1974 was an emblematic year for the slide of the flowery 1960s towards the punk that followed. The recession deepened as inflation continued to skyrocket, and disparities worsened. Amid this cloudy period, the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon into resignation from office, and the troubles in Ireland worsened.
Music naturally followed down a darker route and sought new forms of reflective expression. From this zeitgeist, you had pioneering artists like Kraftwerk coming to the fore. David Bowie explored the dystopian aura in his magnificently off-beat Diamond Dogs, Al Green offered up a balm with the brilliant Al Green Explores Your Mind and Joni Mitchell picked up from Blue with Court and Spark.
But all of those records have had their moment in the sun. With such looming giants in the charts, what became of those that were shrouded in shade. In the latest edition of unlucky for some, we’re picking tracks from the gutter and polishing them up.
Some of the songs are from bigger names that nevertheless deserve a higher standing in their respective back catalogues and others never got off the ground to such an extent they’re practically subterranean, but all of them are tied up nicely in a playlist at the bottom of the piece.
The 13 underrated gems from 1974:
13. ‘Nothing from Nothing’ by Billy Preston
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.
Not phased he continued to persevere and produced upbeat gospel hits, ‘Nothing from Nothing’ possibly being the biggest solo success for him. It mixes gospel and R&B with his own poppy stylings to produce a bop that never fails to land.
12. ‘Late for the Sky’ by Jackson Browne
When Joan Baez was listing eight songs that she couldn’t live without, ‘Late for the Sky’ ranked above any Bob Dylan songs amid her most beloved collection. The folk star remarked: “It’s a very beautiful album and one that is pretty well lodged in my heart.” Adding that she could’ve picked any track from it, but ‘Late for the Sky’ might just be her favourite.
That proves to be high praise indeed for Jackson Browne who, for one reason or another, never proved to achieve the same stardom outside of the US as he did in it. He is the songwriter who 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. ‘Late for the Sky’ furthers that argument.
11. ‘Singalong Song’ by Dr John
Dr John was New Orleans Voodoo king. He took the blues and reintroduced the kaleidoscopic Haitian colours that helped to spawn it. ‘Such a Night’ is like Otis Redding’s Bay-based classic had it been set in the sultry streets of the French district instead.
The song ripples with laidback evening vibes, and the inherent sense of fun that comes with all of his work. Waltzing along on a mellowed bass riff, Dr John lends a Van Morrison-like vocal take and captures the fizzing atmosphere of some foot-stomping singalong with a sanguine R&B hum.
10. ‘Close My Eyes’ 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 demos that Arthur Russell knocked up in his constantly creative, but far from structured lifetime.
It makes it in this 1974 version, in part, because it has a slight sound of the era, but mostly because it deserves recognition for the wistful picture that Russell paints of some sleepy meadow and the sanguine scene of wandering through it to meet a lover, either real or imagined —a lyrical masterpiece.
9. ‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’ by Bobby Womack
Throughout the ‘70s, Womack released a prolific slew of records that were often crowded with soul standards and reinventions of pop, folk and rock songs. These reimagined classics always sat alongside at least one or two songs that Bobby had penned either by himself or a producer.
With ‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’ Bobby showed that he’s as gifted at crafting a song as he is performing one. There are traits in this song that have been repeated forevermore in the legions of R&B tracks to follow. From the spoken word set-ups to the screeching ‘ah baby’s’ and the string-clad crescendo there is so much of this song that inspired the generations that followed.
8. ‘September Gurls’ by Big Star
There are some Tennessee locals who describe Big Star as the Memphis Beatles and when they are doling out power-pop perfection like ‘September Gurls’ it’s easy to see why. The track bristles with much of the same simultaneous melodic pleasantries and yet paradoxical cutting edge that the Fab Four propagated before them.
Sadly, things worked out rather differently for Alex Chilton and co, and only a year after ‘September Gurls’ they were no longer an entity. However, on tracks like this and many others, you can certainly hear their influence on Tom Petty and the likes who followed in their American rhythmic rock footsteps.
7. ‘Introduction’ by WITCH
On the Zambian band’s official website, it explains: “WITCH was a Zambian music rock (Zamrock) band formed in the 1970s. Widely seen as the most popular Zambian band of the1970s, WITCH (an acronym for ‘We Intend to Cause Havoc’) were formed during Zambia’s golden post-independence days, and were headed by Emanuel Jagari’ Chanda.”
Their sound is reflective of the vibrant scene that spawned it, where the infusion of rock ‘n’ roll met with a post-independence search for a national identity and produced amazing results. Tragically, the explosion of sound would be short-lived owing to the HIV pandemic, but before that sadness struck it established itself as one of the greatest scenes in modern music.
6. ‘Showdown’ by Thin Lizzy
In 1972 ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ had landed Thin Lizzy a monumental hit in their native Ireland, and whilst it travelled just fine, it was rubbing shoulders with strong international competition. Thus, the band were swamped under the melee of 1970s rock greatness.
Thus, in the pre-Jailbreak obscurity, a lot of Thin Lizzy tracks were lost to the sands of time. ‘Showdown’ is one of the very best of them. The grooving instrumentation and momentous build-up to a guitar solo that embodies coolness is the perfect piece of harmless rock ‘n’ roll reverie. What a track!
5. ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ by Sparks
Sparks’ first big hit proves to be the most easily palatable place to start. Not to dismiss their first two records, Halfnelson (reissued as Sparks) or A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, but it was clear that they were still an act finding their feet in the early days. It takes a lot of confidence to be as weird as Sparks, and their brash bravura was lacking to some extent at their inception. It wasn’t until there their third record that they fully harnessed their mutant pop potential.
This lead track announced a new dawn for the band and sealed their fate as the weirdest duo clinging to the underbelly of synth-pop, like barnacles of wacky but harmless intent. The band had recently moved to England, relocating their parents and a piano to a small flat in Clapham Junction, where this manic opera was conceived. The song is a controlled explosion of adrenalised sound with one of the most rhythmically chaotic outros in music.
4. ‘Needles In The Camel’s Eye’ by Brian Eno
For those that think Eno’s work in front of the mixing desk is purely Music for Airports or even elevators for that matter, this adrenalised proto-post punk anthem brings the Roxy Music energy to emerging Television vibes.
Taken from his debut solo album Here Come the Warm Jets released in January 1974, following his departure from Roxy Music, he brings a unique mix of sounds to his forward-thinking approach and opens up a sonic blast of the future. The record reached a tragically disappointing 151 in the US, but as Eno states himself, he’s quite happy that a lot of his influence is felt second-hand.
3. ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ by Harry Nilsson
The story of the recording of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 record Pussy Cats is so manic that it deserves more space than this feature can afford to give it. However, the important paradigm to give you a feel for it, is that John Lennon happened to be the soberest in the studio and as such had to flee to New York with the master tapes simply to get it finished.
When Harry Nilsson was performing his golden cover ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, Lennon wondered why he seemed to be imitating his gruff vocal style rather than using his own usual doo-wop styling. The answer was that Nilsson had been coughing up blood and the gruff purr was the best he could croon. The result, however tragic it may be, is a gorgeous performance that captures the vulnerability of the track perfectly.
2. ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’ by Randy Newman
Randy ‘The Musical Dean of Satire’ Newman, the master of many Pixar movie musical moments, proclaims that he has only ever had a tiny global fanbase that fluctuates around a peak of 200,000 when it comes to his solo work. Taken from his masterful Good Old Boys album, ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’ is a solid introductory single that the wider public failed to pick up on.
With wry humour and even a laugh out loud moment for that matter, Newman achieves the rarest of all artistic feats by combining comedy and solemnity without either one diminishing the other. The result is the sort of perfectly melodic life-encapsulating masterpiece that makes many other works seem a bit one-track-minded in the beligerent way they go about things.
1. ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ by Richard & Linda Thompson
Richard Thompson’s first effort with his then-wife Linda is one of those musical rarities that for some reason was a commercial failure and completely critically overlooked, despite being a retrospectively brilliant work. It’s not particularly challenging and the way it joyfully combines atmosphere with melody is a crowning feat, but for whatever reason, it flopped.
The peak point of the record may well be this simple grooving ditty. Its triumph exists on the fact that it just sounds like pre-night out energy. Mixing lyrics and sound in this cinematic sense to form part of an expressionist piece is not easy, even if Richard & Linda Thompson make it seem effortless.