Smashed Hits

From The Heights to the depths of bad TV songs

Only a few short years ago, when the word VJ simply meant the end of W.W. II, songs created for TV series or commercials regularly made the pop charts. The trend got its start in the Fifties, churned up a head of steam during the Sixties, and made listening to Top 40 radio more than a little dangerous throughout the Seventies and Eighties. But with a handful of exceptions (such as the success two years back of "Do the Bartman," spawned by The Simpsons), Nineties shows simply haven't kicked out the hits.

Until now. The Heights, a rip-off of Beverly Hills 90210 built around the fictional trials and tribulations of the planet's most putrid band, was created to exploit the synergy between TV and pop music. This cynical attempt at profitable cross-pollination failed on the programming side of the ledger -- the show's already been canceled -- but it's a jaw-dropping success at radio, where jocks made "How Do You Talk to an Angel," a tune featuring the actors from the series, the best-selling song in the nation.

While "Angel" clearly is the worst hit single of the year, it's nothing compared to some of the terrible TV smashes from the past. What follows is our tribute to the 25 worst. To qualify, the songs had to reach the Billboard Top 40 and be featured on a TV show or ad. Bad TV/movie-celebrity records, like those from Bruce Willis and Don Johnson, have been excluded.

So return with us now to the days of yesteryear -- and please touch that dial.

Pratt and McClain
"Happy Days"
First chart appearance: 4-24-76
Peak chart position: No. 5

Why did this ditty become a hit, while more memorable, if just as ridiculous, themes from sitcoms such as Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, and Cheers never dented the airwaves? Certainly not because of quality: Hacks Pratt and McClain, accompanied by a group dubbed Brother Love, render this lame, fake-Fifties novelty with all the rock-and-roll authenticity of Helen Reddy.

Rhythm Heritage
"Baretta's Theme (Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow)"
First chart appearance: 5-28-76
Peak chart position: No. 20

Rhythm Heritage tried to make a career out of covering TV series instrumentals; the group actually took its passable version of "Theme From S.W.A.T." to number one. Fortunately, this weak take on the music from the Robert Blake detective series put a quick end to a frightening trend.

The Monkees
"Words"
First chart appearance: 8-5-67
Peak chart position: No. 11

TV's completely fabricated version of the Beatles actually put out some fine pop songs, including "Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," and Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer." This song, however, is a Davy Jones vehicle that belongs in Davey Jones's locker. Where was Mike Nesmith when we needed him?

Sam Harris
"Sugar Don't Bite"
First chart appearance: 11-3-84
Peak chart position: No. 36

Harris first came to an unwitting public's attention not as a part of a series but from repeated appearances on Star Search. He was rewarded with a recording contract for winning the show's male-vocalist talent contest, and this track is the result. Keep searching, Ed.

Chuck Mangione
"Give It All You Got"
First chart appearance: 2-16-80
Peak chart position: No. 18

The man who helped drive a stake through the heart of popular jazz, Mangione is best known for the inaccurately titled hit "Feels So Good." Almost as gruesome was "Give It All You Got," ABC's theme for the 1980 Winter Olympics. It was all downhill from there.

Waylon Jennings
"Theme From The Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol' Boys)"
First chart appearance: 11-1-80
Peak chart position: No. 21

This tune and the moronic stock-car opera it accompanied made a perfect match. Jennings, who's certainly done good work elsewhere, didn't do it here. Moreover, the success of "Good Ol' Boys" is largely responsible for inspiring the stars of this show, John Schneider and Tom Wopat, to embark on recording careers of their own. Talk about hazardous.

The Archies
"Bang-Shang-A-Lang"
First chart appearance: 11-2-68
Peak chart position: No. 22

Many observers would be taking a shot at "Sugar Sugar" here, but not us -- any song good enough to be covered by Wilson Pickett (and sell six million copies worldwide) is not to be easily dismissed. Still, this prototype bubblegum act (actually a one-man band named Ron Dante who fittingly went on to produce Barry Manilow), the brainchild of Don Kirshner, churned out plenty of schlock. "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" makes Josie and the Pussycats seem like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

The Bob Crewe Generation
"Music to Watch Girls By"
First chart appearance: 1-21-67
Peak chart position: No. 15

This conglomeration of studio musicians was assembled for no other purpose than to sneak this unbelievably insignificant number into the record collections of kids who'd already heard it a million times as the background music in a Diet Pepsi commercial. A trendsetter when it comes to bad "pop" music.

The Partridge Family
"Breaking Up Is Hard to Do"
First chart appearance: 7-29-72
Peak chart position: No. 28

The Heights of its day, The Partridge Family seemed dated the second it went on the air; even most of the eleven-year-old girls swooning over David Cassidy realized there was something really dumb about it. The music was even dumber: "I Think I Love You" was actually silly enough to provoke a giggle, but their cover of Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up" was worse than anything this side of Bobby Sherman. Listening to it is hard to do.

Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson
"Friends and Lovers"
First chart appearance: 8-2-86
Peak chart position: No. 2

Loring played Liz Curtis on the soap Days of Our Lives; this sickening duet was played whenever she appeared ready to kiss any of her co-stars. Daytime dramas continue to use quasi-talented singer/ actors to whip up interest in the shows' shenanigans, but seldom has the result been as awful as this. Soap scum.

John Sebastian
"Welcome Back"
First chart appearance: 4-10-76
Peak chart position: No. 1

Proof that there's no justice in the world: Sebastian is known by an entire generation of music fans not for his frequently groovy work as leader of the Lovin' Spoonful, but because of this, the worst song he ever wrote. Compared to this ode to the Gabe Kaplan TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, costar John Travolta's subsequent recordings were artistically satisfying. Welcome back -- now go away.

Glenn Frey
"You Belong to the City"
First chart appearance: 9-28-85
Peak chart position: No. 2

For a very brief period, Miami Vice was the most newsworthy show on TV, especially around these parts. What most people didn't notice, though, was that its "MTV cops" approach got tired quicker than an in-depth interview with Pia Zadora. Moreover, its Jan Hammer theme was lousy enough to almost make this list, and the contributions of its musical guest stars were usually on par with this limp song by ex-Eagle Frey.

Rex Smith
"You Take My Breath Away"
First chart appearance: 5-12-79
Peak chart position: No. 10

Smith was a teen dream for about as long as it took a generation of late-Seventies youngsters to wake up. What remains of his career is a film version of Pirates of Penzance and this hit, taken from Sooner or Later, a TV movie about a groupie trying to decide if she should "do it" with rock idol Rex. Turns out he did it to all of us.

Sonny and Cher
"When You Say Love"
First chart appearance: 8-5-72
Peak chart position: No. 32

The ultimate combination of lousy music and advertisement. "When You Say Love" is supposedly an original composition, but it's actually adapted from Budweiser's beer commercial "When You Say Bud." Since the marriage of these Bonos was already on shaky ground (it was being kept aloft mostly because of the duo's TV variety series), it's appropriate that their last hit together was so crass.

Mike Post
"Theme From Hill Street Blues"
First chart appearance: 10-3-81
Peak chart position: No. 10

Post's music in the late Seventies and early Eighties epitomized the kind of no-personality musical wallpaper that replaced the gaudy themes of TV shows from earlier years. Gone were wacky lyrics that rhymed "bubblin' crude" with "shootin' at some food," replaced by dreck like this. The theme should have been arrested for indecent exposure.

Richard Chamberlain
"Theme From Dr. Kildare (Three Stars Will Shine Tonight)"
First chart appearance: 6-23-62
Peak chart position: No. 10

No, we're not making this up. Chamberlain, who later went on to become the king of the soporific mini-series, actually had a brief recording career, thanks to his role on Dr. Kildare. He sounds like Leonard Nimoy (remember Spock's ear-pointing rendition of "Proud Mary"?), except less lifelike. Pull the plug -- this patient has expired.

Maureen McGovern
"Different Worlds"
First chart appearance: 8-11-79
Peak chart position: No. 18

McGovern was the woman behind hits from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno; not content with making the nation's movie theaters unpleasant places to be, she later added to her resume this theme to the forgettable TV sitcom Angie. Another disaster.

Donny and Marie Osmond
"Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing"
First chart appearance: 12-25-76
Peak chart position: No. 21

She was a little bit country, he was a little bit rock and roll, and together they were completely wimpy. Virtually everything this pair plugged on their TV variety show -- it ran from 1976-78 -- deserves a place on this list, but to be fair to other performers, we've chosen this anthem to their ineptitude as their sole contribution.

Pink Lady
"Kiss in the Dark"
First chart appearance: 7-21-79
Peak chart position: No. 37

Japan's hottest disco duo, Pink Lady was subsequently imported to the States and paired with stand-up comedian Jeff Altman for the timeless TV series Pink Lady and Jeff. It's no surprise that this hilariously wrong-headed show failed almost instantly; it's a shock that this song actually sold enough copies to reach the top end of the charts.

New Seekers
"I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)"
First chart appearance: 12-8-71
Peak chart position: No. 7

Yep, it's that same commercial that Coca-Cola has been plugging for a generation. How the New Seekers, a group of Brits and Aussies who excised references to Coke from the lyric, managed to turn this into a seasonal smash remains one of life's great mysteries.

The Carpenters
"We've Only Just Begun"
First chart appearance: 10-3-70
Peak chart position: No. 2

What eventually became the song that was played in more weddings than any other began life as an advertising jingle for a California bank. Rather than leave bad enough alone, the Carpenters resurrected it, giving it the treatment that it deserved.

Christopher Cross
"Think of Laura"
First chart appearance: 12-24-83
Peak chart position: No. 9

The granddaddy of all soap opera love themes, General Hospital's "Think of Laura" has it all: Its melody was as sugary as a Hershey bar dipped in molasses, and it was sung by one of whiniest pop stars in the history of Western Civilization. Think of this and you're likely to be depressed for a long, long time.

Paul Anka
"Times of Your Life"
First chart appearance: 11-29-75
Peak chart position: No. 7

"Times of Your Life" is not as bad as "You're Having My Baby" (nothing's as bad as that), but it's close enough for discomfort. Anka has a rare talent for crap, and this advertisement for Kodak film was among his greatest achievements.

Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin Jr.
"Nadia's Theme (The Young and the Restless)"
First chart appearance: 10-2-76
Peak chart position: No. 8

Originally written for the film Bless the Beasts and Children, this tune became a hit on the shoulders of a popular soap opera and Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who became a star thanks to a back flip she executed on the balance beam during the 1976 Summer Olympics. Note to judges: Let's give it a "2."

Joey Scarbury
"Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)"
First chart appearance: 6-13-81
Peak chart position: No. 2

You may not remember the William Katt/Robert Culp TV series in the title of this song, but you're sure to recall this theme -- it's like a nightmare from which you can't awaken. Scarbury, a session singer previously known for his work with Mike Post (who deserved him), rose to obscurity to deliver this treacle to us.

You're number one, Joey.
Given the success of "How Do You Talk to an Angel," however, Scarbury's mark may not stand much longer. Records were made to be broken -- particularly if they sound like these.

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