The 1970s was one the most prolific periods in cinematic history, spawning some of the most important and influential films that have remained firmly in our consciousness for decades. There are also a handful of soundtracks that either came close to overshadowing or completely overshadowed the movies they were attached to. The following is not a “best of” list, but rather a group of seven soundtracks that immediately came to mind as I began writing this piece. Now, please be forewarned. Grease is not on this list and not because I dislike it. I picked these seven because musically, they more accurately represent the decade in which they were made.
Super Fly (1972) & Claudine (1974)
In addition to giving us classics like The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, the ‘70s was also known as the era of the blaxploitation film. These films, which featured primarily black casts, were originally targeted for black audiences. The soundtracks for these movies consisted of R&B and funk artists as well. I put these two soundtracks together because they came from the brilliant mind of Curtis Mayfield, who probably warrants a whole separate article dedicated to his soundtrack work during the decade. With Super Fly, Mayfield manages to seamlessly weave together a cautionary tale about the life of a drug dealer and the people around him while delivering a direct, potent message with his subtle, almost hushed falsetto acting as a Trojan horse. The man who gave us such socially conscious anthems as “People Get Ready,” “I’m So Proud” and “Choice of Colors,” was the perfect choice to score this movie because through this collection of songs he was able to tell this story without scolding or admonishing the listener.
Notable Tracks: “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” | “Pusherman” | “Freddie’s Dead”
Shamefully, Claudine did not receive the fanfare enjoyed by some of Mayfield’s other soundtracks (Super Fly, Sparkle), but it is one to revisit for many reasons. At the top of this list is the vocal performance of Gladys Knight & the Pips. Being freed the previous year from the shackles of the then formulaic Motown machine, the group manages to flourish in singing Mayfield’s strong material. It makes one wonder why they never really got the push and attention afforded other Motown acts. As with Super Fly, Mayfield deftly captures the spirit of the movie with his honest songwriting and beautiful arrangements. He tells the tale of a single mother and her children without resorting to using cheap and easy stereotypes.
Notable Tracks: “On and On” | “The Makings of You” | “Make Yours a Happy Home”
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Take yourself back to 1977. Did you ever think that the Bee Gees would be the ones to help push disco into the mainstream? I bet you they didn’t either. Saturday Night Fever, the movie and album, went on to define the decade. The soundtrack has made an indelible mark on the musical landscape largely due to the Gibb brothers tweaking their sound to fit this movie, which they were doing as a favor to producer Robert Stigwood. In addition to the Bee Gees, there are standout performances by Tavares and Yvonne Elliman, who up until that point was known for starring in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Next November, it will be 40 years since its release and yet we still instantly recognize the songs just by hearing the first few notes. Over time, the soundtrack has definitely outshone the movie.
Notable Tracks: Any Bee Gees song | “If I Can’t Have You” | “More Than a Woman”
Admit it, there have been times in your life when you’re walking down the street and suddenly the “Theme from Shaft” is playing in your head. Iconic songs have a way of doing that to you. Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack plays out just like a movie: a triumphant first track which takes you by the hand and leads you through a 15 track series of sweeping emotions. The mostly instrumental album is cleverly orchestrated by Hayes with the music being played by The Bar-Kays. Unlike most successful soundtracks, Shaft is in no way a radio-friendly adventure. What you do gather from it is the reaffirmation of Hayes’ gift as a composer. Having come a long way from co-writing “Soul Man,” Shaft solidified his reputation as one of the greats.
Notable Tracks: “Theme From Shaft” | “Soulsville” | “Do Your Thing”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show started out as an utter flop upon its release in 1975, but eventually it became one of the greatest cult classics of all time. It is by no means a great film, but the soundtrack, produced by the great Lou Adler, is simply 45 minutes of fun and sheer madness. The theatricality jumps off the vinyl and it’s almost like being at The Waverly Theater in New York minus being pelted with props. The roots of what Meat Loaf, who played Eddie in the film, was to become are evident here. Although Bat Out of Hell was written by the legendary composer Jim Steinman, the essence of what Meat Loaf was to become started here. The over-the-top greatness of Tim Curry highlights the soundtrack as well as solid performances by Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick. While everybody knows “Time Warp,” there are many other worthwhile moments on this album. Don’t wait for Halloween to give the rest of the album a spin.
Notable Tracks: “Time Warp” | “Sweet Transvestite” | “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me”
The Harder They Come (1972)
In 1973, reggae did not enjoy the immense popularity it did later on in the decade and there are those who credit Bob Marley for the genre’s subsequent success. Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come soundtrack opened the door for reggae to come pouring through into the States. Cliff wisely chose popular reggae hits released in Jamaica from 1967-1972 along with three of his own songs, including the title track, to comprise the LP. Even though it clocks in at just under 40 minutes, The Harder They Come is a must-have for any record collection.
Notable Tracks: “The Harder They Come” | “Many Rivers To Cross” | “You Can Get It If You Really Want”
This may be the absolute best example of a soundtrack far exceeding the quality of the movie it accompanied. Make no mistake, FM was a bad film. Not bad like “That cat Shaft is a bad mother…,” but food-poisoning bad. Thankfully, we have the soundtrack to wash the stink off of us. The FM soundtrack is a crystal clear snapshot of what ‘70s radio rock was like. Aside from the excellent title track by Steely Dan, it features Tom Petty, Boz Scaggs, Joe Walsh, Linda Ronstadt, who arguably was one of the biggest recording artists at the time, among many others. Sometimes a good soundtrack just captures a moment in time and is not meant to make some big statement. The songs chosen here fit nicely together. And in the interest of full disclosure, I would not have discovered how easy it was to listen to the FM soundtrack had I not picked up a copy at a flea market this summer. Skip the movie. Play the album.
Notable Tracks: “FM” (Steely Dan) | “Tumbling Dice” (Linda Ronstadt) | “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” (Linda Ronstadt)
BUY the FM Soundtrack via Amazon