What’s That Sound?: 70s Comfort Food

Lord knows I love rock music. From its most menacing to its most benign, there is little in this wide-ranging genre that escapes my loving ears, even such notorious scourges as prog, soft rock, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, and The Eagles, all of which I have defended with enthusiasm in this esteemed publication.

I’ve also written in these pages about what I view as the 20 rock albums that changed the world. Music that tore at the fabric of the known universe, albums that established entirely new subgenres of rock and others that legitimized new formats, expanded the scope and scale of the mission, and others that breathed life into rock after it had long exceeded its expiration date, or rewrote an outdated rock ethos to reflect the modern culture and power structure. Rock music has the power in the moment to inspire everyone around, or it can embed itself in the amber of the collective consciousness and be unearthed later to inspire new generations of musicians and music lovers. And within the elastic boundaries of rock music even lie the seeds of its own destruction and the tools for its own dismantling. Just listening to rock music can be a revolutionary act or a deeply intimate experience. It can certainly energize, throw down the gauntlet, provide catharsis, or just leave us amazed.

But if you’re like me, no matter how refined your rock and roll palette, sometimes you just want to fill up on cornflakes. And when I want to treat my ears to some delicious, not quite nutritious musical comfort food, there’s one decade I run to, the 1970s. 

I’ve returned to the practice of listening “down” to entire albums which is natural when you are playing vinyl, but completely possible too if you are streaming. Here are some selections that will fill you up with great music and feel good going down. The best part is that these are records that were popular and widely owned in the vinyl era and not currently coveted by collectors. So, if you haunt your local record stores, you can eventually find almost all of these and other classic “comfort food” albums in excellent condition for $5 or under if you are patient.


DOOBIE BROTHERS

Before Michael McDonald brought his silky ways into the group, the Doobie Brothers were a completely different band. A favorite of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels (drummer John Hartman even rode with the infamous biker gang), the Doobies thought of themselves as tough guys. The identity of the band was forged at the nexus of the two guitarist-songwriters, rocker Tom Johnston and folkie Patrick Simmons, who, along with secret weapon bassist Tiran Porter served up a warm gumbo of R&B-tinged, Credence-adjacent rock and what can be vaguely described as modern bluegrass.

“Disciple”

After the somewhat lackluster self-titled debut album, the band brought it for their next two releases, Toulouse Street (1972) and The Captain and Me (1973), both classic 70s offerings of spirit and craft that sparkle and never descend into mediocrity or cliche. Aided by the precise hand of Ted Templeman (who produced their entire 70s catalog and beyond), these two albums provide 7 of the 11 cuts on Best of the Doobies. But why reach for the leaner, tighter greatest hits album when you can stretch out and indulge yourself with a generous helping of some of the hookiest song-oriented guitar rock of the decade?



CSN(Y)

There is too much talent to consider in this musical amalgam, which really only functioned as a true band on one ambitious album, Déjà Vu. The rest of their studio output was cut either with session musicians or with Stills overdubbing parts. Sporting a truly astonishing vocal blend, the best in rock, the group was nevertheless pulled apart by egos, drugs, and so many well-funded satellite projects that the recorded legacy of CSN (and sometimes Y) as a band is sadly, pretty scant.

“Hey You (Looking at the Moon)”

Among the many solo and duo albums released by the four principles, it’s the sound of Neil Young’s Harvest that positively gleams. But as comfort food, I first have to recommend Graham Nash’s second solo outing, Wild Tales, which was cut with those same musicians in the same studio, with Harvest producer Eliot Mazer at the helm. Young’s original Harvest may have more stunning peaks, but for consistency and its ability to maintain a sustained mood using virtually the same elements, I’ve lately been reaching for Nash’s second album for my pure listening pleasure. And as highly as I can recommend Nash’s surprisingly heavy debut, Songs For Beginners, the substantial first Crosby-Nash album, and Stills’ four-movement opus Manassas, as well as everything Neil Young released in the 70s, it’s Wild Tales that satisfies without making any demands.

“Peace of Mind”

Ever since the mega-success of Harvest in 1972, Neil Young had been pestered by fans and label execs to replicate the sound and feel of that signature album. With last year’s revelatory archival release of Homegrown, the lost 1975 album with Tim Drummond back on bass, Levon Helm sitting in for Kenny Buttrey, Mazer back in the producer’s chair, and Ben Keith again providing the atmospherics on steel guitar, fans were finally able to hear the sonic followup to Harvest. But in deciding between releasing this album and Young’s shambolic dark night of the soul Tonight’s the Night, the story was that Homegrown was shelved because the breakup songs that came with divorcing his first wife hit too emotionally close to home. Many of the Homegrown songs were peeled off and included on various releases over the years, but now that we can hear the entire album in its original form, we can see Neil Young’s musical timeline through his most fertile decade a bit more clearly.

Fast forward three years to the release of Comes a Time. Hailed at the time as a return to the sound of Harvest, we can see now how inaccurate that bit of record company marketing hype was. Whereas the hallmark of Harvest is its minimalist, bone-dry, soul-piercing intimacy, Comes a Time’s signature is one of grandness, delivered with a choir of acoustic guitars, with lots of pretty reverb in the production, and a folky opulence that is miles away from the stripped-back, front-porch closeness of Harvest. Instead of a throwback, when viewed in context of his long career, Comes a Time can be seen as a launching of a new “grand folk” Neil Young sound, one that he will revisit on Rust Never Sleeps (1979) with “Sail Away,” the CSNY reunion American Dream album (1988) with “This Old House” and “Feel Your Love,” Freedom (1989) with “Hangin’ On a Limb,” and the entirety of Harvest Moon (1992), yet another album falsely marketed as a return to the sound of Harvest.

Comes a Time eases itself into the heady Neil Young 70s timeline somewhere between the underground rumblings of his infamous Ditch trilogy and Rust Never Sleeps, the mercurial artist’s showy return to the limelight. From the first grooves of “Goin’ Back,” with its jillions of acoustic guitar layers to the final bars of his comfy version of “Four Strong Winds,” fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia’s classic folk song, this is a beautiful album that carries you along like a canoe gliding along on a crystal lake. All but two songs on Comes a Time feature the gossamer vocal accompaniments of then-unknown Nicolette Larson, duetting with Neil like an even gentler Emmylou Harris. Even the gutsy Crazy Horse cameo, “Look Out For My Love” glimmers with positivity, like it was a leftover that was cut from the preceding Zuma album for being too buoyant. Comes a Time did sell gold in the US at the time, but it’s nevertheless a largely forgotten chapter in the Neil Young evolution. And though he created more masterwork albums than anyone in the 70s (I count five, After the Goldrush, Harvest, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, and Rust Never Sleeps), it’s Comes a Time that I play when I want to pour myself a beverage, settle back, and float blissfully along that pretty crystal lake.

STEVE MILLER BAND

Starting off in 1968 with the near-genius artifact of the psychedelic era, Children of the Future (seek this one out), Steve Miller spent the beginning of his career recording seven albums for Capitol Records without much to show for the effort. That all changed in 1973 with the title track off of The Joker, a monster hit that was only a preamble of what was to come. Success must have been inspiring because what came next was a raft of great songs, the best of his career, and with his first substantial royalty check in hand, Miller bought himself a small recording console and a high-quality one-inch eight track recorder. After cutting basic tracks as a trio for more than two dozen songs, originals and covers at CBS studios in San Francisco with his longtime bass player, Lonnie Turner and the phenomenal session drummer Gary Mallaber, Miller transferred a mono rough mix plus a sync tone to the one-inch, leaving himself six remaining tracks for overdubbing vocals and guitars at home. Miller then re-sync’d his tapes with the master multitracks for mixing. In the end, he had enough songs for two hit-packed albums that play like singles anthologies, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams.

“Space Intro/Fly Like an Eagle”

You’d be hard-pressed to find anything more 70s than those cascades of Roland SH-2000 synth echoes that comprise “Space Intro,” the cosmic preamble to Fly Like an Eagle that tapers into the memorable Stratocaster blues figure introducing the title track. That riff was a remnant of the obscure “My Dark Hour,” Miller’s late-night 1969 collaboration with Capitol Records labelmate Paul McCartney. Here it is transformed into hooky 70s rocket fuel. Joined by Joachim Young killing it on Hammond B3, the rhythm section positively cooks on this moody funk workout, Miller’s creamy vocals and echoing synths leading the way. The rest of the album alternates between grabbing you by the ears and then letting you loose for a while to relax into the sustained vibe. 


Sure, all but one of the songs on the 14x platinum Greatest Hits 1974-1978 album are taken from either Fly Like an Eagle or Book of Dreams, but whenever I take one out of these 70s classics for a spin (which is often), I always follow it on the turntable with the other because two albums sides of this stuff just isn’t enough. This might not be the most sophisticated or challenging music in my collection, but neither is it banal or pandering, Just Steve Miller with a killer rhythm section, one of the best artists of his time finding his voice and cranking at the peak of his abilities. It’s mid-70s comfort food at its finest, so dig in. 


PAUL McCARTNEY AND WINGS

John or George may take the cake for best post-Beatles solo album (I lately give it to the minimalist Plastic Ono Band album over the maxxed-out All Things Must Pass, but that’s not my permanent assessment. Both albums are towering achievements). It would be folly to look for anything nearly as ambitious or profound anywhere in Paul’s catalog. The Beatles was his crowning achievement, and as earned is his reputation for being a control freak in that group, it must be understood that the confines of a band setting are Paul’s natural habitat. Without the scrutiny of a John or the jaundiced eye of a George weighing him down, Paul’s enthusiasm tends to freewheel and land him in somewhat fluffy, or even cheesy realms. Not always.

“Maybe I’m Amazed” from McCartney’s self-titled solo release and “Too Many People” from the Ram follow-up album have some weight, but Paul’s currency in the aftermath of Beatles seemed to be whimsy, either tossed off (as in most of McCartney) or in extended form (as in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” from Ram). Those two first albums have lately been the subject of critical reassessment, but at the time, along with the strangely flimsy first Wings album, Wild Life, and its mediocre followup, Red Rose Speedway, the sputtering start of Paul’s solo career was a beguiling source of frustration, disappointment, and even ridicule to critics and most fans, so accustomed were they to Paul’s brilliance in the Beatles.

“Jet”

Landing with a roar like a big, cushy 747 comes Band on the Run, Paul’s first fully-realized and best album of his solo career. Even though the album is billed as Paul McCartney and Wings, this is very much a Paul solo effort, producing, and playing bass, borderline-incredible drums, and most of the other significant parts on the album as well. With only Linda and rhythm guitarist Denny Laine remaining after Wings’ drummer and lead guitar player quit the band in the summer of 1973, right before tracking for the album was to begin in Lagos, Nigeria, Paul didn’t fold — he rose to the occasion. Eclectic, tuneful, hard-rocking, and wistful in places, with Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick behind the console and anchored by McCartney’s featured bass and the multi-sectioned title track, Band on the Run is downright Beatlesque, but with all of the 70s trimmings. It’s a great sounding, highly detailed, and well-sequenced mid-70s album that sticks to the ribs and positively brims with Paul’s unsinkable spirit.



JACKSON BROWNE

As one of the defining voices of his generation, Jackson Browne is in many ways, also its conscience. Political awareness provides the hallmark of his middle and later periods, but the consciousness expressed in this first handful of albums is more of a personal nature with societal implications. In a hard-partying, libertine cultural era, Jackson was writing about its emotional fallout in songs like “Doctor My Eyes” and “Fountain of Sorrow.” His third album, Late for the Sky is a sustained meditation on deeply personal themes with spillover into social resonances, an approach he refined ever further for “The Pretender,” the title track of his next album. These two albums provide an interesting juxtaposition. Where Late for the Sky is insular and sonically unified to the point of feeling like you’re sitting amongst a highly attuned congregation, The Pretender is also very reflective but more musically dynamic and more stylistically diverse. This follows because, where Late for the Sky was cut with only four other musicians, the various bands assembled for the songs of The Pretender were cast from the best of the LA session crowd. The two albums are very similar in the intent of the songwriting and the headspace of the artist, but are so different in their execution. Listening to them one after the other is a revelation.

“Nothing But Time”

For his fifth outing, Jackson Browne took a big left turn and delivered Running On Empty, a well-conceived concept album about life on the road as a touring musician. Interestingly, the thematic centerpiece, “The Road” wasn’t written by Jackson, but that is immaterial because it sure sounds like his creation. In true Jackson Browne fashion, the title track (which opens the album and feeds into the Danny O’Keefe cover tune), works both as a rock star lament and a metaphor for a generation that came of age in the heady 60s and reconciled its ideals in the early 70s, but now was spiritually flagging (a theme also covered in “The Pretender.”). The difference here is the music, which is anything but doleful, and the general spirit of the album which is outgoing and spirited, even in its most thoughtful moments. I’m a devotee of every one of Jackson’s first five albums, but this is the one I play when I want to feed my soul without bearing the weight of the world too heavily.



PETER FRAMPTON

It doesn’t get more 70s than this guy. Making his bones over the course of the first four Humble Pie albums, it’s easy to see now in retrospect that Town and Country, the band’s more acoustic-based and musically dynamic 2nd album, was a precursor to the Peter Frampton the world would come to know and love. If Humble Pie exists in your mind as Steve Marriott’s screamer-boogie band that broke huge with “30 Days in the Hole,” you owe it to yourself to check out their early stuff because you’re only getting half the Humble Pie picture.

“All Night Long”

Frampton Comes Alive was absolutely everywhere when it came out in 1976 (I never had the record back then because I didn’t need to with how much I heard it around at parties and on the radio). Despite its quality and undeniable status as one of the great live albums, owning it now seems superfluous. It’s the early studio effort Frampton’s Camel that gets the plays on my stereo. Named after his touring band at the time, Frampton’s second album aimed to be a harder rocking version of his largely acoustic debut, Wind of Change, and ended up threading that needle perfectly. This is the same terrain that his live behemoth treads, but here in a more intimate studio setting. It’s just a great collection of rock songs (which includes “Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Lines on My Face” in their original, less overplayed forms), delivered with gusto and without so much of the rock star trappings that make Frampton Comes Alive somehow less enduring than the other classic albums of the 70s. Frampton’s Camel is the easygoing gem in his catalog that gets better with each listen.



CAT STEVENS

I’m not sure why it is but, of all the many singer-songwriters that thrived in the early to mid-70s, I find myself playing my Cat Stevens albums most, and often, more than one in succession. He is certainly not my favorite artist or songwriter from the era and none of his albums reach “epic” status (well, maybe Tea for the Tillerman does). As the decade wore on, his flaws did become more pronounced, but his 1970-74 run of albums just continues to hit me in the good spot. His records make for the best morning music and that often leads to a full afternoon of Cat Stevens music at our house. Nothing too earthshaking in these albums that I can detect, just top-notch songs and great record making in a classic, minimalist style that never sounds dated.

“The Wind”

Not everyone knows that the career of Cat Stevens started out in a very different guise than the rootsy-acoustic singer-songwriter persona we later came to know. After a couple of whimsical radio-friendly, heavily orchestrated baroque-pop hits off of his debut album in the late 60s (“I Love My Dog” and “Matthew and Son”), a return to the same well for his next album yielded no chart success. Disappearing in 1968 after contracting tuberculosis, Cat Stevens reemerged at age 22 as a dark-eyed, minimalist poet with acoustic guitar and a lot of passion, a very different artist from where he started as an effervescent UK teenage pop star just three years earlier. With the expert help of producer Paul Sammel-Smith (former bassist of the Yardbirds) and just a 2nd acoustic guitarist, minimal drums, and an upright bass, Cat Stevens put out Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman (both from 1970). Songs from those two powerful, cathartic albums appeared in the popular 1971 movie, Harold and Maude, and the talented songwriter found himself thrust into the front wave of the singer-songwriter movement. After the equally stunning Teaser and the Firecat (1971), Cat Stevens fell back into his baroque, over-orchestrated ways. The following albums, Catch Bull at Four and Foreigner lack the intense focus of the preceding three albums but still gratify, while the exquisite Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974) works as a culminating statement in his more intricate style. And though by the end of the decade, Cat Stevens had become Yusuf Islam, a devout Muslim, eventually dropping out of music for decades, used copies of his early to mid-70s albums are readily available, sound fantastic, and continue to satisfy with each play. Also recommended but harder to find is his 1967 debut album, Matthew and Son for its relentless tunefulness in the earlier pop style.



LINDA RONSTADT

Producer Peter Asher has had a storied career in music. After disbanding his own group, Peter and Gordon who scored a worldwide hit with Paul McCartney’s song, “A World Without Love” (Asher’s sister Jane was Paul’s longtime girlfriend at the time), Asher went on to head the A&R department at the Apple Records where his first signing was James Taylor. Peter Asher produced that first James Taylor album for Apple, which was a bit of an over-produced curio, but then moved on to manage Taylor and act as producer on his next 3 for Warner Brothers, spare, organic-sounding albums which all feature his signature acoustic guitar work and came to define the James Taylor sound and, in many ways, the singer-songwriter movement in general. Asher soon after acted as manager-producer for Kate Taylor, James’ sister, and the one album of well-chosen cover songs that he produced for her. Sister Kate wasn’t any sort of success but did provide the template for the next grand phase of Asher’s career, managing and producing one more long string of great recordings for another indelible voice in 70s rock, Linda Ronstadt.

“Faithless Love”

As a stalwart fan of singer-songwriters, I’m a little late to this excellent run of Linda Ronstadt albums (I count seven in a row). All of them are uniformly listenable and incredibly well made, and even though she herself is not a songwriter (she only has three co-writes to her name over her whole career), what Linda Ronstadt, Peter Asher, and their tasteful musicians and arrangers bring to these records is a great reverence for songwriting, something you may not get from hearing the radio hits, but really resonates when you get immersed in each album played in its entirety. And there is no better place to start than her first Asher-produced effort, the enduring Heart Like a Wheel album. It’s here where Linda Ronstadt broke as a radio darling with “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” hitting #1 and #2 respectively, but it’s the album as a whole that is widely regarded as her masterwork. What is less understood is how closely the next six albums in her catalog follow suit, all of them working the same formula — meticulous song selection and sequencing, sensitive and gutsy playing from the cream of the LA session players, stellar updated arrangements of existing classic songs, and a palpable reverence for her contemporary songwriters. There are no bad albums in this run.

It’s not possible to compile any sort of list of 70s music that is at all comprehensive, the decade is so rich with great stuff. I had to cut mine short and your list will be completely different. It’s also the era that represents the dynamic peak of analog recording and unfettered, straightforward studio technique without undue reliance on trickery, so all of these records I mention really do sound fantastic.

These are some starting points and some music you may have overlooked or dismissed. I know I did. And as I mentioned, if you collect used vinyl and your tastes run to the 70s, you can always find incredible bargains from this sumptuous decade in the clearance sections or even in the stacks and some of them might make it to your regular rotation. It’s a great place to start a new collection too, like I did. Happy hunting!

Photo credits:
Cornflakes photo by ric perin from Pexels
Record store photo by Eduardo Romero from Pexels
Turntable photo by Mika Lika from Pexels