(This item was scheduled to appear last Friday, but I bumped it due to the death of Donna Summer. It almost got bumped again today due to the death of Robin Gibb—we would not have imagined in 1979 that rulers of the record charts would die within days of one another many years hence, because life doesn’t work that way. I was going to write about Gibb until I saw this piece from Rolling Stone, which sums up Robin’s contributions and legacy nicely. We now return to our regular programming, already in progress.)
Two weekends ago, the vintage American Top 40 countdown was one I remember listening to, up in my bedroom at home, pencil and paper at hand as Casey played the hits from the week of May 11, 1974. Thirty-eight years later, looking over the top songs of the week again, it occurs to me that the golden age of the novelty song had arrived. For the next couple of years, novelty songs—the kind of thing that would eventually be ghettoized on wacky morning shows before being exiled to YouTube—got airplay every couple of hours just like the other chart-topping hits of the day. The leading novelty of the moment was “The Streak” by Ray Stevens. Give Stevens credit for putting himself in the right place at the right time.
The craze began at the beginning of the year. A small item showed up in papers around the country late in January explaining that “streaking” had become a fad at Florida State University. UPI defined it as “a male running nude across campus.” Although there would eventually be female streakers, the fad was largely gendered—or at least the reportage was. Within a couple of weeks, more streakers were reported, from the University of Maryland, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Gonzaga University in Seattle, plus North Carolina, Maine, Auburn, and Alabama. At Western Carolina, 138 students held a mass streaking in mid-February and claimed to set a world record, although later in the spring, over 1200 showed up to streak at the University of Colorado. From the end of February and all through March, rare was the day when a newspaper somewhere didn’t report a streaker somewhere.
It wasn’t long before streakers were no longer confined only to college campuses, or even to the United States. Concerts by Yes and Gregg Allman were interrupted by streakers; Mike Love and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys streaked their own show once. On April 2, 1974, a streaker interrupted the Academy Awards, just as David Niven was about to award the Oscar for Best Picture. (There’s some suspicion that the Oscar streaking may have been staged; in the weeks to come, the guy responsible hired himself out to streak Hollywood parties.)
The very week of the Oscar streaking, Stevens released “The Streak,” which debuted on the Hot 100 during the week of April 13, and went from 84 to 54 to 19 to 6 to 2 for the week of May 11, and to #1 the week after that. After three weeks at #1, the record remained in the top 5 into July. By that time, newspapers were writing about how the streaking fad had passed.
(Here’s a scholarly article about the history and meaning of streaking: “‘It Beats Rocks and Tear Gas’: Streaking and Cultural Politics in the Post-Vietnam Era.” Damn, I love the Internet.)
On the flip, read some brief takes on other novelties from the Top 40 that same week.
“My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford. It’s a song about the power of punctuation, really.
“The Lord’s Prayer”/Sister Janet Mead. One definition of novelty according to Webster is “something that provides fleeting amusement and is often based on a theme.” Yup, that’s “The Lord’s Prayer” all right.
“The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch. A straight-up ragtime number written in 1902? Definitely a novelty—and one of three instrumentals in the Top 10 this week, alongside “Tubular Bells” and “TSOP.” If it had ever happened before, it was probably back in the 1950s, and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t happened since.
“Hooked on a Feeling”/Blue Swede. The amusement value of that “ooga-chucka” hook may have seemed fleeting in 1974, but it remains one of the great mad-scientist moments in pop history. Here’s a live performance from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert featuring the Man Himself, recorded by somebody pointing a camera at his TV.
Honorable mention: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder, for the hilarious spoken bit that opens it, and “The Locomotion” by Grand Funk, one of the oddest collisions between song and artist in rock history—and the #1 song in America for a second consecutive week on May 11, 1974. Here’s a live version that’s the unadulterated essence of 1974, when any damn thing could become an enormous hit, and we liked it that way.