Thursday 18 January 2018

Air guitars and rock's finest hour: The class of 1971

Blur's Damon Albarn said this week that rock had become mere showbiz. So to find its zenith, how far back do you have to go? Way back, says Peter Howick

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
David Bowie
Joni Mitchell
Damon Albarn

Peter Howick

In 1971 the most popular instrument in the history of western music came into mass production. The instrument had been spotted at a few concerts and seminars from about early 1967 but the breakthrough into the mass world of the bedsit and the student bar didn't come until the 1970s was in its second year.

That instrument was the air guitar. Suddenly, a mass audience discovered that, with the sound up and enough space to jump around, they could compete with the best guitarists in the world. With the kettle on too.

They didn't need any training or technique . They didn't need to practice for hundreds of hours. Hell, they didn't even need a guitar.

All they needed was the right record. And in 1971 that record was Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven'. It liberated a generation of scruffies to reach nirvana simply by twiddling their hands and gurning their face as if a piranha had infiltrated their flares.

Has rock history acknowledged this revolution? I say no. No statue has ever been erected to the air guitar. But the more serious point is that 1971 was a seminal year in the history of popular music, a year which gave us not only an enduring and irritating social habit, but arguably the greatest music from some of the perennial acts in the now gnarled history of rock 'n' roll.

Damon Albarn said this week that rock in 2014 had gone back to being mere showbiz. But 43 years ago, it was having its finest hour.

'Stairway to Heaven'. sprang from Zep's fourth album, easily their most popular track and biggest seller. It has become a epoch-straddling monster endlessly replayed at weddings and funerals and once sent into outer space, possibly as a warning.

In a way its hard to put your finger on 1971. Things we normally associate with the decade hadn't happened yet. Northern Ireland hadn't fully exploded. Gas was still cheap and Nixon was a year away from Watergate.

Not only were Led Zeppelin then unleashing their most beloved music, nearly all the contemporary rock aristocrats were doing the same.

For example, which track from The Who is most likely to bring the stadium down or conclude a really bad documentary by people-before-profit types? That would be 'Won't Get Fooled Again' from their 1971 masterpiece Who's Next. And if you were stuck in a bedsit in the 1970s and forced into a singalong fuelled by very cheap plonk, what would you be made to warble? You've Got a Friend from Carole King's Tapestry, the album everyone in Ireland had before they invested in Bat Out of Hell.

That year saw The Rolling Stones produce their most warmly regarded record Sticky Fingers. You don't need me to tell you about the impact of John Lennon's Imagine. And Rod Stewart, Joni Mitchell and T Rex all produced their greatest records in Every Picture Tells A Story, Blue and Electric Warrior within months of each other.

Classics were hitting the record racks by the week. 'Riders on the Storm' from The Door's LA Woman. That's from 1971 too.

A few years ago Mojo magazine asked their readers to vote for the best David Bowie album. Despite Ziggy Stardust, despite Heroes, despite all the musical miracles that flowed from The Dame during the 1970s, the readers plumped for Hunky Dory, the album from ... you've guessed it.

And I still haven't mentioned Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? which was once voted the greatest rock album of all time by New Musical Express, or Alice Cooper's Killer, or even anything by Elton John.

Actually it was Elton John who said recently that nowadays you were lucky to get two or three great albums a year. But in 1971 you were getting two or three every month.

So why was 1971 so musically special? For one thing the LP was then, in the jargon of the day, "where it's at".

Long players eclipsed single sales wise in Britain and America in 1968.

Not only had The Beatles shown that albums were the gold standard musically with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but they had proven that slinging out 40 minutes of music at a time was also the most desirable requisite for a healthy bottom line.

Secondly, the actual age of the artists is crucial. Mick Jagger was no spring chicken in 1971. He had, as they say, been around the houses. But he was far from being the walnut-faced socialite bleating 'Fool To Cry' either. In the latter half of his twenties he was at his artistic peak. Rod, Joni, Alice, et al had years of experience prior to hitting the studios in 1971.

Crucially, though, was the reaction of the audience. Then, rock lovers wanted music to change, to be different, to, God help us, push the envelope.

Tamla Motown executives looked ashen when Marvin Gaye strolled in with the master tapes of What's Going On? One song mentioned the word "ecology" – a common term now but in 1971 it had as much place in music as a raised toilet seat in a nunnery.

Joni Mitchell's confessional Blue had her friends begging her to pull the disc. "Who wants that kind of trauma?" they implored. Well, history proves many did and still do. Blue is an imperishable masterpiece.

This is not to say everything was wonderful either. Prog had raised its ugly pretentious head. A band called The Tremeloes actually had the nerve to tell its audience to shut up and listen to the music.

Some at the time thought T Rex, with their make-up and plucked eyebrows, were rock excitement's last gasp. The next year, 1972, David Bowie threw a girlie arm around Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops. The year after that the Arabs invented inflation and ushered in Thatcher and Reagan and terrorism and recycled vinyl.

What we have left are the favourite records of very many people. Records like Sticky Fingers and Hunky Dory have the lure of the past, of a Stonehenge or an Easter Island. Apart from their individual wonder, you can't help asking yourself, in this X Factor age, how anyone could come up with anything like it?

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