Who Is 'The Artist Of The '70s'?
by Bruce Rusk
One of my distinguished colleagues recently posed a question on the Daily Vault's staff mailing list, asking essentially "Which artist defined the '70s?" Here's the original comment, to put this article in context:
"I was watching my Almost Famous DVD the other day, and included in the special features is an interview done with Lester Bangs*. During the course of the interview he says that Dick Clark told him that, (paraphrasing) 'In the '40s there was Sinatra, in the '50s there was Elvis, in the '60s there was the Beatles, and we are waiting on the '70s.' My question to you guys is, why do you think that since the '60s no decade has had that one huge act that defines the era? I would think it would have to do with more genres of music evolving, and therefore there can be no 'one' consensus as to who is the best. I'm curious to hear what your take on this is."
It's interesting how Clark went from Sinatra to Elvis, two singers, to a band, the Beatles. I think the natural progression was that during the '60s and into the' 70s, groups become the iconic figures, rather than singers alone. Before I make my claim as to who the Artist Of The '70s was, I want to look at this phenomenon more closely.
Since the advent of recorded music and radio, from the early 20th century into the '40s and '50s and even into the early '60s, a band or group was rarely the object of the kind of sycophantic devotion fans would accord to a singer. The exception being the big bands such as Glenn Miller's, Tommy Dorsey's, and the like. Even then we have a well-known front man and a group of largely anonymous musicians. In that era even when a musician did rise above anonymity, Buddy Rich for example, he went straight out and named a band after himself, and hired more anonymous musicians, and the cycle continued.
Even the most successful "bands" of the '50s were only so if they had a charismatic and talented front man. In most cases the "band" was never more than supporting figures, and their membership changed often, with only the star singer staying constant. Either the artist was essentially a solo act, like Elvis or Chuck Berry, or the "band" itself was an ancillary to the star front man, and could have been any musicians without affecting the finished product regardless of how talented they were; as in the cases of Bill Haley and the Comets and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Bands that focused on the musical compositions as a group, surf bands for example, found some success, but were often one-hit wonders, or considered novelty bands. Instrumental songs that were successful before the mid-sixties were usually simplistic at best, and almost never created long-term fan following for the band prior to the mid-sixties.
TV played a big part in the transition from both sides. Early on, when a famous act was on TV, the front man would get 99% of the screen time with the other members rarely if ever getting a camera on them. It really didn't change until the Beatles and the Beach Boys came along, where it was unclear to most people who the actually leader was, if there was one at all. In the case of both of those bands, every member was also a vocalist, even the drummers, so the lines between singer and group became muddied. Also, it gave the fans a larger target to adore, to the point where picking your favorite members was part of the fan experience. I can remember arguing with a friend about whether John was cooler than Paul (he was), and trying to figure out which one of the Beach Boys sang which song.
One trend that changed and defined the artists and how we regarded them was the instrumentation and composition becoming a bigger part of the music. Up until the mid-sixties it seems, the music was there only as a foundation for a singer. No one cared about the composition from an instrumental perspective. There were little or no solos of any kind, unless they were by the big-name star, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis for example. Most rock and roll of the time was based on the most simplistic blues based riffs and an instrumental bridge in a song was just an extension of the songs primary theme and didn't add much if anything to the song itself from an esthetic viewpoint. In the '60s, the instrumentation became a huge factor as musicians became more experimental. As they experimented, the possibilities expanded exponentially and the songs became more complex. As they became more complex, it was obvious that the sound was the result of a group effort, and they cared less about who sang or who did what. They just knew that those four or five guys made a great sound together.
Another factor was the move in the '60s away from "[First Name] [Last Name] and the [Insert plural noun here]" tradition of naming bands. Bands become a group entity when they dropped the singer's or front man's name; i.e. the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, etc. Now, they had no one member identified at "the star", even if they had a singer-only front man like the Who or the Stones. Even Mick Jagger, as iconic a singer of his era (or any era) as there ever was, was always identified as a member of the Stones.
Another funny side-effect, seen most prevalently in the late '60s and early' 70s, is that many of the most successful solo artists or solo singers were ones that emerged from a band. And often it was because they started out in a band. Janis Joplin, Peter Frampton, and Rod Stewart are good examples of this effect. Jimi Hendrix is another example -- he was James Brown's guitar player before anyone knew his name.
The odd effect of the movement towards the recognition of groups as opposed to singers, was that instead of a singer eclipsing the popularity of the band, the opposite effect often took place. Many people thought David Lee Roth was a guy named Van Halen, because he was the face of the band. Jethro Tull was the guy with the flute hopping around on one leg, right? No one knew who Ian Anderson was, but they loved the guy with the flute; and figured he was the guy the band was named after**. The famous line from Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar" puts it all in perspective when a music exec asks "By the way, which one's Pink?"
Getting back to the original question, who defined the '70s, that's easy. But I have to digress first to give props to the genre that defined the '70s. That would be hard rock, the parent of the nascent heavy metal movement. The biggest group of record sales/concert sales on the decade was the combined efforts of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, AC/DC and their brethren. Those bands dominated the charts and hearts of the public as a group, but none of those acts is my pick for artist of the '70s.
As for the artist(s) that defined the '70s, it's a no-brainer…it's the Eagles. Their amazing feat of defying genres to dominate the airwaves was nothing short of phenomenal as they blurred the lines between rock, pop, country and easy listening. They charted on multiple Billboard lists and were heard on almost every type of radio station from AOR to Country. They only recorded six studio albums, all between 1971 and 1979, but between those six they charted 14 Top Ten singles, their album Greatest Hits 1971-1975 is the best selling album ever, by any artist***, eclipsing even Elvis and The Beatles; and they are the fifth overall best-selling recorded act of all time, the top five being:
- Led Zeppelin
- Garth Brooks
- The Eagles
They also have six albums in the RIAA list of the 100 top-selling albums of all time. To drive this theory home, look at the success of their reunion. Fourteen years after their last studio release, they charted the best-selling album, and most successful concert tour of the year 1994, like they never missed a beat.
The only other act I could think of that came close was my runner-up, Pink Floyd. But that story, gentle reader, is another article entirely.
That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. Say goodnight Jethro.
* Lester Bangs is a well-known music journalist and sometime musician who died in 1982.
** For the record, Jethro Tull was a farmer and inventor born in 1674, and he invented a device called a seed drill, and improved the design of many common farming tools including the common steel plow.
*** According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).