Top 10s – The 1970s

We have finally reached the end of the seventies! And so, to celebrate, here are the ten records that I – in my recaps – named as the very best of the decade. Note that this is not me retrospectively ranking my faves. I am beholden to decisions made several months, if not a year ago, for better or worse, and it has left us with an interesting rundown….

I spent the 1960s respectfully choosing the classics: The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. You can check out my sixties Top 10 here (and while you’re at it why not have a glance at my ’50s Top 10 too.) For the seventies, though, it seems I went a little rogue… Those of you expecting to find ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I’m Not In Love’, or ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have to look elsewhere…

I am limiting myself to one song per artist, regardless of how I ranked them at the time. Interestingly the only act that would have had two songs qualify was… Wizzard! As it is they are left with just one. And I was surprised that one of my favourite bands of the decade, Slade, came nowhere near to placing any songs in this list. Anyway, here we go:

‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, by Simon & Garfunkel – #1 for 3 weeks in March/April 1970

This first song was runner-up in my late-sixties/early-seventies recap. It is a classic, a sweeping hymn, a modern standard. Every time I think I’m bored of it, that it is a little too proper to be a pop song – it is one of the few songs recorded post-1955 that my gran liked, for example – then I listen to it… The Oh, If you need a friend… line gives me shivers, every time. But I was feeling rebellious, and I awarded first place to…

‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry – #1 for 2 weeks in February/March 1971

One of the grimiest, seediest, downright strangest number ones of the decade, if not of all time. The complete opposite to Mungo Jerry’s huge feel-good hit from the year before. In my original post, I described ‘In the Summertime’ as the soundtrack to a sunny afternoon’s BBQ, while ‘Baby Jump’ was the soundtrack as the party still raged on past 4am. Bodies strewn across the lawn, couples humping in the bushes, someone throwing up under a tree… That kind of thing.

‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1972

‘Best song’ in my 2nd seventies recap. T. Rex’s final UK #1 is everything that made them great condensed and distilled into a perfect pop song: power chords, beefy drums, nonsensical lyrics… From the opening woah-oh-oh-oh it is an extended, non-stop chorus of a tune, and a true classic.

See My Baby Jive’, by Wizzard – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1973

The height of ridiculous, over-indulgent, glam… And all the better for it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any song beginning with anti-aircraft guns will be great. Roy Wood threw the kitchen sink at this, Wizzard’s first of two #1s, and everything stuck. I named it runner-up to ‘Metal Guru’, and then named the follow-up, the equally OTT and equally wonderful ‘Angel Fingers’ as runner-up to the song below…

‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1974

Winner in my 3rd seventies recap, you could argue that tracks like this marked the beginning of the end for glam rock. From 1974 onwards the genre was swamped with rock ‘n’ roll tribute acts: Alvin Stardust, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, whose hits were catchy but, let’s be honest, dumb. Except, sometimes dumb and catchy is what you need, and when moments like that come along then you can do no better than turn to ‘Tiger Feet.’ Relish the video above… The riff, the repetitive chorus, a man in a dress, backing dancers that look like they’ve just come from the away end at Highbury… Fun fact: There has never been a ‘Best Of the 70s’ compilation that didn’t include ‘Tiger Feet.’

‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, by The Stylistics – #1 for 3 weeks in August 1975

Here’s the outlier… I was genuinely surprised to find that this one qualified. I named it as runner-up in my 4th recap apparently, ahead of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘I’m Not in Love’, which were punished for their ubiquity. But this is a great tune, and it feels right that a slice of soul should feature in this Top 10, as it was one of the sounds of the mid-seventies.

‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie – #1 for 2 weeks in November 1975

One of the seventies’ Top 10 #1 singles is a re-release of a sixties hit? A mere technicality… We needed some Bowie, and this was his only chart-topper of the decade. I named it as best song in my 4th recap. An epic in every sense of the word.

‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA – #1 for 6 weeks between August and October 1976

Friday night and the lights are low… Frida and Agnetha are looking out for a place to go. You know the rest. Everyone on planet earth knows the rest. The ultimate pop song? The famous glissando intro is instantly recognisable, and is referenced in ABBA’s comeback hit ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. But. I only named it as runner-up in my 5th recap, because, well, Donna Summer went and did this:

‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer – #1 for 4 weeks in July/August 1977

The future arrived in the summer of ’77, beamed in on a spaceship piloted by one Donna Summer, with Giorgio Moroder as engineer. I rated it above ‘Dancing Queen’ precisely because it isn’t the ultimate pop song – it’s harsh, uncompromising and aggressively modern. You have to be in the mood for ‘I Feel Love’, which is why it hasn’t been overplayed to death, but when you are in the mood then woah. And it still sounds aggressively modern almost forty-five years on.

‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1979

Winner in my final ’70s recap, just two days ago. Blondie brought us a new-wave classic: a little disco, a little punk, a little classic rock, but beholden to none of what went before. Debbie Harry gave an impossibly cool lesson in how to be a rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman, too. 1979 – probably the best year of the decade in terms of chart-topping quality – was a-go go go. I know I love the glam years, but line these last three songs up – ABBA, Donna Summer and Blondie – and a better 10 minutes of popular music you’ll struggle to find.

So, there ends the 1970s. Next up, I’ll be cracking on with the eighties…

419. ‘Take a Chance on Me’, by ABBA

In which the knock-offs are knocked off by the real thing! Not for the first time, ABBA shunt their own tribute act out of top spot…

Take a Chance on Me, by ABBA (their 7th of nine #1s)

3 weeks, from 12th February – 5th March 1978

And they are back to some pure pop, after a couple of more experimental offerings (‘experimental’ in an ABBA sense: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’s guitars and ‘The Name of the Game’s funky bass-line) There’s also a hint of the disco-ball about this one, foreshadowing the ‘Voulez Vous’ era that was just around the corner.

If you change your mind, I’m the first in line… The a cappella opening here is one of the band’s most iconic moments… If you’re all alone, When the pretty birds have flown… while Benny and Bjorn accompany with their takeachancetakeachickachanchance backing line.

In comes the beat, and I’ve always loved the parping synths that keep this one rattling along like a locomotive. Agnetha and Frida are leaving their self-respect at the door here, practically begging to be taken back by a man. No fear of sloppy seconds for them! If you put me to the test, If you let me try…

They change tack in the verses, though. Suddenly they’re confident, their voices sultry: You don’t wanna hurt me, Baby don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let ya… I love the breathy asides – Come on, gimme a break honey – and wonder if they hadn’t been taking notes from Baccara (*edit* this was recorded long before ‘Yes Sir…’ became a hit, but let’s not let that spoil a narrative…)

Some more iconic moments from this classic: Agnetha belting out the bridge, the bababababas that see us home, and the split-screen video, which suddenly looks very apt in the COVID-era (that’s one Zoom call I wouldn’t mind being stuck on…) All of which adds up to the band’s 7th and final #1 of the 1970s, taking them just beyond Slade’s six chart-toppers and making them the most successful group of the decade.

Yep, ABBA are about to go on a hiatus from the top of the charts, after having scored six in just over two years. As I mentioned above, in the years following ‘Take a Chance on Me’ ABBA would go full-on disco, and release some of my favourite singles… ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’… They will be back in this countdown though, fear not, having saved the best for last. Until then, then…

415. ‘The Name of the Game’, by ABBA

And so we come to what I’m right now christening ‘The Forgotten ABBA #1’. Ask your average Joe on the street to name all of the group’s nine chart-toppers: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’ would all trip off the tongue. But ‘The Name of the Game’? Rather than ‘Voulez Vous’, ‘SOS’ or ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’? Doubt it.

The Name of the Game, by ABBA (their 6th of nine #1s)

4 weeks, from 30th October – 27th November 1977

Still, it got a full month at the top. This was no flash in the pan. ABBA were at the peak of their powers, and this was the lead single off a new album. It slinks in, with a funky bassline and a hint of soul. It doesn’t scream “ABBA!” right away. I’ve seen you twice, In a short time, Only a week since we started…

Agnetha and Frida play the part of two late-bloomers who have finally fallen in love. But they’re not sure… Tell me please, ‘Cause I have to know, I’m a bashful child, Beginning to grow… Does she mean as much to him? Compare and contrast this with Baccara’s brazen come-ons. There was nothing bashful about that pair! So I wanna know, What’s the name of the game…?

Musically, this is complex stuff. We move from that funky opening riff – apparently inspired by Stevie Wonder – to hard rock guitar licks and French horns. Since ‘Dancing Queen’ basically perfected the pop song, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, and now this disc, have been much more experimental. Still, at its heart there lies a classic ABBA chorus. Benny and Bjorn knew that that much was non-negotiable…

Having grown up listening to ‘ABBA Gold’, I was shocked – shocked! – to discover a whole new verse here, plus a lot more guitar. Apparently a minute was trimmed off for US radio, and that version made it onto the compilation. If I remember correctly, ‘The Name of the Game’ came towards the end of Gold, and it never stood out to me as one of their great singles. But I was only thirteen. What do thirteen-year olds know?

Listening to it now, though, I’m appreciating it a lot more. This is Grade-A pop music. Not my favourite ABBA song – they’re still to come, though sadly not all of them will appear at #1 – but a solid eight point five out of ten. Not bad at all, for their ‘forgotten’ number one!

403. ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, by ABBA

Already we reach the mid-point of ABBA’s chart-topping run! Their fifth #1, coming from the same album (‘Arrival’) as both ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Fernando’. Hit packed!

Knowing Me, Knowing You, by ABBA (their 5th of nine #1s)

5 weeks, from 27th March – 1st May 1977

Speaking of ‘Fernando’, the intro to this record sounds like a leftover from that recording session – acoustic guitars and a hint of pan-pipes. Fear not, though, for straight away that funky bass-line comes to our rescue and actually, the nearest comparison from the band’s earlier hits is to ‘SOS’. Power chords and actual hard rock guitars.

No more, Carefree, Laughter, Silence ever after… I’ve mentioned ABBA’s unique brand of English before, and I do love these rhymes that you can see coming from a mile off. Then we get a bit emo: Walkin’ through an empty house, Tears in my eyes… We are a long way from ‘Mamma Mia’s camp exclamations, or ‘Dancing Queen’s affirmation.

Knowing me, Knowing You, There is nothing we can do! It’s a break-up song, but at least it sounds like it’s mutual. A conscious uncoupling, if you will, and the intricate male backing vocals in the chorus do make it sound like a conversation. Breaking up is never easy I know but I have to go… Meanwhile the image of empty rooms in which children used to play is a powerful one.

In fact, it’s an early example of the sorts of songs ABBA would go on to make in the 80s, after their imperious phase and their disco phase. It doesn’t hit as hard as, say, ‘One of Us’, though; because the band had yet to go through their famed break-ups. Agnetha and Bjorn were still together, while Benny and Frida wouldn’t get married until 1978. Perhaps, then, we can say it’s a fictional story about a break up; while those later hits were documentaries.

I have seen ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ on top of several ‘ABBA – Ranked’ articles over the years, which has always surprised me a bit. It’s a cracker of a chorus (I mean, it’s ABBA, duh), but it’s never been my favourite. I have, for example, never really understood the song’s signature hook: the a-haaaaa. What does it mean? What does it signify? Meanwhile, Brits of a certain age will never now be able to listen to this song without picturing Alan Partridge.

Maybe it’s because those writers didn’t want to choose the obvious singles, or maybe the song’s slightly low-key vibe makes it a hipsters’ choice. (Though ‘SOS’ is the true hipster’s favourite ABBA single.) It is not as instant as their earlier #1s, but still a classic. Few bands have runs like ABBA did in the mid-to-late seventies. ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ gave them their 4th chart-topper, and their seventeenth week at #1, in little over a year. And they will be back soon enough…

394. ‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA

As a kid my first exposure to ABBA was through ‘ABBA Gold’, the band’s early-nineties greatest hits, track 1 on which is ‘Dancing Queen’. The CD would slide in, there would be that second of scanning, the little whirr… and then bam!

Dancing Queen, by ABBA (their 4th of nine #1s)

6 weeks, from 29th August – 10th October 1976

It’s not the first song you’d think of if asked to name ‘Great Intros’, but it should be. It is a record that strides into the room – the glissando is the door slamming open – with complete confidence. ‘ABBA’s here!’, it announces, ‘With their biggest hit!’ Then the vocals come in, and it’s not just the chorus, but the middle of the chorus, the main hook, thrown out within the first twenty seconds: You can dance, You can ji-ive, Having the time of your life…

I know nothing about musical terms – I can barely tell a pre-chorus from a bridge – but whatever it is that ABBA do in the verses, at the end of every second line, when the key slips lower: Lookin’ out for a place to go… and You’ve come to look for a King… It’s gold. Then they do the opposite, swooping up on the Night is young and the music’s hi-igh… And it’s even better. It’s pure ABBA, in that most other songwriters might think it a bit obvious, going higher on the word ‘high’, while Benny and Bjorn simply shrug and say ‘nope, that’ll be catchy!’

‘Dancing Queen’ doesn’t need me to sell it. It also probably doesn’t need to be written about any more, but hey, I gotta cover them all. Throughout this blog, I’ve referred to ‘Perfect Pop’ when writing about #1s like ‘Stupid Cupid’, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, and ‘See My Baby Jive’. Up until this point, I would have had ‘She Loves You’ as the most perfect pop moment so far. But ‘Dancing Queen’ usurps The Beatles to take, if you’ll pardon the pun, the crown. A crown I’m not sure it’ll ever relinquish.

Why is that? What makes this the ultimate pop song? I think it’s the nugget of sadness beating away at the heart of the record. The main character is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems to be running away from something. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who she’s going to be dancing with… It doesn’t sound as if she’s got any friends with her. She flirts with one guy, she leaves them burning and then she’s gone… Or maybe not. Maybe I’m misreading it completely! Maybe she’s really just having the time of her life. Maybe she doesn’t need a boy, or a friend. Maybe she just needs to dance. To dance for the sheer joy of it!

Either way, the song has layers, ones that you’re still noticing even after hearing it for the three hundredth time. I could complain about ‘Dancing Queen’ being overplayed, and it is, but when a DJ sticks this on at a party nobody sits down, even though they’re hearing it for the three hundredth and first time. Last time I was a tourist in London, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the band played the chorus of ‘Dancing Queen’ as the soldiers marched past.

Of course this record got to number one. ‘Dancing Queen’ is the dictionary definition of a number one hit. If you’re ever on ‘Pointless’ and the category is ‘#1 Singles of the 1970s’, don’t give ‘Dancing Queen’ as an answer. In the US it was ABBA’s one and only chart-topper (shame on you, America!) My only surprise stems from the fact that, in the UK, it took two weeks to climb to the top. If ever a song was going to enter in pole position, I’d have thought it would have been this. Click. Glissando. Bam.

388. ‘Fernando’, by ABBA

From one Eurovision winner to another. I mentioned in my last post the similarities between ABBA and Brotherhood of Man (they both won the contest, they both have two boys and two girls… though I’m unsure if any of the Brotherhood were ever married to one another…) It’s as if ABBA had had enough of ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’s long stay at #1 sullying Eurovision’s good name, and decided to do something about it.

Fernando, by ABBA (their 3rd of nine #1s)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th May 1976

This is, I must admit off the bat, my least-favourite of ABBA’s chart-toppers. It crosses the fine line between good-cheese and cheesy-cheese. It is one of the songs that people who don’t like ABBA can use to justify their idiocy. It has pan-pipes, and a marching drumbeat…

Can you hear the drums, Fernando… I remember long ago another starry night like this… I’ve always wondered where and when this song is set. From a young age, I’ve pictured Mexican rebels, in sombreros and ponchos, sheltering around a campfire on a mountainside. They’re fighting for freedom. They’re crossing the Rio Grande, into Texas apparently, to fight the Yankees at the Alamo… (my knowledge of this conflict is patchy – can you tell?) I could hear the distant drums and sounds of bugle calls were coming from afar…

To be fair, not many #1 singles trod these lyrical grounds. Kudos to Benny and Bjorn for writing outside the box. And then, because this is ABBA, the chorus is still a killer. There was something in the air that night, The stars were bright, Fernando… It’s almost enough to make up for the rest, for the pan-pipes, but not quite… And that’s not even the best bit. Every ABBA song has that golden moment, that perfect hook, and ‘Fernando’s is the: Though we never thought that we could lose, There’s no regrets… which Agnetha and Anna-Frid’s gorgeous Swedish accents sell beautifully.

I had no idea that this had originally been written for, and released by Anna-Frid, the year before. That version had nothing to do with Mexican freedom fighters; in it Fernando has lost his lover and is being consoled (I’m trusting Wiki on that, as I don’t speak a word of Swedish.) I also had no idea that the English-language version was the longest-running Australian #1 single until very recently.

In many ways, ‘Fernando’ is a strange #1. And yet in many other ways it feels like it’s existed since the dawn of time, it’s so simple and so earnest. If I had to do the same again, I would my friend, Fernando… they sing as it fades. Maybe that’s the key. It’s not a song about love; it’s about friendship. It’s completely universal. And it is this chart-topper, the band’s 3rd in Britain, that announces them as the real deal. Not many bands could pull this song off. And their next #1, coming up soon, will cement their place as the biggest band in the world…

383. ‘Mamma Mia’, by ABBA

Into 1976! And we hop from one well-worn classic, to another.

Mamma Mia, by ABBA (their 2nd of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th January – 8th February 1976

It’s a dramatic intro – do dee do dee do dee do dee – that sounds a bit like the soundtrack to a murder mystery. But that also, somehow, lets you know straight off the bat that this is going to be fun. It’s a different sound from their first #1 – less glam, slightly more rock – but it still has that trademark ABBA flamboyance. It’s a cliché, I know, but every one of their hits has a hint (often more than a hint) of camp.

‘Waterloo’ was almost two years ago, and since then ABBA have retreated into the background, scoring a few minor hits but looking like they might be best remembered in Britain as ‘those Swedish Eurovision winners’. Until now. ‘Mamma Mia’ kicks off an era of chart dominance: eight number one singles in under five years. The Age of ABBA begins here.

I’ve been cheated by you since I don’t know when, So I made up my mind it must come to an end… One of my favourite things about ABBA is their English: it’s perfect; yet idiosyncratic. No native English speaker speaks like an ABBA song; yet we know exactly what they mean. (Forgive me, I’m an English teacher…) Yes, I’ve been broken-hearted, Blue since the day we parted…

Like its predecessor ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Mamma Mia’ suffers slightly from its ubiquity. Sitting down and listening to it now, I realise just how close it comes to perfect pop. Those power chords leading up to the chorus: Just! One! Look! And I forget everything… In fact, the whole song is a power chord, every note and instrument programmed to hit you right in the sweet spot. The title really should have an exclamation mark.

Mamma Mia! Here I go again! How can I resist ya…! Is there a more ridiculous chorus? First off, why are we using Italian? Do Italians even say ‘Mamma Mia’?? Then there’s the fact that the entire song is an admission of weakness: I want to walk out the door and leave you but, mamma mia, you know I ain’t gonna… It’s the musical equivalent of a knowing wink, a roll of the eyes and a theatrical shrug.

There are better ABBA songs to come in this countdown (as a band they definitely saved the best for last) but this one is undeniable. And in recent years I think it’s probably usurped ‘Dancing Queen’ as their signature tune. That’s all down to the musical (which does have the appropriate exclamation mark!) and its success on both stage and screen. Yes it’s silly, yes it’s been overplayed, but boy if it isn’t a fantastic pop song…

Catch up with all the number ones, from 1952-1975, here:

348. ‘Waterloo’, by ABBA

And entering, stage right: some genuine pop music legends.

Waterloo, by ABBA (their 1st of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 28th April – 12th May 1974

Are ABBA the best pop group ever? Like, pure pop? Well, they get my vote. I will not hear a bad word spoken against them. And these days, you don’t often hear much bad spoken about ABBA – they’ve shaken off the image that they were fit only for gay bars and hen nights, and have assumed their rightful place in the pantheon. Everyone loves ABBA. But… I’m writing as if wrapping up their final chart-topper; not introducing their first. To business!

It is perfect, the manner in which Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid shoot out the blocks on their first #1. ‘Waterloo’ is not a record that takes its time to reveal its charms. It’s a wham, bam, thankyou ma’am sort of pop song. It won the Eurovision Song Contest, for God’s sake: a feat not often achieved through subtle means. The churning bass, the thumping piano… My, my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…

For a band that specialised in camp melodrama, this opening line – comparing their love for someone to an 19th Century military leader’s last stand – is as camp and melodramatic as it comes. Oh yeah! And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way… Cue one of the catchiest choruses ever recorded: Waterloo! I was defeated you won the war, Waterloo, Promise to love you for ever more… (A big part of this song’s success, I think, is the way they pronounce the title in their Swedish accents: Wardahloo! With added emphasis on the ‘ooh’.)

It’s pointless looking for the hook here. The entire song is a two minute forty eight second long hook. The ridiculous saxophone licks, the woah-woah-woahs, the pounding piano ‘n’ drum intros to each chorus, something the band admits were ripped straight from Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’. ‘Waterloo’ is a huge, unashamed sugar rush of a song. Perfect, perfect pop.

In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated once and for all, and exiled to the south Atlantic. In 1974, Agnetha and Anna-Frid give in and admit their love. As they put it in the song’s best line: So how can I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose! (The writers of ‘Mamma Mia – The Musical’ clearly gave up on trying to shoe-horn a song about a two-hundred year old battle into the story, and stuck in at the very, very end, as an encore.)

As a kid, this was my favourite track on ‘ABBA Gold’. It is no longer my favourite ABBA song, but it is the perfect first chart-topper for the band. They would go on to reach much greater heights of subtlety and sophistication; though it’s debatable whether they wrote a catchier hit. Meanwhile, it was also voted as the greatest Eurovision song for the contest’s 50th anniversary.

This hit proved to be a bit of a false start for ABBA, though. They struggled to follow ‘Waterloo’ up, in the UK at least, and we’ll have to wait almost two more years for their next #1. Once that arrives, however, there will be no looking back. It feels like we’ve entered a new phase in our journey through the chart-toppers… It’s the mid-seventies, and we’ve finally met the decade’s greatest band!