Think of the fads of the 70s and you’ll likely think of spacehoppers, rollerskates and lava lamps. But what about all the naked men and women that made the headlines for streaking at sporting events? This was still popular during my childhood in the 80s, and I just assumed it was something that happened every now and then because, well, people are silly and it’s funny to take all your clothes off and run around until you’re caught (I imagine). I didn’t realise until now it became a ‘thing’ in the 70s.
There were examples going back way further though. In the 15th century, the Adamites protested the Holy Roman Empire’s morality by running naked through their Bohemian village. Apparently, the Quakers revived the pastime in the 17th century. Modern streaking started up in the free and easy 60s at US universities, and peaked in 1974, with a streaker at the Oscars and ever more elaborate and organised stunts taking place.
That February, one of the most famous sporting streaks happened at the England v France rugby match at Twickenham Stadium, when an Australian named Michael O’Brien decided to take to the field with his genitals flapping in the breeze. The subsequent photo of the police covering his bits with a helmet became iconic, and kickstarted all the UK sport streaks that followed. So novelty song and country singer-songwriter Ray Stevens’ opportunism paid off when he decided to immortalise streaking in song.
Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale on 24 January 1939 in Clarkdale, Georgia. His love of music began with his first piano lessons, aged six. At 15 he formed an R’n’B band called The Barons, and three years later he enrolled in Georgia State University as a music major. That same year he released his first material as Ray Stevens on Capitol Records’ Prep Records, but his cover of Rang Tang Ding Dong sank without trace. Further material was released sporadically over the next few years.
In 1961, Stevens signed with Mercury Records and began to get noticed for his novelty songs. With titles like Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills, that was always likely. The politically incorrect Ahab the Arab was a number five hit in the US in 1962, and Harry the Hairy Ape reached number 17 the following year.
But Stevens also wanted to release serious country material too, and so he signed with Monument Records in 1968 and Mr Businessman followed, giving him his first US hit in five years. He also released the first version of Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down by Kris Kristofferson (later a hit for Johnny Cash). Novelty songs still could do well for him though, and Gitarzan reached number eight in 1969.
It was in 1970 that Stevens’ career went up a notch. He was working in Nashville when his gospel-tinged ballad Everything Is Beautiful, preaching against racism and extolling tolerance of others, became huge, topping the US charts and reaching number six in the UK – his chart debut over here. He kept on dabbling in novelty songs though, notably Bridget the Midget (The Queen of the Blues), a UK number two in 1971. Interesting to see how Stevens could preach about a better world in his country material, and then make cheap jokes in his comedy material… a sign of the times, perhaps.
Stevens was on a plane flicking through a magazine when he came across an article on streaking. He thought it would make a good idea for a comedy song and made some notes. Some time later, he woke up one morning and streaking was all over the news – 1973 and 74 were peak years in the US for the phenomenon. He quickly finished The Streak and recorded it ASAP for maximum topicality.
The naked truth is, The Streak is dross. Over a hoedown-style backing, Stevens plays a news reporter interviewing a redneck (also Stevens) at various disturbances caused by ‘The Streak’. Despite the redneck shouting ‘Don’t look Ethel!’ every time the naked guy appears, Ethel has a gander, and by the end, she’s joined in the streaking. Do you think that sounds like a bad record? Try listening to it.
So many things annoy me about The Streak. The tacky production, the ‘boogity boogity’ backing vocal on the chorus, the kazoo, Stevens’ cliched characters, the childishness, the canned laughter. If you have to add canned laughter to point out where the jokes are on a comedy record, there’s something wrong. This makes Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) and even My Ding-a-Ling look like high art by comparison. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it.
To be fair to Stevens, at least he wasn’t a one-trick pony. In 1975 he just missed out on another UK number 1 with a country cover of jazz standard Misty. Two years later, his final UK chart entry saw him cover Glenn Miller’s In the Mood in the style of a clucking chicken under the pseudonym Henhouse Five Plus Two. I listened to five seconds here and had to stop.
But I can just about forgive Stevens all this because in 1981 he sang Cannonball, the opening song to the celebrity-packed car chase film The Cannonball Run. It’s not just for nostalgia reasons either, this is a great song!
Stevens’ last serious album Me, was released in 1983. He’s concentrated on novelty material ever since. He opened his own theatre in Branson, Missouri in 1991 , which lasted two years, and he began selling videos to his old songs, The Streak among them (guess what, it’s awful). In 1996 he received thousands of sympathy cards after online news of the wrestler Ray ‘The Crippler’ Stevens confused fans. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, but he beat it and received a clean bill of health.
Stevens’ love of comedy and videos found its natural home online on YouTube, where he posts cheap novelty songs with equally cheap videos declaring his outspoken political views. One I found, Obama Nation from 2012, slates the then-President. Abomination/Obama nation, get it? Hmm.
Written & produced by: Ray Stevens
Weeks at number 1: 1 (15-21 June)
Radio presenter Natasha Desborough – 21 June
15 June: The National Front clash with counter-protestors in London’s West End. The Red Lion Square disorders resulted in the death of 21-year-old Kevin Gateley, a university student.
17 June: A bomb explodes at London’s houses of Parliament, damaging Westminster Hall. The IRA claimed responsibility.