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Music

Unlucky for some: The 13 most underrated songs from 1975

@TomTaylorFO

In the decade that many would champion as the finest in music history, 1975 represents a rare moment when the zeitgeist somewhat lost its way. Stationed between the dying embers of rock and folk and the first flame of punk and disco, the midpoint was somewhat of an oddity as artists seemed unsure where to head next.

Nevertheless, masterpieces were still brought forth by the old masters as Bob Dylan delivered his eponymous return to form record with Blood on the Tracks, David Bowie continued his golden run with Young Americans, Patti Smith illuminated the future with the masterpiece Horses, and The Who took a sweet turn with The Who by Numbers.

The music is indicative of a transitory moment in cultural history. Movies were about to change as Jaws became one of the first major blockbusters and inadvertently ushered in a more commercial movement of moviemaking. Elsewhere in art, The Rocky Horror Show had its first outing and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest proved to be a crowning masterpiece. 

In short, despite 1975 being somewhat of a trough in an otherwise decade of lofty peaks, there was still more than enough masterful art on the go to subsume the shy efforts who simply didn’t get their share of the spotlight. Not to worry though, as ever with our ‘unlucky for some’ feature, we’re giving the hidden gems of the year a second outing, and you can all find them in a playlist at the bottom of the piece too. 

The 13 most underrated songs from 1975:

13. ‘Common Sense’ – John Prine

John Prine’s 1985 effort Common Sense may well suffer because he wanders towards a slightly gaudier production that detracts from his fitting dogeared style. However, if you delve beneath the distraction of his unfamiliar setting, the dusty roads of wisdom that his words represent are still as stirring as ever. 

That shines through on this title track as he rhymes his way across a personal situation where sense is lost for every party, and lows seem to replace any high. As per usual, he retains his air of humour about things with verses like, “Just between you and me / It’s like pulling
When you ought to be shovin, / Like a nun / With her head in the oven / Please don’t tell me / That this really wasn’t nothing.”

12. ‘Poetry Man’ – Phoebe Snow

In ‘Poetry Man’ there is a fitting irony. As Snow explains about when she wrote the song, “My head was in a particular place when I wrote that. It condones extramarital relations, which now I do not at all condone. I was a silly kid back then who had no idea what was going on, and I had sex with a married man.” That may prove regrettable for Snow in retrospect, but the song has an air of fallibility to it, so there is an irony to the fact that the message ultimately bore out in reality. 

With a slow blues picking style and dreamy vocals, the song slowly weaves its way into silken full swing. Syncopation waxes and wanes in an interesting fashion giving the song a jazzy feel, but it is far too smoothly performed to ever be jarring. 

11. ‘Fallin’ in Love’ – Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds

In May 1975, a whole host of folks were puckering up in front of the mirror getting ready for a date night with the smooth tones of Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds spinning on their record players. The song still conjures that vignette to this day—you hit play and there is suddenly a puff of perfume in the air and the smell of lacquer in a disco perm.

With harmonies to rival any from the era, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds offered up a sort of Los Angeles brand of plastic soul that swayed with the same butter-cutting ease as the real thing. It’s a track so seamless that even the most ardent fan of Brazilian forro couldn’t begrudge its gorgeous quilted tones. 

10. ‘Water Get No Enemy’ – Fela Kuti

It is accepted by most people who have delved into Kuti that as well as being a bombastic character, he is an exceptionally talented musician. However, he is far from the easiest musical maestro to get into. His wild style can often produce wild results that bewilder rather than beguile.

Thankfully, his 1975 anthem ‘Water Get No Enemy’ proves to be the perfect starting point to pop on while you’re cooking, shake a few hips, and accidentally burn the house down. Beyond the toe-tapping rhythm is a terrific sense of atmosphere that offers up epic escapism and colourful joy.

9. ‘The Next Big Thing’ – The Dictators

One of the most defining features of punk was that it put the laughter back into music and made guitars fun again. With ‘The Next Big Thing’, The Dictators wanted to make this clear from the outset as the less-than business-like Andy ‘Adny’ Shernoff shouts out, “I didn’t have to do this, I didn’t have to show up here, with my best financial holdings, I could’ve been basking in the sun in Florida, this is just a hobby for me, nothing you hear, a hobby!”

Thereafter the proto-punk anthem is a volley of energy that put youthfulness back into the mix of music. Scratchy and scruffy, it isn’t going to pass any musicological beauty tests, but it served up something that punk did beautifully: it sounded like a group of people having a great time. 

8. ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ – Camille Yarbrough

There is something special about hearing a sample in its original form. Suddenly a refrain that you have heard a thousand times over is transformed, and when it comes to ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ it is transformed beyond measure. In fact, it even brings a fresh meaning to Fatboy Slim’s iconic rework. 

As stripped back as you can get, the musical nudity of the track gives it a bold vulnerability and allows for a sexy swell as the foreplay flips from an ode of gratitude to a gasp of passion. That is testimony of not only a brilliant song but a truly brilliant nuanced performance from Camille Yarbrough and her brassy vocals. 

7. ‘I Can Help’ – Billy Swan

I don’t know about you guys, but I will always have plenty of time for a man called Billy Swan who rams that branding home by standing in a meadow next to a swan in a bathtub for his album artwork. That whimsical endearment is transposed perfectly in the fun little ditty that is ‘I Can Help’.

With a throwback rockabilly vibe to the 1950s and that same ‘somebody has fallen asleep on the Hammond Organ’ sound that defined certain soft rock circles in the early 60s, there is a timelessness to Swan’s quirky style. Ultimately, the whole thing is far too charming to pass up.  

6. ‘Squire’ – Alan Hull

His songwriting has been compared to Bob Dylan in a recent BBC documentary and he landed a few hits with Lindisfarne, but Hull’s solo work simply hasn’t received the attention that it deserved. Perhaps it was too quirky, perhaps it just didn’t fit into the right record racks, or perhaps the irony of his character studies were missed?

Thankfully, this is gradually being redressed thanks to folks like Sam Fender championing the local hero that went before him. The ‘Squire’ is a good place to start with Hull’s solo work, with a wry smile, he espouses the wit of a shifty dandy who requires property and wealth, and seemingly a refill of tobacco for his pipe.   

5. ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’ – Roy Harper

Following on from that sense of English spirit, you don’t get more ‘greenfield thinking’ than Harper’s classic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’. It is a title that grabs the attention in an instant—how refreshing it is to break up the endless stream of love songs with a beautiful bit of poetry about the fairest sport there is. 

As Harper explained: “My childhood memories of the heroic stature of the footballers and cricketers of the day invoke the sounds that went along with them. Paramount among these was the traditional Northern English brass band, which was a functional social component through all four seasons, being seen and heard in many different contexts. My use of that style of music on ‘Old Cricketer’ is a tribute to those distant memories.”

4. ‘Only You Know’ – Dion

Dion’s work has gone on to inspire the likes of Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, but upon release, ‘Only You Know’ was panned towards the ash heap of history. Sure, the sound carries echoes of a bygone era, and the peculiar distant Phil Spector production gives it an odd air, but all of this surely only adds to the interest and lets the songwriting of Dion come to the fore. 

His old work with The Belmonts had long been replaced at this stage by a more solemn and considered approach, but the old pop sensibilities of rhythm and performative bravura remain. This makes for a unique sound that proves hard to place in the best way possible. 

3. ‘At Seventeen’ – Janis Ian

Relatability is a beautiful element and lord knows millions have felt the same as Janis Ian over the years. As she told songfacts of ‘At Seventeen’: “I never went to a prom, but I did go to my 6th-grade dance. That’s the trick, it’s just like acting. How many people are playing Hamlet whose father is a king? You take your own experience, find something similar in it and draw on that. Even though I didn’t go to the prom, I knew what it was like not to get asked to the dance.”

Far from infantile, the song has a timelessness to it making it a crutch for any generation to prop themselves upon when self-esteem might be dwindling. It is this air of vulnerability that gives the song its unflinching sincerity. 

2. ‘Diamonds & Rust’ – Joan Baez

As Bob Dylan would exclaim recently on stage: “Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. A truly independent spirit, nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. For her kind of love and devotion, I could never repay that back.”

This very notion is what makes ‘Diamonds and Rust’ soar amid the pantheon of odes and breakup pines that music has offered up. If Dylan and Baez embodied that folk is about timeless universality, then the pastiche that Baez paints with her stirring epic is something that transcends the specificity contained within and arrives at the sort of allegory that anyone can connect with—even behind a tree long since felled the grass remains greener. Perhaps that is why the beauty of the pipe and slippers opus has only blossomed since it was released, even if it did somehow inexplicably fail to chart in the top 30 originally. 

1. ‘Khala My Friend’ – Amanaz  

In the midst of Zambian independence, a cultural revolution was born and a small group of miners and former colonial freedom fighters formed a band called Amanaz. Amanaz would record a song called ‘Khala My Friend’, which, to betray a personal opinion, is my favourite song from the continent. Sadly, however, it is also a record that mirrors the bittersweet reality of the scene itself.  

The glowing brilliance of emergent Zamrock would come to an abrupt end. Zambia would be ravaged by HIV in the 1980s and nearly all the bands would die. In a country new to records, much of the music would die with it. Nevertheless, that ever-determined barnacle would still cling on and about five years ago the master tapes for Amanaz would be rediscovered and reissued, to be heard by the vast majority of the world for the very first time.

The melody jangles away in the background, instruments harmonise then pull apart like the best poetry where every word is somehow inevitable yet deeply confounding. And over this sweet sweeping serenity comes a voice that sounds so lived in, so caring and considerate, singing “the world is full of misery” and yet with the next line delivers the words “my friend” and “I’m gonna miss you” with such truth and such unabated soul-bearing, that it not only reminds the listener of what friendship, platonic or otherwise, can be, but it celebrates companionship with a splendour that rises above the malaise of the previous line towards exultant euphoria.

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