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By Christopher Victorio
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Have a Nice Decade:
The '70s Pop Culture Box
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.
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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