The Music of 1971
In David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 – the Year that Rock Exploded, the author makes a case for why the year is “the most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era,” and it’s a pretty darn convincing case. Sure, we all think that the music of our pivotal years is the best. I get a kick out of reading comments on Youtube for music that was released just fifteen years ago (“This song reminds me so much of my childhood!”) and there remains a special place in my heart for the years 1978 through about 1983 (don’t make me pin down an exact year), but Hepworth claims “there’s an important difference in the case of me and 1971. The difference is this. I’m right.”
Certainly no one can deny the incredible output of 1971. Carol King: Tapestry, Yes: The Yes Album and Fragile, The Who: Who’s Next, The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers, Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story, David Bowie: Hunky Dory, Joni Mitchell: Blue, Bill Withers: Just As I Am, Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey, Pink Floyd: Meddle, Nick Drake: Bryter Layter, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On, Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, John Lennon: Imagine, Genesis: Nursery Cryme, Elton John: Madman Across the Water, Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson, Don McLean: American Pie, The Doors: L.A. Woman, Badfinger: Sraight Up, James Taylor: Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, and on and on.
Pretty impressive stuff. Hell, I just went through the list, and even though I was only three years-old during the release of most of these records, I actually own seventeen albums from 1971, not to mention a few compilations with songs released from that year. I doubt I own that many albums from any other single year since. (Though I'd have to check. Hmmm...sounds like a fun challenge).
And this is part of the author’s case: that the releases of 1971 “have proved to have lasting appeal,” as many of the artist are still around, playing bigger venues today than they did nearly fifty years ago, and many of the songs still resonate with young listeners. The output of 1971 may not include your favorite albums of all-time, but you can’t argue against their lasting influence. My three kids and I played a mini concert in my back yard last summer, with each of us choosing one song to play. My son surprisingly picked Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” while I chose Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” Sure enough. Both 1971. My daughters and I saw The Who (or half of them, anyhow) last year, the concert culminating in the rousing 1971 anthem of "Baba O'Riley," and my son the drummer has familiarized himself with Bonham’s work on “Rock and Roll” and “When the Levee Breaks.” For many artists, 1971 epitomizes their peak. (The author writes, “If all we knew of David Bowie was what he did in 1971, it would be more than enough.”)
I assumed Never a Dull Moment would be little more than a month by month listing of each released album along with a few pages about the recording and popular reaction, but it’s much more in-depth than that, delving into topics such as radio marketing, record stores, record labels and management, and Hepworth even does a nice job of anchoring his prose in the world events that were happening at the time.
And the prose is excellent. Fresh off the heels of reading music producer Glynn John’s book, Sound Man, I was pleased to return to legitimately good writing. (John’s can produce, but the guy most certainly cannot write). As an example, here’s a sentence about how in a year when a Beatles greatest hits album didn’t even exist, bands began to learn about the lure of nostalgia, most notably The Beach Boys with their album Surf’s Up, which would mark the beginning of celebrating the style that first propelled the band into stardom in the mid-60s, and which wouldn’t stop for the next forty years. “But as one unmemorable album follows another from premature acclaim to the bargain bin of history, each auspicious beginning is followed by the familiar flatness, each round of press interviews and TV appearances gives way to faint embarrassment as the new songs are dropped from the set list never to return, we in the audience increasingly identify with the line that makes a popular T-shirt slogan at festivals – ‘Play some old.’”
Nice! I don't agree with the sentiment, as I've always favored bands who've continued to create music worth listening to (Rush, Jackson Browne, Joe Jackson, James Taylor, etc.), but it's hard to argue against the massive nostalgic success of Elton John, The Rolling Stones and The Who, as they continue to tour year after year in front of more and more fans playing the same old songs. Hepworth writes: "At the time, 1971 didn't feel like a particularly exceptional year. The habit of looking back, which is now so much a part of the music media game, and of which this book is a part, hadn't been invented." But the seeds of nostalgia were sown. On the last day of 1971, Bob Dylan joined The Band on stage and announced his last song, a composition he hadn't performed in years. Hepworth writes: "Then, as he would do for the rest of his life, he launched into 'Like a Rolling Stone.' Heritage rock was born."