‘78 may have been the disco-iest year in music history, but the rogue’s gallery for the year nonetheless managed to wind up fairly diverse. Rock still offered up a few bottom-of-the-barrel misfires, Grease gave us a whopping three worst list entries, and a melange of other stinkers managed to fill out the remainder in a way that strikes me as fairly well-rounded. In a way, I feel like there’s kind of something for everyone on this list. Whether you’re an old-school rocker still railing against disco, a lyrics-focused listener who can sniff out a clunky line from a mile away, or a young gun like myself who finds some parts of the established ‘70s pop/rock canon outright nauseating, I’m guessing there’s something here for you to hate. Let’s get right into the 10 biggest pop failures from the twilight of my favorite musical epoch- on with the show!
#10: Foxy- Get Off
As with the best list, it just feels right and proper to start off here with something from the world of disco. “Get Off”, the sole hit of Floridian latin-disco act Foxy, is far from the worst example of the genre, but it still falls pretty flat for a number of reasons. For one, the mix on this song creates a gaping fissure between the tinny, treble-heavy guitar and vocals, and the dancefloor thump of the percussion and slap-bass. The song winds up barren and empty as a result, unable to successfully recreate the energy and flavor of a packed discotheque. The vocals aren’t especially egregious, but none of the singers are notably charismatic or tuneful either, and with the production reducing their presence so much, they’re unable to distract from the fairly uninteresting music backing them up. Hell, even the same disco calls that so enlivened “The Groove Line” are run into the ground here, repeated too many times until they lose all efficacy. There’s the germ of a fun, funky dance track here (Prince would soon rework several of the ideas presented here into much more successful compositions), but in a year so packed with better music in this exact mold, “Get Off” ends up earning every bit of its status as a brief footnote in disco history.
#9: John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John- You’re The One That I Want
I have said before that I don’t like musicals, but no matter how much I try to set aside my general distaste for showtunes, the fact remains: Grease sucks. It really, really just flat sucks. Multiple songs from the 1978 theatrical version will be appearing on this list, and though its sprightly catchiness makes it far from the worst the film has to offer, “You’re the One That I Want” nonetheless has the very same rot at its core that the rest of the the blasted affair does: a nauseatingly sterile and hollow nostalgia for the 1950s. ‘50s retro remains one of my very least favorite aesthetics in all of entertainment, because almost without fail, it treats the era as one free of any real moral complications, a prelapsarian realm where any problem more complex than who you’re going to ask to the prom may as well not exist. That may seem like an excessive amount of baggage to burden a tune this silly and simple with, but it actually reflects the history of Grease itself. The original productions of the musical were notably more mature and tackled a handful of thornier topics, in particular the tension between youth culture and society at large. But over the years, as it moved from stage to stage, it became more and more sanded-down and unchallenging, until the screen adaptation completed its transformation into a stultifying procession of middlebrow cultural signifiers for audiences to point to and recognize. What better embodiment of that transformation that a shallow, superficial doo-wop pastiche with nothing to say that wasn’t even in the original version? Really, in all the worst ways, “You’re the One That I Want” is the perfect representation of a cultural object as tragically inane as Grease.
#8: Nick Gilder- Hot Child in the City
Nick Gilder spent most of the mid-70s fronting the moderately successful Canadian glam band Sweeny Todd, and traces of that background certainly show through in his solo breakthrough “Hot Child in the City”. The electric-guitar-and-piano base of the track puts it firmly in glam-adjacent territory, and Gilder’s pouty, androgynous alto makes it especially easy to imagine him on top of a strutting, dramatic rock tune like “Killer Queen” or “Suffragette City”. However, the song lacks one crucial element that no glam act could ever hope to succeed without: energy. “Hot Child in the City” chugs along at a bland, unhurried midtempo, never building any sense of drama or stakes and ultimately sputtering out and wilting. Gilder’s voice is begging for a big climax or chorus to really just wail with his whole chest, and the track never even gives him anything that lets him sing much louder than speaking volume. Factor in lyrics that ogle the titular woman without providing much in the way of interesting description, and “Hot Child in the City” ends up a thorough flop that actively squanders the potential of its star. Plus, Google seems to agree with me that that phrasing is… let’s say dicey. Go find yourself a hot adult in the city and steer clear of this one.
#7: Shaun Cassidy- Hey Deanie
I suppose I should give credit where it’s due and say that, overall, the sort of squeaky-clean pop-rock style Shaun Cassidy had already established is, if nothing else, performed on “Hey Deanie” with a bit more chutzpah and flair than it was on his previous singles. The song itself is nothing too impressive, and the way the meter of the lyric sort of stumbles on “the moon is shining so bright” always struck me as more ungainly than it needed to be (just omit that unnecessary “so” and it would have rolled off the tongue so much more cleanly, this isn’t hard!), but I can, if rather unenthusiastically, confirm that it is an improvement. But the fact remains: Cassidy had no real business being a rock singer of any kind, and his production and recording team was clearly a bunch of mercenaries just trying to get a solid paycheck- certainly competent, but far from inspired. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: actors’ singing careers usually just feel like vanity projects, and the notion that Shaun Cassidy of all people would be an exception to that is barely worth entertaining.
#6: Olivia Newton-John- Hopelessly Devoted to You
Technically, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” counts as the second song from Grease to appear on this list, but boy, is that “technically” doing a lot of work here. This is an Olivia Newton-John song, written specifically to be performed by her and released as a single. Its inclusion in the movie may as well have been a marketing gimmick. Songwriter John Farrar has claimed that he spent longer on the lyrics for this song than for anything else he’s ever written, and all that effort resulted in… a totally unremarkable, standard pop-country song. Really, John? Not to discredit all your hard work, but I can’t help feeling it’s a shame that all it amounted to was a song free of any clunky lines or awkward slant-rhymes, in addition to also being free of any interesting phrasing, nuance, or detail. It’s inoffensive. Newton-John’s performance, on the other hand, makes the questionable trade of “not enough emoting” for “entirely too much emoting”, and the track suffers as a result. The instrumentation follows suit with sugary clean guitars and (of course) violins, and though it follows the recipe for the sort of timeless, old-school pop balladry I tend to quite like, the execution once again feels lacking in conviction. Somewhere inside “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is the bones of a really good love song, but despite Newton-John’s more involved vocal delivery, it still just doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the heart.
#5: The Rolling Stones- Miss You
In the late ‘70s, The Rolling Stones managed the impressive feat of aging nearly two decades in the span of just over 5 years, going from swaggering blues-rock gods in ‘71 and ‘72 to stodgy, irrelevant dinosaurs in 1978, relics of a bygone era with nothing fresh or new to offer modern listeners. Despite this, Some Girls and its lead single “Miss You” managed to bring the band back to the top of the charts one last time with one of the most awkward and embarrassing dance tracks ever penned by a rock band. Given how endlessly enamored with black music the Stones were, I suppose an eventual disco pivot was inevitable, but that only makes it all the more shocking just how thorough their failure to pull it off really is. At the core of “Miss You” is one of the most stiff, lifeless backbeats of the band’s entire career; it’s honestly and truly baffling how non-danceable it is. Charlie Watts had already proven himself capable of producing a fun, energetic drumbeat on tracks like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Brown Sugar”- What on earth happened here? Was he so self-conscious in trying to recreate that four-on-the-floor disco feel that he neglected to put any pizazz into his performance? It’s a weak foundation to build the track on, and though some of Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards’ guitar contributions aren’t entirely unwelcome, Mick Jagger’s performance caves the whole thing in on itself, a humiliatingly out-of-touch attempt to fuse the bluesy drawl of their classic material with a sleeker soul croon. Those awful falsetto squawks on the hook would be bad enough, but “some Puerto Rican girls that’s just dyin’ to MEETCHOO!” ranks among the more unforgivable lines in an ouvre lousy with sub-par lyricism (though it’s actually not even the worst lyric on Some Girls– that title track, bleugh). Is it catchy? Sure. Is it any good? A Stones naysayer like myself may not be the best person to answer that question, but for what it’s worth, I’m still gonna go with a firm “no”.
#4: Foreigner- Hot Blooded
Look: I don’t ask for much from my hard rock. I just want some loud, distorted guitar played with a modicum of creativity, a decently catchy chorus, and passable lyrics that at least resemble a coherent thought. I don’t need it to be the most ground-breaking or thought-provoking thing in the universe, just something fun that I don’t need to fully switch my brain off to enjoy. With “Hot Blooded”, Foreigner get about partway there with a solidly hummable hook, but the song proceeds to shoot itself in the foot with a boatload of thoughtless, barebones guitar riffing and lyrics that can’t even be bothered to properly connect to each other. Hell, they even manage to bungle the chorus by neglecting to give it a proper ending! “I’m hot blooded, hot blooded” isn’t the final line of a chorus, it’s a placeholder for a final line of a chorus, especially when said chorus opens with those exact words. Saying a lot with a little is one of the most important skills one can develop as a pop songwriter, and wasting the final quarter of your hook repeating the title phrase without adding anything new is practically the exact opposite of that. Especially since this is a sweaty, full-chested RAWK!!! anthem, I as a listener really want the chorus to finish with the most killer line they’ve got, something punchy and memorable, but here it just cycles back to the beginning and fizzles out. The melody is still catchy enough-I definitely got it stuck in my head writing this- but the construction feels sloppy and leaves me unsatisfied, like a meal of empty calories with no musical nutrients to nourish my ears. Given that this song has so little on its mind other than being energetic and (very) horny, the lack of any standout songcraft makes it that much easier to discard. As far as cheap thrills go, this one’s heavy on the “cheap” and light on the “thrills”.
#3: Randy Newman- Short People
One of the most unfortunate reactions I think one can have to a piece of media is this: “Oh… they really thought they were doing something here, huh?” There’s something so pitiful about being able to sense the artist’s ambition behind the material and really appreciating the chasm between what they were shooting for and where they ended up, and it’s exactly the reaction I have to Randy Newman’s “Short People”. This song has received a lot of ire from people who have taken its lyrics at face value, so let’s dispense with the notion that this song is actually meant to express disdain or hatred towards the vertically-challenged. Newman clearly meant the song to be a sort of send-up of bigoted attitudes, like “hey guys, look at how silly it is to hate short people, at the end of the day we’re all still human beings”. See, it’s cute, it’s tongue-in-cheek, ha ha ha, whatever. Well, here’s where my issue with song comes in: Saying a bunch of mean shit about a particular group of people, in my estimation, makes for a pretty weak critique of bigotry. I get that it’s not serious, but what point is it actually trying to make? That prejudices are irrational? It’s not like I disagree, but with the way it’s framed here, it comes off like a really immature, almost fake-deep observation. It doesn’t do anything to actually engage with the root causes of bigotry or the effect it has on the groups who suffer because of it, and as a result its attempts at satire just seem smirky and trite. Though I’m sure years of exposure to “ironic” bigotry via the internet have colored my views on art in this particular lane, “Short People” is ultimately as lazy and incurious as any of the worst commentary to come out of South Park.
#2: Joe Walsh- Life’s Been Good
I may not be all-aboard the Eagles hate train the way some music nerds are, but I’m shitsure not enough of a fan to have any interest in hearing a solo record from their third most talented singer who has writing credits on a whopping TWO (2!) of their actual songs (“Life in The Fast Lane” and some other song from The Long Run that I’ve never heard). Joe Walsh was a guitar player, not a vocalist or a songwriter, and fittingly, the bombastic guitar that opens “Life’s Been Good” is just about the only worthwhile part of the song. I’ve definitely heard a little too much classic rock radio in my life to get much of a buzz off of it, but it’s undeniable that that opening riff growls and moves just the way a real, all-american rock riff ought to. However, as I said, Mr. Walsh did not rise to fame on his merits as a songwriter, and he proves this by refusing to develop the rest of the song in any direction a rock fan might find appealing. After the crunchy opening riff and some moody acoustic chords, the whole affair devolves into a truly heinous little white-boy reggae abomination, with Walsh wailing out dumbass lyrics about being a rich, famous rock star in a strained, painful-sounding tenor. I guess it’s not completely useless as a send-up of the lavish celebrity lifestyle, but the music itself is so fundamentally aggravating that I’m not sure even the best lyrics in the world could make it enjoyable. I’m always down for a good laugh at the expense of the rich and famous, but with this as the soundtrack, lines about how you’ve never even been to your mansion and don’t know how much it cost end up sounding a lot less like comedy and a lot more like bragging.
#1: John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John- Summer Nights
The only single from Grease actually written by original co-creators Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey is also, unfortunately, far and away the worst thing to come out of the screen adaptation’s soundtrack. If my math is correct, this track features the vocal talents of 10 different performers. Of those performers, only ONE is an actual, professional singer, and that one performer is Olivia Newton-John. The other nine fall somewhere between “charmingly amateur” and “painfully unlistenable”. I didn’t mention it when discussing “You’re the One That I Want”, but John Travolta is a quite bad singer, and the oher actors filling out the backing vocals are by and large even worse, barely on-key and alternatingly shrill and oafish. The tune itself does them no favors either. The verses are the blandest teen-romance tripe I’ve ever had to slog through (and I’ve heard five hundred pop songs from before the British Invasion), and the chorus (or rather, choruses) is a perfect storm of vapid, twee doo-wop and idiotic stereotypes. Geddit, girls only care about romance, and boys only care about sex, hyuck hyuck. Granted, most of the song isn’t as stomach-turning as “tell me more, tell me more / did she put up a fight?”, probably one of the worst individual lyrics of the entire decade, but the four seconds that line occupies nonetheless sum this song up perfectly on a spiritual level- annoying, badly-sung and offensive.