10 Reasons Why 1972-1974 Was the Golden Age of Pop Music?

No defining sound or star, just a smorgasbord of groovy tunes.

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U.S. President Richard Nixon and The Carpenters (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“You say you want a revolution,” John Lennon sang in 1968, when the U.S. was in the middle of one. Four years later, he was the only ex-Beatle left fighting. For his former bandmates and most of the leading pop and rock artists during the first part of the bell-bottomed decade, the revolution was pretty much over.

Soul acts like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and The Temptations were stepping away from the Motown-style romanticism of the ’60s and joining the black-power generation that James Brown helped launch when released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” the same month that The Beatles dropped “Revolution.” Meanwhile, by the start of the next decade, pop and rock had moved in a considerably less confrontational direction.

Actually, it didn’t really go in any direction at all. Unlike other musical epochs and the movements that defined them (the mid ’50s and The Birth of Rock & Roll, the mid ’60s and The British Invasion, the late ’60s and The Counterculture, disco’s inferno and punk’s anarchy in the UK and United States during the late ’70s, the explosion of rap and new wave in the ’80s, and Seattle grunge taking over in the ’90s), the early ’70s lacked a unifying theme.

The soundtrack wasn’t dominated by a single sound or a core group of superstars. The Beatles had broken up. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were gone. The times they were still a-changing, and music reflected the evolution, if not always revolution.

Some of the most interesting songs of the ’70s — and of the entire rock & roll era — emerged from the beginning of the decade, particularly between 1972 and 1974. If those years were often light on gravitas, they were brimming with diversity and variety. There was no blueprint for an early ’70s hit because the biggest ones had so little in common. As musical epochs go, 1972-1974 was all over the place.

Pop was looking back while looking forward. Those three years were at once a rock & roll revival and retrospective (note the number of comebacks and the reemergence of the rockabilly sound, especially in 1974) and a breeding ground for what was yet to come.

Would disco — whose roots were planted in the early ’70s by Barry White, George McCrae, Hues Corporation, and others — have danced up the charts, leading to Saturday Night Fever’s chart outbreak in the decade’s latter half had it not followed in the smooth, in-sync footsteps of Philly soul of the first half? Where and what would new wave have been without the antecedent of glam rock, particularly its most essential maestros David Bowie and Roxy Music?

Of course, my great appreciation for 1972-1974 might simply be a matter of taste. Whatever the reason for it, here are 10 points to back it up.

1.) Some of our most distinguished legends were at their peak awesomeness.

Interestingly, by the mid-’70s advent of disco, middle-of-the-road rock, and easy listening (the latter of which would dominate 1975 via number-one singles by Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, Frankie Valli, B.J. Thomas, Captain & Tennille, along with Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, and a spectacularly resurgent Neil Sedaka), most of them would experience dramatic declines in chart fortunes from which only America, Cher, Flack, White, and The Spinners would ever rebound.

Gladys Knight & The Pips “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”

2.) Future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Chicago were churning out Top 10s with the ease of today’s Drakes and Taylor Swifts.

Wonder was 24, four years younger than Swift is now, when he went to number one with the self-penned and self-produced “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” It’s hard to imagine such a blistering indictment of the political and social status quo topping the charts today, or anything as musically intricate as Chicago’s “Call on Me” or Elton’s “Bennie and the Jets” going anywhere near the Top 10.

Chicago “Call on Me”

3.) Artpop rocked.

And although I’ve always associated Steely Dan with the late ’70s in my head, SD actually belonged just as much, if not more, to 1972-1974. Hit pop has rarely defied categorization as brilliantly as 1972’s “Do It Again,” 1973’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” and 1974’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

Steely Dan “Do It Again”

4.) It was the last time “black” music was pop music until white post-millennials came of age with rap.

By the mid ’70s, “black” pop had splintered off into soul, disco, and funk, with R&B, rap, hip hop, and their various permutations on the way. It’s never sounded quite the same.

Al Green “You Ought to Be with Me”

5.) Philly-soul and post-Motown boy bands were hot (as were Motown’s still-fighting Temptations).

The O’Jays “Back Stabbers”

6) Singer-songwriters scaled new heights.

Meanwhile, Barry Manilow and Bruce Springsteen debuted (with 1973’s Barry Manilow and Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., respectively), and Al Green, Bill Withers, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Dolly Parton, Don McLean, Donna Fargo, Elton John, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Harry Nilsson, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Jim Croce, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Lobo, Loretta Lynn, Mac Davis, Marvin Gaye, Melanie, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Paul Anka, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Loggins and Messina, and the members of Eagles were all writing timeless classics, singing them, and scoring massive hits.

Carole King “Sweet Seasons”

Cat Stevens “Oh Very Young”

7.) The Kings — and Queen — of Glam Rock ruled.

“The Sweet” The Ballroom Blitz

8.) Sixties British invaders settled in.

Ringo Starr “Photograph”

9.) With the exception of 1983 and 1984, no era produced better one-hit-wonder hits.

Looking Glass “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”

10.) Comeback kings — and a queen — reclaimed their old thrones.

The new hits weren’t always worthy of their legend status (Berry’s chart-topping “My Ding-a-Ling” has no business being his biggest single), but they set precedents for the second and third acts that would become such a driving force in the future of pop. We wouldn’t still be talking about Tina Turner and Cher without the rock & roll era’s first wave of comebacks.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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