In the late summer of 1974, the foundering Mets decided to give anybody and everybody a try. Their first-time callups that August and September included Randy Sterling, Rich Puig, Nino Espiñosa, Ike Hampton, Bruce Boisclair, Brock Pemberton and Benny Ayala. Though some of those names resonate among Mets fans to this day, most of them came and went quickly.
By this measure, never were the New York Mets and the pop chart in tighter sync than they were that year. Except that while the Mets lost 91 games in 1974 and were generally depressing to watch (Ayala homering in his first big league at-bat notwithstanding), music was never better.
My proof, the only proof I’ll ever need for this grand assertion, is The Top 500 Songs of All-Time, a survey that covers the years 1972 through 1999. One year among the 28 it encompasses towers above the rest in terms of sheer volume.
That would be 1974. Of the 500 songs recognized as the best ever by me, 50 of them — 10 percent — were hits in 1974. From New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, the radio was a cornucopia of pop and soul greatness. These were twelve months when music absolutely peaked, the climax of an era that, in fact, established music as a life force for the only person whose taste has ever been of any concern in this corner:
Fifty songs from 1974. Forty-one from 1973. Thirty-four from 1972. That’s 125 out of 500 from the first three years when I took music seriously. That’s a quarter of the list right there. Thirty more songs would be added from 1975, meaning that I had pretty much decided what good music was before I was Bar Mitzvahed.
I decided it was “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace.
It was a lot more than that in 1974, naturally. It was “Rock Me Gently” by Andy Kim and “Hang On In There Baby” by Johnny Bristol and “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and “Radar Love” by Golden Earring and “Beach Baby” by First Class and “Free Man In Paris” by Joni Mitchell and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan and “Sideshow” by Blue Magic and “Waterloo” by ABBA…and that was all in the span of a couple of months from approximately July to September of 1974. While the post-Believe Mets were definitively receding from contention, the radio, my radio, was rising to the occasion, even if some of those artists didn’t endure in the popular imagination any more than Randy Sterling or Rich Puig did for Mets fans.
Right in the middle of this high tide was a group from England whose name seemed rather strange to me singing about a city in America that, to the best of my knowledge, was relatively alive and well. I had only the vaguest idea of what “The Night Chicago Died” was supposed to be about. But what I did know more than made up for it.
It was exciting. It was thrilling. It was suspenseful.
It had sirens!
When I hear “The Night Chicago Died,” it turns me back into an eleven-year-old…not from a reminds-me-what-I-was-doing-that-summer standpoint, but by appealing to my preteen values of what’s exciting and thrilling and suspenseful.
Namely a song with sirens and stage whispers and martial drums and gruesome body counts and sound effects intended to replicate a clock and a round of indefatigable na-na-na’s and rhymes so obvious that you couldn’t believe every song on the radio hadn’t seen the genius in pairing night with fight, all with wall, said with dead.
Seriously, I’m 11 when I hear this. This is, like, the coolest song…EVER!
I would have to say “The Night Chicago Died,” as the No. 1 song of the No. 1 year of All-Time (and remember, I do deal in absolutes in this arena), makes a case for being, well, the No. 1 Song of All-Time. It ranks, however, as No. 2. A very strong No. 2. I would go as far as to call it the people’s champion, the highest-flying song on my survey that isn’t No. 1. No. 1, as we’ll discuss four weeks from today, is set in stone. It can’t be moved, can’t be dislodged. (It’s probably the way Mets fans of a certain vintage view 1986 in relation to 1969, that nothing can top the first time.) With “American Pie” inviolable in my esteem, “The Night Chicago Died” deserves to be categorized as the best of the rest.
It really is. I love this song so much. I loved it at 11, I renewed my fealty for it at 22 and today, at 44, I’ve yet to hear anything that’s come along since that I like nearly as much. And according to my heartfelt calculations, I like 498 songs nearly as much.
My affection for “The Night Chicago Died” was both instant and delayed. I fell for it immediately and I would fall it for all over again. The first time was explosive. It sounded, as so many songs that captivate me, like nothing else on the radio. It sounded nothing like “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” which would be neither here nor there except Paper Lace dipped its first toe in the charts with its version of that song, one far better known by its Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods incarnation. The two groups had what is known as a cover battle and Paper Lace got its ass kicked, No. 1 to No. 96.
The Lace wasn’t going to stand for it. The songwriting team of Mitch Murray and Peter Callendar penned a quick ditty that nobody else in their right mind would cover (though why there was such a rush on “Billy,” one of the few 1974 hits that I outright disliked, is beyond me). It had Paper Lace written all over it. It must have. It zoomed to No. 1 for a week in the middle of August, practically straddling the line between the Nixon and Ford eras in American history…which is funny in retrospect since it attempted to reflect another era in American history and mangled several essential details.
My daddy was a cop
OK. He’s your daddy. Can’t argue with that.
On the east side of Chicago
First problem. There is no east side of Chicago nor any streets of the old east side, according to Chicagoans. There is a north side (Wrigley), south side (Comiskey) and west side (where the Bulls roam). To the east of those sides there is a lake. A great lake. But no east side where one could be a cop.
Back in the USA
Back in the bad old days
Historical, dramatic and creative license is taken with the narrative throughout. I guess if you want the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre told accurately, go read a book. If you want an imaginary version of Al Capone trying to make that town his very own, you’ve got a 3:30 45 from the UK.
Murray-Callendar (not to be confused with Murray Hewitt, manager of Flight of the Conchords) weren’t exactly Illinoisans. Neither were Paper Lace, which was composed of vocalist/drummer Phil Wright, bassist Cliff Fish and guitarists Michael Vaughn, Chris Morris and Carlo Santanna. They were Nottingham-based. Nottingham is the Lace City, which was good to learn eventually since I thought Paper Lace was a rather tepid name for such an AWESOME band.
Anyway, the night in question…whoa, what a mess Chicago was. Al Capone was pretty demanding and next thing you knew “about a hundred cops were dead.” You know, being 11 years old in 1974 made you pretty desensitized — Watergate, The Towering Inferno — but that’s a lotta lawmen biting the dust in one night.
Did Murray and Callendar have any sense of proportion? Apparently not. Just as well. If you’re going to create a musical cartoon, may as well go for it. And it’s not like there were no repercussions:
‘Til the last of the hoodlum gang
Had surrendered up or died
See? It’s not like the bad guys were winning. And by the way, “surrendered up” is so much more action-packed than merely surrendering.
Listen, it’s a stupid song, but it’s effective. The second half of the chorus could have been written by an 11-year-old:
Brother what a night it really was
Brother what a fight it really was
You did not require a sixth-grade education to come up with that, or to have the wits to alternate “it really was” with “the people saw,” or to trade off “glory be” with “yes indeed”.
Yes indeed, I never realized just how stupid this song is. But I don’t care. I love it even more now that I’ve gone about dissecting it. I can’t believe that I once read a critique of the so-called worst songs ever and “The Night Chicago Died” was included among the offenders. In fact, most every song on the list I’m thinking of that ran in 1988 (in the Daily News, compiled by two of their hopelessly elitist music critics, David Hinckley and David Browne) was from my beloved 1970s. A lot of critics never got over the fact that a) the ’60s ended and b) time marched on.
It was that attitude, already pervasive as I became old enough to have enough to look back on, that bugged me. I saw nostalgia rise up in the ’70s for the ’50s. I saw it form in the ’80s for the ’60s. Why were the ’70s getting such a bad rap when they were barely yet the old days? Why did they have to be reflexively dismissed as the bad old days?
This topic was top of mind on a night in early 1985. I had been invited to join my roommate and his friend to see KISS (makeup-free edition, cost-free tickets) at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. I wasn’t really a KISS fan nor was I, at 22, within the target demo of the band judging by the rest of the crowd, so I wasn’t all that into most of the concert. That was until the final encore, “Rock And Roll All Nite,” which was a hit when I was in seventh grade…early 1976. For that I was up on a folding chair singing along. So were my roommate and his friend. A lot of the kids in the audience just stared blankly. MTV’s KISS oeuvre apparently didn’t reach back before “Lick It Up”.
So the three of us are in the car heading back toward campus and reflecting on the dissonance of our loving KISS’s ’70s songs and other records we grew up knowing by heart and the institutional amnesia they had otherwise inspired. My roommate said yeah, you know what was a great song? “Run Joey Run” by David Geddes. It wasn’t, really, but I said yeah! And you know what else was great, I said…”The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace. Yeah, they said, whether they meant it or not. And whether we knew it or not, we were on the slippery slope to middle age.
This was the first time I’d given serious thought to “The Night Chicago Died” since fifth grade became sixth in the fall of ’74. Paper Lace had followed me from Camp Treasure Island where we sang it on the bus to a family trip out west where I sang along to a transistor and back. It was a big for a long time that summer, but like most pop smashes by groups who didn’t follow up well (“The Black-Eyed Boys” peaked at No. 41), “The Night” and the band would fade from consciousness.
That January night in Florida, I made it my mission to bring them back. 1985 became the year I became determined to revive the music of the 1970s. For several years, until Rhino Records picked up my cause, the sound of the battle rang as I wouldn’t shut up about it when given the opportunity to convince anybody — particularly my self-hating generational peers — that our music shouldn’t be written off. We need to appreciate this stuff. We loved it then. There’s nothing wrong with it now.
Bought my first copy of “The Night Chicago Died” in the oldies section of a Sam Goody in the summer of ’85. Tuned into WCBS-FM every Saturday when they did their “This Week In…” Top 20 countdowns in the hope they’d throw me a bone (’twas sensational hearing it in my Toyota since I never got to drive to Paper Lace when they were hot ’cause I didn’t have my license when I was 11). And kvelled, absolutely kvelled, when the Mets swept four from the Cubs at Shea in June of ’85. When the fourth game was complete, guess — just guess! — what song was played over the stadium loudspeaker while Steve Zabriskie offered his wrapup. It may have been an afternoon affair, but it was “The Night Chicago Died.” (I tried to send those vibes to the Jets by playing my 45 over and over again when they took on the Bears in December, but there was no stopping the Bears Shufflin’ Crew.)
There was hope for my ’70s yet. Rhino honored Paper Lace and a hundred acts like them with the Have A Nice Day series so I no longer had to rely on my poorly dubbed K-Tel tapes for sustenance. Meanwhile, the greater consciousness was receiving one ’70s earworm after another. I needn’t have worried that my music would be forgotten. Others remembered. It’s not like those of us who made those songs such big hits surrendered up or died.
Hip-hop excepted, you don’t get story songs like that anymore. You don’t get that kind of violence glorified either. Do you get sirens anymore? The ’70s were the golden age of siren songs. “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor. “Armed And Extremely Dangerous” by First Choice. “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace. Sirens and st…st…stuttering were very big in those days.
Did any other song have a clock? I loved that, too.
And there was no sound at all
But the clock upon the wall
It came with a tick-tock. And they did it without computers. Maybe they used a real clock. I’d like to think Murray and Callendar were on a ladder under a cuckoo with a microphone capturing a clock ticking for posterity. I’d also like to think the door burst open wide and they complained bitterly that they’d have to wait another hour to get the tick-tock just right.
That’s highly unlikely since nobody surrounding this second-greatest song of All-Time seemed terribly concerned with getting anything besides the hooks right. After telling the world that Chicago had an east side and lost a hundred peace officers to unfathomable gunfire, the boys’ management requested that Mayor Richard Daley ante up a key to the city or something proper when Paper Lace visited Chicago to promote its record. Go figure, but Daley’s office was not receptive. An aide is said to have told the band and the writers that they should “jump in the Chicago River, placing your heads under water three times and surfacing twice. Pray tell us, are you nuts?”
Can you imagine someone not wanting to honor “The Night Chicago Died”? Now that’s nuts!
On August 31, the last Flashback Friday devoted to music, I was in a store in Milwaukee where the radio was tuned to a station that was airing its own weekly feature known as — yup — Flashback Friday. I’d love to pretend they stole the concept from here, but of course I borrowed the gimmick from who-knows-how-many FM stations that have used one hour at the end of the week to look backward. Still, on the day we celebrated Del Amitri in this space, it was quite odd to hear a DJ in another city spinning Murray Head (No. 81 on the Top 500) in the same spirit that we today celebrate the likes of Paper Lace. No matter the decade, no matter the artist, it’s the universal language.
Next Friday: Crying in baseball.