Even within the world of music, a realm fraught with subjectivity, it is an ‘undisputed truth’ universally acknowledged that 1969 and 1971 were the most glowing years of popular music to date. In the first edition of this feature – one which aims to plunge the depths of the archives and record-racks to present you with uncovered gems that weren’t so lucky in years gone by, those tracks that have accumulated dust amidst a slew of tragically nearly-forgotten fantastic flops, failed by fate and nothing more – we’re tackling one of the most gleaming jewels in pop-culture’s crown: 1971.
It was the year that Rod Stewart earned his solo chops with ‘Maggie May’, The Rolling Stones belted out ‘Brown Sugar’ and Bill Withers crooned ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, as well as a ridiculous plethora of other hits, leaving precious little space for the little guys – and that’s just the singles!
The album’s released that year read like a greatest of all-time list; The Doors smashed it out of the park with L.A. Woman, Joni Mitchell made everybody cry with Blue, T. Rex kickstarted glam rock with Electric Warrior, John Lennon dealt out some peace on Imagine, Marvin Gaye changed soul with What’s Going On, David Bowie… and on… and on… but who was looking out for the Commander Cody’s and His Lost Planet Airmen of this world?
With everybody absorbed in the giant glut of the gleaming mainstream, it was easy for the meek, peculiar or otherwise indisposed to fall through the cracks and remain shackled to the back rooms of history.
Now, however, I have heroically summoned these songs from the slumber of the ‘70s underworld to finally present these perennial bridesmaids as the brides they were born to be. Hopefully, there are some tracks in here that you haven’t heard before or at least interesting songs of old, but ultimately, I simply hope they are all appreciated for the gems that they are. You can catch a playlist of these ‘hits-that-never-were’ at the bottom of the piece.
The 13 unlucky gems from 1971:
13. ‘Cause’ by Rodriguez
Thanks to the wonderfully life-affirming documentary, Searching for Sugarman, Rodriguez’s music is little-known no longer. That being said, a list that delves into the golden year’s unchartered depths and doesn’t include a track from the man who formerly thought he hadn’t shifted more than about 10 albums would seem desperately incomplete. Rodriguez might not fit the bill anymore, but his initial failings were so symptomatic of an era congested with greatness, that it wouldn’t seem right not to squeeze him in.
As his old record producer, Mike Theodore, remarked: “With the exception of maybe Dylan, nobody was writing like Rodriguez”, leaving him flummoxed by the failure and listing hypotheticals like, ‘should it have been a harp and not an oboe’.
With lyrics like: “Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them,” or the tragic final line, “Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?” it’s easy to see how he was baffled by its failure.
12. ‘Sticky Living’ by B.B. Blunder
At the time of writing B.B. Blunder receive 15 monthly listens on Spotify and about 14 of those are from me, presumably the other one comes from someone who was searching for B.B. King.
The band are an almost unknown off-shoot of the Blossom Toes, an underground British rock act from the ‘60s. When the Blossom Toes broke up, guitarist Brian Godding and bassist Brian Belshaw were joined by Godding’s sister-in-law Julie Driscoll on vocals as well as Kevin Westlake on drums to turn out some of the most quintessentially ‘70s guitar music that there is.
Gloriously over the top and genuinely terrifically produced, ‘Sticky Living’ centres one hell of a groove and some endlessly catchy cowbell-ing around a fantastically unfocussed extraneous structure. It is a rhapsodic piece of music that proved too chaotic back in the day, but it’s certainly worth a second chance.
11. ‘Going Down’ by Freddie King
It may well be one of the more well-known tracks on the list, but if you haven’t heard it then you’re in for one hell of a bone-shaking electric blues ride.
Originally written by a band called Moloch in 1969, this was one of those songs that skirted about in the undergrowth, mutating with each new interpretation until it was transfigured into Freddie King’s definitive version. It might be more well-known than some others here, and it might have allowed King to rub shoulders with Led Zeppelin, but it never garnered him much chart success.
The track is a pounding blitzkrieg of pure blues-rock energy, built around a riff that could shake a fleck of sirloin trapped in a molar loose. Frankly, there has never been a song more primed for a scintillating Scorsese climax than this.
10. ‘Love Is Blind’ by Jo Mama
If anyone knows who Jo Mama are then please provide some answers on a postcard? And if perchance you somehow know them then please let them know that they’re still appreciated.
This record was a lucky find in that bin of condemned second-handers that you often find in the back corner of a record shop. The battered sleeve offers precious little information and there’s nothing much online either, except a tour poster where their name features alongside Carole King and James Taylor. Once again, at the time of writing ‘Love is Blind’ has amassed the ridiculously small figure of 3,360 Spotify plays, and I can’t figure out how that’s possible let alone fair.
None of this is important, however, when you listen to the sweet little piece of pop perfection that the track proves to be. This is no sketchy outsider music; the vocals are comparable to aforementioned Carole King and the chorus is a gorgeous upsurge of melody. ‘Love is Blind’ doesn’t deserve to be in the condemned bin by any stretch but I’m glad it was.
9. ‘Viens’ by Francoise Hardy
With Jean-Luc Godard’s best days teaming up with Brigitte Bardot behind him, the Francophilia lingering in the air from the peace and love of the ‘60s flowed from new wave cinema into music. While Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg may have been the best-known exports from France, Francoise Hardy was right up there.
This track is exactly as you’d like music from la République in that era to be – some romantic soaring piece of over the top symphonic pop.
There is no telling what the song is about unless you speak French of course, but that’s the joy of listening to it, you get to play out your own little smoky Seine scene of star-crossed lovers and secret rendezvous. In truth, it might just be about bread but there’s a frisson of thrills in the melody regardless.
8. ‘Pardon Me’ by Emitt Rhodes
If the Paul Is Dead conspiracy had any truth to it (obviously it doesn’t, it’s totally berserk), then Emitt Rhodes should surely have been the first name on the list to fill Paul’s shoes (or lack thereof).
Rhodes released two solo albums in 1970 and 1971 after the break-up of his first band the Merry Go-Round, and then, sadly, having failed to surpass underground success he wasn’t seen again until 2016 with a new record Rainbows End.
It is hard to concisely encapsulate this track without continuing the McCartney comparison. From the pop-perfect songcraft to the eerily similar vocal stylings, he shared so much of what McCartney had except a George Martin on production. Both of Emitt’s solo records were produced at home with Emitt credited as playing every instrument, and perhaps in retrospect, it is this slightly homemade quality that stopped him sustaining any real mainstream success but listening back these days it adds a welcome charm.
7. ‘Sweet Song’ by Al Green
Nobody, not nobody sings them like the Reverend Al Green. He is a ‘soulman’ who could sing the phonebook and whilst of course you wouldn’t listen to it unless your mind had been warped and turned abstract like the concept of love, it would nevertheless be better than just about anyone else singing it and unique in all the world.
With that sort of voice, it’s easy to see why many of his silk-woven songs never became singles, but quite how ‘Sweet Song’ never made it off the cutting room floor is as inexplicable as your postman’s unwavering determination to always wear shorts.
With a very similar sound to that which was achieved on the gorgeous Gets Next to You record, it can only be assumed that this comes out of those same 1971 sessions, but it was never heard outside of the studio until the 1990 release of You Say It! Raw! Rare! And Unreleased!. Whether that means I’m taking a liberty by including it on this list is up to you, but I’m sure once you pour that spiritual syrup into your ears you’ll soon be forgiving. The only detraction from the wonderment being a lingering confusion about how someone figured it fitting to almost ascribe this one to the ash heap of history from which it thankfully now soars like a sexy phoenix.
6. ‘Play On’ by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Another epic album that resides in the condemned bin of record stores and, indeed, history. The initial draw is the artwork, which is just a bunch of groovy looking guy sat around in a field, then there’s perhaps one of the greatest album titles of all time, Sometimes I Just Fell Like Smilin’, but it’s the music that you stay for.
The influence of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band has by far and away outstripped their commercial success. The band were absolutely instrumental in bringing the authentic Chicago blues sound to young white hippies who would later go on to devour bigger names of blues-rock.
‘Play On’ is another song that transports you back to the era in which it was made. It is a groovy beat, with a quintessentially ‘70s heavy bassline, with a catchy chorus of brass instruments to drive the hook. Most notably the song rams home the point that the quality of musicianship in the ‘70s was at an unrivalled peak.
5. ‘The Lady With The Braid’ by Dory Previn
It is a song that tells a familiar tale – the subtle art of gently cajoling a dinner-date into a one-night stand. The nervous and frantic stream of consciousness moves from room to room and situation to situation with increasing desperation and perfectly observed fidelity to realism. “Would you care to stay awhile and save my life?” she quips, only to try and regain some composure by adding, “I don’t know what made me say that / I’ve got this funny sense of humour.”
The track is taken from the album Mythical Kings and Iguanas, which received critical praise and even relative commercial success upon release back in 1971 but seems to have faded somewhat into obscurity.
Aside from being a treat of utterly original and totally resonant lyricism, it is also a triumph of musical arrangement; the bassline waltzes us through the story, the delicate guitar picking adds the texture, while the meek but quietly dignified vocals perfectly play-off the theme, and the soaring strings spare everyone’s blushes. Whilst Bowie may have been breaking new ground on what a song could be sung about, this offers an honest and original twist on a timeless tale of tortuous courtship.
4. ‘Motel Blues’ by Loudon Wainwright III
Motel Blues is very much the male counterpart to Dory Previn’s track, pretty much detailing the exact same episode but transposing it on the setting of a motel bar with the line “stay a while and save my life” being substituted for “come up to my Motel room, save my life.” Whether the two tracks inspired each other, or it is simply an evolutionary example of similar beasts exploiting the same niche is for the artists to declare.
Loudon Wainwright III is the father to Rufus and Martha Wainwright, both successful musicians in their own right, and this connection has somewhat preserved his legacy. With a slew of high profile covers from the likes of Johnny Cash, it’s clear that Loudon is held in high regard by the greats, but in the wider world, he is rarely mentioned alongside the rarefied few considered the very best songwriters of the ‘70s. I believe he should be championed as one of those and after listening to his mirthful tales you’ll agree it’s hardly a contrarian opinion.
With its sweet and sombre melody Motel Blues tells an honest tale of ‘life as a touring musician’.
3. ‘Something on Your Mind’ by Karen Dalton
Karen Dalton is one of those unique musicians whereby you recognise in an instant who you’re listening to. Her style is inimitable, with abrasively soulful vocals and 12-string rhythms skirting around soaring violin sections.
She was a firm favourite in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Fred Neil, but struggled to escape the congested insular world of folks underground.
Something on Your Mind is her most accessible piece taken from her ’71 record In My Own Time, a firm favourite of Nick Cave’s. The song worms its way through a medley of instrumentation to a state of bold exultation.
2. ‘I Wrote A Simple Song’ by Billy Preston
‘I Wrote A Simple Song’ is pretty much the ideal track for this feature, not least because it is a belter that time forgot, but also because it details exactly how such a thing can occur.
Billy Preston was a childhood prodigy, a keyboard wizard who was already touring at the age of ten! During the ‘60s he worked alongside Little Richard and even featured on The Beatles’ Let It Be, but his solo work was met by the heavy hand of the business.
It is exactly this studio exec treatment of his art form that Preston excises with ‘I Wrote A Simple Song’, “they took my simple song, they changed the worlds and the melody’s,” he sings, “I only wrote it for you and me.” It is a touching song, too soaring and soulful to ever come across as cynical and it should have been a hit.
1. ‘Fallin’ Rain’ by Link Wray
Link Wray was the man who influenced Jimmy Page and Pete Townsend to pick up a guitar, Mark E Smith, the misanthropic frontman always short on praise, described Link Wray and Iggy Pop as the “only people [he] ever looked up to,” and Iggy Pop himself stated that Wray’s track Rumble changed his life. This adulation from contemporaries confirms his position as a rock music luminary, but for the most part, this has not led to widespread acclaim. Even John Lennon regarded him as one of “the great unknowns of rock & roll.”
After a string of releases in the ’60s following the 1958 success of Rumble, his self-titled 1971 debut with Polydor Records represented a slight departure from that rock-heavy sound. It was a departure that divided his small band of followers, and one which made Wray remark, “In a way, I couldn’t care less if the album didn’t sell a single copy. We’re happy with it and we’ve done it our way.” The change may have upset a few, but it undoubtedly resulted in some of his greatest songwriting and in Fallin’ Rain perhaps his greatest song.
The track is an exercise in the difficult art of juxtaposition and one which achieves it with aplomb. The delicate and sweet melody and vocals sit in contrast to the horrors he’s singing about. This dichotomy brings to mind one of Wray’s more bombastic quotes, “God is playing my guitar, I am with God when I play”, the bittersweet sounds and distanced narration of hardships equally invokes the bombastic notion of a God lamenting a world gone awry and its beauties. It is this divinity and scope that makes it not just an unheralded achievement in sui generis ‘70s songwriting, but simply one of the greatest songs from any era, period.
As aforementioned, stream the full playlist below.