Short intro: the first ten albums look to be a fair indicator of the breadth of styles across the Seventies. I didn’t really intend it that way, but from Todd Rundgren to Wire is quite a journey (not as big a journey as, say, King Crimson to the Slits, but big enough). Unlike the Nineties, where I included a number of albums I’d term ‘difficult listens’ because they’re worth the effort, I think the vast majority of the Seventies entries are going to be immediately accessible.
Derek & the Dominos: Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
The genesis of this album is rather a complicated one. It starts with Cream, and Eric Clapton’s desire to extricate himself from the personality clash between Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce; it progresses to Blind Faith, the supergroup that wasn’t supposed to be, overhyped and underprepared and exactly what Clapton didn’t want; and its conclusion is a hook-up with Delaney and Bonnie and the recruitment of Duane Allman. The added ingredient was Clapton’s personal life – he was a little drug-addled and very much in love with George Harrison’s wife Patti. So he had a milieu in which he could relax out of the glare of the spotlight, time to give the music the care his perfectionist nature demanded, and plenty of emotional material to draw on. Clapton really tears into the music here, you can feel the commitment on every track. Allman’s slide guitar contributions are searing – never more so than on the title track with its signature guitar lines, passionate and heart-rending. But “Layla” doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the album, not at all. Every song is a standout, from regretful, low-key “I Looked Away” right through the blasting blues of “Keep On Growing” and “Key to the Highway” to the resigned, downbeat “Thorn Tree in the Garden”. This combination barely lasted as long as Blind Faith, but it produced one of the classic blues-rock releases of all time.
Bell Bottom Blues
Richard and Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
It takes until the third song for Richard Thompson to unleash his wife on us, but when she takes over vocals on “Withered and Died”, it’s quite a revelation. She’d been knocking around for a while, and had appeared on Thompson’s previous release, Henry the Human Fly, but here she shares the billing and I have to say, she really owns her songs. Whether angling for a good time on the title track, wallowing in envy and self-loathing in “Has He Got a Friend for Me” or levelling at the moneyed class in “The Little Beggar Girl”, her talent for characterising her vocals and pouring her life experience into the performance shines through. Richard is, as usual, masterful, his guitar work demonstrating exactly why he’s one of music’s most celebrated guitarists. His vocals have a slightly bitter, hardened quality that add depth and knowingness. The songs themselves have a directness, a simplicity and a restrained, aloof quality that make them sound almost eternal. They could have been written centuries ago. Closing track “The Great Valerio” raises that feeling to ethereal, ghostly heights, hollowing out our dreams and loves in a tale of the unreachable.
Withered and Died
The End of the Rainbow
Blondie: Parallel Lines (1978)
By 1978 it was beginning to look inevitable that some kind of perfect synthesis of the Disco/Pop/New Wave nexus would be produced. Disco had been producing hit after hit since about 1975. Pop music – well, it had re-emerged as a disposable unit in the wake of the singer/songwriter and soft-rock/country boom of the mid Seventies. And New Wave was in the process of redefining punk for mass consumption. As they approached each other, all that was required was an artist placed at that junction. And it all coalesced in Blondie, a band that saw itself as a CBGBs-style post-punk phenomenon, but were canny enough to incorporate elements of what was happening right now (as they did a couple of years later with rap in “Rapture”). Parallel Lines is a wonderful blast of power-pop. It comes on with the freshness of a debut album by a band with lots to say, which is somewhat remarkable as it was in fact their third. Every song is strong, there’s nothing you could even describe as a throwaway, much less filler. Debbie Harry’s singing is acidic and cool, but at the same time inclusive and empathetic; she created the template for any number of female singers of the Eighties. Parallel Lines is hardly a life-changer, or even a music-changer – it’s simply one of those timeless albums that defines an era as it transcends it.
Heart of Glass
Wings: London Town (1978)
Paul McCartney’s output in the Seventies was so broad and varied, yet consistent in quality, that in a sense any one album of his is no more worthy of recommendation than another. They’re all a little indulgent, they’re all a little showy, and they all come off as ‘entertainment’, a showcase of styles intended to impress first and foremost. He’s such a strong songwriter that it doesn’t really matter that he’s got nothing much to say. He’s out to beguile you with his immense talent. London Town is a typical example and a good one too. Though it gets overlooked these days in favour of his first couple of solo efforts, Band on the Run and Venus and Mars. The title track opens the album, and it has a “Penny Lane” feel to it. From there McCartney bounces around the styles – personal love letter on “I’m Carrying”, childhood whimsy on “Children Children”, prog-y space-out on “Backwards Traveller” and so on through rock, ballad, morality tale, you name it, he’s essayed it. One reason this album didn’t take off is that lead single “With a Little Luck” is too modest and lacking in hooks to really grab the attention, but it really is a strong song and one that encapsulates his optimistic outlook on love and life wonderfully. The late Seventies was an abrasive time musically, and releases like London Town help to anchor it somewhat.
With a Little Luck
Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (1970)
I really don’t think enough credit is given to this one. We’ve got all the “Syd went crazy” stories, and the salvage job Gilmour and Waters did, and a sort of surprised acknowledgement that The Madcap Laughs sounds better than it might have. But what’s not really recognised is that this is a strong set of songs, most of which would have made the grade had Pink Floyd still been a Syd Barrett band. Not only that, but where you might expect indulgence (which was where Pink Floyd were at this time), you find straightforward, quite catchy melodies and in most cases coherent strong structure. It’s only the lyrics (which are deranged) and the wavering nature of Barrett’s vocals that take it away from normality. “Terrapin” and “Octopus” sound the most fully-formed to me, but tracks such as “No Good Trying”, “Love You”, “Here I Go” and “Late Night” are quite polished too. Barrett is at his most haunting when he’s being self-referential (“Dark Globe” which is quite harrowing, “Late Night”) and that fantastic reading of Joyce in “Golden Hair”. He’s at his most infantile when attempting a whimsical love song. And on the rest, well, you just have to marvel at the inventive wordplay even if it makes no sense at all. If it had been produced better (and it could have) it would be better-credentialled. But as it is it’s a fascinating insight into Barrett’s mind.
The Fall: Dragnet (1979)
This is something of a Great Lost Fall Album. Not only were copies hard to find, at least since the late Eighties when I first started seeking the band out, but the production values on it were appalling until it was remastered years later, cleaning up the muddy sound which made it sound like they were down the bottom of a coal pit. Now I’ve heard it a few times it’s rapidly becoming one of my favourites of their entire output. It’s a massive step-up from Live at the Witch Trials, which has some outstanding tracks but doesn’t quite hold it together the whole way. Mark E Smith’s sly wit is present in abundance – he even rips out a Johnny Rotten impression for a moment, a joke with a payoff a couple of albums later – the playing is alert and spirited (which is a must if you’re going to back Smith), and for the first time you can really feel the rockabilly roots that remained a driving force right throughout their career. Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley are present for the first time too, putting their stamp on what would become the standard Fall sound through the Eighties. Standout tracks abound – “Flat of Angles” with its repeated slide guitar riff, “Dice Man” which is a wonderful shoutalong, “Printhead” in which Smith dumps on record reviewers, and the off-the-wall “Spectre vs Rector”. There are only two choices with The Fall – reject outright from the start, or keep listening until you love it.
Flat of Angles
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
I suppose I could have gone a bit more left-of-centre with New Morning, which is a terrific and underrated Dylan release. But this one is obviously his Seventies stand-out. In thematic approach there’s not a lot separating this from Blonde on Blonde, which danced around his relationship issues on a number of tracks. But where it lacks the incendiary, revolutionary blast of Dylan’s mid-Sixties releases, Blood on the Tracks offers a much deeper undercurrent and an intimacy that’s usually lacking from his work. You can hear it immediately from the opening notes of “Tangled Up in Blue”, a relaxed, open, reflective sound belying the sense of regret and missed opportunities in the lyrics. In the early Sixties, Dylan would effortlessly transcribe political arguments into personal experience, drawing the listener into the issues rather than just singing about them. Later he did the same with the conflict between individuals and produced his best work. With Blood on the Tracks he strips the political and does it with love itself. It’s not a battleground any more, and nobody wins or walks away unscathed. If you’re prepared to buy in it’s a horrifyingly intense experience, raw nerves exposed in every track. “Idiot Wind” is its zenith, blastingly scathing of everything, including himself. And throughout he sings with a passion that nobody could mistake as anything but heartfelt.
Tangled Up in Blue
Shelter From the Storm
David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)
Bowie’s real creative peak came later in the Seventies, with the trilogy of albums Low, Heroes and Lodger, his Berlin period where soundscapes, thematic complexity and experimental work entered his lexicon. There he became a ‘serious’ artist. That said, Hunky Dory represents a breakthrough of the same order; a quantum leap from lightweight ditty writer to songwriter of depth and substance. He had made a rather startling detour with The Man Who Sold the World‘s heavy sound, but here he finds his voice and his connection to his audience. There’s just a hint of music-hall all over the album, showmanship and cabaret, but with an ironical tone; and of course he’s used the cover of homages to various people – Dylan, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol etc – to expand his musical range without explicitly stating it as an aim. But then Bowie has always been partial to the odd disguise, as his next period was to confirm. The one-two hit of the first two tracks sets the standard – both “Changes” and “Oh You Pretty Things” have wonderful soaring choruses and pretty piano figures. But they’re just a set-up for the scintillating “Life on Mars”, which just explodes into technicolour life once it kicks in – so much so that it almost overpowers “Quicksand”, a magnificent expansive ballad in its own right. After that, it’s a sort of pastiche of styles through to the disturbing “The Bewlay Brothers.”
Life on Mars
The Residents: Duck Stab/Buster and Glen (1978)
I wanted to include something by The Residents, but determining which of their albums to go with was an issue. None of them are particularly accessible, and the difficulty is that it’s the most difficult ones that are the most worthy. Meet the Residents and Third Reich and Roll are both ground-breaking in their use of pastiche and deconstruction of melody, but they do sound a bit like music unravelling in front of you. The Residents are never far from some formalist theory. In the end, I’ve decided on Duck Stab not as a timid ‘introduction’ to their style – it is the one that sounds the most like music – but because it really works as an album while adhering to a recognisably ‘Residents’ sound. If you haven’t heard their work before, you’re going to be baffled by this. They all sound like songs, but it’s as if they’ve been turned inside out. The lyrics are intoned, and they’re often echoed musically in some way. The music has been stripped to the basics, and then those basics are sort of thrown together, so the complexity comes from the juxtapositions, not the development of musical theme. Much of it has a creepy nursery-rhyme feel. All of this makes it sound a lot less fun than it really is. The approach is playful, and a sense of humour is always present. And they’re never short of a melody, which puts them a long way ahead of most other experimental artists. You may respond to their work immediately (I did, fortunately). Or you may find it irredeemably weird. It’s worth listening to find out, though.
Aerosmith: Toys in the Attic (1975)
Aerosmith in the Seventies were a long way from the outfit that released Permanent Vacation and Pump in the late Eighties. By then they’d figured out (after years in some kind of drug haze) how to marry pop sensibility to their rock roots. But in the early days it was straight, hard-at-it rock. I suspect Rocks, the follow-up, is a stronger and more definitive showcase of the Aerosmith style, but this one has the bigger impact – and it has the hits too. Plus it has the brashness of a group that’s just found the formula. For them, it’s a synthesis of the blues as filtered through the Rolling Stones, the pioneering heavy metal of Led Zeppelin, and a big dollop of showmanship. There’s a sense of pure fun – something reflected later in the likes of Van Halen and a number of hair metal bands of the eighties – that hadn’t really been seen in rock before; a glorification of self almost to the point of caricature. Toys in the Attic is an absolute riot, Steven Tyler’s raunchy vocals playing off Joe Perry’s killer riffs in song after song. This is where “Walk This Way” originated, years before Run DMC redefined it as a rap classic. There’s also “Sweet Emotion”, “You See Me Crying”, “Adam’s Apple” and the title track elbowing each other out of the way to claim highlight status.
Toys in the Attic