Friday, December 26, 2014

10 Reasons Why 1972-1974 Was the Greatest Era in Pop

Here's the thing about the early '70s: On paper, it wasn't all that.

For one thing, unlike other key music moments in time (the mid '50s and the birth of rock & roll, the mid '60s and the British invasion, the late '60s and the counterculture, the late '70s and the disco inferno, the '80s and new wave and rap, the early '90s and grunge), the early '70s offered nothing in the way of revolution.

There was no defining movement or sound or superstar. The Beatles had broken up. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died. Yet, some of the most durable music emerged from the beginning of the decade, particularly between 1972 and 1974. I think that lack of a defining anything may have resulted in more variety. There was no blueprint for a hit in the early '70s because the biggest hits had so little in common.

It's almost like the early '70s was both a gathering place for the remnants of what had come before (notice the number of comebacks and the reemergence of the rockabilly sound, especially in 1974) and a breeding ground for what was still to come. Would disco have developed without the influence of Philly soul? Would new wave have existed without glam rockers like David Bowie and Roxy Music?

Of course, my great appreciation for 1972-1974 might simply be a matter of taste. Whatever the reason for it, here are 10 points to back it up.

1. The creative and commercial zeniths of some of the most distinguished artists of the modern recording era encompassed those three years. Among those early '70s peakers: Al Green, Barry White, The Carpenters, Cher, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Helen Reddy, Roberta Flack, The Sylistics, Three Dog Night, crossover-era Charlie Rich, Tom Johnston-era The Doobie Brothers and solo Ringo Starr. Interestingly, by the mid-'70s advent of disco, middle-of-the-road rock and easy listening (the latter of which would dominate 1975 via No. 1 singles by Barry Manilow, Frankie Valli, B.J. Thomas, Captain & Tennille, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and a spectacularly resurgent Neil Sedaka), they'd all experience a dramatic decline in chart fortunes from which most of them, with the exceptions of Flack, White and Cher, would never rebound.


2. Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Chicago were each churning out Top 10s with the dependability of the Rihannas, Katy Perrys and Taylor Swifts of today. I recently had a pop debate with a twentysomething colleague who was trying to convince me of the creative merit of Taylor Swift's current pop phase. He was unsuccessful. I might not be old enough to remember all of 1972 to 1974 firsthand, but I am old enough to recognize it as a time when a No. 1 Hot 100 hit could be so much more than ear candy and didn't have to be written and produced by committee. Wonder was 24, one year younger than Taylor Swift is now, when he went to No. 1 with the self-penned and self-produced "You Haven't Done Nothin'." It's hard to imagine such a blistering indictment of the political and social status quo topping the charts today, or anything as musically intricate as Chicago's "Call on Me" or Elton's "Bennie and the Jets" going anywhere near the Top 10.


3. Artpop No, not Lady Gaga's 2013 album, but rather the music of the period's cutting-edge movers and shakers. Lou Reed scored his only hit single (with 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side"). Todd Rundgren was peaking as a performer (with 1972's Something/Anything) and as a producer (of Badfinger and Grand Funk Railroad, among others). Genesis was starting to break. And although I've always associated Steely Dan with the late '70s in my head, SD actually belonged just as much, if not more, to 1972-1974. Hit pop has rarely defied categorization as brilliantly as 1972's "Do It Again," 1973's "Reelin' in the Years and 1974's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."


4. It was the last time "black" music was pop music. During one week in 1972 (the Billboard week ending May 6), the Top 10 of the Hot 100 was 70 percent black, featuring Al Green, The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, The Stylistics, Joe Tex and Roberta Flack. Wow. In fact, during 1972, one-half of the 22 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles were by black acts. By the mid '70s, "black" pop had splintered off into soul, disco and funk, with R&B, rap, hip hop and their various permutations on the way. It's never sounded quite the same.


5. Speaking of "black" music, Philly soul and post-Motown male vocal quartets were peaking (and so was Motown's still-fighting Temptations, via "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"). It was the golden age of The Stylistics, The O'Jays, The Chi-Lites (who were No. 12 during the aforementioned week ending May 6, 1972 with the future No. 1"Oh Girl"), The Dramatics and The Spinners.


6. It was the peak of the singer-songwriter era. All four former Beatles (as well as frequent Fab Four cohort Billy Preston) enjoyed simultaneous success with self-written material. Meanwhile, Bill Withers, Carole King, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, Harry Nilsson, Jim Croce, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Loggins and Messina, Carly Simon and James Taylor were all writing timeless classics, singing them and scoring massive hits.


7. Kings of glam rock. Though I prefer T. Rex from 1970 to 1972, Marc Bolan and company's hits kept coming. Alongside them, Roxy Music, The Sweet and David Bowie helped carry the glam-rock banner from 1972 to 1974, their break-out years. Ironically, of those three, the one with the biggest hits (The Sweet) is the one that fewer people probably remember today.


8. The '60s British invasion was still alive and kicking. The Beatles may have been gone, but the band's four offshoot solo stars, along with The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Moody Blues and The Who, were still waving the Union Jack.


9. No era, possibly with the exception of 1983 to 1984, produced better one-hit-wonder hits in the U.S. A shortlist: Looking Glass's "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," Stories' "Brother Louie," Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling," Argent's "Hold Your Head Up," Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part 2)," Sylvia's "Pillow Talk," David Essex's "Rock On" and Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells."


10. Comeback kings Pop hailed Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Chuck Berry and Sammy Davis Jr.…again. The new hits weren't always worthy of their legend status, but they set the stage for the second and third acts that would become such a driving force of the future of pop. We wouldn't still be talking about Tina Turner and Cher without them.

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