Who Were the Beatles’ Most Worthy Successors in the 70’s?

beatles

No sane person disputes the fact that in the 1960’s the Beatles ruled supreme in the world of pop music. And in the decade that followed their break-up no single act really dominated the landscape in the same way–or has to this day, for that matter.

But a topic of some fascination to me is this: who came closest? Which 70’s artists’ work showed that type of originality, musical genius and popular appeal in the greatest measure? I’d love to hear your comments on this subject. I originally intended to list a top three, or even a top five. But I feel it’s a sharp drop off after these two.

Let the argument begin!

stevie

1. Stevie Wonder

If you write “Tik Tok”, “Gangnam Style”, “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “The Safety Dance”, you might have a hit. So much can depend on factors such as marketing, an artist’s charisma in the performance of the song, a viral video, the prevailing political climate, or…the inexplicable. (Hence every Dave Matthews hit song)

If, on the other hand, you write “My Cherie Amour”, it depends on no such ephemera, and there’s nowhere for it to hide.

To illustrate the point: this blog features a series of posts called “Songs You May Have Missed”. As part of the criteria for a song to be included here, it (generally) has to have missed the top 40. As much a point of pride as it is for me to seek out and give exposure to great, relatively unknown songs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “Song You May Have Missed” of the caliber of “You Are the Sunshine of my Life”. Classics don’t miss. And you don’t miss them.

Just as the Beatles wrote songs that were among their era’s closest thing to the Cole Porter/Jerome Kern/George and Ira Gershwin standards, Stevie Wonder wrote at least a handful that stand inarguably as classics. And like the Fab Four, Stevie created several albums (Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life) that made relevant statements on topical social issues of the day, all while producing multiple hit singles and never sacrificing beautiful melody or the funk factor.

“My Cherie Amour”

“You Are the Sunshine of My Live”

Carole King deserves mention by this criteria and would perhaps merit inclusion on this list had she sustained the singular creative burst that was the incomparable Tapestry album. There’s no questioning the classic status of songs like “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend”.

elton

2. Elton John

Read the following lyrics, which were presumably handed to Elton on a piece of paper by his lyricist Bernie Taupin:

When are you gonna come down?
When are you going to land?
I should have  stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues

Now, listen to them:

The magic of Elton John–at least in his heyday–was that he was the only man who could have coaxed that melody out of those eight fairly linear lyric lines, and sent it sailing into the stratosphere on the last word. Had any of the rest of us been given the job of setting those words to music, we could never have come up with something so gorgeous, imaginative and original.

Elton’s best songs didn’t feel like classic tin pan alley the way that Stevie Wonder’s (and Carole King’s) did. They felt like something fresh, modern and a little exotic, though by now most of us have heard them so many times it’s difficult to re-create the moment when they first blew our minds.

“Rocket Man”

3. Um, no one.

The rest of the top ten singles artists of the 70’s (Elton John is number one and Stevie Wonder number eight) include:

  • Paul McCartney
  • Bee Gees
  • Carpenters
  • Chicago
  • The Jackson 5
  • James Brown
  • Neil Diamond
  • Elvis Presley

It seems to me all can be disqualified for lacking one or more important trait the Beatles possessed–either “cultural” relevance, a diverse audience, or diversity of music. (And I disqualified Paul for being a former Beatle–seems like cheating).

My conclusion, obviously, is that no 70’s pop singer or band made nearly the impact–artistically, commercially or culturally–that the Beatles made in the 60’s. Even their seemingly short 8-year existence as recording artists (compared to the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones’ run of 50 years or so) is actually much longer than the heyday of Elton John, whose years of true greatness extend, in my humble opinion, only from about 1971 through ’73. Stevie Wonder’s period of sustained excellence was about equal to the Beatles strictly in terms of years, though he can’t match them in terms of sheer number of songs that rate as “classic”, “beloved”, “influential” or whatever word you use to describe greatness.

Have I overlooked or snubbed anyone? What do you think?

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jay
    Dec 29, 2017 @ 12:04:31

    I agree no one put out hits in the 70s like the beatles did in the 60s but a lot of good music came out in the 70s i think the bee gees and donna summers rocked

    Reply

  2. Anonymous
    Jan 01, 2018 @ 13:53:29

    Oh I agree. I’m a big fan of the music of the 70’s, and I’ve loved the Bee Gees since way before their disco period.

    Reply

  3. CHARLES TAORMINA
    Jun 28, 2021 @ 20:46:34

    ELO. duh!

    Reply

  4. Eric P
    May 23, 2022 @ 22:08:42

    It’s been almost a decade since this was posted, so it’s time I throw my 2 cents in.
    I like the ELO suggestion, but I’m not sure they were prolific enough. I’ve often contemplated who is closest to The Beatles. Stevie and Elton both deserve to be on the list. I think they lack the consistency to top the list. The Bee Gees are also list worthy, but lack breadth. I think Led Zepplin makes a strong case. The only true 70’s act that made an approach towards the Beatles were The Eagles but they have a consistency issue like all the others.
    There are two bands that started in the 70’s but are associated more with the 80’s that had the consistent quality thus far ONLY achieved by the Beatles: I think Van Halen shows why it was probably a good thing that the Beatles broke up… (not a Hagar Fan). With Roth, their worst filler tracks were better than many of their contemporaries’ singles. But their lyrics lack depth, so they join the unworthy… Which brings us to the only band that has no glaring shortcoming when placed next to the Beatles: The Police.

    Reply

  5. Ed Cyphers
    May 23, 2022 @ 22:57:31

    Thanks for your thoughts. But in my opinion the Police, with a catalog of only five studio albums, also fail the “not prolific enough” test.
    The Bee Gees have either written or performed a boatload of hits. But they can’t match the Beatles in terms of classic albums. And in fact there was a lot of what I’d consider filler on many of their LP’s.

    Reply

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