The cream of the crop overall may have managed to be almost as impressive as ever as the 70s petered out into the relative musical dead zone of the early 80s, but sadly the same cannot be said for the bottom of the barrel. This worst list was frankly more of a slog than I’m used to. It reminded me a bit of the very early 60s worst lists, where more than anything else it just was a herculean effort to even bring myself to give enough of a crap about most of these songs to write about them. With the golden era of classic rock fading out and disco on the decline, the worst list is once again populated by aggravatingly blah adult contemporary and lifeless soft rock, and the best I can say for it is that it made it much easier than it would have otherwise been to shut the door on the 70s. I’m sticking to my guns here, the 70s are still undeniably my favorite decade for pop, but at this point the 70s had run their course and it was time to move on. Before we do so, however, we’ve got to blaze through 10 more entrants in our by-now-quite-sizeable rogue’s gallery- On with the show!
#10: Patrick Hernandez- Born to Be Alive
Calling “Born to Be Alive” the first eurodance song would be a stretch at best, given that it predates the genre itself by a full decade. But in a spiritual sense, this song is such a direct predecessor to every overbearing, one-note eurodance hit I’ve ever heard that the label feels fitting nonetheless. The little guitar riff that opens the track is so good that I’m genuinely upset Hernandez squandered it on this mindless, mechanical slog that starts off firing on all cylinders and goes exactly nowhere for its entire duration. Hell, that’s the exact reason all those novelty 90s eurodance songs sucked so much, isn’t it? They never went anywhere, never developed, never changed things up with a chorus or a bridge or anything. They just steamrollered one single 4/4 beat into the ground until your brain leaked out your ears and tossed whatever else they could at you to try and trick you into thinking anything musically interesting was happening. Of course, the funky disco guitar and bass here flatter this track a hell of a lot more than banjos flattered “Cotton-Eye Joe”, but that’s a low, low bar to clear, and if it’s the highest praise I can come up with, I take that as evidence that something has gone grievously wrong. If anything from this year left me eager to finally bid adieu to the decade of disco, this was it.
#9: Neil Diamond & Barbra Streisand- You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
This song is low on the list because I actually really love the lyric. Sure, there’s no reason on Earth why it needed to be a duet, but as a requiem for a loveless, stale relationship maintained by inertia it truly succeeds, and that line about “used-to-be”s laying on the floor until they’re swept away is some genuinely potent and emotive imagery. In the hands of an artist I actually enjoyed, this may well have been a poignant, melancholic love song deserving of at least respect, if not outright praise. Sadly, even when given quality material, Barbra Streisand is a vocalist who I will most likely just never like. Her delivery is as overwrought as always, and the quiet sadness of the lyrics ends up smothered by a voice that sounds like it’s never even existed outside Broadway, let alone experienced the oppressive, small-scale mundanity of this relationship. Similarly, Neil Diamond (who doesn’t tend to bother me nearly as much as a singer) also finds himself ill-equipped for the task at hand. His voice is too confident, too brash, untouched by the ennui of the words he’s singing. The other achilles’ heel here is the lack of any percussion. That’s right, not a single kick drum or snare to be found here, not even the barest whisper of a brushed cymbal. That’s not always a dealbreaker for me, but it really feels like the swelling orchestration here is missing that extra punch to really send it over the top. I don’t know that that sort of melodrama would necessarily be a good fit for the subject matter, but if the song had at least gone all-in I think it would have left a lot more impact. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” had the potential to really grip me, which is more than I can say for much of Streisand’s work, but the execution left me almost as cold as anything else she’s touched.
#8: Rex Smith- You Take My Breath Away
Grease cast such a long, cruddy shadow over pop that even a full year after its release, it was still somehow managing to stink up the charts. I’m only partially kidding; this song was not from Grease, but from a made-for-TV teen drama called Sooner or Later. No, the connection to Grease here comes courtesy of the man himself, Rex Smith, whose showbiz career was jump-started the year prior by his performance in a very successful broadway run of the musical as leading man Danny Zuko. Learning that was hardly a surprise to me, because “You Take My Breath Away” just screams “theater kid” in the worst, showiest way. I feel like these days, over-singing is sort of associated more with female pop stars, but here Rex Smith proves that boys can do it too. He belts every line right to the cheap seats, contorting his voice to be all Orbison-y and “soulful” (or that could just be how his voice normally sounds, who’s to say). And it’s not that he can’t hit the notes, it’s that he hits every note like it’s the most all-important, monumental, world-changing task ever laid before man; it’s the first time in a while that I’ve found one of these songs physically exhausting to listen to. This is a crucial flaw because the song is a very simple, unadorned love ballad, and to sell it requires sincerity and heartfeltness, not actorly scene-chewing and melodrama. There’s a massive difference between the kind of acting you have to do for a stage musical or a television movie and the kind you have to do for a pop song, and given that Smith has stuck largely to the former in the decades since, I think he knows as well as I do which kind he’s better at.
#7: Frank Mills- Music Box Dancer
“Music Box Dancer” is not the worst hit single I have ever heard, but it may just be the one whose status as a hit is the most confusing to me. Here we have a trifling bit of instrumental piano made to sound like, as the title suggests, a music box. Frank Mills was not any kind of big name when he released the single, and it wasn’t featured in a popular film or television series. It was originally intended to be a B-side for Mills’ real single, “The Poet and I”, to be shipped off to easy-listening stations in his home country of Canada. The label mistakenly sent the single to a pop station in Ottawa, where the DJs, sure that the snoozy A-side had been mistakenly marked as such, added the slightly peppier “Music Box Dancer” to their playlists. From there, the song gained genuine grassroots traction- first in Ottawa, then in the rest of Canada, then eventually in America as well. The listening public seemed to honestly like this song, enough so that it became a big hit with about as little label puppeteering as possible. All of this just leaves me with one burning question: WHY??? Why on Earth did so many people go gaga for this completely anodyne piece of beige background music? I can only assume it had something to do with its fish-out-of-water style; it is, from top to bottom, an easy-listening b-side that accidentally wound up on pop radio. I’ll admit that it certainly stands out, but only in comparison to other pop that was coming out at the time. On its own merits, there’s really nothing here that would prevent me from reaching for the radio dial to find something more stimulating to listen to. It’s not even badly-recorded or especially offensive to the senses, but every time I listen to it I’m struck by an overwhelming sense that something is not where it ought to be, that I’m listening to something that is, in a very real, measurable sense, “not pop”. I can’t quite call “Music Box Dancer” a failure, because it seems, more than anything, that it simply hasn’t realized it’s wandered into the wrong classroom.
#6: Rickie Lee Jones- Chuck E’s in Love
“Chuck E’s in Love” makes me wish more than anything that I had saved some of the points from my critique of Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” a little longer, because if we’re talking about unsatisfying, go-nowhere vocal melodies, Rickie Lee Jones arguably created the poster child for ‘em with this song. Here, however, we run into a problem, which is that the meandering vocal lines are very clearly an intentional artistic choice, part of Jones’ attempt to give the song a more loose, laid-back feel. It feels odd to say the song’s achilles’ heel is the lack of any satisfying meter or lyrical flow, because those things were, as best I can tell, deliberately ignored. So it’s not that the song fails at what it’s aiming for, it’s that what it’s aiming for just flat sucks. I don’t like the slurred, formless vocal delivery, I don’t like the way the ““jazz”” influence acts as a cover for half-scatting that obscures the song’s actual rhyme scheme, and I don’t at all like the lackadaisical smugness that drips through every line. Look at the artists Jones wanted to be associated with: she dated Tom Waits, she posed in a red beret on her album cover like Joni Mitchell. She wanted to be a Serious Artist. Listening to “Chuck E’s In Love” leaves me with the impression that Jones thought she was too cool and too hip to sing an actual pop song, so she half-assed her way through a pokey mishmash of vocal jazz and folk because making something that had an actual hook would have been beneath her. Supposedly her less mainstream material is better. I haven’t heard for myself, and I sort of doubt I will anytime soon, but it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t at least more convincing than this.
#5: Dr. Hook- Sharing the Night Together
I was sorely tempted to just take a mulligan on this one. This is the last worst-list entry I’m writing for this year, I’m frankly feeling more than a little burnt out, and most importantly, “Sharing the Night Together” is a boring, crappy song from a boring, crappy band whose boring crappiness I’ve already covered elsewhere. Seriously, there’s nothing here you need to care about. Dennis Locorierre is still a whiny sop of a vocalist, the rest of the band is still unable to muster anything beyond boneless, midtempo adult contemporary, and the lyrics are as bog-standard as they come. Any professional pop songwriter of the past half-century could have written this in their sleep; there’s no spark of creativity and no distinguishing compositional features. The silver lining of writing about art I dislike is that it often forces me to reflect on my own sensibilities and biases, and sometimes I even come away having learned something about the way I personally listen to music. But stuff like this doesn’t even inspire enough feeling in me to force any kind of introspection. “Muskrat Love”, for all its vapidity, felt like it at least represented something, a contempt for its audience that earned it the title of “worst of the year”. The most damning thing I can say about this song is that it doesn’t even deserve to top a worst list.
#4: Eddie Rabbitt- Suspicions
Fun little factoid about this song: Eddie Rabbitt has said in interviews that he wrote “Suspicions” in about 5 minutes during his lunch break. Now, as a creative-ish-type person myself, I’m in no position to scoff at art that seemingly falls into place all at once. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a statistically significant percentage of my best list entrants were similarly born from an out-of-nowhere bolt of inspiration. Hell, some of these song reviews undergo an arduous, hours-long process of writing and re-writing and editing and tweaking, while others I blast out in under 20 minutes. All that said… You can usually kind of tell. There’s a character to something that took six hours to make that’s just fundamentally different from something that took six weeks, and that character is not a good look for “Suspicions”. Nothing about the song’s instrumental palette or mood communicates energy or spontaneity. Rabbitt came from country, but around this time his music was coming out so poised and polished that it sat far more comfortably alongside soft rock like Dr. Hook than with Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard; though it’s unfair to blame him for the watering-down of mainstream country throughout the early 80s, he certainly did his part to help it along. If I’m going to listen to something this toothless, I want to hear some interesting chords, some well-thought-out song structures, anything that sounds like real brainpower went into it! But “Suspicions” really does feel tossed-off and hasty in a very unflattering way, right down to the painfully boring “jealous boyfriend” lyricism. I can’t even get worked up over the noticeable hints of possessiveness and condescension, just because the phrasing and word choice is so unremarkable. I don’t know that “Suspicions” would necessarily have been better if Rabbitt had spent a few more hours on it, but surely it could have at least been less dreadfully, gratingly dull.
#3: Andy Gibb- (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away
The Bee Gees’ kid brother Andy has always been a bit overshadowed by his older siblings, and listening through his hits, I have to admit that there’s a pretty good reason for that. Andy was a fine enough singer- basically a carbon copy of Barry with just a smidge more soulfulness- but it seems like he was consistently saddled with underwhelming songs that only garnered strong sales through his association with the massively popular Bee Gees. Seriously, in the late 70s, people just could not get enough of the Bee Gees, and if there was a “secret” fourth Gibb also recording music you’d better believe we were all wanting to hear what that was about. “Don’t Throw it All Away” is a great encapsulation of this, originating as a tossed-off deep cut Barry and collaborator Blue Weaver came up with during the Saturday Night Fever sessions. For Andy’s second album, Barry pulled this one out of his back pocket, spruced the tune up a bit and contributed some backing vocals to get it off the ground, and presto! You had the most blatant reject from a more popular act to become a hit since “Surf City”. Soup to nuts, this is pretty much a store-brand “Love So Right”. That trademark Gibb falsetto still just doesn’t jive with tender R&B balladry, and the lyrics are still all dime-a-dozen love song-isms with hardly anything to latch on to. As a kicker, the chorus melody is arguably much worse than “Love So Right”, a shrinking little patter of a tune that seemingly only fades further into the background the more attentively you listen to it. I sincerely hope Andy’s legacy ends up being his more lively, catchy stuff like “Shadow Dancing” instead of mediocre scraps foraged from his brothers’ wastebin. He was a pretty talented vocalist who sadly never got to realize his full potential, and I think he deserved a lot better than the likes of this.
#2: Village People- In the Navy
It’s common knowledge at this point that disco and LGBT culture were closely intertwined throughout the 70s, and (at least in the eyes of the mainstream), the Village People have been the face of that intersection for decades. I won’t deny that they deserve a lot of credit for getting some of the, well, gayest songs in pop history to the top of the charts, and I’d argue that “Y.M.C.A.”, while far from perfect, has overall stood the test of time quite well. With all that said, “In The Navy” is easily the Village People’s worst hit, and one of my least favorite disco songs of all time. I have two issues with this song: a relatively small one and a very major one. The smaller issue is that it’s not as gay as “Y.M.C.A.”. That may be an unrealistic standard to hold the song to, since that song was already probably pushing the boundaries of what radio would have accepted at the time, but it’s still a shame that nothing here even comes close to the sheer campy homoeroticism of “you can hang out with all the bo-o-oys”. Along with the nearly identical instrumental palette, it really solidifies “In The Navy” as a pale imitator. The bigger issue is that it’s military propaganda. I feel pretty comfortable saying that, too, given that the U.S. Navy let the group shoot the video for this song on an actual naval frigate in exchange for the rights to use the song in advertising campaigns. Those campaigns ultimately never saw the light of day, but the fact that the actual navy thought it could be an effective recruitment tool, to me at least, really blows a hole in the notion that this is any sort of satirical look at or even an affectionate send-up of the military. Given that many YMCAs in the 70s were popular as gay hookup spots, a cheesy disco song about that institution felt like a nod to actual gay culture; it was caricatured and exaggerated, sure, but it ultimately came across like a good-natured inside joke. “In the Navy” traded on the reputation the Village People built with that very song to sell their audience on the military-industrial complex, a grim portent of the hollow corporate rainbow-washing we all enjoy today. How do you do, fellow gays? Happy pride month from all of us at Raytheon.
#1: Roger Voudouris- Get Used to It
“Get Used to It” is one of those songs I know I dislike, but can never recall exactly why until I’m actually hearing it. It’s filed in my brain under “lame, boring yacht-rock one hit wonder”, but that label doesn’t quite do justice to what a vacuum of musical enjoyment “Get Used to It” really is. There’s nothing to grasp here, there’s nothing I like about it and there’s nothing that’s even interesting enough for me to hate. I’d complain about the tinny synth tone that persists throughout nearly the entire song, but its actual effect on me amounts to little more than a twinge of annoyance- it’s mildly yet immediately unpleasant. The lyrics are kind of dickish, sure (commanding a girl to “get used to my love”? Whew, check out casanova over here), but they aren’t even presented with enough conviction to really bring the tone of the lyrics to the forefront. If the song was more overtly shitty and domineering I suspect I’d actually enjoy it a bit more, because it would be easier to accept as an intentional artistic choice. The thing about top 40 stuff like this is that it sticks around. Even the most forgotten and unappealing pop hit is likely the all-time favorite song of at least a few dozen people. I know at some point I’ll hear this song in a store or at a restaurant or playing out of a passing car, and I know deep down in my soul that it will cast a weak but persistent aura of misery over me for as long as I am unable to avoid hearing it. This is the worst possible version of fade-into-the-background, wallpaper radio filler. “Get Used to It” is not at the top of the worst list because I hate it more than any other song from this year. It’s at the top of the worst list because, more than any other song from this year, I cannot conceive of any possible scenario where it wouldn’t be a totally unwanted presence. I never want to hear this song again, and I sure as hell hope I never, ever have to “get used to it”.
SPECIAL End-of-Decade Closing Paragraph!!!
…And with that, we have 2 full decades in the rearview- and it’s (mostly) all downhill from here! I don’t even know what to say at this point. This project has more or less consumed my life for nearly 2 years now, and with 40-plus year end lists left to cover, it’s official: I’m in it for the long haul. I want to sincerely thank all of you who have commented or liked or read along to this point- PGTY is a weird and daunting and often very solitary undertaking, and each and every every one of you is a reminder that I’m not totally alone on this journey. Unfortunately, the conclusion of my coverage of the 70s is, I think, as good a place as any to take another break, so after this post goes live the site will be update-free for a while as I get a head-start on writing PGTY season 3 (should I keep calling them seasons? Screw it, I’m calling them seasons). Take the next few months to dust off your old day-glo sweatbands and perm your hair to high heaven, because (hopefully!) this fall, we’re going to the place where pop-nerd dreams come true: the 1980s! Until then, as always, happy listening!