If you like your rock short and sweet, but guitar-based and hard, then this is for you.
Featuring most of the finest guitarists of the era – Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Alvin Lee, Rory Gallagher, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi, John Du Cann, Paul Kossof, Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend, and the absolutely incomparable Jimi Hendrix – it’s hard to believe that, with just a few notable exceptions, the songs in this list were all released as chart singles in just one year: 1970.
These songs are all from a period that I have referred to previously in the notes for another list (“Advanced Progressive”), when Pop appeared to turn to Rock almost overnight.
This was clearly a watershed year: it was no longer the 60s, nor was it yet what we’ve come to understand as the 70s. It was a transition point not just numerically but socially. The summer of love was long past, psychedelia was over, glitter was not even hinted at, but the underground and progressive was cool (so punk was not yet a threat).
The influence of the counter-culture, born of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the Kommunes of Munich and Berlin, was growing steadily, not least in Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove in west London. 1970 saw the first of many free festivals across the country, welcoming the very first Glastonbury Fayre, and later the mid-summer celebrations at Stonehenge from 1972 onwards.
There was a growing audience for something less throwaway than chart-oriented songs of love and loss*, or the mindless nonsense the charts seemed to enjoy celebrating. Of course, bands like The Move, The Who and The Kinks, whilst penning many classic singles, could never simply be dismissed as merely Pop. Most of the bands in my list, however, were probably first heard by the mainstream via these singles, but many never really returned to the 7″ format again, or if they did it was certainly not with any enthusiasm. Instead many would record only albums from this point onwards. In some cases, lots of them.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the charts were all like this in 1970. As a young teenager, I would listen on a Sunday afternoon to the chart rundown on the Radio 1, or watch Top of the Pops on BBC1 of a Thursday evening, for I loved music, having been a Beatles fan since being given Can’t Buy Me Love when I was 7. But for the most part I was not impressed by what I heard, then one memorable evening both Deep Purple and Black Sabbath appeared on Top of the Pops. To me they were a beacon amidst a sea of pop mush, and I knew then that things were about to change.
And so, on to the notable exceptions…
Revolution was the B side of the Beatles chart topper Hey Jude, released in 1968. It was the subject of much controversy at the time, as John Lennon was accused of ‘playing’ with the idea of civil rights, and it was subsequently re-recorded with a softer mix for the ‘white’ album. Many have since argued that this and other tracks on that album, including Helter Skelter, mark the origins of contemporary Rock, if not Heavy Metal. For me it quite literally signifies a turning point in popular music. It rejects the perceived frivolity of the charts and adopts an arguably more grown-up musical stance.
The magnificent Cream song Sunshine of Your Love defines the archetypal rock riff, yet surely has “chart topper” written all over it. It was the one riff I ever managed to be able play on a guitar, and I found out later that my friend John McGeoch, one of the finest guitarists of the punk era, had used it as a starting point to learn his craft. Jimi Hendrix famously played it on Lulu’s Saturday night TV show, stopping midway through his own hit Purple Haze to make an unplanned cut to his version of this classic, much to the annoyance of the producers who frowned on such willful breaking of TV rules.
The epic Voodoo Chile, by Jimi Hendrix himself, taken from the album ’Electric Ladyland’, was not originally released as a single (although he too had had a few hits in the 60s) but it reached the top of the charts when it featured on an EP released to mourn his untimely death in September 1970.
The really anomalous track in this collection is Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. This was not a single, as Led Zeppelin famously never released a single in the UK, refusing point blank to do so. It is with some sort of twisted irony then, that an instrumental version of this song (by CCS, a studio band of celebrated musicians including Alexis Korner and Herbie Flowers) became the long running theme to Top of the Pops, the very programme devoted solely to 45s. For the longhairs it was some small triumph to hear ‘Led Zeppelin’ defiantly heading up the charts every week.
The last song in the list, Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who, was actually taken from their 1971 album ‘Who’s Next’. It rounds off the list, as it both symbolises the attitude of the new era that Rock had just entered, and it features one of the first chart appearances of the synthesiser, which a decade or more later would itself herald another profound shift in the musical landscape.
*For a great collection of songs of love and loss from this era listen to the companion list “Songs My First Girlfriend Made Me Listen To”.