Sure, disco was a little tedious, and the decade saw some of the most awful ballads ever conceived. But disco built on some good beats, rock was going through an intriguing experimental phase, and the singer-songwriters started to put some thought into the musical and lyrical sides.
Here’s my hour:
Ringo Starr, Back Off Boogaloo: From all available evidence, Ringo’s main contribution to music is that he’s a great guy. That’s not such a bad thing. He fits in well with talented people, and his solo projects often sound like he got about 30 of his best buddies in a room to jam. Obviously, it’s not as artistically or philosophically substantial as a John Lennon effort, but no one said it was, and I’d rather be jamming with Ringo than fermenting in front of a TV with Lennon through the latter half of the ’70s. (I’ve heard contrasting accounts of Lennon’s life from 1975-80 — the Wikipedia account is that he became a recluse because he’d missed Julian’s childhood and didn’t want to do the same with Sean, but I also remember hearing that he was basically stoned in front of the TV. In any case, one of the many tragic elements of his death is that he had finally emerged from his apartment, just in time for that bastard to shoot him.)
M.F.S.B., T.S.O.P.: Didn’t hear all of it because my audio player had a SNAFU. It’s your basic strings, horns and pumping bass disco riff, with a few minutes of introduction before a couple of female vocalists inform us that it’s time to get it on and get down. Fair enough.
Al Green, Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy): It’s midtempo strings, horns and pumping bass this time as the Reverend does his thing. The percussion is actually a little obtrusive, but the guitar lines are nice. You may not really like this kind of music, but it’s damn near impossible to hate it.
Grand Funk Railroad, Loco-Motion: One of those novelty songs you really can’t listen to more than once or twice every five years because it lacks the musical innovation of, say, Hayseed Dixie.
Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers: Over the years, I’ve come to respect Diamond’s many contributions (as distinctive singer and hook-smart songwriter) to popular music. Not enough to like this one. The used-to-bes don’t count anymore, they lay on the floor until we sweep them away? Used-to-bes? Wait, are they talking about the flowers? They have to sweep them away even though he clearly hasn’t brought any home in a few years? Do these guys ever clean the house, or are they just stoned in front of the TV along with Lennon?
Gerry Rafferty, Right Down the Line: Why don’t we talk about Rafferty as one of the greats of this era? Is it because we think Baker Street (Rafferty solo) and Stuck in the Middle with You (Rafferty with Stealer’s Wheel) were both the work of one-hit wonders? And I guess we’ve forgotten this one, which is a solid uptempo love song. (Trivia: Rafferty once shared a band with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, who replaced Howard Hesseman as the teacher on Head of the Class. Now I need a list of songs Hesseman played as WKRP‘s Johnny Fever to see if he played a Rafferty song so I can complete some sort of circular Kevin Bacon thing.)
Bruce Springsteen, Prove It All Night: Kind of plodding compared to his more inspired outings from the same period.
Pointer Sisters, Fire: Frankly, this is also kind of plodding compared to other Springsteen songs. My guess is that this song has lasted because people wanted to believe that someone other than John Travolta could be the smooth lady-killer. Also, because the Pointer Sisters actually did a pretty good job with it. (On a related note — how many of you have actually heard Bruce’s version of Blinded By The Light? How many of you even know he, and not someone from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, wrote the song?)
Diana Ross & The Supremes, Someday We’ll Be Together: The classic hook and dramatic chord changes are more than adequate compensation for the overwrought strings. This song needs a good cover version.
The Guess Who, No Time: Opens with a cool, vaguely menacing distorted guitar run, then bogs down with a misplaced major key verse and some really sloppy lyrics. Then there’s the usual overblown vocal performance from Burton Cummings, hippie rock’s answer to Michael Bolton. Oh, wait — he came first, so I guess he’s the question and Bolton’s the answer.
Bread, It Don’t Matter to Me: When I think of Bread, I usually think of album covers that have pictures of bearded guys who are a little out of focus, as if they’re fading out of the picture. The art fits the songs a little too well.
The Miracles, Love Machine: Really, where would this song be without the guy going “Ooooo, yeeeeeeaaahhh” in the chorus? Nowhere, but does it matter?
Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: I didn’t truly appreciate this song until I came across this analysis of the lyrics and how they described the actual incident. In the much-cited (by me, anyway) book The 50 Worst Rock N’ Roll Records of All Time, the authors complain that Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy (coincidentally, ranked just behind Grand Funk’s Loco-Motion) lacks Stewart’s usual “attention to detail.” Stewart has nothing on Lightfoot, who doesn’t waste a word here. Lightfoot also deserves credit for his low-key delivery, letting the words, the slide guitar and the drums tell the story.
The Commodores, Just to Be Close to You: I think DJs play this song at weddings when they want people to clear the dance floor and check out the buffet. Rarely has a more awkward love song been written.
Carly Simon, You’re So Vain: I like the way this song still sparks “Who’s it about?” speculation so many years after the fact, though I’d cast a pretty strong vote for Warren Beatty. Aside from that, it’s deservedly a classic — pointed yet clever lyrics sung over a powerful piano strut. (Also, I think of the line about going to Saratoga, where “your horse naturally won,” every time I hear from someone I know who does indeed spend a lot of time in that vicinity.)