Sunday, September 18, 2011

Secret History: 1974

My doubts about the mainstream are only growing by now. Good music is officially “hard to find”, at least for me, a seventeen year old. By which I mean I can no longer simply turn the radio on and expect to hear something I really like.

Forget AM radio. Never being fond of brass or strings, I only liked Motown from a distance. So I missed out on the pleasures of much ‘70s soul.

And FM? I could get by but not without constantly changing the station. So there’s very little below that I actually heard there and enjoyed at the time. So with very few exceptions, it would only be later that I’d find the records below.

The following, is more or less in descending order of quality:

The one true masterpiece is Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” which reminds me of the first Paul Simon album - simple arrangements and great songs. But Richard's also got his guitar and wife Linda singing along, making this one of the very best of the decade.

Randy Newman seemed to be on a mission to piss off the world - something he wouldn't quite accomplish until a few years later with "Short People". He started with his very weird first solo record, moved onto “Twelve Songs”, where phrases like “yellow man” and “darkies” popped up all over the place. “Sail Away” was a bit of a relief, but on “Good Old Boys”, he goes all out with the strings and tells stories of the American South, now using the N word.

What Randy's got going for him, though, is brilliant songwriting. "Marie" is one of the greatest love songs ever (but only when sung by Randy himself). “Louisiana 1928” would be merely moving if it didn't also remind you of Louisiana 2005. This one's my favorite by him.

If you like to read about music, you’ve already heard about Big Star’s “Radio City”. So all I’m going to say is that what you’ve heard is true. On first listen you might not think much of it because the Beatles were better. Just remember that the Beatles were better than everybody.

“Feats Don't Fail Me Now” was the Little Feat album that made me a fan. Little Feat remind me of beer – the first one you have is always the best.

I'm still waiting for someone to turn “Between Today and Yesterday” into a Broadway musical. Alan Price proves that he's got it with this take on his childhood in the coal towns of England. There are moments on this record that elicit such an emotional response in me (something that I’ll explain at a later time) that I am certain most people will think I'm nuts. I’d like a second opinion.

Neil Young was well into his blue period by now, and people (including me) were beginning to wonder about him, but only after first actually purchasing his records. At first, I was disappointed by “On the Beach”. Side one could be better. I heard a better “See the Sky About to Rain” on a live bootleg with just Neil on the piano. And “Vampire Blues” just isn't funny enough. Ah, but side two! This isn't mood music. It's trance music. And it probably sent most people scurrying back to side one. But it was where I wanted to live. “Motion Pictures” is one of his great depressing songs, but it's the finale "Ambulance Blues" that’s a masterpiece. You're all just pissin in the wind….

I've come to distrust those albums with too serious a theme. But Al Stewart is very likable, so his take on history - “Past Present and Future” - is enjoyable anyway. And like me, you don’t have to believe the Nostradamus stuff to love the last song. This one’s just before Al hits the big time.

You’d think a white British guy trying to sing New Orleans-style and basically stealing Little Feat’s sound, would piss me off a little more. But Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin Sally Through the Alley” ends up sounding better than it sounds, maybe because he used Little Feat as his band. This one bought him a lot of good will from me. And it would only be when he started wearing a suit that I began to find him unbearable.

Most Billy Joel fans love “Turnstiles” or “The Stranger” the best. But don’t overlook “Streetlife Serenader”. It’s a little calmer than his major label debut, and less supercilious (it’s really a word, I swear. Someone called me it once.) There’s some filler on it, but the ones that aren’t, like “Roberta” are quietly wonderful.

And although the following records technically came out in 1973, I’m putting them into 1974, because the artists had already released something else in ’73. That, and ‘cause I felt like it:
It took until “Europe 72” for me to like the Grateful Dead. I then went back to rehear what I had been missing. So the subsequent “Bear’s Choice” almost slipped through the cracks. Plus, I preferred their harmonies to Pigpen’s blues. But side one is gentle and side two is almost hypnotic. Thank you, Pigpen!

One of the highlights of my musical life was that Saturday morning in my room doing homework when I first heard “Incident on 52nd St”. Another was that Sunday afternoon, again in my room, hearing “Rosalita” followed by “NYC Serenade”. I would have sworn that Bruce Springsteen was black or Puerto Rican. I found his mix of rock and roll, latin horns, semi-soul music, and female background choruses intoxicating. Then, when I actually bought “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and found that these three songs took up side two, running seven, seven and ten minutes respectively. One of the great, and most audacious, sides in all of rock and roll. Side one’s a bit tame in comparison, but quite good under any other circumstances.

In sum, like the year before, I’m spending more and more time in my room listening to music, instead of hanging with friends doing so. That’s because my friends and I didn’t share the same tastes. That splintering of taste I referred to in prior posts is continuing unabated.

In retrospect, 1974 was not a bad year. The problem is that you should not have to wait for “in retrospect” to know.

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