Bar stool debates over music often go nowhere, but they can sometimes help make sense of things. I remembered such a frequent debate when I heard a recent episode of Sonoro sofa, the fantastic streaming program directed by Alfonso Cardenal for the Cadena Ser radio network in Spain. This particular episode was about 1970s rock music, and it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: that the 1970s were the best decade for popular music. But before attacking, allow me to defend this statement.
Music historians often hail the 1960s as the best decade for popular music, as it was when rock became a countercultural movement led by giants like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was also the decade of soul music, with the emergence of prominent Stax and Motown record labels. And it is also the genesis of great music festivals like the mythical Woodstock. Many other political ingredients and social struggles also fueled the 1960s, but it was not the only transcendental decade in music: the 1950s saw Elvis Presley ignite the fuse for the rock & roll explosion. Purists love the 1950s because it was the start of so many things and it was steeped in captivating innocence. Still others plead for the 1980s, with its post-punk and the birth of indie, so decisive for many and which created its own musical myths. The generation that came of age in the 1990s defends this decade for emotional reasons: they lived through the moodiness laden with grunge, British pop and the brightest indie music.
These days, the news constantly reminds us that the 20th century is slipping away as its cultural luminaries disappear. Looking back is one way to bring order to the past. The 1970s hold many keys to understanding the value of popular music, but it’s also wonderful emotional territory to explore. My statement that this was the best decade for popular music is more personal introspection than demonstrable judgment. However, I will offer some arguments in support of this thesis.
I have always considered the 70s as the time when rock, as an artistic and cultural movement, realized its own virtues and defects. The counterculture seemed to run out of steam after the Beatles split and the “Summer of Love.” The turn of the decade showed that 1960s history had become a commodity, something else to be consumed by a commercial culture. On the other hand, the 1970s was a period that allowed the passionate Seattle sound of the Stooges, MC5 and punk rock to spread across the US and UK. For that reason alone—the rage and nihilism that shook the hearts of the music industry and popular culture—this decade would rise above any other. At the very least, there was a lot more awareness of failure and a much greater need to break everything. The 1970s were the years of the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones who, along with the Stooges and MC5, embodied a whole philosophical treatise on rock.
Alongside the punk fury, a new wave of pop rock swelled and gave us street beats from the iconic CBGB nightclub by artists like Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Johnny Thunders, The Dictators and Mink Deville. Britain’s incredible new wave was no slouch and produced a long list of stars like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, The Police, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division. At the same time pub rock was born in the UK with Dr Feelgood at the fore, alongside Brinsley Schwarz, Ian Dury and Graham Parker.
Black music moved from soul to funk with the raw sound of James Brown and vibrant new names like Funkadelic and Parliament. Soul music also evolved in the 1970s. For all its success in the 1960s, Motown was never as transcendent as it was in the 70s with the incomparable Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on, and many more that followed. The 1970s saw the birth of hip hop in the Bronx, New York, an African-American countercultural earthquake that flourished in the 1980s, and the New York salsa boom that marked a before and after for Latin music around the world.
The same decade will bring progressive rock and hard rock, two new musical genres from the great trunk of rock. That is to say, it’s the decade of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or AC/DC. And, if we have to mention gigantic stadium bands, we have to add Queen or The Eagles. It is also the decade of disco music, so important for the development of discotheques which still persist today. But, without a doubt, just as the 70s were the decade of punk and hip hop, it was the decade of electronic music. This musical movement with great social roots will change the whole sound scene from the birth of popular electronic music, illustrated by Kraftwerk, another essential group in the history of music and emerging from this decade. And, just across that shore, in the ever-conservative country, there’s another little earthquake with the consolidation of the outlaw: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings… and over there! they were also to their own beat but glorified country-folk Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zandt!
If all that isn’t enough to convince you of the 1970s, consider two giants of the decade: David Bowie and Lou Reed. And there are more, many more, like Bob Marley who introduced reggae to the world. I will now give you some of my personal favorites from this decade: Neil Young, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith and Jackson Browne. And maybe the brilliant Van Morrison too. And how about great musical playwrights like Elton John and Billy Joel?
While some music legends clearly broke out in the 1960s, many of their best albums were made in the 1970s. The Rolling Stones produced sticky fingers and Exile on Main St. Similarly, Bob Dylan produced Basement strips (released in 1975), Rolling Thunder Reviewand his more intimate albums like Blood on the tracks, Desire and street legal. Oh, and don’t forget the quasi-religious slow train coming. Yes, I buy it. Just when I’m buying this (hold on to your hats), the 1970s was the decade of a huge, unique Elvis Presley. I will defend to the death the Elvis of the 70s, rising in his great suffering and self-destructing in a perfect rock & roll metaphor. And it’s the decade in which he died that makes him unique.