A new series, in which we take a look at songs that, whether by accident or design, somehow capture the spirit of the period during which they were first released. First up, made in Philadelphia and a huge hit in the United Kingdom, soul vocal group The Stylistics chanced upon an epitaph for New York City in 1975.

Sometimes, it needs separation of distance to truly see the value of something. By the middle of the 1970s, it was beginning to become apparent that something was going very much awry with economic model that the United States of America had been following over the previous decade or so. The Great Society of former president Lyndon Johnson, which including legislation regarding civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, and environmental protection, as well as aid to education, the arts, urban and rural development, had been the country’s greatest experiment in social democracy, but a combination of factors, including the ever-spiralling costs of the Vietnam War and the oil crisis of 1973 had left the American economy in a parlous condition by the middle of the 1970s, and nowhere was this more evident than in the behemoth of the Eastern Seaboard, New York City.

By 1975, the city of New York was facing bankruptcy. Historians, economists and political activists continue to debate why this particular city was so badly affected by the lean economic times, but what we know for certain is that by 1975 it was on the financial brink. It was in the middle of May of that year that Abraham Beame and Hugh Carey – the city’s mayor and governor respectively – had a year wth president Gerald Ford at which they pleaded that the city needed federal assistance if it was not to default on massive loans taken out in its name. Increases in aid had helped to fund a dramatic increase in the city’s spending in the second half of the 1960s, but when the global economy started to turn at the start of the following decade, loans had been taken in order to keep up with spending requirements, and when access to further credit was turned off by financial insitutions that were increasingly wary as the USA stayed resolutely in recession, it started to become apparent that the city would soon be unable to maintain its existing financial commitments or pay its workers. In other words, New York City was insolvent, and close to bankruptcy.

Troubled times often have an instructive effect upon the artistic output of a community. As Motown became politicised – sometimes, it rather felt, against its own will – by the partial radicalisation of the civil rights movement at the end of the 1960s, a different sort of soul music was emerging some distance from the genre’s arguable spritual home of Detroit, a little less than one hundred miles south of New York, in Philadelphia. Philly soul music was a marked departure from the sometimes paper-thin musicianship of already established soul music. Fusing the vocal tradition of soul with considerably richer arrangements, this was soul music with a hint of jazz and a soup├žon of funk, embellished by lavsh production techniques, and by the middle of the 1970s it was effectively a musical genre in its own right. Although genrally recognised as a musical style to be more readily associated with producers than with musicians or even recording artists, its most famous names – The Delfonics, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and The O’Jays, for example – became household names in their own right, but it was one vocal group from Philadelphia itself that would go on to perform a song which spoke volumes about the condition of the American economy in the mid-1970s.

Formed in 1968, The Stylistics built their success around the lush production of Thom Bell and the distinctive falsetto voice of lead vocalist Russell Thompkins Jr. By the time New York City found itself on the edge of a financial precipice, they were established as one of the best known vocal groups in the whole of America, but as 1974 turned to 1975 they were a band facing choppy waters. They split from Bell, and this had a disastrous effect on their chart performance, but at the start of the new year they brought in Van McCoy – best known elsewhere for “The Hustle”, which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic during the summer of 1975 – to arrange their latest record, “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love).” From the start, this is a song that is telling a story about the world that it inhabits, as its protanogist fantasises about the life that he would live with his love – “If I had money I’d go wild, buy you furs, dress you like a queen/and in a chauffeured limousine, we’d look so fine” – before admitting that, “I’m an ordinary guy, and my pockets are empty.” It’s very much a reflection on the state of the American economy at the time that and “ordinary guy” in 1975 has empty pockets.

The range of services available to ordinary New Yorkers in the mid-1970s would most likely be baffling to most people growning up in the city today. In 1975, for example, New York had nineteen public hospitals, along with many of the other trappings of social democracy that Europeans would have taken for granted. The cuts that were made were bitterly opposed by the public, many of whom blamed the banks that had shut off the city’s access to credit, but even strong trade unions, who had initially opposed financial cuts with widespread demonstrations of such vehemence that rumours of a general strike were abundant, eventually had to concede that something had to give. What followed in New York would be repeated across the USA, and eventually across much of Europe as well. The new breed of people in charge were economic conservatives, and they reached the summit of power in American politics with the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980.

If American economic policy was in 1975 beginning a journey that would lead the nation on a new – and, for many, unwelcome – path, so it was that Philadelphia soul was embarking on a journey of its own. Elsewhere in 1975, The Bee Gees were to release “Jive Talkin”, a song that leant very heavily on Philapdelphia soul and funk music, and it was within the nascent disco movement that Philly soul found its home, not only in the musical phrasing of disco music, but also in the importance that it placed upon the recording studio as being its natural home, although disco marked the bgeinning of a new, more hedonistic era in which the subtle political message of bands such as The Stylistics felt out of place.

This marriage would take a while to be fully consummated in America, though, and perhaps “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)” was, for all of its zeitgeist-striking lyrical content, was released at the wrong time for The Stylistics themselves and it stalled at number fifty-one in the Billboard Hot 100. Considerably greater appreciation for the song, however, did come from the United Kingdom. The band had already had five top ten singles on the other side of the Atlantic, and “Can’t Give You Everything” became the band’s first number once single in Britain in August 1975, remaining Britain’s biggest selling single for three weeks.

The Stylistics mustered a further three top ten singles in the United Kingdom, but in the USA only “Funky Weekend” and “You Are Beautiful” could even scrape around the bottom of the Billboard Hot 100 before the group’s well of success completely ran dry. Member changes and even return of Thom Bell ultimately couldn’t mask the fact that the tastes of the music-buying public changed significantly during the tumultuous years of the late 1970s, and by the end of the following decade The Stylistics was treading the boards on the cabaret circuit and no more. For a brief moment in 1975, though, this was a band that tapped into the insecurities of a world that was about to change, for better, for worse, and forever.

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