Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scrapbook: more of the case for the defence for pop music in 1976

My previous post offered a qualified defence of 1976 as actually not being such a terrible year for pop music as might have been thought. While the foundation of my argument rests on the view that soul, funk and the new kid on the block, disco, were not only in the rudest of health but also formed a fair proportion of the Top 40, I thought I'd see what else I might call to the defence of '76.

Here are some thoughts to get me started which I will work up into longer posts as I go forward. 

Any preferences? Anything else you think I should be tackling?

1. Stevie Wonder releases Songs In The Key of Life

Although I Wish was a top 5 hit towards the end of year, SITKOL is worth a citation in its own right as there's so much goodness on this double album it's unbelievable: As, Love's In Need Of Love Today, Have A Talk With A God and Sir Duke (which charted big the following year). 

I mean, Have A Talk With God sounds like Stevie and a chorus of malfunctioning R2-units praising the Creator and it's still an amazing piece of pop music. Sui generis.

2. Reminder: the golden age of classic rock continued 

Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear The Reaper, Boston's More Than A Feeling, Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town, Kiss' Detroit Rock City, The Eagles' Hotel California. All released on albums in '76, all singles, all great pop regardless of what else they and their bands might be.

Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody, of course, we've already covered.

3. Yankee punk countercurrents: Ramones and The Modern Lovers release their first albums 

Okay, so neither band were troubling the charts of 1976 on either side of the Atlantic. But since Blitzkrieg Bop, Roadrunner and the rest helped inspire a new-old style of pop music in the years that followed, at the very least we can point to the creative health of the punk margins at this time as a sign of what was to come.

And whisper it, but Anarchy In The UK was released in November 1976.

4. ELO enter their imperial period

We're still two years away from Mr Blue Sky, but A New World Record was out and Livin' Thing snuck it's way into the Top 10. ELO were on heavy rotation in my house when i was very young, so this would inevitably be something of a sentimental journey.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Was pop in crisis in 1976?

As so far I've cherry picked what I actually write about from 1976, I thought it might be interesting to consider what a typical Top 40 for the year looked like. Which genres predominated? How much of it was actually any good? 

This was partly inspired by coming across a 2011 article by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian damning the music of 1976 as 'pop's worst year' based on watching the Top Of The Pops archives.

"it's difficult to express how awful [...] pop music seems to have been in 1976. Every week, something comes on that causes you to be gripped by the absolute certainty that an unequivocal nadir has been reached and that things can only get better."

Is this fair? Was pop in crisis in '76?

To begin to test this, let's take 11-17 April 1976, when the top 10 was as follows:

1. Brotherhood Of Man - Save Your Kisses For Me
2. Abba - Fernando
3. John Miles - Music
4. Barry White - The Trouble With Me
5. Hank Mizell - Jungle Rock
6. 10cc - I'm Mandy Fly Me
7. Diana Ross - Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)
8. The Bay City Rollers - Love Me Like I Love You
9. Sailor - Girls Girls Girls
10. Elton John - Pinball Wizard

So, according to my own idiosyncratic understanding of genre, that's:

- MOR/pure pop - 4
- Prog-pop - 2
- Funk/soul - 1
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1 
- Vaudeville atrocity (you know who you are)- 1

And in descending order of quality:

- Pinball Wizards - 1
- Barry Whites - 1
- Music from the future and from the past? Why, Mr Miles! - 1 
- [tipping point for quality starts here]
- Good bands having a bad day - 2
- Hurry up and work with Chic already - 1
- MOR purgatory - 2
- What-is-this-I-can't-even? - 2

A Top Ten in which the best thing in it by a country mile is a song from 1969 redone for a Ken Russell's film does tend to support the Petridis Theory, it's true. And any week in which the chart is topped by Save Your Kisses For Me is in itself is a self-contained argument for punk.

But let's see how this plays out over the Top 40 as a whole:

- MOR/pure pop -13
- Funk/soul/disco - 11
- Beatles reissues - 6
- Prog-pop - 3
- Country/country rock - 2
- Glam rock - 1
- Keith Emerson playing ragtime piano, because hey, why not! - 1    
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Other 60's reissues - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1
- Vaudeville atrocity - 1 

While this week is something of a high watermark for nostalgia in 1976, EMI having just reissued all 22 Beatles singles, pretty much any given week that year sees golden oldies charting. And it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the health of the charts when the past is more essential than the present.

However, the big shift when looking at the Top 40, and this is pretty much consistent in my journey through the year so far, is the increase in soul, funk and disco tracks.

And if I look at what's good (for reasonably broad but subjective values of 'good') in the entire chart, I find an interesting correlation.

- Disco Connection - Isaac Hayes
- S-S-S-Single Bed - Fox
- Love Really Hurts Without You - Billy Ocean
- Movin' - Brass Construction
- Silver Connection - Get Up And Boogie
- All By Myself - Eric Carmen (yes, that All By Myself)
- I Love To Love - Tina Charles
- That's Where The Happy People Go - The Trammps

Heck, even Convoy, if I'm feeling generous.

The key point here is that the overwhelming majority of the good stuff in this particular chart is either contemporary American funk and disco music or local iterations of the same (the mighty Billy Ocean and Tina Charles) or otherwise heavily endebted to it (Fox). While I haven't gone back for rigorous checks, I'll maintain that this holds broadly true across all the 1976 Top 40's I've looked at so far. And to be fair to Petridis, this is also a point he near-as-darn-it makes in his article too.

Viewed in this light, talk of pop crisis in '76 needs to be more nuanced. Yes, there's a fair amount of middling to terrible light entertainment and MOR to work through, which not even Abba can balance that out. And it's true that decent rock '45's not from the 1960's are thin on the ground; punk and new wave can't come soon enough to change that.  

So it's a crisis of place (the UK) and a crisis of sub-genre, perhaps, but not one of pop itself.