A turning point for rock and roll? Why 1971 was pivotal

1971: Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth reveals the year when the singer-songwriter overtook the band - and record shops learnt to market cool.

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“At least they can play their instruments.” Trevor Bolder, bassist in David Bowie’s backing band in late 1970, allegedly spoke these words on watching the wigged and made-up ensemble accompanying Alice Cooper at the Rainbow Theatre in London. David Hepworth claims that this comment from a man who, six months later, began propping up the effete antics of Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust was “the authentic voice of 1971”. He might have added this line from Carly Simon’s song “Anticipation”, released that year: “These are the good old days.”

The temptation with any cultural project focused on a particular year – and there have been several, including Jon Savage’s 1966 and Mark Kurlansky’s 1968 – is to treat the nutshelled twelvemonth as a narrative microcosm. From a music-subcultural perspective, there are strong cases to be made for those years, just as there are for the psychedelic year of 1967. Hepworth, who was buying his first records in north London in 1971 and went on to co-host Whistle Test for the BBC and set up Q and The Word magazines, has written countless columns singing the praises of that particularly fecund period. In 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which shares its subtitle with the name of a near-contemporaneous Rod Stewart album, he knits it all together in a month-by-month chronology that is laced with a wisdom gathered over many years as a journalist and industry insider, and with an enthusiasm for the music and an understanding of the economics driving the evolution of popular culture.

In both these respects, 1971 was unquestionably a transitional year. As Hepworth slices it, it began with the development of glam (Slade) and prog (Yes), then signed off with the birth of heritage rock (the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up, Dylan and the Band). Agendas, in a lackadaisical recording industry made sluggish by hippie values, were there to be seized by hungrier wolves. “This was the time,” Hepworth observes, “when you could turn on the radio and find somebody playing all 20 minutes of Canned Heat’s ‘Parthenogenesis’ and then welcoming you back to the studio with the silence that indicated approval and eventually the word ‘nice’.”

In the US, FM radio changed all that: its playlists could be manipulated by pluggers whose musical noses were sniffing around for the next sonic craze – an early version of the “big data”-guzzling of today’s streaming services. Shops such as Tower Records, which had opened its first store in Sacramento a decade earlier, marketed hipdom by disguising aggressive sales techniques as gentle persuasion.

This is social history through the prism of popular music and the rest of the world features only occasionally, in glancing references to film, current affairs and consumer trends. Hepworth reminds us what didn’t exist in 1971, delineating a strange world in which time-saving and communications technologies were rudimentary, there was nothing on TV for baby boomers, international travel was affordable only for the rich and there was a near absence of celebrity culture as we now understand it. Women were battling to win freedoms in the workplace and as artists; Bree, Jane Fonda’s newly shorn character in Klute, was less of a female role model than Joni Mitchell or Carole King.

Hepworth’s section on King’s album Tapestry is a powerful piece of sociology and period evocation, from the last-minute decision to shove King’s cat into the iconic cover photo to his detailing of the album’s sense of “modest conviction”, with a sound world in which: “The backing instruments were knocked back accordingly so that the finished impression had something of the integrity of a pencil outline . . . It was a record that asked you to lean closer.”

With the Beatles in acrimonious free fall and the Rolling Stones at their tax-exiled, shambolically aristocratic zenith, 1971 was the year when “bands” were superseded by singer-songwriters – James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, Sandy Denny – peddling a new, confessional intimacy with albums that “made you feel like a friend was taking care of you”.

But this year, in which the term “superstar” was gaining currency (and the UK decimalised sterling), was also one of godlike groups and megabucks. Hepworth is at his most reverential on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, whose text-free sleeve, runic mystery and maximalist production values boasted a swaggering confidence. Still, their “primal throb” could be received by a sit-down audience at the BBC’s Paris Theatre in London with restrained applause, “as if they were tackling Beethoven’s late quartets”. The post-Beatlemania generation had still not quite learned the adulatory behaviour that we associate with rock ritual. It would take the canny likes of Marc Bolan, Roxy Music and Bowie – much of whose LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the ­Spiders from Mars, this book reminds us, was in the can before the close of the year – to uncork the tearful lust of teenage crowds.

In recent years, there has been a glut of exhaustive and revelatory music biographies and memoirs (by Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon, Grace Jones, Pete Townshend and Neil Young, among others) in which history is narrowed to a journey along the single track of a life. The advantage of a book hung on a year is that it restores those narratives back into the complex weft of a wider fabric. The account of John Lennon awkwardly being interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show while the Baker Street bank robbery was in progress and Sly Stone was trying to fly from LA to New York for a Madison Square Garden appearance is one of Hepworth’s several dextrous feats of plate-spinning.

The book is mercifully free of the joshing bonhomie that pervades the pages of Q and Hepworth keeps the tone informatively neutral, latching on to instances of significant foreshadowing – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On as precursors to hip-hop; the mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk and Can seeding 1990s dance music; “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers as a blueprint for punk – with only a single lapse into regret. It comes in a rumination on the creative conditions that produced Led Zeppelin’s “Four Symbols” LP: “Since all records came to be made and mixed digitally a certain snap-to-grid slickness has arrived at the expense of something with which Led Zeppelin IV abounds: a sense of air.” This was a period of “panic and opportunity”, when the industry was still sleepily waking up to the idea of maximising income from the afterglow of an album’s initial blaze of publicity.

This account confines itself to Britain and the US and foregrounds a white, male rock canon, like a rolling Mojo news ticker. Passages on Gaye, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder are handled deftly but there is nothing on Funkadelic, jazz, or reggae, and little about British folk-rock – though you are left in no doubt about the living hell of the era’s outdoor festivals. Apart from a few short, factually incorrect paragraphs on two German groups, mainland Europe barely gets a look-in and when it comes to domestic terrorism, the Baader-Meinhof Gang is upstaged by Britain’s Angry Brigade. A little more seasoning from the rest of the world – 1971 was a great year for Serge Gainsbourg and Fela Kuti, for instance – would have made for a more flavourful picture.

Aside from an epilogue that might have worked better up front, Hepworth leaves the reader to draw conclusions and seek the patterns that defined 1971. Yet this book is a highly readable reassessment and a convincing argument for the importance of a year in
which the culture of rock began to be aware that it was living out its good old days.

Rob Young is the author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music  (Faber & Faber)

1971: Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth is published by Bantam Press (384pp, £20)

This article appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster