Author Scott Miller on Why 1973 Was the Peak of Classic ’70s Rock
Producer, musician and now author Scott Miller has written one of the best books of the year with 'Music: What Happened?' In it, he assembles a CD-length mix tape worth of songs for every year from 1957 to 2009. These lists, updated from personal notes he kept from his teen years on, not only feature clever insights on his favorite music, but they also end up chronicling the changes in musical styles across the decades.
As part of 'Time Travel' week, we decided to focus on one year from Miller's book, 1973, which he declares to be "the peak of the classic '70s."
So in your book, you list the year 1973 as the peak of the classic '70s. That means, you're picking a year with no Beatles or Hendrix records, and 'Houses of the Holy' over Zep IV?
Well, you don't pick the year just because of one band, but I do like 'Houses of the Holy' a lot. Let's see, which of those two do I like better? Maybe… I'm more of a 'Houses of the Holy' fan, relatively speaking, than most people, I think, but I do like 'IV' a lot.
So, you were 13 in 1973. Who was your favorite classic rock band back then?
It kind of depends on your definition. Are the Rolling Stones a classic rock band? Kind of. The Who, I like a lot. Probably, of the bands that you attach the words "classic rock" to, Led Zeppelin would be my favorite. As I say in my book, they have a reputation among '60s rock critic types as being unsubtle, I guess, just kind of headbangers, but they're really a very polychromatic, nuanced group. I've always liked the subtle songs, oddly enough, more than anything.
Miller on Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon':
"'Dark Side' was the great harbinger of the "solid state" aesthetic that would endanger sound quality almost as much as anything since consumer audio was -- we now realize -- at its best, around the late '50s."
So are you saying that Pink Floyd actually hurt how future records sounded with 'Dark Side of the Moon?'
It was more the reaction to the record, there's a lot of worshipful reaction to 'Dark Side of the Moon.' I was aware at the time of the buzz in audiophile concerns, being that you had to have "solid state" sound. Solid-state is very dead sound, compared to the alternative, which was vacuum tube circuitry. I remember being horrified at my first experience with solid state amplifiers. It was just harder to get a live sound out of, than with other technology. The idea was that you had a very low noise floor, so the sound was very contained. [But] there was such a fetishizing of that for a while that I think people lost the thread of what made a full-sounding recording. At least, that was my subjective impression. It wasn't so much that the people making those records did any actual damage. Those are people that all have great ears; Geoff Emerick I think worked on 'Dark Side,' a lot of really top people, and of course Pink Floyd themselves. So, it was more of the mass reaction to it than the record.
So, do you agree with Neil Young's views against digital recording?
I read his early comments, and thought, "this person is crazy," they're one of these digital opponents who greatly exaggerate the lack of quality. But eventually one day I heard what he was saying. It's kind of in rarefied situations when you hear that, usually in recordings you've made yourself. I would never in a million years be able to listen to a new Arcade Fire recording and think, "Oh, that's that terrible CD sound, I need beautiful analog vinyl recordings." But when I've actually been the producer on a project, and I get very accustomed to what I'm hearing, then you make a change like going from the 24-bit signal, which is the quality you use while recording, to the 16-bit signal, which is what's used for mastering, there were absolutely situations where I could hear the drop in quality.
Miller on Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door':
"Anyone who doesn't think Bob Dylan can sing hasn't listened to 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door,' a masterpiece of technique (perfectly understated vibrato) as well as feeling and idiom. And what a tearjerker."
You think Bob Dylan's a much better singer than he gets credit for?
Yeah, I think so. When I was younger, when I was a kid, I didn't think of him as a good singer, I thought of him as a guy with a nasally, raspy voice, and I wasn't much into the protest content. The first time I listened to him for a lot of songs in a row was the 'Concert for Bangladesh,' I was 11 and it was hard for me to sit through. Very soon after that I heard 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door,' and it was hard for me to believe it was the same person. I started reviewing his '60s material and getting more into it. Eventually, when I became an adult, I was able to appreciate him as an important lyricist, and recognize that both his voice and music are actually really good.
Miller on Elton John's 'Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding':
"I badly wanted to edit out some or all of the first part to make room for another song, but the rocket engine of 'Love Lies Bleeding' somehow depends on the solid fuel of 'Funeral for a Friend.' Crack outfit, this. Very busy but entirely meaty bass. Guitar riff for the ages."
I'm glad you mentioned Elton John, I think people forget how much he rocked, before the "Hallmark Card" years...
I don't link everything that Elton John has ever done, but he's done some fantastic stuff, and that core lineup band, that early '70s lineup, they were really stunning -- the bass playing, particularly, but the whole band.
OK, last question: you take a few shots at Kiss, you wanna explain yourself?
Oh ... well ... I just don't … [laughs] like most of their songs. I can think of some Kiss songs that I like. I like 'Black Diamond,' 'Strutter' … they just came along and were a little young, their audience was a little young for me. I was in a band, and wanted to do more Roxy Music-oriented material than Kiss, and so the battle lines were drawn in a way that I may never recover from. I may owe them another listen, but I tended to want to get into more of atmospheric stuff than Kiss at that stage of my life.
Miller on Led Zeppelin's 'The Song Remains the Same'
"'The Song Remains the Same' is about as symphonic and polychromatic as any essentially three-piece combo has ever sounded. John Paul Jones does at least his share of the heavy lifting: the guitar keeps your attention, but it is a stunningly expressive bass part. An unconventional, exploration-of-terrain sort of song structure, it gallops through moods and reference points effortlessly, maybe something like 'Rhapsody in Blue.' I want to guess there's a little influence from the group Yes in there."
Led Zeppelin Performs 'The Song Remains the Same' in 1973