Was the year often quoted as the ‘lowest point in popular music’ really as bad as people claim?
Various journalists, authors and historians have mulled over the what are the best or worst single years of modern popular music since rock ‘n’ roll and its innumerable hybrids began in earnest with the unprecedented impact Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and his Comets had in 1955, even it first released in 1954, when it was somewhat unheralded; it wasn’t even the first rock ‘n’ roll record, as Haley’s own Crazy Man Crazy in 1953 sits among others vying for the title of the first such recording. But it was only when Rock Around The Clock was used a year later as the blazing accompaniment to the opening titles of the film The Blackboard Jungle that this particular musical genre really took off in mainstream culture. 1955 may have been the Year Zero for what we now know as ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ (and all variants in-between) but it was certainly not its best. Although not quite 30 years old, Haley was already looking decidedly middle-aged and it took Elvis Presley with Heartbreak Hotel the following year to confirm that this musical style was now here to stay with the kids.
So, what was the best year? 1962 perhaps, when the Joe Meek-produced single Telstar by The Tornados became the first recording to reach number one in the US by a British group (Acker Bilk had reached the top shortly earlier that year, the first UK performer to do so, but could hardly be said to be part of the new wave of rock music) and with The Beatles managing their first hit on the UK charts as the year ended. Or could it be 1967, with Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love, or 1970 (the beginning of Glam Rock), 1989 and the emergence of Madchester and the Rave Scene, or 1994 and the start of Britpop? The idea of ‘best’ always depends very much on what sort of music a person likes (or dislikes) and, perhaps, your nationality – one man’s era of non-stop brilliance is another’s period of complete crap.
The ‘worst’ years are spoken about more reluctantly and the reasons given can be as varied and subjective as those for the ‘best; 1961 and 1987 had a glut of cover versions and occasional reissues getting to the top; 1993 suffered from the decline of said Madchester and grunge, with 1999 affected by the overhyped joys of Cool Britannia, New Labour and Britpop all fading away rapidly.
The year that is quoted more than others by many musical writers and historians as the absolute nadir is 1975. Oddly, this is a year I think of with a great deal of affection, for unrelated reasons – as an excitable young boy at the end of 1974, I was given a Ferguson Radio Cassette Recorder as my main Christmas present, all the better to tape the feast of pop hits that would surely emerge in the year ahead. How exciting!
Late 1974 was when glam rock began to lose the shine from its creative peak in1973; Slade were busy making their film In Flame at that time and were veering in a new musical direction; Sweet were affected by their lead singer Brian Connolly being violently assaulted outside a night club which was said to have permanently affected his vocal cords (and they too were shifting direction towards a heavier rock sound); and T-Rex, Wizzard and other glam rock acts were now ageing a little and falling into a gradual chart decline and self-parody. The coming year was ripe for change, but no one seemed quite sure what that change should be. And so 1975 is thought to be the no man’s land between the dying days of glam and the rebellious emergence of punk, lacking the vitality and rebelliousness of either.
The year actually began quite well with decent pop acts like Pilot getting to the top of the charts with January (ironically reaching the chart pinnacle at the start of February) and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel releasing Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile), which promised good things ahead. However, for the next four months, the top of the charts was dominated by inferior cover versions, novelty songs or reissues of old tracks, making such claims that this was a period of melancholic cultural ennui seem more than credible. We first had Telly Savalas talking his way all the way to number one with his version of Bread’s If and the Bay City Rollers, still at the height of Rollermania, staying at the top for six weeks with their blandly produced cover of The Four Seasons’ Bye Bye Baby. This was succeeded by rivals Mud and their much slowed-down version of Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy, Tammy Wynette’s 1968 song Stand By Your Man, and finally, Windsor Davies and Don Estelle (cashing in on their appearance in the then-popular sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum) with their interpretation of Whispering Grass.
Four long months of nostalgia and novelty. This was the pattern for most of that year, with Rod Stewart’s version of the Sutherland Brothers’ Sailing reaching the top a few months later, as did Art Garfunkel with I Only Have Eyes For You, the original song having been recorded decades previously. David Bowie at least got to the top of the charts for the first time, but this was with a reissue of his first chart hit Space Oddity, originally released in 1969, and it was succeeded by Billy Connolly’s version of D.I.V.O.R.C.E., not from Tammy Wynette’s original, but of a parody recorded by Sheb Wooley.
So more than half of that year had covers or reissues getting to the top of the charts. And there were plenty of other reissues that entered the Top 40 from Chris Farlowe, Small Faces, Chubby Checker, Brian Hyland, and even Laurel and Hardy, with The Trail of The Lonesome Pine, taken from their 1937 classic film Way Out West, reaching number two. Stan and Ollie perhaps can be excused, as could ex-Beatle John Lennon, who did quite well in chart terms with his haunting composition Number 9 Dream and a cover of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, though they were both relatively minor hits for an ex-Beatle. Lennon himself mildly bemoaned the lack of originality of rock and popular music in an interview with Whispering Bob Harris for BBC2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, making his point by mentioning Savalas in a slightly mocking way. His biggest hit was with his most celebrated – if often controversial – solo composition, Imagine in the Autumn, but this too was a reissue as the song was originally recorded in 1971.
But the very lowest point that year was, arguably, Bobby Goldsboro’s ghastly, sickly tearjerker Honey getting to number two again as it had done seven years earlier. Could we sink even lower? Well, Englebert Humperdinck, Jim Reeves and Perry Como had greatest hits compilations reaching number 1 in the 1975 album charts, augmented by the Welsh comedian Max Boyce rather strangely getting to the top spot as well. “What all this amounted to was a crisis of confidence in the future of British pop music…”, wrote Alwyn J.Turner in his historical book of the 70s Crisis? What Crisis?. “Ten years earlier it had been a radical, vital art form, the driving force that sold British culture around the world… but now it seemed moribund, sinking into an inherited dotage…”
But if one looks closer, often beyond the surface froth of the Top 40, 1975 does not necessarily seem as bad as it has been made out to be. In the midst of all this mediocrity, 10cc produced I’m Not In Love, a track that had genuinely innovative recording and multi-tracking techniques that were years ahead of their time, and this also got to number 1. The most durable song of the year was Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which spent 9 weeks at the top of the charts and is still hailed by many as one of the greatest songs recorded in the rock era, encompassing several genres merging faultlessly in a timeless classic. How Does It Feel?, one of the songs from Slade’s film In Flame, marked a definite change in musical style from their raucous guitar-led stompalongs to a mainly orchestral arrangement with thoughtful, poignant lyrics, and is now recognised as maybe their best-ever composition.
Other lesser-known acts were also making an impact – unluckily for them, perhaps a year or so too soon. Dr Feelgood and their stripped-back pub rock style was an obvious precursor to punk and they released two excellent albums that year with Down By The Jetty and Malpractice, the former not reaching the charts but the latter making some impact later that year by reaching a respectable number 17, with the singles issued from the albums – Roxette, She Does It Right and Back In The Night – having a ferociously raw, in your face melodic style thanks to Lee Brilleaux’s lead vocals and Wilko Johnson’s irresistible guitar riffs. And then there was Bruce Springsteen with his breakthrough album Born To Run. These records were there for those who were interested – the Old Grey Whistle Test viewer and music press reader, perhaps – and to ignore them as a part of 1975’s musical tapestry simply because they were not hits with the pop-oriented kids seems narrow-minded unless you believe that the charts represent the be-all and end-all of what is happening musically at any time.
And let’s not forget that 1975 also saw the initial stirrings of punk, with Patti Smith’s album Horses released in the autumn of that year and The Sex Pistols giving their first ever live performance, alongside a group called Bazooka Joe (who had a member named Stuart Goddard, who later became Adam Ant). The Pistols performed more gigs into 1976, when the charts were still dominated by lightweight, MOR songs getting to the top (the worst being J.J. Barrie’s No Charge), before the now almost mythical gig they performed at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on June 4th 1976, but let’s not pretend that the musical landscape changed that much – the Top 40s of 1976 and 1977 remained dominated by lightweight pop acts.
So all things considered, was 1975 really the worst year ever for music? Given that in recent years the charts have been dominated by bland cover versions linked to TV talent shows and glossily over-produced pop pap, it seems odd to make such a strident claim. Perhaps in truth, 1975 was the best, the worst and all points in between. Perhaps any year should only be seen as being as good or bad as the music that we individually listen to rather than being judged on the worst excesses or the populist chart-toppers. Perhaps all it really tells us is that the Top 40 is a meaningless way to view the musical landscape of any era.
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