1976 is by FAR my least favorite musical year of the 1970’s- my most favorite musical decade. That is not to say it’s not a great year- just not comparatively so. By ’76 America was in the full throes of Bicentennial fever, trying to wash away the hangover and recession of the previous two years. Gerald Ford was in his last year of the presidency and Jimmy Carter was elected in November of that year. Many of the sixties musical heroes with a few exceptions had either died off, stopped making music or were releasing music with diminishing commercial and artistic returns. It was the apex of disco’s first wave (i.e. pre-“Saturday Night Fever”) with cocaine seemingly America’s new drug of choice for the partying crowd. Mellow and mostly awful soft-rock ruled the radio airwaves along with light funk and disco and the beginning of both Punk and a new wave of hard rock and heavy metal bands rose up as an alternative. Reggae music had perhaps its best and most important year ever in 1976, though the music remained only a minor concern in America until much later.
Though there were many fine albums released in 1976, as in every other year of the 70’s, four stand out to me above the rest. The Ramones self-titled debut truly gave birth to Punk music as a genre, inspiring tons of bands in the U.S., Great Britain and around the world to follow in their footsteps. Their legacy has only increased with time and their debut remains their definitive statement. A lesser known, but equally amazing debut was Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers from Boston. Though most of their debut was recorded in 1972 & 1973, it wasn’t released until Beserkley Records bought the rights in 1976, several years after the original group disbanded. The album is a pre-punk masterpiece and is rightfully heralded alongside the Stooges first three albums, and the New York Dolls first two as one of Punk’s greatest influences. Motown Record’s Stevie Wonder capped off his incredible early-mid 70’s run of classic albums with the double album “Songs In the Key Of Life”, one of his all-time best. He would never again release an album as great but “Songs” cemented his status as one of Soul music’s most legendary artists. Finally David Bowie unveiled his Thin White Duke persona with the Krautrock-influenced “Station to Station” album, which bridged a gap between the white soul of “Young Americans” and his later Berlin trilogy collaborations with Brian Eno. Though nearly all of Bowie’s 70’s albums are masterpieces, “Station to Station” to me is one of his two or three best and may be his most underrated album.
Though Punk music wouldn’t truly break until 1977, there were other punk rumblings in addition to the Ramones in 1976. Fellow CBGB-ers Blondie and the Patti Smith Group released albums then. Patti Smith had released her debut album “Horses” the prior year. Her music isn’t truly like punk but is a close enough cousin to include her as part of the scene. Her follow-up “Radio Ethiopia” released in 1976. Blondie’s self-titled debut also came out that year. Blondie were a much lighter version of punk, though their debut remains their most punk-like release. Thought of then as part of the punk scene their debut really gave birth to what became known as New Wave two years later. A little known band named Crime from San Francisco released two ferocious singles. They never broke through to a wide audience but were very influential in their local scene and to aspiring musicians- Sonic Youth would cover their “Hot Wire My Heart” a decade later. Cleveland art-punkers Pere Ubu released their great “Final Solution” in 1976. They would be an enormous influence on post-punk. Across the pond the Stiff Records label was putting out great Pub-rock (another close cousin of punk) like Nick Lowe and Eddie & the Hot Rods as well as the first ever U.K. punk single “New Rose” by the Damned. Likeminded artist Graham Parker released his first two albums, “Howlin’ Wind” and “Heat Treatment” on a major label, taking pub rock to a more sophisticated level alongside future artists like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. But making the biggest noise of all were the Sex Pistols who debuted their massively influential single “Anarchy In the U.K.” in late November. A year later British music would be dominated by Punk rock and nothing would be the same again.
The biggest rock bands were mostly thought to be running of fumes by 1976. The Who’s best days were behind them, while the Kinks were at the beginning of a musical reinvention but between albums. Led Zeppelin released both “Presence” and the double live album “The Song Remains the Same”. The former was thought to be their weakest album yet and the latter was lambasted for being bloated and excessive. While both albums do have their merits (particularly “Presence”) it is fair to say that neither were close to a career high point for the band. After an extraordinary early 70’s run Black Sabbath had all but died out by 1976 and would kick lead singer Ozzy Osbourne out of the band shortly thereafter. Most of the progressive rock bands popular in the early 70’s like Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were also releasing increasingly bloated and inessential music. The Rolling Stones “Black and Blue” is a bit unfairly maligned and may even be a better album than their previous two albums, but is less of a rock album and more concerned with disco, funk & reggae. Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Gimme Back My Bullets” which is also an overlooked album. Skynyrd’s first five proper albums should all be considered essential listening in my book .
Several bands who had been touring hard and releasing an album a year since the early part of the seventies would see their commercial fortunes skyrocket in 1976. KISS released their biggest seller to date “Destroyer” as well as the popular follow-up album “Rock and Roll Over”. Aerosmith, had been growing in popularity steadily since their 1973 debut, but 1976 “Rocks” marked the height of their seventies fame, before a commercial and artistic plummet brought on mostly by drugs in the late 70’s. Irish band Thin Lizzy released their career highlight “Jailbreak” which also garnered them a worldwide hit single “The Boys Are Back in Town”. Long Island’s Blue Oyster Cult had been toiling away for several years but their “Agents Of Fortune” album and huge hit single “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” made them a household name in hard rock. Detroit’s Bob Seger, who had some minor hits in the late 60’s but had been less successful since then had his fortunes completely turn around as well in 1976 with the release of both the smash hit “Night Moves” album as well as the career spanning live album “Live Bullet”. He went from a nobody to one of the biggest names in proper rock n’ roll in a year. Australia’s AC/DC debuted their first two albums in 1976- “High Voltage” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”. Though neither would be massively successful right away (Deeds wasn’t even released in the U.S. until 1981), they would slowly but surely become one of the biggest bands in the Hard Rock/Metal world. Canadian Prog-rock group Rush released their third album “2112”. Their first two garnered little sales but “2112” was the breakthrough the band was waiting for. The first side of the album is an entire suite of music and it remains one of the hugely successful group’s most beloved moments.
The groups Boston and Kansas both released their most successful albums as well. Boston’s was their self-titled debut and Kansas’s released their third album “Leftoverture” containing their two most enduring hits “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust In the Wind”. These two albums helped bring about the rise of AOR (Album oriented rock) or Arena Rock, which was derided by hipsters and critics as being corporate and faceless (the band’s names certainly didn’t help). While there is some truth to that much of the songwriting and musicianship of some of these bands is excellent (particularly the nearly perfect “Boston” album) and these songs were a welcome earful on the radio during a time of stale soft-rock. Because of interminable classic rock radio replays over the years, much of the music has become stale but I remember much of it sounding pretty great the first hundred times I heard it. Perhaps the biggest rock album of 1976 was the double live album “Frampton Comes Alive” by rock journeyman Peter Frampton. While it has its charms like the pretty great “Show Me the Way” and the talk box epic “Do You Feel Like We Do”, its success seems more like a right place/right time situation sort of like Hootie & the Blowfish in the mid 90’s (though at a higher artistic level). Two other groups debuting in 1976 were the female-led Heart, whose debut “Dreamboat Annie” contains their two best songs “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who bridged the gap between the original rockers and New Wave- the 50’s-60’s & the 70’s. Their solid debut contains their best-loved song “American Girl” as well as the excellent “Breakdown”. Both of those groups would remain popular long after their debut and are now members of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Two other great albums which should be mentioned are Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam”, their fifth straight excellent album and last before their true commercial breakthrough “Aja” in 1977. Though the Dan was developing a smoother sound they often get lumped in with L.A.’s “Mellow Mafia” when they really stand alone as a singular band with their own very unique sound. Jeff Lynn’s Electric Light Orchestra (E.L.O.) also released their breakthrough album in “New World Record”. They were already in the middle of a run of great singles and were one of the best and most successful bands of the mid-late seventies.
By the mid 70’s most of what was previously known as Soul music was taken over by Disco, Funk & Quiet Storm (i.e. soft pillow talk music as played by the fictional DJ Venus Flytrap on “WKRP in Cincinnati”). Outside of Stevie Wonder, most soul artists I can think of had reformed their sound around one or all of these forms of music. Even Funk music was getting less heavy and psychedelic and more aligned with disco. James Brown did manage his last couple of hits, including the great “Get Up Offa That Thing” before a slight career resurrection in the 80’s and Funkadelic released their last real hard funk album “Hardcore Jollies”. After that their newer music became more similar to the danceable sister band Parliament (also led by George Clinton), whose own “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” released in 1976. Most of the other funk bands of the mid 70’s were lighter, like the Commodores, Brick, Brass Construction, Rufus and even the Spinners- all fit well right on the disco dance floor. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I think disco gets an undeserved bap rap. While there are certainly some crappy disco songs (the worthless “Disco Duck” came out in ’76 for instance) I think disco actually has a much higher batting average than most pop genres. In 1976 alone here are some of disco’s great tracks- Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around”, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band “Cherchez La Femme”, Thelma Houston “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, Tavares “Heaven Must be Missing an Angel”, Andrea True Connection’s “More, More More”, Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”, KC & the Sunsine Band “Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty), The Bee Gees “You Should Be Dancing”, Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” & Diana Ross’s “Long Hangover”. Not to mention the great smooth soul disco companion “You’ll Never Find a Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls and ABBA’s immortal “Dancing Queen” and “Fernando”. If you don’t like at least half of these tracks you must really hate pop music or have a stick up your butt. It’s o.k. to dance people ☺ The first wave of disco was at its peak of popularity. By the end of 1977 it was thought to be dying out a bit but was then given a huge second life with the release of the hugely popular “Saturday Night Fever” movie and soundtrack, which allowed the music to dominate the culture as never before and to annoy enough people so that it eventually came crashing down in early 1980.
Reggae music has been flourishing in Jamaica since the late 60’s and its roots in Ska and Rock Steady since even before that. Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” soundtrack along with the first Bob Marley & the Wailers full length albums in 1973 made it a major concern among musicians, music heads and the U.K. It wouldn’t really explode in America until the mid 80’s release of the Marley compilation “Legend” but much of the best of the genre’s music was being made in the mid 70’s. Marley along with the Wailers released the great and slightly underrated “Rastaman Vibration”, their fourth straight classic studio album. Former Wailer, Peter Tosh released his debut “Legalize It”, an instant pothead classic. Legendary Reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry released his album “Super Ape” with the Upsetters as well as producing dub reggae classics by other groups & artists like Max Romeo & Junior Murvin. Augustus Pablo’s collaboration with King Tubby- “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” is known as THE classic dub reggae album and other phenomenal reggae groups like Toots & the Maytals, the Heptones & the Abysinnians also released some of their best tunes the same year.
In America the biggest sound of all in 1976 remained Socal soft-rock. Much of it was an offshoot of either the early 70’s Laurel Canyon singer songwriter scene or the country-rock of the late 60’s incarnation of the Byrds and other Gram Parson’s led bands the Flying Burrito Brothers and the International Submarine Band. Early singer songwriter Joni Mitchell went in a very different direction in 1976 with her “Heijira” album- much closer to actual jazz than her folkie early records. Jackson Browne, increasingly one of the biggest selling of the Laurel Canyon scene in the mid 70’s released his “The Pretender” album, which held up a mirror to his fellow aging baby boomers wondering where all of their ideals had gone. Another Socal country-rock group the Eagles had amassed several big pop hits, but would release their biggest selling album even in late ’76 with “Hotel California”, the title track also their most well renowned song. A compilation of their early years also released in 1976 ended up eventually becoming the biggest selling album of all time. “Hotel California” also offered a hard look at the materialism and mindless drug culture going on in California and America at the time. Longtime scenester Warren Zevon released his self-titled second album (after a 1969 flop debut), which set the tone for a quirky but successful second act throughout the rest of the decade. Tom Waits released his fourth album “Small Change” marking a notable change in sound, away from a more traditional singer songwriting style toward a howling drunken drifter persona that he is now most known for. Other successful singer songwriters of ’76 outside of L.A. were the great Bob Dylan, whose “Desire” contains one of his signature songs “Hurricane”, J.J. Cale, writer of much covered songs like “Cocaine”, “After Midnight” (Eric Clapton) & “Call Me the Breeze” and “I Got the Same Old Blues Again” (Lynyrd Skynyrd). Also Jimmy Buffett who was nearing the end of an excellent plethora of country-tinged releases with “Havana Daydreamin’” and Billy Joel still a year away from superstardom, but his 1976 “Turnstiles” album had his iconic “New York State of Mind” as well as “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”.
With all of that great music it’s hard to believe 1976 is the worst year of the 70’s but that’s both a tribute to how great all of the others years are and a statement of how bad so much of the AM radio fodder that I didn’t name was during that time. Bay City Rollers, “The Year of the Cat”, the aforementioned “Disco Duck”, “Afternoon Delight” and lots of Barry Manilow being some of the main offenders.
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