I SO ENJOYED PLAYING my records from 1973! It was the year I finished middle school and started high school. It was also the year my mother predicted (correctly) that the metric system would never catch on in the U.S. (She said the same thing years later about the Internet, so was not always so prescient.)
Along with the graduation from middle to high school, it was the year my record collecting shifted from mostly 45s to mostly albums. Though my tastes were still pretty mainstream, I did venture out to explore some of the soul and funk music local radio stations wouldn’t play (I only learned of these songs from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40) and some of the hard rock my parents lovingly referred to as “nothing but noise.”
In keeping with the schizophrenia of my record collecting that year, I’ll split this review in two: this post will focus on singles; the next, on albums.
It was quite a year, what with the energy crisis, Roe v. Wade, the Watergate hearings, and my braces coming off. 1973 marked the end of Laugh-In, the Vietnam War, and homosexuality being classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association; and the beginning of FedEx, CBGB, and Lite beer.
But really, for me it was about the music: Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Queen, Barry White, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and disco were all just starting out; Ziggy Stardust was retired, Velvet Underground ended, Jim Croce died in a plane crash, and Sly Stone was falling apart…though “If You Want Me to Stay” was truly brilliant.
It’s easy to think of 1973 as a bad-music year. “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson lurked on the charts for nearly the entire year. Officially, the #1 song of the year was the insipid (even to me as a, shall we say, sensitive 13-year-old) “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” It was the first Dawn single to mention Tony Orlando on the label, and the song most responsible for launching the lucrative magnetic-yellow-ribbon-for-your-car-to-support-the-troops (“literally, the least you can do,” to paraphrase Bill Maher) industry 30 years later.
It followed on the heels of another long-titled, questionable #1, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a song that strains credulity by compressing all of its action, from the main character’s stopping at the bar through his arrest, trial, and lynching, into a single night. Well, I guess it’s possible. I mean, if Vicki Lawrence can score a #1 hit…
You know, they offered that song to Cher first, but Sonny advised against. Apparently, she was in enough hot water with her Southern fans already from “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” And, lest we forget, Cher had her own #1 in 1973, “Half-Breed.” (I’m sure that one didn’t offend anybody.)
But enough about 1973’s bad #1 songs. Good ones included “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, which could almost make me cry (and did make my friend who grew up in Mexico cry even though he didn’t understand a word of it, which just goes to show); “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston; “We’re an American Band” (how I fantasized about joining Grand Funk for a romp in the hay!); and best of all, a song that came out in late 1972 but peaked in ’73, “Superstition.”
I remember my 7th-and-8th-grade music teacher, who would play 45s and have us rate them (like a middle-school American Bandstand, but without the dancing), didn’t like the song. Stevie Wonder didn’t make it sound “superstitious enough,” according to Mr. Piggott. Idiot.
According to my own fancy point system, the song with the best chart performance of the year was not Dawn’s ditty, but the seriously sexy “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye. Billboard‘s rankings may carry more weight in some circles. You decide.
The other megahit that year was “Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack. It’s one of those songs that has been overplayed and covered by so many others—some cool like the Fugees, but most dorky like Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Susan Boyle—that it can be hard to remember just how fresh and beautiful it sounded when it first came out.
“Dream On” by Aerosmith was the biggest hit single in my part of the world that summer—a couple of radio stations went so far as to name it the #1 song of the year—yet it inexplicably failed to crack Billboard’s Top 40 until being rereleased more than 2 years later. (Interestingly, their other ’70s top-10 hit, “Walk This Way,” also failed to chart until its second release.)
This was the year disco hits first graced American Top 40 (though they weren’t called “disco” yet), the earliest—in my book, anyway—being “Armed and Extremely Dangerous” by First Choice. Barry White and “Soul Makossa” were not far behind. Reggae also made a few crossover appearances, following on Johnny Nash’s recent chart success, with Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” being the best known.
Those were the big hits and the big trends. These are other favorite singles from 1973 worth honorable mention:
- “Natural High” by Bloodstone—so smooth, they really do seem high
- “Showdown” by Electric Light Orchestra—with echoes of Marvin’s “Grapevine” and John Lennon’s public endorsement, how did this fail to reach the top 40?
- “I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)” by Johnnie Taylor
- “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel
- “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray—perhaps my favorite song of the year
- “Pillow Talk” by Sylvia—she had Donna Summer beat by more than 2 years
- “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” by Chicago
- “So Very Hard to Go” by Tower of Power