Hey, here’s a question.
On the old pop charts — like, in the pre-download days — was the success of Top 40 singles a function of the time of year?
Here’s why I ask:
Chuck Berry came to town a couple of months ago, and by all accounts, it was a train wreck. Chuck didn’t sing so much as recite, and he played heedlessly out of tune for the first 45 minutes until his son (who also happens to be his rhythm guitarist) took away Chuck’s guitar and gave him his own.
As you all know, this coming October marks the 40th anniversary of Chuck’s only U.S. Number One pop hit, the unfortunate “My Ding-A-Ling.”
I’ve had 1972 on the brain lately, for some reason. And the combination of having 1972 and Chuck Berry simultaneously on my mind led me to ponder what must be one of the 10 worst hit singles of the Seventies.
I know the Seventies were a fertile time for novelty hit singles; and some of their success I understand.
“Disco Duck” had a reasonably catchy backing track. “Rubber Duckie” and “Rainbow Connection” were charming enough. “Convoy,” “The White Knight,” “Convention ’72” and “Mr. Jaws” played on current events and cultural fascinations. And so, I suppose, did “Wildwood Weed.”
I have no such explanation for the success of “My Ding-A-Ling.” A good double entendre is timeless, of course. But that’s not usually enough to lift them onto the Top 40, much less vault them over the likes of Elvis Presley, the Moody Blues and Curtis Mayfield.
Which leads me to my seasonal theory. Could it be that novelty singles were more successful during the school year, when the older teenagers who would ordinarily have affected the charts by buying better and/or more adult songs weren’t working and didn’t have as much money?
My theory posits the following:
— People over 21 didn’t buy the single of “My Ding-A-Ling,” and probably not that many singles of any kind, because teenyboppers bought singles. If they wanted the song, they probably bought the full LP, which went Top Ten.
— People between, say, 17 and 20 bought some copies of “My Ding-A-Ling,” along with a seasonally decreased number of the other singles on the countdown. (Not nearly enough copies of Chi Coltrane’s “Thunder and Lightning,” but that’s another story.)
The people in this group who bought “My Ding-A-Ling” did so because their senses of humor were on the far-juvenile end of the scale; because they were students of rock history and wanted to buy a record by one of its founding fathers; or because they wanted to play the record specifically to piss off a parent or friend.
— Kids between, say, 11 and 16 bought “My Ding-A-Ling” in larger numbers because it made them guffaw (and, in some markets, because their local program directors wouldn’t play it on the radio, making it forbidden fruit.)
Their singles-buying income was largely based on allowances, rather than jobs, and thus would not have diminished as significantly at the start of the school year. They also purchased other singles on the countdown, as well.
It’s been a while since I heard one of the Casey Kasem ’70s American Top 40 rebroadcasts. But I remember Casey explaining on early countdowns that the charts were based on sales at 100 record stores across the country.
He made no indication of any attempt to gauge airplay popularity. That would have been a boon to “My Ding-A-Ling,” which some stations refused to play even as part of Casey’s weekly countdowns.
Even if airplay wasn’t part of the chart picture, the ARSA database of local charts from hit radio stations around the country kindasorta supports my theory too, just by providing a timeline for the spread of the song’s popularity.
With the exception of one market (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) where the single hit Number One at the end of July, “My Ding-A-Ling” caught fire in most cities right after Labor Day. Clicking through the database, you can see it spread like a fever in September and October, going Top Ten in Hartford and Phoenix and Fresno and Akron and Rochester.
Presumably, the period of peak airplay is also the period of peak sales. In this case, it also happens to coincide with the time of the year when many older teens’ disposable income drops.
Not all teens gave up their summer jobs in late August and early September. Some worked year-round and still do. But the majority of older teens probably found themselves around that time of year with less spending money — especially those who had just shelled out for some fresh threads for the new school year.
As older teens have less money, they buy fewer singles, clearing the way for their younger brothers — and, who knows, maybe sisters — to exert more chart power of their own.
I notice also that the single had surprising (to me, anyway) staying power, remaining on the Top 40 through the week ending Nov. 25.
That could also be interpreted as an indication that younger buyers were driving its popularity. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, anyone with an ounce of maturity (especially those living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania) must have been thoroughly sick of Chuck’s single double entendre.
To keep that song in the Forty that late into its chart run, somebody had to still want to hear it an awful lot.
I should know better than to overestimate America’s level of sophistication; there were probably still adults chuckling over it that late in the game. I’m not sure they were the ones actually going out and paying for the opportunity to take it home, though.
I’m sure someone better-informed than me has already figured out the success of “My Ding-A-Ling.” If you know the answer, by all means let me know.
I’ve enjoyed shoveling out my theory, though.
And that, folks, is roughly 968 more words than I ever thought I’d write about “My Ding-A-Ling.”