After some 37 years as a pop music aficionado, and with a decade or so of experience in radio playing the hits in a variety of musical formats:
I still get filled with nostalgic wonder every time I see an old copy of a Billboard Hot 100 chart, from any era you can imagine.
It’s like a peculiar sort of history book, where frozen in amber are the songs from the past, in the context of a museum where you could see historical contemporaries like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles each sharing room for one another within a vacuum.
For the record, the first time that all three shared a Top 40 appearance all at once appears to be January 22, 1966.
The Beatles had Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out in the Top 10 at the same time; Elvis had Tell Me Why, a 1957 recording released as a single by RCA nine years later to make up for a lack of non-movie song product in stores. And the Sinatra classic It Was A Very Good Year was peaking.
This trio would share the Top 40 only a few more times: once more in 1966, again in 1968, and one in 1969, before altogether exiting, stage left.
Nostalgia is a big and wide-ranging marketplace.
In the Internet age, it can be permanent.
Looking over old Top 40 charts and getting a context about the songs that existed alongside one another can be quite a trip.
And indeed, it’s one that was explored many times by Dave Holmes, former MTV, current Esquire editor-at-large, and a guy whose appetite for the Top 40 viewed as a whole from a distance exceeds mine.
For Esquire, and for New York Magazine’s Vulture column, Dave would occasionally take a Billboard Top 40 chart from a specific date, turn it on its ear, and give it his own personal sense of context.
Those columns were, and are, fun to read, because I share that same fascination of pop culture rabbit-holing.
But as I write this with an ice storm raging outside, I have far too much time on my hands (something my family has said to me, more than once, long before there was an Internet).
So here I go.
Let’s look at the hits from February 11, 1978, at a moment where there was a similar winter weather event raging where I grew up on Long Island, where they got 17 inches of snow on the back end of a very busy snowy season.
At all of 5 years old, I had too much time on my hands then, too.
On with the countdown (where all songs will be rated at the end):
Peaked at #39
A futuristic bit of Star Wars-tinged funk.
Which fits, because Star Wars was still in theaters, seven months after its unassuming debut steamrolled pop culture into a Death Star.
This final pop hit for the funk-rock-soul group War was literally funky, rockin’ stuff that’s outta sight. 8
Jack and Jill
Peaked at #8
If you can get past the almost kinda icky sexual politics (if a woman doesn’t dote on her man, he’s liable to stray), there’s a catchy R&B-pop hybrid single in there.
Not the famous nursery rhyme, nor the infamous Andrew Dice Clay one, but it uses them to make a point that didn’t seem kinda dubious as it does now.
Fortunately, Ray Parker, Jr. would write an answer to his own song, on A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do), in which Jack gets his comeuppance and Jill gets even. 7
Peaked at #10
A majestic love ballad.
It would be Natalie’s last charting pop single for almost two and a half years.
She was at a personal peak by this time, and the proof was in her two 1978 TV appearances: a Frank Sinatra TV special, and her own special with Johnny Mathis, Stephen Bishop, and Earth, Wind & Fire on CBS that April.
Our Love would fit either place. 8
I Love You
Peaked at #36
A secret about your writer: I have the kind of mind that for a chunk of these songs. I don’t have to hear them now to recall them quickly.
Most of them live in my mind already, having heard them several times.
Just not this one, arriving immediately after the hypnotic, classic technodisco track I Feel Love.
As generic as the story of a modern-day Cinderella is, though, Donna hits notes they have yet to detect in space and holds them with grace that is missing from modern pop music. 7
Always And Forever
Peaked at #18
As fast as I Love You is, Always And Forever is slow.
And slow-burning, as this is make-out music for the age of Saturday Night Fever, which will come up again.
Is it sung well? That’s a matter of taste, and it’s besides the point, as if it’s good make-out music, and you’re good at the task at hand, you shouldn’t even notice it. Mostly, I never noticed, anyway. 7
LeBlanc & Carr
Peaked at #13
Where Always and Forever was make-out music, Falling is quite the opposite, handshaking, quick-goodbye music.
It’s soft and squishy easy-listening pop, and it seems better at promoting digestion than promoting romance.
That said, LeBlanc & Carr are very lucky people: they were bumped from the ill-fated flight in 1977 that would kill several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. 3
The Way You Do The Things You Do
Peaked at #20
Rita, not unlike Linda Ronstadt, is better known for her choice in interpreting other people’s songs than in her own songwriting.
And this era, featuring covers of Boz Scaggs’ We’re All Alone and a version of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, Rita was filled with interesting choices.
Her take on this Motown classic offers more blues and rock than soul, and she’s always a capable vocalist, but there’s a certain spirit that seems a bit lacking.
Competence over fun isn’t always a blessing. 6
(What A) Wonderful World
Art Garfunkel with James Taylor and Paul Simon
Peaked at #17
Looking back at 1978 from 2023, it’s almost amusingly old-fashioned just how many truly adult performers populated the music charts back then.
A stoic cover of the Sam Cooke classic about hopeful young love could seem, there’s absolutely no place on the Billboard pop landscape for a song like this today.
Even though my taste for lite-rock, shaped by my time spent in radio working those formats, is unchallenged -it, too, is more nourishing than entertaining. 5
Peaked at #1
This was actually the fourth single to hit the Billboard charts from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It followed two songs that I’ll get to, and one song that charted briefly in November 1977, but would re-enter the Hot 100 later in 1978: Tavares’s version of More Than a Woman.
Each single played a role in the SNF universe: this one was the key party track that centers the movie, when Travolta’s character starts a line dance at 2001, with the dry ice-er, smoke, bellowing from the dance floor.
It’s every bit as full of life as the opening strut to… a later song, and every bit the match as a #1 track. 10
Street Corner Serenade
Peaked at #30
Southern rockers Wet Willie, from Mobile, Alabama, and their ode to singing on a street corner like it was 1959.
It didn’t take on the mantle of Dion and the Belmonts very convincingly, especially with a steel drum(?) solo, but the memories weren’t too bad to picture in other contexts.
It’s hard to imagine Mobile as a center for Caucasian doo-wop from a bygone era. 5
Peaked at #30
At its peak now, this smooth soft-soul track managed to be used in ads for: the Gap and Allstate, and as as a sample for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard.
And as a footnote in the record books:for the longest note held by a singer with a Top 40 pop hit, a high E at 18 seconds.
It was always a lovely day with this man in it, and low-key happiness never felt so lovely indeed. 9
Little River Band
Peaked at #16
Previously the only song in my head that celebrated anniversaries as an event was The Anniversary Waltz. And an episode of The Flintstones.
In which Wilma’s anniversary present from Fred turned out to be a stolen piano, upon which was played an obnoxious, deliberately repetitive anniversary song.
This isn’t that, and the music’s tight, and still there’s a lot of so-what going on. 6
The Name Of The Game
Peaked at #12
I like Susan Saint James. Has zero to do with the single actually written for ABBA: The Movie.
But when I think of the song, I think of the 1969 TV series which co-stared SSJ and earned her an Emmy.
As it happens, though, the Penny Lane-esque flourishes, the intricate harmonies, the description of burgeoning romance could have been an award-winner for mythical drama all its own. 9
Peaked at #9
Another late-1960s TV throwback: Danger Island, the original kiddie live-action drama part of The Banana Splits, a part of most every ‘70s kids television heritage that aired on NBC back in 1968.
Danger Island? …well, the plot’s barely there, but it seems to be a kiddie version of Live And Let Die, crossed with Lord Of The Flies. And starring Jan-Michael Vincent.
Or something, because it was a bit dim even for me, an overgrown kid at heart. Anyway, the two visions intermingle with this song about sex featuring some nice harmonies and guitar by Joe Walsh.
Also, Jay wrote the theme to The Office, for those who care. 7
Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
Peaked at #25
I still haven’t seen Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which I understand was enough of a big deal that my father may have taken someone who isn’t me to see it.
The theme is based on a five-note motif within the movie, but here it’s drowned in the campy disco you expected to find on radio in, say, 1976.
There is a better version out there… 4
Con Funk Shun
Peaked at #23
A ffunky number which is always struck me as a bit fforeign to my ears.
See, the feeling I always got when I featured this song in my memory bank was one of ffrivolity without much feeling or emotion ffermenting in its core.
But it features a fflute solo that stokes the ffire of ffancy earworm magic. Gotta love the disco era for ffeaturng a lot of ffluff without fforgetting the ffire of ffinely thrilling ffreefform ffunk. 7
Too Hot Ta Trot
Peaked at #24
The last song for 8 years that would hit the Top 40 without Lionel Richie singing lead (but playing saxophone).
The band’s drummer said that it’s not exactly a song they wasted time on, y’know, actually writing, it was just a chant.
And sometimes that’s enough. 7
Turn To Stone
Electric Light Orchestra
Peaked at #13
Frenetic symphonic disco-rock which literally swirls while big hooks abound.
Jeff Lynne is one of those musicians that never seems to get their due for the way they invent a wall of sound without having to murder to get it.
In 2017, though, when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, it seemed a lot of folks finally remembered that they really weren’t a one-man band that deserved anonymity. 8
Native New Yorker
Peaked at #21
This has always had a feel of being the first Lifetime movie disco song.
It’s subtle and sleek, and a stylin’ appreciation of the hard-knock people on the club scene of the late-‘70s.
On the one hand, “You’re no tramp, but you’re no lady”, but on the other, “You’re the heart and soul of New York City.
Which – I was 5, after all – but once Thelma Evans danced to it on an episode of Good Times, I admit that I understood it (OK, later, but I did). 8
Long, Long Way From Home
Peaked at #20
I only vaguely knew of Foreigner from things like WKRP In Cincinnati. But once I became a classic-rock DJ, I discovered there was more to them than just being horny rock stars.
There’s a bit of intricate guitar on the intro, and a cold wall of horns at the end, and in between there’s a lot of shouting about surviving, once more, in New York City.
An autobiographical note for Lou Gramm, who had moved there from Rochester, upstate.
There’s a certain foreboding going on that I liked, playing against type. 8
Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
Peaked at #13
As far as I know, this song is incredibly difficult to get, not even on iTunes. But I actually bought a Billboard compilation CD a few years ago just for this one song.
There’s a reason, and it’s John Williams’s fun, contemporary approach to that five-note serenade key to the movie.
This isn’t your usual soundtrack score song; it’s better, because it actually sounds like you could hear it fresh on AM or FM pop radio.
The synth is clean, the rhythm is pop, and it hits a groove that makes it bore into your head a little bit. I bought it as a completist, and walked away a fan. 9
Coming up Tomorrow in Part 2:
The Four Basic Food Groups of Squishy Men, CHiPs and Dips, Short People and False Bravado.
And what about Naomi ?
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