In my view, it is undeniable that the 70s set in much more quickly across the pop charts than did the 60s. With that being said, I do think that if you really wanted to, you could probably still make the case for ‘70 and ‘71 being “transition years”, years that belonged properly to neither decade and existed in a sort of limbo between epochs. I don’t think any such thing could be said about 1972. This is the all-caps SEVENTIES right here- sure, it’s the early seventies, the pre-disco seventies, but the seventies nonetheless. By the end of ‘72, we had Watergate. We had The Godfather. We had Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We had digital watches and HBO and ‘Pong’. For better and for worse, it was a completely new decade, and the following 10 songs are among the stronger arguments I’ve found that it was, in fact, for better. On with the show!
#10: Luther Ingram – (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right
I mentioned a while back that any song about infidelity really needs to take care to get the framing right, to cast the infidelity as something essentially harmful, or at the very least grapple with the immorality of the situation. And the thing is, Luther Ingram’s “I Don’t Want to be Right” comes dangerously close to totally failing at this. Sure, the narrator has some internal conflict, he wonders if he’s hurting his wife and kids with this affair on the side, but ultimately he seems pretty happy to just run around behind his wife’s back. He doesn’t even seem to want to reach a point where he isn’t doing so, and the fact that it’s all framed as a question speaks volumes: “Am I wrong to hunger / For the gentleness of your touch / Knowing I’ve got someone else at home / Who needs me just as much?” YES! That IS wrong, actually! How is this a moral gray area for you?? So, given how critical I am of the lyrics, why is this on the best list? Because Ingram just sells it, man. Similarly to Isaac Hayes’ “One Woman”, this is a song that rides on a vocal performance dripping with passion and intensity, and that’s exactly what Ingram delivers here. I can’t agree with the narrator’s actions, and I still think his half-assed justifications for it are a strike against the song, but the powerful singing and similarly intense instrumentation forges that human connection all the same; you can kind of see where this guy is coming from, why he’s doing what he’s doing and feels about it the way he does. “I Don’t Want to be Right” is a prime example of how top-notch execution can elevate even flawed material to greatness, and though I think it ought to be enjoyed with a somewhat critical ear, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable track all the same.
#9: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen- Hot Rod Lincoln
Across my 60s worst lists, I spent a lot of time bashing music that attempted to be a bit more lighthearted or humorous. I’ll confess that, as far as music predating Weird Al Yankovic goes, I’m biased towards music that takes itself at least semi-seriously; most of the time, I just don’t connect with silly joke songs the same way. But don’t get me wrong, I am by no means the type to unconditionally shun any music on the goofy or irreverent side (the frankly embarrassing number of Ninja Sex Party songs I unironically enjoy is, if nothing else, a testament to that). For another example: “Hot Rod Lincoln”, the Charlie Ryan-penned sole hit of country-rockers Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Even if you don’t think the idea of hot rod racing is just intrinsically a bit funny, a high-octane rubber-burner of a race is something you’d probably expect to be sung about with some degree of gusto, and the brilliant joke of “Hot Rod Lincoln” is just how deadpan it all is. Frontman George Frayne’s delivery communicates little more than mild interest, as though this pulse-pounding illegal drag race holds all the allure of a slightly amusing TV commercial. Importantly though, he never lapses into droning monotony or boredom, nailing the sort of affable, Chaplinesque bemusement that propels all the best deadpan comedy. Even the guitar sounds like this! The mental image it conjures is of the lead guitarist here Jim-facing a camera while unleashing the greased-lightnin’ rockabilly shred underpinning the song, naturally the perfect pairing for the image of the narrator casually fleeing a squadron of cop cars in his speedster Model A like it’s just another day at the office. I don’t know that I’d call this a “joke song”- hell, I’m not even 100% sure the band is in on the joke- but “Hot Rod Lincoln” is, to me, one of the absolute funniest hits of the 70s.
#8: Jonathan Edwards- Sunshine
“Sunshine” is the kind of song that sort of resists easy analysis. I actually don’t really know what it’s about; supposedly it’s anti-authoritarian, but apart from the broad strokes (“some man’s come, he’s trying to run my life”), I can’t quite figure out what exactly the sentiment it’s trying to express is, or what it has to do with sunshine, or how the phrase “how much does it cost- I’ll buy it” functions in the context of the song. As far as I can tell, the lyrics here are surprisingly free-associative, and any throughline is more a gut feeling than a concrete, logical procession. I do think it captures the idea of resisting the things in life that are trying to bring you down, it just does so in a sort of nebulous, hard-to-pin-down way. Honestly though, the main reason it’s on the best list is that it’s just a great, great pop-folk tune. Jonathan Edwards has a really good voice for this sort of music- expressive and limber, but just rough enough around the edges to fit the slightly scrappy, loose delivery perfectly. I love the crisp, uptempo acoustic strumming, the melody is fantastic, and at just over two minutes, the simplicity of the composition doesn’t hamper it whatsoever. I think the music actually does more than the words here to solidify what the song is actually about- it’s a happy song, but a sort of defiant, rebellious happiness, like “screw you, I’m going to have a good day today if it’s the last thing I do”, and that’s just a great, relatable sentiment, even if it’s more implied than outright stated. “Sunshine” is, fittingly, a ray of headstrong sunshine, of the exact kind that I suspect audiences in ‘72 were really needing, and slightly jumbled poetry notwithstanding, I’m right there with them.
#7: Derek and the Dominos- Layla
A disclaimer right up front: I am ambivalent at best towards the work of Eric Clapton. When Jack White complains about so-called “note-pushing Stratocaster white blues bullshit”, Clapton’s paunchy, self-satisfied guitar playing is without fail the first thing to jump to my mind (that epithet is also pretty hilarious coming from White, but I digress). Even I have to admit, though, that Clapton did manage to do one thing very, very right: he got the hell out of Duane Allman’s way. While Duane’s main gig, The Allman Brothers Band, didn’t score any big chart hits until a few years after his tragic death in late 1971, he still managed to leave his mark on the pop world with the immortal seven-note riff powering “Layla”, as well as the shrieking slide solo that closes out the single edit of the song. Supposedly, before Allman introduced that riff, Clapton was intending this song to be a mellow ballad- thank goodness that version didn’t see the light of day! In all seriousness, while I honestly don’t think much of “Layla” as an all-around song (the lyrics aren’t too impressive, and Clapton’s vocals leave a lot to be desired), it works flawlessly as a vehicle for the veritable truckload of hard-rock riffage it delivers, and I do want to give credit where it’s more than due: Clapton and Allman’s interplay across the whole song is dazzlingly tight, casually swapping licks and runs like they’d been playing together for decades rather than months, and the rest of the band provides a muscular foundation to the track that prevents it from buckling under the weight of all the showboating guitar heroics. Even if it’s not quite enough to turn me around on Eric Clapton overall, “Layla” has more than enough firepower to back up its status as an indispensable part of the guitar rock canon.
#6: Billy Preston- Outa-Space
It’s been too long since I had the chance to cover any quality instrumental pop hits for this project, so here’s a jammin’ bit of proto-synth-funk courtesy of pro keyboardist Billy Preston. This song’s title, I think, points to an interesting snapshot of cultural attitudes at the time. In the years immediately following the 1969 moon landing, a fascination with sci-fi and outer space rapidly overtook pop culture. But keep in mind, this wasn’t pop-culture outer space as we know it today: the cosmic high fantasy of Star Wars was still a full five years off, and the tense atmosphere and body horror of Alien wouldn’t sink its jaws into audiences until the final months of the decade. So, when artists in 1972 imagined the soundtrack to the cosmos, it tended to be a lot more fun and upbeat, and that’s where “Outa-Space”’s greatest success lies. The wah-infused clavinet and whirring Hammond organ set a tone of noodly, hi-tech bombast, and the uptempo groove and strutting bassline complete the overall impression: this is sci-fi, but, y’know, funky! I don’t even think it’s too much of a stretch to call this the first inkling of the space-age funk acts like Parliament-Funkadelic would soon build their reputation on, and though stuff like Mothership Connection is obviously a little more substantive, “Outa-Space” still offers an entirely appetizing taste of the far-out grooves that were soon to come.
#5: Carly Simon- Anticipation
Carly Simon managed to live up to the high standard she set last year with “Anticipation”. “That’s the Way…” established Simon as a sharp-witted and observant lyricist, yet I was still caught off-guard by just how subtly clever the rhetorical trick she pulls here is. In the first verse, she outlines the thesis of the song: we’re always thinking about the future, always planning ahead, when sometimes it’s better to just enjoy the moment and be present in, well, the present. It’s a good message- maybe a little soapboxy, but the writing is just creative enough to look past it. Then the second verse hits: “And I tell you how easy it feels to be with you / And how right your arms feel around me”, so she’s seemingly practicing what she preaches here, right? Enjoying the company of her partner, living ‘in the moment’. But wait! Then comes the kicker: “But I rehearsed those words just late last night / When I was thinkin’ about how right tonight might be”. By pulling back the curtain, showing that “living in the moment” right now required forethought and planning earlier, the message of the song becomes a lot more nuanced. It’s not just “live in the moment”, it’s acknowledging that sometimes, being present requires thinking ahead a bit- or, if you’d prefer, it’s an ironic acknowledgement that the day with her partner that she spent all last night thinking about is now being spent thinking about last night, when she could have been in the present. It’s just so clever- it addresses a really thought-provoking topic by presenting a good thesis and an equally good counter-thesis, and then just leaves them both on the table, which I really respect. I also think the song benefits from being a bit more poppy than “That’s the Way…”; for how clever it is, it’s also markedly less lyrically dense and emotionally heavy than its predecessor, and having that singalong chorus and the satisfying major walk-down at the end of each verse helps it stand a bit better on its own, purely as a piece of music.
#4: T. Rex- Get It On
Look at the album cover for T. Rex’s 1971 breakthrough Electric Warrior: frontman Marc Bolan’s face obscured by a mop of dark curls, feet planted in a fighting stance in front of a tower of amps, the neck of his guitar angled upwards like a firearm. That pale yellow aura surrounding him might as well be pure, concentrated cool, and all the songs on the album drip with the same unassailable confidence that cover image conveys, especially lead single “Get It On”. For how machine-tight the groove and melodies are here, the whole thing exudes an effortless, easygoing looseness and charm. Even the fairly rote, dirty-romance lyricism is elevated to greatness through how eminently charismatic and likeable Bolan’s performance is. If you listen closely, it’s clear that Bolan is actually a fairly limited vocalist, but he absolutely knows how to get the most out of the instrument he’s got, and his breathy delivery acts as a great counter to the upbeat energy of the rest of the song and makes it feel less one-note than it otherwise could have. The song also gets a big boost from the touches of piano and saxophone (courtesy of prog-rock legends Rick Wakeman and Ian McDonald, respectively), which give it a more complex sonic palette and do a lot to flatter the meat-and-potatoes composition at the core. When it comes to 70s rock, stuff this straightforward and direct is often a difficult sell for me, but when a band manages to nail the basics with this much style and flair, I can’t help but bang a gong and get it on right along with them.
#3: Sly & the Family Stone- Family Affair
Sly & The Family Stone had always been a band I’ve appreciated more than outright liked. They’ve got plenty of songs with tight, enjoyable musicianship, a more-than-worthy frontman in Sly Stone, and lyrics that were generally a cut above many bands of their stripe in terms of wit and creativity. And yet, throughout most of the late 60s, there was just something about the group that didn’t quite click for me; their talents never seemed to fully coalesce around a strong central idea that could hook me in and get me invested. Well, in late 1971, The Family Stone released There’s a Riot Goin’ On, widely considered to be their masterpiece, and listening to lead single “Family Affair”, I definitely “got it” on a visceral level that I hadn’t with any of their previous material. In fact, “visceral” is a fairly good word to describe the track and the album overall. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is known for its dense, murky atmosphere and gritty darkness, which went directly against the grain of what most other soul/funk acts were doing at the time. So, one of the most striking things about “Family Affair” is the actual sound of the thing. Stone’s drawling, off-tempo singing is pressed right up against the front of the mix, and echoing percussion, thick, dirty bass, and muted keyboard & guitar all swirl lazily behind him. “Psychedelic soul” had already mostly run its course as a genre by ‘72, but “Family Affair” captured a drugginess that was darker and more curdled than even what most psych-rock acts had attempted to this point. The grimy, hazy atmosphere makes for some interesting contrast with the lyrics, which discuss several relationships within a family. The lyrics never get especially dark, but the few hints of animosity (“another child grows to be / somebody you’d just love to burn) combined with the music gives the impression that there are hidden grudges and scars in this family that remain undiscussed, and that sense of things left unsaid and tensions that hang in the air without resolution makes it feel like a very in-depth and realistic portrayal of the complexities of a tight-knit family unit. For the first time, The Family Stone isn’t just delivering a good performance of good material, they’re giving a great performance of great material, and the sonic creativity gives it the needed push to be a unique and enduring outlier among the music of its time.
#2: Yes- Roundabout
At its worst, progressive rock comprises some of the most insufferable music created in the modern era: soulless displays of instrumental prowess that mean nothing and serve only as chess pieces in the world’s most elaborately tedious dick-measuring contest. At its best, progressive rock can be “Roundabout”: a joyous celebration of raw musical expression, unfettered by things as trivial as traditional song structure or lyrical coherence. An important note to make here is that I am (as always) specifically evaluating the single version of this song. After all, progheads do love their lengthy solos and winding instrumental passages, and more than half of “Roundabout”’s hit the cutting room floor in the process of carving a lean, three-and-a-half-minute radio single from the original, which ventures well past the 8-minute mark. I wouldn’t blame anyone for disliking the single cut, but I still think both versions have their own charm. The lengthier album version is more grandiose, and there’s a lot of fun to be had getting lost in its indulgent tangle of crazed keyboard and bass playing. The brevity of the single edit, on the other hand, highlights one of my favorite things about this song: There are just so many ideas here! A less ambitious band could easily get 3 minutes of mileage out of that steamroller of a bass riff alone, but Yes takes every opportunity to push the song in previously-unexplored directions: Steve Howe plays a half-dozen different note sequences and/or chords against the main bassline, they change up the feel entirely for both the prechorus and the chorus, and Rick Wakeman’s keyboard work runs the whole gamut from gleaming, arpeggiated accents to astonishingly expressive soloing. It moves along at the perfect clip too, giving the listener just enough time to hear and appreciate each idea it presents, but never lingering on anything long enough for it to wear out its welcome. Sure, Jon Anderson’s voice is a mite thin and reedy. Sure, the impressionistic lyrics don’t add up to much (part of why I don’t really mind that a few verses are missing from the single). But “Roundabout”’s ability to let the listener in on the pleasure of playing such dense material without missing a note still, in my eyes, elevates it to the uppermost echelon of progressive rock. Could Coheed & Cambria ever? I think not.
#1: Bill Withers- Lean on Me
By now, it should be obvious that I’ve got a big ol’ soft spot for songs like “Lean on Me”. When you get right down to it, songs like this, or “Stand By Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, or even “What’s Going On” and “Help!” are, more than anything, about the power of friendship. And god damn it, I believe in the power of friendship! I just don’t think I’ll ever get tired of songs that are first and foremost about people being there for each other, so yeah, I’m not being particularly “even-handed” (whatever that means) when I say “Lean on Me” is the best hit song of the year. Nuts to objectivity, eh? Still, I think there’s something to be said for Bill Withers’ particular take on this well-worn subject. In a way, it’s like the “Golden Rule” in song form: ‘I’ll be there for you when you need it most, because I’d expect nothing less from you if it was I who needed help’. It’s Wither’s assured delivery and the less-is-more arrangement that elevates it beyond mere “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” transactionalism, though. This song’s enduring popularity amongst choirs both religious and secular is no accident; the gospel influence is undeniable here, and the plain-spokenness of Withers’ previous hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” carries over, too, making it a perfect fit for choruses of all ages. Where “Bridge Over Troubled Water” wasn’t afraid to delve into simile and metaphor to make its points (and to be clear, I think it’s all the better for it), “Lean On Me” is, in a good, necessary way, very surface level. What it means it says, and it says so plainly. “Just call on me brother, when you need a hand” is the boiled-down essence of Christian charity, no? “No one can fill those of your needs that you won’t let show” is similarly direct, asking for openness and honesty between friends. If pressed, I’d have to say that its simplicity leaves it, in my view, a nose away from being as good as other songs in a similar vein I’ve covered in previous entries, but I nonetheless find myself with an abiding appreciation for the kindness and generosity of songs like this. I can only hope that there are enough of these songs out there that I eventually run out of interesting ways to write about them, because as far as I can tell, we’ll never stop needing more “Lean on Me”s.