1. “Ballroom Blitz,” Sweet. Mixing bubblegum pop with Townshend power chords, songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman wrote a series of U.K. hits for Sweet, including “Little Willie,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and the excitingly punctuated “Block Buster!” “Ballroom Blitz” is Sweet at their irresistible best and was a major international hit – it went to #2 in the U.K. in 1973 and #3 in the U.S. in 1975. By the way, every assignment I receive from Iman “The Big Don” Lababedi begins with a menacing, “Are you READY, Steve?” followed by a meek “Uh huh” reply from me.
2. “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen. If I were asked under oath what is the greatest song in the history of rock ‘n’ roll music, I would probably respond with “Born to Run.” That is not to say that “My Old Man’s a Fatso” by the Angry Samoans doesn’t deserve consideration.
3. “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young. Anybody can write songs about love or drinking or hand puppet theatre, but leave it to our hero Neil to narrate a tale about the Aztec Empire and the conquering of Mexico by Hernan Cortez. Or, just ignore the words and enjoy the song as one long, brilliant guitar solo.
4. “Get Down Tonight,” KC and the Sunshine Band. Harry Wayne Casey was a disco era hit machine – “Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way (I Like It),”(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” and “I’m Your Boogie Man” all hit #1 on the pop charts between 1975 and 1977. KC’s formula was simple but effective – catchy, repetitive lyrics for the Top 40 crowd and a Latin funk flavored disco groove for the dance floor. He’s your boogie man. That’s what he am.
5. “Jackie Blue,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils. For me, these guys never lived up to their name. Instead of your usual Southern rock hair farm, I expected to see barefoot hillbillies wearing overalls that juggled chainsaws while drinking corn mash. Anyway, put some blacklight posters on your wall, plug in the lava lamp, darken your room, crank this up on headphones, and pretend you are on Quaaludes. By the time you get to the bridge, you’ll swear that President Ford is about to trip over your beanbag chair.
6. “Lady Marmalade,” Labelle. Labelle’s history dates back to the late 1950’s. “Their” first hit, 1962’s “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” was actually recorded by The Starlets, a Chicago based girl group. Labelle toiled in obscurity until being paired up with New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint, who rescued this tune from an amateurish recording by The Eleventh Hour. The group updated their image to look like a distaff P/Funk and took this funky number about French Quarter prostitution to the top of the pop charts.
7. “Land (Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)),” Patti Smith. Nobody has ever worked the somewhat unhinged beatnik/artist/street poet persona as effectively as Smith did. Always good to see a CREEM freelancer move on to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
8. “Long Haired Country Boy,” Charlie Daniels Band. Ol’ Charlie wasn’t always a right wing reactionary tossing out red meat scraps to the Ted Nugent crowd. In the ‘70s, the CDB was tweaking television preachers, eating reefer, and making fun of John Birch. I wonder if that guy can just inhale and smell where the money is.
9. “Low Rider,” War. War first hit the charts as Eric Burdon’s backup band (“Spill the Wine” went to #3 in 1970), then scored several hits on their own including “The World is a Ghetto,” “The Cisco Kid,” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” On “Low Rider” the band manages to be both simultaneously laid back cool and irresistibly funky.
10. “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John. Supposedly written as a tribute to Billy Jean King, the verses make little literal sense, but Elton was still at the top of his pop game in 1975. Shine a light.
10. “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn. MCA sat on this record for three years, fearing it was too controversial for country radio. It still went #5 on the country charts, although some stations wouldn’t play it due to its subject matter. Hard to imagine a time when contraception was a sensitive issue in America. Insert Hobby Lobby joke here.
11. “Shame, Shame, Shame,” Shirley and Company. Shirley was Shirley Goodman, who had recorded “Let the Good Times Roll” as part of the duo of Shirley and Lee in 1956. Check out the guitar and beat on this disco hit – it sounds like the template for Nile Rodgers’ career.
12. “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” Gary Stewart. Stewart was too wild and inconsistent to be a long-term major country music star, but he reached the Top Ten in 1974 with “Drinkin’ Thing” and “Out of Hand.” “She’s Actin’ Single” was his only #1 hit and he would spend the remainder of his career playing minor hits in Texas honky-tonks. I could have seen him play at a small club in Tulsa when I lived there. Regrets, I got a few.
13. “Shining Star,” Earth, Wind & Fire. EWF had been recording since 1971, but “Shining Star,” which starts with a Stevie Wonder inspired funk intro, was their first major hit. The group’s only pop #1, it knocked “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” by Tony Orlando and Dawn out of the top slot and was replaced by Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Eclectic times.
14. “Stranglehold,” Ted Nugent. Not only Terrible Ted’s best moment, but this exploding rocker was also used as the entrance music for wrester Kevin Von Erich in the early ‘80s. Statistically speaking, if you were a wrestling son of Fritz Von Erich in the ‘80s and you didn’t use “Stranglehold” as your theme song, there is a 0% chance that you are alive today.
15. “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob Dylan. This is my favorite Dylan song because it’s about my life. And it’s about your life and my dog’s life and the life of my unborn grandchildren. Dylan, “What’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics, and there’s also no sense of time. There’s no respect for it. You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine not happening.” We are all Billy Pilgrim.
16. “There’s Never Been Any Reason,” Head East. Their career may have been as flat as a pancake, but they reached pop/rock AOR perfection on this song and have been gigging ever since. Even though they are from Illinois, in 2011 they were inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Appreciation Hall of Fame. This gives me hope that I still someday may be inducted into the Idaho Intramural Tap Dancing Hall of Fame, Men Over 40 Division.
17. “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play),” The Spinners. This #5 pop hit is awkwardly titled because the publishing company didn’t want the royalties confused with “Games People Play” by Joe South. For the rest of bass vocalist Pervin Jackson’s life, which ended in 2008, he was known as “12:45.”
18. “Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd. In 1990, I heard someone singing this on a street corner in Lucerne, Switzerland. I didn’t check to see whether it was Roger Waters.
19. “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” David Allan Coe. Coe is a weird dude – he wears a wig that is so bad it would make Carl Perkins chuckle in his grave and in the early 1980s he released two racist, homophobic albums for his friends in “an outlaw motorcycle gang.” However, he did turn Steve Goodman’s spoof on country music into a legitimate hit. I saw Coe in concert a few years ago and if you ever get the chance to see him, do something else.
20. “Young Americans,” David Bowie. Bowie hit #1 late in 1975 with “Fame,” a co-write with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and on this effort he reworks one of Lennon’s most famous lines (“I heard the news today, oh boy!”). “Young Americans,” the lead and title track of his 1975, is where he established his new “plastic soul” direction. Impress your friends by telling them that future soul star Luther Vandross sang on the track and recommended the backing vocal arrangement. Or, just buy them a ham. Almost everyone likes ham.
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