Certain songs changed the landscape of rock & roll music forever. Here at seventiesology, I call them game changers. By no means do I claim to be an expert or claim to have the definitive list. What follows are ten songs that I believe belong to the ages.
For me, these sonic sensations stand apart from other great songs in these ways:
I can distinctly remember hearing the song for the first time and feeling as though time was standing still and tingles traveled down my spine; The song’s creativity eclipsed anything by that artist up until that point; There was an “other-worldly” quality to the music and lyrics that just set it apart; Often, the artist would remark about the particular song as if it came through them – almost as if by divine intervention; The song kick-started a span of time where other musicians were intentionally “copping” (imitating) or inadvertently “channeling” a similar sound, style and feeling; And lastly, I never get tired of hearing it!
In no particular order, here they are:
To me, the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin was the Lennon/McCartney of the 1970s. When I first heard “Your Song” sometime on a transistor radio in 1970, with its beautiful piano motif, hypnotic dotted quarter-note rhythm, and delightfully slow and sultry lift to the chorus, Bernie’s poetic yet accessible lyrics, and Elton’s heartfelt vocal performance, I asked the smoggy L.A. sky, who is this guy? I wasn’t familiar yet with “Take Me to the Pilot,” from his self-titled album, and I was too young to go to the Troubadour to see his American debut there. The song peaked at #8 and EJ had his first Top 10 hit. But soon I would be obsessively following Elton’s music which led to attending his legendary 1975 Dodger Stadium Day on the Green concert. Truly unforgettable! I hope you don’t mind I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.
We all know Carole King’s journey from hit songwriter in 1960s New York with husband Gerry Goffin, to her move to California, to producer Lou Adler making sure Tapestry (1971) was like being in the living room with Carole playing piano and singing just for you. We know about Carole’s stage fright which lifelong pal James Taylor helped her put behind her with the Troubadour concerts – with him right there at her side. And Carole remarking at the time that she had no idea what she was in the middle of, clueless that her music would have such far-reaching universal impact. Tapestry will always be recognized as one of the most important rock albums, ever.
When I first heard “It’s Too Late,” what struck me was the syncopated piano figure every second bar on the third beat, and the give and take between the A minor and D 6. It felt like blues. Then, when Carole began singing, it felt like Gospel. Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time. From a Jewish young lady from Brooklyn! She interjected a beautiful instrumental bridge after the second chorus with her piano melody doubling masterfully with Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar’s brilliant guitar work. After my favorite line, still I’m glad for what we had and how I once loved you, she brings it home with a flourish, including revisiting the instrumental melodic theme, then the final coda with that syncopation again and the C major 9 chord striking finality seven times. It’s too late, okay?! And how about a shout out to her collaborator lyricist, Toni Stern, who never seemed to get enough credit. The song reached #1 on the pop charts on June 19, 1971, holding the top spot for five weeks. If any song sounds like 1971 to me, it’s this one. Forever.
When I first heard the opening la la la’s of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” I was with my family back east during the summer of 1969. (Please note that Stevie Wonder’s song is allowed Honorary Presence in a blog site about the 1970s.) The air was heavy with humidity, and the Amazing Mets were making their miraculous run to the World Series. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap for mankind. The Vietnam War was in full throttle and protests occurred daily. In his spare time, President Nixon may already have been plotting the Watergate break-in. That’s why like no other time before, Stevie’s voice reached through me with its soothing timbre and delightful innocence. His progression is jazzy and complex with 7th -, 9th – and 11th -chords-a-plenty, yet it remains absolutely pop. There is no question Stevie, Motown and R&B are synonymous, but this little song with such a big heart crossed over and emotionally grabbed me and my pop sensibilities like no other song. “Cherie” peaked at #4 on the pop charts. Soon, the summer and its long shadows faded away, and I returned home to L.A. where in a matter of months the Jackson Five would challenge Stevie’s popularity with four consecutive #1 singles in 1970. Don’t worry, Stevie. You’re always my number one.
Sometime late in the year 1975 I was at a friend’s house on Benedict Canyon with a bunch of us listening to vinyl and hanging out. Someone put on Fleetwood Mac (1975) and soon in the background I heard Christine McVie singing “Over My Head.” You can take me to paradise/Then again you can be cold as ice. There was the rollicking beat, her sultry voice, and totally righteous keyboard playing. Soon, I was checking out the album sleeve and looking it over. Then I heard another female singer and a male vocalist. What’s this? Men and women singing in the same band? Cool! How many co-ed bands can you name from the early 70s? The closest I can compare this sound to is Linda Ronstadt and her excellent songs from Prisoner in Disguise (1975) with J.D. Souther harmonizing with her so perfectly.
I soon learned that Californians Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had recently joined British blues rockers Fleetwood Mac, creating a musical blend that spoke to me like no other. Sure, Stevie had the white gloves, the flowing hair, and the lacy dresses, conjuring the Welsh witch, Rhiannon. But it was (and still is) Chrissy (as she likes to be called) who captured my teenage heart. Elegance and grace throughout, and the woman could rock as well. This was Mac’s first Top 20 hit, and soon there would be Rumours (1976) and just a few more smash hits to come! I was over my head in love with Christine McVie. And the rest of the band was pretty damn good as well.
In 1972 I heard Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” With its pulsating piano rhythm accompanied by just the coolest storytelling voice, track #4 from his debut self-titled LP (aka Saturate Before Using 1972) just blew me away. Jackson was a young sensation even before he hit his 20s when he became friends with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Sharing a tiny house together in L.A., Glenn (RIP, brother) reminisced about living above Jackson and hearing the piano from below, and Jackson writing and playing, over and over, until the part and eventually the song was perfection. This song was perfection, and as it rocketed up the charts peaking at #8, his place among the singer-songwriters and California Sound was firmly established. David Geffen helped launch JB’s career and soon had him become the first to sign with the fledgling Asylum label. Doctor my eyes tell me what is wrong was I unwise to leave them open for so long.
I remember 1970 at summer camp in the California Sierra along the shore of Antelope Lake. It was dusk and our water ski show was about to begin. The air was heavy with expectation, as well as Coppertone and pine. We were barefoot and sun burnt. Lubriderm was being shared around. Soon, our expert older campers suddenly appeared. They were two girls on single ski each holding a Tiki torch while being pulled behind the boat. As they glided along the water like poetry, out of the old Chevy truck’s 8 track player and blaring out into large speakers came more poetry with the song “Big Yellow Taxi.”
I may have heard Joni Mitchell once or twice before that evening, but hey, I was a boy and I had been listening to The Archies, The Turtles, Edison Lighthouse and songs like Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.” I liked the fun, catchy ear candy and bubble gum made for 45s. Then these lyrics: They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot. Suddenly, I was being drawn in to what she was saying. Don’t it always seem to go you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. As Joni’s debut single release, this up-tempo, guitar-driven ditty climbed to #67 on the pop charts. Some might consider that a failure or what Joni often dubbed a “miss.” They would be wrong. The magical musical door Joni opened with her infectious insouciance and her singular talent was unparalleled. It wouldn’t be long for other artists to follow suit, mixing social commentary, a charming personality, themes rich in doomed love and romance, introspective lyrics yet with universal themes, and stunning music rich with the promise of the new decade ahead. Not long after that summer’s night, and upon returning to the smog of L.A. I put away childish things; my 45s were locked away for good.
When “Make It with You” reached the top of the pop charts on August 22, 1970, lead singer David Gates was extremely relieved. He and his band mates – formerly known as Pleasure Faire – thankfully renamed as Bread. Even so, they were very close to breaking up if their second LP release On the Waters (1970) failed to break through. Early reviewers were calling their sound refreshing and dubbed it California soft rock, as they were based in L.A. If you listen to most of their early albums (Bread, On the Waters, Manna and Baby I’m-A Want You) many of the tracks rock, but it was the latter and its gentler songs that charted best (“Baby I’m-A Want You,” “If,” “Everything I Own”). It didn’t hurt that David’s voice could melt butter, ice cream, snow cones – you name it. I remember thinking that these guys were my Beach Boys. However, instead of surfing and having fun in the T-bird, this was a bit more introspective; one of my favorite descriptors that I associate with the early 70s. As bands go, these guys encompassed this perhaps best of all. Soon, David and his band mate guitarist and fellow songwriter James Griffin had a bit of a falling out, causing the band to break in 1973, then reunite in 1976 for a brief time with their hit “Lost Without Your Love.” Many folks recall Bread fondly and would easily agree that their contributions were pretty cool. I’d go further and say this particular song changed the game and led directly to a new way for bands to create folk/rock/pop music, bands like Eagles, Poco, Badfinger, Pure Prairie League, Firefall, Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Bad Company, to name just a few. Dreams they’re for those who sleep/And life is for us to keep.
I melt when I hear the first piano chords of After the Gold Rush (1970). And now I can happily reference Neil Young’s line look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s. Sometimes a singer can have a voice that’s a little, uh, off, but these songs are so beautiful and so kick$$$, that you learn to embrace his tremelo, warts and all. Here was a poet who introduced me in the most profound way to what would come “after.” After what, wasn’t sure. With scraggly hair and flannel shirts, from Toronto, Canada to Buffalo Springfield and CSN & Y, and grungy long before Grunge was a genre, my, my, hey, hey, Neil was a pure honorary Californian at heart! And he always will be in our book.
I remember 1970 holding in its troubled arms a sense of hope with a slight, edgy darkness. Nixon and Kent State. Vietnam going full guns and Patton winning the Oscar for Best Picture. We had Apollo 13 and its nearly deadly disaster. Reviewer William Ruhlmann wrote about the album: “…its dark yet hopeful tone matched the tenor of the times in 1970.” The album’s title alone implies something behind us, and now something ahead. I couldn’t wait to find out thanks to Neil Young changing the game, because there were children crying and colors flying all around the chosen ones. I wanted to be one of those lucky ones flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun. Even if I had no idea what the maple leaf he was talking about!
For the first time as a ten-year-old kid, hearing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” was akin to playing Mozart to a toddler and asking him to explain the circle of 5ths. When you are ten, a song like this goes right over your head. I’m sure I must have imagined sweet baby James was singing about love being hot and cold, where it eventually ends up in pieces on the ground. Or something like that. Sweet dreams, flying machines, it all sounded pretty cool; even if I was, yes, once again, clueless.
By the time James charted with this debut masterpiece single in late 1970 (peaking at #3), he was just 22, had already struggled with emotional issues, had spent time in an institution in the Berkshires, had been to England under Peter Asher’s (Peter & Gordon) wing, was the first artist signed to the Beatles fledgling Apple label, and then dealt with his initial recordings not being successful. From his time in the Berkshires, he derived the story which eventually became “Fire and Rain.” Suzanne the plans we made put an end to you. Eventually, I came to understand that this extreme personal disclosing style and the way singers as songwriters were willing to not simply sing but tell all, was so unfamiliar to innocent little me, but would soon take America by force, differently than the British Invasion had done, but definitely with similar cultural and creative impact. Call me foolish, call me naïve, you can even call me Al (thanks, Paul Simon) but I believe that James Taylor and this one simple, elegant song is the reason popular music’s trajectory rocketed to such remarkable uncharted heights in the decade ahead; the singer-songwriter movement had everything to do with this and was firmly and indelibly established. To this day, James’ humble poetic artistry sets the bar and surpasses everyone in the genre.
Hotel California. For me, those two words together are the essence of the California Sound, rock music and the decade. From the moment “Best of My Love” became the Eagles first #1 hit on March 1, 1975, Glenn, Don Henley and the boys would soon be the top selling act for a good stretch of the mid-70s. Four of their next eight single releases would also reach #1, including this landmark story song on May 7, 1977.
My game changers for a band or solo artist are typically from their early years. Not so with this song. “Hotel California” is less about propelling the Eagles forward, and more about solidifying their vaunted status with a song for the ages – some six years after the band’s formation. I remember hearing the opening guitar sequence written by Don Felder and thinking it was mystical and almost a story in itself. You are almost traveling on the dark desert highway before Henley begins singing. The story behind the song was that Felder had composed the riff like most of his other song segments (fortunately) taping it, but unfortunately leaving it behind at home in a drawer somewhere. As their next studio album release loomed ahead, he frantically called and asked his housekeeper to locate the cassette and play it over the phone for him, where he recorded it then taught it to Joe Walsh, and its inertia propelled it from there.
Lyrically, “Hotel California” is as unique and poetic as any song ever written. Rich with metaphor, its lines leave you searching for layers and hidden meanings. Voices down the corridor, such a lovely face, any time of year you can find it here, what a nice surprise bring your alibis, they stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast, and perhaps my favorite line (okay, I am a native Californian – I am biased) – from the entire decade: you can check-out any time you like but you can never leave. Its music is haunting, ever-so melodic and it rocks with class (if that’s possible) without the need to knock over the amps or blow up any tubes. The dual guitar ride-out, and the intimate musical dialogue between Felder and Walsh was, and remains, unmatched.
The Eagles’ story is emblematic of so many of the era’s bands. Talented musicians and songwriters gather together through fate and circumstance. Things hit and miss, then slowly the creative forces congeal. Somehow, this kind of other-worldly quality mixed with a heavy dose of destiny kicks in and the band reaches the stratosphere with songs unlike any others you are hearing on the radio at the time. Some say The Beatles’ Lennon/McCartney reached that Himalayan moment with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). I would say the Eagles reached those same heights with this remarkable song, and the album it inspired.
And the game changed.
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