From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘The Seventies’ chapter was written by Steve Taylor
Taking another look at the music press in Britain from the turn of the last decade wouldn’t reveal any great surprises; quite the opposite. The ‘New Year Pop Shocks’ were the fact that the Bonzo Dog Band had split after four years together, that singer Steve Ellis had left Love Affair and that King Crimson had lost two members, just a year after the band’s inception.
Hardly the names that fill today’s news, musical or otherwise. The charts showed a similar pop innocuousness: Rolf Harris‘s ‘Two Little Boys’ was the Number 1 single; less depressingly, the Beatles’ Abbey Road was the best-selling album. The papers for the following months were filled with several recurring obsessions: which major American bands and singers were to be visiting Britain in the coming year, which festivals were going to brighten the summer, which defunct groups – Traffic and Cream, for example – were rumoured to be reforming. And the other big space-taker was a sociological concern with the practices and ideals of the latesixties youth culture; drugs, festivals, political change.
Taken as a whole the mood is one of uncertainty, of both looking back to the heroes of the sixties to get it (and themselves) together once more, and cautiously casting a sideways glance at the newer developments in rock. While articles appeared bemoaning the destruction of the creative urge with drugs, and questioning the motives behind the Woodstock gathering, the Melody Maker of 6 June 1970 devoted a two-page spread to the opinions of rock musicians over the forthcoming British Heath v. Wilson election. What it revealed was a mixture of cynical support for Labour and a not too enlightened selfinterest. Eric Clapton wryly suggested that he’d, vote for any government who’d be prepared to develop a self-tuning guitar. What was most clear was a complete lack of the slightest hint of a connection between rock and politics. Still, that is probably an accurate reflection.
How any genuine revolutionary change could have come out of such a self-regarding drug as LSD or from such self-congratulatory events as Woodstock is now very hard to see. There. is little doubt that the sense of communication and togetherness between the members of one generation was powerful. But isolation, even geographical – Haight-Ashbury, Ladbroke Grove – was common and the connections outwards into a wider society were few.
Events in Europe’ in 1968 cast things in a different light; street-fighting man rather than Woodstock man. The two camps came to a muted confrontation in the summer of that year at the Third Isle of Wight Festival. Joni Mitchell hadn’t performed at Woodstock, but she had written a song about it, which she interrupted her lOW opening number to sing, presumably moved by the event. However, the’ song was disrupted twice, first by appeals for help from the VIP enclosure, where a figure in the throes of a bad trip drew everyone’s attention, and then by a man who leapt on stage, took over the micro, phone and delivered a message to the 10,000 Iistening for free on Desolation Hill.
Worse was yet to. come. In September 1970 Jimi Hendrix was found dead in a London flat from inhalation of vomit following barbiturate intoxication. On 4 October Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. Hendrix’s death posed fundamental musical questions: rock had lost one of its most singular and charismatic innovators, for, apart from the image and the sexuality, Hendrix’s electrification ofthe blues guitar was central to an understanding of how, in the right hands, electricity could transform music.
Hendrix himself had played at the Isle of Wight festival and, portentously, hadn’t come over very well. Personal survival began to seem as much’ at stake as a youthful generation’s naive ideals, and the deaths of idols corresponded with broader changes: the telling disruption of the IOW festival by French, Algerian and American revolutionaries, the killing of four students at Kent State University, Ohio, by national guardsmen earlier in the year.
The following year Jim Morrison, lead singer and embracer of excess with the Doors, was found dead of a heart attack in a bath in Paris. 1971 was the year of the Manson killings and the year the US broadcast licensing authorities . warned radio stations that they would be subverting the government’s campaign against drug abuse if they played lyrics which mentioned dope.
The overall meaning was clear; the more grotesque consequences of the indulgences of the late sixties were becoming clear, and in response the ‘liberal’ establishment was closing ranks. But did the freeing of rock from its somewhat spurious social associations leave the music more space in which to develop – as music?
Sadly, the answer must be – No. What it did ensure was that rock became even more a prey to the machinations of the corporate rock business. For a long time the music suffered accordingly.
Musically, the problem facing rock at the end of the sixties can be stated fairly plainly; rock was a reduction and a debasement of the traditional forms which had originally combined in its gestation. By the end of the decade the dominance of ‘progressive’ rock meant the dominance of a 4/4 rhythmic stranglehold, of endless riffing and of the repetitious production of ‘solos’ or ‘improvization’ over the beat. The band often hailed as the ‘best’ band of the era exemplified the approach: Cream, whose music began, according to their guitarist Eric Clapton, as that of a blues trio – like Buddy Guy with a rhythm section’.
Early numbers like ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ and ‘Strange Brew’, with their strong, vaguely disturbing melody lines and controlled admixture of wailing guitar (that vocal-simulating tone taken directly from black electric blues players) soon gave way to the lengthy group ‘improvizations’ of their live sets. recorded on the 1968 double album Wheels 0f Fire. In reality the music was more like the extended patterning of Indian ragas than the genuine improvization of American post-war jazz. Only bassist Jack Bruce was a musician of sufficient imagination and intelligence to sustain the interest of the pieces for long enough. As his later recordings such as the hit single ‘Layla’ have shown, Clapton is much more at home within the confines of a tightly-structured song.
In taking rock’s severely limited rhythms to such indulgent extremes, bands like Cream merely highlighted in the end the need for revitalization from other sources. At the beginning of the seventies the area of music most frequently looked to was jazz, and the most hopeful-looking figure was that of black trumpeter Miles Davis.
Davis had been the perpetrator of a: string of musical innovations, as a junior member of. Charlie Parker‘s band in the late forties, as an apostle of the orchestrations of Gil Evans, as a member of John Coltrane‘s quintet and – on a trio of albums, Miles in the Sky, Hiles de Kilamajaro and especially In a Silent Way – as the originator of a jazz/rock synthesis. It was Davis’s 1971 album Bitches Brew, with its long improvizations, which attracted rock audiences. Although they had the apparent harmonic singleness of a Cream workout, Davis’s numbers utilized fragmented rhythms and a searing range of tones – bass clarinet, electric keyboards, Miles’s own distorted trumpet – to continually hit the listener anew.
But the school of disciples raised in Davis‘s 1968-72 bands failed to build on those initial achievements and, perhaps succumbing to the temptations of radio plays and album sales, figures like Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin have regressed into super-clever jazz/rock excess or – worse still – Top Forty disco/funk (Hancock). Only Zawinul and Shorter’s Weather Report still offers rock any hope in that particular direction.
It’s apparent from the music press at the time that the loss of faith in jazz hit pretty soon, and by 1971 attention was already being turned to European sources for aid. There was then no market for dance music, and the quality of European pop was persistently mundane. Such bands as Burning Red Ivanhoe, Magma and Amon Duul II therefore concentrated instead on composition, technically complex playing, electronics and studio techniques.
The continental musicians’ affiliations with late sixties rock were predictably with those bands who had espoused ‘improvization’ and electronics; Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. There were acknowled twentieth-century classical composers, too: to Satie, Messiaen, Varese, Stravinsky, Stockhausen. Although many of the individual bands have disappeared, the innovatory forces of ‘Eurorock’ have still to be really felt and are likely to figure strongly in the grass-roots rock activity of the eighties .:
Meanwhile, mainstream rock in the seventies looked not outwards towards other cultures for its badly’ needed remedy, but backwards towards its Anglo-American roots in country, blues, rock & roll and the broader sweeps of popular music. Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks and the Band‘s The Band – both 1969 – are remarkable records in that they appeared right at the nadir of sixties ‘progressive’ ramblings, and presented, in an integrated and understated way, a synthesis of the multifarious musical movements they had absorbed. Ry Cooder did much the same thing, in a more documentary form, on his 1971 Into the Purple Valley.
In that same year the Stones produced their own manifesto of refined seventies eclecticism on Sticky Fingers. And so it goes on. The upshot for historical criticism is that the musicological approach becomes not only circular, tautological and downright tedious but a major red herring. As in any other history of a cultural form, tradition is in the mind of the beholder, and to trace the lines which connect Ry Cooder’s work backwards through fifty years of American popular music, and thence forwards through bands as diverse as Little Feat, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen or the Rolling Stones seems as ultimately unhelpful as starting with modern ‘experimental’ composers, going through the music of Brian Eno, Can, Robert Fripp, and Kraftwerke and ending up with the "electronic garage bands’ of the early eighties.
The rampant eclecticism of the decade has only confirmed the gradual tendency towards ‘sophistication’ in the tastes of the record-buying public and mass concert-goers, leaving the ground-floor innovators as always largely unknown. David Bowie stands- out as a singular figure hi this respect; he is one of the few artists who has managed to combine popularity and record sales, including singles, with genuine musical experimentation and progress. .
While unknown musicians with the necessary energy and lack of commitments work away, the broad view of seventies rock still shows a panorama of business values and business problems, debts and profits, contracts made and broken. If that offends the sensibility of anyone with a personal affection for particular records (think of the hundreds of thousands of individual associations with Elton John‘s ‘Your Song’, for example) it’s not meant to; it is intended rather , to draw attention to the overwhelming dominance of business factors in establishing ‘important’ records.
By the seventies; rock appeared to be organized into a large number of small business concerns; take the example of the British ‘independent’ record companies: Island, Charisma, Chrysalis. Yet what was going on in fact was much more disturbing; record companies were buying up not only smaller record companies but the many other subsidiary firms who held the capitalintensive resources of all-the concerns involved in getting rock to the public: instrument sales, studios, distribution, record shops, publishing, concert halls, even, in the case of EMI, film and TV companies.
The recent activities of Virgin Records (a supposedly ‘independent’ new company) illustrate this perfectly: they began as a mail-order record sales firm, moving into retail outlets in major towns and establishing their own studios (the Manor and Town House), record labels, publishing company and a London concert theatre, the Venue. These inter-relationships guarantee success; Virgin can push an artist’s records in their shops, give them studio time as’ Virgin boss Richard Branson did indefinitely for . Mike Oldfield, later putting out the multiselling Tubular Bells on the fledgling Virgin label.
As the generation of album buyers who attended Woodstock or who identified with its ethos got older and more affluent in the seventies, home stereo equipment became more sophisticated, soaring· studio costs became the main inflationary figure in the production costs ofa rock LP, and the sales break-even point rose from around 20,000 copies to nearer 100,000. What the vertical integration of subsidiary concerns into major companies meant was that many of the costs! returned as profit. This has been incorporated into rock contracts, so that the band has to pay back many of the fixed costs – particularly studio time – before the royalty rate brings it direct financial benefit.
The rising costs, too, of getting a band on the road mean that most lose money when they play in public, much of the fee being immediately paid out to promoters, staff, publicity, and particularly to P A and lighting hire companies. There has again been a decrease in self-ownership of P A, lights etc ,- once the norm for bands like Pink Floyd – towards small companies who are actually corporately owned.
What all this adds up to is that only the giant corporations have the necessary capital to ‘float’ new artists; it is now estimated that in the US the pattern is for companies to lose on tours and – albums for up to three years before returns start to come in. The early records of the Band, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Little Feat have followed this pattern of relatively low initial sales followed by good long-term ones. (And, incidentally, they are all now sold by the multi~edia Warner Brothers.)
Increasing costs have also led to the need for vast promotional campaigns, like the overblown hype which surrounded Bruce Springsteen at the time of Born to Run, or the £145-a-week services of independent publicist Tony Brainsby employed to maintain the Clash’s punk credentials after their £Ioo,ooo-plus signing to CBS.
Because of the vast scale of rock’s economics, the British market now occupies an increasingly insignificant part, the main areas being the US and Japan. In the States radio promotion plays a crucial role, particularly the F M bands with their high sound quality. After their initial ‘underground’ phase the F M stations soon became the show-case merely for a different slice of the market: the rock tastes of 18-30 year olds. The tendency of American stations to specialize, made possible by their large numbers, has led to the domination of F M by a particular genre of easy-listening music, which is the result partly of conservatism of taste and partly of a change in function – rock ceasing to be a physically moving force and becoming yet another purchase in a life-style of hip consumerism. In practice it consists of various watered-down rock styles: the country rock of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt or Fleetwood Mac (which is what Rumours boils down to) or the ‘funked-up muzak’ to which Steely Dan referred in their ‘F M’ single.
To sum up, rock in the seventies has freed itself from the dubious ‘social’ associations that it acquired in the late sixties – not because these things are inherently and necessarily separate, but because the links were superficial and the social philosophies deeply flawed. That has left the musical reality a little thin and nowhere near as ‘progressive’ as it was once blown up to be. Rock’s social dimension has been reduced to grotesques and parodies: the Stones‘ chic satanism and the Altamont killing, the same band’s exile to the south of France and ‘society’, the flirting with sexual doubts which ‘glitter-rock’ exploited. Bowie had it taped on Ziggy Stardust; taking on the persona of a member of his imaginary backing band, he foresees the time when the rock star, living ‘on the edge’ on behalf of a generation with few economic or political pressures to focus its psychic energies, acts by proxy to the point of self-destruction. ‘When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band,’ he states baldly.
All is not lost, however. Punk put iconoclastic social forces once more in context – a context of economic depression, mongrel style, conglomerate-dominated industry and the embittered failure of youth rebellion – paving the way for more genuine innovation and mutual respect between styles. In the eighties, rock may once more be a real contender.
Essential Seventies Singles
As the posthumous exploitation of Hendrix began with a Number I single, rock mourned the seventies’ prospective loss.
Ride A White Swan
Seduced by an electric guitar, the stoned elf left the garden and became a glitter king.
Let It Be
Phil Spector notwithstanding, McCartney acquits himself with grace – probably for the last time.
Cross-Atlantic hit story of schoolboy and happy hooker.
The Rolling Stones
Spot-on riff, sassy sax break and a perfect early-seventies rock dance beat.
Another claimant in the glitter stakes, Bryan Ferry, found in an unusually happy rapport with Eno; very danceable results.
Mott the Hoople
All The Young Dudes
With Bowie’s help an archetypal youth anthem, prefiguring the concerns of punk.
School’s Out (1972)
Son of a preacher-man, sometime amateur snake-handler with a classic heavy rock single, succeeds without the cheap sensationalism.
Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)
First eleven singles hit the Top Ten, which shows what an overflowing chest, a ridiculous barnet and silver suits can do.
I Saw The Light
A major figure in American rock revealing his latent talent for insidious melody.
Candle In The Wind
One of the seventies’ best-selling rock performers with a surprisingly sensitive treatment of a much-abused subject.
Classic A 0 R country rock, a wistful tale of domestic subversion aimed right at the American housewife’s heart.
Years after the seminal album of the same name: the only Beatle with musical credibility intact.
A phenomenally successful re-issue by the decade’s single most influential figure.
S O S
One year later they were to be the world’s best-selling group. Perfectly crafted, soulless rock/pop.
The triumph of studio trickery, glitter-posturing, androgyny, neoWagnerian pomp and second division heavy metal; all the angles were covered.
Exemplary laid-back white soul; an expert repackaging job.
Heart Of Glass
Ubiquitous disco reaches the New York new wave. Result: multimillion sales and a picture of Debbie on everyone’s bedroom wall.