Top 5: Then Came Gremlins

Forty years ago yesterday—April 1, 1970—American Motors introduced the Gremlin. Demand for subcompact cars was just starting to heat up, and AMC beat Ford and GM to the marketplace by modifying its existing Hornet model, although it actually looks like a Hornet in the front and a deformed pickup truck in the back. (Designer Richard Teague is supposed to have sketched the first one on a Northwest Airlines airsick bag during a 1968 flight.) A two-seater model listed at $1879; the four-seater listed at $1959. AMC produced the car through the 1978 model year—but the one you want went into production for 1973. The Levi’s Gremlin had a faux-denim interior with orange stitching and rivets, along with the Levi’s logo on the front fenders. It cost an extra $49.95 on the two-seater and $134.95 on the four-seater model. AMC would later extend the denim package to its other cars, including the Hornet, Javelin, and Eagle—you could even get an acid-washed denim interior for the Eagle, a model introduced for 1979, when acid-wash was cool.

If you owned one of the first Gremlins on the block, and if you popped for a radio (which wasn’t necessarily standard equipment in those days), you would have heard a number of records on the local Top 40 station that would become pop icons: “Let It Be,” “Instant Karma,” “ABC,” “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which made up the top 5 at KHJ in Los Angeles for the week of April 1. But what else might you have heard?

10. “Up the Ladder to the Roof”/Supremes (up from 13). The first single for the Supremes after the departure of Diana Ross, “Up the Ladder to the Roof” features new lead singer Jean Terrell doing her best Diana. Her background was in gospel, and on some of her early sessions, producers had her scale back her style a little bit, lest the new Supremes sound too black for the white audiences they’d worked so hard to capture during the Ross years.

15. “House of the Rising Sun”/Frijid Pink (holding at 15). Driven by big distorted riffs and an echo-drenched lead vocal, “House of the Rising Sun” sounds quite dated today, and I suspect it sounded a wee bit dated even in 1970. (Most of the stoners who dug this sort of thing would have moved over to the FM band by then.)  The band is said to have knocked it off unplanned at the end of a recording session, only to see it sell a million.

16. “Long Lonesome Highway”/Michael Parks (up from 19). Disillusioned young man quits his job and takes to the highways on a motorcycle searching for fulfillment and helping his fellow man along the way. That’s the premise of Then Came Bronson, a TV series that was in the middle of its first (and only) season on NBC in early 1970. Michael Parks played Bronson; “Long Lonesome Highway” was the show’s closing theme. Here’s how it was used within an episode of the series:

19. “Love Minus Zero–No Limit”/Turley Richards (up from 24). Richards was a singer from West Virginia who moved to first to L.A. and then to New York City seeking fame and fortune. He can’t really be said to have found either, although he’s continued to work in music ever since. He released three singles that made it onto the Hot 100 in 1970. “Love Minus Zero—No Limit” is a Dylan song.

29. “For the Love of Him”/Bobbi Martin (debut). “For the love of him/Make him your reason for living.” Sounds like one of those subservient-housewife records that periodically hit the charts in the 1960s, although this one also contains what seems like a contradictory bit of advice: “He’s a man and a man has to try/Let him run, let him fall, let him cry.” In other words, it’s your job to sit back and watch when the poor sap fucks up now and then. That’s either somewhat liberated—you’re not responsible for everything he does—or not liberated at all—it’s not your job to criticize, no matter what.

As dates in pop-culture go, April 1, 1970, was a pretty eventful one. On the same day the Gremlin was introduced, President Nixon signed a bill requiring cigarette packages to contain health warnings. The bill also banned cigarette advertising from television after January 1, 1971.

Recommended Reading: the blog Sound System by Michele Catalano. She revealed her age in a recent post, but I won’t repeat it except to say that she shares an approximate chronological point of view with the author of the blog you’re reading right now. She’s been blogging for only about a month, and not everybody who starts a blog follows through for the long haul. If Catalano does, however, it looks like she’ll have a good one. Start with “The worst best classic rock songs of all time” and “The top ten classic rock songs I don’t hate.” [This site doesn’t exist anymore. Michele is still writing, however, and is on Twitter at @inthefade.]

2 thoughts on “Top 5: Then Came Gremlins

  1. Miles

    I bought a Gremlin sometime around 1973. Yellow with big stripes on each side and big sporty tires. It was fine for a year or two and then started falling apart—fast. Sadly, one of the worst cars I ever owned.

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