Exploration, Endurance and Earworms: Music of the ’70s

If I were a sculptor, but then again, no.”

Your Song (Elton John, Bernie Taupin)

Racing through the decades with phenomenal staying power, the music of the 1970s had a lot of innovation and heaps of songs, melodies and lyrics, that refuse to leave your head.

I like to say that the ‘60s are blur, man. I was 5 when the ’70s began and 15 when they ended. I heard a lot of music in those years. Watched a lot of TV. To me the 1970s have clear lines and vivid images. It was a colorful, noisy, almost experimental decade. And hard to define.

Your Song is melodious and lyrical. “If I were a sculptor, but then again, no” leaves you a little anxious with its hesitation. What caused the acute change of attitude about the art of sculpting? Maybe knowing his gift was his song was good enough for him. But why bring it up? That’s symptomatic of the 1970s.

Can we speak about the pompitous of love? Steve Miller Band did. They made up the phrase. We don’t know what pompitous means but it has the right number of syllables to make the lyric fit the melody. And that’s ok; I’m not sure if it’s spelled pompitous or pompatus. For the guy sometimes called Maurice, the song sorta defines pompitous: the act or state of being a joker and smoker and a gangster of love. Or the pompitous of love is whatever you want it to be. Kinda like the ’70s and its music, if you can define a decade by its lyrics,

People in the ‘70s spent an inordinate amount of time getting down. Merriam Webster makes you search all the way to definition 3b for something close to what they were singing about: to perform music or dance effectively and infectiously; to have a good time partying.

But let’s pass on Merriam Webster. To me getting down is an undefined term meaning something fun and not illegal and maybe something you’re glad happened in 1975 so it didn’t go viral. Tens if not hundreds of songs with the lyrics about getting down were played in the ‘70s, some by black artists and some by white. If you were lucky, you were getting down with a brick house or bad mama jama or your own bad self.

People really moved and grooved in the Seventies with space cowboys, disco ducks, love machines, or at a roller skating rink with your mood ring. They were funky too. In Funky Town, in Funky Nassau, with Con Funk Shun or in Funkadelic’s One Nation Under Groove.

Getting down and getting a-funky have some depth and soulfulness. My sisters didn’t miss Soul Train or American Bandstand on Saturdays and the visual of them getting down in our living room in front of the television is one of those vibrant memories I have of the ’70s.

But along with soul, funk, and rock this decade gave us Muskrat Suzy and Muskrat Sam (not getting down) doing the jitterbug in Muskrat Land. And never before in America did a guy need to pronounce “I’m your boogie man, that’s what I am.” Never before did people wonder what to do if there was a bustle in their hedgerows. Should they be alarmed now?

In the Seventies, some artists were creating their best sounds: Eagles, Doobie Bros, ZZ Top, Steely Dan, Jackson 5, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, The Who, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin. And lots, lots more. But other artists fell into the folly of this decade. In 1972 one of the icons of cool, a member of the legendary Rat Pack, released the Candy Man. Sammy Davis Jr. sang: “Who can take the rainbow? Wrap it in a sigh. Soak it in the sun and make a groovy lemon pie. Was he broke? Temporarily insane? And what was Glen Campbell thinking? This powerhouse of music and lyrics sang he was “like a rhinestone cowboy, riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo; like a rhinestone cowboy, getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know and offers comin’ over the phone.” Paul Anka, heartthrob song writer and performer of the previous decades, stumbled in the ’70s with a really bad song that endures today as a really bad song. In Having My Baby, he sings, “The need inside you, I see it showin’. Whoa, the seed inside ya.” Hardly poetic. I blame the Seventies.

The argument is easily made that the best music, rock, pop, country, R & B, came from the Seventies. The hair and clothing styles were a colorful mess so maybe all the creativity went into the music. It‘s subjective in any case, but probably true. The songs are as vast as Lola and I Am Woman to My Dingaling and 25 or 6 to 4, from You Light Up My Life to the popular theme songs to Welcome Back Kotter and WKRP in Cincinnati that hit the charts. The music is endemic, to use a timely word.

In real time Seventies music and lyrics were part of the whole: clothes and dance and language and colors. As a kid I knew there was something singular about this decade. I’d heard the music my parents listened to in the 1950s; they knew the words to Mr. Sandman and Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole songs. I’d heard leftover tunes of the ’60s; and from old movies I’d heard the melodies of the ’30s and ’40s. In the 2020’s the Seventies are now far in the review mirror; but the music has unbelievable durability.

1970 began with the tragic deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimmi Hendrix. Jim Croce died in 1973 and Mama Cass followed in 1974. Disco thrived. Progressive rock and album rock flourished. We knew Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith, Gloria Gaynor, Earth, Wind & Fire and Donna Summer. Blues Brothers debuted and Sha Na Na was a hit. There was C.W. McCall’s Convoy which you could take en route to the Disco Demolition in Chicago.

Popular songs of the Seventies: most people can at least sing a chorus or two

The 1970s were not the Golden Age of Radio but Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 debuted on July 4, 1970. You could also listen to Dr. Demento, and King Biscuit Flower Hour. Television series Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and Austin City Limits started in this decade.

A spiritual awakening arose with 1970’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which started as a concept album that moved to Broadway in 1971 and movie theaters in 1973. Godspell, another modern musical telling of the Gospels, opened in 1971 as a play and was made into a movie in 1973. The lay teachers at my Catholic grade school loved these hip, musical songs in contrast to the nuns with pitch pipes leading us in the hits of the Catholic hymnal. There was also Jesus is Just Alright by the Doobie Brothers in 1972 and My Sweet Lord by George Harrison in 1971.

“Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me. Twice on the pipes, if the answer is no” was probably the best rollerskating song. If far surpassed the lame Downtown. Downtown was from the Sixties anyway.

Feast on lyrics no other decade could give you: Billy, don’t be a hero and to be a fool with your life. Billy, don’t be a hero, come back and make me your wife. <>I’ve been to the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain. <>My name is Michael. I’ve got a nickel. I’ve got a nickel shiny and new. I’m going to buy me all kinds of candy. That’s what I’m going to do. <>I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, rolling down Highway 41. <>Sing of good things, not bad. Sing of happy, not sad.

Barry Manilow did most of his damage in the ’70s as well as the Carpenters and Bread. I say “blah” to all to them. The Seventies brought us Feelings, whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings. Star rockets in flight! Afternoon delight! And fittingly the decade ended on Rupert Holmes’ Escape widely known as the Pina Colado song. Every one knows the chorus but what about these poignant lyrics: “I didn’t think about my lady, I know that sounds kind of mean. But me and my old lady had fallen into the same old dull routine.”

If your local classic rock station ever does a deep dive on any year that starts with 197-, tune in. You’ll appreciate how well these songs hold up, the incredible variety, and how these songs are part of the fabric. And at least one of the songs will stick in your head for a few hours.

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