Was 1971 rock's greatest year?
Led Zeppelin, Bowie and Marvin Gaye found their voices. But was it truly music's best ever 12 months?
Published 07/04/2016 | 07:00
In a week in which Zayn Malik locks quiffs with Justin Bieber for dominance of the Irish charts, it's hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the way things used to be.
Thus, it is the perfect moment for a book such as 1971: Never A Dull Moment in which veteran music critic David Hepworth argues that rock 'n roll peaked 45 years ago - with the implication that it has been on a sorry slide downhill ever since.
"I wanted to describe all the extraordinary music that came out of 1971 - Led Zeppelin IV, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, David Bowie's Hunky Dory... And so on and so on," Hepworth told Newstalk's Tom Dunne this week. "If you play those records to a 20-something nowadays, they sound as fresh and as immediate and, in a way, as healing as they did to me and my generation when we heard them in 1971."
There is something to his argument. Regardless of one's specific tastes, 1971 was undeniably a landmark year. Led Zeppelin released their titanic fourth album, containing such standards as 'Stairway To Heaven' (debuted in Belfast), 'Black Dog' and 'Going To California'. With Tapestry, Carole King cemented the archetype of the confessional female singer emoting her heart out over a piano - a template that would be expanded upon by Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Sinead O'Connor and others.
The once and future kings of rock were excelling too. The Rolling Stones came out with Sticky Fingers and recorded Exile On Main Street, arguably their masterpiece. Bowie surpassed himself as a songwriter on Hunky Dory and invented the character of Ziggy Stardust. Black Sabbath, for their part, concocted an aggressive new brand of rock with the gloriously sludgy Master of Reality - a project Hepworth credits with inventing heavy metal and paving the way for grunge in the Nineties.
More than that, by the author's telling, the early Seventies represented a final hurrah for artistic integrity. Thereafter, the money men would call the shots. In 1971 it was still possible to have a hit without anyone's permission, for mavericks such as Bowie and Marvin Gaye to leave an imprint on the culture. Hepworth doesn't spell it out but you can appreciate how far we have fallen when you consider that today Ed Sheeran is what passes for a global pop icon.
"Music was made in what was considered a thoroughly disorganised and unprofessional fashion," Hepworth said on radio. "What emerged in 1971 emerged out of extraordinary chaos."
Nostalgia is clearly a factor here. Hepworth was born in 1950 and was thus a wide eyed 21-year old in 1971. Were he a little older he might have heralded 1966 as the best year ever for music - as another music journalist, Jon Savage, did in a book of his own.
As it happens, countless other years have an equally strong claim to the "best ever" title. What about 1980, when Talking Heads released Remain In Light, Bowie put out Scary Monsters and Joy Division bowed out with the astonishing Closer? Members of Generation X will meanwhile cite 1991, which gave us Nirvana's Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Slint's Spiderland.
What's beyond dispute however is that from the mid Nineties on, music no longer had the power to define an era and that the flow of classic albums slowing to a trickle. How many truly great LPs were released in the entirety of the 2000s? According to music website Pitchfork, the five best albums of that decade were Radiohead's Kid A, Arcade Fire's Funeral, Daft Punk's Discovery, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Jay-Z's The Blueprint. Fine records all but, Kid A aside, hardly what anyone would call classic.
Hepworth goes on to argue that 1971 was doubly important because it was a year of firsts. George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, for instance, more or less invented the charity gig. Tapestry tapped a new audience of young women while Hunky Dory was arguably the moment Bowie stepped fully beyond his influences and found his voice as a writer.
Not all of the innovations of the era were as positive. Hepworth name checks Don McClean's American Pie - another 1971 release - as the first example of Heritage Rock, music ruinously informed by nostalgia for a bygone epoch (George Lucas's wistful Fifties valentine American Graffiti hit cinemas shortly afterwards).
This was also the year Elvis passed into self parody as he donned a sequinned onesie for the first of his Vegas residencies. Indeed, in Hepworth's estimation, the transformation of this once rebellious voice into a lip curl in a rhine-stone jumpsuit was, in the end, the most significant event of that period.
Presley's embrace of empty spectacle established a blueprint for success that would be emulated by generations - and the cynical svengalis manipulating the levers off stage. If we are seeking someone to blame for the ongoing deluge 1971, Hepworth implies, is where we must look. This may have been the best year for music but there's a case to be made that it was the worst too.
1971: A year of musical landmarks
February: Carole King’s Tapestry tops the charts.
May: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On raises the protest album to an artform
August: The Who release arguably their finest album, Who’s Next
October: John Lennon puts out Imagine, his definitive post-breakup collection
November: Sly and the Family Stone release their funk masterpice There’s a Riot Going On