The Top 10 Worst Hit Songs of 1971

With the 70s starting to really kick in, along with all the excellent soul and rock that was vying for the public’s attention, we also got a fair bit of… I guess the only real term for it is “dumb shit”. While many of the pop world’s best and brightest were exploring ever-more mature and emotionally complex material, the bottom of the barrel stuff responded by getting really, really doofy. Of course, soft rock and easy listening are still slowly but surely gaining ground, moving ever closer to their Manilow-fuelled peak in the second half of the decade, and The Partridge Family and the Osmonds both spearheaded efforts by the music industry to steer pop in a more family-friendly direction, but the dominant form bad music took this year, and for much of the early 70s, was some kind of bizarre mutation of the novelty single that fused weird, gimmicky premises with a hopelessly dorky earnesty, and not “emotionally-honest” earnesty, but “I-don’t-think-they’re-in-on-the-joke” earnesty. We’ve got a little bit of everything here, so buckle your seatbelts for yet another tour through the 70s shlock that time rightly forgot- On with the show!

#10: Tom Jones- She’s A Lady

It’s a bit of a shame that Tom Jones’ final big hit shows him actually starting to get… Well, “good” isn’t the right word for it, but he’s certainly displaying a slightly better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a performer, and that ain’t worth nothing. He can’t pull off sentimentality or sensitivity to save his life, but though I still don’t much like his more bombastic, upbeat side, he can at least sell it convincingly, and that’s where I have to grudgingly admit that “She’s a Lady” succeeds. I actually kind of dig the little surf rock guitar leads and the proto-disco beat here, but unfortunately, as is so often the case with this guy, it falls apart once you get to the lyrics and Jones’ performance of them. It feels like a cop-out to say the reason it’s bad is because they rhyme “winner” with “dinner” in the first verse, but that’s really the main thing I keep coming back to. It’s bombastic, but as that one rhyme clearly shows, it’s also kind of silly and dumb, and since Jones is so incapable of playing it with even a little self-awareness, his full-send energy seems just a bit misplaced. I can’t say I hate “She’s A Lady”, I could maybe even talk myself into liking it if I really, really wanted to, but man, I was sick of Tom Jones’s shtick by his second year on the charts. After 8 years of it, even a comparatively innocuous offering like this is more than I can deal with.

#9: Olivia Newton-John- If Not For You

Compared to the other songs on this list, “If Not For You” has some serious pedigree behind it. Originally written by Bob Dylan, based on an arrangement by George Harrison- on paper, it seems like a sure bet, doesn’t it? Well, though Dylan’s lyric here is no “Like A Rolling Stone” and Harrison’s four-note slide riff wears out its welcome pretty quickly (no thanks to the extremely sterile production), the real problem with “If Not For You” is Olivia Newton-John herself. This woman was a puff of a wisp of a nothing of a singer, possessed of a perfectly lovely voice which she used to coast through over a decade of hits without once sounding the least bit invested in or moved by the songs she was singing. She could hit the notes, sure, but it was this very song’s original composer who first proved that conviction trumps technical ability any day of the week, while Newton-John’s rendition marked the convictionless start of a long, convictionless career. I don’t want anyone to confuse this for an attack on Newton-John’s personal character; by all accounts, she’s a kind and grounded woman who has spent decades advocating tirelessly for a variety of worthy causes. I’m glad she’s at least passionate about her activism, because on record, she just doesn’t sound like she means it.

#8: Chicago- Beginnings

Before Chicago were an atrocious pop band, they were a barely-mediocre soft rock band, and before even that a slightly-above-mediocre jazz fusion/prog rock band. While I will not dispute that the lattermost of those is a comparatively more worthwhile thing to be, I also have no intention of making early Chicago the beneficiary of retroactively lowered expectations (see, if Chicago had ever been any kind of self-respecting prog act, they would have had song titles like “The Beneficiary of Retroactively Lowered Expectations” instead of bland crap like “Beginnings”). I’ll admit that many of the band’s early singles show the good band they could have become had they not devolved into mushy tripe: “25 or 6 to 4” is a solid proof-of-concept for their original mission to create a “rock & roll band with horns” that’s only prevented from genuine greatness by Peter Cetera’s heinous vocals, and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is perhaps the world record holder for most time-signature changes crammed into a top-10 pop single to this day, which is impressive if not necessarily enjoyable. But “Beginnings” was, fittingly, the beginning of many of the things that would come to make Chicago one of the most tedious bands of the 20th century. There’s the lackluster stabs at romance in the lyrics. There’s the meandering vocal melodies that never land anywhere impactful or satisfying. Most importantly, there’s the sense that the song wants to be all things to all people- jazzy and complex while still remaining poppy and accessible, rock-oriented yet mellow enough to reel in the easy listening crowd. It feels like a compromise at every turn, afraid to be any one thing enough to risk alienating people who don’t like that thing. ‘70s Chicago has a handful of songs I do like, and only a couple that bug me enough to slap them on a worst list, but even at their creative peak, they only ever came across as a band full of half-measures and hedged bets to me.

#7: The Partridge Family- Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted

I feel really bad for the late David Cassidy. While practically every person to become a music or television star at a young age has been relentlessly exploited and abused by the industry surrounding them, Cassidy was always more vocal than most about the terrible toll fame took on his psyche, and how much of his career he regretted. He hated being on a dumb sing-songy sitcom, he hated being a gussied-up teen idol, and by the time he finally made some semblance of peace with his place in the pop world, his 15 minutes of fame were far behind him; in my view, he can only be considered to have been “successful” in the most hollow, meaningless sense of the word. As much as I don’t like “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted”, I could hardly be more critical of it than Cassidy himself, who had to be cajoled and pressured into singing on it at all and reportedly spent weeks begging his label not to release it as a single when he first heard the final product. And yeah, listening to it, I can’t say his aversion to this vapid bit of corporate pop was unmerited. The only interesting thing about it is hearing Cassidy’s deadened, emotionless delivery of that unbearably maudlin spoken passage and knowing he loathes this thing every bit as much as you do and more. Even if I somehow convinced myself the song wasn’t bad on its own merits, I’d still object to it on behalf of its singer, who didn’t have his wishes regarding its release respected and spent the rest of his career ashamed of it, when the only ones who should have been feeling shame were the record label ghouls who bullied him into it.

#6: Bobby Goldsboro- Watching Scotty Grow

If you, like me, spend way too much time on Twitter, you’ve probably come across someone making jokes about “wife guys” or mocking someone else for being a “wife guy”. It’s a useful term and a funny one, too, referring to a man (usually on the internet) who has, whether intentionally or inadvertently, built an entire persona around being a doting, devoted husband. Why this is something worthy of mockery is a little hard to pin down; there’s just something fundamentally obnoxious about a guy who can’t seem to post about anything other than his relationship, like the social media version of that friend who refuses to shut up about their newly-acquired significant other. Bobby Goldsboro is not a wife guy, but the far-rarer cousin to the wife guy, the “son guy”. Look: parenthood, like marriage, is a deeply affecting experience for many people, something that fundamentally changes the way a person lives their life and looks at the world. But “Watching Scotty Grow” gets at the core of what makes guys like this so insufferable: They take it as a given that the entire goddamn world is as invested in the minutiae of their family life as they are. Why would you bother to give us any actual reason to want to know about your kid, when the mere act of having a kid is inherently fascinating, inherently something people who aren’t in a similar situation to you are interested in hearing about? It’s narcissism, plain and simple. This song is written like the narrator is the main character of life, and that’s exactly how Goldsboro performs it: claiming an emotional connection by birthright, disdainful of the notion that other people caring might be contingent on something like interesting lyricism or an affecting tonal arc. I don’t want to watch Scotty grow, and it doesn’t seem like that’s a possibility that even once crossed this song’s mind.

#5: Donny Osmond- Go Away Little Girl

I can think of very few performers in the entire history of the hot 100, old or new, that I despise more intensely or thoroughly than Donny Osmond. I hate his awful chirpy singing voice, I hate his stupid doofy baby face, and for that matter I hate everything I’ve been able to find of his political and social views, too (I have a fairly hardline policy against directly speaking ill of any religious denomination, so I’ll just say that anyone who supported prop 8 in any capacity in the aughts can seriously go fuck themselves). Of course, I can’t really hold Osmond’s bad politics or his dumb face against “Go Away Little Girl”, especially because it likely predates the former by a good 10 years or so. What I can hold against it is being a sappy, syrupy excuse for a love song. Setting aside Osmond’s vocals for a moment, “Go Away Little Girl” is a gallingly rote attempt at an “anti-cheating” song- the narrator is singing to this girl about how they can’t be together because he’s a taken man (“man” used loosely here). I have heard songs that use that premise well, but “Go Away Little Girl” is so entirely lacking in any kind of writerly detail or tonal nuance that it just feels smug and holier-than-thou. It’s so scrubbed-clean, so dedicatedly focused on being as sonically inoffensive as possible, that it almost enters the uncanny valley. But we really can’t go on any longer without bringing little Donny’s vocals into the conversation. He was barely 13 when he recorded this, and he honestly doesn’t even sound half that. Here’s a novel idea: how about, um, don’t make your middle-schooler sing about romance? It really feels like seeing the man behind the curtain in the worst way; I do not buy for a second that Osmond wrote these lyrics (He didn’t, it’s a cover), or even that they represent emotions he had ever personally felt at this point in his life. He is plainly a puppet dancing on a record label’s strings here, and the shamelessness of it just makes me feel gross. 

#4: Jerry Reed- When You’re Hot You’re Hot

To be honest, based on my initial listen to this song, I felt pretty confident that writing about it would be yet another exercise in complaining about a crappy singer kneecapping an already-mediocre song. The more I listened to it though, the more I realized that not only do I dislike Jerry Reed’s vocal performance on “When You’re Hot You’re Hot”, I really, really hate the song itself too. At the core of it is a phrase (When you’re hot you’re hot) that to me precludes it from having any kind of resonance or even a few cheap laughs. It’s just this dumb, meaningless idiom; there’s no wisdom in saying “when things are going well, they’ll keep going well”, especially since the song is about winning a bunch of money at dice and then getting arrested- things literally start off going well and then do NOT keep going well for the narrator! It disproves its own thesis! Maybe that isn’t even what it means here though, since throughout the song characters seem to use it in situations where it wouldn’t make any sense to do so. Why would you say “When you’re hot you’re hot” after sentencing someone to jail time? Beats the hell out of me. The meaningless lyrics don’t completely ruin the song by themselves, but unfortunately they’re performed as annoyingly as possible here, between Jerry Reed doing his best “shouting hick” impression and the shrill, nagging backing vocals on the chorus only compounding the annoyance. 

#3: Lobo- Me and You and A Dog Named Boo

When I talk about how the worst of the 70s was all dorky, weird kitsch, “Me and You and A Dog Named Boo” is the ur-example. It exemplifies the useless fluff that made up the most unlikeable music of this decade, from the thin, textureless acoustic strumming to the canned string section to Kent “Lobo” LaVoie’s pitifully weak voice. So why, if there was so much other crap just like this, is “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” right near the top of the worst list? It comes down to one thing: songwriting. On a purely technical level, this song is chock-full of flubs. Lines that have to awkwardly stretch syllables to fit into the meter properly, the weird halting chord change leading into the chorus, no proper setup to establish even the barest motivation for the narrator, the fact the the dog named Boo (arguably the only noteworthy detail in the song) seems entirely superfluous to the actual story… None of it comes together, none of it has any impact or even any real coherence. Plenty of songs this year had a similarly drab, uninspired sound, but at least they usually compensated with a passable hook or some competent lyrical imagery. This is a nothingburger of a song that can’t even manage to get the two buns right. At least there’s that very good boy sprucing up the sleeve of the single.

#2: Daddy Dewdrop- Chick-a-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)

“Chick-a-Boom” was more of a shoo-in for the worst list than any song I’ve covered in the past few years, being a combination of two of my least favorite ‘70s pop trends: Dopey not-quite-novelty crap and thunderously idiotic hard rock. From the former, it borrows the cheap, weak-sounding keyboard tones and chirping headache of a chorus. From the latter, it takes Richard Monda’s scratchy vocals and an overall sense of unrepentant herp-a-derp bro-ness. I don’t give old novelty songs credit for much, but at least the majority of them have the sense to not try to be both proudly stupid and ragingly horny at the same time. Well, call this the exception that proves the rule, because apparently Daddy Dewdrop saw no issues using this dad joke of a song as a springboard to sing about trying to hunt down and bone a lady in a black bikini (does she have any qualities apart from her titillating swimwear? If so, we’re never told). It’s neither difficult nor particularly stimulating to castigate low-ambition, low-effort crud like this song, it’s very clearly not trying to be some timeless masterpiece to last the ages, but I’d still like to think that most people’s standards for cheap, weightless radio filler should be just high enough to reject the likes of “Chick-a-Boom”.

#1: Donny Osmond- Sweet and Innocent

Bit of a spoiler here, but over the course of the next five years, every single one of Donny Osmond’s year-end entries is going to appear on a worst list. Move over, Tom Jones, there’s a new sheriff in town (the town being “sucking”, I guess?)! Thank god for small mercies though, because, as with Tom Jones and “What’s New, Pussycat?”, we’re getting the worst out of the way early with the absolute nadir of Osmond’s career, “Sweet and Innocent”. I don’t want to wear out the “he’s a literal child and that makes all of his material painfully unconvincing” refrain too quickly, but here I need to stress one simple fact that is nigh-on incomprehensible to me. Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill wrote a song where the narrator tells a woman she’s too immature to be romantically involved with him. And someone at MGM records (surely after inhaling an unholy amount of cocaine) decided that the best person to perform that song. Was a twelve-year-old child. I shouldn’t have to explain why that is a bugnuts insane decision on every level, right? Jesus christ, just let the kid sing about, I don’t know, squirt guns or PB&J sandwiches or something, anything that could maybe, conceivably, by some stretch of the imagination, be something a 12-year-old would ever choose to sing of their own free will! When I covered “Come Back When You Grow Up” a few lists back, I made it pretty clear that I don’t find “you’re too young to date me” particularly compelling as pop song material, but never in a million years would I have imagined such a song being sold to me by someone who sounds like they still have their dad check under their bed for monsters. And I haven’t even touched on the actual music yet! Unlistenable, toothless bubblegum from soup to nuts. A horrible little flute riff, saccharine strings- gag me with a spoon. “The Name Game” and “Simon Says” both betrayed a profound lack of respect by their creators for the intelligence of the listening public, but “Sweet and Innocent” isn’t just disrespectful to the listeners for feeding them such worthless pabulum, but disrespectful to Osmond as well, for giving him material that’s so blatantly contrary to who he was as a performer. Fuck. This. Song.

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