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.
For the past few months, I’ve been writing an AV Club column about blockbuster movies, one that’s not too different in concept from this column. And one of the weirdest things I’ve learned is this: In the ’70s, people were going to see porn movies in vast numbers. I’d known that there’d been some cultural frisson around movies like Deep Throat. I had not known that Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door were among the highest-grossing movies of 1972.
Box-office record-keeping from that era is spotty, but it definitely seems like those two movies — both of which were just straight-up no-joke porn — earned more money than Jeremiah Johnson or Cabaret or The Getaway, all of which were huge hits. Deep Throat didn’t make as much as The Godfather or The Poseidon Adventure, but it was a legit competitor. People must’ve been making a social occasion out of going to see it, which is a difficult thing for me to picture. Who proposes that? How does that conversation happen? Do people have, like, embarrassing run-ins with their parents at the movie theater? Everytime I learn anything about American culture before my birth, I realize how little I really know.
In any case, something similar started happening in music a few years after the 1972 porn box-office boom. I’ve already written about the 1975 Newsweek piece on the rising trend of “sex rock,” which sadly was not an actual genre. Still, pop music really did suddenly get sexually explicit to a huge, sweeping, startling extent right around that time; I could see why a magazine like Newsweek would think it was newsworthy. Donna Summer straight-up sex-moaned for 20 minutes, and that song, “Love To Love You Baby,” made it up to #2. (It’s a 10.) And if we can really think of “sex rock” as a trend, then it reached its apotheosis on Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright),” a ridiculous and over-the-top and downright silly seduction song that became the biggest hit in years.
“Tonight’s The Night” held the #1 position for eight weeks — longer than any hit since the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” eight years earlier. The song was also the biggest-selling single of 1977 — the year after it came out. And this is a song that initially didn’t get radio play because nobody could argue that it was anything other than a song about fucking. It must’ve been wild to live through the “everybody is suddenly cool with openly talking about boning” era.
There is absolutely nothing even remotely subtle about “Tonight’s The Night.” It’s a soft-focus seduction that makes Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” sound sheepish and restrained. Stewart wrote the song, and he barely even bothered with double entendres: “You’d be a fool to stop this tide / Spread your wings and let me come inside.” That infamous lyric doesn’t even count as a metaphor. Because what’s she supposed to be? A bird? A butterfly? You don’t come inside a butterfly.
In the five years between his #1 hits “Maggie May” and “Tonight’s The Night,” Stewart hadn’t landed any top-10 singles in America. (The 1972 release “You Wear It Well” came the closest, peaking at #13.) But Stewart’s albums sold pretty well in the US. In his native UK, he’d become a massive star. The Faces, the band he’d led while launching his solo career, were also huge, though not as huge as solo Stewart. (The Faces were not thrilled about this.) In 1975, Stewart moved to Los Angeles, and he broke up the Faces a year later. He was going to try to dive headlong into pop stardom. It worked out.
Starting with his 1975 album Atlantic Crossing, Stewart started working with some of America’s best soul session players. Most of the musicians on A Night On The Town, the album that gave us “Tonight’s The Night,” came from the storied Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In theory, this should’ve been a hell of a combination — the UK’s leading blues-rock yowler teaming up with the band from those great Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett hits. And sometimes, it turned out as well as anyone could’ve hoped. That same album also gave us Stewart’s version of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is The Deepest.” “The First Cut” only made it to #21 in the US, but it’s an absolute gold-plated classic, one of the best songs that Stewart ever sang. But then there’s “Tonight’s The Night.”
“Tonight’s The Night” is a stupid fucking song. The music is all gauzy Vaseline-on-the-lens autopilot soul-rock. All the production choices — the noodling acoustic guitars, the cloying strings, the smooth-bluesy sax solo — are the very definition of canned ’70s studio-pop. It’s like Stewart intentionally set out to make stereotypical ’70s radio music, and maybe that’s what he was doing.
If “Tonight’s The Night” doesn’t sound totally generic, it’s only because Stewart’s voice simply isn’t capable of sounding generic. His rasp is the song’s real saving grace, and it’s got a joyous swoop to it. Stewart has to know that “Tonight’s The Night” isn’t his best work, and yet he seems to be having a blast with it, as if he knows it’s about to make him way richer. When Stewart isn’t singing — like at the end, when Britt Eklund is trying and failing to turn it into a Serge Gainsbourg song — “Tonight’s The Night” just dies. As long as he’s there, it’s got a pulse.
About that Britt Eklund bit: At the end of the song, we hear Eklund, the mind-bogglingly hot Swedish actress who’d been in Get Carter and The Wicker Man and The Man With The Golden Gun, moaning and purring in French, not even her native language. Stewart was dating her at the time, and he later claimed that he’d gotten her falling-down drunk before she’d agreed to record the part. She’s in the video, too, though we never see her face. It’s a deeply silly star cameo — the sexy version of Vincent Price rapping about hounds of hell on “Thriller.”
It’s also worth noting that a lot of Stewart’s lines on “Tonight’s The Night” are downright creepy. For instance: “Don’t say a word, my virgin child / Just let your inhibitions run wild.” Did people really use “my virgin child” when they were trying to seduce each other in the ’70s? What part of the game is that? That’s about the squickiest shit I ever heard. Today, that line sounds like grounds for arrest. (Also, doesn’t he want her to not let her inhibitions run wild? Isn’t that the whole point?)
In any case, for whatever reason, the people of late 1976 really wanted to hear Rod Stewart singing about fucking. Maybe Jimmy Carter’s election just made everyone horny. But “Tonight’s The Night” helped establish Rod Stewart’s total, overwhelming shamelessness. That shamelessness would quickly become one of the eternal truths of pop music. Naturally, Stewart will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: On her 1997 LP The Velvet Rope, basically a concept album about being horny, Janet Jackson did an extremely breathy R&B cover of “Tonight’s The Night.” Here’s her version:
(Janet Jackson will appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Gordon Lightfoot’s goosebump-inducing folk-rock maritime tragedy “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” — a story-song about a real shipping disaster from one year earlier — peaked at #2 behind “Tonight’s The Night.” The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down: It’s a 10.
The Spinners’ cinematic Philly soul rumbler “Rubberband Man” also peaked at #2 behind “Tonight’s The Night.” It’s a 9.
THE 10S: Boston’s soaring, memory-drunk studio-rock masterpiece “More Than A Feeling” peaked at #5 behind “Tonight’s The Night.” As clear as the sun in the summer sky, it’s a 10.