What The 1970s Were Really Like (Part Two)

Monday, 19 October 2009

[Picture of Elvis Las Vegas suit]HERE I will attempt to show that the 1970s was one of the most culturally varied and creative periods of human history.

This was against a back-drop of gloom and doom (as outlined in Part One of this article published last year).

As I stated last year, to condense all of this down to an Abba wig, an afro or an Elvis Las Vegas costume is appalling!

Where to begin? Well, for no good reason, let’s start with pop music.

Pop Music

This was really defined in the 1960s by The Beatles; without doubt they created the industry, the pop machine — cartoons, films, posters, magazines, interviews, haircuts, clothes, the band as a product for consumption by teenage girls.

The Beatles were a formidable business, they opened up the USA as a teen market, and they were wide ranging and pioneering in the extreme. Some things they did were hits, other were misses. By the 1970s, everything was established — and the Bay City Rollers took up their mantle.

[Picture of Bay City Rollers]The Bay City Rollers were massive in the 1970s pop market, and second to none. Other acts on this “pop merry-go-round” included David Essex, Gilbert O’Sullivan, T Rex and Marc Bolan. The main acts from the USA were The Osmonds and their black version, The Jacksons.

Outside of the Beatles’ created pop marketing machine were subcultural  styles that impacted a bit on these pop charts. This was a mixture of futuristic escapism and nostalgia — the two hallmarks of the decade.

[Picture of James Dean on Motorcycle] [Picture of The Fonz on Motorcycle - Happy Days] [Picture of John Travolta]

There was a huge wave of 1950s nostalgia going on in the 1970s — TV’s “Happy Days”, the Movie called “Grease”, and acts like Suzi Quatro, Shakin’ Stevens, Mud, Alvin Stardust, and Showaddywaddy.

[Picture of Slade] [Picture of Gary Glitter] [Picture of Marc Bolan of TRex]

Futuristic-escapism was provided initially by glam rock acts like Gary Glitter, Sweet, and Slade — and this became New Wave, Synthesiser, Techno acts like Tubeway Army and Gary Numan.

There was also disco — Slik, Hot Chocolate, Boney-M, Anita ward, and the Bee Gees, and, later, punk influences — The Police, Boomtown Rats, and Blondie.

Folk Music

[Picture of Bob Dylan playing electric guitar with band]When Bob Dylan put down his acoustic guitar and picked up an electric guitar to front a band, all hell broke loose! Electric Folk music was born, and grew to epic proportions with bands like Steeleye Span, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull. John Martyn went through this mode, as did Led Zeppelin, but the genre is still alive with the Levellers, the Pogues, Nick Drake, Billy Bragg, and Seth Lakeman.

Country Music

[picture of a guitarist wearing a cowboy hat]In the 1970s, just as with folk, the electrification, the amplification of country was new.  Some called it country rock. The main proponents were: The James Gang, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Poco, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Seriously, how popular is “Hotel California” still?


[Picture of Muddy Waters playing guitar]What Dylan did for folk, Muddy Waters did for Blues; when Muddy switched to electric guitar, he kick-started the London Blues movement — Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Long John Baldry, Status Quo, Pat Travers, and The Winter Brothers.

This developed throughout the 1970s, and attached itself to rockers and leather-clad bikers, emerging as forms of rock music — Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, and anything from Heavy Metal to Soft Rock.


[Jazz before 1970s]

Electrification hit Jazz pretty hard.  From synthesisers instead of horn sections (Weather Report), to studio techniques and overdubs instead of complex vocal harmonies (Manhattan Transfer).

[Picture of Stanley Clarke]The bass guitar was another new invention, and it was alien to jazz music.  The slap technique developed by Stanley Clarke has a direct impact on 1980s pop music (Level 42 in particular), and still has influence today — even in computer game music and toys!  When Jaco Pastorius removed the bass guitar’s frets, he created an even newer instrument, a fretless bass guitar — and that also has had a major influence on all genres of music ever since, starting with pop acts such as Kate Bush (Babooska).

[Picture of John McLaughlin and his double neck]The effects of new (electric) instrumentation in jazz has had a major impact on disco and soul music, and has fused with other types of music around the world to create “World Music”.

For example, John McLaughlin left Miles Davis and as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Shakti, he merged traditional Indian music with electric synthesised modern jazz. Indian music is still fused today, by the likes of Nitin Sawney.

[Picture of a guitar talkbox]This was an era of great inventiveness with instrumentation — guitars were played through pedal effects (fuzz, wah-wah, reverb, chorus, flanger, phase shifter, treble booster, fader etc) and played with violin bows or even through hosepipe effects, such as Peter Frampton’s talkbox.  There appeared innovations in tremolo design, 12-strings appeared, weird tunings were created, bottlenecks and slides introduced, drone strings, harp guitars, double necks, triple necks, stereo basses, stick basses, bass pedals, kill switches, silk-wrapped strings, see-through perspex guitar bodies, guitar tab notation, and more besides. “Anything goes” seems to have been the motto back then.

Synthesisers and Techno

[Picture of Rick Wakeman playing lots of synths]Futuristic escapist bands like Genesis, Yes and ELP used synthesisers, but soon bands emerged that had no drums or guitars — just synths and programmed beats.  This was entirely new music in the 1970s, all new sounds from all new instruments. Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk from Germany were pioneers, but after Jean Michel Jarre popularised the genre, new wave acts emerged on the pop scene in the 1980s.

Today this is dance and trance music — and all done on computers!

Prog Rock

This is an effect of futuristic escapism, it merged elements from all forms of creative output. Progressive Rock is the most 1970s genre, the most complex genre and the one that epitomises the decade in many ways. The synthesisers of the techno acts (along with their laser shows), the glam rock theatricals and sparkle, the virtuosity of jazz, country, folk and blues acts, (and a big classical input as well).

[Picture of Yes Album cover by Roger Dean 1974]

This was a fascinating genre because it also brought in the idea of the other arts — big budget shows, television, film and books.  Album covers were artworks by the likes of Patrick Woodroffe and Roger Dean.

Albums often were “concept albums”, about a story or topic.  It was a bit arty, a bit hippy, a bit druggy.  It was escape from the harsh reality of food shortages, power cuts and nuclear holocaust. It was science fiction.

Originally with Hawkwind, the genre developed with bands like ELP, Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd — then Peter Gabriel and Rush a bit later on.

The big stage show is back today with Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Take That!

Fantasy novels were created in this era, a genre that is still going strong today with the likes of Terry Pratchett. With Michael Moorcock, Hawkwind was not merely a band, but a fictional entity in novels.


[Picture of a punk girl's makeup]Punk was a reaction to futuristic escapism.  It was reality-based. Punks hated what the Beatles created – the pop music marketing machine, the teeny bopper.  Punks hated the cop-out, opt out Prog Rockers and their sci-fi hippy druggy escapism. They did not want a post-holocaust future, they did not want to hope for the best. The middle class kids could afford the ticket prices for a Pink Floyd concert, the Tee shirt for the Stones gig, and the weed for the Tangerine Dream concert — but working class kids couldn’t.

[Picture of Sid]Punks wanted everything stripped back, like the 1950s nostalgia stuff — the simple (unsigned, live)  guitar band, 3 minute songs about stuff that mattered to teenagers — and unlike the 1950s, that was not just about kissing. In the 1970s, teenagers were angry about the potential of nuclear holocaust, about no jobs, about no future, and they needed to express this and be part of a movement.

The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, and many more did this job beautifully.

Opera and Musical

The 1970s were sublime for opera too — this was Luciano Pavarotti’s best period, but this was also the era of the modern musical and rock-opera, “Tommy”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat”, “Godspell”, “Grease”, “The Rocky Horror Show”, “Billy” “A Chorus Line”, “Annie”, “Evita”, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, “The Wall”,  “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, and “Quadrophenia.”


The 1970s were a creative period for motion pictures too.  Genres were created, such as modern horror — with The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie and Halloween. The disaster movie was invented then too, with Towering Inferno and Earthquake! The gangster genre was born with The Godfather. This was the era of the first Star Wars, Star Trek, Rocky, Jaws, Superman, and Pink Panther.

Musicals — such as Fiddler on the Roof, The Way We Were, A Star is Born, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Cabaret, have never left us.

Blazing Saddles, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Play it Again  Sam, Annie Hall, Love Story, M*A*S*H, Dirty Harry, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, Last Tango in Paris, The Sting, Papillon, Midnight Express, American Graffiti, Serpico, One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest, King Kong, Close Encounters of The Third Kind,  and 10 are all fondly recalled as great, innovative films.


The 1970s were not all about disco and flares, or glam rock or Elvis Suits. I hope that the above very loose overview shows at least that! The 1970s were amazingly creative — new genres, new mixtures of genres, cross-overs between genres, you name it.  From simple things that got really big — like The Muppets, to big complex things that got smaller — like pocket calculators and synthesisers.

It would take a large book to do this decade justice, all I am trying to do with this article is to attempt to correct the revisionism that the 1970s were about terrible fashion and disco music.

That does not do justice to the decade that is probably the most creative and complex period in human history!

3 Responses to “What The 1970s Were Really Like (Part Two)”

  1. wunderkind Says:

    Full credit for a very well written, succinct article. Was very interesting and as I was born in ’73, my previous opinion of this era was super-depressing, what with the greys, browns and general dilapidated state of so many buildings and infrastructure of the time. However, you have succeeded in informing me of the phenomenal amount of creative breakthroughs that appeared in the 70s..thanks again!! Cheers..Matt.

  2. Diane Says:

    I saw a TV prog on photography a few weeks back, and they were recreating famous, iconic images one of which was Marlon Brando sitting on a motorbike. It looks to me like James Dean ripped that off (and indeed the Fonz), I even think Suzi Q posed like this! I was wondering did Elvis pose like this too? It wouldn’t surprise me! I had TOTALLY forgotten about the nostalgia for the 50’s in the 70’s, and like wunderkind/ Matt above, I agree that this is an excellent article in righting the wrongs of the way the 70s is belittled and dismissed. That decade, I see now, was a revolution! Exciting and scary, it was the new world order once we’d gotten over the world war. Thankyou RT1

  3. Chuck Says:

    Sorry, “dude,” but you credit the 70s with some things that actually happened in the 60s. I was a teenager in the 70s, and all I can tell you is “it sucked big time.” Hey, there’s a 70s expression for you, right out of suburban America where I suffered though the whole stinking decade. It was the beginning of the end, and we are quickly sliding down into the black hole that we first glimpsed then. The truth is, using year numbers and breaking things apart at the years that end in zero is a mistake. The innovations that started in the 50s and 60s continued into the earliest years of the 70s; then the decline began. It only got worse in the 80s and on…I mean, 30 years of U2…c’mon give us a break already!

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