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Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box

(Rhino Records)

By Tim Sheridan

As I took one last longing look at the candy rack in the grocery checkout line, desperately plotting a last-ditch plea for a box of Everlasting Gobstoppers, I heard the clerk tell my mother, "Have a nice day." That's when I knew my window of opportunity had closed. It wasn't the first time someone had said this to my mother; back then, in 1975, it was the prefab farewell for all occasions. And for that very reason my mother loathed the phrase (and still does). To her it was a slap in the face of human interaction, a blast of emptiness cloaked in the guise of civility, not a wish but a sinister order straight out of Brave New World. My mother wanted to wipe the somnolent smile off the clerk's face, but instead she took her change and walked away mumbling obscenities.

At the time my mother's reaction puzzled me. I assumed "Have a nice day" was just a long-standing substitute for "Good morning." And not until last month, when Rhino released the elaborate seven-CD set Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box, did I learn how it actually seeped into the vernacular. In the late 1960s University Federal Savings of Seattle launched a PR campaign using the slogan "Have a happy day" and the yellow smiley face that most recently came out of retirement to shill for that great bulldozer of small-town America, Wal-Mart. But the bank failed to attain exclusive rights to them, and soon other local businesses were handing out buttons bearing the same words and image. Tellingly, as the fad spread across the nation "happy" got toned down to "nice," as if to wish one's fellow men actual happiness were too extravagant. An essay by Lisa Sutton in the liner notes to Have a Nice Decade claims, "Overnight society stopped wearing natural fibers, hippie-influenced tie-dyes, and psychedelics and zoned in on polyesters and wash-and-wear."

In reality, though, the Nice Decade had been a long time coming--20 years at least. In the 50s, when a mass-production revolution brought us McDonald's hamburgers, Holiday Inns, and Levittown, great pains were taken to maintain uniformity, so that consumers would get what they expected every time: the same food, the same room, the same floor plan as the model. But mass production could never hope to create any product that was more than nice. The quality of life came to be judged by speed and cheapness rather than beauty or flavor. And once the populace was accustomed to those bland standards, the next logical step was a nice culture that measured out the calendar in nice days.

By the mid-70s niceness had even crept into presidential economic policy with the bizarre "Whip Inflation Now" campaign. Without noticeably instituting any other plan, Gerald Ford ordered the printing of zillions of WIN buttons in the apparent hope that the pleasant sentiment would spur market growth and create jobs. But it didn't, and Americans turned to a variety of self-help programs that assured them, "I'm OK, you're OK"--not, mind you, "I'm good" or "I'm fantastic," but "I'm OK." For a sound track America tuned in to Top 40 radio stations that blared Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life," which became the top-selling single of the decade.

Now hold on, you're saying, is this a fair assessment of ten years in the lives of millions of people? Can such a multitude of experience be so easily dismissed? Judging by the Rhino package the answer is no. And yes. More than just a distillation of the label's 25-volume "Have a Nice Day" series, the box attempts to preserve a certain essence of the 70s. The kitsch factor is pretty high, with a cover made of green-and-orange smiley-face patterned carpet and an 89-page booklet filled with groovy photos of pop-culture mementos. But there's more going on here. In an effort to add dimension to the project, the producers inserted brief sound bites of actual news reports between some of the songs. We hear Patty Hearst speak admiringly of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Bobby Riggs's tennis boasts, and early reports of the Three Mile Island disaster. Clearly the 70s were complex years. They also left behind more than their share of cultural excrement. But what really makes the box set work is that it offers an excellent index of the decade's sins and virtues through Top 40 radio.

The 70s were arguably the most exciting period in Top 40 music. It wasn't that the quality was any better than the 60s or the 90s, but the variety has not been seen since. Today radio stations adopt almost tribal identities. You either listen to Classic Rock or Modern Rock or Adult Contemporary or Dusties. Even the once-adventurous WXRT now caters to thirtysomethings who are most comfortable with bands they discovered years ago, like the BoDeans, the Talking Heads, and Poi Dog Pondering. But back in the 70s you could hear the bubblegum sweetness of "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" and the platform-heeled funk of "Freddie's Dead" on the same station--on AM radio.

This joyous confusion is the truest reflection of the spirit of the 70s. Sure, there was plenty of nice music, as evidenced on the box set by such treacle as the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight," Sammy Davis Jr.'s smash "The Candy Man," and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" by Dawn, or the hits that used premasticated melodies from the classical canon, including Apollo 100's "Joy," which slaughtered Bach, and Marvin Hamlisch's Grammy-winning bastardization of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." But these songs didn't paint the entire pop picture.

The canvas was dotted throughout with messier pop gems like "Little Green Bag." For sheer chutzpah few songs rival this three-minute-21-second wonder by the Dutch group George Baker Selection: the initial funky bass line soon metamorphoses into a loping polka beat, then, just when you think you know where you're headed, the chorus bursts forth with all the neon flavors of a Dean Martin lounge number. It's madness, it's beauty, it's pure 70s. Five years later, David Bowie scored a number-one hit with "Fame." This supremely cynical tune co-opted the sound of Philadelphia soul to create a groovy and truly creepy vision of celebrity, and the beautiful people sang along as they strutted their stuff in discos.

But perhaps the perfect product of American music in the 70s came from a synthesizer player named Stan Free, who under the name Hot Butter recorded the single "Popcorn." Amid the blurps and swirls of a Minimoog Free blended the nice with the truly weird in an instrumental ode to the latest innovation of mass production, the Sunbeam popcorn popper. The two-and-a-half-minute head trip quickly became a roller-rink classic and reached number nine on the charts.

The final disc in the box set closes out the decade with McFadden & Whitehead's anthemic "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," from the summer of '79. In the final analysis, this nice sentiment sounds more like wishful thinking than a real change in attitude. After all, the Reagan years loomed, as did new wave, MTV, and all the "Police Academy" movies. No wonder we get all mushy for some simpler time every 20 years. In the 70s, we fantasized about the 50s with American Graffiti and Happy Days; now we celebrate the 70s decade by bringing back flares and beanbag chairs. As the crew of Apollo 13 puts it between two songs on this set: "Houston, we've had a problem." And what a nice problem it was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): vintage photos: Sister Sledge, Ides of March, Gary Wright, Doobie Brothers, Carly Simon, Spinners, Chic, James Taylor, Norman Greenbaum, and Bellamy Brothers.

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