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.