Mush Never Sleeps

Various Artists
Have a Nice Decade:
The '70s Pop Culture Box
(Rhino)

Rhino Records began the '90s with the '70s: In January 1990, the reissue label unleashed the first volume of its soon to be infamous Have a Nice Day series of '70s pop hits. The collection focused on what are commonly called one-hit wonders -- the "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)"s and "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo"s of the pop firmament. Viewed purely as music, the discs could be horrible -- sincerity from gooey singer/songwriters (Andy Kim's "Rock Me Gently"), overblown arena rock (Golden Earring's "Radar Love"), and the likes of Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight," a unique example of sonic awfulness. But on a marketing level, the timing was perfect. By the end of the '80s, the boomers and post-boomers who lived through the hits of Peter Frampton, Foghat, and Firefall were old enough to feel their strong emotional reactions to the music subside into mere nostalgia, and now they had enough positive cash flow to invest in it.

The investment Rhino asked for was enormous. Digging deep, and then deeper, into the forgotten and half-forgotten pop ephemera of the era, no less than 25 volumes of Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s were eventually released. The sales numbers were so good Rhino refused to stop: The tireless excavators then offered a full 20 volumes of Didn't It Blow Your Mind: Soul Hits of the '70s; then five volumes of In Yo' Face!, which drew heavily from '70s funk; and, finally, three volumes of Mellow Rock Hits of the '70s. In an unexpected show of restraint, Rhino's Have a Nice Night: Romantic Hits of the '70s was limited to one sorry volume of wimpy mush. Boomers love their disco and P-Funk, but apparently they draw the line at more than a disc's worth of the likes of "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

There's no such restraint on Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box, a seven-disc, 160-song chronology packaged in a case with a shag-carpet cover and a tongue-in-cheek accompanying booklet. (The production credits page is titled "Blame.") Most of the songs were Top 10 pop hits; with the exception of REO Speedwagon's live "Ridin' the Storm Out," all cracked the Top 40. Remember that was at a time when the Top 40 actually charted the culture and not just record sales. It didn't matter what age or race you were, you knew the lyrics to the O'Jays' "Love Train" by heart, whether you liked the song or not. In the '70s, pop music had that power; it could cut across all demographic boundaries. In the '80s and '90s, though, the music fractured. There were so many subgenres that you could score major hits and still travel below the radar of the popular culture. The lock on the singles and album charts that rap label No Limit currently enjoys means absolutely nothing to most rock listeners, while teen-age suburban 311 fans couldn't care less about best-selling Yanni albums and concerts their parents are consuming in outrageous numbers. The '70s were arguably the last decade of pop's majority rule, when nearly everybody was familiar with and agreed upon the biggest hits of the day.

Thing is, what everyone agreed on wasn't just great stuff like Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," or Parliament's "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)." There was also "The Streak," "Convoy," and "Kung Fu Fighting" to contend with, object lessons in the pitfalls of the populism of '70s pop. There were upbeat, catchy, well-crafted songs built to ease the consciences of a generation pummeled by Watergate and Vietnam. Many, though, are simply built to numb that conscience, a much less respectable endeavor. One-hit wonders weren't what the '70s were about, entirely: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, even Fleetwood Mac were making galvanizing music at the time, as were the upstart punk bands of the decade's later years. Licensing issues probably prevented many of those artists from appearing in this collection, but the box's goal -- to validate the pop single, not to track rock's history -- suggests that those artists probably weren't contacted anyway. Rock (read: white) megastars of that time are still considered critically in terms of their entire oeuvres, while the catalogs of soul and R&B (read: black) megastars are more malleable, easier to repackage. Al Green, Sly Stone, the Jackson 5, Chic, and Stevie Wonder all have catalogs that run much, much deeper than the one song each is allotted here, but they all had a talent for compressing their visions into the space of a single three-minute song. (Still: why Wonder's "Sir Duke" and not "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"?)

As a greatest-hits collection, it's not really the job of Have a Nice Decade to take on questions of quality and worth; after all, it's not Rhino's fault that people liked "Disco Duck." And it should be remembered that the repackagers are at the mercy of the availability of songs, whether because of unclear ownership or the refusal of rights holders to license the tunes. But Rhino's selection is still a bit strategic. The inclusion of even one pop song that places deep thinking ahead of a good beat (Jackson Browne's "The Pretender" for instance) would deflate this souffle. But this is the pop culture box, not the pop music box, so such concerns are brushed aside to make room for hit songs from movies and TV shows, back when they were a rare commodity: The themes from Shaft, Superfly, Deliverance, Star Wars, The Sting, The Rockford Files, and Laverne & Shirley are all included. The set deliberately focuses on the lightweight stuff, as well as the particular instrumental trends of the day, the Moogs and wah-wahs and string sections and funk bass and Highly Professional Guitar Breaks that defined pop back then.

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