Jesus of Cool: We Wuz Robbed! Great #2 Hits of the ’70s

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Continuing his decade-by-decade look of great second-place finishes in pop music, Jon Cummings moves on to the ’70s, including #2 hits from Lou Rawls, 10cc, and the King himself.

Welcome to the third installment of a continuing series exploring some of the best – and some of the most egregiously wronged – hits of the rock era. A whole lot of hits that only reached pop’s runner-up slot have been largely forgotten; for example, oldies radio seems to have little use for the Poppy Family’s “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” or BT Express’ “Do It Til You’re Satisfied.” But at least, as I looked back at the 1950s and ’60s, it seemed a healthy proportion of the #2 hits were terrific, or truly important songs that were justifiably blocked by other great singles … or at least got the shaft from idiotic trifles whose momentary appeal was understandable.

But then there was the ’70s – when, as it turned out, most of the hits that broke down during the 199th lap were just as silly and insubstantial as the ones that took the checkered flag. (See how the euphemisms keep on comin’? It remains to be seen whether I can maintain this level of cleverness straight through the Oughts, or whether I’ll pull up lame in the final stretch. See – another one!) Anyway, here we go with 10 good ones from the Me Decade. As always, I’ll list some more #2s at the end, and we can debate their merits in the comments.

10. “YMCA,” the Village People. Be honest: Who would you rather have coming after your children – the innocuous, mustachioed and very gay Village People, or “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”-era Rod Stewart? Well, if you answered Rod, you got your wish in the winter of ’79, as he pulled a Kris Allen on everyone’s favorite bunch of costumed Adam Lamberts and bogarted #1 for four weeks. As for the other 99.9 percent of us, we can take delight in the fact that the last time we heard “Do Ya Think,” we were able to fast-forward through it on the TiVo during the American Idol finale – while you get to dance along to “YMCA” (though not this remix) during every single professional baseball game ever. So there.

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9. “Live and Let Die,” Wings. Why did Paul McCartney’s Bond theme fail to reach the pinnacle? Maybe because it’s mostly an instrumental? Nah… (Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” had topped the chart just a couple months earlier.) Perhaps because nobody cared much about its host film? As if! (Live and Let Die topped the box office through much of June and July 1973, and was the 10th-biggest film of the year.) Perchance were there simply better songs out at the time? Well, the three (three!) songs that leaped over Roger Moore’s speedboat were Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After,” fresh off its Poseidon Adventure Oscar victory; Diana Ross’ diva anthem “Touch Me in the Morning”; and Stories’ cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie.” So I’d argue, no, that wasn’t it either. (Here’s the original version of the last song, which far less obviously references the Kingsmen.) Personally, I’d like to think that radio still had Macca in the penalty box for turning out so much crap over the past two years, up to and including his previous single “My Love” – one of the Worst #1 Songs of the ’70s.

8. “Dream Weaver,” Gary Wright. For a 10-year-old kid like me in 1976, “Dream Weaver” was the perfect gateway drug for a (temporary) addiction to spaced-out psychedelia. The rest of America loved it, too – though apparently the nation was preoccupied with more … earthly concerns that Bicentennial spring. “Dream Weaver” never quite reached the morning light, blocked first by the Four Seasons and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” and then by Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” which may have been the filthiest “Hokey Pokey” variant ever composed (at least until that Lil’ Jon/Lazy Town mashup. I’ll do anything to keep that video in circulation.) P.S.: Wright’s next single, “Love is Alive,” also peaked at #2 and also was vanquished by a pair of different songs, the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye” and Elton & Kiki’s “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” (I was gonna put up a clip of “Dream Weaver,” but I like the outfits better in this Midnight Special clip of “Love is Alive”:)

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7. “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon. She may have lit up your life, but Debby Boone pissed all over the chart-topping prospects of no fewer than four different singles during her 10-week run at the top in the fall of 1977. Carly Simon’s Bond theme was easily the best of the lot, and it held down the #2 slot for three of those weeks. I’m not a big fan of Carly’s – as far as I’m concerned, she shot her songwriting wad as soon as she finished writing about (presumably) Mick shooting his. “Nobody Does It Better” was written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, two not-so-great tastes that (in this case) went great together. Debby fended Carly off through most of November – the same way that Roger Moore held off Jaws through The Spy Who Loved Me – but Carly (unlike Jaws in Moonraker) at least got some measure of revenge. Her next single also Top-Tenned (“You Belong to Me,” which accentuates the part of her vocal range that I find excruciating), while Debby never sniffed the Top 40 again. (For the record, the other singles blocked by “You Light Up My Life” were “Keep It Comin’ Love,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”) I didn’t know this existed until just now:

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6. (tie) “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” Paul Simon. Sorry, I can’t choose between these two consecutive #2 hits from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. “Loves Me Like a Rock” (covered here by Alison Krauss & the Cox Family) may get a slight edge, as the parameters of this column go, since it got stuck behind “Half Breed” — whereas “Kodachrome” finished second to the entirely honorable “Will It Go Round in Circles.” Has any artist in history put out two consecutive singles so replete with wry wit? Speaking of which, check this out:

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5. “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” Lou Rawls. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where a smooth, mature, brilliant song like this would automatically beat “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” to the top of the charts? I have nothing more to say on this subject, other than that “You’ll Never Find” was Rawls’ only Top 10 hit. Criminal.

4. “Burning Love,” Elvis Presley. Oh, the irony. During the 1950s, when they were arguably the two biggest stars of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis enjoyed 12 Number One hits, Chuck Berry none. Berry had even beaten Elvis out of the starting gate, getting to the pop Top 5 with “Maybelline” during the fall of ’55 while Elvis was still pigeonholed on the country charts; still, the duck-walker’s highest-charting single of those years was “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which peaked at #2 in 1958. (This story would be even more ironic if Elvis had been #1 at the time, but that wasn’t quite the case – though Elvis’ double-A-side “Don’t/I Beg of You” was knocked from the top by the same song that blocked Berry, “Tequila.”) Anyway, zip forward 14 years, and we find Elvis rapidly ascending the Hot 100 with his last truly great single, the Dennis Linde-penned “Burning Love.” And who should be blocking his path to the top? None other than Berry, with his live-in-London rendition of the moronic yet undeniably giggle-inducing scatological trifle “My Ding-a-Ling.” (The Average White Band was backing him up, says Joel Whitburn, though you’d never know it.) Elvis never quite picked up the pieces (sorry – had to do it) after Berry finally gave him his come-uppance, and never made the Top 10 again. Neither did Berry, by the way; on the other hand, Linde would go on to write a passel of big country hits, including Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer,” and one of my favorite songs, the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.” Oh, and one more thing: Linde wrote “Cool Rider” and “Reproduction” for the film Grease 2. Put your pollen tubes to work!

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3. “I’m Not in Love,” 10cc. Is there anybody out there who doesn’t think this is one of the greatest singles ever? It bubbled under last fall’s Popdose 100 at #118, but could easily have placed 50 or 100 slots higher, had one or two of my colleagues been nursing an unrequited crush at the moment. The story of this song’s genesis is remarkable, but too long to go into here – so, to summarize the Wikipedia entry, Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman wrote it as a bossa nova, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme pronounced it “crap,” and then the two studio wizards (who would do the same sort of thing with “Cry” a decade later) revamped it with oodles of overdubs and loops and other trickery. (For evidence that “I’m Not in Love” can survive even without all those layers of multi-multi-multi-tracking, check out this gorgeous cover by Queen Latifah.) Almost as fun as that story is the tale of woe that befell “I’m Not in Love” once it reached #2: Like “Live and Let Die” before them, 10cc wound up spending three weeks as a bridesmaid – for three different brides! The lucky ladies were “The Hustle,” “One of These Nights,” and “Jive Talkin’.” Fortunately, the band did don the veil in the UK, where “I’m Not in Love” was #1 for a couple of weeks. (Trivia for 10cc fans: You may know that Stewart sang lead for the Wayne Fontana-free Mindbenders on the original version of “A Groovy Kind of Love” in 1966 – a #2 hit! – but did you also know that the band portrayed the groovy high-school combo in the closing dance scene of To Sir with Love?)

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2. “Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty. This was one of the biggest #2 hits of all time, holding steady for six weeks during the summer of ’78 – and it remains, quite simply, one of the classiest pop hits of the last 50 years. (Which may explain why it failed to make the cut for Barry Manilow’s execrable Summer of ’78 covers CD some years back. My guess is that Barry didn’t dare take it on. Waylon Jennings, Rick Springfield, and the Foo Fighters have dared, though.) “Baker Street” is perhaps best remembered for its glorious eight-bar alto-sax solo, performed by session saxman Raphael Ravenscroft; it was so popular that it engendered what became known as “the ‘Baker Street’ phenomenon,” sending saxophone sales (briefly) skyrocketing. (Ravenscourt, for his part, was paid the princely sum of £27 to create said phenomenon.) This, sadly, was Rafferty’s only Top 10 hit, though he had a pretty good run in the Top 40 throughout ’78 and ’79. And, of course, “Baker Street” remains near-ubiquitous on a number of radio formats to this day – unlike the song that dominated the top spot for all of those six weeks (and one more besides): Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.” Not that Andy’s hit, like most of his singles, wasn’t wonderful, too (sorry, Jason)…

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1. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye. What’s the ultimate soul protest song doing in a dump like this? Well, apparently radio programmers and record buyers decided that once Marvin’s consciousness-raising anthem had tucked itself in behind Jeremiah the bullfrog on the Hot 100, there was no need to escalate “What’s Going On” into the top slot. I don’t know anybody who doubts the appeal of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” or would deny it its place in the pop pantheon. But seriously, folks, this is “What’s Going On” we’re talking about — the fourth-greatest song of the rock era, according to both Rolling Stone and the Popdose 100. It was written primarily by the Four Tops’ Renaldo Benson and Motown house composer Al Cleveland, with Marvin contributing ideas when the song was nearly completed. Marvin was coming out of a months-long funk brought on by the death of his beloved duet partner Tammi Terrell; he had considered retiring from music, and even tried briefly to launch a football career with the Detroit Lions. Instead, he allowed Benson and Cleveland to convince him to record “What’s Going On” himself, rather than give it away to another Motown act. Eschewing Motown’s musical assembly line, he sang his own backing vocals and produced the record on his own, and it became the centerpiece of a brilliant topical album that took not only Marvin, but Motown in a new creative direction. A cool fact: The partying voices in the background belong to Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney, among others. A not-so-cool fact: Berry Gordy, chafing at his meal ticket’s quest for autonomy, tried to block Marvin from releasing “What’s Going On” as a single, and relented only when Marvin threatened to give up recording completely. (Stevie Wonder, at around the same time, used similar threats to force Gordy to gain sovereignty over his own musical direction.) “What’s Going On” has proved remarkably resilient through the years — there always seems to be a war on and someone to lament it, whether it’s Cyndi Lauper or Los Lobos or, to bring things full circle from #10 above, Kris Allen during the Idol finale (and who knows how many other Idolettes through the years). But, as Randy would say, “For me, for you, that was just a’ight — but yo, dawg, it’s hard when you’re trying to compare yourself to the original”:

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It’s worth mentioning, in the wake of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s run of #2 hits in 1969-70, that the Carpenters had five #2s over a three-year period: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Hurting Each Other,” and “Yesterday Once More.” Otherwise, for argument’s sake, here are some other #2s of the ’70s in chronological order, listed alongside the songs that refused to get the hell out of the way:

“Vehicle,” the Ides of March (the Guess Who’s “American Woman”); “Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” the Jackson 5 (the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple” and “Joy to the World”); “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver (the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”); “Spanish Harlem,” Aretha Franklin (Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl”); “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” the Hollies (Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally”); “Nights in White Satin,” the Moody Blues (Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”); “Use Me,” Bill Withers (Michael Jackson’s “Ben”); “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Elton John (Macca’s “My Love,” the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” & Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl,” and John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” respectively); “Lyin’ Eyes,” the Eagles (Elton’s “Island Girl”); and “All By Myself,” Eric Carmen (the Miracles’ “Love Machine”).

Also, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” England Dan & John Ford Coley (Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”); “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, and “Rubberband Man,” the Spinners (both stopped by Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night”); “Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band (Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen”); “Float On,” the Floaters (Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”); “Short People,” Randy Newman (Player’s “Baby Come Back”); Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get to You” (Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” and Wings’ “With a Little Luck”); and “We Are Family,” Sister Sledge (Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”).

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Next time, the ’80s – and the biggest #2 hit of all time! (No, I’m not talking to you, Glen Frey … or Wang Chung, or Breathe, or Glass Tiger, or Johnny Hates Jazz…)

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