Critical Pop: '70s Production
- Best of List
The building blocks of '70s pop smashes.
‘70s pop production is a unique animal - not a savage, menacing beast like some ‘70s rock records, but a warm, fuzzy, well insulated creature that would cuddle up next to you and let you use it's belly as a pillow while you dreamed of the perfect combination of stylishly patched bell-bottom jeans and rainbow-colored, Peter Max-designed polyester shirt. The songs that came chiming out of AM radios throughout the decade were a hermetically sealed universe unto themselves, where hook upon carefully crafted hook had been painstakingly placed at just the right point in the tune's elaborate arrangement for maximum earworm impact. Not only could you hum the vocal on every ‘70s pop single, you could hum the guitar, keyboard, and bass lines, the string arrangement, and practically the goddamn drum part. Nothing was left to chance, which means everything was expertly aligned, and the almost agoraphobic insularity this sometimes generated was part of the charm of it all. Today, everybody from electro-rockers Justice to indie-poppers Belle and Sebastian pays homage to the era when breathy woodwinds, zinging strings, and tinkling xylophones were employed with as much punch and precision as guitar riffs and pounding piano, so it may be helpful to highlight some of the key moments that made ‘70s pop production such a singular sensorial pleasure. We'll start off with just a few, but there are a lot more where these come from.
"Ebony Eyes" - Bob Welch
The recently departed singer who helped lead Fleetwood Mac from their blues-rock beginnings toward L.A. pop perfection before Lindsey Buckingham came along, Bob Welch had a couple of hits on own as well. This one is so damn infectious it sounds like it has two different choruses, but the quintessential moment that really puts an exclamation point at the end of the sonic sentence is the almost implausibly perky string part that leaps out after the first line of the chorus, "Your eyes got me dreamin'..."
"Baby Come Back" - Player
Sadly, many people under the age of 40 know this song by British/American band Player grabbed the brass ring with this 1977 Number One hit, which has been covered over the years by everyone from Jellyfish to Lisa Stansfield. What sets the mood for this mid-tempo, blue-eyed-soul-tinged slow-burner (admittedly similar to Hall & Oates' earlier "She's Gone") is the opening guitar riff, which sounds like its being processed through a tremolo pedal, perhaps intended to approximate the sound of the spurned lover's tears.
"If You Leave Me Now" - Chicago
This 1976 single was probably Chicago's biggest hit, which is saying something. Penned and sung by Peter Cetera, it bore a subtle bossa nova undercurrent that couldn't have hurt its initial status as a summertime smash. But the song - covered by a long list of artists that includes the likes of Boyz II Men and even The Isley Brothers - finds its fulcrum not in the slip-sliding groove nor Cetera's airy "woo-hoo-hoo," but in the unexpected entrance of a 12-string guitar solo that's obviously more of a carefully concocted compositional element than anything so déclassé as an improvisation. And when its final phrase reprises at the end, it's clear Cetera and company knew they were on to something.