(Pictured: Starbuck, whose clothing and hairstyles are a greatest-hits package of their own.)
I had a CD full of summer 1976 songs on in the car the other day, and it occurred to me that it’s possible to describe that summer with six songs. I don’t kid myself that the list is definitive; just as each of us lives our lives differently, each of us hears our songs differently (and I bet I could write the same damn post with six different songs). As it happens, these ran the charts at approximately the same time, peaking early in August, and they’re in no particular order.
“Tear the Roof off the Sucker”/Parliament. Disco was starting to happen in 1976, but as I have often noted here, disco in the pre-Saturday Night Fever days had far more in common with old school R&B than what came later, when the beat became mindless and the music lost its soul. “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” grooves with a purpose. (If you have never heard the full-length version from Mothership Connection, click it now.) It’s also on this list because it’s so odd, evidence of the glory of the AM radio era, when any damn thing could become a significant hit.
“You’re My Best Friend”/Queen. The formation of the Clash and the release of debut albums by Blondie and the Ramones make 1976 a pretty good starting point for the punk-rock era. Mainstream rock seemed tired (few critics liked the Stones’ Black and Blue or Led Zeppelin’s Presence, both released that year, and the year’s top album was an Eagles compilation), and a lot of performers seemed primarily interested in spectacle. Queen’s A Night at the Opera is definitely a spectacle. But the punk revolution was happening out of sight of most Midwestern teenagers, so “You’re My Best Friend” sounded like the best of all Queen singles in its time, and it still does.
“Love Is Alive”/Gary Wright. Where Queen proudly proclaimed “no synthesizers” in the liner notes of A Night at the Opera, Gary Wright was a one-man keyboard army, and if we define the 70s in part by their un-60s-ness, that was a very un-60s thing to be. That’s one reason why “Love Is Alive” is on this list, but not the only one. Any artifact purporting to symbolize a place should transport us back to that place in some fashion. “Love Is Alive” is summer nights when the light goes but the heat of the day still lingers. In memory, it comes blasting out of AM radios, standing for all of the jocks and jingles that were as ubiquitous as wallpaper during a teenage summer in the 1970s.
“Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles. But it might not be correct to define the 70s entirely by their un-60s-ness. Looking back was already fashionable, as “Got to Get You Into My Life” proved. Although it had been on Revolver, it managed to be uniquely 70s thanks to its blasting horn section—it was unlike any single the Beatles released in the 60s. It ran the charts at almost precisely the same time as the Beach Boys’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” (which the Beatles had also done way back when), and both records reached the top 10 at the same time, the first time both bands had been there together since 1966.
“I’m Easy”/Keith Carradine. In the 70s, a remarkable era for the movies, audiences expected to be spellbound by plot and character development instead of being dazzled by CGI and explosions. Let “I’m Easy,” a gentle song from Robert Altman’s Nashville, stand for the bygone days when movies were made for adults by adults, and only children cared about Marvel comics.
“Moonlight Feels Right”/Starbuck. This is a remarkably cheesy record, with some painful lines (“ain’t nothing like the sky to dose a potion” and “me and moon are itchin’ to play”), and it has a marimba solo where other bands might have put a guitar. And yet it might be the single song that best encapsulates the summer of 1976. The 60s are over; we’ve survived the Nixon years but we’re dubious about what might be next. Pop music does not so much reflect the world as it offers escape from it. And what’s a greater escape than a sui generis record about a hot girl on a summer night, slickly insinuating itself into to the heads of listeners like only 70s pop music can, so that years later it becomes impossible to imagine 1976 without it?