Styles & Forms | Seventies Pop Singer-Songwriters

The 1970s remains the era most closely associated with the artistic and commercial triumph of the singer-songwriter. Mature introspection was the order of the day, though a yearning for songs that both pondered youthful nostalgia and the concerns of adult lives led to the emergence of two distinct camps of singer-songwriters.

While rock singer-songwriters dismissed hit singles and revealed their own state of mind through their art, pop singer-songwriters were more romantic and radio-friendly, less specific and challenging, and crossed over into what some sceptical critics labelled ‘hip easy listening’. Although Carole King, the maker of the definitive 1970s pop singer-songwriter album, had only a short-lived superstardom, her biggest success neatly defines the key elements of the genre.

A Rich Tapestry

Formerly Carole Klein, New Yorker Carole King had formed one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of all time at the turn of the 1960s. Working out of the legendary New York hit factory The Brill Building, King and her future husband, Gerry Goffin, composed a host of pop anthems (‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ for The Shirelles, ‘The Locomotion’ for Little Eva and ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ for The Monkees, among many others) throughout the decade. Although King had a fitful career as an artist during the period – her only major success was ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’ in 1962 – she suddenly re-emerged in early 1971 with Tapestry, a complete break from tremulous teen pop. The album’s deft blend of classic, Golden Age pop melody, white soul vocals and arrangements, combined with lyrics of sincere yet world-weary romance, made it the biggest-selling album ever at that point. King’s subsequent career of typically Los Angeles adult pop never quite reached the same heights, but the former backroom girl had forged the template for all pop singer-songwriters to come.

Three Piano Men

A trio of ivory ticklers developed this budding pop tradition, and became commercial kings of the mainstream. The most unlikely, of course, was one Reg Dwight, a plump, bespectacled Englishman who changed his name to the more poetic Elton John and looked set for a journeyman career through British pop’s backwaters until his second, self-titled album scored a surprise transatlantic hit in 1970. Although Elton never wrote his own lyrics (he forged a career-long partnership with wordsmith Bernie Taupin), and also gleefully embraced the comic end of glam rock’s onstage sartorial flamboyance, his 30-years-and-counting success rate was, and is, based squarely upon classic singer-songwriterly values. Emotive, piano-led melodies, sad and introspective lyrical themes and an ever-present nostalgia for pop’s past combine to make him the genre’s most enduring superstar.

His American mirror figure was another plump and unprepossessing troubadour – Long Island’s Billy Joel. Again, from his 1975 breakthrough album, Piano Man, to his eventual commercial slump in the 1990s, Joel’s ability to blend lonely introspection with the nostalgia kick of, say, 1983’s ‘Uptown Girl’ proved the key to him becoming one of the biggest-selling pop artists...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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