Much is made about 1977 being important as the year of revolution against rock music. We thought it might be a good time to see what they had to complain about. This week, we’re looking at the best albums of 1976.
When critics talk about the years that were the most important to music, you always see the usual suspects. It’s always 1967, 1977, and 1991. I think the most important of those to our current musical environment was 1977. This is for two reasons. First, of the three years, ’77 most closely resembled our current mainstream landscape. It just seems like everything sounds the same. ’67 and ’91 were about underground music becoming palatable to the masses, but ’77 was about the flourishing of underground music despite the music industry’s ironclad hold on the gatekeeper’s key. That has a lot to do with what we are seeing today, although on a much smaller scale. The second reason 1977 is important for contemporary times is that it was the beginning of a true deconstruction of genre identity. Those bands were taking the first step towards making literally anything possible in terms of personal musical expression. The problem with this argument is that it is far too reductive. While a perfect storm of circumstances can certainly lead to outbursts of creativity, the creative mind is evolutionary and simply doesn’t care about the calendar date. I find it just as important to look at what was happening leading up to that breakout year that helped set the stage. Of course, it only makes more sense when considering that the punk music of groups like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were positioned as an all out assault on the vapid arena rock and bloated progressive rock that had taken hold on the airwaves. We always take for granted that everything immediately before the floodgates were opened in ’77 must have been complete garbage. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Of course, there is plenty of bad to discuss in 1976. It was in 1976 that The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) became the first album in history to be certifited platinum by the RIAA, representing sales of at least 1 million copies. They would release Hotel California later in the year. Two of the top five singles of 1976 were released by ABBA. Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was the fifth. This was the period when Barry Manilow and the Bee Gees ruled the commercial charts. At the second annual Rock Music Awards, Peter Frampton won Rock Personality of the Year and Fleetwood Mac won for Best Group and Best Album. At the same time, it seemed as if the rock giants of the previous decade were finally succumbing to the years of excess. In March, Who drummer Keith Moon would collapse onstage, ten minutes into a performance at the Boston Garden. In June, Alice Cooper collapsed and was rushed to the hospital only three weeks before beginning his tour in support of Goes To Hell. After years of drug-fueled infighting, The Band would play their final performance in 1976, filming one of the grandest commercials against cocaine use ever made, The Last Waltz. Keith Richards would be one of many drug-related rock arrests after police found cocaine in his car while investigating an accident he had been involved in. This is also the year that Jerry Lee Lewis would be arrested for showing up at Graceland drunk and demanding to see Elvis, while waiving a gun in the air. It seemed that the naysayers may have been right. In 1976, there was an argument to be made that rock music was dead, leaving only the carcass of corporate arena rock.
But, as with all things, it wasn’t that simple. To begin, there were already rumblings of what would come in 1977. The Sex Pistols were actually signed to EMI Records in 1976. This was the year that Siouxsie and the Banshees would make their first performance. A band called Feedback would form in Dublin in 1976. They would later change the name to U2. George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic blew their rock and roll brothers away with the grandest stage show ever performed as they began the “P-Funk/Rubber Band Earth Tour” in October. On top of all of this was the continued success of the far too maligned glam rock genre. Also on that list of the five most successful singles of the year was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I will always argue that you don’t get to punk without having glam first. It’s social impact in toying with gender identity still hasn’t been fully tackled. More importantly, glam artists were responsible for some damn good music that really kept the mid-seventies afloat while everyone else was entering rehab or still deciding on the most fashionable way to wear a safety pin. So, let’s celebrate this often ignored period in music. It’s time to get the spirit of ’76!
Joan Armatrading – Joan Armatrading
KISS – Destroyer
Kraftwerk – Radio-Aktivitat
Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Tom Waits – Small Change
Waylon Jennings – Waylon Live!
AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Aerosmith – Rocks
Willie Nelson – The Troublemaker
Eddie & the Hot Rods – Teenage Depression
The Runaways – The Runaways
Sparks – Big Beat
801 – 801 Live
Split Enz – Second Thoughts
Alice Cooper – Goes To Hell
Bob Marley – Rastaman Vibration
Bryan Ferry – Let’s Stick Together
David Bowie – Station to Station
Electric Light Orchestra – A New World Record
Fela Kuti & Aftrica ’70 – Zombie
Funkadelic – Hardcore Jollies
Jeff Beck – Wired
a notable exclusion.
This week I have to make an exclusion that truly breaks my heart. 1976 was the year Stevie Wonder released his single finest work Songs in the Key of Life. The sprawling double album is one of the very best works to ever come out of Motown. This was the same year that Stevie would sign a 13 million dollar contract with the record company and I believe this album alone was worth the asking price. Unfortunately, I just think that Songs in the Key of Life has already received its fair share of attention. This is one of those records that gets discussed on lists of the greatest albums of all-time, let alone 1976. As well it should. If you are one of the poor souls that has yet to experience the pure joy of Stevie in his prime, then do yourself a favor and go get this record. For the purposes of this list however, I just don’t think it makes sense to go back over this well-covered ground.
10. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – Love’s A Prima Donna
Steve Harley is an interesting case in music history. He had a long and mostly good music career, but has somehow been lost in time, hardly ever mentioned today for his great works. As a child, Harley suffered from polio, spending four years in a hospital until the age of 16. It was in that hospital that he first heard Bob Dylan, inspiring him to a career of words and music. Harley started out playing in bars and clubs in the early 1970s, mainly at folk venues on open-mike nights. He also busked around London on the Underground and in Portobello Road. While auditioning for folk band Odin in 1971, he met violinist John Crocker, with whom Harley formed Cockney Rebel in late 1972.
Cockney Rebel went on to release The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo before splitting up in 1974. However, Harley carried on with drummer Stuart Elliot, renaming the band Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, with whome he had more commercial success. From the next album, The Best Years of Our Lives, came the number one and million selling single, “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”. Harley had two more hits during the mid-1970s with “Mr Raffles” and “here Comes the Sun”, the latter coming from our number ten selection here.
“Maybe in six months time, some perceptive journalist will say: ‘Didn’t Steve Harley do this a year ago and didn’t we say it was rubbish?'”
Love’s a Prima Donna was recorded at Abbey Road Studios between June and September of 1976. The album reached number 28 in the UK Albums Chart that same year. The record details a direct shift in Harley’s songwriting away from his sophomoric glam persona to a more adult pop sensibility, with the songs focusing more on love than sex for the first time in Harley’s catalog. Allmusic’s Donald Guarisco wrote of the album, “The 1976 album, the last studio outing Harley would record under the Cockney Rebel banner, allowed him to give full vent to his romantic thoughts via “(I Believe) Love’s a Prima Donna” and “(Love) Compared With You”, a delicately orchestrated love ballad that manges to be touching and heartfelt without lapsing into sappy.” The highlight of this diverse collection is an almost John Cale-esque cover of George harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. This song was so good originally and has been covered well so often that it is easy to see how Harley’s version has been lost to time. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic take that puts Harley’s unique voice on display. In terms of what was available in 1976, this is amongst the very best.
9. Rush – 2112
Yup, you’re just going to have to face it; Rush kicks ass. The most common complaint I hear about Rush goes something like this, “They know they’re good. That’s the problem.” What in the good holy hell does that even mean? Do you mean to suggest that virtuoso musicians should purposefully play their talent down just to make the rest of us feel comfortable? The entire reason why Rush stands apart from the muck of 70’s rock radio is their own virtuosity; a three piece that puts quintets to shame (I”m looking at you Fleetwood Mac). Geddy Lee wasn’t as pretty as Robert Plant. Alex Lifeson didn’t play slow blues like Eric Clapton. Instead of a gonzo monster like Keith Moon destroying a three drum set, you have little Neil Peart almost hidden behind a wall of drums. What this band did was sound different, and with 2112 they proved they could sell it.
Due to the relative commercial failure of their previous album, Caress of Steel, the record label is said to have pressured the band not to do another album with “concept” songs. By their own recollection, Rush stuck to their principles and recorded what would become their first commercial success, and ultimately a signature record. 2112 was released in March 1976 and landed on the Billboard Hot 100 album chart, becoming their first album to reach the Billboard Top 100. 2112 would eventually be certified Gold on November 16, 1977, along with the band’s then current releases A Farewell to Kings and the live album All The World’s a Stage. 2112 reached Platinum status on February 25, 1981, shortly after the release of Moving Pictures in 1981, the latter being their biggest selling record to date.
Alright, so here is the concept story of 2112, please bear with me as it is terribly stupid. In the year 2062, a galaxy-wide war results in the union of all planets under the rule of the Red Star of the Solar Federation. By 2112, the world is controlled by the “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx,” who determine the content of all reading matter, songs, and pictures. A man discovers an ancient guitar and learns to play his own music. Thinking he has made a wonderful discovery that will be a boon to humanity, he goes to present the guitar to the priests of the Temples, who angrily destroy it and rebuke him for unearthing one of the “silly whims” that caused the collapse of the previous civilization. He goes into hiding and dreams of a world before the Solar Federation. Upon awakening he becomes distraught and commits suicide. As he dies, another planetary battle begins resulting in the ambiguous ending “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control.” (This spoken section was created by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson reportedly “messing around with a tape recorder.”) In the “VH1 Classic Albums” series about the album, Peart confirmed that he intended the ending to be a happy one as the people of the Solar Federation are liberated.
On the album, Neil Peart credits “the genius of Ayn Rand.” Rand, a Russian-born Jewish-American novelist and creator of the philosophy of Objectivism, wrote a novella titled Anthem (itself adopted as the title of another Rush song, from the album Fly By Night) from which Peart borrowed the broad strokes of the plot. I found this origin pretty disheartening, mostly because Ayn Rand was a sociopath and a terrible writer.
Okay, back to the album. Even with it’s ridiculous concept and morally dubious theme, 2112 is one of the most well-known and respected albums in progressive rock history. For good reason too; the music is damn good. 2112 is one of two Rush albums listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (the other being Moving Pictures). In 2006, a poll of Planet Rock listeners picked 2112 as the definitive Rush album. Also in 2006, the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada chose 2112 to be one of the twelve ‘culturally significant Canadian classics from the film, radio, TV and music industries’ preserved by the group every year. So, they’ve got that going for them.
8. Parliament – The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein
I haven’t been able to include the work of George Clinton in a single list obligatory since I started this column almost 18 months ago. Luckily, we finally get to change that, thanks to 1976’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. There’s something about the title of a Parliment/Funkadelic album that is special. They are always just so fun to say out loud. The P-Funk story began in 1956 in Plainfield, New Jersey, with a doo-wop group formed by fifteen-year-old George Clinton. This was the Parliaments, a name inspired by Parliament cigarettes. By the early 1960s, the group had solidified into the five-man lineup of Clinton, Ray “Stingray” Davis, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas. Later, the group rehearsed in a barbershop partially owned by Clinton and entertained the customers. The Parliaments finally achieved a hit single in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify” while Clinton began commuting to Detroit as a songwriter and producer for Motown Records
By the late 1960s Clinton had assembled a touring band to back up the Parliaments, the first stable lineup of which included Billy Bass Nelson (bass), Eddie Hazel (lead guitarist), Tawl Ross (guitarist), Tiki Fulwood (drums), and Mickey Atkins (keyboards). After a contractual dispute in which Clinton temporarily lost the rights to the name “The Parliaments,” Clinton brought the backing musicians forward and christened them Funkadelic, a guitar-based raw funk band with heavy psychedelic rock influences. Clinton signed Funkadelic to Westbound Records, and the five Parliaments singers were credited as “guests” while the five musicians were listed as the main group members. The debut album Funkadelic was released in 1970. Meanwhile, Clinton regained the rights to the name “The Parliaments” and initiated another new entity, now known as Parliament, with the same five singers and five musicians but this time as a smoother R&B-based funk ensemble that Clinton positioned as a counterpoint to the more rock-oriented Funkadelic.
In the 1975-1979 period, both Parliament and Funkadelic achieved several high-charting albums and singles on both the R&B and Pop charts. Many members of the collective began to branch out into side bands and solo projects under George Clinton’s tutelage, including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, and The Brides of Funkenstein, while longtime members like Eddie Hazel recorded solo albums with songwriting and studio help from the collective. The Parliament albums of this period had become concept albums with themes from science fiction and afro-futurism, elaborate political and sociological themes, and an evolving storyline with recurring fictional characters. Parliament-Funkadelic stage shows (particularly the P-Funk Earth Tour of 1976) were expanded to include imagery from science fiction and a stage prop known as the Mothership.
In 1975, Clinton and company released what would become known as Parliament’s definitive work Mothership Connection. The follow-up to that record, 1976’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein was equally as good in my mind. The album is notable for featuring horn arrangements by ex-James Brown band member, Fred Wesley. The album charted at number 20 on the Billboard pop chart and became Parliament’s second album to be certified gold. Two singles were released off the album, “Do That Stuff”, which charted at number 22, and “Dr. Funkenstein” which charted at number 43. Dr. Funkenstein was one of George Clinton’s many alter egos in the P-Funk mythology and became one of best remembered, with modern covers from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Deadmau5 and lyrical references from Squarepusher. “Do That Stuff” would go on to become one of Clinton’s most sampled songs, having been taken in part by artists like Tatyana Ali, Röyksopp, Nice and Smooth, and Stereo Total.
“Come 1976, and Parliament got up to its usual tricks in that particular incarnation — right down to opening backwards-masked vocal weirdness plus sci-fi scenarios in the “Prelude,” where “funk is its own reward.” With Bernie Worrell and Fred Wesley splitting the horn arrangements and Clinton and Bootsy Collins taking care of the rest, the result is a concept album of sorts you can dance to. The clones get up and do their thing throughout, and if it’s not The Wall, then that’s all to its benefit.”
In May 1997, George Clinton and 15 other members of Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the largest band yet inducted. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Parliament-Funkadelic number 56 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” In February 2002, Spin Magazine ranked Parliament-Funkadelic number 6 on their list of the “50 Greatest Bands of All Time”. In 2010, Parliament-Funkadelic was number 49 on VH1’s list of the greatest artists of all time. P-Funk’s effect on modern popular music is immense. Besides their innovation in the entire genre of funk music, George Clinton and P-Funk are still heard often today, especially in hip-hop sampling. The song “Atomic Dog” is one of the most sampled songs in the history of hip hop, especially in the sub-genre G-funk.
7. Blondie – Blondie
Inspired by the burgeoning new music scene at the Mercer Arts Center, Chris Stein sought to join a similar band. He joined The Stilettos in 1973 as their guitarist and formed a romantic relationship with one of the band’s vocalists, Deborah Harry, a former waitress and Playboy Bunny. Harry had been a member of a folk-rock band, The Wind in the Willows, in the late 1960s. In 1974, Stein parted ways with The Stilettos and Elda Gentile, the band’s originator. Stein and Harry formed a new band with drummer Billy O’Connor and bassist Fred Smith. By 1975, after some personnel turnover (including sisters Tish and Snooky Bellomo on backing vocals), Stein and Harry were joined by drummer Clem Burke, keyboard player Jimmy Destri and bass player Gary Valentine. Originally billed as Angel and the Snakes, they renamed themselves Blondie in late 1975. The name derived from comments made by truck drivers who catcalled “Hey, Blondie” to Harry as they drove by. Blondie became regulars at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
Their debut album Blondie was issued in December 1976. After disappointing sales and poor publicity, Blondie bought back its contract with Private Stock Records. Chrysalis Records then signed the band in 1977 and re-released the album, along with the new second album Plastic Letters. On this second bite, Blondie started picking up steam. The album peaked at number 75 in the United Kingdom and number 14 in Australia in late 1977. Rolling Stone‘s review of the debut album observed the eclectic nature of the group’s music, comparing it to Phil Spector and The Who, and commented that the album’s two strengths were Richard Gottehrer’s production and the persona of Deborah Harry, saying she performed with “utter aplomb and involvement throughout: even when she’s portraying a character consummately obnoxious and spaced-out, there is a wink of awareness that is comforting and amusing yet never condescending.” It also noted that Harry was the “possessor of a bombshell zombie’s voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song”.
“Ahh, New York. I remember Debbie Blondie when she was singing with nursery-rhyme breathiness for a group called the Wind in the Willows. Now she sounds flatly cynical against a very funny aural montage of girl-group and original-punk usages from the prepsychedelic era–less blithe, certainly, but more, you know, together. Which is what new-punk posturing is all about. Special award: best use of trash organ since “Light My Fire.””
The band’s first commercial success occurred in Australia in 1977, when the music television program Countdown mistakenly played their video “In the Flesh”, which was the B-side of their current single “X-Offender”. Jimmy Destri later credited the show’s Molly Meldrum for their initial success, commenting that “we still thank him to this day” for playing the wrong song. In a 1998 interview, drummer Clem Burke recalled seeing the episode in which the wrong song was played, but he and Chris Stein suggested that it may have been a deliberate subterfuge on the part of Meldrum. Stein asserted that “X-Offender” was “too crazy and aggressive [to become a hit]”, while “In the Flesh” was “not representative of any punk sensibility. Over the years, I’ve thought they probably played both things but liked one better. That’s all.” In retrospect, Burke described “In the Flesh” as “a forerunner to the power ballad”. Both the single and album reached the Australian top five in October 1977, and a subsequent double-A release of “X-Offender” and “Rip Her to Shreds” was also popular. A successful Australian tour followed in December, though it was marred by an incident in Brisbane when disappointed fans almost rioted after Harry cancelled a performance, due to illness.
In March 2006, Blondie, following an introductory speech by Shirley Manson of Garbage, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Seven members were invited to the ceremony, which led to an on-stage spat between the extant group and their former band mates, Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante, who asked during the live broadcast of the ceremony to be allowed to perform with the group, a request refused by Harry who stated that the band had already rehearsed their performance. On May 22, 2006, Blondie was inducted into the Rock Walk of Fame at Guitar Center on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. New inductees are voted on by previous Rock Walk inductees. Blondie will forever be remembered for the genre bending band that created hits like “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture”, but my fondest memories of the band will always be the rough and dirty music of their first three LP’s and particularly the self-titled debut.
6. 10cc – How Dare You!
The legacy of 10cc will probably always be just as confusing as their body of work. Known to lay listeners as the group behind the super schmaltzy 70s ballad “I’m Not In Love”, serious 10cc fans know a different group entirely. A few listens to their first four albums find an incredibly interesting art rock band that toyed with the very idea of pop music well before the punks showed up to destroy the scene. The band initially consisted of four musicians—Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme—who had written and recorded together for some three years, before assuming the “10cc” name in 1972. For the most part, 10cc featured two strong songwriting teams, one ‘commercial’ and one ‘artistic’, but both teams injected sharp wit into lyrically dextrous and musically varied songs. Stewart and Gouldman were predominantly pop-song-writers, who created most of the band’s accessible songs. By way of contrast, Godley and Creme were the predominantly experimental half of 10cc, featuring an Art School sensibility and cinematic inspired writing. Every member was a multi-instrumentalist, singer, writer and producer. Most of the band’s albums were recorded at their own Strawberry Studios (North) in Stockport and Strawberry Studios (South) in Dorking, with most of those engineered by Stewart.
Their fourth LP, 1976’s How Dare You!, featuring an iconic Hipgnosis cover, furnished two more UK Top Ten hits—the witty “Art for Art’s Sake” (number 5 in January 1976) and “I’m Mandy, Fly Me” (number 6 in April 1976). But, by this time the once close personal and working relationships between the four members had begun to fray, and it was the last album with the original line-up. Frictions mounted between the group’s two creative teams during the recording of How Dare You, with each pair realising how far apart their ideas had become. When the sessions finished, Godley and Creme left 10cc to work on a project that eventually evolved into the triple LP set Consequences, a sprawling concept album that featured contributions from satirist Peter Cook and jazz legend Sarah Vaughan.
In an interview at the time of its release, Gouldman told Melody Maker music newspaper: “It’s as different as any album by the same band can be, and I think it’s a progression from the last one. I think there’s been a progression on every album and I think we’ve done it again. It’s a strange mixture of songs. There’s one about divorce, a song about schizophrenia, a song about wanting to rule the world, the inevitable money song, and an instrumental.” In a radio interview, Stewart recalled the origins of the song “I’m Mandy Fly Me”:
National Airlines used to have this beautiful poster that they displayed of this gorgeous stewardess inviting you onto the plane. Now her name wasn’t Mandy actually, it was something like, er, oh gosh knows, “I’m Cindy”, a very American name. “I’m Cindy, fly me” which was a quite sexual connotation as well, but I remember seeing in Manchester this beautiful poster and just below it was this tramp, I mean a serious tramp, quite a raggedy guy, looking up at this girl, and I thought God, do you know, there’s a song there. Look at that guy looking up at Cindy-fly-me and I know he’s never gonna get on an aeroplane, I don’t think, except in his dreams.
So I brought it back, the idea back to the studio, where we were writing for the How Dare You! album, and put it to the guys: “Anybody interested in this ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me'”. I’d switched it to Mandy. And Graham said “yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I’ve got some ideas, I’ve got some chords. Let’s slot those things in, try it, mess it around”. We wrote it, and we didn’t like it. We, we scrapped it. It just wasn’t going anywhere.
But, enter from stage left, ha ha, the “wicked villain” Kevin Godley, twiddling his moustache, says “I know what’s wrong with it. Let’s sit down again.” He said “I think it just gets too bland, it just goes on, on one plane, your verses and your middles and your der-der-der, they’re all going on the one plane. What it needs is someone to go ‘Bash’ on the side of your head”. So we changed the rhythm completely, and we put two whacking great guitar solos in there, in the middle of this quiet, soft, floaty song. Once we’d got that idea in, it, it just gelled into something else. Again, impossible to dance to, as a lot of 10cc tracks were, but once Kevin had put that in, he became the third writer in the song so we were quite democratic in that way.
The intro to “I’m Mandy Fly Me” features one of the bridge sections of the band’s 1974 song “Clockwork Creep”. The section, whose lyrics are “Oh, no you’ll never get me up in one of these again / ‘Cause what goes up must come down”, is rendered soft and tinny, as if heard playing from a portable transistor radio. This is one of my absolute favorite songs of the 1970’s, making How Dare You! a ‘must include’ for the 1976 list. The music you will find on this album is the very basis for much of what we call indie pop today. It is interesting and yet accessible; deconstructionist, but beautiful.
5. Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon is one of those tragic songwriters, like Harry Nilsson, who wouldn’t live to see the peak of their appreciation as great songwriters. Though, like Nilsson, Zevon would have his share of commercial success and respect from fellow musicians, he would not take his rightful place amongst the pantheon of ‘classic American musicians’ until after his losing fight with cancer. Zevon was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Beverly Cope (Simmons) and William Zevon. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and his original surname was “Zivotovsky”; his mother was from a Mormon family. They moved to Fresno, California. By the age of thirteen, Zevon was an occasional visitor to the home of Igor Stravinsky where he, alongside Robert Craft, briefly studied modern classical music. Zevon’s parents divorced when he was 16 years old and he soon quit high school and moved from Los Angeles to New York to become a folk singer.
“…even Zevon’s celebrations of life in Los Angeles, long a staple of the soft rock genre, had both a menace and an epic sweep his contemporaries could never match (“Join Me in L.A.” and “Desperados Under the Eaves”). But for all their darkness, Zevon’s songs also possessed a steely intelligence, a winning wit, and an unusually sophisticated melodic sense, and he certainly made the most of the high-priced help who backed him on the album. Warren Zevon may not have been the songwriter’s debut, but it was the album that confirmed he was a major talent, and it remains a black-hearted pop delight.”
During the early 1970s, Zevon toured regularly with the Everly Brothers as keyboard player and band leader/musical coordinator. Later during the same decade he toured and recorded with Don Everly and Phil Everly, separately, as they tried to launch solo careers after their break-up. His dissatisfaction with his career (and a lack of funds) led him to move to Spain in the summer of 1975, where he lived and played in The Dubliner Bar, a small tavern in Sitges near Barcelona owned by David Lindell, a former mercenary. Together they composed “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. By September 1975, Zevon had returned to Los Angeles, where he roomed with then-unknown Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. There, he collaborated with Jackson Browne, who in 1976 produced and promoted Zevon’s self-titled major-label debut. Contributors to this album included Nicks, Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt. Ronstadt elected to record many of his songs, including “Hasten Down the Wind”, “Carmelita”, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, and “Mohammed’s Radio”.
Though a much darker and more ironic songwriter than Browne and other leading figures of the era’s L.A.-based singer-songwriter movement, Zevon shared with his 1970s L.A. peers a grounding in earlier folk and country influences and a commitment to a writerly style of songcraft with roots in the work of artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Though only a modest commercial success, the Browne-produced Warren Zevon (1976) would later be termed a masterpiece in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and is cited in the book’s most recently revised edition as Zevon’s most realized work. Representative tracks include the junkie’s lament “Carmelita”, the Copland-esque outlaw ballad “Frank and Jesse James”, “The French Inhaler”, a scathing insider’s look at life and lust in the L.A. music business (which was, in fact, about his long-time girlfriend and mother to his son Jordan) and “Desperados Under the Eaves”, a chronicle of Zevon’s increasing alcoholism.
Though Zevon would attain a lot more commercial success with the 1978 release of Excitable Boy, I do not know of a diehard Zevon fan that doesn’t mention at least one of the songs from his self-titled debut as a favorite. Though the west coast singer-songwriter movement of the late 70s produced a metric ton of shallow schmaltz, Warren Zevon stands as a reason why this era should be remembered.
4. Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak
Mysteriously exalted by the heavy metal community, and even more mysteriously ignored by everyone else, Thin Lizzy makes the list at number four their classic 1976 record Jailbreak. Over the last several years I have found it almost disturbing how little coverage Phil Lynott and Co. receive from modern rock media. Thin Lizzy was incredibly prodigious and with Jailbreak they made a masterpiece of 70’s rock. Thin Lizzy formed in Dublin in 1969. Two of the founding members, drummer Brian Downey and bass guitarist/vocalist Phil Lynott, met while still in school. Lynott assumed the role of frontman and led them throughout their recording career of twelve studio albums. Lynott, Thin Lizzy’s de facto leader, was composer or co-composer of almost all of the band’s songs, and the first black Irishman to achieve commercial success in the field of hard rock music. Thin Lizzy boasted some of the most critically acclaimed guitarists throughout their history, with Downey and Lynott as the rhythm section, on the drums and bass guitar. Their music reflects a wide range of influences, including country music, psychedelic rock, and traditional Irish folk music, but is generally classified as hard rock or sometimes heavy metal. Rolling Stone magazine describes the band as distinctly hard rock, “far apart from the braying mid-70s metal pack”.
“When people think of hard rock, chances are that some names come to mind first- Guns N Roses, and Deep Purple being two obvious choices. I, bluntly, find it shameful that Thin Lizzy does not receive the credit that they so richly deserve, for basically inventing the genre.”
Allmusic critic John Dougan has written that “As the band’s creative force, Lynott was a more insightful and intelligent writer than many of his ilk, preferring slice-of-life working-class dramas of love and hate influenced by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and virtually all of the Irish literary tradition.” Van Morrison, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix were major influences during the early days of the band, and later influences included the pioneering twin lead guitars found in Wishbone Ash and American artists Little Feat and Bob Seger.
In early 1975, Thin Lizzy toured the USA for the first time, in support of Bob Seger and Bachman–Turner Overdrive. When BTO toured Europe later in the year to support their hit single “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, Thin Lizzy again accompanied them on what was a very high-profile tour. They then recorded the Fighting album, which became the first Thin Lizzy album to chart in the UK, reaching no. 60, although the singles still did not chart. After a successful multi-band tour in support of Status Quo, the band recorded the album Jailbreak, which proved to be their breakthrough record. Released on March 26, 1976, it featured the worldwide hit “The Boys Are Back in Town” which reached number 8 in the UK, and number 12 in the US, their first charting record in that country. The twin guitar sound had been fully developed by this time and was in evidence throughout the album, particularly on the hit single, and other tracks such as “Emerald” and “Warriors”. The album also charted well on both sides of the Atlantic, and the follow-up single, “Jailbreak”, also performed well. Thin Lizzy toured the US in support of various bands such as Aerosmith, Rush and REO Speedwagon, only further promoting sales stateside.
Thin Lizzy is also the major inspiration for modern heavy metal bands, most notably Metallica and Mastodon. The latter of which has covered Jailbreak‘s closing track “Emerald”. In December 2008, the title track was named the 73rd best hard rock song of all time by VH1. “The Boys Are Back in Town”was given 499th position among Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004 and Q magazine placed it at number 38 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks in 2005. For my money however, you will struggle to find a better rock song from the 1970s than “Cowboy Song”. On Jailbreak, Phil Lynott establishes himself as one of the greatest personalities in rock music. Unfortunately, the rest of us didn’t seem to pay much attention.
3. The Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action
I do a lot of talking about groups that were undervalued in rock history. More than anyone else on this week’s list, that applies to the Flamin’ Groovies. This is a band that isn’t just undervalued, but has been all but forgotten with time. The crime therein is that in 1976, the Groovies made one of the greatest rock songs in history; the title track to Shake Some Action. The Flamin’ Groovies began in San Francisco in 1965, founded by Ron Greco, Cyril Jordan and Roy Loney. They are perhaps best known for their song “Shake Some Action”, which was later featured in the 1995 movie Clueless. The group have been called one of the forerunners of punk rock, and they also had a major influence on the power pop genre.
“…the title song is a different, nastier animal with a riff so tough, propulsive and universal it’s a wonder that it’s not currently being used to hawk bluejeans or vacation cruises.”
In 1971, Loney left the band and was replaced by singer and guitarist Chris Wilson, who, along with Jordan, began to move the group in a more overtly power-pop direction. Between 1971 and 1976, very little was heard of the group except their 1972 anti-drug song “Slow Death” (co-written by Loney). In 1976, they teamed up with British producer Dave Edmunds, and recorded Shake Some Action. This album, the band’s fifth, would be their most commercially successful, peaking at the barely visible number 142 on the Billboard charts. What is more important here is the groundwork that the Groovies laid with Shake Some Action. This record took the groundwork of the best Phil Spector and Beatles Merseybeat records, added a modern production and a ramshackle rock ‘n roll attitude to emerge with an absolutely timeless sound. Much like the similarly influential commercial flop No. 1 Record from Big Star, this record in central to contextualizing an entire era of American rock music that is still just as strong today. Anytime you listen to The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”, The Strokes’ “Last Night”, or Ty Segall’s “Goodbye Bread”, you should send up a quiet thank you to Shake Some Action.
2. Queen – A Day at the Races
It’s apparent to anyone that reads this column on a regular basis that I believe Queen is one of the very best group’s in rock history. A Day at the Races is as good a reason as any why. It was the band’s first completely self-produced album, and the first not to feature producer Roy Thomas Baker. Recorded at Sarm East, The Manor and Wessex Studios in England, A Day at the Races was engineered by Mike Stone. The title of the album followed suit with its predecessor A Night at the Opera in taking its name from a film by the Marx Brothers. The album peaked at #1 in the UK, Japan and the Netherlands. It reached #5 on the US Billboard 200 and was Queen’s fifth album to ship gold in the US, and subsequently reached platinum status in the same country. A Night at the Opera had turned Queen into international superstars. A Day at the Races cemented that status.
The band’s A Night at the Opera Tour began in November 1975, and covered Europe, the United States, Japan, and Australia. By it’s end, “Bohemian Rhapsoday” was well on its way to becoming one of the most beloved songs in rock history. By 1976, Queen were back in the studio recording A Day at the Races, which is often regarded as a sequel album to A Night at the Opera. It again borrowed the name of a Marx Brothers movie, and its cover was similar to that of A Night at the Opera, a variation on the same Queen Crest. Groucho Marx actually invited Queen to visit him in his Los Angeles home in March 1977, and the band thanked him in person, and performed “’39” a cappella. Musically, A Day at the Races was by both fans’ and critics’ standards a strong effort, reaching number one in the UK and Japan, and number five in the US. The major hit on the album was “Somebody to Love”, a gospel-inspired song in which Mercury, May, and Taylor multi-tracked their voices to create a 100-voice gospel choir. The song went to number 2 in the United Kingdom, and number 13 on the US singles chart. The album also featured one of the band’s heaviest songs, Brian May’s “Tie Your Mother Down”, which became a staple of their live shows.
A Day at the Races was a massive commercial success. In the UK the first track to be released as a single was “Somebody to Love” in November 1976, reaching number 2. “Tie Your Mother Down” followed in March 1977, reaching number 1, and “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” in May 1977, reaching number 17. In the US, “Somebody to Love” was released in December 1976 and reached number 13. It was followed by “Tie Your Mother Down” in March 1977, which reached number 49. Also during 1976, Queen played one of their most famous gigs, a free concert in Hyde Park, London. It set an attendance record, with 150,000 people confirmed in the audience. On December 1, 1976, Queen were the intended guests on London’s early evening Today program, but they pulled out at the last-minute, which saw their late replacement on the show, EMI labelmate the Sex Pistols, give their seminal interview which helped galvanize the punk movement after a few choice curse words from the band on air.
“Every molecule of Day At The Races – every iota – is us. No session men. We don’t try to reproduce that onstage.”
The Washington Post described A Day at the Races as “a judicious blend of heavy metal rockers and classically influenced, almost operatic, torch songs.” The Winnipeg Free Press was also appreciative, writing, “Races is a reconfirmation of Queen’s position as the best of the third wave of English rock groups.” Q awarded it 4/5 stars, writing, “The breadth of its ambition remains ever impressive, as do tracks such as May’s stomping ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ and Mercury’s baroque one-two, ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’.” George Starostin wrote, “considering that it does have its fair share of undisputable classics and that the boys’ songwriting and arranging are still at an all-time high, I give it a nine with no remorse.”
In 2006, a national BBC poll saw A Day at the Races voted the 67th greatest album of all time. The same year, in a worldwide Guinness and NME poll to find the “Greatest 100 Albums of All Time”, A Day at the Races was voted #87. It was also featured in Classic Rock and Metal Hammer‘s “The 200 Greatest Albums of the 70s,” being listed as one of the 20 greatest albums of 1976. Out ranked it No. 20 of 100 in a poll of “more than 100 actors, comedians, musicians, writers, critics, performance artists, label reps, and DJs, asking each to list the 10 albums that left the most indelible impressions on their lives.” In the 1987 edition of the The World Critics List, the BBC’s Peter Powell ranked A Day at the Races the 6th greatest album of all time, and Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times included the record in his “The Great Albums” in 2006.
What makes A Day at the Races so timeless is the context in which it sits. Where Sheer Heart Attack showed Queen’s hunger and A Night at the Opera showed the breadth of their ability, Day at the Races was the album that proved this band could continue to grow without losing what made their sound so unique. You have a little bit of everything on this album. This is the album that allows Queen to transfer their sound from heavy studio concepts to full-blown arena anthems. The same transformation has been attempted by similar modern groups like Muse and Kings of Leon, with tragic results. A Day at the Races is the album that cemented Queen’s legacy and its placement here.
1. Ramones – Ramones
1976 was the debut year of a band of misfits from Forest Hills, Queens that would change the world in their wake. 1977 is cited as the birth of punk. As would become their legacy, The Ramones were there first. John Cummings and Thomas Erdelyi had both been in a high-school garage band from 1966 to 1967 known as the Tangerine Puppets. They became friends with Douglas Colvin, who had recently moved to the area from Germany, and Jeffry Hyman, who was the initial lead singer of the glam rock band Sniper, founded in 1972.
The Ramones began taking shape in early 1974, when Cummings and Colvin invited Hyman to join them in a band. The initial lineup featured Colvin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Cummings on lead guitar, and Hyman on drums. Colvin, who soon switched from rhythm guitar to bass, was the first to adopt the name “Ramone”, calling himself Dee Dee Ramone. He was inspired by Paul McCartney’s use of the pseudonym Paul Ramon during his Silver Beatles days. Dee Dee convinced the other members to take on the name and came up with the idea of calling the band the Ramones. Hyman and Cummings became Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone, respectively.They performed 2,263 concerts, touring virtually nonstop for 22 years. In 1996, after a tour with the Lollapalooza music festival, the band played a farewell concert and disbanded. Little more than eight years after the breakup, the band’s three founding members—lead singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone, and bassist Dee Dee Ramone—had died.
Their only record with enough U.S. sales to be certified gold was the compilation album Ramones Mania. However, recognition of the band’s importance built over the years, and they are now cited in many assessments of all-time great rock music, such as the Rolling Stone list of the 50 Greatest Artists of All Time and VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. In 2002, the Ramones were ranked the second-greatest band of all time by Spin magazine, trailing only The Beatles. On March 18, 2002, the Ramones—including the three founders and drummers Tommy and Marky Ramone—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2011, the group was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“We didn’t sell a lot of records, but somehow we left an impression.”
Prior to the band signing to Sire, they were seen by Lisa Robinson, an editor of Hit Parader, during an early 1975 performance. Robinson began popularizing the band by writing about them in the magazines she edited. Robinson contacted Danny Fields and asked him to manage the band, which he agreed to in November 1975. A Marty Thau-produced demo album was recorded at 914 Sound Studios and included “Judy Is a Punk” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”. Soon after the demos were presented to Sire A&R co-ordinator Craig Leon the band was signed to Sire Records.
The Ramones recorded their debut album, Ramones, in February 1976. The album features a number of themes including Nazism, violence, male prostitution and drug use, as well as lighter fare such as horror movies and teenage romance. There is a version of the Chris Montez song “Let’s Dance”. A number of the tracks have backing vocals which were sung by Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s younger brother), Tommy Ramone, and engineer Rob Freeman. Of the fourteen songs on the album, the longest, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”, barely surpassed two-and-a-half minutes. While the songwriting credits were shared by the entire band, Dee Dee was the primary writer. Ramones was produced by Sire’s Craig Leon, with Tommy as associate producer, on an extremely low budget of about $6,400 and released in April. The now iconic front cover photograph of the band was taken by Roberta Bayley, a photographer for Punk magazine. Punk, which was largely responsible for codifying the term for the scene emerging around CBGB, ran a cover story on the Ramones in its third issue, the same month as the record’s release. The cover art was ranked number 58 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Album Covers.
The Ramones’ debut LP was greeted by rock critics with glowing reviews. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote, “I love this record—love it—even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially)…. For me, it blows everything else off the radio”. In Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson described it as “constructed almost entirely of rhythm tracks of an exhilarating intensity rock & roll has not experienced since its earliest days.” Characterizing the band as “authentic American primitives whose work has to be heard to be understood”, he declared, “It is time popular music followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.” Newsday‘s Wayne Robbins simply anointed the Ramones as “the best young rock ‘n’ roll band in the known universe.”
However, despite Sire’s high hopes for it, Ramones was not a commercial success, reaching only number 111 on the Billboard album chart. The two singles issued from the album, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, failed to chart at all. At the band’s first major performance outside of New York, a June date in Youngstown, Ohio, approximately ten people showed up. It wasn’t until they made a brief tour of England that they began to see the fruits of their labor; a performance at The Roundhouse in London on July 4, 1976 (second-billed to the Flamin’ Groovies), organized by Linda Stein, was a resounding success. Their Roundhouse appearance and a club date the following night—where the band met members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash—helped galvanize the burgeoning UK punk rock scene. The Flamin’ Groovies/Ramones double bill was successfully reprised at The Roxy in Los Angeles the following month, fueling the punk scene there as well. The Ramones were becoming an increasingly popular live act—a Toronto performance in September energized yet another growing punk scene.
Charles M. Young, an employee for the Rolling Stone, praised the album saying that the album is “one of the funniest rock records ever made and, if punk continues to gain momentum, a historic turning point.” Jeff Tamarkin of Allmusic said that the album began the punk rock era and also proclaimed “rock’s mainstream didn’t know what hit it.” In 1999, Collins Gem Classic Albums wrote that “They stared from the cover of this magnificent debut album with dumb defiance written all over them. The songs within were a short, sharp exercise in vicious speed-thrash, driven by ferocious guitars and yet halting in an instant. It was the simple pop dream taken to its minimalist extreme. There just couldn’t be anything faster or harder than this. The Ramones was the starting gun for English punk.” Joe S. Harrington declared that the album “split the history of rock ‘n’ roll in half”. Theunis Bates, a music writer for Time magazine and an editor at worldpop.com, composed that “Ramones stripped rock back to its basic elements,” and noted that its “lyrics are very simple, boiled-down declarations of teen lust and need.” Bates later went on to say that it “is the ultimate punk statement”.
“To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.”
The album was included in Spin‘s List of Top Ten College Cult Classics, noting that “everything good that’s happened to music in the last fourteen years can be directly traced to the Ramones.” The band’s debut album was ranked 33 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2003 Ramones was considered by Spin magazine’s Chuck Klosterman, Greg Milner, and Alex Pappademas to be the sixth most influential album of all time. They noted that the album “saved rock from itself and punk rock from art-gallery pretension, bless their pointy little heads,” and also said that the their songs had, “one lightning-bolt riff.” In Spin‘s 1995 Alternative Record Guide the album is listed in the top spot of their Top 100 Alternative Albums.
Ramones is considered to have established the musical genre punk rock, as well as popularizing it years afterward. Nicholas Rombes, author of the 33⅓ book Ramones wrote that it offered “alienated future rock,” and that it, “disconnected from tradition.” Since it is their debut album it began the Ramones’ influence on popular music, with examples being genres such as heavy metal, thrash metal, indie pop, grunge, and post-punk. In 2001, Spin included it in its special issue 25 Years of Punk with a list of The 50 Most Essential Punk Records, where it was number 1 in the list. Tony James said that “Everybody went up three gears the day they got that first Ramones album. Punk rock—that rama-lama super fast stuff—is totally down to the Ramones. Bands were just playing in an MC5 groove until then.” The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 2002 Induction Ceremony. The web-site said that “When the [Ramones] hit the street in 1976 with their self-titled first album, the rock scene in general had become somewhat bloated and narcissistic. The Ramones got back to basics: simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs. Voice, guitar, bass, drums. No makeup, no egos, no light shows, no nonsense. And though the subject matter was sometimes dark, emanating from a sullen adolescent basement of the mind, the group also brought cartoonish fun and high-energy excitement back to rock and roll.” Well put.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.