Musical artists and their record labels have a long history of contention. Countless musicians have found themselves creatively and economically squeezed, anaconda-style, by the shackles placed on them by bad record deals and the boundless greed of the music industry. Of course the industry has always had the upper hand in these proceedings, holding artists hostage to their legally-bound recording contracts. This phenomenon has resulted in a plethora of albums created to break record deals or fulfill contractual obligations, allowing artists to put the mess behind them and move on to greener, more creatively-free pastures. These albums have ranged from the strange to the downright terrible. Who could forget Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, for example, with its layers upon layers of feedback and distortion that were about as calming as fingernails on a chalkboard, or Van Morrison recording an album with songs about ringworm and eating sandwiches. And then there was Marvin Gaye, who famously gave the finger to both his record company and his ex by fulfilling his contract with an album, Here, My Dear, that gave a blow-by-blow description of his marriage’s disintegration. Just as we instinctively stare at car wrecks on the interstate with morbid curiosity, the lure of these albums, with all of their blood and guts strung out for public display, is strong.

Sadly, as it is with music, so it is in writing. Paul McCartney once crooned, aptly, “I’m in love, but I’m lazy…” Sometimes a perfectly good writer, whose creative process involves soaking in life (and music), thinking, sleeping, pondering, sleeping some more, and having occasional bursts of inspired work flow out to the rhythm of his own inner clock, is slammed up against the cold, heartless wall of needing to churn one of these puppies out every couple of months. Some of us don’t write on demand, but the world doesn’t care. And with an absolute dearth of compelling ideas to share with readers, what’s a person to do??

And so, in that spirit and without further ado, I bring you Platinum’s Special Collector’s Edition, Rock ‘n Roll: Greatest Hits of the 70’s!

Deceptively, the packaging of this breathtaking compilation is decidedly plain wrapper. Songs and artists are listed, but there are no insightful liner notes, no eye-catching photographs, nor any hint of fancy packaging. Even the artwork and fonts, randomly plopped onto a sea of Pepto-pink with background smears, seem computer-generated and minimalist. With powerhouse acts like Blondie, the Knack and Little River Band in the mix, however, that sort of frill is completely unnecessary. Wisely, the folks at Platinum Disc Corporation knew this musical bonanza would only be cluttered by needless introduction.

And who could argue with this lineup?

First up is Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with their smash hit “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” Universally despised upon release by English teachers and uptight enunciators alike, its stuttering lyrics actually proved to be the s-s-s-secret of its success. Despite deftly sharing that same speech-impediment trait with anthology-closer “My Sharona,” the bigwigs at Platinum had intended for BTO’s “Taking Care of Business” to be the opening track instead. Plans were changed at the last minute, however, when lawyers at Office Depot balked at possible branding confusion, so Platinum took what they could get. Mmmm. Mmmm.

Nipping closely at BTO’s heels is Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” The London-formed Foghat were pioneers of sorts in the world of rock, being amongst the first bands to undergo nation-reassignment surgery to purge any traces of Anglo from their sound. Slide guitar injections added during an American-enhancement procedure bolstered this transition, and a move to New York sealed the deal. Forty years on, aficionados of blues-based and boogie rock are still shocked and disillusioned to learn their heroes are Brits. Rabid and permanent denial is a common reaction, most fans being unable to healthily move on through the five stages of Foghat.

Yet another highlight of Platinum’s collection is Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire.” Like Oi! for the equestrian set, this classic, melancholic anthem captured the hearts and minds of 1975 in a way that Pet Rocks never could’ve dreamed of doing. Here, a classical piano intro and outro sandwich what is quite possibly the most bland, mawkish tale ever – a tale of a girl and her horse – punctuated only by three repetitive, descending scales of notes that simultaneously give the song its hook and propel its overblown sadness. These scales were considered so moving at the time that they inspired the universal, five-note communication method employed in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and were also beamed into space by NASA as an addendum to the Arecibo Message … which was sent out as a friendly hello to life on other planets. Unbeknownst to NASA, however, Murphey’s annoying pattern of notes actually comprised an intergalactic hail for complete and total planetary destruction, and an alien race is slated to arrive in 2108 to permanently silence the message at its source.

And what about Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”? Death has never seemed more magical and alluring than it does here:

Came the last night of sadness/and it was clear she couldn’t go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared/the candles blew and then disappeared/the curtains flew and then he appeared
Saying, “Don’t be afraid…”

So enchanting, so gothic, so cool, who wouldn’t want to take the hand of this mysterious stranger come to take us to the other side? Never mind that most of us will pass alone and forgotten in cold, uncaring nursing homes, drooling, and laying in bed with DNR signs hung haplessly around our necks. More cowbell, anyone?

At the end of this delectable, full-course meal, however, one is left with more questions than answers. While Platinum’s taste is undisputedly beyond reproach, just what exactly ties all these disparate songs together, other than their mere collective presence on this fabulous disc? Why are these considered the “greatest” hits of the 70s? And why the heck am I still hungry?? The answer to all three floats like a lead brick in the background of not just this, but all “Best Of” collections and their ilk. These songs weren’t in fact the greatest – although some of them may indeed be great – but were actually the most-easily-available and the cheapest the company could license for a collection meant to bring in the maximum amount of cash for the minimum amount of investment. This wasn’t a thoughtful endeavor. It goes back to the old song and dance between the artist and the music industry, and the all-powerful industry’s bottom line has always been about profit.

Thankfully the artist, spanner firmly in hand, always has the last word.

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One thought on “Contractual Obligation

  1. The things that go on in your brilliant mind are hilarious…and a little bit scary too. I hope you keep cranking these puppies out until 2108.

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