The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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.

Harlan County1

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.

1969

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.

Carole_King

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

Golden_age

 

Why I Support Record Store Day Australia

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) takes place on April 16th this year and it is the third consecutive year that I’ve agreed to be an official ambassador. I’m very happy to join fellow RSD ambassador’s Ella Hooper and Adam Brand to support this wonderful day of music and fun. The purpose of RSD is to celebrate the culture and diversity of the independently owned record store. The Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA) promotes RSDA and it has the unqualified support of record companies and Australian music icons that know the importance of supporting independent music stores. The day brings together fans, artists and thousands of independent record stores across the whole of Australia.

Chris Brown, who was an employee of independent CD, DVD, games and book retailer Bull Moose, originated Record Store Day in the USA. The concept was loosely based around the idea of the already successful Free Comic Book Day. Inspiration came from a brainstorming session held during a record storeowners’ meeting in Baltimore resulting in Record Store Day being officially founded in 2007. It is now celebrated at stores throughout the world, with hundreds of recording and performing artists participating in the day by making special appearances, performances, meeting and greeting their fans, the holding of art exhibits, and the issuing of special vinyl and CD releases along with other promotional products to mark the occasion. Each store holds their own party for the day, to celebrate the unique individuality of each store, and the place it holds within its community. Although Record Store Day, the actual day, only occurs once a year, AMRA (the organisation) provides promotions, marketing, and other opportunities for stores throughout the year, maintaining a website, social media and other means of promulgating its views about the value of independent record stores.

The key word here is ‘independent’. RSDA is about celebrating this word ‘independence’, as in freedom, liberty and self-governance. I am well aware of the advantages of a globalised world economy; indeed I am an English man who now lives in Melbourne, Australia who also lived and worked in the USA. For the whole of my working life I was involved, directly and indirectly, in producing and selling mass appeal contemporary popular music to a global audience. So it may sound contrary when I pontificate about the virtues of independent retailers. But I believe that it is possible for independent retailers to exist in a globalized economy, adding value and variety to our otherwise over standardized lives. I come from a family of independent retailers, my brother Nick and his wife Annie, are proprietors of the UK’s coolest bicycle shop, East Coast Bicycles, my father owned a number of different retail operations and my grandfather ran a shoe repair business all of his life. Our retail spaces are now almost exclusively the preserve of trans national global corporations who view the entire planet as one large connected market place. This can work in the consumer’s favor e.g. economies of scale resulting in lower prices and standardization of products across the globe; I’m not anti-globalization per-say. The globalized retailers take care of the generic, standardized, bulk of products but with little deviation resulting in limited choice. Take globalized furniture retailer Ikea, as an example, each store throughout the world carries exactly the same lines. The world’s biggest music retailer, iTunes, is a truly global phenomenon even though it only exists virtually.

This is where independent retailers come in, no matter what they are selling be it recorded music, groceries, shoes, clothing, wine or bicycles. The independent retailers are the purveyors of choice and are more often-than-not the local arbiters of style and taste. It’s the independents that seek out the bizarre, unusual, quirky, sexy, individual, niche, local and personal items that we desperately need in our lives. Granted these ‘desire’ or ‘life style statement’ items may cost a little more but they are the artifacts that become family heirlooms, the items that we cherish, the ones we love, the items with a narrative attached to them. I for one think that’s worth the cash premium.

Go into any independent retailer of whatever variety and you will invariably find the owner or his family serving you as opposed to some minimum wage earning, polo shirted/fleece wearing, badged, robo-drone who has no interest in the item that you wish to purchase. With an independent you are getting the attention of an expert/enthusiast, someone who has invested countless hours in researching their stock line, they can point out the almost indistinguishable differences on what appears to be similar products. At my favourite record store I spend many hours of my Saturday afternoons flicking through the racks. More often than not the owner, lets call him Buddy, comes over and strikes up a conversation with me and discusses music, records, artists and gigs. He’s not ‘upselling’ rather he is genuinely interested in my musical taste and me. Try this approach in a giant, on-line, globalised music retail environment it’s not the same. Reading the on-line ‘customer reviews’ below a product on a web site is useful but its not like being there. My local store plays loud music on a great sounding system with the cover of the album that they are playing highlighted on a plinth with “Currently Playing” written on it. OK, this is upselling but its upselling of the kind caring type, the type I like. You can buy wine at the supermarket but isn’t it much better to chat with the independent retailer who can describe the characteristics of that particular wine and what dish it is best served with? It’s the same with recorded music.

RSDA is motived around a single day, 16th April this year. This is the day when we celebrate the independent music retailers. Bands, acts and artists release special limited runs of ‘product’ and often perform in store with a real party atmosphere. There is a misconception that RSDA is solely about vinyl sales, its not. RSDA is format agnostic, buy whatever you like on whatever format you like, but make sure that you buy it from an independent retailer. This is a use it or loose it deal. If people don’t support local independent retailers they will disappear. Indeed with the ‘long tail’ online globalised retailers increasingly colonising our leisure space it’s becoming even harder for independents to keep the lights on. At the most basic level, when you buy local more money stays in the community.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent economic think tank who’s aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet rather than profits, recently compared what happens when people buy produce at a supermarket vs. a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. This research found that twice the money stayed in the community when customers bought locally. “That means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive,” says author and NEF researcher David Boyle. The local producer/retailer also adds creative elements that make either the product or materials used more appropriate to the location. For example in my adopted home city of Melbourne, RSDA will see local stores offering up some superb one off recordings of local bands. Check the lists of releases on the RSDA web site for what’s available in your city.

Another argument for buying locally and independently is that it enhances the ‘velocity’ of money, or circulation speed, in the area. The idea is that if currency circulates more quickly, the money passes through more hands, a greater number of people benefit from the money and what it has purchased for them. “If you’re buying local and not at a chain or branch store, chances are that store is not making a huge profit,” says David Morris, Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic research and development organisation based in the USA capital Washington, D.C. “That means more goes into input costs such as supplies and upkeep, printing, advertising, paying employees, which puts that money right back into the local community.

By shopping at the independent record store, instead of the global online retailer, you can stop your community from becoming a ‘clone town’, where the Main Street now looks like every other Main Street in the world with the same fast-food and retail chains. This is a compelling argument for supporting RSDA and its fun too. Save some cash and get into those independent record stores on 16th April and spend, spend, spend. Not only will it give you a smug good all over glow feeling but you will also come away with some music in a tactile format that will stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s why I support Record Store Day Australia; I’ll see you in-store on 16th April?