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Music

The 10 best albums from 1970s New York

@TomTaylorFO

Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver says it best. In the grisly thriller, the streets of Manhattan have descended into the postlapsarian dystopian nightmare forecast in a thousand bad acid trips from the decade earlier. The technological fix for a society that the post-war progression promised has been swallowed up in nothing more than the sprawl of concrete, the rise of brutalist architecture and a chronic lack of deodorant. With no life ring cast from those in power or prominence, who were more concerned with threats from afar than the onset of internal decay, the denizens of the city sink into the plashy mire of crime and punishment. 

Art thrived like flowering weeds in the cracks of society. As Richard Hell, the punk pioneer and adopted citizen of Big Apple once said: “Things always change, and New York teaches you that.” It was changing faster than the racetrack rabbit in the 1970s and not always for the better. Between 1969 to 1974 the city lost 500,000 manufacturing jobs. Subsequently, a million homes depended on welfare, rapes and burglaries tripled, drugs ran rampant and murders hit a high of 1690 a year. However, a lot of art comes from chaos and defiance—New York was a creative cocktail of both. 

As Fran Lebowitz wrote: “When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough.” A great deal of artists relished in the glut of grime, and it resulted in a weird cultural zenith. Punk arose and pop culture toppled the bourgeoisie approach to art once and for all, and the seeding grounds for hip hop would soon flower. In short, there was a hive of NYC artistry amid the greatest decade for music, the results are still there for us to cherish. 

As Edmund White wrote in City Boy: “I was lucky to live in New York when it was dangerous and edgy and cheap enough to play host to young, penniless artists. That was the era of “coffee shops” as they were defined in New York—cheap restaurants open round the clock where you could eat for less than it would cost to cook at home. That was the era of ripped jeans and dirty T-shirts, when the kind of people who are impressed by material signs of success were not the people you wanted to know.” 

Below, we’ve offered up a snapshot of the city from the era by collating the best albums it produced in the decade. From the best of the world-changing CBGB explosion to the start of rap and the riotous end to avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers.

In truth, all of these records could be contained in a greatest of all time list to boot, which is why we placed them all in a playlist at the bottom of the piece. Enjoy.

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The 10 best albums from 1970s New York:

[1970] Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel 

The last hoorah from the Greenwich Village folk heyday was offered up in hymnal style by the legends who helped to spawn the scene in the 1960s, and in turn, pretty much the entirety of modern alternative culture. And it was never really supposed to happen which meant that the music kept its humbling humility…

You see, Bob Dylan once said: “To me, folk is just a bunch of fat people.” And when referencing that quote, the filmmaker Ethan Coen quipped: “That sort of disavowing the shit that you actually love is interesting and real and human.” You see, the thing is, folk music was never meant to be huge, Bob Dylan never actually meant to change the world, Joni Mitchell should never have really made any more than a room full of drunken people in gingham cry…

However, the scene burst at the seams and when it finally morphed into modern forms and left the reams of beat text reverberating but nevertheless finally placed back on the bookshelf, its grand Yankee goodbye was a beautiful apotheosis of an entire musical zenith that we are still positively reeling from (perhaps never to be bettered).

If that seems grandiose at times with the title track of this album, then what the hell can you be grand about if not that? And thereafter the dainty ditties unfurl so perfectly formed it is as though the ether has been incubating them for aeons just for the duo to coax down gently into velveteen tracks. Farewell Greenwich, you served us well, but it was time for folk to leave its subterranean home and effortlessly rattle the rafters of concert halls without a strain.

(Credit: Columbia Records)

[1970] Loaded – The Velvet Underground

I might be sneaking in an unwarranted personal opinion here, but despite what cultural column inches seem to suggest, the Velvet Underground reached their climax with the 1970s masterpiece Loaded. The album is laden with more dangerously scything hooks than a Chinese fishing vessel, and it comes with less fat and filler than most fast-food packaging inexplicably seems to purport. In short, every song is an opus of sorts, but more so than that: it captures the driving force of the band at its seething best.

The effervescing energy of the record goes beyond anything that can be clearly identified and put to print. The depth of the album is not in the masterful beat lyrics, unflinching subject matters, or any profound avant-garde innovation; it lingers in the murky sonic reaches of feeling and atmosphere. The closest you can come is to say that it sounds like a band seizing the zeitgeist in some weird spiritual sense like proto-indie alchemists—New York has a history of doing this. The dirty dirges are spiked with a timeless happening vitality like a twist of lemon in a syringe of junk; or rather like their name itself, the smut of the subway is transfigured into some heavenly creative space.

What’s more, that history almost began with the Velvet Underground themselves. In 1965, the filmmaker Barbara Rubin had dragged her pal Andy Warhol down to the bowels of a New York dive bar to take in a gig. Warhol was instantly captivated by the rhythmic iconoclasts casually making open references to hard drugs and sadomasochism. By all accounts, he also seemed to feel a kinship with Reed’s nonchalant Downtown fucklessness. Fortunately, for cliche yielding music writers, the day has still not arrived where you can’t call it ahead of its time (I guess some things are cliched with good reason).

(Credit: Cottilion)

[1971] Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron

Any record that invented rap a whole decade before the fact is worthy of praise for its avant-garde advancement alone. However, the beauty of Pieces of a Man is that it batters boundaries of genre, style and intent into next week without ever breaking its perfect summery stride. This is the sound of a future that we still haven’t fully realised and it’s as soothing and life-affirming as a cup of tea.

As Shame frontman Charlie Steen opined when we recently spoke with him: “The words, rhythm and subject matters that Scott-Heron tackles and masters are what causes him to be an unstoppable force, an undoubted poet and a genius… His inspiration and influence can be seen in lyricists and artists to this day and his work will forever live on. The bravery involved in honesty and truth should never be overlooked or under-valued, its rarity is what makes it so special and so important.”

Beyond that daring brilliance that captured the fractured street corners of Manhattan and rendered them illuminating in pitch-perfect prose, there is something totemic about his work. As his old friend from Johns Hopkins University, Dr Ron, said: “If David slung a rock and hit Goliath in the centre of the head, which is how the Bible described it, and down he went. And then [David] went over and took up a sword that was bigger than he was and cut his head off. If you saw somebody do that, almost no matter what happens later you’d [be applauding]. [Gil Scott-Heron] was David to me!”

And even beyond that, he was something that critics never give enough credit to—he was ineffably cool. It isn’t flippant or juvenile, coolness requires an eye for evolving culture and an unerring sense of sincere individualism. Scott-Heron had that in spades and it soars throughout his humbly swaggering sound.

(Credit: Flying Dutchman)

[1973] New York Dolls – New York Dolls

If Simon & Garfunkel and their Greenwich Village cohorts invented socially conscious modern folk, if the Velvet Underground invented indie music, and if Gil Scott-Heron invented rap, then while we’re being very pro-New York, you could probably argue that the Dolls invented punk. As Andy Warhol said: “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” Well Andy, it also offers up things nobody knew they needed.

The New York Dolls, have a direct lineage to punk’s first true outbreak. Every club needs a clubhouse, and the epicentre of punk was The Big Apple; more specifically, it was the CBGB. The ‘Dolls followed the same route as the Stooges, reclaiming the original tenets of rock ‘n’ roll with more atmosphere and attitude than a packed-out Wembley Stadium’s worth of tantrum toddlers. They hurled all of their old heroes into a sort of DIY shaker, slugged in inherent New York art scene anarchy and poured it out over a live wire in electrically shambolic drug-fuelled performances.

As their leader, Johnny Thunders, once said: “The Dolls were an attitude, if nothing else, they were a great attitude.” Attitude is king on their self-titled debut. It’s musical carelessness and the crazed conviction of youthfulness was its first and only point. In that sense it defies musicological analysis, there is no point talking about discordance or song structure, it makes those measures seem like judging a burger by the nutritional content. This was greasy sonic fast food of the tastiest variety.

(Credit: Mercury Records)

[1975] Horses – Patti Smith

Punk, by definition, can’t be pinned on a single person; it crawled from the plashy depths that rock and roll landed in after the prelapsarian slip of the ‘60s and snarled up like a straggly dirge to that loss of innocence. It came clad in drainpipe trousers and copious leather, and it needed a nurturing hand. 

Patti Smith was that nurturing hand. And she added a grandiose intent to the youthful endeavour. It was as though those that came before her had invented the wheel but were simply rolling it downhill for a laugh. As Smith said: “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” This was the mothering that punk needed, and it was Patti’s proliferation of poignancy that catapulted it from cult skylarking to a vital creative voice.

In her words she speaks to a higher level, one that both belongs to, and is of art. It is also one that transcends the punk boundaries of piss, spit and platitudes and relishes in the need for “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.”

The Godmother of Punk has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it is with this finger to the pulse attitude and passion for self-expression that Patti Smith saved rock ‘n’ roll. In short, punk made guitars fun again – Horses was central not only to that but also ensuring it had a crash helmet on to protect its cerebral backbone as it went hurtling into the future. Anyone who ever said poetry was boring ought to listen and weep.

(Credit: Arista)

[1976] Ramones – Ramones

The timeless appeal of the Ramones was best summed up by the British punk poet, John Cooper Clarke, who wrote in the Ramones fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, the following pithy piece of punk proclaiming prose: “In late 1975, I read an article on the Ramones, a four-man gang from Queens. Much was made of their snotty asocial stage manner and the speed and brevity of their songs. […] I bought the LP. The Ramones were and are an enthusiasm of mine. They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.”

This raucous songwriting style of the half Afghan hound, half-mad scientist crossbreed Joey Ramone, and carefree vantage would soon waft over from the States to England, where the Sex Pistols picked up the scent. At their first riotous gig, a Frenchman in attendance reportedly heckled Steve Jones by yelling: “You can’t play!” to which Steve Jones replied: “SO WHAT!”. The rest, as they say, is ancient history and a lot of it was crafted in the Ramones’ image. 

This album might have only shifted around 5,000 copies in its first year, but that is often the New York way. Since then it’s made one hell of an impact and turned the Ramones into legends. Everything about their debut record is now iconic; the cover image, taken by punk’s foremost photographer Roberta Bayley for only $125; the trashy sound recorded in seven days on a meagre budget of $6,400; even the snarling quickfire songwriting. Everything about the album is the quintessence of punk as we know it, and it sneered in the face of the stilted prog-rock bourgeoisie in such a way that it could never recover from.

(Credit: Sire Records)

[1977] Marquee Moon – Television

As the brisking wind that The New York Dolls had stirred into motion quickly started pulling up trees and forming some mad new craze of punk, Patti Smith was working as a journalist. At one point, she would trundle along to see a band called Television at some little-known club slowly gaining traction called CBGB

As a signifier of the arty intent of the band performing that night, a wall of televisions would be stacked behind them, each displaying different channels, except for one, tastefully off-centre that showed something akin to David Lynch-esque CCTV footage of the CBGB itself. Whether or not they meant it this way, this seemed to be the realised ideal of New York’s original beats who aimed to capture the people’s original culture on the wing.

Patti Smith’s piece would be titled: “Television: Escapees from Heaven.” And one of the most proto-punk statements within the piece reads: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Bearing in mind this at a time when they only had the New York Dolls and the Ramones for company, this youthful spirit proudly exhibited by Television was pretty much the Promethean punk force.

It took three years for that energy to mature itself towards a masterpiece. Every wondrous element of the movement is wrung out on the canvas of Marque Moon, to such an extent that you could drop a ten-tonne bomb into the spinning guizer of the vinyl and never hear it hit the bottom. There are some critics out there who miss the point of the CBGB scene and think the bands were making a movement, not music. Marquee Moon towers over such vacuous remarks as an edifice of unbridled creativity. 

“I remember when I first heard that” is a rare sentence in music, but the showering half notes of the title track is a celestial sonic rain you are unlikely to forget. There is something amorphous about the wave of sound throughout the record, it pushes and pulls in the best possible way, like being caught up in the sort of endless night Bob Dylan sings of with ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

(Credit: Elektra Records)

[1977] Chic – Chic

Disco and punk are simply different sides of the same coin and if Marquee Moon was an act of refinement, then Chic’s 1977 self-titled effort served up a perfectly seasoned dish without having to trim any fat. With just seven tracks it defined the new sound of the hippest weekend in town. 

Looking back, it is almost baffling that so much musical innovation happened in single place within a matter of years. For this record, Rodgers harnessed what he had heard like an unseen puppeteering hiding behind a curtain of the future. As he once said: “It feels like my job is to support people. I support great artists. When I worked with a symphony, I sat in the third chair, not the first chair.” In a meta sense, the record even support people towards reaching vital weekend exultation amid very tough times.

As with all of Nile Rodgers work, there is so much musicology to dissect, but as soon as you try to delve into the swirling guizer of the sound he hits you with a playful comedic utterance of “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah” and suddenly you think, ‘why bother?’ Even if you wanted to play the track like Rodgers you never could, he strums with such smiling ease that his style proves inimitable. It is that same unique sense of natural fun that seeps through onto the record and results in music with almost medicinal qualities. 

(Credit: Atlantic)

[1978] Parallel Lines – Blondie

The punk scene that exploded out of New York City was the Pandora’s Box of music. Once it was opened, it was never going back in, and as it burst into brilliance it immediately scuttled off into a myriad of magical music directions. Blondie blended it with pop with aplomb and in the process helped to spawn a crest of new wave bands thereafter.

Punk had produced some amazing songs by the time Parallel Lines was released and indeed so had Blondie, but now the genre had recognisable singles as a testimony of its development. Tracks like ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘One Way Or Another’ soared out of radios and hung in your ears like changing altitude as the ascending moment when punk met with a pronounced zenith of artistic refinement.

However, rather than tempering its cutting edge, it simply made the party a bit more flippy floppy. New York was changing, like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork it was figuring out a way to add colour to the fractured concrete. The cover of Parallel Lines might be monochrome but it brought the vibrant flashes of glowsticks to the underground. And boy did they look good!

(Credit: Chrysalis Records)

[1979] Fear of Music – Talking Heads

Every now and then music needs somebody to come along, grab it by the lapels and rattle it about like a pinball in-play during an earthquake. Even within the Promethean maelstrom of punk, the art school ways of Talking Heads somehow landed like a cold splash of water to the face of anyone with their finger firmly to the pulse. 

Talking Heads didn’t exactly blast the industry like a power hose though. David Byrne and the band more sort of moseyed up to the music industry, introduced themselves as an intergalactic presence, walked it hand-in-hand to the dancefloor and showed it how to make Flippy Floppy. As bassist Tina Weymouth once said, “When Talking Heads started, we called ourselves Thinking Man’s Dance Music.” 

This intergalactic element presides over the masterpiece Fear of Music. Byrne seemed to see the world like an art-school Time Lord. They were a pariah band of creative outlaws and in their long-chequered history of gross assaults against banality, they still never lost their ‘thinking man’ edge. The song ‘Life During Wartime’ from their 1979 masterpiece Fear of Music is testimony to this. 

There is no band in the world who could take on the terrorist ideology of West Berlin’s left-wingBolshevistic Baader-Meinhof group, transpose the political assessment onto a disco-beat, and not lose the visceral edge of either element. Far from being a careless satire that misplaces the serious nature of the destructive group in a carefree song, the band approaches the subject judiciously and houses Byrne’s savvy observations in a rightfully jarring jazzy abode. This continues throughout in one of the greatest albums around.

(Credit: Sire Records)

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