In the summer of 1976, Eddie Pelto began hearing “Afternoon Delight” on AM radio several times a day, for months. He was seven years old, lived in northern Massachusetts, and loved the Starland Vocal Band’s skyrocket-y hit. “It was one of my favorite songs as a child,” Pelto, now a non-profit executive, told me. “I thought it was about dessert.”
As I learned when I began asking people about the song, he was not the only youngster to misunderstand the lyrics. “I thought it was about some sort of snack treat,” one person said. Another added, “I vaguely believed ‘Afternoon Delight’ to be a product in competition with Sunny Delight.”
Children weren’t the only ones fooled. Suzanne Ciani, the avant-garde synthesizer pioneer who, in an improbable twist, played on “Afternoon Delight,” said the four members of Starland Vocal Band “looked very clean cut and young.” She was nearly thirty at the time, but said via email, “I had no idea the song was about an afternoon romantic encounter.”
That’s a nice way to put it. But let’s not mince words: “Afternoon Delight” is about fucking in the middle of the day, multiple times, and then coming back for more the same night. Released 45 years ago, it hit Number One for two weeks, dominated Top 40 radio, and has since become the most immediate way to sonically conjure the 1970s.
It’s also one of the most-mocked songs in pop history. Rolling Stone readers once voted it the second worst song of the 1970s, just ahead of “(You’re) Having My Baby” and behind “Disco Duck.” To some, it’s offensively inoffensive, a soft-focus Coke commercial stretched out past three minutes.
“Afternoon Delight” is cheerful and sprightly. It smells like soap and sounds like a bonfire singalong at Christian summer camp. And it’s the pinnacle of AM Gold, which is part of what makes it so deviously wonderful. If AC/DC or Prince had sung the chorus – “Rubbin’ sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite” – you’d have known immediately it was about sex. Under the cover of sunshine, “Afternoon Delight” snuck a pro-screwing song onto the charts. It’s like opening a box of Cracker Jack and finding a cock ring.
Bill Danoff, the Starland Vocal Band mastermind who wrote the song, disagrees with this description. He thinks it’s subtle. Taffy Nivert, Danoff’s wisecracking ex-bandmate and ex-wife, told me, “Bill never said, ‘I wanna fuck my baby at noon.’ Because he didn’t say it like that, you can say it was subtle.”
The mid-‘70s were full of dirty songs, many of them hits. Pop music’s response to the sexual liberation of the 1960s was an outbreak of grunting and moaning. In 1973, singer Sylvia Robinson (a canny self-starter who also produced the first hip-hop hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” a few years later) released “Pillow Talk,” a cooing come-on full of moans and ad libs, including “Niiiiice daddy.” Here’s a possibly incomplete list of songs that included the sounds of orgasms: “Tell Me Something Good,” and “Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)” in 1974; “Love to Love You Baby,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You,” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” in 1975; and in 1976, “More More More” (by Andrea True, an actual porn star), “Love Hangover,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Could It Be Magic,” and “I Want You.” Long before there was OnlyFans, there was mid-1970s pop radio.
Most of those songs are disco, which celebrated a transgressive attitude towards sex even on record covers. Disco was chiefly Black, Hispanic, and gay, and although the backlash against it didn’t peak until a few years later, by 1976 plenty of straight white people already felt enraged by the ubiquity of dance music. In the Bicentennial year, when the smug celebration of American exceptionalism reached a new peak, they were ready to embrace a song that stood in clear, pale contrast to other hits of the day and affirmed their cultural hegemony. What has ever been whiter than “Afternoon Delight”?
Danoff’s song was a safe, mainstream outlet for the zeitgeist of Roe v. Wade, Deep Throat, and the Hite Report. It remains the dirtiest song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, precisely because subsequent contenders like “WAP” are so beyond, radio will play only censored, diluted versions. “Afternoon Delight” locates the exact boundary at which America’s Puritan gag reflex kicks in.
“We were freaks. Long hair, the counterculture, whatever,” Bill Danoff says. Yes, “Afternoon Delight,” that 1970s totem, was written by a 1960s hippie.
Danoff grew up in a working-class New England family, and majored in Chinese at Georgetown, where his classmates included Bill Clinton. He planned a career in the foreign service, and played music on the side, including benefits for NORML and local free clinics. He and Nivert recorded two albums of playful folk-rock as Fat City, then two more as Bill and Taffy. Their songs included the crowd favorite “Richard” (as in Nixon), “Readjustment Blues” (a soldier is flummoxed when he sees an anti-war protest) and “The Fat City High School Fight Song,” which begins “Thank god for marijuana, because it’s the cheapest thing to buy.”
Washington, D.C. was the center of a burgeoning folk, country, and bluegrass scene, and one night John Denver, then an unknown, saw a Danoff and Nivert set and asked if they had any new songs he might record. They played him an unfinished song about West Virginia, and together, the three finished “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which made Denver a huge star. It became a folk-country standard, and was subsequently recorded by Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Wayne Newton, Toots and the Maytals, the Carter Family, and David Hasselhoff, among many.
Denver took Danoff and Nivert on tour with him, but their own music never got popular outside of D.C., and Danoff worried that they might lose their record contract. He started to imagine “a Mamas and the Papas kind of thing” with two musicians he’d heard around town: Hawaiian-born Margot Chapman, and Jon Carroll, who was seventeen, more than a decade younger than the rest.
One afternoon, at a Georgetown restaurant, Danoff noticed a happy hour menu called Afternoon Delights. Songwriters are scavengers, and Danoff thought it was a good title. He wrote the song while imagining how it would sound with four voices. “We weren’t really political anymore,” Nivert says. “That was two different lifespans.”
“Afternoon Delight” is an odd, unique mix of styles and temperaments. Thanks to the steel guitar, it feels broadly American. Suzanne Ciani’s sound effects on the Buchla 200 modular synth (it comes right after the orgasmic refrain “Skyrockets in flight”) add a dose of futurism. The vocals — arranged by Carroll, who incorporated ideas of countermotion inspired by Bach — add a classy, accomplished feel. The studio bassist and drummer are top-notch, and the string arrangement is by David Matthews, who worked with James Brown and Nina Simone. And it was produced by two legends: Milt Okun, who’d worked extensively with Laura Nyro, and Phil Ramone, who’d just produced Still Crazy After All These Years with Paul Simon.
Shortly after the Starland Vocal Band’s self-titled debut — which has several dulcet highlights including “Boulder to Birmingham,” written by Danoff with Emmylou Harris — won two Grammys, including a much-mocked Best New Artist trophy, Starland’s ambitious manager, Jerry Weintraub, booked them to host a CBS summer replacement variety show, then one of TV’s hottest trends. Chapman and Danoff were also now a couple, which gave the quartet a two-couple wholesomeness. “The fact that we were clean-cut and didn’t look like the Grateful Dead, CBS thought that was good. But we didn’t want it,” Danoff says. The show — which included a young comedian named David Letterman, whose misery is evident in every second of his appearances — was soon cancelled.
Starland Vocal Band recorded three more albums, but subsequent singles didn’t get any higher than #66 on the Top 40 chart, and soon, they weren’t charting at all.
“I knew something was breaking up,” Jon Carroll says. “But I wasn’t sure if it was the group, or Bill and Taffy, or if Margot and I should be breaking up.”
At rehearsal one day in 1981 Danoff called an end to it. “You can put up with all kinds of stuff if you’re making a lot of money,” he says now. “When there’s no money, and it’s not fun, I’m out.” He and Nivert, who’d become parents, soon divorced. Chapman and Carroll also became parents, and split up for good in 1990.
As time passed, “Afternoon Delight” became a reliable punchline on the Simpsons (Homer has an SVB tattoo), Ugly Betty, PCU, Good Will Hunting, NewsRadio, Sports Night, and Arrested Development, where Michael Bluth suddenly realizes what the song is about during a karaoke duet with his niece Maeby. It was a centerpiece of the movie Anchorman, which treated it with genuine affection. “We’ve been made fun of by the best,” Nivert chuckles.
Hanif Abdurraqib, the poet and cultural critic whose work includes a book about A Tribe Called Quest, has tweeted frequently of his (unironic) love of Starland Vocal Band, and calls them “an immensely under-appreciated group,” while praising “the depth and wide-ranging brilliance of the SVB oeuvre.”
Harry Allen, the journalist and hip-hop activist, is another unabashed fan. “’Afternoon Delight’ is kind of corny,” he says. “The writing is coy, but it’s not facile. The people in that song are in their own focused world, focused on each other.” Because of that, he says, it reminds him of the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, and the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. “I see two people who are compelled by each other. The rest of the world is kind of distant. There’s agreement – they agree, that’s what I would say.” He also thinks Starland has lots of other great songs that have been overlooked.
After Starland, Jon Carroll wrote the 1982 hit “Get Closer” for Linda Ronstadt, and played in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s band for thirty years. Bill Danoff still writes and performs. Nivert, who “didn’t want to do anything that would take away from my ability to be a good single mom,” lives on the west coast of Florida, and supports herself with a share of the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” publishing royalties. Margot Chapman married a doctor and is “very settled,” Nivert says, splitting her time between New Mexico and West Virginia.
Typically, a song as notorious as “Afternoon Delight” would earn a more generous reevaluation down the line when the band reforms — revisionism comes for everyone eventually, even Vanilla Ice — but Starland Vocal Band has done only a couple of performances since breaking up, and none since 2007. Danoff and Carroll are still good friends, but neither has spoken to Nivert or Chapman in a long time. The band members don’t express any outward antagonism, just a lack of interest. “If you gave me a million dollars, I’d start rehearsing today,” Nivert says.
So why has “Afternoon Delight” lingered in our memories in ways that, say, “Undercover Angel,” “Indiana Wants Me,” or “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” have not? It’s more memorable because it’s a far better song, aloft with craft and elegance. But it has a few other qualities too. Innuendo vanished from our lives years ago, and it’s now retro, like the vintage Salton Yogurt Makers you can buy on Etsy. Danoff’s song, then and even more so now, promises the fantasy of a simpler time, one that never existed, except in our wishes.
And then there’s the song’s deceptiveness, and the Michael Bluth moment so many people have had while listening to it. Nothing is more American than a song that presents itself with an innocent facade, but at heart is as horny as a ram in springtime.