To be a 16-year-old music lover in 1971 was a wondrous time.
Rock ‘n roll wasn’t universally loved when it arrived on the charts in 1955, not by a long shot, but over the next 15 years, it grew exponentially in popularity as the music and its audience matured. It grew like a massive oak, branching out into multiple mini-genres – folk rock, acid rock, Motown and soul, bubblegum, country rock, electric blues, even (already?) roots rock. Quite the cornucopia of styles.
By 1971, the table was set with a sumptuous buffet of musical options from which to choose. The Stones and The Who were at their creative peaks. You could still enjoy The Beatles’ final albums while trying to adjust to their initial solo work. There were the San Francisco jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the early metal bands like Deep Purple and Grand Funk laying down hefty slabs of power chords. The progressive rock coming from England – Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis – was pushing boundaries, and the ever-evolving rhythm-and-blues scene crackled as Motown and Memphis morphed into funk and Philly soul. Dozens of confessional singer-songwriters emanating from Laurel Canyon added emotional depth, and if you wanted to, you could still reach back and appreciate what the pioneers had accomplished with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Chantilly Lace.” And, as always, there were the middle-of-the-road acts churning out bland pablum for the unhip.
It was all there, from Black Sabbath to the Partridge Family.
It was also a time when Top 40 was losing its grip on the American musical psyche, as most record buyers were turning away from singles and investing in albums instead. In 1967-68, singles still ruled, but by 1970-71, albums outsold singles. People wanted to hear bands’ complete artistic statements. They liked The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” just fine, but they wanted to know what the rest of the songs on “Who’s Next” and “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” sounded like. We still chuckled at ditties like “One Toke Over the Line” by a one-off duo like Brewer & Shipley, but most of us were ready to invest our time and money in the whole body of work found on “What’s Going On” or “Sticky Fingers.”
In 1971, it was an embarrassment of riches: Led Zeppelin’s “Untitled/Zoso/IV,” Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Yes’s “The Yes Album” AND “Fragile,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Cat Stevens’ “Teaser and the Firecat,” Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Santana’s “Santana III,” Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Four-Way Street,” the Allman Brothers’ “Live at the Fillmore,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Eric Clapton and his alter ego Derek’s “Layla,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory,” Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” The Doors’ swan song, “LA Woman”…
So I chuckle now as I remember lying in a hospital bed in February 1971, recovering from knee surgery, as the radio played a new song by Three Dog Night, a band I liked okay – didn’t love them, but they were okay. And the song starts with the excruciating line that has plagued us ever since: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.”
I instantly hated it. Good God, I thought, what has become of Three Dog Night? They used to grab me with great stuff like “Easy To Be Hard” from the Broadway hit “Hair,” or Harry Nilsson’s great “One,” or the wonderfully melodic “Out in the Country.” But what was this dreck? “Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me”?? Seriously??
(I was later amused to learn that the band apparently disliked the song as much as I did, giving it a thumbs down when their manager suggested it for them. They resisted, but eventually gave in and recorded it, and groaned when it became a massive hit single. “I never liked ‘Joy to the World’, and can’t stand to hear it on the radio,” said vocalist Chuck Negron in his tell-all book “Three Dog Nightmare.” Negron no longer participates in Three Dog Night reunion tours but remaining members Danny Hutton and Cory Wells are saddled with performing it every night.)
In a year when brilliant, substantive #1 songs like “It’s Too Late” and “Me and Bobby McGee” were released, “Joy to the World” was by far 1971’s Number One selling song in the USA. It went on to become enormously popular at wedding receptions and even appeared on the soundtrack of the baby-boom classic flick “The Big Chill” 20 years after the fact. It was enough to make you want to throw up.
“Joy to the World” wasn’t the only hideous #1 tune of 1971, by the way. There was Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” and The Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.” But really, in just about any year you name, the popular music landscape has been littered with insipid, inane ditties that rocketed to #1 over far more worthy songs. Remember “Release Me” by Englebert Humperdinck? I didn’t think so. But incredibly, it kept the spectacular double-sided Beatles single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” from the #1 spot in the UK in 1967. Similarly, you may be sick to death of “Hey Jude” at this point, but can you believe it was ousted from its #1 perch in the US in 1968 by a piece of crap like Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”?
I once put together a mixed tape I called “Cringeworthy Songs of the ‘70s.” These were the truly putrid songs that, in a searing indictment of the listening public’s taste, somehow managed to reach the top of the charts – “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” “My Ding-a-Ling,” “The Candy Man,” “The Night Chicago Died.” Just for fun, I used to put it on at parties and watch the reactions of horror and disgust. But every so often, some partygoer would hear one of these awful tracks and exclaim, “Oh, I used to LOVE this song!”
And that’s the underlying fact about popular music: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. As much as I shudder at this stuff, I fully recognize, and am sympathetic to, the phenomenon known as the “guilty pleasure.” Lord knows I’ve wallowed in the depths of some amazingly shallow music over the years. We all love songs we feel we shouldn’t – songs that are embarrassingly saccharine, or stupid, or simplistic. “If” by Bread, or “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe, or “Brand New Key” by Melanie. Or, later, the hits by Debbie Boone, The Captain and Tennille, or the Bellamy Brothers. My wife cringes every time I crank up a song like “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters. “Oh my GOD,” she says, “how can you LISTEN to this??”
Well, here’s how. I was 16. I was in my mom’s car with my new driver’s license and my new girlfriend. I was really hoping to finally kiss this girl after weeks of hoping and trying. That lightweight Carpenters song, with its wistful sax solo, came on the radio, and damned if we didn’t start making out. And now, lo and behold, that song is part of my life’s soundtrack.
That’s what music does. That’s the power it has.
Truth be told, somewhere, to someone, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” has the same effect.