OK so for starters let me just kick this off by stating right off the bat that this is purely an opinion/editorial piece.
Having been born in 1966, I was exposed to a specific music format; how it sounded, its structure, arrangement and texture. As a “young ‘un” I knew what I liked about what I was hearing but at the time couldn’t tell you precisely why I liked it.
Now, all these years later, my ability to articulate my thoughts and preferences has improved.
Additionally, my sense of appreciation has expanded to include the very old stuff (Classical and some Opera), semi-old stuff (Jazz and Blues), over-the-hill stuff (traditional Rock) and finally music that at this point is positively middle-aged (80s Rock/Pop – if this genre was a human being it would be in its 30s by now).
Most of my early life made sense to me until the 90s arrived. I have to admit I felt almost no connection with the mainstream material that was being released for a few reasons:
Reason #1: Regardless of the genre, I began to hear songwriting techniques that puzzled me in that they seemed not to carry much influence from anything that came before. If it was rock (I’m looking at you Grunge), the melodies were almost non-existent. The vocal style and guitar strumming was lazy and just seemed to lack any ‘snap’. Don’t get me started on rap where aside from the rhythmic component, there seemed to be little musically going on at all.
Reason #2: What song formats I could understand, were basically uninspired and were created specifically to fit a pre-defined formula. Starting in the 90s, the big record companies decided that the process of selling music had to be implemented in the same fashion that one sells detergent. If an artist breaks with a major hit, let’s put out five other folks just like that act with an identical sounding song. Boring.
Ever since, I have found myself having difficulty reconciling much of what I hear with what has come before.
And much as I love a lot of 80s music, even then I could hear some fundamentals that our culture lost once we transitioned over from the 70s.
Which leads me to the purpose of this article!
What are those key characteristics that made the rock music of the 70s stand out and even now continues to be relevant in our time?
70s Rock Songwriting Carried over the Best Elements of the 60s
The music of the 1960s greatly expanded the rock pallet compared to what our Country was hearing in the 50s. That basic I-IV-V progression remained, but now had so many more variations going on in the chord arrangements. We were taken even further along this journey into the 70s with at times even some jazz elements introduced (Steely Dan).
Lead vocal performances reached a whole new level (Led Zeppelin, Boston) with singers that could hit notes that listeners could barely imagine even being possible until they heard it for the first time themselves.
Vocal background harmonies continued to explore new ground (Crosby, Stills & Nash) and lastly musical virtuosity with a rock instrument also reached new levels particularly in the area of lead electric guitar and drums.
The Technology Improved
By the end of the 60s professional recording facilities had expanded upon the number of individual audio tracks that could be synched together at once to build out a rock tune. Where The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” Album was still limited to 4 tracks back in 1967, by the early 70s 16 track tape machines became more widely used, then later replaced with 24 track tape.
Also audio fidelity got better with microphones, preamps, huge mixing consoles (like Neve) and even tape/tape machine quality, which allowed for extended bandwidth and added richness in the sound of recordings that were produced in the 70s era.
The combination of these two elements allowed artists to stack multiple vocal or instrumental takes together in order to build up the collective presence of the arrangement. Whether this approach was maxed out with bands like Queen, or later scaled back to the essentials as we heard with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, overall we hear the difference that the improved technology made on recordings created throughout the 1970s. Some artists such as myself are still hankering after that sound!
The Musicianship was Still Present
I know this is a touchy subject, but I don’t care because it does need to be addressed. I wince when I hear many of the lead performers out there today (especially singers when they perform live). If you haven’t seen the video that compares Freddy Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with the weak and uninspired variant offered up by Kanye West you’ll hear an extreme example of what I’m getting at. You can hear in today’s mainstream music performances the result of what happens when we take music education out of the classroom. From an R&B perspective, so many of the greats that came before were trained early on in the church. I honestly don’t know what happened, but when most of these singers try to improvise I really can’t tell you what scale (blues or otherwise) they’re working off of. I’ve stopped watching any of the music award ceremonies that are broadcasted annually because it just makes me sad.
Artists had Personality
To this day Tom Petty is still one of the quietest and shyest artists born out of the 70s era and even he still has a bigger persona than many of the more current mainstream artists out there today. An extreme example of personality from the 70s would also be Bon Scott (original singer of AC/DC). He fit no normal mold, but he was one of a kind and his singing style sticks with us even today. Lastly, take a look at Elton John. He can’t hit the notes anymore, but he’s remained vital and beloved. The man has his innate talent but his personality has always been bigger than life!
The Best and the Brightest Participated in the Process
Over the past few years I’ve wondered about the quality of artists that are actually bothering to participate in the process now that it seems that music is no longer at the center of our culture’s attention as it once was. So many of the younger generations have found other pursuits that offer greater potential rewards (coding for example).
You’ve no doubt heard the story before about how some kid saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the next day went out and bought his first guitar? That event alone seriously affected (or messed up – depending on how you want to look at it) at least two decades worth of kids growing up in America (including me)!
We all wanted to be creating or performing that kind of music in some way and based on how the industry used to operate, only the best and the brightest made it to the top.
I’m not sure that is the case anymore. Those who fit a formula and who the corporate suits believe will sell units quickly, receive the marketing and investment. You don’t have to be interesting or have anything important to say. Just look pretty, remember your lines and stay out of trouble (good luck with that last one by the way). That’s all that seems to be going on in today’s world. I don’t see how that can last much longer.
I know many will read this and immediately decide that this is a sour-grapes artist being grumpy and longing for the past (to some degree they are right about that).
But let me be clear, I’m also very much excited for the future. I’ve said it before on some of my other blog pieces that when I was a kid I longed for access to the tools that I now have at home in my private studio. If I have the talent to think the song up and play it, I can create the recording and mix it down in a matter of days or weeks without requiring any outside help. I can release the final track to anyone with a hunger for what I do. And what I do for the most part is 70s rock! And that my friends, RULES!
If you would like to hear more from Harper Nilson, CLICK HERE to receive 3 free 70s Style Tracks from his new album entitled ‘The Years’!
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