Treble’s Top 200 Songs of the ’70s

Treble staff

90. T. Rex
Bang A Gong (Get It On)
(1971; Reprise)
Available on Electric Warrior

Some of the best songs Marc Bolan ever wrote make very little sense, but then again, it’s best not to attempt to intellectualize something that’s best experienced physically. “Bang a Gong” is all about the sultry, bluesy riff that runs through it, earthy enough for a rowdy dive bar, and raunchy enough for a striptease. But whatever strange metaphorical plane Bolan is on, from comparing women to automobiles (“You’re built like a car, you got a hubcap diamond star halo”) to invoking mythical beasts (“you got the teeth of the hydra upon you”), the message still gets across just fine: GET IT ON! – Jeff Terich


89. Isaac Hayes
Theme from Shaft
(1971; Stax)
Available on Shaft

The definition of cool in four minutes and 30 seconds. Isaac Hayes had already made some awfully stylish music in the ’60s, namely with his epic soul masterpiece Hot Buttered Soul, but his theme for detective John Shaft bested even that. Set to a rhythm that most metronomes denote as “strut,” “Theme from Shaft” lays down a solid two minutes of suspenseful intro, its scratchy wah-wah and bassy piano riffs rolling out a red carpet for the Black Private Dick Who’s a Sex Machine With All the Chicks. You’re damn right. The camp value runs high, of course, with Hayes having a call and response dialogue with his backup singers (“They say Shaft is a bad mother…” “Shut your mouth” “I’m just talkin’ bout Shaft!” “Then we can dig it”), but never at the expense of sounding, above all, cool. I can dig it. – Jeff Terich


88. Peter Gabriel
Solsbury Hill
(1977; Charisma)
Available on Peter Gabriel (I)

Admittedly it’s not hard to hate this song, with its many soundtrack appearances and similarly numerous covers by horrible artists like Dave Matthews. Still, the song manages to be saved from overplayed status — to which it always comes perilously close — by the fact that it’s objectively pleasant and generally not bad. Gabriel’s post-Genesis career is one that astonishes at every point — Phil Collins might have taken Genesis to new heights (not to mention provided drums for Brian Eno) but he sure as shit didn’t write “Sledgehammer” — and “Solsbury Hill” was a promising starting point. Written after he’d left Genesis, Gabriel detoured from his prog rock frills in favor of a feather-soft acoustic sound. Out of his soaring vocals Gabriel froths with introspection, spiritual and artistic yearning, and no apparent bitterness or dissatisfaction regarding his old cohorts. And so it’s also not hard to see why it endures, having become an anthem for the world’s more apprehensive, if not exactly more interesting, free spirits. – Chris Morgan


87. Suicide
Cheree
(1977; Red Star)
Available on Suicide

The NYC duo did their absolute best to reinvent cool in their own image yet managed to always fall just short of doing so. In some cases they were too cool (“Ghost Rider”), while in others they were too … something else entirely (“Frankie Teardrop”). “Cheree” manages to serve as an exception to this imbalance. The band’s love for sex and horror are in perfect harmony. Alan Vega croons about his “black leather lady” as Martin Rev’s synth lays on a `50s slow dance groove, anticipating David Lynch’s perverted retro aesthetic nearly a decade in advance of Blue Velvet. – Chris Morgan


86. America
A Horse With No Name
(1971; Warner Bros.)
Available on America

Lead vocalist Dewey Bunnell may have been pleasantly high when America wrote this track — a good place to lay blame for straightforward lyrics like “There were plants, and birds, and rocks and things” — but having been inspired by the American Southwest as well as the art of Dali and Escher, he and his fellow Brits end up creating a hallucinogenic fever dream. Growing up hearing this on MOR radio in my youth, I always thought this was a devastating narrative. It starts innocently enough, our rider enjoying what he sees around him in the desert. The sun burns his body and brain like a riverbed, though, and he eventually finds himself trapped between sand and sea — the subtle, horrifying realization that “the ocean is a desert with its life underground.” What we have here is quite possibly the scariest song in yacht rock. – Adam Blyweiss


85. Grateful Dead
Friend of the Devil
(1970; Warner Bros.)
Available on American Beauty

This far along, it’s hard to think of the Grateful Dead as anything but celebrated cultural icons, but in 1970, they were still a pretty fresh act. And “Friend of the Devil” is a brilliant example of why American Beauty likely sounded like a classic album the moment it came out. A rich and rustic tune so Dylanesque that Mr. Robert Zimmerman himself frequently covered it, its groovy, acoustic sound would go on to leave an impact on a wide swath of artists from Tom Petty to Ryan Adams. While the lyrics are somewhat drowned out by all the sweet, sweet jams, Robert Hunter penned a brilliant narrative of a criminal on the run making dirty deals with Satan for somewhat admirable reasons. Those inclined to Americana binge sessions should thank Garcia & Co. for the gateway fix. – A.T. Bossenger


84. Wire
I Am the Fly
(1978; Harvest)
Available on Chairs Missing

Fly in the ointment, biblical or not, has always been an expression that has inspired just the slightest flicker of nausea in me each time that I hear it. I doubt I am the only one. And that may be why it is queasily wonderful when Colin Newman sings so cheerily about being such a fly; it’s not only that he wants to be the one to ruin things for someone just at the moment that person thinks he or she has got it made, the metaphoric “fly in the ointment” — he actually wants to be a fly, spread disease that you end up asking for without knowing why. And he wants you to dance a bit for it. As if you were the one caught in a web. Black thoughts. Black humor. Happy little melody cast upon a dark undertow, mechanical clapping, an undulating, almost funky bassline: deranged but irresistible. – Tyler Parks


83. Talking Heads
Life During Wartime
(1979; Sire)
Available on Fear of Music

“Life During Wartime” covers a lot of ground in a pretty short span of time — David Byrne confirmed that his influences in guiding the direction of the narrative were Patty Hearst, The Red Faction Army, the Tompkins Square Riot and living in Alphabet City. More importantly, this song evokes a sense of struggle while maintaining a catchy beat. On the surface, it’s a great new wave dance song, while ironically Byrne sings about how there’s no time for dancing or partying, loaded guns, being broke, being watched, staying hidden and having an identity crisis. This is a song about living during hard times in a rough place, and however over the top its paranoia, its themes and lyrics still remain relevant today. – Giovanni Martinez


82. Joy Division
Shadowplay
(1979; Factory)
Available on Unknown Pleasures

Eerie, bleak and utterly bewitching, “Shadowplay” is Joy Division at their very best. It’s all haunting bass guitar and gentle drums, rising to a crescendo before suddenly, the whole thing erupts. In hindsight, the song feels more poignant and moving than most, while the pace is precise yet frantic, urgently moving along to the end and paired with Ian Curtis’ haunting, bleak lyrics, such as “To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank waiting for you.” As Joy Division were always known for their mixture of poetic lyrics and sinister guitars, this song stands as one of their loftiest peaks. – Grace Barber-Plentie


81. Elvis Costello
Alison
(1977; Stiff)
Available on My Aim Is True

The emotional centerpiece of Elvis Costello’s still staggering debut, My Aim Is True,” “Alison,” one of the most pointed arrows in Declan’s full quiver of love songs, was released when the singer was only 23 years old. Yet feels like the work of an older man. I mean, when he sings in the classic opening line, “It’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl,” how long ago could it have been? But then again it doesn’t matter. Love can shatter time and space. “Alison,” recorded with his pre-Attractions band Clover, the song, with its Spinners and Delfonics touches, also was the first indication that Costello was hardly a one-trick angry young man. – Stephen Chupaska

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