Mid 70?S: Musical Doldrums
The year 1976 and the first half of '77 were pretty much a musical wasteland, for me, and for rock music in general. Sure, looking back we can find plenty of musical highlights in that period, but most of them were bubbling under the surface at the time. On the surface, there was mostly shlock. For example, the big debuts (as measured by sales and press attention) were the first albums by Boston and Heart. Decent albums, yes, but if they were the best new music, we were in trouble.
My own musical universe was further restricted by my decision to take a year of leave from college. My stated reason for this was that I wanted to dedicate the year to writing a novel which was going to form the basis for the next part of my education (and sample what I imagined to be the life of a writer).
The truth of the matter is that I had found myself a bit of a social misfit in college, and I wanted to take some time, in a more familiar environment, to, well, learn how to socialize. Part of the problem was that, in high school, I had a ready made identity -- I was the smartest kid in my class -- and, at the least, I could relate to my classmates through that identity. But in college I found out that everyone had been the smartest kid in their class, and I was no longer sure of who I was, where I started from. So I took some time off to try to discover that.
In any event, I’m sure I would have been exposed to a greater variety of interesting music had I stayed at Hampshire. Rochester itself was a musical wasteland, and living there during such a dead period in rock music compounded the problem.
Not that college life had really done that much for my musical taste that first year. In the spring of '76, the two most popular albums on campus (or at least among the people I was hanging out with) were Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, and Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come, both of which I, frankly, could not stand. I realize that this probably says more about my musical tastes at the time, which were still somewhat narrow, than about the music available around me. But there certainly was not much which fit my taste.
Most of what I got out of my first year at Hampshire, musically speaking, was the opportunity to explore some classic rock albums I had, more of less, missed out on until that time. Among these were Layla by Derek and the Dominoes, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, The Stones’ Let It Bleed, and The Who Sell Out. All great albums, but I’m sure they helped plant the idea in my mind that the best rock music was all in the past.
My musical tastes weren’t totally restricted. That spring, I saw three concerts: Leslie West, Arlo Guthrie and David Bromberg. The last two indicate some broadening of my taste -- I could appreciate at least some folk rock (even if not Jackson Browne).
Interestingly, I was most disappointed by the Leslie West concert, seemingly closest to my hard rock heart. While impressed by his guitar playing, I wrote in my journal, “The most dishonest performance I have ever seen.” By that I meant he spent most of the show pandering to the audience.
David Bromberg impressed me the most, with a powerful blending of musical styles (what would today be labeled “Americana”), and several virtuoso side musicians. It was a show of stellar musicianship, and not so much showmanship.
Let’s stop here a second to consider just what my musical taste was at this point. i keep saying “hard rock,” but that’s not completely accurate. Although much of what I listened to was hard rock, it wasn’t all that I liked. Further, not everything which was hard rock appealed to me. For example, Led Zeppelin, the epitome of hard rock, did not interest me very much. What did I like in music? Energy and originality. (And lots of guitar.) Preferably both, but either in sufficient quantity would do. I liked swing music for its energy, Frank Zappa for his originality.
To review some of the music from that first year of college: The classic rock albums all fit my criteria, on both counts. Leslie West’s problem was a lack of originality. David Bromberg showed both energy and, to a certain degree, originality (or at least what he played was new to my ears). Jackson Browne lacked the energy I sought; he was way too mellow for me. As for Jimmy Cliff, he was too funky, and at that point, funky was a dirty word to me. It took the Talking Heads to teach me to appreciate funky, but that’s getting way ahead of the story.
There was one more factor which was becoming increasingly important to me. It could be classified as a subset of originality -- just plain weirdness. Frank Zappa introduced me to this concept, and I found I liked it more and more. And the music I heard in the mid-70’s just didn’t have enough of it for me.
But then I was back in Rochester, where I found even less music which appealed to my tastes. One indication of this is how few concerts I saw that year. I’m sure there plenty in the city, but I only saw a handful -- two BOC concerts already discussed, Lou Reed, and Heart (opening for Dave Mason). In June of '76, shortly after I arrived back home, I had tickets to Summerfest, a big concert in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, featuring Peter Frampton, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, but couldn’t get a ride. I’m sure I was more interested in the big concert scene than in any of the bands, because I don’t recall being overly disappointed at not going.
Lou Reed was a disappointment, but that’s because I was expecting Rock’n’Roll Animal, and he had something else in mind, something much mellower and more introspective. He didn’t even have a guitarist with him. That is one concert I wish I could revisit with older, wiser eyes and ears. I’m sure I would now find it much more interesting. He did have an clever stage setup, with a solid wall of TVs as the back of the stage.
Heart was much better. The concert (in early August, shortly before I returned to Hampshire) was in Syracuse, the next city over; I had to take the bus. Heart rocked hard; I especially liked how they encored with Zeppelin”s “Rock’n’Roll” and Nilsson’s “Without You.” I had to leave in the middle of Dave Mason’s set to catch the bus back, but I was fine with that. He was boring (or at least, boring me).
I did also see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in a small club, and thoroughly enjoyed that. I did like old time blues. Not that I had any deep appreciation of them, but I did enjoy them.
Otherwise, there were a smattering of bar bands in various clubs (I spent a lot of time in bars that year -- the drinking age in New York was still 18), but I didn’t enjoy very many. My journal is filled with rantings about “typical commercial rock’n’roll.”
One bar band which moderately impressed me was Talus, solely because of their bass player, Billy Sheehan, who later went on to play with David Lee Roth, Mr. Big and Steve Vai. I was blown away by his playing, but still bitched about their choice of material.
My friend Greg turned me on to a band called The Good Rats, which played around town regularly. Yet somehow I never managed to see them throughout that year. Still, their album Ratcity in Blue was one of the musical highlights of the year for me. The Good Rats definitely showed their bar band roots, playing everything from hard rock to jazz to country. And not by playing covers, it was all original songs. Ratcity in Blue featured some fine guitar work (my weakness, as you know by now), especially the dual guitar solo in the title track.
But the point is those musical highlights were few and far between. Overall, I was very disappointed in the music scene. There didn't seem to be anything happening except disco, which I hated. (At some point I bought a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt.) I couldn’t really explain what was missing, but I knew something was. I was primed for what was coming down the line.
I did buy a lot of records that year. Living at home, working full time, I, for the first time, had plenty of spending money. My primary expenses were books, records and alcohol. And most of the records (and books, for that matter) were used (or else bootlegs). I only bought a handful of new releases that year -- the aforementioned Heart, Boston, and Good Rats; BOC’s Agents of Fortune (which I found overly commercial, and therefore disappointing); and a couple more I’ll get to in a moment.
I probably should mention some albums which came out that year which I didn’t buy, but which were significant. Two of the top selling albums of the year were The Eagles’ Hotel California, and something or other by Fleetwood Mac. You can probably guess where I stood on them, although I did like the song “Hotel California.” Less commercially successful were Bowie’s Low, and Pink Floyd’s Animals. I pretty much ignored both. I still hadn’t forgiven Bowie for his disco phase, and Pink Floyd hadn’t captured me yet (despite Dark Side). Also, at that time, both were critically considered low points of their respective careers. Of course, I love both albums now, which is less an indication of my changing taste than of finally giving them a good listen.
I bought a lot of used records. I would spend hours in my favorite used record store, leafing through their bins. I’m not sure how many people today (except for a few audiophiles) can truly appreciate the charm of a used record store. First there was the visual appeal, all that vinyl in the bins and on the wall, all of it new sounds waiting for my ears. I have always had an appreciation for chaos, so the fact that most used record stores were just a little bit dirtier, and a good bit less organized, than new record stores added to the charm. Finally, there was the factor of randomness. You never knew what might be in stock, what you might discover. Every visit became an adventure.
At the time, my purchases seemed very random, determined mostly by what happened to be in stock. But now I can see a definite pattern. I did buy some unsurprising albums, random Beatles and Stones for example. I picked up all the Bowie albums which featured Mick Ronson, plus Ronson’s two solo albums. And I got The Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges (an old copy of Funhouse for $1.50, and an unopened copy of the first album for $20, which I promptly opened), and Roxy Music (I found three Roxy Music albums -- the 1st, For Your Pleasure, and Siren, in the cut-out bin where I worked, and spent the next few weeks immersed in them).
See where this is going? I was ready.
One of the new releases I bought that year was Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (there’s more on that in my column on Iggy). It actually was not a record I took to easily, but any Iggy album was a beacon of hope in that bleak landscape.
And then there was... well, let me digress a minute. One of my guilty pleasures has always been overproduced pop music, especially with female vocals. The Phil Spector sound. Except I wasn’t really familiar with Phil Spector yet, didn’t realize he was responsible for that sound, or that I could just pick up a Spector collection and satisfy my itch. So when I heard something along those lines, I grabbed onto it. Perhaps the best example was the Tubes’ “Don’t Touch Me There,” a marvelous, and sexed-up, satire of Phil Spector girl groups, which I couldn’t get enough of it.
Then one day in a record store I heard an even more perfect take on the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. One which was a true tribute, and not just a satire, and yet also had some rock edge to it. It was “A Shark In Jet’s Clothing” off the first Blondie album. I don’t know why I didn’t just grab it up right then, except I did have some limitations on my budget. But as I reflected on what I had heard, I knew I needed that album. And once I got it, it didn’t leave my turntable for a month.
It was now the summer of '77, and things in music were rapidly changing. Stuck in Rochester, I was still removed from most of these changes, but the hints flowed in rapidly. I picked up a copy of Hit Parader magazine, and, after reading through it, wrote in my journal, “Iggy Pop is back. Television is the best American band in ten years [despite the fact I still had not heard a note of them], and the British punk scene has revived the idea of garage bands with true feeling and energy that is crucial to rock’n’roll.”
In another month I’d be back at Hampshire, and in the middle of the punk explosion. In others words, in heaven.