Matt’s Picks: The ’70s

The golden age of vinyl, the golden age of albums. The decade that saw all sorts of rock subgenres blossom and guide the transitional flow from ‘60s hippie psychedelia and folk through to the singer-songwriter age and progressive and art rock, the proto-heavy metal of the late ‘60s and earlier half of the ‘70s into the lucrative hard rock of its latter half, not to mention the metal bands of the ’80s that those two movements along with glam rock would have a hand in influencing as well. There was soft rock (Ambrosia, Player), country rock (Eagles), southern rock (Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet), then, to pick up where the counterculture left off but on a far more nihilistic note, punk rock, a simplistic yet effectively abrasive counter to prog rock, the slick “corporate rock” of Boston, Styx and others, and most of all disco, which despite its dominance collapsed by the end of the decade while punk spawned post-punk and new wave and was channeled by countless ‘80s metal bands. There’s far too much to get into here in the way of genres, connections and lineage, so for the reader’s sake here’s my Top 10 records of this voluminous decade.

  1. Aerosmith- Rocks (1976)

In between the commercial polish of Toys In The Attic and the druggy sloppiness of Draw The Line, Rocks’s raw, ballsy energy gives it a distinguished status as ‘Smith’s magnum opus and a highly influential record over the years. Where Toys at its core is pure, hormonal adolescence; Rocks isn’t so much about taking a chance at the high school dance as it is taking a chance in a grimy downtown alley at midnight with a knife in your pocket and robbers, hookers and fiends abound, getting fresh and down with the dive-bar skirt and fighting the young toughs on the street. In short, it’s 34 minutes of danger, an audio portrait of New York at its grimiest. Traces of Rocks can be found in innumerable records that followed, especially with the hair bands of the following decade, although as mentioned before only Appetite For Destruction truly replicated its essence. If you want to understand that record and anything like it, listen to Rocks.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Toys In The Attic (1975)

2. Ted Nugent- Cat Scratch Fever (1977)

Before he was known primarily for gut piles and gunfire, the Nuge was, and still is a fixture of visceral All-American rock and roll, his ace guitar-slinging boosted by his persona on (and off) stage as an unrestrained primal maniac armed with a Byrdland and a bow and arrow. Cat Scratch Fever is unquestionably his most memorable record, the apex of Nugent’s brand of animalistic axe-work prefaced by a wide-eyed Ted on the cover to give listeners an idea (or a warning) of what exactly they’re getting themselves into. There’s plenty of great stuff in this record, from the classic honky-tonk laced ode to satyriasis in the title track and the equally horny “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”, the latter of which features a combustive solo marked by Chuck Berry and Lonnie Mack licks and trademark Nugent fretboard frenzy. There’s also the piercing “Death By Misadventure” and “Out Of Control”, not to mention the instrumental “Homebound” and the galloping “Workin’ Hard, Playin’ Hard”; equalling out to a record that demonstrates a subtle versatility while simultaneously sticking to the script without compromise.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Ted Nugent (1975)

3. Lynyrd Skynyrd- Street Survivors (1977)

Retrospectively, choosing the title Street Survivors for the classic Skynyrd lineup’s final album was tragically ironic and ominous considering what happened a mere three days after its release. The unconscious foreshadowing of the band’s catastrophic plane crash in Mississippi is coupled with Ronnie Van Zant’s seeming clairvoyance and repeated assertion that he would die before his 30th birthday (he was 29 at the time); an eerie factor of the Skynyrd saga that permeates the staple “That Smell” as Van Zant warns of the ultimate consequences of the fast, druggy life the band was living: “The smell of death surrounds you.” It ain’t all dark though: “What’s Your Name” twangs and rocks in its tale of a woman of the road, the downtown boogie of “I Know A Little” shows off some of the tastiest stuff Steve Gaines ever ripped, and “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” tributes Merle Haggard with ample throwback down-home flavour. Skynyrd may have had a lot more to give, but Street Survivors is a great note to go out on.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Nuthin’ Fancy (1975)

4. The Doors- Morrison Hotel (1970)

One of the last major releases of the psychedelic era and Jim Morrison’s second-to-last, Morrison Hotel was a bounce back to form for The Doors after the critical slump of Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade and the fallout from their infamous Miami concert. Whereas previous Doors releases were strictly within the trippy, acidic realm of the late ‘60s (not counting some of the textural experiments conducted on Soft), Morrison Hotel is more of a mixed bag: “Roadhouse Blues” is a trip back to the old juke on the swamp, “You Make Me Real” meshes Chuck Berry Is On Top with Fifth Dimension and “Peace Frog” serves as a funky vehicle for Jim’s poetic analogies. There’s the chill moments too: the brief “Blue Sunday” perfectly compliments laying on the beach amidst a beaming sun and gently crashing waves, while “Indian Summer” is more of a sunset/sunrise tune, harkening back to “The End” with its Eastern flare. There’s also the “Back Door Man”-esque “Maggie M’Gill” and the jazzy “Ship Of Fools”, the latter of which demonstrates The Doors’ unsettling penchant for splashing lyrics of tragedy against a cheery musical backdrop. There’s something for everyone on this record, or at least a lot for some.

Runner-Up Recommendation: L.A Woman (1971)

5. Montrose- Montrose (1973)

Remembered as Sammy Hagar’s big break and the introduction of a contending new guitar hero, at the time of their debut Montrose were hyped up as the American answer to Led Zeppelin. While that prediction failed to become reality, Montrose nevertheless stands today as a knockout first album full of pure-blooded hard rock. The album cornerstone “Rock Candy” builds off Denny Carmassi’s “When The Levee Breaks”-inspired slow groove into 5 minutes of six-string raunch, “Space Station #5” combines Hendrixian experimentation with straight-forward “Communication Breakdown”-style rock, and “Bad Motor Scooter” gives more of a full demonstration of Ronnie Montrose’s guitar prowess, complete with a motorcycle-emulating beginning and end that unquestionably inspired Mick Mars on “Kickstart My Heart”. Other cuts like “One Thing On My Mind” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” stay firmly rooted in rock and roll’s earliest foundations while staying tightly in tune with the time (and beyond guitar-wise), which in itself sums this record, and Montrose themselves up in a nutshell.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Paper Money (1974)

6. Thin Lizzy- Fighting (1975)

The last album Lizzy dropped before they broke with Jailbreak, Fighting sees all the key elements that made up their unique sound finally coalesce after four albums of growth and building: the unmistakable dual guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Downey, Phil Lynott’s trademark poetic stumble and Brian Robertson’s rock-solid groovery that served as the linchpin for the band’s signature shuffle. As evidenced by the album’s title and cover, their identity as a rough-and-tumble lot from the backstreets of Dublin becomes perfectly clear on this record, demonstrated by tracks like “Ballad Of A Hard Man”, “For Those Who Love To Live” and the Bob Seger cover “Rosalie” that solidify them as the flagship band of the blue collar Irishman. There’s the hard, electric boogie of “Suicide”, the glorious six-string harmonies of “Wild One” and the travelling music man’s tune “Silver Dollar” to appreciate as well, all in all making Fighting one of the finest records in Lizzy’s catalogue and setting them up rightfully and perfectly for the big time.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Vagabonds Of The Western World (1973)

7. Deep Purple- Burn (1974)

Many a fan would have thought at the time that the departure of Ian Gillian was the end of Purple. Not so, as they went and plucked Glenn Hughes from Trapeze and David Coverdale from obscurity for their next album Burn. To this day, Burn is one of the greatest albums in both the Purple catalogue and the heavy metal genre as a whole, and to say that Coverdale proved himself on this record is an understatement. There was ample opportunity for him to do so, the full-tilt title track being one example and the equally thundering cuts “You Fool No One” and “Lay Down, Stay Down” ranking up there as well. As always, Ritchie Blackmore comes through with his trail-blazing guitar solos and Ian Paice with his monstrous drum fills, while Jon Lord’s fleet-fingered organ and keyboard mastery maintains its place as an integral piece of the Purple sound. There’s plenty of soulful moments on the record on tunes like “Might Just Take Your Life”, “What’s Goin’ On Here” and “Mistreated” as well that mark the start of a stylistic shift from Purple Mk. 1 and set the stage for Coverdale’s later work with Whitesnake. The band didn’t endure much longer after this and the subsequent records Stormbringer and Come Taste The Band, but the raw power of Burn helped to seal their legacy as one of metal and rock’s most legendary and influential acts.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Who Do We Think We Are (1973)

8. Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

The album so iconic even Mike Damone recommended it. Zep 4 was the sonic solidification of Led Zeppelin as a band and their certification as a behemoth in the industry; beyond that it was when their mystical enigma really grew. The packaging itself contained no indicators as to who its purveyors were apart from four symbols linked to various spiritual and metaphysical entities, a representation of the band fuelled partially by Jimmy Page’s fixation on Aleister Crowley and the occult. Musically, Zep 4 expands on the band’s base of rock and roll, blues and folk with mythological themes, making for a record that’s as worldly as is it British. There’s a track for every place and scenario one can envision while listening: a rainy day on the roaming English countryside for “Going To California”, the southmost depths of Mississippi Delta or gulfside Louisiana as the surging waves of a hurricane smash against the barriers invoking premonitions of the end times for “When The Levee Breaks”, and with the legendary “Stairway To Heaven” a Friday night at the bar ironically yelling out for the weekend band to play it and being told, in kind, to shove it. Any way you slice it, not much needs to be said for this record in regard to the impact it’s had and continues to have over generations.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Physical Graffiti (1975)

9. Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band- Night Moves (1976)

Bob Seger’s extensive discography is a testament onto itself to his great skill as a songwriter and a true-blue working man’s artist, but up until the Bicentennial he had failed to break through to the mainstream. That changed with Night Moves, a seminal release of the heartland rock genre spearheaded by the likes of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. If there’s any other way to describe Night Moves, it’s as an intimate picture of nostalgia, women, factory-town life and fledgling fame; running the musical gamut of early ‘50s and ‘60s rock and roll to stripped-down singer-songwriter acoustics splashed with delicate vocal and piano textures. Just the title track on its own, an all-too-relatable account of lost teenage love and reflections of a more innocent time is beautifully packed with emotion and old school flavour, and beyond its central narrative can be put into a greater context of reminiscing on the distant glory days of Detroit as well. Through and through, Night Moves is a timeless piece of rock fuelled by Americana, though with many of his future works, it’s a record that takes age and experience to truly understand.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Stranger In Town (1978)

10. Van Halen- Van Halen (1978)

If any album set the stage for the ‘80s, it was indisputably Van Halen’s 1978 debut. The ‘70s had seen the emergence or continuation of a string of guitar heroes following the death of Jimi Hendrix including former Yardbirds Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, but Eddie Van Halen raised the bar to an entirely new height for the approaching decade in means of tricks, licks, technique, tone and pure ability. The effect of Van Halen’s rise to prominence was ultimately the gift and the curse; the subsequent generation of guitarists that tapped until their fingertips bled and did their best to blaze across the fretboard in the same manner as Eddie cemented the new standard of what constituted guitar mastery, but eventually there were so many one-dimensional, beyond the pale shredders out there that both the guitar solo and the guitar hero became worthless and ultimately out of vogue, though exceptions like Zakk Wylde and Dimebag Darrell certainly did achieve guitar-god status after. Outside of its star member, Van Halen presents Van Halen in its most raw, un-distilled form as a complete and explosive package: Sure, there’s the nimble-fingered wizard with the striped axe, but without the driving percussive force of Alex Van Halen, the steady rumble of Michael Anthony and the hyperactive, vocal animality of David Lee Roth, Van Halen wouldn’t truly be Van Halen- that is, disputably, until 1985 and 2006 respectively, but all can concur that this incarnation of the band is the best, and their first hour ranks as one of their finest.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Van Halen II (1979)