Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to have an image of a shirtless Ned Doheny stuck in my head. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s really not surprising. Doheny is one of many 70s artists that have been lost in back catalogs and faded careers only to be rediscovered years later.
While decade-oriented retrospectives tend to focus on household names and big hits, a number of middle-charting songs and albums often get lost in the mix (pun intended). But that’s what makes digging into the past so interesting. With enough patience and curiosity, you can unearth a few forgotten gems and compelling stories from the time, and begin to understand just how rare it is for an artist to truly “make it big,” as they say.
Doheny’s story, along with a league of forgotten singer-songwriters, coincides with the meteoric rise of Southern California rock in the 70s. He also happened to know most of those artists personally. Doheny was one of the first artists on David Geffen’s Asylum label, which would release albums for household names like The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne. Unfortunately, Doheny’s 1973 debut wouldn’t garner the kind of fanfare that others on the label were getting, and in 1976 his album “Hard Candy” would be released on Arista Records, which would drop him by the end of the decade.
Though he never gained the popularity of his peers, Doheny would find another outlet overseas. His popularity in Japan, tied to the emerging market for “city pop”, a smooth, soft rock oriented sound that was catching fire in the country, would eventually lead him to host a popular radio show called “Postcards From Hollywood” in the country, followed by an album of the same name.
By the 2000s, though, his work had attracted the attention of music archivists. Eventually Numero Group, a Chicago-based archival record label, would release “Separate Oceans,” a collection of Doheny cuts and demos from his first decade in music. This sort of retrospective release has become standard practice in our time, with several archival labels patiently digging around in the dusty vinyl back rooms of the world for music that has been forgotten. Most of the time, it seems that this cultural amnesia is warranted. In some cases, though, a gem is unearthed. One can only look back to 2014 when Pitchfork gushed over the mysterious album “L’Amour,” which was credited to an unknown artist named Lewis and had just been reissued by fellow crate diggers Light in the Attic.
Doheny was a completely different case than Lewis. He wasn’t unknown in his time, and never had the air of mystery and singular style that Lewis had. In fact, Doheny’s family was one of the most famous in California. A state beach in California bears his surname, and legendary artists of the time such as Jackson Browne praised his songwriting chops. His music is groovy, catchy, and fun to dance to, which is probably why he’s enjoyed enduring popularity in Japan and even had a single, “To Prove My Love,” catch on with an emerging dance club scene in the U.K.
Looking back, the music industry in 70s would have us believe it was a sunny time to be alive. As yacht rock and disco soared in the late 70s, feel-good anthems and and optimistic themes dominated the music of the era. Doheny’s beachfront soul record “Hard Candy” would land in 1976, right in the middle of all this optimism (Two of those summer’s hits were “Afternoon Delight” and Silly Love Songs,” after all). Doheny’s elevated chord progressions, electric piano sounds, and sweet-as-cherry-pie backup “oohs” put him right in the mix with his contemporaries.
The optimism may come in part from the soaring sales and multimedia sell that was beginning to transform the music industry into a whole different animal. Perhaps at its highest moment of excess, label executives and managers threw hordes of money at lavish tours and up-and-coming artists. Led Zeppelin and Elton John toured the world on jumbo jets and lived lives of luxury most of us could only imagine. Americans piled into discotheques in droves to boogie down to “Dancing Queen” by Abba or “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb.
It’s possible to attribute the good feelings to a lift in spirits after the U.S. exited the Vietnam war in January 1973. The country needed some jubilance after the conflict and strife of the war, and that is exactly what the music industry delivered. Artists like Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & The Gang tapped into the exuberance that Americans so desperately needed as the anger and cultural criticism of the previous decade was relegated to the sidelines. All signs point to this being a gritty optimism, one that was hard-fought after the fallout of hippie values and rising issues of crime and social disillusionment.
Before this profound shift in mood, an artist named Judee Sill attempted to marry transcendental spirituality with pop music. Her first few albums utilized heartfelt songs with strong melodies to tackle highly personal Christian themes of mystical union, salvation, and redemption. Sill called her own genre country-cult-baroque, attempting to describe the singular way she blended her classical training with the laid-back Southern California vibe of the era. Maybe her music was a little too serious or a bit too complex for the time – whatever it was, her albums never got caught on. The same could be said for her unrequited love for David Geffen, which faded along with the sales of her 1973 effort “Heart Food.” Sill never finished a third album and would die of a heroin overdose just as the decade was coming to a close, forgotten by the music industry.
NRBQ might qualify as one of the most enduring cult favorites that came out of the decade, a fact that might be pinned to their effortless balance between ingenuity and hard-won skill. At once they have managed to be energetic blues players and enduring weirdos, ones who have consistently evolved over the decades into new forms of music and being. To this day, their 1972 album “Scraps” sits up there as an oddly satisfying blend of pub rock, cabaret playfulness, and heartfelt songwriting.
“Magnet,” the second song off the album, is the sort of jauntily charismatic tune that gets you out of your seat. There’s truly nothing special about it, which is also what makes it so wonderful. Just like with the understated soul workouts on Carole King’s “Tapestry,” NRBQ manages to squeeze every last drop of groove and delight from their mix of piano, bass, drums, and guitar: “I’m like a convict / You’re like the FBI / I ask for breakfast / You bring a piece of pie” Full of smart similes and politely jabbing lyrics, it’s the sort of track that you want to go back to time and time again.
Our era, instead of being one of scarcity and limited outlets, now enjoys the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll at our fingertips. Spotify playlists and reddit discussion boards are full of reexaminations and recommendations concerning past albums. Pitchfork, in what seems a power move to supplant Rolling Stone’s domination of yesteryear albums, now releases in-depth lists that chronicle the best albums of an era. Now that people are listening to vinyl again, it makes you wonder how we can reexamine the past in other ways. Why do we like outdated technology like records and cassettes? The tactile feeling of pulling a record out of its sleeve and playing it on a turntable is undeniably rewarding to the collector. It’s also easy to imagine the shared excitement of lining up at the record store on the day music is released, a feeling that is undeniably missing from today’s world.
The sounds and feelings of a time change as soon as soon as they’re experienced. It’s easy to do the research and recite the artists and albums of the era, but impossible to go back, to feel the mood of a scene or the excitement when your favorite band. This love for retro things – is it a loving homage or hopeless nostalgia? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both – we wish to truly dig into what an era felt like even as we know the relativity and singularity of each experience. Many of our grand ideas of decades and ages are retrospects. Actually living in each moment is often a dizzying fever dream that isn’t stopped to be appreciated until long after it’s gone.
Judee Sills died right as the 70s were coming to a close. There was no fanfare or recollection of her career, no ceremony of grief. At the time most earnest songwriters had crossed over into the world of adult contemporary music, dressing their music in synths and drum machines instead of acoustic guitars and string sections. Tastes had changed and studios had became digitized. Disco, which could be described as a sort of fever dream celebration of the era’s optimism and cross-cultural appeal, had more or less “died” that previous summer in a frenzy known as Disco Demolition. Everything had changed as quickly as it had arrived.
Reality or fantasy, we now look at the past and reassess what happened, what has now been remembered and what was forgotten. With the world of music at our fingertips, we live in a new time of infinite playlists and retro vinyl dance nights. Record stores are nearly empty on Friday afternoons, and, if you wanted, you could record a whole album on your smartphone right at this very moment.
How’s that for entertainment?