THE READING ROOM: Year by Year, An Ode to the Music of the 1970s
Even though I started listening to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, The Isley Brothers, The Toys, Clarence Carter, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere and the Raiders — all much to the chagrin of my parents — when I was young, I didn’t come of age musically until the early 1970s.
By the end of the 1960s, I had already started down a different path — one already cleared, of course, by my earlier listening — cranking up Ten Years After and copying, as best as I could, Alvin Lee’s licks on “I’m Going Home.” I ambled off in the direction of progressive rock — though I certainly wouldn’t have called it that at the time — when I picked up Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s first album.
Already a fan of Buffalo Springfield, I followed each member after the split as they wandered off into Poco, Loggins and Messina, and, of course, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and after one album, Young. I probably turned “Almost Cut My Hair” up as loud as I could to irritate my father, from whom I was already estranged. When I returned home after the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I brought shoulder length hair and Black Sabbath home with me to introduce to my friends.
As the decade wore on, I drove around the streets of West Palm Beach, Florida, with Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night blaring and his brother Johnny’s version of Edgar’s guitarist Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” cranked up. Somewhere in there I was listening to the Eagles, but stopped when the schlocky — to me — Hotel California came out, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Uriah Heep, Mountain, and Yes. By the end of the 1970s, I had turned more to country music and country rock. Sure, I listened to Fleetwood Mac, but the new group — with Nicks and Buckingham — just didn’t reach me the same way that the earlier incarnations had.
For me, rock died in the mid-1970s, so by the end of the decade I was returning to the music of the early 1970s, or listening to what then was called alternative rock or indie rock. I am making distinctions about genres now, but back then my friends and I didn’t make any distinctions; we were listening to music, to the music whose rhythms or lyrics or melodies grabbed us.
Musician, DJ, and music writer John Corbett takes a long look at the music of the ’70s in his peripatetic and illuminating reflections in Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music (Chicago). Part memoir, part music criticism, and part music history, Pick Up the Pieces takes us on a journey through each year of the decade as Corbett reflects on where he was, who he was with, and what he was doing when certain albums and songs arrived on the scene, and why the music affected him. He ranges widely over all kinds of music, including the Kinks’ “Lola,” Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Yes’ Close to the Edge, Al Green’s Call Me, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” Patti Smith’s Horses, Richard Hell and the Voivoids’ Blank Generation, and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
Some of the reflections, such as those on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, are simply lists of 10 thoughts on the album. So, on the Springsteen, who at the time “joined Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and Billy Joel in my personal parade of star losers,” he reflects on Clarence Clemons: “Suburban New Jersey death trip with Elvis twang, Phil Spectorisms, and an ultra-square tenor saxophonist. Clarence Clemons is the most unswinging horn man, though he possessed a huge sound and seemingly infinite projection. If King Curtis had played with a top-shelf Jersey bar band rather than the Coasters, this would have been his jam.”
Other pieces are essays in which Corbett places the music within the context of his life, remembering the exact moment when he first heard an album and teasing out what it meant to him back then. In 1977, he and his girlfriend are listening to Fleetwood Mac — their favorite album at the time — when a friend shows up with the band’s new album, Rumours. They head off into the country to listen to it over and over. Corbett recalls the reasons the album affected him so deeply: “We don’t have a category for Fleetwood Mac. They contain country, folk, pop, and rock, but they’re none of these. Anyway, genre is not so important to us right now. Fleetwood Mac transcends classification to become pure, nameless emotion … The band etches a pentagram into the sand on one dark track, tendering crystal visions and damning love lies, offering up a theme song for optimism on another. Electric piano meets acoustic twelve-string; an indelible melody sits atop an inconsolable drone.”
Corbett opens his reflection on Al Green’s Call Me and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On with a recollection of spending his Sunday mornings in the staid and boring Episcopal church he attended with his parents. He then moves into a meditation on the ways that Green’s gospel tones transform his secular music. Corbett hears a glimmer of spiritual transformation in the orgiastic title track of Gaye’s album, though: “Drummer Uriel Jones of the Funk Brothers is sensationally buoyant on the whole song, but he introduces a little fill just shy of the “Ooooh” that consists of a shuffle and a shake punctuated by a big cymbal splash. Nothing super flashy but miraculously timed. More than any of Gaye’s explicit yearnings, this miniscule flick of the drums is the place where I hear the flash of flesh as it disappears into thin air … Just for that instant, that suspended breath, the spirit enters my body, filling me, flushing me, transporting me from the realm of a bored kid in church to what passes in my adult world for rapture.”
Corbett also reflects on Lester Bangs’ influence on him: “What made Bangs the quintessential music writer of the seventies was the way he spinal-tapped them for their gonzo. He could be as harsh as he was adulating. There was little in the middle … Through his words I got a feeling that was like listening to what he was writing about. His was a paraliterature of rock’s excesses; he massaged the most bodaciously hyperbolic among them for anything he could extract, his language as soloistic and balls-out as any Johnson-flapping hophead with an electrified git-fiddle wired into an ample o’fire. Only Richard Meltzer could give him a run for his money. Anything but square, Bangs remains, in my mind, square one.”
We can dip into any of the essays in Pick Up the Pieces and discover new insights about familiar music. Corbett’s writing leads us to listen to this music again, but, more importantly, the pieces encourage us to ask why certain songs and albums matter to us and why we loved them in the first place. Corbett’s entertaining essays remind us of the rich range of the decade’s music: “In one quick decade, you have Springsteen’s go-kart Mozarts, the wizards of progressive rock, composing with all the complexity they can muster alongside three-chord reductive rockers and pneumatic punks all hailing rock ‘n’ roll, and vamping funkmeisters splishing around in rhythmic subtlety and modal jams.”