70: Small, weird, wears a lime green leisure suit
Boards of Canada, a Scottish duo that knows its way around the esoteric, can lay claim to writing the world’s only ode to the number 70: “The Smallest Weird Number.” This brief, floaty instrumental takes its title from 70’s dubious distinction: In mathematical parlance, a weird number is “abundant” but not “semiperfect,” and 70 is, in fact, the smallest weird number. (The next smallest weird number is 836, which is akin to having a sibling in grad school when you’re in 1st grade.) Thus, as I see it, 70 has all the right connections (to the other decade numbers, to his family of abundant numbers) but 70 will never be semiperfect, so 70 has self-esteem issues. 70 takes personal offense that the only mention of 70 in Bob Dylan’s canon is in “George Jackson” (“Sent him off to prison/ For a seventy-dollar robbery / Locked the door behind them and threw away the key”), which doesn’t do the numeral any favors in the image department. There’s also the decade that 70 signifies, which is the butt of jokes. And as for the fact that today’s winning song is called “Against the Seventies,” 70 just rolls its eyes and thinks, “Typical.”
Instrumentals abound, and that’s never a good sign, although there are some good ones. “Casanova 70,” a track from Air’s debut EP Premiers Symptômes, takes its title from a 1965 Italian film about a man whose libido only kicks into gear when he’s in mortal peril—something we can all relate to. The burbling analog synths and sense of leisurely torpor bring to mind the theme song of The Late Late Show circa the early Gerald Ford administration. You can practically feel the shag carpet growing under your feet. Phil Manzanera, the guitar wizard on the classic early Roxy Music releases and subsequent collaborations with Brian Eno (and, less successfully, a solo artist), employs an array of effects to create a cathedral-like sense of space in “Europe 70-1,” with nary a guitar in sight. Simple Minds might be best known for a certain moody anthem that plays over the closing credits of The Breakfast Club, but people forget the band worked in a host of styles. A lawnmower engine, for example, plays a critical rhythmic role on the turgid “Sound in 70 Cities,” amid keening guitars and U2-like martial drumming. “70mph Isn’t Fast Enough to Get out of Nebraska” by Shawn Lee & Clutchy Hopkins is a funky hybrid of Meters beats, melodica, and strings, while “Seventy” by Gulliver, a pre-Oates effort by Daryl Hall, is strictly for H&O completists, whoever they might be. (My suspicion is Philadelphia.)
“Seventy ain’t nothing but a damn number … I’m writing and creating new stuff and putting together new different things. Trying to stay out there and roll with the punches. I ain’t quit yet.” –Bo Diddley
Reaching the age of 70 has to be a pretty freaky milestone. On the one hand, you’re probably grateful for your longevity, but you’re also in shock and denial to have to look that bent numeral in the eye and call it your own. It’s no surprise, then, to find an utter lack of songs that address turning 70. “What Will Be When You’re Seventy” by The Pack (precursor of second-tier British goths Theater of Hate, who should be familiar to careful readers of this series for their doom-laden plodder “63”) is actually the only one I can come up with. The Pack (1978) included this crunchy screed, which shares a “someday you’ll get old” theme with Suzi Quatro’s “48 Crash.” “Seventy Times Seven” by Brand New has nothing to do with aging, but its inspiration is ancient. In the New Testament, Jesus counsels Peter to forgive his brother 490 times for sinning against him. But these Long Island boys are not in a forgiving mood. The chorus goes, “And you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt/ And again when your head goes through the windshield.”
Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s …
—Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush”
By a wide margin, most 70 songs concern themselves with a certain decade marked by the proliferation of smiley faces and really bad haircuts. “That ‘70s Song (Based on In the Street)” by Cheap Trick is an affectionate look back through rose-colored glasses at an era that was very good to Trick. Now, Robin Zander and Co. know how to choose cover songs (“Ain’t That a Shame” and “California Man” spring to mind), so one would be justified in having high hopes for their version of Big Star’s anthemic “In the Street.” And while the gorgeous melody and Beatles-eque harmonies would seem tailor-made for a pumped up, full-on Trick treatment, the track is overcooked. Worse, they baldly nick the bass part from Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line,” soften the “wish we had a joint so bad” line for the commercial acceptability of “wish we had a number…” and give a shout-out not to Big Star but to themselves with an unnecessary “Surrender” reference—giving the whole thing a touch of travesty.
“Where the hell have the ‘70s brought me?”
—New Pornographers, “Letter From an Occupant”
In “Losing My Edge,” the audacious provocation by LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy obliterates the elitism of hardcore music fans, right down to their “white vinyl versions of every seminal Detroit techno hit.” He also name-checks Yaz, which is fitting. Yaz voiced similar sentiments about a decade past in “Goodbye 70’s,” from the duo’s breakthrough Upstairs at Eric’s, which finds the always gale-force Alison Moyet raining down a molasses storm of good riddance to short-lived youth cults and fashion trends. And just when you think Yaz has the anti-‘70s thing nailed, “70s Music Must Die” by Lard appears in your in-box. This side project of Jello Biafra and Al Jourgensen advocates for Yaz’s basic contention, albeit on its own terms:
Bogus bands, plastic rock stars
Stupid clothes and the worst made cars
Country rock making us all sick
While John Travolta wags his double-knit prick
In truth, some songs do extol the era. I was expecting more from “Magnificent Seventies” by American Analog Set, who have used hypnotic drone more ingeniously than on this early track. Finding the intersection between punk and bubblegum, Jeff Dahl’s “Circa 70” proudly proclaims the era’s rock gods (“Alice Cooper/David Bowie/Slade T. Rex/in Nineteen—seven-tay…”) and ends with the snarled affirmation, “Still listenin’ to that shit…” The resilient Dahl, a veteran of the LA punk scene, former cohort of Stiv Bators and one-time Angry Samoan and Vox Pop member, also sported a world-class ‘fro in the “Waddy Wachtel/ dude from the MC5” tradition. “Benched Down—‘70s-Sixties” is the gritty first single—a combo of two songs, actually—by Modern Eon from the Liverpool scene that spawned Echo & the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. British tunesmith Ed Harcourt was in diapers at that point, but in Harcourt’s affecting, and deeply hummable “Born in the 70s” he turns his back on the year that punk broke and Elvis died. Instead, he’s “…livin’ for the now/up against the other generation’s wall.” Yummy Fur, as you’ll recall, were a ‘90s Glaswegian act that served as a springboard for a pair of future Franz Ferdinand members. Their jocular, piss-takey “70s” has the angular lurch of early Wire and a keen eye:
A perfect replica of ‘70s trend/ the 12-inch disco single, cigarettes and cocaine
Just look at me, I used to rip off the Fall/ I rip off Beatle, man/and sing like Jerry Hall!
And here’s a bevy of 70-centric songs from the far-flung indie rock community:
- “70 KG Man” by Braniac (Dayton, Ohio) [cited by Death Cab for Cutie and Muse as an influence]
- “Seventy Jane” by Aarktika (Brooklyn) [dour and lush in the spirit of The National]
- “Seventy” by Cable (Derby, England, ‘90s) [band members famously exchanged blows with members of Oasis after calling them a Beatles rip-off]
- “70” by Team William (Belgium)
- “70%” by Yes Please! (Helsinki)
- “70 Arms” by Delacroix (Stockholm)
In the ‘70s, wrote David Foster Wallace, “… [the] brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate[d] into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.” Mike Watt’s “Against the 70s” has about as much warmth toward the era as Wallace had. Powered by Dave Grohl’s explosive drumming and an Eddie Vedder vocal that makes better use of the man’s low range than your average Pearl Jam howler, the song makes clear that Watt has no interest in the “borrowed nostalgia” James Murphy decries. Ball-Hog or Tug-Boat?, the source of “Against the ‘70s,” sprawls over a host of styles, but this song feels like its calling card, representing a more straightforward style of rocking for Watt as well as evidence of his need to break from the past.
Watt came out with Ball-Hog, his first solo effort, almost 10 years after the demise of the Minutemen, the vital San Pedro, Ca., trio he anchored on bass, following the death of the band’s leader, D. Boon. Watt enlisted a diverse roster of luminaries—including Henry Rollins, the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Ad-Rock, Frank Black, Sonic Youth, Evan Dando, and the aforementioned Dave Grohl—all of whom found something in the Minutemen to be inspired by, and it’s not hard to see why. The Minutemen can lay claim to one of rock’s rarest accolades: uniqueness. The band tossed out many of the givens of ‘70s rock—they featured a singer who didn’t sing so much as declaim, cut about three-quarters from the running time of a typical rock song, and even dispensed with most of expected subject matter (e.g., they never wrote a single love song) and song titles (“The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts” is a classic). Instead, drawing on an idiosyncratic set of influences (Wire, Funkadelic, Blue Oyster Cult) and sticking to an M.O. devoid of ego and backstage riders, the Minutemen unleashed short bursts that were frantic, tight, and weirdly groovy. (Drummer George Hurley deserves credit for fueling their astringent funk.) “Against the 70s” is more traditional than a Minutemen song, and a lot less Minutemen-sounding than Watt’s subsequent work with fIREHOSE—and I guess that’s the point.
The kids of today should defend themselves against the ‘70s
It’s not reality. Just someone else’s sentimentality…
Numerology is our pal Dave’s ill-advised quest to find the definitive song for every number from one to a hundred. He’s been at it for close to three years now, 3 — the first odd, prime number as well as the number of sides on a triangle. As a child he was more obsessed with counting the sides of blocks instead of matching them to their respective hole. Legend has it that he drove teachers out of education with his theories on hexagon blocks.