(Pictured: Young Rod Stewart, performing with Faces in London on September 18, 1971.)
When I was a kid, I rode the school bus for over an hour every morning. If I go out and lose myself on those town roads now, I can find places that were on the route, but I have never been able to reconstruct the whole thing. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t really paying attention. That long morning bus ride is a critical part of my personal mythology, because in the fall of 1970, I started sitting under the radio speaker every morning, absorbing WLS like a sponge. By the time I got back on the bus in the fall of 1971, I knew that listening to the radio wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to be on the radio.
American Top 40 recently repeated the show from September 18, 1971, and as I listened, I found myself looking out the window of the bus. That, and being fairly impressed by just a remarkable list of songs. It’s as close to all killer and no filler as any AT40 ever gets. It’s loaded with soul classics: “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” James Brown’s “Make It Funky,” Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me,” “Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, plus “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Spanish Harlem.” Apart from those, the radio was rockin’ in that bygone late-summer week. Some notables are on the flip.
29. “Rain Dance”/Guess Who. Forty-four years later, “Rain Dance” remains opaque and disturbing. “And I’m still sittin’ with my next door neighbor sayin’ / ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?'”
28. “Riders on the Storm”/Doors. We’ve been hearing this in pristine digital stereo for many years now, but the best way to hear it is still off the vinyl 45. There’s something about the vinyl medium—and I have no idea what—that gives “Riders on the Storm” an ominous edge that’s missing from every CD version I’ve ever heard, including CD reproductions of the original 45 edit.
24. “The Story in Your Eyes”/Moody Blues. Ten million repetitions of “Nights in White Satin” have erased the fact that these guys could rock pretty hard when they wanted to.
23. “Bangla Desh”/George Harrison. Casey introduces this with a mention of Harrison’s recent hit, “My Sweet Lord,” which he describes as a “Jesus-rock hit.” (Not exactly, no.) Also includes a mention of Harrison’s recent refugee benefit concerts in New York, held about six weeks earlier.
18. “Signs”/Five Man Electrical Band. I bought “Signs” on a 45 that summer, and was disappointed when I got it home and found that most of the hard-rockin’ introduction had been snipped from it. I didn’t lay hands on the long version until the CD era. If I say this is the greatest hit ever driven by a fuzztone guitar, somebody will inevitably think of a better one, so have at it.
17. “Liar”/Three Dog Night. Casey says that Three Dog Night picks their songs by a vote among the seven band members, and it takes six votes for a song to pass. “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was shot down twice before gaining acceptance, so the system worked, albeit slowly.
16. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels. There has never been anything else that sounded like this, not counting the rest of the Lee Michaels catalog.
15. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”/The Who. I bought this on a 45 that fall, and although the edits are jarring if you know the original well, it compacts the anger nicely.
7. “I Just Want to Celebrate”/Rare Earth. Another one with some significant differences between the 45 and the album. Both rock the hell out, though.
5. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney. Another 45 I bought, with as much Beatlesque whimsy as Paul would ever manage as a solo act.
4. “Maggie May”/Rod Stewart. Me, 2011: “‘Maggie May'” performs, for those of us who love it, the function great art is supposed to perform: It tells us who we are. And who we’ve been. And now that we’re 40 years older, who we’re going to be.”
This chart, as strong as it is, is topped by the weakest and most forgettable record of all: “Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond, returning for a second week at the top. And despite all the great songs jockeying for position behind it, it would be #1 again the next week.
It was the 70s. We couldn’t help ourselves.