Seven new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, with three reaching the Top 40 and one getting into the Top 10. Among the entries were songs that would be affected by the growing anti-disco backlash happening at the time, a song without a string section by a group renowned for using them, a live remake of a 1950s classic and a return to form of sorts for a hard rock group. Finally given the benefit of hindsight, two of the songs are precursors to the next decade's music styles.
Google Books has an archive of past Billboard issues, including the August 4, 1979 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 56. An interesting article on page 4 mentions the strategies MGM Records and Universal Pictures was employing with the soundtrack for the film More American Graffiti. Realizing that a soundtrack made up of the same songs from the 1960s that were being played on oldies stations -- a process that was helped incredibly by the success of the first American Graffiti film -- may not have translated to the under-25 crowd the studio and label were targeting, they were banking on cross-promotion to help sell records. As it turned out, selling the soundtrack was the least of their worries when it came to that movie.
The Electric Light Orchestra - "Don't Bring Me Down"
(Debuted #41, Peaked #4, 15 Weeks on chart)
In 1979, ELO released its new LP Discovery. While many saw the band dropping the classical focus of their early records and embracing the disco crowd, others noted that they'd long dropped the long-format suites for pop-oriented singles years before. Others were quick to point out that the group had said as much when they essentially titled the album: "Disco? Very!"
The interesting thing about this is "Don't Bring Me Down," the song that ends the album, its second single and the group's highest-charting American hit, really isn't a disco song. Yes, there's a beat and studio-crafted hooks, but it's more of a guitar-driven song than ELO usually offered on their singles. The string-laden sound of "Evil Woman" and "Turn to Stone" was dropped in favor of a guitar line and a very heavily amplified rhythm section. However, at a time when established disco artists were using more guitar in their own songs (Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," for example), it was getting harder to notice the distinction.
While researching this song, I was reading that there is a heavily misheard lyric: in the chorus, the falsetto "Don't bring me down" is followed by a German word, "grüß" which is pronounced "groose" but certainly sounds a lot like the name Bruce. As a result, many people over the years have likely wondered, "who the hell is this Bruce guy?"
Bad Company - "Gone, Gone, Gone"
(Debuted #81, Peaked #56, 6 Weeks on chart)
Last month, Bad Company's "Honey Child" was reviewed here, and there was some mention that the group's formulaic sound had started wearing thin by the time they released their Burnin' Sky LP in 1977. After that record failed to live up to expectations, the band took their time with their next album. When Desolation Angels arrived two years later, the sound had been updated to include some synthesizers and other devices. The album's first single, "Rock and Roll Fantasy" showcased the new elements, but the followup "Gone, Gone, Gone" would revert to the straight guitar/drums/bass setup to accompany Paul Rodgers' vocals. As a result, it fared little better on the charts than "Honey Child" did.
That's not to say that "Gone, Gone, Gone" is bad, or even formulaic. It still gets played on American rock-oriented radio stations despite the fact it missed the Top 40. Considered one of Bad Company's better compositions, it was written by the group's bassist Boz Burrell, rather than Paul Rodgers or guitarist Mick Ralphs, who wrote most of the band's single releases. It would be the final song featuring the group's original lineup to chart on the Hot 100.
Cheap Trick - "Ain't That A Shame"
(Debuted #82, Peaked #35, 10 Weeks on chart)
The second single from Cheap Trick's breakthrough At Budokan LP may not have been as successful as the first ("I Want You to Want Me") but it doesn't diminish the impact of that album. A cover of Fats Domino's 1955 classic, Cheap Trick's live version of "Ain't That a Shame" sounds more like a portal into the arena rock of the 1980s than a reminiscence of the 1950s. From Bun E. Carlos's bombastic drums to the guitar attack from Rick Neilsen that opens the song, the song seems like it would lead listeners into the post-disco rock universe...which, it turned out, would cast Cheap Trick aside as a 1970s-era relic even as it embraced acts like Journey, Foreigner and Toto.
To my ears, "Ain't That a Shame" is a better song than the single it followed on the charts. Where "I Want You to Want Me" was memorable for having the audience participating during the chorus, their take on "Ain't That a Shame" is more immediate, more direct and flat-out rocks harder. As for a comparison of this version and Fats Domino's original...they're two different approaches. The Domino hit was done in his New Orleans "good time" style and while it was a tune about watching a good love walk away, you knew Fats would be OK despite his broken heart. It's a great tune, despite the fact that the music business of 1955 felt the need to have Pat Boone cover it for the bigger hit. Done as a straight rock tune by Cheap Trick, the same lyrics somehow come off as a "kiss off" message to the lady who felt the need to walk away. While Domino's version might make you think, "hey big guy...you'll be fine, there are other fish in the sea," after Robin Zander's rendition, there's no need for comforting the guy because you're pretty sure he's already on the prowl for his next companion.
Maynard Ferguson - "Rocky II"
(Debuted #85, Peaked #82, 4 Weeks on chart)
When the first Rocky film was a hit, it spawned four Hot 100 versions of its title song. The original from the film score by Bill Conti was a #1 hit in 1977 and a version by Canadian-born jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson was a Top 40 hit. Additionally, two low-charting renditions by Current and Rhythm Heritage appeared. When the second Rocky film ran in theaters in 1979, only Ferguson managed to place any music from the movie onto the charts. His version of the Rocky II theme (also called "Rocky II Disco" and "Rocky II Knockout") made the Hot 100 briefly.
The LP version (also the one used in the iTunes and Amazon links here) was over seven minutes long, with the single version trimmed down to three minutes. The song was a variation on the familiar "Gonna Fly Now" theme from the first film, even including a female chorus singing "Gonna fly now, Rocky...Gonna fly, fly away" as part of the song. Other "vocal" elements of the song included several grunts from Sylvester Stallone and a couple of lines of dialogue between Apollo Creed ("You're going down") and Rocky ("No way"). Musically, Ferguson's trumpet parts are superb, a sax solo in the middle is also great. However, the disco craze was winding down as the song was making its appearance, which killed the chance for a song that was so blatantly geared as a disco song.
Mass Production - "Firecracker"
( Debuted #86, Peaked #43, 10 Weeks on chart)
Often mistaken for Brass Construction, a group with a similar style, Mass Production was a separate 10-piece band from Virginia (Wikipedia says Norfolk, but AllMusic says Richmond). Best known as a funk-disco band, "Firecracker" was their second and final Hot 100 single.
Kicking off the song with a gimmick that at first almost sounds like the drum solo that begins Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" before the listener realizes that it's the sound of firecrackers popping, the song immediately carves out a groove that the band rides through the length of the song. The "firecracker" of the title is a lady on the dancefloor that the narrator cannot stop watching. Just like in Saturday Night Fever when Connie (played by Fran Drescher) asks Tony Manero (John Travolta) if he's as good in bed as he is on the floor, the song is another reminder that watching somebody own the floor can sometimes lead to more lascivious thoughts...which is exactly what scares those Puritan types who insist that something as harmless as dancing can lead to unforeseen complications after the music stops playing.
The meat of "Firecracker" isn't in its lyrics, however; the real substance of the song is contained in its music. A six-and-a-half minute album cut, the song would be pared down to five minutes for the single. While the words describe a disco scene, the music points to an R&B sound that would be popular during the early 1980s. The funky groove is helped along by a synthesizer in parts. It was similar to later hits by groups like Midnight Star, The Dazz Band and others. Like many of those early 1980s R&B hits, "Firecracker" would flirt with the Top 40 but fall just short. It's a shame that it couldn't get a wider audience at a time when the public was growing tired of disco.
Michael Johnson - "This Night Won't Last Forever" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #89, Peaked #19, 20 Weeks on chart)
Michael Johnson only had three songs listed on the Hot 100 during the 1970s, and all three made the Top 40. Though best known for "Bluer Than Blue," his other two singles were top-notch and worth a listen. For his third chart single, Johnson turned to a song that was a minor hit in 1977 for its author Bill LaBounty.
Johnson's version of "This Night Won't Last Forever" was both a cover and a reworking of the original hit, with the lyrics slightly altered in some places and moved around in others. Where "Bluer Than Blue" was a post-breakup song that saw the protagonist wallowing in pity, "This Night Won't Last Forever" had him at a party and making an effort with coping with the fact that he's single again. In the lyrics, he's saying the sting is still evident but he's hopeful that better days are ahead.
The song kicks off with a piano solo and the music that accompanies Johnson's vocal is the work of studio musicians. Female backup singers punctuate his lines in the chorus. In addition to its Top 20 pop showing, "This Night Won't Last Forever" was a #5 hit on Billboard's adult contemporary chart. After reaching the Top 40 with all three of his chart singles during the 1970s, Johnson's luck changed with the new decade: his first hit of 1980 peaked at #86 and would be his last Hot 100 appearance. During the last half of the decade, Michael Johnson would score several hits on the country chart.
Edwin Starr - "H.A.P.P.Y. Radio"
(Debuted #90, Peaked #79, 5 Weeks on chart)
After beginning the 1970s with one of the decade's iconic tunes, the #1 smash "War," his success on the pop chart was limited. After sporadic hits through 1979, Starr was trying a comeback as a disco singer and "H.A.P.P.Y Radio" was one of his attempts at returning to his former glory. Though the song wasn't a big hit in the U.S., it went Top 10 in England, where Starr was widely appreciated as a Northern Soul singer.
Despite being a fine performance and a catchy tune, two things likely doomed this single's chance of hitting big. The first was that he was groveling for DJs to play his song by using the radio as a backdrop. The second and more important factor that killed the song's chances was the consumer backlash against disco that was starting to be felt in the music business just as the single appeared. That brushback killed many careers in the cold and cruel way that "corrections" often will. Sadly, many artists who were associated with disco never charted again; in the case of Edwin Starr, he would move to England and spend the rest of his life working the Northern Soul circuit there.