Today’s tykes have no idea how easy they’ve got it. If modern-day pop charts were filled with the kind of creepy, trauma-inducing fare that was commonplace when I was a child in the ’70s, the FCC would be awash in lawsuits initiated by horrified parents.
Though the ’70s are commonly typecast as the decade when mellowness reigned supreme, radio’s gatekeepers thought nothing of filling the airwaves with songs of rape, murder, pedophilia, hate crimes, and other family-friendly activities. The era’s artists in turn took the opportunity to let it all hang out.
As a kid with a passion for pop, I would invariably have my bedside radio tuned to the local Top 40 station to help lull me into slumber. But some of the songs that slipped into my subconscious mind probably twisted my impressionable psyche for life.
Clarence Carter’s R&B hit “Patches” concludes its wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story with—spoiler alert—a murder and consequent suicide. Rod Stewart’s “The Killing of Georgie,” true to its title, chronicles the murder of the homosexual title character by a bunch of gay-bashers. In Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby,” a young man tries to rape a mentally disturbed girl and is somehow eliminated by her supernatural abilities. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” adapts Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond,” in which a dying man tearfully bids farewell to each of his loved ones. And then there’s Ringo Starr’s cover of “You’re Sixteen You’re Beautiful (And You’re Mine),” which ought to have been subtitled “(And I’m 33).”
At least Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” with its account of little old ladies getting mutilated, was clearly played for laughs, but the bulk of these songs were unflinchingly earnest, and their ’70s soft-pop trappings only made them all the more unsettling to a young mind. But go try and get a dour six-and-a-half minute song about a shipwreck where nobody survives into the Top 10 today—as Gordon Lightfoot did back in ’76—and see how far you get.