I had been reflecting on eulogizing the 1970s as the greatest decade for music in the Rock Era, or perhaps the last century, when I heard the very modern musician who records as St. Vincent tell James Corden that the inspiration for her new album was the period from 1970 to ’75. Looking more closely at the decade’s discography, I realized that she was more astute than I.
Until 1968 I collected singles on my Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was the spring of my senior year in college that a record-club offer lured me into purchasing my first three albums: Buffalo Springfield, Bee Gees’ First and The Percy Sledge Way. Then I was off to North Africa with the Peace Corps for two years. When I returned, there had been a revolution, not least in popular music, where FM stations with diverse playlists had superseded AM Top 40. Following Bob Dylan’s breakthrough example, songs could be any length, about any subject, sung by any voice. The music scene was about to explode with creativity, and I was ready to start buying records. Which I did.
When we moved from Minnesota in 2013 I donated my entire record collection, first to my friend Mike Bennes from the museum and the leftovers to the Deephaven Library, but the memory of each album cover lingers fondly. In the essay that follows I will focus on records I once owned, each listed in boldface followed by a favorite cut. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my taste, or that I was going to law school and had the time and need for music; but look at the names that follow and try to tell me that the early ‘70s wasn’t a Golden Age, if not the Golden Age, of rock’n’roll.
I don’t know when I bought The Circle Game (’68) by Tom Rush, whether it was before or after Africa, but it was the perfect transition from the Cambridge coffee-house folk scene of the Sixties to the Singer/Songwriter Era of the Seventies. On it, Rush sang three songs by Joni Mitchell, including the classic title number, two by James Taylor, one by Jackson Browne and two by Rush himself, including the haunting “No Regrets.” Although Rush never reached the same heights as a songwriter, the others soon came to define an era.
In fact, I could end any debate about the significance of the early ‘70s before it begins by simply listing the long-running artists who came to prominence then, notably Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Neil Young, David Bowie, Van Morrison, James Taylor. Their styles and songs differed, but they all had in common that they wrote their own songs. The Tin Pan Alley era was over; the songwriting teams of Goffin/King, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Leiber/Stoller were passé. Dylan’s example prevailed: you wrote your own songs and sang them yourself.
Billy Joel’s Piano Man was released in ’73 and remains his masterpiece. In addition to the title track, “Captain Jack” and “Ballad of Billy the Kid” were instant classics. My love of this album caused me to look back and find Joel’s initial album, Cold Spring Harbor (’71 “She’s Got A Way”), which, in its innocence, was almost as good.
Jackson Browne was a precocious songwriter, known first to me as the co-writer, with Glenn Frey, of the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy” (’72). I fell in love with his debut album, Jackson Browne [a/k/a Saturate Before Using](’72, “Doctor, My Eyes”), and have followed his work with pleasure ever since. For Everyman (’73 “These Days”) was a slight letdown, although it provides great concert material, but Late For the Sky (’74 “For A Dancer”) remains one of the all-time great records.
I knew Neil Young, vaguely, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, but his solo singer/songwriter career launched for good with After the Gold Rush (’70 “Southern Man”) and solidified with Harvest (’72 “Heart of Gold”). More than 40 albums later it’s still going.
I admit to not being a James Taylor groupie, but he was of a piece with the sensitive singer/songwriters of the day: Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, David Crosby, et al. I was introduced to Sweet Baby James (’70) in Beirut and did buy One Man Dog (’72) and Walking Man (’74).
Gordon Lightfoot was already a singer/songwriter in the Sixties, but he hit his peak in the Seventies with three lovely albums: Sit Down, Young Stranger (’70 “If You Could Read My Mind”); Don Quixote (’72 “The Patriot’s Dream”) and Sundown (’74 “Carefree Highway”).
Because his career has gone on so long, it’s hard to think of Bruce Springsteen in this cohort. Also, for many fans their appreciation began with Born to Run and the simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers in 1975. I was, however, immediately taken with Greetings from Asbury Park (’73 “Blinded By the Light”), when the rock press, incidentally, was hailing him as “the next Bob Dylan,” presumably because of his jumbling lyrics.
And while Dylan himself made his name in the Sixties, he released seven records from ’70 to ’75, including New Morning (’70 “If Not for You”) and Blood On the Tracks (’75 “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”), which I have often considered my all-time favorite album.
From my perch in North Africa I could tune in British radio and, consequently, caught singles by both Elton John (“Border Song”) and David Bowie (“Space Oddity”) probably before either was big in the States. When I got home I snapped up every Elton John album as they came out, more than one per year. Elton John (’70 “Your Song), Madman Across the Water (’71 “Tiny Dancer”) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (’73 “Candle in the Wind”) were favorites.
David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (’71 “Changes”) so wowed me that I went to Carnegie Hall the next year when he toured Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (’72 “Starman”). Bowie had great songs in years that followed, but never as good an album.
I didn’t connect with early Van Morrison (specifically his critically acclaimed Astral Weeks), but still consider Moondance (’70 “Crazy Love”) one of the five best albums ever made. None of the five albums that followed in the next three years approached that height, but I spent time with His Band and the Street Choir (’71 “Domino”) and St. Dominic’s Preview (’72).
In contrast, I was mesmerized by everything put out by Cat Stevens in these years, and there was a lot. Mona Bone Jakon (’70 “Lady D’Arbanville”) was followed by the great Tea for the Tillerman (’70 “Father and Son”), then Teaser and the Firecat (’71 “Moonshadow”).
While the above artists had multiple discs in my collection, others spoke to me through only one record.
Lou Reed’s Transformer (’72) was his most (only?) accessible album and featured his signature song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Don McLean’s Tapestry (’70 “Castles in the Air”) was sweet and soulful, preceding “American Pie.” After departing CSN&Y, Graham Nash brought out Songs for Beginners (’71 “Military Madness”). In a different genre, although just as much a singer/songwriter, Stevie Wonder hooked me with Innervisions (’73 “Living for the City”).
A subset of Singer/Songwriters for an obvious, or maybe no obvious, reason:
Joni Mitchell’s Blue (’71 “Carey”) is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest albums of all time. Carole King’s Tapestry (’71 “It’s Too Late”) ranks not far behind. In that same year Carly Simon released Anticipation (’71), a year before her classic “You’re So Vain.” Much later and very different but at the edge of this era, Patti Smith’s Horses (’75) blew me away on record and in person at Lincoln Center.
Picking up, perhaps, from Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life,” British groups explored symphony backing, extended tracks and general studio grandiloquence. The Moody Blues, my favorites, broke through with A Question of Balance (’70) and peaked in Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (’71 “The Story in Your Eyes”). Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (’72) filled both record sides with one continuous piece of music. The Yes Album (’71 “I’ve Seen All Good People”) was made up of songs that could go on forever. John Barleycorn Must Die (’70) by Traffic was a prelude to The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (’71) with its almost 12-minute title cut. The culmination of the genre, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (’73 “Us and Them”), famously and deservedly spent 736 weeks on the Billboard chart.
While individual artists were putting their stamp on the era, there were still the more traditional ensembles of guitars, drums and keyboard that, while not unique, gave depth to this era of rock.
Let’s start with Who’s Next (’71) by the Who, which featured two of the all-time great rock anthems: “Won’t Be Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” The Eagles established country rock with their first two albums: Eagles (’72 “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and Desperado (’73 “Tequila Sunrise”). In the same genre, New Riders of the Purple Sage recounted The Adventures of Panama Red (’73 “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Fleetwood Mac came on the scene with Bare Trees (’72 “Sentimental Lady). The Kinks charmed me with their idiosyncratic numbers, from Lola Versus the Powerman (‘70 “Strangers”) to Everybody’s In Show-Biz (’72 “Celluloid Heroes”) and Preservation Act I (’73). The Morning After (’71 “Looking For A Love”) introduced me to the J. Geils Band.
What I Missed
Despite buying a lot of records and having pretty broad taste, there were important albums I didn’t collect that should be mentioned in evaluating the greatness of this musical period. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (’71) is the most recent Greatest Album in Rolling Stone’s decennial poll. Led Zeppelin IV (’71) featured “Stairway to Heaven,” arguably the greatest rock song. The same year saw Sly & the Family Stone’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” (’71 “Family Affair”). The Rolling Stones put out their highest-rated album, “Exile on Main St.” (’72 “Tumbling Dice”). The title track of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (’71) is one of the greatest songs ever. And who knows what else I missed or am missing.
It’s not just that so many powerful, lyrical, memorable voices came to public attention in these pivotal years (1970-73, in particular). For the most part, these voices, while they continued putting out records, never reached the same heights. Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and these others seem timeless in retrospect, but in fact their magic all stems from around 1971. Fifty years later, I feel I was there when they arrived, and we’ve been companions ever since.
Top Ten Albums
Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
Moondance, Van Morrison
Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
Piano Man, Billy Joel
Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne
Blue, Joni Mitchell
Who’s Next, The Who
Horses, Patti Smith
Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Stevens
Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd