If you were alive in the 1970s, I know you remember the weird novelty songs that somehow became hits. These were quirky, funny songs that were often tied to current fads. None of them could be considered great music, but they were insanely popular. They seemed to be on every radio station and TV show, and everyone was singing along.
Some of these songs are iconic hits that are still remembered today. Others have been (deservedly) forgotten. But we’re going to talk about all of them!
Let’s look at 15 of the most hilarious and iconic novelty songs from the 1970s!
1. Desiderata, Les Crane, 1971
The late 60s and early 70s were the heyday for spoken word songs, and Desiderata was one of the biggest spoken word hits of that era. Purported to be “ancient wisdom,” the song was actually a recording of a poem written in 1927 by Indiana lawyer Max Ehrmann. The song urged us to:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence
as well as reminding us that:
You are a child of the universe.
No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here
.And, my favorite line:
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
The poem was set to music by Les Crane and released as a single in 1971. It quickly became a hit, eventually reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. My older sister had a poster of the lyrics in her bedroom. It’s probably safe to say that everyone’s older sister had a poster of the lyrics in her bedroom.
2. My Ding-a-Ling, Chuck Berry, 1972
Ah, yes. The song that titillated and scandalized my middle school class. My Ding-a-Ling was initially recorded by Dave Bartholomew in 1952, but it was Chuck Berry’s version that went to the top of the charts.
A classic double entendre song, Berry’s version of My Ding-a-Ling was recorded live during the Lanchester Arts Festival. Berry’s enthusiasm for the song and the audience’s obvious amusement at the pun turned his version into a hit record and became Berry’s only Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100. (And, honestly, that’s appalling. I guess Marty McFly was right about Johnny B. Goode.)
Many radio stations refused to play the song and I can tell you from personal experience that many adults were horrified when they heard their kids happily singing along with it. My memory of the song is that it was a massive deal for a short time and then disappeared altogether. That appears to be correct. After reaching Number One on October 21, 1972, My Ding-a-Ling was no longer in the Top Ten by mid-November. RIP Chuck Berry’s Ding-a-Ling.
3. Ben, Michael Jackson, 1972
The week before Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling hit Number One, the top song in the nation was a love song from a boy to his rat.
Ben, sung by Michel Jackson, was written for the sequel to the horror movie, Willard, a tale of a man who gets revenge on his enemies with his army of rat friends. The sequel, Ben, follows pretty much the same plot. Jackson sings the song (with its not all creepy lyrics of “Ben, the two of us need look no more, We both found what we were looking for) over the credits.
The song was Jackson’s first number one hit as a solo artist and, if you don’t think too much about how it’s written as a love song for a rat named Ben, it’s truly beautiful and shows off Michael Jackson’s voice beautifully.
It’s still a little disturbing, though.
4. Dead Skunk, Loudon Wainwright III, 1972
You either love this song or you hate it. I loved this song back in the day, although I was also confused by it. Is the skunk a metaphor? A symbol of society’s decay?
Apparently no. The song is about a dead skunk that’s been hit by a car, and it smells pretty bad. Loudon Wainwright III said he was inspired to write the song after he hit a skunk with his car and the smell lingered for weeks.
Loudon Wainwright III went on to have an extensive career as a singer and an actor, although this song was his only charting hit. Still, 1972 was a good year for Wainwright. In addition to having a hit record, he also had a son, Rufus Wainwright, who went on to have his own career as a singer/songwriter.
5. Sister Mary Elephant, Cheech and Chong, 1973
This skit from Cheech and Chong’s album, Big Bambu, was released as a single in 1973. So it’s not a song, exactly. But it does have a chorus of “Class? Class!? SHUT UP! Thank you” and every kid in my school knew all the words, so I think it fits here.
The song was released in 1973 as a single, reaching its peak at #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early 1974. This is one of the most iconic Cheech and Chong songs, and it’s also one of their funniest. . It’s both irreverent and hilarious, two qualities that have made Cheech and Chong so popular over the years.
6. Dear Abby, John Prine, 1973
This was a popular song to sing in my church youth group and, no, I don’t know why. Each verse is a fictional letter to Dear Abby, the popular advice columnist, detailing a variety of mundane complaints. Dear Abby responds in the chorus with her succinct advice:
Bewildered, bewildered (the pseudonym of the letter writer, this line changed in every chorus)
You have no complaint
You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t
So listen up buster, and listen up good
Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood
Honestly, great advice for everyone today!
Technically, this song shouldn’t be on my list. It doesn’t appear that it was ever released as a single. It was on John Prine’s Sweet Revenge album, which didn’t get any higher on the charts than #137. And I’m not sure John Prine considered it a novelty song. But it qualifies as a hysterically funny, great sing-along and it deserves to be remembered, so I’m exercising editorial judgment and including it for your pleasure and education.
Fun fact, someone sent a verse of the song to the real Dear Abby. It was published and her answer made it very clear she had never heard the song.
7. Spiders and Snakes, Jim Stafford, 1974
This song was one of the many hits from Jim Stafford’s eponymous debut album. It tells the story of an awkward schoolboy trying to get the attention of a much more self-assured schoolgirl by presenting her with a frog. She sets him straight with “that ain’t what it takes to love me.”
Stafford was the king of novelty hits from 1974-1975, even hosting his own summer replacement variety show in 1975. His fame died down in subsequent years, but he still maintained a loyal fan base and owned a popular Branson showcase until 2020.
8. The Streak, Ray Stevens, 1974
Who can forget the 70s craze of streaking, the act of running naked through a public place? It became popular in the 1970s as a form of protest or expression. Veteran songwriter Ray Stevens capitalized on the craze with his popular song, The Streak.
The song was pretty simple. Each verse featured a reporter describing a commotion caused by a naked runner. He turns to a man on the street for his opinion and it’s the same guy every time, telling what he saw and how he tried to warn his wife, Ethel, not to look but it was too late. In the final verse, Ethel is revealed to be running alongside the streaker, to the horror of our man on the street.
The Streak was shockingly popular, spending 3 weeks at Number One on the Billboard Charts in May 1974.
9. Convoy, C. W. McCall, 1975
Like The Streak, Convoy was inspired by a 70s fad. This time it was truckers using CB radios to communicate with each other and coordinate their travels.
The song is about a long line of trucks (a “convoy”) that are headed down the highway with “the hammer down” (at top speed). However, they’re being pursued by an ever-increasing array of law enforcement determined to stop them. The trucks use their CBs (and all the current CB lingo) to outwith “the bears” (State Troopers) and continue on their way.
Convoy was a huge hit, spending six weeks at Number One on the Billboard Country Charts and one week at Number One on the Pop Charts. It even spawned a 1978 movie of the same name starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw.
10. Mr. Jaws, Dickie Goodman, 1975
Dickie Goodman had several hit songs and they all followed the same format. A reporter is on the street asking questions and the responses are all snippets of current hits. In this case, the interviewees are all inspired by the hit movie Jaws. Goodman “interviews” a giant shark who swam to shore, along with the movie’s other characters, Sheriff Brody, Captain Quint, and Matt Hooper, the oceanographer.
The song got to Number Four in the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1975, which shows just how popular the movie Jaws was. Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, but people were still buying records inspired by the movie in the fall of that year.
Goodman’s final record in this format to chart was Kong, which spoofed the 1978 remake of King Kong. It only made it to #48 on the Billboard Hot 100.
11. Shaving Cream, Paul Wynn, 1975
1975 was a weird time in music, you guys. We just loved songs that sounded a little dirty. How else can you explain the popularity of a song with lyrics like this:
Our baby fell out of the window
You’d think that her head would be split
But good luck was with her that morning
She fell in a barrel of shh-
But don’t be fooled! He’s not going to say what you think he’s going to say. Instead, we’ll go straight to the chorus, which is:
Be nice and clean
Shave every day and you’ll always look keen
Shaving Cream was initially recorded in 1946, and it was re-released in 1975 after Dr. Demento began playing it on his radio show. It peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it was number one in the hearts of my middle school class. We loudly sang it on the playground daily while our teachers covered their ears and shook their heads. What rebels we were!
12. A Fifth of Beethoven, Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, 1976
Here’s the rare novelty song without words. A Fifth of Beethoven answers the question, “Hey, what if Beethoven liked disco?” This song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #80 on May 23, 1976, and spent the summer moving up the charts, finally reaching number 1 on October 3, 1976. All told, the song spent 6 months in the top 100.
Walter Murphy was the arranger for Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show orchestra and played almost every instrument on this song, although he later compiled a band for live performances.
13. Disco Duck, Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots, 1976
Guess what song knocked A Fifth of Beethoven off its #1 slot in October, 1976. That’s right, it was Disco Duck, a song that surely belongs at #1 in the Bad Hit Song Hall of Fame.
It’s still a mystery to me how this song became a hit. I’ve never known anyone who claimed to like it and my friends and I turned to a different radio station every time we heard it played. And, yet, it was played a lot. A lot.
However, there must have been at least a few people who loved this song about a man who goes to a party and becomes overwhelmed with the urge to dance like a duck to the disco music that was playing and invents a new dance craze. Oddly enough, I don’t remember a specific Disco Duck dance, and the videos I’ve seen just show people flapping their arms and waddling around like a duck.
The song was written and performed by Rick Dees, a Memphis DJ who went on to have a long career in radio. He’s currently the host of the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 Countdown which is syndicated on hundreds of radio stations across America.
14. King Tut, Steve Martin, 1978
Before we had Van Gogh’s Immersive Experience, we had the King Tut exhibit which traveled around the country from 1976-1979. This was – and I’m not kidding – a significant story at the time. Culture! Right here in the United States!
Of course, this big event had to be commemorated in song, and who better for the job than Steve Martin, who was at the peak of his stardom as a comic.
Martin premiered the song on Saturday Night Live in April 1978, in one of the biggest productions ever put on by the show at that point. If you saw it live, I’m sure you remember how we all sat open-mouthed in amazement when we weren’t laughing hysterically.
After the show aired, the song was all anyone could talk about for weeks. The single only reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, but that doesn’t reflect how every teenager in America went around saying, “He gave his life… for tourism” every chance they could.
One more thing about King Tut. It’s a really good song! I still keep it on regular rotation. If you love the song as I do, then you’ll be happy to know that Steve Martin released a bluegrass version of this song on his album, Rare Bird Alert, with the Stone Canyon Rangers. You’re welcome.
15. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, Elmo and Patsy, 1979
They just don’t write ’em like this any more and for that, I am supremely grateful. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is the story of a woman who got too drunk on eggnog and stumbled out of the house on Christmas Eve, only to be plowed over by Santa and his reindeer. The song was self-released in 1979 by Elmo and Patsy, which is why it’s made this list. But it truly became a hit in the 1980s when country music and top 40 radio stations started playing the record at Christmas.
Sadly, Patsy and Elmo later divorced, and both Patsy and Elmo recorded solo versions of the song. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any copies of either version.) The song has also been widely covered, including a ska version by Reel Big Fish. Elmo always released a follow-up song in 1992 called Grandpa’s Gonna Sue the Pants Off of Santa, which is interesting because Grandpa doesn’t seem too sad about Grandma’s death by reindeer in the original song. As the song says:
Now we’re all so proud of Grandpa
He’s been takin’ this so well
See him in there watchin’ football
Drinkin’ beer and playin’ cards with cousin Mel