Sucking on the '70s

A new boxed set is the cardboard tombstone for a dead decade

Nostalgia is a hobby for those too afraid to move into tomorrow; it's the pastime of cowards and fools. But as we inch closer to the millennium--which, don't kid yourself, will look, feel, smell, taste, and sound just like today--there's an increasingly annoying trend that involves looking over one's shoulder with affection and not a little irony. No one remembers what happened to Lot's wife when she tried to catch one last glimpse of what was better left behind; they just want to dress themselves in tube tops and platform shoes while they get down at some Retro Night on Greenville Avenue, pretending every night's a boogie night as long as it's not tomorrow night.

Ours is a TV Land culture now, if you can call it "culture" with a straight face, a mishmash of reruns and retreads; it's the cut-and-paste era of Quentin Tarantino and Puff Daddy, of Brady Bunch remakes and Olivia Newton-John comebacks, of two films about disco opening within weeks of each other this summer. Suddenly, everyone's dazed and confused, fearing and loathing their eight-track flashbacks, and stuck in the middle with me, you, and a dog named Boo--it's enough to make a man do the hustle off a high cliff.

Such backward-staring fetishism is what has kept Rhino Records in business for years: The Los Angeles-based label is, for better or worse, the dumping ground of the rock industry--old songs don't fade away at Rhino, they just get reissued on 20-disc packages with names like Alphabet Soup: Songs Featuring the Letters B, L, and G. Rhino has made a small fortune over the past two decades resurrecting lost gems and lumps of coal and repackaging them for the record buyer who long ago sold his Captain and Tennille vinyl and now needs a quick fix. The label's formula is a brilliant, if sometimes cynical, one: Dress up yesterday's copper and sell it as today's gold.

It began innocently enough with the Have a Nice Day series, a 25-volume collection of forgotten hits of the 1970s available for the first time on CD; Hurricane Smith, Redbone, Clint Holmes, Jud Strunk, and so many vanished nobodies were dug up, their discount corpses sold at retail prices. Then came the 20-disc Didn't It Blow Your Mind! series, which documented the soul hits of the '70s with far more success--better "Jungle Boogie" than "Rhinestone Cowboy" any time.

But Rhino, being a label never content to let well (or mediocre) enough alone, decided it would repackage all these same songs one more time (with some bona fide hits thrown in for good measure) in a seven-disc cardboard tombstone just on shelves, Have a Nice Decade. It comes bearing the rather audacious, and threatening, subtitle "The '70s Pop Culture Box."

Like all of Rhino's recent boxes (including Beg, Scream & Shout!, six CDs of essential 1960s soul, every track a winner), Have a Nice Decade comes in a nifty package: It has a shag-carpet front (with smiley-faces embroidered into the rug, no less), an 89-page book chronicling the fall and fall of the decade, and complete obituaries of all the 170 acts featured on this nonstop love roller coaster. For $100, you can own a piece of history you tried so desperately to forget.

It's the playlist of KEOM-FM (88.5) collected in one place; never again need one tune into the Mesquite High School radio station with an inexplicably strong signal, where students play music for their parents, as though Mom and Dad want to be reminded of their mistakes. They're all here, every song you loved ("ABC," "Free Bird," "Family Affair") and every song you despised ("Popcorn," "I Am Woman," "Convoy," and so on); music as timeless as tomorrow (Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead," Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There") and songs that were stillborn ("Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," "Disco Duck," and Vicki Lawrence's "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia"). The box is a gold mine and a crapfest; watch your step.

"You'd have to be superhuman to listen to it all the way through," says Rhino's David McLees, the man who put the box together, and he laughs as he says this--at least he's not fooling himself by thinking this is the stuff of high art. "But at least the bad records are interesting. There's no middle ground here. Everything has an extreme point of view. The cloying songs are real cloying, and the funky good records are really funky and really good."

It's impossible to listen to a single disc, much less the entire set, straight through; there's no distinguishing between the songs that withstood the decade (The Honey Cone's "Want Ads" and Joe Tex's "I Gotcha" grow only more alluring with time, while Chic will always be just that) and those as vacant and obscene as the decade itself (pick 'em). Just when the collection gets a groove on, when Marvin Gaye breaks down at the end of "Got to Give It Up (Pt. I)" or Stevie Wonder works a little sumpin-sumpin at the beginning "Sir Duke," you suddenly find yourself staring down the barrel of David Soul and Little River Band, wondering where you took the wrong turn. It's a feeling akin to the bends or hitting a speed bump at 100 miles per hour; no, it's Ned Beatty time ("Dueling Banjos" is here too).

That's because the collection offers no context to its chaos; it's all madness, no method--the only thing most of the songs have in common is they were hits in the 1970s. They weren't all No. 1 singles; some of them were barely in the Top 40. And Have a Nice Decade hardly offers a cohesive look at the '70s: There's plenty of Gary Wright and Starland Vocal Band and Bay City Rollers, but not a second of Sex Pistols or Van Halen or Elvis Costello or Boston or Led Zeppelin. The result is an incomplete relic, a half-finished portrait of a decade.

Much of the reason for this stems from the fact Rhino couldn't license some of the essential classic-rock tracks for the set; Zeppelin has never allowed the use of any of its songs on a compilation, like Jimmy Page or Robert Plant have any shame. But McLees also was trying to make an aesthetic point with his collection: He says he didn't include punk or new-wave tracks because they don't sound of a whole with the froth that was Top 40 radio. To him, Costello or the Pistols represented the future of rock and roll--they pointed toward the '80s, toward the liberation of rock and roll from the mainstream's sugar-coated shackles--and they would simply have sounded out of place among so much lightweight nonsense.

"The 1970s was the last decade where you heard things on Top 40 radio of disparate styles," he says. "The '60s were all about that too, but disco and punk marked the end of the '70s; after that, things became more formatted. One of the points I was making was that this was the last time you could hear so many styles at one time. I also wanted to tie in the events that were going on at the time to when the music was popular, and I leaned toward songs that were like that."

And so Have a Nice Decade highlights some of the worst the '70s had to offer, the numbing pop and retread soul that became the stuff of hit radio; it recalls the days when Gordon McLendon's KNUS-FM was the top station in town, rolling out Meco's disco-fried Star Wars theme 10 times a day. McLees' well-intentioned desire to use music as a mirror reflecting the trends of the decade (the skyrocketing divorce rate is represented by Wayne Newton's silly, overwrought "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast"; the women's-lib movement finds its anthem in Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman") is lost in the sheer awfulness of the music.

It's worth noting that those songs on Have a Nice Decade that withstood fad and fashion are, for the most part, the funk and soul hits already found on Rhino's Didn't It Blow Your Mind! collections; quality, in this box's case at least, is a black-and-white issue. Let Neil Sedaka and Maureen McGovern and their whole dead-eyed lot rest in pieces; let Sly Stone and Al Green and Warren Zevon, for that matter, alone. If there's a statement to be made, it's this and only this: The 1970s were better than you think and worse than you remember. But you already knew that, even if you forgot it.

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