Some songs are just bad. So bad that you can't imagine how anyone could ever have written them, much less managed to get them recorded. We paid homage to one such song in our recent post on MacArthur Park, the indisputable Rasputin of bad pop songs, written by Jimmy Webb in 1966, and recorded endlessly ever since, by a disparate array of artists, some of whom, like Richard Harris, weren't even singers. But the fact that MacArthur Park is still floating around on radio airwaves after all these years merely proves that, when it comes to music, there's a vast divide between what music critics consider worthy of airplay and what the general public wants to hear. In other words, "bad" sometimes equals "good", at least as far as record sales are concerned. It's just the way of the world, and nothing any critic has to say is going to change it. And so, in deference to that unassailable truth, I offer the following list of my top five picks for the worst pop songs ever...after MacArthur Park, that is. (And, yes...I kind of like them.) Ready? Let's get bad.
Honey, written by Bobby Russell, and recorded by Bobby Goldsboro in 1968, hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart on April 7, 1968, the same week that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr took a bullet on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. When it comes to cheese, this song oozes enough of the stuff to make a thousand plates of lasagna. From the very first verse, which begins "See the tree, how big it's grown, But, friend, it hasn't been too long, since it wasn't big" to the final chorus of "And honey, I miss you. And I'm bein' good. And I'd love to be with you, if only I could", it's a non-stop musical sob-fest. In between that saccharine first verse and the plaintive last chorus, we have a pair of newlyweds planting a tree and raising a puppy, a fender bender that makes the wife cry because she is afraid her husband will be mad, but he just says "What the heck!" which makes her hug his neck (his neck? really?), the wife becoming sick with an unnamed disease, and, finally, the tragic day "when she was there and all alone" that "the angels came", leaving the husband with nothing but his "memories of Honey." The only thing that could make this song any cheesier would be a motherless baby left naked and crying in its crib. Even without that image, just listening to this song is enough to make your cholesterol level shoot up several points. But, despite that, you should listen to it. At least once. Otherwise, poor "Honey" (I always picture Mary Tyler Moore) will have died in vain.
The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia is yet another song composed by Bobby Russell, which pretty much makes him The Master Of Cheese as far as pop songs are concerned. To his credit, after writing it in the early 1970s, Russell decided that he didn't really like the song and was going to shelve it, but his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence (best known as Carol Burnett's "look-alike" sidekick on the comedienne's long-running, eponymous TV series) "had a feeling" that the song was destined for great things and insisted on recording it as a demo. The demo went nowhere. Even Sonny Bono, who was no stranger to the spreading of cheese for commercial gain, nixed it as a vehicle for his then-wife, Cher because he thought it would offend the singer's southern fan base (she had a southern fan base?). But that didn't put the kabash on Vicki Lawrence's "feeling", and so she went ahead and recorded the song herself, after which it was released as a single which went...yup, you guessed it...all the way to Number One on the Hot 100. If you've heard the song, and no doubt you have, you know it's about a young man unfairly charged and convicted of the murder of a man with whom his wife has been sleeping, when, in fact, it was his sister (the narrator of the song), who had actually pulled the trigger. But somehow, due to a tangled web of unreasonable reasons that take a long time for Vicki Lawrence to sing, she never gets the chance to tell law officials what really happened, including the fact that she not only committed the murder for which her brother ends up getting lynched, but that she killed her straying sister-in-law as well. It's a lot of blood-stained cheese to swallow. But apparently Vicki Lawrence isn't the only one who likes a little of the red stuff on her Velveeta. In 1973, country music wunderkind Tanya Tucker recorded the song with slightly altered lyrics on which a 1981 TV movie of the same name was later based. In 1991, country superstar Reba McEntire covered the original song, garnering her own top forty hit with it. Clearly, this is one hunk of cheese that didn't come with an expiration date.
Composed by Mary Dean and Al Capps, and recorded by Cher in 1973, Half-Breed also has the honor of having been a Number One hit on the Billboard Hot 100 despite the fact that it not only manages to insult Native Americans (guess Sonny wasn't worried about offending that fan base), but forced the rest of the world to watch Cher perform it while wearing a feathered headdress. Come on. She's mostly Armenian, for God's sake. What Cherokee lineage she does have comes from her mother Georgina's side of the family, along with a whole lot of English, French, Dutch, and German. Listening to Cher belt out lyrics like "Half-breed, that's all I ever heard, Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word, Half-breed, she's no good they warned, Both sides were against me since the day I was born" isn't as ridiculous as...say...watching someone like Kim Kardashian rake in tons of money for saying things like "I am Armenian, so of course I am obsessed with laser hair removal! Arms, bikini, legs, underarms... my entire body is hairless." But, let's face it, the former Mrs. Bono has recorded better songs. So why do I sort of like it? Because, like everything else she's ever sang, semi-ridiculous or otherwise, Cher gives it her all...just like the hundreds of drag queens who have been lip-synching to it ever since.
It's hard to know where to even start with this one. As bad songs go, Billy, Don't Be A Hero is in a category all its own. Released as a single in 1974 by Paper Lace, the Brit band that also gave the world The Night Chicago Died (another really bad song that we kind of like), it hit the top spot on the UK pop charts and probably would have done the same in the U.S. (because Brits and Americans not only share a common language, but a mutual love of musical treacle as well) if an American band called Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods hadn't beaten them to the sugary punch. The song's writers, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, have said that they intended it to be an anti-war song, but the only war going on in 1974 was the Vietnam War (which,as we all know, was never officially declared a war), but the song is actually about the Civil War, which was, of course, an entirely different situation than the one going on in Vietnam at the time. The song, in case you've never heard it, is about a woman lamenting the fact that her boyfriend has decided to join the Union Army, and as he marches off with the other soldiers, she cries out, "Billy, don't be a hero! Don't be a fool with your life! Billy, don't be a hero! Come back and make me your wife!" But it's already a lost cause because poor Billy isn't just going off to fight in a war, he's the title character in a really bad song, which means that he was as good as dead from the very first verse. But because there's a lot of song in between the first and last verses, including that ear-wormy chorus which requires musical surgery to extract from your head once you've heard it on the radio, we almost forget that fact by the time Bo Donaldson sings "I heard his fiancee got a letter, that told how Billy died that day, the letter said that he was a hero, she should be proud he died that way, I heard she threw that letter away", which makes this not only a bad song, but its writers guilty of shameless emotional manipulation. Still, while this song can hardly be credited with convincing anyone of the futility of war, it does deserve a grudging pat on the back for being the only song about the Civil War to ever hit Number One on both the British and U.S. pop music charts.
To be honest, the video for 1984's Wake Me Up Before You Go Go is probably worse than the song itself. But that's saying a lot. Songwriter George Michael has said that he was inspired to write the song after reading a note that his Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley left for his parents, in which he accidentally wrote the word "up" twice...as in "wake me up up", and, so, to keep things even, finished the note by writing "before you go go." From such mundane beginnings are really bad songs sometimes born! Clearly enamored of the idea of doubling words, Michaels added "boom boom", "bang bang", and "yo-yo" into the lyrical mix, thereby doubling his pleasure while, at the same time, doubling listeners' pain. But because the melody is so catchy and infectious, it doesn't actually hurt that much unless you're listening to it and watching the video at the same time. Seriously. The video for this song makes everything that fellow fey Brit singer Adam Ant ever did in the eighties look low-key by comparison. And whose idea was it to dress the band and the back-up singers in those oversized T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Choose Life"? The first time I watched the video, in the company of a gay friend, we both thought it was an anti-abortion song in disguise. Turns out the slogan was actually taken from a British anti-suicide campaign. Even so, it's a weird choice for a video for a song about wanting your lover to wake you up so that you can both go out dancing together that night. But Michaels obviously did something right when he wrote it because it went to Number Four on the British pop charts and all the way to the top in the U.S. And, of course, Michaels went on to write many more successful songs, one of which, Careless Whisper, should probably have been included on this list simply for the line "Guilty feet have got no rhythm." But because Careless Whisper also includes such a great sax solo, I decided to give it a pass. Not so for Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, which not only belongs on anyone's list of bad songs, but should be whipped into submission for not even pretending that it's anything else. Then again, maybe that's why I...uh...sort of like it. But let's just let that be our little secret, okay?
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?