Producer-compiler Bob Stanley's last couple of compilations for Ace have placed him squarely within the 1970s. Earlier this year, Saint Etienne Present Songs for the Fountain Coffee Room (compiled by Stanley, Sarah Cracknell, and Pete Wiggs) conjured "the soundtrack for a bar in mid-'70s Los Angeles," or a St. Etienne-style spin on "yacht rock" with Stephen Bishop, Ned Doheny, Boz Scaggs, and Seals and Crofts among those featured. Stanley has followed Fountain Coffee Room up with a trip to a more specific time and place. Over 20 songs both familiar and unknown, 76 in the Shade transports listeners to the summer of 1976 - when Britons were faced with a crippling drought and the driest summer since 1772. (It's since been surpassed by 1995, now considered the driest British summer ever.) The compilation - available on 1 CD or 2 LPs, the latter with one bonus track - doesn't limit itself to the music of 1976, however, endeavoring instead to "sonically evoke the summer of 1976 itself, its sweet heat and almost narcotic lethargy."
A celebration of lethargy (narcotic or otherwise) hardly seems an inviting concept for a collection, but 76 in the Shade works with its abundance of dreamy, blissed-out soundscapes blurring genre lines. Spike Janson's "Walking So Free" opens the set and serves as a prelude, with its layered, wordless vocals set to a languid, sun-kissed melody performed by a live band but manipulated electronically by Janson's collaborator Michael Iseberg. Under the stage name of Michael Iceberg, he and his fantastic Iceberg Machine - custom Chamberlin keyboards with pre-recorded instruments which used bicycle gears to change the voicings of what he played - became popular attractions in Walt Disney World and Disneyland's Tomorrowland. "Walking So Free" is a true find, making its first commercial appearance here. Almost as hypnotic is John Cameron's "Liquid Sunshine," a languorous yet funky library music instrumental from the onetime Donovan arranger who later gained renown orchestrating such mega-musicals as Les Miserables.
Sex was one likely distraction during the drought; Lynsey de Paul and Jefferson Starship did their part to increase the birth rate with the seductive likes of "Sugar Shuffle" and "Miracles," respectively. The latter, perhaps Marty Balin's most haunting and enduring composition, is presented in its single version sans some of the saucier lyrics. (It made it to No. 3 in the United States.) Even more unabashedly erotic is "Not on the Outside" as sensually cooed by Sylvia Robinson, the one-half of Mickey and Sylvia whose pioneering production work led her to be bestowed with the moniker "The Mother of Hip-Hop."
Smooth R&B sounds doubtless enlivened those sticky days of '76 and made them just a little easier to bear. "Get Out of Town" is Smokey Robinson at his most effortlessly breezy, and one can practically feel the gentle wind wafting through the room. Smokey's Motown labelmate David Ruffin picks up the tempo with the light dancer "Discover Me," his gritty and from-the-gut vocals balanced by the sweet female background vocals and producer-arranger Van McCoy's proto-disco strings. The Emotions' graceful, lighter-than-air "Flowers" (co-written and co-produced by Earth Wind & Fire's Maurice White) shimmers with its sweet lead and deliciously sassy group vocals. Jazz legend Carmen McRae was quite comfortable in R&B idioms, and recorded some of her finest if most unheralded work in the 1970s including the charming, hip take on James Taylor's "Music" reprised here.
Among the hidden gems unlikely to have been heard by many back in those days are Cliff Richard's "Nothing to Remind Me" from his entirely self-penned 1974 album The 31st of February Street, juxtaposing tough, almost funky verses with a soaring chorus; and Hollywood Freeway's "You're the Song (That I Can't Stop Singing)." Chameleonic pop guru Tony Rivers of The Castaways and Harmony Grass co-wrote and produced "You're the Song" in addition to singing it in his best falsetto. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lush ballad was subsequently covered by Frankie Valli. Another '60s survivor, Billy Kinsley of The Merseybeats, led Liverpool Express on the gentle, ethereal U.K. hit "You Are My Love," while Blue Mink is represented by the atypical "Stay with Me." Co-written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers, the lovely ballad sung in tight harmony is much lower-key than the group's usual boisterous pop-soul confections (even if it doesn't give Madeline Bell a chance to use her powerful belt).
Singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Miss My Love Today" is one of his darkest tunes, and indeed, one of the most somber here. Without a honeyed melody to offset or ironically comment upon them, the bleak lyrics cut to the bone. The sound of a beating heart throughout the three-minutes plus adds to its off-putting mood. Much more mellow is the 1975 U.S. chart-topper "Fallin' in Love" from the trio Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds. "I'm Mandy Fly Me" from pop heroes 10cc was actually a hit in 1976 (No. 6 in Britain). Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Eric Stewart neatly wrapped up their tale of a plane crash and a mystery woman with Beach Boys harmonies and a Beatle-esque melody.
Likely some rock would have been blaring from radio speakers in 1976. The Steve Miller Band is heard on the psychedelic, pastoral "Wild Mountain Honey" from that year's quadruple-platinum Fly Like an Eagle featuring some tasty sitar. The progressive band Barclay James Harvest offers the biting "Rock 'n' Roll Star." The British group bridged American west coast rock in the 1960s and 1970s, surveying the same milieu as The Byrds a decade earlier but with a sleek 'n slick, then-contemporary soft rock arrangement.
Whether or not all of the eclectic sounds on 76 in the Shade recall sultry, steamy days, they're more than mere nostalgia. "Miracles" and "Fallin' in Love" still receive regular radio airplay today, while "Liquid Sunshine" has been sampled for a new generation. Still others are ripe for discovery (or rediscovery). As Carmen McRae sings, "Let the music fill the air."
Various Artists, Bob Stanley Presents 76 in the Shade (Ace CDCHD 1580, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
- Walking So Free - Spike Janson (previously unreleased)
- Sugar Shuffle - Lynsey de Paul (from Jet LP 14, 1975)
- Miracles (Single Version) - Jefferson Starship (Grunt single 10367, 1975)
- Get Out of Town - Smokey Robinson (from Tamla LP T6-341S1, 1976)
- I'm Mandy Fly Me (Album Version) - 10cc (from Mercury LP 9102 501, 1976)
- Stoned Out - Simon Park (from Music De Wolfe DWS-LP 3291, 1974)
- Nothing to Remind Me - Cliff Richard (from EMI LP EMC 3048, 1974)
- Discover Me - David Ruffin (from Motown LP M6866 S1, 1976)
- You're the Song (That I Can't Stop Singing) - Hollywood Freeway (Pye single 7N 45273, 1973)
- You Are My Love - Liverpool Express (Warner Bros. single 16743/LP K 56281, 1976)
- Liquid Sunshine - John Cameron (from KPM Music LP KPM 1125, 1973)
- Not on the Outside - Sylvia (from Vibration LP VI-126, 1973)
- Stay with Me - Blue Mink (Regal Zonophone single RZ 30364, 1972)
- Wild Mountain Honey - The Steve Miller Band (from Capitol LP ST 11497, 1976)
- Fallin' in Love - Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds (Playboy single 6024/Playboy PB 407, 1975)
- Flowers (Album Version) - The Emotions (from Columbia LP PC 34163, 1976)
- Montreal City - Azimuth (from Som Livre LP 410.6003, 1975)
- Rock N Roll Star - Barclay James Harvest (from Polydor LP 2442 144, 1976)
- Miss My Love Today - Gilbert O'Sullivan (MAM single 172/MAM LP MAMS 1004, 1977)
- Music - Carmen McRae (Blue Note single XW869-I/Blue Note LP BN LA 635-G, 1976)
- Inspiration Information - Shuggie Otis (from Epic LP KE 33059, 1974) (LP Bonus Track)
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