Have you ever really listened to the lyrics of the songs you grew up enjoying? Sometimes when you examine what an artist is saying, you find meanings you never dreamed of in the songs. More often than not, the lyrics are far less innocent than they sound on the surface.
The 1970s were full of songs that wouldn’t get recorded if they had been written today. From songs that express some nasty ideas outright to tunes with more subtly creepy messages, there’s plenty to be shocked about in the hits of the ‘70s.
Here are nine songs from the ‘70s (well, one of them is from 1980) that seem completely inappropriate today. You’ll never think of the decade the same way again after this list.
9. “Walk on the Wild Side” (Lou Reed, 1972)
Lou Reed made his way through Andy Warhol’s orbit and played with the Velvet Underground, and he recorded his signature tune in London early in the ‘70s. Reed populated his song with some of the more unique people he encountered in New York City – transgender starlets, drug dealers, young hustlers. People like Holly:
Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.
The idea wasn’t to normalize them, like artists today would try to do; rather, Reed just sought to tell some interesting stories.
These days, some would consider the real-life characters in this song heroes, so instead of Reed’s straightforward, rather deadpan delivery, a 2018 version of “Walk on the Wild Side” would be a lecture about how these people are just like everybody else.
What would make Reed a pariah today? One phrase – “colored girls.” Those two words would keep an otherwise fascinating song off the air today if it weren’t already a classic.
8. “Short People” (Randy Newman, 1977)
These days, we think of Randy Newman as the guy who wrote the songs for the Toy Story movies, but back in the ’70s, he was one of the go-to singer-songwriters for the smart set.
Newman’s compositions were erudite and clever, and he often showcased his wit. Once in a while, he even engaged in satire – “Short People” was one of his satirical songs.
In it, he sang that short people had “no reason to live,” even though the song’s bridge reminds listeners that short people are just like the rest of the world. Even as a kid, I remember thinking it was funny to hear a man singing about short people on the radio:
They got little baby legs
And they stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello.
These days, I’m not the tallest person around, and I certainly don’t take offense at the song.
“Short People” generated its fair share of controversy 40 years ago – a Maryland state legislator, of course a Democrat, tried to have the song banned from the state – but good grief, can you imagine the uproar if Newman had tried to release the single today?
In our hypersensitive age, nobody would laugh at “Short People,” because some sort of advocacy group would drum Newman off the airwaves before the rest of us could have a chance to hear it.
7. “Half-Breed” (Cher, 1973)
There was a time when Cher wasn’t an occasional actress and autotuned dance singer who spouts barely coherent left-wing nonsense on Twitter. Back in the ‘70s, Cher was a bona fide variety television star with a terrific sense of comic timing and a chart-topping singer with a penchant for songs that told stories.
One of those musical tales that hit number one in 1973 was “Half-Breed,” the story of a woman of mixed Native American and white parentage. The protagonist can’t fit in within either society, and so she concludes that “both sides were against me since the day I was born.” As a result of her shame, the woman basically becomes a slut, bouncing from man to man. A real life-affirming three minutes, that’s for sure.
Cher struck gold with the song at the time, and it has become a staple of her concert repertoire even today. That’s right, reliably liberal Cher performs a song about racial discrimination rife with some mild anti-Indian slurs even today. Get a load of some of the lyrics:
My father married a pure Cherokee
My mother’s people were ashamed of me
The Indians said I was white by law
The White Man always called me “Indian Squaw.”
If someone tried to pitch “Half-Breed” to an artist or record label today, he or she probably wouldn’t make it past the receptionist. But in a less politically correct age, the song became a hit.
6. “Island Girl” (Elton John, 1975)
Elton John was one of the biggest acts to make a name for himself in the ’70s. Many of his songs still sound innovative and timeless, and part of the credit goes to John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. John penned memorable melodies, while Taupin created situations and expressions that were often more poetic than most pop songs.
And then there’s “Island Girl,” an uptempo tune that became a big hit in 1975. It’s a nice, fun little song until you realize what it’s about. The song describes a Jamaican prostitute in New York City and one man’s desire to take her back to the island.
That sounds all well and good, except that the lyrics give a detailed description of the business of prostitution to the bouncy beat. It’s a bit much for pop radio, and the depiction of the hooker (and the faux-Caribbean patois) wouldn’t make it past the political correctness censors these days, either. Here’s a sample from the second verse:
Well she’s black as coal, but she burn like a fire
And she wrap herself around you like a well-worn tire
You feel her nail scratch your back just like a rake, oh oh
He one more gone, he one more John who make the mistake.
For those reasons, it’s probably for the best that “Island Girl” hit early on in John’s career.
5. “Fat Bottomed Girls” (Queen, 1978)
Queen released the double-sided single of “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” in 1978. Brian May wrote “Fat Bottomed Girls,” but he wrote it with lead singer Freddie Mercury in mind. Mercury sings of a young boy’s early sexual education:
Hey I was just a skinny lad
Never knew no good from bad
But I knew life before I left my nursery
Left alone with big fat Fanny
She was such a naughty nanny
Heap big woman you made a bad boy out of me.
And the second verse boasts of how the band prefers the “lardy ladies” to any “blue-eyed floozy.”
The band released a video for the double-A side featuring a group of, well, fat bottomed girls riding bicycles in the buff around Wimbledon Stadium. Yes, it’s every bit as shocking as it sounds, but would you expect any less from Freddie Mercury and company? I didn’t think so.
“Fat Bottomed Girls” is campy and entertaining for sure, and in any age, it would come across as risqué. But can you imagine this song getting airplay today, much less hitting the top 40? These days, someone would accuse Queen of fat-shaming, even though the song presents large women in a positive light. And it’s all because some people can’t help but complain no matter what.
4. “Hot Child in the City” (Nick Gilder, 1978)
Some songs may start with the best of intentions, but the final product doesn’t exactly meet expectations. That’s what happened to British-Canadian singer-songwriter Nick Gilder’s only major American hit, “Hot Child in the City.”
Gilder had witnessed the heartbreaking sight of teenage girls walking the streets of Los Angeles, so he decided to write a song that drew attention to the issue. The problem was, he wrote an upbeat pop song from the point of view of a potential customer.
So young to be loose and on her own.
Young boys they all want to take her home.
When she comes downtown, the boys all stop and stare.
When she comes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care.
It’s tough to bring serious attention to the problem of child prostitution when the lyrics include lines like “Come on down to my place baby, we’ll make love” directed at the young girl.
You can’t really call “Hot Child in the City” a failure, because the song gave Gilder a number one hit in both the United States and Canada, even though it didn’t bring a sustained career with it. The trouble stems from both the weirdness of the lyrics and premise of the song, and it’s easy to see why we don’t exactly remember it as one of the high points of the decade.
3. “You’re Sixteen” (Ringo Starr, 1973)
A song by a former Beatle penned by the Sherman Brothers is a terrific match on paper, and “You’re Sixteen” is an infectious song. But it’s also a little icky when you think about the lyrics.
You come on like a dream, peaches and cream
Lips like strawberry wine
You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine.You’re all ribbons and curls, ooh, what a girl
Eyes that sparkle and shine
You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine.
“You’re Sixteen” became a top ten his in 1960 for rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette, who was 26 at the time (still a little creepy). Richard and Robert Sherman wrote the song not long before Walt Disney chose them to be studio songwriters, sending their careers into the stratosphere.
Starr decided to record the song in 1973, and buddies like Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson joined in the recording, which would eventually hit number one. But here’s the problem: Starr was 33 by the time he recorded the song, making him twice the age of the subject.
Look, here’s the deal: “You’re Sixteen” is a catchy tune, and it’s one of the least cheesy songs of Ringo Starr’s solo career. But you have to forget a lot about the theme and content for it not to come across as a little sleazy.
2. “Into the Night” (Benny Mardones, 1980/1989)
The high point – or maybe the low point – in musical skeeviness is Benny Mardones’ one hit, a song that was such a windfall for him that he re-recorded and re-released it nine years after hit first hit the charts.
The first line of “Into the Night” is “She’s just sixteen years old. ‘Leave her alone,’ they said.” And the song should end there. Unfortunately, it goes on for four and a half minutes about how he wants to “take [her] into the night” and “show [her] a love like [she’s] never seen.” Gross.
What’s worse is that the second verse sounds like the couple has done more than talk to each other:
It’s like having a dream
Where nobody has a heart
It’s like having it all
And watching it fall apart
And I would wait till the end of time for you
And do it again, it’s true
I can’t measure my love
There’s nothing to compare it to.
Mardones barely missed the top ten of the Hot 100 in 1980, peaking at number 11. After a “Where Are They Now” radio segment in the late ’80s, Mardones got the inspiration to revisit his one hit for his self-titled album in 1989. This time around, the song went to number 20.
In some ways, it’s easy to understand the song’s appeal. The music revels in its glorious lushness, the melody is decent, and Mardones delivers a solid vocal performance. But it’s hard to get past those horrible lyrics, especially when the single hit the charts twice at the bookends of a decade.
1. “Brown Sugar” (Rolling Stones, 1971)
Leave it to the Rolling Stones to give us the most inappropriate hit of the entire decade. “Brown Sugar” carries a double meaning of sorts. Some interpretations maintain that the song is a veiled reference to drug use, and that makes some sense. But it also clearly tells the story of sex between a slave and her master.
Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should.
It’s absolutely disgusting, and that’s just the first verse and chorus. The rest of the song doesn’t get any better.
Mick Jagger leers on this one as much as anyone would expect him too. The lyrics reference sadomasochism and oral sex, and they’re hardly covered up in poetic license. It’s so blatant that the band has changed the lyrics in various live performances. This goes beyond worrying about political correctness and veers into complete inappropriateness.
Most of the songs on this list we can laugh about or shake our heads at, but I don’t see how anyone – the record label, radio programmers, and even the band’s management – let this song become a single.
What do you think? Are there other songs that belong on the list? Let us know in the comments below.