Top Twenty Albums of the '70s
The seventies was a rich and eclectic time for popular music, and spawned some genuinely innovative and influential records. Also, The Bay City Rollers. In this article, Ricky Stratocaster, professor of twangology at the Rickenbacker Institute of Awesome Licks in Montreux, counts down the decade's twenty most notable albums.
Mine's a Pint
Mention the name The Wankels these days and most people will think of their radio-friendly 1979 hit "Smartie Party", not least because of its subsequent use in an early nineties pizza commercial. It's easy to forget that when they burst onto the scene in 1974, the band was at the forefront of the burgeoning punk scene. Indeed, questions were asked in parliament after drummer Arlo Spume bared his backside on Nationwide, and he hit the news again the following week when police raided his flat and seized his trousers.
Such antics generated plenty of publicity, but it wasn't until the release of Mine's a Pint in 1977 that serious critics started to sit up and take notice. The twelve tracks were recorded in a single session and between them they document a fight that broke out in the studio in which two of the band and the engineer were hospitalised. The anniversary box set, released in 2017, contains remastered swearing, three extra punches and a kick in the teeth.
Seen as one of the most experimental recordings of his career, 1979's Rattle sees the avant-garde composer pushing the boundaries of his art by dropping various items of cutlery down a laundry chute. Side one consists of a twenty-minute recording entitled "Spoons", a raucous cacophony of sound that challenges the listener to find meaning in an avalanche of discordant rhythms and dissonant percussion. Side two consists of several shorter pieces, including the playful and upbeat "Knives" and the soulful and often haunting "Forks".
In essence, what Throat is doing with this album is asking his listeners a series of searching questions: Is this music? he asks. Is this art? Is this of any value whatsoever, or is it just a load of pretentious kak? Listeners will inevitably form their own opinions.
The Sleazy Bishops
It's a curious fact that Crunchy Dunk is considered one of the greatest albums of the seventies, despite the fact that no one heard it until 1993. Art-rock outfit The Sleazy Bishops always took an experimental approach to their releases - for instance, readers will remember that their debut album was square and had no hole in the middle. For Crunchy Dunk, released in 1972, they opted to have one side covered in biscuit and the other liberally coated in milk chocolate. It was, in effect, a 12-inch chocolate digestive and was, consequently, completely unplayable.
It has been available in other formats of course - as an 8-track wafer and, later, as a set of Jaffa Cakes that proved to be completely incompatible with a MiniDisc player. But it wasn't until the CD release that people were able to listen to it, and reviewers were finally able to conclude that it was "ok".
It's currently available on most streaming platforms, where the magic and inventiveness of a physical medium is sadly unable to flourish, but serious collectors will be pleased to know that you can still get it on a limited-edition USB custard cream.
Midnight in Lewisham
Before they became the stadium-filling rock behemoths we know today, Otter cut their teeth as a prog-rock band, and there are many who still bemoan the commercialism of their current incarnation. Certainly, it's difficult to imagine the band putting out an album like Midnight in Lewisham today. The record takes us through the darkened streets of the borough, revealing a hidden world of pixies and goblins and all the usual nonsense that habitually infests these kinds of albums.
The record is most famous for the 33-minute suite that occupies the entirety of side two, and includes an ambitious operatic passage, a triangle solo and a section featuring nothing but flutes and football whistles. This presented something of a technical problem, since the maximum playing time of an LP record is roughly 22 minutes per side. The band refused to allow the track to be edited - lead singer Rob Baslow famously proclaimed that he was not prepared to countenance the loss of a single whistle - and their unwillingness to compromise led to the first - and, so far, only - commercial release of a 15-inch LP.
The Cotton Bandits
Very few successful bands from the sixties survived into the following decade, and despite the occasional reunion tour and radio hit, The Cotton Bandits' glory days were very much behind them by the time the glam and glitz of the seventies assailed our delicate sensibilities. 1971's Elevator Songs was their final burst of greatness. Written and recorded in just eight hours while all four members of the group were trapped in an elevator, the album sounds stark and spare, played as it was using makeshift instruments fashioned out of objects found in the band's pockets, and recorded using a single microphone lowered down the lift shaft by a recording engineer. The moody two-minute paper-and-comb intro on the opening track sets the tone for the rest of the record, and the spoons solo on side two is really the only uplifting part of what is essentially a rather bleak and claustrophobic set.
Ironically, the band were only in the building to sign the papers that would dissolve their business partnership. Instead, they decided not to split up and went on tour with their new album, playing the whole set from inside a seven-foot-square metal box set up in the centre of the stage.
Reg Ford's Musical Version
of Bleak House
Reg Ford made his name in publishing before he embarked on a music career, writing a number of extremely well-received Haynes Manuals. Morris Marina 1700, Ford Cortina Mk IV and Triumph Dolomite 1854cc-1998cc were all bestsellers, and Mini 1275cc was made into a film starring Michael Caine. But he had long nurtured an ambition to write, arrange and produce a musical version of a great Victorian novel, an objective that finally came to fruition in the shape of this 1978 double album.
Narrated by Roy Kinnear, after Richard Burton turned the gig down, the album features a stellar cast including Les McKeown from The Bay City Rollers as Mr Tulkinghorn, Suzi Quatro as Esther Summerson and Christopher Biggins as Lady Dedlock. Originally the album was to have included Richard Beckinsale as Little Nell and the lead singer from Uriah Heep as Uriah Heep, until it was pointed out to Ford that neither character actually appears in Bleak House.
One of the biggest selling albums of the decade, the record spawned the hit single "Dedlock Holiday". Thank you.
BBC Sound Effects
The BBC Radiophonic
This is the sixth volume in the increasingly avant-garde collection of bangs, whistles, pops, thuds and clip-clops produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Ostensibly produced to provide sound effects for the corporation's tv and radio output, interest was so great that the tracks for Volume 6 were produced specifically for this release.
The Workshop toured the album later that year, playing to ecstatic audiences in venues all over the country, although some shows had to be cancelled following the theft of their coconut shells.
An extended anniversary edition was released in 2007, which added three extra crashes, two splats and a strange, unnerving hum.
These days, composer and producer Sir Patrick Hat lives in a castle made of money, bought with the proceeds from a string of highly successful West End musicals, and he doesn't care to be reminded that he was once a Jumblie.
Inspired by the children's animation, which in turn was based on the popular but unlikely children's books written by E.M. Forster, The Jumblies scored seven top ten hits including "Super Jumblie", "Jumbling Happy Christmas" and "A Room with a Jumblie".
Long before Sir Patrick was being chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce made of caviar and gold bars, he was dressing up in a Jumblie costume and miming his latest single on Top of the Pops.
Despite the infantile nature of the lyrics and the fun-fur nightmare design of the Jumblies, Sir Patrick's obvious talent as a songwriter and arranger shone through, and nowhere is this more evident than on the 1976 release Jumbling Along, on which every track is a masterpiece of composition, and only slightly let down by the fact that lyrically they amount to nothing more than a lot of bollocks about Jumblies.
Formed in 1978, Coccyx were a punk outfit who performed in surgeons' gowns and blood-stained doctors' coats - not surprising when you consider that they were penniless medical students.
When a BBC interviewer asked bassist Grahame Palmer what first attracted him to a career in medicine, he replied that it would allow him to stick his finger up strangers' bums, no questions asked. "Hopefully, becoming a successful pop star will permit me the same privileges," he added. "But without having to study for ten years first." Four people in Chiswick were deeply offended by this comment, one of them wrote a letter and the next day the story was on the front cover of every newspaper.
Inevitably, this led to a huge interest in their first (and only) album, which was then due for imminent release. However, EMI got cold feet as a result of Palmer's comments and pulled the release from their schedules. Instead, the band took the record to Virgin, who agreed to put the album out the following month. Once again it was dropped at the last minute when someone pointed out that much of the Latin terminology used in the lyrics was, whilst medically accurate, thoroughly disgusting. The band then took the record to Chrysalis, and again things were looking good only for the release to be cancelled at the eleventh hour. In total, Emesis went through seven record companies, always with the same result. In the end it was accidentally released by Vertigo for three hours one Tuesday afternoon in November 1978, which is why copies of the album are so hard to find today.
He horrified parents in the fifties, but Kirk Dixie was everything that was great about rock and roll, and everything that was not so great about personal hygiene. He went on to sell more records in the sixties than everyone else called Kirk put together, and enjoyed a staggeringly prolific film career, regularly releasing up to three movies a week.
By the seventies, however, he was a fat mess, addicted to marmalade and about as culturally relevant as a bucket of frogs. All of which makes his 1975 comeback album, Leatherneck, so very remarkable. Recorded live in front of a specially uninvited audience, the record is very much a return to his roots, giving us a late career glimpse of the real man behind the blubber. Sadly, just two years later, he was found dead after choking on a combine harvester.
The Best of
Country star Billy Colorado only ever released one album, and this is it, so it is at least technically correct to label this collection of songs a "Best of." Country and western was big in the seventies - country has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, although no one really knows what became of western.
Of course, these days songs about cowboys and buffalo and wide open prairies seem naïve and offensive but back then they were only gauche and belligerent, and quite often astonishingly misanthropic. The Best of Billy Colorado is the best or the worst of the bunch, depending on your viewpoint.
Whatever your preference, there's no denying that it conjures up an authentic atmosphere of rural America in all its sensory glory, so much so that initial pressings came with a free bucket of horseshit.
Too Much Funk
Too Much Funk came about as the result of a bet, in which the group was challenged to see how much funk it was possible to squeeze onto one record. In the process they had to come up with a brand-new recording process, taping each track in dedicated funk-resistant booths.
They also developed a new kind of vinyl with polymers that could handle extreme levels of funkiness. The special funk-proof sleeve prevented accidental funk leakage and was adorned with a big red sticker bearing the warning 'Caution: Funk'.
Questions were asked in Parliament and resulted in the Hazardous Funk Storage and Handling Act 1977, which required anyone purchasing or playing the record to obtain a funk licence.
Of course, these days anyone can buy funk over the counter at most chemists, and such restrictions seem excessive.
"Which one's Nigel?" was the question always quivering on the lips of journalists whenever the group embarked on a press tour. Bassist Robert Rissole grew tired of explaining that "Massive Nigel" was actually the name of the band, and none of its members actually went by that name. This, and his growing weariness with touring, resulted in his withdrawal from public contact and inspired the rock opera The Beans, a sprawling double album that tells the story of fictional rock star Nigel, who shuns celebrity, retreats to his hotel room and gorges himself on baked beans.
On their subsequent tour, the group performed the album in its entirety while a wall of baked bean tins was gradually erected at the front of the stage. By the end of the show, the band were entirely hidden from view. In retrospect, Rissole's obsession with beans should have been obvious all along, and is reflected in some of the group's album titles, including A Saucerful of Beans, Dark Side of the Bean and the live album Pulse.
When Rod Stewart had a top ten hit with a cover of Fat's Porker's debut single "Turkey Neck Stomp" it sparked renewed interest in the legendary blues singer's back catalogue. A flurry of reissues followed, along with this previously unissued recording of a performance from 1965, busking to the crowds outside Shea Stadium as they queued to watch The Beatles. The sound quality is patchy, as you would expect, and is peppered with the shrieks and screams of teenage girls convinced that they'd just caught a glimpse of George McCartney or Ringo Lennon. But Porker's performance shines through as he treats a sadly unappreciative audience to some of his early hits, and there is a genuine depth of emotion when he breaks off to ask for change.
Unfortunately, Porker would not see a penny from the release of this record because of a dubious management deal he'd signed two decades earlier. Naturally, he attempted to take legal action, but the complexity of applicable contract law meant that he had to sue himself. It didn't go well and he ended up losing rather badly.
The Trousers, as their fans never call them, must hold the record for the greatest number of breakups and reformations in the history of music, often splitting up then getting back together on the same day.
Polyamorous Echo Location was released at a time when the band were not a going concern, and the album came about as a direct outcome of their record company's rapacious demands for fresh product.
It was spliced together from outtakes, demos, studio chatter and answering machine messages, and it proved to be a massive hit. So much so that the band returned to the studio to record fresh material, although critics felt that the resulting album was a disappointing follow-up to this collection of outtakes.
Hanging On by
Popular mountaineering folk singers The Crampons had been together for thirty years by the time they released Hanging on by Our Fingernails, their eighteenth studio album. For their partnership to have survived, there clearly must have been a very strong connection between the duo - a bond which served them equally well in the studio as it did halfway up a mountain.
By the early seventies, The Crampons were easily the biggest folk singing mountaineers in the business, helped in no small measure by the fact that their nearest competition, The Ice Picks, had tragically fallen off K2 the previous year whilst recording a live album.
The Crampons' success meant that their record company were keen to accede to their requests, so when the group asked that the studio be decked out to resemble an Alpine slope, complete with fir trees, they not only complied but threw in a cable car as well. And it was money well spent, since the resulting album is starkly atmospheric and produced the singles "Mind the Gap" and the seasonal number one "Abseiling Home for Christmas".
Cockney Knees Up
Reg Varney and
His Cockney Mates
It's time to take a ball and chalk down to the rub-a-dub-dub and gather round the old Joanna to belt out some traditional cockney tunes. In 1972, Varney was starring in the hit ITV sitcom On the Buses, and this singalong collection was an attempt to cash in.
For copyright reasons, Varney was not allowed to record under his character name, or to reference the show in any way. To make absolutely certain that there was no infringement, London Weekend Television insisted that the album bear a sticker saying "This record is not affiliated with the TV programme On the Buses". London Weekend also ran a national poster campaign, at its own expense, to inform people that it was not an officially licensed tie-in. They scored a massive own goal in the process.
All this free advertising meant that the record was a huge hit, with many customers referring to it as "The On the Buses album".
Sings the Hits of WWII
Originally recorded in 1944 to lift the spirits of a war-weary nation, this record was shelved for reasons of national security, and all existing copies were sealed in a disused slate mine in Wales. Thirty years later, the UK was in the grip of the three-day week, supplies of vinyl were in short supply and record store shelves were empty. A national emergency, in fact - time to break out the emergency Churchill.
Once the record was on sale, it became apparent why it had taken so long to see the light of day. Winston Churchill warbling, grunting and belching his way through songs like "Goodnight Sweetheart", "We'll Meet Again" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was something that the record-buying public of 1944 would not have been prepared for.
To be fair, the record-buying public of 1974 were no better off, but because there was nothing else to spend their money on, the album soared to the top of the charts.
Just as they say that everyone has a novel in them, it seemed that every established mainstream artist in the seventies had a disco album in them. Gloria Glamor's Hot Silk is by no means the worst example, thanks to the extraordinary team of talented producers, songwriters, musicians and singers that were employed to bring this album to life.
Indeed Glamor's meteoric rise from lead singer of sixties Motown group The Glamors to legendary diva meant that by this point she was far too famous to appear on her own records. Rumours abound that she did swing by the studio during the penultimate mixing session, but her input is not apparent on the final release and, all things considered, that's probably not a bad thing.
Drop the Hot Flip Flop
The Fly By Night
The Merchants were always more of a concept than a band, composed as they were of an ever-changing line-up of musicians moonlighting from their day jobs in other groups. They released seven albums during the decade, featuring contributions from members of Genesis, The Faces, Steeleye Span, The Wombles, The Bay City Rollers and The Metropolitan Police Choir. Their open-door policy extended to live performances, where anyone who felt like it was invited to join them on stage, and as a result it was often difficult to see where the band ended and the audience began.
Drop the Hot Flip Flop was their fourth album and is widely considered their best, since what it lacks in structure and cohesion, it more than makes up for with Tom Jones on penny whistle and Alan Bennett on kazoo.