This ain’t the Summer of Love: 10 essential rock albums of 1970

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/KFAR-2.jpg?w=438&ssl=1Clearly, I was diggin’ the super sounds of the 70s. (ca. 1978)

I’m livin’ in the 70’s
Eatin’ fake food under plastic trees
My face gets dirty just walkin’ around
I need another pill to calm me down

-from “Living in the 70s” by Skyhooks

If you’ve grown weary of your hippie grandparents getting misty-eyed over “the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on Sullivan”, “the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love” or “the 50th anniversary of Woodstock”, I have good news for you. The 60s are finally over.

The bad news is …welcome to the 1970s!

When it comes to music, the 1970s were pretty, pretty, good. In fact, I have to say that some of the finest music known to humanity was produced during that decade. Now there are some who subscribe to the theory that one’s “musical taste” is formed during high school and thenceforth set in stone. Full disclosure: I graduated from high school in 1974.

I still say some of the finest music known to humanity was produced during that decade.

In the several years following the release of the Beatles’ game-changing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” progressed by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres began to propagate; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. By the time the new decade rolled around, you could add more variations: Latin rock, jazz-rock, funk-rock, and polar extremes that would come to be dubbed as “soft rock” and “heavy metal”.

I’ve lost my curly locks (ditto aviator glasses) and there are a few more lines on my face, but I’d guess around 70% of the music that I still listen to was created in the 1970s. (Oh god here he goes now with the anniversary mention) It’s hard to believe that 1970 was (ahem) 50 years ago …but there you have it. With that in mind, here are my picks for the 10 best rock albums of 1970, a year that offers an embarrassing wealth of damn fine LPs.

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All Things Must Pass – George Harrison

1970 was an interesting year for the four artists formerly known as “The Beatles”. The belated release of the less-than-stellar Let it Be (actually recorded prior to 1969’s Abbey Road) was overshadowed by solo album debuts from all four ex-band mates. While John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Paul McCartney’s McCartney, and Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey certainly contained fine material, I don’t think anybody saw this one coming (always watch out for the “quiet ones”). George Harrison had been “quietly” stowing away some very strong material for some time-at least judging by this massive 3-record set (although one could argue that the 3rd LP, comprised of 4 meandering jam sessions, was excess baggage). Produced by Phil Spector and featuring a stellar list of backing musicians (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, Bobby Keys, Peter Frampton, Gary Brooker, Alan White, Ginger Baker, Dave Mason, et.al.) Harrison delivers an astonishing set of songs, many of which have become classics.

Choice cuts: “I’d Have You Anytime”, “My Sweet Lord”, “Isn’t it a Pity (Version One)”, “Let it Down”, “What is Life”, “Beware of Darkness”, “All Things Must Pass”, “Art of Dying”.

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Bitches Brew – Miles Davis

Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of this 2-LP set on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving). Miles always had heavyweight players on board, but the Bitches Brew roster is legend: including future members of Weather Report (Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul), Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Lenny White) and The Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham) – who are all now acknowledged as key pioneers of fusion.

Choice cuts: “Pharoah’s Dance”, “Bitches Brew”, “John McLaughlin”.

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Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tri-tone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!” Talk about a mission statement. Alleged to have been recorded in a single 12-hour session, Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album blew teenage minds, scared the bejesus out of the clergy and ushered in a genre of rock that showed no fear of the dark.

Choice cuts: “Black Sabbath”, “The Wizard”, “N.I.B.”, “Evil Woman”, “Sleeping Village”.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel went out on a high note with their swan song album (figuratively and literally…if you factor in Art Garfunkel’s soaring vocal performance on the title cut). The album not only features one of Paul Simon’s finest and most enduring song cycles, but outstanding production as well by engineer and co-producer Roy Halee. Halee picked up a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording; the album was festooned with an additional 5 Grammys (including Album of the Year and 4 wins for the title track alone). Simon went on to enjoy a highly successful solo career, and while Garfunkel continued to record and perform (including a reunion or two with Simon), his focus shifted to acting.

Choice cuts: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “El Condor Pasa”, “Cecilia”, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”, “The Boxer”, “The Only Living Boy in New York”.

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Emerson, Lake, & Palmer – Emerson, Lake, & Palmer

In my 2016 tribute to Greg Lake, I wrote:

Greg Lake was not only one of the gods of prog-rock, but for my money, owned the greatest set of pipes in any musical genre.

That voice has captivated me from the first time I heard “In the Court of the Crimson King” wafting from my radio back in 1969. Even through a tinny 4″ speaker, that beautiful, cathedral voice shot directly through my medulla oblongata and took my breath away.    

Prog-rock’s first super-group not only had “that voice”, but the keyboard wizardry of Keith Emerson (The Nice) and the precise drumming of Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster). ELP’s eponymous debut showcases the trio’s virtuosic musicianship and seamless blending of folk, rock, jazz and classical influences.

Choice cuts: “The Barbarian”, “Take a Pebble”, “Knife-Edge”, “Lucky Man”.

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Fire and Water – Free

On an episode of his AXS-TV interview series, former AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson described the voice of his guest Paul Rodgers thusly: “Velvet chocolate, with a splash of whiskey if required.” Perfect. Speaking of “perfect”, Free’s third studio album is damn-near. Fire and Water is an apt title for this strong set of elemental R&B-flavored blues-rock; propelled by Simon Kirke’s powerful drumming, Andy Fraser’s fluid bass lines, and Paul Kossoff’s spare yet dynamic guitar playing, topped off by Rodgers’ distinctive vocals (possessing a voice like that by 21 can only be attributed to “a gift from beyond”).

Choice cuts: “Fire and Water”, “Oh I Wept”, “Mr. Big”, “Don’t Say You Love Me”, “All Right Now”.

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Led Zeppelin III – Led Zeppelin

For their third album (my favorite), Led Zeppelin continued to draw from the well of Delta blues, English folk and heavy metal riffing that had informed the “sound” of Led Zeppelin and II the previous year, but indicated they were opening themselves to a bit of new exploration as well. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were taking an interest in Eastern music, most evident in the song “Friends” which features an exotic string arrangement that hints at future forays into world music like “Four Sticks” (on IV) and “Kashmir” (on Physical Graffiti). While not bereft of straight-up rockers, this album is also their most “acoustic”, with folk and country-blues influences sprinkled throughout (Page even throws in some banjo for their arrangement of the traditional folk ballad “Gallows Pole”).

Choice cuts: “Immigrant Song”, “Friends”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “Gallows Pole”, “Tangerine”, “That’s the Way”, “Bron-y-aur Stomp”.

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The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie

You could say that David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible he invented a working time machine, as he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. If pressed, I’d have to say my favorite Bowie “period” would be the Mick Ronson years (1969-1973). When he released his third album in 1970, Bowie was on the precipice of outer space and transitioning to a harder rock sound. Mick Ronson’s crunchy power chords and fiery solos feel like a warmup for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which was just around the corner.

Choice cuts: “Width of a Circle”, “All the Madmen”, “Black Country Rock”, “After All”, “Running Gun Blues”, “The Man Who Sold the World”.

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Rides Again – The James Gang

One of the most majestic and melodic hard rock albums of the 70s, in a realm with Who’s Next. It was the second of three studio albums with Joe Walsh on lead vocals, guitar, and keyboards (Walsh departed the band in 1972, and bass player Dale Peters and drummer Jim Fox would go on to recruit several more guitarists and lead vocalists throughout the decade, including the late great Tommy Bolin). This is one of Walsh’s finest moments; especially in the Abbey Road-style suite on side 2 (Walsh continued a partnership with producer Bill Szymczyk; working with him on 7 of his solo albums between 1972-1992).

Choice cuts: “Funk #49”, “The Bomber: Closet Queen”, “Tend My Garden”, “Garden Gate”, “There I Go Again”,  “Thanks”, “Ashes, the Rain and I”.

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Tea for the Tillerman – Cat Stevens

To paraphrase from one of the tunes on this album, Cat Stevens had “come a long way” from his first charted hit “I Love My Dog” in 1966 to this beautifully crafted song cycle in 1970. After a life-threatening bout with TB in 1969 that left him hospitalized for months, Stevens went through a spiritual and creative transformation that ultimately inspired him to produce an amazing catalog of compositions within a short period of time (his 1971 follow-up Teaser and the Firecat is equally outstanding). Several songs from this album ended up on the soundtrack for Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude.

Choice cuts: “Where Do the Children Play?”, “Wild World”, “Miles From Nowhere”, “On the Road to Find Out”, “Father and Son”, “Tea for the Tillerman”.

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more 1970 releases worth a spin:

  • After the Gold Rush – Neil Young
  • Alone Together – Dave Mason
  • Benefit – Jethro Tull
  • Ladies of the Canyon – Joni Mitchell
  • Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek and the Dominos
  • Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround – The Kinks
  • Moondance – Van Morrison
  • Morrison Hotel – The Doors
  • Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
  • Tumbleweed Connection – Elton John

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