What The 1970s Were Really Like (Part One)

Sunday, 10 August 2008

[Picture of Disco Party Costume Hire]THE 1970s gets a raw deal in the media these days. Revisionists dominate today, to the point where far too many people think the 1970s were merely about discotheques, afros and flared trousers.

By way of an example, I recently saw a club poster promoting something they called a “70s night”, where people were encouraged to come dressed up in long collared shirts, bell bottom trousers and platform shoes, the music was to be Abba, the Bee Gees and the Jackson Five!

If Disco and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ did not define or represent the decade, then what did?

That is the question that I will try to answer. However, a mere detail must be highlighted — the cultural decade is different from the numerical decade; people don’t suddenly change at midnight on 31st December 1969!

  • The sixties is known to have continued to about 1973, and the seventies are usually taken as being from about ’73 or ’74 to ’83 or ’84.

My personal take on the 1970s era was that it was the best of times and the worst of times in a far more profound and global sense than Charles Dickens could have imagined.

What I mean by that is that it had a very bad side, and at the same time, it had a very good side. The good probably came from the bad — I will try to explain what I mean, but I will try not to labour the point too much, but believe me, the general climate — politically and economically — was really grim.

I hope I give sufficient background to jog your memory or inform the younger reader. I will then discuss the creativity that came directly from the bleakness — where things like nuclear holocaust were the subject matter for plays and music.

Finally (in Part Two), I will attempt to show that the period was also one of the most culturally varied and creative periods of human history — against the back-drop of gloom and doom, and conclude that to condense all of this excitement and creativity down to a ’60’s disco costume is appalling! So let’s get going…

The Down Side

The 1970s were dark, sad, miserable, scary, depressing, and utterly bleak. The post-war rebuilding had ended and were were left with the resulting debt. The future that was promised in the 1950s had arrived — but it was not quite the utopia we had been led to expect; the bubble burst. It was just grey and concrete after all.

[Picture of British Leyland Logo] [Picture of British Steel Logo]

Industries that were nationalised in the 1960s, such as British Steel, British Leyland, as well as things like The National Health Service and the swollen Civil Service, were becoming very expensive and inefficient, and this made a big demand on taxes.

[Picture of March by Unions]High National Debt, and high inflation added to the problem. Unions demanded pay rises to keep up, resulting in a 3-day week, work to rule, strikes and marches to downing street. It was economic meltdown.

Global conditions played an important part too. This was the decade where The Great British Empire was broken down, and there was a lot of immigration from the commonwealth and colonies. The gold standard was abandoned in favour of the fiat system we have today, and there was a shortage of raw materials such as steel, copper and oil.

Everyone was issued with petrol rationing books and we were asked to “SAVE IT”, stickers were actually provided for us to stick above light switches to remind us to turn off lights.

It was the COLD WAR. We were constantly told that one day the stalemate between the USA and the USSR would be broken, and that the Atomic Bomb would be used again.

We were close to a nuclear war between the USA and USSR in the 1960s — known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis”, and this was repeated in the early 1980s with “Able Archer 83” and with the attack on Korean Flight 007, which is widely understood to have been the closest we have even been to destroying ourselves and our planet. At times, we were just 10 minutes and one trigger from the end of the world.

  • Nuclear holocaust was inevitable, it was not a question of if, but of when.

Creation from Destruction

[Picture of the Peace Logo]This was perhaps the most creative period in human history, and I will try to show that more clearly in Part Two, but for creativity directly connected to the bleak situation, where better to start than with politics?

This was the last period of political creativity, and creativity and diversity was in abundance. The UK’s Amnesty International, a non-government organisation (NGO) founded in the 60s, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the United Nations’ Human Rights Prize the following year. But they became most famous for “The Secret Policeman’s Ball” fund-raisers — due to the contributions of musicians and comedy greats, such as Peter Cook, Billy Connelly, and the Monty Python team. Within a few years, The Greenham Common Women’s Peace camp was set up, and seemed to quickly come to represent a growing international peace movement (check out the Danish Peace Academy), this coincided with the resurgence in CND against Trident and Pershing II. The Secret Policeman’s Ball formed the template for Band Aid and subsequent concerts of that type — Live Aid, The One Concert, Nelson Mandela’s 70th and 90th Birthday Concerts, and so forth.

[Picture of Free Nelson Mandela Poster]However, at the time, due to Amnesty International’s efforts, everyone was asking for anti-apartheid campaigner, Nelson Mandela, to be released from prison — and frankly no-one expected that to happen; the anti-apartheid movement was started in the UK right after the war, and since then nothing much had happened, except that we were told to boycott South African products. But, after Amnesty International’s involvement, rock bands started doing songs — “Mandela day” by Simple Minds; “Nelson Mandela” by The Specials; “Mandela” by Santana; “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. Nelson Mandela was everywhere — street names were changed in support of Mandela.

[Picture of Mad Max Poster]Meanwhile, we were all going to die anyway, irrespective of apartheid in South Africa or the IRA.

From the bad climate, came creativity about the nuclear situation. By looking at what might happen, we would be prepared — but it also might act as a warning or deterrent.

There were loads of movies about possible ways of life after nuclear holocaust: such as “Testament”, “Tank Girl”, “In the year 2889”, “Def-Con 4”, “Radioactive Dreams”, “Whoops Apocalypse”, “Dead man’s Letters”, “The Sacrifice”, “Akira”, and “When the Wind Blows”, and film series too — such as “Mad Max”, “Terminator”, and “Plant of The Apes”.

[Picture of Planet of the Apes Poster]

[Picture of Two Tribes label]Music was chock full of post-nuclear and warnings, the list is massive but all would have to include the following notables: “99 Red Balloons” by Nina; “1999” by Prince; “London Calling” and “Stop the World” both by The Clash; “Manhattan Project” and “Distant Early Warning” by Rush; “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” by Nik Kershaw; “Breathing” by Kate Bush; “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood; “Domino” by Genesis; “King of The World” by Steely Dan; “It’s a Mistake” by Men At Work; and “The Earth Dies Screaming” by UB40.

[Picture of Earthwreck graphic]Picture of The day They H Bombed lA graphic

Radio (in daily reports and plays such as “The Chrysalids”), theatre, newspapers, and magazines, were full of visions of the post-holocaust world, and books were not lacking in this subject area either — “Dune”, “Earthwreck!”, and “Down to a Sunless Sea” were very popular in the 70s , “Children of the Dust”, “Doomsday Plus Twelve”, “The Gate to Women’s Country”, and “The Last Children of Schewenborn” from the early 80s, and from the 1960s, the fabulous “Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb” by Philip K Dick, and, of course, “Dark Mirrors”.

[Picture of Threads Graphic]There were also many TV Shows like “Threads” (massive in the UK), “Buck Rogers in The 25th century”, “World War iii”, “Battlestar Galactica”, “Fail Safe”, and loads more. Perhaps because TV had become the main mass media route, the impact was major.

[Picture of The Day After Graphic]In the USA, “The Day After” was broadcast to a record breaking 100 million North Americans by ABC — without advert breaks — and 1-800 hotline telephone numbers were set up complete with trained counsellors and psychiatrists on hand to help distressed viewers. The TV movie won 2 Emmys from 12 nominations. It had a massive impact and was bought up and shown on TV around the globe. There were even candle-holding peace vigils, and the show generated a lot of heated debate. The town of Lawrence has been living with the “fall out” ever since (see Lawrence.com).

Formally, the government showed public service broadcasts on TV all the time — how to build a nuclear bunker in your garden or basement, what to do when you hear the announcement, what to stockpile.

  • We were also under constant threat of Irish terrorism, and the news was filled with reports of hunger strikes and bombings.
  • We were also told that by the year 2000, if we had not managed to nuke ourselves into oblivion, the oil and gas would have run out — and unless something was done to stop the growth in population, we would not be able to feed everyone.

Locally, my city was blackened by the soot of Victorian industry, a decaying hulk filled with weedy wastelands and litter. Shops had spray painted shutters, and by-laws strangled everything — even busking was forbidden.

Thus ends Part One of my article on What The 1970s Were Really Like. I hope you can appreciate just how bleak and depressing is really was.

The mainstream seventies was an obsession with the end of the world — nuclear holocaust, famine, overpopulation, disease, scarcity and running out of resources such as fossil fuels — all of which gave birth to The Thirteenth Generation, Generation X, Punk and “No Future”,

The Flairs of the late Beatles, Cream and Hendrix were NOT 1970s, but firmly of the 1960s hippy era. The 1970s were the transition from that to what we wear now, it was the era of punks, of bikers, of skinheads, of myriad subcultural groups like geeks, yuppies and new romantics.

In Part Two, I will attempt to show just how amazing, exciting and creative this era was — somehow as deeply creative as it was deeply depressive and oppressive!

2 Responses to “What The 1970s Were Really Like (Part One)”

  1. Lazlo Says:

    I realize that the cultural decade and the numerical decade are different. But the much of the music you mention belongs to the ’80s, both culturally and numerically. (i.e. 1999; 99 Red Baloons; Its a Mistake.)

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