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.
The 1974 Oscars came right in the middle of Hollywood’s short but glorious auteur era. That night in April, The Sting won Best Picture, triumphing against the heavy competition of The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Cries And Whispers, and A Touch Of Class. Jack Lemmon beat out Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino to win his second Best Actor statue. In the showdown of the little girls, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal won Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon, beating out The Exorcist‘s 15-year-old Linda Blair. Groucho Marx was given an honorary Oscar, and Katharine Hepburn, who won Best Actress four times over the course of her career, made her one and only appearance on the show, presenting a lifetime achievement award to the producer Lawrence Weingarten. But nobody much remembers the awards themselves. Instead, the one moment from that telecast that continues to live in pop cultural infamy is the streaking.
Near the end of the show, just as host David Niven was getting ready to introduce Best Picture presenter Elizabeth Taylor, the Los Angeles ad exec Robert Opel ran naked across the stage. Opel, who managed not to show his schlong on television, flashed a peace sign at the camera as he ran past, and the orchestra started playing some kind of rompy jazzy thing before he’d made it the whole way across the stage. The unflappable Niven chuckled quietly to himself for a minute and then deadpanned this: “That was almost bound to happen. But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
The whole thing may or may not have been a publicity stunt, and Niven may or may not have ad-libbed the line on the spot. Talking to the Los Angeles Times, Opel said, “It just occurred to me that it might have been an educative thing to do. You know, people shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides, it’s a hell of a way to launch a career.” It was not a hell of a way to launch a career, and after being briefly famous in the way that only awards-show stage-crashers can be briefly famous, Opel disappeared from the public eye. (He was murdered during a robbery attempt five years later.) But Opel’s little act sure helped out the career of one Ray Stevens, who had released his godawful single “The Streak” five days before the Oscars. A month and a half later, the song made it to #1.
Stevens was a veteran maker of terrible and frequently racist novelty hits. But in 1970, Stevens scored his first-ever #1 with “Everything Is Beautiful,” a drippy and sincere ballad about how everyone should love everyone else. For a while, Stevens tried his hand as a serious songwriter. But within a few years, he’d gotten back to dumber-than-fuck joke songs. “The Streak” turned out to be his second #1 hit and, I suppose, his crowning achievement.
Streaking — running naked across public spaces — has been a perennial prank for decades, but for whatever reason, it peaked as a cultural phenomenon in 1974. The Oscars moment was the peak of the strange boomlet, but people were streaking all over the place: campuses, sporting events, wherever enough people might bear witness to someone’s shortcomings. Colleges were establishing streaking days, seemingly as an excuse to not punish the kids who were doing it. We can sit all day and theorize about why this particular stupid activity hit its cultural zenith in the final days of the Nixon administration. My best guess: It was an outgrowth of the sexual revolution, and of the ’60s counterculture in general, but it turned the whole thing into a joke, threatening nobody and causing no scrutiny of any established power structures — which would explain why people didn’t really get in trouble for doing it. It was non-rebellious rebellion, a symptom of the sexual revolution’s failure to effect real change in anything other than the public’s ability to see other people’s dicks.
Anyway, Ray Stevens thought it was hilarious. He started writing “The Streak” one day when he saw a short news clipping about college-campus streaking, and he rushed to finish it when he noticed that the streaking thing was getting a ton of attention in the news. “The Streak” itself plays out as a fake news report, with Stevens playing a straight-faced newscaster and also doing a sub-Larry The Cable Guy yokel accent to play the guy who saw the streaker. Over a Dukes Of Hazzard-level banjos-and-fiddles yarn, Stevens’ yokel character describes what he just saw: “He’s just as proud as he can be of his anatomy / He’s gonna give us a peek.” He also repeatedly warns his wife of what’s going on: “Don’t look, Ethel!” By the end, this Ethel has gotten caught up in the moment and gone streaking herself, and the yokel is calling her a “shameless hussy.” (I’d like to say that our collective tastes in comedy have grown more sophisticated since 1974, but Seth MacFarlane still has like five different shows, so I can’t really talk shit.)
“The Streak” was not songwriting. It was unlistenable dogshit, pure brain-sandpaper. “Everything Is Beautiful,” Stevens’ previous #1, was a horrendous song, too, but at least it had some vague and half-thought-out pretensions at making the world a better place. There is no such nobility to “The Streak.” It’s pure stupid fad-related opportunism, the musical equivalent of the “too shy to streak” underwear that people were selling around the same time. It belongs in the same historical category of Larry Verne’s “Mr. Custer” — overwhelmingly shitty and irritating joke-songs that could not possibly have been funny even when they were new. (Both of those songs feature exaggerated cornpone accents, which can’t be a coincidence.)
I am delighted to report that Ray Stevens never scored another #1 hit. Instead, he continued to crank out novelty songs and hung around for years on the periphery of the Nashville country universe. Eventually, he founded his own theater in Branson, Missouri, and that’s still going. He’s still making dumber-than-shit novelty songs, too, like 2015’s “Taylor Swift Is Stalkin’ Me” or “Caribou Barbie,” his loving 2010 ode to Sarah Palin. Feel free to continue ignoring his entire existence; the pop charts are safe from him unless he comes up with a catchy ditty about Beyblades or Instagram vape channels or something.
BONUS BEATS: I can find no evidence of “The Streak” leaving any cultural footprint after 1974, so here’s the scene from Todd Phillips’ 2003 movie Old School where Will Ferrell goes streaking:
(Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Jackson 5’s rubbery funk strut “Dancing Machine” peaked at #2 behind “The Streak.” It’s a 9.