Wednesday, April 22, 2015

25 Ecology-Conscious Radio Hits of the Early '70s


The first official Earth Day (April 22, 1970) reflected a new environmental awareness taking cues from the Woodstock generation's urge to get "back to the land." This urge went mainstream in the form of environmental legislation, brisk-selling books like The Whole Earth Catalog, Future Shock, and The Late Great Planet Earth, and a booming health food industry, among other things. In pop music, ecological issues became an identifying feature. No era's top selling singles before or since would reference pollution quite so frequently.

The following list includes the biggest singles from the era that show a distinct sense of ecological concern. To make the list, the songs had to have appeared somewhere between 1 and 130 on Billboard's pop singles chart at any point from 1970 to 1974 and contain at least one line expressing concern for the air, the water, or the land. Not included here are any of the numerous songs that merely celebrate country life or any ecologically-oriented non-charting album tracks, however well-known. All of the titles are ordered according to the date of their first appearance in Billboard. This is because it's common for any one of these to be written about as "the first," but no, the subject was a happening thing back then.

1. Pacific Gas & Electric - "Are You Ready" (Billboard #14, entered 5/30/70). Written by Charlie Allen and John Hill. Produced by John Hill. 45: "Are You Ready"/"Staggolee" (Columbia 1970). LP: Are You Ready (Columbia 1970).

Pollution gets listed as one of the social ills Jesus can help fix. ("If you breathe air you'll die/ Perhaps you wonder the reason why.")  Co-writer Charlie Allen is the group's lead vocalist. 

2. The Neighborhood - "Big Yellow Taxi" (Billboard #29, 6/20/70). Written by Joni Mitchell. Produced by Jimmy Bryant. 45: "Big Yellow Taxi"/"You Could Be Born Again" (Big Tree 1970). LP: Debut (Big Tree 1970).

This vocal-troupe version of Joni Mitchell's song about paved-over parking lots, tree museums and DDT charted a week earlier than her own more natural-sounding record. It also charted higher. Side B covers a Free Design song.

3. The Guess Who - "Hand Me Down World" (Billboard #17, entered 7/18/70). Written by Kurt Winter. Produced by Jack Richardson. 45: "Hand Me Down World"/"Runnin' Down the Street." LP: Share the Land.

The environmentalism is implicit here ("Anybody see the sky weeping tears for the ocean?"). The Canadian group's follow up hit, "Share the Land," had a made-to-order Earth Day title, but the lyrics focused instead on communal hand-holding.

4. Joni Mitchell - "Big Yellow Taxi" (Billboard #67, entered 7/25/70). Written and produced by Joni Mitchell. 45: "Big Yellow Taxi"/"Woodstock" (Reprise 1970). LP: Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise 1970).

(Also see nos. 2 and 25.) A John Wilson animation of this record aired on the popular Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on August 8, 1971. In the mid-nineties a renewed preoccupation with the song took hold thanks to a shopping mall-friendly remix EP, soundtrack placements, and a charting cover version by Amy Grant. In 2003 Counting Crows pecked at it some more for another charting cover version.

5. Three Dog Night - "Out in the Country" (Billboard #15, entered 8/29/70). Written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols. Produced by Richard Podolor. 45: "Out in the Country"/"Good Time Livin" (Dunhill/ABC 1970). LP: It Ain't Easy (Dunhill/ABC 1970).

This one stands apart from other frolics in the hay by painting a grim picture in the chorus: "Before the breathin' air is gone/ Before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time/ Out where the rivers like to run/ I stand alone and take back something worth remembering."  

6. Spirit - "Animal Zoo" (Billboard #97, entered 9/12/70). Written by Jay Ferguson. Produced by David Briggs. 45: "Animal Zoo"/"Red Light Roll On" (Epic 1970). LP: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (Epic 1970).

The first single from Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, the final album for the classic lineup of this inventive Los Angeles group, satirizes life in the city, saying that "the air I breathe and the water I drink is selling me short..."

7. Blue Mink - "Our World" (Billboard #64, entered 9/26/70). Written by Herbie Flowers and Kenny Pickett. Produced by Blue Mink. 45: "Our World"/"Pastures New" (Philips 1970). LP: Our World (Philips 1970).

Blue Mink was a British group that included songwriter Roger Cook and bass guitar ace Herbie Flowers, and their only US hit referenced "people trying not to choke...breathing the smoke," black clouds and "troubled waters." (I'm a fan of the B-side, written by the band's keyboardist Roger Coulam and featuring Flowers's rapid-fire bass fills.)

8. The Kinks - "Apeman" (Billboard #45, entered 1/2/71). Written and produced by Ray Davies. 45: "Apeman"/"Rats." LP: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970).

Ray Davies pokes fun at the nature movement by lauding the lifestyle of primates. Musically, he draws from the Caribbean trend. ("I look out my window but I can't see the sky/ 'Cause the air pollution is a-fogging up my eyes.")

9. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band - "Solution for Pollution" (Billboard #96, entered 1/23/71). Written and produced by Charles Wright. 45: "Solution for Pollution"/"High as Apple Pie" (Warner Bros. 1970).

Wherein a solution isn't offered, just yearned for. ("The first thing I saw this morning was polluted skies/ Some people walking around with tears in their eyes.")

10. R. Dean Taylor - "Ain’t It a Sad Thing" (Billboard #66, 2/14/71). Written and produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Ain't It a Sad Thing"/"Back Street" (Rare Earth 1970). LP: I Think, Therefore I Am (Rare Earth 1970).

The "Indiana Wants Me" singer-songwriter offers up one of pop's catchiest whistle choruses. ("Cities eating up the land/ Progress eating up the planet")

11. Spirit - "Nature's Way" (Billboard #111, entered 3/20/71. Written by Randy California. Produced by David Briggs. 45: "Nature's Way"/"Soldier" (Epic 1971). LP: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (Epic 1970).

Spirit's final charting single, although not especially detailed, was reportedly prompted by an environmental conversation between band member Randy California and a friend. 

12. Brewer and Shipley - "Tarkio Road" (Billboard #55, 5/15/71). Written by Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley. Produced by Nick Gravenites. 45: "Tarko Road"/"Seems Like a Long Time" (Kama Sutra 1971). LP: Tarkio (Kama Sutra 1971).

In their hazy way, the "One Toke Over the Line" duo from Kansas City zeroes in on 1916 as industrial Year One in Crete, Nebraska. ("Fifty-five years of pollution/ Everybody knows how the puzzle was laid/ But can anyone recall the solution.") The B-side of the single is their version of "Seems Like a Long Time" written by another Kansas City songwriter named Ted Anderson. Rod Stewart would later cover the song on his Every Picture Tells a Story album.

13. Marvin Gaye - "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" (Billboard #4, entered 7/3/71). Written and produced by Marvin Gaye. 45: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"/"Sad Tomorrows" (Tamla 1971). LP: What's Going On (Tamla 1971).

The ultimate ecology record is this one, from top to bottom. The song on the B-side called "Sad Tomorrows" is actually an earlier version of the What's Going On album's "Flying High (In the Friendly Sky)."

14. Ten Years After - "I’d Love to Change the World" (Billboard #40, entered 9/25/71). Written by Alvin Lee. Produced by Chris Wright. 45: "I'd Love to Change the World"/"Let the Sky Fall" (Columbia 1971). LP: A Space in Time (Columbia 1971).

Alvin Lee's repeating guitar riff is both unsettling and seductive - one of rock's greats. But the opening lyrics, whatever the intention, sound like Axl Rose source material ("Everywhere is freaks and hairies, dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity"). Pollution makes the grievance list in verse three.

15. The Staple Singers - "Respect Yourself" (Billboard #12, entered 10/16/71). Written by Mack Rice and Luther Ingram. Produced by Al Bell. 45: "Respect Yourself"/"You're Gonna Make Me Cry" (Stax 1971). LP: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1971).

This take-responsibility proclamation was a highlight of the Staple Singers' classic early seventies output. ("Keep talkin' 'bout the president/ Won't stop air pollution/ Put your hand on your mouth when you cough/ That'll help the solution.")

16. Lighthouse - "Take It Slow (Out in the Country)" (Billboard #64, entered 12/11/71). Written by Keith Jollimore, Larry Smith, and Ralph Cole. Produced by Jimmy Ienner. 45: "Take It Slow (Out in the Country)"/"Sweet Lullabye" (Evolution 1971). LP: Thoughts of Movin' On (Evolution 1971).

Like with Three Dog Night's "Out in the Country," the jazz-rock army Lighthouse's "Take It Slow" made air quality a case in point: "Trying to find fresh air to breathe/ Just can't be done."

17. The Stylistics - "People Make the World Go Round" (Billboard #25, 6/3/72). Written by Linda Creed and Thom Bell. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "People Make the World Go Round"/"Point of No Return" (Avco 1972). LP: The Stylistics (Avco 1971).

The pulsing intro and menacing strings make for a musical approximation of urban smog. This is one of producer Thom Bell's many masterworks. ("Buses on strike want a raise in fare/ So they can help pollute the air.")

18. Tom Rush - "Mother Earth" (Billboard #111, entered 6/3/72). Written by Eric Kaz. Produced by Tom Rush. 45: "Mother Earth"/"Wind on the Water" (Columbia 1972). LP: Merrimack County (Columbia 1972).

Although the folksinger Rush is known for more than his pop chart appearances, this is one of his very few. ("Though I treat her carelessly, Mother Earth provides for me.")

19. Albert Hammond - "Down by the River" (Billboard #91, entered 7/22/72). Written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood. Produced by Don Altfeld and Albert Hammond. 45: "Down by the River"/"The Last One to Know" (Mums 1972). LP: It Never Rains in Southern California (Mums 1972).

This is not one of the handful of charting cover versions of Neil Young's murder tune. It's Hammond's hand-clapping report on how he swam in a contaminated country river and had to go to the doctor.  

20. The Osmonds - "Crazy Horses" (Billboard #14, entered 10/21/72). Written by Alan Osmond, Merrill Osmond and Wayne Osmond. Produced by Alan Osmond and Michael Lloyd. 45: "Crazy Horses"/"That's My Girl" (MGM/Kolob 1972). LP: Crazy Horses (MGM/Kolob 1972).

The Osmond brothers' hardest rocking track depicts air quality in Book of Revelation horses-of-the-apocalypse terms. ("There's a message floating in the air...There they go, what a show, smoking up the sky... If they keep on moving then it's all our fault.")

21. John Denver - "Rocky Mountain High" (Billboard #9, entered 11/25/72). Written by John Denver and Mike Taylor. Produced by Milton Okun. 45: "Rocky Mountain High"/"Spring" (RCA Victor 1972). LP: Rocky Mountain High (RCA Victor 1972).

John Denver turned early seventies nature-consciousness into a career, but his "Rocky Mountain High" is his only chart hit from the era to express outright concern: "Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear/ Of some simple thing he cannot comprehend/ Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more/ More people, more scars upon the land."

22. Stevie Wonder - "Living for the City" (Billboard #8, entered 11/10/73). Written and produced by Stevie Wonder. 45: "Living for the City"/"Visions" (Tamla 1973). LP: Innervisions (Tamla 1973).

Wonder's urban epic from his Innervisons LP features more gasping and hacking: "He's almost dead from breathing on air pollution." The single clocks in at 3:12 while the album version contains a lengthy middle section that stretched it out to 7:26.

23. Daryl Hall and John Oates - "She's Gone" (Billboard #60, entered 2/9/74; Billboard #7, reentered 7/24/76). Written by Daryl Hall and John Oates. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "She's Gone"/"I'm Just a Kid (Don't Make Me Feel Like a Man)" (Atlantic 1973; reissued 1976); LP: Abandoned Luncheonette (Atlantic 1973).

Although it went Top Ten as a reissue in '76, "She's Gone," in which the duo sings of taking heartbroken refuge in the city to let the "carbon and monoxide choke" their "thoughts away," first charted in '74, 

24. Prelude - "After the Gold Rush" (Billboard #22, entered 10/5/74). Written by Neil Young. Produced by Fritz Fryer. 45: "After the Gold Rush"/"Johnson Boy" (Island 1974). LP: After the Gold Rush (Island 1974).

Neil Young's own 1970 recording of "After the Gold Rush," with the line "look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s," is the classic version, but this lovely acapella curio from Britain is the one that charted.

25. Joni Mitchell - "Big Yellow Taxi (live)" (Billboard #24, entered 12/28/74). Written and produced by Joni Mitchell. 45: "Big Yellow Taxi (live)"/"Rainy Night House (live)" (Asylum 1974). LP: Miles of Aisles (Asylum 1974).

(Also see Nos. 2 and 4.) Mitchell's 1974 live band version with the L.A. Express is less familiar today than her original 1970 recording, but it managed to chart higher than all other versions.

2 comments:

  1. The song waiting on the world to change by John Mayer was done in the 70's by another group I think. Do you know who it was?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Looks like Mayer wrote it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_on_the_World_to_Change

    ReplyDelete