As I write this, with Brexit chaos continuing all around – the country divided, the future uncertain, politics seemingly broken – the only thing we can be sure will happen on 29 March is the release of an Ace Records compilation entitled Three Day Week : When The Lights Went Out 1972-1975. Put together by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, it cheekily celebrates that previous time of doom and discord, “strikes, inflation, and food and oil shortages”, gathering together mostly forgotten tracks which reflected the mood of that moment, and perhaps this one.
There’s a home-made element to many of the recordings, and in the brilliant liner notes, Stanley observes that, “Comparing it to the richness of records made just five or six years earlier, you might think musical instruments had been rationed, and that everyone has one eye on the clock… You picture engineers in donkey jackets, with a brazier by the mixing desk.” In a concise history lesson he gives us the period in a nutshell, culminating in the actual three-day week, which lasted from January to March 1974, and quotes James Callaghan, who said that, “I think that if I were a young man I would emigrate.”
Parallels with the present are pulled into sharp focus by the choice of release date. As we read about empty shelves and stockpiling, it’s not hard for anyone my age to recall those years although, being children then, we enjoyed the power cuts and the boxes of Price’s candles under the stairs, and the days off school. It can’t have been as much fun being our parents. We can romanticise, but we don’t really want to have to go back there. Do we?
Listening to the songs on Three Day Week, I’m whirled back in time. The tracks chosen were mostly released as singles, in cheap white paper bags and pressed on thin vinyl, “thanks to the oil shortage caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict”. They’re not directly political but summon up “the pub humour and shrugging cynicism of the era… The government’s on its knees and we might all be out of work tomorrow. Quick, somebody get on the piano before the lights go out again.”
On the front cover is a gorgeous photo of a young couple lying on a bed. She’s black and he’s white, and she is smiling widely as he is literally getting his (clothed) leg over – but it’s a bit misleading. Because while a woman features on the sleeve, there are none at all on the record. Not one, out of 28 tracks. Which is, in itself, very 1970s.
I’m going to give Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs the benefit of the doubt and assume that they searched high and low in an effort to find some diversity, only to come to the conclusion that there wasn’t any. The absence makes a telling point, and reminds me how utterly blokey the early 1970s were.
There was glam rock, and for a while the blokes wore make-up and satin, but it was their world and they ruled it. As girls, we were on the sidelines of music, present only as fans, as cheerleaders. Men owned and defined the rock scene, and there were unspoken assumptions about what constituted “serious music” – what it sounded like, what it looked like, what it SMELLED like. Sweat and beer and fags. Denim and motorbikes. Old Spice and football pools.
I think of myself in the years represented by this album, when I was aged 10-13. The best track here is the one I loved at the time, David Essex’s “Stardust”, which came out in 1974, along with the film of the same name. Essex as Jim MacLaine was beautiful, and the story was a decadent rock romance, full of casual sex and dangerous drugs. It made me cry. It made me fall in love with the idea of falling in love with a rock star. Two years later, from punk onwards, things would start to change. Inspired by others, I’d stop being so passive, and demand the right to join in with this music lark, which looked brilliant fun.
So if nothing else, this record is a great reminder of what the past was really like – not airbrushed, not romanticised. Gritty and grimy and real, but sounding a bit like an entirely different country. Buy it on 29 March. Whatever happens.
Tracey Thorn will be discussing her new book “Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia” with Kate Mossman, NS features editor, at Cambridge Literary Festival on Friday 5 April
This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency