Before I start, let me declare an interest. I am a child of the ’70s in the sense that I started the decade as a toddler & ended it as a teenager. Therefore, the 1970s is a time which holds special memories for me, many of them musical. Having said that, I still reckon there is an objective case to be made for the 1970s being a “golden age” for rock music, which goes beyond my own sense of misty eyed nostalgia. Here’s why:
If you take the period of, say, 1969 to 1979 and look at the explosion of different musical genres that occurred between those years, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any other decade that can lay claim to the same degree of creativity in rock music. Let’s take a quick look at what happened in the world of rock during that time…
At the start of the decade, the blues based rock of the ’60s began to morph into new styles called heavy metal & hard rock. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and most notably, Black Sabbath, discovered the power of the riff. Of course it had been done earlier with songs like The Kinks “You Really got Me” but by the early 70s you had bands, like those mentioned above, whose whole raison d’etre was the riff. Heavy metal and it’s close cousin, the perhaps more melodic and less demonic sounding, hard rock, are genres of music whose seeds were planted in the 1960s but came into full flower in the early 1970s.
Then there’s the whole phenomenon of progressive rock. Again, it’s roots can be traced back to the psychedelia of the flower power generation in the mid-late 1960s, but the truth is that bands like Genesis, Camel, Pink Floyd, Yes and ELP (to name but a few) forged a genuinely new style of rock music in the 70s. A style of music that didn’t feel shackled by the four minute song format and which dared to explore lyrical ideas ranging from dystopian visions of the future, science fiction and social commentary, as well as literary themes. Musically, prog rock was different too – the emphasis was on wearing your complexity on your sleeve: abrupt time signature & key changes which displayed your virtuosity were the order of the day. Not the usual 3 or 4 chord “boy-meets-girl” stuff found elsewhere.
So, we have hard rock, heavy metal & progressive (prog) rock. Any music fan would consider themselves lucky to grow up in an era when three new genres were coming to fruition, but it doesn’t stop there. We also saw the emergence of folk rock in the 1970s. Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and Pentangle all spring to mind. These bands were distinct & different from other genres of rock music in that they contained almost no blues DNA in their music, relying instead on traditional English folk music as the basis for their creativity. But it was still identifiable as rock in a broader sense.
As was yet another new genre, jazz rock fusion. Often just known as “fusion” this was the coming together of the harmonic complexity of jazz, with all of it’s improvisational, free-form madness, with rock elements like the overdriven electric guitar, synthesizers and experimental studio techniques. Bands like Weather Report, Colosseum, Brand X and Return To Forever, who were all exponents of fusion could not, in a million years, be described as sounding like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They were a different breed altogether, but it was still undeniably, a form of rock music.
If we cross the Atlantic, it can perhaps be argued that the same motives that drove the English folk-rock bands were evident in the music of the American bands who drew their influences from traditional “Americana” styles of music. Arguably this style of rock saw it’s genesis when Bob Dylan first picked up an electric guitar in 1965. But by the 1970s it was a new genre of rock in it’s own right. This cohesion of blues, country, Cajun, and rock n roll music, coupled with lyrics informed by the likes of John Steinbeck and Hemingway, was the stock-in-trade of acts like The Eagles, The Band, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen & Bob Seger. Once again, it is difficult to bracket these artists alongside the heavy rock/metal bands I mentioned earlier, but can you think of any other genre that they fit more comfortably into than rock? All of these artists can still be found on classic rock radio stations & rock compilation albums.
Back over in the UK, we saw the glitter festooned birth of glam rock, arguably led by Ziggy himself, the late great David Bowie. Glam was by no means, though, a one act genre – artists as diverse as The Sweet, Roxy Music, Slade & Marc Bolan could all be categorised as glam rock. It’s fair to say that glam had it’s American exponents, too. Alice Cooper & Kiss spring to mind, of course. Glam had a lasting influence on both the sound and look of rock as it moved forward into the 1980s. Perhaps, more than any other style of rock music, it brought a touch of theatrics to a rock audience. Would bands like Poison & W.A.S.P. have donned the Max Factor if not for Bowie & Kiss, for example?
Are you beginning to see why I reckon the 1970s are a golden age of rock music? So far we’ve had heavy metal, hard rock, prog rock, folk rock, fusion, Americana & glam rock all emerging in the space of one ten-year period. Then, or course, came punk.
Punk was supposedly a reaction to the overblown & somewhat pompous nature of styles like prog rock. However, even if the punk musicians of the time didn’t realise it, they were in effect continuing the evolutionary process of the rock music they were reacting against. What they were doing was creating a new style of rock, because they were bored with what they were hearing around them – pretty much the same thing that a band like Genesis (who all punks would claim to despise) had done only a few years previously.
Also, punk had it’s roots in another, earlier, form of “back-to-basics” rock music: Pub rock. The pub rock scene, as it’s name suggests, was born out of bands playing on the pub circuit in London. This movement may have been eclipsed by punk but it had a massive impact, spawning acts like Dr. Feelgood, Elvis Costello, Brinsley Schwartz, Eddie & The Hot Rods & The Stranglers. Pub rock can be seen as the precursor to punk, but it stands up on it’s own two feet as a genre in it’s own right.
Of course there was a backlash against the aggression of punk towards “traditional” rock music. The heavy metal movement was spurred on to re-invigorate itself in the form of NWOBHM (the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal). NWOBHM, to my ears anyway, is distinctly different from the heavy metal/hard rock from the early 70s in that it has a more aggressive sound (perhaps as a result of being something of a reaction to the aggression of punk). It was the NWOBHM bands that I grew up listening to on the radio. Unlike the hard rock & metal bands from the early 1970s, who were generally regarded as “albums bands”, acts like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, Motorhead & the like had no qualms about getting their message out in the form of the 7” single. This is perhaps what led to the 1980s pop rock style of bands like Def Leppard & Bon Jovi: rock bands whose focus was on getting top 40 radio airplay, rather than crafting albums that needed to be listened to in a single sitting.
Let’s take stock of the ’70s rock scene: In that one decade we saw the birth of:
Of course, there are some bands who are difficult to categorise into a single style – I think of the Stranglers as a “pub rock” band for example, but I know that many would class them as punk. There was also crossover between the different styles of rock with bands straddling the border between different genres, as is the case with prog rock and fusion. I think that perhaps the reason why the 1970s was such a ground-breaking time for rock music is that it was the decade when many of the great “firsts” happened. To my mind this is best summed up by quoting a line from a magazine article I read about Led Zeppelin some time ago which said… “Zeppelin were a rock band who had the enviable advantage of not having grown up listening to other rock bands.” The rock bands of the 1970s weren’t following the rule book – they were writing it.
So there you have it, my case for the 1970s being a “golden age” of rock music. Of course, this is by no means a definitive list of the styles spawned in that decade – I could have expounded on the phenomenon of AOR (Album/Adult Orientated Rock) for example. And I’m sure that every person reading this will be able to name at least one style of rock music I’ve missed out. But therein lies my point – the 1970s was a truly diverse time for rock music in the way that I cannot think that any decade since has been. Can you think of any other decade that was as fertile for rock music? If you can’t then it appears you agree with me that the 1970s was officially a golden age of rock.
Feel Free to disagree, as I know many probably will, but until next time… Have Fun!