The Hits of 1972: Will the Real Rock Please Stand Up?
Strangeness rules the music world
In 1972 the spectre of terrorism appeared on the world stage when Arab thugs massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. The Watergate burglaries took place, setting in motion one of the most disgraceful episodes in our political history. But President Nixon had not yet been implicated in the crimes, and he won the fall election in a landslide victory over George McGovern. In England the IRA and the British government were both responsible for lost lives and violence. Nixon's historic visit to China made the world news, and the final American lunar mission wrapped up. American involvement in the Vietnam War wound down, and on television, Monty Python's Flying Circus, the Benny Hill Show, and Sesame Street all became huge successes.
What happened in 1972's music?
Several interesting trends surfaced in this year of music. There were debuts from important artists who would go on to be platinum-selling and popular around the world - ABBA, the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Roxy Music all put out their first records and hit the charts running. What very well may be the best rock and roll album ever made was released by the Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street - and Michael Jackson started his solo career with several top hits. Neil Young finally brought his sensitive singer-songwriter music to the top of the hit parade with his album Harvest, and the group called America had hits with songs that sounded just like Neil. The relatively new genre of jazz-rock fusion was represented by Weather Report and Return to Forever. But something odd was going on in this third year of the decade. It seems that, with the benefit of hindsight, but also from first-hand experience (I was a 20 year old music fan in 1972), real rock was fading away. With the possible exceptions of Santana, the Stones, the Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, David Bowie, and the Who, among others, certainly, there was an air of unreality in the music. It was as if there were fakes and forgers making records that no longer were genuine, but were instead product wearing the costume of rock. It was the Madison Avenuing of popular music, and we've never really recovered from it.
The Return of the Novelty Song
One of the biggest hits in the world in 1972 was an instrumental using the new synthesizer technogy - it was called Popcorn, and it was not rock and roll, but it was a novelty tune. The Coconut Song, My Ding-a-Ling, Brand New Key, everything by Dr. Hook and Joe Tex - all of these were throwbacks to the early 60s when songs like Alley Oop and Mr. Custer were the hits of the day. Even the songs that didn't exactly fit the novelty genre seemed like jokes, as if the singer had his or her tongue firmly planted in cheek. Big hits like Crocodile Rock, I Am Woman, the Candy Man, Hot Rod Lincoln, Ben, American Pie, and the Clean-up Woman all seemed like they were designed to appeal in an artificial way. They were not rock and roll, but they were pop, and that means popular.
Another worldwide phenomenon was the glitter and finery of the glam rock scene. T. Rex (Marc Bolan) had huge worldwide success with what sounded like genuine rock music (from the album Electric Warrior) dressed up in platform heels and sequins, make-up and bombast. David Bowie's classic album/persona Ziggy Stardust was released and continues to be an influence on young rockers. Lou Reed, with Bowie's help, recorded and released the famous Transformer LP, and Bowie was all over All the Young Dudes by Mott the Hoople. Bowie, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with the embodiment of glam, Gary Glitter - he's responsible for his own mess.
Power Pop and Reggae
New genres of rock and and types of popular music were still being born and making their way into the good graces and ears of the public. The Raspberries and Badfinger represented something we started calling power pop, which was smoother than rock but more powerful than pop, and boasted huge singalong potential. Without You, sung by Harry Nilsson but written by Pete Ham from Badfinger, was a smash all over the world and the first example of the power ballad. Bob Marley was still in Jamaica working out the kinks in his career, but Jimmy Cliff introduced real reggae to the UK and the US with his movie and soundtrack the Harder They Come, the Bigger They Fall.