music / Columns

The Top 5 Songs Of the 1970s

August 24, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

So it turns out I was a little premature when, back at the beginning of June, I declared that I was over the worst of my run of bad health and would be delivering the weekly Top 5 once more. But alas, here we are, at the end of August and I am, tentatively, ready to make the same claim. So let’s not waste time, let’s get back to business.

The hated and beloved tastemakers at Pitchfork recently put out their Top 200 songs of the 1970s and that is the obvious inspiration behind this week’s countdown. Whether you think the Chicago website’s writers are insightful or deluded, it’s hard to suppress the joy that comes when flicking through a selection of staggeringly strong songs that you’ve previously loved, possibly never heard before or have even, sacrilegiously, forgotten – seriously, how Richard Hell and The Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” ever escaped my mind I’ll never know.

But let’s not beat around the bush too much, the following 5 songs are my personal selections. Songs that I truly love and that I would honestly stick on repeat without a hesitation in the hear and now. I’ll be discussing history, but I will not let the weight of music history sway my selection.

Now, before we begin, remember:

1) We love to hear your choices in the comment section

2) Please suggest future Top 5 topics.


5. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd [1975]

 

This was the toughest call imaginable. Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Kraftwerk, The Pistols, Gang Of Four, The Clash, Stevie Wonder, Television, Donna Summer, Sly, The Stones, Dolly, Abba, Blondie, Sabbath, Marley, The Ramones, John friggin Lennon, the list goes on and on of artists and tracks that just missed the cut. But I’ve done everything in my powers to stick to my guns and not be swayed by external factors.

After moving beyond pop and disco, I decided that what I really loved about the 70s was the riffs, the explosion of “Search and Destroy” and the thunderous power of “N.I.B.”, so I knew my fifth choice had to be a guitar track, but oddly, I selected a song that proudly eschews bombast while uncorking a killer riff in its own right.

Yes, in the end I plumped for the standout track from my favorite Floyd album. “Wish You Were Here” is a mythical rock legend: a tribute to a former frontman and one time genius who lost his mind to substance abuse, who just so happened to turn up (completely out of the blue) during the recording of the album made in his honor. The situation was surreal and the music that resulted from it was transcendent in two key sense: firstly in its sound and scope (we’d come to expect that from Floyd by 1975), but more importantly it instantly shattered the prog superstar’s pretensions. If the band could be ridiculed for their pomposity and wishy washy universalism, nobody could doubt the sincerity that gave this record a weighty emotional grounding around which the band’s intergalactic musicality could soar. “How I wish you were here”, sentiments don’t come any purer than that.

4. “Mother And Child Reunion” by Paul Simon [1972] 

So this was a straight choice between happy and somber Simon. Once I settled on the latter it came down to a shootout between the eventual winner, “Mother And Child Reunion”, and the masterful “Still Crazy After All These Years”. At the end of the day,  the latter’s ever so slightly clunky bridge lost out to the former’s musical vibrancy. “Mother And Child Reunion” is one of those rare songs that transcends the contrived nature of its creation: Simon headed to Kingston, Jamaica, to record a reggae inspired song and later, on his return home, came up with some lyrics in a thought experiment inspired by a restaurant menu (hardly romantic stuff). On paper the themes are too disparate (the imagined death of a lover, the desire to capture Jamaican rhythm, the idea of a square white folkster from America culturally appropriating music he admits he only half understands), but the end result was sublime. “Mother And Child Reunion” glides from start to finish, delivering heart wrenching haymakers with an improbable fleetness of foot and a deft touch. Simon’s peerless voice practically floats on air, even as he ponders existential questions and rebukes the easy philosophizing of John Lennon.

3. “Fisherman” by The Congos [1977]

The second of two straight songs on this Top 5 to be recorded in Kingston, Jamaica: “Fisherman”, The Congos and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s magnum opus, was recorded in the mythical Black Ark studios – a suitably rudimentary and ramshackle space that would capture the sound of one of music’s most influential islands. “Fisherman” is less a song and more of an endless vibe. As the smoke unfurls and the groove winds at a seductively, nonchalant, saunter, you can practically see music’s rich past and bold future taking shape in front of you. From the religious songs of slave ships to the floor fillers of dancehall and the hauntingly desolate menace of The Specials’ “Ghost Town” – it’s all here in “Fisherman’s” five and half minutes of roots reggae perfection. The production might garner the adoration of artists today, but don’t sleep on an unimpeachable blend of vocals. In 1977 The Congos delivered pure pop perfection on their own terms and in their own sweet time.

2. “Breaking Glass” by David Bowie [1977]

This might just be the song I get the most flak for. Sure I’m writing a subjective list on the Internet, I expect a battering, but I’m well aware that “Breaking Glass” isn’t one of Bowie’s biggest songs – even if it is off what is considered by many to be his best album. This was a tricky call, I wrote a tribute to Bowie for this site where I ran through over 40 (and that was a tough edit) of my favourite Bowie tracks through the years – so picking one was never going to be easy.

So how did I end up with “Breaking Glass”? I narrowed it down to a short list of the Bowie songs that mean the most to me (“Station To Station”, “Wild Is The Wind”, “Life On Mars?”, “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Sound And Vision”), but rather than trying to hash it out intellectually, I sat back, closed my eyes and thought what is the one song I would and have played when I’m desperate to hear a Bowie track: “Breaking Glass” was and is the answer.

Lasting less than two minutes, “Breaking Glass” is a mere fragment (a shard?) of a song, but it captures the freedom, excess and precision of the Berlin sessions perfectly (and is, in that sense, reminiscent of the Abbey Road medley). Clearly influenced by Brian Eno and the Krautrock scene, “Breaking Glass” kicks like a mule and snaps meticulously in line like a malfunctioning military march. Bowie is paranoid, but precise, and free to go where he damn well wants. He’s vibing, but the results are not slapshot, they are punchy and pinpoint, despite the inherent inanity of lyrics. Somewhere between Bowie’s fractured, but imperial vocal, and that serenely maniacal marriage of lock-step guitar and eye-shattering synths is the essence of rock and roll immortality.

  1. 1. “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush [1978]

The was no question which track was going to top my list. Kate Bush is royalty in my neck of the woods (South London, in the UK). Local chain restaurants have her lyrics and quotes adorning their walls (that’s not a joke) and there has always been a certain pride in the fact that these working class suburbs – famed for their lack of culture and distinct identity – could deliver the most uniquely demented and willfully intellectual art-pop sensation of the 70s. So influential is Bush, that comparing female pop and rock stars to her has become a cliché that journalists simply cannot avoid. She inspired and continues to inspire an endless array of artists and – quite remarkable – despite the repetition of her themes, the imitation hasn’t blunted Bush or “Wuthering Heights”.

This last part is key, Bowie and Prince are superfreaks, but their wild colors have been muted over time. The music remains remarkable, but no one is shocked or weirded out by “Queen Bitch” or “If I Were Your Lover”. “Wuthering Heights”, on the other hand, is utterly singular; a wilting, trilling rollercoaster of indulgence held together with the frailest of baroque frameworks and a control of melody that is simply stunning. There are 70s flourishes that can be detected (the stadium sized guitar that sneaks in at the track’s crescendo), but “Wuthering Heights” remains a song out of time that is interminably difficult to either dance or sing along to, but proves so buoyant and inspiring that the listener is compelled to embarrass themselves and give it a go nevertheless. And isn’t that exactly what the best pop should seek to do?


Remember to share your favorites below and with any luck the Reader’s Top 5 will return next week.