Music Madness: 1970s
Another series I've come up with: identifying the biggest and best bands/musicians from a given decade, March Madness style.
A conceit I enjoy that Bill Simmons has used in the past (and one that he’s borrowed from professional wrestling, amongst other places) is the idea of “The Championship Belt” to identify who or what holds the title in a given field.
For example, here’s his post on the Action Hero Championship Belt from 2014.
I was thinking about this conceit, which has been applied to movies and television shows, in terms of music though. My favorite music writer, Steven Hyden, did a version of this for American bands (with certain limitations and stipulations).
I decided I’d go through a few decades and determine what bands or musicians had “the belt,” but I decided to not limit myself like Hyden did (only American bands, no X and the Y Band entries etc etc).
As I started to think about this and realized how not following these stipulations really opened things up, I decided to shift away from the “belt” model to something like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament where getting into that Final Four is something worth celebrating.
I’m obviously drawing from a wide range of genres here. It’s not just rock, though that’s obviously my focus and what I know a bit more about. I’m considering a mix of popularity as well as artistic achievement when I make these choices.
Final Four: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, Derek and the Dominos, The Band
Winner: Derek and the Dominos
Probably the strangest year within this exercise, which does make sense given that you’re still in the 60s in some way but also moving into this new decade. Personally, Van is the winner—it’s post Astral Weeks and heading into Moondance— but I don’t think Van’s success was quite as widespread enough. I ended up on Derek and the Dominos because it’s Clapton staking his claim as the next great guitar virtuoso in the wake of Jimi Hendrix’s death. It’s a strange choice, to have this supergroup who only put out one album win, but in this strange year kicking off a decade it felt like the right choice.
Final Four: The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye
Winner: Rolling Stones
The combination of Sticky Fingers, coming back from the awfulness that was Altamont, and becoming the band they would remain really up until the present, all win this one for the Stones (this is also when the Stones begin identifying themselves as "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World" and that makes it hard to argue that they don’t have the title). My runner-up in this year is easily Marvin Gaye, another figure who completed a transformation. With What’s Going On in 1971, Gaye went from a great R&B singer out of that Motown stable to a great voice for both singing and writing (Sly and the Family Stone would be another potential entry that just got edged out of the Final Four). Zeppelin, on the strength of IV and “Stairway to Heaven,” were also worthy challengers but ultimately I don’t think there’s any competition with this iteration of the Rolling Stones.
Final Four: Grateful Dead, Big Star, Neil Young, David Bowie
Winner: Neil Young
One would’ve expected the Dead to be the winner given Europe ‘72 (both the tour and the live album), but I think they’re a little stronger in a different year. Big Star, putting out Radio City, would be like one of those mid-major schools you love that makes a deep and magical tournament run. I love Big Star, they’re one of my favorite bands, but I couldn’t justify giving them the title. This is also prime, Ziggy Stardust Bowie. But it’s hard for me to overlook Neil Young given that he put out Harvest, which solidified him as a solo artist. And Neil, one of. the absolute titans, was not going to get out of the 70s without one title to his name.
Final Four: Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, James Brown
Winner: Marvin Gaye
A really eclectic Final Four here since you have James Brown mounting a comeback with The Payback (the title track reaching the #1 spot, which allows the Godfather of Soul to reclaim his place in the popular music firmament), Elton John riding the wave of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Led Zeppelin with Houses of the Holy continuing to stake their place as one of the biggest and heaviest bands in the world. But Marvin Gaye and Let’s Get It On takes the title. Gaye takes the more social and philosophical concerns of What’s Going On and merges it with a concern on relationships/the personal.
Final Four: Grateful Dead, ABBA, Paul McCartney and Wings, CSNY
Winner: Grateful Dead
This is Wall-of-Sound era Grateful Dead and when they were probably (for better and for worse) at their tightest (thus the hiatus they took following 1974 made a lot of sense). Macca and Wings give the Dead a run for their money with Band on the Run, while you have the real beginning of ABBA as a global pop force by putting out Waterloo and winning the Eurovision Song Contest. But the Dead needed to be rewarded for their early 70s greatness and this year, fueled by Wake of the Flood and From the Mars Hotel, seems like the best time.
Final Four: Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Wings, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac
Winner: Bruce Springsteen
Probably one of the most competitive years one has to consider—you’ve got Wings Over the World-era Paul McCartney taking Band on the Run on tour, Blood on the Tracks/Rolling Thunder Revue-era Bob Dylan, and Fleetwood Mac leading up to Rumours with their self-titled album. But, come on, we all know Bruce is going to win with Born to Run. It’s almost like if the Fab 5-Michigan team eventually won a title since we saw the promise of those early years and here is where it gets paid off. The combination of the greatness of that album and then how transcendent his live performances were/are, in my mind there’s no other choice.
Final Four: Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, The Who, Steely Dan
Winner: Stevie Wonder
In the same way that Marvin Gaye won 1973 with the paradigm-shifting Let’s Get In On, Stevie Wonder takes home the title in 1976 with Songs in the Key of Life, which was both a critical and commercial success. As much as I, noted Steely Dan fan, would like to pick them as they shifted into full time studio project, or would like to celebrate Bob Seger and his American heartland rock that came out in the bicentennial year, I can’t pick anyone but Stevie.
Final Four: Fleetwood Mac, The Ramones, Donna Summer, Electric Light Orchestra
Winner: Fleetwood Mac
Another absolutely stacked competition (Even Aja by Steely Dan, Marquee Moon by Television, and Exodus by Bob Marley couldn’t get them into the Final Four). Donna Summer is perhaps a little bit surprising to crack the Final Four but with the way she ushered in the primacy of disco and how that work with Giorgio Moroder would go on to change popular music, I thought she was a worthy inclusion. But it was always going to be the Mac and Rumours.
Final Four: The Ramones, Blondie, The Bee Gees, Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Winner: The Ramones
One of the bands that could have won in 77 if it weren’t for Fleetwood Mac, The Ramones keep that momentum going and win the title this year (and herald things to come in the 1980s). Between the Ramones and Blondie, you really see what a force CBGB’s was in music at that time
This is another year where there were some strong candidates that were just outside the Final Four, including Heart and the Doobie Brothers AND Bruce Springsteen (he really should be in the final four but I wanted to get some new blood in there). But I had to go with Elvis Costello as he entered the broader musical consciousness with This Year’s Model. Three of the Final Four really point towards where music will be going in the 1980s, while The Bee Gees are firmly of that moment (riding high in the wake of Saturday Night Fever).
Final Four: The Clash, Cheap Trick, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd
Winner: The Clash
It would’ve been fun to see Cheap Trick win and this would’ve been the time with At Budokan giving them an important spot in the rock/pop cosmos. The Wall was also such a titanic work by Pink Floyd, both as an album and the tour that would follow. But London Calling is where the Clash become a different band than we’d ever seen before. They went from being the Ramones to Bob Dylan, which is really remarkable. This was the Clash, to use a phrase thrown around these days, leveling up and thus they’re the winners of this year.
Who did I leave off? What year did I get horrendously wrong? Let me know in the comments!
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What a fun exercise! Hard to argue against some of the picks here. I'll have to think about what I might've done different in the others. '77 is indeed a tough year, but my bracket would have the Talking Heads making a run. Their debut record might not be their best (depending on one's taste), but this was the year they planted their flag and told us they weren't going anywhere.
That said, the line "Big Star, putting out Radio City, would be like one of those mid-major schools you love that makes a deep and magical tournament run" is probably gonna be the best thing I read all day. That's a line I wished I'd written myself!
Fascinating concept and execution, Thomas! Another decade (or maybe build up using years in a decade) you might consider trying a thread format, and asking readers to vote as part of a "seeding" of sorts to get not only their engagement, but draw their rationales for their winners! Just a thought.