The back end of the 20th century was fortunate – at least in terms of pop cultural retrospectives – that its musical produce was received by the largest audience; in the memory, therefore, events beyond the Top 40 are often soundtracked by popular song, which can happily enter into a marriage with moments from the wider world in serendipitous synchronicity. However, a febrile era whose songs have proven to be as much of their time as they have subsequently become timeless means a DIY ‘mix-tape’ intended to represent a turbulent period of the past can just as easily speak of the paranoia, instability and uncertainty of the here and now, especially when the here and now’s equivalent has no more impact on the wider world than a ringtone. So, to compile a collection of contemporary tunes reflecting the peculiarly melancholy mid-1970s in 2023 inadvertently sources a soundtrack which says as much about our today as it does all our yesterdays. And here is my track-list…
To open with 10cc’s ‘Wall Street Shuffle’ a week after the perennially precarious banking industry experienced another of its periodical wobbles seems to kick-start the album as it means to go on. Although it deals with no specific crisis, the killer rock riff it owns masks a deliciously sardonic view of the world’s money men, a theme that would grow in its potency as Britain teetered on the brink of bankruptcy within a year or two of the song’s appearance. Track two was never a single, but it stands out as a beautifully bleak tribute to doomed lovers, David Bowie’s ‘We Are the Dead’. Included on his chart-topping 1974 LP, ‘Diamond Dogs’, the song was originally composed for the Dame’s aborted ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ musical, though it fits in with the apocalyptic ambience of the album; possessing a creeping menace that points towards the darker avenues Bowie would explore in albums to come, ‘We Are the Dead’ retains a resonance in our post-pandemic landscape.
Track three is Bryan Ferry’s radical reworking of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’; although a defiantly upbeat cover, its lyrics contain some of Dylan’s most vividly nightmarish imagery, and needless to say, the 21st century hasn’t rendered the song irrelevant one iota. Next up is the third hit for Sparks, the icily elegant ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’. An odd choice for a single considering its stark contrast with its breathless and bombastic predecessors, this curiously unsettling ballad nevertheless continued to mark the Mael brothers out as uniquely quirky talents. Also capable of quirkiness before he became a teenybop idol, David Essex produced a string of sonically strange singles early on, with track five being the title track from the film in which Essex played a terminally-damaged rock star; ‘Stardust’ sounds like it’s coming live from an empty circus ring and is a further number that captures the hopelessness of one era crawling from the wreckage of another.
Track six is by someone else who divided his time between singing and acting, though in the case of Brian Protheroe, acting won out. A shame, in a way, as ‘Pinball’ was one of the great one-off hits of the decade – a hazy, bloodshot stroll through Soho after-hours that anyone wandering around the alienating bright lights of the big city can relate to, whatever the year. The only track that references a specific year is next – Alice Cooper’s ‘Teenage Lament ‘74’, a song that mines similar themes to the shock-rocker’s breakthrough hit, ‘Eighteen’, though the ambiguous lyrics are buried beneath one of Cooper’s brightest melodies. In contrast, a band renowned for uplifting their audience took the opposite route with track eight; Slade broke their run of top tenners when they released arguably their greatest song, ‘How Does it Feel’ as a single. The memorable opener to their unexpectedly dark biopic of a fictitious rock band, ‘Flame’, the track is a wistful, piano-driven ballad that – despite lyrics laced with hopes of a better tomorrow – cannot help but radiate a potent sadness that perhaps record-buyers didn’t want their favourite Glam Rock party act coming out with. Initially affiliated with the art school side of Glam, Be-Bop Deluxe follow Slade with Bill Nelson’s evocative portrait of parochial ennui, ‘Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape’, making the listener wonder why this band never made it bigger than everyone at the time imagined they would do.
A detour into decadence comes with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s unforgettably filthy cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Next’, though decadence itself is often a characteristic side-effect of societies trapped in an irreversible decline; indeed, one doesn’t have to look very far to see its presence in our own. Mind you, decadence never sounded quite so wittily perverse as it did in the hands of a man who had begun his career many years before as ‘Scotland’s Tommy Steele’. Track 11 is from The Who, a band still regarded as a yardstick for outrage in the mid-70s, despite Pete Townshend’s fears he had already bypassed the age he once hoped he’d die before he reached. ‘Imagine a Man’ is another of this compilation’s more unashamedly introspective numbers; but by articulating the sense of disenchantment pervading his generation at the time the song appeared in 1975, Townshend was continuing to be as astute an observer of the world around him as he had been ten years previously. And the song still speaks to anyone on the wrong side of 25 – as long as they’ve grown-up a bit.
Another band more celebrated for their riff-heavy rockers than the sensitive side they never shied away from, Led Zeppelin feature as track 12. With the release of double LP ‘Physical Graffiti’ in 1975, Led Zep reached heights they never quite scaled again, and ‘Ten Years Gone’ is one of the album’s highlights; a lament to lost love of a kind that continues to haunt the loser long after the event, the song shares sentiments with ‘Imagine a Man’ in the way it encapsulates mid-life awareness of a road behind that is suddenly lengthening as the road ahead shortens. Track 13 comes from a voice in the wilderness as British pop’s most prominent exile confronts his fears; John Lennon’s candidly paranoid ‘I’m Scared’ is one of his last great statements before the five-year retirement that shortly followed the release of the album on which it featured, ‘Walls and Bridges’. Stripped of the political dogma that had infected much of his immediate post-Beatles output, the song is imbued with a weary vulnerability that was the common currency of the era’s singer-songwriters.
A quartet of singer-songwriters follows ‘I’m Scared’ – John Martyn, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson (with wife Linda) and Roy Harper. All had their roots in – though swiftly transcended – the British folk revival of the 60s, and were amongst the most effective commentators on a period they looked in the face with such intense eloquence. ‘Solid Air’ is perhaps the revered composition of the combative Martyn, whilst ‘Voice from The Mountain’ by Nick Drake is another of his melancholic musings impossible to hear without joining the dots leading to Drake’s premature death not long after. ‘A Heart Needs a Home’ is a fine wine of a ballad from Richard and Linda Thompson that improves with age, whereas Roy Harper’s exquisite version of ‘North Country’ has much in common with Led Zep’s ‘Ten Years Gone’ – ‘I’m wondering if she remembers me at all’.
Harper’s vocal contribution to ‘Have a Cigar’ on Pink Floyd’s 1975 LP ‘Wish You Were Here’ is still a cause of petty resentment on the part of the ever-cheerful Roger Waters, though the album’s title track has a humane heart that has made it one of the band’s most enduring anthems. It seems a fitting piece to close this DIY compilation with – an old song that says something new to each generation that encounters it; when ongoing (not to say tedious) ‘internet issues’ and a general absence of inspiration provoke recourse to default settings, listing such tracks serves as a timely, gap-plugging interlude between heavier topics in sore need of some good tunes. Maybe these will do.
© The Editor