Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Was pop in crisis in 1976?

As so far I've cherry picked what I actually write about from 1976, I thought it might be interesting to consider what a typical Top 40 for the year looked like. Which genres predominated? How much of it was actually any good? 

This was partly inspired by coming across a 2011 article by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian damning the music of 1976 as 'pop's worst year' based on watching the Top Of The Pops archives.

"it's difficult to express how awful [...] pop music seems to have been in 1976. Every week, something comes on that causes you to be gripped by the absolute certainty that an unequivocal nadir has been reached and that things can only get better."

Is this fair? Was pop in crisis in '76?

To begin to test this, let's take 11-17 April 1976, when the top 10 was as follows:

1. Brotherhood Of Man - Save Your Kisses For Me
2. Abba - Fernando
3. John Miles - Music
4. Barry White - The Trouble With Me
5. Hank Mizell - Jungle Rock
6. 10cc - I'm Mandy Fly Me
7. Diana Ross - Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)
8. The Bay City Rollers - Love Me Like I Love You
9. Sailor - Girls Girls Girls
10. Elton John - Pinball Wizard

So, according to my own idiosyncratic understanding of genre, that's:

- MOR/pure pop - 4
- Prog-pop - 2
- Funk/soul - 1
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1 
- Vaudeville atrocity (you know who you are)- 1

And in descending order of quality:

- Pinball Wizards - 1
- Barry Whites - 1
- Music from the future and from the past? Why, Mr Miles! - 1 
- [tipping point for quality starts here]
- Good bands having a bad day - 2
- Hurry up and work with Chic already - 1
- MOR purgatory - 2
- What-is-this-I-can't-even? - 2

A Top Ten in which the best thing in it by a country mile is a song from 1969 redone for a Ken Russell's film does tend to support the Petridis Theory, it's true. And any week in which the chart is topped by Save Your Kisses For Me is in itself is a self-contained argument for punk.

But let's see how this plays out over the Top 40 as a whole:

- MOR/pure pop -13
- Funk/soul/disco - 11
- Beatles reissues - 6
- Prog-pop - 3
- Country/country rock - 2
- Glam rock - 1
- Keith Emerson playing ragtime piano, because hey, why not! - 1    
- Novelty rockabilly - 1
- Other 60's reissues - 1
- Rock opera showtune - 1
- Vaudeville atrocity - 1 

While this week is something of a high watermark for nostalgia in 1976, EMI having just reissued all 22 Beatles singles, pretty much any given week that year sees golden oldies charting. And it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the health of the charts when the past is more essential than the present.

However, the big shift when looking at the Top 40, and this is pretty much consistent in my journey through the year so far, is the increase in soul, funk and disco tracks.

And if I look at what's good (for reasonably broad but subjective values of 'good') in the entire chart, I find an interesting correlation.

- Disco Connection - Isaac Hayes
- S-S-S-Single Bed - Fox
- Love Really Hurts Without You - Billy Ocean
- Movin' - Brass Construction
- Silver Connection - Get Up And Boogie
- All By Myself - Eric Carmen (yes, that All By Myself)
- I Love To Love - Tina Charles
- That's Where The Happy People Go - The Trammps

Heck, even Convoy, if I'm feeling generous.

The key point here is that the overwhelming majority of the good stuff in this particular chart is either contemporary American funk and disco music or local iterations of the same (the mighty Billy Ocean and Tina Charles) or otherwise heavily endebted to it (Fox). While I haven't gone back for rigorous checks, I'll maintain that this holds broadly true across all the 1976 Top 40's I've looked at so far. And to be fair to Petridis, this is also a point he near-as-darn-it makes in his article too.

Viewed in this light, talk of pop crisis in '76 needs to be more nuanced. Yes, there's a fair amount of middling to terrible light entertainment and MOR to work through, which not even Abba can balance that out. And it's true that decent rock '45's not from the 1960's are thin on the ground; punk and new wave can't come soon enough to change that.  

So it's a crisis of place (the UK) and a crisis of sub-genre, perhaps, but not one of pop itself.

1 comment:

  1. Just noting here that there is an exhaustive Wikipedia article for Eurovision 1976, which was of course won by UK entry Save Your Kisses For Me from the Brotherhood Of Man.