This song’s got no title, just words and a tune — The 70s Pop Continuum
(Note: this is a theory i’ve spent a lot of time and had a lot of time conceptualizing, but it is also just a fun way i found of envisioning the era. No system can encapsulate the entirety of music, even just 10 years. This is an essay for fun)
The story starts, as the best stories in music start, in the late sixties. Four very important albums were released in the year of 1969, whose combined energy would spawn in a whole new sonic universe. You have rhythmagician and occasional despot James Brown releasing Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud. Flame imps Rolling Stones release Let It Bleed. Lysergic invocators The Beatles release Abbey Road. And court jesters King Crimson release In The Court Of The Crimson King. The coven of powerful entities found itself in the late 60s in the aftermath of a decade of political and economical struggles, technological developments and, consequently, a fertile landscape for music. “And let there be sound”, they said.
The explosion in the new decade of the 70s begins with a razor thin line sprung from the ashes of the 60s that extend for ten years. This split is filled with molten lava that begins to cool down the further it expands. This line we will call the “continuum”. It goes from its everburning starting point to its most polished, cool and shiny chrome-like endpoint. This is the universal midpoint of which we are going to start out, and it represents the strongest currents in pop music during the seventies. Cool, complex musicianship being contrasted by coked out violence and gruffness.
On the molten lava side (which we will call Grit), we find the roughest spots, the hottest blooded mercenaries, lasso throwing tumbling dices. Many points can be pinned to represent this spot, but I am going to stick Exile On Main St by The Rolling Stones in this side. Released in 1972, it is a 65 minute exercise in debauchery, roughness and energy. As veterans of the previous decade, The Rolling Stones i think represent this moment due to their devotion to the blues-rock roots of popular music (this was the album in which Keith Richards started tuning his guitar like a banjo, throwing away his lower sixth string, to connect himself more to the roots of the style), and their heat and swagger represent this side of the diagram. It’s an unstoppable forward moving motor of excess, with bangers like Tumbling Dice with its piping narrative of gambling, Rocks Off with its melting horn section, or (albeit dated) acoustic tribute to Angela Davis in Sweet Black Angel. It may slow down, but it does not lose momentum.
In the same year we find our representatives for the chrome-like smoothness of the opposite side (which we call Sheen) teaming up, Californian Nightflies Steely Dan. The album I have decided to call out as the shiniest dome on the line is Aja, released in 1977. The album has since its inception been revered by audiophiles as the perfect record to test out sound systems for its surreally pristine recording, that cleans up and polishes the complex, jazzy harmonies (with a title track featuring saxophone legend Wayne Shorter) that form these songs. While in Exile On Main St we have soulman Billy Preston providing a bouncy piano backing and intense organ swells in the organ infused Shine a Light (a song about ex-bandmate Brian Jones’ history with addiction), in Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues the pianos are electric, swirling, full of suspended (or Mu) chords that provide a complex bed over which the dense and wordy story of our main character is told. It is cooler than being cool, it’s ice cold. And when i say cold i do not mean lifeless, as songs like Peg with its ever catchy hook or Black Cow with its unshakable groove are nothing if not full of life, but it is a very polished, smoothed out life. It has developed telekinesis as to be able to move without having to actually move. “Up on the hill, they’ve got time to burn”, but down here everyone is chilling.
Many other creatures circle around both ends, with people like The Allman Brothers Band, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Winter and Dr Hook floating around the Grit side, while Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Carole King, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Fleetwood Mac floating around Sheen. That is not to say that these creatures were incapable of transit, they are living beings after all. I can point for example to Grateful Dead’s Deal being on the jazzier side of things, but keeping their bluesy heat alive in the form of taking from Gypsy Jazz instead of a “cooler” style. Or Carole King’s re-recording of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (written by Carole herself in the 60s and immortalized by Aretha Franklin), with her sultry lush voice breathing new life in the soulful composition. And, of course, as we travel from the extreme ends of the continuum, lines begin to blur more and more. Ex-Beatles George Harrison and Paul McCartney’s newfound hi-fi sensibilities and creative freedom made their music go both to lusher (All Things Must Pass and Band On The Run) and rougher (Beware of Darkness and Too Many People), with John Lennon staking out his spot as a pop culture aggravator and Ringo embracing his love for the glitz of pop history. Beach Boys release Surf’s Up, an album caught between a demented memory of their glorious past and the nightmarish universe around them, Elton John proclaiming his love for Country and Blues from across the sea, Johnny Winters adding synths to his intense blues rock, Jeff Beck’s electrifying jazz rock actually making it to the charts, among many others. The continuum, though a line, is not strict in accessibility. It is a free zone of travel, and cool smooth floaters are more than welcome in lavaland.
That’d be all fine and good. But outer space is not space without a few planets, is it?
Entirely parallel to the expansion of the Continuum, two lumbering masses of energy are formed, the star of Funk and the star of Prog. The spawn out of the surplus of energy in the explosion of the new decade, acquiring those who were pop but did not quite pop the same. Funk with its minimalistic anti-virtuosity and prog with its dizzying complexity, both with a heavy emphasis on instrumentality, though certainly known by many and a figure on popular culture, did not exactly have the hooks and the sheen that makes a pop act truly *pop* as the word denotes. So on one side we have Herbie Hancock’s alien travels, Fela Kuti’s spiritual invocations of rhythm, Curtis Mayfield’s cinematographic narratives of ghetto living and Isley Brothers psychedelic musings, on the other you have Yes topographic sonic explorations, Can’s motorik bursts of energy, Genesis’ operatic indulgences and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s zodiac magic. Both starplanets develop a teleology and history of their own, a story with many ebbs and flows as far approaching the overground is concerned, but for the purposes of this graph, they will be these massive balls of energy.
And what is a sun without a gravitational pull?
My following proposition is that both these starplanets had such density, such a depth of interest, that they actually started creating gravitational pulls that make albums that would otherwise fit squarely in the Continuum to drift and to create alternate, sprawling axis moving toward Prog and Funk.
The Schizophrenizing power of prog is well documented, look no further than to the wordless break in Siberian Khatru by Yes (the word Khatru means “As You Wish” in the Yemeni dialect of Arabic, but when the song was being written, Jon Anderson did not actually know it was a real word, it was just a pleasing mouth sound he kept singing over and over again. The lyrics to the song itself are built out of “interesting words, though it does relate to the dreams of clear summer days”). So while Grit burns, it is not quite the mindmagic that inhabitants of Prog toy with. The records pulled into Prog’s orbit are the ones which like to work with poppy hooks and composition, but also like to add chaos and surrealness to its ranks.
An album I think works very well here is A Wizard/A True Star by Todd Rundgren. An abstract album neatly divided in two halves, filled to the brim with hooks spread in many minute-long tracks in the first half and with a 10 minute soul-cover medley in the second half, the album has 19 tracks and yet no singles (as opposed to Rundgren’s previous masterpiece Something/Anything, which despite its similarly high ambitions, still issued four great singles). Rundgren himself describes the production of the album as “Very ADD”, with him unbothered by if an idea was “complete” in the way he used to write, being more inspired by the flights of fancy of someone like Frank Zappa. It’s an album filled with *sounds* more so than standard instrumentation, with breakneck shifts in mood and musical ideas, having in mind the impressionism of Ravel but also the lysergic sound of Beach Boys, random instances of funk and a spirit of “anything goes”. It is, though not a concept album in the traditional sense, a “Flight Plan” in which tracks flow into one another with no rhyme but a lot of reason.
Around these circles records such as Kimono My House by Sparks, Scratch by Peter Gabriel, Breakfast in America by Supertramp, Loki? by Arnaldo Baptista, basically the records that would come to be known as “Progressive Pop”. The albums have the catchyness you find in the continuum, but they now are recontextualized into manic, convulsing buildings and technically complex machines. It is where pop gets pumped full of terrigen mist and becomes a Kirbyian entity of complex aztec magichinery.
On the other side, you have the heavy vines and roots of the Funk star. As a spawn of rhythmagician James Brown’s vision of r&b, it is in theory very close to pop, and no doubt many of the albums and styles native from here make a great home in the continuum, but make no mistake : the soul in Funk is one that is very happy to dissuade attention (or at least, to become “pop” by happenstance). Stevie Wonder in the early 70s, for example, was a noted hitmaker from his glory days in motown, and though he will craft classic songs like Superstition or Higher Ground, he will also collaborate with experimental progressive electronic outfit Tonto’s Expanding Head Group, record an long, subdued and introspective record like Music Of My MInd (which he recorded all the instruments), and even include a song like Contusion (an virtuosic instrumental jam) right before one of his biggest hits Sir Duke in his 104 minute long opus Songs In The Key Of Life. Stevie was very much happy to be surrounded by phenomenal musicians and writing the emotional music he wanted to write, it just so happens that these phenomenal musicians and emotional songs were also for a brief moment what the world at large wanted out of music. Pop maybe not by design, but by happy accident.
In the orbit of planet funk we find Nile Rodgers’ Chic, the originators themselves. Formed by Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, two gigging musicians in New York City, the band was built on the foundations of soul, jazz and funk, but took its main early inspiration in the glitz and glamour of Roxy Music. Roxy (indeed, placed very strongly near the middle of the continuum, theatrical and hot blooded but also willing to be smooth and “beautiful” as Nile puts it when describing the band and the audience). Further shocked by KISS, the deal was sealed and Chic was formed as an immersive artistic experience of pop excellence. Nile’s songwriting is known, for one, to not take very long to get to the chorus. “it is what the people want, so there is no use stalling” is the mentality, and these are indeed very hot and sticky choruses. There are also the dance-friendly beats they will often generate, with songs like Everybody Dance, Le Freak and Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) being dancefloor anthems aside from pop hits. But, their songs also contain pitch perfect jamming (especially once you look into the 12” mixes of songs like Everybody Dance) which never let the funk get too far from the leash. An instrumental like São Paulo in their first album shows that they can easily flex their muscles, but their focus was in translating this very technical expression of soul into the pop sphere.
And in doing that, they lay that orbit’s claim to fame : Disco. It is in that universe we get to see Michael Jackson break into Off The Wall, Donna Summer with Bad Girls, Sister Sledge with We Are Family (produced by Chic themselves), Earth Wind And Fire (which had existed as extremely competent but not always relevant musicians since the early 70s) having some of their biggest hits like Boogie Wonderland and September, Diana Ross regaining a lot of pop success with The Boss, etc. This orbit is determined by the love of funk’s groove and instrumental expression, but also by the glitz, glamour and personalities that made disco truly become a starring moment in the pop world. It is ascended through the dancefloor, disco ball as the centerpiece for light shows with spiritual implications.
I’d like to call attention to a few bonus figures in the scheme for a few moments. They don’t represent extremes the same way the ones i went into detail do, but more so interesting figures along the scheme
- The P-Funk entourage is populated by aliens whose DNA traces to Funk, but were born in the mothership. They are traveling the radio waves shot through space and mostly float around the upper side of the diagram. Their sound is at the same time arranged, technical, loose, tight, organic, mechanic, alien, it’s an ever changing barrage of creative form. Like true Funkians, their expression does not fear alienating the outside with their sprawling epics like Maggot Brain, P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up), Mommy What’s a Funkadelic or Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, but their specific off kilter expression of life was very much integral to the future of the universe, and we cannot thank them enough for their continued travels.
- Cher is a gaseous form that gets to permeate through the continuum without becoming attached to a single place for too long. Her music is best contextualized in the sense that she was part of a Vegas act, she had a variety tv show and showed up as a guest in Scooby Doo. Her music is very lush, out of this world, but also extremely kitschy and ridiculous. And that is all for the better, because nothing quite sounds like early 70s Cher. You don’t get that mix of a very strange, bold voice being backed by orchestras and luxurious instrumentation.
- Roy Ayers is the space observer, looking in his telescope and his annotations, getting lost in space. Starting out as a bebop sideman, he formed the band Roy Ayers Ubiquity, a name chosen out of the desire to be everywhere at the same time. And be everywhere he was, from heaty disco burners like Don’t Stop The Feeling and Love Will Bring Us Back Together to introspective beauty like Everybody Loves The Sunshine and Searching. He also collaborated with the likes of Fela Kuti and Erykah Badu and Tyler The Creator, even after the heat death of the 70s. As a figure, Ayers is forever searching through this universe and many more what is interesting to his skin.
- The punk movement represented an anarchic moment of outgrowth from the continuum, represented by a band like The Clash making extremely catchy music in London Calling while parodying Elvis’ debut cover art. Many considered Punk’s altering the continuum as an attempt of destruction, but I think that is a rather shallow view. They didn’t want to upend the entire Continuum, they knew it could never be broken. The Sex Pistols, Blondie and Talking Heads had huge hits that people love to this day, you dont get that by genuinely hating the people who’ll buy your music. What punk did was make the continuum its home, whether it liked it or not. They were illegal immigrants to the continuum, but they were not all around terrorists.