1972 was, on balance, a pretty damn solid year for the pop charts, but it certainly wasn’t exempt from the same guff that the years surrounding it suffered from. As usual, we got featherweight manufactured pap, cheesy AM-radio schlock, dunderheaded hard rock, and a handful of cash-grab imitations of the biggest sounds of 2-3 years ago. We also got a pretty substantial number of disappointments from artists who had previously been among the pop world’s finest: there were unremarkable or mediocre efforts from Neil Young, Cher and Aretha Franklin, James Brown began a long, slow decline into irrelevance and self-parody, and several of the 10 songs listed below came courtesy of acts I had hoped would be best list shoo-ins, or at the very least reliably decent. Whether they were talented performers who should have known better or hacks trying to trend-hop to the top, these were the 10 tracks that show the early 70s at its dumbest, lamest, and overall least impressive. On with the show!
#10: Argent- Hold Your Head Up
With the 70s in full swing, hard rock was really starting to flourish in ‘72. At the top of the heap, we were getting classics from enduring rock titans like Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult. Anyone willing to dig a little deeper could easily find worthy B-listers like Uriah Heep, Alice Cooper and the nascent ZZ Top. And, at the very bottom, you had stuff like Argent, a little-remembered English band formed around former Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent. Their biggest chart success, “Hold Your Head Up”, feels like the product of a songwriter cribbing notes from the great rock bands of the late 60s and clumsily slapping them all together. You have some Pete Townshend-esque power chords, some vaguely psychedelic auxiliary percussion, Argent doing his damnedest to sing like Paul McCartney, a sort of CCR-lite boogie/march thing happening with the bassline- none of it is bad in and of itself, but it fails by virtue of never gelling together into anything more than the sum of its parts. The chorus is especially weak here, consisting of only one line repeated ad nauseum, with an irritating and pointless wail backing each repetition. It’s at the bottom of this list because it’s fairly well-produced and manages to get a fair bit of mileage out of Argent’s nimble organ playing, but a dire lack of any unifying vision to center everything around leaves “Hold Your Head Up” feeling like little more than a hollow, forgettable pastiche.
#9: Melanie- Brand New Key
It’s always a shame when a song by an artist I’ve liked a lot in the past ends up on one of these worst lists. It’s also a shame that Melanie Safka decided to completely ditch everything that made “Lay Down” such a resounding success in favor of faffing about with old-timey parlor music. Look, when Paul McCartney started doing this kind of thing on songs like “Martha My Dear”, it understandably put a lot of people off, and I honestly think that if he had pursued it any further it would have put a pretty sizeable dent in the Beatles’ reputation. There’s a very good reason this kind of music died out with the Great Depression, and as much as I do enjoy her older material, Safka is no McCartney. If even one of the sharpest pop songwriters of the 20th century was only barely able to make such an outmoded musical form palatable to a modern audience, it’s safe to say the rest of the pop world didn’t have a prayer of wringing anything of value from that style. To make matters worse, for how well Safka’s voice suited the gospel-touched “Lay Down”, she is woefully unequipped for the kind of twee-pop she’s attempting here, between the painful attempts at octave leaps and the reaches into a falsetto that simply isn’t there. Melodrama was a good look for her, but if people heard this song and assumed Safka just flat-out couldn’t sing, I wouldn’t blame them. The lyrics are none too impressive either- supposedly it’s all innuendo (I guess the “brand new key” is this guy’s dick?) but for all intents and purposes it could just be literally about the narrator getting new roller skates and pestering her crush to hang out with her. “Brand New Key” is the biggest disappointment of the year, a misguided sonic pivot that ultimately yielded nothing but a headache for listeners and a permanent end to Safka’s career as a hitmaker.
#8: Donna Fargo- The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.
I don’t have anything against happy music. Hell, I love happy music, and goodness knows we need it more than ever in these trying times. But the line between “happy” and “self-satisfied” can be a very, very thin one, as in the case of pop-country songstress Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”. It’s an especially common pitfall when it comes to songs where the lyrics basically amount to “Wow my significant other is so great, they’re just the best, I’m so lucky to be with them, life is all peaches and cream now that they’re in my life”. You really need to take pains to get the listener invested in the relationship, or the whole thing can get real grating real quick. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, too, like by focusing on how the relationship has improved the narrator’s life, or employing a melody and/or arrangement that conveys a sense of intense romantic passion. “The Happiest Girl” doesn’t do any of that. It’s just Fargo’s narrator fawning over her new husband and fantasizing about their impending domestic bliss, and all the aw-shucks turns of phrase like “that bojangle clock” or rhyming the title line with “it’s a skippity-doo-da-day” and the saccharine chimes and strings just make it sound one-dimensional and childish. The only real appeal of the song is for people who are similarly enamored with their new spouse, and its failure to offer anything beyond basic, generic relatability for that very limited audience makes it a chore to get through for pretty much everyone else.
#7: Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show- Sylvia’s Mother
Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show are best known for their hit song “Cover of Rolling Stone”, which was released in late 1972 and made its way onto the ‘73 year-end list. I actually like that song quite a bit; it’s a surprisingly sharp send-up of rock culture at the time, the humor isn’t too wink-wink-nudge-nudge, and overall it’s a fun, catchy listen that benefits a lot from not taking itself that seriously. It’s a real shame that pretty much all their other hits were treacly soft-rock slogs with none of the wit, charm, or energy of “Cover of Rolling Stone”. In fact, Dr. Hook started sucking even before “Cover of the Rolling Stone” with their first hit single, “Sylvia’s Mother”. The biggest issue here is lead vocalist Dennis Locorierre, who sings with a revoltingly whimpering, quavery pout, like he’s on the verge of dissolving into tears. I’m all for emotive singing, but if you’ve ever seen a really bad movie or play where the actors are going WAY overboard with the hamminess, just overselling the crap out of every line and constantly mugging at the camera or the audience, you know that there is absolutely such a thing as putting too much emotion into your delivery, and that’s definitely the territory Locorierre enters here. His over-the-top blubbering doesn’t do a thing for the song he’s singing, either: the narrator repeatedly cold-calls the titular woman because of his unrequited crush on her daughter, and the whiny, self-pitying tone of the vocals only makes it seem more stalker-ish and creepy. The instrumental is bland as paste, and the melody only manages to incrementally redeem it to the level of being barely tolerable to have on in the background, but at the end of the day it’s nothing more than a wimpy, snivelling failure that begot a half-dozen more failures just like it.
#6: Harry Nilsson- Coconut
When I put Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” on my 1969 best list, I compared the melancholic survey of post-industrial America to the early work of Modest Mouse. If we continue with this framing of Nilsson as a sort of proto-Isaac Brock, then, “Coconut” is Nilsson’s “Ice Cream Party”, or perhaps more appropriately his “Dance Hall”- a thinly-sketched, throwaway piss-take that adds a bit of levity to the album. The album, in this case, is 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, which I’ve heard is quite good, so who knows, perhaps it plays better in context. Either way, it makes for a horrible single, a gibbering, repetitive annoyance that treads far too close to cod reggae for comfort. You know how sometimes you only know one line from a song, and you kind of assume that the actual song has more to it than that, and that that one line has only become especially memetic for being ear-grabbing or weird? Yeah, well the reason why the only thing anyone remembers about “Coconut” is “You put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up” is that that line comprises roughly 85% of the song’s runtime. It bludgeons you over the head with that one-line chorus, offering only minor variation across its four-minute runtime, and frankly this is a chorus that barely deserves a normal amount of repetition, let alone the unceasing avalanche of “yaputdaLIMEindaCOcanuttinDRINKembowdUP” we get here.
#5: Three Dog Night- Black and White
I’m not sure when exactly Three Dog Night gave up the pretense of being any kind of credible rock band- probably around 1970 or so- but I think I might have preferred them when they were pretending to be anything but a manufactured label creation. Their hit single “Black and White” was originally penned by Earl Robinson and, uh… Alan Arkin’s dad, apparently? Weird little factoid there. Of course, the message itself is good, if a little ham-handed: Racism is bad, and the world will be better once we put an end to it. Unfortunately, the actual lyrics are… not good. Just incredibly clunky, obvious poetry with hardly a single noteworthy detail or interesting phrase to latch on to, and the exact kind of third-grade understanding of racism that you’d expect from two white guys raised in a pre- Brown v. Board of Education world. Actually, the song originally included a reference to that exact court ruling, saying it would “end the years and years of shame”. It’s a pretty pointed, effective lyric; it would have been nice if it hadn’t gotten cut from the Three Dog Night version! But then again, of course it’s missing here, where it would likely have clashed badly with the sonic palette of chintzy, toothless vocal pop, or with Danny Hutton’s low-budget Tom Jones impression. The overall impression that “Black and White” leaves is of an anti-racism that’s as sanitized, unchallenging and neutered as possible. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if your aesthetic goal in releasing a song like this is to not ruffle any feathers, then you’re not anti-racist, you’re a careerist with decent optics.
#4: Chuck Berry- My Ding-A-Ling
As I’ve mentioned previously, the 70s was a very good time for ROCK & ROLL!!! Yes, in 1972, loud guitars, impishly suggestive lyrics and raucous drumbeats were the order of the day, arguably more so than at any other point in history. It was practically the perfect time for a commercial comeback from Chuck Berry, one of the founding fathers of rock music. Berry’s output in the mid-late 50s became a guidebook for almost every one of the most beloved and important rock acts of the 60s and 70s, and in the midst of rock properly going mainstream, who better than the man himself to return to the charts with another classic hit like “Johnny B. Goode” or “Roll Over Beethoven” to reconnect the genre to its scrappy, energetic roots? Well, as you may have guessed, that isn’t quite how it went down. Berry’s big comeback single (and his highest-charting single EVER) was “My Ding-A-Ling”, an extended dick joke that had exactly as much tact and wit as its title implies- which is to say, not much. In all honesty, the fact that it’s suggestive and sophomoric actually doesn’t bother me that much; anyone who claims that Berry’s music was ever thoughtful or even particularly tasteful is absolutely kidding themselves. But in his prime, he was also a ruthlessly economical songwriter, rarely pushing a song past the three-minute mark. Furthermore, his best material burst with an irrepressible enthusiasm that supercharged his simple, catchy tunes. “My Ding-A-Ling”’s biggest sin is ultimately its inoffensive, midtempo pokiness. Even Berry’s solid crowd work on this live recording can’t provide nearly enough energy to justify its four-plus minutes of groan-worthy masturbation jokes, and frankly I’m terrified as to what sitting through the full, ELEVEN MINUTE album version might do to my sanity. Rock can be crass and juvenile and braindead if it wants to be. The second it becomes boring, it belongs nowhere but the garbage can, and “My Ding-A-Ling” is more boring than I ever thought a legend like Chuck Berry could be.
#3: The Jimmy Castor Bunch- Troglodyte (Cave Man)
Just a reminder here that I post ratings for every song I listen to for PGTY on rateyourmusic.com, like share subscribe please! I generally try not to look at what the average ratings for the tracks I cover here are before writing about them, so my reviews can stay as unaffected by outside opinions as possible, but sometimes, just out of curiosity, I do like to see how many people share my liking or disliking of a song and get a general sense of where my take on it falls relative to the public consensus. I’ll be honest: I did not expect “Troglodyte” to be a song with any defenders. Not only does its RYM average currently clock in at a semi-respectable 3.46/5 (based on 87 ratings), but there are articles scattered across the internet calling this a great hidden gem, an underappreciated masterpiece of 70s funk, which is nothing short of insane to me. To me, “Troglodyte” is the kind of song that belongs up there with the likes of “Disco Duck” and “Ice Ice Baby”, songs that are so head-smackingly obvious in their badness that it takes an exceptional writer to put any kind of fresh spin on critically eviscerating them. But apparently the general public, or at least the public who remembers this song, feels broadly neutral towards “Troglodyte”, even trending a bit towards positive! I’m at a loss. What part of this thing is even slightly listenable? The flat, single-chord bass and guitar groove that never changes once throughout the entire song? The grunting, moronic vocal delivery? The Ray Stevens-tier premise? The surprisingly blatant misogyny in the lyrics (“you can’t grab women by the hair, fellas… Because she might be wearing a damn WEAVE!” Hyuck. Hyuck. Hyuck.)? This thing is just completely dogshit through and through, and I have no clue what could possess someone to unironically enjoy it.
#2: Donny Osmond- Puppy Love
My new arch-nemesis Donny Osmond continues his sucking streak this year with a cover of Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love”. If you’ll recall, Anka’s version also made a worst list all the way back in 1960, making this one of the few songs to make a worst list more than once, and if there was ever an artist capable of elevating this song, which I already didn’t care for, into something resembling an enjoyable pop tune, then it certainly wasn’t this little twerp. That’s not to say there aren’t differences, though: the dozen years of advances in recording technology since Anka’s original allow Osmond’s rendition to be an even more syrupy, overproduced wreck, between the cheesy strings slathered all over it and the ear-scrapingly terrible multi-tracking on Osmond’s vocals. Osmond’s voice, by the way, is the other big difference, and since I don’t want to repeat myself across multiple worst-list entries I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide whether I think his prepubescent mewling is an improvement over Anka’s. Osmond’s incongruity with my musical sensibilities is quickly going to become an old song and dance over the next couple worst lists, but don’t think that doesn’t mean my distaste for his material is anything less than completely genuine. This song sucks, Donny Osmond sucks, and that’s all there really is to it.
#1: The Chakachas- Jungle Fever
70s R&B is famed for being extremely conducive to lovemaking. If you’re looking to get down ‘n’ dirty with that special someone, odds are you’re throwing on a playlist chock-full of the smoothest, sexiest soul the seventies has to offer. One aspect of this sort of music which has kind of been lost to time, though, is that not only were most songs in this field about sex and sonically evocative of sexuality, but a surprising number of them went so far as to include actual, literal sex noises in the recordings. After all, the 70s was not only the decade of smooth sex jams, but the epicenter of the so-called “golden age of pornography”. Explicitly lewd media was becoming increasingly accepted in the public sphere, so why not spice up your sultry tunes even more with a little bit of audio porn? As far as I’m concerned, this idea was unequivocally awful, almost without exception, and I think this is evidenced by the fact that almost none of the songs that employed this trick have really withstood the test of time- like “Jungle Fever”, the only lasting legacy of Belgian one-hit blunders The Chakachas. The best sex jams of the 70s conveyed a powerful sense of eroticism through sensual vocals and deep, languid grooves alone, but this? Sorry, but this slab of cheap, flat-sounding funk would barely rise to the level of C-grade blaxploitation soundtrack filler without the breathy moaning and groaning haphazardly stapled on top of it, and it arguably gets even worse when you factor in that less-than-brilliant addition. I’m willing to admit that not wanting to hear sex noises over pop music is, at least partially, a “me problem”, but when the music it’s paired with is this low-effort and ill-fitting, I’m willing to call a spade a spade and just say that “Jungle Fever” is crap- painfully dated, shallow-as-a-kiddie-pool crap.