The common theme of ‘70s rock criticism was “this decade is horrendous, everything great happened in the ‘60s,” which is a sentiment that proves that The Beatles were more effective as a hangover than they were as an intoxication. 1972 was actually an embarrassment of riches and this listing could easily be doubled. So, let’s groove on back to the Nixon era without being nattering nabobs of negativity.
1. “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” The Allman Brothers Band. Released shortly after and inspired by the death of Duane Allman, The Allman Brothers established themselves as a major act even with the loss of their original leader on the Eat a Peach album. They mixed blues, country, and rock jams as easily as they breathed and as someone pushing 50, I can verify that “time goes by like hurricanes.”
2. “City of New Orleans,” Arlo Guthrie. Let’s give some love to singer/songwriter Steve Goodman, who wrote this wondrous tale of train Americana and also co-wrote the David Allen Coe hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” with John Prine. Goodman was well respected by the folkie scene in the ‘70s, despite his obsession with the Chicago Cubs. After he died, some of his ashes were sprinkled on Wrigley Field. His composition “Go Cubs Go” remains the official team victory song for the franchise. That is to say, they never get to play it.
3. “Doctor My Eyes,” Jackson Browne. Browne narrates a tale about an aging man that has seen so much pain that it no longer registers with him. Musically, the melody takes the listener’s attention away from the subject matter. You don’t hear too many Top Ten hits these days with a conga break.
4. “Go All the Way,” The Raspberries. Eric Carmen and company somehow managed to merge The Who with The Beach Boys to develop their unique style of power pop. “Go All the Way” went all the way to #5 on the U.S. pop charts, somewhat of a surprise since the Raspberries are generally viewed as a commercially underperforming band. The BBC figured out that this number wasn’t about going all the way to the Dairy Queen for a sundae and banned the song. (In the nothing too trivial file, when I can cross three interstate lanes of traffic unimpeded on my commute home from my, my wife and I refer to that accomplishment as the “Eric Carmen Special.”)
5. “Highway Star,” Deep Purple. Richard Riegel of CREEM magazine once wrote, “’Highway Star’ is forever.” Nothing else needs to be said.
6. “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy. This wasn’t a #1 hit due to its feminist content, it topped the pop charts because it was an undeniable anthem. It’s almost impossible not to sing along with this song. As for me: I am Steven, hear my snore, with Breathe Right strips I frequently ignore.
7. “I Can See Clearly Now,” Johnny Nash. Texas native Nash first hit the pop charts as a teenager in 1957 with the pop ballad “A Very Special Love.” In 1968, Nash started recording in Jamaica and was rewarded with the Top 5 U.S. and U.K hit “Hold Me Tight.” Nash produced Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh and this 1972 #1 hit brought the laid-back island groove to America.
8. “I Gotcha,” Joe Tex. Tex was an interesting character that started life with the name Joseph Arrington, Jr. and ended it with the name Yusuf Hazziez. He scored regularly on the pop and R&B charts in the ‘60s, but originally thought little of what would be his biggest hit. He first tried to give it to King Floyd and then later put it on a B-side. The chuckle and grunt funk of “I Gotcha” was irresistible and disc jockeys made it a major hit. If you don’t have a Joe Tex greatest hits compilation in your record collection, you are living a dreary and unfulfilled life.
9. “I’ll Be Around,” The Spinners. Thom Bell and Phil Hurtt exquisitely produced “I’ll Be Around,” introducing the band to the Philadelphia Sound. Like the previous entry, this was another B-side turned major smash. The Spinners history dates back to 1954 and they first hit the pop charts in 1961, but didn’t truly break through until 1970’s “It’s a Shame” (which was co-written and produced by Stevie Wonder). Moving to Atlantic and producer Thom Bell gave the band a string of hits in the 1970s. They remain one of pop/soul music’s most underappreciated acts.
10. “Lean on Me,” Bill Withers. What happens when you put a duck into a microwave? It’s bill wi…never mind. Withers left his aircraft factory job after 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” hit the Top 5 in 1971 and he repeated his success with this commitment to community support. Check out his 1973 album “Live at Carnegie Hall,” which captures his early hits with an accomplished supporting band. Robert Christgau on that album, “…his legacy is right here, a moment of lost possibility. Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn’t yet understand how precarious its status was.”
11. “Let’s Stay Together,” Al Green. The Reverend’s finest moment. One of our greatest soul singers with his signature song.
12, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” Neil Young. Take it away, Jason Isbell. “’Needle And The Damage Done’” did more to keep me away from heroin than any program or ‘drug war.’ Granted, I studied that song as if it were the only photograph left on Earth.”
13. “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt. Townes was a charismatic Texas legend that could outdrink, outwrite, and outcharm any man in the Lone Star state. Only one of those attributes killed him. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had a #1 hit in 1983 with this tale of outlaw betrayal.
14. “Pusherman,” Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield was a prolific artist who served as the leader of the Impressions in the 1960s, penning “Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right,” and “People Get Ready” for that band. During the same timeframe, he wrote a series of hits for Jerry Butler, Major Lance, and Gene Chandler. Mayfield was one of the first African American soul artists to bring social consciousness into the mainstream and his soundtrack for the Blaxploitation film Superfly actually outgrossed the movie. We might toss in a mention that his technique as a guitarist was startlingly effective and original. (He almost exclusively used an open F-sharp tuning, I mention for the two guitar geeks that might read this).
15. “Sail Away,” Randy Newman. Newman has spent the latter part of his career racking up Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Grammys, and Emmys for his work in movies and television. He was a bit pricklier as a young man. On this album title track, a slave trader makes a sales pitch to a “little wog.” Check out Linda Ronstadt’s overproduced cover version, just for the surrealism.
16. ‘Slow Death,” The Flamin’ Groovies. The Groovies were embarrassingly bad when I saw them recently, but they still couldn’t screw up this magnificent anti-drug Stones inspired rocker. Maybe this title has become a metaphor for their career.
17. “Stay With Me,” The Faces. Rod Stewart worked and toured both as a solo artist and as the lead singer of the Faces in the early 1970s. His solo work was more folk based at the time, while the Faces sounded like they emptied their local liquor store before every recording and performance. “Stay With Me” was the band’s biggest U.S. hit; the band also performed on Rod’s cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” but for contractual reasons, that hit was released as a Stewart solo record.
18. “Strawberry Letter 23,” Shuggie Otis. His father Johnny wrote “Willie and the Hand Jive” and Otis started performing professionally before he was a teenager. This heavenly slice of psychedelic pop is better known as a hit by The Brothers Johnson, but I prefer the cool acid vibe of the original.
19. “Thirteen,” Big Star. There was always a tense fragility to Big Star, the sense of impending explosion both musically and interpersonally. In this short, beautifully constructed song, Alex Chilton manages to simultaneously convey melancholy, hope, and rebellion. A rather remarkable achievement for an adolescent love song.
20. “Ziggy Stardust,” David Bowie. Bowie’s glam rock/alien Ziggy Stardust character spoke to a generation of misfits and outsiders in the early ‘70s, or, at the least, gave them an excuse to wear heavy makeup and scare the bejeezus out of their parents. Mick Ronson’s high-octane guitar work provided the perfect counterbalance to Bowie’s fey theatrics.
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