The Night Chicago Died

Night chicago died todd in shadows

Date Aired
July 17, 2019
Running Time
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Todd plays "The Night Chicago Died" on the piano.

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 kerb. 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 [shot 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:, 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:'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.

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