1979 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast

Disco peaks, then collapses after Rock fans riot in Chicago, New Wave breaks out with “My Sharona” and Pop is a mostly Disco-free grab bag heading into the 80s.

::start transcript::

Welcome! This is the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, and I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a different year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our exclusive recap of the weekly charts published at the time in Billboard, the music industry’s top trade mag. This week on Chartcrush it’s 1979, the year Disco suddenly, and spectacularly, flamed out at its height, after surging nearly four years, swept away in a sudden, spontaneous release of pent up frustration over the whole gamut of ’70s problems: energy crisis, urban rot, stagflation, malaise, the misery index, President Carter’s smiley aw-shucks beta personality, pussy-footing around with Soviets and terrorists, hand-wringing over Watergate and Vietnam, the Welfare State, collapsing morals and social fallout, and on and on. On the eve of the ’80s, all of it had to go. Not a conscious rebellion; more like a primal scream: just let this decade be over!

The last #1 Disco hit, Chic’s “Good Times,” referenced the 1930s Depression era that spawned Big Band Swing, another bad time that went on too long, and the last time dancing had been so big, not coincidentally. Virtually every city in ’79 had a Disco. And the latest thing: Disco roller rinks, especially out in the ‘burbs, with mirror balls and lights and DJ booths and the latest Disco records pumped through state-of-the-art sound systems.

By ’79 Disco had become a hegemonic genre-devouring vortex. First Funk, Soul and R&B, then Jazz and now even Rock and Country acts taking the Disco plunge! And radio? Well, AM Top 40, which still had half the audience for music: their job was to play the Top 40, regardless of genre, so that was now half Disco. But on FM, Disco-exclusive stations cropping up in major cities, and beating everyone else, even the big AM stations. WKTU “Disco 92” in New York and infamously, WDAI in Chicago, previously an Album Rock station. Infamously because one DJ who lost his job when WDAI switched to Disco didn’t take it lying down. Moving to another Chicago Rock station, Steve Dahl took up the “Disco Sucks” mantle on his morning show, where he’d put on a Disco record and a few seconds in, scratch the needle across it with an explosion sound. He got so popular doing that that the struggling Chicago White Sox thought they could fill some seats with a “Disco Sucks” promotion. Bring a Disco record, throw it in a bin and get in to a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader for just 98 cents (98, Dahl’s new home on the FM dial). And between games, “Disco Demolition” where Dahl detonates the bin of Disco records behind second base. Well, fill seats it did: the biggest crowd ever at Comiskey Park, but there for “Disco Sucks,” not baseball, and after the explosion, total mayhem as thousands rushed the field and the Sox had to forfeit game 2. July 12, 1979. Disco Demolition Night, when the simmering Disco backlash burst out into the open and became a national news story.

And the shift on the charts: sudden and dramatic. For the first eight months of ’79, almost every #1 was either Disco or a slow song by a Disco act. But less than a month after “Disco Demolition,” Chic’s “Good Times” was nudged to #2 and The Knack’s “My Sharona” topped the chart for six weeks. And for the rest of the year, the top ten was a Discoless grab bag and the music biz, already reeling from a 20% drop in LP sales since ’78, was left scrambling. MCA fired its entire A&R staff in ’79 and those laid-off staffers no doubt rode down to the lobby with their pink slips grumbling about cassette decks, home taping and the just-launched Sony Walkman. So it wasn’t just that folks were tired of Disco. But things didn’t pick up again for the industry ’til 1983 and ’84 with MTV. But that’s for another episode.

#10 KC & The Sunshine Band – Please Don’t Go

We kick off our 1979 Chartcrush countdown, with two hits at numbers 10 and 9 that both came very late in the year, months after Disco Demolition, and the one at #10 is something different from an iconic Disco group that landed four #1’s pre-Saturday Night Fever and Bee Gees, but zero after, not even a top 20, until this. Sometimes a couple years out of the limelight can be a good thing! At #10 it’s KC & The Sunshine Band’s only Ballad, “Please Don’t Go.”

KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go” at #10, stuck at #2 the last two weeks of the year behind the song we’re gonna hear next at #9 in our 1979 Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, and then it moved up, and was the first #1 of the ’80s.

Now at Billboard, their year-end charts don’t go by calendar years. They have to give themselves time to get their year-end issue out before New Years, so there’s a cutoff, and in ’79 that cutoff was early: October 20, “Please Don’t Go’s” ninth week on the chart. It’s remaining 17 weeks, including its 11 in the top ten? In Billboard’s 1980 chart year. They have it at #19 for 1980. Well at Chartcrush, we do go by the calendar year, and rank every song’s full chart run in the year it earned the majority of its ranking points. No splitting. So it’s our #10 song of 1979.

#9 Robert Holmes – Escape (The Pina Colada Song)

Same situation with our #9 song. It was neck-and-neck in the top ten with “Please Don’t Go” December into January, and was the last #1 of the ’70s decade: a story song with an unexpected twist at the end, by a Singer-Songwriter who got his start in the anonymous world of late ’60s Bubblegum, then spent most of the ’70s writing ad jingles, songs for other artists (notably Barbra Streisand) and four albums, none of which charted. His fifth, though, was the charm, and its lead single took off. At #9, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

Narrative Story Songs, huge in the first half of the ’70s, then a lull as Disco ramped up, then a resurgence. Kenny Rogers had launched his solo career with his Country crossover Story Songs “Lucille” in ’77, “The Gambler” in ’78, and his latest “Coward of the County,” which was in the top ten at the same time as Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” the one we just heard at #9. Rogers moved on from musical storytelling in the ’80s, but not Rupert Holmes. His Broadway musical based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won five Tony Awards in 1986. Once the follow-up singles after “Escape” ran their course in 1980, though, and two from his next album failed to crack the top 40, that was it for Rupert Holmes on the Pop charts.

#8 Peaches & Herb – Reunited

Next, the third song in a row in our Chartcrush Countdown for 1979, that isn’t Disco, but unlike the first two at numbers 10 and 9, it hit in the first part of the year, so, one of the #1 Ballads by Disco acts that I mentioned at the top of the show. The Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven” was another: #1 for two weeks in January. This one came later, #1 for four weeks in May, after their dancefloor-filler “Shake Your Groove Thing” had lit up the charts in March, four straight weeks at #5. Hey, the kiddos at the roller disco needed slow songs too! #1 for four weeks in May. At #8, it’s the Duo Peaches & Herb with “Reunited.”

Peaches & Herb weren’t really “Reunited” because it wasn’t the same “Peaches” who was with Herb Fame for their string of hits in the late ’60s including the song “United.” Francine Barker was “Peaches” in their “Sweethearts of Soul” days, and she’d retired. Herb had too, in 1970, to be a DC cop. But music beckoned again and Producer Van McCoy, who’d put the first Peaches & Herb Duo together, hooked him up with former model Linda Greene, and she’s the “Peaches” on all their late ’70s stuff. McCoy had just scored himself with one of the first Disco #1s, his instrumental “The Hustle” in the Summer of ’75, but the Peaches & Herb relaunch album he produced in ’76 didn’t chart, so they switched labels and teamed up with Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, the team who’d just done Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Fekaris & Perren wrote and produced all of Peaches & Cream’s 2 Hot! album, and cranked out three more Peaches & Herb albums in ’80 and ’81, but except the ’80s wedding perennial “I Pledge My Love,” which topped out at #19, nothing connected like their hits in ’79.

#7 Village People – Y.M.C.A.

At #7, finally some Disco! By a group conceived as a celebration of the Gay lifestyle and club scene in New York that gave Disco its flashy, flamboyant aesthetic. Gays had come a long way since the 1969 Stonewall Riots that ignited the Gay Rights movement, but that scene was still deep underground, and few outside of it had any clue, least of all the kiddos at suburban roller rinks skating around to our #7 song, spelling out letters with their arms. It never got to #1, but was #2 for three weeks in February and in the top ten for 12: enough to make it one of the top ten hits of the year. It’s The Village People’s second hit after “Macho Man” in the late Summer of ’78, “Y.M.C.A.”

A song about Gay men cruising for hookups—Cruisin’, the title of their album—at a place long-known for Gay hookups—the Y.M.C.A.—by a group named after New York’s Gay neighborhood—the Village—costumed as Gay Male fantasy personas—Cop, Cowboy, Hardhat, Indian, G.I., Biker—and formed specifically to target the Gay club scene… and still, most people in 1979 had no clue what any of that meant. Or even that there was a Gay club scene. For many, their first inkling was scratching below the surface on “Y.M.C.A.” (or talking to someone who had). By the way, fun fact: Village People frontman Victor Willis, who wrote “Y.M.C.A.” is straight, married at the peak of the Village People’s fame to the future Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad.

#6 Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive

Well, we’re counting down the biggest hits of 1979 here on this week’s edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, and in 1974, our Singer at #6 had helped usher in Disco with one of the earliest Disco top tens, her cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye. On the album, it was the middle song in a three-song, 18-plus minute Disco suite: a first-of-its-kind by remix pioneer Tom Moulton, who understood that even DJs sometimes need to eat a sandwich or take a bathroom break! Moulton, also the compiler of Billboard’s first Dance Club Songs chart in October of ’74, on which he ranked “Never Can Say Goodbye” at #1. No more hits after that, though, until she helped close out the Disco era in ’79 with this, her biggest hit. At #6 it’s Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

It was the B-side, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” tacked on at the end a session after a long day recording the discoized Righteous Brothers cover issued as the A-side in August of ’78. But the single went nowhere until “I Will Survive” caught on with DJs, making the chart in December, then a slow four-month climb to #1 on the Hot100 for two weeks in March. Written and produced by the same guys who did Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” a short time later, former Motown producers Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren. And with the same backing band, but with a simpler arrangement, no back-up Singers, and none of the production flourishes usually on Disco hits by Female singers like sped up vocals, for one. So Gaynor’s voice on “I Will Survive” is unfiltered, unvarnished, and honest: a record that was way ahead of its time and remained a dancefloor anthem for many years.

#5 Rod Stewart – Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?

Well you’re listening to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown, our 1979 edition, and we’re down to #5. Now, David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney and The Eagles had all scored Disco-dabbling hits in ’75 and ’76 when the sound was still incubating, having not yet completely outgrown its Funk and Philly Soul roots. But by ’78 thanks to Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees, it was nearly impossible to spin the radio dial, turn on a TV, or for that matter even walk down the street or go shopping without being bombarded by spandex, mirror balls and fuschia. Now imagine that from inside the music biz bubble. Disco wasn’t just a bandwagon anymore; it was a convoy of semis rolling down the interstate: Pop itself. So after the Rolling Stones took the plunge on “Miss You” and scored their first #1 in five years, our act at #5 saw the future and asked his Drummer Carmine Appice, formerly of the proto-Metal ’60s band Vanilla Fudge, to help him make it happen by writing a song like “Miss You.” And this was the result. At #5 it’s Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

The more ubiquitous Disco got, the more Rock fans felt alienated and forgotten. It’s a straight line from Rod Stewart showing up on TV in spandex and teased hair singing “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” in February to Steve Dahl and Disco Demolition mid-Summer. Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” hit in the Spring: a downtown Punk band going Disco! Then Pop-Progsters ELO with “Shine a Little Light” and KISS with “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” in the immediate lead-up to Disco Demolition. Wings “Goodnight Tonight” and The Kinks “Superman,” two others along that timeline, but Rod Stewart and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” bore the brunt. Around the same time as Disco Demolition, Steve Dahl himself was out with a parody single on an indie label: “Do You Think I’m Disco?” It charted for six weeks.

#4 Donna SummerBad Girls

And meanwhile, Disco’s own stars were soaring to new heights on the charts, like the one with the two-fer at numbers 4 and 3 on our Chartcrush Countdown of 1979’s top ten hits. Both songs were in the top 5 at the same time for six straight weeks, June to the end of July, and that made her the first Black Artist since Louis Jordan in 1944 to have two hits in the top five the same w`eek on the Pop chart, and the first-ever Black Woman. In the Hot100 era she would’ve been the first Woman, period, but Linda Ronstadt beat her to it in December ’77. Gloria Gaynor may’ve been the first and one of the last Disco Divas, but Donna Summer with her eight top tens including three #1s from ’76 to ’79, was the quintessential Disco Diva. At #4, the second single and title track from her 1979 double album, “Bad Girls.”

“Bad Girls” at #4, inspired by an office assistant at Donna Summer’s label, Casablanca Records, mistaken for a street prostitute by a police officer while running an errand for her on Sunset Blvd. in L.A. Label boss Neil Bogart shelved the song as too Rock upon hearing Donna’s demo in January; even suggesting giving it to the label’s latest signing, Cher. But as the album came together, with all the Rock acts scoring Disco hits, “Disco Sucks” gaining steam out in the wild and Summer’s own instincts to incorporate more Rock into her style, what was disqualifying in January had become a strength, so they went to work on it. The “toot toots” and “beep beeps” were a last-minute ad lib by Summer looking to spice up what struck her as empty spaces in the song. On the album version, they continue a few more bars a capella after the music fades, which top40 DJs could’ve had some fun with on the air, but, alas, it wasn’t on the single version. But it became a meme anyway: arguably what made “Bad Girls” such a monster hit, #1 for five weeks, July into August…

#3 Donna SummerHot Stuff

…and the second song on the album, that opens with… our #3 song. And like Tom Moulton’s Disco suite leading off Gloria Gaynor’s album in ’75, the two songs flow into each other without missing a beat. “Bad Girls” wasn’t a Rock song by the time Producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte got done with it. But the leadoff track co-written by Bellotte (and also the album’s lead single)? At least as much a Rock song as “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” is Disco, four years before Michael Jackson’s Rock crossover “Beat It.” It even won Summer the first-ever Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. And she was nominated twice more for that in ’82 and ’83, but lost both times to Pat Benatar. #1 for three weeks up against six for “Bad Girls,” but it hung around in the top ten four weeks longer, so when you add it all up it’s the bigger hit: again Donna Summer, with “Hot Stuff.”

Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” at #3. She went way back with Songwriter-Producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, to her first record deal in Germany in ’74, having moved there in the late ’60s with a part in the Munich production of Hair. Moroder and Bellotte’s fellow Munich Producers Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze hit first in the U.S. with “Fly, Robin, Fly,” their minimalist take on Philly Soul credited to their Silver Convention project, but the week after that hit #1 in December of ’75, Summer’s first hit “Love to Love You Baby” debuted. That got to #2, and together those hits launched Euro-Disco and completely changed the trajectory of Dance music in the U.S. Donna Summer weathered the Disco backlash better than most: continuing to score top fives in late ’79 and into the ’80s, even after parting ways with Casablanca Records and Giorgio Moroder to expand her creative horizons. She was never far from the Dance charts; her final album Crayons in 2008 yielded four #1 Dance/Club Play hits.

#2 The KnackMy Sharona

Next as we close in on #1 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1979, the song Billboard named #1 on the year. And that was quite an exclamation point on the Disco backlash at the time because it’s the record that decisively broke Disco’s nearly continuous stranglehold on the top spot since just after Saturday Night Fever hit theaters at the end of ’77. It hit #1 August 25 just after Disco Demolition Night, stayed on top for six straight weeks, and in his article leading off the year-end charts, Billboard writer Paul Grien called it “the clarion call of the new music.” OK, but hold on. Was it really the #1 song of the year? Well not according to our Chartcrush ranking; we have it at #2! Explanation after the song. Here’s The Knack’s “My Sharona.”

Of course, a complete break from Disco; that’s the main headline. But even within Rock circles, “My Sharona” stood apart from the Prog and Soft Rock sounds on FM radio in the ’70s. L.A. Times Music Editor Robert Hilburn hailed it as having restored the Teenage viewpoint to Rock: same thing they’d been saying in the U.K. about Punk. But Punk never caught on like that in America. Remember, Blondie had to make a Disco record, “Heart of Glass,” to make the charts, and by the way, Blondie and The Knack had the same Producer, Aussie Mike Chapman. So “Sharona” was New Wave’s “Rock Around the Clock” Stateside, even if it took a few more years (and MTV) for it to blossom on the charts.

Here’s a bit of trivia: Sharona was a real person: Knack front man Doug Feiger’s girlfriend. She’s on the picture sleeve of the 45. When they met she was 17. He was 25. Song parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s first single was a “My Sharona” send-up, “My Bologna.” As for The Knack? Well, they toured nonstop and their second album sounded just like their first, but they faded fast after “My Sharona” and the follow-up “Good Girls Don’t,” which peaked at #11. ’79 was still too soon for a band to not sheepishly demur when compared to The Beatles, which they were, often. No, instead they invited that comparison, and appalled Rock critics punished them by blasting their over-the-top sexist lyrics. Doug Feiger slipped into a spiral of addiction for a few years before sobering up in the mid-80s, but sadly died of cancer at just 57 in 2010.

#1 Chic – Le Freak

OK, so here’s why “My Sharona” was Billboard’s #1 song of 1979, but it’s #2 on our Chartcrush ranking we’ve been counting down. It’s because Billboard‘s methodology in ’79 strongly favored consecutive weeks at #1. “My Sharona” and our #1 song both had six weeks on top, but “Sharona’s” were consecutive while our #1 song’s weren’t: knocked down to #2 twice, first by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” in December ’78, then by The Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven” for its two weeks in January ’79. Both times, though, it reclaimed the #1 spot to rack up its six weeks. And it was in the top ten three weeks longer than “Sharona,” so using our Chartcrush formula (which, by the way, is identical for every year we rank), our #1 song is Billboard’s #3 song of ’79: Chic’s “Le Freak.”

Chic was Guitarist Nile Rodgers and Bassist Bernard Edwards’ project, with hired female Singers, and “Le Freak,” the first of their two #1s before the Disco implosion and #1 on our Chartcrush Countdown of 1979’s top ten hits. Their first hit, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” had been the #1 Dance Club song for seven weeks at the end of ’77, and then crossed over to peak at #6 on the Hot100 in early ’78, so Rodgers and Edwards were kind of a big deal New Years Eve ’78, when they showed up, dressed to the nines, at New York’s hottest Disco, Studio 54, invited by Jamaican-American Supermodel Singer Grace Jones, who was performing. But Jones forgot to get them on the guest list and the door man wouldn’t let them in. So after a heated exchange, they hit a liquor store, went back to Rodgers’ apartment and wrote the song that would evolve into “Le Freak,” only that night, “Freak Out!” wasn’t the phrase on their minds; it was another more pointed phrase that also abbreviates to “F.O.” Chic topped the chart again later in ’79 with the aforementioned “Good Times,” Disco’s final #1 on August 18. “My Sharona” bumped it to #2 the next week.

So that’s the top ten here on our 1979 edition of Chartcrush, but between Billboard’s ranking published at the end of ’79 and ours, the shakeup at #1 isn’t the only difference. To review, our #10 song, KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go,” had only just entered the weekly top ten at the end of Billboard‘s ’79 chart year, so they ranked it #19 in 1980. Same with our #9 song, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape.” That’s their #11 song, again 1980. So with those two coming in to our Chartcrush top ten, Billboard’s #9 and #10 songs got bumped out. So, just to be thorough, let’s take a look at those.

At #10 they had the song that replaced “My Sharona” at #1 in October: Robert John’s “Sad Eyes.”

“Sad Eyes” notches in at #12 on our Chartcrush ranking, Robert John had been at it since the late ’50s, didn’t score a big hit ’til ’72 (a cover of the Tokens’ “Lion Sleeps Tonight” that got to #3), and then it was another seven years before he got to #1, with a song he wrote, “Sad Eyes.”

And at #9, Billboard had another hit from the first half of the year (the Disco half), Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.”

“Ring My Bell” was a longshot hit, written by one of the co-founders of start-up Juana Records as a Teen-Pop song about talking on the phone, and intended for 12-year-old R&B singer Stacy Lattislaw, who jumped ship to sign with a major label before she cut it. So the song fell into Anita Ward’s lap; she was working on an album right at the same time on that label. Her only top 40 hit, #1 for two weeks. It just misses the top ten on our Chartcrush ranking, at #11. And with that, we’re gonna have to close out our 1979 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show because we are all out of time. But if you like what you heard and you want more, visit our website, chartcrush.com for a written transcript of the show and link to stream our podcast version on Spotify, plus primo extras like our full top 100 chart and interactive line graph of the actual chart runs of the songs we heard this hour. We do that for every year, 1940s up to now, and it’s all on the website. Again, chartcrush.com. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to tune in again next week, same station and time, for another year, and another edition of Chartcrush.

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