The 1970s has often been talked about as the defining decade of music. Though some say lovers of the 60s and or the 80s might disagree. However from sprawling progressive rock to new wave, punk to disco and everything in between, the 70s and the artists who became household names, created some of the finest songs of all time. Artists like John Lennon, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Talking Heads, even Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are extremely unlucky not to feature here. Those who did make it though, deserves their lofty place here amongst what I feel (at this present moment) are the ten best songs of the 70s. It’s up to you to convince me otherwise. Enjoy!
10. ‘Born To Run’ (taken from Bruce Springsteen’s album Born To Run, 1975.)
Bruce Springsteen during his early years was often pegged with the unfortunate tag as Bob Dylan’s heir apparent. It was a tag by the mid-70s that he completely shrugged off, cementing his own voice as one of America’s premier singer-songwriters. This evolution to pre-eminence began in earnest when Bruce Springsteen wrote one of his most iconic songs, Born To Run, in New Jersey in 1974. (Released in August, 1975.) The song of course was a love letter to a girl named Wendy, as much as it was a song about class, youth and getting out of a stagnated New Jersey town. Springsteen sings: “….Baby this town rips the bones from your back / It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we’re young.” Importantly in the forty plus years since Born To Run became an anthem for the struggling working-class, its spirit still resonates today.
9. ‘Dancing Queen’ (taken from Abba’s album Arrival, 1976.)
It would be a travesty not to include an ABBA song on a top ten list of the 70s. The elegant dual vocals of Agnetha and Frida and Björn and Benny’s compositions have inspired movies, musicals and cultural trends in the decades following their quiet gracious retirement in 1982. Out of all the songs that get the most attention, Dancing Queen stands atop of most lists as the quintessential Abba song of all time (except maybe The Winner Takes It All). In fact, Dancing Queen is often talked about in the same breath as Stayin’ Alive, I Will Survive, Chic, Hot Stuff and I Feel Love as one of the greatest disco songs of the ‘70s. What separates it from most disco tracks though is Dancing Queen‘s unashamed sense of fun, youth and nostalgia. When critic talk about Abba’s legacy to music, Dancing Queen always ends up being mentioned as the finest example ‘pop panache’. This is a song that the world even in 2021 desperately needs right now. It is such a fun song and really who can resist its call to arms, “Friday night and the lights are slow, Looking out for a place to go…”
8. ‘Night Moves’ (taken from Bob Seger’s album Night Moves, 1976.)
For over a decade Bob Seger struggled to gain anything more than regional success in the US. Interestingly, all the while he tinkered away at his craft, he never gave up on that one elusive hit that would change his fortunes. Encouraged along the way by friends like Glenn Frey and Don Henley, Seger honed his heartland rock chops by writing songs about youth, small-town characters but maybe more importantly about his younger days in the streets and surrounds of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Out of all of Bob Seger’s songs, Night Moves represents the best of what he has had to offer in a career steeped in heartland rock. With its infectious acoustic strumming and gorgeous piano arrangement, Night Moves moves with nostalgic sentiment inspired by Seger’s memory of a summer fling with a young woman, whose boyfriend at the time was in Vietnam. Seger has said many times that the song idea came to him one night after dreaming about her in 1976. When he eventually woke up, he began writing the song on an old guitar in his bedroom. It would take another six months for Seger to write Night Moves, but eventually when he was done with it, almost everyone associated with it knew Seger had a hit on their hands. In short, Night Moves would catapult Seger to fame. Rolling Stone called it the best song of 1977, even ahead of songs like Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night, which spent eight weeks at #1.
7. ‘Roxanne’ (taken from The Police’s debut album Outlandos d’Amour, 1978.)
The Police experiment as I like to call it only lasted seven years. That’s roughly the same sort of period in time that Nirvana achieved incredible fame before imploding. Sometimes its not about longevity but what you accomplish in a short span of time. From the very beginning The Police were a unique trio of musicians who didn’t quite fit the mould of punk rockers in London during the late ‘70s. In short, no one really knew what to make of them, especially with the release of arguably their greatest song Roxanne. With Roxanne coming so early in their career, it truly set the stage for them becoming innovators of a pop rock-oriented style broadly known as New Wave.
The story of Roxanne is well known. When The Police decided to head over to Paris in 1977 to play a gig it was here that two things caught Sting’s eye the night before their show (which eventually was cancelled). A group of Parisian prostitutes and a poster for the play Cyrano de Bergerac, which features a character named Roxanne would become the inspiration for a song. With that in mind, Sting wrote Roxanne, a story about a man’s unrequited love for a prostitute. At first The Police struggled to make it work but before long drummer Stewart Copeland helped transform it into a tango. While at first it failed to chart (primarily because the BBC had declined to put it on its playlist), upon re-release it exploded on radio around the world because of The Police efforts at promoting it while on tour in the US. Interestingly, in the early 80s, Roxanne got a big boost from Eddie Murphy when his character in 48 Hours unashamedly wails to its lyrics. Personally, Roxanne’s ‘happy accident’ in the intro, where we can hear Sting laugh after accidentally sitting on a piano is as good as Eddie Murphy’s laugh out loud performance.
6. ‘Go Your Own Way’ (taken from Fleetwood Mac’s eleventh studio album Rumours, 1977.)
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was one of the 70s biggest albums. It’s a wonder they even made it given the turmoil that was playing out both behind the scenes and in the public with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckinghams disintegrating relationship. After eight-years things had supposedly got so messy that when the two of them began writing songs for the new album in 1976 everyone held their breath in anticipation of what was to come.
Two songs standout on the phenomenally successful eleventh studio album Rumours that speak volumes of the state of mind of the band. Both Stevie Nicks’ Dreams and Lindsey Buckingham’s Go Your Own Way are arguably proof of the dirty laundry being aired by Fleetwood Mac’s bandmates. The latter written by Buckingham, doesn’t seem to mince words when describing his fallout with Nicks. The opening verse gets straight to the point with “Loving you isn’t the right thing to do”. Very much like the album as a whole, Go Your Own Way plays out like a Shakespearian tragedy of emotions and feelings of angst and regret. You can even feel Buckingham’s pain through his gut-wrenching guitar solo as it wails uncontrollably.
Interestingly, while Stevie Nicks might have some reservations about the song, particularly with the lyrics “packing up, shacking up is all you want to do” (referring to her promiscuous behaviour), there is no denying that Go Your Own Way is not only Buckingham’s finest moment but it is arguably Fleetwood Mac’s greatest song.
5. ‘Staying Alive’ (taken from Bee Gees album Saturday Night Fever, 1977.)
They say disco was born in New York in 1970. It wasn’t long before its rise to mainstream prominence between 1974 and 1977 saw artists like Barry White, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross and Donna Summers become huge hit makers. The latter became known as the Queen of Disco, while the unlikely Kings of Disco were the Bee Gees, who only cut their teeth on disco after their celebrity as pop musicians seriously waned by the early 1970s.
The year 1974 was watershed moment for the Bee Gees, who relocated to Miami in an attempt to reignite their careers. By the following year Jive Talking became their first spirited venture into disco territory. In a few short years since their conversion to disco kings, more Bee Gees hits followed reaching a career crescendo so loud with Stayin’ Alive that arguably nothing since as surpassed its popularity and legacy to disco. Interestingly, Robin Gibb once said, “Very few people realize it’s to do with anything but dance… The lyrics very obviously state the scenario of survival.” Of course, it didn’t stop Stayin’ Alive becoming one of the most recognizable songs of the ‘70s.
4. ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ (taken from the Steve Miller Band album Fly Like An Eagle, 1976.)
The Joker, Abracadabra and Jet Airliner are all products of Steve Miller’s eccentricity. But one song above all others shines like a jewel. Early in 1974 after a long arduous tour, Miller decided to take a year off and became a recluse in his own home jamming to song ideas that he thought were cool for a future new album. One of those songs was Fly Like An Eagle which he had written while on tour in 1973. Back then it was very much a song with political overtures but now he didn’t want it to sound so self-righteous. While it sounded pretty good as a live experimental song back in ‘73, according to Miller it still lacked a certain “sparkle”.
And so, as the story goes, Miller who had always been interested in electronic music bought a shitty little synthesiser and spend hours experimenting running it through an Echoplex. The effects he would create would play a huge part in the song’s intro and bridge. That said, the spaced-out synth-rock of Fly Like An Eagle would become a super-hit for Miller. It goes without saying that it is best appreciated together with the ‘Space Intro’ that opens the album. Anything else, including radio edits, steals from Steve Miller’s vision for the song. In short, thanks to Miller’s willingness to consider new ideas, Fly Like An Eagle charged with atmosphere and retro psychedelic sounds arguably helped turn the ’70s on its head.
3. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (taken from Queen’s album A Night At The Opera, 1975.)
If you don’t think Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen is one of the greatest songs of all time, there is something seriously wrong with you. It is without a doubt the single greatest rock opera ever made. And who do we have to thank for it? Well, Freddy Mercury, of course. The genesis of the song apparently according to Mercury’s friend Chris Smith went back as early as 1970. But by 1975, Mercury had arranged a loose framework of the song he hoped would be the first single of their forthcoming new album A Night At The Opera. Mercury had a vision of the song being made up of three distant sections. What might have seemed like total madness is now considered a testament to Mercury’s incredible talents, which sees a ballad, operatic and rock section hold together one of the most ambitious songs ever recorded. Notable moments include an amazing five-part harmony a cappella intro, Brian May’s incredible guitar solo and some of the most bewildering lyrics ever used for a song with words like Mamma Mia, Galileo and Figaro, all featured in what amounts to a glam-metal rock extravaganza.
Interestingly, Mercury never really explained the meaning of what the song was about, but it is assumed that he was singing about himself and his greatest struggle in life. The verse beginning with “Mama, I just killed a man”, for instance is assumed to be a revelation about how he has just murdered his old self. That said, Bohemian Rhapsody was in some sense Mercury’s confessional about being gay. Then again, Mercury was always interested in truly creative songwriting and Bohemian Rhapsody just might be lyrical nonsense for art sake.
2. ‘Hotel California’ (taken from the Eagles album Hotel California, 1976.)
In 1977, when the single Hotel California was released, if anyone who still had any doubts of The Eagles being a bona fide rock act, the success of the song and the album with the same name, surely put that argument to rest. Even critics who had a love/hate relationship with the so-called pretentious wanna-bes from California couldn’t ignore the fact the Eagles had grown into an edgier rock band (particularly with the inclusion of Joe Walsh).
Interestingly, over the years Hotel California has been interpreted by some to be about devil worship, while others point to the lyrics being about being trapped in a psychiatric hospital. You can’t blame anyone for believing such things because the lyrics are cleverly vague enough to mean whatever you want them to be. If you ask Don Felder who came up with the guitar intro to the song, he would tell you that the song summed up his life to that point. To Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the Eagles primary songwriters, Hotel California was a loosely based concept about the decadence of Californian life. Moreover, Frey and Henley had hoped the song would resemble something of a soundtrack to a movie. Whatever the case, Felder’s opening riff with Henley’s gravelly voice introducing a weary stranger travelling along a dark desert highway, set in motion a surreal story that is steeped with haunting metaphors and symbolism. By the end of this Grammy Award winning song, some six and a half minutes in length, you would be a fool to not want to listen to it again.
1. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (taken from Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth studio album, 1971.)
Stairway to Heaven is one of the greatest songs ever written. It wasn’t a chart topping hit. It wasn’t even released as a single. Instead it was created to be the big show stopper on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. Jimmy Page once said in the infancy of recording the album that he wanted to try something new with an epic song where an organ and acoustic guitars builds and boils over to an electric climax. Of interest, those who are huge fans of John Paul Jones will tell you that his contribution to ‘Stairway’ folklore on bass, electric piano but also with his innovative inclusion of three different bass recorders is absolutely brilliant. But above all else, apart from maybe the song’s infamous acoustic intro, it is undoubtedly Page’s iconic guitar solo that makes Zeppelin fans orgasm the most with excitement.
‘Stairway’ arrived at the beginning of the ’70s and became the bench mark for aspiring guitarist to create their own piece of music history. Only Don Felder and Joe Walsh on The Eagles’ Hotel California and David Gilmour on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb come close to emulating Page’s solo brilliance. Talking of brilliance, ‘Stairway’ progressive, folk and hard rock influences is the stuff of classic rock dreams. Along with Robert Plant’s lyrics serving to camouflage an array of hidden truths and mystical significance, only a handful of songs comes close to matching its grandeur.