In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Between August 9 and 10 of the same year, the Manson Family horribly murdered eight people, including a movie star and a little kid. Between August 15 and 18, hundreds of thousands of people converged on a farm in upstate New York for the Woodstock Festival, getting massively fucked up and dancing in the rain and giving an entire generation its defining I-was-there moment.
It must’ve been an absolute headfuck to live through the summer of 1969. The future was opening up into strange new shapes, but it was doing it while society was disintegrating. The Vietnam War was raging. Race riots were tearing cities apart. Ted Kennedy, the man who many thought would become the next president, pleaded guilty after leaving the scene of a fatal accident and basically killing a girl. (The fact that he had any kind of political career after that is almost as wild as the accident itself.) Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion of the world, was convicted of evading the draft and stripped of his title after refusing to join the military. Things just kept happening.
And while all of this stuff was happening, the #1 song in America was a massively goofy folk-rock sci-fi novelty song about the dangers of technology. Maybe there’s something cosmically appropriate about a song this anxious dominating this anxiety-inducing summer. Or maybe this is just another case of history being stupid. Maybe both!
Denny Zager and Rick Evans were Wisconsin kids who met at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1962, and they played music together, in different configurations, for years afterward. The two of them wrote “In The Year 2525” in 1964, but they didn’t record it until 1968. The song, released on a small label, started out as a local hit in Lincoln and Omaha. That got the duo signed to RCA, and “In The Year 2525” became a massive breakout hit. This led to basically nothing for Zager & Evans. They never made another hit, and they broke up in 1971. These days, Zager makes custom guitars in Lincoln, and Evans lives out of the public eye. (I once drove past a crazy, futuristic-looking house in Houston, and the guy showing me around town claimed that it belonged to Evans, but I don’t know if that’s actually true.)
So “In The Year 2525” hit some kind of public-imagination zeitgeist. Listening today, it’s hard to tell whether the song reflected some real strain of futuristic uncertainty — the same feeling that drove people to the theater to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes earlier in the year — or whether people heard it as a joke.
My dad always thought the song was hilarious, and there is a deep silliness in some of the prognostications: “In the year 4545 / Ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes / You won’t find a thing to chew / Nobody’s gonna look at you.” “You won’t find a thing to chew” is just a funny thing to sing.
And yet there’s no wink in the song. Zager & Evans sound serious to the point of near-absurdity. As a work of imagination, there’s something admirable about “In The Year 2525” — a pocket history of thousands of years of future human development in three minutes. It moves along at a brisk pace, with propulsive strums and fake-mariachi horns and dramatic movie strings. And yet it ends with a note of contemplation, the duo wondering whether there’s hope for humanity after all.
And as ridiculous as the song may be, the idea of ecological depletion is more urgent now than it must’ve been in 1969: “He’s taken everything this old earth can give / And he ain’t put back nothing.” At this point, if anything, the song seems way too optimistic. Given climate-change projections, it’s harder to imagine humanity surviving until 2525, let alone 9595. So maybe the song really does sum up the summer of 1969: A paranoia anthem that was ultimately more deludedly optimistic than anyone realized.
It’s also a pretty annoying song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s extremely crappy video of R.E.M. covering “In The Year 2525” live in the year 1984:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Cleopatra 2525, a knowingly shitty early-’00s cheesecake sci-fi show, used a rewritten version of “In The Year 2525” as its theme music. Here’s the time-capsule opening-credits sequence: