Top 5: Hamsters in the Smoke

I have had 1974 on the brain lately. That was the spring I put blacklight bulbs in the overhead fixture in my room, and the spring I tried getting into Emerson, Lake and Palmer because a girl I liked was into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it was easier than actually talking to her. It was also the spring we came home from church one Sunday to find our house full of smoke. We didn’t see any fire, but we couldn’t tell where the smoke was coming from, either. As it turned out, the culprit was the radio in my brother’s bedroom— the green Westinghouse tube-type, my first radio, the one I listened to on Christmas Eve 1970—which had shorted out and burned. It’s hard to imagine that it could have produced the volume of smoke we saw, but it did, and the smoke and soot damage, particularly to the upstairs, was significant.

The afternoon of the fire, my brother was inconsolable, sure that his hamsters, which lived in his room, were dead. At mid-afternoon my father finally went up to retrieve the cage. The little creatures were covered with black soot—but they were still alive. It fell to my grandmother, for reasons I can’t recall, to clean them up. I can see her even now, standing at the kitchen sink, washcloth in one hand and hamster in the other, with a look on her face that said, “You know, at my house we set traps for things like this.”

Around nightfall, I innocently asked my mother, “So, do you think things are getting back to normal around here?” She went off. “Normal?! It’s going to be months before things are back to normal around here!” She was right. We would be weeks washing clothes and drapes and walls and having furniture and carpets replaced. We had to discard lots of stuff that was too smoke-damaged to save—including my entire collection of original WLS music surveys from late 1970 through early ’74, a loss I have mourned ever since. It was indeed months before my brother and I could move back into our rooms upstairs. I would spend the summer of 1974 hanging out in the basement of our house.

That was also the spring I began listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 with pencil and paper in hand. Casey used the Billboard chart, but here are five tunes from Cash Box, dated May 18, 1974:

6. “Midnight at the Oasis”/Maria Muldaur (up from 9). I am pretty sure I took this at face value—a desert narrative, like an old movie that might come on after the 10:00 news—thereby missing the sexual subtext, which is the only thing I can hear now. (Live performance from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert here.)

17. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”/MFSB (down from 7). Soul Train was must-see TV for me, mainly for the theme song, although I had a healthy appreciation for R&B by that time. And when the theme turned up on the radio, I couldn’t get to the record store fast enough.

21. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford (up from 25). In which we learn that punctuation matters. (Live performance and interview clip with David Letterman here.)

36. “Save the Last Dance for Me”/De Franco Family (up from 47). In the early 70s, you had your Osmonds, your Jackson Five, your Partridge Family, and a vast array of teen magazines to promote them. Surely there was enough teenage-girl interest to sustain the career of another family singing group. In the case of the DeFranco Family, there was three singles’ worth. “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” would be better if Tony DeFranco were a better singer, but “Abra-ca-Dabra” is a glorious gob of bubblegum that overcomes his limitations. Their respectful and respectable cover of “Save the Last Dance for Me” marked the end of the line.

37. “Star Baby”/Guess Who (up from 38). In which the Guess Who channels the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Crank it up, open the windows, step on the gas . . . and enjoy the holiday weekend. I’ll be on the radio a lot, so tune over. And because I didn’t post much this week, watch for an extra post or two here as well.

“Save the Last Dance for Me”/DeFranco Family (96 kbps, but you’ll get the idea; out of print)
“Star Baby”/Guess Who (buy it here)

6 thoughts on “Top 5: Hamsters in the Smoke

  1. Yeah, “Star Baby” was another of those songs that was much, much bigger in Chicago than it was nationally. I couldn’t believe when I finally got a hold of one of the Record Research books that it only spent one week in the top 40 at #39. WLS and Super ‘CFL played the heck out of that song in the summer of ’74.

  2. John G.

    In case some of you, in the back of your minds, didn’t think that the CD releases of “Star Baby” and “Abra-Ca-Dabra” matched the 45’s, you are correct. Discovered that info this week on the Pat Downey forum.

  3. Pingback: May 26, 1974: Let It Happen – One Day in Your Life

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