Every generation has an affinity for the decade in which it came of age. For rock and roll fans, however, it's hard to argue that any decade surpassed that of the 1970s. Post-Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and the Beatles and pre-MTV, the dawn of the '70s marked the end of the counterculture for rock fans and the beginning of a wild and crazy decade in music, one that many believe to be the true era of innovation in rock.
Although rock and roll originated in the 1950s, it took shape in the '70s and came to dominate the musical landscape. Many of those working in more traditional genres even hopped on the rock bandwagon. By the start of the decade, if music didn't rock, at least to some degree, it was considered outdated. Rock of that era blurred the musical, social, racial, and geographical boundaries that it inherited from earlier generations. Musicianswho wrote their own material, played their own instruments, and sang without the safety net of a pre-recorded backing track, unlike many of today's artists and entertainersaspired to art status, but on rock's terms.
The following then are some of what helped to galvanize the '70s as what any music vet from that time would proudly call rock and roll's finest hour. Riffage
Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," one of the most enduring of all rock riffs, was written in the early '70s. The decade was rife with great guitar riffssongs like "Walk this Way," "Iron Man," "Highway to Hell," "Don't Fear the Reaper," "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Layla," to name but a few, as well as just about every song that Zeppelin ever put out. It's hardly surprising that, to this day, aspiring guitar players still mine the '70s for riffs that are not only memorable, but relatively easy to cover. One-Hit Wonders
The '70s were the era of the glorious one-hit wonder. Songs like Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky,"
Blues Image's "Ride Captain Ride," "The Rapper"
by The Jaggerz, Shocking Blue's "Venus,"
Mountain's "Mississippi Queen,"
Free's "All Right Now,"
and "Bang a Gong"
by T. Rex were just some of the extraordinary songs that were huge hits back in the '70s. Although these bands were poised to make it big, instead of becoming superstars, they are remembered instead for a single song.Stadium Rock
The origins of stadium rock can be traced back to when the Beatles played several dates in New York City's Shea Stadium in 1965, a venue large enough to accommodate the thousands of screaming Beatles fans who wanted to see the band live. Other big venue shows and music festivals also sprung up in the late '60s, including the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.
By the early 1970s, many popular rock bands had largely outgrown standard concert halls and rock-oriented nightclubs. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Rush, Kiss, Journey, ZZ Top, Peter Frampton and others needed to find venues large enough to hold many thousands of fans as well as more elaborate stage, sound and lighting equipment. The solution was to book these larger-than-life bands into sports stadiums and other arenas.
Best of all, concert tickets were dirt cheap forty years ago. Many could be had for under $10 on bills that most times included two and three headline-caliber bands. This allowed fans to take in an enormous amount of live music. It was commonplace to have artists like the Stones, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Three Dog Night, Chicago, Jethro Tull, Bowie, The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Mott the Hoople, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Heart and many other big name acts roll through town on a fairly regular basis, and you could afford to catch them all. It wasn't at all uncommon to take in 8-10 bands in some weeks. Chew on that a moment. Can you even imagine? Album Output and Cover Art
Bands were more prolific back in the '70s, releasing new material at a rate that far surpasses the more sluggish pace of most of today's artists. (Cudos must be given here to Green Day for releasing three full-length records in the span of three months last fall.) It was not unheard of for a band to put out an album a year, and sometimes multiple LPs. Groups would often write material while out on the road promoting an album, come off tour just long enough to cut a new record, and then turn around and head back out again. There wasn't all this excess time spent waiting for new music from your favorite band. It was in the pipeline and on its way to you before you had the chance to lose interest.
Album art was an important part of the '70s music culture as well. Records were enjoyed and appreciated not only for their musical content, but also for their iconic artwork. From Roger Deans fabulous Yes covers to H.R. Gigers ambitious packaging of Emerson Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery
to Storm Thorgersons elegant work for Pink Floyd and Peter Corriston's die-cutting for Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti
and the Stones' Some Girls
, cover art and packaging reached a zenith in the '70s. Today's rockers often speak of the lost thrill of tearing the shrink-wrap from an LP, and then musing over the elaborate packaging while listening to a treasured new disc. The compact size of CDs and online access to music has, for the most part, deprived today's listeners of that experience.Concept Albums and Rock Operas
Theme albums and rock operas were huge in the 1970s, most especially on the glam and progressive rock scenes. Concept albums are unified by a central theme or narrative, and are meant to be listened to from start to finish in one sitting. They essentially tell a story or are built to guide your emotions in one way or another. Everyone from Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures at an Exhibition
), Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall
), David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs
), Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans
), Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
), The Who (Quadrophenia
) and Alice Cooper (Welcome to My Nightmare
) to Joni Mitchell (Blue
), Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger
), and Elton John (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
) released song cycles whose tracks were interrelated, either through subject matter, tone, or emotion. Record Labels
Independent labels accounted for only one of every ten records sold in the 1970s, while six huge corporations (Columbia/CBS, Warner Communications, RCA Victor, Capitol-EMI, MCA, and United Artists-MGM) were responsible for over 80 percent of record sales in the United States. The recording industry came to depend on a relatively small stable of multi-platinum superstars to turn a profit.
It was common practice in the '70s for record companies to simply allot a budget to a band, and then turn them loose in the studio to make whatever type of album they wanted to make. Artists such as Alice Cooper, Sly and the Family Stone, and Peter Frampton were nurtured along until commercial success came their way. Such freedom and coddling would be unthinkable today.Radio
The primary medium for rock music in the '70s was FM radio. Album-oriented rock (AOR) was introduced early on in the decade and was geared to album sales rather than singles. Many stations began to play whole album sides as opposed to the Top 40 model of preceding decades when playlists were restricted, making it difficult for bands without the backing of a major label to break into the Top 40. Led Zeppelin
The mighty Zeppelin are a category unto themselves. From the drop of their debut album in early 1969, and over the course of a gazillion hits from ten studio albums, including that mother of all rock anthems "Stairway to Heaven," Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham crafted a body of work to rival that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in terms of far-reaching impact. With almost 300 million records sold to date worldwide, Led Zeppelin were the preeminent band of the '70s. They are widely considered to be one of the most successful, innovative, influential, and enduring groups in all of rock history. Glam Rock
Glam rock evolved in Britain during the early '70s and featured some of the finest performers in music memory. Androgynous idols like Marc Bolan of T. Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Sweet, New York Dolls, and Mott the Hooplebedecked in flamboyant costumes, platform shoes, garish makeup, and outlandish hairstylesfascinated the pop scene on both sides of the pond. The genre produced some astonishingly powerful and influential albums, like Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
, and influenced future glam metal acts such as Quiet Riot, W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, and Mötley Crüe. Glam rock shimmers with a glittery resonance to this day.The Singer-Songwriter Movement
Out of 1960s folk and country rock evolved the singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s. Artists like James Taylor, Janice Ian, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, Carly Simon, and Britain's Richard Thompson and Joan Armatrading turned inward, toward self-exploration and autobiography, to write and perform songs that were more confessional in nature. They wrote music that told a story, and used a spare mode of presentationeither a piano or guitarfor accompaniment.
Carole King's 1971 album, Tapestry
, was among the decade's most successful. In it she explored her personal growth as a woman of the 1960s. Joni Mitchell became one of the most articulate voices for both the liberation and confusion felt by young women as sexual roles shifted. Even Bob Dylan got in on the act, chronicling the collapse of his marriage in the 1974 classic album, Blood on the Tracks
. Progressive Rock
Progressive rock, a.k.a. prog rock, was an offshoot of '60s psychedelic rock. It originated in Britain as an attempt to give greater artistic weight, sophistication, and credibility to rock music. Prog bands abandoned the three-minute pop song model for music that was more expansive, free-form, and random. It often included long and complex instrumental solos that could stretch a song's length to a whole album side. Prog rock lyrics were much more profound and told a deeper story than those of other rock songs of the day. They often centered around themes found in classical literature, fantasy, folklore, medievalism, and science fiction. While standard rock bands typically employed the guitar/bass/drum paradigm, the more progressive bands experimented with instruments not usually heard in pop songs, such as the violin and cello, the Hammond organ, and brass and woodwind instruments.
Progressive rock was hugely popular throughout the '70s. Bands such as The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull, The Alan Parsons Project, and Emerson Lake & Palmer were among the genre's most recognizable acts.The Birth of Punk Rock
Whether it originated in America or England, as is the debate, it is agreed that punk rock began as an attack on mainstream rock and roll in both countries. The music of bands like the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols and The Clash hammered its way into the public consciousness in the mid-'70s with its raw energy and overt political and social critiques. This bratty, snot-nosed breed of rock was built on anti-musicianship, the rejection of stadium rock, the denial of technical skill, and the breakdown of the relationship between performer and audience. What made punk so appealing to musicians was that the music was simple, teenage garage band stuff. The emphasis was on energy and attitude, mostly negative, and not so much on virtuosity. Punk completely revolutionized rock's image in its simplicity and level of aggression.
Southern rock, the Southern California sound, disco, Exile on Main Street
, the sheer volume of monster bands that came out of the '70s who are still relevant some four decades later, I could go on and on. These are just some of the many touchstones that defined '70s music. For those of you who were front and center in those glory days, and for those who wish you had been, feel free to leave a comment about how the music of the "Me Decade" affected you.