I betcha / Someone’s out to gettt yoouuu”. How easy would it have been to pronounce “Get you” as “getcha” to make it actually rhyme? How is that not just the intuitive way to sing that line? It’s like they’re going out of their way to make it not work! The way that dumb distorted guitar line comes in at the end of the verse makes no sense, adding the wrong sort of tension that the chorus doesn’t do anything to actually resolve properly. The half-step key change in the chorus feels completely arbitrary. I don’t like the way the percussion sounds. Lead singer Donnie Iris has a painfully weak falsetto and uses it in all the worst places here. If this reads like a jumble of unconnected gripes, then I’ve successfully communicated what listening to this song feels like to me. Nothing about it works, and its failure is so completely uncompelling that I actually kept forgetting why I had even put it on this list. Well, now I remember. Other songs this year may have been more boring or more grating, but none managed to be this boringly grating.
#7: The Chairmen of the Board- Give Me Just A Little More Time
After their runaway success in the mid-60s, the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team went through… a bit of a rough patch. A series of increasingly acrimonious financial disputes with CEO Berry Gordy Jr. culminated in their split from Motown in 1968, and by the final weeks of the decade they were trying to get their own Invictus Records off the ground while still embroiled in an ugly legal battle with their former employer. What does any of that have to do with this song? Well, The Chairmen of the Board were supposed to be Invictus Records’ flagship act, their very own Temptations or Miracles that would establish them as a hitmaking apparatus on the same level as Motown or Stax. Thing is, they didn’t have a Smokey Robinson or a Marvin Gaye or even a Sam Moore. They had General Norman Johnson. The band’s Wikipedia article describes Johnson’s singing voice as “quirky” and “hiccup-laden”, and if you know anything about the Holland-Dozier-Holland style, those descriptors should be MAJOR red flags. There are plenty of songwriters who can work well with a less conventionally appealing voice, but that’s not these guys. They were best at big, emotional pop with lush, bombastic instrumentation, the kind of songs you really need a powerful, charismatic vocalist to sell. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do here, and it’s badly jarring hearing this honking goose of a vocalist over an otherwise lovely bit of classic pop-soul. To make matters worse, they no longer had the budget for a lavish, top-of-the-line production job, so instead of Johnson’s vocals being nestled inside the mix, where his wonkiness might have been mitigated, he’s slapped right on top, with no layering or blending, and it just sounds ugly. The massive songwriting talent of this team is still visible here, but hearing it so wasted on a vocalist who can’t handle it properly and a mix that does it no justice isn’t just unpleasant, it’s genuinely saddening.
#6: Free- All Right Now
My feelings on the ‘70s wave of (heavy scare-quotes here) “classic rock” are, put lightly, mixed. On the one hand, you have undeniably great stuff from bands like Pink Floyd, Queen, and David Bowie who, with their creative songwriting and bold sonic exploration, inspired generations of musicians to keep pushing the envelope of what guitar music can be. But on the other hand, for every amazing, timeless radio staple the ‘70s gave us, we also got a half-dozen slabs of brainless, cookie-cutter rawk with no aspirations beyond bland macho posturing and graceless, unimaginative guitar riffs. One of the first inklings of this phenomenon was “All Right Now”, the vapid, lumbering brainchild of British one-hitters Free, which laid the groundwork for much of the next decade-plus of creatively bankrupt rock music. It’s pretty much all here: the dumb-as-nails main riff, the thudding drumbeat that isn’t fast enough to actually rock out to, the cigs-n-beer dudebro vocals, and the meatheaded, horndog lyricism. Looking up the lyrics reveals a story about picking up a smokin’ hot momma on the road and tryin’ to get a li’l sugar from her (sorry, I assume that’s how all these bands talk), but honestly you don’t need to even listen to the words to know that, since everything about “All Right Now” already communicates that exact idea with a comparable level of tact. Maybe a halfway decent distorted guitar tone and a sufficiently masculine vocalist are enough to sell this song to its target audience of emotionally stunted boomers and hormone-addled teenage boys, but the rest of us are probably better off steering clear of this kind of lowest-common-denominator sleaze.
#5: Mark Lindsay- Arizona
Mark Lindsay may have spent the entirety of the 60s as the frontman of pop-rockers Paul Revere & the Raiders, but his solo debut on the charts reminds me more of Bobby Sherman’s “Little Woman” from last year than anything Lindsay’s old band put out. Like “Little Woman”, it’s a thoroughly patronizing lecture about how the titular girl is a naive idealist who doesn’t understand the importance of thinking pragmatically- always a joy to listen to. However, “Arizona” folds in a bit more cultural commentary; you see, Arizona isn’t just your garden-variety naive idealist, she’s a hippy. So the narrator’s condescending dismissal of her pie-in-the-sky beliefs becomes a proxy for also dismissing all these long-haired weirdos and their “alternative lifestyles” or whatever. Look, the hippy movement of the 60s and early 70s is not above criticism. At worst, it was a bunch of out-of-touch rich kids who adopted radical politics and counterculture for the aesthetics, ditched them when they got bored of doing drugs and hooking up at Grateful Dead concerts, moved to the suburbs, and became unbearable, entitled Reaganites. But it’s not like the narrator here is telling Arizona to focus on fighting the system instead of futzing around in a haze of aimless hedonism. He’s lamenting “doesn’t anybody know how to pray?”, only a hair away from going full “kids these days need to pull their pants up and turn down that damn devil music”. Forget aging poorly, this shit was painfully lame as early as ‘67, and the obnoxious, blaring chorus and Linsday’s mediocre vocals make it even easier to discard as a behind-the-times failure.
#4: Tom Jones- Without Love (There is Nothing)
New year, new decade, same old Tom Jones. There’s honestly not much I could say about “Without Love” that wouldn’t be true of any of the previous five(!) hits of his to grace my worst lists. I suppose that spoken intro (something I’m very rarely a fan of in pop) is a new move for Jones, but even that feels dwarfed by the exact same suffocating melodrama that’s characterized nearly his entire recorded output to this point. It’s not Jones’ worst performance (I’m always eager to point out that “What’s New Pussycat?” remains unmatched in that arena), but it may just be his Tom Jones-iest, his most characteristically overblown and overzealous. If you simply can’t get enough of this po-faced fancylad wailing like the goddamned phantom of the opera, then “Without Love” is the song for you! It’s a Tom Jones song. I don’t like Tom Jones. That’s all there is to it.
#3: Bobbi Martin- For the Love of Him
You know, I worry sometimes that when I critique songs like this, I come off as some scolding feminist killjoy who can’t stand anything that even resembles quote-unquote “traditional values”. I’ll admit that, in general, I don’t tend to love songs that espouse a more conservative perspective, but it’s not like it’s an unqualified dealbreaker for me either (no one who’s ever enjoyed a power metal song has room to say that). While I would still argue that ‘you should dote on your husband and be a good docile housewife’ is, at best, a shaky concept to build a song on, the real flaw at the heart of “For The Love of Him” is its total failure to make any kind of persuasive argument for it. This is actually illustrative of a problem I think is endemic to conservative-leaning art: it’s so often unwilling to challenge or even acknowledge the base assumptions our day-to-day lives are built on, that it would need to address in order to build a compelling argument for why we ought to live our lives differently than we are. This problem can be circumvented by focusing on appeals to raw emotion, or even just barreling through with sheer conviction (again, I point to power metal), but when conservative artists try to make such an explicit call to action as this, all too often it just boils down to essentially saying “do it just ‘cause”, and any value it has is entirely predicated on the listener accepting that wholesale, at face value. A stellar vocalist or a particularly impactful arrangement could have at least given “For the Love of Him” the force to be worthwhile despite its flimsy excuse for a “message”, but the chintzy orchestration and Bobbi Martin’s middle-grade belting leave it weak on all fronts, a sub-par pop tune just waiting to crumble under the weight of an underthought attempt at commentary.
#2: The Pipkins- Gimme Dat Ding
On the one hand, my reasons for hating “Gimme Dat Ding” are pretty surface-level and superficial: It’s annoying. Both the vocalists are annoying. The ragtime tack-piano is annoying. It’s the most unpleasantly earwormy song I’ve heard since “Surfin’ Bird”. On the other hand, “Gimme Dat Ding” is a pretty surface-level, superficial song. There just isn’t much to dig into here- it is what it is, and trying to look under the hood just reveals more of the same. I’m not about to write a whole dissertation on why this is a shitty song that sucks, because that would doubtlessly be putting more brainpower into tearing this song apart than the Pipkins put into writing and performing it. I have to assume its success was due to a combination of sounding different for the time and being so incessant that it stuck in everyone’s heads, because, well, what else is even here? It’s almost entirely three words and those three words are “gimme dat ding”. Draw your own conclusions, people.
#1: Eddie Holman- Hey There, Lonely Girl
I’m sorely tempted to give Eddie Holman a pass for this. After all, it’s not every day you create one of the most unintentionally funny songs of the entire 60s (and less than a month before the decade ended, too!). You could wring every ounce of possible comedy from every birdbrained novelty single of the entire 1960s combined and it still wouldn’t be half as genuinely, laugh-out-loud hysterical as the moment Holman’s squeaky, mickey-mouse falsetto comes in on “Hey There, Lonely Girl”. What??? This is the guy you got for your smooth soul sex jam??? It’s not that Holman is a bad singer here, it’s that he’s so self-evidently, anyone-with-ears-can-hear-it terrible that the song almost comes full-circle and becomes some kind of bizarre outsider art or anti-comedy. Sadly, one hilarious moment isn’t enough to buoy the track as a whole, and once you get over the initial shock, you still have to hear the rest of this thoroughly boring soul ballad sung in one of the more aggravating voices to ever grace the pop charts of the 70s. I’ve damned songs with faint praise before, but “it fails so hard that the very fact of its failure is briefly entertaining” has to take the cake.