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.
1976 was the year of the great disco takeover — the first year when you could plausibly put together a K-Tel compilation of nothing but hit songs with the word “boogie” in the title. And yet Billboard‘s #1 single for the entire year was a song that, if anything, only barely nodded in the direction of disco. This was the attention-seizing power of the post-Beatles soap opera — Paul McCartney could defensively bristle about the value of his own corniness, and the resulting song could be at #1 for a huge chunk of the summer, including the damn Bicentennial.
“Silly Love Songs” absolutely had its genesis in the enmity that McCartney and his old bandmate John Lennon had been feeling toward each other. Back when they were in the Beatles together, Lennon and McCartney remained in usually friendly competition to see whose songs would end up being bigger. Every time they had to pick whose song would be on the A-side of a single and whose would be on the B-side, it would be a whole thing. And when the Beatles ended, McCartney won the popularity contest easily. With Wings, McCartney scored hit after hit in the ’70s. Lennon only reached #1 once during the decade, and he only did it with Elton John helping him out. But Lennon was always the cool-kid favorite, and he spent much of the decade throwing darts at McCartney, comparing his old bandmate to easy-listening fixtures like Englebert Humperdink.
Years later, McCartney affirmed that he wrote “Silly Love Songs” in response to the criticism he was getting for all the goofy happy-guy songs he’d written. “The song was, in a way, to answer people who just accuse me of being soppy,” McCartney told Billboard in 2001. “Over the years, people have said, ‘Aw, he sings love songs, he writes love songs, he’s so soppy at times.’ I thought, well, I know what they mean, but, people have been doing love songs forever. I like ’em. Other people like ’em.”
In that interview — and in “Silly Love Songs” itself — McCartney only mentions unnamed “people,” not Lennon specifically. And it’s certainly true that plenty of critics found McCartney’s solo work irredeemably cheesy. But there’s simply no way that McCartney wasn’t thinking of Lennon on this one; after Lennon died, McCartney never seemed too bothered about what critics thought again. So “Silly Love Songs” isn’t just a song about love, and it isn’t just a song about love songs. It’s McCartney defending his own soppiness. So when Paul and Linda McCartney coo “I love you” at each other on the song, they’re being self-conscious about it, and they’re being defiant, too.
When Wings came out with At The Speed Of Sound, their 1976 album, they were in the process of becoming a real band. McCartney had dropped his own name from the band’s name a while earlier; they’d become just Wings, rather than Paul McCartney & Wings. But even as McCartney was fighting to solidify the band’s public perception, Wings were going through constant, tumultuous lineup changes. By 1976, they’d reached some kind of equilibrium. On the album, McCartney finally started farming out songwriting and lead-vocal duties, at least on some songs, to his bandmates, though “Silly Love Songs” still belongs to Paul himself. (Linda gets a co-writing credit.) The band recorded At The Speed Of Sound in the middle of tour. And when “Silly Love Songs” was climbing the charts, McCartney was touring America for the first time since the Beatles had quit the road a decade earlier.
Presumably, Wings’ time on tour helped push the popularity of “Silly Love Songs”; after all, radio stations were a whole lot more likely to play the song when the band was coming to town. Probably at least some people understood the song as a shot back at Lennon, who’d aired out McCartney on the 1971 album track “How Do You Sleep.” (Rolling Stone breathlessly chronicled the antipathy between the two, always taking Lennon’s side.) And people also might’ve been drawn to “Silly Love Songs” because it represented McCartney’s attempt to grapple with the changing sound of popular music; there is, after all, at least a distant echo of disco in its bassline and its insistent beat. People noticed this in the moment; Time called “Silly Love Songs “a sort of refined disco tune.”
So there was a context for why “Silly Love Songs” was able to dominate for so long — an explanation for why the song was able to hit #1, fall back for a couple of weeks, and then come back and hold #1 again for a whole month when practically every other #1 hit slipped after a week or two. So those are my theories. You will notice that I have not attempted to say that “Silly Love Songs” was the biggest song of 1976 because it’s a good song. It’s not a good song. It’s tolerable crap.
On “Silly Love Songs,” McCartney’s defensiveness comes off as cutesy brio: “You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs / But I look around me, and I see it isn’t so / Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs / And what’s wrong with that?” As soon as McCartney hits the hook — the “I love you” bit — chintzy disco strings come cascading in. Eventually, light bursts of horn show up, too. The song doesn’t have a huge boom to its beat, but it does push along steadily, mostly thanks to a busy and interesting McCartney bassline. There are nice things going on in the song; I like the way the strings and horns and bass all play in and out of each other. But the song itself is a muted shrug, a barely-there murmur that goes on forever. The voices of Paul and Linda McCartney are both oddly buried, as if they know that they’re only ornamenting the groove. And compared to the other disco songs that were blowing up around the same time, the groove is way too much of a plod. Refined disco tunes were always the worst ones, anyway.
Wings’ flirtation with disco would never come to anything more than this, and that’s probably a mercy. But “Silly Love Songs” still ranks as Paul McCartney’s biggest-ever non-Beatles hit. (McCartney is the only person ever to have written or co-written the #1 songs of three different years: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in 1964, “Hey Jude” in 1968, “Silly Love Songs” in 1976.) Once they got done with their big summer ’76 American tour, Wings would take a break for about a year. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, who’d joined up in 1974, would quit Wings and join the Small Faces. McCulloch would then die of morphine and alcohol poisoning in 1979, when he was 26. Drummer Joe English would also split to form his own Christian rock band. But the charts weren’t done with McCartney or with Wings; they’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1990 pilot of Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air where Will encounters Carlton singing “Silly Love Songs” in the shower:
(Will Smith will appear in this column eventually. Tatyana Ali peaked at #6 with 1998’s “Daydreamin’“; it’s a 5. Alfonso Ribeiro has never had a top-10 single.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s conceptual UK punks Chumbawamba making fun of pop cornballs like McCartney and ultimately sampling “Silly Love Songs” on their own track, also titled “Silly Love Songs,” from the 1992 album Jesus H Christ:
(Chumbawamba peaked at #6 with 1997’s silly drinking song “Tubthumping.” It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Red House Painters’ stretched-out 11-minute cover of “Silly Love Songs,” from the 1996 album Songs For A Blue Guitar: