Friday, 28 June 2013

1976: the calm before the storm

When the Top Of The Pops re-runs began in 2011, a lot of people saw them as evidence that 1976 was pop's worst ever year. This could only have been 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 were 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 had set the bar unfeasibly high in 1966. Richard Harris's Macarthur Park and Barry Ryan's Eloise would stretch 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 ungainly and pompous (though the first instrumental sections sounds like a dynamite TV theme); 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 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 had come out in 1963, finally scored a brace of Top 20 hits. The 1976 'girl group' was an odd strain - none of them had members who looked under 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 single 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 the grisly 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 & 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.

3 comments:

  1. I had good memories of that Chanter Sisters single, but whoa that TOTP appearance. Still, I did track down "First Flight" their Polydor album containing the single. Funny, it wasn't their first album at all, but previously they were called "Birds of a Feather", and that album is too much money...

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  2. Single-wise, I think the best representation of 1975 is Swing Your Daddy by Jim Gilstrap - like nothing else (a George McCrae waltz?) but somehow has a uniquely '1975' sound. As does It's Been So Long by George McCrae - a joyous burst of *that* kind of 74/75 Northern Soul/Proto-Disco that got to Number 4 in the charts but has been rarely heard since.
    When I was a kid I used to look back at 1976 as being a year of some great hit singles (most of them are really, they just aren't 'cool') but I was only born in 1973....

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  3. I know it came out in late '75, but Reparata's "Shoes" is still a pretty awesome/odd track to this day.

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