David Hepworth’s new book Never A Dull Moment claims that 1971 was the greatest year for popular music as it saw the release of more “monumental” albums than any year before or since. It’s an interesting claim and one that I will contest here. I also think it’s a really odd book title considering it’s the same as Rod Stewart’s superb 1972 album; why not give the book a namesake title from a “monumental” 1971 album? Granted 1971 saw an unprecedented number of album releases, but does that single metric make it the greatest album release year? Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love a good argument and so here it goes. Dave Hepworth is a fantastic music journalist but he got it completely wrong. His book should have been about the era from 1969 to 1981; the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
Taste is a very slippery concept as Immanuel Kant proposed in his 1790 Critique Of Judgement. Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. It could be claimed that Hepworth’s book is an attempt to canvass some form of universal acceptance; or he might just be trying to sell more books. The viewing of an art form is anything but a passive activity. Art should rouse us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which it was created. Good art results in a discourse and the better the art the more tumultuous that discourse should be.
Only last year (2015) I published my own book, Album Rescue Series, in which I tried to show some love to mistreated, misunderstood and underrated albums. On page 129 of this book, I rescue Jim Ford’s excellent 1969 Southern funky rumpus album Harlan County. During this album rescue, I argue that this album was largely overlooked because of the year of its release: 1969. Harlan County was probably the strangest but most compelling release of 1969, but what a year for popular music. 1969 was the launching pad for an era of unparalleled creativity in popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Hepworth’s identification of 1971 should not be viewed as an isolated year but as part of the twelve-year continuum of popular music’s most prolific era, which ran from 1969 to its sad demise in 1981.
During the 12 months of 1969 we see releases from Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Beatles (Abbey Road), Tim Buckley (Blue Afternoon), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), King Crimson (In The Court of King Crimson), The Who (Tommy), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Sly and the Family Stone (Stand), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Band (The Band), The Stooges (The Stooges) and a host of other amazing albums. How on earth could Jim Ford, an unheard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with his unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? If you’ve never heard Harlan County then go out and buy this album and give it a spin; if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. I was seven years old for the majority of 1969, and didn’t turn eight until mid December, but all of these albums I distinctly remember. What I do remember is zeitgeist of 1969, the break up of The Beatles, the violent end of the peace and love generation presided over by Rolling Stones at Altamount and the white heat of new technology manifested by Neil Armstong standing on the moon. No wonder 1969 was such an epistemic year for popular music.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Hepworth when he cites some exquisite, delightful and ground-breaking albums of 1971. You cannot dispute Carole King (Tapestry), Badfinger (Straight Up), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story), Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition), Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), John Lennon (Imagine), Paul McCartney (Ram) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass); all of which I play on a regular basis. Back in 1971 record sales were growing too fast for the record companies to exert any kind of meaningful creative control. They threw an awful lot of shit at the wall and hoped some of it would stick; not the type of approach prescribed in the business manuals that would follow in the 1980s. Amongst all this shit though were the shining diamonds of perfection as listed above. Back in 1971 the record business was in an unprecedented boom period, profits were good and re-investment in product development (A&R) at an all time high.
For the next decade the music would be good until it died at the end of 1981. Even as a musically precious nine/ten year old I remember 1971 very distinctly mainly because of the music which I was already showing signs of being obsessed with. During this era it was de-rigour for acts to be signed to two albums a year recording contracts, which meant they were all extra productive at their most creative age. Everybody played live all the time. Neil Young wrote and recorded Harvest while on the road during 1971 in locations as far apart as Barking, East London and Nashville. The classic T. Rex singles were recorded at stops on their 1971 American tour. Pink Floyd spent weekdays recording Meddle and weekends playing colleges. Nobody took months off. Nobody dared. During this era, popular music was getting serious and corporate. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, was their first album under the distinctive tongue ‘corporate’ logo and released on their own ‘independent’ label. I would argue (I like arguing) that this Stones album was almost as notable for its cover as its content. 1971 was the year Brown Sugar, the last truly great Rolling Stones single (but that’s another article for another day), went to number one.
While discussing this article at work last week with my boss (Gareth) he made the point, and a good point it is too, that 1981 was probably the last truly great year for popular music. In terms of this article/blog I am prepared to state that 1981 is the end of rock ‘n’ rolls’ most creative and productive era. 1981 is an interesting time as Modernism is all but dead and post modernism has well and truly taken hold. Consider the albums that were released during 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), Motorhead (No Sleep Till Hammersmith), U2 (October), Human League (Dare), Miles Davis (Directions), New Order (Movement), The Cure (Faith), Simple Minds (Fascination/Sister Feeling Call), The Psychedelic Furs (Talk Talk Talk) and The Police (Ghost In The Machine). In many ways these albums signal then end of rock ’n’ rolls creative and profitable golden years and signal the start of a new era; a new way of conducting business.
Behind the scenes the creative, maverick, iconoclastic and entrepreneurial music managers were been driven out by the faceless beige suited office drones, obsessed by spread sheets and quadrant charts. By 1981, Thatcherism was starting to make its presence felt in the UK; the good times for a whole host of traditional industries was well and truly over. In the same year, Ronald Regan came to power in the USA. Between Regan and Thatcher, the traditional Anglo American power base of popular music was well and truly under attack from monetarism. How can any creative endeavour survive when it’s exposed to monetarism’s money growth rule? 1981 was the end of making lots of great records and the start of making a small number of profitable records. In a head on fight between creativity and commerciality, the one with the muscles is always going to win.
I hate to end this piece with such a downbeat message so here is some good news. Head down to your independent local record store as every album listed above will be for sale. Have a listen to these albums and test my argument. Record Store Day happens on Saturday 16th April this year, so why not head out on this special day and treat yourself to a classic piece of music. Not only will your purchase make you smile for many years to come but you will also have supported a local independent business and that’s a good thing. In the words of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 hit The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll
The golden age of rock ‘n’ roll will never die
As long as children feel the need to laugh and cry
Dont wanna smash, want a smash sensation
Dont wanna wreck, just recreation
Dont wanna fight, but if you turn us down
Were gonna turn you around, gonna mess with the sound
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its good for body, its good for your soul
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll