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The Stooges, Nico, and Swamp Dogg were the underground heroes of 1970

The Stooges, Nico, and Swamp Dogg were the underground heroes of 1970
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The year: 1970

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1970

1. Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
2. The Carpenters, “(They Long To Be) Close To You”
3. The Guess Who, “American Woman”
4. B.J. Thomas, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”
5. Edwin Starr, “War”
6. Diana Ross, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
7. The Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There”
8. Rare Earth, “Get Ready”
9. The Beatles, “Let It Be”
10. Freda Payne, “Band Of Gold”
11. Three Dog Night, “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)”
12. Ray Stevens, “Everything Is Beautiful”
13. Bread, “Make It With You”
14. Vanity Fare, “Hitchin’ A Ride”
15. The Jackson 5, “ABC”
16. The Jackson 5, “The Love You Save”
17. Neil Diamond, “Cracklin’ Rosie”
18. Dawn, “Candida”
19. Sly And The Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”
20. Eric Burdon & War, “Spill The Wine”

In August of 1970, more than a half-million people assembled on the Isle Of Wight for the largest music festival of its time, a five-day marathon of performances from the likes of Jimi Hendrix; The Who; Miles Davis; The Doors; Joan Baez; Leonard Cohen; Jethro Tull; The Moody Blues; Sly And The Family Stone; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Joni Mitchell. It was a seminal moment that contained some truly iconic performances; you can hear them on the more than dozen Live At The Isle Of Wight albums released over the decades. It was also a fucking mess. The audience—so many of whom had crashed the gates that the organizers finally just declared it free to everyone—were frustrated by the poor sound and a lineup filled with quiet folkies, openly booing some to the point that Joni Mitchell scolded them from the stage. Stage-crashers repeatedly interrupted the show to shout their political messages; French Maoists tore down fences and set tents on fire. As captured in the documentary Message Of Love, the tensions finally prompted festival organizer Rikki Farr to take the stage and scream at all the “bastards” and “pigs” trying to destroy it, telling them all to go to hell.

Perhaps even more than Altamont, the Isle Of Wight offered a symbolic bookend to the—equally chaotic, yet less contentious—Woodstock the summer before, emblematic of the growing detachment between the audience and all those ’60s rock and folk groups who’d preached an ego-free communal love, many of whom were now corporate concerns. Yes, the 1960s literally ended in 1970. But it’s kind of amazing how quickly the metaphorical ’60s followed suit.

Not three weeks after playing Isle Of Wight, Hendrix would be dead, followed two weeks later by Janis Joplin. The Doors would play their final concert in December, the band no longer able to deal with Jim Morrison’s erratic behavior; Morrison died the following summer. The Beatles broke up in April, just before the release of Let It Be. Simon & Garfunkel put out the Grammy-sweeping, chart-topping Bridge Over Troubled Water, then immediately broke up, Hollywood having driven an irrevocable wedge between them. Bob Dylan released the widely disdained Self Portrait—an indulgent piss take he’d explicitly designed, he later said, to get Woodstock Nation off his damn lawn. In 1970, all those Spirit Of The ’60s artists were dying, disbanding, or already openly disowning it. By 1973, rockers were boring stadiums with 45-minute drum solos and posing for photos in front of their private jets, kicking off an era of proud, Me Decade self-indulgence.

While there were big, charting rock albums that year for sure—Led Zeppelin III; Black Sabbath; Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother; The Who’s Live At Leeds; Santana’s Abraxas; The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One; Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush; etc.—the singles charts largely ignores them in favor of shag-carpet soft-rock staples by the likes of Bread, Vanity Fare, The Carpenters, and Neil Diamond, plus smug, Up With People glurge like Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful.” It’s a schism that reflects the other most notable musical event of 1970, the launch of the Casey Kasem-hosted American Top 40, which would go on to popularize the idea of “Top 40” as a concept and radio format, and spur the rise of “album-oriented rock” radio and stars in response. But never mind: As Billboard argues, funk and soul artists were ready to take those rockers’ places, with The Jackson 5 dominating the year with four straight No. 1 singles, surrounded by artists like Edwin Starr, War, Sly And The Family Stone, Diana Ross, and even the Motown-nicking Rare Earth.

As always, however, there were more interesting, incredibly influential things happening well below Billboard’s purview, with inventive music from an eclectically international group of artists that spanned Germany to Jamaica, the streets of Detroit to the Deep South, pointing toward an impending explosion of genres that would soon make the freewheeling ’60s look staid. Here are some highlights.

Syd Barrett, “Terrapin” (January 1970)

The Madcap Laughs, Syd Barrett’s first solo album, opens with this track, a deceptively spartan blues riff that bears no trace of the glittering psychedelia that colored Pink Floyd’s Barrett-led The Piper At The Gates of Dawn. Recorded in a single take by producer Malcolm Jones (who would never have it that easy again), “Terrapin” is so hushed that you can hear each scrape of Barrett’s pick against his acoustic guitar as an overdubbed electric languorously traces its melody line, both of them abruptly hanging here and there to throw the whole thing just slightly off-kilter. The lyrics start surprisingly straightforward for Barrett (“I really love you, yes I do”) but grow more densely surreal as “Terrapin” stretches on and on, with Barrett reinforcing the refrain “’Cause we’re the fishes and all we do / The move about is all we do” through undersea imagery and the song’s subtle, watery undulation. Barrett’s mental decline is one of rock’s great tragedies, and while his solo work is understandably uneven, tracks like “Terrapin” offer an accessible entry point to one of music’s most idiosyncratic minds. [Sean O’Neal]

MC5, “The American Ruse” (January 1970)

Though the Motor City 5 reunited briefly in ’92 and again with guests in ’03, the punk progenitors’ legacy is rooted in a brief but influential three-album run starting in 1969. The second of those, 1970’s Back In The USA, marks a departure from the kinetic live performances of the band’s debut, Kick Out The Jams, and subsequently it didn’t sell as well as its predecessor. But the stripped-down aesthetic only amplified the MC5’s core influences of early rhythm and blues—exemplified in some loud-and-fast covers of Little Richard and Chuck Berry—and its political radicalism. The latter couldn’t be more overt on “The American Ruse,” where Rob Tyner takes down police brutality and superficial consumerist culture while distorted (and subversively American-sounding) blues riffs burn up around him. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Tim Buckley “Song To The Siren” (February 1970)

Tim Buckley is best known as the father of Jeff, the son he only met once. But in the 1960s, Buckley was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter in his own right, landing a few career breaks—signing with Frank Zappa’s label; playing the last song ever on The Monkees TV show—before dying of a heroin overdose at 28. His most lasting work, “Song To The Siren,” is a haunting collection of stanzas that harken back to the era of wandering minstrels, with Buckley’s voice hanging on only the frailest of lacey acoustic guitar lines. Buckley’s lyricist partner, Larry Beckett, contributes some of his most literary work as the bard faintly tries but fails to escape the command of that mythical creature: “Should I stand at the breakers / Or should I lie with death my bride?” The hypnotic song has been covered many times—most successfully by This Mortal Coil in 1983 (a version that famously inspired David Lynch and the sound of Twin Peaks), and most recently by Wolf Alice just last year. But for sheer poetic purity, it’s hard to top Buckley’s original. [Gwen Ihnat]

Dolly Parton, “Down From Dover” (February 1970)

Dolly Parton was recently inducted into the Guinness Book Of World Records as the top-charting female country artist of all time, both in terms of her longevity and the sheer number of her songs to appear on the Billboard Hot Country chart. But back in 1970, she was only a few years into her career and just another female singer—albeit one with an obvious gift for songwriting. That year, Dolly wrote and released “Down From Dover,” a traditional Appalachian story-song about an unwed mother who gives birth to a stillborn baby. The track, a heartbreaking tale of abandonment told from the perspective of a “sinful” woman, was controversial for its time, and it stands in stark contrast to Parton’s beaming, sunshine-and-butterflies image, both then and now. Nevertheless, it’s become a cult favorite among Parton fans, who cite it as an example of the true depth of her abilities. [Katie Rife]

Os Mutantes, “Ave, Lucifer” (March 1970)

More than a decade after their celebrated 2006 reunion, legendary Brazilian psych-rockers Os Mutantes retain an aura of mystery. Perhaps it’s the group’s cult status, contrasted by their almost complete lack of chart presence at home or abroad (only one Os Mutantes song, “Haih… Or Amortecedor…,” reached the World Music charts in 2009). Perhaps it’s the acid-drenched occult streak that runs through their lyrics, sung seductively in Portuguese. Or perhaps it’s the exotic blend of psychedelia and Tropicália in the music itself. All these are present in “Ave Lucifer,” from Os Mutantes’ 1970 album A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado (loosely translated, The Divine Comedy, Or I’m A Little Spaced Out), which starts off sparsely before riding a wave of theremin through a multitude of tempo changes, then lands in the middle of a full brass band. The fact that the only recognizable English word here is “Lucifer” makes it all the more enigmatic. [Katie Rife]

Tyrannosaurus Rex, “Elemental Child” (March 1970)

In 1970, Marc Bolan was in a state of creative flux that mirrored the changing decades. He’d spent the early years of his band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, playing the sort of trippy, lysergic fairy tales that typified the late ’60s period in which they were released. By October 1970, he would release the strutting “Ride A White Swan” under the shortened name T. Rex, a Billboard-charting hit that presaged the glam-rock mania he’d kick off the very next year. And in between, he released A Beard Of Stars, his final album as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the first to offer a hint of what was to come in its rocked-up final track, “Elemental Child.” Abandoning both his acoustic guitar and his gentle woodland keen for an electric boogie riff that builds to a sizzling, full-bore jam, “Elemental Child” is the sound of Bolan’s gentle, breezy hippie past being torn asunder and set on fire. By the time its five and a half minutes are up, the ’60s are officially over. [Sean O’Neal]

Amon Düül II, “Soap Shop Rock” (April 1970)

Amon Düül II is typically lumped in with the rest of the krautrock luminaries on this list, but where these other progenitors moved toward an unadorned, machine-like sound that presaged electronic music, Amon Düül II developed a dense, multifaceted form of psychedelic rock that had more in common with Black Sabbath than Tangerine Dream. In “Soap Shop Rock,” the four-song suite that leads off the band’s most revered album, Yeti, you can hear the group’s astonishing, prescient range on full display. The heavy guitars and breakbeat drums that open “Burning Sister” fade to reveal the sweet, lilting bass of “Halluzination Guillotine,” which then is attacked by increasing stabs of brutal guitar until the band fades into the operatic interlude of “Gulp A Sonata.” The whole suite culminates in “Flesh-Coloured Anti-Aircraft Alarm,” where the shifting dynamics become even more dramatic, and an ominous electric violin does battle with eruptions of serrated guitar. Nearly 50 years later, it still sounds every bit as thundering and audacious. [Matt Gerardi]

Carole King, “Goin’ Back” (May 1970)

Carole King hit it big with Tapestry in 1971, but her first solo effort, 1970’s Writer, didn’t make much of an impact. After years of writing songs for other people, and in the wake of her divorce from Gerry Goffin, King was ready to stake out her independence, which included reclaiming some of those songs as her own. “Goin’ Back” falls into that category: It had already been recorded by Dusty Springfield and The Byrds, but King, much like she would do the next year with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” dominates on her own version, a spirited ode to drawing from the past in order to step into the future: “Thinking young and growing older is no sin / And I can play the game of life to win.” Barely-there backing vocals from fellow troubadour James Taylor augment the song’s dreaminess, a show of support for King as she gains her “little bit of courage.” That surge carried King through to the No. 1 success of Tapestry, which would lead to a rediscovery of Writer that boosted it onto the charts a year later. [Gwen Ihnat]

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (June 1970)

The slogan “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has long since passed into cliché, but the Gil Scott-Heron song it hails from has lost none of its volcanic force. A stark fusion of poetry and agitprop, Scott-Heron’s withering takedown of commercialism remains timelessly meaningful in 2018, even if its references to Spiro Agnew, Natalie Wood, and Bullwinkle now seem dated. The full-band version recorded in 1971 is the more popular, but the original edition for Scott-Heron’s debut, Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, is more fiery and immediate, needing nothing beyond some sparse congas and bongo drums to score its impassioned declaration of resistance. On an album that seethes with intelligence and fervor in every track (if you’ve never heard “Whitey On The Moon,” fix that immediately), this piece still stands out—and it remains one of America’s most significant works of political art. [Alex McLevy]

Tangerine Dream, “Journey Through A Burning Brain” (June 1970)

This isn’t the Tangerine Dream known for its pulsing electronic movie scores. On the band’s earliest efforts, it was operating firmly in the psychedelic krautrock mold, not yet conjuring odysseys to the far reaches of the galaxy via endlessly layered, melodic synthesizers. The group’s debut, Electronic Meditation, is a tape collage that, on pure description, sounds painfully diffuse: found sounds, long guitar drones, solemn organs, repetition and abrasion in equal measure. But tracks like centerpiece “Journey Through A Burning Brain” nevertheless cohere, conjuring an almost physical space: windswept, expansive, and prone to righteous buzzing wildfires of distortion. By the end of the 13-minute track, its title starts to feel literal, a critique of the limits of traditional rock instrumentation and a promise that there was joy to be found in its deconstruction. [Clayton Purdom]

The Stooges, “T.V. Eye” (July 1970)

Any attempt to contain The Stooges within the sterile confines of an album was bound to be futile, but Fun House comes awfully close to bottling the band’s feral energy for one of the most wildly alive rock records ever produced. After a muffled early attempt was scrapped, the studio was stripped bare, the padding was torn from the walls, and Iggy Pop was turned loose to bounce between them, freed to shriek over Ron Asheton’s guitar grinds as the groundwork was laid for the entire punk genre to follow. “T.V. Eye” bridges the menacing stare-downs of the album’s first half and Fun House’s totally unhinged second side, with Pop unleashing a primal yowl of “Lord!” before he launches into the song’s creeping, carnal churn—a come-on adopted from a bit of slang Asheton’s younger sister coined for guys she caught checking her out (“Twat Vibe Eye”). Backed by Scott Asheton’s four-on-the-floor drumbeat while his brother bangs out a relentless, monster blues riff, “T.V. Eye” sounds deranged yet focused. Listening to it, you can practically see Iggy straddling a crowd, smearing peanut butter on his chest. [Sean O’Neal]

Parliament, “Nothing Before Me But Thang” (September 1970)

Both Parliament and Funkadelic would release their debuts in 1970, and while the former would go on to be the more popular of George Clinton’s towering funk groups, its first album has largely been forgotten by time. It’s not hard to see why: Osmium is a messy mishmash of genres and temperaments, from excessively baroque gospel to satirical country and western. If it weren’t for the name on the sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to guess it was Parliament at all. But buried beneath all the whacked-out experimentation is “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” a hard-hitting funk-rock track that bridges Funkadelic’s earliest, trippiest work and the more clear-eyed (relatively speaking) rock of its 1971 masterpiece Maggot Brain. It’s an especially strong showpiece for Clinton and his fellow vocalists—all of whom are in rare form here, gospel shouting to the heavens as the song careens to its rapturous final minute. [Matt Gerardi]

Genesis, “The Knife” (October 1970)

“Some of you are going to die,” snarls Peter Gabriel in the opening minutes of “The Knife.” He may as well have been talking (metaphorically, of course) about the fanbase for Genesis—though at the time, there wasn’t much of one to fracture. Still, the song demarcates the moment Genesis truly abandoned the pastoral, orchestral pop sounds of its first record, From Genesis To Revelation, for something much more aggressive. A hefty slice of prog (it clocks in at around nine minutes, including a prolonged, mid-song flute riff), the closing track of Genesis’ second album, Trespass, finds the band taking on a theatrical bent—one it would follow for the rest of Gabriel’s tenure as frontman—as Gabriel takes on the role of a dictator, leading a bloody revolution for an inevitably compromised version of freedom. [Alex McLevy]

Kraftwerk, “Ruckzuck” (November 1970)

Nearly three minutes into “Ruckzuck,” the opening track from Kraftwerk’s self-titled debut, the groove is completely annihilated by atonal blasts of sound, as though the song itself were being torn apart. It’s a far cry from the rigorous pop structures that distinguish the legendary robots’ most famous works, but the artistic bravado is already fully formed. Beginning as part of the krautrock scene in Germany, Kraftwerk’s first releases are wholly instrumental and experimental affairs, and they wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Can or other contemporaries of the time. “Ruckzuck,” like the rest of the album, is recorded largely with analog instruments that were heavily modified in post-production, here given dramatic tempo changes, wild compositional transitions, and a surprisingly catchy flute riff that bookends the track. A generation of American kids heard this song without even realizing it: “Ruckzuck” was used (originally without permission) as the opening theme for the PBS series Newton’s Apple. [Alex McLevy]

The Velvet Underground, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” (November 1970)

It was called Loaded because it was “loaded with hits,” but The Velvet Underground’s fourth album failed to nab either the radio play or chart success it was after, even as the group reined in its experimental sprawl in search of the perfect pop single. Instead, Loaded all but killed the group: Lou Reed left before it was even released, dissatisfied with the final mix and feeling overshadowed by recently added guitarist/vocalist Doug Yule. Still, what a beautiful death. Radio may not have embraced Loaded in its time (though “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” have since become classic FM staples), and Reed and Yule doing the bulk of writing and recording themselves means some pedants still sniff that it’s not a proper Velvets album. Nevertheless, Loaded contains some of the group’s finest, most immediate songs, all culminating in the sweet, sad “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”—a street-blues slow-burn where Yule’s cool, tender voice gives quiet dignity to all the dispossessed night creatures wandering through Reed’s sympathetic lyrics, nobly turning their losing into liberation. As a goodbye from the true VU, it’s as fitting a farewell as you could ask for (even if Yule’s doing the singing). [Sean O’Neal]

Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Soul Rebel” (December 1970)

The Wailing Wailers established themselves as leaders of Jamaica’s growing reggae movement with a string of late-’60s hits, and 1970’s Soul Rebels, the group’s sophomore album, marks several firsts: the first release as just The Wailers, the first of their albums to be distributed outside of Jamaica, and their first full-length collaboration with legendary dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. The echoing, otherworldly lead track, “Soul Rebel,” bears Perry’s unmistakable stamp; gone are the ska horns, and the emphasis has shifted to a sparse but powerful counterpoint rhythm section. Meanwhile, the group’s soulful harmonies still nod to its Motown influences. It’s an early snapshot of reggae just before it would reach the Billboard Hot 100 itself (first filtered through Three Dog Night’s 1972 cover of The Maytones’ “Black And White,” then with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”) and go on to transform popular music in the ensuing decades. And it’s a glimpse of Marley on his way to becoming one of the bestselling artists of all time. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Nico, “The Falconer” (December 1970)

By 1970, German singer Nico—best known for her roles as an Andy Warhol superstar and with The Velvet Underground—was carving out her own artistic legacy, having already dramatically transitioned from the folk pop of her 1967 solo debut, Chelsea Girl, toward 1969’s avant-garde The Marble Index. Follow-up Desertshore continues down the dark path cut by Marble, with Nico drawling poetically over harmonium drones while accompanied by fellow Velvets alum John Cale. The album’s second track, “The Falconer,” stands out in Nico’s discography not just for her performance but for the striking lyrics and arrangement, morphing from tenebrous to luminous and back again. Upon release, little attention was given to Nico’s trilogy of records in this era and style (The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End…), but their modern influence has proven immeasurable. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Scott Walker, “Thanks For Chicago Mr. James” (December 1970)

The singular Scott Walker’s journey from teen-idol crooner to existentialist dark prince of baroque pop to avant-garde artist was a long one. The overwhelming commercial failure of 1969’s commanding, self-penned Scott 4 (probably the best entry point into his “dark prince” period) put the baritone voice of The Walker Brothers in a tough spot, resulting in the compromised ’Til The Band Comes In, a mini concept album on the usual Walker themes—alienated characters, urban ennui—expanded with a set of tossed-off covers. Not that Walker was playing it safe on the originals: “Thanks For Chicago Mr. James,” the album’s most celebrated track, is a coy, melancholy breakup song delivered from a gay hustler to his rich sugar daddy, majestically propelled by Angela Morley’s orchestral arrangements. It’s one of the best showcases for Walker’s storytelling abilities, both as a lyricist and a singer, and for the humanism hidden in his often nightmarishly surreal work. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Eddie Bo, “Getting To The Middle” (1970)

Eddie Bo might be one of New Orleans’ best-kept musical secrets. Born Edwin Joseph Bocage, he released dozens of 45s throughout the ’50s and ’60, including local hits like “Every Dog Has Its Day” and the novelty track turned dance craze “Check Mr. Popeye.” As soul and early R&B gave way to funk, Bo’s style followed suit, and he recorded some of the purest, funkiest cuts of the era, including 1969’s “Hook And Sling,” his only song to break onto the Billboard charts. A year later he’d deliver “Getting To The Middle,” a lost funk opus that has Bo, charismatic as ever, leading screaming horns and a nasty earworm of a bass line. As with all his funk tracks, it’s the electrifying, sample-worthy drum breaks and howling that truly put it over the top—and with songs this good, it’s hard to believe Eddie Bo didn’t become a star outside his beloved city. [Matt Gerardi]

Swamp Dogg, “Total Destruction To Your Mind” (1970)

After years of (allegedly) being screwed out of the credits, opportunities, and royalties he deserved, singer, producer, and writer Jerry Williams reemerged from behind the boards in 1970 to lay down some tracks of his own. And thus, Swamp Dogg was born. While he wouldn’t find chart success in his time, Williams’ LSD-dropping, truth-telling alter ego would become a cult figure famed for gonzo soul tunes laced with unadulterated raunch, satire, and racial politics. Swamp Dogg was never better than on his debut album, Total Destruction To Your Mind, where you can hear the joy of finally doing something for himself—and doing it very well—in every note he sings. The freedom from record-label hell is manifested in the rocking title track, a victorious blast of Southern soul that finds an impassioned Williams, backed by a killer Muscle Shoals studio band, loving life and rubbing it in the faces of the oppressive white bosses who “misused” and “looked down” on him. [Matt Gerardi]


John Cale, “Big White Cloud
The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Wild Horses
France Gall, “Zozoi
Hawkwind, “Hurry On Sundown
Etta James, “The Sound Of Love
Waylon Jennings, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
The Pretty Things, “Cries From The Midnight Circus
The Upsetters, “Clint Eastwood