Underrated 70s albums
Well, not quite. Yes, on top of being a social and political bloodbath the 70s was also the decade when the UK's first #1 single was Rolf Harris's very unfortunately-named Two Little Boys and when the UK's last #1 album was Rod Stewart's Greatest Hits. The decade when The Beatles turned into Wings. When Tales From Topographic Oceans went gold. So many horrors.
But it was also the decade of Bowie's pomp, Blondie, The Stooges, Nick Drake, Black Sabbath, The Ramones, Can, and Kraftwerk. Every decade always has tonnes of good stuff to go with the bad.
Luckily, time has a habit of sorting the wheat from the chaff and it’s now fairly easy to see just who was doing the good stuff. As with our piece on the 60s, however, we don't think there's much value in treading over the same old ground. Nobody needs to hear what we think of What's Going On or Marquee Moon. Instead, we want to take a look at some of the undervalued and underrated records of the era that you should seek out. Let's proceed.
Robert Wyatt was the drummer in the Soft Machine before he unwisely clambered drunk out of an upstairs window, fell and rendered himself paraplegic for his remaining days. Yet strangely this incident kick started an eccentric and idiosyncratic solo career which began with Rock Bottom in 1974. Though Wyatt had started the album before his accident, the title and deeply personal subject matter tend to mark the album as a result of the drastic change in his lifestyle. The album was very different to the music Wyatt had previously been involved in. It consisted of six deliberately slow pieces that took time to reveal themselves as deep layered compositions, this quieter and more introspective music was a perfect foil for Wyatt’s distinctive tenor voice. It was deeply influential, going against almost all of the trends of the day and it’s easy to hear its sound in later deep thinkers such as Grizzly Bear and Radiohead.
Ah Big Star. Had they been around in the 1960s then they may have been big enough to rival at least the success of the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield. Instead the band found themselves terribly out of time as a brilliant pop band sitting at odds amongst the glam and bluesy rock of the early 70s. Their second album Radio City is probably their best. It’s full of bright, shining pop songs with a touch of Southern soul alongside the trebly guitars and keening lyrics that seem to constantly reflect on a lost adolescence. Alex Chilton had previously enjoyed success with chart toppers the Box Tops but here, following the departure of songwriting foil Chris Bell, he came into his own. The chugging melodic songs such as ace in the hole ‘September Gurls’ basically invented the career of bands like Teenage Fanclub. However, Big Star struggled to get noticed and it was only when bands such as R.E.M and the Replacements started name checking them that their music started to get rediscovered.
Back in the 1970s you wouldn’t know that this wasn’t a collection of jazz funk greats if you saw it in the record shop. Thee name Throbbing Gristle might have made you wonder. This was the intention though behind the title and the cover picture of the industrial quartet’s third album. The band were already arch pranksters and this was their latest hoot but once it found its way into the correct hands, the album was adored for its playful pop referencing takes on the hard and rhythmic sounds the band had produced to date. It placed their previous noise experiments alongside exotica, early electronica and mutant disco particularly on ‘Hot on the Heels of Love' which could have been a disco hit in an alternate universe. Despite all the playful moments, it’s still a deep and often disturbing record full of sinister synth explorations and proto darkwave experiments.
The Faust Tapes was actually the third album by this long running German collective but has become legendary because Virgin Records sold it for the price of a single ensuring loads of people bought it. It’s a patchwork quilt of freak out jams, tape experiments and delicate psychedelia. It’s worth wondering whether The Faust Tapes is as influential for the way it was put together as much as it is for the music that was on it. Back in the 1970s generally albums were albums - ten strong tracks recorded in one studio at one time. Only perhaps the Beatles’ White Album before it had messed so much with convention. Faust produced a grab bag of sounds recorded in all kinds of places at all kinds of times, and stitched them together. Who knows what those who bought the record at that bargain price thought of it, but because of its marketing campaign it found its way into a lot of collections (and subsequently a lot of second hand shops) and so it’s influence was widespread, turning its listeners on to a totally different way of making music.
The office jury has been quibbling about which is the best Can album. I say Future Days but Phil insists on Tago Mago. He’s our designated Can fanboy so who am I to argue? It doesn’t really matter which album we choose as all Can’s early work is essential. They may have looked like a raggle taggle bunch of German longhairs but Can were doing something extraordinary with rock music. They kind of deconstructed it, inserting remarkable rhythms and a fractured instrumentation which saw songs created out of disparate notes coming together rather than relying on the standard chords of pretty much everything that came before. Tago Mago was the first to feature Damo Suzuki as vocalist after the departure of Malcom Mooney and he hollers wildly over a blend of funk, avant garde noise, jazz and psychedelia. Underpinning it all sits the remarkable drumming of Jaki Liebezeit - a syncopated pulse which redefined the art of the rhythm track. You can easily see how these tracks inspired Mark Hollis to make Talk Talk’s swansong Laughing Stock or how it lead John Lydon to experiment with the avant rock of Metal Box. Even though it’s probably Can’s most challenging and uncompromising album, it’s influence is everywhere.
Nick Drake’s third and final album was one of the most intimate records made in the 1970s. Where everything else at times was just noise (including many of his more boisterous folk contemporaries), Nick stripped things back to just voice and guitar with just the one piano overdub on the title track. Although his previous albums Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter were both excellent, it could be argued that they were slightly over embellished. Pink Moon rid itself of any extraneous arrangements and shone a light on the very heart of its songwriter. Recorded in just two late night sessions at Sound Techniques studio in London, Drake performed alone with only engineer John Wood for company. The results are stunning - Drake’s beautifully fingerpicked guitar and soft vocal stylings have a beautiful autumnal feel creating a mood that subsequent artists have tried and failed to get near. Completely ignored in his lifetime, Drake’s recordings have gained traction over the years partly in thanks to Island’s insistence on always keeping the records in print.
Nothing has sounded quite like this record both before or since. The duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev created a minimal electronic rock that seemed to owe as much to Elvis Presley as it did to the Silver Apples. Certainly the latter band are the only thing that sounds remotely like the album in the history of music. But Suicide made their rhythmic proto kraut even more minimal while singer Alan Vega had fun whooping and hollering in a faintly preposterous manner mimicking Presley and other 50s heroes. The result is utterly mesmerising. Both terrifying and at times ridiculous, the album boasts several songs which are now seen as classics including Frankie Teardrop, which was later covered by Bruce Springsteen. In fact Springsteen was an artist who was quite unexpectedly influenced by the duo, his 1982 album Nebraska has several songs which match the starkness of Suicide. They also influenced a lot of the artists at the birth of the 1980s with the Birthday Party, Soft Cell, Joy Division being just some of the bands who took notice of Suicide’s primitive brilliance.
I’ve never been quite sure which Nico album to praise most - Marble Index or Desertshore. Or Chelsea Girl. The latter, her debut, is a lovely selection of folk rock but no-one could have ever predicted what would happen next. First Marble Index saw Nico compose her own songs for the first time and they sounded… weird. John Cale was on hand to produce and play on it with amazing results, but it was follow up Desertshore that seemed to eventually capture the imagination of adventurous listeners in years to come. As with all good records ever made it was completely ignored on release (remember this point when your favourite new record gets ignored in lieu of the usual blandness with money behind it). Listening in 2019 it’s again one of those records that seems to fortel what was to come in subsequent decades. It’s an extremely dark listen. One which can easily polarize listeners, but it sowed the seeds of what would become goth music and foreshadowed the advent of the uncompromising industrial music scene. Nico hollers poetic words over harmonium drones and flickers of instrumentation by Cale. It stands as its own entity, a total artistic statement. And isn’t it interesting that of the former Velvet Underground member it was Nico, the model, the early face of the band, who consistently strayed furthest from standard song construction.
Although he was very quickly both a notorious worky ticket and an iconic character in punk rock, no-one really foresaw the musical innovation that John Lydon would make very quickly after his punk rock pantomime the Sex Pistols gave way. After a promising debut (including a stellar self titled hit), Lydon hunkered down to make his masterpiece. For any non-musician the best practice is to act like a building site foreman and recruit well. Lydon already had in place dub-obsessed bass player Jah Wobble and guitarist extraordinaire Keith Levene. After a series of drummers, Martin Atkins found himself playing on the album and it was the loose limbed synergy between these three that gives the album its kinetic energy. It constantly sounds like it is falling apart as the band try to weld together dub reggae and rock music and thus inventing post punk as a result. Lydon is almost backgrounded as a vocalist, his voice part of the texture of the band as he spouts out a series of non-linear pronouncements that mesh within rather than on top of the music. It’s an incredibly brave (and some would say foolhardy) record. Public Image Limited would go on to make some sterling records but nothing, nothing like this.
The original lo-fi. It’s hard to say what exactly was the first ever lo-fi record but Zion, Illinois’ Shoes debut proper Black Vinyl Shoes could probably lay claim to that accolade. The record even came with sleeve notes apologising to listeners for the sound quality. Though seen in subsequent years as a power pop band, Shoes here presented a batch of chiming, fuzzy songs as high on melody as they are lo in fi. Their sounds sits somewhere between the Ramones, the Beatles and R.E.M. - full of dashing harmonies, unexpected chord changes, alternately jangly and beefy guitars and their heart worn firmly on their sleeve. Their hurt young man lyrics introduced a much needed sensitivity to what could sometimes be a macho decade. Listen first to ‘Someone Finer’, an ache of a song that takes Alex Chilton’s Big Star blueprint and makes it cry in falsetto. Utterly gorgeous.
Poor old Gene Clark. The 1970s was a hard time for an artist who did not tour and made career ending moves on a monthly basis. The former the Byrds songwriter had already produced several excellent but completely ignored records in the early 1970s before he was signed to Asylum by a hopeful David Geffen. Clark got sober, got serious and made the most ambitious album of his career. But costs ballooned and when Asylum got to hear the finished recordings there was absolutely nothing even resembling a hit to speak of. The songs were complex, lengthy and at times impenetrable. Clark deemed it his masterpiece, the record company, critics and music buyers all disagreed and the album disappeared without trace. However, in 1986 This Mortal Coil covered ‘Strength of Strings’ on their second album Filigree & Shadow bringing Clark to a whole new audience which looked back fondly at its ambition and scope. No Other slowly seeped back into the public consciousness and it’s easy to hear its influence in the music of the likes of Fleet Foxes, Jonathan Wilson and Father John Misty.
Now absolutely ancient, the Feelies were older than their punk and new wave contemporaries even back in 1977. Leader Glen Mercer felt that the punk energy could do with a bit of cleaning up and the band were notorious for their meticulous sound and attention to detail. They experimented with percussion and lots of drums (hence the ‘Crazy Rhythms’ of the title) and they were known to plug their guitars directly into the mixing desk for that extra clean sound. The result is a nervy and jittery album that sits in a place not a million miles away from Talking Heads but with the sort of guitar interplay that has gone on to influence janglers like R.E.M, Felt and Real Estate. Typically unheralded on it’s release, it gained interest in the mid 80s college rock scene as bands who had heard it on release started to replicate it’s sounds. The Feelies made a few further lovely records at a rate of about...oh one a decade but Crazy Rhythms is their rawest and most influential.
In the recent, fascinating documentary on 10CC on BBC4 I was almost angered enough to write to Points of View at the glossing over of their 1974 album Sheet Music. 10CC were an incredible band but getting them to write a full album without annoying the shit out of the listener was seemingly an impossibility through the 1970s. The exception to the rule is Sheet Music which is brilliant throughout. Come on - don’t believe me? Let’s check its credentials. J Dilla heavily sampled opener ‘The Worst Band In the World’ on his legendary Donuts, ‘Hotel’ surely invented Animal Collective in one exotic swoop and ‘Old Wild Men’ is a gorgeous synthetic ballad of the type they’d perfect with ‘I’m Not In Love’. It’s the sort of album which on initial listen can seem somewhat whimsical and at times silly but further plays reveal deeper textures. It’s clever... too clever possibly, but it constantly looks forward to the sort of idiosyncratic song structures produced by the likes of Field Music. Even when they try straightforward glam (‘Silly Love’) the result is both infectious and faintly baffling. I wish there were more albums like this.
Robert Ashley was a composer who in the mid 1970s got himself in a fug about why no-one was making, or was even interested in the kind of music he was interested; avant-garde opera. He wanted to combine this with an interest in involuntary speech (Ashley suffered from mild Tourettes) and so Automatic Writing was born. Ashley recorded bursts of speech and placed them among each other and over a bed of beautiful organ compositions. The album has a unique otherworldly feel - the music is as distant as relaxing as hearing the sounds of a church organ blowing in on the wind on a sunny day, it lulls you into a deep mood of benign relaxation. Then bursts of speech interrupt - the female voice is whispering in French, the male voice in a hard to detect language. Beneath it all there is the distant sound of a rock band. It’s unfathomable but also quite beautiful - the voices tangle and coagulate, the music drifting around and beneath.
In discussions for this piece we talked about how influential the early Human League were and whether their Reproduction and Travelogue LPs were underrated enough to be included. Both are certainly worthy of investigation but the true classic early Human League record to me is this fantastic 1979 era 12”. Consisting of four instrumental pieces it’s a magnificent bridge between the all pervading influence of Kraftwerk and the tightly knit techno and electronica which would come much later on the Warp label. The Dignity of Labour is a stand alone piece in the Human League catalogue in that it contains no vocals and shows none of the pop nous that would later see them become reliable chart toppers. Instead we get four incredible slabs of dystopian electronica that set a blueprint for what later explorers like Autechre would go on to do. The band also poked fun at their po-faced image by including a flexi disc of them talking about what they were going to release on the flexi disc. A brilliant record, light years ahead of its time.
Sparks had a pretty big hit with 1974’s Kimono My House and its hit singles ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ and ‘Amateur Hour’ but a lot less has been written about it’s successor Propaganda. Astonishingly, the album was released just six months after Kimono... and is an incredible topsy turvy and joyous ride through a kind of fiercely intelligent glam pop. Indeed Sparks were kind of like a good Queen if that were possible - the ingredients is all there - histrionic octave-leaping vocals, outlandish arrangements and stunning changes in texture and tempo. That they did all this without being quite as...how you say?..shit as Queen is testament to the brothers Mael’s writing and arrangement skills. The album bursts out of the speakers from the get go. Opener ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ is a delightful operatic romp with more hooks than is necessarily fair on everybody else and that’s just the beginning. The pace never relents and by the time closer ‘Bon Voyage’ fades from view, you are left exhausted but grinning from ear to ear.
Let’s just take ‘Outdoor Miner’ on its own for a second shall we? A magnificent pop song which details the life cycle of the serpentine leaf miner insect. Only a dispute over alleged chart rigging prevented them from appearing on Top of the Pops. The song showcases the unusual leftfield approach of Wire - one of the most interesting bands to emerge out of the punk. It’s debatable which album of theirs was the greatest but Chairs Missing is one of the most fascinating. It consists of fifteen short songs which are a kind of progression from punk. Wire use almost the same ingredients (two guitar, bass and drums) but seem to play them sideways and back to front, adding in extraordinary rhythms to their occasionally unfathomable song structures. Their taut sound would go on to influence all manner of arty post punk acts (guessing XTC, Adam & the Ants to name but two) and their magnificent songwriting and way with a guitar riff seem to have influenced britpop (both Blur and Elastica ahem… borrowed several musical moves). Today they are still recording fascinating albums, and are rightfully still being talked about.
We’re not averse to putting big hitting artists in these lists where we feel one of their albums has been unjustly ignored. Not everything went right for Bob Dylan in the 1970s, Blood on the Tracks is justly lauded but how about Desire? The album is one of Dylan’s strongest statements and contains a rare example of the singer opening up his heart on its wonderful closing track ‘Sara’. But it was two other songs that courted controversy at the time .’Joey’ was seen as glorifying the violent gangster "Crazy Joey" Gallo, while opening track ‘Hurricane’, argued that boxer Rubin Carter had been falsley imprisoned for murder. The two songs exemplify the very nature of Dylan’s story songs on Desire. Each track is a lengthy narrative, the music is repetitive often without verse chorus structure whilst Dylan’s words are delivered in stanzas more akin to reading a book or a poem. The aforementioned ‘Sara’ documented Dylan’s marriage breakdown, and so is one of the few truly emotional moments in his huge back catalogue.
Joni Mitchell was doing pretty well for herself thanks to extremely successful albums such as Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds. Then, on her third album Court and Spark, that dreaded phrase “jazz fusion” started to be bandied around. Still, the album went straight to number one so it seemed even more jazz was required to truly derail her career. Hence The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Its opening track, the mighty ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’, finally provided Mitchell with a flop single - reaching only number 66 - its sophisticated moves way too adventurous for her folky fans. Even better though was ‘The Jungle Line’ which managed to invent both Adam & the Ants and Paul Simon’s Graceland in one fell swoop. If Joni Mitchell has never meant anything to you then please listen to this track - you’ll be amazed. Elsewhere Mitchell employed textures that were more Steely Dan than Laurel Canyon and her transformation from winsome folk singer to jazz infected experimenter was complete. Of course the critics hated it, describing it as uninspired jazz rock . Like all of these types of records though people out of the suburbs were listening intently. Prince loved it, Morrissey copied its wandering vocal style, and it’s one of the true adventurous folk rock records of the 1970s.
Journey In Satchidananda was the fourth album by harpist and bandleader Alice Coltrane. It followed a period of reflection and self discovery for the artist after the death of her husband John in 1967. The album takes influence from multiple cultures and musical genres, placing her harp amongst a bed of sitars, tamboura percussion and saxophone. It is a deep and spiritual album immersed in South Asian musical tradition with a meditative and immersive sound, a transcendental fusion of deeply experimental Jazz and Eastern spirituality. If you follow Coltrane’s sleeve notes you should listen to the album in its entirety whilst lying on the floor… possibly on a sunny day with the light streaming in. This piece is a mystical work of enduring sweetness and spiritual longing both accessible and immersive.
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