1978: The Best Year Ever for Pop Singles?
“Grease” was the word, and “Saturday Night Fever” had no cure.
I’ve always been fairly indifferent to “1979,” the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins single (and the band’s biggest pop hit, peaking at number 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100). It probably has as much to do with my certainty that the great Pumpkin Billy Corgan set the song in the wrong 12-month period as it does with its musical merit, or lack thereof. When it comes to years of the ’70s, I’ve always been more partial to the one that came before 1979.
Ah, 1978 — the best year of the first decade of my life. I can’t pinpoint a specific reason why I remember 1978 so fondly. It’s perhaps partly because 1977–1978 is the first period that I can actually remember in more than bits and pieces. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing 40 years ago today, but for the most part, when 1978 replays in my mind, it’s in short films, not snapshots.
And then there’s the music, the songs I remember listening to when I was riding with my mom and dad in our brown 1978 Ford Thunderbird. It was the year that one of the greatest bands of the decade, Queen, bookended with two great double-sided hits: “We Are the Champions”/“We Will Rock You” and “Bicycle Race”/“Fat Bottomed Girls.” It was the year that gave us four big hits from the Grease soundtrack, a slew of hot-shot debuts (see “Best new artists” below, plus The Cars, Chic, Chris Rea, Toto, and A Taste of Honey), and Saturday Night Fever’s still-spreading disco inferno.
The significance of the year and its soundtrack increased in 1984 when I bought a book based on Casey Kasem’s weekly American Top 40 radio countdown. It featured biographies for every artist who hit the Top 40 between November of 1977 and November of 1978 and singles discographies listing the peak positions of all their songs that ever hit the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100.
Back then, in 1984, 1978 already seemed like such a long time ago — a far more distant memory than 2012 seems now. But I could so vividly remember its biggest hits, the ones I heard on the radio, on TV, and on those K-Tel compilations that were to the late-’70s/early ’80s what the Now That’s What I Call Music! series was to the ’00s.
Forty years later, the best of 1978 sticks with me. Interestingly, many of the pop songs from 1978 that I remember most fondly were performed by either one-hit wonders or by artists who are more or less forgotten today.
Here are 12 that sound as fresh today as they did during the Carter Administration.
“Hot Child in the City” Nick Gilder I always thought a woman sang this U.S. chart-topper until I saw Gilder’s picture in my Casey Kasem book. The song itself remains kind of a question mark (in the best possible way). It’s not rock. It’s not disco. It’s too quirky to be full-on pop. It’s totally of its time but defies categorization by not sounding like anything else of its time or any other.
“Magnet and Steel” Walter Egan I may have been only 8 going on 9, but even then, this song’s sex appeal wasn’t completely lost on me.
“Thunder Island” Jay Ferguson Solid solo gold from the former member of Spirit (“I’ve Got a Line on You”) and Jo Jo Gunne (“Run, Run, Run”). I love the faux-tropical-vacation feel of the verses, which amp up the laid-back wasting-away-again-in-margaritaville vibe of Jimmy Buffett hits of that era.
“Change of Heart” Eric Carmen Though he’s barely, if ever, talked about today, Carmen was one of the more successful pop songwriters of the ’70s and early ’80s. At one point in the fall of ’77, three of his compositions were on Billboard’s Hot 100 at the same time.
Yet today, if you remember him, it’s most likely for singles that borrowed from a dead classical composer whose work I was struggling to master during my piano lessons in the late ’70s (Rachmaninoff, quoted on “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” two of Carmen’s three 1976 solo hits), and a song from 1987's Dirty Dancing soundtrack (“Hungry Eyes”) that he didn’t even write.
“Emotion” Samantha Sang Destiny’s Child so didn’t do Barry and Robin Gibb’s classic disco ballad justice in 2001, nailing the harmonies but mangling the lyrics: “It’s just emotion taking me over,” not “emotions.” There’s a big difference. The definitive “Emotion” forever will be Sang’s version of the song the Gibbs wrote for her, which came out in December of 1977. (The original lyric: “It’s just emotion that’s taken me over.”)
Within a year, Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams’ would release the first significant cover of it as the B-side of their 1978 number-one single “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” so although Aussie one-hit wonder Sang took it to number three, in a way, “Emotion” still topped the Hot 100.
Fun fact: Sang’s Emotion LP also featured her version of Carmen’s “Change of Heart.”
“I Love the Nightlife” Alicia Bridges I love the way she growls “ackSHUN!” (as in “action!”) on the verses almost as much as I used to love the nightlife.
“You Belong to Me” Carly Simon For some reason, I can’t listen to this song without thinking about Barbra Streisand’s “My Heart Belong to Me,” which was a Top 5 hit the previous year. I love how possessive the leading ladies of pop were back then. Coming right after Simon’s 1977 Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better,” it was part two of one of the late ’70s best back-to-back pop masterpieces.
“Talking in Your Sleep” Crystal Gayle Between hits by Anne Murray (“You Needed Me,” “I Just Fall in Love Again,” “Shadows in the Moonlight,” “Broken Hearted Me”), Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again,” “Two Doors Down,” “Heartbreaker”), Linda Ronstadt (“Blue Bayou”), Olivia Newton-John (“Hopelessly Devoted to You”), and Gayle (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” “When I Dream,” “Half the Way,” and this), late 1977 to 1979 easily qualifies as the golden age of female crossover country-pop.
“Used ta Be My Girl” The O’Jays After peaking early in the decade, soul men were still killing it in the late ’70s. Along with late-1977 hits by Barry White (“It’s Ecstasy [When You Lay Down Next to Me]”), Commodores (“Brick House”), LTD (“Every Time I Turn Around [Back in Love Again]”), and Tavares (“More Than a Woman”), and 1978 Top 40 singles by Earth, Wind & Fire (“Fantasy”) and Teddy Pendergrass (“Close the Door”), this smash by a resurgent The O’Jays’ hit the height of soul at the height of disco.
“Sweet Talkin’ Woman” Electric Light Orchestra Next to Chicago (whose “Baby What A Big Surprise” was released a few months too early to be featured here), ELO was easily my favorite pop-rock band of the ’70s.
“Isn’t It Time” The Babys It was technically released in 1977, but it had enough of a chart presence in ’78 to be included in the Casey Kasem book, so I’m including it, too. Lead Baby John Waite may have been the very first male rocker I crushed on, which made it extra exciting when he sent me a handwritten note in the ’90s after I complimented his version of “Missing You” in a not-glowing Entertainment Weekly review of Tina Turner’s cover.
One of my favorite things about this number 13 Babys hit is how Waite sings off-melody on the chorus (he was the first white guy I ever heard do that), which, in decades to come, would become a much-used (and some would say overused) R&B tactic by every female singer with a drop of soul.
Fun fact: John Waite’s 1984 solo number one, “Missing You,” was the song that knocked Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from its perch atop the Hot 100. Alas, her 1996 cover only reached number 84.
“Reminiscing” Little River Band So sublime that Frank Sinatra once called it the best ballad of the 1970s. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but as pop love songs sung by men in the ’70s go, it certainly gives Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” some formidable competition. (Nothing can top Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man,” though.)
*20 More Reasons Why Pop Singles Peaked in 1978
“Night Fever” Bee Gees
“MacArthur Park” Donna Summer
“Miss You” The Rolling Stones
“If I Can’t Have You” Yvonne Elliman I used to get into arguments with my best friend in sixth grade because he insisted that Andy Gibb was singing the Bee Gees-penned Saturday Night Fever highlight that was by then already a golden oldie.
“Still the Same” Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
“Baker Street” Gerry Rafferty
“Running on Empty” Jackson Browne Eighties babies who know him best from “Somebody’s Baby” and “Lawyers in Love” don’t even know.
“Whenever I Call You Friend” Kenny Loggins
“I Was Only Joking” Rod Stewart
Women on top
“Take a Chance on Me” ABBA The ’70s fab four’s second biggest U.S. single, after “Dancing Queen,” though in my 1970s, this number three hit was always overshadowed in my pop consciousness by 1976's “Fernando,” which only climbed to 11.
“It’s a Heartache” Bonnie Tyler
“Our Love” Natalie Cole
Bands on the run
“Chip Away the Stone” Aerosmith Although the number 77 flop wasn’t the song that got Aerosmith into my Casey Kasem book (that was “Come Together,” the band’s number 23 Beatles cover), it would be their last great single until the year I graduated from high school (1987).
“Don’t Look Back” Boston
“With a Little Luck” Wings
Best new artists
“Killing an Arab” The Cure
“Being Boiled” Human League
“Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush
“Hong Kong Garden” Siouxsie and the Banshees I wasn’t into Siouxsie yet in 1978, but if I had been, I would have been the coolest nine-year-old alive.
“Take Me I’m Yours” Squeeze