In Part I of this series I asked why the year 1970 is often thought of as a year to forget, both in the world as a whole and rock music particularly. Human disasters large and small put an end, at least temporarily, to the optimism that had attended the era of free love, altered consciousness and flower power, culminating in Woodstock; while on the music front, a variety of assaults were being waged on the harmonious sounds we associated with peace, freedom and universal love. Yet a short list of rock milestones released in 1970 changes the perception of that time considerably, presenting the possibility that even if something was lost, something else was gained -- perhaps something worth celebrating in the spirit of a Golden Anniversary.
In retrospect, what was happening was not just a splintering into incompatible musical trends, but an evolution and expansion of the boundaries of rock. Not all of the results were benign; how could they be? There had to be failed experiments and dead ends or there would have been no growth. Lapses of taste frequently tainted the creative thrust into new dimensions of instrumental and studio wizardry. Yet the outcome would not be a desecration of what once was supposedly pure and anointed by the gods of rock and roll -- though that did come to pass in the fullness of time -- but an evolution of trends that would lead, in that same decade and beyond, to some of the greatest triumphs of popular music.
In this part and the next I am going to do a deeper dive into the year 1970 in rock: what was happening, where it was heading, what it meant in the grand scheme of popular music. I cannot in good conscience deny the subjectivity of these thoughts, but their primary purpose is to combat the lingering misgiving that everything decent in music shriveled up and died in 1970, while acknowledging that not every development was something to cheer about. To those who came to this music later this may seem like an quixotic pursuit; for some of them, the musical output of the 1970's is a kind of foundation -- CSN, Zep, the Eagles -- while the 1960s means the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys and a lot of old trippy stuff that doesn't ring any emotional bells. But this is not how it was if you grew up in that era; it seemed like the music had dried up, the heroes had died, the bands broken up and the world was ending. Even the fact that you now had Yes and Zep and the Moody Blues, Dark Side of the Moon and Can't Buy a Thrill, didn't really undo the sense of a musical world gone to pieces. So I'm going to do what I can to put Humpty Dumpty together, beginning with mainstream stuff in Part II and moving on to rock's more experimental side in Part III.
Just a note before I continue: my main reference for albums released in 1970 has been the Wikipedia page 1970 in Music. In two cases (debut albums by Fanny and Mandrill) I am fairly certain the albums are not listed there due to an oversight. It would be interesting to know if there are others. For soul music I have also referred to this list on rateyourmusic.com.
Pop and mainstream rock
Having discussed many of the iconic albums of 1970 in Part I, in any normal year I would be done by now with top bands, hit songs, and that sort of thing. But 1970 was not simply a decent year for music, it was among the best years ever. For example, Three Dog Night's Naturally is an album I never tire of; among other terrific arrangements it included their huge hits "One Man Band", "Liar" and the Hoyt Axton tune "Joy to the World." Chicago dropped the "Transit Authority" from their name and released their second album, including the unforgettable "25 or 6 to 4," with what remains one of the great guitar solos in rock history, and at least three other hits. The Guess Who released American Woman; three of the four songs on Side One were hits, including "No Time", one of my favorite post-60s singles. They also brought out their next album that year, including the hit "Hand Me Down World." Speaking of Canadians, Neil Young, not resting on his laurels after Déja Vu, released After the Gold Rush, ready to start trouble with "Southern Man" and calm everyone down with "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." Badfinger's No Dice included the hits "No Matter What" and "Without You;" the former got them pegged as perhaps an answer to the demise of the Beatles, while the latter became Harry Nilsson's signature hit and one of the most popular cover tunes of all time.
Free, a group I was supposed to see at the Fillmore East, released two albums in 1970, including one with their hit single "All Right Now." I wasn't a big fan of the group, and still find them a sort of low-budget version of The Band, but it was the only Fillmore concert I could get tickets to in June 1971, a week before the venue closed for good. But Free shut down before the Fillmore did, due to disputes between Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser, and were replaced by Sha Na Na (#discontinuity). That didn't matter much, though, because the second band on the bill was Mott the Hoople, who managed two album releases in 1970. The third band on the bill was Mandrill, a Santana alternative, whose self-titled 1970 album (not on the Wikipedia list) was not bad, if not quite at the level of Abraxas.
Although for the most part I have been ignoring live albums, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that two of the most important live albums in rock history came out this year. The Who's Live at Leeds is sometimes cited as the greatest live rock recording. (Deadheads, of course, know this is false, but not because of Vintage Dead, the live album released without their participation in 1970.) Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, the only live performance released in his lifetime (1/1/70), has some sound issues, but is a key Hendrix document nonetheless.
As for one-hit wonders, it was among the best years ever. The Jaggerz came up with "The Rapper;" though the album doesn't exactly rewrite the playbook for that year, the song still sounds fresh, as does "Fresh Air," from Quicksilver Messenger Service. The apparently unsinkable "Ride, Captain Ride" floated near the top of the charts, while The Ideas of March produced "Vehicle," Warner's fastest selling single ever. Best of all, Sugarloaf dropped "Green-Eyed Lady," and if the album as a whole left something to be desired, it's worth having for the full version of the song, which is superior to the heavily edited single. The album is also enhanced by Jerry Corbetta's top-notch skills on the organ. Other notable hits (I will deal with R&B singles later) included Bread's "Make It With You", the BeeGees' "Lonely Days," Credence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?," and Neal Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie."
Last, because least: I am reluctant to acknowledge the hodge podge Hey Jude as an album, but it does contain a number of essential Beatles tracks (or versions) that were only available as singles prior to its release. None of the songs were first released in 1970, but some were first mixed in stereo for this album. With almost any other group that would be a non-event; but since individual Beatles songs have been discussed and written about at greater length than the entire output of other bands, I suppose we can't let the year's mainstream releases go by without mentioning it.
The motherlode of great mainstream albums and hit songs in 1970 would not be equaled very often, if ever, in the future history of rock music. It may be true that pop radio in the '60s was more impressive, what with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys competing on playlists with Herman's Hermits, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Four Tops, the Mamas and the Papas and so on. But there is a big difference between losing quantity and falling off a cliff. There was a downward slope here, but it was not as radical as we sometimes think. Still, the musical wealth of 1970 could be taken as a sign that, even if rock did not die in 1969, it did by the end of the following year. Since our next category is probably the single biggest source of that impression, let's deal with it.
Between hard rocks and heavy metal
Although they didn't all arrive this year, a list of the groups that put out albums in these similar genres in 1970 is, well, heavy: Grand Funk Railroad, James Gang, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Spooky Tooth, Wishbone Ash, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Iron Butterfly, Bloodrock, Cactus, Sir Lord Baltimore, Slade, Lucifer's Friend, UFO, Warhorse, and, with some caveats, Led Zeppelin. Bands that straddle this genre and something like progressive rock -- a rather rarefied proto-prog-metal subgenre -- include Uriah Heep, Family, and Atomic Rooster. Some hard rock bands that are often characterized as proto-punk groups had notable releases this year, particularly The Stooges and MC5.
God knows I don't have the patience to listen to the complete output of this stuff at the mouth of the decade. It drew little affection from those who had grown up with the Beatles and The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. The heavy metal trend in particular felt like a twisted idolization of Hendrix, the Doors and/or Led Zeppelin. What it absorbed from Hendrix was the ability to play loud and fast, and from Morrison & company it took on a Satanic and paranoid element. In Zep it acknowledged a new level of technical mastery. These features would be enhanced, or exacerbated, in the years to come, as heavy metal became a full-fledged subgenre. There is no question that this has appealed to a good number of listeners; from Motorhead to Avenged Sevenfold, it has found a place, and even entered the mainstream in the form of AC/DC, Meatloaf, Metallica and other radio-friendly metal bands. It has branched out or subdivided into "x"-metals, where "x" is replaceable by "prog," but more typically by "doom," "death," "thrash," "black," and other references to the Dark Side.
If popularity is a measure of value then it can be honored for what it is, but I failed to see the point of most hard rock in 1970, and never really got most of it since. To listen to Wishbone Ash's debut album, for example, is to be reminded why many people thought rock was going to hell in a handbasket as the decade rolled over: not only is it an essay in loudness, but many of the tracks wear someone's lugubrious efforts at songwriting on their sleeve, a lack of innate musical talent that bursts through the guts of the song like the monster in Alien. Rather than propelling the music forward, the belabored riffs and instrumental breaks induce something akin to imaginative resistance. Everything's relative, though: the album may still merit a star or two next to the random guitar noodling of Alice Cooper's Easy Action, where the pretense of songwriting is all but abandoned. As for Slade, their lengthy string of U.K. hits and the list of groups they influenced does little to counter the feeling that whatever we admired in the '60s was being swallowed by loud and essentially pointless pounding. Zep and King Crimson were loud too, but they weren't pointless, as heavy metal in its fundamental spirit seemed to be.
Still, there were saving graces. I have waxed eloquent elsewhere about Grand Funk's Closer to Home, an album on which Mark Farner not only came up with a raft of great songs but wrote about pleasant things like love and peace and revolution rather than gun rights. It wasn't to last, but it is what it is. Deep Purple was the Guns N' Roses of the '70s, and not just for the lyric "Sweet child in time..." on Deep Purple In Rock. Like GNR, it was hard to criticize the talents of the individual members, or to claim that the songs lacked musical integrity. Roughly the same could be said of Black Sabbath, who released their eponymous debut and Paranoid the same year; the latter and In Rock together defined "heavy metal" as a new rock territory, with "Iron Man" holding the fort.
Although putatively in the spirit of Led Zeppelin's debut masterpiece, what became heavy metal wasn't what we had expected, or wanted, that album to lead to. The imitators seemed to not quite get what Zep was about. Sure, there were notable cuts -- "Smoke on the Water" was still to come -- and Blue Öyster Cult's first album was promising (and kicked off metal's fascination with Germanic umlauts). But already on In Rock, speed sometimes replaces taste, volume replaces nuance, and Zeps grounding in the blues is at best a hazard that cannot be entirely avoided. ("Into the Fire" seems more like an effort to murder the blues than play it; perhaps "Living Wreck," the next song, is an apology.) Soon these disparities would be accentuated until the genre displayed little connection with its origins.
As for Led Zep's 1970 offering, III was initially taken as a warning sign that Zep was caving to folkie interests -- a misunderstanding, since Page at least had a sincere interest in folk sources from beginning to end. Time has tended to improve the perception of the album's patchwork qualities; it did have a few of unquestionably great cuts, and it wasn't long before they were back to the original plan. The rest of the year's noise output falls mostly under the hard rock umbrella. No one is going to call you a fool if you happen to like James Gang Rides Again or, let's say, UFO's more or less listenable entry. But I'm comfortable with our collective judgment that this trend was a red flag, a warning that the power of technique and technology could be abused, and that audiences would respond to loud, guitar-driven attacks whether the underlying music had much merit or not.
100 Years of the Blues
Hard to completely distinguish from hard rock, which at this point was still largely blues-based, these groups seemed more concerned with the blues as a form than with either making lots of noise or writing hooks. Ten Years After, Stone the Crows, Faces (one of Rod Stewart's early associations), Dr. John, Randy Newman, Blodwyn Pig, Blues Image, Canned Heat, The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Winter, Humble Pie, Savoy Brown, Taste, The J. Geils Band, and Peter Green all gave us albums that fit this description. Spooky Tooth, sometimes credited a psychedelic band, was mostly doing basic blues-rock on The Last Puff. Black Oak Arkansas was transitioning labels and band names (they were born "The Knowbody Else") in 1970, and released their debut album under the new name the following year.
You can tell from the most recognizable names that some of these albums had to be pretty good for this genre -- Ten Years After's Cricklewood Green and the Allmans' Idlewild South, for starters. The Blues Image's Open, known mainly for the hit "Ride, Captain, Ride," is chock full of great blues guitar riffs, and Maggie Bell's vocals on Stone the Crows' eponymous album gave Janis a run for her money. On the other hand, Kim Simmonds and his ever-changing lineups, a.k.a. Savoy Brown, did not impress either critics or the public, and represented to many what neither rock nor the blues should be -- lame riffs dotting uninspired tunes. I am tempted to be charitable, though, and suggest you give a listen to some of their (his) later stuff, like Witchy Feelin' from 2017. I belatedly became an Aerosmith fan after hearing Nine Lives; only then did I open up to their earlier albums, which I had initially folded into the '70s death-of-rock eschatology. I suppose it could happen for you with Savoy Brown.
The two Winters were out in force in 1970. Edgar left his brother's group and laid out the solid jazzrock disk Entrance. As a result, Johnny (the Jack White of the '70s?) took on Rick Derringer as a sideman and songwriter, resulting in "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" and an album whose only misstep was grammatical: Johnny Winter And (the rest of the former McCoys went missing). He shared with groups like Humble Pie and the J. Geils Band a sincerity about the blues form that is beyond criticism. The Doors, not exactly a basic blues band, nevertheless opened 1970s Morrison Hotel with "Roadhouse Blues," and continued to pepper their albums with basic blues tracks.
It is safe to say that none of this represented an exciting new direction for rock: the blues probably dates from the 1870s, which means these artists were moving forward into a new century of roots music. That also means that unless handled with the dexterity of a Duane Allman or Eric Clapton, one could question the cultural appropriation: why not listen to B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, all still active in 1970, if you actually had an interest in the blues? But the flip side of appropriation is that form of flattery signaled by imitation. In this sense, rock musicians still showed a deep respect for the art form that gave rise to most of the popular music we know. It was hardly the death of rock and roll; in fact, the presence of more or less undiluted blues has been bedrock from Otis Redding to The Black Crowes, and will presumably continue to be so.
I Am a (Folk) Rock
The history of popular music in both Great Britain and the U.S. is such that you simply don't get there without going through both the blues and other styles of folk music, be it that of The Weavers or Irish fiddle tunes. It would take me too far afield to get into this, but "folk-rock" is not some sort of mongrel style but the natural outcome of folk music in the era of mass entertainment. And the output of high-quality folk-rock albums in the single year we are discussing is quite astounding.
Joan Baez's One Day at a Time, a 1970 release, has always been one of my favorites among her many albums. Van Morrison, who has so far released forty-one studio albums, gave us the almost universally praised Moondance, as well as His Band and the Street Choir, which contained the hits "Domino" and "Blue Money" (you do know the chorus, at least: just say "Do do-yeh-do, do do do-yeh-do"). Not bad for a year's work. Kris Kristofferson's self-titled first album included "Me and Bobby McGee," which of course was already a hit from Janis Joplin's rendition of it on Pearl; Gordon Lightfoot, too, recorded it that year, on an album that also contained "Minstrel of the Dawn" and "If You Could Read My Mind." Cat Stevens popped out both Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman; though still a year away from the stunning Teaser and the Firecat, songs like "Wild World" were already becoming part of the national consciousness.
Laura Nyro, a folksinger with 88 keys, produced Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, the third in her series of keyboard-driven, jazz-influenced albums that practically created a new genre of popular music and influenced dozens of artists after her. Al Stewart also released a brilliant collection that I will discuss in more depth later on. Even Dylan, who as I said was far from his creative peak, had a few good tunes on New Morning, including "If Not For You." Neal Diamond has already been mentioned for his pop hit, but Tap Root Manuscript took him back to his folk roots (he was allegedly inspired to become a songwriter after hearing Pete Seeger) and had him exploring African music long before that was common in Western rock.
The truth is, there was so much new acoustic-based music that year, it would take too much space to discuss it all: Melanie, Tom Rush, Don McLean, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Paul Siebel (his only album, Woodsmoke and Oranges, is still a classic) and a host of unclassifiable artists who hovered around the country, folk and rock genres. There are plenty of gems to be rediscovered here. It was a very good year, and it was another step in a direction that is still fruitful today, as bands from Wilco to The Decemberists and a multitude of popular singer-songwriters can attest.