Number One with a Bullet(belt)

If you’re my age, you discovered music on the radio. And, like me, you were probably listening on an AM Top 40 station; in the 1970s, Top 40 radio was almost exclusively found on the AM band. A glance back at the charts from that era reveals a pretty bizarre musical landscape; country music rubbing shoulders with soul and disco, hard funk fraternizing with soft rock, weepy ballads mixing with crunchy hard rock. A little bit of everything could be found on Top 40 radio in the 1970s… And if you were willing, as I was, to listen to 30 minutes of schlock in search of one hard rocking gem, the payoff was worth it.

Placement in the Billboard Top 40 in the 1970s was based on a combination of airplay and sales. Sales were largely driven by airplay; airplay was dictated by what appeared on the charts. Record company manipulation was also a major factor. But however dysfunctional these formulae were, this was the system many of us grew up with, and the way most of us found our music in the 1970s. This was how it was for me, and this is what I found…

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If we limit our look back to only the hardest and heaviest tunes ever to rough up the Top 40, there’s still a surprising number that make the cut. Let’s start with The Birth of Heavy, and Blue Cheer’s epic meltdown ‘Summertime Blues’, which peaked at #14 in 1968. This has got to be the heaviest song ever to feature in the Top 20. Also in ’68, Cream made the Top 10 with ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (#6), Iron Butterfly hit #30 with ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’, and Mountain climbed to #21 in 1970 with ‘Mississippi Queen’. In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ made it to #4. Zeppelin continued to appear in the Top 40 into the early years of the 70s; ‘Immigrant Song’/’Hey Hey, What Can I Do’ hit #16 in 1970, ‘Black Dog’ reached #15 in ’71, and ‘Trampled Under Foot’ crept in at #38 in 1975.

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While Black Sabbath never achieved Top 40 status with any of their singles, they were there in spirit. Bloodrock’s ‘D.O.A.’ hit #36; a truly unsettling song (at it’s core, it’s a re-write of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’), ‘D.O.A’.’ was banned from many radio stations due to it’s graphically gory lyrics and dark musicality… which only helped boost its popularity. Alice Cooper hit #7 with ‘School’s Out’, another song that radio stations banned. With its subversive lyric, including a line about blowing up a school, it’s doubtful that this song would even be recorded today. The Edgar Winter Group’s monster instrumental ‘Frankenstein’ topped the charts (that’s #1, kids) in 1972. Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 masterpiece ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ (#12) may not qualify as ‘heavy’, but its epic middle section and morbid lyrics certainly do; the song caused a minor uproar when it was (correctly?) labeled a ‘pro-suicide anthem’. This was seriously heavy stuff, kids, and it was also considered pop music.

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Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was only ever released as a single in the ‘double-A-side’ format, with the live version from ‘Made in Japan’ on the A-side and the studio version from the previous year’s ‘Machine Head’ on the B. Released in May of 1973, it climbed to #4; radio stations played both sides. Also in ’73, Rick Derringer’s kick-ass ‘Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo’ placed at #23, and Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’ reached #5; Sweet would hit again in 1975 with ‘Fox on the Run’ (#5) and ‘Action’ (#20). Alice came back in ’73 with three Top 40 placings from the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album: ‘Elected’ (#26), ‘Hello, Hurray’ (#35) and ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (#25), before a bizarre run of four consecutive Top 40 ballads. Not bizarre because the ballads were bad; bizarre because … he was Alice Cooper. And these were ballads.

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Aerosmith were a dominant presence in the Top 40 for a few years, but didn’t exactly play fair… ‘Dream On’ originally peaked at #59 in 1973, but after the success of the ‘Sweet Emotion’ single (#36), Columbia re-released ‘Dream On’ again in 1976, and the song hit #6. ‘Walk This Way’ has a similar history: when originally released in 1975, the single didn’t even chart. In 1976, it was re-released in between the ‘Last Child’ (#21) and ‘Back in the Saddle’ (#38) singles, and this time ‘Walk This Way’ would hit #10. Aerosmith’s last visit to the Top 40 in the 70’s would be with their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (#23) in 1978, from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack. Aerosmith would re-appear as chart darlings a decade later, but as a drastically different kind of band (sob).

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The Hottest Band in the Land paid frequent visits to the Top 40. Kiss hit #12 in 1975 with the ‘Alive!’ version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, with ‘Shout it Out Loud’ (#31) in ’76, and with ‘Calling Dr. Love’ (#16) and ‘Christine Sixteen’ (#25) in 1977. Two other Kiss singles charted just as high or higher; one was a ballad produced by Bob Ezrin (it worked for Alice). Neither single rocked, so they will not be acknowledged here. For about two years, Foghat were huge; ‘Slow Ride’ (#20), ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ (#34), and the live version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’ (#33) were all over the radio. Heart showed up big with ‘Crazy on You’ (#35) and ‘Magic Man’ (#9) in ’76, and the absolutely awesome ‘Barracuda’ (#11), another solid candidate for the heaviest Top 20 song evah, a year later. Just goes to show: you can’t judge a 45 by its picture sleeve.

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I’ll round out our research here with a few more notable one-offs: The manic flute freak-out of ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus reached #9 in 1973, BTO’s ‘Let it Ride’ got to #12 in, and ZZ Top’s ‘Tush’ reached #20 in 1975. In 1976, Thin Lizzy broke big with ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ (#12), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped out at #9. In 1977, Ted Nugent returned to the Top 40 (The Amboy Dukes’ ‘Journey to the Center of Your Mind’ hit #16 in 1968) with ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ (#30), and Ram Jam’s recording of the blues tune ‘Black Betty’ caused the NAACP to call for a national boycott. ‘Black Betty’ hit #17, which seems to indicate that the boycott failed…

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It sounds improbable today, but in the 1970s, the place to go to for hard rock and heavy metal was Top 40 radio. In 1978, the Top 40 format began migrating to the FM dial, where singles mingled with album cuts, diluting the power of the ‘Hit Single’. As touring became big business, the hard and heavy bands began working the road the way they had previously worked radio. It was the end of the era when the Top 40 ruled the AM airwaves.

…Until today. The Top 40 format rules the airwaves once again, although these days it seems as though there are only 5 or 6 songs ever aired on the radio, played over and over and over. Today, there is ZERO rock music on Top 40 radio. Kids are finding their rock and metal music on the internet, acquiring it for free, and deleting it when they tire of it. To a child of the 70s sitting on his bed, staring at his battery-powered radio, waiting for the DJ to play ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ (Kansas, #11/’77) again, the music culture of today would seem like pure science fiction.

(Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything; everything that appears here is based on my (subjective) opinion of what constitutes hard rock and heavy metal during this era. Besides the omissions specifically mentioned in the article, some Top 40 singles by Jethro Tull, Queen and Nazareth were left out because imho, they just didn’t ROCK to a sufficient degree.)

 

17 Minutes of Fame

Erik Brann was born in 1950. He began taking violin lessons at an early age; at age 4 he was declared a child prodigy, and was accepted into the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s prodigy program. By his early teens, had begun toying with other stringed instruments. At 15, after his family had relocated to California, Brann was playing in amateur rock bands like ‘The Mods’, then ‘The Phogg’, rehearsing in a friend’s garage, across the street from his home in Reseda. Brann and his buddies in ‘The Phogg’ played at school dances and other small local gigs, but had to be driven to and from by their bass player, a college freshmen 4 years older than the other members of the band and the only member old enough to drive.

Brann heard that a band from the area was in need of a guitarist. This group had released an album which had reached No. 78 on the charts, and had toured with the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Brann was determined to get the job. One day he told his friends he was headed to The Whiskey on the Sunset Strip where this band was playing to try to get in and convince the group to hire him. His friends told him he probably wouldn’t even get into the club, never mind land the gig. Not only did Brann get into the club, but he convinced the band to give him a shot. Brann auditioned and got the gig. He was just 16 years old.
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Brann’s new band began recording their second album for Atco, a division of Atlantic Records, in May of 1968. Side One was recorded in Hollywood, California; Side Two in Hempstead, New York. One of Brann’s own compositions was accepted and recorded, appearing on Side One. But it was Side Two’s lone track, clocking at 17 minutes and 5 seconds, that would have the most impact.

Because of that epic track’s lyrical theme: the story of Adam and Eve and man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, Brann attempted to emulate animal noises with his guitar in the song’s long instrumental mid-section. Brann played a sunburst Moserite Mark 4 through a Moserite Fuzz-Rite pedal and three Vox Super Beatle amps, and recorded various squawks, shrieks, and howls that would have no doubt horrified his instructors back in Boston.

By the time the record is completed, Brann had turned 17. The band’s management were unsure about publicizing Brann’s age, perhaps fearing it will hurt the band’s credibility, but eventually decided to at allow its mention in the album’s liner notes:

“…SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD ERIK BRANN, A NATIVE OF BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, IS THE YOUNGEST AND ANOTHER “NOMAD” IN THE GROUP. ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED YOUNG LEAD GUITARISTS IN THE COUNTRY, HIS MUSICAL TRAINING BEGAN BEFORE SCHOOL AND BY THE TIME HE WAS SEVEN YEARS OF AGE, HE WAS A CONCERT VIOLINIST. ALTHOUGH MUSIC HAS ALWAYS BEEN HIS ONE GREAT LOVE, ERIK STUDIED DRAMA AND BEFORE JOINING…”

Erik Brann’s recording debut was released on June 14, 1968, followed in July by the album’s first single: a severely truncated version of the 17-minute album’s title track. Both album and single were smash hits. The single, edited to 2:53, excised the extended instrumental sections, including Brann’s adventurous guitar solo; it peaked at No. 30 in the Billboard Hot 100. But it was the original, un-edited 17-minutes-plus version that was the true ‘hit’, as many DJs chose to air the sprawling, unedited album version…
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Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ is quite simply one of rock music’s greatest songs. It’s an instant acid flashback to all the excess and indulgence of the psychedelic 60s, but it also marks an important point in musical history: the moment where psychedelic rock mutates toward of the beginnings of heavy metal. It’s sinister tone and minor key drone have been used countless times in movies and TV to invoke the dark side of the 1960s and the Vietnam era. It’s all creepy keyboards, fuzzy guitars, melodramatic vocals, and a drum solo, slowly unfolding over 17 minutes like a bad trip, with more than a hint of menace and a seriously trippy title. Right on, man.

‘In A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ the album would debut at No. 117, but on the strength of the title track, the album would quickly sell 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts, swiftly becoming Atlantic Records’ biggest selling album ever, until it was displaced by Led Zeppelin IV years later. It was the first album ever to be certified Platinum. In April of 1971, the record finally dropped out of the charts after an astounding 140 weeks. Eventually the record would sell over 30 million copies worldwide.

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Within a few short months, 17-year old Erik Brann was a rock star. He bought a candy apple red Jaguar XKE; he bought Neil Diamond’s house in Tarzana. But Brann wouldn’t last the balance of the year as a member of Iron Butterfly; a number of illnesses, including a congenital heart defect, prevented him from touring for extended periods. Brann would later quip, “My first vacation I bought a car, a Jaguar, and parked it outside the hospital where I spent two weeks for ulcers and gastroenteritis.” Brann’s rock star dream would be over by the time he turned 18 years old. Erik Brann, aged 52, died of cardiac arrest in 2003, while the landmark song he helped to create has earned a place of permanence in rock history, where it will live on forever.

*Most people know this, I think; but in case you missed it:

In A Gadda Da Vida = In the Garden of Eden