Mush Never Sleeps

But no matter how much you might snicker at the silliness of these songs, the seven discs do flow beautifully, and the tracks still do what they were meant to do: soothe, calm, appease, and romance you -- shamelessly. The almost ambient disco of Silver Convention's "Fly, Robin, Fly" is chintzy standing on its own, but sandwiched between Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" and E.L.O.'s "Evil Woman," it finds its proper context. Which is, well, context: its enduring place as part of a whole culture, not just a relatively benign pop song.

Rhino does get a few potshots in to appeal to a '90s crowd that loves its love-hate relationship with the '70s. News clips of the day are interspersed throughout the discs, inserted in amusing places: Bobby Riggs' sexist boasts against Billie Jean King introduce Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," while a report from the Three Mile Island meltdown is immediately followed by the Trammps' "Disco Inferno." Which is in keeping with '70s pop's dominant legacy to the '90s: the punch line. In Wayne's World, Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" kicks in melodramatically when the girl of Garth's dreams walks by; in a savage but brilliantly constructed scene, a policeman gets his ear cut off in Reservoir Dogs as Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" calmly oozes in the background; and The Simpsons got a lot of comic mileage with jokes involving Peter Frampton, James Taylor, and Grand Funk Railroad. ("The competent drumming of Don Brewer!") And no rock concert is quite complete without the ironic (or drunk) fellow standing in front of you calling out for "Free Bird." Seventies rock can't mirror the moods of the masses anymore. But it can give today's masses a source for sarcasm; give you a chuckle, sell you a car.

The box does have a few ideas that are interesting in the '90s, particularly in terms of how gender issues got played out on the radio. In the era of Have a Nice Decade, women were strong and proud, and they had to be: Female artists were rarely played back to back on the radio. (Conventional wisdom of the time dictated that doing so turned off listeners.) So, forced to make their points as singular and immediate as possible, women's hits in the early '70s were declarations of purpose: Melanie's "Brand New Key," Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." But it wasn't until the disco divas of the '70s that those statements carried real power and weight, like Gloria Gaynor's defiant, implacable "I Will Survive"; the absence of any of Donna Summer's late singles here, presumably because of licensing restrictions, in this case is tragic.

Meanwhile, certain men got wimpier and wimpier: Apart from James Brown's "The Payback" and David Bowie's "Fame," there's a frightening amount of mush, from David Soul's "Don't Give Up on Us" to Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" to Morris Albert's "Feelings," until it reaches the sensitive-guy summit of Dan Hill's horrid "Sometimes When We Touch," where the honesty is indeed too much. "I wanna hold you 'til I die/ 'Til we both break down and cry." Either cry or die, mister, make up your mind.

Ah, but that's the cynical '90s response. In 1978, such sensitivity was good for a gold record, a No. 3 slot on the charts, and a strange immortality. While music in the '90s can point angry fingers and delve into cheap ironies, '70s pop dared unapologetically to map out feelings, however silly and petty they might be. It's not much of a legacy, but it's a sturdy one, and it's sure to remain strong as the '70s prepare to enter their fourth decade of existence.

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