the year that rock imploded

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David Hepworth’s book Never a Dull Moment is subtitled “1971 The Year That Rock Exploded,” and let’s start with the dubious premise that in order to make that case stick he has to claim that Don McLean’s strained, torturous “American Pie” is “one of the first great pop records that is about great pop records.” That’s just wacky: to a large extent, pop music has always been self-referential; a lot of the earliest rock & roll records were about rock & roll itself, and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pop history could fill multiple blog posts about “great pop records” that were about “great pop records.” In “Havin’ A Party,” just the first that pops into my head, Sam Cooke implores the DJ he’s addressing to keep playing hits like “Soul Twist” and “I Know.” Hell, you can go back to the big band era and “Juke Box Saturday Night” for an example of a song that quotes from other, prior songs, and let’s not get started on things like “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me of You)” and “Memories of El Monte.” But the book is filled with nonsense like that. Right at the top, Hepworth states definitively that ’71 was “the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era.” Which just isn’t true, even if that last qualifier – “of that era” – means the era from 1970 to 1972.

Hepworth and I are around the same age, and no doubt bought dozens of the same albums in 1971, so I can understand the underlying romanticism about a period of time that coincided with an intense interest in every single thing that was happening in rock. But in order to canonize that particular year above all others, you’d have to buy into the idea that rock got better after the Beatles broke up, when Dylan was floundering around, years after Brian Wilson passed his creative peak, and after Jimi Hendrix died. You’d have to ignore the fact that two of the best bands of that period, the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, released relatively unimpressive albums in ’71. In a recent piece I wrote for a music website, I pronounced emphatically that 1966 was the “best” year, and even if you take issue with that, you couldn’t (or shouldn’t) argue that Revolver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds don’t represent some apex of achievement for those artists, especially compared to what they were up to in ’71. To advocate for ’71, you almost have to contradict the idea of a rock pantheon and disregard the fact that the artists that sit atop it did their best work in other years.

Look at Hepworth’s list of the 100 albums that are, we assume, evidence of why he’s right about everything he says in the prior pages. In nearly every case, the albums were preceded or followed by better ones by the same artist: Tupelo Honey, Madman Across the Water, Pendulum, Santana III, Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses), Surf’s Up, L.A. Woman. Hell, even the album that gives this book its name came after Every Picture Tells a Story, and as much as I love the album that was the sequel, cut-for-cut I think you’d have to go with the earlier one. And the Stones’ Sticky Fingers had superior Stones albums on either side of it: Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St. Are Randy Newman Live, Neil Young’s Harvest and the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies really the albums you want to point to as emblematic of those artists’ indisputable brilliance? All the albums cited are perfectly ok, but with few exceptions (I get why someone might stand on a soapbox and testify on behalf of Blue, Who’s Next and Led Zep’s fourth, although I prefer other albums by all three), not many all-time best lists are going to feature these, not when there are Tumbleweed Connection, American Beauty, Saint Dominick’s Preview, Cosmo’s Factory and Abraxas in close chronological proximity. Is ‘71’s Hunky Dory really more significant than ‘72’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars?

The problem is that Hepworth didn’t just say that 1971 was a fun year to be twenty-one and into rock, and that a bunch of durable albums came out during those twelve months. Because if you strip the book of its thesis of ‘71’s superiority, it’s got a lot of cultural insight and scene-setting anecdotes: the chapters on T-Rex, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart, the Concert for Bangla Desh, and Blue and Tapestry, are very nicely drawn. Unfortunately, the book is also filled with errors: Phil Spector didn’t produce the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Paul McCartney didn’t write Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” Van Dyke Parks’s “lushly orchestrated song suite” wasn’t Discover America, it was Song Cycle (you’d think the title would be a tip-off). And Mitch Miller wasn’t the composer of “How Do You Do It.”

It’s as though Hepworth began with an idea, that this was the year rock “came of age,” and then worked backwards to try and back that up. Rock did “explode” in 1971, in the sense that it was fragmenting into pieces, genres becoming more separated from each other, the idea of an all-embracing audience being dismantled. It was a transitional year, the year Bill Graham closed his Fillmores on both coasts because even the dominant rock promoter was having doubts about the sustainability of the rock community. 1971 was stuck in the middle, between the kaleidoscopic adventure of the ‘60s and the emergence of punk in the second half of the ‘70s. To elevate it to the stature of rock’s best year is more than a stretch. It’s an act of contortion.

One response to “the year that rock imploded

  1. When it comes to assigning pop-music significance to particular years, I vote with your title above, Mitchell, as 1971 was a kind of implosion. I’ve always thought of 1971 as a year of retreat for my generation, as that’s the very season a lot of us moved to the country to escape all the scary urban explosions the previous decade brought on beginning in apocalyptic 1968. The Time cover you’ve reproduced above found the “new rock” to be “bittersweet and low,” but James Taylor gave us a fortunate-son folk music that was actually conservative and almost smug in its retreat from the avant-garde promises of the ’60s.

    I haven’t read David Hepworth’s book, but if he was 21 in 1971, he might have a coming-of-age nostalgia for that year that makes him want to ascribe significant pop-music import to it as well. I certainly feel that way about 1966, a very good year for me on a personal level, but also an unbelievably explosive year for music, as you documented in your earlier posting. Perhaps the significance Hepworth finds in “American Pie” is that it was one of the first pop songs to talk about the Beatles (for sure) and maybe Dylan too, as virtually in the past tense by then. Quite a revelation to deal with when you’re just turning 21. Hepworth’s entitled to his when-rock-ruled memory, but I’ll continue to insist on 1966, my own hey-19 breakthrough.

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