Sunday, November 29, 2009
The Sweet, Sweet '70s, Part 2: The Rock.
Some people dismiss the 1970s music scene as being inferior to the 1960s. After all, by December 1970, the Beatles had broken up and Jimi Hendrix was dead. Some bands from the 1960s kept going, like the Stones and the Who, but it wasn't the same vibe. Trying to re-invent themselves, a requirement for any act that wanted to be taken seriously after the Beatles, many 1960s acts became very pretentious indeed. It definitely wasn't the Summer of Love anymore, and the drugs were doing they always do, changing people, usually for the worse.
But the 1970s saw several new artists and genres emerge in rock, and I list ten songs here that are either important or my personal favorites or both.
Whole Lotta Love Led Zeppelin
The first track off the second Led Zeppelin album has the same lyrics as You Need Lovin', written by the greatest songwriter in blues, Willie Dixon. Dixon had to sue to get royalties. But really, this isn't the Beach Boys ripping off Chuck Berry or Pat Boone covering Little Richard. This is the start of the success of a whole new sound, which at the beginning was called hard rock and became known later as heavy metal. The lyrics are the same, but Jimmy Page on guitar has a sound all his own, and Robert Plant isn't just a belter, he can scream on key. The Who had already paved the way for a trio of musicians and a dynamic front man, but Zep went someplace else with it, and their impact is hard to overstate.
Joe The Lion David Bowie
Madonna is given credit with reinventing herself by changing her look every few years. David Bowie beat her to that act by about a decade, and Bowie has the advantage of being one of the best songwriters in pop music over the last fifty years, a claim no one seriously makes about Madge. Whether he was supposed to be Alladin Sane or Ziggy Stardust or The Thin White Duke, Bowie put out some amazing albums in the 1970s, some that are so familiar, they sound like greatest hits albums today.
St. Elmo's Fire Brian Eno
I'm not in love with progressive rock, but I do love Brian Eno. As an artist, he always produces challenging stuff, and he's done some fantastic works as a producer for Talking Heads and U2, among others. Like several of the artists on this list, I wouldn't have heard Eno's work except that Padre Mickey first turned me onto it.
The Needle And The Damage Done Neil Young
I knew about these next three artists before I met the good Padre. I put them together on the list here because they are all great songwriters with less than perfect voices and honestly, not exactly matinee idol looks. I'm not sure any of them would have caught a break in the music business if they broke on the scene in the past twenty years.
Political Science Randy Newman
Of these three, a young Randy Newman might dropped into the 1990s might get a shot in the music business due to family connections. Three of his uncles were film score composers, and so are a couple cousins and a nephew. His early career is almost like a Los Angeles version of the Brill Building writers. He tried and failed as a performer, he wrote a lot of songs other artists recorded and then got a second shot as a performer. He's still one of my favorite songwriters.
Romeo Is Bleeding Tom Waits
Of this particular triumvirate of scruffiness, Our Tom is the scruffiest. For my money, he's also the best songwriter, and that's saying something, because Neil and Randy are not slouches. Waits spent the 1970's trying to bring back a beatnik hipster cool and by his own admission, drinking far too much. This is near the end of the decade and his first great re-invention, the album Swordfishtrombones is still a few years off. Still, I loved Tom through thick and thin.
Blitzkrieg Bop The Ramones
So we have a guitar trio with a dynamic front man. It's just another Led Zeppelin or Who, right?
Oh, hell no.
The Ramones turned rock and roll upside down, and not a minute too soon. They were loud, the music was fast, there was almost no change from one song to the next in terms of tempo or dynamics. Some wag said the Ramones took three chord music back to its one and a half chord roots. But this is where punk rock starts, and without punk, rock would have swirled down a self-indulgent drain a long time ago.
Pretty Vacant The Sex Pistols
The Ramones went to the U.K. and the guys in the audiences got the point. There are a boatload of stories about bands listening to the Ramones having a revelation, and the Pistols are the same. Acts as diverse and non-threatening as Level 42 and Huey Lewis & The News said they got the idea to be rock stars watching the Sex Pistols. You didn't have to play like Jimmy Page or scream on key like Robert Plant or even dress up funny like David Bowie to get on stage and do this.
Police And Thieves The Clash
The Clash called themselves The Only Band That Matters back in the day, and for the self-importance of that statement entails, they had a point. They could bring the energy like the Ramones or the Pistols, but they showed a little more musicianship and had a strong political point of view. Most punk bands were doing their own material almost exclusively early on, but the Clash covered this reggae tune by Junior Murvin, and also took a shot at I Fought The Law. They wrote great rockers and strong anthems, and they borrowed successfully from reggae and rap. Sadly, like with the Ramones, drugs took their toll on the band, but they leave behind an amazing legacy.
Watching the Detectives Elvis Costello
I leave my favorite to the last. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Elvis said he wrote Watching The Detectives after listening to The Clash's first album for most of a weekend back when he was still a wannabe. He said he hated the album at first, but after several listenings he got into it, and when it was over, he had this song. This is not his band the Attractions behind him, but it is the first time he works with keyboard artist Steve Nieve.
One of my favorite stories about Watching The Detectives comes from an interviewer asking Elvis about several rumors that swirled around his career. One rumor was that Stevie Wonder had settled out of court after it was found he ripped off Watching The Detectives in his 1980 song Master Blaster. The One True Living Elvis laughed and said it wasn't true. "If any of Bob Marley's living relatives want to sue both of us, I think they've got a pretty good case."