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Listening to the ’70s as they turn 50

MUSIC | Collections unearth hidden treasures

Photo illustration by Rachel Beatty

Listening to the ’70s as they turn 50
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The music of the 1970s is turning 50. And as if from a time capsule, three compilations have recently emerged to jump-start the process of reevaluation.

One is the anthology that the British music scribe David Hepworth has curated for Edsel Records, Deep 70s: Underrated Cuts From a Misunderstood Decade. Organized and subtitled by style, its four discs make the case that the ’70s, to quote the liner notes, “were a grubby but ­glorious time for records” that “never sullied a chart” and that aren’t “served up by the algorithms which rule retro radio today.”

Next is Light in the Attic’s Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath 1970-1980. McGrath, who died in 2016, was an American scene maker whose music-business connections made him a magnet for demo-shopping, would-be up-and-comers. He accumulated a crop of tapes, posthumously discovered, of which this two-disc collection is the cream. “An archival mixtape, a secret history and a journey into the heart of an era,” declares the PR, and it’s not wrong.

Last is Ace Records’ two-disc Jon Savage’s 1977-1979: Symbols Clashing Everywhere, the subtitle of which comes from a 1978 Siouxsie & the Banshees single that the 46-cut set does not include. Disc 2, however, includes the B-side (“Voices”), signaling that this dive into punk shrapnel and fallout is a deep one indeed.

All three packages deliberately avoid hits. But the majority of their contents simmer, percolate, or twitch with an emotional range, vitality, and generosity at odds with Tom Wolfe’s description of the ’70s as the “Me Decade.”

And they’re also at odds with the 2020s, an era during which, between the ceding of ground to artificial intelligence on the one hand and the fear of causing career-canceling offense on the other, the human element in artistic endeavors sometimes seems destined to follow the dodo.

The collections’ aversion to hits ­notwithstanding, a few sneak through—most notably the Sanford-Townsend Band’s “Smoke From a Distant Fire,” the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance,” Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” and Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” on Deep 70s (because they weren’t hits in England), and, on the Savage set, Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (now a soundtrack staple) and the Diodes’ immortal “Tired of Waking Up Tired.”

Many of the acts, however, achieved cult status at best, and some were never heard from again. But whether you’re encountering for the first or several-dozenth time the likes of Hirth Martinez, Murray Head, and the Roches (via Hepworth); Terry Allen, Blood Brothers Six, and Johnny Angel (via McGrath); or Pere Ubu, the Adverts, and Space (via Savage), you’ll hope that there’s more music out there with their names on it.

And you’ll be sad when you find that in some cases there simply isn’t.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.



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