(Pictured: the Staple Singers.)
The standard narrative of pop music in the 1970s is that it was escapist, shallow, goofy, and not as all as serious as the pop music of the 1960s had been. That’s halfway accurate, but the shallow, goofy escapism doesn’t arrive in earnest until after we cross a certain dividing line in the middle of the 1970s.
The sociopolitical dividing line starts to draw itself with the oil shock of late 1973, through the unraveling of Watergate in 1974 and the deepening recession in 1975. In pop culture, TV turns away from relevance (All in the Family) to escapism (Happy Days), and the formula for a hit movie changes from literary storytelling (Chinatown, The Godfather Part 2) to spectacle (Jaws). In pop music, the gritty realities of soul music are replaced by the dance-don’t-think ethos of disco.
These are all generalizations, and therefore prone to being wrong. And it’s true that there were continuities from one half of the 70s and the other (the enduring popularity of classic rock, for example). But it’s nevertheless striking just how different pop culture and especially pop music became in the last half of the 70s compared to the first half.
I thought about this while listening to the American Top 40 show from November 20, 1971, about which I wrote a bit last week. The ratio of serious to silly is far greater than what we sometimes perceive the 70s norm to be. Top to bottom, it’s one of the strongest shows I’ve ever heard.
The quantity of great soul music is astounding. In the previous installment, I singled out Denise LaSalle, the 8th Day, the Temptations, and Donnie Elbert. But from the last two hours, you can add the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”), Lou Rawls (“A Natural Man”), Al Green (“Tired of Being Alone”), Aretha Franklin (“Rock Steady”), Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Family Affair,” the hottest record in the nation at that moment), Michael Jackson (“Got to Be There”), the Chi-Lites (“Have You Seen Her”), and Isaac Hayes (whose “Theme from ‘Shaft'” was the new #1 song). In addition, several artists not strictly considered soul acts wear their influences proudly: Dennis Coffey, Van Morrison, and Delaney and Bonnie from the first hour, plus Lee Michaels (“Do You Know What I Mean”), Santana (“Everybody’s Everything”), and even the Osmonds (“Yo Yo”).
(“Everybody’s Everything,” from the week’s #1 album, Santana III, is a wonder, rockin’ with such wild abandon it feels like it’s going to fly apart into a million pieces, but it never does.)
A handful of classic-rock staples were among that week’s top hits: “Imagine,” “Maggie May,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “I’d Love to Change the World.” Neither the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Absolutely Right” nor “One Fine Morning” by Lighthouse entered the classic-rock canon, but both would be frequently anthologized come the CD era, which is a different type of eternal life. Future oldies-radio hits are many as well: “Old Fashioned Love Song,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “One Tin Soldier,” “Two Divided by Love,” “Baby I’m-a Want You,” “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves.”
Any given week of the 1970s has its share of amber-trapped moments, songs destined to disappear from history after being dropped from the current rotation. This week they are remarkably few: “Desiderata” and “Easy Loving,” the David Cassidy cover of “Cherish” and the Fifth Dimension cover of “Never My Love,” plus the theme from Summer of ’42.
Not all of the songs on the radio during that Thanksgiving week—when D. B. Cooper jumped out of the airplane, war threatened between India and Pakistan, and Nebraska and Oklahoma played one of college football’s most famous games—remained part of the pantheon for years to come. Nevertheless it’s striking just how great they were, all at once.