The Night Chicago Died
July 17, 2019
Todd plays "The Night Chicago Died" on the piano.
PAPER LACE - THE NIGHT CHICAGO DIED
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. And, you know, folks, one thing that I really lament is that we are losing the lame '70s from our cultural memory banks.
Clip of Captain & Tennille - "Love Will Keep Us Together"
Toni Tennille: Love, love will keep us together
Todd (VO): And let's be clear, the '70s were overwhelmingly lame.
Todd: Now, I love '70s music. [clip of David Bowie - "Fame"] Arguably it's my favourite decade 'cause the good stuff's so good but [clip of Queen - "We Are the Champions"] the '70s was not just Bowie and Queen, [clip of Earth, Wind & Fire - "Boogie Wonderland"] funk and disco. A lot of disco was [clip of Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots - "Disco Duck"] actually really bad too, people forget that. [clip of commercial for K-Tel compilation 20 Electrifying Hits] But before the disco '70s, you had the glory days of AM radio gold. [clip of The Partridge Family?] And most of it was horrendously cheesy. [clip of Elton John - "Crocodile Rock"] Even the really good stuff is kinda cheesy.
Todd: Here, here's a music book I've had since I was a kid, The Songs of the '70s. Now, let's see what classics we got in here, the very best of the '70s you wanna sell to people decades later.
Todd opens book to the sheet music for "Afternoon Delight" by Starland Vocal Band, a clip of the song plays
Starland Vocal Band: Skyrockets in flight
Todd turns to "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow
Barry Manilow: I write the songs that make...
Todd turns to "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" by Lobo
Lobo: Me and you and a dog named Boo
Todd: Christ. [Todd closes book] See, the thing about mediocre music is it goes away.
Clip of "Feelings" by Morris Albert
Morris Albert: Feelings
Todd (VO): It gets kicked to the curb. Sometimes people like remembering it for nostalgia reasons, but if you weren't there for this, you'll think the older generations had no taste at all. [clip of "Knock Three Times" by Dawn] And with the decline of oldies radio, there's no way you'd catch most of this stuff in the wild unless it shows up in one of the [cover of Awesome Mix Vol. 2] Guardians of the Galaxy mixtapes. Todd: Well, I do consider the point of this show to be at least partly historical preservation, so for the grand return of One Hit Wonderland, I am taking us back to the storied, famous [text appears on screen] Worst Year In Pop Music History, 1974.
Clip of Terry Jacks - "Seasons In the Sun"
Terry Jacks: We had joy...
Todd (VO): It's weird for a single year of music to have such an infamously bad reputation, but it's pretty earned. [clip of Olivia Newton John] I think the entire concept of "bad music" was invented to describe 1974. Todd: What made it so bad? Well, let's examine one of its biggest hits.
Clip of Paper Lace - "The Night Chicago Died"
Philip Wright: In the heat of a summer night
In the land of the dollar bill
Todd (VO): This is the band Paper Lace, from Nottingham, England. [shot of person dressed as Robin Hood] Yes, the one next to Sherwood Forest, that Nottingham. They had a singing drummer, and some pretty awesome perms, [shot of band photo/logo] and a name as chintzy as their music.
Todd: Paper lace is, you know, [picture of lace doily] these things, you get 'em for three bucks at Joann Fabric's 'cause you can't afford real lace. And also you're a [shot of old women at dinner party] 90-year-old woman who's never heard of coasters. A disposable name for a disposable band.
Todd (VO): But these lame-o's topped the charts with one of the most gangsta hits of all time.
Todd: Well, no it wasn't, but it was literally about gangsters.
Philip: When a man named Al Capone
Tried to make that town his own
Todd (VO): It's an insanely violent song about the biggest, baddest gangster in American history, [mugshot of...] Al Capone, and how he murdered [image of...] the band Chicago. Todd: No, it's not. Though '74 would have been a good year to kill that band because that was the last year they were good.
Philip: And the sound of the battle rang
Todd (VO): But the actual song is about Capone's historic reign of terror in the city of Chicago, and yes, there is a lot of murder in this song.
Philip: I heard my mama cry
Todd (VO): And yet it's upbeat, and jaunty. My mother is weeping, hundreds dead... Todd: ...brother, you shoulda been there, woo!
Paper Lace: Brother what a fight it really was
Philip: Glory be
Todd: Glory be.
Todd (VO): It's a colossally stupid song, and it is not fondly remembered, [shot of cover for '70s Party Killers compilation, which then quickly focuses in on a woman covering her ears] judging from this compilation CD I found it on. But it topped the charts and then they disappeared forever. What happened to them? How does this song make any sense at all? Well, I guess we're gonna find out.
Todd: Paper Lace. The episode none of you were clamouring for. Tonight!
Paper Lace: The night Chicago died
Nah-nah nah nah-nah nah nah-nah nah
Before the hit
Todd: Now here's the funny thing about Paper Lace, they are arguably not one-hit wonders, because they actually had two number one hits in 1974. Just, one in the US and one in the UK. [shot of album cover for Paper Lace... and Other Bits of Material] And the song that went to number one in the UK also went to number one in the US. Just for a different band. I'll explain.
Clip of Gerry and the Pacemakers - "I Like It"
Gerry Marsden: I like it, I like it
Todd (VO): Actually, before we get to the lame '70s, why don't we start in the lame '60s? [shot of single cover for "Down Came the Rain" by Mitch Murray] See, there was a songwriter named Mitch Murray, he [shot of cover for How to Write a Hit Song by Mitch Murray] literally wrote the book on songwriting. He had a [clip of Freddie and the Dreamers - "I'm Telling You Now'] few hits with a bunch of Liverpool bands who weren't The Beatles and did not turn out as big as them. For obvious reasons. [picture of Mitch with Peter Callander] In 1968 he found a new partner in lyricist Jeffrey [sic] Callander... Todd: ...and their collaborations produced some... I guess I'd call them odd songs. [clip of Manfred Mann - "Ragamuffin Man"] Maybe it just sounds odd to me because they have characters and stories in them, which is a thing that does not really happen anymore. Like, here's their first big hit...
Clip of Georgie Fame - "The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde"
Todd (VO): ..."The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde".
Georgie Fame: Bonnie & Clyde were pretty looking people
But I can tell you people they were the devil's children
Todd: [singing and snapping his fingers] Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil. Todd (VO): Kind of a corny sounding song about legendary murderers. And not the last one they'd write either, but we'll get to it. [clip of Tony Christie - "I Did What I Did for Maria"] In the meantime they wrote a bunch of British hits, all of which sound like rock and roll was never even invented. Uh, none of them really made it to America.
Clip of Vanity Fare - "Hitchin' a Ride"
Vanity Fare: Hitchin' a ride
Hitchin' a ride
Todd (VO): Oh, except that one, I've heard that one. I like that one. [shot of Bus Stop Records logo] But they got big enough to start their own label, Bus Stop Records... Todd: ...and for their first signed act [shot of album cover for First Edition by Paper Lace] they grabbed the band Paper Lace 'cause they saw 'em on TV.
Clip of Opportunity Knocks intro
TV announcer: Opportunity knocks!
Todd (VO): Yeah, these guys were the winners of Opportunity Knocks, which, I guess that was the Britain's Got Talent of its day. [clip of performance by The Zaporozhian Cossacks] I can't tell if TV is better or worse now. [clip of Paper Lace performance] But Paper Lace had waited so long to get on the show that by the time they made it, they already had a record deal. But their first album hadn't gone anywhere, so they took Bus Stop Records' offer, and within months, they had a number 1 record. And that record was... Todd: ..."Billy Don't Be a Hero".
Clip of "Billy Don't Be a Hero"
Paper Lace whistling
Todd (VO): "Billy Don't Be a Hero" is a weirdly peppy little tune about tragic star-crossed lovers. And in this case, the tragedy is war.
Paper Lace: Billy don't be a hero
Philip: Don't be a fool with your life
Todd: Billy gets drafted...
Todd (VO): ...his girlfriend tells him not to be a hero, as in, you know, come home alive...
Todd: ...and... there's only one way this story's gonna end.
Philip: And Billy's hand was up in a moment
Forgettin' all the words she said
Todd (VO): Billy, like an idiot, decides he will be a hero and then he comes home in a box. It immediately went to number 1 in the UK, but before they had the chance to release it in America... Todd: ...some other band beat them to it with a quick cover version.
Clip of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods - "Billy Don't Be a Hero"
Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods: Billy don't be a hero
Bo: Don't be a fool with your life
Todd (VO): And that stolen version immediately went to number 1 in the US. It's a real dick move. And Paper Lace should probably have... Todd: ...released their version in America first 'cause it's an extremely American tune.
Clip of the Paper Lace version
Philip: The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside
Todd (VO): You know, Billy's wearing soldier blues, so this is probably the Civil War they're talking about, you know, [picture of Civil War drummer and fife player] with all the drums and fifes.
Paper Lace whistling
Todd (VO): I have no idea why it caught on so well with the British public, you know, maybe it resonated with their memories of World War II, but... Todd: ...it's really obvious why it caught on in America. Like, I don't know if you know, but in 1974 there was a war goin' on.
Clip of Vietnam War footage with "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival playing in the background
Todd (VO): If you've ever watched a Vietnam war movie, you know what Vietnam sounded like. It sounded like "Fortunate Son" or "All Along the Watchtower". But the weird thing is... Todd: ...even, like, the dorky, easy-listening hits were also about war.
Clip of "One Tin Soldier" by Coven
Jinx: One tin soldier rides away
Todd (VO): This is really weird to think about today when we've [photos of soldiers] been at war for almost 20 years and no one even cares anymore... Todd: ...but throughout the entire Vietnam era, [clip of "War" by Edwin Starr] there were tons of hit songs about the war. [clip of Joan Baez - "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"] Or at least a war, [clip of Emerson, Lake & Palmer - "Lucky Man"] or about war in general, or [clip of...] by the band War. Or even not remotely about war, and yet had the war projected onto it 'cause that's all people could think about. [clip of Peter, Paul and Mary -...] "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" suddenly becomes about leaving to war. [clip of Tony Orlando & Dawn -...] "Tie a Yellow Ribbon", which is about coming home from prison, becomes about coming home from war.
Clip of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods version
Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods: Billy don't be a hero
Todd (VO): This is not a Vietnam song either, and it would sound badly out of place in an actual war movie, but...
Todd: ...I don't know if it could exist if the public wasn't just feeling [shot of article "Vietnam: The War Goes On..."] so beat down by this war. 'Cause it has a really dark ending.
Clip of Paper Lace version
Philip: I heard his fiance got a letter
That told how Billy died that day
Todd: Not just 'cause deadbeat Billy gets himself killed, I'm talking about this line.
Philip: The letter said that he was a hero
She should be proud he died that way
I heard she threw the letter away
Todd: Well, yeah. What was she supposed to with his death note, just frame it on the wall?
Todd (VO): But, symbolically, you get it. She tosses the letter and presumably tosses his memory and just moves the hell on with her life, which she still has...
Todd: ...unlike stupid Billy, who means nothing, who cares.
Todd (VO): It's a really cynical ending for such a goofy, lightweight song.
Todd: But that is not Paper Lace's hit in America. That would have to wait until their follow-up. Here we go.
The big hit
Todd: I'm gonna be honest, I did not originally intend to do an episode about "The Night Chicago Died". I, um... I got my facts confused, I thought I was doing "Billy Don't Be a Hero".
Todd (VO): I thought that was their one hit, and it's a guilty pleasure of mine, and I...
Todd: ...wanted to cover it 'cause of all the Vietnam subtext.
Clip of "The Night Chicago Died"
Todd (VO): Instead, we're taking a trip to a very different time in American history, not a war, but [picture of Al Capone] something nearly as violent, the reign of Al Capone.
Todd: And you know what? Maybe there's some subtext of the times in this too.
Todd (VO): Like "Billy Don't Be a Hero", it's about a loved one not coming home [screenshot of article 'The Number Ones: Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died"'] and as Tom Breihan of the Stereogum points out, [clip of...] Nixon had just resigned so...
Todd: ...maybe there's some connection there.
Todd (VO): The Prohibition-era of organised crime was a crazy, chaotic period, just like Watergate. Al Capone was a figure of extreme political corruption, just like Nixon. Todd: [beat] Okay, it's a reach.
Clip of Roberta Flack - "Feel Like Makin' Love"
Todd (VO): Like, this was the number one hit the week before.
Roberta: I feel like makin' love to you
Todd (VO): That's probably not about Watergate. Todd: But "The Night Chicago Died" is very much an artefact of its time.
Philip: In the heat of a summer night
Todd (VO): It's a story song like we still had in the 70s. It's a song from when even the most [clip of The Osmonds] worthless bubblegum acts still bothered to resemble actual rock bands with their own instruments. Todd: Also it's extremely 1974 in that it's extremely bad.
Philip: When the town of Chicago died
Todd (VO): I can't really tell you why this one is so much worse to me, 'cause it's pretty similar to "Billy Don't Be a Hero", same chords and everything. All I know is few songs irritate me like this one. Todd: Astonishingly, it's not the worst song of 1974.
Clip of Paul Anka - "(You're) Havin' My Baby"
Paul: Havin' my baby
Todd (VO): Like, I'm not sure Paper Lace would even make the bottom 5. That's how bad that year was. Todd: But I still couldn't tell you why people would wanna listen to them.
Clip of intro to "The Night Chicago Died"
Todd (VO): Okay, it doesn't start out so bad. Got some drums, [synth siren] a siren, some backstory.
Paper Lace: Daddy was a cop
On the East Side of Chicago
Back in the USA
Todd: Back in the USA? Did he leave?
Philip: In the heat of a summer night
In the land of the dollar bill
Todd: [beat] It is jarring to hear foreigners talk about America the way we talk about other countries. [footage of Japan] Like, if I landed in Japan and was like "Wow, Japan! The land of Speed Racer and the chopstick!" Like, that's this song's approach to America. Todd (VO): Like, you can tell it knows nothing about America because it has one of the most infamous factual errors in pop history.
Paper Lace: Daddy was a cop
On the East Side of Chicago
Todd (VO): Yeah, in case you don't know this one already... Todd: ...there is no East Side of Chicago. [shot of Chicago map, with red arrows pointing to sides as they're mentioned] There's a North Side, a South Side, a middle part they call the West Side. No East Side [???], that's just Lake Michigan. So unless his dad was on [shot of...] boat patrol, this line is impossible.
Philip: Through the streets of the old East Side
Todd (VO): The writers admitted they just got Chicago confused with New York. It's a thoroughly unconvincing attempt by Brits to sound American. clip of Doctor Strange?] It's the song equivalent of Benedict Cumberbatch's flat-merican accent.
Todd: And then Al Capone murders the entire city.
Todd (VO): Okay, probably not literally. But he does lay down a siege of violence on the poor, beleaguered Chicago PD.
Philip: And he called his gang to war
With the forces of the law
Todd: It's a cops versus robbers shootout, I guess.
Philip: And I asked someone who said
About a hundred cops are dead
I heard my mama cry
Todd: [beat] A hundred cops?! One zero zero dead cops? Okay.
Todd (VO): To be clear, nothing like this ever happened because in general, it's bad to attract attention from the police to your illegal activities [picture of policeman's coffin being carried] by murdering them. Capone's actual weapon against cops [clip art of criminal handing bags of money to policeman] was bribes. [clip of shootout from old gangster movie] Murray and Callender were just writing based off of vague impressions they got from old gangster movies.
Todd: Compared to your modern drug lords, Capone is almost quaint. [brief clip of Capone] He's linked to 33 murders, none of them cops. That's not really that many. If you want to call anything "The Night Chicago Died", [art of Great Chicago Fire (1871)...] the city's history has many, [picture of SS Eastland Disaster (1915)...] many, [Steve Bartman (2003)] many more tragic events to choose from. So I listen to this song and I can only ask "What the hell is Capone even doing?"
Philip: And the sound of the battle rang
Todd (VO): Like, what is his goal? This is not gang violence, this is a [picture of...] military coup! Generalissimo Capone is trying to conquer Chicago and declare himself dictator for life. Todd: Like, Christ, maybe this was a war song after all. Should have played this in Full Metal Jacket.
Philip: I heard my mama cry
Todd (VO): Anyway, the singer's dad is a cop. Mom's crying because Dad's probably dead.
Paper Lace: Brother what a night it really was
Todd: I've had to listen to this song so many times for just writing this episode, and I can't begin to tell you what tone they're going for.
Todd (VO): This a fun song about his mother crying? It's so stupid and annoying. Like, for some reason, pop acts in the '70s enunciated way too much.
Todd: [Southern accent] "I heard my mama cry".
Philip: Last of the hoodlum gang
Had surrendered up or died
Todd (VO): I mean, I guess it's supposed to be happy because, you know, everything comes out okay.
Philip: And the door burst open wide
And my daddy stepped inside
Todd (VO): Cops win the fight, evil lies vanquished and the dad comes home unscathed.
Todd: And, uh, and then there are kazoos.
Paper Lace: Na-na-na, na-na-na, na na na na na na na
Todd: [imitating kazoos] Duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh. [Sighs]
Brief black-and-white clip of two 1920s street performers
Todd (VO): I mean, is this supposed to be like a throwback to the Capone era? You know, this is what 20s music sounds like? [clip of Wings - "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"] I didn't like this retro music-hall stuff when McCartney did it, and these guys are not Paul McCartney. Todd: We all gotta get up and do the Charleston? It's a dance song? Why is this song so stupidly happy?
Paper Lace: Brother, what a night the people saw
Todd: [sarcastically] What a sight. Everyone's bleeding and dead.
Todd (VO): Like, you listen to this song, it sounds like people are just standing around watching this gun battle with stray bullets flying everywhere, and they're just taking pictures with their phone, shouting "World Star!".
Todd: In fact it kinda sounds like another one-hit wonder smash from 1974 inspired by violent movies.
Carl: Everybody was kung fu fighting
Todd (VO): Yeah, but that one's fun and innocent, because kung fu movies are fun and innocent. It's not [brief clip from 1920s black-and-white film] mobsters making the streets run red with blood. I-It kinda sounds like we're dancing because there's a hundred pigs lying dead on the sidewalk!
Body Count - "Cop Killer"
Body Count: Cop killer!
Todd: I don't think it's that kind of song, but it kinda sounds like it.
"The Night Chicago Died" continues
Phillip: And he kissed my mama's face
And he brushed her tears away
Todd (VO): So yeah, this was a number-one hit. And maybe after the craziness of that era, you know, all the riots, war, Nixon, people wanted a story where all the violence was silly and upbeat and the good guys win and everything ends happily ever after and you can just laugh it off like, you know, "Wow, that was crazy, right?"
Todd: And Paper Lace do admit, you know, they also framed themselves as the victims.
Todd (VO): [Brief clip of Bo Donaldson and the Hazelwoods - "Billy, Don't Be a Hero"] They milked their sob story of having their first hit stolen. [Brief clip of Lil Nas X - "Old Town Road"] Just like Lil Nas X was able to ride his story about being screwed by Billboard. ["The Night Chicago Died" continues] Yeah, Lil Nas X might wanna read these guys as a cautionary tale, actually.
Todd: Cause it turns out a sympathetic story and one catchy song only gets you so far.
The failed follow-up
Todd: Paper Lace has one of the least impressive post-hit careers I've ever covered on this show.
Paper Lace - "The Black-Eyed Boys"
Paper Lace: Oh, the black-eyed boys
Todd (VO): In the U.K., "The Night Chicago Died" went to number three, so Paper Lace is known as a two-hit wonder over there. [Screenshot of Spotify page for "Paper Lace - Their Very Best", which contains only three tracks] They also had a third song that nearly hit the top ten. [Text appears above screenshot: "3 SONG BEST-OF LOL"] It must have immediately plummeted, because no one remembers it. Todd: And it's about a motorcycle gang. It's part of the trend of..
[Montage of clips of various glam rock bands]
Todd (VO): ...these lumpen British glitter rock acts trying to bring back the 50s. Some of them are pretty good. ["The Black Eyed Boys" continues] Some are this. They are trying to sound more like an actual band...
Todd: ...like, their first two hits are bubblegum, but it's not like they could be teen idols.
Todd: (VO): They weren't particularly stylish or good looking. To them, trying to be more of a glam rock band could have worked, but at this point, I think they were pretty pigeonholed as not a real band. So yeah, this is not "Ballroom Blitz" as much as it is [brief clip of] Sha Na Na.
Todd: And they tried remaining a pop act too. And that also didn't work.
Paper Lace - "Hitchin' a Ride '75"
Paper Lace: Hitchin' a ride, hitchin' a ride
Todd (VO): Okay, hang on, the original version of this song [Brief clip of Vanity Fair - "Hitchin' a Ride"] had come out five years earlier. That's too short a time to release a cover. Todd: Did these nothing bands just trade songs back and forth in the 70s? I don't know.
Clip of "Billy Don't Be a Hero"plays
Todd (VO): And since none of their other songs off that album got big, I guess Paper Lace decided they could do better.
They broke their contract, and switched labels, [stock image of a lawsuit notice] and then they got sued.
Todd (VO): I can't find out much about the lawsuit cause no one cares about this band, but I'm gonna guess it didn't go well for them. [Image of 1974 license plate] Because they followed up their giant, hit-making year...
Todd: ...by never releasing an album ever again. The end.
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: [scoffs] No. [beat] Okay, yeah, one thing.
Clips from 1978 Football League Cut Final
Todd (VO): So the local Nottingham soccer team is [shows logo of] Nottingham Forest.
Todd: Yes, they're all very merry men, I'm sure.
Todd (VO): They had a big championship year in 1978.
Todd: You know how, in the U.S., we had like, [clip of] the Super Bowl Shuffle in the 80s? [clip of soccer team in recording studio] Well, the Brits put out out one of those every couple of years. And surprise, they're almost all terrible.
Todd (VO): Well, anyways, apparently Nottingham Forest wanted to cut their own big championship song, and since the only other musical act that city ever popped out is [Image of] Alan-a-Dale, they decided to dig Paper Lace back out of obscurity to help them record a brand new, amazing championship anthem.
Nottingham Forest and Paper Lace - "We've Got the Whole World In Our Hands"
Nottingham Forest and Paper Lace: We've got the whole world in our hands, we've got the whole wide world in our hands, we've got the whole world in our hands
Todd: [beat] Not exactly "We Are the Champions", is it?
Todd (VO): Did you really need a band's help putting this together? It's just a version of a kid's song. Also, this is kinda blasphemous.
Todd: And that's it for them.
Paper Lace - "So What If I Am"
Todd (VO): They never put out a follow-up album, they kept losing members, and they ended for good in the early 80s.
Todd: I'm gonna guess they didn't stay on good terms either, cause they eventually reformed into two separate bands: [shows Spotify pages for] Paper Lace and Original 70's Paper Lace. Great.
Did they deserve better?
"The Night Chicago Died" plays
Phillip: I heard my mama cry
Todd (VO): Mostly, what I got from doing this episode is how not to have a lasting career. Establish no identity with your first singles, tie yourself to really kitschy music almost designed to age badly, sever ties with the hit-makers you owe your success to. I don't think they deserved better; I don't think they even really wanted better.
Todd: They seemed like men with very limited ambitions. They liked having hits, but they wanted to be, you know, Three Dog Night, not The Beatles.
Todd (VO): They are the very definition of a disposable act. And to be clear, sometimes disposable acts...
Todd: ...can make truly great, lasting moments, but this is not it. There's a reason why no one listens to this song anymore.
Todd (VO): I've seen people defend "The Night Chicago Died", but I'd give it, like, a 2 out of 10 at most. Just an obnoxious song in all ways.
Todd: The received Baby Boomer wisdom is always that the 70s were worse than the 60s for music.
Todd (VO): And I finally get it. It's not that the good music was less good, it's that your average music got so much worse. Like, it wasn't Motown anymore, it wasn't garage rock, it was shit like this.
Todd: The night good music died. Bleh.
Phillip: Glory be
Closing tag song: Banda Toro - "La Noche Que Murió Chicago"
"The Night Chicago Died" is owned by Mercury Records
This video is owned by me
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS