(Pictured: Carly Simon and James Taylor, 1973.)
On Monday, I wrote about how pop music, at least as it was heard on the radio via the American Top 40 show from May 4, 1974, was retreating from the innovation and ferment of the previous decade, citing the incredible blandness of many of the most popular songs, and the fact that certain significant artists and styles of the earlier period were ceasing to be as popular. In this post, there’s evidence that the thesis in my earlier post could be completely full of it.
40. “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend”/Staple Singers
35. “Mighty Mighty”/Earth Wind and Fire
32. “For the Love of Money”/O’Jays
27. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”/Stevie Wonder
19. “My Mistake”/Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye
17. “You Make Me Feel Brand New”/Stylistics
5. “Dancing Machine”/Jackson Five
4. “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”/Gladys Knight and the Pips
Sure, Aretha Franklin and James Brown were coming down from the peaks they had reached in the 60s and early 70s, but there was a whole raft of stars who were either 60s mainstays doing fine, emergent stars in the 70s at a peak, or future hitmakers on the way up. In defense of my original thesis, I will say that in 1974, some of these acts were not especially long for the charts. For example, Philly soul would cease to be as powerful a force as disco rose, and Michael Jackson would swallow his brothers whole not too long after.
38. “Thanks for Saving My Life”/Billy Paul
23. “Help Me”/Joni Mitchell
And there were still innovators at work in this period. Joni Mitchell hired jazz musicians for her band because they were the only ones capable of keeping up with her explorations. Billy Paul came up as a jazz singer, which explains the way he sings ahead of, behind, and all around the swingin’ band backing him on “Thanks for Saving My Life.” That band, MFSB, made up of Philadelphia session players, had jazz chops to burn. (Listen to the sax solo on “T.S.O.P.”) Outsiders and outside styles continued to influence pop just as they had in years before.
33. “Mockingbird”/Carly Simon and James Taylor
31. “A Very Special Love Song”/Charlie Rich
21. “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”/Carpenters
One might consider these to be emblematic of the bland, adult-contemporary direction of Top 40 music as 1974 unfolded. Charlie Rich had taken that same sensibility to the top of the country charts: Casey mentions that in a recent week, Rich held the top three positions on the country album chart. (Of all his hits in the 1973-1974 period, “A Very Special Love Song,” which had been to #11 on the Hot 100 in April, might be the best of the bunch.) I did not lump the Carpenters with the previous post’s examples of records dull enough to stop time, even as it sounds exactly right alongside of them. That’s because by 1974, the Carpenters’ record-making craft was so accomplished—seriously, they were approaching McCartney levels by this time—that I’m impressed by it even when it’s in the service of a song that’s not especially memorable.
As for Carly and James, leave it to nerds such as we to consider where “Mockingbird” fits on a creative spectrum or within the course of history. In 1974, they had hit the quinella of being young, beautiful, talented, stoned (just JT), and in love, so good for them.
29. “Let It Ride”/Bachman-Turner Overdrive
22. “Band on the Run”/Paul McCartney and Wings
3. “Bennie and the Jets”/Elton John
1. “The Locomotion”/Grand Funk
Here are more stars who were either just starting a run of success (BTO) or in the middle of one. But they also represent the only real rock music on this chart. Does “Bennie and the Jets” even count? I am almost convinced that “The Locomotion” is more akin to the novelty cheese of “The Streak,” which would knock “The Locomotion” from the #1 position during the week of May 18, 1974, and stay in the Top Five until July.
While there are some specific exceptions, in general I find the radio pop from first half of 1974 hard to love. It gets better as the year goes along, but I can never be sure that doesn’t have as much to do with the pleasant associations I have with the music as it does with the music itself. If I’m onto anything here, it’s the idea that there was a degree of qualitative retreat going on in that year, moving in a direction that would necessitate new innovations—disco, new wave, MTV, take your pick—in not too many years after.