One of the hardest things for people to do in the present is to imagine the past as it was without the knowledge of foresight. We have at least some idea of the things that endure to the present when we look back at the past, and comparatively less knowledge of the things that were popular at the time but that no one bothered to anthologize or pay attention to in the years or decades or centuries after that, and so in order to appreciate these things we have to undertake a fair amount of work that does not have to be done when we limit ourselves to only what we enjoy from the past that has stood the test of time and that remains enjoyable and popular long after if it was made.
This evening I finished a rankdown that was admittedly a bit of a chore for me, the top 100 songs of Radio & Records for rock songs of 1977. There is a wide degree of variation among these songs, as we have an instrumental rock song, some songs that reach into soft rock or adult contemporary, odd spoken word folk rolk, experimental progressive rock, R&B, and the like. Some albums were well-represented on the list, like Pink Floyd’s Animals, the Eagles’ Hotel California, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but there were also multiple tracks from Little Feat’s Time Loves A Hero and two songs from Steve Winwood’s self-titled album that I had never heard about before as someone who happens to be a fan of the artist.
In listening to the songs as they were ranked, there were some striking patterns that could be found. For example, ranked back to back to each other was a song by Paul Simon and another by Art Garfunkel, who had once worked together in Simon & Garfunkel. While the two songs were back to back in the chart, they have fared far differently in retrospect, with Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” being seen as a classic, while Art Garfunkel’s “Crying In My Sleep” has been completely forgotten. Similarly, the same situation can be found among the two Jimmy Buffet songs that made the list, with “Margaritaville” being overplayed to death while the more satisfying and surprisingly quirky “Tampico Trauma” has been completely forgotten. Only a few artists have managed to have multiple songs stay in the public consciousness, while artists that charted several songs, like Jackson Browne, have had to face the facts that comparatively few people these days remember “The Fuse” or “Here Come Those Tears Again,” although both are very excellent songs that I enjoyed discovering on this list.
At times, listening to the music of the past can be a revelation. For example, the appetite of the late 1970’s rock listener for mediocre live tracks and long progressive noodling is considerably greater than my own. I enjoyed Genesis’ “The Eleventh Earl Of Mar,” but at more than 11 minutes it was definitely a far longer listen than I was expecting. I was considerably less pleased about listening to most of the ridiculously long Pink Floyd tracks that made it, with Sheep being a personal low point. Similarly, as much as I appreciate Bob Dylan as a songwriter, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” likely was way better in the studio than live, and Foghat’s “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was not nearly as good as the original in the live format that charted. On the more positive side, though, Steve Winwood’s “Empty Chair” provides a strong template for the synth-rock that he would bring to considerably more popularity in the 1980’s, and it is striking to listen to a completely obscure song to me that nonetheless was very familiar as a prophecy of what was to come that simply had not yet crossed over to mainstream pop audiences, and would not at least until Arc Of A Diver.
At any rate, though, listening to the past can be an interesting experience, as it helps us to remember that songs which may not be hugely popular now may become way more popular later on and be remembered far more fondly than songs which were much more popular in their time. As an example of this, one of the songs that came in near the bottom of the list was David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song that has become a veritable classic and be remade as a popular song by the Wallflowers as a demonstration of its popularity, a fate that sadly eluded the beautiful “Rain In Spain” by Sea Level. There is only so much that people remember from the past, and there is much we can uncover that deserved to be remembered that was not, and much that deserved to be forgotten that was. It is hard to know at the time what falls into what categories, and we are far from the most fair judges of our own times.