In many ways, 1976 was a year that seeded a lot of things for the future without being uproarious itself. Musically it was the year that punk began to break into its stride and, in other areas, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak set up, in the words of Forest Gump, some fruit company called Apple and apparently, it’s doing well.
Aside from the punk wave rippling away pre the 1977 explosion, much of the music was going inferno, acoustic’s were being shelved en masse and big beat manifestoes were being drawn up. In amongst this transitioning music scene, some iconic records were released.
Bob Dylan topped the majority of end-of-year round-ups with Hurricane and David Bowie’s darkest character, The Thin White Duke, scored critical acclaim with Station to Station and Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibrations continued the reggae craze.
A transitional period in music is a tricky thing to find yourself in as an artist. While questions about seeing out fads versus getting ahead of the curve may trouble mere mortals the true musical greats just turn out timeless integrity on a dime. However, the downside is that still doesn’t guarantee success.
Once more in Unlucky For Some, we’re looking at the gems that escaped the net in the year of our Lord, 1976, and once more we’re wrapping them up in a playlist.
The 13 unlucky gems from 1976:
13. ‘Chase the Devil’ by Max Romeo & The Upsetters
The song behind the sample is always a fascinating thing to behold. The vocal introduction to ‘Chase the Devil’ is instantly recognisable from The Prodigy’s rave epic ‘Out of Space’, yet based on streaming figures and album sales, very few have heard the classic original.
What will land as a surprise to those that haven’t heard it before is the depth of the lyrics. Max Romeo’s reggae jam had lyrics that could have been plucked straight from the Old Testament. There’s a darkness and weight to the wordplay that lends an eerie contrast to the typically light melody—all in all, a fascinating piece of music for a multitude of reasons.
12. ‘Carmelita’ by Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon was a troubled songwriter, and ‘Carmelita’ encapsulates both sides of his coin. The song sounds almost like some old Neil Diamond piece, then the chorus unexpectedly pricks the ears with a casual mention of being strung up on heroin.
Narrative songs always offer up a reason to listen, and this one is an epic of the genre. For some reason, the lyrics’ incongruous melody and bleak tragedy offer up a dark sort of comedy. With Zevon, nothing is quite as meets the eye, and this despairing ditty is a perfect example of the multitudes contained therein.
11. ‘Do That Stuff’ by Parliament
The weirdest funk visionaries in town know how to throw a party, both literally and sonically. ‘Do That Stuff’ rolls along on a bassline that could spread jam on your toast and piles in with the usual ensemble chanted vocal that always gives their songs a sense of play and freedom as the atmosphere of a smoke-filled studio breathes out from under the stylus.
The summer of 1976 was a fun time indeed, and The Clones of Dr Frankenstein would’ve been on heavy repeat. Why it only charted at #22 is surely just down to the fact that one copy sufficed for an endless garden party of hundreds of happy comers and goers.
10. ‘The Pretender’ by Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne wrote ‘These Days’, made famous by Nico among others when he was only 16-years-old. That’s a fact that does two things; a) ruins the integrity of the solemn masterpiece (very sorry about that) and b) shows that Jackson Browne was born with some sort of dysfunction that allowed him to alchemically craft a songwriting masterpiece on a whim.
‘The Pretender’ might not be as heartfelt as tracks like ‘These Days’ but it is an ineffably solid piece of songwriting, that shows off his ability to entwine melody and lyrics like he’s simply tying together his shoe laces.
9. ‘It’s Your World’ (Live) by Gil Scott-Heron
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became Gil Scott-Heron’s counterculture mantra. At the start of the live version for this track, he elucidates his philosophy in a laidback rally-cry, “A lot of times people think something is being taken from them, they think their woman’s being taken, they think their money’s being taken. The question is whether or somebody has been taking your mind. Because we have a feeling that when you are free here [presumably points at his mind], and free will exists, there is always a possibility of becoming physically free, but it starts up here.”
Regardless of whether or not you go in for that sort of thing, it can’t be knocked that Gil Scott-Heron was out there like some musical renaissance, and as the Brian Jackson composition that backs him can attest to, he did it with more style than Jacques Dutronc in a Jean-Luc Godard movie.
8. ‘I Want More’ by CAN
Krautrock wasn’t for everyone. I was a genre more experimental than an average Salvador Dalí take-over of CERN. Sometimes, however, it cooked up the odd perfect test tube baby that was to everybody’s taste.
The forgotten track ‘I Want More’ was a minor hit in the summer of ’76 in Britain, but it has since faded into obscurity, mainly because it is too disparate from the rest of the band’s back catalogue to embrace as anything other than a joyous peculiarity.
7. ‘Ten Percent’ by Walter Gibbons
Charting the origins of musical genres is like tracing the starting point of a river; it’s not an easy task, and certain songs like ‘Ten Percent’ seem so Promethean that they seem to belong on the rainclouds.
This house music percussor already displays the good points of the genre. Walter Gibbons has captured a bongo-laden beat ideal for a quick seven-minute stir-fry. It is cacophonous musical evolution with a groove that could get a boulder moving. Sadly, it now gets less than 3,500 listens on Spotify.
6. ‘So It Goes’ by Nick Lowe
Repetition is the key to an earworm and that is a rule that Nick Lowe knows well. If you listen to ‘So It Goes’ even once, it will most certainly find a way to lodge itself somewhere deep in the canyons of your brain, and contrary to how annoying that might sound on paper, it will spring forth as a gift.
This little rock ‘n’ roll ditty, inspired by the satire of Kurt Vonnegut, is essentially a plain and simple gem of the pop world. In the same way that you can’t go wrong with cheese on toast, you’d be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy this singalong serving of sunshine.
5. ‘Crazy on You’ by Heart
In certain publications, it is now implied that this was an instant hit, but a little research shows that, like so many classics throughout history, retrospect plays a track of success on a song that was actually very slow in getting off the ground. Originally this peaked at #35 in the US charts, which is hardly the realm of a classic.
The song opens with an ahead of its time flamenco introduction called ‘Silver Wheels’ plucked out with perfection by Nancy Wilson, one of the greatest female rock guitarists of all time. Thereafter is uniquely meddles acoustic and electric to produce a quintessential late seventies musical maelstrom.
4. ‘I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face’ by Arthur Russell
In fairness, there is no knowing whether this song was actually written in 1976 because it belongs to an undated bundle of demoes that Arthur Russell knocked up in his constantly creative, but far from structured lifetime.
It makes it in this 1976 version, in part, because it has a slight sound of the era, but mostly because it deserves recognition for being the most honest break-up song of all time, and I can’t say it fairer than that—a lyrical masterpiece.
3. ‘Shake Some Action’ by Flamin’ Groovies
‘Shake Some Action’ is a much-welcomed throwback tune to the melodic masterpieces mid-sixties early psych scene. It is a sound signalled by the title of the track, which originates from a line from the 1965 film None but the Brave.
The song captures something unknowable in its driving rhythm; it sounds like youth grateful being seized upon and thriving on the sanguine energy of a spiritual summer. There is more to ‘Shake Some Action’ than can be distilled from the study; its constitution captures something that we can only really call atmosphere without taking thing too far into metaphysics.
2. ‘The Sound Of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter’ by Penguin Café Orchestra
There is no saying why, but this song coaxes so many paradoxical emotions, and that’s that perhaps the best I can do in terms of encapsulating its lucid empyrean magnitude is to bring in a David Byrne quote that sits somewhere in the ether of the song’s conjurings.
“I sense the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical, and poetic than we currently believe,” he once said, “but just as irrational as sympathetic magic when looked at in a typically scientific way. I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry–poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs–is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.”
1. ‘Hit or Miss (Live)’ by Odetta
Odetta was a numen who bridged the gap between folk, blues & soul; as a founding figure of the Greenwich Village scene from its late 50’s outset, she was a prolific actress and such a key component of the Civil Rights Movement that she was dubbed the voice of it. She’s hardly enshrined in history the way that she should be.
The above is a list of prominent engagements, but it says nothing of her voice and the near unrivalled amount of soul she pours into her art. There is no finer example of this fervent artistry than ‘Hit or Miss’, both in its performative expression and content. She booms out, “Can’t be nobody else / I gotta be me,” as she plays and sings like nobody else ever could.
Although he’s also said this concerning about ten other artists, Bob Dylan cites Odetta as the reason he, ‘traded in his amp and electric’ and took up ‘folk’ back in the ’50s. Poet and writer Maya Angelou said, “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognise time.”
Thus, it is sufficient to say that Odetta has had plaudits both posthumously and in her performing heyday. Her influence is ubiquitous in both the fields where she plied her craft and society as a whole, but somehow, she never came close to breaking the top 10 of anything, anywhere. Such was her zest for creative output it would seem the success of the end result hardly mattered, but it is still a travesty, nonetheless.
Hit or Miss is a one listen track. Within a minute it’ll have you touting the trope ‘I don’t know what it is, but she’s got it.’