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ENTERTAINMENT

1974: Creme de la creme of clunkers

By Todd Leopold
CNN

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Greil Marcus
Malcolm McLaren

(CNN) -- The year began with Steve Miller's "The Joker" and ended with Helen Reddy's "Angie Baby."

In between were Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun," Cher's "Dark Lady," Ray Stevens' "The Streak," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and "Annie's Song," Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died," Paul Anka's "(You're) Having My Baby," Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" and Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting."

When it comes to bad music -- at least "bad" in the minds of many -- nothing can top the No. 1 hits of 1974.

"What 1939 was to great Hollywood film, 1974 was to cheesy pop music," says pop culture expert Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Thompson traces this harmonic -- or cacophonic -- convergence to a post-'60s hangover, featuring the end of the Vietnam War and the close of the Watergate scandal, among other events.

"It was almost immediately reflected in a return to escapism," he says.

Popular music responded quickly, he observes, as it often does. Other popular media took longer: It wasn't until 1976 that "Happy Days," a cozy look back at the '50s, replaced the edgy, issue-oriented "All in the Family" as TV's No. 1 show, for example. "Songs are a cry in the wilderness for what is to come," Thompson says.

The pendulum does swing back, he adds. TV had a renaissance in the early '80s; pop music was already there, riding the punk, New Wave and American indie band movement into the mainstream.

Rock critic Greil Marcus pithily sums up what led to 1974. "One thing leads to another until all alternatives feel unthinkable," he says via e-mail. "Or," he adds, "we could say it was a conspiracy by Malcolm McLaren to set the stage for the Sex Pistols."

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