Tuesday, April 26, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1976

Is it too late to wish you all a happy bicentennial?

If the sound of 1975 found that right balance between art and impulse, then '76 titled slightly toward the excess. Fittingly, the year of America's 200th birthday was also the first big year for disco, but more on that later. The organic singer-songwriter stylings from earlier in the decade was being phased out for music that was safe, slickly produced and oddly corporate. The Eagles, the biggest rock band of the decade up to that point, was swaying from earthy country-rock to the arena-ready guitar licks of new recruit Joe Walsh. In turn, The Doobie Brothers (the '70s second-most successful pop/rock act) overhauled its lineup to accommodate the blue-eyed soul of veteran sideman Michael McDonald. The most important major act to change personnel was the Rolling Stones, who welcomed Ron Wood of The Faces after the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor.

For all those tonal shifts, no one was ready for the advent of punk rock, a sound, an attitude, and a lifestyle whose seeds were first planted that year. Ditching the sonic excesses and growing studio majesty of their more mainstream peers, punk brought rock n' roll back to its basics and made it louder, meaner, and anti-establishment. This was a huge contrast to disco, which first climbed the pop charts in '75, demonstrated they still had legs in '76, and set the tone for top 40 radio for the rest of the decade. Heavy grooves, infectuous beats, and a core of simple songcraft eventually forced the entire music industry to wade their toes in the disco waters.

As for the year itself: I had always assumed 1976 was the weakest year of the decade in terms of music. Instead, I found a treasure trove of great albums and snappy singles --yes, I expanded the lists to 20 again-- including a few that I didn't realize were released this particular year. Now that I've been doing annual music blogs every month for the last 2 1/2 years, I'm kind of tilting towards '73 or '74 as the weakest of the decade, though I have yet to find a year that was outright bad.


1. Ramones, The Ramones. Gabba gabba hey! Even though 1977 will be remembered as the year punk broke out, the debut album by the first true punk band is a '76 vintage. As such, this album sets the blueprint for the whole punk aesthetic: three or four chords; a simple, catchy melody; irresistibly asinine lyrics; and blistering speed. The roots of the Ramones' sound can be found in '50s rock n' roll; though the band is faithful to the structure and intent of their heroes and influences, they simply play that music louder and faster. Long story short, this album is a true essential.
2. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder. The hard-to-fathom winning streak that Wonder carried through the early and mid-1970s hit a cresendo with this ambitious double-LP magnum opus. The arrangements are wide-ranging (even for the versatile Stevie), from the pretty, subdued "Have a Talk With God" to the political "All Day Sucker." If you want hits, they show up in spades: "Sir Duke," "I Wish," "Pastime Paradise," "As," and "Isn't She Lovely" were all radio staples. Nothing that Wonder has released since Key of Life has come close to matching the magic of this album or the rest of his '70s output, but it's not like he had anything left to prove.
3. Boston, Boston. Did Tom Scholz save FM radio? Not by himself, no, but the Toledo-by-way-of-Massachusetts studio whiz definitely played his part. Recorded in his basement on a state-of-the-art 12-track recording device, Scholz, partner in crime Brad Delp, and three other local musicians more or less invented arena rock. If the magic of the best-selling debut album of its time could be culled down to two tracks, they would be the soaring "More Than a Feeling" and the epic "Foreplay/Long Time." With disco and punk demonstrating opposite ends of the pop music spectrum in 1976-77, Boston was the middle-of-the-road band of choice, unlikely saviors and unexpected superstars.
4. Hotel California, The Eagles
5. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers

6. 2112, Rush
7. Desire, Bob Dylan
8. Rocks, Aerosmith
9. A Day at the Races, Queen
10. A New World Record, Electric Light Orchestra. Many acts in the '70s wore their Beatles influence on their sleaves (Big Star, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren) and went off into their own little tangents, but nobody took their admiration of the Fab Four to new dimensions quite like Jeff Lynne and ELO. Imagine Sgt. Peppers' reconstructed by lovelorn alien robots and that describes A New World Record in a nutshell. In fairness, however "Telephone Line" is like the greatest Lennon-McCartney ballad never written, and the clever "Rockaria!" bridges the missing link between Chuck Berry and Richard Wagner nobody knew existed.

11. Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton
12. Destroyer, KISS
13. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC
14. Black Market, Weather Report
15. Warren Zevon, Warren Zevon. Zevon's major label debut --his 1969 bow on the Imperial label is a muddled, deadly serious mess-- was a watershed moment for the veteran songwriter and session musician. Where his comtemporaries on the mid-70s L.A. scene (the so-called "Mellow Mafia") were writing brainy pop songs, Zevon took the motif one step further and added violence, bile, and cynicism. When he didn't wear his black heart on his sleeve, Zevon also wrote beautiful, understand ballads like "Mohammed's Radio" and "Desperados Under the Eaves."

16. The Royal Scam, Steely Dan
17. Black and Blue, The Rolling Stones
18. Night Moves, Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
19. Takin' It To The Streets, The Doobie Brothers
20. Arrival, ABBA. One further debut of importance in '76 came from a Swedish pop act with three albums already under their belt. A curio of sorts when their singles "S.O.S." and "Waterloo" found radio play in the US in late 1975, ABBA proved their mettle on their fittingly-titled breakthrough Arrival. "Dancing Queen" is far and away the best-known track, an international #1 hit and the earwig that almost single-handedly built their American fan club, but the other nine tracks are equally delicious ear-candy.


"Saturday Night," Bay City Rollers
"Rubberband Man," The Spinners
"You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," Lou Rawls
"All By Myself," Eric Carmen
"She's Gone," Hall & Oates
"Fooled Around and Fell In Love," Elvin Bishop
"Dream Weaver," Gary Wright
"Right Back Where We Started From," Maxine Nightingale
"Turn The Beat Around," Vicki Sue Robinson
"Year of the Cat," Al Stewart

"Achilles' Last Stand," Led Zeppelin
"It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll)," AC/DC
"Jailbreak," Thin Lizzy
"Crazy on You," Heart
"Space Intro/Fly Like an Eagle," Steve Miller Band
"The Pretender," Jackson Browne
"Strangered in the Night," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
"Don't Fear the Reaper," Blue Oyster Cult
"Younger Point of View," Dogs
"Cherry Bomb," The Runaways


"Crackerbox Palace," George Harrison. Notice the singular, not the plural. The concept of a short promotional film to promote an artist's new song was pretty staid until the late '70s. The vast majority of the videos made then were short clips of the artist perfoming; the song spoke for itself, and there was no other art involved. Half the time, they were culled from "American Bandstand," Britain's "Top of the Pops," or their German cousin "Musik Laden," then inchangably recycled. This clip, primitive by today's standards but aggressively oddball for its time, is more historical curio than masterpiece for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it marked a rare collaboration between a Beatle and a member of Monty Python; Eric Idle directed the clip during a breather from Rutland Weekend Television, and his former collaborator Neil Innes has an extended cameo.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. "Those tall ships really lifted the nation's spirits after Watergate."

    Ah, my favorite Ramones album. As for the Stones "Black and Blue": completely unlistenable and my pick for the 1st completely bad Stones album, tho the two preceding albums were pretty terrible as well; sans a song or two. Ugh, your #3, #4, #6 & #18 album picks make my skin crawl. A lot of my late 60s / early 70s favorite bands had become irrelevant by '76, tho there's still some favorites on here with Dylan, Heart, SMB & AC/DC. Tho it seems like a year of slim pickings for this fan.

    I bet there was a lot of red, white & blue everywhere that year in stark contrast to what the '70s generally looked like.