1971 - music's greatest year?
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
1971 was the year I was born. It was also the year that Fleetwood Mac released their single ‘Dragonfly’ (b/w ‘The Purple Dancer’) – one of my all-time favourite songs. (Read more on this here.) It's now the title of my new album.
A few years ago, seasoned rock journalist David Hepworth published a book called: “1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year”. I largely agree with his hypothesis that 1971 was “the most creative time in the history of popular music.” I have been harbouring similar thoughts myself for a number of years.
There appears to be a continuing evolution of popular music from 1954 (the year of Elvis's first recordings on the Sun label) to 1971 (by which time The Beatles were no more). 1971, in my view, is the apogee in terms of the art form of the long playing record. (With regards to the 45 RPM single, this seems to have peaked two years earlier in 1969 – take a look at the British charts for any week of that year – the quality of the songs is just phenomenal!)
After about 1971, possibly before, it seems to me that a lot of artists were only able to produce something new by going down either a musical dead end (e.g. the self-important noodlings of a lot of Prog or the bombastic machismo of a lot of Heavy Metal) or by re-styling and re-packaging what had already gone before (i.e. fifties rock ‘n’ roll dressed up as first Glam, then Punk; the latter as a welcome antidote to the extravagances of Prog).
David Bowie, and then later Kraftwerk and many of the Post-Punk artists, seemed to me to create something new/different by deconstructing the art form itself using cleverly crafted personas, mash ups of previous musical styles (for Bowie read The Velvet Underground, Marlene Dietrich and sixties pop) and/or audio gimmicks and electronic sounds which matched the cultural undercurrents (and technological developments) of the time. Essentially, pop music became post-Modern.
This is not to say there wasn’t a ton of great music produced in the seventies, eighties and nineties, there was; just that it was always, to a greater or lesser extent, looking backwards – even when being radical technologically, culturally or politically.
An example to back up the argument that there was no new ground to break in 'Rock' by 1971 involves Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. As a guitarist, Peter was, arguably, the finest exponent of expressive playing of his generation. He was also a gifted songwriter and produced some of the greatest blues-rock tracks ever written: 'Black Magic Woman', 'Oh Well', 'Man of the World', 'Rattlesnake Shake', 'The Green Manalishi', etc. Peter struggled with mental health problems, exacerbated by heavy LSD usage, as is well known, and in 1970 he quit Fleetwood Mac (and to all intents and purposes the music business). However, part of his frustration as an artist – in addition to becoming increasingly interested in religion and feeling unworthy of the money he was earning – was that he wanted to continue to find new ways of expressing himself but found that his creativity was restricted by the limitations of blues-rock. His friend and fellow musician Zoot Money has talked about how Peter felt frustrated that he was unable to take the pentatonic scale any further. His final album, The End of the Game from 1970, evidences not only his tortured emotional state but his, ultimately failed, efforts to elevate himself beyond the limitations of his instrument. In fact, the infamous 'Munich LSD incident' of earlier that year, where Peter was targeted by a mysterious group of young, rich Germans who gave him some really strong acid, and which has been attributed by Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and others as the point from which there was a significant and negative cognitive change in Peter, is remembered quite differently by the man himself. The trip that Peter says he experienced that night allowed him to play more freely than he'd ever done before and he was trying to catch that spark again in the End of the Game sessions. Peter went on to experiment with African rhythms and guitar techniques in his brief solo career, but, unfortunately, his increasing mental health problems, and the treatments he was prescribed, curbed his creativity.
Jimi Hendrix, too, spoke of the limitations of the guitar for his creative expression. He wanted to be able to play the colors he saw in his head, according to his brother Leon, but was never able to fully achieve it.
Therefore, perhaps we can say that innovation after about the year 1971 relied on new musical expressions being created. Music as the expression of emotion would continue but would never be able to reach the heights of the truly innovative ideas that had reached their peak by 1971 because it, necessarily, became repetition.
You could also say that this is all a load of complete bollocks. You probably wouldn't be far wrong. There are a lot of holes in this hypothesis, not least that rock ‘n’ roll itself was a mash-up of country, western, gospel and blues! Musical forms evolved in the period up to 1971 e.g. Motown/Atlantic-Stax soul, reggae and in the period afterwards, e.g. disco, hip-hop. However, another aspect to all this, which David Hepworth emphasises in his book, is the correlation between popular music and anti-establishment currents in youth culture. He proposes that the members of Rock’s elite, who had previously been persecuted by the Establishment, particularly in Britain (since the arrest of Donovan in 1966), sold out to them in 1971. In this respect, the year marked a significant turning point in terms of social history, too.
The counter-cultural element of popular music had ebbed and flowed from its inception in the fifties. In 1955, the radical phenomenon of rock 'n' roll rubbed up against a conservative establishment in Britain and (especially in) America, and was perceived as a dangerous influence on the young. The film 'Blackboard Jungle' inspired riots in UK cinemas as teenagers danced in the aisles and Teddy Boys ripped up cinema seats with flick-knives owing to the inclusion of Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock' in the soundtrack. In the US, anodyne artists like Pat Boone and Bobby Rydell were set up as the antidote to rock 'n' roll's appeal. Presumably, part of the US Establishment's dislike of rock 'n' roll was due to its main origins lying in African American music styles and this influence was feared; the first rock 'n' roll record arguably being Fats Domino's 1949 release, 'The Fat Man'.
Bizarrely, rock 'n' roll had died a natural death by the early sixties, anyway - Elvis had joined the army and was no longer making the exciting records he originally made on the Sun label; Chuck Berry had been imprisoned for underage sex, Jerry Lee Lewis’s career had stalled after marrying his 13 year old cousin, Little Richard had entered theological college and Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran had died in tragic accidents. The rock 'n' rollers had been replaced by the likes of Boone, Rydell, Bobby Darin and Fabian and it took The Beatles to reintroduce rock 'n' roll to America with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.
Thus began the ‘British Invasion’ and by the late sixties the counterculture had firmly established itself on both sides of the Atlantic with Rock as its muse. “They got the guns but we got the numbers,” sang The Doors. It looked like the establishment was on the run. It was the golden era for music as politically conscious art, perhaps eventually perfected by Marvin Gaye with 'What's Going On' in 1971. The British Establishment retaliated by attempting to imprison rock's leading figures including The Stones and The Beatles, relying on the infamous Sgt. Norman Pilcher to plant the necessary 'evidence'. In the US, demonstrations against the war in Vietnam on student campuses were met with extreme violence; the shootings at Kent State University prompting Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to rush release a response with their counterculture anthem, 'Ohio'.
Hepworth cites Mick and Bianca Jagger’s 1971 high society wedding in St. Tropez, attended by most of rock’s major players, as the symbolic moment of selling out – the point where counter-cultural vales were dropped. Three months later, George Harrison's ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ was perhaps Rock's final expression of universal ideals (and even that wasn't enough to reunite the warring Beatles).* The peace and love of Monterey had turned into the violence of Altamont as psychedelics gave way to cocaine and heroin, and there was no going back. The end of hippie idealism necessitated a change in the direction of popular music as musicians sought new musical forms to reflect the changes they saw in society as the optimism of the sixties gave way to the cynicism of the seventies.
Of course, the post-punk era (roughly 1977 - 1981) saw another exceptionally creative period for popular music. New styles were created even when bands were simply reimagining classic songs from the sixties for a new audience, e.g. The Slits’ ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, Devo’s ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and Soft Cell's ubiquitous 'Tainted Love'. However, in my view, there has been no other year that can compete with the riches given to us in the album releases of 1971. Perhaps it was for no other reason than mere coincidence. Regardless, the following list speaks for itself:
Pearl (Janis Joplin) Tapestry (Carole King) Aqualung (Jethro Tull)
The Yes Album (Yes) In the Land of the Grey and Pink (Caravan) L.A. Woman (The Doors) Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones) Ram (Paul and Linda McCartney) What's Going On (Marvin Gaye)
Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (James Taylor) Blue (Joni Mitchell) HMS Donovan (Donovan)
Master of Reality (Black Sabbath) At Fillmore East (The Allman Brothers Band) Fireball (Deep Purple) Shaft (Isaac Hayes) Who's Next (The Who) The Inner Mounting Flame (Mahavishnu Orchestra) Imagine (John Lennon)
Pieces of a Man (Gil Scott-Heron) Electric Warrior (T.Rex) Teaser and the Firecat (Cat Stevens) In Search of Space (Hawkwind) If Only I Could Remember My Name (David Crosby)
American Pie (Don McLean) Meddle (Pink Floyd) Gather Me (Melanie)
Songs for Beginners (Graham Nash) Madman Across the Water (Elton John) Led Zeppelin IV (Led Zeppelin) Nursery Cryme (Genesis)
Roots (Curtis Mayfield)
Tupelo Honey - Van Morrison Gonna Take a Miracle (Laura Nyro) Live-Evil (Miles Davis) Anticipation (Carly Simon)
Santana III (Santana) Dog of Two Head (Status Quo) The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (Traffic) Nilsson Schmilsson (Harry Nilsson) Pictures at an Exhibition (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) Hunky Dory (David Bowie)
Muswell Hillbillies (The Kinks)
Soul Revolution (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
Paul Simon (Paul Simon)
Future Games (Fleetwood Mac)
There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sly and the Family Stone)
Bryter Later (Nick Drake)
The Concert for Bangladesh (George Harrison and Friends)
* Despite George's good intentions, most of the money raised by the concerts and accompanying triple LP didn't make its way to Bangladesh for ten years due to manager Allen Klein's failure to prearrange charity status for the event with the Inland Revenue.