Decade Profile: The 1970s

Ushered in on the back of Woodstock, the glory days were not immediate; 1970 and 1971 were marred by the breakup of The Beatles, and the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison (all included in the 27 Club). The hippie movement was dead, and a new breed would emerge to fill the void left by these fallen icons.

British bands found themselves at the forefront of the hard rock genre. Led Zeppelin in 1971 released IV and leading track ‘Stairway to Heaven’ would go on to sell 37 million copies and ensure a legendary reputation that continues to this day. Black Sabbath would leave a trail of controversy, achieving phenomenal worldwide success. Along with Deep Purple these hard rock bands would ultimately inspire the grunge bands of the 90s and the classic rock revival of the 2000s.

The 1970s also oversaw the rise of progressive rock. ‘Prog Rock’ emerged as a response to hard rock and rock n’ roll in an attempt to give rock music artistic credibility. Among the British bands pushing the limits of compositional innovation were Genesis, Supertramp and Pink Floyd, who’s 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon would go on to sell over 45 million copies and the ‘concept album’ was propelled emphatically into the mainstream.

Uniting all of these bands across was the use of illegal drugs. Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was a notorious user of LSD, whilst Jimmy Page and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin fought addictions to heroin and alcohol respectively, and the less said about Ozzy Osbourne, the better. Combine this with groupies and this really was the ‘sex drugs and rock n’ roll’ we hear so much about.

Pioneered by The Ramones in America, and The Clash and The Sex Pistols over here, punk exploded out of the garage scene with venom in the face of public outrage and moral indignation, preaching anti-establishment messages and deriding figures of public authority. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood got her big break on the back of the success of the music; the need to have the punk look and attitude often outweighed the need to be musically talented. Sid Vicious, the icon of punk, famously couldn’t play the bass guitar that he was known for. He turned to Lemmy from Motorhead, a ‘fellow’ bassist, at one show and shouted ‘I can’t play bass!’ Lemmy smiled and mouthed back ‘I know’, before promptly unplugging Vicious’ instrument for the good of his own ears.

1974 saw a little known Swedish foursome take the Eurovision crown thanks to their pop-driven anthem ‘Waterloo’. Abba had arrived and soon they were playing in sold out arenas all over the world, pumping out number one hit after number one hit and laying the foundations for musicals and films to be based around their work. Abba would defy Led Zeppelin to become the highest selling act of the decade.

The pop cause was further aided by the Jackson 5 who were fronted by Michael Jackson, a megastar in the making. Elton John was busy fusing rock and pop with his best album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road featuring the original ‘Candle in the Wind’. David Bowie established himself as an exciting and unique performer reinventing himself over and over, adopting such persona’s as ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Saturday Night Fever featured a soundtrack (penned by The Bee Gees) that defined disco and Bob Marley was popularising reggae beyond the traditional Rastafarian audience it once had.

However, just as the decade began with tragedy and break-ups, it ended in the same manner. Keith Moon of The Who overdosed and died in 1978, three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd perished in a plane crash in 1977 and the forgotten man of the decade, Elvis Presley, died on the toilet in the same year. John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and John Lennon would follow in early 1980.

The Sugar Hill Gang gave everyone hope in 1979 however, with the first exclusively hip-hop track ever heard, ‘Rapper’s Delight’. This would ultimately pave the way for rap artists to become the megastars they are today, and set hip hop on the path to success.

Perhaps the best way of evaluating the decade is by looking at how the music from the era still affects us today. Elton John and David Bowie are still amongst the most popular artists in the world; Bob Marley is still the reggae artist to listen to; Pink Floyd can garner universal acclaim from a performance at Live 8 and Led Zeppelin performing a one-off show at the O2 Arena can bring down an entire telephone system. The 1970s built on the achievements of the 1960s to influence generation after generation of musicians to pick up that microphone and form the groups that we listen to today.

Richard Dale


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