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.
Here’s something I didn’t know before I started writing this column: America has a deep yearning for big, sweeping orchestral lost-love ballads from the soundtracks of big-budget movies about sinking ships. Twenty-five years before Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” another song that’ll eventually end up in this column, there was a whole different Oscar-winning matters-of-the-heart slow jam that sailed to #1 after being featured in a special-effects-heavy blockbuster movie about a trans-Atlantic marine voyage that turns out the wrong way. This is apparently something that we, the people of the Unites States, just need to hear every once in a while.
The Poseidon Adventure was part of a wave of ’70s disaster movies. Much-loved actors — in this case, an impressive list of names that included Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine — would sleepwalk their way through hackneyed, formulaic movies about everyday people trapped in extremely dangerous situations. The Poseidon Adventure came two years after Airport and two years before The Towering Inferno. The movies got bad reviews but did good business, and if you watch them today, it’s hard to even stay awake until shit starts going bad because of the drippy, hackneyed melodrama of the early scenes. “The Morning After” comes from one of those early scenes.
The Poseidon Adventure tells the story of the S.S. Poseidon, an old ocean liner on its final voyage, and of the wacky cast of characters who find themselves fighting for survival after a tsunami capsizes the ship. The wave hits right after the travelers have celebrated New Years in the ship’s ballroom. And that’s where the on-board entertainer, played by Carol Lynley but voiced by vocal double Renee Armand, sings “The Morning After.” It’s a cheesy ballad about a woman fighting to keep her relationship together through a tough time, and the whole subtext is that all the people who hear the song will soon themselves be fighting to survive until the morning.
When the movie was in production, Russ Regan, the record-label exec who was also working as the movie’s soundtrack supervisor, wanted to get a single version of “The Morning After” out onto the market. He offered it to Barbra Streisand, but she turned it down. So instead, Regan went for an unknown. He’d heard a demo from Maureen McGovern, an Ohio secretary who sang part-time in a folk group. She’d never even cut a record before “The Morning After.” The movie came out in December, and McGovern’s version of the song only really took off after the song won the Best Original Song award at the 1973 Oscars.
“The Morning After” came from Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, a team of former Tin Pan Alley songwriters who mostly just wrote songs for movies and TV shows. It’s a big and bland and utilitarian song, one that was clearly written just to work as a foreshadowing of a movie disaster: “It’s not too late, not while we’re living / Let’s put our hands out in time.” McGovern belts it out with showy gusto — a brassy and demonstrative supper-club singing style that never even attempts to nod toward soul. For what it is, it’s effective enough, full of tingly harpsichords and triumphal waves of strings. And it’s over in two and a half minutes, which is nice. But it leaves essentially no impression. It’s the sort of song that exists to be forgotten.
For a while, McGovern sang songs just like this, for movies like this. She sang “We May Never Love Like This Again,” another Hirschhorn/Kasha song, for the soundtrack of The Towering Inferno, and shot got a quick appearance in that movie. That song won an Oscar, too. She also sang “Can You Read My Mind,” the love theme from Superman: The Movie, and she scored her only other top-20 hit when she sang “Different Worlds,” the theme for the TV show Angie. (It peaked at #18 in 1979.) But this wasn’t really much of a lane. Because of bad contracts, McGovern found herself broke, spending a chunk of the ’70s working as a secretary, using a fake name so that nobody would recognize her. Eventually, though, she ended up on Broadway, where she probably should’ve been the entire time. She’s had a successful decades-long run as a stage actress. Her ship stayed afloat.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s McGovern playing a singing nun (and covering a different #1 song) in Airplane! the glorious 1980 parody of movies just like The Poseidon Adventure:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Paul McCartney & Wings’ histrionic, George Martin-produced Bond theme “Live And Let Die” peaked at #2 behind “The Morning After.” It’s an 8.