I love the night life, I’ve got to boogie

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I’ve mentioned it in passing.  I’ve alluded to it.  I’ve, um, danced all around it.  Now the time has come to give it its due, to address it head on.

Disco.

From roughly 1974 to 1980, nothing was more polarizing on the popular music scene than disco.  If dancing was your thing, disco was just about the greatest thing ever invented.  If not, well, “Disco Sucks,” as the t-shirts and bumper stickers said.

(Full disclosure:  I was and still am a rock ‘n roller and have little use for disco…except on those very rare occasions when I’m actually on a dance floor cutting a rug with a lovely lady.  I concede that certain great disco tracks bring back great memories and are fun to hear, but as a genre, well, it just isn’t for me.)

Love it or hate it – and there seemed to be almost no middle ground – disco brought about a mini-revolution, however brief, that affected a broad swath: The Top 40 charts (both albums and singles), the dating scene, fashion, recreational drug use, the perception of gay life, films, even exercise and health.

In many ways, disco music wasn’t all that revolutionary.  It naturally evolved from rhythm and blues, and Motown, and soul, and funk. It was music you could dance to.  It was music you HAD to dance to.  It was not music you sat around and listened to.

images-216Disco is actually an abbreviation for discotheque, a French term meaning “phonograph library.” In 1950s Paris, nightclubs began eliminating live bands and instead laid down dance floors, suspended colored lights, and replaced the jukebox with two turntables on which a deejay would continuously play pre-selected dance music with no breaks, keeping the clientele dancing all night long.  During the ’60s in major US cities, this concept morphed into New York clubs like The Peppermint Lounge, where go-go dancing was the hot new thing, and Arthur’s, generally regarded as the first and foremost discotheque in town.

By the early 1970s, when a majority of the rock ‘n roll generation seemed to prefer less danceable forms of music (hard rock, psychedelic blues, country rock, singer-songwriter acoustic rock), a burgeoning underground movement was born on backstreets in converted warehouses and lofts, where oppressed groups like gays, Blacks and Latinos could push the boundaries of what was acceptable on and off the dance floor.  Essentially, these discos were exciting escapes where fantasies, sexual and otherwise, could be explored away from public scrutiny.

images-214Most observers agree disco music entered the mainstream in 1973 or 1974, with songs like George MacRae’s “Rock Your Baby,” Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” Gloria Gaynor’s version of the Jackson 5 hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” and especially Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” a 16-minute, multi-part extravaganza that took dancers on an emotional groove ride.  Also key were two instrumental tracks that reached #1 in 1974: “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra and “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB, which served as the theme song for the hugely popular TV dance show “Soul Train.”

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So what exactly differentiated disco music from the early ’70s soul and funk practiced by The O’Jays, Curtis Mayfield, The Staples Singers and others?  The defining characteristic was over-the-top production with layers of lush strings and synthesizers, with heavy use of high-hat drums and a bass line so prominent it often served as the main melody.  Lead guitar, which ruled the roost in almost all hard rock tracks, was almost non-existent, replaced by chunky rhythm guitars and a horn section.  The final element was a soaring vocal with grand backing harmonies, singing repetitive lyrics usually focusing on dancing and romance.  And sex.

documenting-the-last-days-of-disco-1479396183The promise of sex went hand in hand with disco.  It always was either implied or blatantly stated, from KC and the Sunshine Band’s relentless chorus “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight” to the sensual grooves reinforcing the message in Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”:  “Move it in, move it out, shove it in, round about, disco lady…”

images-215Momentum continued to build in 1975 and 1976:  Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” and Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” and KC’s string of #1 hits (“Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way I Like It,” “Shake Your Booty”).  It wasn’t long before half of the Top Ten songs in KC_and_the_Sunshine_Band_album_coverthe nation each week were disco, written expressly for DJs to spin in the discos, which began sprouting up in more and more cities, giving city dwellers and suburbanites alike a compelling reason to dress up and go out on the town for an evening of nightlife.

The hits were endless:  “Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” The Commodores’ “Brick House,” Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Unknown-431Me This Way,” A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Glory Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Chic’s cringeworthy “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsa, Yowsa, Yowsa).”  Even soul music divas like Diana Ross were successfully crossing over with tracks like “Love Hangover” and “Upside Down.”

There were weird amalgams like Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” which put a disco spin on the structure of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  There were even novelty tracks like Rick Dees’ #1 hit “Disco Duck,” which crystallized the disco experience thusly:  “Went to a party the other night, all the ladies were treating me right, moving my feet to the disco beat, how in 9de9f042636307b45d03019bd6cb6fb7the world could I keep my seat…Everybody’s doing the disco duck…” 

Almost all of the major disco artists were Black, but white artists got in on the action as well.  We’ve already mentioned KC (Harry Kasey) and his band, and other monster hits like Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” and Abba’s “Dancing Queen” became major anthems as the multicolored disco balls spun above the crowded dance floors nationwide.

By 1977, there were 50,000 clubs in existence in the United States alone.  Ladies wrapped 39545.original-6336.gifthemselves in sexy flowing Halston dresses and high heels, and men donned wide-lapel leisure suits with open shirts revealing hairy chests and gold medallions…and coke spoons.   In addition to the casual sex that went on in and around the clubs, recreational drug use was rampant there as well, particularly cocaine, amyl nitrite and other designer drugs intending to provide the blasts of energy needed to keep on dancing.

New York City’s Studio 54 was the epicenter of disco at its most fashionable, if not most decadent.  Celebrities flocked the place and were ushered right in, while average folks lined up in their finest sexy threads in hopes of gaining entrance.  The dance floor was packed from dusk literally ’til dawn.  There were sex and drugs but no rock ‘n’ roll there — exclusively disco music, one song after the other.

The apex came in late 1977 with the release of the film “Saturday Night Fever.”  Its Unknown-429producers had read an article in New York Magazine about the disco scene occurring not only in Manhattan but Brooklyn and outlying areas as well.  The ultimately tragic tale of a kid who hated his job but fancied himself the king of the dance floor each Saturday night was little more than a vehicle for the hugely successful soundtrack album, which sold 25 million copies and included the Bee Gees hits that have defined the disco era ever since (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” “You Should Be Dancing”).  It’s interesting to note that the producers rush-released the movie because they had already spied “Disco Sucks” bumper stickers in LA and feared that disco’s peak had come and gone.

Indeed, even as disco continued its domination for another year or two, there was a simmering disenchantment in some circles with how thoroughly it seemed to have infiltrated popular radio and nudged aside mainstream rock.  When even The Rolling Stones felt compelled to try their hand at disco with dance-friendly tracks like “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue,” the disco-demolition-01-340865e0-b051-4fb0-8c66-9c5c3f483f21rockers grew desperate.  Finally, in July 1979, when a Chicago rock radio DJ lost his job when his station switched to an all-disco format, he organized a “Disco Demolition” promotion at Comiskey Park, ostensibly to boost tickets sales to a White Sox doubleheader.  Anyone with 98 cents and a disco record could gain admittance, and between games, the DJ detonated a huge pile of discarded disco LPs, sparking a near riot as 10,000 rock fans poured onto the field in celebration, resulting in a forfeit.

Although its proponents didn’t want to admit it, disco’s bubble had burst.  The proliferation of disco dance classes at the mall and at senior community centers was certainly a bad omen.  One of the final #1 hits of that period, ironically, was Donna Summer’s and Barbra Streisand’s duet, “Enough is Enough.”  By the end of 1980, the very word “disco” seemed to have been banished and replaced with “dance music” and techno.  Clubs were closing left and right, and popular music moved ahead with New Wave, ’80s pop, grunge and hip hop, and other genres, leaving disco to the time capsules and nostalgists.

Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees, who had been around for decades and offered a much broader repertoire than just disco, has said the trio grew tired of it and regretted being labeled as the genre’s poster boys.  “Our secret desire was to create a video with us Unknown-430dressed like Rambo, using machine guns to mow down the guy in the white suit on the colored dance floor.”

But perhaps not so surprisingly, the best music of that era has survived to the present day.  At just about every wedding reception or major gala event where dancing occurs, you’ll hear “YMCA” or “Celebration” or “Hot Stuff” or “Play That Funky Music White Boy.”

Disco has assumed its rightful place of honor among all the other dance-oriented music of the last century, from jitterbug and cha-cha to Big Band and swing, from roots rock to Motown, from funk to techno, from EDM to hip hop.

427dd104114f2e0e8f82df66feebd29dMany folks who were pre-teens, teens, or in college during the disco years have said they look back very fondly on that time.  “It was fun, it was exciting, we dressed up,” said my friend Kathy.  “It was kind of like a fantasy life for a few hours.  For most people I knew, we weren’t doing much drugs or having sex in the clubs. We were drinking and dancing to the music all night long.”

When I asked her if she liked disco music outside of the clubs, she said, “Sure I did.  If it came on the radio, I really didn’t want to just sit and listen to it, I had to get up and dance even if it was with just a couple of friends in my living room, or even by myself as I was getting dressed.  I have to admit if it came on the car radio, I would sometimes switch the channel because I didn’t want to hear it unless I could dance!”

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The Spotify playlist you’ll find here is nearly three hours of some of the classic disco tracks from that late ’70s era, perfect for any disco theme party.  You’ll never catch me playing it at my house (well, maybe a song or two), but for disco enthusiasts, have at it!

 

 

We’re captive on the carousel of time

As the books closed on The Sixties, I didn’t know that several of my favorite artists would be breaking up over the next twelve months.  The Beatles, especially, but also Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul & Mary.  But not to worry — new talent would soon dominate my horizon, gently grabbing me by the throat and forcing me to take notice.

images-1531970 was the year I learned an important truth about rock music.  Instead of staying in the same lineups year after year, many rock musicians enjoyed playing with different combinations of people.  Guitarists, keyboard players, singers and rhythm sections eagerly sought out opportunities to record with friends and strangers alike.  It was a benign free-for-all, and we all were the beneficiaries of the musical experimentation.    Everyone showed up as guests on each other’s records, a practice that became the norm still in vogue today.

In reviewing the list of more than 380 albums released 50 years ago this year, I was impressed by the diversity of genres and the number of new artists making their debut, from Emerson Lake & Palmer to Emitt Rhodes, from Jimmy Buffett to Black Sabbath.  From this unwieldy offering, I separated “the wheat from the chaff,” as David Crosby would say, and came up with about 25 albums that most inspired and influenced me.  The hard part was selecting the final dozen; most of my “honorable mentions” could easily have made the cut on someone else’s list.

I get criticized sometimes for listening to the music of long-ago decades instead of what’s more recent, but I can’t help it.  When it comes to music, I am a joyful captive on the carrousel of time, and I feel no need to apologize for it!

Immerse yourself in the selections from these albums.  Then go find the whole records and listen to them in their entirety.  Fifty years ago was such a grand year for music!

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Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon and Garfunkel

Unknown-245At the tender age of 13, my friend Ben and I had dreams of becoming the next Simon and Garfunkel, playing guitars and harmonizing our way through a repertoire of folk and acoustic rock.  We learned virtually the entire S&G catalog, from early rudimentary works like “April Come She Will” through more sophisticated tracks like “America.”  When “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came out in the first weeks of 1970, it was almost overwhelming to us how awesome the songs were, especially the iconic title tune, carried, for the first time on an S&G track, by piano.  Unable to do it justice on guitars, we focused instead on “The Boxer,” released nine months earlier as a hit single.  Just as special to me was “The Only Living Boy in New York,” followed by “Song for the Asking” and “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright.”  It was obvious that Simon was blossoming as a songwriter, toying with rock beats (“Baby Driver,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied”), South American rhythms (“El Condor Pasa”) and even impromptu drumming on a piano bench (“Cecilia”).  The album won multiple Grammys and sold more than 25 million copies.

“Moondance,” Van Morrison

Unknown-246Full confession:  For much of the ’70s, my knowledge and appreciation of Van the Man’s music was limited to his ubiquitous 1967 single “Brown-Eyed Girl.”  I wasn’t hip to this excellent LP until many years after its release.  My loss.  He was as important a part of the singer-songwriter movement as others whose work was far more successful commercially.  Morrison largely abandoned the folk-jazz explorations of 1968’s “Astral Weeks” for the R&B/folk rock he would prefer for most of his career from then on.  “Two horns and a rhythm section — that’s the kind of backing I like best,” he said in 1972.  Side One of “Moondance” in particular (the first five songs) ranks right up there as one of the best album sides of the year — “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic” all ended up as FM radio staples for years to come, carried by Morrison’s delicious growl.

“Deja Vu,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Unknown-247If ever an album deserved to be fleshed out into a double album, this is it.  The “Crosby, Stills and Nash” album had demonstrated the songwriting prowess of all three musicians, and now they’re going to add Neil Young to the mix?  Two songs apiece from these four gents was simply not enough, not when their egos were always working overtime, and that in large part was why they broke up only three months after “Deja Vu”‘s release.  Too bad some of the songs that ended up on each of their solo debuts (“Southern Man,” “Love the One You’re With,” “I Used to be a King,” “Cowboy Movie”) didn’t show up here instead.  But what a collection of 10 classic folk rock songs, covering so many moods and emotions:  contentment (“Our House”), anger (“Almost Cut My Hair”), pathos (“Helpless”), searching (“Carry On”), mystery (“Deja Vu”), despair (“4+20”), unconditional love (“Teach Your Children”).  And to top it off, the foursome concocted a brilliantly ferocious rendition of Joni Mitchell’s spooky “Woodstock.”

“Elton John,” Elton John

Unknown-253This gorgeous album was released in April 1970 but I didn’t acquire it until I received it at Christmas.  It was the beginning of a three year love affair, when I embraced every album he released up through “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in September 1973.  But this American debut (he’d released an earlier one, “Empty Sky,” in the UK only) is still my favorite of all his work.  “Your Song,” of course, was what first drew me in, but there’s so much more here.  Bernie Taupin’s thought-provoking lyrical imagery on “First Episode at Hienton” and “The King Must Die,” Paul Buckmaster’s string arrangements on “Sixty Years On” and “The Greatest Discovery,” the full band arrangements on “Take Me to the Pilot” and “The Cage,” the gospel vocals on “Border Song,” even the jaunty country beat of “No Shoestrings on Louise.”  Most of all, I was captivated by Elton’s vocal acrobatics throughout the album.

“Ladies of the Canyon,” Joni Mitchell

Unknown-249Thanks to “Big Yellow Taxi,” Mitchell’s perky protest against paving paradise, I gambled my hard-earned $3.99 and bought “Ladies of the Canyon” upon its release, hoping there might be a couple more tunes to my liking.  What sheer delight to find a dozen brilliant songs, comprising a truly breakthrough album for the Canadian songstress.  I went on to buy every LP Joni ever released, and I place her at the very top of my list of favorite songwriters and artists.  “Morning Morgantown” remains one of the prettiest songs in her catalog, and “For Free” is pure lyrical genius, describing her feelings as a professional musician hearing a talented street performer playing for spare change.  “Willy” is a tribute to her then-lover Graham William Nash, and “Rainy Night House” describes a night with her dear friend Leonard Cohen.  “The Circle Game,” written when she was just 23, is a coming-of-age tale that had been covered by Tom Rush.  Finally, there’s her original arrangement of “Woodstock,” which still brings chills.

“Sweet Baby James,” James Taylor

R-7254128-1559296274-4995.jpegThis nearly perfect album arrived as I was learning to play guitar, and it became my close companion for many months, and for the rest of my life as well.  Taylor’s voice and mine shared the same range, and his songs were relatively easy to learn (even if I couldn’t match his often intricate guitar work).  And what compelling songs they were, full of heart-on-his-sleeve confessional lyrics and irresistible melodies.  “Fire and Rain” got all the airplay, reaching #3 on the charts, and “Country Road” turned into my signature song.  “Blossom,” “Sunny Skies,” “Anywhere Like Heaven” and the title tune (which Taylor refers to as “a cowboy lullaby”) established him as one of the emotional centers of the laid-back music scene.  But he had muscle, too — the kick-ass blues track “Steamroller” and the full-band closer “Suite for 20G” presaged the kind of records he would make a few years later.

“Benefit,” Jethro Tull

Unknown-255In June 1970, I wasn’t yet the Tull fanatic I would become once “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick” came out, but I’d been sufficiently intrigued with the group once I heard a local band offer their rendition of “Teacher.”  I took the plunge on “Benefit,” and was flabbergasted at the ingenious combination of excellent hard rock and delicate acoustic guitar, woven together by Ian Anderson’s distinctive vocals and haunting flute.  Electric guitarist Martin Barre fully established himself on this LP, particularly on “To Cry You a Song,” “Son” and the raucous “Play in Time.”  Anderson now dismisses many of his lyrics on this album as “immature and embarrassing,” but I beg to differ.  “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me” tells what it must have been like to be the Apollo astronaut who remained in the space capsule while his pals were walking on the Moon; and “Inside” and “With You There to Help Me” emphasize the importance of companionship.  “Benefit” captures Jethro Tull on the rise.  If you missed it, check it out.

“John Barleycorn Must Die,” Traffic

R-945992-1360360248-7016.jpegI must confess again that I was late to the party when it comes to Traffic, the creative British folk-jazz-rock group steered by the great Steve Winwood.  Their first two records went under my radar, so my introduction to Winwood came on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the acoustic gem he contributed to the “Blind Faith” LP in 1969 during a lull in Traffic’s career arc.  In fact, Winwood’s next move was intended to be his first solo album, but he found himself missing the accompanying musicians he’d grown accustomed to, so he invited Traffic compadres Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to the studio, and it became “John Barleycorn Must Die,” Traffic’s splendid third album.  The infectious piano riff on the opening instrumental track “Glad,” the undeniable baritone sax lick on “Freedom Rider,” Winwood’s plaintive vocals on the line “Staring at the empty pages” — all these elements and more combine to make a delicious stew of jazz and rock and traditional English folk I feasted on throughout the summer and fall that year.

“Tea For the Tillerman,” Cat Stevens

imagesBorn in London to parents of Greek and Swedish extraction, Steven Demetre Georgiou showed great promise as both a painter and musician at a young age.  At 21, he contracted a case of tuberculosis that almost killed him, but his convalescence in the hospital surrounded by people dying gave him a new perspective on life and spirituality.  Cat wrote more than 40 songs, most of which became the material that appeared on “Tea for the Tillerman” and its 1971 follow-up, “Teaser and the Firecat.”  Both LPs are terrific, but I prefer “Tillerman” because the songs resonate with me more.  “Father and Son” is musical perfection as a dialog hampered by disagreement, and in “Wild World,” which reached #11 on the US singles chart, Stevens tenderly warns his departing lady about the pitfalls and challenges ahead.  “On the Road to Find Out” covers similar territory, and “Where Do the Children Play” bemoans the industrialization of the environment.  Stevens sings these wonderful tunes in a distinctive voice that alternates effectively between ethereal and forceful.

“Blows Against the Empire,” Paul Kantner

Unknown-254I’m betting very few of my readers are hip to this compelling album.  I wasn’t introduced to it until four years later in a college dorm, with the aid of cannabis, as the artist no doubt intended.  As one of the three principal players in Jefferson Airplane, Kantner brought earnest vocals and rhythm guitar, but mostly he brought songs of fantasy and rebellion.  When the Airplane took a break in early 1970, Kantner gathered his many California kindred spirits and put together an extraordinary sci-fi concept album about hijacking an interstellar starship to abandon Earth and head in search of new life in distant galaxies.  A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but there are some stunning songs and performances here.  “Let’s Go Together” is a joyous tune of shared community and purpose, with Grace Slick’s soaring vocals in full control;  “A Child is Coming” celebrates new life, featuring a duet between David Crosby and Kantner ; “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” again feature Crosby on vocals and 12-string guitar; and “Starship” is the glorious finale.  Don’t miss Jerry Garcia’s contributions on banjo and pedal steel guitar.

“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” Derek and The Dominos

images-150It’s hard to imagine now, but this titanic double album of quintessential blues rock was neither a critical nor a commercial success upon release in November 1970.  Since the breakup of Cream in late 1968, Eric Clapton had wanted to shun the limelight, working with Delaney & Bonnie and company as just a session guy.  He used these same musicians on his debut solo LP in spring 1970, then continued with them throughout the summer, eventually convening in Miami to record the songs he’d been writing with keyboardist Bobby Whitlock.  As they recorded in Miami that summer, the great Duane Allman happened to be in town for a gig, so Clapton attended the show and then invited Allman to sit in on the sessions.  The resulting chemistry between the two guitar virtuosos made for some of the finest recordings in Clapton’s storied career, notably “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” “Key to the Highway,” and of course the iconic title song.  It’s interesting to note that “Layla” the single wasn’t a chart success until August 1972 when it reached #10 upon re-release.

“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison

Unknown-2511970 brought us five new albums from the Fab Four:  The final Beatles album (the underwhelming “Let It Be”); two bare-bones solo debuts from the two halves of rock’s greatest songwriting team (“McCartney” and “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”); Ringo’s mostly forgettable collection of standards (“Sentimental Journey”); and by far the best of the bunch, George’s sprawling triple album “All Things Must Pass.”  Released just in time for Christmas and announced via the stunning international #1 hit “My Sweet Lord,” this album offered a cornucopia of marvelous songs, from “What Is Life” to “Isn’t It a Pity,” from “Let It Roll” to “Awaiting on You All,” from “I’d Have You Anytime” to “Wah-Wah.”  It was recorded by “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector with the help of a dozen musical pals like Ringo, Eric Clapton, Gary Wright, Billy Preston, Dave Mason and members of Badfinger and Derek and the Dominos.  Clearly, George had been stockpiling great tunes during the final Beatles years, and they all came spilling out to us here.

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It pained me to consign some of these superb albums to “honorable mention” status (particularly “After the Gold Rush” and “Tumbleweed Connection,”), but hey, I had to draw the line somewhere…

After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young;  “Woodstock original soundtrack“;  “Alone Together,” Dave Mason;  “Tumbleweed Connection,” Elton John;  “Chicago II,” Chicago;  “A Question of Balance,” The Moody Blues;  “Led Zeppelin III,” Led Zeppelin;  “Sit Down Young Stranger,” Gordon Lightfoot;  “John B. Sebastian,” John Sebastian;  “American Beauty,” The Grateful Dead;  “Eric Clapton,” Eric Clapton;  “Abraxas,” Santana;  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Joe Cocker & Leon Russell;  “Let It Be,” The Beatles;  “Black Sabbath,” Black Sabbath.

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The Spotify playlist offers three tracks from each album selection, and one track each from the honorable mention group, thereby giving a pretty solid representation of 1970’s best music.

 

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