by Kevin Burton
Musical eras, like chocolate bars or ice cubes, are fluid before they are solid, shaped by the temperature of the times.
We can’t always distinguish them day to day. Historians declare them later, according to their differing standards.
But for me there is something momentous about looking at the chart-topping songs for April 1970. On April 11 the Beatles’ “Let It Be” took over the top spot, with “ABC” by the Jackson 5 right behind.
Two weeks later the two would be reversed, the Jackson 5 at number one. Can’t tear my eyes away from that without some reflection.
It wasn’t the first number one for the J5, that was “I Want You Back” in January of that year. Nor was it the only time the Motown act would displace the Beatles. In June 1970 “The Love You Save” would replace “The Long And Winding Road” at the top.
But there is something about this pairing of songs, the philosophical “Let It Be,” one of the all-time classics by the band that essentially invented pop music, juxtaposed with “ABC” a simplistic pop confection even by pop standards, that speaks to the ushering in of the 70s, departure from the 60s.
Turn your radio on and have a nice decade.
But years in this context are just artificial categories by which to remember things, even hand out awards.
I’ve heard it said that the true 60s started the day of the Kennedy assassination and ended with President Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal. That’s a useful thought to me.
Apply that musically and it picks up just before the British Invasion and goes long enough to include “Band On The Run,” a number one for Paul McCartney without his Beatles bandmates, and the beginnings of Disco, with back-to-back chart toppers “Rock The Boat” by Hues Corporation and “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae.
There you have two songs with rock in the title that some would exclude from the rock and roll category.
Let It Be and ABC were megahits, both still in the top five into May. Many use these songs to define the respective bands.
For some the “mother Mary” lyric in Let It Be infused the song with biblical meaning, even though the reference in fact was about a dream McCartney had about his mother.
I’ve never seen anybody peel apart ABC in print and for good reason. It is notable as being not very different from the Jackson 5’s previous hit I Want You Back.
Compare that marketing strategy to the Beatles who even in the early days were constantly reinventing themselves and their sound. It just lets you know change was in the air.
If John Lennon pondered this at all at the time or later, I would love to know his thoughts.
Don’t take this as a knock on ABC, the Jackson 5 or Motown, all of which I love. If the writers at Motown had anything profound to say at the time, they would have given it to Marvin Gaye to sing, not to children in a boy band.
We now know that the Beatles were spent by 1970 and the Jackson 5 was kaput by 1980, with Michael Jackson’s solo hit “Rock With You” at number one in January of 1980.
Now even that latter tune is more than 40 years old. I do my level best to force that thought from my mind, anytime I spin these tunes.
But now there are millions of music fans who care nothing for the Beatles. The Michael Jackson influence is also receding, or soon will.
To that I say, let it be. The sounds that dominate the culture will ever be a-changin’.
Consider: “Walk This Way,” was a full-blown rap song long before Run DMC ever got a hold of it. It’s just that in 1977, when Aerosmith took the song to number 10, most had never heard of rap. Our minds weren’t conditioned to recognize it as such.
There is a case to be made for “Along Comes Mary” by the 60s band The Association, as a rap song.
Somewhere tucked into the sounds of today are the sounds of tomorrow. Let it be.