Last weekend, my nine-year-old niece talked me into taking her to the mall. In one store, we heard the ‘50s novelty classic “Witch Doctor” – you know, the song that would launch Alvin and the Chipmunks. Hadley turned to me at one point and said, “Who thought this song was a good idea?” I explained to her that sometimes funny songs become hits.
Every era has its weird songs, from “The Purple People Eater” to “Barbie Girl.” But the ‘70s seemed to have an overabundance of bizarre hits. Think about it: doesn’t it make sense that the strangest decade of the 20th century would produce some true musical oddities?
So let’s revisit the glory days of oddball music. Hop in the time machine with me as I do my best Casey Kasem impersonation (minus the radical politics) and count down the craziest hits of a wild decade. Here we go.
10. “Seasons in the Sun” (Terry Jacks, 1974)
Music snobs hold dramatic European pop in a rarefied air, but it hasn’t ever really taken hold in the States. There’s one glaring exception: one of the biggest international hits of the ‘70s, which has become one of the most despised singles in the ensuing years.
Belgian star Jacques Brel recorded a song entitled “Le Moribond” (which translates to “the dying man”) in 1961, and it became a sensation in Europe. Years later, pop poet Rod McKuen wrote English lyrics.
Canadian singer-songwriter Terry Jacks produced an English version of the song, which became “Seasons in the Sun,” for the Beach Boys, but when that band decided not to do anything with it, Jacks recorded his own version. Somehow it became a bona fide smash, topping the charts in 14 countries.
The problem with “Seasons in the Sun” and the primary reason why it has become such a target for vehement disdain is the song’s lyrical content. McKuen’s lyrics are ridiculously sentimental and overwrought – though, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine a song about a dying man being much less than that. The song has made several worst-songs lists, and with good reason. But it probably doesn’t matter to Jacks, because it became his biggest hit.
9. “Pop Muzik” (M, 1979)
The 1970s began with the last number one singles for the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Supremes, and as the decade neared its end, a form of music using synthesizers and other modern technology began to blossom. New Wave would create ripples into the ‘80s and beyond, but in 1979, British musician Robin Scott took advantage of it with his project M and its only American hit, “Pop Muzik.”
Scott based his single on his experiences viewing the Muzak operation in New York City. He was fascinated by the precision of the artists who created what we now call “canned music.” He applied the same sort of mechanical nature to the song. The clipped, robotic vocals and synth-driven instrumentation echoed the growing electronic music movement and buffed the sound to a pop sheen. It was unlike anything on mainstream radio, which gave M an advantage – and a hit. M had a couple of minor hits in the UK before Scott abandoned the project.
Today “Pop Muzik” is little more than a curiosity, a precursor to the decade that gave us A Flock of Seagulls and Devo. It’s certainly not enduring, appealing pop.
8. “Playground in My Mind” (Clint Holmes, 1973)
Children’s music doesn’t exactly burn up the charts, although once in a while a song slips through – British teen Laurie London had a smash with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in 1958, and the same year David Seville and the Chipmunks had the only Christmas song to top the Hot 100 with “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).”
Though it’s not exactly a children’s song, Clint Holmes’ hit “Playground in My Mind” takes a sentimental look at childhood and includes a child’s song as its chorus. I remember my mom singing that chorus to me as a child (but not the rest of the song), and my brother-in-law had a music box that played the chorus growing up.
“Playground in My Mind” is sentimental and ridiculous, and it became a smash. The song hit number two in America and topped the charts in Canada. Holmes wasn’t able to parlay the tune into a long-standing career on the charts, but he did become an announcer, talk show host, and Vegas star. And he owes it all to a sentimental, childlike single.
7. “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” (Meco, 1977)
Star Wars is such an integral part of our culture these days that even those of us who lived through the ‘70s can forget how big a deal the first movie was when it first released. From lines to see it in theaters to parodies to merchandise, Star Wars was all over the place.
One of the hallmarks of the first movie – and the rest of the “trilogies” – was John William’s incredible score. The word iconic is such a cliché, but it legitimately works to describe the music of the Star Wars films. Williams’ version straight from the film hit the top ten, but a cover version with a pop twist went even further, topping the charts.
Musician and bandleader Meco saw Star Wars on opening day and immediately came up with the idea for a disco-fied version of Williams’ score. He took the main title theme – probably the best-known part of the score – and worked it into a medley with the jaunty theme from the cantina scene. “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” topped the charts and led Meco to take on other soundtrack songs in the same style, with varying degrees of chart success. The death of disco slowed Meco’s career, and he wound up leaving the music industry. But for one brief shining moment, he stood at the intersection of disco and orchestral music with his astonishing accomplishment.
6. “(You’re) Having My Baby” (Paul Anka & Odia Coates, 1974)
The social changes happening in the ‘70s inspired some interesting songs. Paul Anka was a teen heartthrob in the ‘50s but hadn’t had a hit in years when the Roe v. Wade decisions inspired him to write a tune.
The song he wrote – “(You’re) Having My Baby” – became a lightning rod. He originally intended to record it as a solo song, but after hearing singer Odia Coates, he asked her to perform it as a duet with him. As the father-to-be in the song, he celebrates the fact that she could have aborted the child, but she decides to keep it. In a way, Anka sides here with the idea that a child is worth having, so maybe it’s an unintentional pro-life message?
In response to criticism, Anka told Rolling Stone:
[W]hat I’m saying in the song is that there is a choice. The libbers will get on me; I can’t help that. I am into the antihuman thing, and I do understand the other side of it. There are those who can’t cope, and it’s not in the cards for them to have kids. I’m a libber myself, in the sense that … if you’ve got to abort, you do. Some people just can’t cope.
So, the song may not be a pro-life anthem, but at least it’s a pro-choice anthem in favor of life. But that’s not all: Anka fell into trouble with feminists for the song.
What was their problem? The fact that he sang “having my baby” didn’t sit well with them. He tried the phrase “having our baby” (and even sang it in some concerts) but liked the way the original phrasing sounded.
Either way, “(You’re) Having My Baby” became a huge hit, either because of or in spite of the flak Anka took. It doesn’t stand the test of time too well now; imagine what the #MeToo movement would think of it. But Anka probably laughed all the way to the bank.
5. “A Fifth of Beethoven” (Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, 1976)
The disco era was possibly the most unusual part of the decade of the ‘70s. That genre of music created a subculture that was unique and easily identifiable, yet disco permeated the cultural consciousness in a way that no other subculture ever did or could. One of the hallmarks of disco was the tendency of musicians to put a disco spin on other types of music, as we saw earlier when Meco co-opted the Star Wars soundtrack to score a disco hit.
Walter Murphy wasn’t the first musician to adapt classical music to fit pop tastes; in fact, he grew up taking inspiration from other artists who had done so. He took the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and arranged it into “A Fifth of Beethoven.” The disco take on symphonic music grabbed the attention of the record-buying public, who snapped up enough copies and requested the tune on radio stations often enough to generate a number one hit. Unfortunately, Murphy’s other classical-pop hybrids didn’t fare as well on the charts.
Today, “A Fifth of Beethoven” stands as a monument to the strange tastes of ‘70s record buyers. Murphy has gone on to produce film and television scores for several different outlets such as Disney and Seth MacFarlane, but his only major pop hit stands as one of disco’s most infamous moments.
4. “The Streak” (Ray Stevens, 1974)
Comedy and novelty songs pop up from time to time in the music business, but rarely do they hit the top of the charts. Singer-songwriter Ray Stevens took advantage of the quintessentially ‘70s phenomenon of streaking – for the uninitiated, streaking is when someone runs around naked at a public event – to write a number one hit.
After reading about the new streaking fad in an airplane magazine, Stevens thought the subject would make for a funny song. By the time he had finished writing “The Streak,” streaking had taken off. By the time streaking went out of vogue, three dozen streaking songs had hit the charts.
The song follows a reporter as he covers streaking incidents, interviewing the same man who had witnessed them – Stevens voices both men. The witness warns his wife not to look every time, until the wife decides to join in the fun.
“The Streak” is a hilarious song that holds up well, despite the fad of streaking dying out not long after it fired up. It topped the charts in the States and the UK and was a hit all over the world. Stevens has performed it into the new millennium.
3. “Muskrat Love” (The Captain & Tennille, 1976)
Confession: I don’t remember “Muskrat Love” from back in the ‘70s, which is strange, because I have a strong memory of the pop culture of even my early childhood. But I remember hearing it sometime later and thinking, “Surely it’s a metaphor.” No. No, it’s not.
Songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey wrote and recorded a song he called “Muskrat Candlelight” (the first line of the lyrics), but his version didn’t go anywhere. The band America got a hold of it and turned it into a minor hit. When Toni Tennille and her husband “Captain” Darryl Dragon heard it, they decided to give it a go. In their own adult contemporary style and with just a hint of irony, it became a smash.
Let’s face it: only the ‘70s would produce a hit song about rodents falling in love, but “Muskrat Love” has its own unique appeal (except for Tennille’s fake, quasi-Southern twang and the bizarre synthesizer solo designed to suggest, um, muskrat love). The duo hit the top five of the Hot 100 and topped the Adult Contemporary charts with the tune, and they got in a bit of hot water when they performed it at a White House event honoring Queen Elizabeth II.
2. “Convoy” (C. W. McCall, 1975)
Mercy sakes alive, the CB radio craze took over America in the ‘70s. Thanks mostly to truckers, who still use them, CBs were one of the must-have tech items of the era (I can still remember getting angry at one of our neighbors when his CB interfered with the Dukes of Hazzard.)
Advertising executive and songwriter Bill Fries took advantage of the fad. He adopted the persona of one of his commercial characters, C. W. McCall, and burned up the charts with “Convoy.” Drenched in CB jargon, the song tells a compelling story of truckers rebelling against the rules and regulations that both the government and trucking companies imposed upon them (come to think of it, the song has a bit of a libertarian slant).
Musically, the song is a strange hybrid of country and pop, and I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a precursor to rap, but Fries/McCall cops a rhythmic spoken word that sounded unlike everything on the radio at that time. Fries co-wrote the tune with Chip Davis, who founded the American Gramophone record label as a home for his band Mannheim Steamroller. (So yes, we have Davis to thank for one of the ‘70s weirdest songs as well as crappy Christmas music.)
“Convoy” became a hit on both the pop and country charts, and Fries and Davis wrote follow-up singles. The song inspired countless parodies and a 1978 feature film. It has remarkable staying power, that’s for sure.
1. “Disco Duck” (Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots, 1976)
Remember Rick Dees? He hosted a radio countdown show in the ‘80s that intended to compete with Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 (and apparently he still does it today). He also hosted Solid Gold in the early part of that decade and even tried his hand at late-night television in the ‘90s. But in 1976 he was an AM disc jockey in Memphis when he conceived the idea for a parody song to take advantage of the disco craze. He wrote a song, hired a vocalist to sing it in a Donald Duck voice, and “Disco Duck” was born.
As the song began to burn up the charts, Memphis listeners couldn’t hear it. Dees’ employers wouldn’t play the song because they deemed it a conflict of interest, and other stations in town refused to spin a song by their competition. When Dees complained on the air, the station fired him, but after waiting out a non-compete period, a rival station snapped him up.
“Disco Duck” wound up hitting number one and selling six million copies, and it served as a launching pad for national stardom for Rick Dees. But let’s be honest – it’s just awful. We might consider “Disco Duck” the opposite of “someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.”
There’s the list! What other strange songs from the ‘70s can you think of? Let us know in the comments below.