Rising: Innanet James: The Artful Life of an Online Rapper
Photo by: Innanet James
Innanet James’ demeanor matches his delivery. In a starkly lit Brooklyn basement, the 21-year-old rapper answers questions softly, but—as on the mic—he gains momentum with each word. But no matter how excited he gets, he remains assured, in control. “The words pop out at me,” he says, trying to explain how his verses work, before deciding that it’s better to show than tell: “I watch Ashley ash her cigarette/Ashes and pop some acid,” he starts, revving up some fresh lines from a song he’s working on. “On some Cyndi Lauper shit/Having fun inside of my castle/Flip whose tassel/Tasers tag you/Taylor Swift is skipping sandals.”
It might not be easy for anyone but him to see exactly how these trippy, free-associative thoughts are tied together, but James’ technical prowess is crystal clear as he flawlessly makes his way through one tongue twister after another. The absurdism only represents one side of the Maryland MC, who has already shown multitudes throughout his discography—even if it’s just three songs deep. “Vice City” is indulgent, a smooth boast about enjoying yourself; “Black” is political and proud; and “Summer,” his best yet, is unabashed fun.
He has an EP, Quebec Place, in the works, but Innanet James is not in any particular rush to ascend or become famous. He takes things as they come and then excels once they do, and it’s that attitude that makes “Summer,” in particular, so irresistible. He captures the season’s beatific ephemera without dwelling on it. It’s not something you can explain—just feel. As he raps on the track, “Summertime shine like summertime do.” The sense of inevitability is contagious.
James grew up listening to rap, R&B, and go-go, the lively funk hybrid native to the D.C. area. (His mother wouldn’t let him go to raucous go-go shows as a young teen, but he snuck out anyway.) And the local style is a clear influence for a rapper who’s as happy to go over a dance beat as he is a screeching guitar solo, as he does on another unreleased song.
Motivated by people who told him he wouldn’t make it, he decided to make hip-hop a full-time pursuit about a year ago. “I don’t know nothing else for life,” he says. “I love music, so that’s all I want to do.” He’s looking to project this sincerity outward—though not in a self-serving way. Talking about the positive reactions to his feel-good anthem “Black,” he says, “If I could give people that feeling, then I’m happy.”
True to his moniker (which started as a joke), Innanet James is all about everything online, from his admiration for Chance the Rapper’s exclusive web release Coloring Book to pirating Captain America: Civil War. He first linked up with his label, Fête Records, on the web, too—even though it turned out he lived only 10 minutes away from its co-founders. Still, they may as well have been halfway around the globe, given that the producers with whom he’s worked, MZA and the Kount, are from Hawaii and Canada, respectively. He spends endless hours looking for beats on SoundCloud. “That’s pretty much my whole day,” he says, surprised once he thinks about it. This is just what he does now.
Pitchfork: What made you want to be a rapper?
Innanet James: I grew up listening to Raekwon, Ghostface, 50, Wayne. Around third grade I wrote my first rap—and that shit was trash. But I kept working at it. I took breaks here and there then picked it up again when I turned 20.
Was there a particular record that made you want to rap?
The “Upgrade U” freestyle on [Lil Wayne’s] Da Drought 3. I actually wouldn’t be rapping if it weren’t for Da Drought 3. It spoke to me. It was like, “Yo, he wrote something incredible and you should try and do the same thing.”
What sort of things would you do for fun as a teenager?
Regular dumb teen shit. The dumbest thing I ever did was steal my stepmother’s car to drive to this girl’s house one night, before I had a license. I got back to my house at 4 a.m., and my parents wake up at 5:30 a.m. So I thought: OK, I’m gonna hold onto to the keys and move the car back to the spot that it was in before they wake up. But my dumb ass slept ’til 7:30. They came banging on my door like, “Somebody stole the car!”
What were you doing before deciding to rap full-time?
I was working at DSW and going to art classes. I took a graphic design class but didn’t like it. It wasn’t my thing. Then, one day, as I got to work, I was like, “Fuck that shit.” I turned right back around, went home, and just started writing raps.
Who is a current artist that you admire?
Anderson .Paak. Like when he says: “Six years old I tried my first pair of Jordans on.” I don’t know how old I was when I got my first pair of Jordans, but I know what it was like when I got my first pair of Jordans. I wore them joints out the store. I felt that shit.
What are your goals for your upcoming debut EP?
I want it to evoke emotion when you hear it. I want you to be proud when you hear “Black.” I want you to dance when you hear “Summer.” I want you want to be like, “Oh, that’s witty as shit.” I want you to see the words.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story referred to Innanet James’ forthcoming EP as Portraits for Free, but the title has been changed to Quebec Place.
Longform: What It Takes for an Independent Record Store to Survive Now
Photo by: Music fans flip through records at Used Kids in April. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
It’s the morning of this year’s Record Store Day at Used Kids in Columbus, Ohio, and a line of collectors—including a few who staked out spots in folding chairs—is already snaking through the High Street sidewalk. The store’s owner, Greg Hall, 54, bounds down a poster-filled staircase to greet the early risers with a huge grin and an open box from nearby Buckeye Donuts. With silver hair tucked under a ballcap, chain wallet looping out of his shorts, and hiking boots over his white socks, Hall is gregarious and instantly approachable. He laughs loudly and often; his guffaws make that oft-written but seldom verbalized “ha ha ha” sound.
At 8 a.m., customers flood the 30-year-old independent music haven, and the free doughnuts and coffee give way to pizza and cans of PBR on ice. Local indie rockers and rappers perform on a stage in the back of the windowless store, which feels worn and lived-in but less dusty than in years past. Racks of records—organized by handpainted, yellow-and-black signs—sit in black bins perched on cinder blocks atop a faded checkerboard floor. Even though Used Kids occupies an upstairs space, it smells like the basements where much of the store’s used stock originated.
By mid-afternoon, the sought-after Record Store Day releases are picked over, but customers continue to pour in. One woman searches in vain for an exclusive 7" by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, while a local MC on deck to perform browses the jazz section. The shop feels vibrant, energized, like it did in the mid-1990s, when the CD boom flushed Used Kids with more money than previous owners Dan Dow,Ron House, andBela Koe-Krompecher knew what to do with: The store grossed about a million dollars annually in 1996 and 1997.
Like most record stores, though, Used Kids struggled through the first decade of the 2000s—not to mention the fire that destroyed everything in 2001. It reopened, but sales slowed. Employees left or were fired. But while fellow legacy stores like Ear X-tacy in Louisville and, more recently, Other Music in New York, closed up shop, Used Kids somehow survived.
Greg Hall, who bought Used Kids two years ago, sits in the poster-lined hallway leading up to the store. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
At this point, the independent record store is an endangered species, and only the shops that are willing to change and adapt have a chance at surviving in an environment where music communities have migrated online. With all the talk of a vinyl resurgence over the last several years, it’s easy to forget that the format still represents only 12 percent of physical album sales. It’s not like the 1980s and early ’90s, when you needed two hands to count the number of record stores on this stretch of High Street across from Ohio State University. This year, on Record Store Day, Used Kids is the sole remaining music shop in the campus area.
In the fall of 2014, Greg Hall bought Used Kids in hopes of carrying it into the future on High Street. But right before Record Store Day in April, he got some unexpected news: The owners of the building housing Used Kids had ideas for the space that didn’t involve the store remaining there long term. Hall could either close and liquidate or move. Closing was a last resort, but relocating would mean leaving the area the store had called home for decades.
Used Kids’ presence has always been an integral part of Columbus’ music scene, from the clerks behind the counter who launched labels, started cult bands, and booked rock shows at nearby venues, to the hunched crate-diggers who forged friendships over racks of wax. If Used Kids were to close, a cultural legacy would die with it, and its death would raise the question: If an institution like Used Kids can’t make it, who can?
Used Kids—pictured here in all its dusty, hand-written glory—was recently faced with a dilemma: move or close down entirely. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
Used Kids was not the first record store on that stretch of High Street in Columbus. In the ’70s, just a few doors down, there was Mole’s, one of only a handful of shops in the country to sell used records. Mole’s was run by Kenny Stone, a chatty Elvis Costello groupie who, like many record store owners of yore, wasn’t fond of paying taxes.
One of Stone’s first employees was Dan Dow, a shy music lover who went on to form twisted country-blues outfit the Gibson Bros. (Jon Spencer later replaced Dow in the band). Following Dow to Mole’s in the mid ’80s was his buddy Ron House, who’d been fired and rehired three times from another High Street record store, the memorably named Magnolia Thunderpussy, before finally quitting when the owner accused his friend of stealing $20. “My friend might have stolen $20,” House tells me, “but I quit in solidarity.”
By that point Dow was running the daily operations of Mole’s. Curt Schieber, who owned nearby basement store SchoolKids Records and ran the label No Other Records, decided to move his shop upstairs and asked Dow if he would want to sell used records on the lower level. So in 1986, Dow and House pooled their record collections and named the basement store Used Kids Records. While House managed the money, Dow hired more help, like Mike “Rep” Hummel, who recorded or produced records by the Gibson Bros., New Bomb Turks, Guided by Voices, and House’s band Great Plains.
Meanwhile, punk kid Bela Koe-Krompecher was working at three different record stores near Ohio State. “I would go to Used Kids every day and buy records,” Koe-Krompecher says. “I remember one day Ron was like, ‘Hey, you want a beer?’ It was like, Yes! I’m in! I was 19. I felt so proud flipping through dollar records drinking a black label. This was the world I wanted be a part of.” Dow soon asked Koe-Krompecher to work at the store full-time, offering him $12,000 a year, free records, and the joy of drinking beer on the job.
The Used Kids annex, a basement space next door that was joined by a staircase, opened in 1990 and employed Dow’s good friend Dave Diemer (nicknamed The Captain for his love of Captain Beefheart) and others. By the early ’90s Dow made House and Koe-Krompecher part owners, and as they hired more part-timers—most of whom also played in Columbus bands—Used Kids became an underground hub, garnering a mention in a 1995 Entertainment Weekly story about the rising profile of Columbus’ music scene. It was a clubhouse, a place for outsiders to congregate, with plenty of beer and pot to go around.
“People who work in a record shop are far more interesting and genuine than anyone else you’ll meet in other aspects of the music business,” says Jerry DeCicca, who founded doom-folk act the Black Swans and joined the Used Kids staff in the mid-’90s. “At Used Kids, I finally found a place that culturally valued the same things I did—I had more in common with them than 99 percent of other people in the world.”
One time Used Kids co-owner Bela Koe-Krompecher, who also runs a local label and used to book shows around Columbus, at the store in 1991. Photo by Jay Brown.
While Dow was releasing music on his OKra Records label, Koe-Krompecher launched his own imprint, Anyway, releasing music by Columbus bands along with then-little-known Dayton group Guided By Voices. (Koe-Krompecher says the sonic hiccups on “Hardcore UFO’s,” the leadoff track on GBV’s 1994 classic Bee Thousand, are partly due to Used Kids’ tape deck eating the cassette.) Around this time, Koe-Krompecher also began booking bands like Pavement, Sebadoh, Magnetic Fields, and others at nearby venues.
The labels, the bookings, the bands—they all raised Used Kids’ profile and brought more and more people to the shop. The Ramones came by. And, at the height of Pearl Jam’s fame, Eddie Vedder stopped in and ended up hanging out all day. “He was ringing people up, drinking beer,” Koe-Krompecher remembers.
“When Sonic Youth was in the store, we were listening to My Bloody Valentine,” House says. “They go, ‘Whoa, that is so weird. We played with them three months ago and they didn’t sound anything like this. Now they sound like us.’”
By pulling triple-duty in the local music scene, the staffers and part-timers at a basement record store helped to turn the Columbus music scene into something truly special. But it wasn’t just a local phenomenon. Used Kids became a bastion of independent music in the Midwest and was well-known in certain circles all over the country. In Europe, Gibson Bros. fans ascribed mythical status to the store.
“People today might not realize how exciting it was to be in a record store in the ’90s,” says House.
Former Used Kids co-owner Ron House (left) and owner Dan Dow in 1989. When the store was making a million dollars a year in the mid-’90s, House thought to post a mural in the store that read: “The center of the universe.” Photo by Jay Brown.
When it came to business, Dow had a get-the-music-to-the-people philosophy. Everything was priced to sell. For used CDs, an album the store purchased for $3 would sell for $5, $4 for $7, $5 for $9. For used vinyl, a 50-cent record would sell for $1, and $2 records would go for $4. “I don’t think we ever sold anything for more than $25, ever,” Koe-Krompecher says.
Then, in the mid ’90s, Used Kids went from doing $100 to $2,000 a day in sales, and then more, all thanks to the CD boom. “The way people latched onto CDs was amazing,” says House, who remembers buying three boxes of Counting Crows promotional CDs from a customer, even though he had never heard of the band. “We were selling Counting Crows CDs for months,” he says.
Another time, a huge winter storm knocked out the store’s power. But just as House was about to put up the “Closed” sign, 15 customers showed up in below-zero temps to buy CDs in a store with no heat.
While used CD sales carried the store, the annex side, which sold mostly used vinyl, wasn’t nearly as busy and began to feel like a forgotten corner. But the annex employees stuck around because of Dow.
“No one made tons of money, but we were treated very well,” DeCicca says. “Dan trusted people—probably too much. He didn’t count the money in the register. If you messed up and needed to borrow money, you could. They paid my health insurance. A street guy would walk in, and Dan would give him $20 to take out the garbage.”
Flush with CD cash, the owners were riding high. “We definitely got a little arrogant,” says House, a thick, intimidating figure with piercing blue eyes, ruddy face, and a nasal yowl who was known around town as the quintessential, smart-ass record-store clerk. “We put a mural up—it was my idea—that said, ‘The center of the universe.’ And we definitely felt like that. When you’re making so much money, you really think you know what you’re doing, even though it might just be luck.”
A vintage flyer and a sign that was put up following a disastrous fire that forced Used Kids to regroup in 2001.
While it seems completely antithetical to how we think of record stores and their employees today, Used Kids was on top of the world, like a newly signed band using its major label money on drugs and booze, and feeling like the good times would last forever. They didn’t.
Towards the end of the ’90s, after those million-dollar years, relationships began to fray. Dow had a kid. The Captain died in 1998. Sales began to decline. House’s band got dropped from a major label. Koe-Krompecher had become an alcoholic, and bands he’d poured his life into were breaking up and battling mental illness and succumbing to drug addictions. In January of 2001, Jerry Wick, a Used Kids fixture and singer for Anyway band Gaunt, was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike. Then in June of that year, the entire store burned in an accidental electrical fire.
“Those guys were out of their mind when that happened,” DeCicca says. “The store was never the same; Dan, Ron, and Bela were never the same.”
While House and Koe-Krompecher look back at the fire as a good thing for the store, since it forced them to regroup and reopen a few months later in the new upstairs space, it was devastating at the time. Meanwhile, downloading was growing more and more popular, and the market for used CDs tanked. Vinyl sales remained stagnant. With less money to go around, tensions among the owners and employees grew.
In 2007, Dow fired Koe-Krompecher. They haven’t spoken since. (Koe-Krompecher still runs Anyway Records and is now sober and married with two kids.) DeCicca and House left in 2008, though House remained part owner for a few more years and continues to perform with a couple Ohio acts. “For all the bands I played in, I was always best-known for just being the guy who worked at Used Kids,” House says.
While the store continued to subsist under Dow, aided in part by the uptick in vinyl sales nationwide in 2008, it couldn’t regain its former glory. Ongoing construction around the OSU campus was making traffic and parking worse while also replacing longtime independent businesses with chain restaurants. And even though thousands of students walked by the store every day when school was in session, few actually came in.
Dwindling CD sales in the 2000s put an end to Used Kids’ outsized success. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
Before purchasing Used Kids in September 2014, Greg Hall began moonlighting at the store, helping Dow get organized and revamping the online business. Dow hadn’t made substantial improvements to the store in years; friends say he was worn down and “damaged” after decades at Used Kids. (Dow declined to comment for this story and has said he’s trying to stay separate from everything having to do with the store.)
“When I bought this store it was struggling mightily,” says Hall, who took on “significant debt” when he made the purchase. “Taking a risk, losing money—it’s all part of doing business. I don’t take any money home. I want to bury my capital back into the shop. It’s gonna take that to turn the store around and keep it alive. And I’m not into just survival. I wanna make it rock.”
“When Greg took over, it was almost night and day with how we managed everything,” says current Used Kids part-timer Kellie Morgan, 30, who fell in love with the store in high school and has worked under both Dow and Hall. Morgan recalls Hall giving her an ambitious goal—to make Used Kids “the coolest fucking record store between New York and Chicago.”
To do that, things had to change—which is something Used Kids had not done for a long time. It was dusty, disorganized, and still charming, but had begun to feel like a relic. “I’m kind of old-fashioned and stuck in my ways,” Dow said in a 2012 interview. “I’m just so against change.”
Hall could not be more different. “I think change is something that is super important for people to be able to deal with,” he says. “I accept it, hustle my ass off, and change, change, change. I do the Bowie thing.”
For Hall, part of changing is diversifying. Used Kids now sells turntables and stereo equipment. (“They gotta have the shovel to get the gold,” he says.) Some of the stereo equipment goes in the online store, too, which is managed by Tom Shannon.
Shannon, a tall man with a serious gaze offset by a soft-spoken disposition, came to Used Kids at the tail end of the CD boom and hung on through the tough times as others came and went. Armed with two decades of experience at Used Kids, a master’s degree in library science, and years of fronting deafening garage-punk trio the Cheater Slicks, Shannon is Hall’s trusted consigliere. He handles specialty buys that require the most expertise, as well as all of the store’s eBay sales, which has been an essential part of Used Kids’ business strategy since 1999.
Still, contrary to what you may hear about eBay carrying the lion’s share of sales at brick-and-mortar record stores nowadays, Shannon says the vast majority of sales—90 percent or more—still come from in-store purchases.
While some overseas sales remain strong (“Anybody who sells records sells a lot of soul records to British people,” Shannon says), most online business comes from U.S. customers. “Selling records is still very difficult, and only an extremely small percentage of records are highly desirable,” Shannon says. “The big issue with record stores is getting stock. It’s a very finite quantity out there. Getting original pressings of things is getting harder and harder.”
Some record stores refuse to sell online, claiming it robs walk-in customers the opportunity to find sought-after records. But Hall says Used Kids shouldn’t be a museum: “I do not want to see a $50 record sit on the floor. We sold a 7" single for $2,800 not too long ago, so I can get $2,800 in seven days, or I can let it sit here for years and hope the right person comes along.”
To keep the used stock fresh, Hall does home visits all over Ohio and beyond. Plus, he has a network of basement pickers. “I want a bunch of people feeding into this store,” Hall says. “I’m gonna miss a thousand deals every day, but I want to try to capture as many of them as I possibly can—every day, just jamming cool records in there.”
That philosophy carries over to new stock, as well. Hall orders far more new records than Dow did. On any given day, for example, you’ll find multiple sealed copies of Spoon’s back catalog at Used Kids. “Some stores order it in if someone asks, but that doesn’t work,” Hall says. “I realize the big capital risk, but that’s part of the cool factor: If you don’t have it, you can’t sell it.”
Owner Greg Hall says adding stereo equipment, online sales, and an ample in-store selection has helped to keep Used Kids afloat. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
Hall started his obsession with music as a punk-rock kid from rural Ohio who made his way to Columbus for college in 1979 and paid his way through Ohio State working at SchoolKids Records. After graduating, he worked suit-and-tie jobs in the VHS industry until the mid 2000s. Having experienced firsthand the change from VHS to DVD, Hall is sensitive to the way industries switch formats and repackage the same stuff. But he’s still bullish on vinyl. He’s frustrated by the high price points for new LPs. “If a punk rock band can walk in and sell me their record for $9 and I sell it for $15, there’s no reason Billy Joel can’t do the same thing,” he says. But he doesn’t think the so-called vinyl resurgence is merely a trend. He thinks it’s different, something deeper.
“Young people started reacting instinctively, realizing they liked the tactile experience of music—I don’t even think it was conscious,” Hall says. “They enjoy face-to-face interactions, not downloads from some piece of machinery. It’s better socially, better for the community, and people can feel it.”
In April, when Hall had the choice to either close Used Kids or move, he quickly found a new space about a mile and a half north—farther from a lot of students, but also farther from the wrecking ball that keeps hitting other businesses near Ohio State. Used Kids probably won’t get as many just-passing-through customers at the new location, but it’ll offset that with a convenient parking lot, free street parking, and easier drive times for the community of artists and musicians who live just north of OSU. (Hall also hopes to one day open a small, boutique offshoot of Used Kids on campus again.)
When Hall bought Used Kids from Dow in 2014, he and Tom Shannon lit a smudge stick and walked through the High Street space to ceremonially rid the store of any lingering impurities and give the shop a new, fresh start. “Moving to the new space,” Hall says, “is kind of like the final smudge.”
The new Used Kids location on Summit Street. Photo by Joshua Bickel.
It’s Thursday, May 26—opening day for the new Used Kids shop on Summit Street. You could call it a soft opening. There are no balloons or grand announcements. Sarah Campbell, a junior in high school who’s worked at the store for two years, rings up customers. Records fill the bins, but boxes are piled in a corner where the stage will go, and a big sign outside the building still says “Beer Wine Carry Out”—a holdover from the previous tenant.
Hall is jovial but visibly exhausted, sweating in a tattered shirt and shorts while gripping a cold can of beer and troubleshooting a printer issue. Last night he was up late dealing with a backed-up, overflowing toilet.
But the store is open. There’s a new color scheme in play with the red brick and the jet-black bins. It’s skeletal but functional. And people are here—more people, in fact, than would normally be at the old location on a Thursday afternoon. A few are regulars, like the middle-aged man in an olive suit and yellow button-down who comes in every few days in hopes of padding his Beatles collection and a younger guy who’s on a never-ending quest for acid-jazz CDs. Other browsers are Used Kids newbies.
“Never seen that guy before, never seen that guy before,” Hall says, smiling and pointing. “That feels good.”
I flip through some bins and realize I’d love to own Louisville songwriter Joan Shelley’s most recent record, Over and Even, though it’s the type of niche LP that most stores wouldn’t stock months after its release. Finding it would be a crap shoot. I dig a bit anyway, looking through the folk records, then over to the “Indie - S” section. There it is. Hall’s philosophy—anticipating the records his customers want and stocking them, no matter the cost—works on me. I pony up $19.
As I’m checking out, the guy in line behind me tells the clerk that he lives nearby. He’s been watching the renovation progress with excitement, waiting for the store to open. I ask him how often he made it down to the old location.
“Almost never,” he says, and walks out the door with a stack of records.
Lists & Guides: The Story of Feminist Punk in 33 Songs
Photo by: Noelle Bullion
“Feminism,” “punk,” and “feminist punk” can have many definitions, culturally and personally. In attempting to capture the spirit and story of this lineage, we had to narrow down these enormous fields. We looked for songs that make their feminist messages clear—not just songs by punks who are feminists, and not songs that were “punk” or “feminist” in spirit alone. In this context, we defined punk as some kind of raw expression, not only an attitude. We looked for rallying cries that have questioned, explored, and destroyed stereotypes, in which the form of the music has mirrored the message. We believe they are classics that cross canons, set precedents, and uphold virtues for the idea of feminism in punk, and the artists who wrote them have moved punk forward.
We'll let a true punk vanguard take it from here....
PARTY LIKE A PUNKETTE
By Vivien Goldman
It’s punk, not spunk. So loaded towards males is the English language, though, that we may have to reinvent our whole vocabulary. Because some of the best words to describe our female punks are phallocentric: “spunky,” “ballsy.” Start calling us “cunts” or “pussies,” though, and it won’t go down so well. Why is a comparison to our vaginas not considered a compliment? Dunno, but try asking some dickhead who won’t book your female band on his festival bill because “we’ve already got our girls.”
Punk is now acknowledged as the global music of rebellion, alongside hip-hop and reggae. But punk wins because it is the simplest to master… uh-oh, there goes that loaded English language again! So if we still have to armbend English to express ourselves freely (hello,Midwest Wimmin’s Festival!), how much more did first generation punkettes, my generation in fact, have to (wo)manipulate our society to get heard at all? Resistance to our existence was an acknowledged fact of life. Punk was born in violent times, though less violent than now. And it took a volcanic social eruption to propel women into their own bands. They could be mixed—like the Slitswith their boy drummer, Bruce Smith—but the crucial difference was that females were doing the hiring.
When I started writing in the rock press in the mid-1970s, girl musicians were so rare that, in what may have been the first Women inRock article, I described a long-haired female guitarist as if she were a unicorn. Prior to punk, with its passport to a new normal for guys who wore kilts and girls who didn’t look like Stevie Nicks or Karen Carpenter, we could only look to Heart and Suzi Quatro. They were good rockers but, musically, they styled themselves after the very lads who were trying to block us.
Punk’s open door finally let in self-directed girl artists; in reality, many punkettes first learned to play on their boyfriends’ instruments. Some of us lot were curious to see if we could make a very new sound, being women and all. There arose a very British arrhythmia, often molded more by dub and free jazz than punk itself: hence the Slits, the Raincoats, the Delta 5, the Mo-Dettes etc. And myself. Though I was raised singing in harmony with my two big sisters at home—my father started out as a violinist—I might have stuck with writing and never made music. But I slid into it so naturally by singing with my girlfriends from those bands.
Vivien Goldman interviews Siouxie Sioux, 1978, Photo by Ray Stevenson
Because women’s contributions are so often hidden from herstory, when the riot grrrl movement began in America, those women were virtually unaware that their UK sisters had been fighting parallel battles two decade earlier. But the Americans were way better funded and organized than we had been, lurching through no-woman’s-land to make ourselves heard. It took awhile beforeKurt Cobainchampioned the Raincoats and Sonic Youth bonded with the Slits.
But the first generation punkettes really were something new. Rock was a real laddist boystown right before punk. Editorial meetings could be a minefield for me, even when I was Features Editor at Sounds, with scribes snarling, “Why write about women? Women aren’t interested in music. Women don’t make music. Women don’t buy music.” These were the groans of a totally male-owned structure under attack by rampaging female hordes. The groans led to fissures and cracks, some crumbling walls…but not a collapse.
Don’t be fooled, even though feminism is in the charts courtesy of Beyoncé (she’s got her punkette side!) and some of the industry’s top earners are female. Most shot-callers are still male and they can have a reductive view of what they consider fuckable (i.e. commercial). It was punk’s embrace of the unorthodox and the unpretty that enabled our heroines to create. Digitization and the devolution of the old-school music industry has made traditional income streams dwindle for artists, but it has cleared the way for some females who are prone to starting out solo, in their bedrooms. Now, more than ever, self-starters like Little Boots and Lorde have successfully parlayed home recordings into global careers. In principle, this has enabled individual girl artists to access their audiences without having to be approved by patriarchal industry gatekeepers.
Where possible, please create a community with complementary skills. Nowadays, it often starts online. Still, try and find a way to actually, physically be with your new creative cohorts.
Because nothing beats jamming and singing with your sisters.
That is punk. Punk freed female musicians. It is yours. Sing it, play it, live it now.
It started small, like some of punk’s most unsettling songs do. They need room to grow big—and Patti Smith's nearly 10-minute fever dream at the heart of Horses expanded enough to hold a sea of possibilities. In that way, “Land” became a self-fulfilling prophecy; what Smith and the women who followed would achieve was unimaginable before she came along, with her sharp edges and her Rimbaud worship.
Smith’s nascent version of punk was influential in its attitude more than anything, and it made her the natural link between the Velvet Underground (whom she quoted on “Land”) and the Ramones in the continuum of downtown New York rock. Her presence at the forefront of the scene was a statement in itself, and “Land” was her theme, ever-evolving as she played it out around town. To this day, Smith tweaks the song’s spoken-word intro onstage to reflect the era; “Land” can mean what we need it to mean.
So while the protagonist of “Land” was a boy named Johnny who was raped and presumably left for dead in a “sperm coffin” during Act One, change his story to her story and “Land” starts to feel a lot more familiar, though no less surreal. After a brief intermission in which Smith broke into ’60s dance fads (via a garage-rock take on “Land of 1000 Dances”), we plunged back into Johnny’s struggle to live. The angels were taunting him: “Oh pretty boy/Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” But as Smith depicted it—heavy with cosmic incoherence, sexual innuendo, and Lou Reed swagger—death might be the end, or it might be the beginning. Once Johnny finally slit his throat, it became clear: When no one can hear you scream, you’re no longer“one who seizes possibilities.” For punk’s early heroines, there was no other way to be heard. –Jillian Mapes
Poly Styrenewas born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the daughter of a Scottish-Irish secretary and adispossessed Somalian noble, in the summer of 1957. With X-Ray Spex, she became one of the most original figures in pop history—trained in opera, acutely anti-authoritarian, braces cemented across her teeth—and one of the sharpest punk lyricists Britain ever saw. “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product,” she told the BBC a few months after the release of 1978’s dystopian classic Germfree Adolescents.“It sounded alright. It was a send-up of being a pop star: plastic, disposable. That’s what pop stars are meant to mean, so therefore, I thought I might as well send it up.”
Like all of Styrene’s songs, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” was dizzy with ideas and outrageously ahead of its time. “Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall/I want to be a slave to you all,” she wailed with guttural, soul-cleansing force.“Chain store, chain-smoke, I consume you all/Chain gang, chainmail, I don’t think at all.” “Bondage” was all punch and bounce, from the scorched riffs to Lora Logic’s siren sax runs, to how Poly’s voice skyrocketed into the red to cap each line of the chorus. It was liberationist music of the highest caliber. It is the ultimate punk song in any context, but this is feminist scripture: “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard/But I say oh bondage, up yours!” –Jenn Pelly
The Bags emerged among the O.G. wave of ’77 punk in Los Angeles; they're proof that women built its slashing sounds. Fronted by Alice Bag—who was born Alicia Armendariz into a traditional Mexican household in East L.A.—and bassist Patricia Morrison, the band only ripped through one single, “Survive,” during their lifetime, but it contained considerable power and cemented their legacy. (That’s Alice Bag in the definitive punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization alongside Germs, Fear, X, and Black Flag.)
“Survive” was resilient, hardboiled, and utterly cool. Its noirish finger snaps and jazzy drum fills evoked a detective's theme song with its magnifying glass pressed up against the entire world. Its titular sentiment cut to the most irreducible truth of all this: That feminist art can save you. —Jenn Pelly
“All the guys around me were forming bands, and they had heroes to look up to, but I didn’t have anyone,” the Slits’ Viv Albertinetold Soundsin 1976. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have to have a hero. I could pick up a guitar and just play. It’s not so much why I started playing as why I didn’t play before.”
The Slits waited three years after forming to record their masterful debut, Cut, which fused punk, dub, and reggae with more poise and intelligence than any of their punk comrades. Sounds zipped in and out from all sides: flecks of piano, rattling spoons, splashes of minimal noise guitar. “Typical Girls” wound up and unraveled so many times that the whole song seemed to spin in circles. It protested female stereotypes with pure magic, Ari Up incanting over its spindly spirit: “get upset too quickly,”“don’t think too clearly,”“buy magazines,”“worry about spots,”“don’t create,”“don’t rebel.”The Slits defied all of this.
The most pressing question of “Typical Girls” is right at the heart of the song: “Who invented the typical girl?” At a time when the widespread image of a feminist was unfairly dour and militant, the Slits were funny and playful—and though they rejected the tag of “feminist” at the time, they were.“Typical Girls” was the Slits doing exactly what they wanted. It was a sprint with a smirk. –Jenn Pelly
In their seven years together, the British anarcho-punk collective Crass sang about several conflicting ideologies, from militaristic fascism to vegetarian pacifism. However, while their messages were mixed, the band remained staunch in their allegiance towards feminism. “Walls (Fun in the Oven),” off 1979’s Stations of the Crass, was a sing-song mantra of feminine autonomy.
Singer Joy De Vivre’s hypnotic delivery—claustrophobic, falsetto yet monotone—was as hollow as the reproductive course she described. “Desire, deny, deny, desire/Have a child to justify/Images that you apply/I won't bow my head in shame,” she chanted, sounding dispassionate to the point of lobotomization. “Walls (Fun in the Oven)” was a strict refusal to accept the familiar path of matrimony and the nuclear family: “I won’t play the game…without your walls, I am alive.” –Quinn Moreland
Gestated in dark clubs and cramped DIY spaces, New York’s no wave movement wasn’t just an oddball response to the macho energy of the previous decade’s punk scene. It marked a palpable shift in rock circles in the city and beyond, and became a hotbed for the musical expression of feminist ideals. Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch are frequently credited with pushing its postmodernism into the spotlight, but due is also owed to Bush Tetras, the freak-funk outfit formed by guitarist Pat Place (a founding member of the no wave icons the Contortions).
Bush Tetras occupied an uneasy new space, balancing spry bass and guitar with singer Cynthia Sley’s deadpan, frequently political mantras. Their biggest hit, “Too Many Creeps,” was a funky rebuttal to street harassment. “I just don’t wanna go out in the streets no more,”Sley insisted airily, “because these people give me the creeps.” Her lyrics laid bare a sense of exhaustion all too familiar to most women—who hasn’t been the target of a wolf whistle or undressing glance? Coupled with the dancey arrangement, Sley’s monotonous tone signaled that within the Tetras’ newly staked safe space, misogyny wasn’t a threat: it was just a boring, predictable damper on the party. Like the rest of their peers, this band was over it. –Zoe Camp
Neo Boys were young and frighteningly smart when they began rising through Portland’s early punk scene in the late 1970s, when singer Kim Kincaid was just 14. Their oblique yet succinct lyrics expertly captured the hypocrisies of Reagan-era cultural politics; “Rich Man’s Dream,” from their self-titled 7”, poked and prodded the listener, asking questions that actually merited reflection. “Will you stand when they come for the rich man?” Kincaid slurred over chiming guitar and restless yet focused percussion. “Are you an answer to the rich man’s prayers?”
“Rich Man’s Dream,” released on Greg Sage ofWipers’ Trap Records, best defined Neo Boys’ particular charisma. These four young women made music that seemed to veer toward unhinged, but really followed deliberate patterns; their instrumentation was expansive and preternaturally balanced, each part pushing and pulling without drowning out another. Well ahead of their time, Neo Boys started a map they were never supposed to draw. K Records’ Calvin Johnson cites them as a key inspiration. –Jes Skolnik
The Brat may have only released one EP before disbanding, but they set the Los Angeles punk scene on fire during their short run. (Exene Cervenka of X was such a fan, she offered to hand-letter the lyrics for their artwork.) The group, which formed in the barrios of East L.A., melded punk and New Wave with the rhythms of their parents’ music—ranchera and reggae—and helped birth the Chicano punk scenes that still thrive in L.A., New York, and Chicago.
Much like their contemporaries the Bags and the Plugz, the Brat celebrated the virtues of being on the outside. Their defiant song “Attitudes” championed women making their way in the world despite extreme double standards, and relied heavily on frontwoman Teresa Covarrubias’ dry, flip delivery. “Everything I say is wrong/Everything I do is wrong/It’s just my attitude,” she sang, reveling in the words’ ridiculous nature, as the brothers Rudy and Sidney Medina added punchy, catchy instrumentation. The Brat’s short career embodied a punk truth: that even the smallest moment can help ignite a movement. –Jes Skolnik
The Swiss quartet Kleenex were punk in the fiercest way: punk as possibility. Active in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and a touring partner of the Raincoats, the group made their own aesthetic before punk had congealed completely and developed its current cycle of self-reference. (However, the band could not escape larger pressures entirely; after hounding from a certain tissue manufacturer, they changed their name to LiLiPUT).
“Hitch-hike,” the group’s finest song, may have sounded joyful with its pop hook and jingle-like chorus, but its lyrics contained multitudes. They reflected the dread women feel constantly in public spaces, and the menace that lies beneath so-called polite society. (“She had no money to pay the train…Don’t touch me, let me be!”) And the jaunty whistle punctuating the melody? A rape whistle. They took a fresh pop inversion to punk, making “Hitch-hike” a statement of sly insurgence; it should come as no surprise that Kleenex were one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands. –Jes Skolnik
In the summer of 1981, Britain was on fire. Mining communities were rioting, and in South London, racist police abused stop-and-search tactics against the West Indian community. This state-sanctioned aggression only enabled the indiscriminate violence of neo-Nazi thugs, which did not escape Vivien Goldman, a child of refugees from wartime Germany. “Vernon and Norman/Just sat in their Mini/While the skinheads beat shit/Out of a person on the pavement/Blood everywhere,” she charged on “Private Armies.”
Released that August, “Private Armies” arrived two months after the Specials’ “Ghost Town” outlined youth disenfranchisement at the hands of Thatcher’s government. “Private Armies” went even further, with Goldman daring to connect insecure toxic masculinity with violence. “If the heavy metal boys or the boys in blue/Don’t like the look of you/You’d better watch out,” she warned, outlining the outsider’s precarious existence and sense of foreboding she knew intimately. Over a skittish, glowering dub backdrop (courtesy of producer Adrian Sherwood and the Raincoats’VickyAspinall, whose sawed violin circled like a vulture), Goldman turned fear into yelped provocation: “If you can’t get a hard-on, get a gun!” –Laura Snapes
The Raincoats were a self-described feminist punk band when there was no precedent for such a thing. To say they were polarizing in the British music weeklies for having a song like 1979’s lurching “Off Duty Trip,” about rape culture, would be a colossal understatement. And yet, in their original incarnation from 1977 to 1984, the Raincoats never stopped being themselves. Perhaps that is what makes the sleeker, disco-tinged “No One’s Little Girl”—written in ’77 but not released until ’82—so inspiring. It was the first song bassist Gina Birch ever wrote, a thesis for what she was doing, performed at the band’s debut gig.
In the lyrics, Birch detached from her past, cutting herself out of the family tree, forging an uncharted path. To take on life as an act of improvisation—to embrace the Beat-inspired, don’t-look-back stance—was typically a male project. The bohemian female wanderer remains an underrepresented figure in art, but “No One’s Little Girl” was the tale of a woman at the beginning of an adventure. And often, still, it seems the world doesn’t want women to have adventures.
Like the very existence of the Raincoats themselves, “No One’s Little Girl” was the point of punk. Birch’s sing-song chorus—“Try it out! You can do it/If you choose it, try it out!”—implored you to see the light. Once you’d heard the song, you had. –Jenn Pelly
While the early ’80s saw D.C. punks on a morality kick, on the other side of the Atlantic, Las Vulpes were all about promoting the pleasure principle. Founded by a group of teens in Basque Country, Vulpes (“foxes,” and sometimes styled as Las VulpeSS) would become Spain’s first all-girl punk band. The band’s claim to fame was “Me Gusta Ser una Zorra”—which translated to “I Like Being a Slut,” and was their cheeky, hyper-sexual take on theStooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” As outlined salaciously by frontwoman Mamen Rodrigo, love was a con, a diversion from the carnal satisfaction they so desperately craved.
Released eight years after the death of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Vulpes’ anthem for sexual freedom was far too much for a country still stinging from Franco’s staunchly Catholic, authoritarian regime (in which contraception, abortion, and divorce had been outlawed for decades). The band made their television debut in the spring of 1983, on the Spanish program “Caja de Ritmos”(“Drum Machine”). Their performance of “Zorra” was the show’s death knell, prompting protests and a newspaper editorial that condemned the program. Despite an amiable defense from Televisión Española reps, “Caja de Ritmos” was canceled, and the network was sued by the Attorney General. Vulpes disbanded mere months after the performance, but would reunite briefly in 2005 to record their only studio album, Me Gusta Ser, which shed some overdue light on their significance to the first wave of Spanish punk. –Suzy Exposito
Talk about a dirge. Sonic Youth were never much of a punk band in sound—instead, they took the main tenets of the genre and turned them inside out. But in ethos, they fit in seamlessly among the scene's heaviest bands via their shared interests in wildness and aggression. Take “Flower,” from the period when Kim Gordon took her bass influence from the ceaseless pounding of jackhammers. Her musical contribution to the song is mainly one staccato note, repeatedly plonked into your brain; it ultimately lands somewhere between hypnotizing and decimating.
The same could be said for her vocals, which she drawled first in a slurred drone, then honed in sharper: “Support the power of women/Use the power of man/Support the flower of women/Use the word/Fuck.” By the end of the song, it sounded like she was spitting. There was no chorus, no verse, just a plodding train moving ahead until it crushed whatever dumb obstacles were in the way. It wasn’t subtle, and that’s why it’s still such a good anthem. –Matthew Schnipper
Mecca Normal break rules like they never noticed them in the first place. The Vancouver-based duo of singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester are anarchist-feminist activists and constant experimentalists, implying a rhythm section with negative space alone. Always an intense presence onstage, they've become the most tenacious of D.I.Y. road warriors, touring and recording for 32 years now. In the early ’90s, they popped up on most of the biggest American indie-rock labels (Sub Pop, K, Matador); by their 25th anniversary, they were on the road with a performance-and-lecture project called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”
Smith’s lyrics often foreground her political perspective; their anthem “Man Thinks ‘Woman,’” released in 1987, started out as a barbed dissection of gender normativity: “Man thinks ‘woman’ when he talks to me/Something not quite right.” The song kept expanding its radius from there, encompassing both bitter poetics and a disarmingly funny account of a drunken makeout gone weird. Kathleen Hanna has cited Smith as an early inspiration: “When I saw her,” she toldThe Fader, “I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.” –Douglas Wolk
A man singing from a woman’s perspective was never going to be embraced wholly by the feminist punk community—even if that man was Ian MacKaye, an artist of rare social empathy, raging about the aggressive objectification of women’s bodies. “Why can't I walk down a street free of suggestion?/Is my body the only trait in the eyes of men?” demanded MacKaye over a staccato guitar stomp reminiscent of clacking stiletto heels. Soon, he wasn’t just angrily cosplaying as the harassed women he knew; he was condemning the inert masses of his gender. “We blame her for being there/But we are all guilty,” he raged, indicting himself.
Some leaders of the ’80sD.C. punk groundswell remained unimpressed by his good intentions; some heard “a self-righteous white boy appropriating a girls’ issue,” as the riot grrrl history Girls to the Front suggests. Others heard the song as supportive; Kathleen Hannalater said, “I have issues with Ian MacKaye—who I love—singing as if he was a woman. But that song changed my life, because it was the first time I ever heard a man singing about something that was predominantly a woman’s issue.”
Whether or not it was MacKaye’s narrative to sing, his words remain the tentpole for male feminism in punk, and cracked a discussion of oppression as men’s burden to lift. Other men would follow suit—Propagandhi in “Fuck Machine,”Nirvanain “Rape Me,” Green Day in “She”—and “Suggestion” opened those floodgates. –Stacey Anderson
When the women of Fifth Column came together in early ’80sToronto, there were no bands like them in their city—film-schooled, queer, Warholian, explicitly feminist. Fifth Column were inspired by the post-punk bands they read about in imported UK music papers, like the Raincoats and Kleenex, even when they couldn’t find those records; with drummer GB Jones’ legendary zine, J.D.s, she planted the seeds for the cut-and-paste queercore scene that would later inspire riot grrrl.
Fifth Column were an essential piece in this lineage and their signature song, “She Said Boom”—which openedAll Time Queen of the World—was a scorching, psychedelic rave-up. The lyrics were about a guy who can’t make sense of his self-empowered girlfriend out tagging graffiti in the street. (Jones herself was a prolific tagger, particularly on the façades of Canadian banks, as evidenced in the Bruce LaBruce video for “Like This.”) As Fifth Column’s Caroline Azar put it, “‘She said boom’ are three simple words that, for us, mean being responsible for your own pocket-sized revolution, and that one’s exasperation with what is false can be said aloud: ‘I say boom, you say boom, she said boom!’” –Jenn Pelly
To truly understand why music is empowering—to get how it can be a hand pulling someone up from rock bottom in three minutes flat—you have to recognize why its intended audience might have reason to feel powerless in the first place. “Rebel Girl” became Bikini Kill’s signature anthem in its call for female solidarity, but it was the slow rumble of “Feels Blind” that offered this essential grounding. One of Bikini Kill’s earliest songs, it contained some of the most affecting poetry Kathleen Hanna has ever written: “All the doves that fly past my eyes/Have a stickiness to their wings/In the doorway of my demise I stand/Encased in the whisper you taught me.” (Its subtle, mesmerizing melody is a reminder that Bikini Kill and Nirvana were drinking the same water then.)
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney has written about the great impression these lyrics made on her young soul: “As a woman I was taught to always be hungry,”“Your world has taught me nothing,”“We might even eat your hate up like love.” Each line of “Feels Blind” is survivalist, like its own manifesto. It’s one of the most timeless punk songs we have. –Jenn Pelly
All blood and black bile, “Dead Men Don’t Rape” remains as gripping today as it was in 1992, when it arrived both on a collection of this Seattle punk band’s singlesand on the queercore EP compilation There’s aDyke in the Pit. Its buzzsaw guitars and gruff vocals were a necessary salvo for women enraged by constant physical intimidation, especially those who had survived sexual assault: “I don’t have pity, not a single tear/For those who get joy from a woman’s fear,”Selene Vigil barked through what sounded like thick wire mesh. “I’d rather get a gun and just blow you away/Then you’ll learn firsthand/Dead men don’t rape.”
The song’s release was delayed by the substance-induced death of 7 Year Bitch’s first guitarist, Stefanie Sargent–and it gained new, painful poignancy one year later, when the Gits vocalist Mia Zapata was raped and murdered. (Zapata was a labelmate and close friend of the band’s.) Then, even more so, “Dead Men Don’t Rape” became a cri de coeur in the purest form. –Jes Skolnik
L7 scored one of grunge’s earliest crossover successes with “Pretend We’re Dead,” a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Modern Rock charts that barely missed similar success in the United Kingdom.
On initial listen, the track was as bright as the Los Angeles streets it sprang from, with a hummable chorus and crunchy riff; once that façade was peeled away, though, a grim and very punk subtext emerged.
Singer Donita Sparks lamented the political and socioeconomic structures that marginalize women, depriving them of both community and individuality. (“Cramping styles is the plan/They’ve got us in the palm of every hand.”) Then she proposed her solution: that women unite, harnessing their power at long last. “Turn the tables with our unity/They’re neither moral nor majority,” Sparks sneered. “Wake up and smell the coffee/Or just say no to individuality.” It was an appealing package with torches ready to be lit—a feminist Trojan horse. Don’t let the track’s simplicity fool you—L7 calculated a sly sabotage and pulled it off winningly. –Zoe Camp
Monsters were a favorite conceit of Slant 6’s, from the “Famous Monsters” house parties they hosted to their homemade movie Inzombia, and their headlong 1993 debut single unpacks that metaphor. The lurking beast here is a jerk who seemed sweet at first, and guitarist Christina Billotte—a longtime D.C. punk fixture who’d played in Autoclave and shared an orbit with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile—is only pretending she’s frightened of him. “Why are you creeping up behind me?/Where did you get those claws?” she sings with weary annoyance, before delivering the title hook with a dry snap.
“What Kind of Monster Are You?” emphasized that Slant 6 was a guitar band—its opening scrawl of feedback hovered for an audaciously long time before the riff kicked in—and it drew crowds to their first tour before they'd released anything else. The song's real fangs were bared in its quietest lyric: “Why should I be scared of you?” That tiny line was a challenge to a creep and a critique of gender relations, as well as a wicked little joke. After Slant 6 broke up in 1995, Billotte went on to play in Quix*o*tic and the Casual Dots; her old bandmate Mary Timony's group Ex Hex covered "What Kind of Monster"in 2013. –Douglas Wolk
In the history of punk—hell, in the history of the world—the rules of cool have almost always been dictated by powerful men: what you’re supposed to wear, how you’re supposed to act, which bands you’re supposed to like. Cool usually means privileging taste and status over emotion and connection (traditionally “masculine” over “feminine” values), and its pursuit can be oppressive, disenfranchising, exhausting.
Bratmobile said fuck all that, literally. “Fuck you too! Cool schmool!” frontwoman Allison Wolfe declared exuberantly on “Cool Schmool,” the centerpiece of their debut album, Pottymouth. Like X-Ray Spex howling “Oh bondage! Up yours!,” it served as a rallying cry for women fed up with the rules of their scene. One of the foundational riot grrrl bands, the Olympia/D.C. trio made lo-fi punk that crackled with the defiant joy of girlhood. “Cool Schmool” embodied the way the riot grrrls got in the faces of their contemporary grunge bros: “I don't wanna sit around and talk about the Wipers/Weren’t those the good old days?” Wolfe taunted over Erin Smith’s rapid B-52’s-ish guitar line and Molly Neuman’s gleeful drumming. “I don't want you to tell me what's so cool/I don't wanna go back to junior high school.”
The irony, of course, is that in creating their own punk universe in which girls were celebrated in their complexity rather than punished, Bratmobile and their fellow riot grrrls became, well, pretty damn cool. –Amy Phillips
Long before she stepped out as the world’smost fantastically feathered, sax-wielding diva, the young PJ Harvey subverted rock patriarchy with a bone-raw blues-punk attack and graphic, skin-chafing lyricism. Her Steve Albini-produced second album, Rid of Me, didn’t just reorient rock ‘n’ roll’s lusty, predatory id through a female gaze; it treated the bedroom as a battleground and sex as bloodsport. Traditional gender power dynamics were violently upended throughout, from the title track’s sinister post-breakup revenge plot to the Zep-heavy “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,”in which an acquiescent lover takes matters (ahem) into her own hands.
Harvey turned the tables most aggressively on the mid-album rave-up “50 Ft. Queenie,” which was almost certainly the only song about pegging to get played on 120 Minutes. (“You bend over, Cassanova/No sweat I’m clean/Nothing can stop me!”) At a time when the world was tuning into the unvarnished voices of Kathleen Hanna and Liz Phair, Harvey resisted being lumped in with her more openly feminist peers, pledging allegiance instead to male icons like theRolling Stones, Nick Cave, and Howlin’ Wolf. But on “50 Ft. Queenie,” she wasn’t paying tribute to her wang-dang-doodlin’ idols—she was crashing their cock-rock world wielding a strap-on with no lube. —Stuart Berman
By 1991, the UK had already sustained 15 years of feminist punk. Yet with the riot grrrl movement picking up steam stateside, England was primed to deliver an equally brazen response in Huggy Bear. Comprised of both men and women, the Brighton group toured extensively with American groups such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and the Frumpies, and their 1993 split LP, Our Troubled Youth, complemented Bikini Kill's airtight feminist thesis, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah. Their most rousing manifesta, “Her Jazz,” was released as a single in 1993 and lambasted the predatory habits of male so-called “radicals,” calling for a more egalitarian, “girl-boy revolution.”
Soon after that release, the band wreaked havoc on the late-night variety show The Word, during which their blazing performance of “Her Jazz” was followed and undermined by an appearance from the Barbi Twins, a pair of Playboy models. Members of Huggy Bear began to heckle the hosts on-air, only to be manhandled and thrown off the set by security. (According to Amy Raphael’s zine Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas, a network representative accused a band member of biting a production assistant in the face.) The melee was reported in Melody Maker with a line from “Her Jazz” emblazoned on the cover: “This is happening without your permission.” –Suzy Exposito
At times, Courtney Love has been written out of feminist punk history, for different reasons: Holebecame an alt-rock commercial juggernaut, Love derided riot grrrl and Kathleen Hanna, and, of course, there are still sexist truthers out there who want to believe that Kurt Cobain wrote Hole's best songs. But it’s worth remembering that Hole started as an L.A. punk band, with Love screaming about her stint as a teenage whore, and she’s never lost her indelible punk sneer.
In hindsight, the mainstream success and continued legacy of 1994’s Live Through This—with its constant talk of mother's milk and not being beautiful enough for this world—is a testament to Love as a feminist voice. The album's only overt mention of feminism may be Love quoting another woman decrying the once-divisive label, but those themes dominate throughout: “Asking for It” was inspired by Love having her clothes ripped off and being groped while crowd-surfing, and several songs explore what’s lost on the inside when we obsess over women’s outsides (“Doll Parts,” “Plump”). But it’s “Violet,”the brutal opener and third single, that sets the tone for Live Through This. Though written about Love’s nasty pre-Kurt breakup with Billy Corgan, lines like “When they get what they want/They never want it again” take on larger meaning in the context of female sexual exploitation. And when Love snarls through the chorus, “Go on, take everything/I dare you to,” you have to wonder: Has anything felt like more of a thesis statement for Love herself?–Jillian Mapes
When Spitboy penned the title of this sludgy, dissonant track, they turned a facile nursery rhyme on its head. Their answer to the question was unexpected: “I am what’s left over.”
The first track on the San Francisco band’s split LP with the Latino punks Los Crudos, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” enumerated the Madonna/whore complex in a fresh, slightly frightening way. “I am pink, I am weak/I am red, I am whore,” singer Adrienne Droogas screamed, growing increasingly staccato. “Swaddled in red like a target/I am your sacrifice.”
Formed in 1990, Spitboy paved the way for women in hardcore as they railed against structural sexism. They toured extensively in their six years together, much of which is documented in drummer/ lyricist Michelle Cruz Gonzales’ excellent recent memoir,The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band. –Kate Wadkins
In 1998, following the breakup of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna released a self-titled solo record under the moniker Julie Ruin. The album was in a room of its own—less abrasive and more aesthetically inquisitive, a home-recorded collage of samples, drum machines, punk riffs, DIY ballads, and genius one-liners. (Julie Ruin seemed to dream of Grimes.) Hanna was inspired by the French feminist writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous’ concept of “writing through the body,” and this played out in the record's nonlinear, lo-fi structures.
“Crochet” was one of its best punk blasts. Hanna used corrosive power chords and shredded vocals to tease out how a traditionally feminine activity like crocheting, which seems so calm, may actually have something more intense boiling below the surface—how a hobby like crocheting could actually distract women from interrogating the conditions of their lives. Her delivery was pure joy: “You make me want to go away/You make me want to CROCHET!” she snarled. In another frantic section, she grunted through the line, “Just another book about women in rock” to embody the infuriating way women are often written out of proper canons. Ahead of its time, Julie Ruin should be in many of them. –Jenn Pelly
At the turn of the millennium, artists like Peaches, Tracy + the Plastics, and Chicks on Speed made electronic music the new sound of feminism. But does dance-punk really qualify as punk? Only when Kathleen Hanna’s at the mic, bringing radical politics to the club with her clarion wail. After trading Bikini Kill’s power chords for the Julie Ruin’s samplers, she dragged her new electronic gear out of the bedroom, formed a trio, and embarked on her most extroverted project yet.
Le Tigrecould be biting, but their brand of dance-party feminism usually emphasized encouragement over critique. No song epitomized that philosophy more than “Hot Topic.” Built around a bouncy drum sample that lent it a marching vibe, the song was a parade of feminist and queer artist shout-outs. Yayoi Kusama, Marlon Riggs, Eileen Myles, and even the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak earned spots on this essential syllabus. Eventually, Hanna dropped any pretense of singing, and everyone in the band began throwing out names in a giddy game of one-upwomanship. “Don’t stop,”Hanna begged her heroes. “I can’t live if you stop.” Thanks to an earworm melody and the convenience of Google, thousands of Le Tigre fans still feel the same way. –Judy Berman
In December 1999, Sleater-Kinney were less concerned about the Y2K bug than the cultural virus turning back progress. The ’90s began with the radical possibilities of pleasure, which marketing men defanged and repackaged swiftly as female “empowerment.” Violence and virginity dominated the year, with maximum hypocrisy: 17-year-old Britney posing for Rolling Stone in her bra was more decried than the alleged gang rapes at Woodstock ’99.
As Sleater-Kinney breached the mainstream, they were urged to drop their political stances if they wanted to make it. And yet the Pacific Northwest trio were done denying their truth, and ditched their desire to be your Joey Ramone with singer Corin Tucker’s torching of the rock establishment: “I’ve been crawling up so long on your stairway to heaven/And now I no longer believe that I wanna get in.” Her pointed wail indicted rape at concerts and reclaimed the capitalist terminology that had infested her politics: “The #1 must have is that we are safe.” As Sleater-Kinney rallied for change, they resisted diluting their message while creating their most accessible record yet, for their widest audience to date. “Are we holding onto our pride a bit too long?”Tucker asked on All Hands on the Bad One’s opener. You only need search “rape music festivals” today to know the answer is still no. –Laura Snapes
Portland’s New Bloods were one of the most interesting and vital punk bands of the mid-2000s, a time when most acts on the scene offered exhausted, color-inside-the-lines genre worship. The trio of Osa Atoe, CassiaGammill, and Adee Roberson made dense, twisting songs that nodded to Southern gothic imagery, raw Appalachian folk recordings, and the minimalist rhythms of late ’70s art-punk. (Atoe has cited the Raincoats as a favorite group.) “Oh, Deadly Nightshade!” was an elegy and a warning, opaque and shivering; its overlapping lyrical lines sidestepped political didacticism to flesh out a woman’s rich internal life, with references to poison, darkness, and Persephone’s journey (the Greek myth of female abduction often favored by feminist writers).
Underrecognized and underappreciated during their run, New Bloods now stand as one of the few groups of the Aughts who had something new to say for themselves. Today, Atoe continues to impart insight; she chronicles black punk artists in her excellent zine,Shotgun Seamstress. –Jes Skolnik
According tothe Department of Justice, two-thirds of sexual assault cases go unreported, and for every 1,000 incidents of rape, only 13 cases will ever be prosecuted. And in those few instances, it’s often not the actions of the perpetrator that are put on trial, but the victim’s credibility: What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Why didn’t she just run away? Why didn’t she call the cops right after? Why did she maintain a relationship with the accused? What’s her motive?
For those sexual assault survivors who were—privately or publicly—thrust into the additional pain of doubting their memory and sanity, White Lung’s Mish Way offered three simple but powerful words: “I believe you.” It’s the sort of phrase that a friend tells another in a moment of quiet confidence, while offering a shoulder to cry on. But in the storming, 102-second centerpiece of White Lung’s breakthrough album, Deep Fantasy, it also became a tonsil-shredding battle cry against a culture more concerned witha postponed swimming career than a life left traumatized. The song was also a testament to all the survivors who’ve ever had the courage to speak up: “God, you’re so strong and unafraid,”Way marveled amid the maelstrom, a voice to remind them of their omnipotence. –Stuart Berman
Text-driven collage artist Barbara Kruger once described her work as a comment on issues of “power and control and bodies and money.” Really, what aspect of life is not dominated by these themes? In particular, when is the female body not a battleground? The Washington, D.C. band Priests amended Kruger’s phrase for the title of their 2014 debut LP, which nodded to acts like Fugazi and Slant 6.
“And Breeding” was that album’s fiery conclusion, a seething tour through disillusionment, restlessness, and the attempt to“procreate without fucking and breeding.” Singer Katie Greer deftly painted a picture of a world about to slip over the edge, a Handmaid's Tale-like crisis in which sexual pleasure had been cheapened for the greater good. What should women be doing to combat it? “Trying to explode the upper hand!”Greer screamed. Priests understood that the relationship between politics and the media was complex. “And Breeding” insisted that it’s not time to kill our idols; rather, it’s time to force them to step up to the political plate and inspire revolution. –Quinn Moreland
“G.L.O.S.S. (We’re from the Future)” was a treatise by and for trans punk women, a track that demanded rebellion down to its acronym (“Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”). The crux of the Olympia, Washington group’s searing 2015 demo, it raged against the violence that trans women have endured both in society at large and within punk communities. “Our femininity doesn’t fit/We’re fucking future girls/Living outside society’s shit!” insisted frontwoman Sadie Switchblade.
Spat out through powerful chord progressions and frenetic solos, the G.L.O.S.S. demo was a five-song ripper that tore into patriarchy early and never let up. Its title track remains the most powerful in its indictment of phobia and ignorance. As Switchbladerefused to live up “history’s ass,” and declared her stance against the status quo, she effortlessly envisioned a new future that centered on the “faggots and femmes.” –Kate Wadkins
Since forming in 2011 in Providence, Rhode Island,Downtown Boys have set their sights on dismantling privilege and promoting equality. Halfway through their debut, Full Communism, “Monstro” laid into societal injustices in Spanish and English with the assistance of wailing, rallying saxophones. “Why is it that we never have enough/With just what’s inside of us?” frontwoman Victoria Ruiz demanded, her vocal cords near fraying. “Today! Today!/We must scream at the top of our lungs/That we are brown, we are smart!”
Why must those qualities still be yelled by women of color today? Ruiz offered one answer to Democracy Now: “It’s because we’re about to change something. We’re about to take something back with a joyful noise.” “Monstro” was a feminist anthem from a band that billed itself as a “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party.” Here, that party was frustrated yet full of irrepressible hope. –Quinn Moreland
At the very end of her latest video, for a song called “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Angel Olsen slyly smashes through the fourth wall. “Um, do I need to give more attitude, or...?” she deadpans, after preening and pouting through a roller-rink lip-sync in glittery hot pants and matching wig. This subtle moment shows off the 29-year-old singer/songwriter’s well-timed sense of humor, while making it clear she’s playing a character in the self-directed clip—a few of them, really. There’s the class clown, the cool girl (on skates!), the “crazy” chick who grows increasingly hysterical waiting by her rotary phone for his call, the hair-metal vixen posing atop a sensible sedan instead of a hotrod. On some level, maybe she is all of these things. Or maybe she is none of them. But Angel Olsen wants to make one thing clear: She is definitely not a girl at the bottom of a dark well.
That’s the hole she has often been plunged into, particularly following the breakthrough success of her 2014 album Burn Your Fire for No Witness—a blazing bonfire of the self that caught sparks from classic artists like the Everly Brothers, Leonard Cohen, and Nirvana, pairing them with a trove of mini-mantras and a mesmerizing voice. But despite the album’s range, both musically and emotionally, critics often typecast her as the country-folk sad-sack lost in a forest—so much so that Olsen told her publicist that she can’t do any more photo shoots in or around trees.
We’re a couple gin and tonics in on a Monday night at a wannabe mid-century dive called Bar Deville in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, and the bartender who calls us “darling” with each drink order is likely rolling his eyes as we rant spectacularly about the music industry’s double standards. Clad in a white off-the-shoulder eyelet top, high-waisted cropped flares, and heeled clogs, Olsen recalls one particularly painful radio interview in Chicago, where the hosts generally ignored her before asking: “So, Angel, your music is kind of like a girl at the bottom of a dark well—how do you feel about that?”
“I don’t expect you to kiss my ass—I know you’re hot stuff because you have a radio show, but fuck off,” she says, turning incandescent with the forgotten rage of being disrespected and then lazily pegged. “I travel the world and I work hard and fuck you.”
During that radio session, with her tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Olsen introduced her next song with a dedication to all the little girls at the bottom of the well—though her smart-ass retorts were eventually edited out. Afterwards, Olsen really did feel like she was stuck in a dark, hollow space, and you can hear it in the conversation that aired. Listen to the radio interviews she did around Burn Your Fire, and a pattern emerges: When Olsen is uncomfortable, she shrinks, and her tone gets quiet, stiff, a little melancholy. She feels less like the person I come to know and more like her own perception of her persona: “this sad cartoon country girl singer.”
“If I were to think about my career as a mantra, it’s like, ‘Fuck, I gotta get out of here,’” she says. “But also, I’m good at writing those sorts of songs, so I have to find a way to accept it while also embracing the things that have changed.”
Things are changing as we speak. Olsen is back in Chicago—where she lived before decamping to Asheville, North Carolina three years ago—for a few days before heading to New York for a video shoot for “Sister,” the eight-minute centerpiece from her forthcoming album, My Woman. The record includes a few new songs that sprawl past the five-minute mark, songs where guitarist Stewart Bronaugh—in Olsen’s words—“fucking unleashes the beast” on solos, while the singer stretches out vocally. These moments remind me of something Olsen’s friend Mac DeMarco told me about his first impression of her: “Holy crow, she’s got the pipes!”
Olsen’s storytelling trademark of resiliency in the face of futility comes in waves on My Woman. On the album’s other nearly-eight-minute epic, “Woman,” Olsen makes a bold declaration while her band channels Crazy Horse: “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” But even more than what she says, it’s how she says it: defiant at first, her voice soaring in the middle before settling into a sensual croon to emphasize the final word. Another smoldering standout “Heart Shaped Face”—about how men sometimes project their emotional baggage interchangeably among women—is casually devastating in the way that womanhood often is: “There is nothing new under the sun,” she sings. Olsen ultimately seems bored by the fact that men and women have been misunderstanding each other since the dawn of time, but that doesn’t mean she won’t try to find some new way of articulating it.
As Olsen prepares to release an album that marks a big shift away from her early stripped-down material and arrives alongside increasingly playful visuals, she’s looking to an icon for spiritual guidance: Dolly Parton. Specifically, a1977 primetime TV special in which Parton was questioned sharply by Barbara Walters about her then-new attempts at crossing over into pop, as well as her wigs and “extreme outfits.” But Dolly did not back down. “I just decided that I would do something that would at least get the attention, and once they got past the shock of the ridiculous way I looked and all that, then they would see there was parts of me to be appreciated,” Parton responded sweetly. “I’m very real where it counts, and that’s inside.”
Olsen mentions that the chintzy tinsel wig she wears in her recent videos has drawn criticism, though from whom it is not entirely clear. “People have been like, ‘Oh you’re trying to be Grimes, you’re trying to be Sia.’ Are you fucking kidding me? The only reason I wore it was because I didn’t have a stylist who could make sure my hair looked the same throughout all of the frames.” And the ominous synths of My Woman’skiss-off lead single, “Intern,” have apparently made some think Olsen’s gone pop instead of simply “fucking with people” and their expectations of her sound. “Someone was like, ‘This sounds like Lana Del Rey,’” she says, incredulous. “Do you know that I write songs? I’ve always written songs. I’ve never been someone who poses naked on a men’s magazine.”
Though Olsen self-produced the new record with her friend Justin Raisen, who’s known for his work with crossover stars like Charli XCX, she isn’t trying to hew to any sort of mainstream pop trajectory. For one thing, it doesn’t seem like she’d be OK with the idea from a commercial perspective: The British version of T.J. Maxx offered her $100,000 to use one of her songs in a commercial a couple of years ago, but she declined; she says she’d only do a car commercial if she had a kid. And while she’s on the road with her tight-knit band of pop lovers—Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj, and drummer Joshua Jaeger—Olsen sometimes finds herself exposed to their “penny music” soundtrack and wondering, “Why are you listening to this fucking crap?”
But there is something else, something deeper, that explains Olsen’s strong reaction to these so-called accusations of pop—claims that prove to be untrue, by the way, when one actually hears My Woman, with its flashes of Fleetwood Mac and ’70s AOR. Some people will always feel like it’s them against the world. But this feeling propels them.Picking up on this is central to understanding Olsen as a person, but also to understanding her music.
One of the things that makes her most anthemic songs so magnetic in their fight is how they often start so low. Burn Your Fire for No Witness’ “White Fire” has the kind of opening line that sounds comically dramatic when you’re in a good mood and impossibly true when you’re not: “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart.” The song only grows darker from there, with Olsen—who is adopted—singing, “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth.” Yet it is here that she slowly utters the album’s talisman of a title—“burn your fire for no witness, it’s the only way it’s done”—with the tender resignation of someone just coming to grips with the most profound realizations of the self.“The thing about getting older is that instead of deciding that you’ve figured it out, you get better at realizing you never will,” she tells me.
As a whole, Burn Your Fire seems to be designed with this redemptive trajectory in mind, inspiring fierce dedication in those who’ve used it in their own lives. After plumbing loneliness and doubt and heartache, Olsen finally wonders, “What’s so wrong with the light?” as the album draws to a close. Her delicate falsetto shimmers as the band lifts up. You can all but see a car cresting over a golden highway at sunset during the climax of an uncomfortably realistic indie dramedy; the characters have accepted that everything falls apart, but there’s still a moderately happy ending.
To appreciate Angel Olsen’s moderately happy ending, it’s worth knowing her beginning. The day after we drink, Olsen and I meet for falafel at Sultan’s Market in Wicker Park. She recounts the details of her curious childhood on the patio out front, leaning forward as the stories demand, speaking without hesitation, occasionally flashing the wide smile she reserves for when she really means it.
Olsen was adopted at age 3, becoming the youngest in a St. Louis family of eight children, some of whom were old enough to be her parents. These older siblings served as role models as well as cautionary tales: “I’d look at them like, Don’t want to be like you; you’re alright, I’ll be a little bit like you; oh my god, you’re so weird, I’m getting out of here. Being the youngest in that position was heavy, but it definitely fueled who I am—someone who likes to observe and create characters and look for humanity in people.”
Olsen’s parents were typically old-fashioned and religious Southerners during the peak eras of psychedelic culture in the late ’60s into the ’70s—a time period that now fascinates her. (“To be 27 in 1969 would be killer,” she says.) Her dad was a military guy and a union worker, the sort of father who didn’t say “I love you” even though she knew he did. As a kid Olsen was closer to her mom, who worked in the foster care system, though these days they find themselves agreeing to disagree over politics. “I don’t want her to pass away and our last conversation to be whether or not Trump is sexist,” she says.
Olsen doesn’t get back to St. Louis as much as she’d like (maybe twice a year) and doesn’t consider herself terribly close with her family. “Some of them came out of the woodwork when I was doing well,” she says, “and it was like, ‘Oh man, this is gross, I’m not doing that well.”
It’s not that her parents weren’t supportive of her musical aspirations when she left St. Louis for Chicago at age 20, they just had no idea what that sort of life might entail. To appease them, she enrolled at Chicago’s Soma Institute, where she studied sports massage therapy for two years. She hit pathology classes and bailed; “I’m not sure I can touch people that way,” she jokes now.
For as long as she can remember, Olsen had an ambition to come outside of her shell, to show people that she possessed something they did not. Music was an obvious way to do that—to not only overcome shyness, but to try on different personas. Which was something she was doing anyway, as the debris of family-wide illness upset her teenage life. She got sick, her mom got sicker, then her grandma died. “It was very much like Lindsay in ‘Freaks and Geeks,’” says the onetime cheerleader. “You lose somebody in your family, then suddenly you’re kind of a freak.”
This inclination manifested into Olsen’s first band, Good Fight, which was inspired by 311, Sublime, No Doubt, and “really weird parts of ’90s music culture.” She hung around sketchy shows at the now-shuttered downtown St. Louis punk club the Creepy Crawl and started using STLPunk, the local music scene’s beloved social media portal that peaked when she was in high school, in the early 2000s. “It was the very beginning of meeting people from the internet because you lived in a place that didn’t have people that you liked,” she says. And like many young music fans during this era, her taste evolved quickly, nudged along by the community and access she encountered online. Soon Sublime was replaced by more out-there fare, from Battles to Deerhoof to prog-rock.
Eventually, friends from Chicago encouraged her to move, praising the music scene there. Soon after, Bonnie “Prince” Billy enigma Will Oldham heard about her, and Olsen ended up singing with Oldham’s band for a few years. They don’t really talk anymore—Olsen says their relationship was always more professional than friendly—yet she finds herself thinking of Oldham often, given that his presence is summoned in nearly every interview she does.
She remembers the premature judgement she felt when she left the ultra-DIY bandleader’s enclave so she could focus on her own music. “I just felt like no one believed that I could stand up for myself, or become a good writer or even someone who wasn’t so easily influenced,” she says. “Maybe some of that fear was me judging myself.”
Olsen’s own music was already gaining momentum when Bathetic Records co-founder Jon Hency found her songs on Myspace. She recorded her first two releases, 2010’s lo-fi scrapbook Strange Cacti and 2012’s cosmic psych-folk gem Half Way Home, for the small Asheville label, before signing with big-deal indie Jagjaguwar in 2013. Her escape plan worked.
“I felt like if I didn’t leave St. Louis, I’d just always be working at a grocery store and smoking cigarettes and not doing anything with my life,” Olsen says. “I feared the depression of St. Louis, because it is in a deep depression.”
Back at lunch in Chicago, we’re winding in and out of what feels like an inevitable topic at this deeply contentious American moment. Olsen admits she’s not really a political musician, but she’s recently been moved to want to get more involved. “It feels like we’re on the edge of revolutions,” she says.
She was pro-Bernie, but she’s not stubborn enough to not vote for Hillary. And rather than cancelling shows in her adopted home state of North Carolina in light of its discriminatory “bathroom bill,” as Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, and others have done, Olsen favors a proactive approach. “By avoiding a place that needs more radical thought, you’re making it worse,” she says. “Think about the impression you make when you get onstage in North Carolina and say how much you disagree with the law that just passed.”
We arrive on the topic of gentrification—how young, white artists wanting affordable housing in big cities push out poorer communities of color. “I was part of that in Logan Square,” she says of her seven years in Chicago. “I was somebody who wanted to go to a shitty restaurant down the street and get drunk with my friends and be in a part of the city that no one else knew yet.”
There’s some element of this at play in her current home of Asheville, too. Montford, the Victorian-tinged neighborhood where Olsen lives alone, is rich with history, some of it complicated: The working-class who populated the area in the first half of the 20th century turned to squatters as Asheville wrestled with its debts. By the early ’90s, “white hippies”—like her dear friend M.E. Bethel, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and massage therapist—started buying there, helping to strengthen the arts scene that booms still.
Olsen calls the town a great place to land after a long trip, but there is one downside to such humble Southern living: Someone at her doctor’s office recently made an excited comment about “having a famous lady” come in. Olsen recalls once asking St. Vincent’s Annie Clark if she’s ever concerned that her gyno is a fan. “She was like, ‘Nobody cares about your vagina,’” Olsen jokes.
We simmer at Sultan’s a little longer before heading to Wicker Park’s vintage shops. Olsen is looking for a silk blouse to wear underwater in her upcoming video, preferably one that’s peach. She finds something that’ll work at Kokorokoko, a store that looks like the ’90s projectile-vomited.
We then go for affogatos at a strip mall gelato spot. We gush over the all-time voices of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Stevie Nicks, and the cool neutrality of prose by Elena Ferrante and Joan Didion, like the low-key insufferable white feminists we are. At one point, half-blaming her period, she tears up a little over Bethel, a fellow adoptee whom Olsen considers her mentor and finds inspiring for her balance of cynicism and genuineness. She remembers a piece of wisdom Bethel once told her, something that stuck: “‘People like us are tested for a reason.’”
When I call Bethel one early August afternoon to talk about Olsen, there is a story she is initially hesitant to tell. But once she does, she realizes it’s too emblematic not to share on record. It involves the first time her son, a precocious 12-year-old guitarist named Malcolm, met Olsen two years ago, when she was back in Asheville for a show. He asked Olsen if he could open for her; she agreed to let him play a song. So Malcolm did Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” changing the line about working in a “topless place” to something more appropriate for a 10-year-old. The crowd rippled with laughter.
I ask Bethel if there’s a quality about Olsen that is central to her being but that perhaps even she doesn’t realize. She thinks for a while. Then she says her friend may not know just how kind she is, and that she might not want to emphasize that quality. It can be used against women. It can make them look weak.
August 15, 2016
Photo by: Illustrations by Matteo Berton
In the viral video that became known as “What Phish Sounds Like to People Who Don’t Like Phish,” the Vermont jam band performs in front of a field of cheering fans. So far, so Phish. But when the camera points at the bassist, only random diddles are heard. The players’ parts are disconnected and small. The frontman emits gibberish. “You ate my fractal,” he sings obscurely, in a doofed voice, like a “South Park” character.
Originally titled “Phish Shreds IT,” the 2010 video was merely the latest iteration of the “shreds” meme, all of which feature images of bands performing live set to awkwardly strange audio. But the Phish video was the first time the joke had been used in this way, to explain how an oft-reviled band might sound to non-fans. Which suggested that Phish’s popularity is so bizarre, so odious, that their music is the type of nonsense that makes one’s brain throb.
The “IT” in “Phish Shreds IT” refers to their 2003 one-band mega-festival, during which Phish played seven sets over three days in front of over 60,000 fans (counting the all-jam set atop an air traffic control tower but not counting the soundcheck broadcast only heard over their on-site FM station). Typical for Phish, IT was held on a decommissioned Air Force base deep into northeastern Maine. Good, the Phish non-likers might assert, out of sight, out of mind.
But getting out of sight and out of mind are surely goals for many Phishheads, and the entire experience of escaping reality is built into the idea of their festival world. Since Phish’s Clifford Ball in 1996, on another Air Force base near the band’s Burlington, Vermont home, long-haul drives have been built into their festival aesthetic. On the eve of the millennium, they staged their furthest-fuckin’-out event, in Florida, sending 80,000 attendees down Alligator Alley in the Everglades, literally out of the boundaries of the United States—via an 18-hour zone-crossing traffic jam—and into Seminole Indian territory, where the band played an eight-hour midnight-to-sunrise set.
In all cases, what listeners found at the far end of their trips was a world where Phish’s music made complete sense. Call it Stockholm syndrome or a unified artistic vision, but there’s no denying that Phish built an audience and a platform of their own. With vast tracts for campers, playful large-scale installations designed by Vermont comrades connected to the radical Bread and Puppet Theater, unannounced late-night sets, an on-site freeform radio station, food vendors, Porta Potty (and sometimes art installations made from Porta Potty), it was a ready-to-go template that the band staged year after year in the late 1990s and sporadically since. Just as Phish’s music might seem alien, their festival strategy was marked by the reverse of normal music-biz logic: Instead of picking central locations for their events, the band picked destinations seemingly as far away as possible. It wasn’t merely live music, but a contract to enter Tent City, U.S.A., for the duration of the experience.
In the go-go indie ’90s, Phish were among the indie-est of them all, even if they weren’t exactly rock music as many wished to understand it. While they remained on a major label from 1991 until 2004, it was neither Elektra nor the band’s album sales that propelled them to sell out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. Phish’s most popular and compelling music was distributed for free by the band’s fans, and always had been. By the time of IT in 2003, as the music industry exploded into the blogosphere, Phishheads graduated from cassettes to mp3s and CD-Rs, and soon provided the critical mass to get BitTorrent off the ground, while Phish themselves graduated to selling recordings of all of their shows online within hours of the performance.
Night after night, through improvisation and song-suites, Phish changed in ways both micro and macro, creating new content on a near-daily basis while on tour. Each time Phish plays, fans have new bits of close-listening improv to dissect, new bits of folklore to trade, new bits of themselves to actualize. While there was (and is) a jam hit parade of sorts, a different economy drives the modern live music world that Phish helped create: part drama, part novelty, part boogie, and filled with extreme levels of detail to be pored over later.
All of which is to say that Phish were pipers at the dawn of America’s 21st century festival revival, direct precursors to Bonnaroo, and early builders of an underground railway that eventually led to the collision of dance, jam, and indie subcultures in the vast common ground of the non-metaphoric concert field. While it would be an exaggeration to say that they were responsible for the endless crossovers of the festival circuit, they unquestionably nurtured an audience hungry for constantly changing live music outside the traditional mechanisms of the recording industry.
When the members of Phish enrolled at the experimental Goddard College, they were a bunch of suburban Deadheads in a far-flung spot in the countercultural empire. Starting primarily as a Grateful Dead cover band, Phish eventually traded in for a repertoire of original music refined during long Vermont winters, long green summers, long practice sessions, and long weekly gigs in Burlington, where they built a hungry audience. The songs followed their own rhythmic muses and logic, a self-conscious attempt at creating a new kind of dance music, filled with palindromes, atonal fugues, and enough classic rock riffs and swing to keep hippies moving. It is here that Phish turns to gibberish for most people, for their insistence on fun, for the levels of expression coded therein.
But despite the band’s oft-precious oddness, this is also why the giant multi-day campout-style music festival remains the musical platform in which Phish make the most sense. It is here that the band fully reconciles their extreme playfulness with the soaring guitar solos that arc through the summer air, over the rolling Vermont hills, and directly into memories. For those inclined to pay attention (and Phish fans do), there’s a lot to pay attention to, though the drugs certainly contribute.
“The internet is to the Phish community what FM radio was for me back in the early ’70s,” Great Northeast Productions promoter Dave Werlin told Pollstar about collaborating with Phish to stage the biggest indie rock fests of the ’90s. It’s a sentiment many would voice over the years, except that Werlin said it in 1999, on the verge of Phish’s millennium shows in Florida, and barely six months after Napster arrived to disrupt the American music industry at large. Using internet-enabled fanbases to create active feedback loops is a route many would come to exploit, but Phish and their Deadhead antecedents were there first, chilling.
As prescient as Phish’s long-haul formula may have been, their festival success emerged in parallel with the ’90s birth of large-scale microcultures, providing a Northeastern counterpart to the early American electronic dance music in the Midwest, the DIY desert adventures of Burning Man, and the swelling ranks of indie rock, to go alongside the post-SoundScan mainstreaming of country and hip-hop. Artists in many of these worlds structured their careers around recorded product and music videos, supplementing it with live appearances. Phish and their jammy ilk found places of their own that Woodstocks ’94 and ’99 seemed to miss entirely—funky, fuzzy destinations for specific musical communities, which reached full flower at their festivals. They picked up fans at New England boarding schools, frat houses, and liberal arts colleges alike; their shows were expected to be freethinking and generally apolitical zones, welcoming and loving to anyone who could tolerate the music.
The last time Great Northeast Productions put on a Phish festival, in 2004, it was a disaster in many ways, though it wasn’t the promoter’s fault. Heavy rains more or less destroyed the concert site before the fest even began, and the storms continued to batter the area. As cars pulled off in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and hit the traditional zone-crossing traffic jam, the order came for Phish and Great Northeast Productions to tell people to turn around. The band’s freeform radio station interrupted their all-night fun with a taped bummer from Phish bassist Mike Gordon. Fans were now faced with a moral choice about whether to listen to the stated wishes of their favorite band or to ignore them and trek on at their own peril. Compounding the decision-making was the fact that Phish had announced their impending breakup three months earlier.
An estimated 65,000 of 70,000 ticket buyers made it in, some weathering cross-country drives, 36-hour traffic stints, and 15-mile hikes to the concert grounds. These shows—a festival called Coventry in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in August 2004—would be the band’s final performances. In the blooming age of cross-platform storytelling and common-sense money-making, the shows were to be beamed out into movie theaters nationwide as well. In the midst of all of this, and almost certainly near the heart of the band’s decision to disband, were the substance abuse issues that had crept up among them, making the wheels come off the bus even as they continued to go ’round and ’round.
Coventry was the type of legitimately emotional performance that doesn’t often occur in popular music. There were mid-song tears, musical collapses, a few hot jams, and a palpably odd energy, all amid a boulder-strewn stage set designed to prevent further mudslides.
“We’re not about to do a free-form jazz exploration in front of a festival crowd,” David St. Hubbins barked in This Is Spinal Tap, but Phish built themselves a platform to do exactly that. In terms of the possibility of artistic creation afforded by a music festival, Coventry represented one possibility pushed to near-total bleakness. “Worst goodbye ever,” read one fan-made T-shirt featuring Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons.” But it was powerful art. Though the band kept playing their familiar songs, their world had broken down, and it showed no signs of ever making sense again.
This particular Phish festival likewise came during the dawn of the new festival season. One true and deep characteristic of festivals, going back at least to Woodstock, was a guaranteed escape. If a giant news event occurred somewhere out yonder, it might only arrive in Tent City via rumor. Cell phones hit ubiquity around the time of IT and Coventry, but all-access internet hadn’t yet landed; a trip to northern Vermont could be coordinated, but when the shit hit the fans and the band had to tell people to go home, it came by short-range FM radio.
By the time Phish reformed in 2009, accepting a slower pace, they sounded like themselves again, crisp and filled with detailed rhythmic punchlines and longform musical narratives. But the festival world had shifted around them, turning into a national circuit for bands of all genres. First staged in 2002, Bonnaroo—built on the jammy networks that Phish had nurtured—spread into nearly every musical territory imaginable, surfing an even bigger audience by tapping into jam fans’ open-mindedness toward fun-compliant live acts.
While Phish occasionally show up to play many-band extravaganzas, they are content to stick to themselves, too, and continue to stage their own festivals from time to time. But when they do—as in 2015’s Magnaball, population ~30,000—the events continue to tap into something that most festivals of equivalent size miss. While jam/electronic getaways like Camp Bisco and Electric Forest have their roots in the Phish world, Phish’s closest modern kin are perhaps more easily found in smaller fan-friendly events like the improv/avant-friendly Big Ears in Knoxville, with an emphasis on the intimate musical experience, even at scale. Lately, Phish have moved into luxury destination territory, having announced their second visit to a Mexican resort for 2017, though Phish fans—both recovering and active—have long constituted a reliable pocket of attendees at places like Big Ears and the earlier, more functional American iterations of All Tomorrow’s Parties.
In many ways, it’s a formula that few rock festivals have repeated because few have really tried: the creation of a space for absolute hyper-focused listening with the performance of the musicians at the unquestionable fixed center. Besides the advent of VIP camping and a few ticket-pricing confusions, perhaps the most controversial aspect of MagnaBall among Phish fans was whether or not the improvisation that followed “Prince Caspian” constituted a return to the song “Tweezer” or was merely reminiscent of it.
Though with unquestionable countercultural roots, Phish generated an entirely different set of parameters and concerns from the lamplight of Coachella, the active participation of Burning Man, the something-for-everybody parties of Outside Lands and elsewhere, the surf and turf deliciousness of JazzFest, the blissed-out multi-day electronic dance-outs, the yoga bend-ins, and even the so-called transformational festivals that have spread across Europe. Phish festivals aren’t about counterculture or psychedelics or even the vaunted community. They are about music—a hilarious, cruel, or absolutely fitting punchline that’s far funnier than any viral video could possibly convey.
“If you are not from this place, welcome to our home,” Wisconsin-raised singer/songwriter Phil Cook—all smiles—implored a sellout crowd last Thursday night at a warm-up show in downtown Eau Claire. “And if you are from this place? Welcome everybody to our home.” It might look a little clunky on a poster, but man, if the Eaux Claires festival is ever in need of a slogan, that’ll do just fine.
Tidy and scenic, Eau Claire, Wisconsin feels ever so slightly out of time. It’s the kind of place where the professional building still has a big “Professional Building” sign out front, where the stores won’t sell you beer after 9 p.m. In its second year, the festival returned to Foster Farms, a family-owned strawberry patch on the edge of town, along the banks of the Chippewa River. On paper, it’s a fairly strange place to debut the follow-up to a Grammy-winning album some five years in the making, as Bon Iver did Friday night. But once you’ve spent a little time in Eau Claire, you understand; they’re happy to share what they’ve got with the world, but not until they’ve passed it amongst themselves first. These people love where they’re from, and they want you to love it, too. They make a pretty convincing case.
A wooden path connects the two sides of Eaux Claires.
Eau Claire is two hours out from the Twin Cities, and just about three from Madison. Getting there means driving through long stretches of gently rolling, wildflower-dotted hills, interrupted every so often by a Culver’s or a Cheese Chalet. It’s hardly the middle of nowhere, but if you’ve gotta pee, you gotta plan ahead.
Maybe it’s the isolation—could just be all the Summer Shandy—but people in Eau Claire are nice in a way that even a lifelong Midwesterner like myself couldn’t quite get over. From the sweetheart local college students who checked me into my dorm room to the lady in the medical tent who gave me sunscreen and then found me in the port-a-john line two hours later to see how I was holding up, every single person I met from Eau Claire was friendlier than the last. From way up on the big stage, Mavis Staples noticed too: “I’ve been pronouncing it e-clair,” she joked, “and that’s what I see—just a bunch of beautiful eclairs with whipped cream inside!”
All your standard music-fest stressors—the rain, the heat, the all-day boozing, peeing in a fetid plastic box—are present and accounted for at Eaux Claires. Still, the mood was uniformly glorious. I watched a young woman stroll up to guitarist William Tyler as he cut across the crowd, asking him if she could say hello. Tyler seemed so startled by her warmth, he turned around, assuming she was talking to somebody else. And that guy is from Nashville.
Gotta Catch ’em All
Eaux Claires is essentially split up the middle: its two larger stages and most of the food and beverage concerns to the west, with two smaller bandshells and the not-especially-silent disco to the east. To get from one side to the other, you’re forced to make your way down a wooded path that runs maybe a third of a mile. Lights dot the way on either side, glowing under the verdant green; little side trails pop up every so often, leading you deeper into the thicket. It was on my third trek down this path that I saw them: three kids, phones in hand, kneeling in the dirt, staring at something. I assumed they were snaring Pokémon. How wrong I was.
“It’s a mushroom,” one of them told me. “And there’s a diorama in there.” Seconds later, two more kids stumbled down the path, muttering something about “45 feet away.” They, too, bent before the mushroom. Where most fest apps are little more than e-programs, the Eaux Claires app was a scavenger hunt, a bullhorn, and even a carnival barker of sorts: When it announced the sale of some limited edition Bon Iver 12"s, people streamed toward the merch tent en masse.
Giving people something to do at a festival beyond walking around and drinking is generally a plus, and the little art installations and hidden treasures promised by the app were generally a nice respite from typical fest bustle. Still, throwing an extra layer of gamification on top threatened to tip the scales and push the FOMO way into the red. The constant hints of secret shows could be faintly maddening; many—myself included—assumed Justin Vernon might pop up somewhere, with little to no warning. So when I heard the first few seconds of “Holocene” while walking past the semi-hidden stage along the wooded path, I ran towards it, along with five others, only to find somebody testing levels on the PA. The woman running alongside me put it best: “You can’t do that to us, Justin Vernon!”
Bon Iver. Photo by David Szymanski.
o h ∞ r i g h ʇ⊠⊠ʇ h Σ∞ a l b u m
I don’t much truck with one-listen reviews. And what we heard Friday night was not the album; it was a performance of it, which is not the same thing. My first impressions were positive—Vernon and co. seem to have found a way to combine the intimacy of For Emma, the scope of Bon Iver, and all the things Yeezy taught him—but that’s all I got. You’ll hear it soon. You might even like it. Everyone around me sure did.
Dead on Arrival
Here’s the thing: Don’t open with “Drums.” Saturday afternoon’s cameo-laden Grateful Dead tribute set—easily the weekend’s second-biggest happening until Chance showed during Francis and the Lights’ set—was a victim of its own circumstance. With so many guests moving on and off stage, each song felt like its own discrete entity, rather than the free flowing musical conversation of an actual Dead show. Sure, Phil Cook sang the hell out of “Brown Eyed Women,” and Will Oldham’s spirited take on “Ruben and Cherise”—just barely a Dead song, if we’re being honest—jumped off the stage the same way it does on record. But anything resembling a jam wound itself down after 90 seconds or so. They had the songs. The spirit? Not so much.
So Make Some Fucking Noise
“I apologize for cussing,” Vince Staples told us right as the mid-afternoon rain kicked up and the ponchos came out. “I know it’s not that type of festival.” He was kidding, of course, but only kind of; Eaux Claires is one of the few festivals its size where the modern classical contingent outweighs the rappers by at least 2-to-1.
This year’s Eaux Claires skewed awfully mellow (not to mention white and male), and loud music—no matter the genre—was hard to come by all weekend. If you wanted something that might leave a mark, you had to go looking for it. Appleton punks Tenement sprawled out across the stage Friday afternoon; hours later, Javanese experimental metal duo Senyawa screamed and scraped their way into our hearts. The Melvins, Deafheaven, and a few other stalwarts did what they could, but this was, as Vince joked, an almost uniformly easygoing weekend in the woods.
A Brief Review of the Local Beer Special
Eau Claire’s Brewing Projekt and shelf-clogging Dansk nomad Mikkeler collaborated on Eaux Henry! Eaux Sally!, a juicy, sessionable pale ale in a very swanky can. I probably drank 14 of them. Not bad!
Erykah Badu went on late, stared us down, slid through 14 songs, made her band play the Gary Bartz bit from Tribe’s “Butter,” and left. She is our greatest living human.
Something’s Happening Here
Sprawled out on the grass three beers into the afternoon, it’s a little too easy to forget that there’s a world outside the festival gates. This was a big weekend elsewhere in Wisconsin: In Milwaukee, yet another black man was murdered by the police, while a magistrate judge overturned Manitowoc native and “Making a Murderer” subject Brendan Dassey’s homicide conviction.
Current events didn’t loom especially large at Eaux Claires, but the grim spectre of a Trump presidency—and all the awfulness he’s dredged up in his wake—occasionally crept its way over the river. Performers addressed it carefully, pleading unity: Phil Cook and his band took on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth?” Thursday night, and Mavis Staples did the same Saturday afternoon. Phosphorescent dusted off “This Land Is Your Land,” as thousands sang along. These performers know they don’t have the answers; they’re just doing what they can in the face of insurmountable dread. Lifting spirits, showing solidarity. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Check out more photos from this year’s Eaux Claires festival below:
Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: History, Repeating: What Happens When Music Plays Itself
1. Michelle Leon, I Live Inside—Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland (Minnesota Historical Society) Guitarist and lead singer Kat Bjelland was a heroin addict; drummer Lori Barbero was organized, frugal, and drove the van; bassist Michelle Leon was a nice Jewish girl from a professional family who gave up college for another life, though she never gave up Minnesota nice. When Babes in Toyland took shape in Minneapolis in 1987 they were as sulfurous as any punk band the form, the idea, has ever produced—compared to them the Seattle bands of the time were the Dave Clark Five. You can hear that on their first album, Spanking Machine, which came out in 1990; you can hear it even more on a YouTube video of their April 14, 1988 show at the Cabooze Bar in Minneapolis—eight-and-a-half minutes in, Leon sings the unrecorded “Milk Pond” with a pleased smile on her face, as if she’s gotten away with something. She left the group in 1992, having, you get the feeling, lived a hundred lives as part of it, none of them finished, which may be why there isn’t an obvious sentence in the book. Over a little more than 200 pages, Leon’s short, self-contained chapters, often less than a page, are the opposite of diary entries: considered, honed, until every word has its own reason for being where it is.
There are triumphs and misery, but no self-praise, no self-pity. Humor is deadpan. After an accident in Arizona the band buys a new van: “a brown two-tone Ford Econoline with real backseats from a car rental place in Phoenix. The seller tells us the vehicle was owned by a woman who was kidnapped and is currently missing. He gives us a good deal.” The British rock writer Everett True “asks a riveting question: ‘What’s it like to be girls in a band?’ Lori kids that we get our periods at the same time.” Along with the day-to-day facts of life for an unknown band playing any out-of-town show they can get—sleeping on floors, not eating, making just enough to make it to the next town, common experiences never put down with more simple, direct conviction—you are brought into the sense of impersonation that comes with even home-town fame. This is “Everyone,” the whole chapter: “People recognize me out at shows, or shopping for groceries, at the movies, in line at the post office. Everyone acts extra friendly, buying drinks and introducing themselves. I am not sure who is for real, if someone is really interested or just wanting in on the scene. All the attention gives me a false sense of self-worth, illusive and distorted, with the ability to vanish like melting snow. I define myself through the gaze of strangers and I have never felt so phony. I have never felt so whole. I am disconnected, capable of caring very little, especially about those who are the closest to me. I am losing myself but it doesn’t matter. Boys think I’m foxy and want to make out. Girls want to be my friend; they also try to make out with me. Everyone thinks I’m really great.”
The deepest moment in the book, one that any good novelist would recognize in an instant as the crux of the story, comes out of the most ordinary incident, when Leon and Bjelland take Barbero’s no to mean no when it means yes—We’re going to the music store, do you want us to get you anything?—andthe comradeship between the three women begins to unravel—You knew I needed new sticks! “I look right at her and she looks right back at me, the fire of anger in our eyes. So begins resentment that lasts for weeks.” “I want to be warm and kind and open to everyone, like Lori,” Leon says a page later, maybe a month later, maybe two, after watching Barbero in a club, “so charming to strangers that all of her goodness gets used up, and there is nothing left but her husk, and then she is such a total fucking bitch to me and Kat. Take a deep breath. We all have our struggles. But I still hate her! Let it go. But I asked if she wanted anything at the music store and she said no! Let it go.” It’s not really a surprise, after this, that the life Leon lives afterthe band is no less rich, not an incident predictable, not an ending preordained.
3. David Reid, The Brazen Age—New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia(Pantheon) There is no depth in this 500-page account of the immediate postwar period, centered on 1948, one of the most fascinating years in American history. But there is one immediately striking photo among the images you can find anywhere else, revealing contours of bohemia Reid’s text doesn’t touch: six people at a table in the San Remo Café in Greenwich Village, one unidentified man looking at the camera, two women seen from behind, and, as captioned, the actor Montgomery Clift (Red River, A Place in the Sun, name-dropped by Reid once), the actor Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a beat critique if there ever was one, not mentioned), and Jack Kerouac. What were they talking about? Casting On the Road? Clift as Sal Paradise, McCarthy as Dean Moriarty? Except it’s not Jack Kerouac.
4. and 5. Ted Hearne, composer, But I Voted for Shirley Chisholm, and Libby Larsen, composer, Ferlinghetti, Aspen Music Festival (August 13) Hearne was born in 1982; 10 years before that, Shirley Chisholm, congresswoman from Brooklyn, was the first African-American from the Democratic or Republican party to run for president, and 15 years after that, in 1987, Biz Markie, in “Nobody Beats the Biz,” gave Chisholm a rap wave she must have treasured until her death in 2005: “Reagan is the pres but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.” Like many hip-hop artists before him, Hearne starts with that sample, and then, with the sound of ear-splitting feedback from Seohee Min’s violin and god knows what else, the 12-member Aspen Contemporary Ensemble jerked the piece to clanging life. With the original Chisholm shout subsumed into a call-and-response of city sounds—honking horns, pneumatic drills, or gunshots—and the stuttering rhythms of the group, with drummer Hannah Weaver acting it all out in the back, you couldn’t tell if you were listening to Markie or Andrew Heath’s trumpet and Harry Gonzalez’s trombone. It was only steps away from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 “Summer in the City,” but those steps were slippery enough to let the music turn jittery, almost to the point of breaking—until it slipped away into an idle that called up Miles Davis’ 1960 Sketches of Spain. It was only seven minutes, and so fast on its own switchbacks you wanted to hear it again, right away.
Larsen was born in 1950; she read Ferlinghetti’s 1958 beat-poetry best-seller in high school, and went back to compose to it just two years ago. There are six short pieces, keyed to Ferlinghetti lines that never resonated that strongly in the first place (“Crazy to be alive in such a strange world”) and don’t now. The players were riveting to watch: the straight man, James Dunham, viola, looked to be six-foot-six (“a pyramid,” said one person in the audience) and never cracked a smile or a frown; the exuberant Juan Gabriel Olivares, clarinet, a head or two shorter, was all Stan Laurel to Dunham’s Oliver Hardy; and Tengku Irfan, piano, who compared to the others looked like a windup-toy brought in when the scheduled pianist took a powder. The compositions were coy satires on the American scene, and the performances became less substantial one after the other, until “...fifty-one clowns in back all wearing nothing but Stars & Stripes,” which despite its characteristically condescending title immediately took off, with all sorts of patriotic airs floating through sounds that were pushing toward an abstract reworking of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock deconstruction of the national anthem. They made it right to the blazing heart of the history Hendrix made all those years ago, and you couldn’t tell if you were in a country that had ceased to be or remained to be made. Irfan had earlier used an elbow on the keys; now he stood up from his piano bench like Jerry Lee Lewis and pounded across any shaped melody, any definite beat. When the three bowed, you knew he’dbeen somewhere.
6. Felice Brothers, Life in the Dark (Yep Roc) The casual, sliding rhythms in Ian Felice’s voice don’t wear out because they’re filled with regret. That feeling doubles back on itself, leading to the band’s startlingly empathetic rewrites of such traditional ballads—you could say traditional murders—as “Stagger Lee” (Lee “Stag” Shelton shoots Billy Lyons in St. Louis, 1895) and “Frankie and Albert” (Frankie Baker shoots Albert Britt in St. Louis, 1899). As the Felice Brothers tell the tales in “Dream On” and “Frankie’s Gun!” they’re taking place in the present and the singer is in the songs, thinking it all over. That’s what regret is all about: what could have happened if just one thing had been just slightly different, if you woke up an hour later, if you hadn’t taken what someone said for what it probably didn’t mean anyway. And now you can never take it back.
You can hear that small drama almost anywhere on this album, and especially in the first lines of “Aerosol Ball,” the first song here: they’re so quietly absurd, with accordion and fiddle swaying in the background (“The rain in Maine/Is made of novocaine/In the Florida Keys/It’s made of Antifreeze/In Maryland/It’s made of heroin/In Minnesota/It’s made of baking soda”) you want the song to keep going until it covers the other 46. You don’t even have to notice when the tune turns into third-hand social critique by way of a put-down of “the doll of St. Paul.” “Her dreams her thoughts are made by Microsoft,” Ian Felice sings, without changing his tone, and lines seem just as made up on the spot as the ones the he started with. The more the band try to be serious—and they really are, as another line from “Aerosol Ball” goes, “looking for a mix of sex and politics”)—the more they day-dream, conjuring up melodies and phrases, unable to stick to the script, letting their music play itself.
7. Columbia film professor Andy Bienen on the first night of the Democratic convention (email, July 25)“It was strange on the 51st anniversary of Newport to hear all that self-righteous booing. Superficial differences aside, the Sanders crowd seemed cut from the same sanctimonious cloth as those who booed Dylan in ’65 and ’66. It seemed possible that some of the older delegates could even have been at Newport booing then as they were booing now.”
8. Laurie Penny, “I’m with the Banned,” on the Republican convention (medium.com, July 21) Reading Penny, who writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman and on her own blog,is not like reading any American political writer, no matter how passionate (Timothy Eagan), funny (Gail Collins), inflamed (Matt Taibbi), or apocalyptic (Jonathan Chait). She’s faster, tougher, and she writes as if words were made for her. Her clever writing (“America is a nation eaten by its own myth”) is never merely clever; ideas (“The entire idea of America is about believing impossible things. Nobody said those things had to be benign”) explode out of it. Here she’s at “the gayest neo-fascist rally” at the Republican convention, starring the troll Milo Yiannopoulos, just banned from Twitter for his racist abuse of Leslie Jones, and reveling in it. Beyond the photos of naked men in Trump hats that cover the walls of the venue is the VIP room, where Penny meets Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Party for Freedom: “the most obviously disturbed member of the neo-right suicide squad in attendance. He cannot finish a sentence. His voice drifts, and he trails away, already out of the room. There is a dustbin fire behind the blank eyes of his human suit.” “Milo Yiannopoulos is the ideological analogue of Kim Kardashian’s rear end,” Penny has already written, and as she goes on that sentence sounds all through her report, translating everything she sees: “Wilders is a less polished, wholly charmless rendition of the neo-right demagogue character creation sheet that gave us Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. These people do not have personalities, they have haircuts.”
9. DJ Shadow, The Mountain Will Fall (Mass Appeal) For the great sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life—finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and realizing you were born there—the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against. But as the record summons a movie-music sense of phony peace of mind in its last 10 minutes or so, all of that begins to break down. By the end, yes—you don’t know where you are.
10. A friend writes in (August 4) “Last night we were at the WH for Obama’s birthday party. I finally met Paul McCartney, which had been a dream of mine. I tried to act cool about it but secretly I was like one of the Beatlemania girls at Shea screaming on the inside.”
Thanks to Barry Gifford, Emily Marcus, and Paula Bernstein.
The 1970s was arguably the single decade of the 20th century when recorded music was most central to culture. There were, of course, fewer kinds of media competing for the average consumer’s time—television meant just a handful of channels, video games were the size of refrigerators and could be found in arcades. As the used vinyl bins of the world are still telling us, records were the thing. Labels were flush with cash, sales of LPs and singles were brisk, and record stores were everywhere. Home stereos were a standard part of middle-class culture. Analog recording technology was at its zenith, FM radio was ascendant, and the AM dial still focused on music. The children of the baby boom were coming into their late twenties and thirties—young enough to still be serious music consumers, but old enough to have their own generation of children who were starting to buy music.
And then there was the music itself. Disco, an entire cultural movement fueled by a genre of music—with massive impact on fashion, film, TV and advertising—was utterly ubiquitous. Rock music emerged from the ’60s as to go-to choice of white youth culture. Soul and funk were reaching new levels of artistry. Punk, the first serious backlash against the rock mainstream, came into its own. Records from Jamaica were making their way to the UK and, eventually, the U.S., changing sounds and urging a new kind of political consciousness. As culture moved in every direction at once, there were more great songs than anyone could count.
As voted by our full time staff and contributors, these are Pitchfork's 200 best songs of the 1970s.
There’s no shame in being a muse—preening in silk robes on the couch, tousled hair parting to reveal full lips pouting around a cigarette, tossing off bon mots of aching elegance that nestle into the subconscious and reappear as pop hits. If that’s how Mick Jagger wanted to spend his days, more power to him. Marianne Faithfull was most famous in the ’60s as the blonde, boho moll of the Rolling Stones frontman, whose career was twined to his and widely assumed dependent on his gifts: her version of the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” was a hit in England; her near-fatal heroin overdose became “Wild Horses,” and her literary interests begat “Sympathy for the Devil;” she co-wrote “Sister Morphine.” But Jagger was also something of Faithfull’s muse, inspiring many entries in her prodigious Decca Records output of the late 1960s.
By the end of the 1970s, a decade in which she’d weathered drug abuse and homelessness (and long ended her high-profile love), Faithfull refused to be diminished for one more day. Broken English, her first rock record in 12 years, was the comeback triumph no one expected, not least in how gritty it was. The chilling title track is a prophetic merging of punk and dance, with lyrics that plumb the depths of her losses. “Could have come through anytime/Cold lonely, puritan,” she intones harshly, gliding into a bloodless snarl that would make Johnny Rotten flinch. “What are you fighting for?/It’s not my security.” It’s a terse, battle-scarred declaration of autonomy with hairpin melodic turns, early in its embrace of dance music’s dark possibilities. “Broken English” is the portrait of a true survivor, starting a new era on her terms, alone. –Stacey Anderson
Even as her sensibilities shifted from jazz to fusion to R&B and disco, Patrice Rushen focused on her keyboards while everything else swirled around them. On “Haven’t You Heard,” the piano is an anchor for the song. This can make it feel like an early skeleton of house music, which is appropriate—it was a touchstone of Larry Levan’s sets at the Paradise Garage, and was eventually reborn as gospel house in Kirk Franklin’s 2005 single “Looking for You.”
“Haven’t You Heard” is a formally perfect expression of disco. The best disco songs imply infinity in both their length and groove, and always feel as if they’re attached to a black hole. “Haven’t You Heard” enhances time until it feels like the glitter of a cityscape unfurling through a cab window. It manages this even as the lyric itself is private—the literal text of a classified ad. “It only says ‘I’m looking for the perfect guy,’” Rushen sings, searching for connection not through direct communication but with ambient speech. This kind of intimacy, personified by the whispery translucence of Rushen’s voice, is just as easily exported to the dance floor. –Brad Nelson
Like the best outlaw country, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” looks backwards and forwards simultaneously, finding inspiration in the past even as it wonders what’s around the next curve in the road. Jennings and his peers were traditionalists who bucked the very notion of tradition. All of them had been manhandled by the industry, but few bristled against the mainstream quite as strongly as Jennings, who found himself on a series of poorly planned tours that left him deep in debt to his label and addicted to amphetamines.
If this were just a song about all the “rhinestone suits and new shiny cars” that defined country music around the bicentennial, it would have been only a minor antagonism. But outlaw country rarely gets credit for its humor or its self-deprecation, and what lends the song its gravity, aside from the world-weariness of Waylon’s vocals, is his sly assessment of his own place in the industry. Despite the hits he’d been notching for a decade, he was still just another road warrior who idolized Hank Sr. but still saw him as an almost hilariously impossible standard against which to measure himself or anybody else. –Stephen Deusner
A healthy portion of Chicago’s musical avant-garde decamped for France in 1969, but the group that made the biggest splash in Paris was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The band’s exuberant stage show reinforced its members’ organizing slogan—“Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”—with bassist Malachi Favors often dressed like an Egyptian shaman and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell donning the garb of a contemporary urbanite. Over the course of a dozen-plus records cut in the 1970s, the band’s sound made good on the malleability suggested by this varied public image, as they created delicate improvisations and noise blowouts alike.
On “Théme de Yoyo,” the opening song on a soundtrack to a now-forgotten film, the Art Ensemble’s rhythm section offers up a funk groove. When the group’s notoriously wild horn players enter, they begin by playing things pretty straight—only reaching for avant-garde theatrics in brief pauses of the swinging, mod theme. Guest vocalist Fontella Bass—the wife of Art Ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie—contributes soulful phrasings that sound downright commercial until you focus on the absurdist lyrics (“Your fanny’s like two sperm whales floating down the Seine”). No matter how out there each instrumentalist ventures, every feature spot contains references to the track’s pop-song foundation. As a piece of free-jazz funk that predates Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, “Théme de Yoyo” is an early reflection of the benefits the Art Ensemble reaped from their refusal to be tied to a single genre. –Seth Colter Walls
Jorge Ben’s “Taj Mahal” is ostensibly about the famous tomb in Agra, India. The building was created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, as a tribute to his fourth wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death during the birth of the couple’s 14th child. “Foi a mais linda historia de amor,” sings the Brazilian singer Ben: “It was the most pretty story of love.” The couple’s romance must have been strong stuff: the tomb was commissioned the year after her death, in 1632, and wasn't finished until 1653, at a cost of approximately $827 million in today’s dollars.
Ben’s original version of the song, recorded for his 1972 album Ben, is a subdued gem. But the version recorded for his massive 1976 crossover album Africa Brasil exudes joy, sparks flying from every exuberant note. The record would end up getting Rod Stewart—whose “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” bore a strong resemblance—sued. It’s not difficult, though, to see what Stewart saw in its jubilant DNA (unconsciously, according to his autobiography). “Taj Mahal” captures an unselfconscious excitement, a purity of a deeply familiar feeling, yet projects it at a scale that can cross decades—perhaps centuries. –David Drake
This track is really three ’70s reggae classics in one: Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil,” Prince Jazzbo’s “Croaking Lizard,” and Lee Perry’s mix of both with his own vocals. All this and more gets tossed in the pot in the nearly seven-minute-long “Disco Devil.”
“Disco” doesn’t reference the flashy dance genre of the same name but rather the concept of the “discomix,” a 12” vinyl format that contains a vocal song seamlessly followed by a dub remix or a deejay version (meaning a rapped performance over the rhythm track). Perry essentially released a dub version of the Romeo and Jazzbo tracks, then followed it with a dub of the dub. It’s a particularly effective example of Perry’s innovative, eccentric production style that transforms the studio into an instrument itself. The approach to “Disco Devil” demonstrates the many ways he was able to pull pieces of a song apart and put them back together, add snippets of lyrics and sounds, and shape deep bass and rippling guitar to glide as if underwater. –Erin Macleod
A decade before Michael Jackson lifted it for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and long before Rihanna sampled Jackson’s version in “Don’t Stop the Music” (and both got sued for uncleared usage), “Soul Makossa” was a disco scene staple. It started as the B-side to a hymn Manu Dibango wrote for his native Cameroon’s football team in honor of their country hosting the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations. By then, the jazz saxophonist was already well established, but the record was a huge flop. In his autobiography, Dibango recalls how kids and adults alike ridiculed his stuttering repetition of that now-familiar refrain: “Ma-ma-ko ma-ma-sa mako-makossa!” It was only when he rerecorded it in Paris, and that version fell into the hands of New York Loft DJ David Mancuso and radio DJ Frankie Crocker, that it spread like wildfire, even cracking the American Top 40.
Historically, makossa, the popular Cameroonian dance music, is a mix of soukous, highlife, and traditional Douala dance rhythms. Dibango douses it in soul, funk, and jazz to the point that “Soul Makossa” is more funky proto-disco than it is makossa. But that reimagining is also what made the song such a phenomenon; it played to people’s ideas of what a cosmopolitan African continent sounded like, presented in a format they were familiar with. In the decades to come, “Soul Makossa” would be sampled countless times over, including by the Fugees on The Score and Kanye on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Soul Makossa” remains brilliant in its musical malleability. –Minna Zhou
The no wave scene in late ’70s New York was notorious for its room-clearing nihilism. Noisy, confrontational bands such asMars,DNA, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks looked to bury the corpse of rock’n’roll by rejecting its rules. Yet one of the most iconic no wave tunes, James Chance& the Contortions’ “Contort Yourself,” is less an anti-song than a body-moving dance-craze ditty. “Now is time to lose all control/Distort your body, twist your soul,” Chance yelps over the tightly wound groove of his quintet, who sound like an unhinged version of James Brown’s band the J.B.’s.
But as “Contort Yourself” progresses, Chance’s destructive attitude creeps in. His screams get longer (“Forget about your future!”), his saxophone gets noisier, and slide guitars scrape across the song like rakes over concrete. By the end, Chance advocates total annihilation: “Once you forget your affection for the human race/Reduce yourself to zero, and then you’ll fall in place.”
Still, “Contort Yourself” is nihilism you can dance to, and it typified the Contortions’ unique mix of punk, funk, and jazz. That mix would influence many danceable early ’80s New York bands—Bush Tetras,ESG,Liquid Liquid—and point toward the disco scene that eventually took over Manhattan. But no one could replicate the sharp mania of “Contort Yourself,” a song that still twists and shouts. –Marc Masters
“Baby's on Fire” is barely a song, in the conventional sense—two chords mercilessly alternating for five minutes, a single snatch of melody repeated with almost no variation, a lyric that sidles around clear sense, and a guitar solo that takes up more than half of its running time. It divided the listeners of Eno’s first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets, into those who got it and those who were left eating its ashes.
For all its minimalism, there's a lot going on in this song: a celebration of a catastrophe happening in plain view, knotty wordplay and snappy onomatopoeia, and the vicious camp of Eno’s vocal (there’s an arch, shivering grin behind the way he enunciates, “This kind of experience/Is necessary for her learning”). The track’s centerpiece is the conflagration of Robert Fripp and Paul Rudolph’s all-devouring instrumental break with Eno’s “treatments” spraying fuel all over it. Before “Baby’s on Fire” and Warm Jets, Eno had been the eccentric, glammy keyboardist in Roxy Music; after them, he became known as the ingenious weirdo who thought about sound in ways nobody else did. –Douglas Wolk
The story goes that, sometime in the mid-’80s, David Byrne found Estudando o Samba (“Studying Samba”) in a record store in Rio De Janeiro. He assumed it would be like the rest of the samba records he was collecting, but its cover gave a hint of something subversive: the image of a barbed wire fence scrawled across a white surface. Of course, Byrne became so obsessed with the record, he tracked Zé down and asked if he could release the album in the States, as the first dispatch of his then-new Luaka Bop records. Soon after, Zé was enjoying overdue fame as samba’s best deconstructionist.
Zé grew up in the Hinterlands of Bahia, Brazil, in a village so remote that it didn’t get electricity until he was 17; soon after, he studied modernist composition and hooked up with the tropicalistas in urban Salvador. Zé’s music reflects both these worlds; it’s rooted in rural tradition and laced with a cynical cosmopolitanism. “Doi,” from 1976’s triumphant Estudando o Samba, strikes a perfect balance: its percussion forms from earthy, machinelike clanks, and a minimalist guitar is the only other actual instrument on the song. Its thrust comes from a chorus that feels universal, primordial even, and Zé allows himself to disappear into it. It’s a strange and satisfying effect, and a rigorously intelligent way to balance formal experimentation with heritage. “Doi” exists in some nether-zone between the past and the future, and nothing in music sounds like this, still. –Kevin Lozano
Betty Davis’ voice is where pleasure meets pain, so of course she had to cut a song about S&M. People speculated whether “He Was a Big Freak” concerned her ex-husband, Miles Davis, or her rumored (and denied) lover, Jimi Hendrix. It wasn’t about either, Davis said, though she admitted that her dominatrix’s “turquoise chain” was a reference to Hendrix’s favorite color. Gossip aside, Davis’ act was scandalizing because it starred a powerful young black woman in control of her own desires.
On “Freak,” she takes on various roles in order to meet her partner’s needs—housewife, geisha, mother—but sounds so intoxicated by her power that his satisfaction becomes secondary. Her delivery evokes a woman possessed as she roars and vamps through her seduction. Davis keeps switching gears until a new darkness emerges from her throat, and a storm rises from the guitar. Her pointillist funk thrust loses its precision and starts stumbling in the perilous ascent towards climax. Eventually, “Freak” fades out, though Davis is still roaring as the mix dims. It feels like she’s just getting started. –Laura Snapes
Born Leo Morris, drummer Idris Muhammad played with dozens of jazz giants before and after taking his Muslim name, but found his artistic voice at Kudu, CTI’s soul crossover label, where he collaborated with David Matthews, a keyboardist who arranged and co-wrote several James Brown hits. You don’t have to have a degree in composition like Matthews did to wrap your head around the melodic composure of “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This,” their peak achievement together and Muhammad’s biggest hit. Singular, spiritual, and straight-up gorgeous, “Heaven” silences even the staunchest disco-hater.
Elements of the song have been repeatedly sampled and replayed, but its bittersweet harmonies are best experienced the way DJs played it back in the spring of 1977 and for many years to come: from its first effusive note to its very end. Over the course of eight-and-a-half minutes, “Heaven” takes dancers on an exquisite journey, the arrangement soaring from ethereal harp to Brecker Brothers horn blasts to raucous rock guitar. Too otherworldly to be championed by every DJ, “Heaven” was nevertheless so beloved by those who did that it reached No. 2 on Billboard’s dance chart. The only subsequent record to truly do it justice, Jamie xx’s “Loud Places” honors that it’s not simply a dance song, but also a prayer. –Barry Walters
Falsetto is frequently used in reggae, but not often is there a track as gently piercing as Junior Murvin’s 1976 classic. As resonant now as it was then, Murvin’s song about the militarization of police reflects reality far beyond Jamaica, leveling the playing field between the illegal and the legal. “All the peacemakers turn war officers,” sings a prescient Murvin. “Police and thieves in the streets, oh yeah/Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition.” It was an important soundtrack of protest when it was released in London in the summer of 1976, during racial tensions that led to riots during the Notting Hill Festival and unrest in Brixton.
The track has been re-recorded a number of times, most famously by the Clash on their debut album. However, the original, recorded in the legendary Black Ark studio, is a textbook Lee Perry production. There’s that perfect amount of echo, carrying Murvin’s vocal improvisations and the humming chorus along, making them bounce off the walls and charge ever forward. –Erin Macleod
On his previous Eurodisco hits, the French drummer Marc Cerrone mirrored Giorgio Moroder’s long, sensual suites with Donna Summer while accentuating both their symphonic splendor and kickdrum wallops. For the title track of his second 1977 album, he took a page from Summer’s “I Feel Love” and similarly traded soaring strings for undulating synths, but did so without the overt sex. Instead, he and cowriter Alain Winsniak introduced an unprecedented strain of dystopian disco dread. Neither Kraftwerk nor Berlin-era Bowie had an immediate international dancefloor impact as profound as “Supernature.”
Years before GMOs became a food source and organic crops a common alternative, “Supernature” sang of an imagined past when science introduced agricultural breakthroughs with unanticipated consequences. “The potions that we made touched the creatures down below/And they grew up in a way that we’d never seen before,” warns English session vocalist Kay Garner with a star-quality growl oozing menace and authority. As the track grows more sinister, mutant monsters take their revenge until humanity reverts to a primitive state where it must once again earn its place.
How did such a deep sci-fi theme find its way into an album that sold huge numbers and paved the way for space disco, techno, acid house, and other dark dance floor strains? The future new wave icon Lene Lovich wrote these uncredited ecological lyrics. She’d soon use her fame to raise consciousness for animal rights. –Barry Walters
The Whispers formed in Los Angeles in the mid-’60s and were hardly seen as cutting-edge by the time they released “And the Beat Goes On” in 1979. But they were in fact pushing boundaries, thanks in large part to the genius of SOLAR label producer Leon Sylvers, who, along with record producer Kashif, was one of the most important composers in late-’70s/early-’80s R&B. Together, on opposite sides of the country—Kashif in New York, Sylvers in Los Angeles—the two charted a path post-disco, incorporating new electronic elements and playing with grooves.
“And the Beat Goes On” was one of Sylvers’ most successful records as a producer, hitting No. 19 on the Hot 100. The groove was so modern, it was the product of a Will Smith one-track-jack in the late ’90s, when the rapper’s “Miami” lifted liberally from the post-disco classic; the record had aged well, its quick strings and electronic textures as fresh as they day they were recorded. –David Drake
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” first took shape in 1975 in a more modest arrangement, as a Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes song sung by Teddy Pendergrass. Pendergrass’s tender vocals keep the songs as two distinct components—a verse and a chorus separated neatly by scale and intensity. When Thelma Houston recorded the song for Motown a year later, her arrangement reached for the sky; the version accelerates steadily, a gentle melancholy lifting off into the denser and more pressurized atmosphere of disco. Throughout, Rhodes piano shimmers like light filtering through clouds.
Houston’s performance is remarkable: her vocals are as composed as they are exposed, stable as they are sensitive. “I can’t survive,” Houston sings, her voice occasionally collapsing into a whisper. “I can’t stay alive/Without your love.” It’s this complexity that, years later, led the song to be embraced as a metaphor for the devastation of AIDS in the gay community. –Brad Nelson
It’s ironic that one of the all-time greatest Philly soul acts weren’t even from Philadelphia. The Spinners hailed from Detroit—they were even billed as “the Detroit Spinners” in the UK—and like most of the city’s top talent at the time, they recorded on Motown, where they landed the Stevie Wonder-penned hit “It’s a Shame.” But it was only after signing to Atlantic Records that they truly found their voice. Under the guidance of super-producer Thom Bell, they embodied the sound of ’70s Philadelphia soul: lush, sensual, and ridiculously generous, all strings and bells and orchestral grandeur.
That’s a lot to juggle, and some of Bell’s lesser productions collapsed under the weight of their arrangements, especially once disco pressured them to become busier and busier, but the Spinners had the delicate touch to pull it all off. Just years earlier, they’d been shouting and wailing, but the best moments of “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” are practically whispered; every time lead vocalist Bobbie Smith is offered the opportunity to go loud, he goes soft, letting Bell’s dulcet accompaniments do the singing for him. The restraint adds even more depth to his coos of, “I don't need all those things that used to bring me joy/You've made me such a happy boy.” The ’70s yielded countless songs about falling in love, but few are as blissful as this. –Evan Rytlewski
Not many can challenge Todd Rundgren as the foremost architect of ’70s rock. As a producer, he shaped defining albums for Grand Funk Railroad, Hall & Oates, and Meat Loaf...but also the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the Tubes. In his simultaneous solo career, he stayed one step ahead of the trends he solidified with other artists, veering between soft-rock rebellion, prog fantasias, and experiments in song suites and remakes.
Triangulating Rundgren’s busy decade is nearly impossible, but “International Feel”—the lead track from his frenetic A Wizard, A True Star—does a fine job. Recorded at the ad-hoc Secret Sound studio Rundgren built in a New York City loft, the song balances between his audiophile obsessions and pop instincts. It’s Philly soul in a spacesuit, fading in with revving engine sound effects, tickled from all sides by synthesizer sprites, propelled by heavily filtered drums that sound lifted from a Led ZeppelinIV session. The use of “International Feel” in Daft Punk’s 2006 film Electroma only confirmed its otherworldly futurism, and that Rundgren was ahead of his time even as he played a preeminent role in defining it. –Rob Mitchum
When guitarist Julz Sale, bassist Ros Allen, and other bassist Bethan Peters came together to form Delta 5 in 1979, they decided to double up on the low end because, as Allen has said, “neither of us played guitar, and we thought it would make the music more exciting.” They were not wrong.
Part of a contingent of Leeds art instigators that included Mekons and Gang of Four, the socialist funk-punk pioneers released their iconic debut single on Rough Trade just as the ’70s were petering out. The song opens with a tense soda-counter come-on that bleeds feminist sarcasm: “Can I have a taste of your ice cream?” the three women deadpan in unison. “Can I lick the crumbs from your table? Can I interfere in your crisis?” They gnarl knots of guitar noise until the whole song sounds like a collective effort to suffocate those same questions, but only after telling the leader of the pack to fuck right off: “No, mind your own business!” This one genius idea on loop set Delta 5 on their way. –Jenn Pelly
“Caravan” fits into an established tradition of songs about listening, a metatextual lyric about gathering with friends and dancing to a song on the radio, made into a song one might gather with friends and dance to. When it appears on a classic rock radio playlist, the lyric becomes abruptly instructional. “Turn it up!” Van exhorts. “Little bit higher! Radio!” Syntax crumbles in the whirl and flutter of his emotions. “Caravan” has a kind of rhomboid structure, its energies constantly building toward an acute angle; the individual instruments in the song—including Van Morrison’s voice—combine and swell into a wordless chorus: “La la la la la la la.” This is, essentially, the vocabulary of rhythm and blues, which Morrison, on “Caravan”’s album Moondance, had finally, almost seamlessly absorbed into his own music, and of which “Caravan” is its most excited expression. –Brad Nelson
Stiff Records hustled to ensure the Damned were the first British punk band to get a single to market, issuing “New Rose” just weeks prior to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” The full-length Damned Damned Damned was also rushed out, anchored by “Neat Neat Neat,” the nastiest single of the first wave of UK punk. It opens with a bass line so slippery, it’s almost sexy, but once the band kicks in—no more than five seconds later, because in the early days, the Damned never weren’t in a hurry—the recording descends into chaos, growing faster and filthier with every chord change.
Words don’t matter so much here—images of violence and desperate dominance bat up against each other, creating a vague menace. But “Neat Neat Neat” isn’t just a performance, as Elvis Costello & the Attractions made clear; their 1978 live revision of the song swapped the abandon for funk, turning “Neat Neat Neat” into tense, profane jazz-rock worthy of Ian Dury and revealing the sharp, cynical song underneath the Damned’s bluster. Still, “Neat Neat Neat” is really about that visceral, ugly rush, a record that hits harder than any other early punk single. The Sex Pistols plodded, the Clash marshaled their forces, but the Damned attacked indiscriminately, wanting to take down everybody in their eyesight. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
To watch the Germs perform in the seminal 1981 punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization is to witness a band living on borrowed time, abused while onstage by an adoring audience, a lurching Darby Crash slurring his vocals beyond incoherence. Inconsistent of lineup and unerringly high, their salvation laid in the sheer quality of their songwriting: catchy yet erudite, desperate yet empathetic, a conduit for connection.
At surface level, “Lexicon Devil” is pogo-stick punk bubblegum, a startling burst of left-coast Ramones with all those chummy, hammy “gimmies” that Crash chants. He refuses to fully succumb to punk’s cynicism and anarchism; instead, he dares to openly daydream about dismantling a jaundiced today and building a better tomorrow, welcoming along anyone who can pitch in. “Together we’ll run to the highest prop,” he cries. “Tear it down and let it drop!” It’s a romantic, substantial notion, one that remains well worth striving for. –Raymond Cummings
When Siouxsie and the Banshees released their debut single in 1978, goth was still years away from becoming a subculture and the first wave of post-punk acts were just finding their sounds. The band had been kicking around London for quite a while before that—Siouxsie had been a teenage punk scenester in the Sex Pistols’ orbit, and the Banshees played a disastrous first set at Malcolm McLaren’s historic 100 Club Punk Festival in the fall of 1976. But, as Jon Savage explains in England’s Dreaming, punk was in a dark place two years later. Nazi imagery adopted purely for the sake of provocation, like the swastika armbands Siouxsie often wore, was now attracting real white supremacists.
“Hong Kong Garden,” with its chiming electric xylophone-and-drum intro and jagged guitar riff, represented the evolution of a punk aesthetic that had become so stripped down, it was starting to feel reactionary. The song’s pseudo-Asian aesthetic hasn’t aged perfectly, but it did have an explicitly anti-racist message. Its culture-clash lyrics were inspired by the scene at a Chinese takeout in Siouxsie’s suburban hometown of Chislehurst. “I used to go along with my friend and just be really upset by the local skinheads that hung out there and gave the staff such a hard time—really racist, just intolerant,”she told Uncut. Listeners must have been hungry for that message, because “Hong Kong Garden” landed the Banshees their Polydor deal and became a surprise hit, reaching No. 7 on the UK pop charts. –Judy Berman
If Faust’s eponymous 1971 debut demonstrated a facility for fusing rock, classical, and spindly pop, “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl” proved that the German group was capable of mainstreaming its youthful id. “Girl” thrives on crisp drumbeats, droning organs, and a scraping chug of guitars. Sung in English, the title registers as an almost mystic incantation that rises and falls with the mix. The result is a delicious contradiction: the act of repetition engendering hypnotic psychedelia, precision and looseness seeming downright interchangeable. Krautrock would inspire generations to rewrite the pulse of music, but “Rainy Day” found the members of Faust at their most streamlined, intuitive, and accessible; even today, its bedheaded bounce feels new. –Raymond Cummings
In 1975, Time magazine named “American Women” their Person of the Year, recognizing 12 months when “the women’s drive penetrated every layer of society, matured beyond an ideology to a new status of general—and sometimes unconscious—acceptance.” The feminist movement had helped force through anti-discrimination laws, which gave women a new foothold in the workplace. For the first time ever, American households were shrinking and marriage rates were declining; a few years earlier, oral contraception had been legalized for all women, not just married ones, and Roe v. Wade followed.
The last person you’d expect to soundtrack these advances was a 43-year-old country singer who skewed Republican more often than not. Loretta Lynn took a dim view of the women’s liberation movement, preferring to appeal to her female fans about their lives rather than their rights. Whatever she thought, this was a staunchly feminist tactic, as was choosing to record “The Pill,” a pro-birth control track that chimed directly with her own experiences: married at 15, with six kids in total, three of them born before she turned 19.
Pastors, particularly in the South, were quick to denounce the song, and it was blacklisted from dozens of country radio stations. But, as with most proscribed art, the controversy only amplified its popularity. It’s an easy sell, anyway: “The Pill” is funny (“This old maternity dress I’ve got is going in the garbage/The clothes I’m wearing from now on won’t take up so much yardage”), burbling along on blithe pedal steel, but its strength derives from its lack of showiness. Rather than laying on the sass, Lynn delivers a straight-talking PSA to women about the liberation that choice brings, and a cool warning to men about their wives’ newfound bargaining power. With every reminder that she’s “got the pill,” she reclaims ground from the patriarchy, jimmying the door open for women to make their way into the world and enjoy carefree sex, just like a man. Lynn’s radical treatise didn’t just enshrine prevention but pleasure, too. –Laura Snapes
Any time someone describes a piece of music as “cinematic,” there’s a decent chance they’re thinking, consciously or subconsciously, of “Chase.” Giorgio Moroder’s Oscar-winning score to Midnight Express holds up far better than the film and its now-decried “evil Turks” overtones; remarkably, this was his first soundtrack work and, to the public imagination, the foundational electronic soundtrack. (Technically, Tangerine Dreamgot there first, but there’s a reason they’re in a parenthetical.)
Using the strict synths of “I Feel Love” to generate the mechanical pulse of the action movie, to depict life as heightened and dreamlike and deeper than human, is an obvious idea now, but at the time, it was revelatory. It’s impossible to overstate, let alone list, the amount of composers and films who’ve ripped off “Chase”—it’s responsible for a lot of deeply uncool ’80s kitsch (much produced by Moroder himself) but also for a lot of undeniably transcendent moments. Moroder says he’d alreadygotten sick of it after two years; the next few decades must have been a special but not-so-secretly gratifying hell. –Katherine St. Asaph
The earliest known instance of the phrase “a knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork, that’s the way we spell New York” (or something close to it) comes from a 1915 newspaper explaining the recent popularity of nonsense phrases that rhyme with major American cities. (It unfortunately doesn’t explain why they were popular.) The line had long since faded from the collective consciousness when reggae singer Dillinger stepped into Channel One studio in Kingston, Jamaica with producer Joseph “Jo Jo” Hoo Kim—but somehow, in his attempt to vocalize the sensation of a racing and coked-up mind, he managed to pluck those words out of the air. “Cokane in My Brain” was pressed and sent out into a new world that had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, but liked it anyhow.
Old-timey American word games weren’t the only source material Dillinger and Kim raided on the track; the insistent beat was a loop lifted from Philly funk group the People’s Choice’s hit “Do It Any Way You Wanna” (played by the studio’s house band the Revolutionaries), and the chorus was borrowed from Reverend Gary Davis’s “Cocaine Blues.” The postmodern pastiche of “Cokane”—not to mention its wired freak-funk energy—would be a major influence on dance music and hip-hop in the coming decades, so it’s fitting that acts like the ’80s avant-electronic group Information Society and modern-day disco revivalists Escort have repurposed Dillinger’s cryptic secondhand jibberish in their own jams. –Miles Raymer
In the ’60s, Eddie Kendricks’ falsetto added a plushness and sensitivity to several classic Temptations singles. In the early ’70s, alienated by the new psychedelic digressions of his group, he split and signed as a solo artist to the Motown imprint Tamla. “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind,” from his second solo album, 1972’s People...Hold On, is decidedly unpsychedelic, but there’s something hallucinatory produced by its groove, a spectral presence at its edges. The insistent shudder of the piano, bass, and drums form a kind of stirring rhythmic fog, the horns piercing through. It’s almost a work of impressionism.
Lyrically, the song is a straight male fantasy of how love and relationships work; Kendricks considers love a kind of formlessness in which the power discrepancies between men and women disintegrate. “Love, it is an occupation,” he sings, “a true liberation.” His resolve fractures with the shifting tempos and topologies of the seven-and-a-half minute song; at one point, the arrangement is reduced to only conga drums and his falsetto, which is first isolated and then multiplies in shivering fractions. Because of its length and its emphasis on digression, “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind” quickly became a standard in gay clubs, even as the aesthetics of disco were still forming. –Brad Nelson
“Okay, I’m loosened up now, children!” shouts Derv Gordon, lead singer of the Equals, at the start of the band’s 1970 single “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys.” It’s not an empty exclamation. Up to that point, the British band had specialized in stomping, happy, bubblegum rock; their preceding single was about taking a bath (1969’s “Rub a Dub Dub”). However, there’s nothing squeaky clean about “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys:” Whiplash funk, revolutionary grit, and very loosened-up anger coalesce into a bolt of righteousness.
Before “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” the Equals—a group made up of white native Britons and black Caribbean immigrants—had relied on their name alone to make a statement about racial unity. Now they were making their point far more explicitly; the song calls for widespread interracial coupling as the path to glory and utopia. Sadly, the Equals’ sudden transformation didn’t last long: guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader Eddy Grant fell ill around the time of the single’s release, forcing him to leave the band. (He’d resurface in the ’80s with his solo hit “Electric Avenue”). But for one brief, shining moment in 1970, the Equals were the most potent, relevant band in the world. –Jason Heller
See also: Cymande: “Bra” / Segun Bucknor & His Revolution: “La La La”
The Walker Brothers
The death-rattle guitar twang and the searing tone clusters that open “The Electrician” make for an almost-comically ominous set piece—coming, as it did, from a reunited ’60s boy band who, only a year earlier, had tried to chart with a Boz Scaggs cover.
With their label about to fold—and after a good half-decade of mercenary cover albums recorded to foot rent and bar tabs—lead singer Scott Walker had finally embraced the opportunity to make something of their studio time. Among the four original songs Scott wrote for the Walker Brothers’ final 1978 album Nite Flights, “The Electrician” was the most unprecedented, hinting at the hermetic, committedly avant-garde Walker of today. Like much of his brutalist Bush-era nightmare The Drift, “The Electrician” is a conversation of mangled sentences, circumscribing obscure scenes of pain and despair.
Some perceived BDSM dynamics in its lyrics, and while Walker mentioned “lovers” in one ’80s interview, he also alluded to U.S. operations in Chile related to the Pinochet regime. The narrator feels the lash, and then stares bleary-eyed into a divine floodlight of lush, cruelly beautiful strings. The curlicued refrain—one of the most indelible Walker ever wrote—pleads, “kill me.” Brian Eno and David Bowie would offer to produce Walker’s next record after hearing Nite Flights. Eno later called “The Electrician” a future vision for music, one no one ever managed to follow up. –Winston Cook-Wilson
This is one of those songs: Meteoric, out of the blue. Even in the context of upmarket ’70s folk—Linda Ronstadt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Phoebe Snow—the Roche sisters were anomalies: Too funny, too weird, too insular to face the camera, or at least to connect with it. “Hammond Song,” the second track on their first album, has more in common with children’s music and the unearthly 16th-century chorales of Palestrina than anything happening around New York in 1979; it’s music of clarity and distance, so out of step with its surroundings that it becomes alien.
To dissect their harmonies (occasional, forceful, unprecedented) would only insult them. To dissect their lyrics (perfect, vernacular, the words of a plainspoken friend who always says the right thing) would cloud their wisdom. “They say we meet again/On down the line,” Suzzy Roche sings over an acoustic guitar and the simple click of what sounds like glass on glass. “Where is ‘on down the line’?/How far away?” You only hope that when questions this hard come for you, they’re in a language easier to avoid. –Mike Powell
It’s not entirely inappropriate that one of the great early punk songs was created as a trend-hopping cash-in, or that very little is certain about the circumstances of its origin. The Belgian songwriter Yvan Lacomblez seems to have come up with the souped-up Chuck Berry blues, rapid-fire absurdist lyrics (mostly in Belgian French slang with a little English thrown in), and wordless swoon of a hook. Producer Lou Deprijck apparently sang “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” though the credited artist, Plastic Bertrand, claimed for years that it really was his own performance.
To confuse things a bit more, an English-language version (“Jet Boy Jet Girl”) with the same backing track and vastly less charming lyrics was credited to Elton Motello—a rock 'n' roll ripoff name, if ever there was one—and appears to have been released first. Motello, aka Alan Ward, had earlier played with guitarist Brian James of the Damned, whose bandmate Captain Sensible recorded a 1978 “Jet Boy Jet Girl” cover that ended up being gerrymandered onto the Damned's 1981 greatest-hits album. Despite all these efforts to reframe “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” it was the delirious Francophone version that became an international hit—even in the States, where it was arguably the first punk song to crack the Hot 100’s Top 50. –Douglas Wolk
Labeling Sun Ra as “progressive jazz” somehow sells his work short; he made cosmic jazz as perplexing as it was vast. His sounds were as confounding as their purported origin: Ra claimed he was sent from Saturn to unite the people of Earth through his music, a bebop for the space age. But his real story is even more remarkable: He was a prodigious black musician and composer who received an academic scholarship to college in the 1930s, overcoming racism and crippling cryptorchidism to helm one of the great fusion jazz movements of the 20th century.
With his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra, Ra released Sleeping Beauty in 1979, continuing the most prolific decade of his career—it was his sixth release that year alone. At its center was “Door of the Cosmos,” a nearly nine-minute, free-moving track that threatened to provide insight into Ra’s Afrofuturistic, post-racist universe. It’s hard to deny the transcendental properties in the spirited performance: Written and arranged by Ra, the track is a wonder, a shot of that prism of light he claims beamed him down from the stars and started his revolution all those years ago. It’s a maelstrom of sound—drums, bass, trumpet, and vibraphone—that whips up enough speed to power a rocket’s burst, anchored by animated sax playing from Marshall Allen, who now carries on Ra’s legacy as leader of the Arkestra. There’s enough thrust to make you reconsider the odds of interplanetary travel. –Sheldon Pearce
After the 1964 coup that turned Brazil into a military dictatorship, the regime grew increasingly oppressive, suspending habeas corpus and censoring media and music alike. After Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested and exiled, the cultural climate in the early ’70s grew increasingly bleak, a time referred to as “vazio cultural” (cultural void) or “o sofoco” (the suffocation). Yet Milton Nascimento and the loose collective of players and poets who comprised Clube da Esquina made some of the most evocative music of the era; their 1972 Clube da Esquina double album holds up against anything from the Beatles or Beach Boys.
Taking in rock, doo-wop, bossa nova, jazz and more, Nascimento’s most inspirational moment might be on the three stunning minutes of “Tudo Que Você Podia Ser” (“All You Could Be”). Reminding his audience that “you still think and it's better than nothing,” the carefully chosen words and soaring melody inspired many. It instilled perseverance in those slowly being crushed by the junta. –Andy Beta
In Greenwich Village’s storied early-’60s folk scene, Karen Dalton was the one who got away. While her peers signed big money contracts and became international stars, she receded from the spotlight, moving to Colorado where she performed for friends in her cabin. Bob Dylan called her a favorite, and folk singer Fred Neil, in the liner notes of her 1971 album In My Own Time, wrote, “She sure can sing the shit out of the blues.” Her difficult personal life made a successful recording career even less likely—the Oklahoma native was married and divorced twice by the time she was 21, was a victim of domestic violence, and, up until her death in 1993, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Producer Harvey Brooks said that her life was a “mess” during the Woodstock sessions for In My Own Time, and a friend remembered that she was in the hospital around the time recording started.
“Something on Your Mind,” a song written by Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Dino Valente, another Greenwich Village peer, was the highlight of that strong set. The song is addressed to someone who seems to have abandoned their dreams, wants to hide, and feels like they’ll never stop crying. There’s real weight in hearing Karen Dalton sing the words, “Didn’t you know, you can’t make it without ever even trying?” as she, in the final recording she’d release in her lifetime, implores you not to give up. Fred Neil was right: She could sing the shit out of the blues. But this time, she used her considerable powers to express empathy. –Evan Minsker
Thirty-eight years ago, Don Emerson Sr. bought a new tractor for his family farm that came equipped with an AM-FM radio. During the hours and hours of chore work, Don Sr.’s sons Don Jr. and Joe glommed onto a strange amalgamation of rock, soul, funk, and R&B through Smokey Robinson, Hall and Oates, Bruce Springsteen, and Kris Kristofferson. Don Sr. decided to build them a state of the art studio on an empty plot of land, and the result of a year's playing was Dreamin’ Wild, the only complete album the Emerson brothers would ever release. Contained in this record is “Baby,” a yearning, sexy, and discomfitingly perfect love song. When it was rediscovered and reissued in the 2000s, it made its way through blogs and was championed deservedly as a lost gem. –Kevin Lozano
With an eight-note motif serving as the song’s anchor, trumpeter Don Cherry’s “Brown Rice” is a feat of experimentation. The song is somewhat ambiguous, neither happy nor sad nor angry, suggesting instead a tone of curiosity, a kind of intrigued tip-toe sporadically interrupted by bursts of woodwinds or brass. In the tension between the predictable and the unexpected lies the song's energy, locking in listeners only to take them to unexpected places.
Cherry forged a name playing with Ornette Coleman, whose disregard for earlier rules of rhythm, harmony, and melody proved as divisive as they were liberating. “Brown Rice” is a likewise fusion: free jazz is subsumed by the song, leaving just one strand of DNA. Bassist Charlie Haden further pushes boundaries with funky wah-wah bass. Then come those otherworldly vocals by the world music guru Verna Gillis, a music producer who spent much of the mid-’70s recording the musical tributaries of Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Iran. “Brown Rice” was 180 degrees from Cherry's origins; when faced with limited options, he broke free. When overwhelmed by possibility, his art became one of reassembly. –David Drake
The mid-1970s were dark times for Bruce Springsteen, as he followed his breakthrough album Born to Run with a drawn-out contract dispute with his former manager. It took a few years for him to disentangle himself legally and get back to making music.Perhaps that long idle period gnawed at him, because Darkness on the Edge of Town, finally released in June ’78, was his bleakest record to date. Recording live in the studio, the E Street Band sounded leaner, rawer, and more strident, yet still capable of achieving an aching grandiosity, while the Boss himself punctured the rock’n’roll romanticism that formed the basis of his first three albums. The album’s title track stands out as one of his most despairing tales, ostensibly about a guy yearning for an old lover and the sense of renewed possibility she represents.
That narrator could be almost any character in any of Springsteen’s previous songs: a guy who’s grown up and away from his dreams, who has faced the world and been trampled down. “I lost my money and I lost my wife,” he sings. “Them things don't seem to matter much to me now.” Like so many of the people who inhabit this album, the “Darkness” narrator lives in a haze of longing for the freedoms of his youth. Springsteen’s first three albums had chronicled the thrill of young men and women trying to escape the pain and drudgery of their lives, but this song and its namesake album suggest that they might only find more of the same, wherever they run. –Stephen Deusner
By early 1979, punk’s second wave was in full force. Black Flag had established a brutal self-promo cycle: relentless rehearsals begat furious flyering begat chaotic, violent gigs typically cut short by police. So it’s of little surprise that the opening track to the Southern California group’s debut release erupts like the soundtrack to a prison riot. Volcanic, whiplash, and deeply nihilistic, “Nervous Breakdown” is all panic and no promise, a mission statement for a journey to nowhere that perfectly embodies the era’s pervasive pessimism. The group’s formative influences—the Ramones, the Stooges, Black Sabbath—were already colliding here in brusque, economical fashion, with vocalist Keith Morris presiding as a wild-eyed, cackling Puck. Almost four decades on, “Nervous Breakdown” stands as a tuneful rejection of a status quo that seemed beyond its audience’s ability to upend. Psychosis, inebriation, social disobedience, and mosh pit bloodletting were reasonable enough alternatives. As a rallying sentiment, it still makes too much sense. –Raymond Cummings
The Nerves only released one power-pop EP in 1976 before falling apart two years later. They were a self-contained, punk-spirited trio from California before the notion of D.I.Y. had been codified. Written by guitarist Jack Lee and famously covered by Blondie on Parallel Lines, “Hanging on the Telephone” is a rudimentary guitar song made perfect by all the things it does wrong: the endearingly flat but totally committed whoa-ohs, the abrupt shifts in rhythm, the pained and outsized yearning. Throughout, the Nerves audibly strive for something that is slightly beyond their reach.
“Hanging on the Telephone” is a film scene in miniature: The Nerves sound like greasers with their T-shirts tucked in, leaning against the phone booth across the hall, desperate for a voice to pick up on the other end. “If I don’t get your call/Then everything goes wrong,” Lee pleads. “Your voice across the line/Gives me a strange sensation.” His vulnerability powers this little track; even the rattling landline ring that opens it sounds melancholy. It might feel like a relic now, but in an era when our phones facilitate and strain so much around matters of the heart, “Hanging on the Telephone” is more relevant than ever—the most disarming song ever written about the fear of being ghosted. –Jenn Pelly
The Chi-Lites’ late-’60s/early-’70s run was strange and erratic, veering from the instantly recognizable “Oh Girl” to the iconic vamp of “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So),” later immortalized by Beyoncé. But “Have You Seen Her” towers over the group’s catalog, their weirdest and greatest hit. A fuzz guitar worthy of Os Mutantes (or J Mascis) cuts through the track, the perfect distorted tone conveying anguish and mourning before anyone has even said a word on record. And while the song’s tropes are so ingrained into the fabric of pop, R&B, soul, and rock as to be little more than cliches now, “Have You Seen Her” still packs a wallop. It shifts between its obvious debts to doo-wop’s harmonies and a spoken-word narrative influenced by Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, but with a hook so impeccable and graceful it can imbue a cartoon about a missing fish with wistfulness. It exists outside of time, yet it also serves as a reminder of a very specific moment when gospel harmonies and secular heartbreak were allowed to cohabitate on radio. –Matthew Ramirez
This is one of the all-time great torch ballads. After the Temptations and Marvin Gaye producer Norman Whitfield left Motown, he found his first hit in the former backing band Rose Royce, who recorded the soundtrack and arguably raison d’etre for ensemble comedy Car Wash. Singer Gwen Dickey’s hyper-emotive performance depicts heartbreak like the last stand of a battle, dissolving into tears halfway then rallying once more into the plea; it’s immaculate, but even without him, the impact lands via puttering bass, keening guitars, and piano that lands like teardrops.
“I’m Going Down” is arguably the best-known Rose Royce track, but unlike their future 10th Kingdom theme “Wishing on a Star,” it’s hardly been covered. Aside from reality show aspirants, which hardly count, the only singer to really take on “I’m Going Down” isMary J. Blige, and even she coats it with enough gloss to blur the message. It’s the rare song that consensus has deemed untouchable. –Katherine St. Asaph
The sustained relevance of “American Girl” can be taken as a cynical parable of original sin: Innocence is false, all who are pure of intent do not stand a chance in this world. Nearly every reading of Tom Petty’s 1976 single has infused it with corruption: The most common is that it’s about a woman who leapt to her death from University of Florida’s Beaty Towers (though that urban myth was busted by Petty himself). Silence of the Lambs took the assumed morbidity and escalated it exponentially by contrasting an oblivious singalong with a gruesome fate. It portended doom for an unwitting Hillary Clinton during her failed 2008 campaign. And there’s arguably nothing more sinful than the umpteen covers of this song by seemingly every milquetoast mid-’90s alt-folk band.
And yet, “American Girl” endures, as it should. Sonically, it’s the platonic ideal for American rock music: Bo Diddley meets the Byrds, updated for new wave. It’s got a beat, and you can dance to it. Oh yeah and all right, take it easy, make it last all night, cars, girls, boys—it speaks the universal language. Granted, it’s a classic archetype where the girl is left with a broken heart of gold, and the boy’s out there probably doing what boys do. But both are motivated by rock’n’roll’s profound sense of yearning for something—anything—bigger than what this town can provide, that those promises we were raised on aregoing to come true. –Ian Cohen
When Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” began its chart ascent in 1978, many heard its impeccable groove, soaring arrangement, and sharp depiction of romance and preemptively labeled him one of the next great black soul artists. There was only one problem: Caldwell was a white Floridian. Fearing that the “blue-eyed soul” label would cost Caldwell his black audience, his label, T.K. Records, obscured his appearance for as long as they could. But as live performances revealed the singer’s identity, his song soared in popularity anyway, ultimately cracking the Top 10.
Caldwell would remain a working musician for three more decades, but his releases never reached the height of his earliest hit. “What You Won’t Do for Love” wasn’t just a surprising debut that balanced smooth jazz, soul, and pop; it transcended racial lines with equal finesse. White soul singers, from Simply Red to Justin Timberlake, have followed its footsteps ever since. –Corey Smith-West
William DeVaughn’s 1974 single “Be Thankful for What You Got” is a reflection on economic inequality addressed to a disenfranchised black community. It builds its message environmentally; the song shimmers into view like buildings bruising in the heat. “You may not have a car at all,” DeVaughn sings, his voice slipping into a glassy falsetto, “butremember brothers and sisters/You can still stand tall.” It even expresses itself with economy: the arrangement is a lesson in jazzy restraint, all subtleties and small gestures, guitars and organs ebbing until they form a landscape of overlapping shadows. The chorus—“Diamond in the back/Sunroof top/Diggin’ the scene/With a gangster lean”—has been functionally amputated from the song into a larger and more disorganized context; DeVaughn’s words and cadence have been absorbed into the lexicon of hip-hop and modern R&B through both sampling and interpolation, appearing in fragments in songs as varied as N.W.A.’s “Gangsta Gangsta” and Miguel’s “Candles in the Sun.” Wherever it appears, in whatever mutation, it floats in the atmosphere of black urban experience. –Brad Nelson
Of the Chic holy trinity, “I Want Your Love” endures best as a song, rather than a historical landmark (“Le Freak”) or a blueprint for an entire genre (“Good Times”). The group’s essential ingredients are here, with Nile Rodgers’ jangle and Bernard Edwards’ supple bass combining for optimal bounce, but they never quite came together like this. Disco was considered a genre for producers and vocalists, but Chic were aproper band, playing and singing live with such precision they almost sounded mechanical. Here, Chic showcased that sheen while proving they were human after all—the church bells, the sudden blotting of strings that peak during the chorus then reappear later, the stuttered command of the title phrase that pauses long enough to feel menacing. “I Want Your Love” is a disquieting hymn to desire, anchored by a Rodgers/Edwards performance potent enough to suggest the song working its magic in perpetuity, drunk on its own rhythm. –Matthew Ramirez
Glam-rock wasn’t just about dudes putting on women’s clothing, it was about giving rock ‘n’ roll itself a makeover by filtering ’50s hot-rod rave-ups through ’60s psychedelia and turning pop music into science fiction. At T. Rex’s early ’70s commercial peak, Marc Bolan didn’t so much write tunes as devise characters begging for their own comic book and action figure spin-offs. His songbook is populated by prosaic subjects transformed into superheroes with single, evocative descriptors: “Mystic Lady,” “Rabbit Fighter,” “Cosmic Dancer,” “Baby Boomerang,” “Telegram Sam.” The songs were mostly nonsense, but rather than sounding like gibberish, Bolan seemed to be speaking in an alien code that, to this today, we’re still not cool enough to decode. And “Metal Guru”—the grand-slam capper to a string of four consecutive UK No. 1 singles—is the most deliriously inscrutable of them all.
Emerging at a moment when rock stars had stopped getting spiritual guidance from maharishis and were starting to think they were deities themselves, “Metal Guru” is Bolan in excelsis, an all-chorus/no-verse bacchanalia of platform-boot stomps, regal orchestration, and helium-buzzed harmonies. At the time, “T. Rextasy” was a popular buzzword in the British music weeklies, but “Metal Guru” renders it as an actual physical sensation; from its opening blast of symphonic fuzz, the song makes you feel like you’ve been thrust into a New Year’s Eve party one second after midnight amid flying streamers, gushing champagne bottles, and a raging dance floor united in screaming, wordless elation. The song’s swooning, swaying melody famously inspired Johnny Marr to write the Smiths’ “Panic,” but its spirit of instantaneous excess can still be felt today every time Wayne Coyne fires off a confetti cannon. –Stuart Berman
Faces weren’t a band, they were a gang—five musketeers united by booze and blues. Underneath that drunken revelry ran a bittersweet undercurrent that often manifested as tattered modern folk tunes. Rod Stewart capitalized on this ragged homespun sound on “Maggie May,” the solo single that turned him into a star in 1971, but Ronnie Lane—the other Face who would take lead vocals—shared an affinity for wearing his heart on his tattered sleeve. Both men attempted lead vocals on “Ooh La La,” a sprightly sing-along Lane wrote with guitarist Ron Wood, which wasn't an unusual move in the band's world. Producer Glyn Johns rejected each in turn, choosing instead Wood, who had never fronted the Faces on record before. Where Lang had a wry sense of irony and Stewart was an unapologetic raconteur, Wood sang with a flat, friendly affect, delivering “Ooh La La” like a bedtime story, which in a sense it was. Written from the perspective of a young man remembering his granddad remembering his travails with women, “Ooh La La” is inherently melancholy. Its chorus,“I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was younger” suggests so much regret, but with its clanging acoustic guitars, barrelhouse piano, and harmonies, the song is as joyous as it is sad.
So it's a song whose meaning can shift over time. When the Faces cut it in 1973, it felt like closing the book on adolescence; a quarter-century later, Stewart covered it in the wake of Lane's death as an elegy to old friends. Just a year after that, Wes Anderson concluded his coming-of-age comedy Rushmore with "Ooh La La," suggesting that his lead character Max Fischer was the callow youth the song's narrator remembered being, and turning the track—which never was released as a single—into something of a standard. “Ooh La La” endures because of its eternal truths, words written by scamps who had no idea just how wise they were. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
To an even greater degree than his fans in the Beatles, Harry Nilsson had a gift for rehabilitating kitsch as something worth taking seriously. The signs of his mastery were there early—the puns (dumb, brilliant), the violins (corny, gorgeous), the perfumed 1920s swoon—but never as clear as they were when Nilsson stepped into an English recording booth having taken what he once described as “a little mescaline” and, in one take, provided a vocal performance so agonizingly dramatic that Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles and one of the first people to hear the recording in full, said it would forever remind him of hemorrhoids.
The performance elevated Nilsson from whimsical with a dash of genius to viable commercial presence. It also more or less invented the power ballad, paving the way for artists with very little to say to say it as meaningfully as possible (“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “I Will Always Love You,” related karaoke offenses too empty to love but too human to resist). Viewed in the wider context of Nilsson’s erratic, inimitable career, the song is a fluke, an instance of an artist taking it to the bank seemingly just to prove that he could. His Grammy acceptance speech, in full: “Thank you very, very much.” –Mike Powell
Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s songbook is situated somewhere between Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Nick Drake, but “Pancho & Lefty” stands alone. Perhaps the single greatest song penned in the outlaw country movement, it was Townes’most evocative number, his greatest hit, the song that validated his stature as the songwriter’s songwriter. But it was also his downfall, the success that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had with a cover of the song bankrolling Van Zandt’s descent further into alcoholism and substance abuse in his later years. “Pancho & Lefty” reflects its maker: enigmatic, stoic, hardened, surrounded with death on all sides. Take it as a parable about Pancho Villa, or two desperados (one of whom betrayed the other), or perhaps as a foretelling of Van Zandt’s own life, cursed to perpetually live on the road in cheap hotels, his “breath hard as kerosene,” a singer who can’t sing the blues like he used to do. Seek not the polished studio version that features hand drums, mariachi horns and strings, but the skeletal version from Live at the Old Quarter, or the version he sings on Heartworn Highways, showing a young spry man already waiting around to die. –Andy Beta
While known (not incorrectly) for their sprawling, spiraling jams and for being a general acid circus, the Grateful Dead—and, specifically, guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter—contributed a healthy bundle of songs to the modern folk canon. Synthesizing post-psychedelic wisdom with old turns and images pulled from years of devoted folk freakdom, “Friend of the Devil”—co-written with New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist John Dawson—was a perfect product of the Dead’s short trip from mind-blowing, double-drummer ecstasy to almost literal campfire songs.
For the Dead, the country vibes were synchronous with a new mission of writing strummable tunes, hymnals, and gentle boogies for all the longhairs settling down in communes or the suburbs. (The band migrated from San Francisco to the idyllic hills of Marin County just as the Summer of Love was ending.) With its pro-Satanic wink right there in the title, a barely coded countercultural handshake, “Friend of the Devil” remained edgier than the peaceful, easy strums of southern California’s burgeoning country-rockers. With its easy descending lick, “Friend of the Devil” exists outside of recordings and charts, ready to be struck up wherever there’s an acoustic guitar and some space to noodle. –Jesse Jarnow
Shuggie Otis’ third album, Inspiration Information, first surfaced in 1974, but it feels tethered to 2001, when a high-profile reissue on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records secured its place in the early-’70s soul canon. Up to that point, Otis was infamous as the Frank Zappa sideman who turned down an offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones; his closest brush with pop success came when Quincy Jones turned his 1971 song “Strawberry Letter 23” into a Top 5 hit for the Brothers Johnson six years later. But that Luaka Bop reissue turned wider audiences onto a secret that crate-diggers had professed for years: Otis was less a budding guitar hero than an unsung R&B auteur, the missing link between the funk superstars of yore and modern-day lo-fi bedroom savants.
Otis began recording Inspiration Information in 1971, the same year Marvin Gaye dropped What’s Going On and Sly Stone released his murky, drum-machined masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On—and like those records, Otis’ work re-imagines soul and funk as interior experiences. But while his peers were taking temperature readings of an overheated America, Otis was just trying to keep it cool on a rainy day. Inspiration Information’s title track is a lustrous blur of wah-wahed guitars, cranial-massaging organ, and heavenly harmonies, like the wavy effects that signal the start of a movie dream sequence. The song scans as a literal love note, etched on “pencil pad,” but Otis sings of romance in a language that anticipates digital-age courtship. “I’m going to spread some information,” Otis declares. “You, making me happier/Now I am snappier/While I’m with you.” The phrase “inspiration information” is Otis’ peculiar way of saying “love song”—and today, it retains the eternal promise of finding the former in a world overdosing on the latter. –Stuart Berman
In 1977, Wire were a punk rock band, arty and snappish and loud; in “Outdoor Miner,” they mutated into something else. There's nothing overtly aggressive or confrontational about the track: Wire replaces the buzzsaw guitar tones of Pink Flag with a friendly chime, tempers Colin Newman's urgent bark to a clear-eyed murmur (with harmonies!), tables their "riff until the lyric runs out" blurt-structures for more conventional verse-chorus-verse forms. "Outdoor Miner" is, in fact, as sweet-sounding a pop song as you could hope to hear, but within that framework, it's an exceptionally weird artifact.
For one thing, Graham Lewis’ tricky, playful lyrics mostly concern a larval insect, theserpentine leaf miner, which devours its own home. (Wire's previous single, “I Am the Fly,” featured a similar bugs-and-infiltration theme.) Thanks to the band's knack for concision, it's also the very rare case of a song whose single version is substantially longer than the album: EMI, noting that “Outdoor Miner” clocked in at 1:45 on Chairs Missing, asked the band to extend it to be more radio-friendly. (They added a piano solo and a third chorus.) "Outdoor Miner" didn't become the crossover hit Wire were hoping for, but it's remained a cult favorite, and it was a point of inspiration for the shoegaze scene: The 2004 compilation A Houseguest's Wish consisted of 19 covers of the song, including versions by Lush, Flying Saucer Attack, and Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin. –Douglas Wolk
No one song can sum up Nina Simone’s brilliant and tumultuous career, but “Baltimore” demonstrates many of its main themes: her ability to best pop’s greatest performers on their own songs, her talent for approaching social issues from new emotional angles, and the gulf between her fans’ opinions of her work and her own. While Simone was outspoken in her criticism of the eponymous 1978 album it appears on, complaining in interviews about jazz vet Creed Taylor’s frequently too-slick pop-reggae production, her cover of “Baltimore” has come to be one of her most beloved songs.
In his original version, Randy Newman pours on the melodrama in his elegy for a crumbling city, but Simone delivers the lyrics with a world-weary shrug that manages to hit even harder, casually but resoundingly answering the song’s central question—“Ain’t it hard just to live?”—with the heavy, pragmatic truth that yeah, it really fucking is. Nearly four decades later, Baltimore remains a symbol of urban collapse and the unequal distribution of power and justice in American society, and Simone’s tribute has only grown in power. There’s a reason why, when singer Jazmine Sullivan released a cover in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, it wasbilled as a Simone cover and not a Newman one. –Miles Raymer
“A Song for You,” written and performed by Leon Russell in 1970, went on to be covered by dozens of singers, some of the most important in popular music: Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Whitney Houston, Karen Carpenter, Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, even Bizzy Bone (with help from DMX). It says a lot then that the song is most closely associated with Donny Hathaway. His 1971 version, part of his eponymous second record, is almost uncomfortable to listen to; it feels like something overheard in a corner booth after midnight. “But we’re alone now/And I’m singing this song to you.” With the exception of some well-placed strings, the arrangement is spare, mainly Hathaway at the piano, singing. Or is he confessing? (“I treated you unkindly…”). He may as well have sung it a cappella. He certainly had the voice—warm, well-practiced, with great range, as good or better than any in that already-breathtaking era of R&B and soul.
Hathaway, who struggled with depression through the ’70s, didn’t make it out of the decade. On January 13, 1979, at the age of 33, he was found dead outside the Essex House on Central Park South, below the window of his 15th floor room. It was ruled a suicide and makes this refrain in “A Song For You” all the more affecting: “And when my life is over/Remember when we were together/We were alone and I was singing this song to you.” –Michael J. Agovino
Stories about the Ramones rarely make them seem like a group of guys you’d want to spend time with. Dee Dee Ramone carried an enormous switchblade and once, in a panic, nearly stabbed his landlord. Their famous go-to prank was to put a little urine in their friends’ beer. Their behind-the-scenes reputation was volatile, but their branding instincts were impressive: Even now, after all four original members have passed, the Ramones remain the perfect spirit animals for small-town kids who want to make a break for the big city.
The music was as fun as it was familiar; their melodic instincts were cribbed from old surf, girl-group, and bubblegum records, but they brought the volume and power they learned from predecessors like the Stooges and MC5. It was tough music for dancing—music you could experience live if you escaped the suburbs and found a place to crash in New York. And so “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is a perfect Ramones song for that reason; the band illustrates Sheena’s escape to New York and newfound life as a runaway punk with bubblegum glee and power chord bliss. There are handclaps, sleigh bells, and saccharine harmonies circling Johnny’s oddly jubilant riff. “Well New York City really has it all,” Joey sings. For those listening in their bedrooms, this was the dream—to dance as hard as possible while the four sketchy dudes from the cover of Leave Home played upbeat songs in a filthy room. –Evan Minsker
Like many of the songs cut in 1977 by Costello’s newly assembled band, the Attractions, the instrumental attack of “Radio Radio” carries a clear punk energy, and the song’s lyrics likewise suggest punk sympathies. In protesting the blandness of the BBC’s playlists—and its refusal to give airtime to certain notorious punk records—Costello’s cynicism is easy enough to identify in the bridge: “They say you better listen to the voice of reason/But they don't give you any choice ‘cause they think that it’s treason.” But the track also changes tenor over its course. One claim—“Radio is a sound salvation/Radio is cleaning up the nation”—is sarcastic early on. Yet by the end, the possibility of grace achieved through broadcasting is so palpable, the singer can obviously envision it for real.
On “Radio Radio,” Costello wills a new, more honest radio landscape into being. It’s this gradually emerging idea of a station “broadcasting from within you”—as Costello put it in his memoir—that allows the bashing anthem to transcend the language of the snide takedown and become a call to aesthetic action. –Seth Colter Walls
XTC never needed to skewer nationalist pageantry to capture the gray essence of 1970s England. Even before the parents in “Making Plans for Nigel” affirm their son’s future in British Steel, their conservative aspirations evoke a very specific backdrop: the black and white lattices of the mock-Tudor suburbs that imprison poor, inert Nigel. His “whole future is as good as sealed,” which plays more like a bad omen than a promise of security, with its jittery musical friction. Shaken by the perceived diss, British Steel reportedly gathered four Sheffield employees named Nigel to talk about job satisfaction for trade publication Steel News.
But “Nigel,” off the Swindon band’s third album Drums and Wires, is more tender and complex than a straightforward anti-establishment tirade. For one, Nigel—who “likes to speak and loves to be spoken to”—never gets a voice. And there’s a subtle panic to his parents’ insistence: They’re defensively only making plans for Nigel, certain he must be happy “in his world,” as leader Andy Partridge harmonizes like a soured Beach Boy. He unleashes erratic cries of “wee-ooh!” like party-blowers into bassist Colin Moulding’s funky geometric scheme, distilling the chaos that any well-meaning parent would have felt in 1979 as their kids’ futures became ever less certain. That year’s Winter of Discontent offered economic collapse and unprecedented striking. Entering power on May 4th, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would ruthlessly sell off nationalized industries like British Steel. On the sleeve of “Making Plans for Nigel,” XTC’s members aren’t listed by name, but as the sons of Vera and Charlie, Eileen and Peter, Margaret and Roy, and so on. In a splenetic musical era, they sensitively identified the common anxieties shared by both young people and their parents. –Laura Snapes
“The next one is the first song on our new album,” Robin Zander declared to a sold-out crowd at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, turning a simple remark about sequencing into one of the decade’s most famous bits of stage banter. What makes that introduction so memorable is the fact that it so perfectly understates the song that follows: “Surrender” is a stone classic of American power pop, and on the live version, the audience punctuates the performances with a continuous barrage of shrieks and cries. Onstage or in the studio, Rockford’s finest play the song with such urgency that it’s easy to forget just how funny “Surrender” is, both as a response song to the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” and as a surprisingly sweet-natured story of generational rebellion. The parents are just as weird and as wild as their teenagers, making out on the couch to Kiss and spinning wild tales of the Women’s Army Corps. Even today, “Surrender” plays like the inversion of Bruce Springsteen’s contemporaneous anthems, promising that it’s possible to grow up and settle down without surrendering or giving yourself away. –Stephen Deusner
Punk’s class of 1977 isn’t known for its sensuality. The closest the Sex Pistols ever came to writing a love song was “Submission,” a chronicle of degradation that mocks itself with kissing sounds. X-Ray Spex took another angle on BDSM, comparing women’s subjugation to sadomasochism in “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” Even Buzzcocks’ lovesick early singles are mostly about wanting people you can’t (or shouldn’t) have. Maybe that explains why the Undertones’“Teenage Kicks” affected John Peel so powerfully in the fall of 1978: The Irish band’s enthusiastic slobber of a debut single surrendered wholeheartedly to the basic human urges most British punks either attacked or ignored.
But novelty can’t account for why the song could still reduce Peel to tears in 2001. At the time, the legendary Radio 1 DJ offeredthis simple, perfect explanation for his decades-long obsession with a two-and-a-half-minute paean to young lust: “There's nothing you could add to it or subtract from it that would improve it.” When Peel died a few years later, its opening line, “Teenage dreams so hard to beat,” became hisepitaph. At the risk of reading too much into the inner monologue of a dude fixated on bedding the hot girl he just saw in the street, that’s the lyric that makes the song an unparalleled encapsulation of youth. There’s nothing more teenage than the tendency to confuse desire with less carnal forms of aspiration. –Judy Berman
Sometime after guitarist Ana da Silva and bassist Gina Birch formed the Raincoats at London’s Hornsey College of Art in 1977, the two musicians—who both sang and were only just learning to play—were listening to a lot of Lou Reed’s Transformer. Birch, then a student of conceptual art, heard a song on the glammy, Bowie-produced album that used a striking amount of echo and was amazed to hear two Lou voices at once. With no immediate access to an echo box herself, she endeavored to apply her own D.I.Y. logic. She just repeated her words over and over—“IN IN IN LOVE LOVE”—giving them a primal edge.
Aching and dizzy and thrilling and alive, 1979’s “In Love” echoes like a feeling you can’t get rid of. Like love itself, its rave-ups fall in and out at unexpected turns. Co-produced in a rudimentary basement studio with Texan rock eccentric Mayo Thompson and Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis, Vicki Aspinall’s violin lines sear like barbed wire, drawing out drama. Da Silva’s minimalist noise guitar scrapes at the skull. The clatter of Palmolive’s gleeful tom-bashing reels it all in close.
“In Love” is The Raincoats’ most direct song, and yet it describes the most indirect feeling ever, one called “lovesick” for a reason that “In Love” proves. It is the sound of infatuation that crawls under your skin and makes you delirious, of butterflies that possess you. Its power is elemental—“I’m so happy/Happy sad,” Birch proclaims, “In love is so tough on my emotions”—capturing the exacerbated pain of uncertainty, the distinct absurdity of love as a concept, the obliterating euphoria of an obsession that becomes an avalanche. The contradictions driving “In Love” are what life is about. If you have a beating heart then you know what “In Love” is, and maybe that’s how it manages to twist you from inside. –Jenn Pelly
By the time the UK experimentalists Throbbing Gristle released 20 Jazz Funk Greats in December 1979, disco—and the inclusive freedoms it represented—was more or less on its last legs. Margaret Thatcher was in power, and Reagan was on the horizon. The dire times called for satire. Throbbing Gristle answered that call.
Their grotesque music—synthetic and industrial and strange—offered a defiantly skewed perspective. “Hot on the Heels of Love,” a snickering homage to Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” should be a joke, but it doubles as an acerbic love letter to ’70s pop and a rough prototype for dance music to come. The gonzo four-to-the-floor beat, the nursery-rhyme keys, and the sweeps of vocoder madness make it strangely bacchanalian. There is charm in its frailties; it is meant to dissolve, unravel before your ears, and disappear.
In some life-affirming way, Throbbing Gristle’s art has always relied upon a radical relationship with standard notions of failure and a satirical understanding of capitalistic success. “Hot on the Heels of Love” is like a guidebook for how to stick a thumb in the eye of normality, its relentless thump offering a profane heartbeat for freaks through the ages, standing up against the oppressive nightmare of picket fences and nuclear families. –Kevin Lozano
Aesthetic evolution typically unfolds as gradually as evolution in nature, and it’s usually just as hard to pin down when a genre originated as to decide when dinosaurs became birds. Not so for goth rock, though, whose birth we have down to the second: exactly 170of them into Bauhaus’ debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” when Peter Murphy materializes out of a murky fog of dissonant instrumental jamming to declare eternal life as an undead ghoul the new ne plus ultra of cool. He’s freakishly, vampirically convincing enough in this moment to get several successive generations of teenagers, spanning an impressive array of cultures, to join him.
“Bela”’s enduring power is surprising, considering how technically flawed it is. The band recorded it live in one take, and it’s clear that they’d only been playing together for six weeks—the guitar goes out of tune at a few points, and Daniel Ash manages to repeatedly flub a four-note bass line. It’s also nine-and-a-half minutes of messing around with a tape delay trying to make dub reggae sound effects (courtesy of David J, mostly). But that fucked-up, falling-apart quality only makes the song creepier and cooler, and it’s partly why “Bela” is still a dance-floor filler wherever goths flock together. –Miles Raymer
Gil Scott-Heron had one of the most distinctive voices in American music. Better still were his lyrics—cerebral, witty, satirical, caustic, sometimes hilarious, informed by American history and the nuanced black experience within it. Scott-Heron was a poet—he had an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins—but he was also a novelist, and his songs had the feel of indelible short stories. For “The Bottle,” though, he took a nonfiction approach, conducting interviews with alcoholics as background. The song, created with vital collaborator Brian Jackson, was rare for Scott-Heron in that it was danceable, and it was as close as the tandem came to a radio hit, despite the heft of the lyrics. Scott-Heron shows up as a character in the song (“They turn to me/And they ask me Gil/Now don’t you think it’s a crime…”) and then finally, foreshadowing a future that would be bogged down by substance abuse, it ends with his declaration: “Look around on any corner/If you see some brother lookin’ like a goner/It’s gonna be me.”–Michael J. Agovino
Even before it was given the Isaac Hayes treatment, “The Look of Love” was widely considered a work of greatness. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Casino Royale and originally sung by Dusty Springfield, the song has been covered dozens of times. But as remarkable as the original was, paired with Hayes’ ambitious, uncompromising ear for arrangements, it morphed into something else entirely. Backed by a full horn section and symphony orchestra, Hayes refurbished Bacharach and David’s pop gem into an 11-minute gospel-tinged soul odyssey. Coming through the singer’s silky baritone, even the lyrics take on a new feel; while Springfield sang with a cool, sultry air, Hayes belts out the song’s longing with raw desperation. –Corey Smith-West
Though initially intended as producer and co-writer Leon Ware’s own solo album—and his own Musical Massage makes a perfect companion LP—Marvin Gaye’s I Want You is like few other records in R&B history. At a time when hard-driving disco was the norm, Ware’s lush, elegant instrumentation had a subtle poise that felt out of place. But compared with the aggressive grit of soul stars past, it was far too light, too effervescent to be anything but new.
Where “Let’s Get It On” has an obvious carnality, “I Want You” is a song that suggests a heretofore unexplored intimacy, a vulnerability. This music is naked, and Ware’s delicate instrumentation swirls around as lust tips over the edge of uncertainty. This is the grown-up’s “Let’s Get It On,” a song in which the directness is that much more bold: “Oh, I’ll give you all the love/I want in return, sweet darling,” Gaye purrs over a randy funk beat. “But half the love is all I feel/Ooh, it’s too bad, it’s just too sad.” This is no casual fling: these are adult choices, with a singularly earnest intensity typically heard only in private. –David Drake
Brothers Johnson were a duo of actual brothers who backed Quincy Jones on a number of his ’70s recordings before stepping out on their own. Their biggest hit, oddly, was thanks to 18-year-old singer/songwriter Shuggie Otis, whose hippie-dippie acid trip of a folk song, “Strawberry Letter 23,” they turned into a serious barn burner. It was a bold decision that paid off. “Pretty music I hear/So happy and loud/Blue flowers echo from a cherry cloud,” go the lyrics, certainly the most childlike and shamanistic words ever paired with a bassline as funky as this one. Supposedly an ode to a paramour and her strawberry-scented love letters, the song’s deeper meaning has always been a mystery and is also beside the point. Its poetry is, above all, a vehicle for bass so big you can take a bite out of it, subtle vocal oohing, keys that define “twinkling.” There’s what you could call a guitar solo in the latter third, but really, it’s more of a dainty impression of a rocket launch. The song soared so high, it still hasn’t landed. –Matthew Schnipper
“Satta Massagana” is central to the sound of Jamaica in the 1970s. Though not a hit upon its release, it has since become a common Rastafari chant that expounds that belief’s culture, as well as a classic reggae anthem. The title of the song is an approximation of the Ethiopian language of Amharic, a very loose transliteration of, roughly, “Give thanks to God.” More than the title that references Ethiopia; allusion to Haile Selassie and Biblical prophecy unspool throughout as the Abyssinians—a trio of Rastafari singers—provide an outline of their beliefs in a chant: “There is a land far far away/Where there's no night, there's only day/Look into the book of life and you will see.”
The groove of “Satta Massagana” spurred on many reggae acts in Jamaica, and continues to still. Demonstrating the enduring power of its rhythm, the instrumental was also remade in 1997, giving the telltale horns of the instrumental new life. –Erin Macleod
As far back as 1966, before the Jackson 5 had even left Indiana, Chicago’s musical family the Five Stairsteps had scored sizable R&B hits under the direction of patriarch Clarence Burke, the group’s original bassist/co-writer/manager and also a detective for the Chicago Police Department. Though they upped their cuteness factor in the early days by adding three-year-old sibling Cubie, their breakthrough moment remained elusive until 1970, when DJs flipped their cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” in favor of a song that became R&B’s answer to “Over the Rainbow.”
Written and produced by Stan Vincent, a Buddah Records staffer who’d previously scored with Connie Francis and Lou Christie, “O-o-h Child” achieves its extraordinary uplifting effect by starting with the chorus and adding multiple key changes to create a funky, sunshine gospel song about hope. Alohe Burke’s sultry alto anchors the song, and though the childlike voices of brothers Clarence Jr., James, Denis, and Keni are individually unremarkable, together they are utterly disarming, and they all come together for one of pop’s most affecting climaxes. It’s as if the dreams and gains of the civil rights movement got condensed into three minutes of radiant joy. –Barry Walters
“Miss You” was a saving grace for the Rolling Stones. It was the band’s first No. 1 single in nearly five years, and it opened Some Girls, an album critics immediately hailed as their best since 1972’sExile on Main St. It was also the final chart-topper of the Stones’ career, and “Miss You” certainly sounds like the kind of energized song that’s made by a band in need of a grand statement. The Stones are notorious for shaping genres to their own ends (the B-side of “Miss You,” for instance, was the exaggerated, near-parody country ballad “Far Away Eyes”), and here they looked to disco to breathe life into their sound. Jagger, never one not to sex things up, sings of Puerto Rican women who are just dyyyiiin’ to meet him, alternating whispers, falsetto coos, and howls throughout. The 4/4 beat is made even more robust by the backing saxophone and harmonica, riding a guitar line so sumptuous that anything Mick Jagger uttered would sound like lust incarnate. –Matthew Strauss
ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne has always been a shameless Beatles disciple, a fact made evident in the piano pounding that opens his band’s biggest hit: It sounds a bit like how McCartney begins his half of “A Day in the Life.” A songwriter with less of a mad-scientist streak would not have been able to pair such obvious inspiration with a topic as mundane as the weather and arrive at a song this singular in its funk, but meticulous studio rat Lynne packed “Mr. Blue Sky” full of signature touches: a cello and piano crescendo, choral chants, oodles of cowbell, Gibb Brothers falsetto harmonizing, a dreamy Harrisonian solo, and one of the decade’s best uses of vocoder.
Electric Light Orchestra was, first and foremost, a band built around the notion that classical and pop were not enemies but, instead, partners in quest of completely over-the-top musical drama. Others had embraced this idea from time to time—George Martin with the Beatles, Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds—but ELO really committed to the symphonic concept without sacrificing hooks, as proggier bands did. So that “Mr. Blue Sky” served as the finale to Lynne’s ambitious “Concerto for a Rainy Day” suite at the heart of ELO’s 1977 double album, Out of the Blue, was not surprising in the slightest. What is surprising is that, nearly 40 years later, “Mr. Blue Sky” remains ago-to sync in TV shows and movies, a shorthand for waking up and tackling that big, beautiful world head on. –Jillian Mapes
Toots & the Maytals’ breakthrough album, Funky Kingston, has a broader geography than the title suggests. It joyously pairs the ska, reggae, and rocksteady of the band’s native Jamaica with American soul, from its brassy, frolicking cover of “Louie Louie” to singer Toots Hibberts’ magnetic, Otis Redding-worthy rasp. The title track stands apart as a moment of singular bliss—a leisurely jam of sax, electric guitar, and openhearted harmonies, topped by Hibberts’ keen love for his homeland. “Funky Kingston is what I’ve got for you!” he hollers, sounding improbably relaxed despite winding steadily to gospel levels of reverence. “Went from east to west, yeah/I just play from north to south, yeah!” It’s the rare song that delivers on its promises—the track truly grows funkier, more irrepressible with each of Hibberts’ approximately 500 hoots of its funkiness.
Toots & the Maytals never reached the crossover global fame of Bob Marley and the Wailers, despite earning many formidable fans—the Who invited them to open an American tour, but reception was frosty. Still, the group shaped Jamaican music in their effortless merging of the island’s most beloved musical forms. And if the rest of the world could not fully dive into their sound, they still met the band at their finest hour, in “Funky Kingston.” –Stacey Anderson
In the early ’70s, Herbie Hancock, a practicing Nichiren Buddhist, had a vision while chanting his mantra, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. He saw himself—the hard bop piano legend—playing straight-ahead funk in Sly Stone’s band. It was in that spiritual moment when his jazz transformed. Hancock wrote in the liner notes of the reissue of Head Hunters, “I was tired of playing something heavy. I wanted to play something light....Would I like to have a funky band that played the kind of music Sly or someone like that was playing? My response was, ‘Actually, yes.’”
Out of this holy revelation “Chameleon” was born, over 15 minutes of funk and fusion that would introduce jazz into arenas. The four-decade run of “Chameleon” is due not only to Hancock’s vision of the interconnectedness of black American music, but his Head Hunters band’s funk exactitude: Bennie Maupin’s choppy sax riff clicks against Harvey Mason’s well-pocketed drums, and it all marches around Paul Jackson’s iconic six-note bass line, so sticky it would gum up any other engine but this. Mason’s switch to the ride cymbal around the six-minute mark sounds like the sun exploding all over Hancock’s ARP Odyssey synth solo. The song is a rhythmic knot, deceptively complex but savagely cool. Hancock’s pivot to funk and fusion helped amplify traditional jazz in the mainstream, and “Chameleon” was the first song you could feel right in your ribs. –Jeremy Larson
For just over two-and-a-half minutes, Diana Ross smolders over one of the most sumptuous, loping bassline and velvety string combos that Motown could pull together in the label's post-Norman Whitfield years. “Love Hangover” is a gauzy, low-gravity glide. It has all the buoyancy of floating in water, and Ross's awestruck voice nails the metaphor of being so sprung on someone that even the day after is worth the disorientation. (She also drops maybe the most nonchalantly blissful “hey” to ever hit No.1.)
“Love Hangover” is one of pop’s best portrayals of falling for a person so amazing that it actually hurts. And then, as if all those points have been succinctly and appropriately made, someone flips a switch and every light in this hit single goes out except a strobe. Its extended disco metamorphosis, which accounts for more than five of the song's nearly eight-minute length, turns out to be the hair of the dog—the groove grows even more sinuous while a glimmering electric piano riffs off itself and becomes the rhythm’s secret weapon. Through it all, Ross vamps off the lyrics with a reeling euphoria that transcends her words. –Nate Patrin
One of the many loveable aspects about glam’s most versatile band is that no matter how far out Roxy Music ventured on an art-rock limb, crooning about European decadence and inflatable darlings, they always came back to fantastic dance songs. After several such UK smashes, they scored their first and only U.S. Top 40 hit in early 1976 with Bryan Ferry’s most iconic lyric set to Roxy Music’s most propulsive and streamlined playing—check how John Gustafson’s bassline pumps and jumps. So undeniable that even prog-rock radio went for it despite its disco beat and attitude, “Love Is the Drug” picks up on David Bowie’s plastic soul phase and drives it straight to the singles’ bar.
Starting with the sound of shoes on pavement, the closing of a car door, the starting of an engine, and the skidding of wheels, the track clinches Ferry’s presentation of the rock troubadour as performance artist. He’s too much of a romantic to write about what was yet to be called sex addiction, and he’s too self-aware to fully lose himself in physicality the way his inspirations might. Instead, this is multi-sensual seduction; toe-to-toe, heart-to-heart foreplay that celebrates the thrill of the ritual, the passion of pursuit. And when it winds its way up to the money shot, it’s still discreet: “Dim the lights, you can guess the rest,” he sighs, followed by a swank rat-a-tat by the band’s supremely driving drummer, Paul Thompson, that functions as a wink. Even their funk is gentlemanly. –Barry Walters
For four decades, “Summer Madness” has provided fertile ground for hip-hop producers. It’s eight minutes of breezy instrumental synth-soul has been stretched, chopped, and looped countless times. And its iconic rising synth glide has been repurposed so frequently it’s practically canon in certain genres. The song comes from Kool and the Gang's 1974 album Light of Words, which saw the band drawing heavily from their jazz roots, using more complex song structures, and experimenting with analog synths. Issued as a single and supported by a performance on “Soul Train,” “Summer Madness” climbed to No. 35 on the pop charts, and set the tone for funk jazz fusion for decades to follow.
Today, the idea that a fusion instrumental pulled together during a 5 a.m. recording session could have a formidable run on the pop charts seems farfetched. But despite the shifting musical landscape “Summer Madness” has remained relevant—in the hands of generations of producers it’s been continuously amended to suit the times, aging gracefully along the way. –Corey Smith-West
In 1968, the Beatles embarked on a trip that can be heard all over The White Album, traveling to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Apparently Lennon and McCartney were moved in similar ways: Paul wrote “Mother Nature’s Son” while John came up with “Child of Nature.” The latter was shelved, but Lennon knew he had something special in terms of melody, even if the lyrics didn’t click. As he embarked on a solo career, he turned the tune into a piano ballad that plumbed the depths of masculine insecurity in a way rarely seen from rock icons. Towards the end of the Beatles, Lennon seemed to sneer at McCartney’s sentimentality; for him to write a song as tender as “Jealous Guy,” it had to be emotionally raw and real. Musically, the Imagine standout begins a bit heavy-handed on the schmaltz, but with Lennon laid bare, he starts to loosen up as the percussion and strings behind him grow.
Lennon may have been “dreaming of the past” in more ways than one with “Jealous Guy.” “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is an unsettling line to hear in light of what we know about Lennon now, specifically the domestic abuse he admitted to in aPlayboy interview shortly before his 1980 murder: “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically—any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit.” Though recorded a decade earlier, “Jealous Guy” bleeds with remorse, as Lennon turns his own pain and shame it into something a listener could use. –Jillian Mapes
These days, we think of the Fugees’ 1996 cover as having introduced a new generation to Roberta Flack’s Grammy-winning 1973 single “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” but Flack wasn’t the first artist to cut it. She heard folk singer Lori Lieberman’s 1972 version on TWA’s in-flight music service and knew she had to do her own version. “But I’d never heard of Lori Lieberman, so I thought I’d see what she’d got going for her that I didn’t have,”Flack told NME shortly after her version became a hit. “Before I heard the song, I thought it had an awfully good title, and when I heard it I really loved it.”
Lieberman’s infatuation with Don McLean may have influenced Norman Gimbel’s lyrics (really), but it’s easy to see why Flack was the one who took “Killing Me Softly” to No. 1. This is a song about witnessing a performance that resonates so deeply, the singer might as well be using your soul as an instrument. The experience isn’t a totally emotional one, though; phrases like “strumming my pain with his fingers” and “I felt all flushed with fever” pulse with physicality, and Lieberman’s dreamy voice and acoustic guitar couldn’t do justice to that side of the song. It took Flack’s warm, searching alto, Ron Carter’s teasing bass, and Grady Tate’s throbbing drums to heat up the track without trampling its innocence. –Judy Berman
When the sessions for Smile crumbled into a lysergic haze by May 1967, those hallowed songs from Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” were scattered to the winds, with only fragments to be gleaned from the group’s subsequent albums. Most maddening was “Surf’s Up,” which television audiences had seen Wilson perform in 1966 before the song vanished. Until the codex was reassembled by Wilson in 2004, the closest fans could get to the true majesty and mystique of Smile was when “Surf’s Up” finally surfaced in 1971, as the title track of the band’s 17th studio album.
“Surf’s Up” bade farewell to the Beach Boys’ outdated surf-boy personas, right there in the title; it was complex, impressionistic, and the crowning achievement of Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ collaboration. The lyrics alight on Tennyson, Maupassant, and children’s songs; the coda of "The child is the father of the man," easily the most effervescent chorus the Boys ever harmonized on, is also a stunning iteration of Matthew 18:3: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” –Andy Beta
Some bands are lucky enough to emerge fully formed, with a distinct style and sound already in place. Neu! arrived with something more powerful: a template. You wonder how quickly Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger realized the persistent “motorik” pattern Dinger beat out wasn't just an element of a song but an album, a band—perhaps krautrock itself. “Hallogallo,” the first song on their first album, was the finest-ever application of this form. It’s exceptionally easy to listen to: The clucking, muted guitar plucks trigger an ASMR-like sensation, so gently do they dot the song’s rhythm. “Hallogallo” is like watching an entire stadium of people exit in the most orderly fashion imaginable: It’s going to take a while, and it’s going to be fine. Rother and Dinger would go on to make this song many more times, maybe too many: They were expertly lampooned/saluted just a year later by Faust. Listening to “Hallogallo” is a good reminder of just how hard it was, for Neu! and everyone else, not to keep making it. –Andrew Gaerig
By 1971, Serge Gainsbourg was best known outside of France for putting filthy words in young girls’ mouths—he sent France Gall up the charts with a cute song about blowjobs, and got Jane Birkin to pant so heavily on “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” that it incensed the Pope. But he saved his sleaziest and most demeaning words for his own Gitanes-stained mouth on L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album about his pursuit of a 15-year-old English girl whom he knocks off her bike. Yes, it’s a record about a pedophile, but (one imagines) it has less to do with Gainsbourg’s sexual proclivities than being the nastiest vessel he could conceive of for his famous self-loathing. And “Melody,” the record’s grimly foreshadowing opener, is his condition’s apex: a death drive with a dead girl as his compass.
Headed nowhere in particular, Gainsbourg drives through dark, dangerous streets in his pre-war Rolls Royce, transfixed by its “serenely indifferent” hood ornament, the Spirit of Ecstasy. This “cursed archangel” was secretly modelled on the mistress of a government advisor to Britain’s motoring industry, who died when her cruiseliner was hit by a German U-boat. Even before Gainsbourg runs into Melody, his aimless drive is marked by a crushing awareness of how easily desire can self-destruct, his cool delivery—coupled with Herbie Flowers’ bleeding funk bass—suggesting a disturbing familiarity with this state of affairs. He expresses little remorse when he runs into Melody—a muttered “merde”—and wastes no time observing how her rumpled skirt has revealed her white underwear. The thought of identifying with Gainsbourg’s nightcrawler is chilling, but arranger Jean-Claude Vannier gives you no choice: The spare, louche arrangements to “Melody” comprise possibly the most erotic seven minutes ever recorded, reaching a stirring hilt just to abandon the listener in a state of creeped-out arousal. –Laura Snapes
“Saturday Night Live” tried to turn “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” into a punchline, but Blue Öyster Cult‘s biggest hit was already a beguiling mix of darkness and levity. Speaking with CMJ in 1995, singer/guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser said he was “appalled” by the song's longstanding associations with romanticized suicide, driven primarily by his allusions to Romeo and Juliet, “together in eternity.” It was supposed to be “a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners,” he explained—but with odd and garbled lyrics like “Valentine is done/Here but now they’re gone,” fans could be forgiven for getting confused. While his mysterious lyrics threaten to overwhelm the melody, the band’s Byrds-like bombast, immortalized in that chiming, arpeggiated refrain and an otherworldly guitar solo, is as dreamlike as it is devastating. And then there’s that cowbell: You don’t need to watch any Will Ferrell sketches to appreciate how the atypical percussion tweaks the drama just enough to render the Reaper—maybe even death itself—a little less scary. –Zoe Camp
The provocations of Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” provide a dividing line as clear as any in popular music. While Patti Smith’s Horses had been out for just under a yearand leather and cheekiness were already old hat to the CBGB gang in New York, the Pistols’ debut single captured the new swagger in recorded form like nothing that had come before it. It descended on record stores in November 1976 with a literal call for upheaval—but then what?
Johnny Rotten’s sneer was destined to become a caricature before he had finished spitting out the first lyric, a perfectly vivid Cheshire Cat grin for the 1970s that was more shocking than Elvis’ hips, if only because it didn’t require a television set to show it (and also because Elvis wasn’t calling for anarchy). Launching with the forced non-rhyme of “anarchist” and “anti-Christ,” the British band’s cartoon version of the French ideology was a farce in the highest pop art sense, a series of symbols tossed into the milieu like a firecracker.
And perhaps because the Pistols’ anarchy only consisted of swearing on television and having access to the excitable echo chamber of the British tabloid press, it totally worked. Banned from radio, the song cracked the UK’s Top 50 before the band was dropped by their label, EMI, barely a month after the single’s release. An obvious counter to the polished glitter of mid-’70s rock, “Anarchy in the UK” would light the fire under countless musicians and cultural theorists (see: Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces). It would also earn the band a second paycheck when they signed a new contract with Virgin and re-recorded the song in ’77, and a third when they recorded it yet again for “GuitarHeroIII: Legends of Rock.” –Jesse Jarnow
By 1976, Thin Lizzy hadn’t had a hit in the four years since their fluke success with the traditional Irish song “Whisky in the Jar.” That changed with their sixth album, Jailbreak, which not only cemented Thin Lizzy’s economic hard rock sound and brought them worldwide fame but landed them in the middle of the battlefield between classic rock and punk. Frontman Phil Lynott was a diplomat of cool—a black Irishman with a studded bass strap and hooped earrings—and moved with immunity among genres. He loved the spit of the Sex Pistols and Ramones, and punks loved him back for his unpretentious aura of a street fighter and a poet all in one.
Lynott also loved Springsteen, Skynyrd, and Van Morrison, and it’s why “The Boys Are Back in Town” found the pulse of so many that summer. For the punks, it was the last cold sip of beer before they razed the place. For the rest of the world, it became a legendary toast—because, let’s be real, these boys are not here to fight. They're here to party and they brought twin-guitar solos that are so savage and joyful, they could pry a smile from the lips of the dead. We are chained to nostalgia and, 40 years ago, Thin Lizzy wrote the anthem for it. –Jeremy D. Larson
“Basically, I have one feeling,” Richard Hell told Punk magazine in 1976. “The desire to get out of here.” No surprise then that Hell’s signature song, “Blank Generation,” is a furious anthem in which he snarls, “I was saying ‘Let me out of here!’ before I was even born!” The song itself dodged Hell’s stints in Television and the Heartbreakers, both of whom played it many times before he immortalized it with the Voidoids.
Yet “Blank Generation” isn’t a total break from history; it’s a take-off of Rod McKuen’s ‘50s novelty tune “The Beat Generation.” (However, while McKuen “[doesn’t] let anything trouble my mind,” Hell “can take it or leave it each time.”) The song’s most arresting element—Robert Quine’s slashing, dissonant guitar, a precursor to the atonal scrape of no wave—echoes Lou Reed’s farthest-out solos in Quine’s beloved Velvet Underground. These connections to the past make “Blank Generation” more than just a nihilist rant. Hell knew history and was excited to create it anew, which is why he sounds more giddy than morose, more energized than dejected. Hell was notorious for wearing a t-shirt that said “Please Kill Me,” but “Blank Generation” is the sound of something being born. –Marc Masters
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar was pissed off, as he had every right to be: Black people were being killed by white people with no consequences at all. So he cut “King Kunta” to let off some steam. “I’m mad, but I ain’t stressin’,” Lamar exclaimed. The cadence and the groove was undeniably James Brown, who created that conversational style some 40 years earlier. The track takes direct cues from “The Payback,” the title track from the Godfather of Soul’s 1973 album, on which he throws verbal jabs over a sparse funk loop that goes on forever. Brown was mad, too, but his target was far more personal: “Get down wit my girlfriend, that ain’t right.” He could deal with just about anything else—scrappin’, shit talkin’—but backstabbing? That crossed the line. And so, “The Payback” was one of the early diss records, providing a basis for the battle rhymes that served as hip-hop’s foundation. The track itself was sampled by everyone from En Vogue to Total to LL Cool J, giving it life beyond ’70s soul, but it also went to No. 1 on the R&B charts in real time, marking one of the last times Brown topped the charts. Makes you wonder, though: Was the recognition payback enough for Brown, or did he get that scoundrel back? –Marcus J. Moore
The eponymous protagonist of Aja’s second single, “Deacon Blues,” is not as direct a proxy for the real-life Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as the cynical Bard College alum of “My Old School” or the Dutchess County pundit of “Barrytown.” But Deacon is the same general character—defiant, deluded, self-aggrandizing—made rarefied and mythological, with a nameinspired by the NFL player credited with inventing the sack.
More edified by Charlie Parker than human interaction, Deacon ultimately moves to prove his worth by “work[ing] the saxophone.” Fagen and Becker refused to cut the long instrumental bridge dramatizing this—featuring arabesques from Pete Christlieb, a tenor player they admired from the Tonight Show—for a cleaner radio single. Deacon Blues” is the consummate Steely Dan single, perfectly landing their precarious balance between arcane, Ellington-inspired jazz theatrics and strangely radio-ready songwriting. –Winston Cook-Wilson
If you want to know why “angular” is in the critical dictionary, listen to Gang of Four’s first single. Dave Allen’s jumpy bass, Hugo Burnham’s syncopated drums, and Andy Gill’s arid funk guitar interlock in a shape made all of spikes and slashes, like a coded telegram coming in from Moscow. The band wrapped their songs in Marxist critiques of capitalism and spectacle-smashing Situationist gestures, but even for pop, let alone agitprop, “Damaged Goods” is uncommonly infectious, irresistibly danceable, and piercingly personal.
The lyrics are pitched into an echo chamber between the ideal of love (“your kiss so sweet”) and the reality of lust (“your sweat so sour”) in a thoroughly commodified society. As is often the case, Gill’s responses to singer Jon King’s calls seem to enter the song from somewhere else; stereo space becomes dialectical. Gill plays like a man with a machete, trying to chop up the poses of punk, politics, and musical commerce—raging at the market from within. After all, this was 1979, and savvy revolutionaries knew how revolutions ended: “Damaged Goods” builds and breaks in clashing waves, flares with glory near the end, and then screeches to a stop on a sudden, curdled chord. –Brian Howe
Decades before anyone used the term “toxic masculinity,” Sparks were skewering the concept on their 1974 breakthrough single. It took a bit longer for the band to catch on in the States, but in the UK, “This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us” drove their Kimono My House album to the Top 5. In its time, this was understood as a glam-rock record, and it was hooky and stompy enough to pass in the company of T. Rex and Slade.
In fact, it’s something much weirder and more complicated: Sparks’ songwriter and keyboardist Ron Mael and his vocalist brother Russell declared their contempt for stupidity and bonhomie. The title is a Western movie cliché, and the rest of the lyrics are a hilariously vicious indictment of dumb heroic archetypes and the hopeless dudes who try to live up to them. “Zoo time/Is she-and-you time/The mammals are your favorite type,” Russell enunciates witheringly. His voice is a full-on art-song countertenor, a voice that couldn't be much more distant from rock’n’roll machismo, even as Sparks’ rhythm section lays into the song like a back-alley kicking. “This Town”’s final glass-shattering high note is less orgasmic than it is vindictive. –Douglas Wolk
“I’ve been waiting to do this little song here that I just wrote seven days ago, eight days ago,” Judee Sill announced nervously before her first live performance of “The Kiss.” “I can’t decide if this is a romantic song or a holy song.” The convergence of the two constitutes the magic of Sill’s songwriting, which has grown ever more popular and influential following her death in 1979. “The Kiss” is Sill’s signature track because it effortlessly and magnificently balances those two forces. It’s a love song delivered with the gravity of a hymn, with a heavenly, French horn-assisted melody that seems to shift and stretch with every breath Sill takes.
If Sill’s story began and ended here, it would still make her one of the saddest figures of the ’70s. In her short discography, “The Kiss” stands out as a moment of clarity, a flash of devastating inspiration in a career marred by both tragedy and rapid evolution. When she introduced “The Kiss” a few months after that initial performance, Sill seemed to have made up her mind: “Here’s a song that will put you to sleep,” she joked. “It’s about the union of the opposites that are in us all.” Nobody understood those dichotomies better than Sill. –Sam Sodomsky
Daryl Hall and John Oateswere once the Mutt and Jeff of pop: Hall, lanky, blond, pretty, would-be cover material for Tiger Beat; Oates, short, dark, hirsute, the mustache emphatic. Though they are best known for their string of smashes in the ’80s, their first hit came in 1973 with—cue that slow, alluring hi-hat intro—“She’s Gone,” a simple tale of lost love that ultimately turns triumphant. The song’s lines are sly and self-deprecating: “Everybody’s high on consolation;” “I need a drink and a quick decision;” “My face ain’t lookin’ any younger.” And no one sang background vocals like John Oates—each carefully-placed oh-I is basked in anguish.
“She’s Gone” sounded like it came out of Philadelphia International’s songbook; a couple of octaves higher, and it could be a Stylistics track. (The R&B group Tavares, four-hours up I-95, covered it the following year and made it a No. 1 soul hit.) The snide (usually white) pop-culturati never paid Hall & Oates much attention, but the black radio stations did. Soon would come “Sara Smile,” “Rich Girl,” and all the rest. Tavis Smiley could hardly contain himself when Oates was a recent guest on his show. “She,” whoever she was, may have up and gone in 1973, but that’s when Hall & Oates arrived. –Michael J. Agovino
Elvis Costello has put forth a great deal of effort to ensure “Alison” is not misunderstood. In his 2015 memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he wrote that the track is a work of fiction: “It was a premonition, my fear that I would not be faithful or that my disbelief in happy endings would lead me to jill the love that I had longed for.” Much of his anxious justification comes from the common interpretation that his unforgettable refrain, “Alison, I know this world is killing you/Oh, Alison, my aim is true,” is a call to kill this newly conjured woman. It’s funny and fitting that Costello has fretted over his own poeticism for decades, because it’s that same self-loathing and need for approval that makes “Alison” beautiful in its complexity.
At its core, “Alison” is a near-perfect ballad, fit for a wedding or prom—any moment that requires a slow song that feels deeply personal. But as Costello’s pain surfaces from being spurned by his dream girl for a man she doesn’t even love, you hear his scorn: He tells her how unhappy she is. “Alison,” in one context, becomes a work of projection, but it’s the song’s multitudes that makes it universal: Love, anger, sadness, and hope are inextricable. Untangling “Alison” entirely requires serious self-reflection. Costello’s continued rationalization shows that not even he can fully comprehend its magic. –Matthew Strauss
“Do you remember” can be thelowest form of conversation or the most powerful way to begin a song. Maurice White legitimately wants to know the answer to that question in Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” and there’s a very good chance you might not remember September 21st, an average day in in a not-particularly-memorable month. There are no “Today Was a Good Day” specifics about why this otherwise mundane night turned out to be unlike any other—we danced the night away, our souls were singing, we knew love was real. In fact, co-writer Allee Willis was concerned that “September” was too generalized and begged White to reconsider the “ba-de-ya-de-ba-de-ya” hook.
God bless White’s stubbornness, because how many of us knew it as that “ba-de-ya” song? The guileless joy of the hook translates to any language, any situation. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the songs you’re most likely to hear at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, even political conventions for both parties—basically any event that’s supposed to be the greatest night of someone’s life. While it certainly sounds like the kind of universal uplift in which Earth, Wind & Fire often excelled, “September” makes a very specific request: they’re asking you to remember that any day—September 21st or May 2nd or February 18th—holds the possibility of magic. –Ian Cohen
Minnie Riperton’s later songs are perhaps her most remembered—it’s hard to forget the chirping birds of “Lovin’ You.” But “Les Fleur,” which opens her masterful 1971 debut album Come to My Garden, is the song that set the bar so high. Recorded in 1969, the summer of love’s warmth lingers, with Riperton literally singing from the perspective of a flower. But it quickly becomes clear this is no hippie anthem. Delicate as a petal and effortless as a blossom unfolding, Riperton’s voice flits over the first verse. And then, suddenly and without warning, the song takes actual flight, bursting into a chorus so rapturous and majestic, you can’t help but believe in her naive yet beautiful vision of mankind. By the end of the song, her backup choir is just singing jubilant gibberish as Riperton’s whistle range soars to the stratosphere. Many have tried to go there since (looking at you, Mariah), but you need look no further than “Les Fleur” to realize it’s a height only one songbird has ever reached. –Rebecca Haithcoat
“Free Man in Paris” is an homage to Joni Mitchell’s patron and longtime friend David Geffen; it’s an unlikely second single for an album that initially perplexed him. “He was busy trying to sign Dylan for what turned out to be the Planet Waves project,” Mitchell told biographerMark Bego. “I played Court and Spark for everyone, and Bobby fell asleep and snored all the way through it. When the record came to an end, the people went ‘Huh?’”
Dylan’s record would hit #1 but, nearly half a century later, there’s no debate which album won the long game. “Free Man in Paris,” Court and Spark’s second single, was a hit even with its jazzy modalities and verbose chorus. The song captures Geffen, not unsympathetically, at a moment of perceived invincibility: In 1973, he and his wife took a decadent French vacation, and brought Mitchell, the Band’s Robbie Robertson, and his wife Dominique.As Robertson tells it, the Parisian hotel threatened to arrest Geffen after telling him he couldn’t pay the exorbitant bill with a credit card. The comedy of errors was all Mitchell needed to make Geffen her pet Gatsby: the corporate brass turned would-be expat, feeling “unfettered and alive,” but dreading the business piling up at home.
“Free Man in Paris” was a swan song to the musical vocabulary Joni was angling to leave behind. It also betrayed the beginnings of her provocative new musical vision: full of open, indeterminate chords with a closer relationship to McCoy Tyner than Jackson Browne, and telling stories as archly observational as they were personal. –Winston Cook-Wilson
Michael McDonald wasn’t yet a yacht rock icon when the Doobie Brothers tagged him as their lead singer, after deciding they needed another element to fill out their multi-instrumental lounge-funk. But McDonald’s aged, falsetto-tinged baritone turned the Doobies from a regular radio act to one of the most successful bands in America. “What a Fool Believes,” co-written with blue-eyed cohort Kenny Loggins, tackled a thematically nuanced, pointedly adult subject: the unrequited love felt for someone out of the past, and the awkward meeting where it becomes clear both parties see each other very differently. Instead of romantic denouement, what’s left is a void. “She had a place in his life/He never made her think twice” is a particularly devastating summation of that dynamic.
Watching McDonald lean into his delivery in live videos from the era—when their ridiculously overstaffed band included two drummers and a bongo player—it looks as though his soul is about to split open, which reminds you that he wasn't just going through the motions. Because who isn’t a fool when it comes to love? Heard now, the Doobie Brothers of the 1970s seem preternaturally confident—unafraid to be unhip, or buttoned-up, they survived their image to leave us with songs like this, which say everything a rock haircut and sharp outfit can’t. No blind faith is required; all the evidence is laid out for anyone to hear.–Jeremy Gordon
A refusal to sell-out became a driving tenant of punk rock in the ’80s and ’90s, but first-generation punks were perfectly happy to be heard by as many people as possible. Even the Sex Pistols, for all their anti-establishment leanings, wanted to be huge. Punk purists still struggle to reconcile “Train in Vain,” the catchiest and most widely appealing pop song that Mick Jones ever wrote, so the band created a narrative to explain it away.
The myth went that “Train in Vain” was excluded from the original London Calling tracklist because the band was conflicted about it sounding so commercial. In reality, the song was left off the sleeve because it was only added to London Calling after the art had been pressed. The “too commercial” urban legend unraveled further when the band made it a staple of live sets and released it as a single. (Their label didn’t force them to; if anything, it was the Clash that created headaches by tacking yet another track onto an 18-song double LP.) With its peppy Motown rhythm and loving callbacks to oldies songwriting conventions, “Train in Vain” was pure ear candy. It captured the Clash at their most relatable, thanks to its universal themes of heartbreak and rejection, and Jones' pleading, heart-on-sleeve lead vocal turn. Mick Jones never defined the Clash the way Joe Strummer did, but if Strummer was the telegenic poster child for the revolution, Jones was its sympathetic everyman. “Train in Vain” remains his finest hour. –Evan Rytlewski
With its references to Valhalla and setting sail for the mysterious “western shore,” Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” represents the first tick on the folk-metal timeline. The track came together in the summer of 1970, not long after Led Zeppelin launched a world tour in Reykjavik; recalling the song’s origins soon after in a radio interview, singer Robert Plantexplained, “We went to Iceland, and it made you think of Vikings and big ships...and John Bonham’s stomach. And bang, there it was: ‘Immigrant Song!’”
When Zep unveiled the track in a landmark concert in Bath, France, six days after returning from the actual Land of the Ice and the Snow, it wasn’t just a song premiere, it was a paradigm shift: Now they were a focused fleet of hard-rock vikings, driven by an insatiable bloodthirst manifested in Jimmy Page’s stabbing riffs, John Paul Jones’ rugged bass grooves, Bonham’s unhinged drumming—and, of course, Plant's extended war cry, more the utterance of a Norse demigod than a refrain from the throat of a lanky British lad. –Zoe Camp
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” doesn’t exactly paint an enviable portrait of success: “Goodbye yellow brick road/Where the dogs of society howl/You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough” sounds more like the bitter lament of a sign-bearing beggar, not a flamboyant multi-millionaire who’d already toured arenas crooning “Crocodile Rock.” So it makes sense that Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s own lyrical Wizard of Oz, wrote these pessimistic words from his perch behind the curtain, leaving his performing partner to sell the pathos onstage. Taupin’s words of ambivalence, when paired with an ascendant pop melody worthy of Broadway, nearly 25 years before John would compose The Lion King, created a wistful aura of bucolic nostalgia that was hard to resist. Of course, the title track of the double album that also boasts “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets” made John more adored than ever, so John and Taupin now get to ponder the irony from their new vantage atop millions of albums sold—possibly while eating a certain ice cream. –Stacey Anderson
Ending with a tidal wave crashing across L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, Dean Stockwell’s screenplay After the Gold Rush could have been the hippie prototype for eco-disaster movies to come. Abandoned before production, the project lived on in the mind of Stockwell’s Topanga neighbor Neil Young, who used the project to spark a creative breakthrough and one of his most enduring songs.
On the title track of his 1970 album, Young gave the apocalypse a happier ending, sending the humans into space in silver ships for future regeneration. Alternately an abstract confessional, an early environmental anthem, and a grade-A specimen of what Randy Newman once dismissed as “meadow rock,” Young’s song transcends these labels. As an imagistic declaration that doesn’t totally add up, the song nonetheless conjures a vivid glimpse of Earth before departure, as told from the ground. Performed alone on piano, with only a French horn solo in the middle, the home recording would prove a template for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and many other gently verbose songwriters.
Like Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire, released later that year,and other ecotopian dreams, “After the Gold Rush” points towards other green worlds. But with Young’s open-hearted creak at the center, it still lives somewhere very close to home. –Jesse Jarnow
The genre’s creation myth involves its maker not being able to hear. Hospitalized after a car accident, Eno struggled to pick out the baroque harp music on the stereo from the rain outside, first with irritation, then with interest. Soon came 1975’s Discreet Music, a landmark album of generative synthesizer blurs. Then he had several musicians, including Robert Wyatt, improvise in the studio, though none of them could hear each other very well. Eno later extracted a section from the session where two pianos happened to entwine in a graceful way. He played the loop at half speed through delays and phased it with synth pulses to breathe mechanical life into “1/1,” the signature track from his first ambient opus, 1978’s Music for Airports.
The melody remains alluring through almost 17 minutes of archetype-forging visions of light banking and cracking through clouds, always the same, always changing. But you can also picture the music hanging in strips of reel-to-reel tape, taut and exposed in the air, turning and turning. It’s densely webbed in music history: the drones of La Monte Young, the tape delay epics of Steve Reich, the new age music of Terry Riley, the chance castings of John Cage, and the self-effacing melancholy of Erik Satie, the grandfather of background music as art. Eno, selecting the loops and defining the system, assumed a godlike role over his music, changing how we think about sound in the process. At this point, unevenly overlapping waves of piano and drones that create a kind of insensate intelligence is as familiar to us as a rock band dropping into its slots. It all emanates from here. –Brian Howe
In his autobiography, Miles Davis gave short shrift to the soundtrack album A Tribute toJack Johnson—except to marvel over the fact that Columbia didn’t do much to promote it. “I think one of the reasons was because it was music you could dance to,” the trumpeter hypothesized. Another explanation for the marketing oversight might have been due to Davis’ unstoppable work ethic in this period. He’d recently released the double-album masterpiece Bitches Brew, and would soon oversee a febrile collage of live performances recorded at venues normally associated with rock swagger. By the time of albums like On the Corner, Davis’ fusion was sufficiently layered that it proposed a tension for listeners tasked with its absorption: better to dance through the complexity, or to sit down and concentrate on all the music’s kinetic parts?
“Right Off,” the side-length first track on Jack Johnson, doesn’t invite that same stress, as it’s one of the most approachable opuses in Davis’ funk-meets-rock catalog. Over the first 10 minutes, drummer Billy Cobham offers a stable, mid-tempo beat that bassist Michael Henderson matches in his ease. Instead of solos that crowd atop one another, the first bluesy spotlights for Davis and guitarist John McLaughlin are well-separated. As the piece was stitched together from multiple long-jam takes, there are brief respites in the final edit—though the dance feel is never gone for long. And during the final section, the joint exclamations of Davis, McLaughlin, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and saxophonist Steve Grossman bring this convivial barnstormer to a very memorable climax. –Seth Colter Walls
To describe 1969 as an eventful year in American history would be a massive understatement. President Richard Nixon took office. Vietnam War protests continued to roil, even as the United States military began a troop draw-down from that conflict. Charles Manson and his followers committed a series of horrible murders. Violence, or the fear of it, seemed to exist everywhere; the psychedelic 1960s were rapidly giving way to the paranoid 1970s.
Recorded live at New York’s Fillmore East by guitarist Jimi Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox, and drummer Buddy Miles on January 1, 1970, “Machine Gun” was something more than a Vietnam protest anthem, attempting to reckon with the world’s disorder on a psychic level. Lyrically, the song evinced an aghast bravado that its performance contradicted, with its clipped drum fills, its downcast bass line, and its guitars—tangled, oceanic, furious, searing, distorted—expressing a fundamentally human dismay that no words could approach. No other recording in Hendrix’s oeuvre is as evocative or as deeply felt. –Raymond Cummings
“Concrete Jungle” is pure reality—it’s a song that engages directly with history’s connection to the present. As Bob Marley sings, "No chains around my feet/But I'm not free/I know I am bounded/In captivity,” it’s in more subdued tones than his anthemic “Exodus” or “Africa Unite,” but the ideas power the song forward. “Concrete Jungle” provides a pointed critique of inequality and colonialism, while at the same time reaches out to international audiences.
The song’s structure is notable, mixing the Wailers’ trademark one-drop bounce with a rock‘n’roll solo by guitarist Wayne Perkins. It’s a one-track lesson in effectively crossing over to international audiences (one of producer Chris Blackwell’s specialties). It may not have the subtle artistry of “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” and it is more poetic about its message than the straightforward “Zimbabwe,” but “Concrete Jungle” demonstrates exactly why Bob Marley & the Wailers, spurred on by Blackwell, were still able to reach hearts around the world. –Erin Macleod
Can were never just one band. This was true literally, as they changed lineups and swapped out duties, and it was more true musically, as they shifted between Franken-styles like "loud shout-y mini-punk," or "gypsy ambient." All had their charms. Still, if you were to freeze a single version of the group in amber, the band that made “Future Days” should be the choice.
“Future Days” is the finest marriage of Damo Suzuki's building-a-mystery vocal style and the band's more exploratory tendencies. While slow and quiet, it still packs more rhythms than most modern techno. It's not clear what guitarist Michael Karoli is conjuring, but it seems non-threatening. If you are the type of person who insists on knowing how a magic trick was performed, you can probably Google "Future Days lyrics," but you will be doing yourself a disservice. When, near the six-minute mark, the band momentarily swells, it feels like some kind of breakthrough has been made, and they spend the rest of the song retreating into silence. Suzuki, who retired from music for a decade after Future Days, remained there. The rest of the group just formed a new Can. –Andrew Gaerig
The other famous songoff Lust For Life, “The Passenger” is slightly less well-known than the title track but every bit as memorable. One of only two tracks from the album not written by producer David Bowie, this one was penned by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, who creates a structurally simplistic track buoyed by a catchy, ringing guitar riff. It’s easy to listen to the intro and envision a million bands at home trying to figure out how to copy it.
The song basically repeats itself for five minutes, the guitar riff locking in hypnotically with the drumbeat to underscore Pop’s haunting narrative about being forever on the road. The incanted vocal style here is more akin to his vocals on The Idiot than the more vampirical singing on the rest of Lust for Life; the distorted sing-speaking is essentially the blueprint for Julian Casablancas’s whole approach on the first two Strokes records. The fact that “The Passenger” was never a single is surprising(neither was “Lust for Life,” for that matter),but history has elevated it to the canonical status it deserves. –Benjamin Scheim
Kraftwerk’s first two albums are both very good and their third, 1973’s Ralf and Florian, is great, but all could be described as krautrock proper—that is, the shaggy experimental work oflong-haired German hippies who were born just after WWII. “Autobahn” was something else entirely. It was long, stretching over an entire LP side, but despite its proggy length it had the bones of a pop song, new territory for Kraftwerk. It marked a couple of other firsts for the Dusseldorf band: Their first song with proper lyrics and their first thematic engagement with a specific technology. Later they’d grapple with nuclear power, cycling, radio waves, train travel, and the personal computer, but here they set their sights on the serene German motorway, with its promise of steady movement and adventure.
This being a transitional work, “Autobahn” still features flute and even a guitar solo, but the beating heart of the song is the Moog bassline and the lightly chugging electronic percussion, which hum along in endless forward motion like glistening pistons in an air-cooled Volkswagen. That machine rhythm defines the song and gets to the heart of its appeal. Though the chorus refrain is a catchy Beach Boys interpolation, the essence of “Autobahn”’s magic is its trance-inducing repetition. Despite its great length—a single edit of less than four minutes exists and even hit the charts in the U.S., though it’s now mostly forgotten—this was the dawn of sleek electro-pop minimalism, the place where Kraftwerk became Kraftwerk, the reigning visionaries of music’s future. –Mark Richardson
There’s a scene in the Patti Smith documentary Dream of Life that catches the New Jersey native discussing what it was like to abandon home for New York City. “There was no chance to be destroyed or really be created there,” Smith says, musing on how “there was no time for daydreaming” in the Garden State despite how much easier life was. “You just lived. And that’s okay for some people, but I always felt something different stirring in me.” So she fled Jersey for the promise of change. “I knew there was stuff inside me that could, like, flower,” Smith goes. “Maybe it would really ruin me. Maybe I’d feel really shitty about it. But at least it would come out.”
“Land,” the sprawling climax of Horses, summons this magic from the inside of every person. It does not want you to do easy things and it leads by example. Through Smith’s sinister and surreal tale of a boy named Johnny, by invoking an incantatory American landscape of jazz and dance and New Orleans R&B, through the dream logic of Smith’s beloved Arthur Rimbaud. “Land” is a factual open door to “the sea of possibilities” that Smith still fosters on a molecular level. In 1975, the word “punk” had barely entered the frame, but Patti—ever the wordsmith—knew “possibility” was the sharpest synonym the English language had to offer.
“Land” exists to tell people there is more to life than what it seems to provide. Rock’n’roll songs are rarely more explicitly generative than this: It is about creation. It is a meditation on physicality. It sounds like it is pouring from the sky. Like a magnet, it draws things out of people who hear it. It is a directive: manifest. –Jenn Pelly
Alan Vega made no secret of his affinity for Elvis Presley. That influence is inescapable on “Ghost Rider,” on which Vega’s vocals—direct, scatted, gasped—are similarly lustful, seductive, and dangerous. Martin Rev’s waves of wiry electronics are a resilient hellfire; listening to the song conjures images of Vega hopscotching from one patch of hot coals to another. The brimstone whiff of religiosity squares nicely with the subject whose premise Suicide chose to spotlight: a damned, C-list Marvel anti-hero with a motorcycle and a flaming head.
When the New York-based duo recorded this definitive version of “Ghost Rider” in a studio, they had five years of confrontational live performances under their belts. It was more than long enough to cement a dedicated following, one that may not have been fully cognizant of a clear lineage between the piano fervor of Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis and the sound that the world would come to recognize as “punk.” –Raymond Cummings
After nearly four decades, the pulsar gracing the cover of Unknown Pleasureshas somehow become a fixture in study halls, music festivals, and malls. Right alongside the Dark Side of the Moon prism, the Nirvana smiley face, and the naked chest of Jim Morrison stands a symbol of Ian Curtis, recognized and even sported by people who may have never listened to the music. While there are eras where their influence is stronger than others, Joy Division remains elemental in indie rock, one of those bands kids inevitably stumble upon if they show any desire to dig deeper. And, as is so often the case, Ian Curtis became in death an exaggerated version of what he was in life: an avatar for the crushing yet indeterminate alienation shared by teenagers with the certitude that they’re the only one who feels this way.
In other words, a lot of people need a T-shirt to express the exact thing “Disorder” is about: Wanting to experience the sensations of a normal person while feeling like you’re doomed to be on the outside, getting just close enough to see how far away you really are. Unlike their aforementioned peers in high school rock iconography, Joy Division are rarely the subject of an all-consuming listening phase, but rather, serve as an introduction to a completely different way of thinking about rock music: Martin Hannett’s severe production, Peter Hook’s scything bass, Curtis’ wounded bellow and plainspoken vulnerability. These are things that provide relief from the jocks and bullies that still find a way to misread “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Spending a life in indie rock may eventually make you immune to the seismic impact of “Disorder,” but maybe that’s why those arctic whooshes are there at the end—to remind you of the rush of hearing “Disorder” for the very first time. –Ian Cohen
Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s run was unparalleled in the 1970s: working with Bob Marley and the Wailers, expanding spacetime dimensions with his bass-braining dubs, and producing by turns sublime and swampy roots reggae classics: Police & Thieves, War ina Babylon, Revolution Dub, Super Ape. But on the eve of debuting the greatest album of them all, the Congos’ Heart of the Congos, Perry had a falling-out with the label and subsequently the group, and the record sank upon release.
But Heart of the Congos has since ascended to its rightful place in the canon, its perfection encapsulated in “Fisherman.” Across a dubbed-out beat that skitters and ripples like a stone across the ocean, the celestial vocal harmonies of "Ashanti" Roy Johnson and Cedric Myton sing of poverty and hardship, the fathoms-deep baritone of Watty Burnett adds even more heaviness. But rather than voicing the feeling of having to labor so as to feed the hungry children awaiting them on land (“Lots of hungry belly pickney they a shore”), the song’s true weight comes from its biblical profundity. Invoking the names of Simon, Peter, James, and John, the song alludes to Matthew 4:18, wherein Jesus turned these mere fishermen into his apostles and “fishers of men” at the sea of Galilee. Similarly, “Fisherman” and Perry’s Black Ark production transubstantiates the Congos from mere reggae vocal group into something divine. –Andy Beta
The lead single off Blondie’s fourth album, Eat to the Beat, “Dreaming” finds the band having fully assimilated their CBGB punk beginnings with the pop chops that got them all the way to Top 40 radio in the 1970s’ closing years. Guitarist Chris Stein likes to call the song “a cop of ‘Dancing Queen,’” for good reason.
Like all power-pop songs worth their “power,” “Dreaming” doesn’t overcomplicate matters. One listens to it for three reasons. The first is drummer Clem Burke. The second is the hook, one of the greats. The third is the workaday wistfulness (the real mark of ABBA) that underlies the best power-pop and pop-punk tracks. The lyric could only come from a star, the sort of person who can’t have a quick lunch without luring in an admirer: “People stop and stare at me/We just walk on by/We just keep on dreamin’.” But suitors, fame, ’70s star excess, and every hour of every day are all just fodder for the altar of Debbie Harry’s dreaming. –Katherine St. Asaph
As the 1970s wound down, the dominance of heavy guitar rock gave way to shiny synth-pop, and parked between those two oppositional poles were the Cars. The Boston group debuted in 1978 and quickly became instrumental in selling punk subversity to the suburbs thanks to the shrewd songwriting of Ric Ocasek, a black-sunglassed Suicide fan whose drainpipe trousers concealed Beatle boots.
“Just What I Needed” opens with an onslaught of hammerhead guitar strikes, but the song is a bowl of meat and potatoes topped with strawberry sorbet, its muscular riffs tempered by laser-beamed synth tones. And though it’s ostensibly a love song, its procedural depiction of desire is closer in spirit toGang of Four than the Fab Four: Ocasek feeds his lyrics through Benjamin Orr’s aloof voice as if programming a robot, creating a canyon-sized distance between the dewy-eyed sentiments and their delivery. But the moment that killer chorus hits, all of the Cars’ dichotomous strategies—irony vs. sincerity, classicism vs. futurism, punk-schooled antagonism vs. arena-rock accessibility—meld together to forge a modern power-pop template that future bands fromWeezer toGuided by Voices tothe Strokes would all eagerly adopt. –Stuart Berman
By the time they released Aja in 1977, Steely Dan were situated between fusion and oddball, glamour-obsessed art-pop, comparable to Weather Report and Roxy Music in equal measure. In this light, “Peg” is the perfect Steely Dan song, and one of the strangest hits to ever grace the mainstream. Its subject is famously fuzzy: Peg may refer to aspiring starletPeg Entwhistle, who movedto Southern California seeking fame, only to jump to her death from the Hollywood Sign in 1932 when her dreams didn’t pan out. Or maybe Peg is a wannabe porn actress and Donald Fagen is playing her sleazy director—that angle sure adds, um, dimension to the couplet “And when you smile for the camera/I know I’ll love you better.”
Aside from its star-crossed narrative, Steely Dan’s production process on “Peg” reflected their behind-the-boards meticulousness and ear for rhythm. They arranged chord voicings like genome sequences. They commissioned algebraic guitar solos only to discard them like failed prototypes—“Peg” went through six before they settled on Jay Graydon’s magnificent Polynesian-flavored blues. On the verses, Donald Fagen filters a 12-bar blues through their favored major 7th chord. Add a hook played on a sax/synth hybrid called a lyricon and Michael McDonald and Paul Griffin’s uncanny-valley backing vocals, and "Peg" is the essence of queasy listening. Then there’s the rhythm section: Chuck Rainey’s slick funk bass and a deep-in-pocket Rick Marotta opening and closing his hi-hat like he’s tapping out Morse code. A deceptively simple groove combined with an elaborate melodic latticework and a dark narrative about the perils of fame is not usually the stuff of hit pop singles. That’s Steely Dan, though. And with “Peg,” they again landed the kind of pop-rock triple axel that they themselves invented. –Eric Harvey
It was hard to stand out on Stevie Wonder’s brilliant 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life, but “As,” a seven-plus minute song that starts slow and builds to a pulpit-banging sermon, does just that. As a choir gives a glorious account of all the ways nature would have to turn on itself for Wonder’s love to end (“Until the day that eight times eight times eight is four”), Wonder adlibs, the purity of his voice finally matched by a purity of lyrics. Midway through the song, Stevie preaches a growly, rousing message, and from there the song grows wings and takes off, finding a space to land at weddings ever since. Much has been made about the object of Wonder’s adoration: Is it a woman? God? Or is Wonder acting as God talking to man? In his book on the album, Zeth Lundy said that by 1975 Wonder was giving serious thought to quitting music and moving to Ghana to work with handicapped children. Given where his head was, you could think of “As” as a kind of love letter to the world, Wonder’s spiritual impulses finding their ideal expression. –Rebecca Haithcoat
As they fought to stay relevant in a new decade, ’60s R&B groups updated their sounds in mostly predictable ways. They got a little funkier, cribbed moves from disco, dressed flashier, and crossed their fingers that nobody would notice their matching suits fitting tighter than they used to. The Isley Brothers, however, weren't content to merely keep with the times. Looking to pave their own path, the group underwent perhaps the most audacious reinvention of any of the major soul acts of their era. They retooled their lineup so they were no longer a vocal trio but rather a six-piece funk-rock band—hence the title of their 1973 album, 3 + 3 .
The new lineup never sounded more jolting than on lead single “That Lady.” It put the spotlight not on Ronald Isley’s velvety falsetto, but rather to freshman member Ernie Isley’s unbridled electric guitar. Fused with the track’s racing Latin rhythm, that frenzied guitar scurries from one warped, synthesized tone to the next; the effect plays like an eight-track tape that got tangled in the deck and lit on fire from all the friction. “That Lady” was a do-over for the Isleys, who'd first recorded an unassuming doo-wop version in 1964 (an eternity ago given the rate music was evolving). It’s poetic, then, that the Beastie Boys and later Kendrick Lamar both sampled the track—in a sense, it was already a remix of itself. And it’s easy to see what those younger artists heard in it. After all these decades, that guitar sounds as wild as ever. –Evan Rytlewski
The O’Jaysrecorded “For the Love of Money” in October of ’73. On top of witnessing the growing malaise in the country, the R&B and soul group from Ohio had been knocking around the music industry since forming in 1958, plenty long enough to see the ugly side of the business. Titling a song after a bible verse that begins, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” wasn’t just poetic, it captured the spirit of the moment.
Never has a song about physical, emotional, and moral ruin sounded so uplifting. Plucked out first with echo and then without, the opening bass riff is one of the most iconic in any decade. Clocking in at over seven minutes, the energy never flags, and the message never overstays its welcome. –Rebecca Haithcoat
Oh, the think pieces this song would launch if it came out in 2016. It’s a story built for hot takes: Boy meets girl, girl turns out to be boy, boy is cool with it, girl makes boy a man. Given that the song is nearly 50 years old, it’s astonishing how delicately this gender-fluid tale is told—Ray Davies largely complies with modern trans pronoun standards, and the central thesis of “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls/It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up world,” could pass as a seriously liberal declaration even today.
Gender politics aside, “Lola” is a marvel of musical storytelling, a novella collapsed into just about the catchiest four minutes possible. Minimal touches abound; there’s the use of repeated “Well, I’m not…” statements to characterize the bashful narrator, the pregnant imagery of champagne that tastes like Coca-Cola and “electric candlelight,” the subtlety of the main character’s reveal. “Lola” also condensed the growing melodic maturity of the Kinks’ previous three albums—which largely occurred out of eyesight of the U.S.—into a radio-ready package that finally hit on both sides of the Atlantic, rescuing the Kinks from eternal cult status stateside. While Davies and the Kinks would spend the rest of the decade exploring musical narratives in much less concise and successful fashion, “Lola” still stands as one of the finest rock showtunes in FM rotation. –Rob Mitchum
In December 1969, as the Beatles’ protracted Let It Be sessions drew to a close, George Harrison hopped on a few dates of the soul group Delaney & Bonnie and Friends’ European tour. The stint was a breath of fresh air for Harrison, who was able to experience band life beyond his famous group and become a more confident guitar player in his own right. While noodling around backstage at a press event, he began to pen a gospel song; the result was “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison’s his first solo single that served as both an announcement of autonomy and his humble submission to a higher power.
A hymnal disguised as a pop song, “My Sweet Lord” uses simple, repetitive lyrics and mantras (“Hallelujah,” “Hare Krishna”) to subtly indoctrinate its audience into a universal faith. Adding to the effect is the song’s signature use of slide guitar, taught to Harrison by Delaney Bramlett on the 1969 tour; its high pitch resembles the sitar sounds Harrison favored. The song was an immediate hit but also a quick controversy: In 1971, Harrison was accused of copying its melody from the Chiffons’ 1963 song “He’s So Fine.” Eventually, the United States district court ruled that Harrison was guilty of subconscious plagiarism, and Harrison developed an extreme paranoia about songwriting for many years. All ensuing problems aside, “My Sweet Lord” helped ensure the success of one of rock’s first triple albums, All Things Must Pass. –Quinn Moreland
Before R.E.M. first murmured or Pylon started gyrating, the B-52’s put Athens, Georgia, on the map–mainly by moving up to New York. When their shows at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB started attracting local press, the band scraped together enough cash to record a single: “Rock Lobster,” a deliriously infectious, kitsch-punk beach anthem. It’s their version of a Frankie & Annette movie, with the genders flipped (“Boys in bikinis! Girls in surfboards!”) and a school of fish almost as outlandish as the band members themselves, with their miniskirts and beehive hairdos.
It’s a crazy quilt concoction, a bracing mix of deep-in-the-pocket drumming, surf guitar licks, sci-fi organ chords, and wild vocal gesticulations from Fred Schneider (“There goes a narwhal!”), Cindy Wilson (“Ooowop! Ooowop!”), and Kate Pierson (“Eeeeeeee!”). Amazingly, the song reaches a type of punk intensity, and Schneider yelling “Let’s rock!” as the band clicks into a reckless frug-groove is one of the most thrilling moments of the ’70s. The B-52’s’ energy isn’t necessarily benign—there’s some danger in their absurdities—but it truly is inclusive. If New York’s punk scene was confrontational, “Rock Lobster” made sure everyone was invited to this bizarre party. –Stephen Deusner
Imagine, for a moment, that you were given the task of explaining pop music to someone who had never heard it. Not just the genre’s characteristics, but the feeling of pop music, the magic, the unifying power that one song can have over the entire globe. Pound for pound, it would make sense to begin with the work of ABBA, and subsequently, their undisputed, most famous song. By 1976, ABBA had already given Sweden its first Eurovision win, sold millions of records, and were well on their way to becoming the most popular group in the world, but even the most astute of fans wouldn’t have been able to predict the universal success of “Dancing Queen.”
A song so confident in its structure that it starts from the middle of its chorus, “Dancing Queen” bottles the out-of-body euphoria that accompanies dancing for dancing’s sake, with no agenda or motive other than pure joy. Their dynamic vocals layered to heaven, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog narrate a typical night out for the eponymous teenage heroine—teasing men, shaking tambourines, having a blast—and craft not only a pitch-perfect portrait of the hedonistic disco scene they were mimicking via their own, more down-to-Earth Europop, but a nostalgia of the innocence that scene ultimately destroyed. In the Dancing Queen’s club, there are no drugs, sex is playful, and the music never stops: not only is there no comedown, there’s nowhere to come down to. –Cameron Cook
There’s something particularly toxic about our air nowadays. Maybe it’s the actual pollutants, the burned fossil fuels and excesses of hairspray. Or maybe it’s the poisonous cloud of rhetoric that seeps from car radios and Facebook comments. It’s never been easier to imagine living in dystopia, and the media will tell you that we already are. Under these conditions, Talking Heads have never felt more prophetic. Their Fear of Music arrived at the very end of the ‘70s as the soundtrack for a world on the brink, in which David Byrne delivers his most potent character: the paranoid, disheveled wanderer surviving on nothing but peanut butter, “connected only to the imminent collapse.”
Byrne delivers the song as if transmitting from a supercomputer, his words swift and robotic; the humid 4/4 beat picks away at the listener with creepy yet funky insistence. Byrne wrote the song thinking about the failed revolutions of Baader-Meinhof, the drama of Patty Hearst, and the creative cesspool of Tompkins Square in New York. In that way, those creative origin points were very much of their time, but also part of culture's endless, lurid state of alarm. If there is a time and place for “Life During Wartime,” it is undeniably now. –Kevin Lozano
Pete Townshend planned to follow Tommy, the Who’s career-making 1969 rock opera, with Lifehouse, a sci-fi epic that nearly prophesied the internet but never coalesced into a coherent thought. Dream abandoned, the group scrambled to record Who’s Next, a record so brawny, it never indicated it was assembled from the remnants of a failed dream. However, the opener, “Baba O’Riley,” does bear traces of the discarded opera. It unfurls with the imposing majesty of a fanfare, plus the lyrics suggest a larger story: Why is Roger Daltrey singing about fighting for his meals, and who is Sally? Narrative doesn’t matter in “Baba O’Riley,” but words do: how the hints of pacifism are overshadowed by righteous conflict, how the exodus to the happy ones doesn’t seem as liberating as the teenage wasteland itself. Add it all up and “Baba O’Riley” feels like a celebration of freedom.
“Baba O’Riley” is tense in a way no other Who recording is, all due to Townshend’s infatuation with synthesizers. The instruments weren't exactly unknown in mainstream rock by 1971, but the insistent, sequenced loop that opens “Baba O’Riley” and underpins the entire recording was something new, and it transformed the Who, turning the mercurial quartet into a lethal weapon. Keith Moon, who lived by instinct onstage and off, had to play to its rhythm, so once he was anchored, the group’s power was concentrated; where it once threatened to burst, it now only gained force. Just as importantly, “Baba O’Riley” is one of the few Who songs where Townshend shares vocals with Daltrey. Usually, Daltrey functioned as Townshend’s mouthpiece, letting him unleash the braggadocio he never could express himself, but here Roger handles the boasts and Pete provides commentary on the chaos surrounding him. Add to it a coda so eccentric, it underscores the drive and curiosity that led Townshend to write “Baba O’Riley” in the first place. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The Velvet Underground’s first albums introduced all kinds of tragic characters who sought to numb their pain with hard drugs and rough sex. On “Rock & Roll,” Lou Reed prescribed something decidedly more wholesome: the radio. The most unabashedly feel-good song from Loaded, the Velvet Underground's most unabashedly feel-good album, it introduces Jenny, a young girl (and clear Reed surrogate) disillusioned by the world. Unlike so many of the band’s protagonists before her, though, Jenny gets a happy ending: She finds a reason to live in rock music and, as Reed puts it in his signature effusiveness, “it was all right.”
In almost any other context, “all right” is shorthand for “good enough” or “merely adequate”—but Reed’s repeated recitations of the word makes it sound like a zen state. All those “all rights” really rang out when Reed revisited “Rock & Roll” a few years later on his blustery live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, this time presenting the track as a glammed-out, 10-minute ripper. In case it wasn’t clear on the grounded original, the live version’s churchy organ accompaniment lays bare: Reed wasn’t just singing; he was testifying. –Evan Rytlewski
When Brian Eno put out Another Green World in 1975, he was moving away from the pop world. Though the album was significantly more instrumental than the two inspired art-rock records that preceded it, it contained exquisite moments—especially “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a song that seemed to set the stage for much of the dreamy electronica that would follow in the early ’80s and again in the early ‘00s.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” puts all of Eno’s musical acumen on display: his confident, honeyed baritone, paired with a sweet melody; a confluence of well-balanced instruments from strange sources that merge into a burbling wall of sound; a cooing polyphonic chorus. There’s also some otherworldly guitar from Robert Fripp, a perfect match of technical prowess and odd effects. Add the tinkly castanet percussion and the bouncy piano rhythm riff, and the result is an absolutely brilliant, weird track that feels like a pop song stolen from the next century. –Benjamin Scheim
The World War II-era German song “Lili Marlene” originated, a quarter-century before Lale Anderson first recorded it, as a poem by Hans Leip. Though it’s usually performed by a woman, the narrator is a soldier whose undying love for Lili Marlene sustains him through battle. All night, he waits for her under a streetlight. It doesn’t seem like she ever arrives.
Lili Marlene comes up at a key moment in Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a spare track from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate that combines those emotions beautifully. “The last time we saw you, you looked so much older/Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder,” Cohen recalls with a lolling incantation that isn’t quite singing, but justifies the guitar accompaniment. “You went to the station to meet every train/You came home without Lili Marlene.” But it’s not just the futile waiting and the poetry that connect the songs; both blur the boundary between narrator and subject.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” is a letter without a salutation, which only registers as strange because it ends with an indelible signature: “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” There are clues, though, that what sounds like an olive branch extended to the renegade member of a love triangle is really a conversation between the rational Cohen, in New York, and his romantic alter ego, “one more thin gypsy thief” wandering the desert. The historical blue raincoat, for example, belonged to Cohen. From Love and Hate’s “Last Year’s Man” to 1977’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” so many of his best songs radiate ambivalence about his rakish persona. And then there’s that devastating opening couplet: “It’s four in the morning, the end of December/I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.” Hours before sunrise, days before the end of the year, could Cohen be talking to anyone except himself? –Judy Berman
Jimmy Cliff’s pure tenor vocals landed him the lead role in the most famous Jamaican film ever made, Perry Henzell’s 1972 crime drama The Harder They Come. Cliff’s title cut for the soundtrack is a star turn in itself, an anthem for striving against the odds that bounces with touches of ’60s ska, roots reggae, and a singalong chorus.
Both Cliff’s music and Henzell’s film presented Jamaica more widely than international audiences had ever seen the country before. One scene in particular, Cliff’s character Ivanhoe Martin recording in studio—apparently atrue-to-life scene—provided rare insight into the production and instrumentation of reggae just before it became a global phenomenon. The Harder They Come was an excellent primer for Jamaica in the 1970s, and Cliff’s tune continues to inspire; Cher, Joe Jackson, Jerry Garcia and more artists have covered it. –Erin Macleod
On December 13, 1968, Artur da Costa e Silva, the president of Brazil’s military regime, signed the Ato Institucional Número Cinco, an executive order which gave him the dictatorial powers to disempower the national Congress, suspend the country's constitution, and begin an aggressive campaign of censorship. One of the regime’s targets were the dissident youth involved in Brazil’s tropicalia music scene. Not long after the signing of the order, they arrested two of the genre’s biggest stars: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The government allowed them to play one last concert to raise money for their plane tickets. In the summer of 1969, Veloso and Gil landed in London, where they remain in exile for three years.
They both moved, almost invisibly at times, in rarefied circles, absorbing the wide-ranging influence of London at the turn of the decade. Transa was Veloso’s second album from this period of exile, and it was breakthrough in his ability to convey the alienation he felt in London. Sonically, the album orbits around what he called the “frailties” of his imperfect guitar style, making the album’s scale seem almost private. In the opening song of the album, “You Don’t Know Me,” he writes what is probably his purest and most unvarnished expression of the loss he experienced during those years, “Feel so lonely/The world is spinning around slowly,” he sings. The song floats between Portuguese and English seamlessly, highlighting the essential emotion irrevocably lost in translation. It’s a masterpiece of a song that could only be written from the point of a view of an exile. –Kevin Lozano
Just look at the cover of this album: Roy Ayers beaming sassily, hand on his hip, wearing an impossibly yellow t-shirt, standing fairly conspicuously against a backdrop of the same color. This was not a song that was trying to hide, though it’s nimble enough that it could.
Vibraphonist Ayers got funky in the ’70s. While his jazz never was without swing, his turn towards the groove is particularly pronounced in this era. But “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is a subtle, beautiful song, not an exuberant one. “My life, my life, my life, my life/In the sunshine/Everybody loves the sunshine,” go the bulk of the lyrics (also, excellently, “Just bees and things and flowers”). Everyone is feeling the heat, moving slow to the low rhythm of the congas on a song that perfects the art of loping. –Matthew Schnipper
Though it might not be true that they coined their name from an above-average amount of ejaculate, as rumored, British art-rock band 10cc had a peculiar sense of humor, doing pasty white reggae as well as a song proudly brandishing the title of “The Worst Band in the World.” But the nougat-y nirvana of “I’m Not in Love” finds the band at their sweetest and most sincere. Or were they? Originally conceived as a bossa nova, the band decided to record a version where their harmonized voices comprised the entirety of the song, multi-tracking until they were a 256-voice choir, making for a luminous cloud of sound that still sounds like nothing in pop music. Amid that heavenly choir though, it’s not the sensitive dudes gently insinuating “let’s break up” that give the song its knife twist, but rather the lone woman to be heard, assuaging: “Big boys don’t cry.” “I’m Not in Love” is one of the sentiments rarely voiced in pop: that of the dude who thinks he’s strong, yet can’t move on. –Andy Beta
The Slits never soft-soaped their righteousness, not even for other women. On a TV show in Holland, the rag-tag Londoners told Mike Oldfield’s songbird sister that “she was shit, that she was compounding stereotypes and doing a disservice to girls, that she should take a good look at what she was doing and how she was projecting herself and be honest about who she was,” as Viv Albertine wrote in her autobiography. They were mean, sure, but given that the Slits were willing to put up with being spat on and stabbed in the streets for their honest expression—Ari Up’s knickers outside her trousers, Palmolive’s hairy armpits, Albertine’s tampon earring—of course this simpering mopsy got short shrift. Anyone unwilling to join the fight was automatically complicit.
Vicious and didactic as they could be, on the generous “Typical Girls,” the Slits attack the system that created these standards of acceptable girlhood, rather than its victims. Typical girls internalize the idea that they’re erratic, ugly, virgins or whores who hate each other on sight—no wonder they’re confused. The band’s antic dub energy never stops bouncing, matching women’s tireless race to keep up with the moving goalposts—“the new, improved model.” But never mind the marketing men; a new, improved model is exactly what the Slits propose with Ari’s gleefully anti-conformist sneer and mocking vaudeville piano. It’s hard to overstate the impact of hearing “Typical Girls” as a teenage girl—it’s exactly like the adrenaline rush that comes from first violating the codes of femininity and realizing how free you feel. Elastic perishes with time, but almost 40 years on, the vigorous spring of “Typical Girls” has never stopped snapping back. –Laura Snapes
It must have been bittersweet sharing a label with Al Green in his prime. While Green’s enormous success certainly created a halo effect for Hi Records’ other soul acts, he also overshadowed his labelmates so thoroughly that none had a chance of truly breaking out. No artist got the shorter end of the stick than Ann Peebles, a sensational talent on par with Green who almost certainly would have been the label’s flagship star if he hadn’t already claimed that mantle. That Peebles was on the label before Green must have made the injustice sting that much harder.
Since Green and Peebles recorded with the same house musicians and producer, their records sound remarkably similar, right down those unmistakable organ swoops and the perfectly timed horn punches. But their songwriting approaches set them apart. Where Green’s records exist in a fantasy world where love was the only concern, Peebles introduces a more fully-rounded character, one who had other shit to worry about beyond matters of the heart. She wrote not just about the ways love made her feel, but also the ways it either enriched or upended her life, and no song better captured the latter than her signature hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Accompanied by a chilling timbale riff that mimicked the very raindrops that tormented her (a more daring arrangement than anything on any of Green’s records), Peebles curses unwelcome memories of lost love in her signature sweet but no-nonsense voice. Reminders of heartbreak are always painful and cruel, yes, but when you’re trying to move on, they’re also just a plain nuisance. –Evan Rytlewski
The best moments in the fruitful relationship between blaxploitation movies and soul music came when the auteurs making the scores were inspired to be more sweepingly cinematic than usual. Before he wrote and recorded the soundtrack to the underrated street drama Across 110th Street, Bobby Womack wrote intimate, personal songs designed for nightclub stages and bedrooms—sites of close-range communication. However, on this theme song, he delivers an acrobatic vocal performance from a God’s-eye perspective.
With his head in a cloud of glistening orchestral strings and his feet planted firmly in greasy funk, Womack can see all of Harlem, and he cries out at the trouble being sown there by pushers and pimps. “Hey brother, there’s a better way out/Snorting that coke, shooting that dope man you’re copping out,” he sings. “Take my advice, it’s either live or die/You’ve got to be strong, if you want to survive.” The proto-rap talk-singing of his verses would eventually become an influence on hip-hop, and “Across 110th Street” would go on to be his most sampled song, infusing dozens of later works with a taste of its soaring, soulful drama. –Miles Raymer
September is when seasonal passions cool to autumnal realities, when the winter looms as the marker of another year gone by. “September Gurls” was the sound of this bittersweet feeling, a power-pop gem not even three minutes long that stands as the best rock song Big Star ever wrote. When they did, frontman Alex Chilton was a former teen star looking for another hit, whose expectations of repeat stardom were quickly curdling due to the vagaries of the music industry. He wrapped his earnestly melancholy sentiments in happy harmonies, as though his heart was expanding at the same time it was being scraped hollow. To hear him sigh over a line like “I loved you, well, never mind” over a backdrop of jingle-jangle guitars during this boy-loses-girl story was to understand why people lie in bed, staring at the wall.
“Love is a myth,” John Crowley wrote in the fantasy novel Little, Big. “So is summer.” If, as Paul Westerberg once imagined, children by the millions sang for Alex Chilton, “September Gurls” would’ve burned its way up the charts and made Big Star as big as the Beatles. Alas, it didn’t happen—Big Star became one of those cult bands favored by record heads who valorize obscurity and champion artistic challenge. But they were different; they should have been pop stars. The failure of Big Star to impact the U.S. radio serves as a beguiling reminder that you can have the brightest, best shit in the world, and for a variety of reasons—lack of label support, cultural milieu, band infighting—it might die immediately on the shelf. You might have love and it might not matter, making you a December boy left to feel all types of ways. –Jeremy Gordon
Sangria in the park, the movies, cute little zoo animals—this is the tenderest Lou Reed’s metal heart ever got. If utopia can exist within a pop song, this Bowie-produced Transformer tune is explicitly it. Reed wanders Central Park and goesfull O’Hara. And yet Lou Reed has got to be the least carefree rock star of all time: the O.G. aesthete-punk made his name on being Uptight, not carefree. He made aggressive imperfection look cool.
As its strings simmer behind minor key piano lines, it is the total conviction of “Perfect Day”—its chest-clutching sincerity—that makes this sick cabaret song so funny, so endearing, and so surreal. It is a fantastic joke to imagine ’60s Reed unironically singing, “Oh it’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you,” until you remember the likelihood of it being an ode to drugs. –Jenn Pelly
In his autobiography, Life,Keith Richards pauses from slagging off Mick Jagger to praise their songwriting synchronicity, particularly one song: “Wild Horses.” “It was one of those magical moments when things come together….You just dream it, and suddenly it’s all in your hands,” Richards says of the track, written in 1969 but not released for two years. “Once you’ve got the vision in your mind of wild horses, I mean, what’s the next phrase you're going to use? It’s got to be ‘couldn’t drag me away.’”
Richards sketched out the plaintive melody and Jagger poured in the lyrics—which explains how the song began as Richards’ ode to his newborn son, and ended as Jagger’s wistful farewell to Marianne Faithfull. (She reportedly gave him the hook, uttering it after waking from a near-fatal drug overdose.) Recorded during the Stones’ much-vaunted sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, the period that would be captured in their documentary Gimme Shelter, “Wild Horses” was a poignant moment of repose for the Stones, palpable in its uncertainty; the group had survived the ’60s and were encroaching on adulthood, restless as they reached for the sounds to carry them into the next decade. That’s a Nashville-strung guitar Mick Taylor’s strumming with minimalist grace; its seeping melancholy is almost overwhelming when paired with Jagger’s not-so-subtle elegy to Faithfull: “I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie/I have my freedom but I don’t have much time/Faith has been broken, tears must be cried/Let’s do some living after we die.” It’s a farewell to so much, and an invitation to even more. –Stacey Anderson
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” will forever carry the load of its prominent mention in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, cementing “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” as one of the heaviest phrases in rock history. But even before that, the song was a brutally honest, self-inclusive eulogy, aimed at an entire genre. Released mere months before the ’70s ended, it was the thematic centerpiece of Neil Young’s funeral for the Woodstock generation: a high-concept tour that interweaved actual stage announcements from the festival with sadness and sarcasm. “Hey Hey, My My,” along with its acoustic twin, “My My, Hey Hey,” loosely bookended the show and set the angry tone, with Young’s most savage guitar part yet slicing through Crazy Horse’s distinctive thud. It’s still hard to read just how tongue-in-cheek that bitterly snarled “rock'n'roll will never die,” line is meant to be, but either way, Young realizes it’s not his story anymore—it’s Johnny Rotten’s, whose own implosion at Winterland came just months before this song was recorded. Almost 40 years later, rock’s decay may still be in progress, but Young’s harsh critique of the genre—that its time as the primary music of youthful revolution ended with the ’70s—proved correct. –Rob Mitchum
Many reissues of Funkadelic’s third album, Maggot Brain, come with an alternate full-band mix of the title track, and it’s a decent enough cut—an acid-drenched, jazz-blues instrumental that’s as self-indulgent and self-consciously trippy as other rock efforts of the era. But on the original version, George Clinton pulled down the faders in a fit of lysergically-induced studio brilliance, leaving Eddie Hazel’s guitar solo to make its nearly 10-minute cosmic voyage almost entirely alone.
Stripped of all the superfluous instrumentation surrounding it, Hazel’s virtuosity shines through, unobstructed in his fit of furious improvisation that wannabe shredders have since studied with Talmudic intensity. So does the intense anguish that he poured into every string-bending, wah-wahed lick, which makes the song the perfect elegy for the utopian psychedelic revolution of the ’60s that was currently crumbling to pieces around him. Clinton allegedly instructed Hazel to play like his mother had just died, but the lonely heartbreak that drives “Maggot Brain” feels much more vast than that, like the last transmission from a man drifting through space, mourning the fucked-up world he left behind. –Miles Raymer
Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers were one of rock’s great coulda-been stories, breaking up before almost anyone had heard of them. In the early 1970s, they recorded demos on both coasts, trying to score a deal with a major label, including the John Cale-produced sessions that were collection on their eponymous 1976 debut, and they recorded at least four studio versions of “Roadrunner” during this stretch. The original incarnation of the band never took off, but “Roadrunner” became a garage-rock standard.
In terms of its chords and structure, “Roadrunner,” was a straight rip of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” borrowing Lou Reed’s two-chord riff with its sung/spoken verses that could easily be improvised in concert. But Richman, an intensely committed VU fan as a teenager living in Boston, turned the song inside-out. Where “Sister Ray” is a scuzzy celebration of the seedy underbelly of American life, “Roadrunner,” a snapshot of a kid driving Massachusetts Route 128 late at night, sees beauty around every corner, and music tints everything coming through the windshield. This kid is in love with the modern world, modern girls, and modern rock‘n’roll, but he's all alone—he doesn’t feel alone, though, because he’s got the radio on. “Roadrunner” is among the best songs ever written about music’s companionship, how the right song at the right moment can connect you to an imagined community even when you feel like you're the only person in the world. –Mark Richardson
There are more versions of “Let It Be” circulating than practically any other Beatles song, and not just because it’s one of their most-covered hits. Joe Cocker performed the song in November 1969, followed by Aretha Franklin in January 1970, then finally the Beatles released their version in March 1970, one month before their public dissolution. With its background harmonizing, the single version feels the most Beatle-y, particularly in comparison to Phil Spector’s orchestra-heavy remix for Let It Be. But as much as some in the band hated what Spector did with the album, his version of the title track makes room for an indelible George Harrison counterpoint—that raw riff, run through a Leslie organ speaker—in the context of a piano ballad emblematic of the sincerity for which Paul McCartney is both adored and dismissed.
This is the exact quality that John Lennon poked fun at inearly sessions for “Let It Be”—he was not present in final album meetings, having secretly left the Beatles in September 1969—but by the end of the take, even Lennon couldn’t resist his estranged songwriter partner’s gifts. The Beatles wrote an absurd amount of anthems, but none were as meta as “Let It Be.” It was the last single released before McCartney admitted that the breakup rumors were true, and it shared a title with the documentary that explained why. With this No. 1 still heavy in the air by the film and album’s release in May 1970, McCartney seemed to be comforting Beatles fans with his assertion that everything would be OK, as well as his invocation of the mother Mary (on the band’s most gospel-influenced song, no less). Macca was referring specifically to his own mom, who died of cancer when he was a teenager, though he’s insisted that listeners can use the song however they need. The result is a piece of music that can seem trite in some settings, having been used to uplift atcharity event aftercharity event, but the beauty of “Let It Be” is that it's a mantra that scales remarkably well. It is pop’s OG “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which is only fitting given that it soundtracked the end of pop’s OG innovators. –Jillian Mapes
Alice Coltrane was on the bandstand accompanying her husband John Coltrane on piano over the last year and a half of his life, and she carried on his spiritual quest for a universal sound after his passing. While her early efforts were contemplative, modal and blues-indebted jazz albums, it was on the eve of her first trip to India that she recorded an album that synthesized her sound into something no longer beholden to her husband’s legacy or to jazz history, instead attaining something transcendental and wholly her own.
“Journey in Satchidananda”—despite its title—denotes not an external destination, but rather the discovery and iteration of an internal realm. Named for her guru, Swami Satchidananda, the word also means knowledge, existence, and bliss—three characteristics that course through these six-and-a-half sublime minutes. Augmented by all manner of bells and rattles and tamboura, the bowed bass of Cecil McBee and the serpentine soprano sax of Pharoah Sanders, Alice’s harp merges the timbres of East and West. Envisioning a kind of world music that elevates above all notions of genre, race, and region, she transports listeners to a rarefied space so that all might benefit from this divine sound. –Andy Beta
Stevie Wonder released more than a dozen albums and 10 Top 10 singles. Then he turned 21. Having signed to Motown as a pre-teen, Wonder negotiated a new contract as an adult that lent him remarkable autonomy. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On,Curtis Mayfield’s political funk, and Sly & the Family Stone’s darkly psychedelic There’s A Riot Goin’ On set the stage for Wonder to shape the music of his mind into something transcendent and socially conscious. This desire blossomed on 1972’s Talking Book, and especially its first single, the No. 1 hit “Superstition,” a future-funk opus that has the rare designation of establishing its own category of music—just try to name something before or since that sounds anything like it.
As much gearhead as genius, Wonder created “Superstition” in Electric Lady Studios with engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, who arranged drums, clavinets, keyboards, and electronics in a huge circle around him in the studio, running most things through a series of pedals and phasers. The drums came first: one of pop’s most instantly recognizable intros tapped out on one of the tightest-ever snares leading into an indelible funk groove of swung 16th notes. It sounds easy until you try to play it, and then you realize that Eric Clapton was onto something when he claimed Wonder was “the greatest drummer of our time” in 1974. Then comes the central hook courtesy of a Hohner Clavinet D6, the odd little five-octave electronic keyboard that became his signature sound: a squawking, strutting welterweight bobbing and weaving around the rhythm. Combined with a Moog bassline and a blaring horn chart—all Wonder's creations—“Superstition” invented a new vernacular for pop music, but one that only Stevie could speak.
Speaking of vernaculars: The lyrics for “Superstition” came to Wonder while he was on tour with the Rolling Stones in the summer of 1972. While tapping around backstage one afternoon, he riffed on the line “wash your face and hands” (an earworm he remembered from hearing “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as a child), which he built into a universal doctrine about ritual and belief. The song kicked off an astonishing run of creativity and acclaim, and its hook can also be reshaped into a manifesto for listening to Wonder during this period: believing deeply in something magnificent that you can’t hope to understand. –Eric Harvey
Just a few years before Star Wars introduced the Force into popular culture, George Clinton’s Starchild character came to Earth to spread the Funk. After Clinton’s Mothership landed, Starchild’s unfunky nemesis emerged in the form of Sir Nose. On 1977’s Funkentelechy and the Placebo Syndrome, Starchild, already strapped with the Bop Gun, pulls an indefensible weapon from his arsenal: the Flash Light. The ritualistic chant echoes like a funky intervention: “Most of all he need the funk/Help him find the funk.” Sir Nose is transformed, finding the spirit of Funkentelechy, and everyone dances into the night, to a wordless celebratory chant that Clinton remembered from a Bar Mitzvah he attended as a teenager: “Ha da da dee da hada hada da da.”
The band’s first R&B #1 is where Parliament period, peaks, both mythologically and musically. Written by bassist Bootsy Collins and sung by Clinton, the song’s musical core belongs to the band’s keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell, who played every note on the song save guitar and drums. About those notes: Worrell played the bassline on the song through three interconnected mini-Moogs, and those extra-terrestrial note bends, the rising and dropping chromatic lines and that warmly electronic timbre is one of a handful of musical elements in pop history that created a distinct “before” and “after.” Without that bassline, the next 20 years of club music, synth-pop, and gangsta rap would sound incredibly different. It’s quite the equation: the narrative peak of the decade’s pre-eminent black comic series and Worrell’s E=mc2 of electro-funk add up to one of the 1970s’ most joyous devotional to rhythm and dance. –Eric Harvey
For all the talk about how the psychedelic idealism of the ’60s eventually curdled into the cynical ’70s, certain shifts in pop music were more like a thin veneer getting scrubbed off to reveal a harder, more truthful core. Just look at where the Temptations went from the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong-penned “Psychedelic Shack” (released literally days before the 1960s ended) to the similarly psychedelic-soul-indebted “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” penned and produced by the same braintrust for a version of the band that had since lost core “classic five” members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Both songs moved from classic Motown sound to the heavier, fuzzed-out opulent wildness of funk that would soon permeate R&B, and the focal point had shifted from let-your-hair-down celebration of being what you want to be for a jaw-clenching admission of shame over the one man who could’ve made you who you are.
The song’s lyrics are legendarily contentious—a bad-man story that reached back past the old Motown “charm school” facade to paint a bleak but resonant portrait of a broken home—but the music turned out to be even more so. Even before Dennis Edwards’ opening line (“It was the third of September/That day I’ll always remember/’Cause that was the day that my daddy died…”), the nearly four-minute instrumental opening was nearly as long as “Psychedelic Shack” and other recent Temptations single. And producer Whitfield made Edwards do a huge number of takes just to get his voice bitter and riled enough to really sell it. From there on out, it’s the last great tour de force from Motown's old guard, a relentlessly tense crescendo to an unfulfilled promise and the fastest, most unrelenting seven minutes to hit the top of the pop charts that year. –Nate Patrin
We fall because it feels good. “Waiting in Vain” is sad, though—an unrequited love song about the pain of waiting in limbo. “It’s been three years since...” and still, our narrator plans to wait just a little longer, while the tears in his eyes burn. And yet, in its subtle and understated elegance, “Waiting in Vain” is a song that savors even this anguish.
Few songs in Bob Marley’s catalog are so endlessly replayable: a simple melody, a groove impossible to wear out. It is at once dark and optimistic. “I don’t want to wait in vain for your love,” goes the chorus, though an unspoken conclusion of “but I will" is the song’s heart. Marley demands dignity, insisting, “Don’t talk to me as if you think I’m dumb,” and yet still he stays, comfortable in his longing, tapped into the slow, poisonous drip of hope. At the song’s bridge, the music shifts briefly, suddenly, like a flash of possibility: summer is here, then winter, and he’s still waiting. Then the song returns to its temporal stasis, as we push back to that familiar feeling. –David Drake
A mother and her two grown children—one is highly favored; the other, not so much. A newlywed with a wandering eye, willing to risk a marriage for a fling. So much happens on the three-minute “Family Affair,” the lead single from Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and it’s a miracle the song came out at all. The band’s previous work was decidedly upbeat, rooted in bright funk and rock-infused soul. Yet by the early 1970s, the group was in turmoil: longtime members had left, and Sly had isolated himself from bandmates.
So Sly composed most of Riot on his own, including “Family Affair,” a stripped-down track with a drum machine and light electric keys. Vocally, Sly opts for a grumbling, conversational cadence that adds a certain intimacy. The result is a song that feels like a personal conversation about life’s ups and downs. “Family Affair” turned out to be Sly’s last No. 1. pop single; he’d release other great songs, but never again would he sound so direct, so strained. –Marcus J. Moore
If there is some beautifully dirty cheat code to avant-garde art in the 20th century, it’s repetition. From Duchamp to Warhol to Terry Riley, the brute force of repeating and reproducing an action, a gesture, an image, or a sound eventually revealed something hidden in the concept itself. Can weaponized repetition more successfully than any other rock band. For them, music was never a vehicle for narrative; it’s a device to play with human sensation.
“Vitamin C” is Can’s most succinct, straightforward, and successful practice of repetition. The song is a krautrock approximation of plasticine funk, and their maniacal verve in “Vitamin C”’s claustrophobic three minutes is deranged, almost nihilistic. Jaki Liebezeit’s drum line is acrobatic, but so taut that it’s always on the verge of tearing apart. Damo Suzuki’s psycho-babble and Holger Czukay's cyclical bass riff might as well be a psychoanalyst’s pocket watch swinging back in forth, telling you to dance or lose it. –Kevin Lozano
On “Zombie,” Fela Kuti leads the undead in an extremely militant game of follow-the-leader. “Quick march! Slow march! Left turn! Right turn!” he barks. It’s a mockery of soldiers who mindlessly obey the orders of their equally mindless higher-ups. It’s Fela and Afrika 70 at the height of their musical powers.
By 1976, when Kuti dropped “Zombie,” he'd already figured out how he wanted Afrobeat to sound, and he was using it to throw increasingly direct barbs at the authorities. His name too became a political statement, as he replaced the English “Ransome” in “Ransome-Kuti” with the Yoruba “Anikulapo,” meaning “he who carries death in his pouch.” “Zombie” reflects all of those changes, and with its catchy horn riffs and humorous lyrics, it became Fela’s best-selling record to date. Not coincidentally, it was also the one that got him into the most trouble, especially as “Zombie” blew up not long before Nigeria hosted the high-profile Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. With students in the streets taunting soldiers with the song, the Nigerian government launched a thousand-soldier assault on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic. It brutalized dozens, killed his mother, and nearly killed the Chief Priest himself.
Towards the end of “Zombie,” Fela enters with a nimble sax solo, which morphs into a mocking military bugle call that warps into a squelching brass pile-up, which he swiftly extinguishes. It’s as if to warn that any attempts to silence him will not work. –Minna Zhou
A song about a strained relationship on the verge of snapping, assembled from pieces of all five band members’ compositions that had to be spliced together: “The Chain” is nothing if not brutally literal. Famously, the sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours were fractured by all five members’ breakups—including those of couples Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks and John/Christine McVie—and “The Chain” is where they were the most bare-nerved, with Buckingham and Nicks’ voices sparring as much as harmonizing and the guitars and kickdrums throbbing like a stress headache. It rides the fine line between desperate reconciliation (“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again”) and seething catharsis (“Damn your love/Damn your lies”), the heart pumping acid at the center of a sunshine blockbuster of an LP. –Nate Patrin
Black Sabbath have a longstanding rep as Satan’s band, but at the dawn of the ’70s, they were thinking like hippies, terrified of the world looming over the horizon. “War Pigs” was the Vietnam protest song too dark to be sung en masse at Woodstock, a vision of men as abject creatures crawling through mud: “Now in darkness, world stops turning/Ashes where the bodies burning.” Although the song climaxed with the unforgettable image of “Satan laughing spreads his wings,” anyone paying attention to the horror in Ozzy Osbourne’s voice probably understood: This wasn’t a victory song, it was an end times sermon.
The enduring confusion, though, might have something to do with their sound. Their slow, groaning riffs rang so vividly in the ears of so many millions, prompting so many elaborations, that you almost have to adjust to the starkness now; is that really all Tony Iommi played, and how does it work so goddamn well? Iommi’s touch with power chords, and the gooey feel of his distortion when blasted through stereo systems, ensured that Sabbath songs would remain as indelible and perfect as a handprint in concrete, now and forever. For all the bludgeoning volume, Iommi delivered melodies—the coda of “War Pigs”’ is so soaring and orchestral, you can sing it. His contributions were as catchy as Osbourne’s, and the overtones generated by the two diverging and fusing are the reason your arm hairs stand up when “War Pigs” comes on. –Jayson Greene
For every minute of this quarter-hour song, there is some footnote that, depending on who you ask, must be addressed. These footnotes are about authorship, about mafia-muscle controlling distribution, about rap crew rivalries. They are about a touring group of Sugarhill Gang imposters, plagiarism, nepotism, publishing rights, alleged arson, money, money, and more money. So mired in controversy is “Rapper’s Delight”—undoubtedly the first rap song anyone outside of New York and New Jersey ever heard—that, of course, there’s a movie in production about the song’s steward, Sugar Hill Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson.
The complete story of “Rapper’s Delight” is as long as it is dramatic, but the short tale is that Mrs. Robinson and her son Joey Jr. auditioned Master Gee, Wonder Mike, and Big Bank Hank on a curb outside a pizza joint in Englewood, N.J. Within days, they were the first guys to ever lay down bars in a studio. The three MCs took turns over a live vamp of Chic’s “Good Times” recorded by the studio’s house band (Robinson played keys on the track). Soon enough, this little independent label in Jersey had moved over 10 million records, and “Rapper’s Delight” was a national sensation (or a fad, if you were so inclined). Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Cowboy Keith—they were the pioneers of rap in the Bronx, some would say doing it first and better. But across the Hudson, the Sugarhill Gang put hip-hop on the charts and on the radio, broke down doors for everyone behind them, and reclaimed the power of the black voice. –Jeremy Larson
Arthur Russell was not much of a purist. Others did disco with more sheen, rock with more flair. His songs’ key selling point was in their wild enthusiasm, whatever the genre. In the late ’70s, that often took the form of wonky dancefloor burners, of which Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again” is the best. Written by Russell and produced by him and his Dinosaur partner, Nicky Siano, it’s an unconventional foil for Donna Summer and the like, featuring Russell’s signature cello and the trombone of his collaborator in classical-leaning projects, Peter Zummo. Oh yeah, and a seriously shredding guitar solo from David Byrne. Halfway through, the song drops out to just a backbeat, and singer Myriam Valle whispers, “One kiss is all it takes.” This is the kind of music made by someone who heard disco once and had to recreate it from memory. It’s not a rejection of the genre’s borders, it’s more a lack of interest in learning that they exist in the first place. –Matthew Schnipper
The apocalypse was very much in vogue in ’70s music. From Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon” to David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” to Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash,” humanity’s unease with the geopolitical climate manifested in nightmare scenarios for the world. The Clash gathered up all that fretful energy for one final burst of the decade’s eschatological panic, “London Calling.” Drawing from the clipped rhythms and rubbery undercurrents of reggae and post-punk, the song imagines an England inundated by brutality, technology, and nature itself.
“London Calling” was released in December 1979, just as the oncoming ’80s signaled new threats, darker days, and the bona fide end of the century. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected Prime Minister, and the liberating thrill of punk had begun to cool and collapse. Clarion and cataclysmic, the song trapped chaos in a bottle; two years earlier, the Sex Pistols had chanted “No future” in “God Save the Queen,” and the Clash answered them with a fiery last gasp of the present. Even the demise of pop itself—“Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” Joe Strummer spits—is feverishly foretold. Ironically, “London Calling” helped transform the Clash from one of the punk scene’s many casualties into a worthy heir of the Beatles themselves: a band that could routinely emblemize an era in the span of three-and-a-half searing minutes. –Jason Heller
The Cure made countless songs about doomed romance, and “Boys Don’t Cry” is the only one that appears rooted in reality: Boy meets girl, boy treats her like crap, boy loses girl and has no one to blame but himself, boy ends up blaming everyone else, anyway. “Boys Don’t Cry” comes from a time when the Cure were pithy, punchy, and pouty. Its title was also co-opted by pop culture phenomena with far more complex takes on identity and sexuality than its inspiration. These two legacies aren’t in opposition, they’re part of a continuum established on “Boys Don’t Cry” that paralleled the Cure themselves: evolving from angry young men to overseers of an all-inclusive utopia where anyone can cry to their heart’s content. –Ian Cohen
By the autumn of 1971, Nick Drake was in a dark mental place, an existence more melancholy than usual. The British musician was living with his parents, paralyzed by depression, and unable to complete the promotional duties of someone with two records out on a major label. By 1972, he was barely speaking. But it was during this period, two years before his fatal overdose on antidepressants, that he recorded his final album and opus, Pink Moon.
Since its release, the album’s title track has prompted many interpretations; in nature, a pink moon is the smallest of full moons, occurring each April and signifying the start of spring, new beginnings, and refreshed energy. But rebirth inherently represents death, too, making Drake’s prediction that a “pink moon gonna get ye all” feel both promising and unnerving. That’s the crux of the song—a change is on its way and its power is beyond control. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Drake delivers “Pink Moon”’s message in a straightforward tone—not blunt, just knowing, though he mumbles as if the words are tough but necessary to communicate. In the middle of the song there is a brief, twinkly piano overdub that adds a touch of optimism. This additional instrument gives “Pink Moon” its resonance: for a moment, the mysterious and moody Nick Drake seems content. –Quinn Moreland
By the ’70s, the majority of James Brown’s sharply honed band called it quits. But being the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Brown was always two steps ahead. He already had his eye on the young Cincinnati brothers Bootsy and Catfish Collins, along with their band the Pacesetters. Together with a few of Brown's older cronies, they became the J.B.’s. In the short year that they were together, they pushed each other in newfound directions and produced a string of smash hits: “Super Bad,” “Soul Power,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” and, most famously, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”
“Sex Machine” was the first record James Brown ever cut with the original J.B.’s, a month or so after he’d flown them in to back him, completely unrehearsed, while the James Brown Orchestra watched from the sidelines. The song itself was essentially a remake of the King's 1968 hit “Give It Up Or Turn It a Loose,” but the changes they made were ones that would come to define funk for the next decade and beyond: Though funk had lived in the drums before, it now moved to the bass. Whereas the Godfather of Soul had a veritable orchestra at his call before, the new crew were more sparse (if only in numbers). Polyrhythmic interplay came to the fore, with the help of the Collins brothers and the original Funky Drummers Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks. Brown’s longtime right-hand man, Bobby Byrd, also got a little more shine on supporting vocals. Sure, many of the original J.B.’s would soon quit to join George Clinton’s ParliamentFunkadelic conglomerate. And sure, disco was in the offing. But “Sex Machine” still stands as the first official declaration of a new era in funk. –Minna Zhou
From the drum-roll opening, to David Sanborn’s bleating sax lines, to David Bowie’s assured vocal delivery, “Young Americans” saunters with a swaggering confidence all too fitting of its creator, a man who just recently had been a glam-rock alien. Underneath the hood of nearly every great Bowie song is a musician he found and loaned the keys to the car, from Mick Ronson to Brian Eno to Nile Rodgers; it’s part of how Bowie was able to cover so much musical ground. On “Young Americans,” the layers of collaborators run deep: In addition to Sanborn, longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar—then new to his band—brought in future R&B superstar and then-back-up singer Luther Vandross for vocal accompaniment and arrangement. At the time, neither Vandross nor Sanborn were well known, but Bowie welcomed them and insisted they to do as they wish. What they wished, it turns out, ended up being the touches it took to elevate “Young Americans” from just another great Bowie tune to ’70s canon.
What’s so remarkable about “Young Americans” is how calculatingly sensible it was as the cut to help Bowie finally break into an American mainstream that had mostly ignored his glammy, sexualized personas. With its nods to Philly soul, AM pop, Springsteen, and even the Beatles, “Young Americans” was the kind of song that could appeal to just about anyone in 1975. –Benjamin Scheim
Before he grew into a dignified, grey-haired elder statesmen, Talking Heads’ David Byrne was a wiry know-it-all leading a nerdy band. Over giddy, offbeat keyboards, he sang about highways and buildings in a voice like a pubescent teen. There was something cartoonish about the whole package, maybe even more so than the band intended.
In order to be taken seriously, they needed an edge, and 1977’s “Psycho Killer” provided one. The single invited listeners into the mind of a madman and asked them to sympathize with his thoughts. After an impulsive bridge delivered in French brings some sing-along levity, things quickly turn dark again, as Byrne begins shouting like a disturbed man. For the finale, the song erupts into a frantic one-chord frenzy. “Psycho Killer” fundamentally shaped the perception of the band, and the specter of its creepiness loomed over every Talking Heads song that followed. Even on their chipper, seemingly innocuous songs about free spirits and how good it feels to be loved, you had to wonder: Were these secretly the thoughts of a deranged person? –Evan Rytlewski
While artists can now get instantaneous responses and clapbacks to their songs in the form of tweets and Instagram posts, back in the day, you had to go into the studio to cut an “answer record.” When DJ Trinity toasted about his diamond socks and stylish self at the expense of his “big fat thing” on his 1975 hit “Three Piece Suit,” two Jamaican teenagers hopped on the same Alton Ellis riddim and sassed him right back. Only for Althea & Donna, it was just an ad-libbed joke that was accidentally aired by John Peel on BBC Radio. Mortified as they might have been, the listener response was so immediate that the teens soon found themselves perched atop the UK charts, the youngest female duo ever to do so.
Lyrically, “Uptown Top Ranking” is as simple and mystifying as the concerns of any teenage girl: being hip, looking good (in khaki, no less), being all about the bass, giving boys heart attacks (“Gimme likkle bass/Make me wine up me waist”). What’s kept “Uptown Top Ranking” a reggae classic is Althea & Donna’s brash insouciance, delivering each line with a lunar orbit-sized eye roll and a copious dose of attitude. –Andy Beta
Times weren’t good in 1979: A revolution in Iran sent oil prices through the roof, leading to incredibly long lines at U.S. gas stations. A faulty pressure valve on Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island caused the worst nuclear accident in American history. Pretty soon, the nation would be in a recession. Then here came this breezy disco jam, discounting all of that, proclaiming these were life’s best moments.
“Happy days are here again,” goes the opening line to Chic’s “Good Times,” the lead single from Risqué. Co-written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the song encouraged people to let go and live fully in the present. The world is what it is, they shrugged, so you might as well let loose while you still can. And the sentiment proved infectious; perhaps no other song has been so thoroughly carved up and repurposed. Rap’s first mainstream song begins at 3:09. The instrumental reappears in Queen’s biggest hit of 1980. Vaughan Mason & Crew spun it into a roller rink anthem. “Good Times” served Chic well, too; it became a widespread hit and Rodgers remains an active pop statesman. Who knew a simple bass line could travel so far? –Marcus J. Moore
Here are a few things the revolution won’t do: It won’t star Natalie Woods or Steve McQueen. It won’t be broadcast on NBC, and it won’t make you sexy. Poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron’s landmark “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” served as a battle cry to oppressed black listeners in the early 1970s, those still fighting for equality and civil rights. First recorded as a spoken-word piece for 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Scott-Heron rerecorded the song with a full band for his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, giving it a noticeable upgrade with a much stronger rhythm section.
“Revolution” served as a template for what would become hip-hop less than a decade later. Scott-Heron is essentially rapping on the track, although his words don’t rhyme, and thematically, it still resonates all these years later: “There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay.” The song has been sampled, referenced, and lifted to iconic status. And indeed, the revolution isn’t televised these days—just tweeted, Instagrammed, and Facebooked. –Marcus J. Moore
Psychedelic mop tops. Prog doomsayers. Art-rock millionaires. Orwellian behemoths. Punk punching bags. Country crooners? Considering all the big ideas Pink Floyd cooked into their spaced-out arena rock in the ’70s, it makes some kind of ironic sense that their most indelible song is also one of their simplest. You don’t have to put The Wizard of Oz on mute or read Animal Farm a dozen times for “Wish You Were Here” to hit you in the gut. It is essentially a sad, twangy song about loss—of self, of people, of the past. David Gilmour sings Roger Waters’ universal words with the subtle pain of someone who knows he can’t go back. Every human has felt this feeling.
For Pink Floyd, in 1975, the emotion held a particular sting. Their previous album, TheDark Side of the Moon, turned them into unlikely superstars, and the fame and fortune dented their collective psyche. Having reached the pinnacle of the rock world, with all its attendant bullshit, the heady quartet couldn’t help but think back to their innocent early days—when it was about the art, man. They had a convenient totem for that bygone era, too: Syd Barrett, the wild-child founding member who did too much acid, lost key bits of his mind, and was subsequently kicked out of the group in 1968. According to the band, Barrett was alive but his soul was barely there—could the same thing be said about Pink Floyd, following their commercial triumph? “Wish You Were Here” puts such self-conscious ennui on full display, flowing through Gilmour’s ageless 12-string riff and Waters’ stubborn refusal to succumb to society’s cage. It’s a victorious admission of defeat. –Ryan Dombal
In 1974, Neil Young’s long relationship with Carrie Snodgress was coming to an end, and darkness was all around. The year before, he’drecorded Tonight’s the Night, a drunken wake of an album, and his new record, On the Beach, included a song inspired by Charles Manson. The recent sessions were marked by copious consumption of honey slides—an apparently debilitating marijuana delivery system—and the studio was filled with big plush chairs. Lethargy set in. The vibe was dazed and comfortable.
“The world is turnin’,” sings Young, quiet and somber, on the album’s title track. “I hope it don’t turn away.” The minor chord jam stretches out for seven minutes as Neil ponders his relationship with his audience—people he knows he needs, though he can’t always face them. He’s self-conscious about his complaints and worries, calling his problems meaningless but noting wryly that doing so doesn’t make them go away. Escapism is fine and maybe even necessary, but it still brings uncertainty. Hanging out on the beach—this postcard ideal of vacation and relaxation—doesn’t ease his mind. Even Young’s delicate guitar solos feel heavy. Here, we see one of the greats grappling with hard truths. He’s an introvert attempting to operate as an extrovert, a magnetic figure who can’t seem to stop alienating people who approach him. “On the Beach” is the sobering moment where good stuff fades and happy relationships pass. It’s not necessarily a fun place to be, but rarely have such feelings been communicated so beautifully. –Evan Minsker
It’s almost hard to imagine someone sitting down and actually writing “Dream Baby Dream,” a song so simple and immaculate it feels like it’s always existed. But this is precisely the idiom that Suicide worked in. It’s what allowed both their darkest nightmares and their sweetest dreams to feel like they were siphoned directly from the listener’s subconscious, ringing with an eerie familiarity. Produced by Ric Ocasek in 1979, “Dream Baby Dream” was a one-off single later tacked onto their sophomore album as a bonus track. With its burbling music-box melody and breezy chord changes, it plays a bit like the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” repurposed to suit Sunday night: lying in bed, fading in and out of consciousness, turning your eyes toward what’s to come. But there’s a darkness on the edge of “Dream Baby Dream,” embedded deep within Alan Vega’s frantic delivery and Martin Rev’s bubbling synths. It's a friction that haunts the song's optimistic tone and keeps the flame burning, long after the dream has ended. –Sam Sodomsky
“Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” If only it were that easy. Lou Reed’s breezy yet transgressive single sneaked the outré denizens of Warhol’s Factory right under the noses of mainstream America, spending 14 weeks on theHot 100 in 1973. It had been only four years since the Stonewall Riots, during which the NYPD brutalized protesters like Holly Woodlawn, the trans woman introduced in the first verse. But Reed’s song—produced by David Bowie, and featuring an iconic sliding bass line from Herbie Flowers and campy saxophone from Ronnie Ross—made New York City sound like a queer paradise, the place where a glamorous, sex-filled life was possible for anyone.
“Walk on the Wild Side” was an ideal calling card for Reed in the midst of solo reinvention, showcasing his knack for offbeat characters and casually poetic precision. But as off-the-cuff as the hit sounded, Reed took it (and all his music) seriously—something he made clear when the FCC finally decided to yank the song from radio playlists in 2004. The decision prompted a simple question from an icon who thrived on questioning authority: “What I want to know is: Who do these people think they are?”–Jonah Bromwich
“Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”
United Artists Records (1978)
The Buzzcocks took special inspiration from the Sex Pistols’ quip, “We're not into music, we're into chaos,” and they reached their peak when reveling in romantic anarchy. The Bolton, England, band married their punk predecessors’ brashness with the intuitive melodies of the Beatles and the Kinks (frontman Pete Shelley was a Fab Four disciple) to create some of the most farsighted rock of the ’70s, music that took rare comfort in the unknowns of life and paused to savor the fleeting beauty of young angst.
Their first single from Love Bites, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't’ve),” was the Buzzcocks’ debutante moment; before this 1978 release, they’d been another sharp but familiar young troupe with quick, surly punk screeds devoted to the carnal (“Orgasm Addict,” “What Do I Get?”). But, suddenly, Shelley’s bedside manner had changed: he wasn’t wallowing in self-pity or kicking the air after another bacchanal that left him dry. He was appraising with fresh maturity that passion could harm as much as heal, and he was powerless against it: “And we won’t be together much longer/Unless we realize that we are the same,” he sang with a despairing yelp, a distressed cousin to the Beatles’ bucolic calls of unity. Every time he sang “love,” it was with a quizzical sheen. Until now, punk had been a macho spree of broken glass and middle fingers hoisted; Shelley was audacious enough to be introspective, and defeated, by greater forces. –Stacey Anderson
For all the “no future” mythology around the explosion of UK punk in 1977, what’s most striking about X-Ray Spex’s first single, released that year as a one-off on Virgin Records, is its optimism. Riot shields had just debuted in London streets as the fascist National Front marched through a multi-racial neighborhood. Bombs stoked fears of IRA terrorism. In UK punk itself, the Stranglers were succeeding commercially with music glorifying domestic abuse. Into this bleak tumult stepped Poly Styrene—née Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the biracial daughter of a Somali father and a white British mother who raised her alone—with teeth braces, DayGlo fashion, and, most of all, an electrifying voice.
“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” was as enigmatic as its performer. Ininterviews at the time, she invoked young people wearing dog chains at a Sex Pistols shows. “A lot of people going around say it’s a free country,” she told one journalist, “which isn’t really true, because we’re all tied up.” Whatever leering expectations audiences might’ve brought to a bondage-themed song, Styrene defied them from her immortal murmur-to-a-shout, revolution-girl-style-now! opening. In the ensuing, full-throated verses, she not only called out misogyny, inspiring generations of female punks, but also gleefully sent up society's twisted relationship toward consumerism. Presiding over the bare-knuckle melee behind her was saxophonist Susan Whitby, aka Lora Logic, whose anarchic playing would be sorely missed from X-Ray Spex’s lone punk-era album, 1978’s still-essential Germfree Adolescents. Styrene died of cancer in 2011, at age 53; her “call for liberation,” as she once described the song, demands to be heard just as loudly in modern global gloom. 1-2-3-4…. –Marc Hogan
It’s hard to believe the Ramones considered themselves any kind of revolutionaries when “Blitzkrieg Bop” came out in February 1976. Bedraggled underdogs who had already spent years in go-nowhere bands in Queens, these four fans of Iggy Pop, girl groups, and leather jackets came together in 1974 with zero indication that the world was eager to hear them—or that they’d go so far as to reconfigure the face of pop.
“Blitzkreig Bop,” the band’s debut single, overturned every bit of conventional pop wisdom of the era, but its ad hoc radicalism ran much deeper than a boiling down of rock’s excess. As a whole, rock in the ’70s wasn’t as uniformly overblown as punks claimed, nor was punk as crude as its detractors alleged. Rather than being a spasm of knee-jerk minimalism, “Blitzkreig Bop” signaled a different form of symphonic maximalism; in whittling rock down, it found its own, low-budget way of sounding majestic.
In Everett True’s Hey Ho Let’s Go, David Fricke claimed that Johnny Ramone championed “hard guitars used as weapons,” but his washes of distortion on “Blitzkreig Bop” are actually lusciously smooth—and Joey Ramone’s gooey, glue-happy vocals strike a giddy balance between violence and innocence. The song that launched the ’70s punk insurrection is just as much an embrace of the decade, with all its virtues and flaws, as it is a shot in the back. –Jason Heller
One does not come to Funkadelic for reflection. Groove, yes; vaudeville, yes; bitter invectives against American politics next to couplets that rhyme “pussy” with “squishy,” yes. But reflection—reflection is why the Devil invented James Taylor. This with the exception of a short, radiant hymn called “Can You Get to That.”
Repurposing a song from their past life as a doo-wop group calledthe Parliaments, the band mapped the naturalistic introspection of folk onto the broad, inclusive sound of funk, creating something like gospel sung by people on a lot of acid. The lyrics survey life from 30,000 feet: Glory, retribution, gratitude, karma—the great circle, good and bad, tears and laughter in a single swoon. Not to mention one of the last stands by a great American notion called the bass man, whose spiritual authority is derived primarily from the fact that he can go lower than anyone else—to the dirt and the worms and the molten core beyond. –Mike Powell
As the master of the single, Michael Jackson’s most memorable songs often feel like individually wrapped gifts of pop perfection—hits that contain entire standalone worlds within them. “Rock With You” is something of an exception in that, while it certainly sounds immaculate on its own, it sounds even better in the context of Off the Wall, for which it serves as the sonic thesis. The album successfully positioned MJ as a grown-up solo artist with a confident vision; “Rock With You” is the sound of that confidence. There is, of course, a timeless chorus, but the verses that bridge the hooks together cement “Rock With You” as the mature breakthrough Jackson wanted. Instead of the falsetto of album opener “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” he shows his range with a sensual lower register (by MJ standards, at least); like the 20-year-old he was, Jackson seemed eager to try out grown folks’ way of singing.
“Rock With You” is also a pure disco song, arriving at a time when the genre was on its way out. Jackson has been praised for defying trends and delivering greatness into the 1980s, when the song peaked at No. 1, but it took someone like him to grow a bounty on ground no longer thought to be fertile. And so “Rock With You,” while not often reaching the highest echelons of the MJ canon, is a triumph: a slightly surprising hit, a transformative moment, and a groove so moving, it can rock you still. –Matthew Strauss
Much is made of the beautiful, pined-over subject of “Jolene”—her Pre-Raphaelite hair, her name like a melody to cry into torchlight, whose whims the narrator’s happiness depends upon alone. The lyrics are so simple, they’re prayer-like; the yearning is so thoroughly felt, it’s elemental. And it’s Jolene it’s all directed toward. The ostensible point—“please don’t take my man”—is sung like an afterthought.
“Jolene” is not only Dolly Parton’s most-covered track but arguably one of the most-covered songs ever. Though it’s unfairly associated with reality-competition dilettantism of all stripes, those who gravitate toward it most successfully are women–specifically, those who write women with complex inner lives. It’s launched careers, such as Mindy Smith’s (Parton’s favorite version). It inspires auteurs: Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Susanna Wallumrød, Laura Marling. It is a song with hundreds of interpretations, that sounds like it’s got hundreds more left. –Katherine St. Asaph
Marvin Gaye didn’t want to record a disco single, but he wasn’t in a position to refuse Motown's request. As 1976 drew to a close, Gaye couldn’t complete a sequel to I Want You, nor was his bitter divorce with Anna Gordy getting close to finalized, and both events flattened his wallet. Strapped for cash, he headed over to Europe, where he recorded the in-concert double-LP that became 1977’s Live at the London Palladium—turning over the last side to “Got to Give It Up,” his reluctant disco song. Using Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” as a foundation (Gaye whispers about a dancing lady throughout the extended coda of the 12-minute mix), he built the song from the groove up, eschewing the rigidity of beat for lithe, elastic funk.
Unlike so many disco singles, there is air and swing in the groove, something accentuated by the song’s full-length version, which shifts toward a slippery jazz vamp at the four-minute mark. By that point in the song, Gaye has given himself over to the ecstasy of the celebration he’s created in the studio. He layers murmurs, shouts, and laughter throughout the record, creating an illusion of a swinging party. But the sly joke of “Got to Give It Up” is that it’s a record about itself. Marvin didn’t want to join the disco party but, once he was there, he found rapture. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
There are few love songs more essential to soul music than Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” because it so naturally communicates the thrills of romance, the enviable bliss of knowing someone intimately. Originally released on Green’s 1972platinum album I’m Still in Love With You, and overshadowed by its title track, “Love and Happiness” was later released as a single in 1977, presumably as an attempted patchwork fix for waning record sales. The song didn’t hit as big as other Green standard-bearers—chart-toppers like “Tired of Being Alone” or “Let’s Stay Together”—but it had an equally wide impact on American pop culture.
Composed with Teenie Hodges—the writer and guitarist behind several of Green’s hits—and produced by Hi Records soul maestro Willie Mitchell“Love and Happiness” builds a bridge between the two emotional states, examining their shared sway over the human spirit. Its very title presupposes that the two go hand-in-hand. The song’s beauty lies in its clarity, with lyrics as brilliantly simple as, “Happiness is when you really feel good about somebody” conveying the harmony in human coupling. But the real magic is in that voice, a velvety, comforting timbre that glides into the upper octaves without even the slightest strain. Its powerful sorcery has been used in films countless times to help sell fairytale romance, that moment when soulmates find each other and you’re sure it’s The Real Thing. –Sheldon Pearce
By the time "Sweet Jane" made its first recorded appearance, on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, it had already been heavily rewritten and toughened up—Lou Reed sang it like his listeners already knew the tune he was ad-libbing around. It had also lost its bridge (“heavenly wine and roses...”) in the album’s post-production stage. The versions that the Velvets had long been playing onstage, when they eventually surfaced, were radically different in tone and lyrics. And the “Sweet Jane” that became a radio staple in the mid-’70s, from Reed’s live album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, doesn’t even get to the part Reed wrote for its first three-and-a-half minutes—it’s mostly a showcase for Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner’s wailing guitars.
Even then, it kept mutating: the caustic “Sweet Jane” that Reed spat out on Take No Prisoners and the impossibly delicate cover by Cowboy Junkies barely seem like the same song. “Sweet Jane” is a riff that's retroactively always been a part of rock music, three characters about whom we learn next to nothing and who don’t really interact, a little bit of an old Dionne Warwick record drifting in from a radio, and a chorus that’s just two words everybody can holler along with. It’s a cloud of fragrant smoke drifting up from under the ground—a document of when the ’60s avant-garde turned into the ’70s mainstream. –Douglas Wolk
Iggy Pop had signed a deal with Clive Davis and embarked to England to write and record Raw Power. He waved goodbye to Ron and Scott Asheton, seemingly ending the Stooges in the process. Three months later, the Ashetons followed him across the pond and the band was back together. Iggy’s plans with guitarist James Williamson to start a new group fell apart; the UK’s best players couldn’t live up to the Stooges. Around that time, Iggy would walk confidently through the streets of London in his cheetah skin jacket. “All the old men in London would drive by in their cars and they’d stop and try to cruise me,” he revealed in Please Kill Me. What else could you think when you see a street walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm?
On “Search and Destroy,” Iggy is weaponized—the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb. Williamson’s guitar solos incinerate, and the Ashetons’ rhythm section is all energy. Iggy himself oozes confidence and screams wildly. The song, inspired by articles in Time about the Vietnam War, is one man spitting in the face of authority while simultaneously offering himself up for sex. Structurally, “Search and Destroy” is a perfect rock song, where guitar solos and pre-choruses mount and build to a payoff with wilder screams and bigger guitar solos. From the mouth of the fearless Michigan-born, rolling-in-glass wild card to the ears of kids, this was pure adrenaline. –Evan Minsker
After growing up in Chicago’s Travelling Souls Spiritualist Church, Curtis Mayfield gave the Civil Rights Movement a warm, hopeful soundtrack throughout the ’60s. As the leader of the Impressions, he sang of peace and equality on songs like “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing,” helping to lift Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. And his voice, high and soft, made heaven sound a little bit closer to earth.
By 1970, King was gone. Riots had burned through many American cities, fueled by disillusionment, anger, desperation. Nixon was in the White House, preaching law and order. Black Power was fighting back. Curtis Mayfield wasn’t immune to the turmoil. He still had equality in mind, though instead of imagining everyone hopping on a train to the promised land, he opened his debut solo album with a stark warning cry called “(Don't Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Disappointment lurks through the opening side of Curtis, as Mayfield laments dirty politicians, urban poverty, and the segregationist impulse of whites and blacks alike. He ends the first half of the record with a challenge—over languid strings and horns, he sings, “Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way/But let us not be so satisfied, for tomorrow can be an even brighter day.” Then there are two pops on the snare and “Move on Up” explodes with the light of a thousand suns.
This is Mayfield’s American optimism for a new decade—tougher, faster, funkier. The chugging guitar and flared horns nod to James Brown, and the insistent congas keep an open ear to the widening musical dialogue between Africa and the rest of the world. But the striving—the propulsion to keep going forward in the face of any and all adversity—is all Curtis. This thing has so much juice that the kings of sped-up soul, Kanye West and Just Blaze, had to slow it down when they flipped it 35 years later for “Touch the Sky.” The album version ends with an extended outro, five minutes of nothing but groove; the dream lives on inside those undeniable rhythms, wordless, pushing for every inch. –Ryan Dombal
If it was even possible to approach Led Zeppelin’s body of work objectively, “When the Levee Breaks” is the most obvious choice for their best song—what else expresses the Mighty Blimp’s power, ambition, grandeur and innovation within its first ten seconds? It made laypeople give a shit about microphone placement. The fact that Led Zeppelin only played it live a handful of times is proof that even Led Zeppelin is in awe of it. How’s this for a legacy: Björkand Beyoncé both sampled “When the Levee Breaks” to make the same point: do NOT fuck with me. It’s also the basis for the hardest track on The Chronic andwas called upon when Massive Attack needed something to make freakin’Mezzaninesound more badass. Does a song like this really need an explanation? –Ian Cohen
Bob Dylan started the ’70s on an infamously unsteady foot with the double album Self Portrait, a possibly antagonistic reaction to the heavy burden of fame following his run of masterpieces in the ’60s. But it would take something more devastating than the demands of his celebrity to inspire Dylan to once again to reach the heights of his classic run. Blood on the Tracks from 1975 is one of the rock era’s first comeback albums, and also its definitive breakup album, chronicling the specific combination of confusion, rage, and hopelessness that accompanies divorce with plain-faced honesty and sage wisdom.
Like so many of Dylan’s best songs, album opener “Tangled Up in Blue” exists in a wide variety of renditions and arrangements. Before settling on the LP version, Dylan tested out minor chords and shifted the song’s “him-and-her” narrative into the first person, giving it a mysterious swagger and a sharper sense of self. It’s a sad, desperate love song that’s as smart as its writer, leaden with inside jokes (“‘I thought you’d never say hello,’ she said/‘You look like the silent type’”) and allusions. But Dylan saves the real heartbreaker for the final words: a concise, level-headed send-off that, in just two lines, summarizes so many breakup anthems to come: “We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point of view.” It ain’t me babe, he says, it’s us. –Sam Sodomsky
Fleeting adolescent innocence and bittersweet teen romance are two of pop’s oldest and most cherished tropes, but of the countless songs to include them, few have ever evoked the actual feeling of being young, dumb, and in love—that particular blend of elation, anxiety, and narcissistic conviction—as potently as “Thirteen.” Alex Chilton wasn’t too far out of his teens when he wrote it, and his lyrics—about school dances, gawky insecurity, and undying faith in rock‘n’roll–read like they were plucked straight out of high school mash notes: They’re perfectly, poignantly banal.
The melody of “Thirteen” is instantly memorable but deceptively complex, modulating between major and minor keys to evoke the rapid ups and downs of young love. At the same time, it dances on the verge of corny sentimentality. It’s that little hint of sappiness that gets your defenses down and allows “Thirteen” to hit as hard as it does; it’s also what let a track from an obscure album slowly but surely carve out a place in the modern pop songbook. –Miles Raymer
There’s something pleasantly cryptic about David Bowie singing “turn and face the strange” on one of his most historically popular songs, given he kicked off the ’70s with a series of stylistic “ch-ch-changes” and never looked back. The single, off his fourth studio album Hunky Dory, was the first Bowie song many Stateside listeners heard; it served as a fitting introduction to an American audience still riding off the two-year high of Woodstock and watching the world declare war and peace in the same breath. “Changes” found Bowie touching on the issues of the day, but he was also declaring his independence from the cookie-cutter rock stars that infiltrated U.S. soil at that tail end of the British Invasion. The song found Bowie on the verge—through the rest of the decade he would continue to shapeshift, but “Changes” was his swan song for normalcy, and everything that followed was sheer abstract brilliance. –Kathy Iandoli
By 1974, when Patti Smith and her band started playing her version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” live, she was a learned student of rock iconography. She’d been kicking around the New York scene for a couple of years at this point, writing poetry and the occasional record review, communing with artists, and meeting her heroes at Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel. She knew “Gloria,” first released in 1965 by Morrison’s band Them, was garage rock’s original sacred text, the first song every kid who gets an electric guitar learns. Its simple chords have a lizard-brain-level attraction and pop fans are drawn to them instinctively—you think about their basic appeal about as much as an iguana thinks about a heat lamp.
On the first song on her debut album, Smith took this coiled lump of primal lust and splattered it across an enormous canvas, using her gift with words to amplify its leering tone. Re-titling the song “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo),” the Latin name for a hymn that translates to “Glory to God in the Highest,” Smith turned a simple song about raging hormones into a surreal psychodrama that touches on sin, rebellion, guilt, idolatry, and undifferentiated desire in a place where anything’s allowed. The entire concept of gender folds in on itself; one moment Smith, a straight woman, is panting about a “sweet young thing humpin’ on the parking meter,” and the next she’s basking in the glow of when “twenty-thousand girls called their names out to me.” Rock’s most lunk-headed riff is married to poetry and one of its simplest expressions becomes very complicated—and when she gets to “G! L! O! R! I-I-I-I-I,” it returns to all those young bands in all those practice spaces, yelling out the letters like the whole world is about to explode. –Mark Richardson
“From station to station/Back to Düsseldorf City/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” So intones Ralf Hütter in Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” The reference is more than just one of the best shout-outs in the history of popular music. By not only name-checking the famed pair, who met Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf in 1976, but also Bowie’s Kraftwerk-influenced album Station to Station from the same year, Hütter and his band of increasingly android-like synth-operators completed a circuit in one of the ’70s most profound—and influential—mutual appreciation societies.
As quoted in the Kraftwerk biography Publikation, Bowie once praised the group’s sound as “folk music of the factories.” “Trans Europe Express,” with its implacable emphasis on repetition and the joys of a well-kept train schedule, only drove Bowie’s point home. The song extols the virtues of the Continent’s rail system, mixing the band’s minimalist experimentalism with the mechanized tones of what would become known as synth-pop. It marked the German quartet’s turn away from abstract and abrasive sounds, and toward a more cyber-organic approach that mixed emerging synthesizer technology with humanistic—but not wholly human—pop. The voice is cold, but the sentiment is warm. –Jason Heller
Blondiefamously came out of the ultra-punk CBGB’s scene and were at the head of New York's anti-mainstream new wave movement. But after two albums of middling success, mostly in the UK, a reinvention was in order. "Heart of Glass" came just in time.
Debbie Harry’s potential as a major pop star was evident to anyone who had ever laid eyes on her, and by melding disco’s then-commerciality with her stunning image and big-city cool, “Heart of Glass” propelled Blondie from cult group to household name. This shift in popularity was no mistake: aspects like the presence of both a beat machine and Clem Burke’s virtuoso drumming, and the off-kilter rhythm during the middle eight, made it certain the song would stand out from the slew of disco tracks cluttering the charts. “Heart of Glass” retained enough of Blondie’s DNA to assure they wouldn't become a one-hit wonder, and laid the groundwork for the band’s total assault on pop music in the decade to follow. –Cameron Cook
Iggy Pop must've had a weird year in 1977. Punk was exploding in America and Britain. But there he was in Berlin, turning 30, with the art-damaged glam rock survivor David Bowie as his svengali. Pop released two albums that year: The Idiot, which came out in March, had a stark, electronic atmosphere that tied it to Bowie’s futuristic Berlin Trilogy. Six months later, Lust for Life went in the opposite direction, embracing retro rock with the same self-awareness as Lou Reed.
The album’s deceptively jaunty title track is among punk’s first grown-up songs, with a bass, drum, and cymbal intro that ran longer than some Crass cuts. The protagonist of “Lust for Life,” Johnny Yen, came directly from the pages of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy, an apparition bearing substances and smut. Pop, who descended into heroin hell around the time Sid Vicious hit puberty, insisted he wouldn’t yield to temptation. “I’m through with sleeping on the sidewalk/No more beating my brains/With the liquor and drugs,” he sang, though he was still a decade away from getting clean. The impact of these lyrics has been diluted since the song’s thoroughly appropriatemid-’90s revival in Trainspotting, making its appearance in a cruise commercial inevitable—although “Lust for Life” was always sly, submerging its revelations in sarcasm and Burroughsian nonsense. Still, it constitutes a moment of genuine maturity from a guy who used to slice himself open onstage. –Judy Berman
Had he not written “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen might be remembered today as the guy who wroteManfred Mann’s biggest hit. He would have likely been dropped from Columbia, the label to which he had been signed in the early ‘70s among a rush of scruffy, promising “new Dylans.” He could have spent the rest of his career resting on the laurels of The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, his jazzy, NYC-obsessed sophomore album, which had enough ambition and energy to become a cult classic. He could have faded into obscurity, like the self-effacing character he’d pay homage to decades later in “Local Hero,” immortalized in pawn shop paintings “between the Doberman and Bruce Lee.” He could have taken a quiet but safe backroad.
Instead, Springsteen put things into overdrive, down a highway jammed with broken heroes. Exploding from one act to another, like an opera in fast-forward, “Born to Run” isn’t written like other rock songs, replacing the typical verse-chorus structure with a more euphoric symphony of wide-eyed proclamations. Beyond serving as the then-26-year-old Springsteen’s star-making turn as a lyricist and composer, “Born to Run” also marks the moment when the E Street Band collectively earned their stripes, from pre-Max Weinberg drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter’s inimitable skitter to Clarence Clemons’ giddy, galloping saxophone solo. Springsteen sings, “I want to know if love is wild…I want to know if love is real,” and Clemons steps to center stage with the answer.
The staggering power of “Born to Run” was made even more apparent throughout the mid-‘70s, as other songwriters (“new Springsteens,” Columbia might have called them) tried and failed to rewrite it. Even Springsteen himself never wrote like this again, emerging three years later with Darkness on the Edge of Town, a stark, sad dream he followed into the ’80s and beyond. “Born to Run” is a song that could come from no one else at no other time. Earlier this year, when Springsteen announced the release of his upcoming autobiography, its title seemed inevitable: a name that could be shared by the 500-page story of his life, the once-in-a-lifetime song of his career, and tramps the world over. –Sam Sodomsky
A journey through a cappella choral music, singer-songwriter balladry, virtuoso guitar wizardry, full-on operatic bombast, ramrodding hard rock, and then a subtly unsettling variation of its introductory introspection, Queen’s quintessential hit ties together several radically divergent styles of the era in an absurdly audacious, utterly idiosyncratic way. Nothing tells you more of what you need to know about ’70s pop than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
On the surface, it’s the ultimate over-the-top studio extravaganza in a decade crazed with excess. Flaunting so many overdubs that sections of the tape allegedly turned transparent, it’s also compositionally ultra-compact. There’s little repetition in Freddie Mercury’s melody, and absolutely no chorus.
And yet, at its heart, “Bohemian Rhapsody” holds a secret: What the Bismillah is it all about? For decades, the band guarded it fiercely, demurring only to say that it was the composer’s personal business. Ultimately, his lover Jim Hutton confessed that it is the singer’s coming out.
Mercury sings to his previous sexual partner/flatmate/best friend Mary Austin that he “just killed a man”—his old hetero self—via his first gay affair; the rift it causes is so traumatic that he momentarily comes to the conclusion that many LGBT people—who even today experience rates of suicide far exceeding their straight brothers and sisters—still at times reach: “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
But Mercury escapes this torment, and plunges himself into a world of man-on-man masculinity embodied by the kick-ass section so beloved by Wayne and Garth and headbangers everywhere. As for the self-hatred and societal obstacles, he gets himself right outta there, and ascends to a place where he can be truly free. Across every religion, that’s the very definition of heaven, of divinity, and that’s why the most secretly gay song of all time is also one of the most universal. It’s the story of Mercury learning to love himself. Who can’t relate to that? –Barry Walters
From the time he was a schoolboy, Stevie Wonder felt that being black was heavier and harder than being blind. By the end of 1972, he had the tools to illustrate racism’s manifestation. On “Living for the City,” a song from his 1973 album Innervisions, he placed that harsh lesson within a roaring, archetypal American narrative, the country boy moving to the city. But a black Jay Gatsby doesn’t end up on West Egg. He goes to prison.
Working with the producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margoileff, Wonder used drums, electric piano, Moog bass, and various vocal takes to build the operatic world of “Living for the City,” seeding it with an allegorical narrative broadly representative of the experience of the black men and women who moved north during the Great Migration. It’s an unhappy story. But Wonder tempers his apocalyptic vision with a call for change in his final verse and, more prominently, through his awe—in the hook that ends every verse, in the wordless choral harmonies—at the city’s promise, “skyscrapers and everything.”
You might argue that promise is false. It certainly seems so, given the reality on the ground. The song’s innocent protagonist is sentenced to 10 years in prison, the racist malice of the system clear from the slur an agent of the state tosses at him while locking him up. But the strength of “Living for the City” is such that it gestures toward the ideal as much as the real, that it exudes Martin hope along with Malcolm anger, ’70s experimentation meeting ’60s pop mastery. The city the song’s characters are living for doesn’t exist. It may never exist. Wonder leaves it to us. –Jonah Bromwich
Faith can be hard. There are trust issues, hiccups, dwindlings. And, in a way, faith in love can be even tougher to uphold than faith in God, since there are two fallible humans at the center of the struggle. But Al Green makes it all sound so easy, and “Let’s Stay Together” holds firm because it raises secular love to churchly levels. It is a vow, something to believe in. The song makes infatuation seem like it can last forever. This is a durable idea: The song hit #1 on the pop charts in 1972, making Green a star; last year, it still ranked among the 50 most popular wedding songs on Spotify.
The bond that upholds “Let’s Stay Together” has everything to do with Green’s voice, of course—that raspy, quavering thing, rising and falling with the grace of a blue jay in springtime. It would be foolish not to trust this man. The expert house band at Memphis’ Hi Studios plays its part, too, sliding into an easygoing gallop that offers its own take on eternity. Investigate further, though, and it turns out that Green’s faith isn’t as simple as it may seem. For one, he reportedly was known for spending hundreds of hours perfecting vocals for each of his songs, yet still making the final takes sound as spontaneous as a first date. And then there are the singer’s own personal shortcomings. Later in the ’70s, Green dated a married woman who infamously scalded him with hot grits before killing herself with the singer’s gun. And when he tried wedded bliss out for himself in 1977, it was a disaster, with Green eventually admitting to domestic abuse in court. “Let’s Stay Together,” like so much great pop, is wishful fantasy. Just as the song fully opens up about three minutes in, it unceremoniously fades out. –Ryan Dombal
After the 1960s proved pop’s worth as an art form, rather than mere youthful entertainment, the ’70s seemed wide open for the poets and the dreamers. Joni Mitchell is, arguably, the decade’s greatest of both; her imagery, metaphor, and emotion echoes so loudly in every generation of so-called “confessional” singer-songwriters to follow her, it can be difficult to remember that this was her turf first. “A Case of You,” from her landmark 1971 album Blue, remains her rightful calling card.
Out the gate, Mitchell shows an ability to call bullshit on her lover’s empty promises—with a nod to Shakespeare, no less—before spending the rest of the song explaining how she’d built up a tolerance for his ways. Perhaps it would be easy to mistake “A Case of You” as a “stand by your man” kind of song, but Mitchell tempers expectations with her initial scene-setting of a time “just before our love got lost.” As far as eulogies to former loves go, “A Case of You” is so generous and wistful, it becomes something bigger. There is not much to this song, musically speaking: Mitchell on the Appalachian dulcimer, James Taylor on guitar, and Russ Kunkel on drums. To do so little is a privilege, one Mitchell earns with the vividness of her words; there are countless anthems about why love is either rapturous or soul-crushing, but in terms of songs that perfectly capture why it is often both simultaneously, few plumb emotional depth like “A Case of You.” –Jillian Mapes
See also: Joni Mitchell: “River” / Joni Mitchell: “Blue”
“Ain’t No Sunshine“
One of the most captivating ironies of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is that the more it is covered, the harder the original becomes to transcend. It doesn’t matter if it’s reworked by teen-pop icons, jazz greats, or even Japanese enka singers; it all comes back eventually to the first voice to sing it. “Ain’t No Sunshine” wasn’t Bill Withers’ first single, but it felt as hungry, vulnerable, and impassioned an introduction as any great artist’s first time realizing he might just make it in a business worthy of a working man’s skepticism.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” is a literal throughline from the era’s Southern soul to the folk-rock movement; Withers’ backing band on this record is basically Booker T. & the M.G.’s, with Steve Cropper swapped out on guitar for Stephen Stills. Still, it was a crossover that wasn’t easy to deduce where it had crossed over from. That made it all the more plain just how powerfully nuanced Withers’church-of-life voice was, even without the low-swinging second-verse strings or Stills’ pacing-in-a-cage guitar or the anguished solitude of the words themselves. The man sings/ruminates/meditates “I know” 26 times in a row in lieu of a third verse; not only does he get away with it, he turns that audacious verse into a setup for a delivery—“Hey I oughta leave the young thing alone”—that makes even his most secular derivations of gospel sound like a reckoning with the spirit. –Nate Patrin
There was always nervy energy to Joy Division’s music, an insistent pulse throughout their songs. Their first single, “Transmission,” is literally about electric signals: It opens with Ian Curtis chanting, “Radio, live transmission,” and its chorus advises letting radio waves propel your body into dance. At the end of the second verse, Curtis’ voice transmits directly into Bernard Sumner’s wiry guitar solo.
Curtis knew something about physical electricity: he suffered from epilepsy and frequent seizures, and the frenetic build of “Transmission” has the feel of an uncontrollable short circuit. But there’s a subtext about conformity under it: To Curtis, society is an army of drones that “go on as though nothing was wrong” and are “staying in the same place.” Viewed through that lens, the heady chorus of “Transmission” is not a celebration so much as a warning: all the people who “dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio” are powerless followers led by whatever they’re fed. That Curtis and his bandmates delivered such a bleak message through such heart-quickening sound—the kind that, ironically enough, is impossible not to move your body too—shows just how much power Joy Division could generate. –Marc Masters
The sessions for Rumors, Fleetwood Mac’s 11th record, were fraught with turmoil. Amidst excessive cocaine use and the pressure of exceeding their self-titled smash, each member of the band faced the collapse of a long-term romantic and creative relationship. Singer Stevie Nicks took a break from one of these tense sessions at Sausalito, California’s Record Plant and retreated to a studio belonging to Sly Stone. Alone in this black-and-red velvet room with only a Fender Rhodes piano and a cassette player, Nicks penned “Dreams” about her crumbling relationship with singer and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. The pair had been friends since high school, forming a project called Buckingham Nicks, and joining Fleetwood Mac as a package deal. Now, in 1976, they were barely speaking. Nicks returned to the rest of the band and gathered up the courage to play the intimate track in front of its subject.
“Dreams” is less of a breakup song than a piece of sage advice. Nicks’ tone is undeniably hopeful and wise as she advises her partner to listen to the sound of his loneliness “like a heartbeat drives you mad/In the stillness of remembering what you had/And what you lost.” Independently of Nicks, Buckingham had written his own response to their relationship’s breakdown, “Go Your Own Way.” Buckingham’s reaction was angry and pessimistic while Nicks’ was spiritual and optimistic. She looked at the situation philosophically and turned to images of nature: “Thunder only happens when it’s raining….When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know.” With “Dreams,” Nicks took the emotional high road and it paid off. –Quinn Moreland
Punk’s reputation in the ’70s was all about slobbering primitivism and snotty attitude. Yet for a few years, the hottest punk band in New York was a group of literary-minded virtuosos influenced by classic rock, free jazz, and Romantic poetry. Television had a bratty side, too—especially early on with bassist Richard Hell. By the time of their debut LP Marquee Moon, guitarist and singer Tom Verlaine had transformed them into a gothic, street-wise jam band.
Marquee Moon’s title track is an 11-minute journey into the outer reaches of Verlaine and partner Richard Lloyd’s guitar interplay. The pair’s modal scale-climbing had been there from the start, but even as they refined and perfected their soloing, a spirit of punk simplicity remained. Nothing in this surprisingly taut tune sounds like noodling; Verlaine and Lloyd’s interlaced guitars always feel grounded, balancing themselves in a back-and-forth swing.
The same goes for Verlaine’s lyrics. In simple stanzas that melt Romantic imagery into punk brevity, he’s obsessed with finding balance and closing circles, with trying to even everything out. Lightning strikes itself; a wise man counsels him never to get too happy or too sad; a Cadillac picks him up at a graveyard and brings him right back, a metaphor for the ashes-to-ashes loop of life. It’s powerful poetry on its own, but when paired with Television’s coiled guitar bliss, these words turn “Marquee Moon” into a kind of eternal cycle, one that sounds like it’s still in motion nearly four decades later. –Marc Masters
In 1979, funk was in flux. While disco was beginning to exhaust itself, post-punk artists were beginning to discover funk’s power, and synths, vocoders, and drum machines were injecting the genre with futurism. Thanks to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which looped Chic, the form was being reimagined on an existential level. Into this turbulent environment stepped Prince with his breakout single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The young Minnesotan’s debut album, 1978’s For You, had failed to crack the public consciousness, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was written in haste—a Hail Mary that not only put Prince on the pop map, but let him start redrawing it.
Immaculately sculpted and emotionally cool, the song spotlighted everything the burgeoning genius had on tap: skills, hooks, precocious sex appeal, and a preternatural sense of his pivotal place in history. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is a thing of its era—supple, sleek, and disco-esque—yet it points toward lusher, more ambitious triumphs to come. And as a dancefloor jam, then and now, it simply slays. But it’s also the apotheosis of ’70s funk, boiling down a decade’s worth of musical upheaval and innovation to one essential exit track; after this, pop would never be the same. –Jason Heller
When David Bowie died in January, the world had no shortage of options of his songs to stream in their immediate mourning. Mostly, they chose ““Heroes.”” For a single that flopped in the U.S. and didn’t chart above the 20s in England, and a track that undercuts its own sentimentality with self-deprecating quotes in its title, this was an unlikely defining song for his long, varied career. But in the 39 years since its release, ““Heroes”” has gradually shed its quotation marks and become a sincere anthem, an inspirational hymn that champions personal-scale melodrama as insulation from an insane world.
““Heroes”” is an anomaly of Bowie’s Berlin era, really the only song to even resemble a traditional single (despite its chart failings). Yet remarkably, it still plays by the rules of his German exile, pulsing with a steady, hypnotic motorik beat and scrapping early plans for brass and string embellishments in favor of Robert Fripp’s majestic feedback drone and Brian Eno’s chugging oscillators. The only exception is Bowie’s lead vocal, which builds like a Broadway show-stopper from conversational to unhinged at a time when the singer was so uncomfortable with his voice, he barely put vocals on most of his tracks. By the point when Bowie’s vocal cords gloriously give way on “Nothing will drive them away!” the track has become so nakedly emotional, it’s no wonder he chose to hide behind those ironic quotations.
But those histrionics also preserved ““Heroes”” in the canon for future Bowie incarnations, and as he grew less misanthropic, the song shed its layers of armor. At Live Aid,in front of the Berlin Wall, for Freddie Mercury, after 9/11, Bowie let the song pay genuine tribute to bravery great and small, changing the song’s core from self-involvement to celebration. So when Bowie died and was honored for his own heroism as a queer rebel, a musical iconoclast, and a dignified cancer victim, there was no better song to turn to—even if Bowie himself would have left the scare quotes intact. –Rob Mitchum
At the age of 19, after years of writing her own melancholy songs and being discovered as a sort-of prodigy by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Kate Bush exploded onto the top of the UK charts with her searingly high-pitched soprano, wide-eyed stare, and interpretive dance moves, singing her misty version of a story she claims not even to have read at the time. (Legend has it, she wrote “Wuthering Heights” in a matter of hours after viewing a BBC miniseries adaptation that was popular that year.)
During this era, both disco and punk were at their peak, two genres whose appreciation rested somewhat on a level of sociability—you had to dance, or pogo, or at least show up in order to participate. Bush forcibly created a space for the quiet kids, the weirdos, the ones who thought black leotards and gothic romances were cool. Kate Bush was the first woman to top the UK charts with a self-written song, which seems unbelievable, but goes to show how necessary it was for her to transform her fantasies into reality. –Cameron Cook
She was the disco queen. But that’s not all she was. Born in Boston in 1948, LaDonna Adrian Gaines grew up singing in her church’s gospel choir, like so many soul greats of the era. By 1967, Donna Gaines was gripped by the influence of Janis Joplin, becoming theonly African-American in a psych-rock band calledthe Crow. After a stint in New York City, she joined the cast of Hair in Germany, where she eventually got married. In Munich, Donna Summer crossed paths with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, a songwriting team who had crafted one of the first UK hits to brandish a synth; together, they created her 1974 debut album, which was more Brill Building than Studio 54.
The connections to other styles only multiplied as Summer began her disco ascent.Inspired by the erotic pop of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1969 single “Je T’Aime,” she reunited with Moroder and Bellotte for her first U.S. club chart-topper, the famously orgasmic,17-minute “Love to Love You Baby.” Her next massive hit had similarly deep roots: As the closing track from 1977’s I Remember Yesterday, a concept album exploring historical styles like Dixieland and ’60s Motown, “I Feel Love” wassupposed to embody the future of disco. Of course, it did—but in fusing Summer’s “Love to Love You”-style purrs with pulses created entirely with Moroder’s Moog, “I Feel Love” also evoked synth-based records by Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
It was the dawn of the 1970s, and “What’s Going On” almost wasn’t happening. The Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, inspired to write the tune during a 1969 visit to San Francisco, finished crafting his version with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland. But the Four Tops didn’t want to sing a protest song (“I said no, man, it’s a love song,” Benson maintained). Joan Baez didn’t bite, either. Marvin Gaye, at this point an established Motown hitmaker, liked the song—just enough for the in-house vocal group he’d been producing, the Originals. Benson insisted Gaye sing it himself. Gaye’s wife, Anna, told him, “Marvin, this is a perfect song for you.”
Gaye needed “What’s Going On” right then. His duet partner and confidant Tammi Terrell had died from a brain tumor. His brother Frankie had come back from Vietnam a haunted man. His marriage to Anna, as it happened, was on the verge of combusting. Meanwhile, after singing about love and relationships on past hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Gaye was rethinking his artistic vision. He yearned for audiences “to take a look at was happening in the world.” Gaye finished writing “What’s Going On,” and in June 1970, went into the Motown studios to record it. The (inferior)single version wouldn’t slip out until the following January.
Gaye’s production on “What’s Going On” was some of the Tamla/Motown label’s most forward-thinking. The strummy, finger-snapping track stood out from other sleek Detroit assembly-line products for its dreamy saxophone intro, party-like chatter from Detroit Lions football players, and layering of multiple lead vocals, a technique that would become a Gaye trademark. And the song’s laid-back, marijuana-hazy feel still resonates in an era of looser, more impressionistic records. Most of all, Gaye’s airy embrace of love as the balm for social upheaval, and his calm plea not to “punish me with brutality,” remain every bit as relevant today. What’s Going On, Gaye’s 1971 magnum opus, would address other still-timely issues—poverty, the environment—and he would record other major triumphs before his tragic death in 1984. In times of turmoil, few other love songs seem so necessary. –Marc Hogan
Michael Jackson was a monumental figure in global culture, but before he secured that legacy, there was a time he had to break out of his mold and navigate the choppy transition from child star to solo icon. Having found lasting fame at an age where most people are still grappling with their multiplication tables, Jackson already had a sizable career behind him when he teamed up with the already legendary Quincy Jones to cut Off the Wall, his grand entrance into adulthood.
“Don't Stop ’Til You Get Enough” has early versions of all the traits that made Jackson’s ’80s music so singular: the playful yet unwavering falsetto, his trademark vocal yelps and gasps (heard here in their incubatory form), the unmistakable ear for what constitutes a mega-hit. The video for the song shows Jackson effortlessly finding the courage to crotch-thrust and soft-shoe his way into his larger-than-life identity. Even if, in some dreary and moonwalk-less alternate reality, “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” hadn't been the precursor to two decades of pop music innovation, it would still stand the test of time as a seminal gem from an artist just realizing his limitless potential. –Cameron Cook
In the ’60s, before he became Starman, David Jones was a struggling songwriter-for-hire, a floppy-haired naïf playing earnest folk. Somewhere during this awkward chrysalis stage, he tried penning English lyrics for an overripe French ballad called “Comme d’Habitude,” eventually turning in a plummy, elegiac trifle called “Even a Fool Learns to Love.” His label rejected his efforts and gave the commission to fellow hack-for-hire Paul Anka, who wrote a song with the melody called “My Way.” The following year, as Frank Sinatra’s valedictory version ascended to Great American Songbook status, another one, floating light years beneath it, tentatively signaled who the next decade would belong to: “Space Oddity.”
Hunky Dory was released two years later, and David Bowie’s first transformation was complete. “Life on Mars?,” with its huge, late-Sinatra-sized melody, was Bowie’s private nod to “My Way,” a curtain call for the theatrical schmaltz that nourished his transformation. The song erected a glimmering bridge in the sky between early British dancehall and rock’n’roll, Judy Garland and the Beatles, the innocence of the past and the utopianism of the future. Like Paul McCartney, who snuck hokey Tin Pan Alley-isms into rock’n’roll, Bowie instinctively grasped that divisions between eras—and between genres—were artificial; there was only a grand unifying gesture yet to be made, a synthesis no one else was canny enough to have spotted yet.
Bowie was canny enough to spot dozens of these moments over his career, enough to bend reality at his touch: “Life on Mars?” was his first such gesture, and his grandest. No one—not Jimi Hendrix treading the ether of LSD on “Are You Experienced,” not John Lennon cutting and looping drums and gazing into his third eye on “Tomorrow Never Knows"—was operating at this celestial a plane. His opening lines—“It’s a godawful small affair/To the girl with the mousey hair”—telegraphed his new vantage point. On one level, the lines were another private telegram from the life of David Jones, dedicated to his first serious girlfriend. But the whole song was a sweeping statement of disaffection that felt subversively new. The lawman beating on the wrong guy, Mickey Mouse growing up a cow: Bowie sounded positively airy about all of it, as though it couldn’t possibly matter from a safe-enough distance. Somewhere in these lyrics, a bold new idea asserted itself: humans might not have outgrown their use, but their games and futile drama could grow awfully tiring. There was only one more place to go, and that was upwards.
Which is exactly where that incandescent chorus sets its sights, boosted by cello stabs that sound like Wagnerian augurs of fate. Floating at this height, Bowie could see everything: Ibiza, Britannia, his mother, his dog, clowns, the mice in their million hordes. When you were up here, you could see how silly it all was, and that it was “about to be writ again.” When his voice hits that note, on that chorus, he streaked across the sky so brightly that generations since—from Freddie Mercury to Prince and Afrika Bambaataa to the Flaming Lips to André 3000— have gazed towards the heavens, recalculating just how high they might reach. –Jayson Greene
Lists & Guides: The 25 Best Music Videos of the 1970s
Photo by: Illustration by Nicole Ginelli
Even though only a handful of viewers actually saw MTV’s technologically challenged first moments on August 1, 1981, that date has been etched into history as the birth of the music video. But by then, the idea of linking popular music with motion pictures was nothing new.
Patrons of nightclubs in the 1940s could view Soundies of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, and the rise of television in the 1950s made pop music a permanently multimedia form: Between “The Ed Sullivan Show”and programs like “Top of the Pops,” “American Bandstand,” and “Soul Train,” musicians have long developed visual styles to accompany their songs.
Though the phrase “music video” didn’t take hold until the late 1970s, the prototype for the form and its promotional possibilities came with the Beatles’ simple short films for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” songs they were loath to recreate live (the video package sent to “Ed Sullivan” in 1966 came with an apologetic intro from the band explaining that the clips were substituting for an in-person appearance). A handful of well-funded and/or forward-thinking musicians started making short promotional films in the early ’70s, and as video technology continued to advance through the decade, many directors fell for its speed, creative possibilities, and easy duplicability—not only expanding the practice, but creating a unique visual aesthetic as well.
As the ’70s went on, distribution networks for music videos (throughout this piece, I use “music video” as shorthand, even though it doesn’t directly apply in many cases) started emerging. Local television stations would often air the clips between programs, and discos started streaming them on loop via closed-circuit TV. Actual music video programs started taking shape as well: Australian television had two such shows, and ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith started a program called “Pop Clips” that briefly aired on Nickelodeon a year before MTV’s launch.
The music video format proliferated and matured during the 1980s and 1990s, but musicians and filmmakers developed its basic shape and first explored its creative limits during the ’70s, a time of tumult and innovation in the record business, from the rise of arena rock and prog through the emergence of disco, electronic dance music, punk, and new wave. Out of the hundreds of videos created during that heady decade, we’ve selected the 25 that best represent the format’s possibilities, eccentricities, and influence, and added a few dozen runners-up to cover all the bases.
The Rolling Stones: “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It)” (1974)
By opening two of their tours to documentary crews—resulting in the iconic Gimme Shelter and the long-unreleased (and thoroughly NSFW) Cocksucker Blues—the Rolling Stones were visual pioneers of rock’s darkest moments and crass excesses. With 1974’s Top 20 single “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It),” however, the band effectively announced it was done blowing minds and would double-down on the basics—a stance that defines the Stones to this day.
For the video, Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who filmed ahead-of-their-time clips for the Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as well as the Beatles’ dissolution documentary Let It Be) had the band mime to the camera, shooting them from below with a wide-angle lens while a gaudy tent inflated around them and soap bubbles gradually infiltrated the set. The song might signify the Stones admitting that innovation was overrated, but Hogg’s simple style would, purposefully or not, reappear to define a significant segment of ’90s MTV: think HypeWilliams and the BeastieBoys.
See also: The Rolling Stones: “Angie” (1973) and “Miss You” (1978)
X-Ray Spex: “Identity” (1978)
X-Ray Spex were among the most stylish and musically innovative of the first wave of British punk bands thanks to Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, aka Poly Styrene, the rootless Somali-British 21-year-old who was still wearing braces when her band’s debut album, Germfree Adolescents, was released in 1978.
Styrene’s political ambit was broadly aimed and sharply delivered, and “Identity” twists the New York Dolls’ gender-bending proto-punk classic into a forceful treatise on women’s representation. “Identity/Is the crisis/Can’t you see?” she wails in the song’s promotional clip, dressed like a ’50s bobby soxer and performing with her band in an old warehouse littered with retired department store mannequins. It’s been said that “Identity” is the one song on Adolescents that doesn’t explicitly deal with anti-consumerist themes, yet Styrene’s own lyrics in the song—“Do you see yourself/On the TV screen/Do you see yourself in the magazine/When you see yourself/Does it make you scream?”—underscore that the perils of consumerism don’t end at getting lost in the supermarket, but extend to the imagery that surrounds young women. In this light, Styrene’s mere presence in this video clip is a political act, offering a new aspirational model.
Yellow Magic Orchestra initially formed in 1978 as a conceptual lark, a group of crate-digging Japanese musicians tweaking the Orientalism of “exotica” pioneer Martin Denny’s music, but they quickly established a significant precedent for electro-pop in Japan and beyond. At a time when Japanese imports were threatening American industrial dominance, YMO’s techno-funk flip of Denny’s 1959 single “Firecracker” became an ultra-rare Japanese-U.S. pop crossover hit—so funky they played it on “Soul Train.”
The 8-bit disco of “Tong Poo” had a similarly interesting origin myth—band member Ryuichi Sakamoto based its synth hook on records he found of Cultural Revolution-era Chinese musicians playing American instruments—but its video eschews the political past for a glimpse into the technological future: Three men in tuxes, stoically coaxing grooves from cutting-edge instruments, spliced with lengthy full-screen shots of early video games. The group’s only musical contemporary was Kraftwerk, and while the German quartet were portraying themselves as Soviet constructivist robots, YMO turned themselves into demonstration models in a high-end technological showroom.
Bee Gees: “Lonely Days” (1970)
Few bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s were more melancholy than the Bee Gees, from “I Started a Joke” to “I Lay Down and Die,” “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart,” and “Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself.” Sad! Despite its title, “Lonely Days” is not totally despondent, but it has a blurry emotional core, moving from a weepy, string-laden ballad into a brassy chorus while never revealing exactly where that loneliness came from. The short film produced to promote the song—the first single released after the band reunited with Robin after his temporary split—offers little explanation other than compelling evidence that the Bee Gees are very successful and incredibly rich. Neither Maurice’s butterfly collection nor his gold records can cheer him up, so he goes for a drive in his black Jaguar; Barry’s home also makes him inconsolably depressed, so he walks his big furry dog on a crowded downtown street before taking off in a Rolls Royce. And poor Robin, the saddest of all the Gibbs, who resorts to pathetically stroking a trophy before driving away from his posh country villa in a new Mercedes. In the end, the three men meet in a field, perform a ritualistic hand gesture, and then drive off in separate cars. So, yeah: Who needs girlfriends?
Beyoncé may have forever taken ownership of the “visual album” concept thanks to her pathbreaking recent releases, but the original idea for such a promotional novelty dates back to 1979, when Blondie worked with director David Mallet to produce videos for each track of their fourth LP, Eat to the Beat. Despite being far ahead of their time, though, none of Eat’s videos are as iconic as the one Mallett produced for “Heart of Glass,” from the band’s 1978 classic, Parallel Lines.
The clip for the tune that famously broke Blondie to a mainstream audience (and alienated the puritanical wing of its Lower East Side punk base) highlights Debbie Harry, clad in a single-strap, gray Stephen Sprouse dress and clear plastic heels, and her piercing soprano. Yes, there are plenty of shots of the band jumping around in what for them was the novel space of a disco floor, but the most striking imagery is of Harry herself, stoic in the opening close-up and shoulder-shrugging medium shot, resisting any display of emotion while the radiant track unfolds around her—perhaps shading the CBGB purists a bit in the process.
For a few months in late 1978, the Italian TV network Rai 2 aired an odd live program called “Stryx,” which featured a variety of short performance pieces with creepy medieval themes. The performances were tightly choreographed and the sets were, for the time, lavishly decorated, a strange visual artifact that hinted at the soon-to-come MTV era. Disco icons like Amanda Lear and Asha Puthli shot their own episodes, as did Brazilian singer Gal Costa, but Grace Jones’ clips supporting her second album Fame are the best.
Sure, the “Stryx” performance doesn’t actually qualify as a music video in the strictest sense of the term, but Jones’ promenading in a frock and bustier through a stagy castle with human hand candle sconces, barnyard fowl, and a nearly naked prince has the power to broaden most rubrics (see also: her clips for “Anema e Core” and “Fame” from the same episode). “Stryx” was quickly canceled after the network received complaints about the show’s racy content; televisual genius often goes unrecognized until long after it is gone.
Prince’s famously coy, taciturn interview with Dick Clark after performing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on “American Bandstand”is one of pop’s most subtle jabs at the promotional necessity of lip-syncing a single on television. Music videos were gradually easing this burden, and Warner Bros. ended up funding two for “Lover.” The one featuring Prince performing the song with his band (mute the audio on this clip) was scrapped for unclear reasons—many suspected it was too salacious—but the incredibly cheap video that circulated showed Prince at the midpoint between his fledgling early years and Dirty Mind’s new wave breakthrough.
Shot with a backlight-provided halo, the 21-year-old androgyne with the 1,000-yard-stare is front-and-center in the clip. His combination of visual signifiers were sui generis in 1979: the feathered hair, hoop earring, and skin-tight unitard were much more the stuff of a dancer at the time, not an axe-wielding frontman dancing with the swagger of James Brown and Mick Jagger. Prince would of course go on to dominate music video culture for the next decade, but “Lover” stands apart as a simple showcase of a virtuoso on the verge.
Arguably the definitive disco single, “I Will Survive” was written as a defiant kiss-off to an ex-lover (“I should have changed that stupid lock/I should have made you leave your key” is one of the most wonderfully specific breakup laments ever), though its chorus was later embraced by the LGBT community in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Driven by a slick arrangement and Gloria Gaynor’s powerhouse vocal turn to the top of the Hot 100, “Survive” spawned an iconic video as well, shown on television monitors in discos around the world.
Shot at the New York disco Xenon, Gaynor’s only visual accompaniment in the clip is a skater from the group The Village Wizards, a nod to the deep connections between discotheques and roller rinks. What’s most striking about the video, however, is Gaynor’s solitude, photographed in isolation against a stark black backdrop. Late ’70s disco culture is often understood to be a tribal space, a utopian dream of community. As Gaynor’s video represents, though, discos could complement that ideal by also serving as a milieu for self-empowerment, enhanced by the glorious feeling of solitude amid an electric crowd of strangers.
The Alan Parsons Project: “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” (1977)
The Alan Parsons Project was never known for intellectual understatement—the band’s first LP, 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was an Edgar Allan Poe-themed concept album with Orson Welles providing occasional narration. For the 1977 follow-up, the inspiration was Isaac Asimov’s I Robot trilogy, and, though the interpretation was loose, the idea bore fruit: The disco-tinged “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” cracked the Top 40.
In the song’s video, produced by the Rock Flicks group that also helmed Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Parsons unsheathes a creepy mummified cyborg while digging through an archive. He then monitors the creature as it scampers through a UNIVAC tape room (a precursor to the modern server farm) and a Brutalist cityscape, propelled mostly by jump-cuts that sync with the song. At one point, the clip, otherwise a quaint parable for artificial intelligence, borders on slapstick when the strange being uproots a flower that the harried Parsons takes pains to re-plant. Spoiler alert: Once Parsons touches its face, the robot immediately melts into a pile of wires, and the closing credits—a dot-matrix printout of “I Robot”—roll.
The morbid origin story of the Boomtown Rats’ second UK #1 single is as wretched now as then: While on tour in the United States in January 1979, frontman Bob Geldof read about a San Diego school shooting that killed two and injured nine. When asked for her rationale, shooter Brenda Ann Spencer claimed: “I don’t like Mondays.” Geldof’s song turned the story into a macabre ditty delivered with stone-faced irony—what he called “the perfect senseless song to illustrate” Spencer’s “perfect senseless act.”
David Mallet’s video treatment predicts the future of the form, mixing hyper-stylized, new-wavy performance footage with loosely narrativized set pieces: a schoolhouse packed with zombie-like schoolchildren slickly transitions through a TV set into a mundane living room scene suggesting British soap “Coronation Street.” “Mondays” would earn significant airplay on MTV a couple of years later, and Mallet became one of music video’s most sought-after directors, all of which Geldof predicted, sort of, in a 1981 “Merv Griffin Show” interview, smack-talking skittish FM radio programmers and predicting that the video format would take rock into the future.
ABBA were the first music video pop stars. In the mid-’70s, when only a few groups were making videos at all, the Swedish quartet made lots of them: a total of 18 between 1974 and 1979 alone, a pace that aligned them closer to the biggest MTV stars of the ’80s and ’90s. It all makes sense, given that ABBA’s career started on TV, with their “Waterloo” victory in the 1974 Eurovision competition.
“Take a Chance on Me” came after “Dancing Queen” propelled them to global superstardom, though don’t expect any crane shots or special effects past the softcore closeups of Agnetha and Frida, or the Brady Bunch-style quad-screen that accompanies the song’s a capella cold open. The joy in ABBA videos, as in their music, involves the unabashed embrace of heart-on-sleeve dorkiness and a masterful deployment of simple ideas. So in the “Chance” video, we get Frida and Benny jamming tunes in a mod Stockholm pad, Frida and Agnetha mom-dancing, and Benny and Bjorn striking seated poses in a stark white sound studio. With a song this good, there’s no need for much else.
Ladies of the Canyon was Joni Mitchell’s creative and commercial watershed, thanks in part to “Big Yellow Taxi,” her only honest-to-goodness pop song. The single’s environmentalist message is simple and timeless, but its animated music video is much more rooted in its era. Produced by legendary animator John Wilson (Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan)for a series that ran on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” in the early ’70s, the “Taxi” short feels born from the colorful antics of late ’60s Hanna-Barbera productions and predicts the manic grooviness of toons to come, like “Schoolhouse Rock”and “Fat Albert.” The clip, like Wilson’s others for the variety show, were less about promoting the songs themselves and more a creative presentation of his own visual auteurism. Narratively, Wilson portrays the song’s lyrics as a story about humanity’s original fall from grace, with Adam and Eve constantly “exposed” thanks to various industrial activities, from mass deforestation to urbanization. Be sure to stick around for the surprise ending.
Giorgio Moroder is not a natural-born pop star. This much is plain in the video for “From Here to Eternity,” during which the Italian innovator bounces genially while miming the song. He does get the importance of imagery, though. In 2016, it’s easy to see Moroder as a collection of kitschy ’70s Euro signifiers—the ‘stache, the white satin jogging suit, the shades—but 39 years earlier, it was a getup that was not only a bit hipper, but practical, allowing a reticent studio rat to negotiate a solo career in the spotlight.
Moroder’s significant musical legacy is as the direct sonic bridge between ’70s European electronic music and African-American dance music—disco and house, specifically—and the “Eternity” clip positions him where he’s most comfortable: surrounded by racks of glittering, oscillating analog gear. At one point, there’s a closeup on a “voltage control oscillator” readout—the electronic equivalent of a rock video showing a guitarist plugging into an amp. In the long march to authenticate synthesizers and rack-mounted electronics in pop music performance, videos like “Eternity” were perfect propaganda.
Sylvester: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (1979)
After touring as a drag performer and recording two R&B albums as Sylvester and the Hot Band, Sylvester James switched to disco. Not because he loved the music (he didn’t), but because he knew his theatrical approach would thrive in that format. It did.
His hit 1979 single “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is a significant part of American popular culture not only for its Top 40 crossover success or its formative influence on Hi-NRG disco (and later, Bernard Sumner claimed, “Blue Monday”), but its embrace of black homosexuality as an authentic identity on par with R&B or rock performers’ heterosexuality. In the video, Sylvester moves through a disco with verve and purpose, donning a different guise for each section of the song. He enters by descending a garish staircase in all black leather, adds a touch of executive realness in a white suit, and for the big reveal on the second chorus, unveils a sparkling drag ensemble—one of several on display in the video. Costuming aside, the clip’s most compelling aspect is Sylvester’s gaze. He might not be completely at ease in the music video format, but he compensates by staring straight through the camera, as if daring the viewer to question his legitimacy.
See also: The Village People: “YMCA” (1978); Chic: “Le Freak” (1978)
David Bowie: “Life on Mars?” (1973)
Given different circumstances, it’s easy to imagine a parallel universe where David Bowie invented the visual language of music videos in the ’70s. He was much more a stage performer, though, and the clips he made were all very simple up until David Mallet’s 1980 classic for “Ashes to Ashes.” Some may argue that the sci-fi drama of “‘Heroes’” or the Berlin drag-club debauchery of “Boys Keep Swinging” are Bowie’s best of the decade, but give me the gaudy simplicity of “Life on Mars?”
In the wake of Ziggy Stardust, RCA rushed to issue earlier material, including “Mars,” originally an album track from 1971’s Hunky Dory, and it shot up the British charts. The clip was shot backstage at the Earl’s Court rock venue in London by famed photographer Mick Rock on the afternoon of the Ziggyconcert that devolved into a riot. Because “Mars” predated Ziggy, there’s a bit of historical slipperiness in the costuming: Bowie’s performing a song from the end of his folk period in full glam-rock regalia. And he looked phenomenal, by the way: the ice-blue suit designed by Bowie’s designer/protégé/lover Freddie Burretti balanced by the shocking eye shadow—shown in lingering close-ups that emphasize his alien gaze—and contrasted with his shocking red hair, all washed out by a stark white background. It’s simple but incredibly effective, an important element in Bowie’s extensive, ever-shifting catalog of self-iconography.
If there is a Mount Rushmore of music video progenitors, San Francisco avant-garde collective the Residents are on it. Before they’d even released their first album in 1974, they undertook one of the weirdest experiments in music history, which doubled as one of the form’s first feature-length works: Vileness Fats. The project, shot from 1972 to 1976 on the relatively new medium of ½" magnetic tape and intended to be more than 10 hours long, was ultimately scrapped, though a shorter version exists. One of the sets constructed for Vileness was repurposed for a film accompanying the group’s second album, Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, a conceptual work reimagining rock history via Joseph Goebbels; the album cover featured Dick Clark in full Nazi regalia and Side A opened with Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” sung in German. The MoMA-approved video mixes stop-motion animation, German Expressionist aesthetics, and a “band” interpreting “Land of 1,000 Dances” in what appears to be Klan garb made of newspaper. Later, two pork chops introduce a “Wipeout” dance sequence that ends with the Fuhrer himself appearing on a balcony. MTV wouldn’t launch for another five years, but the medium of music video had already reached an early, weird peak.
This is the first-ever music video that openly mocked the form. The stranger thing: Hall & Oates did it long before videos were even really a thing. John Oates has said that the band was asked to lip-sync “She’s Gone” for an “American Bandstand”-style show shot in New Jersey, and because “they didn’t want to pretend to sing” a breakup song on a teen dance show, they holed up with their own furniture and a bunch of weed in a Philly studio and emerged with this bong-rip promo clip. It never aired. (Oates claimed he leaked to YouTube at some point.)
It sure looks like something that stoned 20-somethings would make in the ’70s: a corpselike, Bowie-haired, wooden-wedge-wearing Daryl Hall mimes his singing parts on a talkshow-looking stage set with Oates, wearing a sleeveless tux. Occasionally, there are walkthrough cameos from Hall’s girlfriend Sara Allen (of “Sara Smile”), and a man in a devil suit (their road manager). The climactic action features Oates putting on his tux jacket and playing a solo through fake penguin flippers. Hall & Oates’ legacy is assured, but this clip adds a footnote: Any future video that makes fun of the very concept of pre-recorded promotion—like the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” the Roots’ “What They Do,” and Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube”—are, to varying degrees, made of this clip’s stardust.
On September 8, 1976, George Harrison was found guilty of “subconsciously plagiarizing” the melody from the Chiffons’ 1962 hit “He’s So Fine” for his own 1970 single “My Sweet Lord,” costing him half a million dollars. Harrison—not above responding to legal headaches in song—expressed his feelings in the cheekiest way possible.
“This Song,” the brassy first single from Harrison’s 1976 LP Thirty-Three and 1/3, is self-reflexive and satirical, sending up the idea of a pop tune as legal object. The video turns a packed courtroom into a faux concert, featuring a judge/drummer, a bass-soloing bailiff, a stenographer/pianist, and Ronnie Wood in drag as a backup singing juror. Harrison lost the lawsuit, but at least he had the last word: “This Song” debuted during the November 1976 episode of “Saturday Night Live” on which he was the musical guest.
Australia was far ahead of the U.S. and UK in the development of TV programming built around music videos. By the mid-’70s, there were two video shows airing down under: the ABC’s “Countdown” and Channel Seven’s “Sounds Unlimited,” featuring clips made for local bands, including AC/DC. When “Unlimited” was running low on content, a young producer named Russell Mulcahy was asked to shoot some footage. Mulcahy went on to become the medium’s first bona fide auteur, shooting the first video MTV ever aired, along with Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” Spandau Ballet’s “True,” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
In this playful 1979 clip promoting the first single from XTC’s breakthrough album Drums and Wires, it’s easy to see Mulcahy tracing the contours of pop video’s visual style for the first half of the ’80s: non-stop camera movement, canted angles, zooms, gaudy overacting. Narratively, Mulcahy twists a song about a young man’s inexorable march toward a boring adulthood into a mental patient being relegated to a rubber room for a Clockwork Orange-meets-Cuckoo’s Nest style re-education. Nigel’s Nurse Ratched is a psychotic clown, played by a constantly mugging-to-camera Andy Partridge while a video screen playing XTC hangs on the wall. It’s clever, super-meta, and incredibly hyperactive—the driving forces not only of MTV’s first decade, but the wide swath of ’80s pop culture that Mulcahy’s work helped inspire.
Achieving autonomy from his famed family was a several-year process for Michael Jackson that included shooting The Wiz in 1977, a time when he met Quincy Jones and started frequenting the exclusive Manhattan nightclub Studio 54. The sounds he heard there inspired his solo breakthrough, Off the Wall, and Jackson has cited the thrill of escapism in the decadent club’s celebrity-laden crowd, comparing it to science-fiction films where “you pay $2 and you’re on another planet. You’re not in reality anymore.”
The video for “Rock With You,” shot by veteran TV producer Bruce Gowers on a skimpy $3000 budget, transforms Jackson into a lonely alien alighting on earth. The wide collars, polyester jumpsuits, afro hairstyle, and four brothers surrounding him gave way to a new image: Jackson dancing with seeming abandon in a gleaming, silver-sequined suit, with a halo provided by a laser backlight. These moves were among the first glimpses of the astonishing kinesthetic performance art Michael would develop through his subsequent visual work. Eight years before he made a video begging the press to “Leave Me Alone,” here he is, dancing all by himself, like no one’s watching.
Three years after a three-minute edit of “Autobahn” hit the U.S. Top 30, 1978’s The Man-Machine was Kraftwerk’s first deliberate attempt to present themselves as something like a “band,” with a fully designed image and actual pop-structured songs. This is Kraftwerk, of course, and so “The Robots” has hooks, but it also plays with the very notion of public performance: In the video, humans play automatons performing human labor. On a deeper level, the idea for the “Robots” aesthetic merges a cyborg ideology—“We are playing the machines, the machines play us,” Ralf Hütter claimed as the group’s M.O.— with a hyper-modernist aesthetic.
The iconic style on display in the video mirrors Karl Klefisch’s legendary cover design, with the band’s red shirts and black ties embracing the starkness of 1920s Soviet constructivism, which celebrated the worker amid rapid industrialization. Though Kraftwerk would move firmly into the information age with its next release, the “man-machine” trope born from the quartet’s fascination with a freshly industrialized eastern Europe would remain the group’s defining image well into the 21st century, inspiring a fewothersynth-popinnovators along the way.
Elvis Costello & the Attractions recorded a few good-to-great videos for This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, but “Accidents Will Happen” stands apart. A ridiculously cutting-edge clip from video pioneers Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton of the UK’s Cucumber Studios, its pop-art aesthetic recalls Barney Bubbles’ designs for Stiff Records, and its deployment of shape and color suggests a love of the Italianpostmodernism that was flourishing in fashion and design in the late ’70s. It’s a shame that MTV wasn’t around to canonize it, but “Accidents Will Happen” clearly belongs in the category of animated game-changers with Steve Barron’s rotoscoped “Take on Me” clip, the computer-animated “Money for Nothing,” Stephen R. Johnson’s manic “Sledgehammer” video, Michel Gondry’s Lego-tastic “Fell in Love With a Girl,” and the Gorillaz and Jamie Hewlett’s “Feel Good, Inc.” For the first time, a music video not only made an artistic statement that both complemented and stood apart from its song, but invented its own visual argot along the way.
Fittingly for a song with two striking videos—one each for the British and American markets—Kate Bush wrote “Wuthering Heights” not from Emily Bronte’s novel, but after catching the end of a BBC adaptation on TV. The first single from Bush’s debut album got a chart boost from a performance on the UK chart show “Top of the Pops” (that Bush later described as “watching myself die”), which sent it to #1.
The British video directed by Keith MacMillan, however, does an infinitely better job of representing what made Bush and her breakthrough song so great. Having studied with English actor and mime Lindsay Kemp (who worked with David Bowie as well), her training is reflected in the video’s stunningly expressive choreography, a combination of ballet, mime, and theater. MacMillan dials back the urge to layer on visual effects too heavily, and when he does, it’s only to multiply Bush (always a good idea), or emphasize her movements. Otherwise, she’s just performing for a video camera on a soundstage drenched in dry ice, but Bush plays to the rafters: Her fluid movements and facial expressions are as exaggerated as her vocal performance. Bush would go on to make several more great videos, but “Wuthering Heights” remains unique for its pre-MTV simplicity and grand unveiling of a peerless musical talent.
The same year Ohio National Guard members gunned down four protesters on the Kent State campus, musician Mark Mothersbaugh met art student Gerry Casale and formed a band—more of an art movement set to jittery, minimalist guitar rock, really—and wrote a song called “Jocko Homo.” The track’s title was derived from an old pamphlet Mothersbaugh discovered, distributed by a 1920s Ohio preacher who argued for appending a “d” to the front of the word “evolution.” A few years later, “Jocko” was the centerpiece of a short film called In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution.
Shot by fellow Kent State student Chuck Statler, Truth opens with the masked Devo members leaving their “factory” job (shot at Akron’s Goodyear museum) to mutilate Johnny Rivers’ 1966 hit “Secret Agent Man” in what looks like a hostage film. This is intercut with—among other things—two men in monkey masks spanking a woman in a short robe with ping-pong paddles bearing the faces of Chairman Mao and Nixon. Then Booji Boy, Mothersbaugh’s simpering child character and the band’s mascot, frantically runs to bring the “news” of de-evolution to his father, General Boy (played by Mothersbaugh’s father), who delivers an address to the medical profession, complete with spastic dancing that predicted David Byrne’s moves from Stop Making Sense. As for poor Booji Boy, the Paul Revere of de-evolution, he wouldn’t make it out alive. In all, Truth was part manifesto, part origin myth, and one of the most compelling introductions a band has ever created. Statler’s film won the top prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival, earning Devo the admiration of Brian Eno, who’d produce their debut LP the following year.
This is it—the tipping point of the pre-MTV era of music videos as a promotional tool and extension of a visual aesthetic. The story behind it has turned into music business lore: Queen had to battle with EMI to even get “Rhapsody” released in the first place, with the label worried about the commercial potential of a six-minute suite with no chorus. When itshowed immediate signs of popularity, though, the band and label quickly realized they had to figure out a way to perform it on “Top of the Pops”—a promotional necessity that Queen despised. So they hired producer Bruce Gowers and spent an evening creating a piece that could air. There were music videos made before “Rhapsody,” but having one substitute for the live promotion of a single reported to be the most expensive ever produced was the definition of “risky.”
It paid off. The song ruled the UK charts for months. And, for the first time, the video defined the public memory of the song. The opening seconds of Gowers’ “Rhapsody” clip alone—a slow fade in to the band singing a capella, arranged in the diamond shape of Mick Rock’s Queen II cover photograph (itself inspired by Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express) provided an infinitely more iconic image than any stagey TV performance would. For a viewing audience unfamiliar with pre-filmed pop dramatizations, the effect of an album cover coming to life and singing must have been thrilling, capped by the “Galileo” section call-and-response and Gowers punctuating dramatic changes with video feedback and a kaleidoscope effect created by holding a prism in front of the lens. The performance footage—dominated by Mercury chewing scenery in a white satin jumpsuit—only looks run-of-the-mill because it’s the earliest iteration of a visual style that would dominate the first decade of MTV.
When “Rhapsody” resurfaced in the opening scene of Wayne’s World in early 1992, the video gained an unexpected second life. To meet its resurgent popularity, Queen re-released the single with a new video that re-cut Gowers’ original with clips from the film. MTV was just over 10 years old at that point, but the network’s impact on pop’s iconography was deeply entrenched. And here was the “Rhapsody” video once again, being seen for the first time by a generation of new fans, contextualized as the network’s own genesis.
Longform: Punk, Disco, and Silly Love Songs: Revisiting the Explosive Summer of 1976
Photo by: Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images
It’s the summer of 1976, and the American Bicentennial is exploding across the sky. Amid fireworks and the wanton merchandising of patriotism, the United States turns 200. It’s more than a nice, round number. After Watergate, Vietnam, and the 1960s, a decade during which the fabric of the country seemed to unravel, America stands. Just as unbelievably, the 21st century is now in view. We’re becoming aware that the 2000s—the future speculated on in so much science fiction—will soon arrive; Viking 1 lands on Mars, sending back indications of possible life and the iconic photo of a giant face among its mountains. It’s the end of old things, the start of new ones, and a celebration of our own unlikely survival.
On the Fourth of July, though, it’s nothing but a party. Fans flock to Tampa Stadium to see an incredible bill of two of the biggest bands on the planet: the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, who flood the muggy air with some much-needed laidback vibes. Similar super-concerts are taking place around the country this night, from Elton John in Foxboro, Massachusetts to Lynyrd Skynyrd in Memphis. Meanwhile, Memphis’ adopted mascot—Elvis Presley—is in Tulsa, performing for thousands of flag-waving fans who are unaware that their beloved King will never make it to their city again.
Stadium rock reigns. Rock’n’roll has completed its 20-year transformation from something seedy and frantic to something easy going and safe. In the Elvis-and-Beatles area, bands cranked out two or three albums a year; now, a two-year gap between LPs is routine, especially since there’s so much money to be made in huge venues. It frees massive groups like Pink Floyd to spend more time in the studio, crafting ambitious soundscapes and emotionally complex opuses.
It also creates a vacuum for quick, breezy fun to rush in. While albums grow more complex, singles like Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” and Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” come out and sell millions. Decades later, both songs will rank in the top five of a Rolling Stone readers’ poll of the worst songs of the ’70s—but regardless of how reviled they become, they sate a nerve-jangled America’s need for sedate sounds.
At the same time, the release of ABBA’s majestic “Dancing Queen” in August blends plush pop with another rising tide—disco—and becomes the biggest single of the year. But before that, in May, Paul McCartney makes a gooey yet profound statement about the state of pop music by sending Wings’ “Silly Love Songs”—a joyous defense of his oft-derided penchant for light, catchy tunes—to #1. With the success of that self-aware, unapologetic paean to romanticism and hooks, poptimism is born.
The Sex Pistols performing live at London's 100 Club in 1976. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.
In the country America won its independence from, an entirely different kind of explosion is happening on July 4. In the middle of the worst heat wave in modern British history, the Ramones—a young, hungry band from Queens, New York, clad in leather and bad attitude—play their first show outside the States, at the Roundhouse in London. It’s also their biggest crowd to date by far; back home they’re nobodies, despite the release of a self-titled debut in April that will eventually prove to be one of the most influential records of all-time. Buoyed by the band’s power-pop grenades, hundreds of English kids go berserk.
Ironically, this Independence Day show by such a quintessentially American band is pivotal in catalyzing British punk. Punk already exists in England, although the first British punk record, the Damned’s single “New Rose,” won’t appear until October; in fact, on that same July night in the city of Sheffield, a raw new band called the Clash makes its stage debut, opening for the leading light of the English punk scene: the Sex Pistols.
“I’d love to see the Pistols make it,” a 17-year-old fan writes to the music magazine NME in June of ’76. “Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.” This backhanded compliment comes after Johnny Rotten and his luridly dressed group play a show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. The show isn’t well attended, but many there will go on to make history of their own. The 17-year-old letter-writer is Steven Morrissey; after trying his hand as the singer of a couple punk bands himself, he’ll end up fronting the Smiths, one of the most important bands of the ’80s. Alongside him in the crowd are members of a new group called Buzzcocks, who open the show; their mix of melody, speed, distortion, and bittersweet humor will inform generations of pop-punks. Future members of the Fall and Joy Division are also in the room.
They’re not the only ones fired up by the politically charged, back-to-basics uproar of punk. In August, London becomes the site of the 100 Club Punk Festival, which features the stage debut of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Singer Siouxsie Sioux, eerie and ethereal, sets the style that will become known as goth. Their guitarist, Marco Pirroni, is a new recruit; later, he will become a star in his own right as a member of Adam and the Ants. And their drummer is Sid Vicious, who within months will join the Sex Pistols on bass.
Vicious is also a member of a go-nowhere group called the Flowers of Romance along with guitarist Viv Albertine; within a year, she’ll join her Flowers bandmate Paloma “Palmolive” Romero in another outfit, the Slits, and begin breaking barriers both of both sound and gender. During the 100 Club Punk Fest, the Damned pile-drive their way through a ghoulish, hyper-speed rendition of the Beatles’ “Help!”; seeing as how the Fab Four catalyzed the rock establishment that punks are so eager to tear down, the Damned effectively invent the modern ironic cover song.
Some other future innovators are busy in August too. In Dublin, far away from London’s punk epicenter, a bunch of teenaged Ramones fans start playing music under the name Feedback. Inspired by the anyone-can-do-it attitude of punk, they will soon change their name to U2.
Bands like Judas Priest sparked a new wave of British heavy metal around this time. Illustration by Jessica Viscius.
While the Ramones are spreading their gospel across the UK, American punk is making its own noise. Filmed by Ivan Král of Patti Smith Group, The Blank Generation is a new documentary showing on various screens around New York City. Smith herself appears in the film, along with fellow punk scenesters such as the Ramones, Television, Blondie (whose debut single “X Offender” comes out in June), Richard Hell (whose song “Blank Generation” is the basis for the film’s title), and Iggy Pop (who is far away in Europe, recording his album The Idiot with David Bowie). Smith’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, won’t be out until October, but its staggering, 10-minute title track is recorded live on August 9, fearlessly stretching out punk to a place of unimagined wildness and abandon.
The Blank Generation brings the ramshackle New York scene together under a banner of solidarity, but more importantly, it gives New York punk an identity, vivid and feral. It’s a volatile reflection of the times, as the summer also marks the first lethal gunshots fired by David Berkowitz, the serial killer soon to be known as the Son of Sam, who terrorizes NYC for months.
Along with showcasing newer venues like CBGB—where a wiry group called Talking Heads is making waves, thanks in part to their latest recruit, keyboardist Jerry Harrison, whose old band, the Modern Lovers, are finally seeing the release of their debut album—parts of The Blank Generation were filmed at the venerable Max’s Kansas City. The club lends its name to another vital document of New York punk: The compilation 1976 Max’s Kansas City is released on vinyl this summer, and it’s highlighted by the recorded debut of Suicide, whose shivering, mechanical “Rocket U.S.A.” will have to tide over fans of the revolutionary duo until it finally appears on their first, self-titled album the following year.
Other standouts of the Max’s Kansas City comp include Pere Ubu’s searing proto-punk classic “Final Solution” and the album’s theme song, “Max’s Kansas City 1976,” by Wayne County and the Back Street Boys. Led by Wayne (later Jayne) County—a transgender singer from Georgia who moved north in time to participate in the Stonewall Riots and star in Warhol productions—the band unabashedly cheerleads the New York scene, giving shoutouts to the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, Blondie, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and Lou Reed. It also solidifies the vital role LGBT musicians play in punk’s origin. Across the Atlantic, Tom Robinson of the pub-rock band Café Society first performs a song he wrote for that June’s Gay Pride celebration titled “Glad to Be Gay.” It’ll eventually be embraced as England’s national gay anthem, but not before Robinson leaves Café Society to form the punk-fueled Tom Robinson Band.
There’s one more gay musical icon who’s finding his full voice in the sweltering British summer of ’76—although he’s still years away from publicly coming out. Rob Halford, the operatic lead singer of Judas Priest, wraps up a triumphant tour in June following the release of his band’s second album, Sad Wings of Destiny. For many, it’s the first true Judas Priest album, the point at which the group’s lingering psychedelia has been slashed away to reveal a leaner, harder sound. The term “heavy metal” has already been in circulation for years, but in ’76 it’s a nebulous and often derisive tag. The fury Halford and crew throw down in Sad Wings, though, is poised to spark the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. And Halford’s imposing, leather-daddy stage garb will be adopted by the burgeoning metal army on a global scale, gay and straight alike.
Two bands that had a huge hand in spawning metal and hard rock—Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath—release albums in 1976, but neither Presence nor Technical Ecstasy capture those titans at their apex. It’s up to a fresh batch of rockers to pick up the gauntlet. One of them is Rush. The Canadian trio’s album 2112 has been out for a couple months by the time summer hits. It’s already well on its way to becoming a staple of progressive rock, tapping into science fiction and, oddly enough for a rock band, Ayn Rand’s controversial, selfishness-as-an-ideal philosophy of Objectivism—which in 1976 was beginning to make strong inroads into mainstream conservative thought.
Also in Canada, theSeattle-bred, Vancouver-based Heart take two singles into heavy rotation, “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man.” The vocal/guitar team of sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson thrust a woman-forward image of rock’n’roll to the forefront; so do the Runaways, the teenage band whose self-titled debut comes out in June, launching the careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford.
Meanwhile, “The Boys Are Back in Town,” the anthemic breakout single by the Irish band Thin Lizzy, dominates rock airwaves throughout the summer. In July, Kiss unleashes “Detroit Rock City,” another snarling milestone in their quest for rock domination. Two months later, AC/DC issues the fist-pumping Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap in their native Australia. But even as hard rock gets rougher and tougher, one band is rendering it practically symphonic: Boston’s self-titled debut comes out in August, and its ornate, layered guitars and harmonies results in “More Than a Feeling,” a slick, soaring, summer-ready classic built to last decades.
Stevie Wonder in September 1976, the same month his classic album Songs in the Key of Life was released. Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.
In the summer of ’76, “disco sucks!”—with all its racist and homophobic undertones—is still a couple of years away from becoming a nationwide rallying cry. After all, the Bicentennial is being marketed to Americans as one big, summer-long party. Why shouldn’t disco—the ultimate party music—be everywhere? The Trammps are game. The Philly-based group was in on the ground floor of disco since the early ’70s, when funk took a turn for the lush, uplifting, and at times orchestral, so it’s only fitting that they top Billboard’s dance chart on the Fourth of July with a single titled, perfectly, “Disco Party.”
When the disco backlash does settle in, the Trammps will be at the center of it; their single “Disco Inferno,” released earlier in ’76, hasn’t made much of a mark, but that will change when it’s included on the soundtrack of next year’s Saturday Night Fever and becomes the definitive disco song. The ubiquitous film will tip the precarious balance between rock and disco on the airwaves, giving rise to an ugly, public hatred of disco that goes far beyond a simple dislike of the music.
For now, though, disco is enjoying its creative high point, with just enough mainstream success, including the crossover bump from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” to keep it well-fueled. The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” and KC and the Sunshine Band’s “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” rule the dance floors, and it’s not hard to see why; this is music specifically designed to move the body, even as its syncopation leaves plenty of room for luscious pop hooks. Club DJs are on the rise in New York and around the nation, conducting a new sort of subculture—and they need new tools to do their increasingly demanding job of keeping people grooving.
The music industry steps in May of ’76 with a new innovation: the 12" single. “Ten Per Cent,” a kinetic, nine-minute disco saga by the band Double Exposure, is released on a slab