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.
There’s a scene in the supremely dumb 1994 college comedy PCU where cool, rebellious fratboy Jeremy Piven locks the uptight, fun-killing dean in her office and tortures her by putting the Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 hit “Afternoon Delight” on repeat. Piven then throws a party that features another ’70s institution, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. This kind of thing will always be the legacy of “Afternoon Delight,” a song that has achieved permanent-punchline status in the pop-cultural lexicon. If someone comes out with a snarked-out “worst songs ever” list, “Afternoon Delight” will be on it. It’s an easy fish-in-a-barrel consensus target, a relic of cheesier times.
You can see why. “Afternoon Delight” is a naive, starry-eyed song, the kind of thing that could easily work as a theme for a kids’ TV show if it wasn’t all about fucking at lunchtime. But it is about fucking at lunchtime, and everyone knows it. The fact that it’s sung by two different married couples places “Afternoon Delight” exactly at the ’70s moment where the ’60s sexual revolution went fully mainstream, where suburban couples were idly playing around with the idea of polyamory; there’s a vague and illicit swinger-scene overtone to the song. And the fact that both of those couples eventually got divorced only increases the ’70s-ness of the whole thing. So does the supremely awkward music video.
And yet “Afternoon Delight” deserves better. It certainly deserves better than our delayed prurience. “Afternoon Delight” wasn’t exactly the only 1976 #1 single about sex; just about all of them covered the same subject. There’s certainly a disconnect between the smiley-sunshine music and the deeply horny lyrics, but that, in its way, is charming — a sign that sex doesn’t have to be a huge deal even if it does make you think of “skyrockets in flight.” And it’s a sturdy, memorable pop song — memorable enough, at least, that people are still making fun of it decades later.
“Afternoon Delight” writer Bill Danoff was part of the Washington, DC folk scene, and in the late ’60s, he and future wife Taffy Nivert started a duo called Fat City. Together, they co-wrote the 1971 single “Country Roads, Take Me Home” with John Denver. (“Country Roads” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) The opening scene from Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 movie Logan Lucky, in which Channing Tatum explains the genesis of “Country Roads” to his daughter, could’ve doubled as an entry in this column if the song had landed one spot higher on the chart.
“Country Roads” made John Denver a star, but it didn’t really lead to any breaks for Fat City. Danoff and Nivert kept working the DC circuit for the next few years. Danoff started writing “Afternoon Delight” one day while Nivert was having an operation for cervical cancer. (Imagine writing this song while your wife is fighting for her life.) Danoff was eating at Clyde’s, a DC restaurant chain, and they had a menu section called “afternoon delights.” He had the idea to turn that into a song, and he brought it to Nivert while she was still in the hospital.
Danoff thought “Afternoon Delight” would sound better with more voices, so the couple recruited two more DC folk-scene singers, Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman, and formed Starland Vocal Band. Carroll and Chapman eventually became a couple and got married. The new quartet worked on the song for a long time, trying out different recordings and arrangements, before they settled on the one that they liked.
The final product stands out as a kind of throwback to sunshiney ’60s folk-pop, and to countrified early-’70s soft rock. It had nothing to do with the disco that was otherwise dominating the radio in the summer of 1976. But it did have a weird, cool vrooming sound whenever they hit the “skyrockets in flight” line, and it also had the outright sexuality of so much disco. So “Afternoon Delight” was a song for its moment, at least in part because it worked as counter-programming, calling back to the very recent past. Starland Vocal Band signed to John Denver’s Windsong label and spent that summer touring with him, and if this Washington Post oral history is any indication, Denver’s audience just loved the song.
Like a lot of Denver songs, “Afternoon Delight” walks an anodyne border between folk-pop and country. It has a bit of twang in the vocals and a bit of nicely ragged pedal steel running all through it. But it’s also pure sweetener — a bright, simple, unchallenging singalong earworm. The group hits the hook over and over, and it’s deeply embedded in your brain within the first 45 seconds of the first time you hear it. They sing in lush, intricate, layered harmonies, and they all seem utterly enchanted with the idea that they’re all about to get it on.
Danoff works to sell the idea that the afternoon is a great time for fucking: “My motto’s always been ‘when it’s right, it’s right’ / Why wait until the middle of a cold, dark night?” And the song does work as comedy, since some of those sex lines are so deeply unsexy: “Thinking of you’s working up my appetite.” (It doesn’t hurt that the members of the group just look like two random everyday couples, not like any era of pop stars.) It’s a truly silly song, but it’s not one that I’ve ever felt particularly compelled to dislike.
Of course, “Afternoon Delight” would be it for Starland Vocal Band — a definitional one-hit wonder. The group famously won the Best New Artist award at the 1977 Grammys, thus starting the whole trope about the Best New Artist curse. They hosted a variety show that lasted exactly six weeks. After their first single, they never got anywhere near the top 10 again, though three later singles did reach the lower rungs of the Hot 100. Starland Vocal Band broke up in 1981. None of their non-“Afternoon Delight” songs are on Spotify or Apple Music. So “Afternoon Delight” remains a song truly tied to its time, a living reminder of a ridiculous era. But then, so are a lot of things. So is PCU.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Matt Damon singing “Afternoon Delight” in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner singing “Afternoon Delight” in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy:
And here’s the cast of Anchorman singing “Afternoon Delight” with One Direction on a 2013 episode of Saturday Night Live:
(One Direction’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Best Song Ever,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6. Former One Direction member Zayn will eventually appear in this column.)