Monday, August 22, 2016

Pitchforking Pitchfork’s Best Songs of the 1970’s

I get what Pitchfork is doing with its Best of the 70’s listing of key songs from that decade.  They’re encouraging healthy debate and, much like their usual M.O. with reviews, disdain.  They’re hoping most people don’t get it, crying out, “No Steve Miller or BTO?  Man, fuck these clowns!”
I do like the inventiveness of a lot of their selections.  They’re way off base with so much reggae stuff, and it’s revisionist history to place African artists in this higher context.  If you were into African music in the 70’s, you were way ahead of some major curves that would become more prominent in the 80’s.  Rest assured, your average Pitchfork editor in 1978 wouldn’t have given a shit about Fela Kuti.  As with most critics, he would have name dropped Fela in a Talking Heads review and not known what he was writing about.  But it’s always nice to imagine yourself as prescient.
What I’ll do here is offer my take on some of the issues I noticed in the list.  Odd omissions and such, things they purposely didn’t get right because they want to rewrite history.  I can’t blame them: all dictators want to revise history to conform to their take on it.  Most music critics are wannabe dictators, although their domain is taste as opposed to political power.  I can’t blame them for trying.  But it will never change the fact that Captain & Tennille ruled 1975.
There’s plenty of disco and 70’s R&B, most of it unbelievably asinine and questionable, but not one song by The Bee Gees, KC & the Sunshine Band, Barry White, or massive hits like “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae or “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation.  For that matter, there’s no Village People.  It would seem that in the context of revising the 70’s, a gay-themed band dominating the charts via subterfuge and silliness would have been right up their alley.  But apparently not.  “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart?  They include one of the songs he ripped off (“Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben, although Stewart stole the synth line in his hit from the string arrangement on Bobby Womack’s “If You Want My Love Put Something Down On It”).  I’m surprised they recognize The Rolling Stones with “Miss You.”  (Keep in mind, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street came out in the 70’s … recognizing numerous tracks from these albums would be un-hip.  Not sure why they gave a nod to “Wild Horses” save for the Gram Parsons connection.)
“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was a crucial disco song, not to mention perfectly constructed and executed.  It reached across racial and sexual barriers, and now across generations.  But it wasn’t one of the best 200 songs of the 70’s?  Not even “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey which set a perfect tone for that city’s involvement with the disco movement.  August Darnell, frozen out completely, although that album by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band was ingenious in terms of crossing genres (in this case, Big Band, jazz, pop and disco) … “Cherchez La Femme” a monster hit that sounds timeless now.  They’ll include an obscure track like “Kiss Me Again” by Dinosaur, which reeks of hipster revisionism.  There are dozens of underground disco tracks from that time period just as worthy (and just as irrelevant … ask your fiftysomething, disco-loving relative if he remembers “Kiss Me Again” … unless said relative was frequenting gay NYC dance clubs, probably not).
I’m glad they got Chic, but you knew they would.  “Heart of Glass” by Blondie deserved to be in the Top 10: a perfect pop song that turned the world upside down and crossed barriers between new wave and disco that were nearly as impassable as those between rock and disco. I grasp the importance of "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer ... but why not "Funky Town" by Lipps Inc.? It was a major hit in 1979 and took the electronic/dance formula even further.  It makes no sense why one song is on the list, but not the other.
Prog Rock did not exist in Pitchfork’s world.  Another instance of Pitchfork writers showing their asses.  I get it … it’s uncool to champion prog, even now.  But there are plenty of great 70’s Prog Rock tracks that still resonate.  No solo Peter Gabriel for that matter, too.  Trust me, Pitchfork writers too young to grasp this or do your research, Peter Gabriel was hot stuff with critics in the 70’s.  Pink Floyd?  Not hardcore prog, more pop prog, if you ask me.  I love “Wish You Were Here” but the entire Pitchfork staff should throw on Animals and see where it takes them.  Supertramp would make just as much sense in this context in terms of popularity and influence, but good luck running those gentle hippies through the hipster litmus test.  (And, no, fucking Can or Neu doesn’t count here!  I’m surprised these assholes didn’t throw in Van Der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind for good measure.)
Hard rock (hesitant to call it heavy metal as it wasn’t called that yet) is under-represented, and only by obvious choices (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and the one Blue Oyster Cult track appearing in numerous horror movies over the decades).  “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple was a song known by every struggling garage rock band in America at the time.  AC/DC was what real punks in America in the 70’s listened to and used to fuel their sense of rebellion.  It wasn’t punks, per se, mohawks and safety pins in noses.  Punks in America in the 70’s were an anomaly and a bit of a joke, thanks to the over-hype of The Sex Pistols' arrival in America.  If you were a white American teenager in high school in the late 70’s, and in trouble with the authorities, AC/DC was your band, among a host of other hard-rock bands.  That’s the kind of things critics never pick up on long after the fact (because it doesn’t serve their purpose or suit their taste).
No Philip Glass or Steve Reich.  Brian Eno was pretty much it for experimental composers in the 70’s.  Not true, but what the hell, he works for lazy bastard critics.  I barely have my feet wet in this genre and know what utter nonsense it is to champion Eno in this company.
I’m wondering how on earth they came up with “The Immigrant Song” and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin.  I gather it’s consensus, people voting for favorite tracks … but how in the hell do these two tracks get chosen over “Stairway to Heaven” or “Kashmir” or a handful of other more famous, more worthy tracks?  I seem to recall Jeff Buckley covering Levee, but no idea how Immigrant penetrates this melee of hipster critics.
No singer songwriters (barring Judee Sill and maybe Elton John).  Karen Dalton was virtually unknown in the 70’s, so I’m not even going to get into that.  I understand wanting to take a dump on James Taylor: many of us have been doing it since coming across that white-faced Greatest Hits album in dorm rooms one time too many.)  I guess the concept of taking someone like Cat Stevens or Carole King seriously doesn’t register with people like this.  Not sure why Nick Drake does other than car commercials?  Jackson Browne?  Solo Paul Simon?  I know, I'm wasting my time.  But if you think both those artists don't have a dozen songs a piece that would make sense on any 70's Best of list, you're just being standoffish, not cool.
The only Folk music that mattered in the 70’s was Nick Drake.  Even though about 36 people knew who he was at the time.  Never mind that there was a resurgence in British Folk and Celtic music throughout the decade.  Don’t you know this was the dreadful music punk “saved” us from in 1977?  Johnny Rotten, thank you for saving us from Sandy Denny!  If only you had killed Richard Thompson with your bare hands at the same time!  American counterparts?  Forget it, whether it was the poppy stuff like Jim Croce or Harry Chapin, or more lasting artists like Loudon Wainwright III, who along with Leonard Cohen was writing songs of such adult emotional depth and honesty they've yet to be rivaled.  Joni Mitchell gets a nod, and I'm assuming in doing so gets all the folk and California references that people like Pitchfork writers are willing to dole out.  And a major shout-out to Joan Armatrading!  Wait a minute, she's not on the list either.
“Street Hassle” by Lou Reed?  “Walk on the Wild Side” is a painfully obvious choice, as is “Perfect Day.”  I’m glad to see they included “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground.  A lot of what Lou Reed did in the 70’s was mediocre, but when he got it right, he got it very right, and that started happening more as the 70’s wore on.  The song “Street Hassle” is a tour de force, a gritty street poem backed by a string quartet.  (Is there any precedent for this?)  On a similar note, “Wild in the Streets” by Garland Jeffreys surely deserves a nod, too, but most critics take that express bus right by his work.
No Mott the Hoople/Ian Hunter.  Ask Mick Jones of The Clash how important “All the Young Dudes” was to him.  It was just as important to American rock fans, and a deeply influential track.  On a similar note, how does a track like “Metal Guru” get selected for T. Rex in the presence of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”?  It doesn’t make sense.  It would be like selecting “On Top of the World” for Cheap Trick instead of “Surrender.”
No New York Dolls.  Unbelievable that “Personality Crisis” didn’t make the list.  Hugely influential.  Punk in the United Kingdom would not have existed without this band to serve as a sonic template for The Sex Pistols.  Punk in the U.K. would not have existed without what happened in the East Village in the early 70’s.  To give Richard Hell his due (which he surely deserves for that one song) makes sense, and Television, and The Ramones, and Patti Smith.  I’m amazed they only granted The Talking Heads two tracks.

Would the exclusion of Frank Zappa be indicative of the contributors having little to no knowledge of comedy-leaning artists and comedians, or simply that they came of age in a time where Frank Zappa albums were harder to find due to estate issues and the availability of his catalog?  Or maybe they just don't consider anything he did in the Top 200 of the decade?  Zappa was a huge presence in the 70's, but I guess now he's being penalized for his catalog having so many issues over the years.  (Ditto, Bob Seger, although I wouldn't expect anyone at Pitchfork to acknowledge his presence.) Comedy albums were huge in the 70's, but I guess it would be hard to narrow down to track choice, but you better believe people like Richard Pryor and George Carlin had a very large influence on rock audiences and the overall culture.
No Southern Rock.  A glaring omission that pretty much tells you where Pitchfork writers are at.  You mean to tell me The Allman Brothers didn’t have one track that merits inclusion in this list?  That’s foolish.  Never mind Lynyrd Skynyrd: I can understand critics blowing off a band that deeply southern (although they’d be just as wrong to do so).  I can’t see why they include a track by The Grateful Dead (admittedly, a pretty boring choice that makes no sense given a surplus of great early 70’s tracks).  Jam bands would not exist without these two bands hitting their stride in the early 70’s.  You think it would be a better world without jam bands?  Possibly so.  But the world would be just as well off without EDM, so let's deep six Joy Division and Giorgio Moroder while we're at it.  The things that fill stadiums now … were done much better and much more subtly in the 70’s.  And that’s hard to believe given how unsubtle most of the 70’s were!
Very little country, more accurately, only critically-approved country.  While the Pitchfork editors are busy deep mining reggae and African music, they skim over country.  I can understand skimming over Blues, Jazz and Classical from the 70’s (although, again, it’s a mistake born of critical miseducation), but I gather most of these critics have never been culturally predisposed to understanding or even liking country music, save for token gestures to “outlaw” country and female artists who hung around a few decades, the sort of shit people with far too many tats and a studied penchant for Pabst Blue Ribbon will punch up on a jukebox in a faux redneck bar.  Give it a break … put on a Johnny Cash album from the 70’s.  If you can handle that, then we’ll talk!  (To be honest, I can’t handle that, just making a point.  There’s a reason “One Piece at a Time” is the only 70’s Cash songs that resonates with me.)
Let me put it this way with jazz: I’d take even an average Keith Jarrett track over anything Gil Scott Heron did.  I grasp the hipster quotient (in light of hiphop years later).  But if you’re going that route, I’d skip the jazz angle and go with The Last Poets.
Nothing happened in New Orleans in the 70’s according to Pitchfork.
No Carpenters.  Huge mistake indicative of critics who just weren’t around then and don’t have a clue.  While The Carpenters didn’t invent “soft rock” their chart dominance at the time, and the quality of their production, songwriting and Karen Carpenter’s voice, created core production values for early 70’s pop, for better or worse.  I understand that Pitchfork wants to disregard certain chart-topping genres, but they don’t seem to grasp that there were quality/sustainable artists working in those genres.  I’m far from the only one to recognize this!
Aside from Elvis Costello, no major English new wave artists, namely Graham Parker and Joe Jackson.  Squeezing Out Sparks was one of the best albums of the 70’s, and you could pick any number of Parker songs for this list (I’d have gone with “Don’t Ask Me Questions.”).  Joe Jackson simply for his minor hit, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” which made new wave seem so much more palatable to American kids raised on AOR radio.  Granted, Jackson would hit his stride straddling the 70’s into the early 80’s, but that song is important.  I wouldn’t expect Pitchfork to champion Rockpile or solo Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (despite more than a few worthy tracks), but skipping Parker and Jackson makes no sense.
There’s way too much late 70’s punkish/new wave shit on their list that just didn’t register then and still doesn’t now.  The Slits were a bit of a goof at the time … Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders don’t exist on this list, but they were cusp of the 70's) was a much better role model, and that first album was hugely influential.  The Raincoats?  O.K., I get it, but Top 200 songs of an entire decade?  Not quite.  I suspect if you spoke candidly with all those 90's Riot Grrrls, you'd hear more about Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Debbie Harry than The Raincoats.
No NRBQ.  You can tell how old most Pitchfork writers are: not old enough to have been around for the 80’s deification of NRBQ as America’s great lost 70’s rock band.  And they were.  “Riding in My Car” would make the Top 20 of any worthwhile 70’s song list.
Big Star but not The Raspberries.  The Raspberries were what Big Star wanted to be.  “Overnight Sensation” is as worthy as any song in the Big Star canon.  Again, critical revisionism at work here, although plenty of people have given The Raspberries their due in the interim.  I am glad to see Big Star tracks included in the list.
I can understand why Van Halen wasn’t on the list, but their first album rejuvenated a genre that was in dire need of a swift kick in the ass, bringing it back to shorter songs and a sense of fun.  Again, if you were a punk in America at the time, a real punk having severe issues with authority figures, chances are you were listening to Van Halen … not The Slits, for crying out loud.
The Eagles vs. Gram Parsons.  You have to give them credit: aside from one Grateful Dead track and a smattering of Neil Young, they completely ignored country rock and Gram Parsons in particular … which is a travesty to most critics.  But I tend to agree with them.  Parsons was riding that 60’s wave of country rock bands with The Flying Burrito Brothers.  His solo albums were good with a few great tracks.  And he only made two.  He hated The Eagles?  I’m sure his logic was “I’m more authentic than they are” … but the reality was “they had a far better pop sense, a great vocalist and harmony/background singers, and were good songwriters, too.”  Hotel California was an important album and song; that album is more fully realized than anything Gram Parsons ever did.  I know, acknowledging as much for your average Pitchfork editor would be like voting for Trump.
There’s no DEVO on a list like this?  It’s senseless in the context of their hipness.  In terms of American bands getting that out there in terms of song structure and image, they were way out in front of everybody.  I’m also surprised not to see Pere Ubu.  It makes me doubt the veracity of Pitchfork critics.  Are they really that young that they just don’t have any cultural reference points for bands like this?  They need to have this spoon-fed to them by older critics and movie/TV show references?  Silly shit like The Slits make it while Pere Ubu doesn’t? 

It’s just wrong, but it helps me understand how this process works  Most critics aren't historians; they just follow the easy path placed in front of them via older critics, savvy film makers using cool, lesser-known music in movies and TV shows, the occasional hiphop sample and apparently recent deaths.  (That's the only way I can explain "Life on Mars" being their top pick and any Prince song from the 1970's being anywhere on the list, much less in the Top 10.  It would have been gauche to acknowledge Glenn Frey's passing, even though The Eagles clearly had a massive influence on what mainstream country would become two decades down the road.) If a band like Pere Ubu doesn't fall under those auspices, someone not alive at that time and following indie music most likely isn't going to grasp their meaning as they haven't been hyped by the usual suspects.  What dissuaded me from really getting into music criticism?  The realization that most music critics were even worse than sports writers in terms of their mediocrity.
The plus sides of their list?  I can’t believe they went with “Lola” by The Kinks.  Then again, the song plays into currently popular gender themes (for the record, listed as my favorite song in my high-school yearbook).  I can’t believe “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen placed so high on their list (#15).  The lame critical take on what the song “really meant” is complete and utter horseshit, but I’m glad hipsters now can recognize how mind-blowing the song was.  Glad to see “I’m Not in Love” by 10CC make the cut: deserves it for production values alone.  While The Roches scared me when I first saw them on Saturday Night Live, I must admit, they were way out in front of a few things that would come later.  “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers?  OK, I’ll go along.  Is this some odd type of yacht rock vote?  I’m sure the guys in Steely Dan are wondering what sort of ass-backwards universe Pitchfork critics are living in to have their legacy be roughly no more or less than The Doobie Brothers.
And I have to respect weirdness like that although, again, what I learn from a list like this: if you weren’t alive at the time, you really don’t know what in the hell you’re writing about.  It pains me to recognize the same about myself with decades earlier than the 70’s, but it’s true.  There’s clearly little to no context for a lot of these songs selections; it’s just crazy shit that somehow got a foothold with X number of critics decades after the fact.  It would be like me falling in love with obscure Frank Sinatra album tracks from his albums from the 1940’s and 1950’s, going up to someone who was alive at the time and a huge fan, and describing to him what my favorite tracks are.  Sure, he’d know the songs that I was talking about, but he’d be thinking, “This guy doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to Sinatra.”
I think Pitchfork prides itself on not knowing its ass from a hole in the ground.