The 70s ended with a bang, for better and for worse. The disco bubble finally burst in July with the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and in its wake a massive power vacuum formed in the pop world as labels scrambled to abandon the genre in favor of something, anything else, even as inertia would propel disco’s corpse through another year or two of hits. In fact, even outside the realm of dance music, “propelled by inertia” aptly describes most mainstream music in the years between the disco implosion of ‘79 and the MTV takeover somewhere around ‘82. From rock to country to R&B (let’s be honest, especially R&B), new trends and fresh, untested talent would only enter the radio ecosystem at a crawl for the next few years as the most beloved and iconic sounds of the 70s slowly wore out their welcome. Though there was still enough quality stuff to make it hard to call ‘79 a “bad” year for pop, the stagnation is already becoming apparent, but before we dive into that unsavory affair we have to contend with our final batch of ‘70s hall of famers. On with the show!
#10: Chic- Le Freak
It should go without saying how crucial the opening seconds of a song are. Even before streaming services made it nearly effortless to hit skip and move on to the next track, you generally had about 10 seconds tops to get ‘em hooked or lose ‘em for good- and as far as opening seconds go, “Le Freak” is pretty damn tough to beat. That first “Awwwww, FREAK OUT!” hits, and you immediately know everything you need to know about this song and you know exactly what it’s about. Of course, because Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards were good songwriters and creative musicians, the song has more to it than that in an absolute sense. There’s a quite good verse that complements the chorus nicely, and Rogers’ guitar in particular nearly achieves funk nirvana, handily the best the instrument has sounded on any dance track this decade. But really, it’s all about that hook. That hook is not asking, it is telling: “When you hear this song, you will freak out.” And people sure did. How could they not? It’s one of the purest embodiments of gregarious, extroverted fun to hit the charts to this point! The only thing that costs it a point or two in my eyes is that it’s so single-mindedly dedicated to doing what it does that the effect is noticeably lessened if you go into it in a really foul mood, or just aren’t in the right frame of mind to loosen up and dance a bit. Still, as far as crowd-pleasing, energetic funk jams go, this one absolutely holds up as one of the very best, still a total pleasure to freak out to over four decades later.
#9: Supertramp- The Logical Song
I don’t want to seem dismissive here, but “The Logical Song” is music critic catnip in a pretty straightforward sense, and most of the points of praise I can make for it honestly seem at least a little tired and obvious. Would you ever guess that it is, in fact, a quite pointed deconstruction of the loss of youthful innocence to societal expectations, and a suggestion of what is sacrificed in the name of conformity and order, a cheekily upbeat bildungsroman with a killer sax solo to boot? I mean come on, I just used a pretentious-sounding German word to describe it!
So yes, this is a very good song and I enjoy it a lot, but the most interesting thing about it to me is actually the turning point it represents for progressive rock. Throughout the 70s, prog had grown about as prevalent as its nature allowed; these Thinking Man’s Rock BandsTM had amassed devoted followings for their virtuosic musicianship and/or complex song structures and/or socially-conscious lyricism (though your mileage may vary vis-a-vis how well any given band pulled off that last one). Then 1977 hits, and suddenly punk rock is rejecting the solos and grand narratives to channel the political unrest of the day in a much more tangible way. Synthesizers start slowly creeping into other genres of music, and suddenly a lot more people are fiddling with different timbres and song structures. The first wave of prog was going the way of the dinosaurs. In response, they did something that today seems nearly unthinkable: they went pop. Sure, there had been a couple crossovers here and there throughout the decade, but starting right around now, just about every notable prog band started stripping down those dozen-minute epics, simplifying those noodly guitar and keyboard parts, and learning to write a gosh-dang hook (not that some of them couldn’t already). And against all odds, it worked! Rush had “Tom Sawyer” all over the radio, Yes’s 90125 outsold every other record they had ever made, Peter Gabriel and Genesis separately became two of the biggest names in 80s pop, and prog also-rans Journey discovered they were actually way better at pump-up radio anthems than they were at jazz fusion. Wild. To return to the song at hand, “The Logical Song” is undeniably pop, but it still has a lot of those classic prog trademarks: the acerbic lyrics, the crisp musicianship, the nerdy stiffness of it all. Hell, even the vocals have that trademark reediness that so many 70s prog singers had. I like this song for many reasons. But the fact that it can almost function as the missing link between “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart”? That makes it something kind of special.
#8: John Stewart- Gold
Tragically, this song is not performed by Jon Stewart of future The Daily Show fame (who would have been 17 at the time)- nor is it, as I had naively assumed, the product of a fluke one-hit wonder who never troubled the hot 100 before or after this year. John Stewart (with an H) was actually a very well-established songwriter and performer prior to the success of “Gold”, having been a member of the Kingston Trio for most of their initial run throughout the 60s. He also penned the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”, making “Gold” the second song of his I’ve listened to for this project. All this is basically just a long-winded way of saying that, in 1979, Stewart was a guy who’d been around the block a few times. He’d been in the industry for nearly 20 years, and most of the last 10 had been bereft of any substantial success or recognition. It’s easy to see how a decade like that would leave him a bit disillusioned with the music business, and that disillusionment is palpable across every second of “Gold”. The contrast between the mundane lives of the song’s cast and the “people out there turnin’ music into gold” highlights a disconnect between showbiz and the actual lives of everyday people, and the minor-key lope of the tune and Stewart’s weary, somewhat hoarse singing both end up reinforcing that same cynical tone (I think these sentiments would probably ring a little less true if they weren’t coming from someone who was pushing 40 and definitely sounded like it). There’s a sense that the commodification of music has cheapened the fundamental, almost spiritual role it plays in so many people’s lives, and while it’s not the most original sentiment out there it’s not like I disagree or anything. Stewart has been quite critical of this song, saying it’s “vapid and empty”. Maybe he’s more bothered by the spare, broadly-sketched lyrics than I am. Maybe he resents that this music really did end up getting turned into gold, in a way none of his other solo material did. I think that four decades later, it may just be worth seeing if it can’t be turned back.
#7: KISS- I Was Made For Lovin’ You
There’s something kind of admirable, I think, in how well this song embodies the ruthlessly money-hungry spirit of KISS. Among the band’s more “respectable” material there are certainly songs I enjoy, but overall I could never fully buy into Paul Stanley and co. as hard-living rock ‘n’ roll badasses, no matter how much facepaint and pyrotechnics they threw at me. KISS got to where they did, first and foremost, by being savvy businessmen, knowing which trends to ride and chasing every last possible merchandising dollar. With that in mind, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the sleek dance-rock of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” would be a good fit for them. Gene Simmons lays down a thick, forceful bassline (one of the best of his entire career), newcomer Anton Fig’s drumming is punchy and spandex-tight, and Ace Frehley contributes the fiery leadwork that makes the track feel like a real KISS song (y’know, that rocks and stuff). The star of the show, however, is ultimately Stanley, who shines bright enough as a rakish dancefloor chanteur to successfully overcome his typically weak lyrics. The simmering tension in his delivery and even his indelicate poetry feel befitting of the song’s tone, with the latter actually ending up a bit less obtrusive than it does on many of KISS’s more rock-oriented songs. At the end of the day, this band always felt to me a lot less like AC/DC or Alice Cooper and a lot more like Tommy James & the Shondells, and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” marks one of the few moments in their discography where they seemed to understand and embrace that.
[NOTE: this article originally attributed the drumming on this track incorrectly to original KISS drummer Peter Criss. Though Criss did not leave the band officially until 1980, due to conflict with the other band members he did not perform on any tracks from Dynasty except for his own composition, “Dirty Livin'”]
#6: Earth, Wind & Fire & The Emotions- Boogie Wonderland
I can’t help but feel a bit irked that “Boogie Wonderland” has sort of gone down in history as an Earth, Wind and Fire Song, when it’s as least as much an Emotions song. Sure, the song was written by EW&F collaborators Allee Willis and Jon Lind and produced by band members Maurice White and Al McKay, but the expansion of the vocal duties from two singers to six allows “Boogie Wonderland” to center itself around a more ambitious and intricate vocal arrangement than anything either group had released independently to this point. Each vocalist consistently gets something interesting to do throughout the song, in such a way that the larger array of singers neither goes to waste nor bogs the song down with unnecessary flourishes. All the melodies are simple and catchy, but with just a bit of layering and intertwining the end result manages to effortlessly hold my attention until the very end. As for the rest of the band, at this point Earth, Wind & Fire had essentially perfected their formula, and here they milk it for everything it’s worth (and it’s worth quite a lot!). There’s a palpable enthusiasm to every performance here, and the horn section especially emerges as instrumental MVPs, adding little cursory interjections and giddy fills that add tons of sonic variety to the listening experience. As with many EW&F songs, if there’s any nitpick to be made it’s with the lyrics, which through-and-through exist only to serve the overall tone and energy of the song, but as with “Mr. Blue Sky”, I ultimately still have to respect the songwriters’ ability to keep away from anything that would detract from the ebullient music or snap a listener out of the groove. Perhaps most importantly, they always bring it back to the one truly brilliant line of the song: the “DANCE!” that flings the doors wide on the song’s chorus. That’s utilitarian songwriting if I’ve ever seen it.
#5: Billy Joel- My Life
Billy Joel is a real songwriter’s songwriter. If you’ve never sat down yourself and attempted to pen a coherent and original pop tune you may well not even really notice the little moments on “My Life” where it shows. Listen to that post-chorus bit where it goes down an extra half-step into a more subdued melodic structure that’s totally unrelated to the preceding one, then builds back up right into the verse. Listen to the way the gaps in between each line get filled in by something (most notably the piano) that carries the melody into the next line, or just how effortless the rhyme scheme and cadence of that second verse comes off. Note the peculiar mix of loneliness and reassurance instilled by hearing that “either way, it’s okay, you wake up with yourself”. That kind of stuff doesn’t just fall out of your pen every day, and it isn’t the sort of thing you can get by just plugging a few numbers into some kind of hit-making algorithm. Joel’s using his brain to write this song; just by listening to it you can tell he’s an awfully clever bastard, for better and for worse. Though I do understand the accusations made by some that Joel’s melodic instincts outstrip his lyrical ability, I’m not sure I fully agree. Don’t get me wrong, the main appeal here (and on many of his songs) is unmistakably the earworm hooks, but “My Life” has a little more going on under the surface. It seems to capture a snapshot of the ways the “american dream” was evolving at the time: A friend of the narrator sells off his business to become a comedian in Los Angeles, and bachelors, bachelorettes and young couples alike all go to bed equally alone, equally individual. The symbolic interpretation is that a steady job and a white picket fence is no longer what the young adults are dreaming of achieving- maybe it’s less realistic than it used to be, or maybe they want more out of life. Joel doesn’t condemn this, and he doesn’t quite endorse it, either. This is just how things are now. Go ahead with you own life, leave him alone.
#4: The Charlie Daniels Band- The Devil Went Down to Georgia
How weird is it that this is actually the original rendition of this song? A story about a Georgian farm boy winning a gold fiddle from Lucifer himself feels like it fits right in with the fables and tall tales that have populated the American south for far longer than the four-ish decades the song’s been around. Comparative recency aside, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” really is a classic in every sense of the word, and it’s nothing but a credit to the Charlie Daniels Band’s rendition that that old-time, folkloric flavor comes through as strong as it does here. This song’s success has two major components: the hammy, enthusiastic narration and the heaping helpings of country-fried fiddle shred, both provided by frontman Charlie Daniels. His vocal delivery here evokes campfire storytelling at its most dramatic, with enough roguish southern charm to really set the scene properly. And, most importantly, we get no less than THREE gleeful, manic fiddle solos, and each and every one is a boatload of fun. Given that this song’s a bit afield of the traditional 70s pop milieu, I think that’s the secret to what made it a hit in the mainstream. If an average-joe radio listener is listening to some bluegrass, they’re expecting a whole damn hoedown, dare I say even a hootenanny, and those solos provide exactly that. Though it’s not really representative of bluegrass as a genre, and there are probably more technically dazzling or emotionally hard-hitting examples of it, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” still delivers everything a pop listener could ever hope for from a song of this category, and for that it’s more than earned its place in history.
#3: Cheap Trick- I Want You to Want Me
Add this one to the list of “hit singles from albums where a different song should’ve been the hit” (a well I hope to revisit several more times over the course of this series). I would love nothing more than to talk here about the power-pop classic “Surrender”, a potent and surprisingly nuanced look at intergenerational tension in late 20th century America and one of the catchiest rock tunes of the decade. Sadly, however, the rules of this project dictate that I must instead talk about its much more commercially successful sibling, “I Want You to Want Me”, which is a tight, incredibly catchy pop song. It’s great though! It’s got a irresistible, head-bobbing bounce to it, the chorus boils down the notion of the love song to it’s purest, sugariest form, and though it’s been talked to death I really can’t overstate just how much the At Budokan live version blows the studio original out of the water. It’s so much more passionate, so much more lively, and the band is clearly having the time of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, the crowd going utterly apeshit the whole time is both a testament to the vivacity on display and an energizing factor in its own right. I think some of this band’s more substantive material shines regardless of whether it’s the live or studio version, but a song this simple (juvenile, even) needed the energy of a concert performance to feel complete, and the performance Cheap Trick provides here is about as energetic as it gets. The result is the sound of a composition coming to life in front of an audience, and becoming whole in the process. I do still wish “Surrender” had been the song off At Budokan to break the band big, but the highest praise I can give “I Want You to Want Me” is that I really, truly understand why they went with it instead.
#2: Blondie- Heart of Glass
For a short while a few years ago, I played bass in a band whose live repertoire included a cover of “Heart of Glass”. The version we performed was, in my estimation, quite bad, and while this was due to a number of factors, the biggest one was that our drummer was not Clem Burke. Burke’s drumming really is the secret ingredient to “Heart of Glass”’s brilliance; he lays down the most crisp, taut and danceable 4/4 this side of “Stayin’ Alive” (with an impressively nuanced hi-hat pattern to boot) and his fills towards the end of the song constitute some of the most creative and exciting rock drumwork of the decade. Burke and bassist Nigel Harrison grooved so hard here that they broke Blondie through to the mainstream in a way none of their CBGB’s contemporaries ever quite managed, riding the dying disco sound the way only a young and ferociously talented act could. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the rhythm section here, but I don’t want to discount the rest of the band, who all contribute gamely in their own ways. In particular, Jimmy Destri’s laser-guided synth atmospherics and frontwoman Debbie Harry’s playfully airy vocals do wonders to solidify the song’s sleek, glossy top end, countering the heavy dancefloor beat with something a little spacier and headier. Though they’ll always be defined to some extent by their hip, punk-adjacent beginnings, “Heart of Glass” is one of the finest examples of Blondie’s real talent as songwriters: packing cutting-edge pop with real rock muscle.
#1: Earth, Wind & Fire- September
In these trying times, I’ve found that one of the most wholesome and straightforwardly joy-inducing aspects of modern internet culture is the acceptance by seemingly everyone that the 21st of September is now an unofficial, semi-memetic holiday, to be celebrated by listening to and/or watching the video for Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”. How great is that? One day a year where we all take a short break from arguing with holocaust deniers or enjoying tentacle pornography or whatever else we waste our days online with to briefly but emphatically agree that “September” is still, in fact, a total jam. Apart from its convenient placement away from any other major American holidays, nestled right in between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, “September” also has a certain something about it, an X-factor that brings everyone together. The tune just seems to make people happy- I know for a fact it makes me happy. Maurice White and co-writer Allee Willis famously argued for ages over the song’s “Ba-de-ya” refrain, until White declared, even if the line was nonsense, to “never let the lyrics get in the way of the groove”. The resultant chorus is possibly the strongest argument yet produced in favor of that philosophy. Reading the words on paper simply doesn’t do justice to how hearing them sung makes you feel. I’m sure the allusions to romantic nostalgia have hit home for many people, but for me the song will always be all about that great bassline, that infectious and satisfying chord progression, those triumphant horns, Maurice White’s effervescent vocal performance- I could go on and on. With September 21, 2021 not too far off, I take comfort in the fact that I already know exactly what I’ll be merrily humming to myself all day that day, and that it will lift my mood and invigorate my senses just as much then as it does right now.