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1976 “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”

September 20, 2016

Forty years ago in 1976, America celebrated it’s bicentennial with tall ships in the New York harbor on the 4th of July. It was also the year that the U.S. started to emerge from the deep 1974-75 market crash and recession. But for me, when it came to 1976, Charles Dickens may have described it best ” It was the best of times and it was the worst of times”.  I had fallen I love in my senior year with Molly, a sophomore at Brown, who I subsequently went with for two years. I had a single in Miller Hall with my good friend John just down the hall. And I already had enough credits to graduate so I only took the minimum 3 classes per semester. In many ways, senior year was my best year at Brown. And the end of the year was the best — graduation weekend and the campus dance at Brown, my first trip to Chicago were part of a whirlwind end of May, early June that I still remember fondly to this day.

But I had also learned at the end of 1975, that my father had lymphoma which had not been caught early. He had surgery removing lymph nodes in his neck but the cancer had spread requiring more major surgery in late January 1976.  They removed his spleen and a significant portion of his stomach but they couldn’t get all the cancer and the prognosis was not good . He was sent home in February and then my brother and I came home to be with my mother and sister to wait out the inevitable. He died on March 25th. He was only 58.

The reality of life quickly followed his death. I started work at a Newark bank in June and experienced “the first job after college” syndrome that so many do. Moving from a great college social community to a more isolated life in New York City and reverse commuting for 2 hours a day to a job I didn’t really like at all was depressing to say the least. When coupled with a distance relationship with my girlfriend and still grieving the loss of my father, life in New York seemed almost unbearable.

Music in 1976 followed an eerily similar pattern. While there were some excellent albums, most notably the best ever from the Eagles, Boston, ELO and the Steve Miller Band and a few other excellent rock songs (e.g. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, the Four Seasons “December 1963”,  Kansas “Carry on Wayward Son”) a lot of music in 1976 was downright dreary or simply bad.

Was Rock Music Dead?

In 1976, British rock music was particularly disappointing. There was no new material from the Who, Yes or the Moody Blues. (i.e. my three favorite groups). Fleetwood Mac‘s self-titled and excellent late 1975 album was all over the radio in 1976 including three top 20 hits with “Over My Head”, “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me, but it wasn’t until 1977 when the superb Rumors album came out that they would have any new material.  Led Zeppelin had a sub par album Presence (though I did like the hard rocker “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”). The Rolling Stones had a decent album Black and Blue but only the song  “Fool to Cry” (#10 June) was particularly memorable.  Elton John had his two sub par albums Blue Moves and Here and There and only his duet with Kiki Dee “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (#1 Aug.) made me smile. In the U.S., Bruce Springsteen, after his successful and excellent “Born to Run” album in 1975, was prevented for almost three years by a court injunction from recording new material owing to a bitter legal dispute over royalties with manager Mike Appel.

Meanwhile, the former Beatles solo careers had fallen to a new low. Lennon began a five-year period without any new recordings (apparently a lot of it spent partying ) before his excellent comeback album with Yoko Double Fantasy in 1980. Harrison Thirty Three and 1/3 was better than his most recent disastrous efforts (e.g. the Dark Horse album) and did contain two decent songs “Crackerbox Palace” (#19 Mar. 1977) and “This Song” (#25 Dec.) (his comment about the “My Sweet Lord” plagiarized “He’s So Fine” lawsuit ) but the rest of the album was not memorable. Ringo Starr sank further with his Ringo’s Rotogravure album  and Paul McCartney and Wings “Wings At The Speed of Sound” was another step down for the group from 1975’s Venus and Mars though at least it boasted two good songs “Silly Love Songs” (#1 Jun)  and “Let ‘Em In” (#3 Aug.). The former became a favorite of mine in April possibly because it was an upbeat love song, in contrast to many others in 1976.

British rock was clearly suffering, while disco ruled the American charts and the rise of punk and new wave was still a year or two away. However, rock music did have some excellent music in 1976 albeit mostly during the second half of the year and with American groups in the lead:

In December 1976, the Eagles released by far and away, their best album Hotel California. Joe Walsh formerly of the James Gang and best known for his solo rocker “Rocky Mountain Way” joined the group in 1976 and Hotel California benefits mightily from his addition. The album is a fusion of folk-rock and more mainstream rock which works very nicely. It features more traditional-style Eagles songs such as “New Kid in Town” (#1 Feb. 1977) an excellent folk-rock tune that was the first single from the album, as well as “Wasted Time” and “Try and Love Again” two excellent album cuts that could have easily come from any of the Eagles earlier albums. But it is the Joe Walsh influenced electric guitar songs “Life in the Fast Lane” (#11 June 1977) (which Walsh co-wrote) and “Victim of Love” (b-side of “New Kid in Town”) along with the title track “Hotel California” (#1 Apr. 1977) that really make the album soar. The former two songs are great rockers, but “Hotel California” was a very special song. Building slowly with acoustic guitars, then a slow rhythm track and great infectious tune and vocals from Don Henley, the song finishes with an extraordinary guitar duet from Don Felder and Joe Walsh. This melding of folk rock and hard rock works perfectly and makes “Hotel California” one of the best rock songs ever and my favorite in 1976 or for that matter in 1977 when it received most of its airplay.

Boston released their self-titled debut album in August, which was every bit the equal of Hotel California by the Eagles in terms of overall quality. Led by writer/producer and lead guitarist Tom Scholz and vocalist Brad Delp, Boston had a unique rock sound that made their music irresistible. Highlighted by their soaring single “More than Feeling” (#5 Dec.), Boston  features nine tracks which all could have been singles. “Foreplay/Long Time” was another favorite, particularly the link between the instrumental “Foreplay” and “Long Time”(#22 Feb.1977). But the single “Peace of Mind” (#38 Jun. 1977) as well as the album cuts “Hitch a Ride” and “Something About You” were not far behind. Great guitar hooks, nice vocals and strong melodies make Boston one of the best rock albums of all time.

Heart  had their U.S. release of their first album Dreamboat Annie in February.  The album’s success was driven by two superb songs, the two best they ever recorded – “Magic Man” (#9 Oct.) and “Crazy on You”(#35 Jun.). After Nancy Wilson excellent acoustic guitar intro, “Crazy on You” morphs into a hard rock ballad featuring an unforgettable guitar riff and Ann Wilson’s soaring vocals. The rest of the album doesn’t offer anything comparable, but it isn’t bad either. “Dreamboat Annie” is a nice folk-rock song which was also a successful single and is reprised to good effect at the end of the album. Another folk rock song “How Deep it Goes” and the rocker “White Lightning” are also good.

The Steve Miller Band and their album Fly Like an Eagle, released in May, soared to #3 on the album charts. The album is the best single album the group ever did, highlighted by three very catchy hit singles “Take the Money and Run” (#11 Jul.), “Rock N Me”(#1 Oct.) and “Fly Like an Eagle” (#2 Mar. 1977). But the album featured much more, most notably two very good songs “Serenade” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” (which both also appeared on the group’s Greatest Hits album in 1978) and the interesting rock-blues song “Mercury Blues”.

Takin’  It to the Streets  was the Doobie Brothers fifth album and their best since the excellent The Captain and Me.  In late 1975, Michael McDonald joined the group effectively replacing lead singer Tom Johnston who was having serious health issues. McDonald’s keyboards , vocals and blue-eyed soul sound permeate the album. And the best two songs on the album were McDonald compositions with his distinctive vocal style –  “It Keeps You Running” (#37 Jan. 1977) a great soul ballad and the up-tempo “Takin it To the Streets” (#13 Jun.) one of my favorite songs by the Doobie Brothers.

Steely Dan had another strong album The Royal Scam. I’ll admit I didn’t listen to it much in 1976, but grew to love four songs in particular from the album (after I listened to them repeatedly on a “Best of” collection in 1978)– “The Fez” (#59 Oct.) , “Don’t Take Me Alive” “Haitian Divorce” and “Kid Charlemagne” (#82 Jul.). All four were catchy with Steely Dan’s very distinctive rock-jazz fusion sound.

English rockers, the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), released their best album in September, A New World Record. Consistently good throughout and featuring Jeff Lynne’s distinctive orchestrated rock sound, the album was also their most popular to date. It features three singles “Livin’ Thing”(#13 Dec.), “Do Ya” (#24 Mar. 1977) and “Telephone Line” (#7 Sep. 1977) as well as several other good rock and roll songs notably, “Rockaria”, and “So Fine”. My two favorites from the album were “Livin’ Thing”  (“I’m taking a dive”) a nice lively upbeat song and “Do Ya” (“Do ya, do ya , want my love”) an excellent rock and roll song. I bought this album in 1977 and played it constantly.

Peter Frampton  released the highly successful live double album Frampton Comes Alive in early 1976. The album spent 10 weeks as the number 1 and spawned three top twenty hit songs in 1976, “Show Me the Way” (#6 May), “Baby, I Love Your Way” (#12 Aug.), and “Do You Feel Like We Do” (#10 Nov.). The album was one of the first live albums I can remember where the music quality was actually quite good. Nonetheless, while I enjoyed the three hit songs from the album particularly the long version of “Do You Feel Like We Do” as well as another album cut “Shine On”, the rest of the double album was underwhelming for me and didn’t live up to its popular hype.

Other rock songs that I enjoyed included:

  • “Bohemian Rhapsody” (#9 Apr.) by Queen was one of the best songs of the year, a rock-opera style hit featuring great guitar and contrapuntal vocals which was great fun even after multiple listenings. The song has the rare distinction of actually charting 16 years later and reaching #2 on the charts after it was featured in the movie “Wayne’s World”. Queen also had the very good song “Somebody to Love” (“can anybody find me somebody to love?”) (#13 Jan. 1977) which featured some great singing by Freddie Mercury and the rest of Queen as well as the excellent single “You’re My Best Friend” (#16 Jul.).
  • Blue Oyster Cult had their first hit and best song with “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (#12 Oct.) which is one of my favorites of the 1976. It was the source material for a great SNL skit in the 1990s featuring Christopher Walken as the music producer that demands “more cowbell” from band member Will Ferrell.
  • Boston-based, Aerosmith had its first two top-10 hits with its re-release of the 1973 song “Dream On” (#6 Apr.) in 1976 and the release  of “Walk this Way” in November (#10 Jan. 1977), two of the best songs the group has ever done. “Sweet Emotion” which barely made the top 40 in 1975 was another excellent Aerosmith song that received more airplay in 1976, because of the group’s new founded popularity. While having their own distinctive style, both musically and vocally, Aerosmith’s early hits reminded me a bit like American version of Led Zeppelin.
  • Gordon Lightfoot had the lengthy epic song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (#2 Nov.) one of those rare recordings that tells a riveting story thru an excellent song.
  • “Carry on Wayward Son” (#11 Feb. 1977) by Kansas was a great rock song . Taken from the 1976 Leftoverture album, the single was released in December 1976 and became the trademark hit for the group and is among my favorites.
  • Gary Wright had two very catchy pop-rock singles, the synthesizer heavy “Dream Weaver” (#2 Mar.)  and “Love Alive” (#2 Jul.).
  • “Love is a Drug” (#30 Mar.) by Roxy Music from England was an interesting art-rock song that presaged the beginning of new wave in 1977.
  • English rockers, Foghat had their best song “Slow Ride” (#20 Mar.) which has a unique pacing and rhythm for a hard rock song and later the catchy “Fool for the City” (#45 Jul.).
  • Thin Lizzy from Dublin had their first and only major US hit “The Boys Are Back in Town” (#12 Jul.)
  • Manfred Mann had a huge comeback hit when they successfully covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” (#1 Feb. 77). This was the group’s first top 40 hits since “Mighty Quinn” in 1968.
  • And speaking of comebacks, “Rock and Roll Music” (#5 Aug.) by the Beach Boys was an excellent remake of the Chuck Berry classic and was the Beach Boys first top 40 song in nine years. Technically, the Beatles also had a comeback hit except it was just a re-release of an album cut from the 1966 album Revolver “Got to Get You into Your Life” (#7 Jul.) . That the song was a re-release of a ten-year old song as a single, and it made the top 10 is a good indication of the dearth of strong rock songs in 1976.
  • The longtime British artist Cliff Richard had fourteen #1 hits in the U.K. but had never had even a top 20 song in the U.S. However, with “Devil Woman” (#6 Sep.) Richard finally had a U.S. hit and a pretty good one at that.

“All By Myself”

1976 raised an interesting “chicken or the egg” question. Did so many songs seem depressing to me, because I was feeling down in the dumps during much of 1976 or was I  depressed because there were so many dreary songs? While logic says that it was the former, I can’t help that some of the songs didn’t help matters much. Songs about breakups, relationships on the rocks or loneliness were particularly difficult for me to listen to even though I will admit that a few of them were good songs. Consider some egregious examples from 1976:

  • “If You Leave Me Now” (#1 Oct.)  Chicago  – “If you leave me now, you’ll take away the greatest part of me, ooh no, please don’t go…you’ll take away the very heart of me”
  • “Here Comes those Tears Again” (#23 Mar. 1977) Jackson Browne – “Here comes those tears again, just when I was getting over you, just when I was going to make it thru another night without missing you”
  • “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (#2 Sep.) Lou Rawls– “Late in the midnight hour, baby (you’re gonna miss my lovin’) When it’s cold outside (you’re gonna miss my loving’), You’re gonna miss, you’re gonna miss my lo-o-ove.”
  • “The Pretender” (#58 Jun. 1977) Jackson Browne – “And when the evening rolls around, I’ll go home and lay my body down, and when the morning sun comes streaming in I’ll get up and do it again, Amen… Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender. …out into the cool of the evening strolls the pretender”
  • ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye” (#1 Jul.) The Manhattans “This has to be the saddest day of my life…… I’m gonna miss you, I can’t lie (I’m gonna miss you)Understand me, won’t you try (I’m gonna miss you) It’s gonna hurt me, I can’t lie (I’m gonna miss you)…Let’s just kiss And say goodbye”
  • “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (#6 Dec.) Elton John  – “What I’ve got to do to make you love me, what I’ve got to do to make you care…its sad, so sad, it’s a sad sad situation” (This song featured a VERY dreary vocal style and music to make matters worse)
  • “It’s Over” (#38 May) – Boz Scaggs – “Why can’t you get it thru your head, it’s over, it’s over now. Yes, you heard me clearly now I said, it’s over, it’s over now.”
  • “She’s Gone” (#7 Oct.) Hall and Oates – “Everybody’s high on consolation. Everybody’s trying to tell me what is right for me, yeah, I need a drink and a quick decision. Now it’s up to me, ooooh what will be……She’s gone, oh why, oh why, I better learn how to face it, she’s gone, she’s gone, oh why, oh why , I’d pay the devil to replace her, she’s gone, she’s gone oh why, what went wrong?”

This last song caused me to trash one clock radio when I woke up to this song a few mornings after Molly and I broke up in November 1977. (At least, I was angry instead of depressed!).

But the king of depressing songs in 1976, was the Eric Carmen hit “All By Myself”(#2 Mar.):

When I was young
I never needed anyone
And making love was just for fun
Those days are gone

Living alone
I think of all the friends I’ve known
But when I dial the telephone
Nobody’s home

All by myself
Don’t want to be all by myself anymore
All by myself
Don’t want to live all by myself anymore

This song should come with a warning. “Do not listen to when all alone in your apartment!”. Fittingly, Carmen had the follow-up hit  “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” (#11 Jul.). To which my response was “Well yeah, particularly if you depress everybody”.

Disco, Funk and Soul

While most disco was pretty bad, there were a few exceptions. My favorite disco songs were by artists that were not disco acts per se.  The best was “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” (#1 Mar.) by the Four Seasons, a catchy comeback song for Frankie Valli on the heels of “Who Loves You” (the Four Seasons first disco hit) in late 1975. My other favorite disco hit was “Love Hangover” (#1 May) by Diana Ross which probably indicates my general preferences for 60s artists.

But the rest of disco was pretty dismal. Among the most popular, but still bad, a faux classic  “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy (#1 Oct.), the instrumental disco song that certainly had Beethoven “rolling over” in his grave, yet another KC and the Sunshine Band disco hit “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” (#1 Sep.) and “Love to Love You Baby” (#2 Feb.), the orgasmic first hit by the “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer.

Fortunately, funk and soul music was quite a bit better. War had their best song with the mellow and picturesque “Summer” (#7 Sep.) “Riding round town with the all the windows down….Yes it’s summer, my time of year”. Earth, Wind and Fire had yet another excellent funk and soul hit “Getaway” (#12 Oct.) featuring their unique harmonies. Brothers Johnson– had the soulful “I’ll Be Good to You” (#3 Jul.). And my favorite funk song of the year was, “Play that Funky Music” (#1 Sep.) by Wild Cherry which would get even the most reclusive types on the dance floor.

The Bad

Unfortunately there were a number of bad songs, even beyond disco.  Captain and Tennille did such a saccharin version of  “Muskrat Love” (#4 Nov.), I found myself pining for the original by America, even though it was never a favorite of mine. The Carpenters destroyed a nice Herman’s Hermits hit “There’s a Kind of a Hush” (#12 Apr.). Barry Manilow sang “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” (#10 May) and I sorely wished he wouldn’t try! Then there was the #1 song of the year “Afternoon Delight” (#1 Jul.) which took saccharin to new heights both musically and lyrically “Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight…skyrockets in sight, afternoon delight.” But, perhaps the worst song of the year, (if you can call it a song) was C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” (#1 Feb.) which took trucker C.B. slang to new heights. I can still remember one of my friends putting that on the juke box at our favorite pizza joint at Brown and having some woman scream out “What asshole put that song on?!”.


1976 music wasn’t all bad of course. And for the Eagles, Steve Miller, Boston and Heart, their 1976 records ultimately represented the best of their careers. And there was promise that 1977-1978 would be even better with a new album Rumors on the way from Fleetwood Mac, and several new wave groups The Police, the Talking Heads, the Cars beginning to gain in popularity. In 1977, rock would be taking a new turn and by the end of 1977 I learned I would be heading West to Stanford Business School and a new chapter in my life.




From → Music 60s70s

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