Updated: Feb 17
Say what you will about Richard MILHOUS Nixon… his Watergate-shortened Presidency coincided with the greatest pop/rock music E-V-E-R!
* * * * * * *
Before attempting to objectively classify the various eras of pop music into “This is great!” vs. “This sucks!” categories, we need to get an important point out on The Table. As your Grumpy Old Mansplainer-in-Residence, it will surely come as no surprise to all around The Table that I think today’s pop “music” is absolutely horrible. However, to be fair, every generation pretty much feels the same about their teenage childrens’ playlists, and I think I know the reason for this– the popular music that accompanies our physiological transitions from child to adult (and its concomitant flow of unfamiliar hormones) becomes permanently embedded in our brains as a soundtrack to our sexualization. And so, whether you lost your innocence to Beethoven, Black Sabbath, or Beyoncé, the Pavlovian associations between brain and body thus established follow the same neural pathway and generate the same reaction… and therefore our music will always seem better to us than does that of our children. That being said, today’s pop/rock really, REALLY sucks, and science can even prove it.
So, now that we got that out of the way…
I drive hundreds of miles on weekends, and I am thankful to have XM satellite radio to amuse myself while doing so. And as much as I like to keep abreast of football and politics, one of my regular must-hear shows is a weekly flashback to American Top 40’s list for the present week, only back in nineteen seventy-something. I pay particular attention to the first half of the Me Decade, for the music from those years was not only fantastic but also quite diverse in origin and genre, brilliantly crafted, and performed by genuinely talented musicians. In other words, it’s nothing like the unlistenable sewage spilling from our radios today. And although it can only be purely coincidental, I cannot avoid observing that the richest, most fabulous era of pop/rock music aligns almost exactly with not only my early teens but also the ill-fated Presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon, POTUS #37.
To avoid triggering an avalanche of bitter Nixon memories completely unrelated to music, we hereby dub this continuum of fabulous music from 1969 to 1974 THE MILHOUS ERA. (I'm guessing that very few people will recognize his unusual middle name.)
* * * * * * *
In January 1969, a year and a half after San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and half a decade beyond America’s mass entry into the Vietnam conflict, President-Elect Nixon was sworn into office just as planning for the momentous Woodstock Festival got underway. The mega-concert that transpired later that year– in Bethel, NY, a good hundred miles from the actual town of Woodstock– was arguably a de facto coming-of-age party for rock-n-roll itself– the music invented by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, et. al., codified by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et. al., and then creatively taken to new heights and in fresh new directions by their disciples and imitators. We couldn’t tell at the time, but rock-n-roll permanently changed at the Woodstock Festival, not only solidifying as a mature art form but also graduating into more of a real business as concert promoters observed 400,000 rain-soaked souls watching the series of acts for three days. What self-respecting capitalist wouldn’t greedily ponder the untapped economic potential of what would soon become known as stadium rock?
Fast forward to June of 1974. The Nixon Administration was dying from its festering Watergate wounds, and popular music was similarly circling the drain… having momentarily lost its way, perhaps, after so many years of protesting a war that had finally ended. Among the unbearable schlock on the radio that summer (“Billy, Don’t be a Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died,” Wildwood Weed,” “Having My Baby,” and so on) there was one particular hit with a noticeably different, easily danceable (4/4) beat. “Rock the Boat” had languished on the charts for several weeks before its popularity in underground Manhattan dance clubs finally drove it to the very top of the Billboard Hot 100… thereby giving birth, as per many musicologists, to the cultural phenomenon known as disco– the musical equivalent of one of those polyester leisure suits, i.e., something that seemed cool and fun at the time but now a little silly in retrospect.
But between Woodstock and the onset of disco… oh, the musical treasures we enjoyed during that span! Consider the sheer volume of pop/rock groups and solo acts whose arrival and/or finest years largely overlapped with The Milhous Era– Bread; Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Neil Young, The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy, Elton John, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, John Denver, The Guess Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones (Mick Taylor Era), The Jackson Five, The Osmond Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, The Eagles; Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, Badfinger, the original (Peter Gabriel) iteration of Genesis… and, of course, former Beatles John, Paul, George, & Ringo.
Here is a similarly incomplete sampling of the era’s greatest albums– an even dozen from each year, in no particular order:
The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground)
Nashville Skyline (Bob Dylan)
Tommy (The Who)
Stand! (Sly & The Family Stone)
Abbey Road (The Beatles)
In the Court of the Crimson King (King Crimson)
Led Zeppelin II (Led Zeppelin)
Let It Bleed (Rolling Stones)
Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago)
Johnny Cash at San Quentin (Johnny Cash)
The Band (The Band)
First Take (Roberta Flack)
Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek & the Dominoes, a.k.a. Clapton)
Sex Machine (James Brown)
Sweet baby James (James Taylor)
Déjà Vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young)
Loaded (Velvet Underground)
All Things Must Pass (George Harrison)
Ladies of the Canyon (Joni Mitchell)
Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
After the Gold Rush (Neil Young)
Close to You (Carpenters)
American Beauty (Grateful Dead)
1971 (My Single Favorite Year in Music)
L. A. Woman (Doors)
Imagine (John Lennon)
Aqualung (Jethro Tull)
Hunky Dory (David Bowie)
Tapestry (Carol King)
Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones)
Led Zeppelin IV (Led Zeppelin)
Who’s Next (The Who)
Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart)
John Prine (John Prine)
The Silver-Tongued Devil & I (Kris Kristopherson)
Honky Chateau (Elton John)
Seventh Sojourn (Moody Blues)
Transformer (Lou Reed)
Young, Gifted, and Black (Aretha Franklin)
Can’t Buy a Thrill (Steely Dan)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Superfly (Curtis Mayfield)
Harvest (Neil Young)
Exile on Main St. (Rolling Stones)
No Secrets (Carly Simon)
Bare Trees (Fleetwood Mac)
Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd)
New York Dolls (New York Dolls)
Greetings from Asbury Park (Bruce Springsteen)
Abandoned Luncheonette (Hall & Oates)
Piano Man (Billy Joel)
Birds of Fire (Mahavishnu Orchestra)
Band On The Run (Paul McCartney & Wings)
Sextant (Herbie Hancock)
Let’s Get it On (Marvin Gaye)
L’Apocalypse Des Animaux (Vangelis)
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Genesis)
Sheer Heart Attack (Queen)
Here Come the Warm Jets (Brian Eno)
Eldorado (Electric Light Orchestra)
461 Ocean Boulevard (Eric Clapton)
Late For The Sky (Jackson Browne)
Bad Company (Bad Company)
On The Border (Eagles)
Crime Of The Century (Supertramp)
Walls And Bridges (John Lennon)
And then there are all those fabulous movie themes–
The Godfather (Nino Rota, 1972); Shaft (Isaac Hayes, 1971); The Exorcist (“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, 1973); The Sting (“The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, 1902 and adapted by Marvin Hamisch, 1973); The Way We Were (Barbra Streisand, 1973); Midnight Cowboy (John Barry, 1969); and Love Story (Francis Lai, 1970).
Some Intriguing Singles That Didn’t Age As Well As They Should Have–
Surf’s Up (Beach Boys, 1971) The apex of Brian Wilson’s genius, and my favorite pop/rock song ever. Changes (Black Sabbath, 1972) Yes, Ozzie could really sing. You and Me (Moody Blues, 1972) The peak of the MB’s “classic period” with their signature mellotrons in full pipe. Why Me, Lord? (Kris Kristofferson, 1973) KK wrote many great songs for others; this was his biggest hit. Desiderada (Les Crane, 1971) Based on a poem from 1921, this spoken word piece foreshadowed New Age sensibilities that would go way more mainstream in the ensuing decade.
Some Priceless Concert Footage–
Beginnings (Chicago) Tanglewood, 1970. This was the beginning, all right… That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be (Carly Simon) Might Garfunkel & Harrison be comparing their respective Pauls? Baby Blue (Badfinger) Simple brilliance from the “Baby Beatles.” Starman (David Bowie)– the infamous “Three Minutes That Shook Britain.” In the Court of the Crimson King (King Crimson) the very God-head of prog-rock in all its magnificent, pretentious glory. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Elton John, 1972) My favorite EJ song from my favorite EJ album.
Whether or not I’ve come close to proving anything like an actual point, I think it’s obvious that anyone who considers today’s pop music to be anywhere nearly as good as the titles listed above is either insane or deaf… just my personal opinion. These lists are by no means intended to be comprehensive, which goes to the whole point of this essay– the enjoyment of music is (mostly) subjective. Suggestions and discussion are most welcome; please keep it positive. We are genuinely interested in what music from this era touched you deeply.
* * * * * * *
If you enjoy musicological deep dives into your favorite pop/rock songs and the artists behind them, I have two YouTube regulars for you to check out– Everything Music with Rick Beato, and the Professor of Rock, a.k.a., Adam Reader. I’ve learned a lot from these two gents.