It’s hard to overstate what an incredibly great year ‘73 was music-wise, but as I’ve said before, every year has its high and low points. A “bad” year doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything I really enjoyed, and a “good” year (even a “best” year) doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything truly repugnant to get through. Also, when measuring how much I like any given chart year, I tend to think a lot more about how good the best stuff was, and less about how bad the worst stuff was, so don’t think for a second that just because 1973 is my favorite year in pop, that the worst stuff of the year got off easy, or that it wasn’t just as bad (if not even a little worse) than the worst music of years past. In fact, I’m arguably in a less generous mood than ever- in a year that gave us masterpieces like “Superstition”, “Space Oddity”, and “Money”, there was really no excuse for shit like this. We still have plenty of the same cheesy, kitschy garbage the 70s was so prolific in producing, and a couple less-obvious worst list choices to keep things interesting. Here’s the 10 biggest caveats to my adoration for the pop music of 1973- on with the show!
#10: The Carpenters- Sing
When I think of the kind of lightweight, unstimulating pop fluff that typified the weakest music of the 70s, The Carpenters are always one of the first acts to spring to my mind. And that’s honestly a bit unfair, since this group had a lot more going for them than your average 70s studio creation did. For how anodyne she often came off, Karen Carpenter still had a lovely singing voice, and her brother Richard was a half-decent composer and lyricist, at least as far as more middle-of-the-road vocal pop goes. The group put out some genuinely well-written material, but their execution of it was more often than not hampered by soft, sleepy, overly-orchestrated arrangements, with the only redeeming factors being Karen’s voice and the occasional clever compositional moment. So, when the duo decided to cover Joe Raposo’s classic Sesame Street tune “Sing”, they were starting off with a major handicap. With Richard relegated to an arranging role (in my eyes, his main weakness as an artist), the song was going to live and die on the strength of Karen’s singing, and for all the praise I could give her, Karen Carpenter was never a powerful enough vocalist to be able to make or break a song like that. Right from that opening flute line on “Sing” I always find myself rolling my eyes; it’s hard to think of a more cutesy, cloying way to kick things off, and even when the percussion enters the equation (after entirely too long), it just never builds the energy or zip to feel like much more than empty calories, the musical equivalent of pink frosting. The renditions of “Sing” that appear on Sesame Street have a childlike sense of innocence that exudes charm and fun, but without the scrappy, DIY-feeling arrangements and engaging visuals of the show it came from, this version can only manage to be childish in all the wrong ways.
#9: War- The Cisco Kid
War was… weird. They were so radically different from all their contemporaries that it can feel impossible to contextualize them within the scope of 70s pop music, the kind of reckless genre-blurring that today mostly crops up in hip-and-happening indie acts like Algiers or Zeal & Ardor. They drew from so many sounds and styles that you never really knew what you were going to get from the next War single, both in terms of sound and, unfortunately, quality. When they got the right balance of latin, rock, reggae, and R&B and found a good tune to stick it to, we were treated to quality jams like “Slippin’ Into Darkness”, “Summer”, and even this year’s “The World is a Ghetto”. When they missed the mark, though, we got duds like this. I guess the most obvious problem with “The Cisco Kid” is that it doesn’t have much of a hook or even really a chorus, opting instead to sort of just ride the same groove for pretty much the whole song. That’s not bad in itself- hell, “Superstition” basically does the same thing and that’s one of my favorite songs of the decade- but the groove is actually kind of weak here, lacking in the tightness and punch that so many funk acts were excelling at around this time. The instrumentation feels like it’s just kind of hazily circling the groove rather than adhering crisply to it; how much of that is sub-par songwriting and how much is just my self-admitted bias against music rooted in reggae is up to you. There’s also something going on with the vocal layering here that, to me, reminisces more than anything of early aughts radio rock? It feels oddly inappropriate to say, but the vocal production on “The Cisco Kid” feels more akin to “Learn to Fly” or “Soak Up The Sun” than anything that was actually coming out in ‘73, and while I really like that technique when it’s paired with the sharp, polished sound of the Foo Fighters and Sheryl Crow, when combined with the shaggier reggae-rock War is working with here I honestly find it somewhat nauseating. While I’ll always respect War for their willingness to mix and match sounds and push new sonic boundaries, it’s shambling misfires like this that preclude me from ever counting myself as a fan.
#8: Charlie Rich- Behind Closed Doors
I think I’ve sufficiently proven at this point that I have nothing against country music. There’s tons of country I really love, and I cherish its unique strengths and possibilities as a genre. But when country music is bad, good lord is it awful. Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” fails in one massive and important way: It’s a slow country ballad, but it isn’t a sad song. Country ballads are great, love ‘em to death. But they’re great for songs about drinking too much, about losing a chance at love, about being broke or burnt-out or unsure if you have the strength to carry on. A song like Jason Isbell’s “Goddamn Lonely Love” gets its gut-wrenching potency from the way the slower tempo and the plaintive melody lets each line really sink in and break your heart into a million pieces. “Behind Closed Doors” is just a big mushy love letter to the narrator’s girlfriend (or wife? It’s unclear), but the music doesn’t communicate any of that passion or affection. It’s just pokey and sentimental in a way that feels emotionless and unrelatable. The other big reason why this song doesn’t work is the pervasive feints towards chauvinism in the lyrics. Country music is generally not a particularly forward-thinking genre when it comes to romance, so I tend to be a bit more forgiving of this kind of stuff when it crops up in country songs, but all the lines like “She’s always a lady, just like a lady should be / But when they turn out the lights, she’s still a baby to me” all add up to a very unpleasant picture of this relationship, almost serving more than anything as a reminder of why this isn’t how people treat relationships anymore. It’s not really interesting or noteworthy enough to actively dislike, but the constant implications that a woman being visibly, openly attracted to someone (even to a single committed partner) is somehow wrong or worthy of scorn, is still enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth and make revisiting this song a real chore, despite some solid contributions from the Nashville session guys filling out the arrangement.
#7: The Edgar Winter Group- Free Ride
Boogie rock is just… so, so, so annoying to me. With the sole exception of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres (which, coincidentally, also came out this year), pretty much the whole genre stinks of aimless, dopey self-satisfaction to me, a bunch of bored white kids blending up blues, rock, and country into a pot and sweatily fishing out whatever morsels happen to catch their fancy. I just get no sense of artistic drive or passion from any of it, and The Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” is no exception. Now, music like this doesn’t aspire to much beyond “good times”, and that’s not strictly illegitimate as an artistic goal, but if it’s your only artistic goal, you’d better make damn well sure you’re hitting the mark dead-on, because “good times” are not hard to come by in pop music from this era. Sure, the guitar licks here are decent. Sure, the chorus is… well, pretty underwhelming actually, but inoffensive enough that hundreds of classic rock stations have played it on the reg for four decades straight. But this was 1973. There were dozens of rock guitarists doing this exact shtick far better on songs that actually had anything at all to say. Motown was putting out a hit single every other week with a catchier, more substantive chorus than the one here. This kind of warmed-over electric-blues rehash just has no real selling point in the wider context of ‘70s pop- the fact that it’s only even somewhat notable within the incredibly conservative classic rock canon speaks volumes to me. And, yeah, I shouldn’t leave it merely implied that I do, in fact, kind of resent this song’s enduring popularity in the classic rock radio format. I’m convinced “Free Ride” could only have persisted via a radio format that ignores the lion’s share of its contemporaries and elevates mediocre offerings like this because of their cheap appeal to white baby boomer nostalgia, because it just doesn’t do a damn thing that other bands weren’t doing far, far better.
#6: Ohio Players- Funky Worm
I take no pleasure in putting a generally likeable and well-respected funk act like the Ohio Players on a worst list. These guys were a talented, versatile group that knew their way around slow, sensual bedroom jams and uptempo dance tracks alike. Sadly, that just makes the aimless mish-mash of ideas that is “Funky Worm” all the more disappointing. It’s no surprise to me that this song eventually found a second life as a source of samples for dozens of classic hip-hop tracks, because it was perfectly made to be stripped for parts and reworked into something actually enjoyable. There are some solid funky rhythms here, and a damn fine synth break, too (I seriously can’t believe I missed that trademark G-funk wheedle on first listen). However, appreciating any of it requires getting around the sheer vocal clutter of the track, most of all the HiLaRiOuS “granny” voice yammering all over the damn place. More importantly, the track feels like it’s missing a strong central idea to build everything around, and at a meager two and a half minutes it isn’t substantial enough to just ride the groove and let an atmosphere build over the course of the song (probably one of the few times I’ll ever complain about a pop song being too short rather than too long). The result of all this is a song that’s irritating, lacking in focus, and just generally tedious. Thanks to the ingenuity of 90s hip-hop producers, we can find all the best bits here on more worthwhile tracks; the original article is really only worth bothering with if you’re curious about the musical lineage of much better work.
#5: Lobo- Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend
I’ll make what might be a fairly bold claim here: “The Friend Zone” is, at least in theory, fine to use as a storytelling device. I think sympathetically portraying a person whose romantic feelings towards another are returned only by platonic ones, and taking that seriously as a problem someone can have, can and has resulted in some great art. But (isn’t there always a “but”) there’s a line you’ve gotta toe- a line that “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” spends its entire runtime tripping over. The problem most people have with “the friend zone” is that it implies that platonic relationships are somehow lesser than romantic or sexual ones, and when people (especially men) use the term, it tends to indicate that their desire for the person they’re interested in is far more superficial than they’re admitting- after all, if you actually care about this person’s inner life and value them as a person, why would friendship be something you don’t want? I think there are nuances there that can be explored in artistically valuable ways, but “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend” is, almost to a word, all of those aforementioned problems distilled into song format. “I love you too much to ever start liking you” is just a rancid, vomitous lyric from every conceivable angle, the “it’s not you, it’s me” of the jilted would-be lover. Points for honesty, but “I don’t actually care about you, I just wanted to fuck you and now I’m mad you won’t let me” is not a sentiment that stands well on its own merits. The song does an impressively bad job of justifying the narrator’s pissy, butthurt attitude over the whole thing, and the fact that the music itself is so blandly pleasant only compounds the badness, because there are no musical ideas that drive home his emotional turmoil, and Lobo’s wispy voice can’t sell it as anything other than completely earnest. I can enjoy songs that are written from the perspective of a shitty little creep, as long as the music has the bite to match the narrator’s toxicity. Emo and pop-punk are both chock-full of songs like this, using sharp, spiky tones and aggressive vocal techniques to get across that the artist knows that they’re presenting ideas that should at least be questioned, if not outright disagreed with. Depiction does not equal endorsement, but this song is clearly not smart enough to understand that concept, much less abide by it.
#4: Clint Holmes- Playground In My Mind
You know you’re in deep shit when a song that literally came straight from Sesame Street manages to be less childish than your song, which was ostensibly written and recorded for general audiences. For how juvenile The Carpenters’ rendition of “Sing” came off, there was at least a token attempt to give it a nominally dignified, mature veneer, the orchestration providing a hint of contrast with the clearly-for-kids lyric. Whether or not it amounted to anything worth listening to, the thought was at least there. “F” for effort and all that. “Playground in My Mind”, on the other hand, feels tragically unaware of how much it sounds like music from a children’s show. Worse, it’s not even good music for a children’s show, between Clint Holmes’ weak croon, the flat, weedy production, and a children’s choir that’s exponentially more grating than the one on “Sing”. The lyrics are also a wash. For as corny and obvious as it is to our adult ears, “Sing”’s overtones of self-love and confidence (“Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear”) make it valuable for young children in ways that go beyond the catchy melody. Here, though, I’m hard-pressed to discern what value even a toddler could glean from the sing-songy pabulum on display. “My name is Michael, I’ve got a nickel / I’ve got a nickel, shiny and new”? Cool, man. I should stress here, in case I didn’t make it clear before: I don’t like The Carpenters’ version of “Sing”! I think it’s kitschy and lame, and “Playground in My Mind” still pales in comparison! If you’ve been following this series, you know I have a strong distaste for children’s music being marketed to an adult audience, but within that category of music there’s still a spectrum of quality, and even grading it on that curve, “Playground in My Mind” sits firmly at a D-minus.
#3: Gilbert O’Sullivan- Clair
[trigger warning: discussion of pedophila]
Okay, to start off, I think it’s fair to give the benefit of the doubt here and say that Gilbert O’Sullivan did not intend to write a song about molesting a three-year-old. It’s clearly intended to be a “love song” only in a broad sense, communicating familial affection first and foremost. But uh… jeez, there sure is some subtext here, and whether O’Sullivan intended it to or not, “Clair” reads as anything but platonic. I’m sorry, but what explanation is there for lines like “I don’t care what people say / to me you’re more than a child” or “why in spite of our age difference do I cry / Each time I leave you I feel I could die”, other than the heavy implication of, at the very least, an incredibly inappropriate romantic relationship with a very young child? Even if you were to leave that aside (and to be clear, that should under NO CIRCUMSTANCES be “left aside” in a critical evaluation of this song), it’s just creepy as hell to write about how much you love someone else’s kid, right? Writing about how sweet and perfect your own spawn is is at least understandable, but writing this adoringly about your manager’s child who if you sometimes babysit feels like it’s seriously overstepping some boundaries. Hell, even if it isn’t, I just don’t really want to listen to anyone in any song singing about a kid that isn’t theirs- they shouldn’t care this much about this kid, let alone the listeners who’ve never even met the brat! I’ll have to be a fair critic here and grudgingly admit that O’Sullivan is a dab hand when it comes to the McCartneyesque piano-pop he’s working with here, and his voice is decent too (hence why this isn’t higher than #3), but this is a lyric that should never, ever have seen the light of day, and the best accompaniment in the world wouldn’t do a thing to change that.
#2: Donny Osmond- The Twelfth of Never
In 1973, at age fifteen, Donny Osmond hit puberty, and at long last, the shrill, babyish keening that a generation of undiscerning youngsters fell for was no more. Thank god. Just because he no longer had one of the worst voices of the decade didn’t mean he was suddenly a good singer or anything, though. “The Twelfth of Never” proves that Osmond just wasn’t an especially gifted vocalist on any level, too smooth and edgeless to invest in whatever sappy emotionality he was trying to sell and too weak and milquetoast to get by on bombast or sheer shmaltz. Of course, it also doesn’t help that the material he was given to work with here left a lot to be desired. I’m always loath to put on my “pedantic lyrical analyst” hat, but when he says he’ll love this girl “until the twelfth of never”, that… that means he’ll never love her, right? She’s not asking when he’ll stop loving her, she’s asking how long he’ll love her, and his response makes absolutely no sense. Like if you asked a coworker when they think they’ll have an assignment done, and they say “ugh, the twelfth of never…”, then you would take that to mean that they don’t think they’ll ever get it done, or that it’ll take them a very long time until they’re done. Am I wrong here? It’s no wonder Osmond has to end the song by clarifying “…and that’s a long, long time”, because how else would we know that’s what he means by that? Normally I wouldn’t harp on a petty grammatical gaffe like this, but it’s literally the only interesting phrase in the song, and it’s what the entire thing builds to. The rest of it is just bland “until the poets run out of rhyme” valentine’s-day-card platitudes. I don’t like Donny Osmond, and I doubt he’d have been able to make even the best material shine at this point, but I can’t help feeling a little bad for him, that he was so consistently burdened with underthought, overwrought slop like this.
#1: Bette Midler- Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
I just… I don’t even know what to say about this one. I really don’t. The first time I heard “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, I was aghast. I could only sit there, open-mouthed in horror, as this auditory atrocity unfolded in my headphones. I honestly can’t really even say that this song inspires anger or irritation in me. No, it’s something far closer to dread. A yawning pit of nothingness, the call of the void, is all I feel whenever this song is playing. Here, Bette Midler is a Lovecraftian horror in a flapper skirt, a non-euclidian, eldritch abomination singing old-time swing jazz. I suppose I could get a little more analytical here, elaborate on why I find this song’s suffocating chipperness to be such a problem, or explain why the lyrics about a musician’s career being scuttled by the draft are an ill fit for the tone, and have only gotten worse over the decades as war has become an ever-less noble pursuit in the American imagination. But every second I spend contemplating this song feels like taking a cheese grater to my skull, and my actual distaste for it runs, I believe, far deeper than that. It is viscerally upsetting to me, in a way that goes far beyond what the song actually is and extends to every aspect of culture and taste that informs it. Not only do I abhor this song, I abhor every fragment of history and society that led to its creation. The sensibilities and aesthetics behind this song and Midler’s performance of it run perfectly contrary to everything I love and value about art in general and music in specific, from the mindless regurgitation of “retro” styles to the insidiously subtle jingoism woven into the subtext. Its badness is almost immaterial; “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” is, to me, deeply, fundamentally wrong at every level of conception- in performance, in composition, and in spirit. Not only is it the worst hit of 1973, but I feel quite confident in calling it one of the worst hit singles I have ever heard. The last thing we needed in ‘73 was a song about how wacky and fun being in the army is, and there hasn’t been a second since where we have needed it.