As Part 2 of my “Birthday Retrospective,” leading up to my 40th birthday, I’d like to take a look back at the music which shaped my childhood — which of course took place in the 1970s.
Music was a big part of my childhood. It was ever-present, in the stereo in the living room, with its 8-Track player that we used constantly, and in my room with my own records. I lived through the singer-songwriter era, and the disco era. My mom clued me into artists such as Carpenters, ABBA, Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and countless others. If the 8-Track or the record player weren’t playing, the radio was. And I was singing along the whole time.
Anyone who has visited my blog over the 5 years I’ve kept it up knows that I have a special love for 70s music. So here is a list of some of my most favorite artists and the songs I remember best from my growing-up period: the 1970s. (NOTE: Many of these links, due to copyright restrictions, will take you to YouTube to view the content.)
By far, the Carpenters shaped my life the most, musically. They were a part of my earliest childhood, singing along with them to the “Singles” 8-Track constantly. I memorized the words to their songs just as quickly as “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Hickory Dickory Dock.” They’re ingrained into my fabric. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
To pick just one or two significant Carpenters songs is like trying to pick a speck of dust out of a pile of salt. There are so many that mean so much to me. But I did narrow it down to two.
Written by Joe Raposo, writer of so many wonderful Sesame Street and Electric Company songs, this song probably means the most to me because it has, over the years, shaped my feeling about music, and has stayed with me ever since: Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing… sing a song. What a profound statement.
Top of the World
Just like “Sing,” this Richard Carpenter/Jon Bettis classic quickly became my favorite, and even at the young age of a 3, I would sing it up and down the halls of my parents’ home. I called it “I Can Find” at the time, from the line “And the only explanation I can find….” in the chorus. I guess that one phrase stuck with me the most. In any case, “Top of the World” still remains a favorite, and every so often I listen to that recording me at 3 years of age, singing along with my Mom.
2. Barry Manilow
Before Serial Mom killed one of her victims while playing “Daybreak” on her car stereo’s tape player (one of my favorite scenes, I must admit), this song reminded me of summers in the 70s, with Barry Manilow playing and my sister and I messing up my mother’s living room with Little People sets all over the place.
Another favorite– again, trying to pick just one or two Barry Manilow songs proved difficult. All of the classic 70s tunes were part of the soundtrack of my childhood; but this one always stuck with me as a favorite. Even though he didn’t write it himself. (It was actually written and recorded by a singer named Scott English in 1971, and it was originally titled “Brandy.” The song’s name was changed when Manilow recorded it because another song named “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” was popular at the time. These days, that notion seems ridiculous.
Oh Dancing Queen, what a long history you and I have. You’d think it was the whole “gay” subtext that makes this one appropriate for my list, but you’d be wrong. It actually goes back as far as when the song itself actually first came out. My mom loved ABBA and had just about as many of their 8-Tracks as the Carpenters, and we played them just about as often. My most vivid memory of “Dancing Queen,” though, is that it always seemed to play on the radio while my mom was carting my sister and I to the KYF (which was more or less the YMCA in Kenosha) for swimming lessons. We’d both be miserable, dreading going to our lessons; but then ABBA would come on and we’d sing along with “Dancing Queen,” and everything seemed to be okay from there on out. So I guess a song can have multiple meanings to a person over the years.
The Name of the Game
I don’t know what it is about this song, but it’s always been one of my favorite ABBA tunes. I like the story behind it, the melody, the bassline, and even the video.
Interestingly, about this video, I remember seeing it on TV in the 1970s, probably on a “Midnight Special” show. You may remember that show– it was hosted by Wolfman Jack and featured popular acts playing live, and was shown, appropriately enough, at midnight. By the mid-1970s I was a pretty music-savvy kid, so if I knew one of my favorite artists was scheduled to appear somewhere, I’d make sure I saw it. ABBA was one of them. However, ABBA rarely appeared live, because they either couldn’t or weren’t willing to travel such long distances. So instead, they recorded short videos of themselves performing their songs. They were truly groundbreaking in the area of the short-form music video.
4. Elton John
No 1970s list would be complete without my namesake– well, at least my nickname’s namesake– the Rocket Man himself, Elton John. Elton was certainly present throughout my childhood, but he wasn’t among my parents’ 8-Tracks or LPs. Elton was someone I came to enjoy a little later on, when I realized just how much his music really had affected me. But I do distinctly remember Elton’s music being VERY present on the radio.
Rocket Man was always a favorite. I loved the story of the song and the imagery employed by that awesome guitar effect of the “rocket taking off” as the song leads into the chorus. It was haunting and, really, groundbreaking– and it’s stayed with me my entire life. So much so that, when I first got online with the Prodigy service in the early 1990s, I chose Rocket Man as my online “handle.” And it’s stayed with me ever since.
5. James Taylor
Fire and Rain
As you go through this list, you’ll see that singer/songwriters played as great a role in my musical heritage as rockers and disco artists. In fact, as I’ve grown older, singer/songwriters have probably had a larger lasting effect on me, both for the style of their music and the simplicity of it. James Taylor, by far, was one of my favorites. I heard “Fire and Rain” constantly on the radio growing up, and while I didn’t really understand what all the lyrics meant at time, I knew it was a wonderful song with a special meaning to someone. It’s still one of my all-time favorites today.
6. Carly Simon
I can’t help it. Whenever I hear this song, I think of Heinz ketchup. “Anticipation” was a mega hit for Carly Simon in the early 1970s, but many people my age will distinctly recall the Heinz ketchup commercials where two kids could barely wait for the ketchup to come out of the bottle. Of course now-a-days, you just squeeze the bottle and end of story– but if you are like me and like old-fashioned glass bottles, the “anticipation” is part of the fun.
Nobody Does It Better
This song reminds me of a lot of things– it was on the radio constantly in the late 1970s, so there are many memories associated with it back then. But I also used this song for a slide show that I created for my DECA state officer team in the early 1990s. I wish I still had that slide show– might have to re-create it — but ever since then, this song makes me think of them.
7. Paul McCartney & Wings
Two of Paul McCartney’s hits with his second band, “Wings” play very important parts of my childhood, and to this day I still associate them with specific moments from that time.
Listen To What The Man Says
This song reminds me of my mom and our neighbors taking us to the newly-opened city pool at the end of our block. When it first opened, they used to play music on the loudspeakers, and this song was among those played. For some reason, ever since then, I have associated it with that memory. It’s a very good memory, too.
With A Little Luck
Simliarly, and much later in the decade, this classic tune reminds me of playing outdoors in the summer of 1978 or 1979. I had a little handheld radio then that I took with me everywhere I went, and this song was immensely popular at that time. Every time I hear it, I can see myself playing in the backyard and laying on our lawn chairs in the middle of the cool green grass.
8. Carole King
So Far Away
This song not only reminds of many wonderful times where I heard the song; but the lyrics of the song also evoke memories of the wonderful people that have come and gone in my lifetime. Nobody writes songs like this anymore. It’s a shame.
9. Olivia Newton-John
Please Mr. Please
When I was a kid, I went through a major country phase. I don’t remember exactly why– but I remember listening to country music on the radio a lot at one point. One of my favorite songs from that time was this gorgeous tune by the lovely Olivia Newton-John. This was, of course, pre-“Grease” and “Xanadu,” but I knew I liked what I heard right from the start.
Another great song from her early years… this one always touched me as being so very honest. If you’ve ever seen her sing in person, you know how much she “lives” the song… she really interprets everything she does beautifully. Also, you’ll notice that all of these performances are LIVE. She rarely ever lip synched. Oh yeah, and autotune didn’t exist back then. This is called pure singing.
I Honestly Love You
I had to add one more, because Olivia is just so wonderful. This one is from just last year, in 2009. Not only is she still lovely, her voice has aged beautifully. As a singer, this is what I hope for — to grow old gracefully and to be able to sing for many more years to come.
10. Bee Gees
Now, no list of 70s artists from my childhood would be complete without the Bee Gees. In the mid to late 70s, they were EVERYTHING, and EVERYWHERE. I had their poster up in my bedroom, and wore their LPs out so badly I had to get new ones. The Bee Gees were quintissential 70s, and I still love them today.
Of course, this song was a HUGE favorite of mine. When I got my “John Travolta Suit” for my birthday, I imagined myself on that lighted dancefloor, dancing to this song. Yeah… was there any wonder at all?
How Deep Is Your Love
Man, this song was smooth then and it’s smooth now. It never ages. One of the most perfect love songs ever written. And every time I hear it, I’m hurtled back 30 years to that time when I played it constantly on my turntable. Such great times. Such great memories.
BONUS: Michael Martin Murphey – Wildfire
As a bonus, I have to include this classic 70s country-rock tune. This song was undoubtedly my favorite song growing up. It’s still at the top of my list. I never get tired of the melody and the story. And I was just talking to someone about this — when I would hear it back then, I would create my own “video” in my mind from the imagery of the story. I still think of those “images” today, every time I hear it. That’s the power of great music– timeless and everlasting. I love this live version, with an extended intro and solos at the end. Still makes me wistful today.