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Rock around 1976   Print

by Robin Denselow
Guardian
December 14, 1976

ROBIN DENSELOW sums up the output in the year of Jackson Browne

IF ROCK music reflects  however obliquely  the state of society, it would seem that we have ended 1976 on a particularly bleak note. On the American West Coast, where there has been a growing tendency for the individuality and experiment of the Sixties to give way to music that attempts little more than to be a high-quality background noise all the best singer-songwriters continue to be obsessed with their own personal problems  loneliness, non-communication, and ennui. Self analysis rock rules.

In Britain, the media have suddenly been taken in by what may or may not be a genuine rebellious new movement called punk rock. In the past, the different waves of "wild new music" (early rock 'n' roll, the British R & B movement, psychedelia, or the underground) have reflected a lifestyle and also produced talent. The wild men have gone on to be respected, almost venerable figures  from Chuck Berry to Jagger and Zappa. Punk rock so far only reflects life-style (if even that) with no talent in sight. Perhaps that's why its popularity seems questionable outside Fleet Street. In Jamaica, a lot more significantly and depressingly, an important and influential figure, Bob Marley  whose songs have chronicled the island's poverty and violence, has ended the year by narrowly escaping death himself when gunmen attached his house, apparently with political motives.

A gloomy (and admittedly selective) list like that makes it sound as if rock has had a bad year  which perhaps it has, but only in some ways. The grand old men of the Sixties have gone thundering on, still filling concert halls and selling records, and still not enough first-rate new artists have emerged to step into their shoes. New heroes like Peter Frampton have proved inadequate, while the one genuine hopeful Bruce Springsteen has spent much of the year out of sight fighting his manager. Hence, presumably, the frustrations of punk. That aside (and I intend to leave it aside until it throws out something more interesting) it's true that there have been few new causes (I'm not counting Jamaican politics) and no new movements. Hence, presumably, the continuing self-obsession of the American lyricists.

The unquestioned male champion of despair at the moment (taking over the gloom and depression crown from James Taylor and Neil Young) is Jackson Browne. He will be in London just before Christmas, and the concerts on his European tour so far have apparently left some audiences in tears. He has an exquisite voice with a built-in falling cadence to it, as if he were forever on the point of turning from major to minor key.

His new album The Pretender (Asylum 7E 1079) is a worthy successor to his previous three sets, and shows him expanding his musical horizons to more up-tempo ballads and even Mexican influences. The subject-matter is expectedly bleak but well-handled, and he builds a sustained irony by matching lyric against melody.

If Jackson is the style's king, Joni Mitchell is the undoubted queen. Her last set The Hissing of Summer Lawns was the finest album last year, but the new one Hejira (Asylum K53053) while in many ways equally magnificent, also poses a lot more problems about her development as a songwriter.

The problem comes with the music to all this: Joni Mitchell continues to experiment and show off her acrobatic voice, but is fast beginning to dispense with easily recognizable melody. At times the result is almost poetry set to free-form jazz and her mass audience may find it slightly hard going. At least she still has the courage to risk her popularity for her art.

These albums both deserve a place among the best albums of the year  though during the year Joni Mitchell's position as rock's finest female singer-songwriter has at last been challenged by a whole set of female singers. Other best albums of the year must certainly include the last Joan Armatrading album, just called Joan Armatrading (A & M AMLH 64558), which showed that we now have a black artist in Britain with the same sort of vocal range, originality (in fact even greater originality in terms of musical influences) and lyrical sensitivity. The best concert of the year was by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, with their pure, exquisite and emotional mixture of folk styles, hymns and ballads. Although the album came out at the end of last year, it deserves another mention  Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Warner BS 2862).

On the male side, in no particular order, and each 'doggedly following their own particular styles, 1976 was a good year for the following: David Bowie at last returned with an impressive concert and an impressive batch of songs, Station to Station (RCA APLI 1327). Bob Marley became a world cult-figure before going back to Jamaica to get shot at, and set Haile Selassie's speeches to music on his latest powerful batch of songs, Rastaman Vibration (Island ILPS 9383). Alex Harvey retired (for the moment) after writing the best current affairs/heavy rock tune in years  The Dogs of War (about mercenaries) on SAHB Stories (Mountain TOPS 112).

Jesse Winchester at last came to Britain, arnd released another low-key, deceptively clever album  Let the Rough Side Drag (Bearsville K55512), Stevie Wonder at last finished Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla Motown TMSP 6002) and the wait was worth it. JJ Cale gave a glorious concert to show what "laid back" really means, and released Troubador (Shelter ISA 5011). Dr Feelgood brought back simple, exciting Rhythm and Blues with Stupidity (United Artists UAS 29990), and the Wild Tchoupitoulas from New Orleans provided a welcome blast of Mardi Gras dance music (Island ILPS 9360). Forget those boring Sex Pistols. Maybe it wasn't such a bad year after all.

 

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