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1973 “We’re an American Band”….

August 31, 2013

It’s hard to believe that 40 years have passed since 1973: a memorable year for rock music and for me personally. During the summer of 1973, I spent two months in Switzerland in the Experiment in International Living residing with a family (the Blasis) in Biel and travelling and hiking in the Alps with other college students in our EIL group of 12. It was an exciting and memorable summer, one of the best in my life. Strangely enough, it was one of the few summers of my life that I was completely out of touch with pop/rock music in the US.

1973 was a year where rock music in the U.S. remained ascendant. (However, this was soon to change in 1974 when disco music began to sweep the airwaves). By far and away, the most important artist of 1973 was Stevie Wonder, who released two extraordinary albums which for the first time in his career were all originally written and arranged material. His first release, which was officially in late 1972, “Talking Book” featured the rock/soul fusion classic “Superstition” and the beautiful and soulful ballad “You are the Sunshine of My Life” both of which were major hits in 1973. He topped the success of this first album with “Innervisions” which is one of the best albums ever and featured the hit singles “Higher Ground”, “Living for the City” and “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing” though every track was good. Stevie Wonder beginning with “Talking Book” had discovered the Hohner clavinet keyboard which he used most distinctively in “Superstition” and later “Higher Ground”.

Preceding “Superstition” at the top of the charts in January 1973 was one of my favorite songs of the year “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. It was also the only time I ever heard the word “gavotte” in a song as in the everyday phrase: “You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte”. However, the top female vocalist song in 1973 was unquestionably Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” which came out in the Spring. This is one of my favorite slow songs ever and Roberta’s silky smooth voice makes it truly beautiful to listen too.

U.S. rock music was led symbolically by Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” with its infectious drumming and bass line and the almost stereotypical rock band lyrics as they “proceeded  to tear that hotel down”. The Doobie Brothers emerged as a dominant new popular rock group as two singles ” Listen to The Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright” from their first album received ample airplay in late 1972 and early 1973. However, their excellent first album “Toulouse Street” was soon eclipsed by the even better “The Captain and Me” in 1973 which featured six superb songs  “Long Train Runnin” “Without You ” China Grove” “South City Midnight Lady” “A Natural Thing” and “Clear as the Driven Snow” and is unquestionably among the best rock albums of all time. I was lucky enough to see the Doobie Brothers as the opening act before Rod Stewart in a concert in May of 1973 in which they played all of these songs.

Steely Dan’s debut album “Can’t Buy a Thrill” released in late 1972 began to receive significant airplay in 1973 as the first single from the album “Do It Again” moved into the top 10 in February. Steely Dan’s unique rock-jazz fusion sound became a staple of the 70s thereafter. However, it was the outstanding second single from this album “Reeling in the Years” that really got my attention. ( I can remember in June 1973 driving to the Catskills with my friend Neil and constantly switching the radio stations on his car radio in order to hear the song, no matter how much static, just one more time!). Steely Dan followed up with their second album later in 1973, the similarly innovative and interesting “Countdown to Ecstasy”. The album featured the great musicianship of the up tempo and sonorous “Bodhisattva” and “My Old School” and Steely Dan’s always interesting lyrics such as “…California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back to Annandale”.

Southern rock emerged as a force in 1973 as the Allman Brothers released their “Brothers and Sisters” album which included their biggest hit ” Ramblin’ Man” (believe it or not featured as a background song in the movie “The Exorcist”) and the FM rock jam instrumental extraordinaire ” Jessica” . A new Southern group Lynyrd Skynyrd released their debut album which featured several songs that were to later become FM rock classics such as “Tuesday’s Gone” ” Gimme Three Steps” and the guitar jam classic “Free Bird”. It’s interesting that I barely remember these songs from 1973 as they were only to get signficant airplay a few years later.

Paul Simon released his second solo album “There Goes Rhymin Simon” which still stands today as one of his two best ever (the other being 1986’s “Graceland”). The album featured the hit singles “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” and incorporated the New Orleans jazz sound into Paul’s folk melodies. Other favorite songs from the album included “American Tune” “Learn How to Fall” “Something So Right” “St. Judy’s Comet” and the faux-philosophical “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor”. Another folk artist, Jim Croce, who I had first seen in late 1972 as an opening act for Loggins and Messina in concert, hit it big with the up-tempo and fun “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” which was to hit #1 in the summer. Then suddenly on September 20th, he was gone, killed in a plane crash. His popularity only grew with the subsequent release of two beautiful ballads “I Got a Name” and the eerily prescient “Time In A Bottle”.

Meanwhile over in the UK, Elton John emerged as a superstar with his hit rocker ” Crocodile Rock” in early 1973 and then later in the year  his outstanding double album ” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. There is little question that this album was Elton’s best and was consistently good throughout. Most memorable songs to this day includes all of Side 1 ( “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets” ) as well as “Saturday’s Alright for Fighting” ” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” “All the Girls Love Alice”  and “Harmony”.

Though not as good as Led Zeppelin IV, Led Zeppelin did have an excellent follow-up with “Houses of the Holy” which featured three great Zeppelin classics “Dancing Days” “Over the Hills and Far Away” “D’yer  Maker”and “The Song Remains the Same” among other good songs. Strangely, the title track did not appear on this album but was on a later Zeppelin album. I confess to barely listening to this album at the time as it never caught my attention like the previous album. Only several years later in retrospect did I begin to appreciate how good it was.

The Who had their first album in more than 2 years when they released “Quadrophenia” which was a masterpiece in musical composition and musicianship. ( Townshend insists it is the best album that the Who ever did). Not as “catchy” as their previous two albums, upon multiple listening sessions, the music grows on you and is one of my favorite albums to this day. I got a chance to see it performed live by the Who earlier this year on its 40th anniversary, which was a pretty extraordinary concert given the high degree of difficulty in playing, singing and instrumentation.

Pink Floyd released the unique and “ahead of its time” album  “Dark Side of the Moon” in 1973. The entire album was an instant success on FM radio and in my dorm room at college. In fact, it was one of the few records that I bought a second copy of, as the first copy was so worn out and warped from being overplayed ( and being left on the radiator one night). The first copy thereafter became dorm room art, hung from our ceiling by a string.

Another British group, Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra emerged as a new and distinctive sound with its extraordinary 7 minute cover version of “Roll Over Beethoven” on ELO 2 which featured unusual rock orchestration and great guitar playing. No doubt this version would really get Beethoven to “roll over”.

The former Beatles generally had a less auspicious 1973. John Lennon’s album “Mind Games” was only so-so with the title track the only really good track . George Harrison’s second album “Living on the Material World” was not nearly as good as his first album with only “Give Me Love” being particularly memorable. Paul McCartney “Red Rose Speedway” was a new low for him and even the popular “My Love” was just too schmaltzy for me. Only “Live and Let Die” a single he released during the summer written for the James Bond movie of the same name, represented a good McCartney effort (The “Band on the Run” album released in December was excellent, but I will defer discussion of that til next year when I review 1974 which is when the album and songs were getting air play). Strangely enough, it was Ringo Starr who had the best year with his “Ringo” album which featured 3 songs written by each of the other Beatles as well as the excellent songs/ hits  “Photograph” “You’re Sixteen” and “Oh, My, My”.

1973 also had a number of other very good songs/singles. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” by Chicago was one of my favorites. This upbeat song about breaking up in the fall of 73 was just what I needed to hear as I was trying to get over my recent summer romance. Several hard rock singles were excellent including “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple and two by Edgar Winter ,”Free Ride” and the rock instrumental classic “Frankenstein”, both featuring the former McCoy’s guitarist Rick Derringer. Another one of my rock favorites was “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel which featured some interesting twangy guitar work (and yes even some “cowbell”). Then, there was another great cover by Johnny Rivers with the “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and the real throwback by Bette Midler “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”. This latter song reminded me that there were some really good songs from our parents generation too.

In addition to “Frankenstein”, there were three excellent instrumental singles. “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato fused jazz and rock music, while covering the classical “theme” of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. “Hocus Pocus” by Focus from Holland featured a repetitive guitar riff chorus that never seemed to grow tiresome, while the multiple verses of the song included whistling, yodeling, scat singing, accordion and organ playing and even Jethro Tull style flute playing. I also liked the instrumental “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weisberg, though I admit that was only when it didn’t remind me of the horrific film “Deliverance”.

On the soul and R&B side, Gladys Knight and the Pips had their best single “Midnight Train to Georgia” as did the O’Jays with the infectious melody of “Love Train”. The Isley Brothers featured a new synthesizer funk rock sound with an excellent comeback record “That Lady”. The Spinners had two excellent classics “One of the Kind Love Affair” and a song guaranteed to make everyone feel happy – “Could it be I’m Falling in Love”. War had several hit songs, the best being “The World is a Ghetto”. Of course, my favorite “soul” song of the year was “Brother Louie” by the Stories. (which was actually a cover of the original by Hot Chocolate). However, I was shocked to discover when seeing them on “The Midnight Special” on TV in late 1973 that they were in fact an all-white group.

1973 definitely had its disappointments and bad songs. Two of my favorite groups, The Moody Blues and Yes, didn’t release any new albums or new songs in 1973 (though Yes had an excellent live album “Yes Songs”). The Temptations had their last top ten single with “Masterpiece” in 1973 and then faded into obscurity thereafter. The Rolling Stones released the album “Goats Head Soup” late in 1973 which despite its two good songs, “Angie” and “Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo (Heartbreaker)” was a huge letdown after the Stones last three outstanding studio albums (i.e. “Let it Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street”). Tony Orlando and Dawn drove me crazy with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon..” which was played incessantly on the radio. Cher’s “Half-Breed” and Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” were cloying. But perhaps the worst song of the year goes to Clint Holmes “Playground in My Mind” (featuring the prepubescent vocal “my name is Michael I got a nickel..”).

I have gone on way too long, but I still probably missed some good songs. What are your favorites from 1973?

From → Music 60s70s

4 Comments
  1. Ed Ludwig permalink

    My favorite rock and roll songs were mostly listened to beginning in 1974-1976 once I had my own stereo (and around when I learned to play We’re an American Band on guitar). In 1973 I likely was “transitioning” from artists such as Neil Diamond, Jim Croce and Top 40 AM music

    Bruce, you pretty much nailed it for the highlights (and lowlights) of that final year or so before the coming of funk and disco. My favorite: the Allman Brothers Ramblin’ Man

    Ed

    • Thanks Ed. Pretty cool that you learned how to play “We’re an American Band” on guitar!

  2. Geoff permalink

    Bruce:

    Nice review of a great year in music, although it’s hard to include everything.

    A few highlights that you missed:

    Songs: Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye) (one of the top 5 best songs of the year, IMHO), Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room (Brownsville Station), No More Mr. Nice Guy (Alice Cooper), Right Time, Wrong Place (Dr. John), Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan) (best song from a western since that sondtrack masterpiece by Ennio Morricone — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), All the Way from Memphis (Mott the Hoople).

    Albums: For Everyman (Jackson Browne), Shotgun Willie (Willie Nelson) (great, great country album), Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) (very well may be the best Genesis album), The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Rick Wakeman) …

    And the big miss in your blog post: Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums came out in 1973!

    Geoff

    • Thanks Geoff. Definitely tough to be all inclusive in a blog post. I had “Right Place, Wrong Time” in an earlier draft and somehow it was dropped though I did like the song a lot. Personally, I dont really like “Lets Get it On” nearly as much as Marvin Gaye’s earlier solo efforts such as “What’s Going On” “Inner City Blues” and “I Heard it Thru the Grapevine”. However, I certainly understand how popular the song was with many.
      And yes, Springsteen was a major omission. My only excuse is that relatively few people owned Springsteen albums in 1973, so I will probably discuss Springsteen music more when I review 1974 or 1975.

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