1972 – Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time), Elton John

Well, that sure captures the austere grandeur of the song…

It’s not like the fact that “Rocket Man” is “Space Oddity” Mk II is exactly a secret. There’s a mash-up that pretty easily combines both songs and makes the overlap pretty explicit. John himself played both “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity” as a tribute to Bowie after his death, segueing from one to the other. If he’s prepared to do that, well, there’s not really a lot left to say on that subject. Both strike a distant, melancholic tone, though “Space Oddity”’s loss is literal whereas “Rocket Man” is more concerned with the ennui that comes from an ordinary job, even when that job is flying off to Mars and leaving your family behind.

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The 1970’s

The 60’s stopped dead. What replced all of those beads, kaftans and unfeasably successful comedians?

Glam. Disco. Punk. New wave. Heavy metal. Funk. Prog. There are a lot of emergent movements in the 70’s, some of which overlap – the distance between glam and disco is nearly nothing – and some of which clearly don’t. But what all these genres have in common is that they will have legacy going forward. The Long Seventies extend a decent distance into the Eighties, and there’s a fair argument to be made in the case of disco they extend all the way until now, and the multiplicity of genres which develop in the 70’s will, ultimately, go on to have more direct resonance than anything the 60’s produced. The Long Sixties died in 1970. The Long Seventies dig well into the 80’s – probably at least until 1983. The obvious question here, then, is why? What is it about the Seventies that meant their cultural impact has a momentum that the Sixties, despite the mythological placement in the cultural memory, didn’t?

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1979 – Oliver’s Army, Elvis Costello

I look just like Buddy Holly

Key changes are almost always a cheap way of getting a bit more mileage out of a song which has otherwise run its course. The results are almost always unbearably cheesy and corny. Think of, say, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, one of the very worst key changes in musical history (quite the achievement for such a talented person, but then the 80’s were rough for everyone). It doesn’t add anything, it just cranks it up a few tones in the hopes of wringing a bit more emotion out of the song. Unsuccessfully, as it happens. Or the somehow-even-more-ghastly key-change in Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You”, not a feature of Dolly Parton’s infinitely-superior original. Technically, yes, it’s amazing Houston’s voice can even do that while at the same time being absolutely bloody terrible and, like the Stevie Wonder example, adds nothing to the song except perhaps an excuse to show off.

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1978 – Denis, Blondie

Who’s That Girl…

The CBGB’s scene has become so mythologised at this point that it’s easy to forget, sometimes, that the bands that came from it were actual, you know, bands. Excellent t-shirts though they all make, The Ramones and Blondie tend to get lumped in these days with “fashion” as much as “music” and that’s a real waste. Both bands, along with Talking Heads, came to define the New York new wave scene but they were acts that were being primarily defined in relation to punk, itself incredibly short-lived and already starting to look like yesterday’s genre. That’s not inappropriate, and there are certainly great punk albums to come post-1978 (not least of which, London Calling) but already bands were being set up in, if not opposition, then at the very least in contrast to the punk scene.

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1977 – Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder

Perfect

And so we finally arrive at the Stevie Wonder entry. It is, of course, simply impossible to imagine this project existing without the inclusion of Stevie Wonder at some point and there’s been more than a few times he could have qualified but holding off until “Sir Duke” rolls around means… well it means we get to talk about “Sir Duke”. There are times, when one approaches a work of art, that its manifest brilliance is simply self-evident. There is little point asking if, say, the Parthenon in Athens is a greater achievement than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or if Hamlet is a greater achievement than The Night Watch. They are all works of art in one form or another and they explicitly, clearly improve the world simply by existing.

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1976 – Let Em In, Wings

Taking a shit, taking ecstasy, taking time, taking focus

I mean, really. What chance did Wings ever have? They were doomed from the word go. Wings – basically a stoner band for people who found the Doobie Brothers too folksy and The Doors too pretentious – never had a chance. Not that it was impossible for Paul McCartney to disappear into another band successfully, but – well, he didn’t. There’s plenty of indicators for that – the constantly-shifting line-up that never managed to stabilise doesn’t imply the easiest of working relationships, and the fact that sometimes the band were Wings, Paul McCartney and Wings, Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings and then, eventually, simply Paul McCartney after the band’s inelegant collapse suggest McCartney couldn’t, it seems, ever quite commit to the band as it was. He couldn’t just become a member.

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1975 – Never Can Say Goodbye, Gloria Gaynor

Was that really the best picture they could find?

Disco sucks.

Disco is a profoundly important musical and social development.

Both of these statements are true and neither of them are. Such is the contradiction that lies at the heart of arguably the most important musical movement of the 70’s. Disco is tacky, slight, overblown and intentionally facile, which gives some ground to those that want to claim disco sucks. It’s also meant to be – a disposable art form that exists simply to be enjoyed. What’s the point of criticising something for not being what it was never meant to be?

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1974 – Killer Queen, Queen

Clockwise from top: Boudica, Victoria, Anne, Elizabeth I

Nothing about Queen added up at this point in their career. They’re a cock rock band fronted by a gay/bi/whatever-he -feels-like front man working away in a genre that pretty much demands rampant heterosexuality. They’re not even really a full-time concern. They’re working in a heavy genre dressed for a glam party but never remotely a glam band despite a few superficial overlaps. For two albums they produced sub-Led Zeppelin rock which, while competent in its own way, never really, you know, went anywhere. There was a derivative nature to a lot of their material and though it’s always been clear that all four members of the band are talented musicians, the first two albums never quite manage to break free of their influences or make perfect use of that fact.

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1973 – Ballroom Blitz, The Sweet

The things you had to do to get laid in 1973…

Glam is a peculiarly British affair. It’s influence can, on occasion, be felt in America, primarily though the make-up of Lou Reed circa Transformer or maybe the outfits of The New York Dolls. Even KISS aren’t really glam, they’re just a straightforward – often very straightforward – rock band who have inexplicably decided that kids carnival face-paint make-up might be the way to go. But even if one might tenuously want to include KISS or The New York Dolls ultimately glam isn’t something that really took off  in the U.S. – it never really became a movement. Most of the big names in glam music – T.Rex, The Sweet, Slade, Mud, Gary Glitter, Wizzard, Alvin Stardust et al – never substantially broke out of the UK despite the odd hit single, and even T.Rex’s success was comparatively limited despite the fact they fulfil the exception-that-proves-the-rule role. T.Rex – and Bolan in particular – almost entirely invented glam wholesale but their American chart run wasn’t a patch on their UK success. Some things, it seems, don’t quite translate.

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1971 – Mr Big Stuff, Jean Knight

Stax of talent

It’s Jean Knight. And “Mr Big Stuff”.

There are song on this list that deserve to be explained. There are song on this list that need some proper investigation. There are songs on this list that are serious and there are songs on this list which are silly. There are songs on this list which are personal and there are songs on this list which are political. There are songs you can dance to, and songs which require concentration.

But this is Jean Knight. And “Mr Big Stuff”. ‘Nuff said.

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