Did the 70s Dethrone the 60s as the Golden Age for Rock Music?

 


What was the single greatest year in rock history? 

As with most critical thought experiments, this is a question with no right answer, but one that’s fun and useful to argue about anyway. The way we respond to it probably says more about music’s present than its past. Do we revisit the primordial ooze of 1951, when Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm recorded “Rocket 88,” a top contender for first rock and roll song? What about 1956 or 1964, when Elvis’ and then the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan performances heralded successive tidal waves of youth culture? Or 1969, when that culture coalesced at Woodstock, a generation-defining event of the boomers’ own making?

In his recent book Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year That Rock Exploded, British music critic David Hepworth argues for a slightly later point on the timeline. In his mind, 1971 “saw the release of more influential albums than any year before or since.” (Hepworth happened to be 21 at the time, which either kills his credibility or renders it unimpeachable.) Led Zeppelin’s IVJoni Mitchell’s BlueMarvin Gaye’s What’s Going OnDavid Bowie’s Hunky DoryCarole King’s TapestrySly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ OnLeonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality are only the beginning of that list. It was also an unprecedented year for acts who would wield cultish influence for decades to come; Canreleased Tago MagoBig Star formed, the Modern Lovers committed “Roadrunner” to tape.

But 1971 also began with the legal dissolution of the Beatles, a moment Hepworth identifies as the end of the pop era and the beginning of the rock era. 

What’s remarkable here isn’t the boldness of declaring a post-Beatles year the apotheosis of a genre they’re credited with perfecting so much as the fact that the opinion no longer reads as contrarian or even particularly controversial. Hepworth sets out to “shatter the cliché that the early ’70s were a mere lull before the punk rock storm,” but does that cliché still exist to be shattered? 

Without us quite noticing, the ’70s—funk and glam’s early years included—have carved out as exalted a place in the pop-music canon as the ’60s. In many ways, their masterpieces speak more powerfully to the present than the highlights of any other decade in the 20th century.

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