Home Music Music Lists

20 Songs That Defined the Early Seventies

The sounds that were inescapable during Nixon era, including Elton John, Marvin Gaye and more

20 Songs That Defined the Early Seventies

20 songs that were inescapable during Nixon era, including Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Carole King and more.

Michael Putland/Getty, Terry O'Niell/Getty, Jim McCrary/Getty

Pondering pop history from a generation or two away, it's easy to forget what things actually sounded like from inside the zeitgeist. As Western culture worked itself into a complicated cultural froth, the early Seventies reflected those complexities in its hit parade with music that was evocative, entertaining and, for better or worse, unavoidable. Which is to say that the tunes on this list constitute much of the DNA of anyone alive at the time. Radio still mattered more than TV, and our seemingly endless culture wars were only beginning. New constituencies were arising and pop had even started reflecting on its own history. It was the best of times, it was the – oh, you know. And so, to the best of our recollections, here's the greatest music you couldn't avoid hearing in the early Seventies.

Play video

Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar” (1971)

The Stones typically met the utopianism of the Sixties with either a wink or a snarl, but finally they entered a decade just as gruff and nasty as they were. Ostensibly a party jam, "Brown Sugar" traces rock & roll – and by extension the wealth and fame and sexual conquest of the Rolling Stones themselves – to slavery and its plunder of black lives and black culture… and yet refuses to be apologetic about it. "Brown Sugar" is Walter Benjamin's aphorism about every document of culture also being a document of barbarism. 

Play video

Sly and the Family Stone, “Family Affair” (1971)

Sly Stone's final chart-topping single, the most successful of his career, was a dark, spare masterpiece of submarine R&B. The track's ingredients consisted of sister Cynthia Rose singing the title line through cupped hands, Bobby Womack on sinister wah-wah guitar, and Sly on everything else – most notably the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 drum machine, his "funk box." Womack suggests that Stone's uniquely distanced vocal resulted from a microphone placed beside his head as he lay spaced out on a piano. The song's enigmatic lyrics insinuate everything from a Woodstock hangover to fear of the Black Panthers. But as Sly told Rolling Stone upon its release: "Song's about a family affair, whether it's a result of a genetic process or a situation in the environment."

Play video

Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together” (1972)

As soul music evolved in the Seventies, the dancing in the street of the civil rights era gave way to the sound of making out behind closed doors. No singer combined down-home grit with boudoir suavity as effortlessly and audaciously as Al Green. He follows a heartfelt "You'd never do that to me" with a confidently spoken aside "Would you baby?" as though he's improvising the whole song on the spot over a beat roughed up just enough by the Hi Rhythm section and an arrangement polished just enough by producer Willie Mitchell.

Play video

The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There” (1972)

"I'll Take You There"'s one verse, two chords and nearly five minutes of gospel-soul magnificence made communally uplifting black church music safe for white listeners. Its Muscle Shoals arrangement, meanwhile, tapped deeply, if perhaps a little too nonchalantly, into early Jamaican reggae. The lyrics were written by Stax co-owner Al Bell but its rhythmic structure was imported wholesale from the Harry J Allstars' 1969 reggae hit "The Liquidator," with future Wailers Carlton (drums) and Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass) supplying the riddim that rocksteady singer Alton Ellis claimed was itself lifted from his "Girl I've Got a Date." Mavis Staples' glorious contralto, a virtuosic instrument of shouting and cajoling, released the song from its complicated origins. "People thought 'I'll Take You There' was the Devil's music," she later said, "because people were dancing to it."

Play video

Elton John, “Rocket Man” (1972)

"Your Song," "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," "Daniel," "Honky Cat," "Crocodile Rock" – Elton John owned the early Seventies and most of the rest of the decade, but "Rocket Man" was his most ambitious mega-hit. Inspired by Tom Rapp's similarly titled tune with acid-folk outfit Pearls Before Swine, lyricist Bernie Taupin imagined an astronaut bummed out by the banality of his profession. (David Bowie's "Space Oddity" seemed almost histrionic in comparison.) Onstage, John would use the tune as a launching pad for ever-changing jams that would extend from New Orleans piano polyrhythms to New Age noodling. 

Play video

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” (1972)

"Fingertips Pt. 2." became Stevie Wonder's first Number One hit when the soul wunderkind was just 13 years old, but despite a dynamic string of Sixties singles, he didn't top the charts again for nearly a decade. This clavinet-driven workout established the one-time child star as the adult genius who would dominate the decade: As with Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," "Superstition" was the sound of a Motown artist taking control of his career. And Stevie's hit was just as political in its own subtle way as Marvin's, channeling the mood of skepticism prevailing in the U.S. at the time.

Play video

Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman” (1972)

Helen Reddy delivered her catchy feminist anthem "I Am Woman" with cunning restraint. As a performer, Reddy was more than familiar with male imbecility. She'd been "down there on the floor" and this song, whose strong, invincible hook came to her in a dream, was payback – a collective roar often foolishly mistaken for egotistic bravada. "I was able to connect with all kinds of women," Reddy would write. "[W]omen who had been initially turned off by some of the more strident feminist voices; or women who believed they were already liberated." 

Play video

Todd Rundgren, “Hello It’s Me” (1972)

If only all adult contemporary music was as entertaining, and as irritating, as Todd Rundgren's first original song. "Seeing you," sings Rundgren in this more than slightly narcissistic boy-objectifies-girl breakup vignette before correcting himself: "or seeing anything as much as I do you." Written when he was still a teenaged Nazz member, "Hello It's Me" was inspired musically by a Jimmy Smith organ intro to a recording of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," with an ill-fated high-school romance supplying the one-sided phone conversation's content. Re-recorded for his ambitious solo album Something/Anything, Rundgren elevated the blandness of the breakup to high pop realism.

Play video

Hot Butter, “Popcorn” (1972)

The world's first primarily electronic pop hit – and kernel of a future fractal universe of synthetic sonic materials – was composed by Gershon Kingsley. The German-American composer discovered the melody while noodling on a Bach improvisation and released it on 1969's Music to Moog By. "'Pop' is for pop music," Kingsley later declared, "and 'corn' is for kitsch." His percolating earworm didn't take off until Hot Butter, featuring First Moog Quartet member Stan Free, covered it in 1972. It took off in a Paris disco and went on to inspire renditions by Aphex Twin, Muse and Crazy Frog.

Play video

Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” (1973)

"What's Going On" was a stirring anthem of political consciousness, marking a new stage in Marvin Gaye's career as an R&B auteur. This sexy romp was stirring in a much different way, but it was making a statement as well: Hot sex is something "all sensitive people" need. The Seventies would be a steamy decade, after all, and no one explored the artistry of seduction with such a versatile sense of humor and hedonistic commitment as Gaye.

Play video

The Sweet, “The Ballroom Blitz” (1973)

The Sweet's trajectory from prefab pop to punk-rock precursors peaked with glam-rock's catchiest hit. This oddly touching bit of hard-charging autobiography – with an arrangement flagrantly borrowed from Bobby Comstock's 1963 British beat-group favorite "Let’s Stomp" – chronicles an attack of bottle-tossing audience members during a January 1973 gig in Kilmarnock, Scotland. "The Ballroom Blitz" found its way to the U.S. two years later, setting the scene for the Ramones' equally catchy and militaristic 1976 debut, "Blitzkrieg Bop." 

Show Comments