When people say 1974 was a particularly bad year for music, I don’t think anyone is talking about Stevie Wonder or Barry White or ABBA. They’re not saying the good stuff wasn’t as good as usual, they’re saying the bad stuff is just that much worse. Again, I can point to plenty of other years where I hated the worst music a lot more than I did this year (again, those late-80s lists will be… interesting, to say the least), but it’s still pretty undeniable that we got some real stinkers in ‘74. Even looking beyond the worst of the worst for a moment, rock had a serious off-year overall, with plenty of underwhelming offerings from acts that had really impressed in the past, and country and folk didn’t fare particularly well either, only managing a small handful of not-that-great year-end entries. That left the mainstream mass of soft rock and pop to pick up the slack, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that’s a pretty dire plight for any year- especially a year in the 70s, when most of the really interesting, unique songwriting was happening out on the periphery of the mainstream pop sphere. At the end of the day, I’ll still err on the side of defending this year from accusation of “worst ever”, but any good argument has to take into account a possible counterargument, and whew… these 10 songs are one heck of a counterargument. On with the show!
#10: Carly Simon & James Taylor- Mockingbird
Man, I’ve covered some letdowns over the past 15-odd worst lists, but this one might just take the cake. I actually haven’t made mention one way or the other of James Taylor to this point, so just to be clear, I quite like his earlier hits “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend”, and his debut single “Carolina in My Mind” is a song I’ve actually loved ever since I was a little kid. I think it’s fair to say, though, that both he and Carly Simon leaned more towards the “songwriter” side of “singer-songwriter”. I don’t think either of them were poor vocalists by any stretch, but they didn’t have the kind of voices that could really carry sub-par material, and their main draw was always their knack for interesting songwriting and lyricism. So, of course, what better way to seize the moment of Taylor and Simons’ concurrent rise in popularity than sticking them both on a dorky AM-pop cover of an early-60s soul song based on a children’s lullaby? “Mockingbird” is a complete waste of time that turns two genuinely gifted mainstream songwriters into husks of their former selves. Simon’s material to this point had steadily been getting more energetic and pop-minded, and this seems to take that progression to its logical conclusion, but without Simon’s detail-rich, emotionally intense lyricism, she’s left spinning her wheels across the entire track. Taylor is similarly stripped of his greatest strengths. His best material was defined by an earnest seriousness that bordered on corny, but he knew how to pull off being a sap and usually had the songwriting to back it up. Here, it’s clear that “goofy” is not an affect in Taylor’s wheelhouse, and his voice doesn’t have the power or body to compensate. As much as both singers suffer here, though, the worst culprit is the arrangement itself, a load of midtempo, Captain and Tennille tripe with no soul or spark to it whatsoever. It’s all the more sad because neither artist ever fully recovered from this; Simon’s career stalled and fizzled over the next few years before she absconded to adult contemporary radio, and Taylor permanently devolved into a wimpy, blue-eyed soul schlock merchant. For all this song’s artistic failings, the worst thing about it might be that it managed to kill two mockingbirds with one stone.
#9: Tom T. Hall- I Love
I’ve spilled altogether too much ink to this point complaining about pop music that sounds like it was made for little kids, but I can’t recall ever listening to something that sounds as much like it was actually written by a grade-schooler as Tom T. Hall’s “I Love”. It’s been said that the worst country songwriting consists of contextless lists of lifestyle signifiers, and that’s this song to a tee. If you asked a six-year-old from rural Kentucky to write a song about the things they love, they very well could turn in an end product that’s functionally indistinguishable from this song: a bunch of disconnected statements about things they like that never builds to anything and sounds like they shat it out in fifteen minutes. That’s fine for a young child, everyone has to start somewhere, but this guy is a paid country artist, so this level of artlessness is not acceptable! The meter and rhyme scheme of the song also has an ungainly clunkiness to it that further solidifies the impression of childish amateurism; a professional songwriter like Hall should have heard the cadence of the verses and immediately realized that an AAAB/CCCB rhyme scheme would sound miles better with it than the AABB/CCDD rhyme scheme he went with instead. I don’t want to sell second-graders too short though, because I’m sure most of them would at least be able to perform a song like this without sounding like they’re halfway asleep, something Hall’s drippy, saccharine performance can hardly boast. It’s ultimately pleasant-minded enough that I can’t find it in me to really loathe “I Love”, but there’s still no excuse for a top 40 hit that’s less mature and emotionally nuanced than the awful pop-punk songs I used to write back in middle school.
#8: Paper Lace- The Night Chicago Died
This is definitely one of the more obvious picks for the worst list. “The Night Chicago Died”, to the extent that people still remember it, is not remembered fondly. Much has been made of its inaccuracy: It takes place on the “east side of Chicago”, which is not a real place, and recounts Al Capone’s gangsters shooting and killing “about 100 cops”, which never happened. Many have also accused the song of handling a real-life tragedy it’s very loosely based on (the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre) insensitively- including, no joke, Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago at the time! I think both points have been a little overstated. There’s not much objectionable about “The Night Chicago Died, other than its overwhelming, stupefying idiocy. The song seems to have no idea whatsoever of its own tone or point, headsmack-inducing in its perky cluelessness. Philip Wright’s vocals have all the presence of a quiet fart, and the weird percussion effect in the pre-chorus makes the mix sound muddy, ugly and distorted in a way that I can’t imagine was intentional. And then there’s the kazoo/”na na na” combo in the final chorus, the most viscerally irritating 10 seconds of the year. Paper Lace never had another hit after this, and given that their aspirations seemingly began and ended at “bafflingly upbeat songs with incongruously tragic lyrics”, I don’t think the music world is much poorer for it.
#7: Marvin Hamlisch- The Entertainer
The 70s is remembered for a great many things, but, at least for those of us who weren’t around at the time, I don’t think “ragtime” is one of them. Yeah, apparently turn-of-the-century ragtime had a bit of a moment between ‘69 and ‘75, spurred by a slew of high-profile anthological and archival releases compiling the works of some of the genre’s most notable figures. This reached a zenith in December ‘73, with the release of the Robert Redford/Paul Newman vehicle The Sting, which made heavy use of the music of Scott Joplin- in particular, one of his most well-known pieces, “The Entertainer”. I generally try not to split hairs about what music does or doesn’t “belong” on the pop charts; it’s probably far too reductive to say there are no circumstances under which “The Entertainer” would be a welcome presence in the world of modern pop music. But… I dunno, something about this song feels extremely “off” in the context of a journey through the hits of the 70s, in a way “Tubular Bells” and the plenty of other instrumental pieces of a decidedly non-pop character that made appearances on the charts over the years never have. I guess a part of it is Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of the tune, which, rather than trying to modernize the tune or nod to more current sounds, seems to be primarily interested in recreating the sonic palette of 1910s ragtime as faithfully as possible. That might be all well and good as far as the 30s period piece The Sting is concerned, but as a hit single it feels purposefully out-of-step with the times. In fact, the whole phenomenon of the ragtime revival of the 70s seems to have been more about venerating the genre’s pioneers than reintroducing its ideas into a modern context. I just get the sense that this track’s success is owed more to its evocation of a bygone era than its ability to make any kind of case for ragtime’s continued relevance, and it scans as stuffy, stale, and outmoded as a result. Despite the obvious merits of Joplin’s original composition, the Hamlisch rendition feels almost antithetical to the spirit of pop music- not subversive, merely reactionary.
#6: Fancy- Wild Thing
When I named The Chakachas’ “Jungle Fever” as my least favorite song of 1972, I made it clear that I have very little patience for pop music that includes actual, literal sex noises. I stand by that, of course, but I do, to an extent, understand the impulse. If you’re gonna put a bunch of breathy moaning and groaning on a track, it makes sense to do so for music that could conceivably soundtrack a night of passionate sex. So, at least as far as sleazy instrumental funk goes? I might find it cheap and tacky, but the line of reasoning is straightforward enough that I can ultimately make my peace with it. In a perfect world, this would have nothing to do with any rendition of garage-rock classic “Wild Thing”, but alas, the pop group Fancy had other ideas. Regardless of your opinion on the song, it must be admitted that “Wild Thing” is not a song that lends itself very well to lead vocalist Helen Caunt’s way-up-front, mic’d-too-closely horniness (Caunt was a Penthouse model before being hired for this group, in case there’s any doubt as to what their intentions here were). I have no idea why producer Mike Hurst thought any of this was a good idea, especially since the rest of the band seems to be laboring under the delusion that they’re meant to be turning in a much more straightforward cover than they are- especially drummer Les Binks, who predicts his heavy metal future here in the most awkward possible way. There’s probably a case to be made that “Wild Thing” is a more sexual song than I’m giving it credit for, but if it is then it’s certainly not the kind of coy, effete, playboy bunny sexuality on display here. Let’s keep the sex noises to the sex songs, and let the slobbery neanderthals of garage rock bash their instruments in peace.
#5: Paul Anka- (You’re) Having My Baby
Wait… what? Paul Anka? The “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” guy? No, that can’t be right. You see, we’re in the thick of the 1970s here. No one from the pre-British Invasion era was having hits in 74, not the big names like Sinatra or Ray Charles or Bobby Darin and certainly not third or fourth-rate hacks like Paul Anka. This just does not happen. You didn’t see Jim Croce or Bachmann-Turner Overdrive topping the charts in 1989 and the charts of today are likewise completely bereft of 2006 D-listers like The Fray or Julez Santana. 2006, by the by, was the year this very song was voted the #1 worst song of all time in a CNN.com user survey. Yeah, if you didn’t know, this song is not merely bad, but notoriously bad, and while keen-eyed readers might note that there are, in fact, four songs from this very year that I would personally call worse, I couldn’t blame anyone for crowning “Having My Baby” as the most worthless dreck to ever fail its way to the top of the charts. It’s been pointed out many times before, but: your baby? This woman is having your baby, as a way of showing you how much she loves you? Any way you slice it that’s one of the most selfish, vile sentiments you could possibly express relating to parenthood. Anka has claimed it’s only “my baby” rather than “our baby” because the former “sounded better”. Firstly, no the hell it doesn’t. Secondly, that’s the part you’re really combing over for word choice? If there’s any song where the writer can’t claim to be attuned to the contour and flow of the lyrics it’s “Having My Baby”, where every line lands with a wet, gray thump; there’s absolutely no grace or refinement to any of it. And thirdly, it’s not as though that one word choice exists in a vacuum, and the rest of the song has the exact same assholish, domineering tone. Hey, here’s an idea: if you don’t want people thinking you’re making it all about you, maybe you should credit THE OTHER VOCALIST ON THE TRACK? Because this song is, in fact, a duet, and it’s a lucky thing Odia Coates is so underwhelming as the narrator’s other half, because good lord, Anka has somehow gotten more irritating as a vocalist in the dozen-plus years since his last big hit, and if he’d been paired with a better singer he would likely have looked even worse in comparison. He grunts out every line in a ludicrous bastardization of Elvis or Orbison that belongs somewhere closer to “karaoke night” than “chart-topping hit single”, and the watery, maudlin instrumentation doesn’t do it any favors whatsoever. I cannot for the life of me understand how a washed-up putz like Anka got this turd all the way to number one on the charts, but it at least seems like we’ve all realized what a mistake it was.
#4: Ray Stevens- The Streak
At long last, our protracted journey through the unholy trinity of Ray Stevens’ awful novelty hits comes to a conclusion with arguably the worst of the lot, “The Streak”. I feel like, all things considered, I went pretty easy on both “Ahab the Arab” and “Gitarzan”. I find both songs profoundly unpleasant, but I could at least see a glimmer of potential there, a fragment of wit not yet fully smothered under self-impressed guffawing and hideous dad-jokery. Well, with “The Streak”, that last little glimmer has finally been snuffed out. You know what the problem (or at least, a problem) with Ray Stevens is? His songs never have any actual jokes, just setups that try to double as punchlines. I’m sorry, but the fact that your song is about a guy running around naked is just not funny by itself! You need to add something- what happens next? Why is he streaking? Paint a picture, tell a story, give me something to work with for God’s sake! Stevens can come up with silly ideas, but the art of comedy is communicating those ideas in a way that gets across the humor of the situation, and all Steven can be bothered to do is relentlessly beat the dead horse that is the premise, hoping it’ll magically become funny if he mugs at the camera hard enough. When I say Stevens had “potential”, I’m not saying he could have been the next Stravinsky or anything. He was never gonna be “Like A Rolling Stone” good, but if he had at least tried, he could have maybe been, like, “I’m On A Boat” good. But he didn’t try, and if he did then it’s impressive how much all his songs- and this one in particular- smack of non-effort.
#3: Donny and Marie Osmond- I’m Leaving It All Up to You
Good god, Donny, don’t sing a love song duet with your sister! You’re Mormon, surely you realize you’re inviting the sisterwives jokes at that point, right? But seriously, all tasteless ribbing aside, you might expect that bringing his sister Marie into the fold would mark some kind of watershed moment in Donny Osmond’s music or his career. You’d be at least partially right on the second count- their team-up would go on to be surprisingly lucrative across the remainder of the decade- but dead wrong on the first, because “I’m Leaving It All Up to You” sounds exactly like every other song Osmond had put out to this point, which is to say it’s total crapola. Drums bereft of even an ounce of punch or presence, a whole bunch of lifeless, gaudy violins and acoustic guitars, and two singers who, combined, manage to cancel out whatever meager amount of unique personality either of them had to begin with. Yeah, not exactly a recipe for success. Even without Donny’s ear-splitting pre-puberty squeal (which 15-year-old Marie does an admirable job of approximating), and even without the clunky lyrics that brought down “The Twelfth of Never”, the aesthetic sensibilities of the folks running the Osmond siblings’ career at this point are ultimately just so incompatible with my own that even what is, in all honesty, probably Donny’s least offensive offering to this point is still an utter slog to sit through.
#2: Steve Miller Band- The Joker
I think “The Joker” is the worst song of the year. I know it’s only in the #2 spot, and I’ll explain why in the next entry, but barring the extenuating circumstances that led to me giving the number one spot to something else, this was the worst thing I heard across the entire ‘74 year end list. There are very few rock songs I despise more than Steve Miller’s “The Joker”. Really, it all comes down to those heinous little wolf-whistles the guitar does. It’s arguably the worst 2 seconds in music across the entire 1970s, just the absolute worst kind of punchable, smug, overly-posed hackwork. The absurd amount of misplaced confidence Miller has in its charmingness is practically palpable. Worse than nails on a chalkboard, genuinely. Of course, the rest of the song was written by the same guy who thought that wretched shit was a good idea, so it’s not like there’s much else to be salvaged here. The opening verse is pure word salad, it means nothing and says nothing. What the fuck is a “pompatus”, and how does it explain why people call you Maurice? And it’s not like these are clever, odd turns of phrase that just add flavor to an otherwise coherent thought, the entire thing consists of bullshit non-sequiturs of this exact variety. Undeterred by this, the song progresses, and when a fuzzy thematic throughline starts to emerge, it gets even worse: this thing is pure, uncut baby boomer self-aggrandizement. Anyone who unironically describes themselves the way the narrator does in the chorus of “The Joker” is, at best, a shameless narcissist. Of course, a certain degree of ego is part and parcel of any solid rock song, but the song still has to have a subject other than your own ego, or the whole thing just disappears up its own ass, and that’s precisely what happens here. The mix feels empty and lifeless, Miller’s vocals lack any flair or pathos, and the rest of the band is too much of a non-presence to contribute any redeeming musicianship. Even the shadowy white supremacists behind “classic rock” radio should have known better than to keep this malformed, preening disaster in rotation.
#1: Stevie Wonder: Living for the City (Single Edit)
This one hurt, guys.
This one really, REALLY hurt.
I was so excited when I saw this song on the 1974 year-end list, one of my favorite cuts from Stevie Wonder’s classic 1973 album Innervisions– meaning, of course, that it’s one of my favorite songs from any album ever. “Living For The City” is an impeccably crafted piece of hard-hitting social commentary, addressing racial inequality, the criminal justice system, and economic hardship with an unflinching yet empathetic eye. So I was, of course, utterly dismayed to discover that the version of this song that got all the play on pop radio, the version that made it to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and appears on multiple greatest hits albums, and thus the version I ought to judge for this project, is a crime against art and decency that completely butchers one of the greatest songs of the decade.
Gone is the instrumental section, where Stevie’s bold usage of sampled audio tracks the protagonist’s journey to the big city, as well as his subsequent arrest and imprisonment. Gone too is the final verse, an impassioned plea for everyone to come together to make the world a better, more just place, ending a harrowing tale of poverty and discrimination with a stirring call to action. There are tons of long songs that can be painlessly cut down for radio, and even some that benefit from doing so, but at the peak of his powers, Stevie Wonder did not make a song 7 minutes unless every second was crucial to that song’s success. Stripped of so much of its actual content, the single edit becomes a shadow of the original article, a defanged, castrated fragment of a song; whatever monumentally stupid philistines at Motown made the decision to ruin the song like this deserve to be set on fire. I’m sorely tempted to give credit for what’s still there- compelling melodies, energetic instrumentation and an unsurprisingly stellar vocal performance- but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Imagine if you found out that the theatrical release of your favorite classic film simply faded to black halfway through act two, and the full film, the film that’s entertained and affected you for years or even decades, was never seen by the movie-going public, save those who bought the full version on home release. That’s what this is. I was chomping at the bit to crown “Living For The City” the best song of the year, and I know it feels like a technicality, but at the risk of being melodramatic, the single edit makes such a mockery of the true, full-length version that the only way I could think to properly voice my disgust with it was to give it the exact opposite.