Nine Songs That Reflect the Actual 1970s

Captain and Tennille

Ever since Goodfellas set the tone in 1990, countless films and TV shows have been set in the 1970s, all with soundtracks of cool '70s songs that are possibly more popular now than they were back then. These soundtracks might lead you to assume that everyone in the '70s listened to David Bowie and Steve Wonder, Led Zeppelin and Blondie. And yes, all those acts enjoyed great popularity. But there were millions of Americans over 30 and under 10 who didn't know Bowie from a hole in the ground. We heard more schmaltz and novelty songs than we did prog rock or disco. Our awareness of the era's hits came as much from TV variety shows as it did from radio, and a song's popularity could be measured less by its record sales than by whether Paul Lynde spoofed it on Donny and Marie. Here are nine songs that legitimately commanded the collective American consciousness in the 1970s, though we might wish to forget they did.

  1. "Feelings", Morris Albert, 1974. Few songs were more lampooned than this mawkish one-hit wonder (which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100) and its "whoa whoa whoa" chorus. Trivia: Albert, a Brazilian, wrote the lyrics, but the melody was composed by French composer Loulou Gasté way back in 1957.
  2. "You Light Up My Life", Debbie Boone, 1977. Want to talk '70s one-hit wonders? Look no further than Pat Boone's daughter, whose song from the movie of the same name perched at #1 for a record-setting ten weeks and picked up a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar. (The voice you hear in the film itself is Kasey Cisyk's; it was lip-synced by Didi Conn in her only starring vehicle.) Years later, the song's writer Joe Brooks was charged with 91 counts of rape and sexual assault; he committed suicide before his trial. No lives were lit up.
  3. "I Write the Songs", Barry Manilow, 1975. By now it should be clear that this decade was corny as hell. Ironically, although Manilow was a highly successful songwriter, his biggest hit was written by someone else: Beach Boys member Bruce Johnston.
  4. "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", Elton John and Kiki Dee, 1976. You already know that Elton John was one of the greatest stars of the 1970s. While I could list any one of his chart-toppers, his duet with Kiki Dee – whose only other lasting contribution to pop music was 1974's "I've Got the Music in Me" – sums up the decade best. Though some may argue that the most iconic version of the song was John's duet with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.
  5. "(They Long to Be) Close to You", Carpenters, 1970. The decade's schmaltzfest began in earnest with this, the first #1 single released by doomed anorexic Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard, the master of cheesy arrangements.
  6. "Love Will Keep Us Together", Captain & Tennille, 1975. The last duet on this list is the only one from an actual married couple: Daryl "Captain" Dragon and Toni Tennille wed in 1974 and divorced nearly 40 years later, apparently to Dragon's surprise. (Dragon's health issues were cited as a reason, which makes Tennille seem rather coldhearted, but the truth is probably more complicated.) The couple were America's sweethearts between this, their debut single, and 1979's "Do That to Me One More Time". Both made it to #1, the only C&T tracks to do so.
  7. "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band", Meco, 1977. Well, I can't ignore disco entirely. Obviously the genre dominated airwaves through much of the '70s. And while I could and perhaps should cite something from KC and the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer, or the Bee Gees – all of whom were massive – I'm choosing this instrumental oddity because it ties in with the decade's penchant for novelty songs and of course because of the Star Wars connection.
  8. "Rhinestone Cowboy", Glen Campbell, 1975. Country music enjoyed crossover success throughout the '70s, and Campbell rose to the top with two singles. 1977's "Southern Nights" is the better song, but "Rhinestone Cowboy" has the edge here because rhinestones were just so '70s.
  9. "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", John Denver, 1975. "The Mickey Mouse of Rock" was absolutely huge in the '70s, even after his singles stopped charting, thanks to healthy sales of his Greatest Hits compilations and a starring role in the 1977 blockbuster Oh, God! (his sole big-screen lead). This live hootenanny track was Denver's third #1 hit; after 1975, he never again saw the Top 10, except in his dreams.