10 Reasons Why 1972-1974 Was the Golden Age of Pop Music?
No defining sound or star, just a smorgasbord of groovy tunes.
“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.
Among those enjoying commercial and creative zeniths in the early ’70s: Al Green, America, Barry White, Carole King, Carpenters, Cher, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Grand Funk Railroad, Helen Reddy, Roberta Flack, The Spinners, The Stylistics, Three Dog Night, crossover-era Charlie Rich and Mac Davis, ’70s country queens Donna Fargo and Lynn Anderson, the Tom Johnston-fronted The Doobie Brothers, and a solo Ringo Starr.
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.
A few years ago, I had a pop debate with a twentysomething colleague who was trying to convince me of the creative merit of Taylor Swift’s version of pop music. He was unsuccessful. I might not be old enough to remember all of 1972 to 1974 firsthand, but I am old enough to recognize it as a time when a number-one Hot 100 hit could be so much more than ear candy and didn’t have to be written and produced by committee.
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.
No, not Lady Gaga’s 2013 album, but rather the music 1972-1974’s cutting-edge movers and shakers. Lou Reed scored his only hit single (with 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side”). Todd Rundgren was one of music’s first double-threats, soaring as a performer (with 1972’s Something/Anything) and as a producer (of Badfinger and Grand Funk Railroad, among others). Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and Yes scored hits. Electric Light Orchestra, Genesis, Queen, and Supertramp were getting warmed up.
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.
During one week in 1972 (the Billboard chart week ending May 6), the Top 10 of the Hot 100 was 70 percent black, featuring Al Green, The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, The Stylistics, Joe Tex, and Roberta Flack. Wow. In fact, during 1972, one-half of the 22 Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles were by black acts.
Turn It Up, Turn It Loose: Soul of the ‘70s
Black was most beautiful in the first half of “The ‘Me’ Decade.”
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).
It was the golden age of male vocal groups. The Chi-Lites (who were number 12 during the aforementioned week ending May 6, 1972, with the future number one "Oh Girl”), The Dramatics, The O’Jays, The Spinners, and The Stylistics were chart regulars. The Four Tops enjoyed a renaissance after several middling years, and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was one of the decade’s most enduring number ones.
The O’Jays “Back Stabbers”
6) Singer-songwriters scaled new heights.
All four former Beatles (as well as frequent Fab Four cohort Billy Preston) enjoyed simultaneous success with self-written material. ABBA’s Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus began crafting, recording, and releasing some of the most durable songs in pop music history, beginning with 1973’s “Ring Ring.”
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.
Although I prefer T. Rex from 1970 to 1972, Marc Bolan and company’s UK hits kept coming, and American Suzi Quatro became a superstar across the Atlantic. Alongside them, Gary Glitter, Roxy Music, Slade, The Sweet, and David Bowie helped carry the glam-rock banner from 1972 to 1974, their break-out years. Ironically, of all the aforementioned British glam rockers, the ones with the biggest U.S. hits during the early ’70s — The Sweet! — might be the ones fewer Americans remember today.
“The Sweet” The Ballroom Blitz
8.) Sixties British invaders settled in.
The Beatles may have been history, but the band’s four offshoot solo sstars, along with The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, and The Who were still waving the Union Jack.
Ringo Starr “Photograph”
9.) With the exception of 1983 and 1984, no era produced better one-hit-wonder hits.
A shortlist of acts who kept their Billboard Hot 100 reigns short and sweet: Looking Glass with “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” Stories with “Brother Louie,” Blue Swede with “Hooked on a Feeling,” Argent with “Hold Your Head Up,” Billy Swan with “I Can Help,” Carl Douglas with “Kung Fu Fighting,” Maria Muldaur with “Midnight at the Oasis,” Sylvia with “Pillow Talk,” Gary Glitter with “Rock and Roll (Part 2),” David Essex with “Rock On,” Terry Jacks with “Seasons in the Sun,” Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and Mike Oldfield with “Tubular Bells.”
Looking Glass “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”
10.) Comeback kings — and a queen — reclaimed their old thrones.
Pop hailed Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Chuck Berry, Johnny Rivers, Ricky Nelson, and Sammy Davis Jr.… again. Brenda Lee reinvented herself as a country star (starting with the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Nobody Wins” in 1973), and, beginning in 1971, rockabilly pioneer-turned-country chart-topper Jerry Lee Lewis grazed the Hot 100’s Top 50 for the first time in a decade.
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.