When It’s Right, It’s Right

The very first post in the history of this blog mentioned the Starland Vocal Band. They’ve cropped up here frequently in the nearly seven years since, most recently Monday, when I said I was prepared to debate their merits if necessary. And apparently it is.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (later husband and wife) had written John Denver’s 1971 hit “Take Me Home Country Roads.” After performing as Fat City, the Danoffs teamed with another couple, Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman, as the Starland Vocal Band, and released their first record in 1976, “Afternoon Delight.” It was a monster, sufficient to earn them the Best New Artist Grammy for the year (which is not as absurd as the one “Afternoon Delight” got for Best Vocal Arrangement, which was deemed better than “Bohemian Rhapsody”).

On the strength of that Grammy, they landed a limited-run TV variety show on CBS in the summer of 1977. It was, against all odds, pitched at a hip young urban audience, with political commentary by Mark Russell and a young comic in the cast named David Letterman. But they were never built for the long run, not really, not professionally or personally. Bill and Taffy Danoff divorced after the group broke up; so did Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman. And with the rise of disco in the late 70s and danceable new wave acts in the 80s, their gentle acoustic sound was swept away in the same tide that swamped John Denver. In all, they managed four chart singles between 1976 and 1980, three of which you’ve probably never heard: “California Day” is the Platonic ideal of blandness and “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” is hideous, although “Loving You With My Eyes” is a beautiful song that deserved better than Number 71.

Thanks to the way we seize upon and recycle certain bits of pop-culture history, “Afternoon Delight” is now considered one of the most cheese-tastic moments of the 1970s. (The song was apparently performed on Glee last week, and it turns out that not only did the character who sang it not get its erotic subtext, neither did the actress who played her.) I, of course, neither agree with that nor care about it. Regular readers of this blog already suspect why: “Afternoon Delight” was in the Top 40 from around Memorial Day through Labor Day 1976, and it went to Number One in July, at the peak of my favorite year. So I guess I am not willing to “debate” its merits at all. Whatever there is to debate was settled for me a long time ago.

We love the songs that we love the most in part because of our associations with them. The Mrs.,  not yet old enough to drive in 1976, was being chauffeured with a friend one day by the friend’s older brother when “Afternoon Delight” came on. There in the car, the three of them started spontaneously harmonizing along with the radio. My favorite part of the story is not so much the two 15-year-old girls singing along, but the 19-year-old guy joining in. Lots of guys having to haul their little sister and her friend someplace on a summer’s day might have sat sullenly silent—and probably would have hated “Afternoon Delight” too. But not him, and not then.

The only specific association I have with “Afternoon Delight” is that I used to start my afternoon show with it every now and then when I was a little baby disc jockey at KDTH, but I have to think comparatively hard to remember that. The stronger association is more nebulous, but no less beloved. “Afternoon Delight” was one of the songs in my ear every three hours during the best summer I ever had.

They made a video for it, too.

Two observations: First, I can’t watch that thing without smiling. And second, Bill Danoff really outkicked his coverage.