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11 August 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 6:48am

Time travelling with That ’70s Show

Like Happy Days, it was a period comedy – but dumb teenage boredom feels the same in any era.

By Yo Zushi

Someone in the sweaty, black middle of the room hollered, “Turn Me On!” It was the winter of 2014 and the modest concert hall of Cargo in east London was relatively full. “Turn Me On!” repeated the voice, which belonged to a man neck-deep in his late thirties, his Sepultura T-shirt plastered on his wet back like an old billboard poster in the rain. From where I was standing near the back, I could see the 1990s band Quasi onstage behind a sea of bald or balding heads. 

“Turn Me On!” Sepultura Man shouted again. 

“Wha…?” said Sam Coomes, Quasi’s lead singer and keyboardist. “Oh. OK.” Then he started to play “It’s Hard to Turn Me On”, with his bandmate Janet Weiss bashing away on the drums, just as she had done a decade earlier at another venue, over in Camden Town, where her shock-and-awe loudness left my right ear permanently damaged. 

Most of us there were oldish, at least for an indie rock audience. There was no moshing, but then again Quasi weren’t a band that inspired moshing. A lot of Nineties rock was more about swaying in zoned-out malcoordination, something that The Simpsons captured in its 1996 “Homerpalooza” episode with its dead-eyed Smashing Pumpkins fans. So there we were, oldish, swaying in zoned-out malcoordination – but right in front of the stage was a strange apparition. There had been a rift in time.

There’s a spooky story that goes like this: one day, a man was staying at an old stately house in England that had been used decades earlier as barracks for US soldiers fighting in the Second World War. He was woken up in the middle of the night by weird sounds coming from the parlour on the floor below, so he went down to investigate. When he opened the door, he saw young men smoking cigarettes and huddled around the piano, playing an old music hall song and dressed in 1940s army uniform. One of the soldiers looked up at the man and said, “Look! A ghost!” Suddenly they vanished.

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The apparition at Cargo was long-haired and skinny, a waifish dude with a floppy fringe and in slightly flared jeans. He was about 18 years old. He swayed just like a Nineties indie rock fan, his head angled down and lolling in vague time with the music. But he couldn’t have been a genuine Nineties rocker, unless he had once been a supernaturally precocious toddler who eschewed The Lion King soundtrack for the Domino Records catalogue. He was too young. It occurred to me that maybe the 1990s had finally become “retro” and ripe for revival, but then the guy was so convincing a specimen of the era that my mind soon reached the obvious conclusion: Janet Weiss’s very loud drumming had caused Newtonian reality to unravel, and we were witnessing a small pocket of the 1990s through a tear in space-time. Or something. Over there was a Nineties kid who had slipped through to the 2010s.

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The strangest thing about my paranormal experience was that it reminded me how much this variety of Nineties kid was actually a Seventies kid (the clothes, the hair!), and that so much of Nineties music was also deeply rooted in the Me Decade. When I spoke to Quasi’s Sam Coomes earlier this year, he told me that bands such as Black Sabbath had been a “portal” into his own creativity; the cult of Alex Chilton and Big Star, meanwhile, which includes Yo La Tengo, the Jayhawks and every band that ever played pop with jangly power, attests to the same sort of phenomenon, in which the sights and sounds of a previous era shape the sights and sounds of a new one.

This process probably explains why That ’70s Show worked so well as a comedy of the late 1990s, despite its period clothes, its references to Something/Anything?-era Todd Rundgren gigs and its Big Star theme tune. The comedy series, about a group of teenagers doing nothing in particular in a small Wisconsin town in the 1970s, first aired in the US in August 1998. In pre-production it was originally titled “Teenage Wasteland” – and the wasteland it presented looked pretty much unchanged in my own pre-social media, pre-email, pre-smartphone late adolescence, even with the new millennium just around the corner. 

We had CDs, not eight-track, and VHS made us better acquainted with the pop culture of past generations. We had MTV and 16-bit video games. But growing up in the late 20th century was still full of languor, waiting, and time for guilt-free boredom, unbothered by the nagging “fear of missing out” fuelled by today’s connective technology. The show’s characters spend a lot of time in a basement, talking about nothing and smoking weed. I’m sure kids do the same thing in 2017, but I suspect it feels different when there’s a wormhole to the rest of the world in everyone’s pockets.

Watch a show enough times and its characters almost become as real as your friends; its setting as familiar as your own turf. I was raised in north London, a short walk from Camden Town, which was then the epicentre of Cool Britannia. A quick glance at my CD and video collection would have confirmed that I was pretty typical of that time: a stack of Sixties and Seventies records (Dylan, the Band, Neil Young), which were enjoying a revival at a time of renewed interest in guitar music; some Peckinpah Westerns; the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls end of Hollywood; alongside more contemporary stuff like Elliott Smith albums and Kevin Smith films. So much of this was drawn from past decades, however, that when That ’70s Show’s Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) enthused about Led Zep, or Eric Forman (Topher Grace) obsessed about George Lucas, none of it felt alien, and none of it felt like it belonged exclusively to our parents’ generation. And London was a world apart from sleepy Point Place, Wisconsin, where the show is set, but teenage boredom in a big city is essentially the same as teenage boredom in the suburbs, or anywhere.

This sense of relatability was part of the show’s design. Garry Marshall’s series Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was really about kids in the 1970s and 1980s, despite its idealised vision of the 1950s. Likewise, That ’70s Show felt current and never seemed intrusively anachronistic. In an odd bit of casting, Tommy Chong of the Cheech & Chong movies played a drug-frazzled old hippie called Leo. But wasn’t this type of drug-frazzled old hippie still a drug-frazzled young hippie in the 1970s? Watching the programme, I didn’t think it mattered, because I’d forget that what I was watching was all supposed to be happening in the past.

When That ’70s Show did play up its period setting, however, it was often to revel in the cultural insensitivities of previous decades. Like the Anchorman films, it got away with jokes about race – there’s a running gag about the foreign exchange student Fez’s (Wilmer Valderrama) country of origin – and made light of the era’s sexist attitudes. Over the course of the series, Donna (Laura Prepon) morphed happily from Eric’s girl-next-door love interest into “Hot Donna”, a rock DJ known for her hotness. Simpler times. It was done knowingly, so it didn’t come across as offensive. I think.

The final episode of That ’70s Show was broadcast on 18 May 2006, and in some ways it already seemed like a product of an older form of comedy. It had a laugh track – missing from edgier shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm – and was conspicuously uncinematic, largely relying on a handful of stage sets and unfussy, get-the-job-done cinematography. But I find its datedness reassuring, now, with my teenagehood long over and the 21st century bamboozling us all with its crazy complexity in virtually all areas of life. It was a dumb show, but lifelike in its dumbness. When I see it today, it takes me back not to the 1970s but to my own formative years, tearing a hole in space-time like Janet Weiss’s very loud drumming.