The music of January 1976 is emblematic of the listener I had become by then, and of the one I would be forever after. I was never going to be a metalhead; neither was I going to be somebody on the prowl for the next big thing. I was a creature of the radio, and specifically of Top 40 radio. While my horizons broadened some over the years— making room for prog rock while I was still a teenager and straight jazz after I turned 40—I still remain the kind of listener I was in January 1976: I want to hear the hits, and I want to hear them again and again. The list below is from Radio and Records.
1. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”/Paul Simon
2. “I Write the Songs”/Barry Manilow
Simon’s cool and clever wordplay is miles ahead of “I Write the Songs” composer Bruce Johnston’s sometimes-shaky “I am music” metaphor, but the latter is redeemed by these lines about the power of music to renew itself: “Now when I look out through your eyes / I’m young again even though I’m very old.”
3. “Theme From S.W.A.T”/Rhythm Heritage. We have noted before how several themes from ABC shows became radio hits in 1976, including S.W.A.T., Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Baretta, and Laverne and Shirley.
And speaking of the latter, the death of Cindy Williams this week should remind us all that she and Penny Marshall are, in character, still among the most recognizable figures of the 1970s. It’s also worth remembering how Laverne and Shirley detonated in popular culture during the very period I’m writing about here. The first episode, on January 27, 1976, was #1 in the ratings that week. The show’s 15-episode first season did well enough to rank #3 for the entire 1975-1976 TV season, behind All in the Family and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (which debuted in the same week). For the 1976-1977 season it was #2 behind Happy Days, which preceded it on Tuesday nights. For the next two seasons, it was #1.
4. “Love to Love You Baby”/Donna Summer
7. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”/Neil Sedaka
12. “Love Hurts”/Nazareth
13. “Convoy”/C. W. McCall
23. “Slow Ride”/Foghat
26. “Paloma Blanca”/George Baker Selection
30. “Dream On”/Aerosmith
31. “The White Knight”/Cledus Maggard
If my taste was/is small-c catholic, I came by it organically. Look at the variety among the 40 songs on this chart, and think about the willingness of mass appeal radio stations to play all of it: “Yeah, we already got Donna Summer pretending to get laid, Neil Sedaka doing a lounge number, and two CB radio novelty songs. Damn right we want Foghat and Aerosmith. And get us a polka too while you’re at it.”
5. “Evil Woman”/Electric Light Orchestra
6. “Love Rollercoaster”/Ohio Players
9. “Sing a Song”/Earth Wind and Fire
10. “Take It to the Limit”/Eagles
11. “You Sexy Thing”/Hot Chocolate
18. “Fanny”/Bee Gees
25. “Walk Away From Love”/David Ruffin
36. “Tracks of My Tears”/Linda Ronstadt
Any of these could be the best song on the list, although with the exception of “The White Knight” and Helen Reddy’s incredibly stiff version of “Somewhere in the Night,” every song has something to recommend it. Of course, the best song on the list might also be:
28. “Winners and Losers”/Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. There are songs that sound better on the radio than in any other environment. Imagine that you are 15-going-on-16 and listening to your favorite DJ on your favorite radio station. He makes a wisecrack, jingles out of it, and then plays this.
You want to be on the radio someday because you want to do that.
32. “Times of Your Life”/Paul Anka. Anka sings, “Suddenly it’s hard to find the memories you left behind.” And I realize that yeah, after all these years, the memories have gotten hard to find. I can’t tell you specifically why the winter of 1976 feels to me like it does, not like I could with the winter of 1977. What is left of being 15-going-on-16 are a few strong images and the retroactive realization that something important was happening to me then.
What it was, exactly, I don’t know.
But it occurs to me that I don’t need to know. As I listen to these songs, the vibe they create all together allows me to feel young again, even though I’m very old. And some of these days, there’s nothing I want more.
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