Remembering 1973… Sort of.
We are in one of those yearly interregnum periods with music. Starting in about October, there are fewer and fewer new releases. Unless you were Ryan Adams that is. He pushed out six albums in 2022, roughly 10 years output for most artists, with several coming at the end of the year. The upshot is that there have been too few new albums to choose from and the modern music machine will be in hibernation for another month or so, ramping up just before Valentine’s Day.
This lack of new albums to write about or listen too (again, other than Ryan Adams) gives me time to reflect on the music of the past. Subsequently, I have been listening to a lot of music from my childhood, specifically 1973. Why 1973? Because it was 50 years ago and also when I became aware of music myself. When you are a young child, popular music tends to be in the background. You listen to whatever your parents and older siblings are listening to. Then, one day, you suddenly start appreciating music all on your own. Maybe it’s because your friends have started paying more attention to whatever is popular. Perhaps, someone gave you a record player, 8-track tape deck, or, in my case, a small cassette recorder. With a portable, mono, cassette recorder in hand, I started recording songs from the radio and began my Great Music Awakening.
The listening experience was significantly different in 1973. Albums were all on vinyl – there wasn’t even many prerecorded cassettes yet – and AM radio dominated the airways. Being pre-Internet, there was no streaming music or music videos. In fact, on-air music videos were at least 8 years away; And no, MTV did not air the first music video on television. FM radio was mostly for high brow stuff such as classical music or jazz. Album rock on FM radio was in its infancy but was the only place you would hear heavy metal, hard rock, and progressive rock. It was no accident that the TV commercials in the New York City area for the album-oriented rock station WPLJ-FM used a cut form Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9 as the soundtrack.
The Billboard 100 in 1973 was dominated by AM radio hits. Some were memorable, others terrible. Here’s a breakdown of what was playing:
- Lots of unusual music. DJs were still willing to play strange songs like they did in the 1950s and 60s. Songs like Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin'”, the rerelease of Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, and Deodata’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, a funk soul version of the classic piece, were odd novelty pieces that you would never see on a radio playlist today. Probably the most unusual but wonderful song from 1973 was “Focus” by Hocus Pocus”. A truly great song, the vocal gymnastics alone make it worth a listen. Seriously, it’s a great song.
Novelty songs didn’t go away, of course. The great Weird Al Yankovich has continued to enrich our lives and songs such as “Detachable Penis” by King Missile have popped up from time to time. With few exceptions, like the incredibly horrid and racist “Kung Fu Fighting” later in the 70s, most novelty songs migrated to specialty programs like The Dr. Demento Radio Show.
- The format of AM radio still favored hit singles. The Billboard 100 is packed with one-hit or two-hit wonders including Tony Orlando and Dawn, Sylvia, Stealers Wheel (who broke up soon after and spawned 70s soft rock great Gerry Rafferty), and Maureen McGovern. McGovern’s big hit, “The Morning After”, was used as the theme song for the movie The Poseidon Adventure which is about an ocean liner that is capsized by a giant wave. An apt metaphor for McGovern’s career. There was even a reggae song, “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash on the Top 100. Fun fact: When Nash toured the U.S. after his song became popular, his opening act was an up-and-coming reggae band known then as The Wailers with a young Bob Marley as their leader. He even scored a hit with the classic Bob Marley song “Stir It Up”, though The Wailers version is vastly superior.
- There was country music everywhere. Unlike today where radio formats are highly specialized, AM radio was perfectly happy to play country music greats such as Charlie Rich (“Behind Closed Doors”) and Helen Reddy. The latter has a hit song with Tammy Wynett’s “Delta Dawn”. 1973 was the year that John Denver really broke out one of his greatest hits, “Rocky Mountain High”. He had gotten airplay previously with 1972’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” but “Rocky Mountain High” made him a superstar.
- Soul and R&B were everywhere. A huge portion of AM radio was soul and R&B. Al Green, Barry White, The O’Jays, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder (having recently chucked the “Little Stevie Wonder” moniker), The Isley Borthers, and Billy Preston were just a small fraction of the soul and R&B artists that had big radio hits in 1973. It’s fair to say that popular music was less segregated then than it is today. Radio has since been carved into more and more specific formats, leaving little room for crossovers. In 1973, there were soul, country, rock, pop, and other artists that all crossed over into the melting pot of AM radio.
- Soft rock was everywhere. Whether it was singer-songwriters such as Jim Croce, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, Diana Ross’ pillowy love gong “Touch Me in The Morning”, which I’m sure meant something different then, and yacht rock classic “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” by King Harvest, smooth, unobjectionable, and mellow sounds dominated 1973. This, in my opinion, helped lead to the downfall of AM radio as a force in music. For your average teenager, this was grandma music. When you’re 14, bands like the Carpenter’s or Seals and Crofts are, at best, boring. For every “Space Oddity” by Bowie or Punk Floyd’s “Money” there was five “Sing” by the Carpenters or the truly awful and misogynist “Daddy’s Home” by Jermain Jackson.
The hits of 1973 were diverse both in genre and style. This was a time when the local DJ drove the bus and even Top 40 formats provided a lot of latitude. Compare this to today’s radio, or even streaming service music recommendation engines, and you can see how much sway a DJs individual tastes had in selecting what was on the radio. Unfortunately, some of those DJs loved soft rock (we used to call it “dreck rock” when we were trying to be polite) that was bland, featureless, and dull as light, white bread toast. The appearance of Pink Floyd, Edgar Winter, the Allman Brothers, and even Focus, on the Billboard Top 100 were driven by the rising influence of FM radio and the AOR format. Within a few years, AM radio would become the Crème of Wheat of music. By 1975, anything interesting was happening on edgy FM stations comfortable with longer cuts. This switch to AOR and FM would, unfortunately, turn the 70s into the era of arena rock. Thankfully, punk and new wave were stewing in the underground, ready to save us from arena rock and soft rock hell.
For me, 1973 was, to paraphrase the Who’s Tommy, when I became aware. I was still a child, some years from my teen years but building the tools to become a connoisseur of fine popular music. It’s a year I remember fondly… sort of. I was pretty young then but much of the music stuck with me. And yes, I still like John Denver. Don’t judge me because he’s great.