This is a debate with which Kathy and I have happily filled many an idle moment, each of us nominating some real humdingers while only sometimes coming close to blows, when one’s suggestion turns out to be high on the other’s “best of all time” list. As with all such best/worst lists, there can be no absolutes, and the nominees are determined in large part by selection criteria. My preferred rules require that the song be not merely godawful, but a widely popular Billboard Hot 100 hit, if possible both generally well-regarded and performed by a celebrated artist, though one-hit wonders of sufficient magnitude – No. 1s especially – are acceptable, even if nobody thought they were any good at the time, much less now. Even better if Oscars and Grammys were awarded! This means that most of the worst songs ever committed to tape will be omitted owing simply to their obscurity. Still, it’s amazing how even operating under these restrictions you can build a list stuffed with literally hundreds of certifiably malodorous lunks of runny cheese. Seriously, the pool is bottomless.
Just a few to get us started:
Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder: Ebony and Ivory
I’ve got nothing but respect for Stevie Wonder, and my loyal reader(s) will know that I’ve reached the considered opinion that McCartney is the greatest songwriter who ever lived, and I say this taking due note not just of his rock ‘n roll peers, but pop music giants from Irving Berlin to Richard Rogers. Yet this – this heaping pile of the dog’s business – is almost enough to put you off the both of them for life. Maudlin, treacly, and sloppy, this ode to racial harmony strikes so many false notes, both literally and metaphorically, that the really surprising thing is that I can easily find 500 more hit tunes that are just as lousy. Here. Suffer:
USA for Africa: We Are the World
Oh, Jesus. God save us. Lord, Lord, deliver us from ego. On the heels of the success of Do They Know It’s Christmas, a not-so-bad pop tune meant to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia – which featured the cream of The UK’s pop royalty, and had the guts to let Bono sing “tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” – this crew of self-satisfied Americans, some of whom should have known better, just had to jump on the bandwagon. As if deliberately attempting to dive as deep into syrupy sentiment as possible, the producers hired schlock-meister Lionel Ritchie to write the thing, with an assist from Michael Jackson, about whom I won’t dare offer an honest opinion. It’s fine to have lacklustre morons like Huey Lewis, Steve Perry and Daryl Hall belting out the breathless banalities, but what in the name of God are Bruce Springsteen and Ray Charles doing there? Why didn’t a posse of concerned music lovers spirit them away before they could participate in this atrocity? Extra demerits for inspiring yet another of its ilk, this time the Canadian horror show Tears Are Not Enough, written by the master of tooth decay himself, David Foster, who mustered up something that made his own Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire sound like A Day in the Life.
Zager and Evans: In the Year 2525
Whoo boy. A classic Sixties message song, and the message is “turn that shit off”. Vaguely Mexican and moronically repetitive, it purported to paint a dystopian picture of the future, while managing to make the present unbearable. Featuring not one but several “truck driver” modulations, and lyrics that would have earned a fourth grader a failing grade on his English project, In the Year 2525 offered insights like this:
In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today
In the year 4545
You ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes
You won’t find a thing to chew
Nobody’s gonna look at you
In the year 5555
Your arms hangin’ limp at your sides
Your legs got nothin’ to do
Some machine’s doin’ that for you
You won’t find a thing to chew/Nobody’s gonna look at you. Yeah! One of the few hit songs to make reasonable people pray for a robot apocalypse, if only it would put a stop to the torture. There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d wager that the sound of this thing coming out of dashboard radios caused hundreds of drivers to swerve their Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Impalas deliberately off of cliffs and straight into concrete bridge abutments.
Five Man Electrical Band: I’m a Stranger Here
A staple of the K-Tel record empire – hands up everybody who owned one of their boffo Record Selectors – this is another message song, this time a hilariously ham-fisted nod to the nascent environmental movement. There must have been a better way than this to point out that we were polluting the natural world to death, a serious sentiment rendered risible by a lyrical device too hackneyed for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon – The Visit By A Bemused Alien Explorer. Mind you, it’s debatable that the rich tapestry of western popular music would be missing a few vital threads, if no song had ever hit the airwaves to give us this lyric for the Ages:
I think your atmosphere is hurting my eyes.
Paper Lace: The Night Chicago Died
The early 1970s produced so many candidates for a list like this that a fellow can hardly know where to begin. There was Convoy, and Disco Duck, and the Theme From the Poseidon Adventure, fighting for airplay with Cat’s in the Cradle, Ben (Michael Jackson’s ode to a rat), and the always delightful instrumental Popcorn, by an outfit called – you guessed it – Hot Butter. Oh, what a time it was, with monster hits like Billy Don’t Be a Hero, and songs that to this day haunt pharmaceutical commercials, like Pilot’s execrable Magic. From this cornucopia, I arbitrarily choose The Night Chicago Died because it’s just as horrible as anything else from the era, and gets a boost from its intermittent resemblance to polka, and its lyric describing a cop pounding his beat on “the East side of Chicago”. There is no East side of Chicago. The East side of Chicago would occupy the mucky bottom of Lake Michigan.
Focus: Hocus Pocus
The Seventies, pop music’s most craptacular decade by a country mile (this whole list could be nothing but dross from the Seventies Shit Bucket) saw the last gasp of the instrumental. The genre really went out with a bang when these crazy Dutch bastards loosed this flailing, yodelling, pseudo-metal carnival sideshow of a tune on an unsuspecting world. Parts of it sound like demented Jethro Tull, and other bits sound like Mel Blanc doing his immortal half-time band at the Medieval joust bit:
Imagine trying to convince an unwitting acquaintance that no, this song actually existed, while doing your damndest to hum a couple of bars. Who’d believe you? Luckily, YouTube allows us to prove it:
I include this absolutely essential live performance, the better to drive you up the wall.
Bonnie Tyler: Total Eclipse of the Heart
Turn around, bright eyes! Emote! This shrill, gooey, gothic diva-fest is so overwrought that it’s too hilarious for Rocky Horror, and too melodramatic for Meatloaf; this one would be the stuff of nightmares even if you’d never seen the terrible, awful video, which I insist you watch now, immediately:
Guns ‘N Roses: November Rain
Legions of outwardly sane people just loved this crew. I fuckin’ hated the screeching dickheads from the first time I heard them. Here, Axl, Slash et al burn close to ten minutes of irreplaceable time with a Great Big Dramatic Homage to Their Own Artistic Significance. Aiming for something along the lines of Wild Horses or You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Guns ‘N Roses manages to crank out a magnum opus so overblown that it makes Stairway to Heaven sound like Herb Alpert’s rendition of Spanish Flea. The howling extended coda is a special treat, isn’t it? You think it’s over, but it’s not!!
Actually, after this, a little of Herb’s tasty trumpet artistry might go down as a welcome palette cleanser:
Twisted Sister: We’re Not Gonna Take It
Yell it with me: What is that? A Twisted Sister pin on your uni-form??!!
I don’t know about you, but I’m with Pops on this one.
To be fair, this nauseating slice of faux-rebellion, a sort of Alice Cooper-meets-Kiss schtick for even bigger idiots, was almost certainly a joke in the finest tradition of Spinal Tap. The song itself is actually about as scary as Kermit the Frog’s rendition of Rainbow Connection, and really is kind of funny. No mercy, though; it was way too big for far too long to write off with a chuckle and a shrug. For months there in 1984 there was no escaping it, and that awesome, horrifying ubiquity earns Dee Snider an especially hot and fetid corner of Hell. Sorry Dee. You asked for it.
Speaking of Kiss…
Kiss: Lick It Up
Kiss! Shit! This clusterfuck of a glam-rock freak show was the biggest thing going in my crucial formative years, and their success scarred me for life. They also made me despise the male gender, as I watched all my asshole peers just gobble this shit up as they gleefully enlisted in the Kiss Army. I mean, you should have seen this crew. Get this: our industrial arts class consisted of three rotations, drafting, wood work and metal work. In drafting, they ignored their assignments and drafted the KISS logo. In woodwork they jigsawed the KISS logo out of mahogany. In metal work they snipped it out of tin. They carved it into their desk tops, inked it into their text books, and painted it on the concrete foundations of the school. KISS KISS KISS KISS. One day, I asked one of these chowder heads if he had any idea where the “SS” shaped like lightning bolts came from, and why maybe that iconography wasn’t all that clever, and he had no clue – but then, these guys would probably have thought that the Waffen SS was a really cool bunch of snappy-dressing dudes anyway.
All they could talk about, besides their full-kabuki tongue-waggling heroes, was the relative merits of the boobs and backsides of the various girls in class, especially if they could poke merciless fun at the ones who weren’t all that pretty. That and the chicks on Charlie’s Angels, they talked about them a lot too. “Cans” was their favourite word, out of the 200 or so that each of them knew; they loved the girls with the big cans. Wait, I’m being unfair – their range also extended to discussion of what fun it was to pour out of cars in groups of six and ambush solitary Fairview kids, I mean, to them, beating up kids from Fairview was big game hunting.
Anyway, by the early Eighties, the whole Kiss thing was getting old, and they decided to try something new by ditching the makeup and coming on like a more or less regular hair metal outfit. The vehicle for their attempted reinvention was the undoubted pop masterpiece Lick it Up – geez, what was that about? – the lyrics for which went like this (Gene Simmons must have really herniated himself coming up with such spare, suggestive poetry):
Lick it up
Lick it up
Ohhhh Ohhhhh Ohhhhh!
Repeat. That was basically it.
Just look at these artistes as they preen and pose! Nobody could figure out if this was supposed to be satire, or what – honestly, Spinal Tap’s Big Bottom was a way better song – but everybody agreed that they were all so frickin’ ugly that it was best for all concerned if they went back to the clown make-up.
Well, that’s a good start! Ten of the best! Stay tuned for the next 100 instalments! If I thought anybody was going to read this, I’d solicit suggestions in the comments section, but you know, I gotta be realistic.