It’s time again for a search through some of the great LPs of the Seventies and Eighties for those long-forgotten album tracks that are well worth digging up and brought back into the light.
Many in my generation will recall these songs because they owned or were familiar with the albums they came from, but younger generations have likely had no exposure to these 12 tunes because the radio stations wouldn’t dream of playing them these days.
I like to think I perform a public service by reminding my readers how much great music has been made in the last half-century. It’s always been there, bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting to be picked up by our radar.
I hope you agree that these lost classics from the 1970s and 1980s, with an emphasis on songs from the progressive rock genre, are worthy of your attention, and I hope you enjoy them.
“China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider (live),” Grateful Dead, 1972
No band enjoyed as loyal a following as The Grateful Dead did. Thousands of “Deadheads” were known to hit the road and follow the band on tour, attending many dozens of shows, year after year. Truth be told, The Dead’s performances were erratic, due in large part to the group’s voracious appetite for psychedelics, and their studio LPs, for the most part, were ho-hum affairs which failed to capture the band’s music at its best. For that, you needed to turn to the best of their live albums, particularly the magnificent “Europe ’72” three-LP package. The 13-minute version of “Truckin'” is pretty great, but I’m partial to the two-song combo of the Dead original “China Cat Sunflower” with the traditional blues tune “I Know You Rider.” It may be the finest track(s) the band ever put down on vinyl.
“A Gallon of Gas,” The Kinks, 1979
After several years of concept albums with lyrics recalling simpler times, The Kinks switched directions (and record labels) and started writing straight-ahead rock and roll with lyrics addressing contemporary issues like inflation, labor strife and the gasoline crisis. On 1979’s “Low Budget,” the best of these is “A Gallon of Gas,” a slow-tempo, hard-rocking track which pointed out how, in some cities, it was easier to get drugs than gasoline. “Low Budget,” which included the minor hit “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” turned out to be their best-charting LP ever in the US, peaking at #11. It began a nice run of Top 20 albums in the early ’80s — “Give the People What They Want,” “State of Confusion,” “Word of Mouth” and a so-so live album, “One For the Road” — that kept the band viable and playing to arena-sized crowds for a while longer.
“The Cage,” Elton John, 1970
From the very beginning, Elton John’s music has been a cross between melodic ballads and rollicking piano rockers. Even his mostly ignored first album, 1969’s “Empty Sky,” offered both genres. “Elton John,” the self-titled LP that Americans thought was his debut, included the iconic debut single “Your Song,” one of his very prettiest songs, and other strings-laden ballads like “Sixty Years On,” “The Greatest Discovery” and “First Episode at Hienton.” But just as interesting were the tracks that leaned more toward the kind of swampy rhythm-and-blues his idol Leon Russell was famous for — “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Border Song” and the lost classic “The Cage.” A rowdy arrangement of drums, bass, guitars and synthesizer complement Elton and his vocals on “The Cage,” hinting at what was still to come on his next several albums.
“It Can Happen,” Yes, 1983
When keyboard player Rick Wakeman and especially singer Jon Anderson left Yes in 1979, I thought that would be the end of one of the best of Britain’s progressive rock bands. Instead, veterans Chris Squire and Steve Howe regrouped with a couple of ex-Buggles and kept the Yes ship afloat for another few years until Anderson, whose brilliant, high voice was crucial to the band’s identity, was eventually coaxed back into the fold. Led by the enormously commercial #1 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the album “90125” became a #1 album as well. Longtime Yes fans, at first skeptical, found a number of tracks that harkened back to the glory years, majestic tunes like “Changes,” “Leave It” and particularly “It Can Happen.”
“My God,” Jethro Tull, 1971
When rock music reviewers labeled Tull’s “Aqualung” as a concept album, Ian Anderson protested, saying, “There were a couple of songs that commented on organized religion, but most of the album had nothing to do with that.” The songs that took religious traditions to task were “Wind Up” — which criticized once-a-week churchgoers with the line, “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” — and the magnificent “My God,” a haunting piece that again taunts the hypocrisy and shallowness of many worshippers in the churches of 1971. “My God” boasts a rather harrowing melody line, first on acoustic guitar, then with full electric band accompaniment and some of Anderson’s finest flute playing ever. I would put this track in the Top 10 best Tull songs, out of a repertoire of 225 originals.
“Daughters of the Sea,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974
From the early Tom Johnston singles (“China Grove,” “Listen to the Music”) to the later Michael McDonald hits (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes”), The Doobies were always an accomplished band of stellar musicians who offered tight performances both in concert and on record. Throughout their initial run (1972-1982), one of the group’s constants was guitarist/vocalist Pat Simmons, whose quality songs added so much to the band’s presence. “Black Water” was his best known tune, but so many others made the list of The Doobies’ finest tracks: “Clear as the Driven Snow,” “I Cheat the Hangman,” “Toulouse Street,” “Echoes of Love,” “South City Midnight Lady.” Let’s not forget the dreamy “Daughters of the Sea,” a Simmons highlight from their 1974 LP “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.”
“Street Life,” Roxy Music, 1973
The eclectic, eccentric music of Roxy Music was ahead of its time, and not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, I didn’t care for it at all when I was first exposed to it, but I found that it has grown on me over the years. Singer Bryan Ferry’s affected vocals certainly take some getting used to, and the unusual textures and alternately smooth and strident instrumentation Roxy Music utilized made for a broad palette of ideas and concepts. Andy Mackay’s sax, Eddie Jobson’s synthesizers and Phil Manzanera’s guitar combined so well on a track like “Street Life,” which was a Top Ten single in the UK but ignored here in the US, as was its album, 1973’s “Stranded.” In fact, their music never did well on the US charts but found a loyal audience that Ferry has enjoyed during his solo career since the band broke up in 1983.
“Rocket Love,” Stevie Wonder, 1980
When you mention the 1970s, usually The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are named as the dominant acts, but I think you can make a strong case for Stevie Wonder being every bit as influential. The man won three Album of the Year Grammys in four years and charted numerous hit singles, not to mention the trail of imitators who came along in his wake. His 1980 LP “Hotter Than July” reached #3 and featured the Bob Marley-inspired reggae rave-up “Master Blaster” and the country-tinged hit “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It.” I’ve always been partial to the deep track “Rocket Love,” which focuses on the romantic turmoil of a couple who curiously experience extreme highs and lows: “You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star, but at a half a mile from heaven, you dropped me back down to this cold, cold world…”
“The Same Old Sun,” The Alan Parsons Project, 1984
After six Top 20 albums on the US charts — “I Robot” (1977), “Pyramid” (1978), “Eve” (1979, “The Turn of a Friendly Card” (1980), “Eye in the Sky” (1982) and “Ammonia Avenue” (1984) — The Alan Parsons Project began falling out of favor with US audiences, who had always been more receptive to their music than fans in their native England. Their 1984 LP “Vulture Culture,” which had been intended as the second half of a double album with “Ammonia Avenue,” fell off the charts pretty quickly, managing only #46, with no hit singles. There were some great tracks on there, though, including “Days Are Numbers,” “Sooner or Later” and the album’s grand closer, “The Same Old Sun,” which starts quietly before building to a dramatic conclusion. Eric Woolfson’s vocals and David Paton’s guitar solo are particularly strong.
“Squonk” (live), Genesis, 1977
I admit I was late to the party when it comes to the music of Genesis, whose albums date back to 1969. I never really paid attention until their 1976 LP “A Trick of the Tail,” which was coincidentally their first after the departure of frontman/lyricist/vocalist Peter Gabriel. The group carried on admirably, with drummer Phil Collins stepping up and sounding uncannily like Gabriel on most tracks. Keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarists Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett wrote the eight amazing songs that comprise “A Trick of the Tail,” and four of them — “Dance on a Volcano,” “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” “Los Endos” and “Squonk” — appeared as in-concert versions on the double live album “Seconds Out,” released in 1977. I actually prefer the live take of “Squonk” to the studio rendition.
“Darkness,” The Police, 1981
By 1981, the reggae-punk rock oeuvre that marked The Police’s first three albums had evolved into a different style that made liberal use of keyboards, synthesizers and even horns. On their “Ghost in the Machine” LP, the hit singles “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Spirits in the Material World” sound far removed from the band’s earlier work, except for Sting’s mesmerizing vocals. Buried late in the segue of songs is “Darkness,” a dreamy piece written by drummer Stewart Copeland. It offers lyrics that touch on the dichotomy of light and dark, and how darkness can be a blessing when light brings the pain of reality into focus: “I wish I never woke up this morning, life was easy when it was boring…”
“Scared,” John Lennon, 1974
In 1980, when Lennon sat for a lengthy interview for the first time in years and talked about all his past music, he praised the relatively unknown “Scared” as one of his favorites, and the best track on his 1974 LP “Walls and Bridges.” He was in his period of estrangement, living and recording in L.A. many thousands of miles from Yoko, and although he was capable of churning out commercial hit singles like “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” many of the songs he was writing dug much deeper, exposing and reflecting on his flaws and fears. “Scared” deftly utilizes a few spooky wolf howls and a dirge-like pace to set the tone for lyrics about regretting past behavior and not wanting to be alone anymore. Within a few months of this album’s release, John and Yoko reunited, and a happy John took a break from the business to raise his baby boy Sean.