The Hits of 1976: Slick and Soft
But New Wave, Punk and Outlaw Country are bubbling up
In 1976 America celebrated her bicentennial, having been a nation for 200 years. It seemed like a somber kind of party though, with the Vietnam War over but the repercussions just beginning, the first presidential resignation behind us, and continuing economic problems. The supersoninc jet the Concorde makes the London to New York flight possible in just 3 and a half hours, and two Viking spacecraft land on Mars - both technological triumphs of the highest order. In other advances, Apple Computers is started up in a garage, one year after Microsoft was born, and the Matsushita company introduces the VHS format as a direct competitor with Sony's Betamax for the home video recording market.
What happened in 1976's music?
While the years of the decade so far had been trending away from rock and towards soft pop genres and rock hybrids (Bay City Rollers, anyone?), this year seemed to solidify the trend, and at the same time there were some bright spots for music lovers. The worldwide hits were dominated by ABBA, Elton John and Kiki Dee, Chicago, and - Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, a slice of prog/hard rock that made almost everything else ok. Many of the top 100 hits of the year were disco or dance-oriented songs, showing that the reign of the mirror ball was far from over. There were very few real classic albums issued in 1976, but Dylan's Desire was one, and AC/DC released their first 2 records making the world safe for hard rock. Led Zeppelin's Presence was underwhelming and the first record of theirs to get slammed by the critics, but Hejira by Joni Mitchell joined the ranks of the classics immediately.
Outlaw Country is born
Country music had of course long been on the top 100 singles and best-selling albums charts for many years. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and many others had made traditional country straight out of Nashville the popular thing. Waylon Jennings was part of the Nashville machine, but this year something new happened: outlaw country. A small group including Waylon, his wife Jessi Colter, Billy Joe Shaver, and an old hand on the charts named Willie Nelson decided to start a new wave in country and put out several pioneering albums. Once it got off the ground, outlaw country became immensely popular by distinguishing itself from the slick, countrypolitan Nashville tradition, and it joined country rock and bluegrass to become one of the major components of Americana music.
Punk Rock grows up
An English band called the Damned hold the distinction of having the first single to be marketed as punk rock, making the genre official. The Sex Pistols continued to make friends, influence other rockers, and make EPs, but hadn't recorded an album's worth of songs yet. The Ramones finally put out their debut and went to England, further inciting British youth to rebel against the establishment by making fast, loud music. In this spirit a little group called the Clash got together and started writing and rehearsing for their domination of the world - next year. Siouxsie and the Banshees played their first concert in London, Patti Smith released her second album, and Richard Hell formed the Voioids, a seminal New York punk group. But even as punk rock was growing into a threat to soft pop, a fellow contender was conceived that would turn out to be much more effective at combating the rock doldrums.
New Wave begins
The roots of punk and new wave are inextricably intertwined, due to some confusion in the mainstream at first about all of this new music. It became clear that punk rock had a certain attitude of DIY - do it yourself - that distinguished it from other types of music. New Wave was more sophisticated, willing to incorporate all kinds of music from ska and reggae to blues and electronic music, and the instrumental prowess was a little better. This year saw the early appearance of what would become a second British invasion and a similar movement in the states. A band that would eventually call itself U2 formed in Dublin, a pub rocker named Graham Parker released the very influential Howlin' Wind album, The Modern Lovers and Blondie put out debut records, and Tom Petty's first LP was lumped into the new wave category. That didn't last long, but the rest of new wave did.