The Sound of ‘76

I was 9 years old in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. I wish I could tell you that I was a precocious kid (I kinda was) who was fully aware of what the Bicentennial meant (I was not). Even if I had been an eager student of history (or an eager student, full stop), I might not have understood how important an occasion it was, because I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness; while we respected the laws of our still-young nation, we were emphatically told that we were to place no flags before God. The whole thing was going to blow up, anyway; Jehovah’s Witnesses are forever bracing themselves for Armageddon, which could come any minute now. (Worth noting: Many Witnesses believed that the world was going to end in 1975, because of what the church leadership later ascribed to a misread prophecy.)

As a result of this, I remember only a handful of things about the wave of colorful nationalism that cut through the malaise of the mid-1970s. I remember Bicentennial coins: the quarter with the Revolutionary drummer on the back, the half-dollar stamped with a relief of Independence Hall and the dollar coin emblazoned with the Liberty Bell floating in front of the moon. (Come to think of it, the Liberty Bell was the American signifier I saw the most of in 1976; it was printed on everything from baseball caps to the ballpoint pens given away by banks.) I remember riding Magic Mountain’s new roller coaster, the aptly named Revolution, which was exciting to me because it was the first coaster with a vertical loop.

But above all else, what I remember most about 1976 was the Panda-shaped AM radio my grandparents gave me as a gift, and the music that played on it. Elton John’s 1975 song about Billie Jean King, “Philadelphia Freedom,” comes back to me first, followed by a flood of disco tracks, with their lushly orchestrated strings (Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly,” Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More”); sparkling, ageless pop tracks (Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Sing a Song”); post-glam rock songs that bordered on the cinematically epic (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On”); and novelty hits that could only appeal to a 9-year-old (C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”). It was the year of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby,” of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” of Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster.” And while I don’t remember where I was when I first heard them, I remember each and every one as a piece of that Bicentennial year.

I should remember other things about 1976. The fashions didn’t resonate; to my mind, the entire 1970s are  a blur of tube tops and bell-bottomed jeans. The movies of 1976 were truly great—Taxi Driver, Carrie, Rocky—but I was too young (or forbidden by my faith) to see them first-run. And I don’t associate television shows with specific years, because that’s not how they were made: In 1976, Welcome Back, Kotter was only one year into a five-year run. (Check that: I remember the first episode of Battle of the Network Stars, largely because it featured Lynda Carter in a wet swimsuit.)

But the songs of 1976 have stuck fast with me, through years of terror, upheaval and ruin. Philadelphia Freedom, shine on me. These songs were the last of their kind: Even as they dominated the radio, punk and hip-hop were beginning to take over the streets and clubs. If not for those songs, I wouldn’t remember the Bicentennial at all. Through them, I felt the pride and uplift that the nation was supposed to feel on its birthday. The sounds of ’76 were the spirit of ’76. If I have any patriotism in me now, it’s because I’m strangely proud to live in a nation where something as proudly and goofily American as “Convoy” happened.