Best Rock Instrumental Hits of the 70s
Seventies instrumental hits were a strange and diverse bunch: as the musical climate began to expand in the 1970s, rock and R&B began to split again, electronic music began to enter America’s living rooms, and funk got bolder and more experimental. As with the “real” songs of the decade, the best ’70s instrumental rock hits reflected these changes perfectly. Here are the groundbreaking instrumental rock hits of the Seventies, songs which defined Philly soul, funk, jazz, rock, and more!
Call it the drum solo that wasn’t. Rock drum spotlights, like rock itself, had expanded to ridiculous lengths by the early ’70s — the longest of them, like Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and Cream’s “Toad,” could run up to a half an hour long on stage. But guitar legend Edgar Winter, like the Allman Brothers, was fortunate enough to have two drum kits, and so he envisioned a tune called “The Double Drum Solo,” built as usual around a ferocious intro riff. Problem was, by the time the group finished writing and recording new pieces to add to the song, that solo was almost an afterthought, just one piece of tape surrounded by dozens of others hanging from the ceiling — the group had decided to record each bit separately and then splice them together. The result looked to one member like a mad scientist’s lab; hence, “Frankenstein.” And yes, the drum workout is buried in there somewhere, among the modern synthesizers, monster guitars, and even Winter’s own multitracked saxophones.
This scorching little number, on the other hand, was designed as a showcase for Coffey’s skills on the axe — his group was named the Detroit Guitar Band — but its legend was soon overtaken by the perfect percussion breakdown, studied (and sampled) for years by those looking for the key to the perfect groove. (You’ve probably heard that famous breakdown in a number of places, most notably Young MC’s ’80s hit “Bust a Move.”) Coffey’s band features the cream of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers, so it’s not surprising that the groove is what lasted, but even though he sits out for most of this jam, Coffey’s name is still attached to it, still a fitting fate since he’d played the famous riffs on songs like the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” without getting recognized. Not to mention the wah-wah chicken scratch of doom on the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion.”
Another hit instrumental making stars out of anonymous session musicians, “TSOP” arguably marked Philly Soul’s final mutation into disco, aided and abetted by Sigma Sound Studios’ house band and backing vocals from the Philadelphia International label’s resident female trio, The Three Degrees of “When Will I See You Again” fame, entering at the most dramatic possible moment with the song’s deadly serious mission statement: “Let’s get it on. It’s time to get down.” The special album-side-long version of this classic helped put the “12-inch single” on the map as a staple of dance music. As for what MFSB stands for, let’s just say it’s not the sound of Philadelphia.
Perhaps no soundtrack song has ever been as closely associated with its parent film as this one, the staccato opening piano fugue of which can, to this day, instantly conjure up images of a demonically possessed little girl returning her pea soup onto a hapless priest. But take away the impressively large legacy of The Exorcist, if you can, and you’re actually left with a two-part album-length magnum opus that’s more reflective than anything, a progfest graced with some deft mood shifts and laced with a little dry British wit. The 19-year-old Oldfield put Richard Branson’s new Virgin label on the map when he decided to take a chance on it; chances are you know someone who can play the opening theme at parties… that is, until disturbed friends beg them to stop.
Far from average, these Scots were unlikely funk naturals, delivering, with this number one smash, the perfect interplay between a snaky blues guitar lick and some punchy Tower of Power-type horns, anchored by those signature ninth chords that are a staple of the genre. Add in the tasty sax solo, a clockwork-tight backbeat, and enough wood block on the breakdown to make Chris Walken reject the cowbell, and you see why it was headed straight to the top — and is still regarded so highly among non-average Black groups that it gets sampled by many hip-hop artists. Even James Brown’s old backing group, the JBs, saw fit to grace it with an homage.
As the king of lush romantic soul, Barry White’s dual penchants for sweeping orchestral strings and sexy danceable beats helped define the sound of the decade on both pop and r&b charts. But it was a song without his trademark throaty growl that made the most commercial impact — a welcome throwback to the days of big-band ballads that was also perfect for funky ballroom dancing. In other words, disco before John Travolta got to it. Although it’s since been attempted in various vocal versions, something about the enigmatic nature of the original keeps it immune to interpretation. It’s certainly the only R&B Top Ten hit to be featured as the theme music for a major network’s golf coverage (ABC).
Preston, of course, had already made his name as a session musician, working as the Fifth Beatle on the project and also proving that he could hold his own as a headliner with hits like “Nothing From Nothing” and “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles.” But he also had two huge instrumental hits at the same time, which you sadly don’t hear much anymore — “Outa Space,” an off-the-cuff jam which proved his mastery of the funky clavichord, and this number, a slower and somehow even funkier demonstration of his mastery on the effects-laden ARP Pro-Soloist synth (not the Moog, as is often thought). So successful was this song in its day that Billy became an ARP spokesman, featured in ads for the unit in question.
Perhaps no other track better epitomizes the full flowering of the ’70s “action funk” than this one, the theme song to a long forgotten ABC series that itself broke ground in its depiction of urban warfare. The lessons of Isaac Hayes’ epic semi-instrumental “Shaft” are fully absorbed here — the chicken scratch wah-wahs, the sweeping strings, the staccato horns-and-flute combo sounding the alarm over the propulsive engine of the hi-hat. So dramatic and so instantly dated that the Beastie Boys used it to open their infamous Licensed to Ill tour, it’s also been sampled by several other DJs longing for a little afroed attitude. Songwriter Barry DeVorzon infected the national consciousness again soon after with “Nadia’s Theme,” which you might know better as the theme from “The Young and the Restless.”
The Moog synthesizer, on the other hand, had been intriguing album buyers since the late Sixties, when Wendy Carlos’ Switched-on Bach albums struck a retrofuturistic note in the heart of modern suburban dens. Gershon Kingsley, who’d been experimenting with programmable exotica since the middle of the decade, had a minor 1969 hit with this novelty number, recreated by one of his band members in 1974 with a more rocked-up arrangement and some actual drums. More of a rocking coffeepot thang than anything resembling modern EDM, it took the sound of the burgeoning hooked-on movement and made it pop. Literally.
Along with other, similar adult-contemporary classics like George Benson’s “Breezin'” and Herb Alpert’s “Rise,” this was a pioneering smash in the burgeoning lite-jazz movement, earning its featured player a Grammy nomination. Mangione, actually a flugelhorn player who’d already honed his chops with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, originally intended a ten-minute opus with several sections, but the heavily-edited single version wisely focused on the lite-funk passages, and the result was an inescapable hit that forged an alliance between jazz and adult contemporary which still exists today.