Tell Me a Lie

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(Pictured: John Denver, outdoors.)

Popular music runs in cycles, periods of innovation followed by retreat, which inspires new innovation. It’s always been true, as David Wondrich demonstrates in Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924. Innovations bubble up into the mainstream and change the course of it, but after a while, the innovations (and the inventive spirit that inspired them) get co-opted to various degrees by the keepers of orthodoxy until the next new bubbling innovations come along. In Wondrich’s book, it happens to minstrel music, coon songs, and ragtime. Although eras don’t break cleanly and there are always individual exceptions, in later years it went generally like this: the Jazz Age and Swing Era (from the 20s to the start of World War II) was followed by an era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (to 1954), which was followed by the birth of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, which was followed by another era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (late 50s/early 60s), which was followed by the British Invasion, the rise of soul, and the whole ferment of the 1960s. That latter period lasted longer than it seems. I believe that certain innovations and spirit of the 1960s persisted as late as 1973. It wasn’t until 1974 that pop music became truly quiescent, in need of new bubbling innovations.

It’s easy to say that the bland and escapist pop of 1974 was birthed by the psychological weight of outside historical forces coming down—Vietnam, Watergate, energy crisis, etc.—and that’s probably part of it. Wondrich notes how the outside force of Jim Crow in the 1890s changed the nature of racist coon songs. But the biggest historical force driving co-optation at any point is probably capitalism, in which somebody hopes to profit by making an outsider art form palatable for a broader, less sophisticated audience. Top 40 radio, the main means of music discovery for a generation, was transformed by that desire to profit. By 1974, some of the big stations increased their efforts to achieve truly mass audiences by bringing more soft rock/adult contemporary music into the Top 40 mainstream to attract the olds, while others went all-in on attracting teenagers, which kept bubblegum and teenybopper acts alive (and which drove young adults away from AM to FM rock stations, another historical force in motion).

All that explains something, but not everything, about the the American Top 40 show dated May 4, 1974 (a show I’m sure I heard on the weekend it first aired).

39. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford
37. “I’m a Train”/Albert Hammond
28. “Seasons in the Sun”/Terry Jacks
26. “Keep on Singing”/Helen Reddy
25. “The Lord’s Prayer”/Sister Janet Mead
20. “Sunshine on My Shoulders”/John Denver
14. “Come and Get Your Love”/Redbone
7. “Hooked on a Feeling”/Blue Swede
6. “The Streak”/Ray Stevens
This right here is the reaction, or the co-optation, or whatever you want to call it, in response to the years since 1964. With these records, it didn’t feel like pop music had lost an edge as much as it had actively stopped trying to hone one. Even “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Come and Get Your Love,” catchy though they are, feel a little enervated. The very topical “The Streak” was on its way to #1 as one of the top hits of the year, but it generates a chuckle at most. In the aggregate, the blandness of these records is enough to stop time.

36. “I’m in Love”/Aretha Franklin
34. “Tell Me a Lie”/Sami Jo
30. “The Payback”/James Brown
And here are some casualties of the reaction, two stars and one style (deep Southern country-soul) that had been ascendant in years before but would never be quite so dominant again.

11. “The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch
8. “Tubular Bells”/Mike Oldfield
The blandness was not all-consuming, however. Any era in which both The Sting and The Exorcist were playing in your town (and in which Chinatown was a coming attraction, to open in June) was a good one. The Sting drove the success of “The Entertainer,” originally a ragtime piece written in 1902, but as a retroactive argument for the blandness of radio pop in the spring of 1974, you can’t do better, even if “Tubular Bells” represents a dissenting view.

Cherry-picking the charts in search of support for a particular thesis is a dangerous occupation. You can prove anything by selectively interpreting your source material. And in fact, what I’ve suggested here is probably a gross oversimplification of what was happening back there in the spring of 1974. Coming in the next installment (and I desperately did not want this to require two posts but gasbags gotta gas and I’m sorry), I’ll suggest that my whole thesis could be wrong.

4 thoughts on “Tell Me a Lie

  1. mikehagerty

    Just my two cents:

    “Come and Get Your Love” has one helluva hook. And if John Denver had figured out how to stay off TV and just be “the guy who did “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High”, a lot of his stuff would be more highly regarded today.

    Yeah, some of it was dreck, but if you can separate “Sunshine On My Shoulders” from its role as the moment John Denver became unavoidable, there’s nothing really wrong with it and it stands among the good stuff.

  2. Chris Herman

    I don’t think you’re oversimplifying because, with the exception of Homer Simpson, the consensus among just everybody who was alive and listening to popular music during the 70s was the year 1974 represents the absolute nadir in terms of overall quality.
    Granted, there have been a number of crappy years between 1945 to the present but 1974 still remains especially notorious 47 years later. And it didn’t matter whether you mainly listened to AM or FM since, in the case of the latter, an inordinate amount of air time was taken up by progressive rock bands like Yes and EL&P while old stalwarts like the Stones were now turning out substandard (for them) albums. Granted, there was good music released in 1974 but the crop seemed a lot thinner than in other years. If it hadn’t been for Stevie Wonder, Philly Soul, and a few other songs, the year would’ve been a complete write-off.

  3. Gary Omaha

    The problem with disliking 1974’s music — or music from any year for that matter — is if that year was an important year for you, then the music tends to become important to you whether you like it or not (both meanings). If you graduated, or fell in love, or married, or started a new job, or moved, or had any number of other life experiences, you forever are attached to the music that came along with it. (Yes, some of the above refers to me.)

  4. Wesley

    I personally wouldn’t group “Come and Get Your Love” with the rest of those you list here, jb, as in my mind it holds up wondrously well, not only with the hook as Mike Hagerty stated but also a fantastic production job. As for the rest listed in the first group, “Seasons in the Sun” is the big offender. Jacques Brel wrote the original song as an uptempo number, with him giving a sardonic flair as he tells off his wife on his deathbed that he knows she’s been cheating, among other revelations. The Terry Jacks version stripped that in favor of treacle throughout. Even more damning is the fact that the guitarist was Link Wray, whose 1958 instrumental “Rumble” was so shocking to some ears of that time that it was banned. Sixteen years later, he was backing sentimental sludge like this that probably many of the same listeners who avoided his early song eagerly snatched up to buy and requested on the radio.

    Yeah, on this song alone, jb, your theory here is holding up pretty well.

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