Last May I came across an article at Cleveland.com by Troy L. Smith entitled, “Every No. 1 song of the 1980s ranked from worst to first.” Smith not surprisingly uses the Billboard Hot 100 as his source; he starts with “We Are the World” at #231 and, several thousand words later, lands on “Billie Jean” as his pick for best, a worthy choice in my opinion. I enjoyed reading the piece plenty—I’ve always been a sucker for lists—and forwarded the link on to my friend Erik Mattox, proprietor of the blog Music in the Key of E and The UnCola radio show/website. We’d already arranged to have a virtual meet-up at the end of the month and I thought what Smith had written would be good grist for the conversation mill.
It was, and by evening’s end, we decided to each take a stab at doing something analogous for #1 songs of the 1970s. Neither of us had the time or inclination to try putting 253 songs in order. But writing about 10% of that? You bet, though instead of identifying the 25 best chart-toppers of the 1970s, we agreed to write up blurbs about favorite #1s.
Time slipped away from us both, but recently we re-committed to finishing the project. And now we have. (In the meantime, Smith published his complete ranking of 1970s #1s in December. I haven’t read it yet but will soon.) Our choices will be presented in five chunks over the next 2-3 weeks, and as a bonus, we’re both reacting to the other’s picks. Let’s get going with the first installment.
Andy Gibb, “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” (March 1978, 2 weeks)
William Harris: The youngest brother Gibb doesn’t have all that much of a voice, but he blew up during my formative age 13-14 period, so what can you do? Of his three #1 hits, this one is the fave, partly due to its slightly unconventional song structure, but also for its very low Barry quotient on backup vocals. It’s one of the songs that takes me back to snow days during the harsh winter weather of January 1978, my sister and I building snow forts and tunnels, playing board games, and working on jigsaw puzzles.
Erik Mattox: Under the category of timing is everything, Andy surreptitiously launched his solo career just before the Bee Gees were about to dominate in 1978. This track splits up a twelve-week run of Bee Gees #1s between “Stayin’ Alive” & “Night Fever.” This was written and recorded a full year before it was released and was a great follow-up to “I Just Want To Be Your Everything,” showing off Andy’s sensitive side to his teen idol worshippers. It gets lost in history even with a great hook with a nuanced vocal performance. So I’m glad William chose it.
Blondie, “Heart of Glass” (April 1979, 1 week)
WH: It’s not my favorite Blondie song—that’d be “Dreaming”—and I’m not 100% certain it’s my favorite #1 Blondie song (probably “Rapture”). But “Heart of Glass” leapt out of the radio the first time I heard it on a Saturday morning in mid-March 1979, right before either Mom or Dad drove me to Xavier University in Cincinnati, to the BASIC programming course for high schoolers I was taking at the time. It was my first encounter with Debbie Harry and company (perhaps I’d led a sheltered radio life to that point).
EM: Just as disco started to oversaturate the market, here came these downtown New York darlings to show us the way forward. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were inspired by the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” to write this, which is probably why I liked it so much. This song created the bridge from Studio 54 to the Mudd Club and Hurrah, elevating the form of New Wave dance music.
Gordon Lightfoot, “Sundown” (June 1974, 1 week)
WH: One of several tunes from 1974 that makes me think of my sister and me riding along with Mom in her blue 1970 Ford Fairlane. It’s also one of the first songs to which I paid close attention to the lyrics, not that I could fully understand them. One of these days I’m gonna do a deep dive on Gord’s catalog, as I don’t think I’ve disliked anything of his I’ve heard.
EM: 70s folk-rock was such that you could write a tune that sounds lyrically agitated but sounds musically mellow. Gordo was a tortured buddha. I thought this song was called ‘sometimes’ for years because I could never hear him sing the word ‘sundown’ clear enough. Also, “sometimes you better take care” makes a lot more sense to me.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” (December 1970, 2 weeks)
WH: One of the greatest intros of the era, from the calliope-like big top melody line down to the bari sax foundation. It wasn’t until researching for this writeup that I learned “Tears of a Clown” was already over three years old when it was released as a single (in response to it becoming a #1 in Britain earlier in 1970). Absolutely brilliant songwriting, though that shouldn’t be a surprise with Smokey and Stevie on board.
EM: Smokey is one of my all-time favorite voices, so it hurts me that I didn’t include this. I think it’s hard for me to remember this as a 70s song, probably because it was initially recorded in 1967. Its success made Smokey, who was about to leave the Miracles, hang out with the group for another two years. Four years later, the Robinson-less quartet would ride their “Love Machine” to #1, but Smokey would never see the mountaintop again.
Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” (January 1973, 3 weeks)
WH: Maybe it’s the mystery surrounding the identity of its subject that have kept it near-and-dear all these years? Nah, it’s Simon’s ability to combine ice and fire. She’s obviously a woman scorned, yet in her disdain she’s still able to maintain some level of cool detachment about the man who’s done her wrong.
For what it’s worth, there was a total eclipse of the sun visible in Nova Scotia on March 7, 1970.
EM: It’s a shame that many have intertwined Carly’s career with James Taylor’s. For my money, she possesses a lot more soul in her work than he does, and it’s high time that it’s acknowledged and counted for on its own terms. The only thing they had in common was they were writing about the same person – him. I bet she cocked her head back and laughed like a maniac when she came up with that chorus.
I took songs like this literally, probably the same way someone on acid would. Your scarf was an apricot? There are clouds in your coffee? That was enough to jumpstart my imagination and hop into her world.
Come back later in the week for installment #2, and please hop on over to Erik’s place to check out his first five songs (and my reactions).
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