Why the '70s Station Plays Such Bad Music

Recently, one of our local AOR stations decided that there wasn't enough difference between them and the rest of the stations littering the dial to distinguish them in the ears of their sponsors. So they got new call letters and became "the 70's station"--"playing the music of the 70's".

Immediately, there were snide remarks about how bad the music of the '70s was. These eventually gave way to more philosophical questions. Had the music really been that bad at the time, and we just hadn't noticed? Or had reality somehow shifted while we weren't watching?

The truth turns out to be both more subtle and more mundane. It occurred to me one day when the '70s station played a promo. The promo was a montage of songs from 1973, with a voice-over that announced: "1973: You were there!"

It worked: on a very visceral level, it transported me back to 1973. When I returned to the present, I was struck by how bad all of the songs in the montage were. It included Little Willy, and Stuck in the Middle With You, and 5 or 6 other equally forgettable songs from that year.

What was especially discrepant for me is that I have always remembered 1973 as a year when some of the best rock music of that era was released. I surfed over to the All-Music Guide, and here's what I found:

Music from 1973
Group AlbumSingle
Allman Brothers Brothers and Sisters Jessica
David Bowie Alladin SanePanic in Detroit
Jackson Browne For EverymanTake It Easy
Deep Purple Who Do We Think We AreWoman from Tokyo
Doobie Brothers Captain & Me China Grove
Eagles Desperado Desperado
Emerson, Lake & Palmer Brain Salad Surgery Karn Evil Nine
Fleetwood Mac Mystery to Me Hypnotized
Jethro Tull Aqualung Aqualung
Billy Joel Piano Man Piano Man
Elton John Goodbye, Yellow Brick RoadFuneral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppein IV (ZoSo)Stairway to Heaven
Lynyrd Skynyrd Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-NerdFreebird
Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon
The Rolling Stones Goats Head Soup Angie
Bruce Springsteen Greetings from Asbury Park NJBlinded by the Light
Steely Dan Countdown to EcstasyMy Old School
The Who Quadrophenia Love, Reign O'er Me

With all this to choose from, it seems astonishing that the '70s station can't find anything better than Little Willy by which to remember 1973.

But that's just the problem. It's only the forgettable music--the forgotten music--that has the power to evoke an earlier time. In order to take you back to the '70s, it is not sufficient for a song to be of the '70s; it must be only of the '70s. Only then can it be uniquely associated in your mind with the time when it was first played.

Good music from the '70s isn't particularly remembered as '70s music, any more than Handel's Messiah is remembered as '40s music. Good music comes to be associated with the entire span of time during which it is played.

I'm not claiming that the albums listed above are timeless, but all of them--all of them--survived the '70s. Some are still being played today. And because their currency extended beyond 1973, the '70s station can't use them as markers of that year.

That's why the '70s station plays such bad music.


Album Oriented Rock--Mainstream rock music, with a playlist drawn primarily from albums, as opposed to singles.
Where exactly these things transport you depends, of course, on where you actually were in 1973. In my case, it was junior high school.
Little Willy
You remember:

Little Willy, Willy won't GO HOME,
But you can't push Willy 'round; Willy won't go.
Try telling everybody but, oh, no:
Little Willy, Willy won't GO HOME.

etc, etc

Stuck in the Middle With You
Usually remembered as the one hit of the one hit wonder Steeler's Wheel
The 1740's, that is. Handel's Messiah was first performed in 1742.

Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@theworld.com / 22 September 1997