Writing 1971 into rock history

Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the year that rock exploded

By David Hepworth

Henry Holt & Company, 2016

 Readers can always safely assume that books aiming to convey the history of rock era music, like The Sound of the City (Charlie Gillett), Mystery Train (Greil Marcus), Rockin’ in the USA (Rebee Garofalo), and other well-known histories are premised on the idea that rock music is a legitimate art form that should be taken seriously. If this is true, the writer has to address proportionality. How much time do you give to the music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll which became a commercial genre in the mid-1950s roughly around 1955? How much space does one allot to the decades following the genre’s initial burst? Which artists warrant whole sections of deep analysis; what artists are comfortably grouped together to represent a trend? What artists, or subgenres are excluded entirely?

These are thorny questions that came up recently when I was reading David Hepworth’s new book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the year that rock exploded. Mr. Hepworth is a British journalist who argues that “the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year” in rock history was 1971(1).  His evidence lies primarily in albums released by rockers Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, The Who, as well as singer-songwriters like Carole King, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor. He also nods to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On which gets a whole chapter and mentions Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder, though black pop music is fairly marginal in his book. Guitar driven rock played by white male groups is his main focus. Not exactly an original premise.

Source: http://neveradullmoment1971.com/

Source: http://neveradullmoment1971.com/


Rock music is technically about 60 years old. Compared to American genres that pre-existed recording technology, notably gospel, blues, jazz, and various strains of folk and country music, rock is very young. But it is relentlessly historicized and the dominant trend in such histories is to remind us of the glories of the 1955-59 “Golden Age” defined by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and subsequent milestones like the folk rock era, the British Invasion, Motown, soul music, and Acid Rock.

For decades the 1970s was loathed in the critical community as the nadir of rock. Aside from glam and punk, which were more popular with music critics than consumers, and maybe funk, the 1970s has long been viewed by rock’s cognoscenti as a decade defined by banal soft rock, bloated commercial bands, and ephemeral disco.  Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (first published in 1970) ends by literally memorializing the era of “authentic” rock. The narrative: By the early ‘70s something vital and rebellious was now diluted by slickness, mellowness and commercialism and for him King, McLean, Simon, and Taylor exemplify its demise because it was middle of the road nostalgia music that nailed the coffin in rock by being “mature” rather than unhinged. Its last sentence reads: “But now here was pop music and its audience settling down at home with a mortgage to pay, kids put to bed. Goodnight America” (411). Jim Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin (1999) sees the end as a few years later circa 1977 when hype begins to exceed talent which makes stars of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and the soon-to-implode Sex Pistols, and Elvis dies. He uses Presley’s death and posthumous popularity to lament rock’s devolution into “a novel kind of consumer religion” (347). Books like Rockin’ in the USA, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (Robert Palmer) and Rockin’ in Time (David Szatmary) are more hopeful citing punk, new wave, modern rock and hip-hop as modern incarnations of the original rock spirit, but Miller finds much of this as crude, obscene and silly (352).

Rock critics and historians have had to make greater peace with the pop music of the 1970s. They now have more time and perspective to put the decade’s output into context, and to be frank, critics too fixated on rock’s past risk running out of artists to write about. An artist must have a strong public presence for at least 25 years to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thus David Bowie, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Donna Summer co-exist with Berry, Holly, and Presley as well as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Roy Orbison in the Hall. Who from today will make it in is open though I imagine bands that fit certain patterns, like Coldplay, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, and Wilco, are likely candidates.

Critics are still sorting out the 1970s and their aftermath. Typical treatises on the decade address a genre or a group of artists rather than the decade itself. For example, David Browne’s Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 (2012) is a micro-level analysis of the early half of the decade. Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (2008) is not about the ‘70s per se but her discussions of King, Mitchell, and Simon dwell there for a substantial portion of time.  Disco has attracted many scholarly studies including Alice Echols’s Hot Stuff (2010) and Pete Shapiro’s Turn the beat Around (2005). Theo Cateforis’s Are We Not New Wave? (2011) was the first history of the new wave genre chronicling its late 1970s roots and its culmination into a discernible aesthetic and social phenomenon.  Books on Philly Soul, soft rock, jazz fusion and other developments are sure to come. Further, many groups are being reappraised. Karen Carpenter impressed critics with her vocal purity and assured phrasing, but The Carpenters’ middle of the road repertoire and Richard Carpenter’s slick arrangements also frustrated critics. In the 1990s though, they became critically respected and retroactively hip. Neil Diamond was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2011 and no one objected. Only a few obnoxious voices were outraged when the late Summer was inducted into the Hall. The 1970s is no longer such an embarrassment.

Never a Dull Moment can be understood in this literary and historical context. What began as a column in the British magazine Word called “1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album” has been fleshed out into a book aiming for a kind of political economy of 1971. Rather than merely talking about personal favorites Hepworth attempts, with mixed success, to blend autobiography, music criticism, and various insights on social and technological trends, to illustrate how certain figures, recordings, and phenomena have defined the modern age.  Some of the distinctions are dubious such as his overwritten and almost numbing account of how the press’s coverage Mick and Bianca Jagger’s marriage was a forerunner to celebrity news as captured in People magazine and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. This is a legacy of sorts but it undermines rather than deepens his argument about music.

He contrasts the haphazardness of the way Led Zeppelin and The Who recorded their albums with the calculated slickness involved in recording The Eagles’s debut. Their manager, agent and record label head David Geffen apparently asked them to add Jackson Browne’s “Nightingale” at the last minute which is read as a sign of “the way the world was to go” because it was about record labels minimizing the “slightest chance of failure.” (261). Though accusing The Eagles of slickness, or Geffen of commercialism, is hardly original, the idea that in this instance they invented large-scale commercial calculation is absurd. Pop formulas were in place decades before rock existed, and Hepworth veers dangerously into the nostalgic notion of a pre-1971 era of “purity.” This aligns with long held notions that rock is fundamentally about rawness, rebellion, and risk, and that happenstance and haphazardness define it more than repetition and formula.

For example, he makes a very solid argument about the aesthetic appeal of Rod Stewart’s 1971 acclaimed and popular album Every Picture Tells a Story, noting the rawness of its creation. But he never delves into Stewart’s facile attempts to replicate his own winning formula, or the unevenness of his career. Stewart is an example of an artist who peaked in 1971 has endured. He has done has so mostly by latching on to trends like disc, synth pop, soft rock, and in the 2000s covering standards (haggardly) to stay in the public eye. Instead of exploring this fuller story Hepworth describes how Stewart projected “two great British passions that had never really been significant in pop music before: football [soccer] and drinking” (163) and ruminates on his disheveled fashion (164). These are rather bland sidebars that miss a more interesting story about how tough it is to age and survive in rock. 

Hepworth falls prey to equating survival with quality. Yes, many people who weren’t alive in 1971 can hum “American Pie” and “Baba O’ Riley” is a bonafide anthem for people who love anthems. As much as one may love Stewart, Don McLean, Carole King, or The Who it is mutually understood that their finest music occurred in a narrow window of time. It seems like an appraisal to mark 1971 as their artistic zenith, but it also seems sad. Aside from a few stray singles few people rave about King’s post-Tapestry output. ‘60s and ‘70s rock groups have mostly become nostalgia acts who have rarely grown musically since their peak. This seems more characteristic of rock than most genres. Singers as disparate as Celia Cruz, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, and Willie Nelson are good examples of performers outside of straight-ahead rock with lengthy careers who started out as one thing and evolved in multiple directions. This is far less true of most of the musicians Hepworth cites.

Despite these challenges to his assertion about creativity Hepworth has some useful insights that speak to his argument regarding resonance. He astutely tracks the evolving relationships of audiences to performers noting how in the early ‘70s audiences became “a character in the drama” of concerts captured on live albums, as well as how artist security became a staple as audiences intensified their relationships to rock performers. He is spot on in citing the lyrics of “American Pie” as “the first intimation of a generation reluctantly growing up” (272) and employs greatest hits collections as exemplars of the fact that “rock heritage was marketable” (273). Though these kinds of compilations began in the mid-1950s with Johnny Mathis the ‘70s drove home the power of catalog music. These were signs of rock morphing into something serious and enduring. Hepworth is highly critical of The Concert of Bangladesh, which became a popular Grammy winning album, but uses it to argue that it “set the template for what became the rock recital, a presentational approach that was to grow in direct proportion to rock’s sense of self-importance, the audience’s demands that performances sound like the record they heard at home, and the extent to which it was felt that the occasion demanded some sort of grand gesture” (172).

On a smaller scale I appreciated his discussion of more intimate moments. He discusses the element of risk involved in Warner Brothers signing unorthodox acts like Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Bonnie Raitt, and Randy Newman whom he labels as “absurdly talented and utterly intractable” (185), and cites a marketing campaign for Newman to point out how “good taste” as being newly employed as a marketing strategy in pop music (186). He successfully illustrates how Tapestry made female listeners more palpable as a legitimate audience to the male-dominated rock community. My only caveat here is the critical folly that an album with its immense popularity only or primarily appealed or spoke to women, a gender distinction rarely made for albums made by men.  I was also enlightened by his discussion of the appeal of brooding British recluse Nick Drake who died of an overdose in 1974 and is now viewed as “a latter-day James Dean revered as much for what he seems to represent as for what he did” (48). His evidence is the adaptation of songs from Nick Drake’s three commercially obscure albums, especially 1971’s Bryter Layter, by singers across genre and generation.  I wish Hepworth was a more nuanced writer and thinker who avoided overstatements like claiming Bryter “has been more warmly adopted by subsequent generations” than any album of 1971. Based on sheer numbers the number of adaptations of songs from Tapestry or What’s Going On exceed the album’s latter day impact.

Part of the problem regarding Hepworth’s take on Drake’s legacy and the book in general is Hepworth’s “rock-ist” tendencies. True Lucinda Williams and Flaming Lips have covered his songs, but they are niche artists within rock. They speak to niches he likes but he continually slights genres outside of a narrow group of white rock and folk-rock he enjoys. In 2004 Kelefah Sanneh’s New York Times commentary “The Rap against Rockism” (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/31/arts/music/the-rap-against-rockism.html?_r=0) introduced this term which encapsulates the constant reiteration that rock bonafides are the universal standard of reference for virtually all music made post-1955.  Sanneh was spurred by the public reaction to Ashlee Simpson’s lip syncing mishap on Saturday Night Live and the tensions between authentic rock and plastic pop it reignited. Sanneh defines a rockist as “someone who reduces rock 'n' roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”

Hepworth has a more egalitarian view in that he acknowledges R&B and singer-songwriter pop. He also includes female performers to some extent and recognizes that gay people exist in pop music, but the book is as much about the imagined loss of a purer moment, primarily defined by rock and rollers like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, as it is a celebration of great music. His concept of greatness feels static as it is tied to the ongoing valorization of an established rock canon, one that is by definition relatively small given the rock oriented music made between 1955-71. This is a stagnant conversation for two reasons.

First, the world Hepworth discusses is mostly confined to British rock which has been invoked continually. And this reasoning persists ad infinitum. The new fashion in the rock critic world, whose influence and power have diminished with the diversification of writing venues, is to lionize post-1960s performers who fit the rock archetype including Springsteen, U2, R.E.M, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. Acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, Linkin Park are legends-in-waiting for induction into the modern rock hero class. This contemporary rock taste formation also informs the near desperate attempt by middle-aged (and older) rock critics to reposition hip-hop at the center of cutting edge pop by praising it incessantly as a revolutionary social force for fear of missing the next big thing, and latent anxiety about the overwhelming whiteness of the rock canon.

Sanneh urged readers to, “let's stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison's ‘Into the Music’ was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang's ‘Rapper's Delight’; which do you hear more often?” The notion of “serious rock songs” is tied to the idea that if you repeat something continually it morphs into incontestable truth. In the case of rock music the presumption underlying books like Never a Dull Moment is that rock is as entitled to a canon as any other musical form and is fundamentally a locus of larger things. The book aims for significance by noting big events from 1971, like the publishing of Charles’s Reich’s The Greening of America, but this is done mostly taxonomically and feels like an attempt to validate personal taste with bits of commentary, making it a forced read.

Second, as we know many in the classical and jazz spheres view pop music as limited aesthetically and view the notion of rock as part of a canon a desperate and futile gesture toward posterity. Some of this is about impudent snobbery and latent classism. But the objection points to the hazard of isolating rock as a unique historic force while simultaneously trying to force it into a straitjacket the way some neo-classical jazz artists have attempted to do with jazz.

Part of rock’s joy is its energy and even its ephemerality. Instead of trying to erect canons based on endurance what happens when we acknowledge the actual nature of the form itself? Most rock acts are vernacular artists rather than virtuosos, and have a small window of commercial success and aesthetic exploration. Once they land on a style they tend to repeat it unless and until their audiences lose interest. From there they either lose their audience, or become a nostalgia act, as Hepworth points out in his discussion of Elvis circa 1971. There are exceptions to this but not as many as you would think. 60 years in nostalgia, formula, familiarity and comfort can actually be understood as an essence of rock not the exception.  Before attempting the canonical endeavor critics and historians must make peace with these truths.

One of the figures referenced by Hepworth, but only briefly, is Linda Ronstadt who released an album of the same name in 1971. Alas, she’s grown a lot since it debuted 45 years ago. Growing up in Arizona she heard a lot of pop, country and folk songs on the radio, and as the child of a half-Mexican father she and her brothers grew up singing Mexican folk music. She began her solo career singing a blend of folk, country, and rock songs. She expended her repertoire here and there but from 1974-82, after 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel made her a star she made mostly popular albums with an enjoyable but fairly interchangeable aesthetic approach.

Suddenly, in 1983, after performing in the Public Theatre’s production of Pirates of Penzance, which required some additional vocal training, she recorded three albums of pre-rock standards with Nelson Riddle. She followed these with a left-field passion project, an album of rancheros (1987’s Canciones de mi Padre). The set hit and she followed it with 1992’s Mas Canciones. A few years later she also explored Latin pop with Caribbean roots (1992’s Frenesi), and even made an album comprised of music written for the glass armonica 2002’s Cristal: Glass music Through the Ages. Her final recordings find her singing Cajun material on Evangeline: Made A Tribute to Cajun Music (2002) and Adieu False Heart with Ann Savoy (2006).  Though she made a regrettably bizarre “new wave”-ish rock (1980’s Mad Love) album she mostly eschewed commercial trends of the 1970s-2000s and followed her interests. Though some might dismiss her as a mere “pop” artist because she is not primarily a writer or instrumentalist, her talent is clear, her growth as an artist is demonstrable, and she does not have an embarrassing discography littered with distracting excursions evident among most of the artists Hepworth mentions.  A similar case could be made for artists like Elvis Costello, Etta James, k. d. lang, or Charlie Rich who have also pushed the form.  Their story is not as coherent as the story Never a Dull Moment attempts but speaks more to rock’s potential than fixating on rock’s past.