Thursday, 29 December 2011

A farewell to 1976, by Bob Stanley

After all last week's recapping exertions I've left the concluding words on the musical year 1976 to someone who can express its core ideals much clearer than I could - writer, Saint Etienne member and established font of pop knowledge Bob Stanley, whose own blog Croydon Municipal is highly recommended.

When the Top Of The Pops re-runs began last spring, a lot of people saw them as evidence that 1976 was pop's worst ever year. This could only be said by people who hadn't lived through the cheap thrills of the Glam era only to be left high and dry by the tame, tawdry charts of 1975. To put 1976 in context, let me explain the desperation of pop music a year earlier. Only twice in my life have I left the charts alone - for a few months in 1987 when I was an indie puritan, and in early 1975 when I simply lost interest. I bought and devoured Shoot! and football took up all my headspace. Only for a few months, but for pop to have fallen off the radar of the ten-year old me so completely that I didn't know who was number one, still shocks the adult me.

So there were gaps in my musical knowledge of 1975 (fully revealed when the first Guinness Book Of Hit Singles was published in '77) that I'd happily fill in years later - a no.3 hit by the intriguingly named Moments And Whatnauts turned out to be the priceless Girls, with its bright yellow string-machine chords and daffy sexist lyric. But much of it was a desert. My ignorance suggests the kids at school weren't paying much attention either. Clearly there was a pop deficit*. I'd occasionally hear something high in the charts and remain unimpressed - Bobby Goldsboro's lonely housewife murder ballad** Honey made it all the way to no.2 just seven years after it had oozed its way to the same position in 1968; Mud tied a lead weight around Buddy Holly's Oh Boy and somehow scored a number one.

Even the Bay City Rollers' simplistic mix of Spector and Glam, like a dessicated Wizzard, had seemed much more appealing, much brighter in '74 (Shang A Lang, Summerlove Sensation) than it did in 1975 (Bye Bye Baby, Give A Little Love) when they owned the chart as completely as the Beatles in '63 or Frankie in '84. Just a year before, Mud scored a streak of Glam classics - Tiger Feet, The Cat Crept In and (maybe best of the lot) Rocket. 1975 felt like pop's oxygen supply was low, for Mud*** and for everyone else.

Pop analyst Tony Jasper once posited that 1976 felt like a carefree, bubbly year for pop because most of us were blissfully unaware of the punk holocaust about to condemn the likes of Steve Harley, the Rollers and even dear old Mud to chart oblivion. Well, having lived through '75 and '76 I'll vouch for it being a breezy year, but maybe because something, anything would be an improvement on the year before.

So how did things improve?

There was one sparkling trend that stands out for me. Though it continues to split the jury clean down the middle, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody - number one for nine weeks, straddling the end of '75 and the start of '76 - was unquestionably ambitious. It harked backed to a lost world when pop singles became complex structures, not just for kids, aiming to break the three minute barrier and smash the bluff blues base of R'n'R. Good Vibrations set the bar unfeasibly high in 1966. Richard Harris's Macarthur Park and Barry Ryan's Eloise stretched the blueprint thrillingly in '68, just as the new blues boom rendered this ornate style unfashionable.

10CC were first to revive it (Rubber Bullets, The Dean And I) but it was probably the influence of the Bo Rhap behemoth that made the extended, multipart single a feature of the 1976 charts. The Four Seasons had been brought in from the cold with a disco hit (Who Loves You) and a Northern Soul re-issue (The Night) in 1975; 1976 brought us their epic Silver Star (no.3 in May). A working man dreams, like Scott Walker's Humphrey Plugg, of being surrounded by beautiful women, "ecstasy on their faces". The bulk of the song is a galloping fantasy, but its middle section thumps out his "nine to five" job, seemingly sought out for him by a domineering wife. "Ain't living but I'm alive" he sobs.

Who else tried this lark? John Miles' Music (no.3) showed that, in the wrong hands, it could sound pompous, risible; David Essex's urban psychodrama City Lights (no.24) was so long it became one of the first 12" singles, and a startpoint for Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds; Simon May's Summer Of My Life (no.7) sounded like Terry Scott concocting a Home Counties version of Macarthur Park; Showaddywaddy's Trocadero (no.32) minced up a '58/'68/'76 pop lineage, though not quite so thrillingly as that may suggest. Away from the chart, David Gates' Suite: Clouds, Rain picked up Capital Radio airplay. If for no other reason, this odd trend nullifies the idea that 1976 was a pop nadir.

There were plenty of women on the chart, but girls were nowhere to be seen. Tina Charles, though short and busty and cute as a button, was way too mumsy to be a pre-teen dream; Dana's Fairytale (no.13) and Twiggy's Here I Go Again (no.17) provided late period hits for one-time teenage cuties, now definitely out of range from the realistic fantasies of sweaty 14-year olds. Kiki Dee, whose first single was in 1963, finally scored a brace of Top 20 hits. An odd strain was the 1976 girl group, with no members looking under the age of 25: the Chanter Sisters, the Surprise Sisters, Glamourpuss. Who were these acts aimed at? And how much thought went into their Top Of The Pops performances? The industry wasn't short of money, but very little of it was spent on a stylist for the poor Chanter Sisters whose excellent single Sideshow was sunk by a godawful TOTP must-see performance. None of them scored a Top 20 hit.

The 1976 charts behaved as if we had outgrown cute boy or girl-led pop. Stranger than the half-assed girl group revival was the lack of poster boys. David Essex and the Bay City Rollers had been the pin-ups of '75, but both had sharp drop-offs in '76 (Essex failed to reach the Top 20 at all). Flintlock scraped into the Top 30, just, with Dawn ("is breaking my heart"), even though they were on tv EVERY WEEK on You Must Be Joking and Pauline's Quirkes. The Wurzels? JJ Barrie? Maybe they just primed a nation's pre-pubescents for the pin-up star of '77, the decidedly not young David Soul, whose appeal (I'm wildly presuming here) was that he could be your best friend's handsome dad. Whatever, 1976 produced no new teen sensations. Agnetha was the only true pin-up, but she'd first wiggled her blue satin pants on TOTP in spring '74, and again she was closer to Legs & Co's territory than Mary Weiss or Clare Grogan.

Disco 1976-style was a very varied beast and none the worse for it. The BPM count varied from Isaac Hayes' hyper, whip-cracking Disco Connection (no.10) to Andrea True's slo-mo porn'n'cowbell classic More More More (no.5). Neither used the patented Philly hi-hat, soon to be ubiquitous. Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music (no.7) trounced any funk-rock hybrid before or since, while UK acts the Average White Band (Pick Up The Pieces) and the Climax Blues Band (Couldn't Get It Right) created genuinely timeless club hits, the latter with a neatly sinister feel - just what was it that they couldn't get right?****.

The hot hot heat defined another sound of '76, with the blazing summer surely affecting chart positions. Wings' Let 'Em In (no.2) was an exhausted sprawl on a day bed; Steve Harley's Here Comes The Sun (no.10) flounced; Dr Hook's prolonged sexual antics on A Little Bit More (no.2) left them "flat out on the floor" in temperatures consistently in the eighties; David Dundas' Jeans On (no.3) was another lazy mooch in the shade; and Elton and Kiki's Don't Go Breaking My Heart was as summery and all-conquering (six weeks at the top) as 45s get.

The aforementioned Surprise Sisters turned in one of the worst singles of '76 with their trashing of Got To Get You Into My Life. What on earth were they doing? Without any context, their crazed supper-jazz with forties burps made no sense. But there was a pre-war swing revival in the air - Essex DJ Chris Hill would pepper his soul sets with blasts of Glenn Miller, and his set was influential enough to push Miller's In The Mood into the chart; the swing legend's Tuxedo Junction gave Manhattan Transfer their first hit (no.24) in March); Maureen McGovern recorded a new version of Ginger Rogers' The Continental (no.16) which, chirruping from an Alba transistor radio, sounded like it was from 1935; Winifred Shaw's lovely minor hit Lullaby Of Broadway WAS recorded in 1935. The Chi Lites' You Don't Have To Go (no.3) had one of the year's strangest productions, with a trippy echo-drenched chorus and unexpected female squeaks on its extended coda, but also made room for a silent screen-era brass section. Beyond Chris Hill's contribution, and possibly the influence of Bugsy Malone, I can offer no explanation to this trend. It peaked and died when Manhattan Transfer went mainstream (to the point of being used as a Terry And June punchline) a year later.

Amidst these short-lived fashions, there were a few TOTP clues on what was to come. Heavy Metal Kids were proto punk, and had no obvious connection to the Pub Rock scene that birthed Eddie & The Hot Rods. I remember seeing She's No Angel at the time and thinking it really stuck out like a sore thumb, quite scary (too scary to crack the Top 50, as it turned out). The backing group looked like a fat Strokes, and singer Gary Holton was some kind of Clockwork Orange/New York Dolls hybrid. Not altogether GOOD, but still they had something that almost everything else on the show lacked - here was a bit of bleedin’ energy at last. And how much did Thin Lizzy's performances jumped out of the screen? Everyone was actually dancing, not just doing that sad TOTP shuffle, to The Boys Are Back in Town (no.8). Likewise, Status Quo's propulsive Mystery Song (no.11) was a hard diamond in the midst of smug piano-led ballads by John Christie and Randy Edelman.

Of course "what was to come"***** was a bunch of low-level chart positions for a mixed bag of acts, some of whom (Graham Parker & The Rumour? The Tubes?) would barely be tagged New Wave these days, let alone Punk. But the Top 30 countdown would have at least one representative of the new order most weeks from April '77 onwards. 1976 was a very light year, in all senses of the word, and things were about to get considerably heavier.

* there were good records released in 1975, but most were albums: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Blood On The Tracks, Gene Clark's No Other, Neil Young's Zuma, Dion's Born To Be With You. Even then, these were hardly heralds of a musical future.

** the singer has killed her, hasn't he? Listen to it again and tell me how's she died of natural causes.

*** Mud managed the rare feat of scoring six hit singles in 1975, none of which were much cop. 1976's sleek Shake It Down was a great improvement, and is a clear forefather of the later Rob Davis-penned hit Groovejet.

**** the intro was possibly pinched for Pink Floyd's much less oblique Another Brick In The Wall.

***** Noel Edmonds predicted it would be slimy singer-songwriter John Christie, and Tony Palmer's All You Need Is Love documentary saw great things ahead for Black Oak Arkansas and Stomu Yamashta.


Marcello Carlin said...

the singer has killed her, hasn't she? Listen to it again and tell me how she's died of natural causes

One clue might be the lines: "One day while I was not at home/While she was there and all alone/The angels came."

Also, nowhere in the song is it implicated or stated that she died of natural causes. The song is the missing link between "Old Shep" and "Caroline Says."

Noax said...

Thanks to Bob for writing this, and to Simon for publishing it.

Not that I expected anything else from someone with a great pop pedigree, but it's lovely to see an in-depth review that isn't just "This is all terrible, WHERE'S PUNK?" and I have to say that I agree with the central argument that 1976 was certainly better than the year before.

It could be my age (4 and a half) but the period we've just reached in the repeats is the exact point where I started to get interested in music in general, and the songs I remember from this time really are diverse - Side Show, Portsmouth, Dr. Love, Suspicion, Wild Side Of Life, Under The Moon Of Love were all on my first chart tape.

There were some good things about 1975 - The Goodies and The Wombles having some great hits written by two incredibly overlooked songsmiths (though Mike Batt always seems to big himself up enough so that no-one else needs to!!) plus the odd cracker like "I'm On Fire" by 5000 Volts and "Fox On The Run" by Sweet but as Bob points out, there wasn't too much to get excited about.

I'm really looking forward to seeing 1977, even David Soul. Long may these repeats continue.

(Oh, and great spot re Groovejet's lineage - can't believe I never noticed that!)

Wellieman said...

First off, thanks again to Simon for a great blog - glad I'm not the only one who takes great pleasure from discussing the pop music of our youth. And really enjoyed Bob Stanley's thoughts on the scene in 1976. Tend to agree with most of it ... with a few exceptions.

1975 for example was not as bad in my eyes. In it's defence I would put forward it was the year which gave us Abba's best songs (SOS and Mamma Mia); Slade's best (How Does It Feel); Sweet's best (Fox On The Run); the best Xmas song ever from Greg Lake; Roxy Music (Love Is The Drug); Hot Chocolate (You Sexy Thing); 10CC (I'm Not In Love) and ELO finally got the formula right with Evil Woman. Agree Mud's output was a bit patchy but still included the magnificent Show Me You're A Woman.

As Bob mentioned there was an alarming slide in popularity for the Rollers and David Essex, and all things glam in general. I vividly recall at my 13th birthday party in January of 1976 every single girl there was adorned in something tartan but by the end of the year they all denied they were ever into the Rollers..!!

So in terms of pure pop music I don't think 75 or 76 were as bad as history remembers them. For me the factors which have contributed towards our collective dismissing of these two years have been all too evident on the TOTP re-runs. Firstly the audio presentation of the songs were horrible. Whether it was a sterile, live performance with the house orchestra or a union-supervised rush re-recording that the artists had to undertake. A good example being the weak, lifeless Mamma Mia we saw last week on the Xmas show, compared to the rich, vibrant record we all know so well. Bjorn has said it was a major factor why they didn't bother with TOTP much again. But think also of Kursaal Flyers, Climax Blues Band's first go, Sutherland Brothers' Arms of Mary, Pussycat's studio visit and all the Various Sisters' combined.

The other problem was that there were no new, young and exciting acts for us kids to hook on to. I've been amazed at how old and unappealing most of the acts were in 1976. As an impressionable teenager the act I took to most that year was the band that had all their songs reissued and a re-run of their films on the telly. Yep the Beatles!

Just looking in my record box, the singles I spent my hard-earned pocket money on were by Smokie, Mike Oldfield, Abba, Dana and Wings. So a bit of a mixed bag with no real thread. It would be a couple of years before I was lapping up all things new wave-ish!

So the sound of 76 was a lot better than the look of it! It will be interesting to see if we can tell when things got better in 77 or whether our collective yearning for the punk years has coloured our memories.

Darren Beach said...

1976 was probably the first year I can recall actual TOTP appearances, though most of the shows seen in the repeats this year dredge up surprisingly little in the way of firm memories. Was it really because the standard was so poor? It did seem that there were very few performances by acts that were actually in the charts: each week there seemed to be two or three 'bubbling-under' acts of dubious quality that appeared to have been shoehorned on for equally dubious reasons. Bear in mind the chart only went to a top 50 at the time, as opposed to a top 75 in 1978 and a top 100 in 1982 - hence there was more scope to feature producer-chosen, unchartworthy guff in 1976 - compare to for example 1982 when the likes of 'Party Fears Two' got on while in the early 40s positions.

The performances that rang most bells for me were Sailor's gloriously hammy music-hall-Roxy 'Glass of Champagne and Fox being all proto-Goldfrapp, while Mississippi's 'Pussycat' got me all misty as that was the song I used to sing myself to sleep - after I told the doctor I liked it - as a pre-teen insomniac. :)

Chris Barratt said...

Spot on... 1975 was bleak, the pop was wafer-thin and the year was saved mainly by proto-disco nuggets like 'Girls', 'The Hustle' & 'Swing Your Daddy'. Tellingly, a watch of surviving TOTP's shows that the programme (in both content & presentation) took a nosedive as 74 turned into 75. 1976 was chock-full of snappy 7" gems, but the truth is not all of them of them translated well onto TOTP, and that TOTP itself seemed to be at the mercy of unscrupulous pluggers & light-entertainment producers. 1975 was the year of musical recession, 1976 was the first step out of that. Many of 1976's eclectic hits singles would not have been out of place in the charts of 1978.

Steve Morgan said...

Personally I didn't find 1975 all that bleak, although I will agree that there are good and bad singles in any year. 1975 contains my all time favourite single in 10cc's I'm Not In Love, something it must have taken the band a long time to make given the technical limitations of the day. It's a song that still sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it, and will take me instantly back to those hot summer days.
We'll all have to agree to disagree on our views about that year and about its hits and misses and top of the pops and the way it presented itself. If we don't like all of the hit singles there were still some good albums around, 10cc's Original Soundtrack, Queen's Sheer Heart Attack and Night At The Opera, Sparks Indiscreet,Justin Hayward and John Lodge's Blue Jays, Supertramp's Crime of the Century, Elton's Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies, I could go on and on, it wasn't all bad, not really.

Chris Barratt said...

I would never say 1975 was a complete disaster - but it's certainly a musical 'weak link' in the same way 1986 & 1998 are....

wilberforce said...

1975 may well be considered one of the more barren years for pop (if not for funk and disco, for which i consider it a rather fertile one), but it's infinitely preferable to 2011... or any year in the new millenium!

Grunders said...

Thanks Bob - really enjoyed reading your article. Gave me an insight to some of the acts I've seen on BBC4 this year.

I was way too young for TOTP in 1976 so approached this years retrospective shows from a different perspective. Seeking to find hidden gems I'd never come across perhaps. It started really well with Fox 'Single Bed' which is a fantastic pop tune in any year, but I got frustrated as the year progressed.

Whilst there were undoubtedly some other cracking tunes, the rest of the year fell a bit flat. Paul Nicholas every other week in a bowler hat dancing ?? But I think the low point was probably the 'Summertime Special' song (can't remember who it was credited too) waffle which I presume was an advert for a TV show - that was dire. Songs like that made me realise that the pop historians were right, punk had to happen.

I do realise that every year has it's turkeys (ie when 1989 gets a look in, people are going to wonder how the hell Jive Bunny scored 3 number ones) but from my humble opinion 1976 wasn't a vintage year.

Roll on 1977 !

Angelo Gravity said...

For me its all about the memories of being nine years old - a time of childhood and innocence - and the breezy safe eternal summertime songs of 1976 have provided the perfect soundtrack for a bit of middle-aged reminiscing :-)

Never Missed an Episode of Star Trek said...

Just to mention the much maligned Paul Nicholas was on that BBC Four Story of Musicals tonight and seemed like a top bloke. He sang the theme tune to Just Good Friends too!

Andy Roberts said...

A fascinating read - sorry to be so late coming to the party!

Re Mud's Shake It Down: good spot of the origins of Groovejet tho it made me think of another Rob Davis dance classic - Kylie's Can't Get You Out Of My Head.