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Twenty Five British Classic Rock Tracks from the 1970s

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After the British Invasion took America by storm in 1964, U.S. radio listeners long remained fascinated with U.K. musicians, who often were simply updating the Delta and Chicago blues traditions with a better sense of style. The U.K. bands represented below range from the traditional hard rock and metal of The Who and Led Zeppelin to the more progressive rock styles of The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. These article is comprised of excerpts from the Steve Crawford book 1,000 Essential Songs from the 1970s, available here.

 

  1. All the Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople: After four album releases yielded zero hit singles, Mott the Hoople was ready to throw in the towel. David Bowie wrote this glam rock anthem for the band, breathing new life into their career. “All the Young Dudes” dismisses the Stones and Beatles as yesterday’s news, name checks T. Rex, and became a theme song for a new generation of disaffected youth. Also, future Bad Company guitarist Mick Ralphs provided one of the decade’s most memorable guitar intros.

 

  1. Baba O’Riley, The Who: The Who never played small ball, their gift to the world was grandiose rock anthems – think of them as Queen without irony.  On the lead track to the band’s last great album, the use of synthesizers as a rhythmic piece and the Celtic jig coda are interesting touches, but it’s the power chords and dynamics that have made “Baba O’Riley” a classic rock standard.  As a lyricist, Townshend was often better delivering slogans and catch phrases (“I don’t need to fight/To prove I’m right”) than developing fully realized commentaries.  He could have been a fantastic advertising man.

 

  1. Bungle in the Jungle, Jethro Tull: Jethro Tull was primarily a theatrical concert/album rock phenomenon; they had limited success with singles. “Living in the Past,” originally released in 1969, went to #11 in 1973 after its inclusion in a compilation album. The safari themed “Bungle in the Jungle,” comparing relationships to animal traits, went to #12 in 1974 for their last U.S. pop hit. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of “Bungle in the Jungle” is how well the band kept their infamous artistic excesses in check.

 

  1. The Faith Healer, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: Alex Harvey was almost a two decade veteran on the U.K. music scene, involved in skiffle, rock, soul, and musical theater, before finding stardom with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Labeled as a glam act due to the era, “The Faith Healer” was a dramatic psychedelic rocker with theatrical elements not unlike Alice Cooper. Years later, guitarist Zal Cleminson would reflect on Harvey’s memorable live performances of the song, “He would adopt a biblical stance, holding his arms out ahead of him, wanting to put his hands on the audience. It was almost like somebody summoning their flock, offering to heal them, Jesus-like. And I think Alex actually believed there were kids who needed some kind of guidance. That’s what a lot of his subsequent songs were about.“

 

  1. Far Far Away, Slade: While Slade was one of the biggest bands in the U.K. in the early 1970s, they were virtually unknown in the states. Still their last Top 5 U.K. hit during that decade was inspired by a U.S. tour with lead singer Noddy Holder looking at the Mississippi River and reflecting upon what he was missing at home. The mid tempo “Far Far Away,” anchored by the type of descending bassline that The Kinks often employed in the late 60s, sounds nothing like the band’s typical ravers. This is a moving account of someone living his dream, but knowing that it comes with a price.

 

  1. The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown), Fleetwood Mac: Written at the time when Peter Green was leaving Fleetwood Mac, this #10 U.K. hit makes two irrefutable points: (1) Peter Green was one of the best guitarists on the English music scene with a savvy knowledge of dynamics and (2) LSD was one hell of a drug. B.B. King, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one (of the English guitarists) who gave me the cold sweats.” Green has stated that “manalishi” was a reference to “money.” Thinking he had too much, the founding member of Fleetwood Mac gave most of his wealth to charity. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Green spent several years in mental hospitals, but resumed live performances in the mid-1990s.

 

  1. Highway Star, Deep Purple: Speed metal didn’t evolve into a major commercial genre until the 1980s, when bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax popularized the form.  Certainly Motörhead was a primary influence for the 1980’s speed/thrash movement, but the eight cylinders interstate throttle of “Highway Star” may have been the first true speed metal song. Exhilarating and influential, for my money Deep Purple’s best moment.

 

  1. I’ve Seen All Good People, Yes: The Yes Album was the band’s third LP, but the first to include guitarist Steve Howe, whose multi-faceted playing gave the group a diverse arsenal of sounds. “I’ve Seen All Good People” is a suite of two songs, “Your Move” and “All Good People,” that segue together on the album.  The band teetered on the edge of progressive rock preciousness, but Howe’s guitar playing (less histrionic than Page, more sonically varied that Clapton) offset Anderson’s soulless alto tenor voice.

 

  1. John Barleycorn, Traffic: Traffic formed in 1967, after Steve Winwood left The Spencer Davis Group, and had immediate success in the U.K. with the Top Ten hit singles “Paper Sun,” “Hole in My Shoe,” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” From their 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die, “John Barleycorn” is a drinking song disguised as a murder ballad; the concept originated from a poem/folk tune that dates back to the 1500s. Steve Winwood and Traffic gave it a baroque treatment with Chris Wood’s flute playing providing the solo interludes. The gathering of crops has never sounded more ominous.

 

  1. Lights Out, UFO: The British heavy metal band UFO formed in London in 1969 and originally was slotted in the “space rock” genre. In 1973, the band recruited eighteen year old guitarist Michael Schenker from the Scorpions. Schenker became known for his proficiency on his Flying V guitar and his unpredictable behavior. UFO never had a gold or platinum album in the U.S., but did go to #23 on the album charts with their 1977 release Lights Out. The title track was fast, clean metal with lyrics about – really, it’s true – anarchy in the U.K. Schenker has named the track as one of his definitive performances.

 

  1. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Traffic: On this eleven and a half minute track with snail paced verses, you get the complete 1970’s drug experience without hitting the streets to score some pot or Quaaludes. Every time I get to Chris Wood’s distorted saxophone solo, it’s all I can do to keep myself from checking into rehab. The title was given to Jim Capaldi by actor Michael J. Pollard, who starred in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Capaldi on Pollard, “He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The ‘Low Spark,’ for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The ‘Low Spark’ meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.”

 

  1. Man on the Silver Mountain, Rainbow: Rainbow was Ritchie Blackmore’s post Deep Purple band, one that he had more artistic control over, and the introduction of Ronnie James Dio’s dramatic vocal prowess to heavy metal audiences. “Man on the Silver Mountain” paired the band’s early medieval themes with a metal groove similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot.” After Dio left, Rainbow moved to a more commercial rock direction and scored a Top Ten U.K. hit in 1979 with “Since You’ve Been Gone” and a Top 40 U.S. hit in 1982 with “Stone Cold.”

 

  1. Motorhead, Motörhead: After an unpleasant experience with Canadian police in 1975, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister was invited to leave Hawkwind and he quickly established Motörhead, a band influenced by the MC5 that would eventually become pioneers in the genre of speed metal.  Motörhead had gained no traction by 1977 and was on the verge of breaking up, however an unexpected deal with Chiswick Records resulted in their debut album and a new lease on life. They would eventually streamline their sound, but their song “Motorhead” is an early example of their hard rock boogie bridging into metal – sounding a bit like Status Quo waking up in a particularly disagreeable mood.

 

  1. Nights in White Satin, The Moody Blues: Soaked in reverb, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra, incorporating a floating Mellotron hook and a flute solo, “Nights in White Satin” is pop song that sounds like a mini-opera.  Originally released in 1967, the hyper-dramatic number became a hit in the U.S. in 1972, after radio audiences had been conditioned to listening to lengthier records.  Justin Hayward on its inspiration: “About an audience in Glastonbury, a flat in Bayswater, and the ecstasy of an hour of love.”

 

  1. Paper Plane, Status Quo: Status Quo is a one hit wonder band in the U.S. – they landed at #12 in 1968 with the blissful psychedelic garage rock of “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” However, they were a major international act, scoring hits on the U.K. pop charts for over four decades.  Lyrically, “Paper Plane” is a typical rock star road blues song, but, musically the verses are based on short, guitar downstrokes that would later be the bread and butter of the punk movement.   While Status Quo is often pigeonholed as a “boogie rock” band, this Top Ten U.K. hit is pure protopunk sweetness. Their mid-1970’s hits “Caroline” and “Down Down” are also welcome additions to any record collection.

 

  1. Paranoid, Black Sabbath: An adrenaline rush protopunk classic, “Paranoid” was a Top Five hit in the U.K. Influential? John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, “One of the greatest ever singles.” Accidental? Geezer Butler, “The Song ‘Paranoid’ was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.” Far from metal’s typical swagger, “Paranoid” is a plea for help from a self imprisoned emotional loony bin occupant.

 

  1. The Ripper, Judas Priest: The heavy metal band Judas Priest formed in Birmingham, England in 1970, the name recycled from another local band that began in 1969 and quickly disassembled. Priest originally performing blues based rock, switching to heavy metal before releasing their first album, 1974’s Rocka Rolla. “The Ripper” displayed the bands duel lead guitar, riff oriented sound with Rob Halford’s high pitched, operatic style vocals on a song about a serial killer. Kind of the perfect topic for a heavy metal band.

 

  1. Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy, Bad Company : There were two hit singles with variations of this title in the late 1970s. The Kinks returned to the Top 40 charts for the first time since 1970’s “Lola” with “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy,” in which Ray Davies mulls over disbanding his group and wonders after the death of Elvis if the genre is viable lifestyle for mature adults. Bad Company’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” aimed lower lyrically, but had the band’s trademark blues rock/metal kick. This was the last Bad Company hit single with Paul Rodgers performing lead vocals. The band had a minor commercial resurgence in the early ‘90s with Brian Howe taking over the frontman role.

 

  1. Silver Machine, Hawkwind: Hawkwind formed in London in 1969 and became well known in the “space rock” genre – a form of psychedelic rock that applied a liberal use of synthesizers and, often, science fiction lyrical themes.  A cult band in the U.S., known primarily for being the group Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister was in before Motörhead, Hawkwind had a lengthy career in the U.K., where they still tour and record.  “Silver Machine” was their biggest hit, going to #3 on the U.K. pop charts. This squiggles and whoosh heavy upbeat rocker about traveling throughout the universe is trippy, figuratively and literally.

 

  1. Slow Ride, Foghat : The nucleus of Foghat was comprised of three musicians who left the British blues band Savoy Brown in 1970. Their 1972 debut album received attention from their cover version of the Willie Dixon composition/Muddy Waters hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” but they had their biggest chart success with the riff driven “Slow Ride.” The simplicity of the song makes AC/DC sound like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but for basic 70’s pound and pummel rock ‘n’ roll, it served its purpose well.

 

  1. When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin were masters of constructive larceny, engaging in theft to hopefully deliver a better product, but they actually gave Memphis Minnie the proper writing credit for her 1929 country blues number and then delivered a performance worthy of the hammer of the Gods.  John Bonham’s powerful drumming laid the foundation for blues licks enhanced with studio trickery like backwards echo, panning, phasing, compression, and flanging.  Retaining walls were not built to withstand this kind of assault.

 

  1. Whisky in the Jar, Thin Lizzy: “Whisky in the Jar” is a traditional Irish folk song that may date as far back as the 17thcentury.  In the 1960s, it was recorded by the Irish band The Dublinars and Thin Lizzy developed a hard rock version, reportedly due to a dearth of original material at the band’s outset. Replacing bagpipes with guitar, Thin Lizzy had their first major hit in their native Ireland and in the U.K. with this tale of murder, love, and betrayal. Original guitarist Eric Bell on their first wave of success, “Once we had a hit, 2,000 people would suddenly come down from the balconies and the bars to listen to ‘Whisky in the Jar’ and then about 50 would stay on, when we started playing our own stuff.”

 

  1. Who Are You, The Who: Pete Townshend had an adventurous day in New York during May of 1977.  It started with a lengthy series of meetings (“Eleven hours in the Tin Pan”) with former business managers to negotiate a monetary settlement.  Pete was torn between his rock ‘n’ roll ethos and the reality that he was a businessman as well.  He later ran into Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols at a Lower East Side bar and drunkenly apologized for his band’s compromises and noted that it was the role of punk music to carry on the anti-establishment banner.  (Jones and Cook were both fans of The Who and were unsettled by Townshend’s pronouncements).  Townshend ended the day passed out in front of a doorway in Soho.  The next day, he wrote the band’s final Top 15 U.S. hit.

 

  1. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd: Much of the Wish You Were Here album was influenced by former lead singer Syd Barrett’s descent into mental instability and “Wish You Were Here,” although lyrically vague, is a heartbreaking look at disconnection and loneliness. Syd surprised the band by appearing at the recording studios during the Wish You Were Here sessions, but the band barely recognized the heavy, bald figure who was once one of the U.K.’s most promising rock stars.

 

  1. Wishing Well, Free: Free had already endured one break up before recording their 1973 Heartbreaker album, an effort that was marred by internal strife.  “Wishing Well,” a Top Ten hit in the U.K., was the type of melodic, mid-tempo hard rock that would become a specialty for Paul Rodgers’ ensuing band, Bad Company, and even has a gospel section in the bridge.  Despite the success of the album and single, Free permanently disbanded in early 1973.

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