A Brief(ish) History of Awesome American Music Pt. 4: Sucking in the Seventies

In the movie Almost Famous, you learn two things about the 1970s: 1) That film is a parody of almost every stadium band in America during that decade and 2) Lester Bangs loved “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges. With good reason. The Stooges were one of the bright spots of the 1970s in America, but we need to start our discussion of this decade off with someone who was almost undoubtedly The Man (in a good way), Mr. Curtis Mayfield. After writing some hits for the Impressions in the 1960s, Mayfield set out on his own in 1970. By the time he was done, he had injected a social consciousness into soul music and had crafted songs that were at once funky, sexy, and full of fire. You might know his work on the Superfly soundtrack, the theme of which is probably Mayfield’s best-known work. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than “Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”). Riding a funky rhythm and Mayfield’s soulful falsetto (hey, Sensitive White Guy singers: Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto is why you assholes should never ever sing in a falsetto), the song chronicles the hypocrisies and prejudices he saw all around him back in the day. That shit hasn’t gone away and that song is as relevant as it’s ever been.

Lester Bangs, a hero of mine (who is unfairly labeled an “asshole critic” by the Rock Snob’s Dictionary, by the way. Bangs wasn’t really a critic at all, he was a music geek. He loved music and didn’t give a shit about making friends with the people who made it or really even the people who wrote about it. Bangs wrote with a passion and directness – sometimes drug-fueled – that hadn’t been seen before him and hasn’t really been seen since him, Chuck Klosterman notwithstanding), loved The Stooges because they played big, loud, stupid, fun rock ‘n’ roll. And, in so doing, they kinda invented punk in 1973 when they released the David Bowie-produced Raw Power (Iggy Pop oversaw a reissue/remaster of this album a few years ago that restored some of the low end. As much as I love Bowie, Iggy’s mix is better), which led off with the ferocious “Search and Destroy” and also featured songs like “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” and “Death Trip.” Iggy Pop (James Osterberg to his folks) was ingenious at completely losing his shit on stage, making Stooges shows good places to get covered in blood, peanut butter, raw meat, and myriad other bodily fluids. Oh, and after the Stooges broke up, Iggy released Lust for Life in 1976 (also produced – better this time – by Bowie), giving him claim to two essential American records in three years.

If you use Raw Power and Lust for Life as the bread for an awesome punk sandwich, the filler is gonna be horse meat. Or rather, it will be Horses, the 1975 debut album from Patti Smith, which opens with a very ballsy cover of Them’s “Gloria”, a song that had been covered to death by everyone at that point (including music’s angriest hobbit, Van Morrison). Smith, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (“Knock, knock! Shit happens”), wrote the following opening line for her cover: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine.” And from there on, Horses is unrelenting, epic, and awesome. Smith could go toe to toe with Johnny Rotten in a snark constest, and probably come out on top. Along with the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith inspired R.E.M., who pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of being really awesome in the 80s (Michael Stipe claims that hearing Horses made him decide to start a band).

To quote Magnolia, “So Now Then”: The Ramones. Formed in New York in 1974. Basically galvanized punk music on both sides of the Atlantic. According to End of the Century (a must-see for fans), also basically kidnapped by otherwise upstanding citizen Phil Spector (who also held DeeDee Ramone at gunpoint in the studio). That’s the history. The music, after all these years, still holds up. If you wanna know why I hate Green Day so goddamn much, listen to the first three Ramones albums. In fact, that should tell you why I hate today’s emo/pop-punk crowd too – no sense of humor, and no fun (Green Day has become especially humorless since deciding, without consulting me, that they are America’s late answer to the Who). And shitty music, of course. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” however, remains one of the all-time greatest opening tracks in music history. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until you believe me: it is impossible to be unhappy while listening to the Ramones.

I hope it was impossible to be unhappy opening for the Ramones. The Talking Heads played their first gig under that name opening for the Ramones in June of 1975 at the famed (and now sadly defunct)  CBGB’s in New York. Combining elements of funk, world music, pop, and rock with David Byrne’s oddball lyrics and dramatic singing voice, the Talking Heads were smart at pop and arty without seeming pretentious or (worse) annoying. Though not super successful upon it’s release in 1980, Remain in Light is often (quite rightly) acknowledged as a pop masterpiece. The band officially broke up in 1991 and, I’m just drawing a conclusion from the Wikipedia page here, it was probably due in large part to how weird David Byrne is.

This will seem counterintuitive at first, but kids today don’t know shit about Television. Of course, they know plenty about that flat screened boxy thing (TVs get bigger, Americans get bigger. Is this a coincidence? I report, you decide) that bombards them with talking sponges and Billy Ray Cyrus’s offspring (honestly, I could care less about Miley Cyrus. What offends me about her is that she is living proof that someone, somewhere, fucked that bemulleted jackass. For readers who are too young to remember, Billy Ray Cyrus had a one-hit wonder in the 1990s called “Achy Breaky Heart” and it was so bad that it makes Toby Keith seem listenable). They know lots about that. But do they know that, way back in 1977, the band Television released Marquee Moon, one of the most underrated American albums ever? (I know the album is adored by critics, but I’m talking about civilians here. They need to know about this album.) Sadly, the answer is “not really.” Well, I’ll tell you. In the middle of what was known as Year Zero for punk music (The Ramones had lit the fire in 1976 with their debut album and the Sex Pistols and Clash were carrying the torch on the other side of the pond. Helpfully, the Clash decided to make punk mean something), Television released an album whose title track was nearly 11 minutes long, but they weren’t a jam band. They had the punk snarl, thanks to Tom Verlaine, but they weren’t really punk. Nor were they really art-rock. They were totally unique; I haven’t heard anything else like Marquee Moon since I first heard it. The closest is Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, which owes a considerable debt to Television.

If you think it was hard to be cool in America in the 1970s, wait until we get to the 80s. Which we’ll do tomorrow. The 80s were a mess, but there was still lots of good music to be had. For shits ‘n’ giggles, here’s a list of bands I will be totally ignoring in my discussion of 1980s American music: Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Metallica (we’ll talk about these assholes when we get to the 1990s, when they took a massive shit on their fans), and Vanilla Ice. Until then, enjoy your Monday off, if you’ve got one.

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